Archive for July, 2011

July 30th, 2011

Chowder in a bread bowl

I love all kinds of chowders, clam, corn, potato…  I love them all.  My first introduction to chowder was in early 1980, when I went to Seattle to study English for the summer.  That was my very first trip to America, so naturally, it had lots of “firsts” in terms of American food.  Years later, when I returned to Boston for college, clam chowder became one of my favorite American foods.  Once I married my bread loving husband, our two passions met, and I was introduced to the idea of chowder in a bread bowl.  I had seen it at restaurants, but I was resisting because I had always been a chowder purist who didn’t even want to sully the flavor with crackers. With that in mind, why would I want to add bread to the mix?  If I’m going to invest my calories on a cream based soup, I want more soup, not more bread, right?

Clam chowder must be good, because even though it’s technically a seafood dish, my husband loves it.  Well, with really good sourdough we brought back from San Francisco sitting in our kitchen, it was finally time to trade the ceramic soup bowl for a carbohydrate laden one and experiment with something new. Despite my initial resistance, I actually found this dish pretty fun to eat.  First, you break up the “lid” and use the torn bread bits to scoop up the soup.  With every bite, the level of soup drops, giving you room to carefully tear pieces away from the rim of the bread bowl and slowly work your way down.   Yes, it can get messy, but it’s a lot of fun.  Do I prefer this over clam chowder in a real bowl?  Much to my husband’s dismay, no. I still prefer clam chowder in its pure form.  But with the simple addition of the bread bowl, the entertainment value rises greatly–which is one of the qualities of food that I really appreciate.

Not surprisingly, I noticed that I was eating most of the clams while my husband was tearing huge chunks of bread from the bowl.  In between mouthfuls, he asked me if they had clam chowder in Japan. The answer is yes, but sadly, it’s not very good.  Most of time it’s not as hearty as you would expect.  It’s probably one of the few dishes where the American canned version beats the Japanese restaurant version.  Why the big difference?  Well,  traditionally, we make miso and clear soup with clams.  Being more watery, these soups aren’t exactly ‘chowders’, but our enjoyment comes from the flavor of the soup infused with clam essence, as clams, still in their shells, give flavor to the broth.  Traditionally, clear soup with clams is served on Girls’ Day (March 3).  Why this dish?  The idea is to celebrate harmony in marriage and the virtue inherent in girls. The clam symbolizes this, because only the inborn pair of clam shells fits perfectly, as opposed to two mismatched shells.

I love both the American and Japanese versions of these soups as they both serve very different purposes.  Clam chowder fills you up while hiding its clams among a hearty cream and lots of vegetables.  Japanese clam soup looks like consomme, but focuses on the flavor and freshness of the clam.  Either way, it will probably be quite a while before we see soup served in a bread bowl in Japan–but don’t tell my husband!

July 29th, 2011

Fish out of water

Why did it take getting married for a Japanese girl to learn about Japanese culture?  What did I learn?  Well, for starters, our diet depends heavily on fish.  We eat fish for breakfast, bring fish to work for lunch, and, you guessed it, fish for dinner.  We use fish stock and eat fish raw, grilled, dried, fried, and even fermented.  If that weren’t enough, we even eat fish as snacks.  IWith that in mind, imagine my fish-phobic American husband’s horror when my father offered him a fish snack the very first time when they met.  My husband understands the honor code of Japan, if you are offered something, you take it and (pretend to) enjoy it.  Since that first meeting, my husband has tried many varieties of fish,  and has even found a few fish items that he likes tolerates (still not including fish snacks).Hawaii, as you know, is a beautiful island.  And, Hawaiians too, eat a lot of fish.  We spent our honeymoon there, and maybe as an act of love, my husband started to eat fish at least once per day while we are there. That’s quite an effort for a guy who needs to be forced to eat fish one or two times a year.  His reasoning?  On an island, the fish has to be fresh, which means, none of that annoying fishy smell.  Unfortunately, I agree with my husband on the smelly part, as many of the dishes at seafood restaurants in America do indeed smell.

