Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Chill Out with Home Made Winter

San Diego's tourism folks have spent a lot of time and money cultivating an anti-winter mentality for the region. We're the place you folks in the frozen hinterlands come in January and February for respite. So, back in October when I received the book Home Made Winter by Yvette van Boven ($35/Stewart, Tabori & Chang) and we were having a bit of a last-ditch heat wave, I had a hard time seeing the relevance. van Boven, a recipe writer, food stylist, culinary editor, and illustrator, is Dutch and grew up in Ireland, so naturally much of the emphasis in this book is on dishes that anyone in northern Europe would thrive on as fall segues into harsh winter. But I wasn't looking for warmth. I live it.

Then December hit and the temperatures had a freakish drop--for us. Frost warnings, highs in the upper 40s, brisk winds. Rain. We were cold. And, even now as January melds into February, the weather continues to chill and the heat in my house is still on. So I've found myself more than in the mood for some home made winter.

van Boven's cookbook follows her previous book Home Made. It's wonderfully quirky, filled with stories about her Irish and Dutch heritage, her time in France, and celebrating winter holidays. Some of the recipes appear in your standard rendition; others, like her Quince Jam with Star Anise & Cardamon, are casual illustrations, replete with arrows, little warnings, underlined emphases, and, of course, sweet drawings. There are recipes printed on brown paper and others have the typeface running alongside the side of a building. Combined with the lavish photography, mostly by her husband Oof Verschuren, that melds food porn with inviting travelogue, you truly are transported into a dreamy old world tableau. Certainly not bright and tidy suburban San Diego.

And the recipes? Many of them have very traditional Irish roots, such as Bannock bread and Flapjacks, a chewy oatmeal bar filled with butter, honey, and brown sugar. I made this recipe, adding toasted walnuts, dried fruit, and 70 percent chocolate. It's easy and it's divine.

Other recipes update traditional ones from Ireland, France, and Holland. Tartiflette with cod, a very French dish, substitutes cod for bacon and Comté cheese for Reblochon for a beautiful fish pie. There's a more traditional Daube Provençale with brisket, the Dublin Lawyer (lobster in a cream and whiskey sauce--"Because lawyers from Dublin are fat, rich, and always drunk..."), and Irish stew with lamb and Galette Des Rois. And, there are outliers--pulled pork, pizza, white chocolate and star anise mousse. And the one I'm going to try when my willpower is at its lowest ebb: Sticky Chocolate Cake in Your Coffee Mug in 3 Minutes. Unreal!

All of this is to say that even in sunny San Diego, Home Made Winter has won me over. I have recipes to turn to when the chill here is making my toes cold and my body crave hefty, warming meals. Now I'm looking forward to van Boven's next book Home Made Summer.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Traditional Japanese Soy Sauce a Flavor Changer

Those of us who love sushi probably believe we know all there is to know about soy sauce. As in simply choosing regular or low salt. Probably Kikkoman. Then we likely absently blending it with wasabe paste so we can dunk those precious pieces of raw fish and get a rush of salt and heat.

The problem is that most of us have never actually been exposed to true artisan soy sauce, made using traditional methods of extended fermentation instead of by machine and chemicals, and having only three ingredients: soybeans, wheat, and salt. Japanese soy sauces, called shoyu in Japanese, that have been slowly fermented for months, often in cedar casks, have an altogether different flavor and texture than the synthetic ones we in the U.S. tend to experience at the neighborhood sushi bar or off a grocery store shelf. They're also different from Chinese soy sauce, which, according to Shizuo Tsuji in the classic Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, is very salty and has a dense flavor. Japanese soy sauces, he explains, have a relatively bright taste and aroma, and tend to be sweeter and less salty since they use far more wheat. They're also thinner in texture and clearer in color than Chinese-style sauces.

And those synthetic soy sauces? First, the manufacturing process cuts the natural brewing time of four to six months to develop flavor down to three to four days. And, instead of natural ingredients, you get hydrolized vegetable protein and hydrocholoric acid to get the chemical reaction going. Plus caramel and corn syrup is added for coloring and flavor. The result is a thick, black sauce often sold under a Chinese-sounding name. So, yes, check the label before you toss a bottle into your shopping cart next time. You'd be surprised. (As a side note, Kikkoman's soy sauces are made with the three traditional ingredients and is, according to author Tsuji, quite dependable, with the correct flavor and quality for cooking Japanese dishes--compared with Chinese type soy sauces or the chemical versions.)

Years ago, my friend Mineko Moreno, who teaches Japanese cooking locally, got me hooked on traditional soy sauces. She explained that these are sauces intended for dipping, not cooking--much like high quality olive oil. You want to experience the flavors of the soy sauce, not bury them in a Chinese stir fry or soup or other cooking preparation.

