Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Cuban "mojo" sauce

This weekend for breakfast we drove out to Porto's, a Cuban bakery in Glendale. It's a wildly popular place, with throngs of families crowding around the pastry counter and coffee bar. While waiting for our numbers to be called I asked two Latino ladies what I should get and was recommended a pastelito, flaky pastry with cream cheese and guava marmelade and the tender-crusted empanada rolls filled with pineapple or mango. They were delightful, washed down with shots of cortadito.

The "authentic" Cuban breakfast, however, consists of grilled Cuban bread lavished with butter and dunked in cafe con leche (boiling milk added to espresso to cut the bitterness, lots of sugar and a touch of salt for balance.) I will try this next time as well as sample a real Cuban sandwich such as pan con lechon, a garlicky roast pork sandwich served with thinly sliced plantain chips.

It's as if the cafecito got into my veins; I can't get Cuba out of my head. I have a renewed desire to take up Cuban-style salsa dancing and I want to find out all I can about Cuban-style cooking.

Unfortunately there are not many book titles on Cuban cuisine and I mainly culled websites of Cuban exile communities in Miami and New York. These tend to be sepia-colored with nostalgia for an old way of life in Havana that possibly no longer exists. The following is a recipe for mojo sauce, an excellent marinade for slow-cooked meats such as roasted pork shoulder. Serve with moros y cristianos, black beans and white rice, acccompanied by a salad of sliced avocado and red onion.

Mojo "soul" sauce

1/4 cup olive oil
3 heads of garlic, or 2 sliced onions, or both
3 naranja agrias, or sour oranges, juiced
(alternatively, use one sweet orange, two lemons and three limes)
chopped oregano
pinch of cumin
2 teaspoons of salt

Combine all ingredients in a mixer to make a thick paste and rub into meat. Let marinate over night before slow-cooking. The garlic and citrus infused meat should be melt-in-your-mouth soft.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

sweet tomatoe jam

It's probably typical for men of his generation but I've never in my life seen my father in the kitchen cooking. He is not in the least a gastronomical person; rich foods fatigue him. As long as there is rice and a little something to eat it with, he generally does not ask for more (the word gohan, equating "rice" with "meal," makes perfect sense here.) So when I tried to think of a particular food that I associate with my father, I almost drew a complete blank.

Sometime ago, however, I was in Antoine Westermann's gourmet food boutique in Strasbourg perusing rows of confitures by Christine Ferber when I saw something that triggered a memory. This was a jar of tomatoe jam.

It would have been after my family's return to Japan and around the time I was entering my rebellious phase. Sunday morning we would be sitting around the big Scandinavian table that dominated our tiny Tokyo apartment. Our standard breakfast would be dark roasted coffee, toasted slices of shokupan (Japanese-style pain de mie), fruit in season and, more often than not, a salad.*

Sometimes it would be a plate of sliced tomatoes. On those mornings my father would top his buttered toast with tomatoe rounds and spoon over some sugar. My sister and I would affect horror at the idea of putting sugar on a "vegetable" (we did not know better back then.) But occasionally my father managed to persuade us. "Just try it. It's good," he would say. The crispy toast would be soggy with the tomatoe's juices. It was buttery and succulent and I found it utterly delicious.

Nevertheless, I kept my distance to it. It seemed like another one of my father's idiosyncrasies, like continuing to wear jeans and long hair even after his peers in academia had switched to more professorial attire. I grudgingly acknowledged his originality yet was acutely embarrassed by it. I wished he would wear a suit and tie and eat his tomatoes with dressing.

Re-encountering the sweet tomatoes I felt that I had somehow come full circle. I am now able to admit I respect his palate, one that is uninfluenced by conventions or pretensions. I purchased the jar to take back to Japan, curious to see my father's response.

*Salad in the morning might seem peculiar but it's integral to the Japanese notion of "Western-style" breakfast. Possibly because the traditional breakfast of rice and miso broth includes pickled vegetables?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

green pistachio cake

To honor St. Patrick's Day (and my husband's distant Irish origins and hence, we like to think, our daughter's superb green eyes) I toyed with the idea of a green-colored cake. But I didn't want to use artificial food coloring. Then I thought of pistachios. It didn't quite achieve the desired clover green but nonetheless it is an amazingly moist cake, fragrant with orange zest.

Pistachio cake with yogurt frosting

8 ounces of butter
- 1 cup of sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 2 cups raw pistachios, finely ground
- 1 orange
- pinch of salt
-1/2 cup of flour
-1 cup strained yogurt

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a cake pan.
2) Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the eggs, one at a time.
3) Add ground pistachios. Zest the orange and squeeze in the juice. Fold in flour and salt.
4) Bake until top is firm and golden, about 40 minutes. Cover with foil and continue baking for another 10 minutes. Insert a toothpick in the center; it should come out dry.
5) When the cake is cool, spread over yogurt (add powdered sugar if you prefer sweet icing) and scatter over chopped pistachios.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Trader Joe's Greek yogurt

Brillat-Savarin famously said, "Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are." To that I might add, "tell me where you shop." At present I alternate between three places: an organic foodstore for greens, dairy products and grains in bulk; a downtown supermarket for national brand name items and, when I'm bored, I go to Trader Joe's.

