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every dish has a story

ManjuMar 25, 2011

Today I met a friend for lunch at Mifune in Japantown, and after my meal of tempura udon needed something sweet. There's a new cupcake shop in the center that I passed earlier on my way to Kinokuniya Bookstore, but I consider it a travesty to crave sweets in Japantown and not pay a visit to Benkyodo Co. This business opened over a century ago, surviving the WWII internment camps and the slow erosion of Japanese-owned businesses in and around Japantown. Its main attraction is manju -- sweet, pounded rice cakes often filled with sweet bean paste and traditionally served with tea. My parents began bringing me here when I was very young, and I have been manju-crazy ever since.

Despite the end-of-days monsoon we are experiencing here in San Francisco, it is spring -- technically -- so I was delighted to see sakuramochi! Pretty in pink, this little cake is a perfect representation of blooming cherry blossoms and will always remind me of our trip to Japan last year. Spring was particularly cold there, so despite arriving in Kyoto in late March, we had a very difficult time finding sakura in bloom around the city. When we finally came across one in Maruyama Park one drizzly afternoon, it was as though nature celebrated with us because the sun burst out from behind the clouds! Suddenly, I understood why these magnificent trees are such a national treasure. I imagine that this year's emerging sakura flowers must give many Japanese hope in light of the horrible events of the past few weeks.

Today I painstakingly selected a few different kinds of manju and mochi, and just as I walked out of the shop with my purchases, the sun very fittingly crept out from behind the fog. To see descriptions of what I bought, read on.

Azuki-filled Mochi Cupcakes with Green Tea FrostingMar 10, 2011

This week, my neighbor Jamie invited me to a Real Housewives-style lunch (sans crazy drama and plastic surgery) at her house with a couple other ladies from the block. Our other neighbor Cathy offered to whip up some of her delicious egg rolls and noodles, Jamie supplied her precious Lupicia tea, and since Jamie has her hands full chasing around her adorable 10-month-old daughter, I figured I would chip in with dessert. But what do bring that would be tasty next to Cathy's delicious Chinese delectables and Jamie's wonderful tea?

One of my favorite Japanese treats is daifuku manju: sweetened mochi (rice cake) filled with an (sweet bean paste) that is intended to be eaten with tea. I used to love to stop at Benkyo-do in Japantown for a manju sampler: white mochi with red koshi-an (smooth bean paste), pink mochi with white koshi-an, green tea mochi with red tsubushi-an (chunky bean paste). Lately, I have been intrigued with how to infuse my favorite Asian flavors into traditional western pastries, and since cupcakes afford so much flexibility with ingredients and textures, they seemed like a good starting point.

I wanted the cupcake to mimic the sensation of biting into chewy, soft daifuku manju, so I knew that the cupcake batter needed to contain mochiko flour, and the an would need to make an appearance, too. But I also love the flavor of green tea with manju, so I figured: why not use some matcha powder to whip up some green tea frosting? After tracking down a few recipes online, I had a good base to start with. I made my own an, but you can find it premade in Japanese grocery stores (though it tends to be on the sweet side...if you make your own, you can control the sugar). For the recipes, read on.

Sutamina RamenMar 10, 2011

When we Americans have a big day ahead of us, what do we typically eat? Muesli. A bowl of steel-cut oats. An Egg McMuffin. Maybe a Clif Bar if we're in a pinch. What do the Japanese eat? Really spicy, rich, pork-based ramen. We discovered Ramen Dojo down in San Mateo because it was the big thing in ramen shop openings last year, and now it's one of our favorite spots...and we're perfectly happy to do the 30 minute drive to get there.

Ramen Dojo's sutamina (stamina) ramen consists of chewy noodles surrounded by a rich, garlicky pork bone broth, and sprinkled with plenty of chili flakes and topped with fried garlic, shiitakes, nari (chives), slices of chashu pork, and a boiled quail egg. I requested a helping of menma (bamboo shoots) and corn, Dave got menma and an extra helping of noodles.

According to the Japanese, sutamina ramen is spicy and hearty, so it gives you energy for the day's work. But we found ourselves fast asleep at 10pm, soon after we arrived home.

Niu Rou Mian (Spicy Beef Noodle Soup)Mar 09, 2011

It's amazing the difference between what you learn at college versus what you learn and retain during those four years. I went to (some) classes, took exams, and came out the other end with a degree, but can I solve the limit of a function when x approaches a constant or recall the dates and significance of the Han Dynasty? Sorry. I do remember all of the places I could use my student ID to buy meals on campus and who played point guard my freshman year (Anwar McQueen). And the first time I had niu rou mian was when Dave and I first started dating, and he took me to Taste of Taipei in the Durant Food Court for one of his favorite dishes. Our palates (and stomachs) demonstrated incredible tolerance back then.

