Will the real best-ever banana bread please stand up?

In Baking, Breakfasts On August 15, 2014 3 Comments
The banana...unpeeled

The banana…unpeeled

It is my habit, when searching for really good recipes on the web, to add the word “best” or “best-ever” in front of the topic, so that I can find recipes that food bloggers are truly passionate about. Of course, the term “best” implies that there are no better recipes to be found in this category.  In the world.  Ever.

Can there possibly be more than one “best?”Evidently so. There are many BEST-EVER meatloaf, BEST-BEST-EVER spaghetti sauce, and certainly BEST-IN-THE-WORLD barbecue ribs recipes. I have to believe, however, that the largest numbers of “BEST,” “BEST-EVER!” and “BEST IN THE WORLD!!!” recipes are found in the banana bread category.

So much passion! My dear husband suggested that I call this article, “Is that a banana bread in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”

I have to believe that each author is sincere in the conviction that their recipes are the best. It comes down to personal preferences—How moist? How sweet? Should there be nuts? Do you avoid butter? What are your childhood memories of banana-bread-past? Do you avoid recipes that have too many ingredients? And what about the addition of other ingredients—Chopped apple? Mincemeat?

If you are a banana-only purist, you might run screaming in the other direction from my own personal best mincemeat banana bread recipe below. And I would say that perhaps you take yourself too seriously. It’s only banana bread.

Today I am faced with two full bunches of over-ripe, pondering whether to try a recipe that has been declared as the best by others, or to stick with my own, beloved tried and true. My research is taking me hours (so many superlatives!), and I’ve narrowed options down to a few “BEST” recipes, which I hope will appeal to the full range of personalities who may read this blog. Except vegans. Sorry.

Flour’s Famous Banana Bread (slightly modified) An adaptation of a blog recipe adapted from a recipe from Boston’s Flour Bakery+Café

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

2 eggs

½ cup melted or browned butter

4 bananas, very ripe, mashed

2 tablespoons creme fraiche or sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped

Set oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of a loaf pan with parchment paper. Sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Beat sugar and eggs with a whisk until light and fluffy, about 10 minutes. Drizzle in oil. Add mashed bananas, creme fraiche, and vanilla. Fold in dry ingredients and nuts. Pour into a lined 9”loaf pan and bake for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Make muffins with the rest. Or put all the batter into a bundt pan.

World’s BEST Banana Bread – No Kidding! At least according to the blog called “the fine art of confectionary”

First, butter a non-stick bread pan, then flour well. Combine and mix well the following dry ingredients in a bowl:

2 cups AP flour

¾ cup sugar

½ cup toasted coarsely chopped walnuts

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

In another medium bowl, coarsely smash 3 ripe bananas and gently add:

2 large eggs, beaten

6 Tablespoons melted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

¼ cup buttermilk or plain yogurt

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and gently FOLD until the flour is thoroughly moistened. Pour into the prepared bread pan and spread the mixture evenly across the top. Bake in a preheated 350-degree (F) oven for 45-50 minutes.

Moist Banana Bread From the blog called The Redhead Riter, by Sherry Riter

½ cup butter, softened 1 cup sugar, white 3 eggs, room temperature 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 2/3 cup flour, sifted 1 teaspoon baking soda ½ teaspoon salt 1 cup mashed bananas ½ cup sour cream ½ cup pecans, chopped

  1. Combine butter and sugar until creamy. Add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla and mix well.
  2. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, soda and salt.
  3. Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix well.
  4. Add banana, sour cream and nuts.
  5. Mix until combined.
  6. Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Cool in the pan on a wired rack.

The Best Banana Bread (Ever) From the blog called The Pescetarian and the Pig

First, the Banana Bread Part

2 C flour

½ tsp. baking soda

¼ tsp. sea salt

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 C chopped walnuts

½ C unsalted butter, softened

¾ C brown sugar

2 eggs

½ tsp vanilla extract

4 overripe bananas

Next, the Crumbly Top

1 Cup Banana Bread Batter

⅛ Cup Flour

1 tsp. Cinnamon

½ Cup Brown Sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

2. In medium bowl, blend together butter and sugar until creamy. Add eggs, vanilla, and bananas, unmashed, one at a time

3. In a separate bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Slowly add the dry mixture to the wet mixture.

4. Fold in walnuts and then scoop out 1 cup of this batter and set aside.

5. Using the 1 Cup of reserved batter, mix in the flour, cinnamon, and brown sugar. Pour plain batter into a loaf pan, then spread the crumbly layer batter evenly on top. You can sprinkle extra brown sugar and walnuts on top if you wish.

6. Put it in the oven for 1 hr and 15 minutes to 1 hr 20 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to cool on a cooling rack.

Foodie-san’s Own Best-Ever Mincemeat Banana Bread

This is one that I adapted over 40 years ago from a Buddhist church fundraiser cookbook.

Throw-down, smack down! I featured this recipe in my 1974 cookbook, “Dishes of My Life Together,” and at the time proclaimed in as “the best banana bread you will ever eat.” I still feel that way, although over the years have encountered many other quite reputable banana breads. All are special in their own way, but not as special as mine.

