Archive for October, 2011

October 30th, 2011

Halloween candies

I moved into my husband’s house on a significant day in American culture, Halloween.  Of course living together would mean lifelong lessons on sharing and compromising, but before all of that could start, my first lesson would be that strange American tradition known as trick or treating.  Sure, I’ve seen Halloween come and go, having lived in America over twenty years, but having lived in apartment buildings where any cobwebs hanging on the wall would have been reported to management and removed immediately, I never really experienced the actual costumed trick-or-treater.

So as you could imagine, I couldn’t wait for our first doorbell ringer, though I did have a few questions for my resident expert on American culture, my husband. My questions?  Where should I begin?

-Can’t we give healthy snacks?
-Can’t we give out homemade treats?
-Can’t we just leave a bowl full of candy out front with a sign saying ‘take one’?

My husband laughed.

Healthy snacks?  Seems obvious, right?  That is, until my husband explained to me the concept of T.P.-ing a house.  Japanese people are supposed to be good at math, but I never learned the equation that states that the amount of vandalism your house experiences is inversely proportional to the quality of the treats you hand out for Halloween.  To the laymen, that means, “Give away snickers and your property is safe.  Give away organic nuts and plan on spending November first cleaning shaving cream out of the mailbox.”

Homemade treats?  What could be better than something homemade?  Oh, razorblades, really?  Has that ever really happened?  Probably not, but why chance it.  Besides, I know MY kitchen is clean, but who knows about that neighbor who’s smoking while she cooks, letting the dog lick her finger as her cigarette butt falls gently into the mixing bowl.

Take one?  Oh yeah, for a minute there, I forgot that I grew up in Japan, where kids don’t learn the law of the American playground, “Finder’s keepers, losers weepers.”  In my mind, I’m imagining a pumpkin shaped candy dish with a bowl of candy or even pennies, with a nicely drawn sign reading, “Take One,” in front of which, well mannered children happily wait in line to pick a treat at random, before merrily skipping away.   My husband reminded me that this most likely won’t work, as the first, ‘entrepreneurial’ kid would get the idea to dump the entire contents into his bag before some bigger kid pushes him down to take it away.

The last lesson on Halloween is the hardest of them all.

-Never buy candy you like, to give away.

Some rules are made to be broken.  I bought a huge bag of candy contains as much as caramel and toffee bar as possible.

Happy Halloween!

October 22nd, 2011

Chicken Milanese

When I asked him what he wanted for his birthday dinner, my husband quickly replied, “Homemade Chicken Milanese with Mashed Potatoes.”

Not a bad choice.  In fact, I’m guessing his menu pick is a popular selection around the world, as it seems every culture has developed some version of fried, breaded meat.  Japan is no exception.  One of our classic dishes is called katsu (derived from the word ‘cutlet’), and inside the crisp breading, you’ll usually find pork.  Lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and breaded in panko before it’s deep fried, Katsu is my husband’s go-to meal when we are in Japan.  For him, this is one of very few Japanese dishes that he finds not only tasty, but satisfying.  It usually comes with side of sliced cabbage, rice and soup, and all these components are designed to compliment each other.  So imagine my father’s surprise when he first saw my husband eat katsu and skip the rice!  Unheard of!

Growing up with only pork katsu, chicken or beef versions of the dish are relatively new to me, but as they say, the more the  merrier!  With or without rice, I love them all.

So how did I make his birthday meal?  I brined the pounded chicken breasts in cold chicken stock with garlic, salt, black pepper and chili flakes for a couple of hours. Next, I dipped the chicken in egg and coated it with parsley and Panko (yes, I know it sounds exotic, but the trendy Panko is just the Japanese word for bread crumbs–sorry to burst your bubble) and fried it in canola oil.  Instead of rice and cabbage, my side dishes were mashed potatoes, boiled broccoli rabe, and arugula and tomato in lemon and olive oil dressing.  Normally, I would’ve put the arugula salad on top of the Chicken Milanese, but after pounding the chicken breast, it acquired the shape of a perfect heart that I didn’t want to hide with vegetables.
Why Chicken Milanese in the first place?  Was it a craving for fried food?  Maybe, but I’d like to think it has something to do with the fact that he ordered it on our very first date!  Happy Birthday indeed!

