Archive for ‘Americana’

January 7th, 2012

When size meets taste…

A friend of my husband’s sent him this photo.

It’s a hammered pork sandwich from a restaurant in Las Vegas called Hash House a go go.  What made a mere sandwich so noteworthy?  The plate is as big as 3 adult faces!  On a recent trip to Japan, this one picture helped bridge the language gap as my non-Japanese speaking husband was able to ‘wow’ my Japanese friends and family with it, as they marveled at the sandwich’s size.   Both amused and appalled, Japanese people already think American portion sizes are huge, but this picture was beyond their imaginations.  Immediately, they asked if this was something we ate in the States everyday.  I knew the answer they wanted to hear, was ‘yes’, as that pretty much goes in line with how they already picture America–huge EVERYTHING, but the answer, as you could guess is a realistic ‘no’.  Sure, compared to Japanese food, American portions are usually twice as big, but to find truly huge portions like that, you have to do a bit of searching.

When we were in Las Vegas, my husband suggested we go to Hash House a go go, for breakfast.  I was reluctant because usually the best part of a big portioned meal is its size and not its flavor.  Also, call me a snob, but who’d believe a restaurant found in a dingy casino on the strip would be good?  As we walked over, I was thinking, “There are many, many great places to eat in Vegas, but marriage is a give and take.”  Since he took me to a four star restaurant the day before, I should let the next meal choice be his, right?  My stomach clenched in horror as I realized that my next stop would be home to something I’m still learning to appreciate, big portioned, hearty American food.

Talk about surprises!  Oh my goodness.  Fried Chicken with bacon (!!) waffles, where the waffles and chicken were bigger than an adult male’s enlarged heart.  But what about the taste?  The waffles were delicious; very dense, yet fluffy, and not airy at all.  It tasted great with the fried leek garish that came with it.  The fried chicken was delicious, with a moist inside and crispy outside, and as an added plus, it was kindly de-boned!!  Sure, having actual strips of bacon instead of bits, baked into their waffles and preparing well seasoned fried chicken shows that the chefs cook with care, but serving de-boned chicken demonstrates that bit of extra love that’s so often lacking.  Without a doubt, I can say that this is possibly some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.  I’d never thought I’d say this, but I’m so glad my husband took me to that diner in that run-down casino!    Since we got back, I’ve semi-seriously suggested several times, that we drive to Vegas just for one more taste.  I found there’s the original location in San Diego, which is shorter drive from Los Angeles… totally doable.

Sure, they might laugh at a picture of what I’ve just described, but would Japanese people actually like this dish?  The one hurdle to overcome is the combination of sweet and savory, which Japanese people usually don’t like.  In this case, serving fried chicken alongside maple syrup might seem scary at first, but with a dish like this, I’m confident that this huge plate of food will please their senses of taste as much as it dazzles their senses of sight.  Viva America!

November 25th, 2011

The day I acutally enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner

I must have done it right, because It’s the day after thanksgiving, and I’m still full.  Sure, half of America is saying that right now, but for me, it’s the first time I’ve ever uttered those words AFTER Thanksgiving.

You see, I don’t like turkey.  Let me rephrase that, I used to not like turkey.  For some reason, every time I ate it, there was this strange “turkey” flavor that I couldn’t get over.  But, something happened at dinner yesterday that not only changed my long-standing opinion of turkey, but actually made me say the following four words, “I love this meal!”

There are millions of restaurants out there, but how many of them do you go back to over and over, every time leaving happy? Not many.  Stefan’s at L.A. Farm is our exception.  We always leave satisfied.  It’s hard to believe that from one restaurant, I’ve discovered so much great American food.  Now, I can proudly add Thanksgiving dinner to that list.  While the entire meal was delicious, a few dishes, on their own, actually changed my opinion on Thanksgiving dinner.

As I explained yesterday, my husband picked Stefan’s for our first ‘restaurant’ Thanksgiving dinner from just looking at their menu.  Why did he pick Stefan’s?  The menu offered the straight forward, classic Thanksgiving meal he was hoping for: roasted turkey, gravy, stuffing, yams and yes, mashed potatoes, which he believes is a must dish for Thanksgiving.  Judging from their regular menu, I was expecting a good meal, but I have to admit, I was reluctant that I had to eat turkey as a my main dish.  As we were driving to the restaurant, I even said to my husband “if I don’t like the turkey, we’ll just stop at a Japanese noodle shop later.”