1. Cream together 1 ½ C sugar with 2 blocks of soft butter

2. Stir in 4 eggs, one at a time and add 1T vanilla

3. Combine with a dry mixture of 2 ½ C flour, 3 ½ t baking soda and 1 t salt

4. Add 1 medium chopped apple, ¾ C mincemeat, ½ C chopped walnuts and 2 C mashed bananas

5. Mix it all together, put into 2 greased and floured loaf pans, and bake for an hour at 350 degrees.

Done. Or you could try….

Banana Mincemeat Bread

from the website

2-1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 cup salad oil

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

2-1/2 cups mashed bananas 1 cup mincemeat

1/2 cup chopped macadamia

  1. Preheat oven to 325.
  2. Grease and flour two loaf pans.
  3. Sift together flour, salt and baking soda.
  4. In large mixing bowl combine oil and sugar then add eggs and mix well.
  5. Blend in bananas, mincemeat and nuts then add flour gradually to mixture.
  6. Pour mixture into prepared pans and bake for 1 hour.

Miso Magic

In Dinners, General On July 21, 2014 0 Comments


Miso of many colors

Miso of many colors

What food is rich and salty and really, really good for you and lasts forever?

I have always loved using miso as a seasoning for marinades, stews and soups, but until I started doing research for this blog, I had no idea that:

  • Even though miso is a high-sodium food, research indicates that it does not impact blood pressure the way that other high-sodium foods do. In fact, research on Japanese adults has demonstrated that people with miso diets actually lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, including stroke
  •  The process of fermentation that produces miso (with the help of fungus called Apergillus oryzae), also contains many valuable antioxidants, and the longer it is fermented, the more plentiful are the antioxidants.
  • There are some studies that have shown a relationship between miso consumption and reduced risk of prostate, breast and colorectal cancer.

I will be providing a recipe for making your own miso at home below, but just in case you don’t have a year or so to wait for the fermentation process to work, I’d recommend trotting over to your Asian grocer to pick some up. At my favorite store, Uwajimaya, there are scores of different types of miso—white, red, yellow, buckwheat, barley, brown rice. There is also awasemiso, which is a mixture of red and white miso.
Some prefer the taste of white miso because it is sweeter and more delicate. I favor red, because I am just that kind of gal.
In a previous blog (April 2012) I provided a very good recipe for miso-grilled salmon. Check it out. My family and guests recommend it enthusiastically. And here are some other good recipes that feature miso as a star ingredient, including a recipe for how to make miso on your own.

Braised Miso Chicken
Sauté about 3 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs with 3-4 cloves of minced garlic. Once it’s nice and seared, take it out of the pan to make your sauce. Dump about ¾ C red or awase miso together with 6 T sake, ¼ c sugar, and about 1T grated fresh ginger. Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly (Need more salt? Add more miso. Need more ginger? Do it.), then put the chicken back into the sauce. If it looks like you need more sauce, add some water. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Just before you are ready to serve, mix in a slurry of about 1T cornstarch into 1/4C water. Stir until nice and thick. Sprinkle green onions and sliced pickled ginger over the top (if you have it). Make sure you have lots of rice on hand. Yummy!

Miso Marinated Fish
Marinate about 2 pounds of your choice of fish in 1/3 cup miso (white or red), 1/4 cup mirin and 3 tablespoons sake, and 1T sugar. Refrigerate a minimum of 5 hours, or up to two days. Wipe off the marinade with a paper towel and grill or broil.

Grilled Steak with Red Miso

Marinate a couple of pounds of steaks in a mixture of 1T grated fresh ginger, 2 minced garlic cloves, ¼ C brown sugar, ½ soy sauce, ¼ C red miso, 1/8 C sake, 2 T mirin and 1t togarashi (a Japanese red pepper blend). Miso helps to tenderize meats, so If you have tougher cuts, marinate it overnight; if tender marinate a couple of hours. Grill it over charcoals and baste them with the yummy sauce.

Here is a really easy and yummy salad dressing. No need to spend money for something that doesn’t even taste as good.

          Miso Salad Dressing

Whisk together a finely minced shallot with ¼ c plain rice wine vinegar, 1 t honey, 1T miso shiro (white miso) and 1/4C neutral oil (like canola). Add salt and pepper.

Here’s a recipe I got from Bon Appetit a few years ago.

Miso Butter Green Beans
Parboil a pound of green beans, drain and put into ice water. Whisk together 4 t miso with 2T butter. Sauté the beans in a large wok with one minced shallot and two cloves of garlic. Add ¼ C sake and reduce for a minute or two, then add 1/3 C vegetable broth and reduce. Lower the heat and add the miso butter. Sprinkle some sesame seeds.

Making Miso
One of the very humbling aspects of owning the name, is the realization that there are so many people in this world who are far more obsessed (some might even say OCD) with food than I could ever hope to be. Making miso is a very long term project, and I have not made it myself, but I include it here because I think it’s always a good idea to really understand what goes into an amazing product like miso.

