Saturday, April 29, 2006

tiger pancakes

In an echo of my own early pancake episode, one of my daughter's favorite books tells the story of a little boy in the jungles of Africa, who outwits hungry tigers by having them chase one another around and around a coconut tree. The striped yellow tigers go so fast that they end up melting, leaving a golden pool of butter. The boy's father scoops it up into a jug and carries it home to the mother, who uses it to make stacks of delicious pancakes. The book's closing image shows the little boy gleefully contemplating a buttery tower of one-hundred and sixty-nine pancakes which he proceeds to devour (he was very hungry).*

Impressed by his enormous apetite, my daughter has been asking for the same. The following is a recipe for a batter runny enough to allow necessarily ultra-thin pancakes, adapted from Alice Water's beautifully illustrated Fruit:

-buttermilk, 2 cups
-eggs, 2
-melted butter, 6 tablespoons
-flour 1 1/2 cups
-sugar, 1 tablespoon
-salt, 1 teaspoon
-baking soda, 2 teaspoons

*This is the story of Chibi Kuro Sambo (little black Sambo) which drew some controversy for its caricatural portrayal of the African family. It was recently re-published in Japan, this time with a slightly Indian cast; in the new edition the butter has been changed to "ghee."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Chinese tea eggs

When my sister met her now-husband, a Shanghai-native, my mother lamented to a friend the fact that both her daughters were marrying non-Japanese (not that ethnicity mattered, it was a problem of geographical distance.) Her friend consoled her by pointing out that at least, we had chosen spouses from two of the world's greatest culinary cultures.

This is open to debate of-course but I do recall reading somewhere that, if the variety of egg preparation is any index, no other cuisine has as many ways as China and France (more than 1,000?) Eggs have been on my mind since Easter evidently; I can think of three delicious egg things that my brother-in-law introduced me to.

The first are mooncakes he and my sister brought back after their late-August wedding. Eaten in celebration of the Mid-Autumn Moon festival, the sweet cakes with flaky golden crust have in the center a "surprise" -- a bright yellow egg yolk, representing the moon. The combination of the salt-preserved yolk with the sweet lotus root paste is delectable, especially when taken with jasmine pearl tea.

Another is fan tse tsao dan, a simple dish of eggs scrambled with tomatoe wedges. It's the kind of thing that a good Shanghai husband (much coveted for their non-macho attitudes as opposed to their Beijing counterparts) would whip up for lunch. Seasoned simply with salt, sugar and a pinch of chicken stock granules, it goes wonderfully well with rice.

The third is something I ate when the newlyweds first invited the family over for a meal at their home. These were eggs simmered in spiced tea and soaked overnight, shells cracked to let the flavors seep in and make a lovely marbled pattern of dark skeins. They looked and smelled and tasted incredibly sophisticated and exotic. I think it was at that moment I realized my baby sister, who from our childhoods had more or less traced the same culinary paths, was embarking on a different journey of her own.

Five-Spice Tea Eggs

eggs, a dozen or so
black Chinese tea leaves, 3-4 tablespoons
whole eight-star anise, 3-4
five-spice powder, 1 teaspoon*
thumb-sized piece of ginger
Chinese rice wine, 3 tablespoons
soysauce, 3 tablespoons
salt, 1 teaspoon

1. Make soft-boiled eggs and immerse in cold water (this makes for easier peeling later.)
2. Gently tap the eggs with the back of a spoon so that the shells are cracked all over.
3. In a pan cover the eggs with water, add the tea leaves, spices and seasonings. Simmer for an hour or two, adding water as needed. Soak overnight.

*wu xiang fen (five-spice powder): Chinese bouquet garni composed of eight-star anise, cassia or cinnamon bark, cloves, fennel seeds and Sichuan peppercorn. Use sparingly; it should smell more than taste.

Friday, April 21, 2006

oeuf a la coque

One of my favorite books as a child tells the story of two mice named Guri and Gura who one day, while hunting for chestnuts and wild mushrooms in a forest (they love to cook and eat), come upon a mysterious egg. It's too big to take home so they bring back a giant frying pan and bags of flour and sugar and some milk and butter and mix up a batter with the egg. Soon good smells are wafting through the forest drawing out all their animal friends who join Guri and Gura in an impromptu feast of the big, hot, yellow cake.

When I first started cooking, around the age of 10 or so, I mostly made "hotcakes," or Japanese-style pancakes. Unlike American pancakes which should be thin and crisped on the edges, the hotcake resembled Guri and Gura's creation. It was large and thick, and it was divided into wedges and eaten with honey, not maple syrup. Cracking the eggs was fun but I think it was their transformative properties, the way they turned the batter yellow and made it puff up in the pan, that I found so appealing.