Surprise, surprise, I actually loved turkey!  Instead of that strange taste I was expecting, I enjoyed only flavorful tender meat.

Another dish I don’t like is yams.  It’s usually served either very, very sweet, and/or too watery.  The texture of the marshmallows placed on top usually doesn’t sweeten the deal for me either. With a combination like that, you can imagine that the idea of candied yams is not at all appetizing for me.  But tonight, Stefan’s baked yams with marshmallows completely won me over.  The marshmallows were slightly crunchy and the yams were cooked sweet, but in a very delicate degree.  Finally, it made sense that these two should be served together, or should I say, three, as the dish went well with the turkey!

It’s hard to believe that it took me a quarter of a century to truly appreciate the Thanksgiving meal.  So to honor the tradition of Thanksgiving, let me say how thankful I am that my husband insisted on picking a restaurant with mashed potatoes.  I’m also thankful for Chef Stefan and his staff who always treat us like family!

November 24th, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Every year, as if he forgot, my husband asks: If we were in Japan during November, would I be able to cook a traditional Thanksgiving meal?  My answer, ‘yes, and no’.  The side dishes would be a snap, but the turkey itself, would be a more difficult issue.  Japanese people don’t really eat turkey, and finding it in Tokyo would probably earn me a long trip to what we jokingly call ‘Americatown’, where restaurants and stores are mostly geared to tourists who need that quick burger to re-energize before exploring the rest of the city.
Even though I’m not the biggest fan of the taste of turkey, I have grown to love cooking the traditional Thanksgiving meal.  My husband proudly states that Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday, and when asked to explain, will offer you three points:  you get a great meal, there’s football on tv, and if you’re a guy, somehow, you get out of cleaning up.  He does make a solid point.  As if I needed more convincing, he adds that during his bachelor days, there was an added advantage: you get all the leftovers!  He’s lucky he married someone who loves to cook, because now his leftovers are already in the fridge, with three exceptions: cornbread stuffing, wild rice stuffing and pumpkin mac and cheese.  There’s an old rule of cooking that states that in order to have leftovers, you must actually leave some over.  That just doesn’t happen, as we devour these three sides every year.  At least stuffing is good for you, right?

This year, though, would be different.  With his parents out of town, we decided on our first ever ‘restaurant Thanksgiving’.  I carefully picked a few restaurants to choose from, with a few guidelines in mind.  Since it’s an American Holiday, I avoided Italian and French, and steered towards chefs who cook American cuisine.  And since this is the one holiday where eating two desserts is seen as a badge of honor, I had to find a place that would offer more than just a slice of pumpkin pie.

I finally found a few places to choose from.  So he wouldn’t be biased, I covered the names of the restaurants, and just showed him the menu.  I was surprised as he immediately rejected half of the restaurants by uttering this question, “No mashed potatoes?”  There it is.  I never realized mashed potatoes were such a crucial component to the Thanksgiving meal.  As long as there’s cooked turkey, cranberry sauce and some kind stuffing and yams, isn’t the rest optional?  Apparently not.   What do you think?

Maybe I just watched the wrong American movies growing up, because I also, mistakenly thought that mac and cheese was a popular and traditional holiday menu item.  When I made it each year, people loved it, but, while checking a few menus, I saw that almost none of the restaurants offer mac and cheese.

So, after multiple mashed potato and dessert dilemmas, we ultimately decided on our tried and true favorite spot where the people are friendly, the cocktails are strong, and most importantly, the food is delicious.