    1. Soak about 5.5 C of dried soybeans for 24 hours
    2. Cook for 20 minutes in a pressure cooker or 4 hours in a pot. After it cools, safe 1C of the bean water. Then dry them in a strainer for a couple of hours and mash them in the food processor (purists would do this by hand)
    3. Cook 5 cups of koji rice (this is important because koji rice contains the aspergilus oryzae necessary to ferment miso)
    4. Dissolve 1C natural salt and 3T unpasteurized miso into the reserved cooking water, and mix it in with the cooked koji
    5. Combine with the beans (you will need a big bowl), and roll them into tennis ball-sized balls.
    6. Wet the sides of a large (one gallon) crock and coat with salt. Pack the miso into the crock and press down to get all the air out. After that sprinkle in a generous layer of salt.
    7. Put a flat object on top and put a weight on top. Heavier is better
    8. Cover with cheesecloth and a rubber band.
    9. Store it someplace cool and dark.
    10. Wait a year or two, scrape off the top, and voila!


Can I Ask You a Fava?

In Dinners, Vegetarian On June 20, 2014 0 Comments
Beautiful Favas

Beautiful Favas

For those who had the foresight and fortitude in February or March to plant your fava beans in the freezing rain, you are now enjoying one of the early gifts of the garden.  But for the less motivated around us, it is possible now to purchase fresh favas at specialty markets and farm stands.  And you might want to think about growing them next year.

Favas go by several names like broad beans, field beans, and windsor beans.  They are also called “green manure” by some farmers, who grow them as nitrogen fixers to simply plow back into the earth to replenish the soil.  It makes me want to cry.

They are among my very favorite (Or should I say fava-rite? Sorry.) shell beans, creamy and delicious.  I did not grow up with favas, and I first learned of them in the R-rated film “Silence of the Lambs,” where Hannibal Lecter described how he enjoyed his victim’s liver “with fava beans and a nice chianti.” That movie scared the beejeezus out of me. It was several years hence that I became motivated to actually give favas a try.

It is possible to purchase dried, canned or frozen fava beans.  But I have not tried them and cannot say whether they produce the same heavenly taste as fresh favas. Favas look like peas on steroids, often 6 inches or longer.  Not only can you eat the beans, it is also possible to use the leaves of the fava plant in salads or stir fries.

So why are fresh fava beans not more broadly available and in demand?  My guess is that shelling them is a bit of a process. Unlike most shell beans, the conventional wisdom is that you must remove the membrane that surrounds each bean—you can do this either by briefly (say 30 seconds) blanching the beans, throwing them into a cold water bath and then squeezing them out of their little jackets with your fingers or you can use a paring knife to make a small incision and then remove the membrane.

Grilled whole favas

Or, you can do what I most often do—which may be heresy, but is still yummy—and that is to toss the whole, unshelled beans it olive oil, garlic, kosher salt, red pepper flakes, and black pepper and then throw them on the grill until they are nice and blistered.  Other than the large strings that join the pods, it is possible to eat the whole shebang, especially if the beans are on the youngish side.  And if some of your guests are more delicate, they can certainly remove the beans from the pod and then pop them out of their jackets—kind of like a vegetarian crab feed.  But they can do it on their time, not yours.  This is great as an appetizer for a BBQ dinner while you are waiting for the other items to cook.

Or you can just eat them shelled, with their membranes on, as most of the world does, except the French who are renowned for their excellent, but often convoluted cuisine. Four pounds unshelled equals about 2 cups shelled.  But remember, old beans are tough beans.

Here is a nice simple recipe for shelled favas:

Favas Sautéed and Braised

Brown a little chopped bacon (maybe two slices) until the fat is rendered and then sauté one small chopped onion and some garlic in the pan.  After the onions are nice and soft, throw in a pound of shelled favas (probably 3 pounds unshelled), sauté a bit more, and then add some stock (chicken, veg or plain old water).  Add salt and pepper and braise about 15 minutes.  Just before taking it off the heat, add a couple of tablespoons of fresh herbs, like parsley, marjoram or savory, mint, and some red pepper flakes.

Fava Fettuccini

First shell about two pounds of fresh favas.  Then, while you have your fettuccini in the salted, boiling water, use a LARGE pan to sauté a chopped onion, 2-3 cloves of garlic and ¼ lb of chopped pancetta in a little olive oil until the onions are soft and the pancetta crispy.  Then through in your favas and about 4 shredded Tuscan kale leafs into the mix.  Before you drain the pasta, set aside ¾ C of the pasta water.  Dump that water in with the favas and add the drained pasta, with ¼ C of cream. Toss it all together, season to taste, and garnish with Parmesan or Pecorino Romano.

Three Pea Salad

Parboil about 2 cups fresh shelled favas with 2 cups snow peas for a minute and plunge into a cold water bath.  Drain and combine them with a cup or so of shelled green peas, a handful of chopped mint, a little chopped prosciutto and a dressing made of 3 T red wine vinegar, 2 t Dijon and 1 T olive oil.  Season to taste.

Fava Pesto

Blend a of blanched and peeled favas with a cut of olive oil, the juice of half a lemon, about a half cup each of basil and parmesan, a quarter cup of mint, and some pine nuts.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.



Something to Celebrate About: NABE

In Chicken, Dinners, Lunches, Seafood On February 4, 2014 0 Comments
A nice steamy pot of mizutaki

A nice steamy pot of mizutaki

Did you know that every single month, every week and every day of the year is some sort of food holiday? For example, the month of January has been proclaimed Bread Machine Baking Month, as well as Prune Breakfast Month. Not only is January National Meat Month, but the fourth week of January is National Meat Week. January 18 is Peking Duck Day, January 24 is Lobster Thermador Day. January 5 is National Bean Day.

