Monday, June 26, 2006


One of the questions in the "Proust questionnaire" (extended version) asks: What is your favorite journey?

I think for me it is the one that I make religiously each time I return to Japan -- the train ride from Tokyo to Nagano, where my sister and I as children spent long summers at the house of our maternal grandparents. It's a journey into the past and also a way to touch base, confirm my family roots.

During the two-hour shinkansen trip there is the ritual of eating one of the ekiben, bento sold at railway stations. There are several along this line but for me it's usually a toss-up between Daruma Bento (Takasaki station) and Toge no Kama-meshi (Yokokawa station.)

The former comes in bright red container shaped like a Daruma face, a nod to the fact that Takasaki is known for its fabrication of Daruma dolls. The empty containers are often saved as souvenirs and can be used as a piggy bank of sorts (there is a coin slit on the lid.)

Toge no Kama-meshi, shown above, comes in a rustic earthenware pot packed with tea-flavored rice. Arranged on top are bite-sized morsels of chicken, pickled ginger, braised burdock root and bamboo shoot, one quail egg, two shiitake mushrooms, three green peas, a sweetened chestnut and dried apricot. The contents speak of forest bounty yama no mono* and are in perfect synch with the scenery rushing by as one travels deeper and deeper into Japan's most mountainous region.

*as opposed to umi no mono (riches from the sea) that characterize bento sold along coastal lines.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Food Destinations: Strasbourg, France

Following up on last month's Food Destinations, I tried to come up with a similar list of places for Strasbourg that would offer the quintessential Alsatian experience.

First of all, if you are like me and obsessive about trying out every local specialty, there are three things you must eat when you go to Strasbourg. These are choucroute, baekoff and coq au Reisling. Here are the places to go:

Lohkas 25 rue du Bain-aux-Plantes 67000 Strasbourg, 03-88-32-05-26
Located in the heart of the Petite France quarter, Lohkas offers typical Alsatian cuisine in a setting that couldn't get any more picturesque. Order the celebrated choucroute garnie and you will get a heap of cooked fermented cabbage topped with several kinds of Alsatian sausages and various parts of salted pork, like slab of shoulder or gelatinous knuckle, served with pungent horseradish on the side. Excellent with local Alsatian beer.

Le Clou 3 rue du Chardon 67000 Strasbourg, 03-88-32-11-67
Located on a tiny pedestrian alley near the majestic pink-stoned cathedral, the cozy winstub distinguishes itself from others with its tasteful decor that mixes pretty Alsatian fabrics and blue-gray stoneware. The baekoff, served in individual ceramic terrines, is simply outstanding. Try also the escargots, another local specialty-- my daughter had her first here when she was three and now smacks her lips every time she comes across a snail.

Klein 26 Boulevard d'Anvers 67000 Strasbourg
For some reason it's hard to find coq au Reisling on the menu in restaurants except the most touristic ones. Provided you have access to a kitchen, you're better off making it yourself. The first thing to do is to procure a good coq and for this I recommend Klein, one of the finest boucherie/traiteurs in town. Choose one with lean black feet and ask for it to be cut into eight pieces. Also pick up a bottle of Reisling, a pat of butter, cream and fresh spaetzel (crinkly egg noodles) -- all available in the store. Next, head to the marche, two blocks away on Boulevard de la Marne, and buy a bunch of shallots, mushrooms, a lemon and some salad greens. You now have everything you need for an Alsatian feast.

Coq au Reisling (serves 4) adapted from Haeberlin: les Recettes de l'Auberge de l'Ile

-1 coq, about 2kg, cut into 8 pieces
-100g butter
-1 large onion, or several shallots, minced
-1 tablespoon of flour
-1/2 bottle of Reisling wine
-200g of champignons, cut in half
-250ml heavy cream
-1/2 lemon

1. In a deep casserole saute the pieces of meat in a bit of butter.
2. Sweat the minced onion or shallots in a bit of butter and add to the coq.
3. Sprinkle with flour, add the Reisling.
4. Cover and let simmer for 40 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, saute the mushrooms in a bit of butter.
5. Remove the pieces of meat from the casserole and cover with a foil to keep warm.
6. Reduce the liquid by half, then add the cream, mushrooms with its cooking liquid, lemon juice and any remaining butter.
7. Return the coq to the sauce and adjust seasoning.
*Serve with fresh spaetzels and a green salad.