(I’m secretly going to be mad if he doesn’t eat his mashed potatoes.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 1st, 2011

Grilled cheese and tomato soup

Burgers and fries, cookies and milk, bacon and eggs…some foods are just meant to be in relationships.  While there are many classic food duos in American culture that I love, there is one that I just don’t understand: grilled cheese and tomato soup.  Now, as a Japanese person, I have nothing against soup; I grew up eating Miso and still love it.  But what makes tomato the soup of choice when the sandwich option is grilled cheese?  Wouldn’t chicken noodle or cream of broccoli work just as well?
I was excited when we had lunch at Bar Bouchon in Beverly Hills, and I saw the grilled cheese/tomato soup combo on the menu.  While the BLT with the sunny side up egg on top sounded great and would surely lead to lunch satisfaction, I had to do the research on the grilled cheese/tomato soup duo for you, my reader.  Not a problem though; how could I go wrong either way, eating at Thomas Keller‘s place in Beverly Hills?  So while I sacrificed the guaranteed pleasure of bacon and egg for the sake of research, it was with mixed feelings when the server asked my husband what HE wanted, and his reply was, “The BLT.”  At least I would still get to try it!
The problem I have with Grilled cheese and tomato soup is the soup part.  I’ve just never cared for tomato soup.  I think it’s too tangy having a taste that to me, is somewhere between watered down ketchup and tomato juice.   Would the great Thomas Keller be able to change my opinion?  Drum roll please….  Unfortunately, no, even with the Thomas Keller stamp, tomato soup was still tomato soup…not for me. In Keller’s defense, it was better than watered down ketchup, but still, no server will ever hear me utter the phrase, “Tomato soup please,” in the future.  My American food guide, my husband, tells me that the proper technique is to dip the sandwich into the soup, which is why the sandwich is typically dry.  I don’t know if I agree with his logic, but he was right about the sandwich being dry.  I did remember the menu stating that the cheese was aged two years, but after my first bite, I was wondering if they aged it inside the very brioche I was holding.Taking my husband’s advice, I dipped the sandwich into the soup.  It was better than eating by itself, but still, didn’t make me appreciate the combo. My husband went on to explain that grilled cheese and tomato soup is a nice, warm comfort food for kids on a rainy day.  I can see that, but still there’s the issue of the taste.  Of course, he has a theory on that too.  According to my husband, kids love pizza.  Grilled cheese and tomato soup is just another form of that flavor profile.  Think about it; melted cheese on flat bread with the taste of tomato sauce all in the same bite.  Did that help?  Well, no, considering I am not a huge fan of pizza.

So the grilled cheese/tomato soup combo is lost on me.  Somehow, I’m sure I’ll find something else to eat and write about.

Aren’t you lucky?

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!

September 1st, 2011

“This isn’t really a rice crispy treat”

Yup, that’s what he said after one bite of my homemade rice crispy treat.  It’s not that he didn’t like them…he practically finished the entire batch single-handedly, but insisted on mentioning that they just weren’t the same as what he remembered growing up with.  On further investigation (read: second bite) he narrowed it down to a difference in texture. 

How am I supposed to know the exact specifications of a traditional rice crispy treat, when I had neither tasted one, nor tried the cereal they’re named after?  Besides it’s rarity, there’s one other factor preventing me from enjoying this traditional treat: butter.  Do I really want to put that much butter, or even worse, margarine, into my body? I’d rather save my butter allowance for a delicious French baguette.  Since life, and marriage, is a big give and take, I decided to try my hand at making a relatively guilt free, healthy alternative using organic puffed rice, chopped almonds, semi sweet chocolate chips, peanut butter chips and honey.  I thought it was nutty, chocolatety and pretty darn good.  After all that thought and preparation, what did I get in return?  “This isn’t really a rice crispy treat.”

I was pissed discontented with my husband’s reaction, but once the steam stopped pouring from my ears, I became curious as to what a ‘real’ rice crispy treat was like, so I went to a local coffee place and bought one.  Well, he was right on one count…obviously, they don’t look alike.

The real Rice Krispies Treat recipe was developed in the 1930’s and published on the box of Rice Krispies in 1941.  Since then, it seems like this treat has been a favorite, continually, to kids of all ages.  Too much work to make one at home?  You’re in luck; this snack is not only a homemade classic, but pre-made in factories and sold like snack bars as well.  Also new to me is that there’s a cereal made from these sticky wonders.  In tune with the 21st century, are you surprised when I tell you that there’s even a facebook fan page for rice crispy treats?  It gets worse (better): Want to celebrate your life with it, how about a rice crispy treat wedding? Maybe this treat is more American than I thought it was.  Since its recipe doesn’t require baking or precise measuring, I can see the appeal of making these treats as a part of family activity.  Maybe the appeal of the rice crispy treat is partly flavor and partly bonding?