We have a simple deal.  If the fish isn’t fresh tasting, I will resist my urge to make him try it.  So when I think there’s a chance of finding the freshest stuff, of course, we have to try it.  This was the case on our recent vacation to the Big Island, where we were thrilled to find a well-reviewed a food truck hat served only the freshest stuff.  Although it’s a truck, it is permanently parked on a lot next to a small fish market (which doesn’t smell) and seating was simply a few patio tables and chairs under a blue plastic tarp.  Imagine the exact opposite of a chain restaurant, complete with a vintage looking handwritten menu on the truck.  To order, you simply choose a fish and the way you want it prepared, and the owner herself, Dee Dee, cooks it right there for you.We picked Mahi Mahi, popular Hawaiian fish, known for its flaky meat like texture.  As I hoped, the fish was very fresh and tasty, which I could have told you without tasting a bite.  How?  My husband actually finished his first and to confirm its freshness, asked Dee Dee how long ago his meal was actually swimming in the ocean.  This morning,” she replied with a straight face.  Even though the dish was simply prepared (lightly breaded and fried), I would have a hard time duplicating it as I’d have to
1) move to Hawaii;
2) go to a dock to buy fish or
3) go fishing myself.
As I have no plan of moving to Hawaii, or waking up at 4AM, the only option I have left is to visit Hawaii as much as possible in attempt to convert my husband into a regular fish eater.  Who knows, with any luck, one day, he’ll be munching on fish snacks with my dad.

 

July 27th, 2011

Egg salad

The egg salad sandwich was my favorite lunch to take on a field trip when I was an elementary school student in Japan.  My mother had a special technique for creating this amazing meal.  She’d cut the crust off and freeze it the night before.  Why?  Because a kid walking around with mayo based food all morning would most likely result in a bad tummy all afternoon.  But a frozen egg salad sandwich in the morning, thaws out quite nicely by lunchtime.Egg salad sounds like a typical all-American food, but is it really? I’ve seen oeufs mayonaise, a simple appetizer of boiled egg with mayonnaise at many restaurants in Paris.  Also, considering that mayo was introduced to America by the French, it’s probably really a French dish…  By definition, my husband should love egg salad.  He loves eggs, sandwiches, and even Paris, (France, not Hilton) yet for some reason, the combination doesn’t work for him. His explanation?  “I like my eggs with runny yolks so I can scoop them up with bread.”  When I counter with, “But you like omelettes,” he brings cholesterol into the argument, stating, “If I’m already eating eggs, why should I make them even worse by adding mayonnaise?”  This leads us to the mayo discussion. If you ask him to elaborate on it, he’ll tell you it just tastes fatty and disgusting and that the only mayonnaise he’s ever enjoyed, came on the Burger King breaded chicken sandwich.  For all these reasons, he doesn’t want tuna salad, pasta salad or potato salad.  To me, it just sounds like a bunch of excuses, but having lived around his peculiar eating habits for a few years now, I guess it’s starting to make sense.  Besides, I enjoyed that Burger King chicken sandwich too.

My husband’s philosophy on mayonnaise suddenly changed when I introduced him to the Japanese mayonnaise, Kewpie.  Kewpie is to the Japanese household what Heinz ketchup is to the American household. It has a slightly sweeter and lighter taste than it’s American counterpart, and it comes in a plastic tube with a tiny opening so you won’t overuse it.  With a cute kewpie doll logo on the label, it’s aesthetically pleasing too.  Is it hard to find in the U.S.?  Much like anything else, these days, you can buy it through Amazon with a marked up price, or, if you’re more adventurous, you can go explore your local Asian grocer.  If there’s none in your area, I suggest venturing into that foreign food aisle at your local supermarket you usually skip, where they hide the the Asian food and kosher stuff.  Take it from me, once you try Kewpie on a BLT, you’ll wonder what the ‘miracle’ was in that ‘whip’ you used to eat.