Originally started as a chain of convenience stores in Pasadena in the 1960s, Trader Joe's has developed something of a cult following among foodshoppers. It offers unusual and inexpensive things for people who "like to be entertained and educated by what they eat," according to a New York Times article (March 8, 2006) heralding its first Manhatten branch to open this week.

Trader Joe's selling point is that its buyers travel the world visiting supermarkets, farmer's markets and street stalls, translating finds and bringing it back to the stores. Each product has a story, such as the case of a popular snack encountered at Bangkok airport, tasty but stale and full of MSG. It was re-cast as Thai Lime & Chile Peanuts, using American peanuts (to keep costs down), Thai spices (to keep flavors authentic), additives removed. The combination of sweet peanuts with hot chile, curry leaves and lemon grass is undeniably addictive but gaging from their similarly reconfigured Wasabi Peas, I can't help wondering if something was not lost in translation.

Items bought back in their original form are probably a better bet. On a recent trip I was ecstatic to find an unassuming container of yogurt (Greek label Fage) which didn't taste like anything I've had before. Tangy and dense, it immediately called to mind associations of Mediterranean figs and honey, and a pasta dish that's been haunting me for some time but was never able to realize because the recipe called for authentic Greek yogurt. I tried it finally and found the sweet/tart balance of flavors irresistable:

Pasta with caramelized onions and "real" Greek yogurt (adapted from Diane Kochilas' The Glorious Foods of Greece)

-1/2 pound of tagliatelle
-1 cup of Greek yogurt
-3 medium onions, thinly sliced
-3 tablespoons of ghee, or olive oil
- grated sheep cheese kefalotyri (Pecorino Romano will also do)

Fry the onions in oil over medium heat until crispy and caramelized, about 30 minutes. Cook the pasta until soft, not al dente, and toss with yogurt (add pasta water if needed, the noodles should be slippery) then spoon over tangle of onion and sprinkle with grated cheese.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

M.F.K. Fischer's beans

Most people acknowledge that M.F.K. Fischer single-handedly changed the way people think about and write about food. I certainly felt that scales were falling from my eyes when I first read the epochal The Gastronomical Me.

This blog’s title is taken from that book’s preface. Fischer's quiet declaration that “we must eat” reflects what I find most compelling about her writing -- a certain detached elegance and acceptance of the shadows of life, what she called the “wilder and more insistent hungers.”

I think it is this embracing of darkness that distinguishes her from so many writers who have written about food. Food is not always about pleasure and joy, and warmth and comfort. In one essay she describes her determination never to let herself say “Oh, anything” to a meal, even if she has to eat it alone or with “death in the house,” referring, I think, to having watched die the man who was the love of her life.

Aboard a cross-Atlantic ship, which was taking her away from him, she discovers the art of eating alone: “slowly, voluptuously and with independence.” Henceforth this gastronomical liberty would protect her and keep intact her spirit and reason. For Fischer, eating was a way of taking measure of her powers, as a woman and as a human being. All her life she put food on the table and nourishment in the heart and kept at bay the hungers...

After the death of Chexbres she continues to plan and execute beautiful and sensuous meals. But the life-returning meal, the first that she is really able to taste, happens one evening alone in a hotel dining room in Mexico. A kindly waiter brings out from the back kitchen a simple dish of beans in an earthenware bowl which she calmly begins to eat with a large spoon, then with growing eagerness she begins to scoop out and sop up with a rolled tortilla.

The following is a recipe of what I imagine her to have eaten. Frijoles de olla (literally, "simmering pot of beans") is a one of the basics of Mexican cooking and from her desciption of "light tan beans cooked with some onion, tomatoe and many herbs," I am guessing it was prepared charros-style (referring to the skilled horsemen of the northern regions):

Frijoles Charros; beans that gave M.F.K. Fischer back her life-force:

Simmer dried beans (use the pale brown, freckled pinto if you can find them) in salted water until tender. Fry onions in oil, add a serrano chile, skin and seeds removed. Add the beans, thrown in a handful of chopped tomatoe and cilantro, cook over high heat until the broth thickens. Eat from a bowl using soft tortillas.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

maternal taste

My first conscious memories associated with food begin around the time I first left Japan and went to live in the United States. I was about 5 or 6 and one of the things I remember clearly is a sheet of cookies, fresh out of the oven, left on the kitchen counter to cool. It was a plain sugar kind and I can still recall the taste of that still-soft, slightly undercooked dough. Very few Japanese homes had ovens then and I remember marveling that my mother had actually made something we always bought in stores. It was my first brush with American baking and the classic Joy of Cooking, which remained my mother's main source and reference during those early Washington (DC) years.

So when I think of my mother's cooking it's not the usual mainstays of ofukuro no aji (literally, maternal taste) or comfort-food standards like onigiri rice balls, lovingly packed with salted hands (in the metaphoric sense too.) What comes to mind, rather, is a gigantic lime-green Le Creuset pot my mother must have picked up in an outdoor market (this was before people in Japan even knew about the cast-iron French cookware) and the big, dynamic things she used to make in it, like clear oxtail soup or a rich stew of browned-beef and potatoes, even after our return to Japan.