It is my belief that the only people who actually celebrate these days are the industry groups and grocery chains that are looking for a hook to sell their products. When was the last time you took the day off to celebrate cabbage (February 17)? If you name it, will they buy?

Am I being too cynical? Perhaps they, in their collective unconscious, understand that everyday should be a holiday. After all, in January our only true holidays are New Year’s Day and Martin Luther King Day. The days are short; the month is long, the days are cold. The need for comfort, and comfort food, is never greater.

Every culture has its own version, nearly all in the Western world have fat and starch as their common denominator. Americans have macaroni and cheese. Canadians have poutine, which (I am not making this up) is french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. Germans have something called kartoffelpuffern, which is a deep-fried potato pancake topped with lox and bacon. English have spotted dick. Don’t ask.

Japanese, on the other hand, have nabemono, which are often referred to as “hot pot” dishes. There are many kinds of nabemono. All are cooked in a liquid, usually at the center of the dining table, and shared by all the guests around the table. Guests are presented with an array of vegetables, seafood and/or meats and invited to swish the ingredients into a simmering broth in a clay donabe or cast iron tetsunabe. The donabe as a beautiful, large lidded bowl that can be cooked on a stovetop and the tetsunabe, has its own rustic charm.
The process is all very theatrical, communal and celebratory. Sort of like a fondue, only much healthier.

And the best thing is, the guests do almost all the work!

Your job is to provide the raw ingredients and the equipment—a cooking pot and a heat source. You can get donabes or tetsunabes, as well as a small propane stove at my favorite store, Uwajimaya. This may seem specialized, but I get a lot of use out of my donabe.
So I am going to give you two nabe recipes. One is a traditional New Year’s dish and the other is great for a simple but special meal.

You won’t believe how easy this is. And it is supposed to give you strength and prosperity—and has been eaten in Japan since the end of the Muromachi period in the 16th century, where it was primarily eaten by samurai. There are many variations of ozoni, but all have a combination of mochi (rice cake), broth, chicken, seafood and vegetables.
The mochi is the only tricky part because it needs to be cooked ahead of time, and it is very, very sticky. You can either coat it with oil and zap it in the microwave until it is puffy; or you can brush it with a mixture of shoyu, sugar and oil and toast it under a broiler until it starts puffing up. Cook your mocha with a fair amount of space between each other or you will end up with one GIANT MOCHI.
This is the way I like to make ozone for 4 people:
• 4-5 Cups dashi stock
• 1 T. soy sauce
• 1 T. sake
• 2 or 3 sliced chicken thighs
• One carrot, sliced crosswise
• 4 sliced shitake mushrooms
• Sliced kamboko (red and white steamed fishcake)
• 1 or 2 prawns / per person (small clams are nice too)
• 1 handful of mizuna or spinach
• 4 green onions, sliced diagonally about 1 inch long
• 4 prepared mochi disks

Simmer everything at the table in your nabe pot, adding the chicken and carrots first to make sure they are cooked through. Then add the seafood and simmer briefly, then throw in the mizuna or spinach, green onions and cooked mochi.

Guests can serve themselves in medium-sized bowls with a ladle. Give them sansho pepper to sprinkle on top.

Here is another yummy nabe, following the same methodology as above. This one has a dipping sauce.

To 4-5 cups of simmering dashi, add sliced chicken thighs and simmer a bit. Then add ½ head of nappa cabbage, sliced about 2 inches. When that gets a little soft add 8 fresh shitake, white fish pieces, shrimp, tofu blocks, 8 prawns, and a block of tofu, cut into 1 inch blocks. Then add a little spinach and 4 or 5 sliced green onions.

Make the dipping sauce ahead of time in your blender or Magic Bullet with 1 T rice vinegar, 2 T sesame oil, ½ C salad oil, 2 T soy sauce, 2 T mirin, 1 mashed garlic, 1 T sesame seeds, and ¼ t red pepper or sansho. Pour into little dipping bowls, one for each guest.

Guests ladle the mizutaki into medium sized bowls and dip the ingredients into the dipping sauce before popping the yumminess into their mouths. Serve with rice in little bowls.


Sichuan? Szechwan? Szechuan?

In General, Seafood On November 13, 2013 1 Comment


Sichuan? Szechwan? Szechuan?

A few years ago, I found this funny little thorny plant at Uwajimaya that was labeled “Szechuan pepper corn, sex indeterminant.”  I bought it, planted it and was told that nothing would happen unless it had a plant-of-the-opposite-sex within reasonable distance.  So I resigned myself to having a conversation piece in the garden.  A few years went by, and the plant grew large and thorny—I mean REALLY thorny—like something you would expect to see growing around Sleeping Beauty’s castle.  And then something interesting happened.

It started to flower, and the flowers turned into little red berries, and in late fall the berries popped open to show shiny, little, round black seeds.  Immaculate conception!

There are some tricks to harvesting the little red pods, which are the part of the “peppercorn” that you eat.  The first trick is to avoid the thorns when you harvest the berries (this is actually impossible to do).  Since they grow in clusters, you must then dry them, take off the little stems and pull each and every seed out of its husk.