Did the addition of Kewpie convert my husband into an egg salad eater?  Unfortunately, no.  If it’s offered, he’ll still say, what’s the point? To him, his love of the runny yolk is the whole reason to eat anything with eggs.  To illustrate the point, he’ll throw a perfectly good egg away if he breaks the yolk when preparing it over-easy.  To him, it’s like decaffeinated coffee or non-alcoholic beer.  Why ingest something that lacks the key ingredient that you enjoy?  Luckily, that same argument doesn’t hold true for tuna salad, which he now likes.  As for me, sometimes I miss those old days of field trips and delicious sandwiches, so every so often, I’ll make my own egg salad with chopped cucumbers, parsley, a bit of Kewpie and tiny bit of sea salt.  It’s great as a sandwich or with green salad.  But if you are feeling a bit adventurous, try it on warm rice with tiny bit of soy sauce and sriracha–It’s the poor man’s spicy tuna over rice…

PS: That delicious creamy taste you can’t quite identify at your favorite sushi joint–Kewpie!  Don’t tell them I told you.

PPS: I wonder if that Burger King chicken sandwich is as good as we remember?

July 26th, 2011

PB & J 3

Most of my Japanese friends love American culture with one glaring exception: PB&J.  Whenever I mention that my favorite snack is celery with peanut butter, I’m greeted with the comment that I’m way too Americanized.  They are probably right about that. But regaining my Japanese identity is as easy as grossing out my anti-fish loving husband by eating dried anchovies as a snack.

The variations on the traditional PB&J would confuse my friends even more.  Mendocino Farms, a gourmet sandwich shop in Los Angeles, offers a Bacon & Housemade Peanut Butter Sandwich on grilled panini.  Based on its price of $8.75, I’d have to say that this is one of the more sophisticated versions of this sandwich that I’ve encountered.  Along with applewood smoked bacon & homemade PB, it has caramelized bananas, crushed honey roasted almonds and green apples.  I actually do love this sandwich, mostly because I love the bacon, whose saltiness paired with the sweetness of the banana compliment the rather bland PB.  Maybe if I start out by stating that PB&J with bacon was Elvis’ favorite, I might get a few of my Japanese friends to take a bite.

PB&J has come a long way from the kid’s sandwich of choice.  There are PB&J ice creams, donuts, and cookies, but a PB&J burger?  Sounds strange, but what could be more American than combining these two signature classics?  It would never happen, you say? Apparently, you’ve never been to Mo’s restaurant in Burbank where the “Foggybottom Burger” sits prominently on the menu.  At first, it seems like a traditional burger with its nicely cooked patty and fresh buns, but the addition of peanut butter and sour plum jam set it apart from the rest.

When you assemble these ingredients and take your first bite, you taste nothing but the peanut butter, however, by adding sliced pickles, somehow it works (surprisingly).   Our waiter said all his customers are skeptical before they order, but once they’ve tried it, his feedback is 100% positive.  Love it or hate it, it’s an experience, to say the least.

While the thought would surely turn off the typical Japanese palate, it’s worth a try.  After all, turnabout is fair play: to most Americans, the thought of eating raw fish seemed crazy thirty years ago, and today, there’s a sushi restaurant on virtually every corner of Main Street U.S.A.

July 22nd, 2011

Dora’s enchiladas

Until recently, the only Mexican dishes I knew were burritos and tacos.  Whenever I would see a commercial for Mexican fast food on TV (and there are a lot in Los Angeles), I’d ask my husband “What is a quesadilla?” “What are flautas?” “What’s the difference between a chalupa and a tostada?”  By now, I’ve probably asked at least 3 times about each dish.  They’re hard to tell apart for someone who hasn’t grown up with them since their descriptions seem pretty much the same on the surface.  But, I was soon to learn about one Mexican dish, intimately.