October 18th, 2011

One leftover meat, two dishes

You like potato and I like potahto,
You like tomato and I like tomahto;
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!
Let’s call the whole thing off.

Actually, my picky husband probably wouldn’t eat tomahtos either…

Our eating life was easier when we were dating, because I cooked what he liked–American comfort food.  He loved my cooking, which made me happy, of course, but as soon as I got home, I couldn’t wait to taste a few of my favorites from the world of Asian cuisine.  When dating turned into ‘living together, it became obvious that I would have to find a way to make food that both of us could enjoy without either one of us having to sacrifice.  They say necessity is the mother of invention, and creating a menu for two picky eaters that wouldn’t take up all of my time, turned out to be a mother of a task to perform. 

Here’s an example of how a few variations can satisfy two hungry lunchers using the same main ingredients; meat, lettuce, and rice.  On the left, with an egg, is MY lunch: a beef salad bowl with rice.  To create the flavor I love, but my husband will probably hate, I seasoned the meat with soy sauce, garlic and Sriracha.  For his sensitive palate,  on the right, you’ll find the same ingredients rolled into a familiar and comfortable burrito, with beans, salsa and sour cream on top.

How much extra time did it take for me to make two meals instead of only one?  Probably an extra three minutes.  Isn’t it worth 180 measly seconds to enjoy a rare lunch together where both parties are happy with their meals?

October 15th, 2011

Omerice (omelette + rice)

When I first realized that my husband REALLY didn’t like typical Japanese food, like grilled fish, root vegetables and everything in soy sauce, I was saddened.  I really wanted to be able to share the cuisine of my culture with him, but he just doesn’t enjoy it, and claims there’s some taste that’s in everything, that he dislikes.  Sushi?  Forget it… seafood is already a red flag with him, and wrapping it in seaweed is no selling point. But, whether out of luck or out of necessity, I came to realize that not all Japanese foods are seasoned with soy sauce and loaded with fish!!
Take Omerice, for example.  It’s pronounced “omu-raisu”, but don’t worry if you mispronounce it, as it’s a made up word.  Can you guess what two foods give it its name?  If you said omelette and rice, then you are not only a good guesser, but you’ve practically named the entire recipe.  This simple combo is hands-down, every Japanese kid’s favorite meal.  From the outside, it looks exactly like a regular omelette, but inside, you’ll find fried rice seasoned with ketchup!!   Intrigued?   My picky husband doesn’t like rice, but he does love eggs and ketchup, and since he eats like a kid, I thought I’d give it a try.  Would he like it?  Would omerice sneak through the picky filter?  Believe it or not, this was the first Japanese dish I cooked that he liked.

Generally speaking, you can divide Japanese food into two categories.  Washoku is a traditional Japanese style food with very little oil, but heavy on salt and soy sauce.  It contains virtually no butter or cream. Yoshoku, on the other hand, can be considered to be  western influenced Japanese food, and is often characterized by its heavy usage of butter, cream and gravy.  Yoshoku, came into being while cooking for westerners in Japan in the mid 19th century. Omerice, using rice as a filling for an omelette, is a typical family meal at a yoshoku restaurant in Tokyo.  Want to mix a little history in with your ketchup?  Eat omerice at the original restaurant that claims to have created this dish in Tokyo for a reasonable 15 dollars (1,300 yen).  I can tell you from personal experience that the restaurant truly has the feel of 1895 Japan, but with, unfortunately, modern day pricing.  Don’t have $15?  Well, you’re in luck, as you’ll find the recipe for omerice posted here.

 

October 11th, 2011

Reasons to eat salad (not a lecture to eat healthy)

Eating salad isn’t always about health.  Actually, to be honest, sometimes it’s about the complete opposite of health.  No, I’m not talking about one of those ‘salads‘ loaded with cheese and bacon masquerading as health food…After a nice lunch at our new favorite cafe, Natas Pastries, we brought home this delectable dessert.  It has a really nice flaky shortbread-like crust with a tasty custard AND whipped cream inside.  You’d think from looking at it, that it would be on the sweet side, but it wasn’t overly sugared at all and its big plus: it tasted fresh!  Have you ever noticed that some pastry shops have great looking stuff, but after one bite, all you taste is the refrigerator that it was stored in?  That’s one of my biggest pet peeves, and sadly, there’s almost no way to predict its occurrence when trying a new place.  When my husband first surprised me with something sweet from Nata’s, I was worried about the potential for ‘fridge contamination’.  After my first bite, I didn’t care that I was wrong…all I could concentrate on was, ‘mmmmmmm’.  Somehow, the pastries at Natas’ always taste as if they were just made an hour ago.  It’s some sort of restaurant ‘magic’ that they can consistently produce that fresh taste, considering that Nata’s is a small cafe with a large pastry case!  Could you pass a place like that without picking up a couple of treats?  If you can, you’re better than I am!