Remember, it is the husk that you are after, even though the glistening black seeds look kind of like peppercorns.  But it you eat that little black seed you will experience the sensation of eating dirt.  Some people like that sort of thing, but not me.

Is it worth the effort?  Growing your own Szechuan peppercorns is the best way to assure their absolute flowery freshness.  And the TASTE!  Actually, it is more of a feel, like microscopic electric bubbles that numb your lips and tongue, but at the same time make them more receptive to other taste sensations.  The Szechuan pepper corns that I have purchased at the store have much less impact.

That being said, the store-bought kind are what most of the world lives with.  And they can still pack a punch.  And if you want some seeds to grow your own plants, I am happy to share.

My favorite way to use these little red husks is with fresh Dungeness crab.  I adapted this recipe from the crab they serve at The Flying Fish in Seattle.

Salt and Pepper Crab

This is easy beyond belief!

Start with a whole cooked crab—the bigger the better.  Dismember it and take off the spongy gills, but save that gunky “crab miso,” which is actually yummy crab fat.

Heat dry wok and toast until fragrant 2t Sichuan pepper corn, 1 t five spice powder, 1 t rock salt, 2 T oil, 1 t black pepper and 2 mashed cloves of garlic. Add “crab butter” and let it melt, add cracked crab and a couple of glugs of shiaoshing wine or sake until just heated through.

This is really good with cold soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles) tossed in a little memmi sauce (all of which you can get at Uwajimaya or another Asian food store) and some slaw tossed with a dressing of 1T fish sauce, juice of a lime, garlic, 1t sugar and chopped cilantro.

And speaking of five spice powder.  Did you know that Szechuan peppercorns are a key ingredient?

Five Spice Powder

Just throw 3 T cinnamon, 6 broken star anise seeds, 1 ½ t each of fennel seeds and Szechuan pepper corns and ¾ t cloves into a blender and whirl it around until it is pulverized.

Szechuan Pickled Vegetables

Yummy and healthy!

Pan roast together 2T Szechuan pepper corns and 1/3 C rock salt until nice and fragrant, about 3 or 4 minutes.  After it cools, add it to 8 C boiling water along with a tablespoon of sugar, 2 T mirin, a few slices of ginger, a couple mashed garlic cloves; let it cool and then add about 3 lbs of vegetables (like sliced carrots, daikon, cukes, cabbage and/or red pepper.  Let it set in the fridge for a few days.


Do you have any favorite Szechuan peppercorn recipes?  Let me know!



Okonomiyaki. Oh my!

In Appetizers, Dinners, Seafood On October 29, 2013 3 Comments

Okonomayaki on the grill

I returned recently from Japan, with renewed reverence for Japanese food.  Everywhere you turn in Japan, there is wonderful and varied food. I had some of the best baked goods in my life at a bakery at the Kyoto Station. A typical breakfast at a Japanese hotel would include okayu (rice gruel or congee) with many types of seasonings, miso soup, two kinds of grilled fish, a braised tofu dish, several pickled vegetable dishes, tamago yaki (sweet egg omelet), PLUS the standard western breakfast items of scrambled eggs, French toast, fruit, sausage and bacon.  My friend John B. was so thrilled with his first Japanese breakfast experience that he went back for third helpings!

The basement floors of major department stores are dedicated to food with hundreds of counters each offering specialty foods of incredible quality—green teas, pastries, bento boxes, candies, food gifts— along with produce, seafood and meats that make Whole Foods seem downright downscale.

It is truly amazing that there are not more really fat people in Japan.

Our single culinary disappointment was the breakfast at Tokyo hotel where we stayed, which served “hamburg” with fries for breakfast.  I believe it was the only item on the restaurant menu morning, noon or night. It wasn’t bad, just strange.

The experience illustrated, however, how Japan has embraced food from other cultures and made it their own.  You can hardly imagine going to a Japanese restaurant without seeing tempura on the menu, but like many foods that people think of as Japanese, it is really an adaptation of cooking technique adapted from the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, who introduced the concept of deep-frying food during the 16th century.  In fact, the word “tempura” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Latin word “tempora” which was used by the missionaries to refer the holy days (quattuor tempora) when Catholics were forbidden to eat red meat.  Kasutera ( Castella) cake a renowned sponge cake was derived from Pao de Castela, which means “bread from Castile.”

And here is an interesting thing that I did not know—the term used for Western-influenced cooking is “yoshoku.”  And those items are only written in katakana characters (phonetic alphabet), as opposed to traditional Japanese foods, which can be written in the more formal kanji (pictographs).  Traditional Japanese food is known as “washoku.”

Fabulous restaurants in Japan are as common as coffee shops in Seattle.  One of our eating highlights during our wanderings was a rustic okonomiyaki restaurant right at the entrance of the Path of Philosophers in Kyoto.  Our hostess turned on a table top grill and after it was hot enough, proceeded to mix into a batter an array of seafood and lots of chopped cabbage to grill big fat pancakes that were then topped with a bacon and squirts of Kewpie (a brand Japanese-style mayonnaise, a sweet-sour okonomiyaki sauce, katsuoboshi (shredded bonito), tenkasu (little tempura crisps) and aonori (ground seaweed).   IT WAS HEAVEN!  And, it was beautiful.  Once the  katsuoboshi hits the pancake, it starts dancing around from the heat.