One day, we were at my sister-in-law’s house eating a buffet style dinner. My husband pointed at one of the dishes on the counter and told me “That’s an enchilada.”  Although I had to say, “Tell me again what an enchilada is?” I tried it and LOVED it!   It was light, moist, and little spicy with a very unique flavor.  It wasn’t anything like my pre-conceived image of  Mexican food, which to me, seemed dense from beans, cheese, and sour cream, drenched in heavy sauces.

One of my hobbies is to try to duplicate restaurant dishes that I enjoy.  My husband always jokes that he can see the wheels turning in my brain as I take each bite, analyzing, rating and comparing flavors and textures.  With that in mind, I think you can understand what was coming next… I HAD to duplicate that enchilada.  For starters, the ingredients: They weren’t overwhelming in number, just chicken, sour cream, tortillas and my mother-in-law’s green sauce,  however the recipe turned out to be more complex than I had imagined, as I learned after my first few unsuccessful attempts. What went wrong? Well, I managed to capture the lightness, but for some reason, not the moistness.

I had to go to the expert, my mother-in-law, for advice.  It turns out that the fantastic flavor of the dish comes from not just adding the green sauce externally, but internally as well.  She told me I needed to soak the tortillas in the green sauce to give the dish that extra bit of flavor.  Thanks to that tip, I finally have a perfectly light and moist green chicken enchilada recipe, in my arsenal, that wins my husband’s approval.  Even more importantly, I have taken one more step in the incredibly challenging quest of introducing Mexican flavors to a discriminating Japanese palate.

July 21st, 2011

What makes “Asian” dish Asian?

Happy National Junk Food Day!  To celebrate this joyous occasion, let’s talk about McDonald’s.  The other day, on the way back from the gym, my husband lifted up his tired arm and pointed at a huge billboard ahead of us for McDonald’s new Asian salad.  His question, “What do you have to put in there before you can call it Asian?”My husband always jokes that he doesn’t like ‘Asian seasonings’.  He’s usually laughing when he says it, but we both know he’s serious.  He says there’s something in there that he can’t quite identify, but can always taste.  There are a few ingredients that I know for sure that he won’t like it.  The prime suspect is Japanese dashi, fish stock.  Add soy sauce, salt, and sugar to the fish stock, and it’ll make a great soup for udon and soba.  It’s also the base for miso soup.  I guess growing up with it, I never thought miso soup smelled, but apparently, according to my selective husband, it does.  Luckily, these dashi based dishes are mostly Japanese, and not that conventionally ‘Asian’, so it’s unlikely that the McDonald’s “Asian Salad” will contain dashi.  Of course we’d still have to buy the salad to find out, but before that, our fun guessing game began.

My husband guessed the Asian salad would contain edamame, a food he first tried at my grandmother’s house in Japan.  (Looking back, maybe we should have told him that you’re only supposed to eat the inside?)  When it was my turn to guess what McDonald’s thinks is ‘Asian’,  I chose canned Mandarin orange.  Why?  Just think back to every Chinese chicken salad you’ve ever eaten.  Aren’t Mandarin oranges always in there?

Were we right?  Well, I went to McDonald’s and placed my order.   I was impressed with the wide variety of Asian culture on display as the cashier presented me with two options: “grilled” or “crispy” chicken.  ‘Crispy’ being the code word for fried.

Being a fan of Asian culture, I ordered both.  Just like they served in ancient Tokyo, my salad came with a packet of Newman’s Own Low Fat Sesame dressing.  To add even more Asian-ness to the mix, a packet of sliced almonds was included.  The salad was much better than I expected, but basically it’s just orange or sesame chicken on a bed of green salad.

But to answer the big question: were our guesses right?  Yes! There were both edamame and mandarin orange slices in it.  Add ginger dressing and you may have that ‘Asian seasoning’ my husband is always complaining about.  I suspect these two items plus ginger dressing are the answer to my husband’s question.

