Archive for June, 2011

June 30th, 2011

PB & J 2

In an attempt to sneak in tofu into my husband’s diet, I rely on my secret weapon, “tofu bread” from the Japanese grocery store.  For those anti tofu texture/flavor folks, don’t worry, this tofu bread is actually really good.  You won’t notice it’s actually made with tofu unless you see the package.  With or without tofu, if you haven’t tried Japanese sandwich bread, I recommend you try some soon. The slices are bigger, softer and bit sweeter than the typical American brands, like wonder bread (but, unfortunately with a shorter shelf life).  You can generally get similar styles at Chinese or Korean bakeries, as well.   Japanese bread is one of the very few things my husband actually enjoys.  He survives our Japan trips by hitting the bakeries stocking up with 2 baguettes that he parcels out throughout the day.

PB & J is actually a popular dish in the breakfast rotation at our house.  I make it using the tofu bread and freshly ground almond butter. Instead of jelly, I use banana and honey.

1) Spread almond butter and sliced bananas2) Drizzle honey or maple syrup3) voila!My husband says PB & J needs to be cut into squares (cut into 4 pieces), it makes sense considering this is typical children’s meal.

June 28th, 2011

PB & J

When a Parisian can order “Le Big-Mac” on the Champs-Elysées or a typical Japanese businessman can grab a bagel in a Tokyo subway station, it’s pretty easy to see that for good or bad, American food has quickly conquered the world.  However, there is still one American staple that still hasn’t reached the international kitchen: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  This traditional combination is virtually unknown outside of the U.S., and to add a personal insult to its anonymity, my Japanese best friend actually thinks it’s gross.

The PB of PB&J fame, was introduced to the general public at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, and it found its mate during World War II, thanks to soldiers in need of a cheap and easy source of good protein, but since then, has taken on a life of its own.  PB was introduced to me by another picky eater in my life… my mother.  She is as picky as my husband.  Although Asians live on carbs, my mother doesn’t like rice, pasta, bread…   I’ll talk about my mother issue at some other time.  But I actually grew up with peanut butter (Skippy, no Jif in Japan).

Back in 1998, when I was working in Greenwich Village, NYC, a store called Peanut Butter and Co. opened. If you think the store’s name would limit its offerings, you’d be mistaken, as they’ve somehow managed to concoct an amazing array of peanut butter, along with every variation of PB&J sandwich and dessert imaginable!  You won’t find this in Japan, or not many places in the United State either!

When I visited there recently on a weekday afternoon, a family of 4 was sharing a creation aptly titled, “Death by Peanut Butter Sundae,” which is NOT intended for the sugar substitute crowd as it consists of 3 scoops of vanilla ice cream, peanut butter sauce, peanut butter chips, Reese’s Pieces, peanut butter Cap n’ Crunch cereal and is topped off with whipped cream.  It tastes exactly how you might imagine–VERY peanut buttery and VERY sweet.

Although basically a simple offering, the PB & J has been evolving since Elvis was forced to switch to a larger sized stage suit from his addition of  bacon and banana to the equation.   But that’s to be continued…

 

June 26th, 2011

Sick food

When you are sick, you want the most familiar foods.  Once, while ill, I asked a friend to bring me some soup, but I wasn’t specific on what kind I wanted.  As I’ve learned from living in America for the past twenty years, when you’re sick, Chicken noodle is the American go-to soup.  Every friend to the sick knows this.  So what did she bring?   She brought me a spicy Korean cup of noodles.   While I’m sure somewhere in a hospital in Seoul, they’re serving these up by the cart-full–in America, not so much.  I’m guessing she just assumed I would want something Asian, but as they say, never assume!

