He’s baaaack

The wind comes with warmer days. It howls into our apartment’s light well (the one that lets in zero light). These days, our front window is cracked. The few plants we haven’t killed are on the fire escape, stretching.

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And along comes Milkshake, the world’s worst house guest. He’s not the fattest cat I’ve ever met, but he sure is fat.

Milkshake is somebody’s cat, but whose I don’t know. There was that lady who yelled from the street up at our window once, as we pet him on the fire escape, to leave that cat alone. But who knows. (And even if we wanted to leave the cat alone, he won’t leave us alone, so there.) He always smells faintly of cigarettes, the way the Easter baskets smelled that my great aunts sometimes gave me when I was really young–that sweet, acrid smell of an old lady who smokes in close proximity to doilies. In any case, he arrives on our fire escape periodically, at all hours of the day and night, and yowls with exceptional persistence.

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The dude is adorable. Then he comes in, eats our plants, attacks our feet, experiences the rapture, and generally behaves like a monster. We never learn.

The return of Milkshake woke a little ache inside me. He represents our time here in this apartment in no small way, and consequently our time in graduate school. It’s been a rocky road. A good one, though, for the most part. I learned so many things, design-related and otherwise. I also didn’t learn some things. And now, the next chapter!

At times like these, nostalgia and newness have equal place on my plate. I’ve been craving bright, tropical flavors and chewable textures. I’ve been pouring over the pages of the Pok Pok cookbook before bed, dreaming about the dinners I plan to make this summer (it’s a project-in-the-works to make my own damn Thai food really well, a resolution at which, following a peanut allergy fiasco in Berlin, I am hell-bent on succeeding). But at the same time, I’m all about the stuff I can rely on to make me feel good. And one of those things is grilled mochi, like my dad used to make me.

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Comfort food, you see, is a tricky thing. We all know what is meant by that phrase, comfort food. It’s something you ate as a child, prepared for and fed to you by a grown up, and that made you feel safe and a little indulgent. But I think comfort food is fascinating because it’s actually so complicated. It’s particular to each person, for instance. I associate Japanese American food with comfort, as I wrote in my last post, and not meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy and mac & cheese. On the other hand, I still long sometimes for a bean and cabbage soup that my mom always made when I grew up. It’s a soup I absolutely hated as a child, but which I instantly began to crave when I went away to college. These days, the soup still fills me with a mixture of nostalgia, loving memories of mom, and angsty memories of mom. Is it just girls who have complicated relationships with their mothers? Or is this best reserved for another post? (If my mother is reading this, HI, I love you.)

So back to the mochi. Dad made it. It was delicious. It connected me to a part of him and his family in Japan that I missed and wanted badly to be part of, but really, that is just a post-rationalizing afterthought. Grilled mochi is just bonkers good.

Grilled Mochi (Yakimochi)

Yakimochi (also called isobeyaki) uses dried mochi, heated by toaster, grill or as you’ll see today, in a cast iron pan on the stove. Dried mochi looks and feels a little like an Ivory soap bar: smooth and HARD. It can be purchased cheaply in Japanese supermarkets, such as Sunrise Mart in New York City, and may also be available by mail. Heat melts the mochi–it balloons up like a Peep in a microwave, and gets a nice toasty, shiny crust. Once soft, the mochi is removed by chopstick from the pan, coated lightly on both sides in some soy sauce, and wrapped in a small rectangle of toasted nori. You eat it as immediately as possible, while it’s still soft, but be careful. It’s molten. Also, for a delicious variation, try adding a thin slice of cheese (cheddar is standard) to the top of the mochi to gently melt it as the mochi softens, then dip and wrap as before. It might sound like an odd combo, but cheese mochi is real. Real.

  • As many pieces of dried mochi as you like, cut in half short-wise
  • Small dish of soy sauce
  • Toasted nori cut into about double the large side of your mochi
  • Optional: thinly sliced cheddar cheese

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat and add the mochi a few a time, as many fit without crowding the pan. Using long chopsticks or similar, push the mochi around to prevent their sticking, and patiently allow them to toast and puff up, flipping them over periodically (their color will become whiter, then browner). Once the mochi feel soft and are toasted, remove them from the skillet to the dish of soy sauce, giving a dip on each side before plating. The mochi will deflate, but that’s as it should be. Wrap in a sheet of nori and enjoy.