So, now that I’ve had a ‘real’ one, what did I think?  First, the texture was little mushier and softer than mine, with a sweeter taste.  But for the true test, I asked my husband for his opinion.  Actions spoke louder than words: judging from empty container in the fridge, it looks like my ‘fake’ crispy treat is the taste test winner.  Another entry into the family recipe!

August 31st, 2011

High tech food court

You may remember me saying that the thought of eating at a food court makes me queasy, but the idea of a food court is still something I love. Why? The food court was the setting for almost every crappy American teen movie I saw when I was growing up in Japan, so it made sense that in my young mind, the food court was THE place to be. As an adult, the food court still has its appeal, but surely we can do better than Sbarro and Hot Dog on a Stick, can’t we?  Yes!  FoodParc in New York City is as close to a traditional food court as possible, save for a 21st century twist unrelated to food.  But first things first…how is the food?  It’s not overly gourmet (read: expensive) as Eataly or Food Hall, but that they offer non-chain fast food makes all the difference.
FoodParc serves up the usual suspects: burgers, pizzas, Asian food, cup cakes, coffee and even beer.  So why is this better than what’s found at your local mall?  One word:  Quality.  How much would you pay for delicious food that doesn’t leave your fingers with that greasy, barbecue restaurant feeling?  Instead of a reheated corn dog, FoodParc lets you opt for a tasty treat like grilled salmon with rice noodles.  But surely every food court offers variety, right?  What sets this place apart?  Just look around (and don’t call me Shirley).

It’s the future…or is it?  That FoodParc was designed by a conceptual artist for Hollywood movies like Blade Runner, Aliens, and Mission: Impossible III, means it’s pretty likely that the phrase ‘out of this world’ will be overheard describing more than just the food.  For a Japanese girl who grew up dreaming in Hollywood, eating at FoodParc felt as if I had just arrived on set.  But don’t take my word for it.  Watch for yourself, as even the most jaded New Yorker is taken aback at the scenery.
In the future, will we have to suffer through long waits on line for food?  Not if FoodParc has anything to say about it.  In the digital age, ordering from a cashier is just so passe. At FoodParc, orders are placed via computer, and payments made by credit card.  When your order is ready, you’re notified by text message.  With food of this quality, I suggest upgrading to the unlimited plan, as you’ll probably become a regular.
The future may only be just around the corner, but FoodParc is a few blocks further.  But if you’re looking for a unique place to catch up with friends without putting up with those annoying teenagers hanging out at the mall’s food court, FoodParc is definitely worth a visit.

August 30th, 2011

Food court

There is nothing exciting about the word “court” unless it is preceded by the word “food”. Food courts full of little eateries at malls and colleges are fascinating things to see when you’re Japanese and used to having only small rice places and noodle shops to choose from. When I saw Taco Bell at my college cafeteria, I was overwhelmed with excitement. I thought “Wow, American colleges offer fast food! USA #1!” But, like many things in life, the novelty was better than the reality as in four years, I probably ate there less than ten times. (I forgot about beloved “depachika” of Japan. I’ll explain in near future. It’s fabulous)

The best feature of a food court is its seemingly endless variety. You can find something for everyone amidst the rows of vendors. There are always pizza and burger options as well as a couple of Asian places and even a Middle Eastern selection or two. If you can possibly squeeze dessert in there, you’re in luck, as there’s no limit to the number of cookie, ice cream and pretzel stands ready and willing to satisfy that sweet tooth. Why then, with all this variety, is there still nothing more horrifying than hearing someone say, “Let’s eat at the food court?”

It comes down to simple mathematics. When you have a limited number of calories to ‘spend’, do you really want to trade quality for variety? Let’s admit it, most of the time, that pizza or burger isn’t the best you’ve ever had, is it? Once in a while, it’s fun to grab that Auntie Anne’s pretzel, but unless I want my taste buds to go on strike, and my wardrobe to include stretch pants, I’d better find another option.

Why then, are food courts bustling with activity? Maybe it has to do with the fact that most American kids grew up in the suburbs where busy malls substitute for vacant lots and playgrounds. I lived through a great example of this, with my husband when instead of taking me to the field where he hit the game winning homerun in little league, he took me to the shopping mall to try Orange Julius, a favorite eighties mall staple.