What does your ‘sick food’ say about yourself? My husband usually asks for toast, a bagel, or simply chicken noodle soup when he’s under the weather.  Makes sense as he has typical American tastes with a Jewish twist.  When I’m not feeling well, I want what my mom used to give me when I was sick, with one exception.  Which one of the following would you guess was a craving I developed after a few years in the U.S.? udon noodles, chawan-mushi (savory egg custard) or strawberry flavor Hagen Daz.  You guessed it.  See, my ‘sick food’ tells a story too.  I was born and raised in Japan, but got to experience the best America had to offer-a delicious ice cream with a fake Danish name.

Udon and chawan-mushi are not that easy to make (especially for my Asian flavor intolerable husband), so unless I have an instant udon noodle in the pantry (I recommend this brand), I too, will have to resort to chicken noodle soup when I get sick. After all, my father-in-law always refers to it as Jewish penicillin.  I’m not sure if this claim is true, but it still is delicious.

My recipe is quite simple.

Ingredients (about 4 servings):

1 Skinless chicken breast

5 celery stalks chopped

2 med sized carrots chopped

1 onion diced

egg noodles (as much/little as you want)

dried bayleaf, black peppercorn, chicken stock (I’m in love with this one)

salt and pepper to taste

optional: parsley or dill (dry or fresh)

1) poach chicken breast in chicken stock (room temp or below), bayleaf, black peppercorn, then start the heat.  once boiled, simmer for 5 min, turn off and keep chicken in the pot

2) once chicken is cool down, drain the soup, and discard bayleaf and peppercorn, but keep the soup.  cut or shred chicken by hands to bite size

3) in a soup pan, sweat onion, carrot, celery, then add chicken stock (5 cups or more, including one used for poaching)

4) when vegetable are almost cooked, add dry egg noodles and chicken

5) salt and pepper to taste, add minced herbs, if you’d like to

I like less soup; because it’s more like meal than soup.  It’s also easier to freeze this way.

 

June 23rd, 2011

Pizza

I don’t like pizza. Shocking, I know. I guess the universe balances out–when someone excitedly exclaims that they’ve ordered pizza, I react with the same indifference and disappointment as my husband does when he hears, “We’re all going out for sushi!” It’s as simple as that; he doesn’t want Asian food, I don’t want pizza. There are some exceptions.
I do like the New York tradition of pizza by the slice.  For 3 bucks, your hunger is greasily satisfied.We actually have many pizza places in Japan, from the world famous Domino’s to a Japanese delivery pizza place called “Pizza-la”.  My mother, who is 5’2″ and weighs 90lbs, actually loves pizza.  When my dad came home late, which was often enough, my family would have pizza night– but our pizzas barely resembled their American cousins.  Japanese pizzas have interesting toppings like tuna salad, mayonnaise, and seaweed, which might scare away the typical pepperoni loving American (no worries, we do have pepperoni).  More on this another time.
The first pizza that I really enjoyed was a 3am late dinner/early breakfast, on 11th Ave in NYC.  It was a cold January night and I was working on a movie set for 12 hours as a PA, starving and freezing. In those conditions, you can imagine how satisying a piping hot piece of plain cheese pizza from Famous and/or Original Ray’s tasted amazing.  That night, for the first time, I finally understood the English expression, “it hit the spot”.

June 20th, 2011

Gr-r-reat soft serve

Do you like frosted flakes?  Do you like to drink that sugar infused milk at the end?  I do.  Imagine that super sweet milk as soft serve.  That was exactly the taste of Cereal Milk Soft serve at Momofuku Milk BarWhen I was a kid, my grandmother took me shopping every Sunday.  Our first stop was at the Sanrio store to buy  the latest Hello Kitty things.  Our next stop was the Dairy Queen for a frozen treat.  My favorite: vanilla with butterscotch sauce.  I loved watching the server dip my soft serve in a pot of butterscotch, then immediately seeing it freeze.  Sometimes we went to Baskin Robbins (we call it “thirty one” in Japan), but I always preferred to go Dairy Queen to get the soft serve and watch the dip show.  Last month, for the first time in 30 years, I went to get a Dairy Queen soft serve in a Los Angeles mall.  It wasn’t as great as I remember.  There was no butterscotch sauce but more importantly, no grandmother.