"I always tell my students that soy sauces like these should be used where the true taste of the soy sauce shines," she told me. On a tour of Nijiya Market, she pointed out several and I have been enjoying one made by Chiba Shoyu called Shimousa Shoyu.

Usually soy sauces are considered light (usukuchi) or dark (koikushi). Dark is more commonly used (think your basic Kikkoman). It has a deeper brown color and greater body, is less salty and used more expansively, say in marinades, to baste meats, and for simmering. Light soy sauce, on the other hand, is more caramel colored, clearer and thinner in consistency, and much saltier and more intense in flavor. So it's used more sparingly. Because it will darken over time once the bottle is opened, buy small amounts to use up more quickly.

I recently received two bottles of traditional soy sauces from the large Mitsuwa Marketplace grocery chain. Among their stores is one near me in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood of San Diego. They also  have an online store which sells a greater variety of products, such as these artisan soy sauces.

Indeed, these sauces are alive with flavor. I opened the bottle of Marushima's Kijyouyu Washi and took a whiff. What struck me was how much it reminded me of a good sherry. Because it's fermented, you get a slightly alcoholic sugary rush--even though it contains neither alcohol nor sugar. The flavor, though, is round and deep, matching the deep color of the liquid. It is the essence of umami, that hard to describe fifth taste.

According to the notes I had from Mitsuwa, Marushima has been brewing soy sauce for over 400 years, using organically grown Marudai soy beans. It's handmade and additive free.

Then I opened the Ohara Hisakichi Yuasa. It comes from the city of Yuasa in the Wakayama Prefecture, which is said to be the birthplace of Japanese soy sauce, dating back to the 1600s. This soy sauce also gets a long fermentation time, giving it plenty of umami. It's a little lighter than the Kijyouyu Washi, and I found it much saltier.

This led me to think I had both light and dark shoyus, but it turns out that while the brands both make light and dark varieties, these two are what could be described as medium--or all purpose.

For both, be sure to refrigerate them after opening. You can mix them with a little sesame oil and and seasoned rice vinegar to create a dipping sauce. You can enjoy them blended into a bowl of rice, most typically with a raw egg. This combination creates tamago kake gohan, a popular Japanese breakfast dish. Of course, as my friend Mineko notes, "Never pour any soy sauce over a bowl of rice. It is considered very bad manners. You can add soy sauce to an egg, mix and pour onto the rice, but don't pour it directly on the rice."

Mineko also suggests using the good stuff as an accompaniment for sashimi, adding a few dots on a beautiful cold tofu dish, or brushing it on grilled scallops for a finishing touch.

"I love good soy sauce," she says. "They give such a pleasure to the dish. It's also a lovely gift for a person who enjoys good food."

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Tofu Shirataki Noodles to the Rescue

Every since I was diagnosed almost two years ago with Type 2 diabetes I've said goodbyes to a host of high-carb foods. At the top of the list? Pizza and pasta. I've never been a huge pizza fan, although I've had my moments. But pasta? That was devastating. I've found some good whole wheat pastas but they still tend to raise my blood sugar so I don't eat them often. It can be frustrating to crave something so basic and have the no be so resounding so when I stumbled across shirataki noodles I hoped I'd hit pay dirt.

Shirataki noodles--the original version--are made with yam flour and have negligible carbs. For those who are gluten free, they're perfect for you, too.

I headed over to Mitsuwa Marketplace, which is the largest of the Japanese supermarket chains in San Diego and found myself dizzy with possibilities. Not only are there several brands with several choices of shirataki noodles (which are wet and in the refrigerated section of the market, near kimchi and tofu), but there's a whole other choice you can make--tofu shirataki, made with tofu and water with a little yam flour. And these, made by a company called House Foods, are going the extra distance with varieties in shapes like spaghetti, angel hair, macaroni, and fettuccine. Crazy! They also have no cholesterol, 0.5 grams of fat per serving, are extremely low in sodium, and are all of 20 calories per serving.

Now are they truly like wheat noodles in terms of flavor and texture? No. Let's not make them into something they're not. But if, like me, you've been craving traditional pasta and simply can't have it this is not a bad substitute. You can add them to soup; mix them up with vegetables, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese; make mac and cheese; or, as I did with my package of macaroni, add them to turkey chile.

The noodles have a distinct odor to them, acknowledged in the package's preparation directions. But all you need to do is rinse them under water, put them in a bowl, and heat them in the microwave for--get this--a minute. The smell goes away and you have warm noodles with a bit of chew to them and a neutral flavor. Ready for pretty much anything for which you'd use regular pasta.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Pleasure of Tea Seed Oil

When I visited the new Leaf & Kettle in Del Mar to see what the former owner of Halcyon Tea in South Park had created, I had no idea that not only would I be taking home my favorite sencha variety of tea, but also a bottle of culinary oil made from a plant is related to the one that is the source of tea leaves.