With the mystery solved, only one question remains: would I order this again?  Actually…yes.  It was a pretty good deal for 270 calories. Tasty and filling (Crispy: 420 cal).  I guess my husband will just have to stick with his Happy Meal!

July 20th, 2011

Corn is good

These days, corn is getting a bad rap.  ‘Corn fed’ is not good, corn syrup is bad, and corn bread is fattening.  These claims may be true, but there is nothing like fresh corn in the summer.  My husband agrees so wholeheartedly, he proudly lists corn on his “favorite vegetable” list.  Isn’t it cute?
One of my favorite things to cook is a hearty American soup, but there is a little something preventing me from cooking soup all year.  During the summer months, my husband complains that soup is either too hot, but then when I prepare a cold soup, he complains that soup is supposed to be hot.  Rather than argue in circles, I thought, ‘he loves corn’… so I tried making him a chilled corn soup.  And surprise, he loved it!  I knew he was being genuine when he got mad when I reached over to his half eaten soup, assuming he was done.  He explained that he wasn’t done–he was just saving it for later while finishing his salad and baguette.  Knowing that a baguette is at the top of his favorite food list, I was convinced that he truly appreciated my efforts.  And more importantly, I helped change my husband’s opinion on cold soup.  Isn’t that really the victory?  Don’t believe me?  Try it for yourself with my delicious corn soup recipe.

In the words of the great philosopher, country singer Luke Bryan, “Rain makes corn, corn makes whiskey.  Whiskey makes my baby, feel a little frisky”.  Brilliant!  Maybe corn is a good thing after all.

July 18th, 2011

Redvines

I can admit it; I was scared of eating Red Vines.  I’ve seen so many Americans eating them before, and every time they’ve been offered to me, I’ve found a way to politely refuse, because frankly, they didn’t look appetizing.  It’s a bright, almost neon red, but isn’t made from strawberries or beets.  It looks too mysterious.  I can’t quite remember the circumstances surrounding the story of how my American husband tricked me into finally eating them, but for some reason, the fear has subsided, and I’m slightly leaning toward liking this ‘always fat free’ snack.
Are there Red Vines in Japan?  No.  Do Japanese people even know about Red Vines?  No, unless they received a bad souvenir or were the victims of a practical joke.  Would they like it if they tried it?  I can guarantee right now, that 99% of Japanese won’t like Red Vines and all other similar “licorice” products.  As a matter of fact, when my Japanese client came to America to do some studio work with American talents, he was given Red Vines and later asked me how can people enjoy eating them?  I had no answer.  Just like foreigners have a hard time with the idea of a Japanese breakfast consisting of fermented products, Japanese people just don’t have the culinary capacity to handle the flavor and texture of Red Vines.  If I had to describe the experience of eating one, I’d say there is almost no flavor, yet there is that corn syrup sweetness.  Then there’s the texture… It’s not quite chewy… it’s almost like eating a pre-chewed piece of chewing gum (I imagine).  And finally, its description is a bit misleading; I don’t understand why it’s called licorice snack when there’s no licorice in it.

It definitely wasn’t  love at first bite.  Within a year or so, my relationship with Red Vines progressed from the “ugh” stage to the “Oh, the last one already?  Can we split it?”  My Japanese friends find my palate becoming more peculiar each day. I call it developing a new appreciation.

July 17th, 2011

Blast from the Past

One bit of American culinary culture that I truly adore, is the diner.  If you grew up with the diner experience, you probably take its charm for granted.  But for someone that didn’t have this truly distinctive American novelty, a diner makes me feel like it’s 1955 and I’m Marty McFly in a scene out of Back to the Future. As a kid growing up in Japan, the diner is probably the image that would pop into my head if someone mentioned the word “America”.  But this all-American fixture is becoming harder to find.  In Los Angeles or New York, you’re more likely to find a 21st century hipster hangout or gastropub, which I also really enjoy even though that feeling of Americana is missing.  But never fear, the classic American diner is alive and well in Los Angeles if you’re willing to look in an unlikely locale.  Located inside a Ford Dealership in the San Fernando Valley, you’ll find the Galpin dealership’s pride and joy, Horseless Carriage Restaurant.