Although it wasn’t dipped in anything, Cereal Milk soft serve from Milk Bar was amazing.  Yes, AMAZING.  The flavor of the leftover milk from eating sugary cereal was uncanny.  There’s nothing like this.  I love when an unexpected flavor succeeds.  When I had my first lick, I thought “It really was the taste of the cereal’s milk!  Yeah, I remember I love that cereal milk!!”, then after the second bite “how do you get this flavor?  This tastes exactly like Frosted Flakes!!”  Often, when stores try imitating other forms of flavor, for example, cheesecake flavored ice cream, it usually tastes more cheesecake-ish, than cheesecake.  So when I tasted cereal milk flavor, it was a fantastic surprise to find out they actually created the flavor.  What a treat!

By the way, we call soft serve “sofuto kureemu” (soft cream) in Japan, and sadly, while Hello Kitty continues to flourish there’s no more Dairy Queen in Japan…

June 18th, 2011

Black, white and beyond

Black and white cookies falls into NYC classic category.  Not necessarily people grow up eating them, but New Yorkers grow up seeing them on the windows of many delis.  The origin of this cake like cookie seems rather vague.  Some says it is related to Germany’s Amerikaner cookie (only the white icing) or it is a version of half-moon, which was originated in upstate New York, and if it were for half-moon, the history goes back to early 20th century.  Cupcake stores have been popping up everywhere with tons of flavors like cotton candy, key lime and Artie Lange (not a beer).  So it was matter of time that beloved black and white cookie became a cupcake at Crumbs Bake Shop in NYC.  The texture of black and white cookie resembles already like a cake, so why not?  Taste?  I thought it was a good vanilla cupcake, and the chocolate fondant icing was rather really tasted like chocolate, whereas B&W cookie’s black fondant tastes only chocolate-y.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, there are variations of all different colors.  These novelty items, which is really cool, for example, for birthday, Christmas and/or Hanukkah gifts to be creative.  I’d say “so cute!” if I receive one of these for Valentine’s or something (although, note to my husband, I always prefer really good cake), and if I bring these colorful cookies as souvenir to my friends in Japan, they’ll also scream “Kawaii~” (cute).   However, black and white cookie has been in New York City staple because it’s black and white.  There are reasons that these colored variations are not in store front everyday.  Basic cake flavor is always vanilla and chocolate; so is cookies.  It’s gender/age neutral.  My dad wouldn’t want to eat a baby pink and white cookie on the street, but he won’t mind black and white.  If you don’t live near New York City, and want to try, William Greenberg Dessert will ship and has great variation in color and sizes (I tried their pink and white, it didn’t taste like strawberry), or you can go fancy with Dean and Deluca or go crazy with these guys who has many color as well as shapes!  If you wanna make it yourself, this recipe seems most delicious.

