Thursday, January 15, 2009

East or West, What is Best: Ouest

Dinner tonight was only amazing in that it happened. I was supposed to have dinner with V. She had to leave work early because she was sick. I emailed C. Before she responsed, S reported that he was in town and going out with L for drinks. Long story short, drinks with S&L then dinner with C, L, O and A. Shouldn't have worked out, but it did.

I didn't really know what to order, nothing really grabbed me. So I was going to get the goat cheese ravioli. Then L asked about the Truffle Omlette "Souffle" (their quotes, not mine). The waiter started salivating - you never really know whether that's for real, but I decided to go for it. I had leftover beef stew for lunch and so didn't want that - but apparently, for me, lamb doesn't count as the other red meat. So I had the "Omlette" and the Rack of Lamb with Creamed Spinach.

I don't want to exaggerate - but the "Truffle" Omlette was amazing. Truly amazing. I would eat another one right now. Except that I'm so full I shouldn't/couldn't. And I'm at home and don't have them here. But seriously, it looks a bit like a pancake, tastes a bit like a quiche (though much, much better - and less beaten) and just makes you happy eating it.

The lamb was great. But I'm stuffed. In retrospect I could have been happy with the "Omlette" and the Creamed Spinach (all pound, or so, of it). The lamb was good (not the best that I've ever had, but eminently eatable), but not earth-shattering. The Omlette and the Spinach just might have been that good. And (brave soul that I am) I would be willing to try.

And they have Vanilla Creme Brulee. Vanilla. Not orange blossom with freeze dried passion fruit flowers. Or lavender scented that can be eaten and slept on later. Or actually made with faux-milk, faux-sugar, faux-everything...

Anyway, the meal was great. The converations was better. All in all a good night. And I'd go back for the "Omlette"

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

And Sometimes It's Even Better Than You Remember: Spicy Sweet Corn and Poblano Soup

It doesn't usually happen that when you go back and revist something years later that it's quite as good as your memory had it. I've set myself up for that kind of disappointment to many times to walk willingly into it.

I started with the Epicurious recipe for Spicy Sweet Corn and Poblano Soup, but simplified it. One of the things that had kept me from making it was the memory of it being a whole lot of hassle. And I'm just not up for that these days.

So, I made it - and it was pretty quick and very easy. And it is AMAZING. It may be the best soup I've ever eaten. Really. It's that good (even if the picture doesn't quite capture how good it is).

Spicy Sweet Corn and Poblano Soup
Serves 8 (or one person who realizes how good it is and just eats that for 2 days)

3 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
vegetable oil for coating garlic
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon cumin
3 medium sweet onions such as Vidalia, Walla Walla, or Maui
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon peanut or vegetable oil
1/2 - 1 fresh jalapeño chili
3 fresh poblano chilies,roasted and peeled (the original recipe called for 2, but I think the better choice is 3 and go on the lighter side on the jalapeño)
3 cups frozen corn (this is one of the simplified things, I'll likely use fresh again in the summer)
8 cups chicken broth
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp heavy cream
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, or to taste
  1. Cut the top off the garlic clove, place on aluminum foil, swab with oil, wrap, put in 350 oven and bake (Epicurious says 30 minutes, it usually takes my oven more like 45 minutes - needs to be squeezably soft)
  2. Roast and peel poblanos. I use my stove burner and then put in a bag (paper or plastic) and let cool.
  3. Chop onions. Cook 2/3 of onions over low heat in oil until soft. Add jalepeño and 2 cups corn. Cook for two minutes. Add coriander, cumin, salt, pepper and 1/2 of the roasted poblanos. Cook for two minutes. Add broth. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  4. Squeeze in garlic. Add cream. Puree with an immersion blender.
  5. Sautee remaining corn in a little oil until they have a little brown on them.
  6. Add lime juice, reserved onions, reserved poblanos and sauteed corn to the soup and cook til heated.
  7. Serve (or wait a couple of hours and reheat and serve - and it's even better!)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Typical Japanese Lunch - The Ultimate Overview

I have noticed that there is rampant curiosity out on the web as to what is a 'Typical Japanese Lunch' or at least there are a phenomenal number of people googling that topic. I may have mentioned, I lived in Tokyo for a number of years (4+). During that time I had lunch (almost) every day.

I've posted a few reviews of specific restaurants/foods here, but I thought it might be helpful to give an overview (and then as I go to specific restaurants, I can refer back to this). First of all, lunch in Japan is pretty much like lunch in the US - you try to keep it under $10, it's nice to have some variety, but worst case - at least it's fast. One thing to keep in mind is that most Japanese restaurants serve only one thing (Sushi restaurants serve sushi, tempura restaurants serve tempura, you get the picture - though Noodle restaurants often serve Donburis, it's still a pretty narrow menu you'll be ordering from once you choose your restaurant.)