Stepping into this diner is like stepping back in time.  Inside, it feels like a different era; an era when people used to actually care about their appearance eschewing ripped jeans and sweats in public.  The cleanliness and care in this place alone shows how much pride the staff takes in their restaurant.  Some of the normal diner wear and tear we’ve accepted, like ripped booths, is missing.  In fact, the place is immaculate.  Even the art deco light fixtures match the design on the wall mirror adjacent to them.  When you enter, the waitress will greet you with a genuine “hon’.”  When you settle into your booth, you’re bound to see characters typical of the clientele, like the group of elderly ladies meeting up for an after-church lunch.  As if a Hollywood set designer was on the job, there delicious looking pies, cakes and coffee behind.the counter, all punctuated by an American flag near the cashier.I was enjoying the surreal feel of this retro American diner, so much that  I didn’t mind being thirsty all afternoon after eating the salty, canned corned beef hash that sat alongside my poached eggs.  Being swept up in the nostalgia, I committed another faux pas and actually ate a buttered English muffin without hesitation–something I never order nor eat.  The star of the show was definitely my husband’s pancakes that came with toasted pecans.  They were cooked perfectly and their fluffiness alone would have earned entry into a pancake hall of fame, had one existed.

While I don’t need a new car, I do need to go back for a taste of one of those pies!

July 16th, 2011

Salmon belly

By now, we’ve all heard of pork belly, and if you are a sushi enthusiast, you may have even tried yellowtail belly and tuna belly.  Bellies are fatty delicious meat.   As long as they’re not ours, bellies are great.
Last month, I took a cooking class and learned to fillet a salmon.  The instructor was busily removing the fins, head, and bones when something horrifying happened.  He said, “Cut off the belly meat and discard it.” He did exactly that.  Right then and there, I felt like leaving the kitchen.  Throwing away salmon belly?!  I suffer through ridiculous traffic just to drive across town just to buy it.

If you have a Japanese neighbor, you’ve probably experienced the smell of grilled fish wafting in through your window. I can admit it–it’s not pleasant. It’s different from smelling a burger or a steak being grilled.  When you smell that grilled beef aroma, you’re already mentally debating the pros and cons of each local steakhouse. But smelling grilled fish?  It just stinks.  It must be horrible for my  seafood loathing American husband.  I try to be strategic, waiting until he leaves for work before I cook it, but no luck–even after a breezy afternoon with the windows open, he can smell that fish.  So I made a change; I started grilling using the BBQ grill in our backyard. I figured, if the grilling is the worst part, let my neighbors suffer. See, I’m half considerate, half selfish especially when cooking salmon belly; since it’s VERY fatty, there’ll be extra smoke coming out of the grill.

Just like pork belly, which  was only available at Asian grocery stores 10 years ago, salmon belly too, has not hit the American grocery scene.  But if you want to try this amazing dish, venture to your nearest Asian grocery store, then wash the bellies, soak them in salt water overnight, and grill them.  When fish is fresh enough, you really don’t need much preparation.  I usually put a little bit of ponzu sauce (a citrus based soy sauce) over the grilled belly.  If ponzu isn’t available, squeeze a bit of lemon and you are really in for a treat!  I suggest grilling the belly until it’s well done.  Because some parts are pure fat, it tastes better when it’s crispier.

Grilled salmon belly is an essential component to my perfect Japanese breakfast, along with rice, tofu with ginger and soy sauce, and miso soup.  You can’t tell from this picture, but my husband is next to me, eating his bagel, saying “I’ve got the better breakfast.” My simple reply?  “You’re wrong”.   This argument happens a lot at our breakfast table.