June 15th, 2011

Black and white cookie

I love Seinfeld.  For a while, that show about nothing became the main reason I stayed in America.  It introduced me to a completely different culture.  Where would a girl from Tokyo learn what a moil was?  Who, if not Jerry, was going to teach me about the cultural significance of Jewish Deli food?  There’s one item in the Jewish culinary world, apart from the salted, cured meats, that’s especially noteworthy, the black and white cookie.You’ve probably seen the big, two-toned cookie a million times at Jewish delis but have you ever tried it?  For the uninitiated, it’s a big and vivid black and white creation tightly wrapped in plastic.  The name “cookie” on this sweet is misleading, and resembles its appearance more than its texture, because it’s more like a thin vanilla cake with two semi-circles of brown and white icing (chocolate and vanilla, although the white icing is sometimes lemon flavored).  I didn’t grow up with any kind of frosting, so at first, it didn’t look very appetizing.  But after seeing a Seinfeld episode, dinner party, I began fantasizing about this delicasy.  In the episode, Jerry and Elaine are at a bakery, where Jerry explains his method of eating the black and white cookie, which involves getting both vanilla and chocolate in the same bite.  His theory?  ‘If people would only look to the cookie’ all racial problems would be solved.  Jerry then raises his cookie in a salute of brotherhood to an African-American gentleman across the store, eating the very same, racially balanced dessert, who returns the gesture.  Surprisingly, it took me over a decade to try the black and white cookie in person, but thanks to the location being Yankee Stadium, it was worth the wait.  To this day, I don’t remember if the Yankees won, but I still remember that cookie.  My first thought after the first bite was, “What?  it’s soft?”  Remembering Jerry’s technique, I tried to get a little bit of both colors in each bite.  To be honest, and with no racial undertones whatsoever, I just prefer the white side.  Sorry Jerry.  The reason?  The black side’s icing usually doesn’t taste anything like chocolate.  It’s one of these “chocolate-y” flavors that doesn’t quite get it right.  Yet, if this cookie had only white icing, it would lose 100% of its cache AND its name would make no sense.  So why produce this riddle of a cookie?Maybe Jerry is right.   Maybe the appeal is just the sentiment reflected on this cookie– In a crazy world, maybe people can only find harmony in the balance of icing on the smiling face of this cookie…  Or maybe it’s just I’ve watched Seinfeld way too many times and I like cake.

June 14th, 2011

Mexican Coke

On the subject of Mexican food, I need to mention of the best items from south of the border: Mexican Coke.  We discovered Mexican Coke about a year ago and have been savoring it like a fine wine ever since.  What’s so special about it?  Imagine a frosty, glass bottle full of Coca Cola, made even more delicious with the inclusion of REAL cane sugar!  As we all aware, regular Coke (along with most sodas) uses high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener.  Political and health reasons aside, (please watch the documentary King Corn), the cane sugar coke gives that indescribable and much needed punch when you drink it that corn syrup just can’t match.
It’s interesting to note that the same brand of drink tastes completely different from country to country.  When I was still new to America, I thought drinking diet Coke was the thing to do, because everybody at school in Boston was drinking it during class.  Besides wanting to try diet Coke, I was pretty much just fascinated by the idea that you could drink during class–something Japanese schools would never allow.  To me, it just looked like true Americana–especially drinking it out of a huge, Texas-sized can (20+ year ago, we only had a skinny 250ml can in Japan).  So I started drinking it, but sadly, when I returned home to Tokyo for the summer, I couldn’t find it anywhere.  They had Coke Zero, which tasted more like regular coke, but I was hooked on that chemically infused diet Coke taste and could not go back.
20+ years later, Coke has done it to me again. Last year, I found myself driving all over Los Angeles to find Mexican Coke like a teenager trying to score some weed, lame, I know. First, I found it at a Japanese grocery store, Nijiya in West L.A., for $1.99. Strange to see Mexican Coke sitting next to healthy Japanese tea bottle. I was feeling pretty superior as I loaded up my cart and savored it, drop by drop, wondering if this bottle would be the last.   Now, the romance is over… it’s everywhere… BevMo and Costco carry it by the case, and you can order it at Umami Burger in L.A.  I even found it at Gourmet Garage in SoHo & at a small bodega on Lexington and 100th Street in NYC, too.  It’s great that so many people appreciate the flavor so now it’s easily attainable (There’s a cool website called wheretofindmexicancoke.com, also you can get it online from Amazon, too), but the sense of finding that hidden gem, of knowing that arcane secret, is gone. I guess it’s time to find a new drink, but you’ll understand if I don’t tell you about it until Wallmart starts to carry it.

June 13th, 2011

Mexican food

They are big, fatty, and one dimensionally flavored.  These are the ingredients to pretty much every Mexican dish:  Meat, cheese, beans, rice, salsa, sauce, and tortilla & tortilla chips.  Sure each item has them in different combinations, but still not much variety.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the cuisine until about 6 months ago.  What changed?   Probably a combination of mother-in-law’s fabulous salsa, Dora’s enchiladas and compromises.