And here is some interesting history.  As exotic as okonomiyaki sounds, it is a relatively modern invention, created after the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 when it became necessary for people to find creative ways to cook their food. And it became a fad that spread throughout Japan.  There are as many kinds of okonomiyaki as there are regions of Japanese cuisine.  The kind I like to make is how they do it in Osaka, the birthplace of okonomiyaki.

It is actually pretty easy to make okonomiyaki at home, as long as you have access to ingredients like katsuoboshi and nori.  It is pretty much an “anything goes” dish—“okono” means “whatever you like,” or something like that.  So get on over to Uwajimaya or another Asian grocery store.  You can even pick up a bag of “okonomiyaki mix,” which makes it really easy!

This whole thing takes less than 30 minutes, from raw ingredients to table-top service.  I like to serve this along with chawan mushi (recipe to follow), pickled Japanese vegetables (otsukemono) and maybe a little grilled fish on the side.

Okonomiyaki for 8-12

Combine 1 bag of okonomiyaki flour with six eggs and the finely shredded head of one cabbage. I know that sounds like a lot, but just trust me.  Add one bunch of chopped green onions, ¼ pickled red ginger, and any combination of the following:

  • 1 pound of bay scallops
  • ½ pound of shelled and deveined shrimp
  • Squid
  • Chopped fishcake
  • 2 chopped lap cheong sausages
  • Chopped beni shoga (red pickled ginger)

This list of ingredients is what works for me, but you could really do anything—fish, cooked chicken, whatever.  Some people put cheese in, but I can’t get my head around that.

Mix it all up and plop a ladle full of the mixture onto a hot griddle. This is perfect for tabletop cooking.  Do not press down on the blobs.  After a reasonable amount of time, flip your blobs over and place some half slices of bacon or thinly sliced pork belly on top of the cooked surface.  Continue to resist the urge to press.  When the bottom is good and brown, flip the pancake over again and give it another good grill to cook up the bacon/pork belly.

Now for the show.  Flip the pancake onto a serving plate.  Drizzle the okonomiyaki and mayonnaise over the surface of the pancake.  Then sprinkle a generous amount of katsuboshi (about 1 T) over the top along with the tenkasu and about ¾ t of ao nori.  If you don’t have ao nori, use another kind.

Serve it up while the katsuoboshi are still doing their lively little dance.

Chawan Mushi for 8

My friend Sarah loves this.  It is a savory egg custard, steamed with seafood, chicken and mushrooms.  I made it the other night with thinly sliced fresh matsutake, but you could also use shiitake, enoki or another type of wild mushroom.

Lightly beat 6 eggs in a large bowl. Mix in 4 cups cool dashi soup stock, 2 t soy sauce,1 t  salt, 2 t sake, and 2 t sugar. Gently combine dashi mixture the egg mixture. Put a couple of mushrooms, a couple small pieces of raw chicken, and some slices fishcake into eight chawanmushi cups, or tea cups. Then fill each cup to third-fourths full with the egg mixture. Cover the cups and steam for about 10-15 minutes.

Oishi desu!


Nosh Without Nerves

In Appetizers On September 17, 2013 1 Comment

Prosciutto and anything

Foodie-san took the summer off, having too much fun traveling to places like Spain, the Canadian Okanogan, the East Coast and Portland. And entertaining, which should be at least as fun for the hostess as it is for guests.

At our house, you just never know who is going to show up for evening cocktails, or how long they will stay. Clearly, the Spaniards figured it out hundreds of years ago with the concept of tapas. But I, myself, have become a master of the after-work cocktail-turned-dinner party, challenging my creativity and my cupboard to surprise and delight unexpected guests.

When looking at my cupboard, some people may say that I am over-prepared for any entertaining emergency. And it is, in fact, filled with truffled honey, fig jams, dried fruit, almonds, pasta and acres of canned tomatoes and different types of beans. But look at what you can make!

My rule of thumb is to start off with one-ingredient nosh, then go to two ingredient nosh, and then to something warm.

Round One
Just put out three bowls of different kinds of munchies (say smoked nuts, Japanese rice crackers, and olives) and ask your hubby to make cocktails. Make sure you have cute little cocktail napkins!

Round Two
While this is happening, start working on things that may require a little presentation, but has great visual appeal. To whit:

  • Drizzle a little truffled honey over little chunks of good Parmesan
  • Wrap a little prosciutto around a little bunch of asparagus, some arugula leaves, a fresh fig or anything else that strikes your fancy
  • Sliced avocado drizzled with good, thick balsamic, and a little garnish
  • Focaccia cut into 2”squares and topped with a little mayo, arugula and left over protein (like chicken or beef) from a prior dinner

Round Three

  • Mussels steamed in green curry paste, coconut milk, with a little fish sauce and 1T sugar thrown in. Spinach or chopped tomatoes thrown in at the last minute is always nice.
  • This takes a little advance prep time, but Truffled Deviled Eggs are always nice. Just mush the yolks with a little mayo and truffle oil. Sprinkle a little caviar or parsley on top.
  • Cold poached salmon filet with some sort of yummy sauce over it—like a combination of soy sauce and sesame oil, with chopped scallions sprinkled on top or a green goddess dressing.