Of course, if we went there today, we'd wonder what we were thinking. But for a couple of college kids who were accustomed to eating instant ramen, Jack-in-the-Box tacos, and sorority-house salad bars, it was heavenly. Later, we discovered the nuanced styles and varieties of niu rou mian at Queen House in Mountain View (fiery chili) and Spices in the Richmond District (numbing peppercorn) who both put Taste of Taipei to shame. But all had a few key ingredients: star anise, ginger, onions, soy sauce, and loads of tender beef. Mine has all of the above plus a bunch of tomatoes which really deepens the flavor of the broth. Not a bad evolution considering it all began at a dirty hole in the wall near Telegraph Avenue. For the recipe, read on.

TakoyakiMar 07, 2011

The first I heard of takoyaki was from my coworker Julie who threw a takoyaki-making and -eating party at her place one evening and came back to work to report that it was a smashing success. She and Sabs dubbed these things "octoballs" which I suppose is one step up the teenage boy humor ladder from "octopus balls" which is actually an accurate term but not usually a socially acceptable answer to the question, "What are you eating?"

Takoyaki literally means "grilled octopus," but it's a little more than just hunks of mollusk. You mix up some batter (not unlike pancake batter), pour it into these little ball-shaped mold pans, quickly add a few pieces of chopped octopus to each ball, and serve them piping hot with a drizzle of okonomi sauce and kewpie mayonnaise and a sprinkling of katsuobushi (shaved bonito flakes). In Japan, it's served as street food which we were happy to sample on our trip out there last spring. The tako doesn't really add much flavor -- you primarily taste the accompaniments -- but the springy chewiness gets your jaws going and gives the doughy bite some real textural interest.

I'm tempted to buy a special takoyaki pan. They sell them at Daiso and Ichiban Kan, and even the Korean supermarket near our house. But it has been hard to rationalize yet another single-purpose tool in my kitchen, both from a cost perspective as well as a space one. So in the meantime, we've found that Ramen Dojo in San Mateo does an awesome, authentic takoyaki in just the right serving amount for the two of us. Heck yeah, I eat octopus balls.

Momofuku-style Pork Belly BunsMar 07, 2011

Last month, my husband had a business trip to NYC where he enjoyed his long-awaited meal of hwae naeng myun in Koreatown as well as a much hyped dinner at Momofuku Ssam where he tried those infamous pork belly buns. I was soooooo jealous. Last August, I went to Momofuku Ma Pêche with my coworkers where we ordered the closest thing on the menu and a poor stand-in, slow-cooked pork spareribs. Don't get me wrong: they were lovely, perfectly cooked spareribs, but I really wanted to try that pork belly. So, a little miffed at the fact that my husband conquered one of my food goals for me, I decided to make them at home (of course!).

I found a recipe that adds a few flourishes to the original like rosemary and thyme in the dry brine and gotchujang instead of sriracha for the sauce. Once assembled with the pickled cucumbers and gotchujang, the medley was tasty, but there were three areas in which I felt this recipe was lacking. First, the pork on its own was a salt lick. We were guzzling water all night and through the next day. The meat ended up a little tough, too -- not the moist, succulent pork belly I had envisioned. Finally, I was hoping for a little more sweet (like charsiu pork) next to the spicy and pickly flavors. So, based on the "true" recipe I found online plus my own palatal desires, I have adjusted my recipe according to what I'll do next time. I'm sure that further updates will be necessary! For the recipe, read on.

Tennessee Whiskey Pork LoinMar 01, 2011

My Grandpa was from Tennessee. I think my dad mentioned something about the Blue Ridge Mountains and that he lived in Nashville for a time. Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to visit the state of his birth (funnily enough, my dad and my husband visited Knoxville together for the Cal-Tennessee football game...they said the people were unbelievably welcoming but that stadium full of orange was the scariest sight they have ever laid eyes upon), but maybe I have a little bit of Tennessee in me because I read this recipe in my BBQ cookbook and had to make it.

Now, I have no qualms about cooking with alcohol: a splash of brandy in lobster risotto or shao xing rice wine in dumpling filling, a half-cup of sake in miso sauce for fish or wine in my duck ragù -- heck, a bottle of wine in my shortribs. But by the time these porky suckers were ready to go on the grill, I had used nearly 2 cups of JD. If I drank that amount instead of letting it burn off over the flames, I would be hanging out the car window on my way to the emergency room. Needless to say, I was daunted.