I worked at two different jobs in three different locations in Tokyo, so during that time, I got to try the restaurants surrounding both. At the end of the day, I think the representation was pretty good, so here goes:

I think most people start here, thinking that this is the typical Japanese lunch. To be honest, I probably ate it more often than my Japanese colleagues, and I don't think that I had it even once a week. Sushi is still a delicacy in Tokyo (it's not that it's not easy to find, it's just that it's too expensive for an 'everyday' lunch). When I did have sushi, it generally took one of two forms:
  • 'Pine' Sushi - Japan is very big on offering 'lunch sets'. It's a bargain price for something that would cost (at least!) double at dinner time. The sushi places though do it with a certain consistency and offer three different set menus at lunch - and while there is variety, in fact just knowing that there's a low, medium and high offering, you can pretty much zen navigate your meal in a new restaurant.
  • Take-out Sushi - This is pretty much as mediocre as the take-out sushi that one sees in the States. That said, there's one exception, I used to find this great Negi-Toro-Don near my office (Negi=Onion, Toro=Fatty Tuna, Don='On a bowl of rice' (it's short for Don-buri). This basically looks like a bowl with rice in it with a mound of raw tuna and some chopped up green onions. And yes, it's fantastic. Occasionally you can find this in the states as a roll, but I've never seen it as a lunch choice. Unfortunate, because we're missing out.

Japan is not known for being the strongest integrator of other cultures, but both Korean and Chinese food (next item) are pretty popular in Japan. Korean lunch places often have the little barbeque grills built right into the tables. They're pretty common - you generally don't have to walk very far to get lunch. The menu is pretty varied, but I usually stuck to one of two things:
  • Yaki-niku (Translated it means Barbequed-beef) - This is the Japanese version of Korean barbeque. It's available both cooked by the kitchen and cooked at the table (almost always better). I like both Bulgogi and Kalbi, but I like one better - this would be a great time for me to remember which one I like better, but I never do. I usually have to order both and then I remember. I think it's Kalbi, but I wouldn't swear to it. I have to say that as much as I like Korean Korean BBQ, I really like Japanese Korean BBQ just the tiniest bit better. (I think it's one of those 'which did you grow up with kinds of things') The Japanese version is a bit more orderly (weird word, but try them both and you'll know what I mean) and I really like the dipping sauce.
  • Bi-bim-ba (This is the Japanese spelling, the Korean version is Bi-bim-bop (I made the mistake of thinking that I knew all about Korean food based on what I had learned in Japan - it's a little like going to China and looking for chop suey)) - This is a bowl with a scoop of rice covered with a variety of different vegetables, meat, egg and hot sauce. The bowl is hot. When it shows up, you have to mix it all up and it finishes cooking right there in front of your eyes. And it tastes fabulous! So, with the drama and the taste, it clearly scores high on the lunch food survey.
  • Kimchi Stew - I never remember the name of this, but it's really good. It's a hearty, rich winter-type stew. Plenty of kimchi for flavor, plenty of pork for substance, and plenty of heat for the winter (insulation is definitely not a native Japanese word).

To be honest, I didn't eat a ton of Chinese food while I was in Japan. But it's very popular as a cheap lunch option. I distinctly remember sweet&sour pork as an option and I feel like everything else felt reasonably American-Chinese standard too (so, not exactly the same, but not out of left-field either). The bottom line is that it's good, cheap food.


This may be the single most common lunch in all of Japan.
  • Soba - The king of Japanese noodles. The simple buckwheat noodle. If it is at all possible, eat it fresh. It's hard to find, but oh, so worth it. You can get tens or hundreds (maybe thousands) of different soba dishes (it really is like pasta - you can put any sauce you can imagine with the noodles). My favorite is Zaru Soba (cold soba with a dipping sauce - especially important to find good (preferably fresh) noodles)
  • Udon - These are the white flour noodles. They're more filling and I'm not such a huge fan. EXCEPT with Curry Udon. This is a magic winter dish. On those days that it's miserable and cold and you feel like you'll never be warm again - try the Curry Udon, instantly you're better (and full). It's a heavy lunch (maybe even better for dinner, but I digress)
  • Ramen - This is my least favorite, though the most globally popular of the three noodle types available in Japan. If friends insisted on going, I just ordered Miso Ramen. It's actually pretty good - but I wouldn't ever choose it as a destination.
This is pretty much anything over rice. You get a decent sized bowl of rice topped with some form of protein. My favorites are:

You'd think that corn pizza was just one line that you couldn't cross. But you'd be wrong. You stay in Japan long enough (and for me, I really think it was only a few weeks before I bit the bullet) and you'll have tried it. They have pizza chains (Shakey's was always my favorite) and ours had a little lunch buffet deal (all you can eat). And so one day you realize that pizza with corn on it isn't bad. And then one day you realize you always get corn pizza because it tastes good.
The Japanese are justifiably famous for their deep-fried pork cutlet lunch. In the good places (and why wouldn't you go to a good place), the breaded-fried outside isn't greasy, the inside is moist and tender and there's plenty of sauce. I don't know what the sauce is - it's tonkatsu sauce. It's delicious. I think that I started eating Tonkatsu for the sauce (growing up I was not a huge pork person), but gradually realized that the whole meal was fabulous (though the sauce really is really fabulous - think of it like Japanese ketchup, but better - and more brown).
Curry Rice
On a cold winter day, nothing is better than curry rice (or maybe curry udon, but I digress). It's warm, it's rich and it fills you right up. It's not an Indian curry taste, it's got some heat, but it's more about depth - it's more just meat-ness. It's delicious, but seriously, only eat it on days you're hungry.
When I lived in Japan, the most popular 'instant' curry brand was Vermont Curry - I can't even count the number of people who asked me if it really tasted like real Vermont Curry. Wow.
Tempura is one of the more widely-known Japanese foods (maybe second after sushi?). What's not so widely known is that in Japan there are really Tempura restaurants. You go in and you decide what kind of tempura you want - everyone's having deep fry on that day. But really, it's a good kind of deep fry - it's light, there are a lot of vegetables - really, it's fine. It's delicious. It is best to go to a Tempura-only place if at all possible because you do tend to get better dipping sauce (plus they have the grated daikon, etc. that make the sauce so much better). Usually in the tempura-only restaurants you're deciding noodle or rice, shrimp or vegetable only.

Japanese Lunch
This is sort of the 'Other' category
  • Shou-ga-yaki (Stir-fried ginger) - Stir-fries are good. This one has a nice ginger flavor and the pork is in strips like really fine bacon (when I've had it in the US, it's tended to be more chunks of pork, which just isn't as good).

Not Really a Dilemma

So I finally did it. I sat down and did it. With all the stress around it, you'd think it would have been a big deal. But it turns out to be only slightly more than 400 pages - and a pretty easy read. And so now, when people ask, I can tell them that I actually have read the Omnivore's Dilemma. And I liked it.

And I can also talk about how I felt morally impelled to go to the greenmarket to buy my food for the week. I think it was the corn chapter that got to me. I can deal with the cycle of life - I totally got his whole hunting and chicken things. I just can't deal with us screwing with the economics of corn so that we end up with corn in everything from cows to Coke. I won't say I was determined to never eat another corn fed cow, but I was definitely determined to avoid it wherever I could (I'm a realist... really!).

And so, on a cold (did I mention that winter is not my favorite holiday) Saturday morning, with not quite enough sleep (not killer early, but still, don't love mornings) - I dragged myself out of a very nice, warm, cozy bed and went to yoga. This is not a digression as after the class, I hiked 10 blocks south (and a few blocks east, but I was on Broadway, so I didn't even feel the east part) and started shopping. I wasn't exactly sure what would be available (the website shows January pretty much as a - we sell you the things we have in our cellars - month). But, they actually had some good choices of meats, cheeses, some of the vegs (but yes, especially the root ones) and apples. I did one run through and then went back. I ended up with a bunch of carrots, some parsnips, a few onions, one bunch of leeks, a butternut squash (of course), some ground lamb, some beef for stew, a dozen eggs, some Italian sausage (pork) and two apples. Heavy stuff, but I felt like I had, if not solved my dilemma, at least addressed it. And so I went home (stopping for a very nice brunch first at Ocean - highly (HIGHLY) recommend the chestnut gnocci with pork (probably not freshly killed, but still pretty killer) ragout (though you should like salt, which I do, if you're going to order).

Once home, I realized that the beef needed to be made into a stew (stew cubes aren't good for a whole lot else). I checked epicurious and found a recipe which I used more for guidance than anything else. Really, it was the comment that said something to the effect of: they should have said active time of something more like 3 hours, but it was totally worth it. I wasn't going to do 3 hours active time for stew(!). I read the recipe. It also sounded like my beautiful root vegetables were going to be used more for flavor than substance (it would have been fine if I had had more, but all of a sudden, what had been a very heavy bag, looked pretty skimpy).

And so I improvised.

My recipe:
1 package demi-glace (~ 1Tbsp) plus 5 cups water (or 48 ounces beef stock)
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1/2 cup ruby port (that was the wine option that I had open)
2 parsnips (vegetable numbers are approximate, but parsnips are strong, so don't over-do)
2 lbs carrots
1/2 cup pearl onions
2 lb beef (cubed)

It's pretty easy from there:
  1. Preheat oven to 350
  2. Add olive oil, salt and pepper to top and bottom of beef cubes, then saute (in dutch oven, ideally) in a little oil, remove (do it in multiple batches so you don't kill the heat in the pan)
  3. Deglaze dutch oven with port
  4. Add demi-glace and water, stir and let come to a boil
  5. Put beef back in stock
  6. Put in oven for 3 hours, removing lid for second half (judge based on liquid)
  7. Add vegetables, put lid on, and cook for additional 45 minutes
  8. Ideally, let sit overnight, reheat in same pan

I served this with quinoa. I felt super-healthy: quinoa, grass-fed beef, organic&local vegetables - only the demi-glace, the port and the water (NY tap) were not officially sanctioned, but the result was fabulous. I will make again - two thumbs up for my only critic that matters -me.

And way too soon to tell if my new-found Saturday 'habit' will have an impact on my overall health (or that of the planet), but I'll keep trying - for at least a little while.