Tea seed oil derives from a small tree called Camellia oleifera. As such, it's also known as camellia oil. The tree is widely cultivated in China and its seeds are cold pressed to produce an oil that has a sweet, nutty flavor with a high smoke point.

The variety I found at Leaf & Kettle is produced by a California company called Arette. They have three basic varieties: an original, slightly pale version, a "Natural flavor" version, and one with "enhanced green tea aroma." Then there are several flavor-infused oils, with sundried tomatoes, chili pepper, basil and garlic oil; one with rosemary and sencha green tea, and a third with garlic oil and black pepper--all  of which Leaf & Kettle carry.

I tasted the two unflavored oils Leaf & Kettle sell. Both are lovely and a little understated. The original is quite neutral and perfect for when you just want the benefits of cooking oil, but don't want to add additional flavors. I was more taken by the "Natural" flavor, which had nuttier, more pronounced tones to it, not unlike a good mellow olive oil. That's the one I bought and have been enjoying. It works beautifully incorporated in a vinaigrette, used to sauté fish and other seafood, and at high heat to stir fry vegetables.

If you're looking for a way to make some little changes in your diet, tea seed oil is a good one, given that it has no cholesterol and is high in vitamin E.

Leaf & Kettle is located in the Del Mar Highlands shopping center at 12925 El Camino Real, Suite AA4.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Homemade Applesauce with Cardamom, Cinnamon, and Brown Butter

Most of us know applesauce as something mild and nondescript to be spooned out of a bottle--or, if you're a kid, from a little plastic container in your school lunch bag. Me? I associate it with pork chops and potato latkes. I know. I know. But our family was never the most observant Jewish household in L.A.

If you've never attempted to make your own applesauce you should give it a try. First of all, it's ridiculously easy and tastes so much better than the jarred stuff. Second, by adding flavors you'd never have associated with so humble a dish you can elevate it into something actually memorable and irresistible. How about rosemary? Or savory? Or horseradish? Okay, how about brown butter, cardamom, or a liqueur, such as Calvados or Cointreau?

That's where I went. I had a refrigerator bin filled with a variety of traditional and heirloom apples--Caville Blancs, Golden Russets, Winesaps, Granny Smiths, Honey Crisps, and this gorgeous vibrant Hidden Rose--all of which I thought would be perfect for applesauce.

The Hidden Rose variety is grown at Dragon Berry Farm in Oregon and sold in San Diego at Specialty Produce.

What better dish to make on a chilly stormy Sunday when comfort food was on my mind. The result was a smooth, rich, even complex sauce I can't stop lapping up.

The basics are, well, pretty basic. If you have a food mill, you don't even have to peel the apples, just quarter and core them, and chop into one-inch pieces.

Toss into a large heavy pot, add water, some cinnamon sticks, cardamom seeds, brown sugar, and a dash of the liqueur. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until the apples are soft and mushy.

You'll have sugary leftover liquid, which you can toss--or find a way to use, perhaps boil down to a syrup. Remove the cinnamon sticks. Then use a slotted spoon to move the solids little by little into the food mill and grind away into a bowl. No food mill? Peel the apples, follow the other directions, and when they're all cooked, put them in a food processor. Brown the butter and swirl it into the mixture. Before you know it, you'll have a stunning bowl of soulful applesauce. Eat it warm, add it to muffins or cakes. You can even freeze it for eating or baking with later.

Cardamom and Brown Butter Applesauce
Makes about six servings
(printable recipe)

3 pounds mixed variety of apples, cored and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons Calvados or Cointreau (optional)
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 sticks cinnamon
1 tablespoon cardamom seeds
1 tablespoons butter

Combine all ingredients except the butter in a large, heavy pot. Bring to a boil, stirring periodically. Reduce heat to medium and continue simmering (and stirring once in a while) until the apples turn soft and mushy--about 25 minutes.

Remove from heat and let cool. Remove the cinnamon sticks. While the applesauce cools, make the brown butter by heating the butter in a small saucepan or skillet on low to medium heat until the butter turns a soft brown--about three minutes. Remove from heat.

Using a large slotted spoon, scoop some of the apples into the food mill, set over a large mixing bowl. Turn the handle on the mill and work the apples through the mill, periodically scraping the sides to move the apples down to the blade and scraping the underside of the mill to get all the applesauce into the bowl. Continue scooping apples into the food mill and pureeing them until the pot is empty. Add the brown butter and mix well.

Applesauce can be frozen.

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