This should feed more than enough for 10 or so guests, without exhausting yourself. If more than that are coming, I would suggest that you suggest potluck. We can all use a little help from our friends.

The Meaning of Beef

In Beef, Dinners, General On February 8, 2013 1 Comment

Up close and personal

I did a little bit of research into the term “beef” because it is used in so many ways in the English language having nothing to do with food. There are many hypotheses about the etymology of “beef” as slang. One source says that the term originates from the complaints US soldiers had about the quality of the beef they were given. Another says that the term refers to the complaining sound made by a herd of cattle. One rather strange explanation is that it comes from the 1820’s-30’s Cockney custom called “rhyming slang,” when “hot beef” meant “stop thief.” As the theory goes, the term “beef” then evolved to become a cry of alarm (As in BEEEEEEFFFF!). Hmmm.

The Urban Dictionary has over 150 entries that define BEEF, some of which are quite surprising. We all know about the use of the term in reference to an argument or conflict (as in, “What’s your beef?) or as a reference to the idea of strengthening (as in, “We need to beef up our argument”). But the English language is always living, always evolving.

Guess its meaning in the following sentences:
• “Dude, who beefed?” (HINT: it smells)
• “Whoa, that’s beef!” (HINT: it expresses admiration)
• “He sure beefed on that skateboard.” (HINT: it hurts)
• “You really beefed it.” (HINT: not intentional)
• “Have you seen her new beef?” (HINT: companion)

BEEF: it evidently can mean anything you would like it to mean as long as it has a somewhat masculine, low-brow connotation. Except for sometimes. And I won’t even go there. Except to say that those uses are even more low-brow.

Beef has also gotten a bad rap among health professionals and environmental advocates, who point to heart disease and the large carbon footprint of the beef industry. Dr. Neal Barnard once said, “The beef industry has contributed to more American deaths than all the wars of this century, all natural disasters, and all automobile accidents combined.” Ecologist James Lovelock said,” If we gave up eating beef we would have roughly 20 to 30 times more land for food than we have now. “

But still, there is hardly anything I love more than a rib-eye grilled rare over goals. You just don’t have to eat so much of it,or as frequently. And what you eat should be grass-fed and locally sourced; because the mass produced stuff has little taste and comes from cows that did not have a happy life.

So let’s assume that you do have that perfect, responsibility grown, big, thick, juicy cut of beef. This is what I would suggest you consider doing to it.

Luscious Herbaceous Rib Eye

Mince together about 8 sage leaves, 1 T fresh rosemary, 1 t fresh thyme, 1 T fresh marjoram and 2T Italian parsley with 3-5 fat cloves of garlic. Combine with about 3T olive oil, 1 t. kosher salf, 1 t ground paper and 1 t chile flakes. Let it set a bit so the flavors marry. Then take some globs of the mixture and massage into 3 or 4 rib eye steaks, and let it set for as long as you can. You can grill it right away, but it is even better if you let the whole pile soak with the rub for a few hours.

Grill it rare or medium rare. Well-done steak, in my mind, is beef abuse and disrespectful to the bovine from whence it came.

This is very good served with a wonderful crusty bread, some salad and a big Cabernet or an icy-cold martini.

Smoked Beef Ribs
This will make you think of summer, even when it’s not.

The day before (if you have been able to plan ahead), rub those meaty ribs with a rub that you have made that includes 1 T each of cumin, garlic salt, onion salt, kosher salt smoked paprika, white pepper, black paper, red pepper, brown sugar and thyme. Taste it and see how you like it before rubbing on the ribs. You may want to add more salt or some chili powder. Up to you. Plop it in the fridge over night.
Smoke them at 250 degrees for 3 or 4 hours. You can mop it every 30 minutes with a combination of ½ cup each of cider vinegar, soy, water, and Worcestershire (Lea & Perrins only please!) seasoned with 2T each of brown sugar, chili powder, cumin, smoked paprika and salt and pepper to taste. If you want to make it really messy, serve it with a BBQ sauce.

BBQ Sauce
To a cup of ketchup add 2-3 T Worcestershire, 1 t liquid smoke, 2 smashed cloves of garlic, 1 T onion powder, 2T mustard (the yellow kind!), ½ C bourbon and ¼ C fresh oregano. Add the juice of one lemon and then throw the whole thing into the sauce.  Simmer, taste, and add S&P. Serve it on the side of your ribs.

Along with the slaw and the potato salad and the beer. And the napkins.

The Food of the Heart

In General On November 14, 2012 1 Comment

Beautiful Borlotti

We are in the midst of winter darkness. It seeps through our eyes, into our souls. And it is during those times that we must console ourselves with substantial, earthy food that warms our innards and satisfies our hunger.

Of course, I am talking about beans. Nothing is better on a cold night than a stew of beans, garlic, onions and sausages. But I am getting a little ahead of myself. First I must provide some practical information.

For some people, legumes can be a problem. This is because they contain large sugar molecules called oligosaccharides. These molecules are so large, they cannot be absorbed while in the small intestine, and they enter the large intestine to the delight of the large, hungry bacteria that make it home. As the bacteria eat, they produce gas, which accumulates until you let it blow.