Let’s talk about compromises.  Upon getting married, my worldy palate (read: variety) became limited  to the “humorously picky” description my husband gives to his food preferences. Born and raised in Los Angeles, it is almost impossible to find that one Mexican dish or corner place that isn’t amazing (for him). Being easy, cheap and quick (the food, not my husband) it has become kind of fun trying to try them all.  My latest obsession, finding the best tamale in town.  While the search continues, here is a great find.

Hugo’s Tacos has healthier versions of Mexican foods and a cool half price burrito night on Wednesdays (after 7PM–Its added entertainment to watch patrons whisper the secret word to the cashier as if they’re James Bond, trying to save the world, instead of some hipster just saving a couple of bucks on a burrito from a word they read on their Twitter feed).  There are many choices, from salsas, to proteins (Including tofu–it’s L.A.) to style: tacos, burrito, bowl, etc.  So I risk the curious looks by choosing NOT to add sour cream, cheese, and beans to my dish and avoiding a huge tortilla.  It may not be healthy, but it’s the illusion of being healthy!

Since both Japanese and Mexican diets depend on rice and beans, I’ve always wondered why Mexican food is not popular in Japan.  There are many, many KFCs, but no Taco Bells in Japan.  I don’t think my parents (both in mid 60s) in Tokyo have ever eaten Mexican food.

June 12th, 2011

My pork belly is better than yours

Pork belly; it seems to be the “in” food these days.  Today, you can get it at Whole Foods, sold as if it were some kind of fancy meat, but 10 years ago, it had the opposite reputation; I had to go Chinatown just to find it!  I’ve been enjoying telling everybody “my pork belly is better” every time we’d see it on the menu.  Then a few years ago, I was humbled by David Chang‘s pork bun, and completely knocked out by April Bloomfield‘s pork belly dish.  Let’s talk about how I lost the battle of the pork belly to these great chefs some other time.  Instead, let me give you my recipe, before another humbling experience comes my way.

All you need is pork belly and these:1) Sake, soy sauce, brown sugar, and honey.  Optional: Green onion and/or ginger and/or garlic.  These are to lessen the dish’s ‘porkiness’.  First, wash the pork belly in cold water, then put it in a deep pot, cover it with water and throw in the green onion (or ginger or garlic).2) Cook until tender (45 minutes+ in the pressure cooker; 90 minutes or more in a regular pot with a lid on; high-low med heat), next, take the pork out, discard boiled water and green onion, and when the pork belly is cool enough to touch, cut it 2-3 inches wide.  Give the pot a quick wash.

3) Put the pork belly back into the pot with 2 cups of sake, 2 cups of soy sauce, 1 1/2 (cups) of sugar, 1 cup of water, and a half cup of honey.  The liquid should reach top of the pork belly.  Feel free to change the proportions depending on your taste preference;  if you prefer saltier, more soy sauce (or tiny bit of sea salt); if you prefer milder, more sake (or plum wine is a great alternative to give it more sweetness).4) Cook at med/low heat for 30 min with the pressure cooker or an hour or more in a regular pot with a parchment paper lid.  The longer you put on the heat, the more tender it gets, and the more the flavor intensifies.  So if you are planning on leaving it heated longer,remember to adjust the seasoning prior to cooking.

This is called Kakuni in Japanese.  It’s a staple at Japanese tapas places (izaka ya), great with beer with a bit of Japanese mustard on it, or with udon noodles with little bit of chopped green scallion.  You can slice it thinner and make a little sandwich adding a slice of cucumber and Sriracha, a la David Chang; chopped and put them in fried rice, ramen topping, etc…  My all time favorite is adding it to a bowl of white rice, with a soft boiled egg.  It’s pretty damn good!