I think for my mother cooking was essentially a diversion from her work as a science researcher. She always had her antennas out and if something caught her interest, in people's homes or elsewhere, she would ask for the recipe or guess at ingredients and techniques, then go home and effortlessly re-create it. "Your mother is a good cook because she has brains," my grandmother would tell me.

If my mother's food tasted of new places and new people, my grandmother's cooking was all about nourishment and family. Each time I visit her she makes my favorite things and does the same for all of her four children and eight grandchildren. One of her specialties is tempura. I must've watched her a hundred times: breaking the egg into the flour, adding ice and water, giving it a deft turn with a pair of chopsticks. She would then drop into the batter slices of maru-nasu, round eggplant plucked minutes ago from the garden, or dew-fresh baby bamboo shoots that a neighbor had dropped by with that morning. She would stand in front of the oil, frying up batch after batch of crisp, golden tempura. We would sprinkle them with salt or dip in soysauce with grated daikon and gobble them up as fast as they arrived.

"Tempura is best when piping hot," she would urge. I never saw her eat it herself. She feasted instead on the shining, eager faces around the table and the collective sigh of contentment that followed. For me tempura represents a continuity with the past and above all, my grandmother's vast reservoirs of love.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Japanese taste

The one food blog which I read with unfailing regularity is Makiko Itoh's I Was Just Really Very Hungry. What I find appealing, besides the excellent writing and thoughtful approach to food, is her perspective which is that of a person who has strong nostalgic ties to Japan but has lived most of her life outside of it. Her profile (born in Tokyo, grew up in the U.K., educated in the U.S, currently living in Europe) is certainly one I can relate to. Her "Japanese basics" opened up my eyes to washoku (literally, Japanese cooking) in ways that hours spent browsing through cookbook sections on trips back to Tokyo, never did.

What I learned is simply this, that the essence of "Japanese taste" can be deconctructed into five elements: soysauce, sake, mirin (fortified and sweetend rice wine), rice vinegar and dashi (a quick stock of dried konbu seaweed and shaved bonito flakes). Whatever the local produce of the place you happen to live, with any combination of these five elements you can give anything a wafu, or Japanese style, flavor.

Until now I never cooked much Japanese food at home (except as occasion food for guests) clinging to the belief that washoku was all about ingredients particular to the Japanese locale and seasons, that anything partaken outside of the eight islands would somehow not taste right. This myth dispelled forever, here are two ways I prepare Californian chickens (both recipes adapted from Just Hungry and equally scrumptious):

Crispy kara-age chicken

Marinate 4 boneless chicken thighs cut into bite-sized peices in 3 tablespoons of soysauce, 1 tablespoon of sake, thumb-sized piece of ginger, grated. Heat peanut oil, toss chicken pieces in cornstarch, deep fry until golden. Serve with lemon wedges.

Shiny teriyaki chicken

Lightly salt 4 boneless chicken thighs and sear both sides in oil. Add to the pan 4 tablespoons of soy sauce, one tablespoon of sake, one tablespoon of sugar, thumb-sized piece of ginger, grated. Cook chicken, turning several times, until the sauce is caramelized.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Hina matsuri

Today Japan celebrates Hina matsuri (Dolls festival), also called Momo no sekku (Peach festival). It's a day for young girls, whose families wish for their health and happiness by displaying hina dolls in the house.

The traditional thing to serve on this day, besides bowls of pastel-colored arare rice puffs, is gomoku chirashi, a variation of sushi where at least five ingredients of varying colors cut into confetti-like strips are folded into and scattered over vinegared rice, making for a pretty and festive dish.

I made this for my daughter who loves Japanese food, which is a bit strange to me because it is not really part of my repertoire. Since infancy she has always been partial to umami (the elusive "fifth taste" after sweet, salty, bitter and sour) which you find, for example, in dashi (broth based on dried konbu seaweed and shaved bonito flakes). In the following recipe many of the ingredient are prepared in dashi and includes shiitake, also high in umami. It's therefore no mystery that an entire oke (wooden sushi basin) was so quickly devoured.

Gomoku chirashi:

1) Cut carrots into thin strips, quarter and slice renkon (lotus root), about 2 cups each. Cook in 4 tablespoons of rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons of sugar and 2 teaspoons of salt.
2) Slice 6 fresh shiitake into thin strips and cook in one cup of dashi, 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of sake, until most of the liquid is absorbed.
3) Beat a large egg with 1 teaspoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of dashi, a pinch of salt and make a crepe-thin omelette. Slice into thin strips.
4) Blanch a handful of snowpeas and cut into thin strips.
5) Mix into sushi rice the following: carrots and renkon, shiitake, toasted white sesame seeds, red pickled ginger, half of the snowpeas and egg. Scatter over the remaining half of green snowpea and yellow egg, more red ginger and sprinkle with thin strips of black nori.
It is delicious the next day too when the flavors have melded although maybe not as pretty.