When you know you’re going to eat sweets, you have to plan ahead.  So, I ordered Delicias do Mar, a seafood salad for lunch.  I consider this ‘spending calories consciously’.  Save a few by eating a salad, and then you can splurge those savings on dessert! The Delicias do Mar salad comes with big shrimp and includes crab salad.  Unfortunately, the “Crab” in “Crab salad” should have been spelled “Krab”, but the big shrimp and fresh and crispy romaine lettuce made up for it.

My second reason for ordering a salad?  If I save my calories, I can also splurge on sampling my husband’s typically heartier selection.  I’m not alone on this, as I know women around the world fool themselves into thinking they’re eating healthy by ordering salad and then stealing half their dinner companion’s fries.  Men probably fear hearing “Can I have a fry?” as much as they dread a conversation that begins with, “We need to talk.” On this day, my husband too, lost his manly battle as the French panini with brie and caramelized onions just looked too good to resist.  My husband actually lost two battles that day, as my ‘taste’ of his sandwich, that I’m now obsessed with, turned out to be half of his portion, AND, his chance to have the favor returned by sharing my dish was canceled out by the fact that he hates seafood.  Sounds like I planned it out in advance, doesn’t it?  Shhhh…maybe he won’t figure it out!

 

October 9th, 2011

Burger (on Yom Kippur)

It’s not that I forgot (ok, yes I did forget…but that’s not the point) that it was Yom Kippur, but it’s just that I’m still new to the Jewish culture.  After I came home from long hours of work preceded by short hours of sleep, the only thing that registered in my mind was ‘hungry’.  Plus, wouldn’t you agree that a good burger beats a day of fasting and atoning?  At least my Jewish husband agreed, so off we went to our favorite burger joint, Blue Dog Beer Tavern.

If you’re like me, I’m sure you’ve watched at least one episode of a show, most likely on the travel or food channel, that claim to have scoured the globe in search of the best hamburger around.  Never left off the ultimate list is Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, which is reputed to be the originator of the American hamburger, serving them just as they did when Grover Cleveland was president (1895).  In tribute to faceless and nameless genius, I honor whomever first transformed the original German hamburg steak into the classic American hamburger, because no matter how much American cuisine is elevated, I’ll stick to a good burger on the ground floor.

While I would love to, it’s impossible to eat burgers every day without buying heart medication in bulk at Costco.  How about turkey or veggie burgers?  Well, they’re fine, but do they really replace the aroma and taste of that charbroiled, juicy beef patty?  I don’t know about you, but I’ve never salivated in anticipation when a piece of soy falls off my veggie patty and sizzles against the coals.  By the same token, when I do splurge on the real thing, I want the best; not a 59 cent menu special that hopes melted cheese will cover up heinous beef sins.   For this reason, I wish every neighborhood had a joint like the Blue Dog, where you can relax in a casual setting, with a great beer and an even better burger. 

When I moved to America, my burger standards weren’t as high as they are today.  Back then, I thought a diner burger was the best you could do.  I’m sure you’re thinking you could do better than Denny’s at that place around the corner, but if you would have grown up in Japan like I did, you would have seen a dismal variety of burgers.  We looked up to McDonald’s as being the perfect American burger, and modeled after that, opened our own Japanese burger chains.  Since those unenlightened days, I’ve learned a lot about what makes one burger better than another.  Most important, the best burger is the one that’s the least processed.  Find a place that grinds their own meat and forms their own patties and you’re in business.  Add grass fed instead of corn fed beef and you’ve really got something delicious.  So, not having sinned too heavily this past year, I used this year’s day of atonement, Yom Kippur, to atone for all those lesser quality burgers I endured during the learning process.  If you’re going to eat on a day devoted to fasting, at least eat something great.  Blue Dog was the answer to my prayers!