Knowing that a big part of the food court experience is the socializing, I can understand how it would be fun to linger over an average slice of pizza from Sbarro and think it’s the greatest thing ever. As a kid in Japan, watching movies like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure or Animal House, I too, wanted to be part of that scene. While I’d love to do my best John Belushi impression and yell, “Food fight,” at the top of my lungs, somehow I know that the second I’m hit by a ketchup laden hot dog on a stick, I’m done!

August 23rd, 2011

Chinese take out 2

Is it me, or do you agree that the perfect, white Chinese take out container is a classic piece of pop art?From pop art to pop culture, Chinese food has become a big part of American life. Don’t believe me? Just turn on your TV.  What, it’s already on? Good.  Then you’ve probably noticed, as I have, that every American TV show has at least one scene where the characters are eating, ordering or running-over-the-bringer of Chinese food. From the drama around the dinner table at Tony Soprano’s house, to the nothing-ness across the river at Jerry Seinfeld’s place, Chinese food is everywhere and I want to join them for every meal.

Ready for the educational part of the show? The classic container I was raving about was actually invented for carrying oysters. Somehow this odd device was given the name, the Oyster Pail. Once the take out food became popular, Chinese restaurants adopted them and the oysters were replaced by orange chicken.

This should make you want a Chinese tonight!

August 18th, 2011

Do people eat sandwiches for dinner?

Just like my husband thought he knew all there was to know about Japan from listening to the lyrics to “Mr. Roboto,” much of my knowledge of everyday America too, came from pop-culture.  To be more specific, sitcoms.  If Everybody Loves Raymond is a true representation of America (and if it isn’t, my world is shattered), Americans like to eat sandwiches for dinner.  In Japan, this is unheard of, and as such, I was shocked when Debra offered to make Ray a turkey sandwich.  I thought, a sandwich is something you’d drop into your kid’s school lunchbox, not something you’d feed to your husband as a reward for a long day at work.  To make matters worse, if you’ve watched the show, you’d know that Debra isn’t exactly skilled when it comes to food preparation.  Are average Americans happy when their evening meal consists of two pieces of white bread wrapped around a few slices of supermarket turkey?
To find out, I asked the first average American I could find…my husband.  His answer was an ambivalent, “Yes and No,” as he went on to explain that yes, Americans might eat a sandwich for dinner, but the sandwich should be a little better than the lousy turkey sandwich described above; maybe something from Subway, perhaps. Subway?  Can’t we do better than that?

Japanese people (or maybe just me) show love, care and appreciation through cooking. By that logic, if someone made me a boring turkey sandwich, I’d eat it, but deep down, I’d feel unappreciated.  Even if you’re not blessed with a culinary instinct, it’s important to make some effort when cooking for someone you love.  Even my husband, whose specialties include eggs over easy and frozen burritos, once made me quesadillas for dinner.  While his dish would most likely have led to his elimination on Top Chef, I still enjoyed every bite. More than just melted cheese in between tortillas, it was made with love, care and enthusiasm.  Sorry Debra!

Growing up in Japan, we didn’t eat turkey, and when I arrived in America, I have to say, I wasn’t initially fond of this new taste I had discovered. With time, I learned to appreciate not only its interesting flavor, but its cultural significance as well.  I’ve even managed to create a few turkey sandwich recipes of my own that helped change my mind about this American favorite.  Click the pictures below for the recipes for two of my favorites.  Stay tuned as well for my seasonal Thanksgiving turkey sandwich recipe that always gets rave reviews (if I understand what my husband is saying when he talks with his mouth full).

Turkey, apple and blue cheese sandwich (for recipe, click here).To really make this sandwich perfect, make sure to use a good, fresh baguette.  If one isn’t available,  the recipe can transform itself into a great salad or wrap, by adding more tomatoes, walnuts and a drizzle of vinaigrette.

Turkey and brie pressed panini (for recipe, click here).Even if you don’t have a panini maker, do not fear!  I don’t have one either.  Just use your stove top griddle or frying pan and press the sandwich using another, heavier pan.  The results are delicious!

So to answer my own question, I guess we do eat sandwiches for dinner.  If only Debra could master these recipes, she could prove to her husband that everybody really does love Raymond.