I wonder now what I would do if I found, like Guri and Gura, the ultimate egg: large, brown, freckled, preferably organic, fresh from the farm. Elizabeth David would have cheerfully made an omelette and enjoyed it with a glass of wine. Julia Child might have eaten it hard-boiled, blissfully smothering each egg-half in mayonnaise. MFK Fischer would no doubt have made her beloved Aunt Gwen's fried egg sandwich.*

Here is my recipe for oeuf a la coque, which is the way I would eat the perfect egg:

Cover the egg in cold water and set over medium heat. Meanwhile ready a napkin, a sharp knife and a small spoon. Toast bread and cut into batonnets. Exactly 10 minutes later take the egg out of water and serve on a pretty ceramic egg stand. Immediately slice off the top with knife then add a pinch of salt to the egg yolk and eat by dipping in the bread sticks. Eat the egg white by scooping out with spoon. You should be left with a clean, empty eggshell.

*for recipe see "H is for Happy" in Fischer's An Alphabet for Gourmets.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Sunday

When my daughter was 6-months old we had her baptized at a beautiful old church in Brittany. Although I don't practice any religion and her father is what you call a lapsed Catholic, this was important to us because, burdened as she is already with three nationalities, we wanted to give her some cultural bearings for later on in life when she would certainly grapple with identity issues.

For now though, Easter is primarily about chocolate eggs and bunnies, or les cloches (bells). We hunted for eggs around the house and ate a traditional meal of gigot d'agneau. The recipe is adapted from Joel Robuchon's Simply French, which was my bible for many years (one of those books where you've tried every recipe and every single one works.)

Roast leg of lamb with parsley crust

-1 leg of lamb, bone-in, fat trimmed
-1 tablespoon of unsalted butter
-2 whole unpeeled heads of garlic, top sliced off
-2 slices of white bread, crusts removed
-flat-leaf parsley leaves

1. Rub the lamb with butter and season generously with salt and pepper. Roast with garlic (cut side down) at 425 degrees F, about 15 minutes for each pound. Turn occasionally. Remove from oven and season again. Cover in foil and let rest in warm oven for one hour.
2.Prepare the crust by processing bread and parsley to a fine grind. Add sea salt to taste.
3.To finish: carve the leg and arrange the slices in a baking dish. Cover with parsley crumbs and put under the broiler and watch carefully until the crust turns golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Serve with roasted potatoes tossed in pan's juices and sprinkled with paprika.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Korean spa noodles

Los Angeles has one of the largest concentrations of Koreans after Seoul, according to a friend, a Seoul-native, who agreed to take me to her favorite spa. I've always loved Japanese onsen but Korean-style baths was a first for me so I decided to do the whole package, including the famed "skin-flaking" massage.

Upon arrival we changed into robes and entered the women's bathing area. There were three pools: warm, cold and ice-cold. I did not see anyone placidly soaking in the water with a towel perched on top of their head, as one does in Japan. Instead people quickly dunked themselves after a spell in one of the searing hot saunas, steam or dry, to tonifying effect.

When it was time for a massage, a woman wearing black lace panties and a bra instructed me to lie down on a table. She splashed water all over me and then began vigorously scrub every inch of my skin. Then she began to knead me like dough, expertly pulling, punching, pummeling flesh. Suddenly she nudged under me a rolled up towel, hot as a steaming bun. Relief came in the form of half-frozen cucumber slices rapidly laid across my face.

Our skins glowing and smooth as peaches, we moved to the common area for men and women. There were three darkened rooms for resting: jade (extremely hot) ice (extremely cold) and clay. We chose clay and lay down on mats near a soft, slow fire. We slept for some time and then, drenched in sweat, came out to a wooden-floored area with low tables. By this time I was dreaming of a bowl of shaved ice. However, what my friend ordered for us was a giant plate of cold noodles heaped high with a mountain of bitter greens.

The muk noodles, made from acorn, resembled Japanese soba in appearance and presentation only much chewier in texture (though not as chewy as the buckwheat naeyn myun which actually require scissors to cut.) Soba is ephemeral; it breaks easily and should be slurped down with nonchalance. Truly good soba is best appreciated plain, without sauce, to get the delicate buckwheat fragrance. Muk noodles, on the other hand, held its own against the strong and spicy dressing, which seemd to blow away our hotness.

As we sat chewing away on noodles I reflected on Japanese and Korean food and bath, which seem so similar yet are so different. While it's always risky to make generalizations about national character, I can't help feeling there's a thread of vigour and tenacity running through Korean culture, and a propensity for contrasts and extremes, that is altogether quite lacking in Japanese.