October 5th, 2011

Kale soup

All of the sudden, the temperature drops 20 degrees and it’s cold out!  Didn’t I just mention that because it was so unseasonably hot in Los Angeles, we ate cold pasta.  Today, we switched gears and opted for soup…and the heater!
A few years back, I would’ve bet that had he seen  “Kale soup with fava beans and polish sausage,” written on paper, my husband would’ve stopped reading after the word kale.  Come on, this is the guy that refuses to eat mesclun salad because, as he puts it, “it tastes like dirt.”  But for some strange and miraculous reason, he loves a healthy vegetable that packs plenty of health benefits.

This warm and hearty mixture of meat and vegetables is not only delicious, it’s easy to make.  If you can chop, you’re ready.  Simply chop the ingredients listed above, saute them, and cook them together in chicken stock and you’re all done.

Soup is by far, one of my favorite American dishes.  My soups are always meals in themselves because I make them hearty, with lots of vegetables.  Most Americans may not agree, but for me, soup isn’t just a lunch or dinner thing.  In the Japanese diet, most meals, even breakfast, come with a side of soup.  But these soups aren’t hearty enough to be stand-alone meals with the exception of tonjiru, a miso soup with pork with vegetables.

Japanese soups, while delicious, have one fatal flaw:  too much sodium.  This is probably the main reason that Japanese portions are limited to a side serving and not an entree sized portion, like we might see in America.  But for the delicious taste, maybe it’s worth a few hours of that bloated feeling.  Just wear your loose pants and enjoy.By the way, my husband describes Japanese soup as looking like where Yoda lives.  I should be insulted when he refers to one of my national dishes as ‘swamp water’ but it is pretty funny.

October 3rd, 2011

Caprese Pasta

As a Japanese person growing up in humid Tokyo, I love nothing more than cold noodles on a hot day.  Although officially, the calendar says ‘fall’, in sunny Los Angeles, it seems like the weather forgot it’s October, as temperatures still soar into the upper 80s.  With a forecast like that, is it surprising that my dinner menu still revolves around either salad or cold noodles?  Well, maybe not for me, having grown up with cold Japanese pasta dishes, but for my husband, ‘cold’ and ‘noodles’ are two words that he’d prefer not to have listed together in a description of his dinner.  Even though most Americans have embraced pasta salad, my husband is still a holdout. But I was feeling a bit adventurous and I sensed that he was tired of another salad dinner, so I got creative.  I knew he wouldn’t eat Japanese soba or udon cold, but knowing that he loves caprese salad, I casually suggested a pasta dinner without mentioning anything about temperature.  Sneaky, right?

When we visited Tokyo in July, the temperature was 100 and the humidity hovered around 95%.  Not in the mood for something hot, I ordered a cold capellini pomodoro dish at an Italian restaurant.  Between the delicious flavor and the small Japanese portion, I was convinced that I could eat ten servings of this masterpiece.  Was my enthusiasm shared by my husband?  Well, yes, if ‘meh’ is considered an expression of high praise. I knew he didn’t like Japanese-y cold soba broth (I’m suspecting the fish taste of the broth was enhanced when cold), but why not delicious tomato sauce with perfectly cooked, al dente capellini!?  I was puzzled.  With that memory in mind, you are probably wondering  why I’d risk dinner on the chances that he’d enjoy a cold pasta dish?  Call me a gambler, but I was hoping his fondness for caprese would outweigh his dislike of cold noodles.

Did my gamble pay off?  Let’s just say if this were poker, I hit the royal flush.  He loved it!  Maybe now I won’t mind the high temps of fall in Los Angeles knowing we have a delicious dinner option.  And now, so do you…

Here’s how to make the caprese sauce:

Ingredients:

  • Heirloom tomatoes (cut into small bite sizes)
  • Fresh basil leaves (chopped)
  • White onion (small dices)
  • Garlic (minced)
  • really good olive oil
  • really good salt
  • freshly grinded black pepper
  • White balsamic vinegar (or lemon juice)
  • fresh mozzarella cheese
  1. Mix everything but cheese in a bowl.  The ratio of tomato to basil to onion to cheese that you’re looking for is roughly: 5:1:2:3, while the ratio of olive oil to garlic to acid is 10:3:1
  2. Keep in the fridge about 20 minutes
  3. Add mozzarella a few minutes before mixing with pasta; adjust flavor with salt and pepper