Next, a short tram ride from centre ville takes you to the university quarter and our old apartment on rue Wimpheling. For five years I experienced the bliss of living a stone's throw away from an exceptional boulangerie and patisserie:

Jean-Claude Fritsch 13 rue Wimpheling 67000 Strasbourg
Downstairs from our apartment was a unpretentious Alsatian boulangerie where you could get warm kugelof (distinctly shaped raisin-studded brioche with a crown of almonds), fresh breh'zen (soft pretzel) and every weekday at noon, a tarte flambee (super thin crust toppped with onion, lardon and creme fraiche) fresh out of the oven. Madame Fritsch would exchange gossip with each client, switching easily between French and Alsatian, and she would reach into a jar for a petit beurre every time she saw my daughter.

Jean-Claude Zeigler 23 Avenue de la Foret Noire 67000 Strasbourg
Down the street on the corner was Zeigler's, a chic patisserie with an attractive tea salon. Creations were displayed in the window case and reflected the passing seasons. Beginning with January, as soon as the national galettne des rois fever died down, the carnival beignets made their appearance. In lieu of traditional apple beignets Zeigler's version had elegant fruit-fillings of fresh fig, apricot or rasberry. Easter meant lamb-shaped sponge cakes dusted with powdered sugar. The appearance of meringue-topped tarte a la rhubarbe heralded the arrival of spring. Summer months meant tarte aux quetsch and tarte aux mirabelles, purple and golden prunes typical of the region. Chestnut cream-based torche aux marrons signaled the end of vacations. Autumn months meant cakes of newly harvested walnuts, lemon and chocolate. Then it would be time for the famed Christmas bredele, an assortment of small butter or almond biscuits in heart and star shapes, spiced with cinnamon and anise.

Although it is Zeigler's calendar that we came to intimately know, most Strasbourgoise bakeries and pastry shops follow similar schedules. Be sure to sample whatever is in season when visiting. Bon apetit!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

yogurt cake

My daugher's best friend is another 4-year-old named Anna Sophia. Both girls are mixed (French-Japanese/ Korean-Mexican), both wear Dora-like bobs and are often mistaken for twins. They are inseparable at school, attend ballet class together on Saturday mornings and like to go for hot chocolate afterwards. They are constantly giving each other little gifts: paper butterflies on sticks, clothespin dolls, all imaginatively decorated.

Recently they baked together for the first time. They made a yogurt cake which seems ideal, as it involves only mixing and bakes quickly. It is delicious and healthy too, soft and moist, tasting of girly innocence.

Gateau au yaourt (adapted from Clothilde at Chocolate & Zuchini)

- 2 eggs
- 1 cup of yogurt
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder

Preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F) and butter a round cake pan. Have children mix together all the ingredients in a big bowl, chanting "mix-it mix-it cho-co-lat." Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 30 minutes. Eat while fresh and warm out of the oven.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Swiss chard

All vegetables are beautiful but some more than others -- I'm thinking of the sexily curvaceous aubergine and its deep purple sheen, or the prettily ribbed fennel and its delicate fonds. Swiss chard too, is a particularly striking vegetable, with its giant chiffons of emerald green leaves shot through with ruby red veins and stalk.

Another characteristic of chard is that it's a "two-in-one" vegetable; its leaves and stalk offer different flavors and textures in addition to contrasting colors. Sometimes called "spinach beet," chard leaves have the mineral surface texture of spinach and its pleasantly bitter taste. Like spinach leaves they must be bought in daunting quantities as cooking dramatically reduces their bulk. Chard stalks on the other hand have the smell and sweet taste of beets. And like beet root they will stain your fingers red.

In the following method the two parts are cooked separately then combined. The red stem bits caramelized to sweetness perfectly complement the bitter leafy greens and together make a delicious side to pan-fried pork chops:

Wash the chard leaves and gently tear off the leafy parts. Blanch the greens in salted water (drain but do not squeeze). Chop the stalks and cook in vegetable oil over low heat until caramelized. Add the leafy parts and cook until the juices are absorbed.