But don’t let this stop you from enjoying beans! There is a solution. It is called Beano. I am not making this up. Beano is an enzyme that zaps those oligosaccharides into simple little sugars so they can be absorbed by your small intestine. Problem solved.

Dried, Canned or Fresh?
If you have not ever enjoyed fresh shell beans, such as borlotti (otherwise known as cranberry beans), or fava beans, you are to be pitied. I grow both in my garden, and every year wish that I had planted more. Now is a good time to think about planting those favas. Borlotti need to wait until summer.

Dried beans are not nearly as difficult as one might think, and they are very inexpensive. Just soak them overnight and boil them up with some seasonings for a couple of hours. If you have a pressure cooker, they are ready in about 30 minutes.

Canned beans are something that one should always have around, because you never know when you might needs to grab a can, sauté garlic and onions (and maybe some chopped carrots), season them (herbs, S&P and some spice like cumin, chili or red pepper)and toss them with some short pasta, a little of the pasta water and parmesan. White beans make a great pasta fagioli. But use your imagination.

I make a bean dish that simmers in the slow cooker. The boys love it, so I call it…..

Beans for Boys

This recipe is so retro. You start by sautéing a large onion, green pepper and a couple cloves of garlic in some olive oil or with chopped bacon. Then sauté about 1 lb. of ground beef (this is optional if you are serving vegans). When it’s all cooked up, combine it in the slow cooker with a bag of frozen baby lima beans, 2 cans of drained kidney beans, and one large can of boston-style baked beans. Season it with about 2 T of molasses, 2 T brown sugar, 1t liquid smoke, 1 T oregano, some bay leaves and several vigorous shakes of Worcestershire. Add a can of stewed tomatoes, stir it up, make sure it tastes good, and depending on how much time you have, cook it on low or high. High is ready in about 1.5 hours. Low takes at least 3 hours. I usually add hot sauce, but it really depends on who else is going to eat it.

Don’t forget the Beano.

The mushrooms are coming! The mushrooms are coming!

In General, Soups On October 15, 2012 2 Comments

After a long dry spell in the Northwest—one of the longest in recorded history—the rains finally have come. With uncanny prescience, my good friend Susan invited us to Whistler to participate in their Fungus Among Us Festival. There, we would have a chance to go mushroom hunting with expert mycologists, as well as attend a wild mushroom cooking class.

My last foray into foraging was nearly 40 years ago, when I went to a very secret spot on the Olympic Peninsula in search of the elusive matsutake, known by some as a pine mushroom. Since Washington State is on approximately the same latitude as Japan, we are fortunate to be able to enjoy this prized delicacy locally. It is rare and expensive.

Every fall, Japanese American families pack their picnic lunches and head to the woods to hunt the fragrant fungus. It is rather comical to see the large numbers of Japanese American families sitting in the ferry line, not making eye contact with other Japanese American families—lest dropping their guard would betray their secret locations. Even funnier is when one happens upon families in the forest, who immediately stand up, cross their arms and pretend that they are simply there, wearing red jackets, for no particular purpose.

Why red? Because matsutake season, at least back then, coincided with deer hunting season. It was therefore important to whistle, sing loudly and wear red clothing, as this is something deer seldom do.

At Fungus Among Us, we did find hawk wing mushrooms, some beautiful but deadly amanita, and honey mushrooms, but our party only found one matsutake. Today, much of our local matsutake goes to Japan for a pretty penny. But you can get them at Uwajimaya, along with many ingredients for making a good meal with matsutake. Yes, they are expensive mushrooms, but they are SO fragrant and SO unlike any other taste you have ever had. Like distilling the essence of a pine forest and adding umami.

I rather like them brushed with oil and grilled over charcoal. If you are ever lucky enough to have too many at one time, you can wrap them in foil and freeze them, or you can pickle them.

Pickled Matsutake

Make a solution of about 3 T sake, 3T rice wine vinegar, 2 T sugar and 1T soy sauce and heat until everything is one big happy sauce. Salt to taste, and cook sliced matsutake in it until tender. Or you can grill them first and then put them into the sauce. Or you can use another kind of mushroom.

My friend Tomoko Matsuno, who is the CEO of Uwajimaya, served an amazing kabocha (Japanese sugar pumpkin) and matsutake soup. I nearly swooned, it was so good. I tried to recreate it later for my mother at Thanksgiving dinner.

Kabocha+Matsutake Soup

Zap one small kabocha in the microwave until it is soft. Cut it, scrape out the seeds and then cut out the flesh. In a large pot, sauté one chopped onion and about 3 chopped large matsutake until soft. Add the kabocha and 4 cups of dashi or chicken broth. Season to taste with about 2T sake,1T sugar, and 1 T fresh grated ginger, more or less. Cook it until it is soft and then blend the soup and add salt and white pepper to taste. It may be creamy enough for you, but I added a dollop of thick cream to smooth out the taste.  I then season it with a little freshly grated nutmeg and a sprinkle of cayenne.  Enjoy!

Autumn is here, and as the temperature inches down and the rains return, I already miss the warm days of summer. Mushrooms help to fill the void.