Some learnings from this effort:

  1. Get yourself a good grill man. In our household, I don't touch the grill. The hubby might be afraid of the stove, but he is a whiz kid with the grill (just don't let him watch the NBA Finals and grill at the same time...sometime ask him about the $40 Porterhouse Disaster of '10).
  2. Be prepared to get messy. When it comes to cooking, I'm kind of like Phil Hartman's Anal Retentive Chef. All waste materials have their own place (compost, recycling, trash); everything gets wiped up as I cook. By the time I had trussed up these piggies, I was up to my elbows in rub and fillings, and some had even dripped over the side of the counter and down my legs. As soon as you fold over the other half of the pork, everything gushes out the sides, so make sure you have a large, contained work space.
  3. Make your own BBQ sauce. It's sooooo worth it.
  4. I'm not sure if it was the whiskey or the 10 other ingredients, but this pork loin was BAD ASS (all caps and expletives required). It's sweet, spicy, tangy, and smoky all in one bite. The author of my cookbook (Steven Raichlen's BBQ USA) merged together a few different recipes he gathered on his travels throughout Tennessee, and if this is the end result, then I'd better buy some bigger pants before my first visit.

For the recipe, read on.

Chicken Tortilla SoupFeb 24, 2011

They are talking about snow on Twin Peaks this weekend. I know they get a dusting here and there on Mt. Diablo and Mt. Tam, but Walnut Creek and Marin are practically in another country. I can see the top of Twin Peaks from my living room window, so the idea of it being that cold is really hitting close to home, and that means that all I can think of is soup.

Soup is the bubble bath of food. It's inviting, comforting, and luxurious on nights when even the dog would rather hold it than go outside for her whiz. But it's SO cold, you might need jacuzzi jets in that bathtub. And that's where jalapeños come in.

Most recipes for tortilla soup that I have tried are the Amercanized, kind of dumbed-down versions of sopa de lima, a chicken- and lime-based soup that one could do the hard way (I have...it's delicious, but I was exhausted by the time we sat down to eat), but it's actually quite easy to do a simplified version that involves the help of some store-bought chicken broth, canned diced tomatoes, and tortilla chips. Oh, and a nice punch of diced jalapeños. Because those jacuzzi jets are starting to sound really great right about now. For the recipe, read on.

Snapper and Blood Orange CevicheFeb 24, 2011

Two concepts I thought were kind of gross until I ate them:

1. Fish "cooked" in citrus

2. Blood oranges (brought to mind blood sausage, which isn't something you want to picture relating to fruit)

Thank goodness I got over those phobias.

Much to my own disappointment, I have never been too concerned about healthy eating. Dave and I have been blessed with pretty good health, and my low blood pressure and low cholesterol test results just egg me on (no pun intended) to eat more fried and high-sodium foods. Perhaps it's my nagging conscience, perhaps it's my friends who have set and are sticking to noble New Year's resolutions, but I'm starting to feel the guilt. I do try to fix a vegetable with each meal (sometimes it hides among savory, meaty companions), but I'm starting to realize that a few sprigs of broccoli next to a giant rib-eye steak just isn't going to cut it. Dave says we should eat more fish, so with that thought in mind and thanks to a few blood oranges that have been hanging out on my counter, a new dish was born: snapper and blood orange ceviche. Served with some tortilla chips and a bowl of chicken tortilla soup, it's helping me get my guilty conscience back in order. For the recipe, read on.

Duck RagùFeb 17, 2011

Recently, I got to pretend to be a member of the ladies-who-lunch set with a partner in crime. Jess and I tried out Cotogna over a late lunch and cocktails, and in between the kale sformato, halibut tartare, and sea urchin-and-cauliflower pizza, we had a delicious plate of braised rabbit pappardelle. The plump chunks of rabbit just melted in your mouth and contrasted nicely with the just-chewiness of the fresh pasta. YUM.

It reminded me of a recipe I found via Epicurious for duck ragù, so with a quick trip to Molly Stone, dinner was underway. It's actually remarkably simple; it just takes a while because you have to let the duck breast render some of that amazing fat in to the pan and then simmer all of the ingredients together to infuse it throughout. The recipe calls for a heavy skillet, but I like to use my Le Creuset 5 qt. Dutch oven to retain all the moisture and flavor. For the recipe, read on.

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