Improv, improve

Essentials in my kitchen right now: a big root of fresh ginger, nubby, thin-skinned, bulbous; a bunch of green onions; a jar of toasted black sesame seeds; red miso; almond butter.

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My comfort food is Japanese home cooking, without any doubt. Full of flavor, ingredient-forward, and easy on the tummy. Right now, that’s kind of all that I want. I’m stressed.

Here are two easy comfort foods based around super salty and savory sauces. The first is nasu dengaku, or miso-roasted eggplant, and it’s so melt-in-your-mouth tender, so salty-sweet, all you need is a bowl of rice and some sliced cold tofu to call it a meal. The second is a variation on goma-ae (sesame) dressing. It’s been the excuse for eating all kinds of leftovers for lunch this week: quinoa with asparagus and cold roasted chicken one day, couscous with thin ribbons of carrots, omelet and stir-fried broccoli the next. This kind of dressing can also be empowering, inspiring to see ingredients in new ways and in new combinations: jicama and butter beans, for instance. It’s a satisfyingly salty-savory, positively drinkable (but I won’t tell) dressing.

It’s good to have things that you can improvise on and improve–as you need, and as you wish, just like these new spring days.

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Nasu Dengaku (Miso-Roasted Eggplant)

For this, a couple of small and long Japanese eggplants split lengthwise are ideal, but they are frequently much more expensive per pound than your more typical Italian eggplant. I often make do with those, but quarter them lengthwise instead. Choose eggplants with taut, not puckered skin, with a uniform plumpness.

  • 1/4 cup red miso
  • 1/4 cup mirin
  • 1/8 – 1/4 cup raw sugar
  • 1 large Italian eggplant, washed, quartered lengthwise, or two Japanese eggplants, halved
  • Vegetable oil to brush

To serve:

  • 2 stalks of green onion, bulb removed, chopped
  • 1/2 inch fresh ginger, peeled and grated

Preheat oven to 400 deg. F.

Combine the miso, mirin and raw sugar in a sauce pan and bring to a brief boil, reducing the heat instantly to a simmer. Stir, simmering, until sugar is dissolved, then remove from heat.

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil for easy clean-up. Using a steak knife, score the flesh of the eggplant in a cross pattern. Brush the flesh of the eggplant with vegetable oil. Bake for 10 minutes.

Remove the eggplant from the oven and brush with all of the miso sauce. Return to the oven and bake for another 15-20 minutes, or until the flesh is melt-tender and can be scooped with a spoon.

Allow to cool for five minutes before serving. Garnish with green onion and fresh ginger.

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Spicy Goma-ae Dressing

Feel free to vary your sauce from this basic method. Mine evolved over several days from a single batch of goma-ae, which I eventually thinned out with almond butter, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sriracha, agave nectar and water in varying quantities depending on my tastes and the food I was eating. Goma-ae is a dry-textured sesame sauce often served with blanched spinach or other simply-prepared vegetables in traditional Japanese cooking. You can find a good base recipe for goma-ae here, at Nami’s blog. A Japanese mortar and pestle (suribachi) is ideal here, because of the bowl’s grooves, and I also find mine useful for breaking up dried chilis.

  • 6 Tbsp roasted black sesame seeds
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp agave nectar or honey
  • 1 tsp mirin
  • 2 Tbsp smooth almond butter
  • 1 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 2 tsp sriracha sauce
  • 1/2 inch fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 3 Tbsp water to thin, or more as desired

Grind sesame seeds, splashed with water, in a suribachi or other mortar and pestle until they become like very coarse sand. Add agave nectar, soy sauce, and mirin, and continue to grind until it becomes a rough paste.

In a mixing dish, combine sriracha, rice vinegar, soy sauce, agave nectar, ginger, almond butter and water. Whisk vigorously to blend.

Whisk the goma-ae into the wet dressing and add water, sesame oil, or rice vinegar until desired consistency and flavor is achieved.

Jicama Salad with Butter Beans & Spicy Almond Sauce

A strange thought, perhaps, to pair jicama and butter beans with Japanese-Asian flavors, but it really works. The jicama is refreshing, the lime is tart, and the beans provide protein and complement the richness of the dressing. The real secret here is to get those butter beans a bit scorched.

  • Spicy goma-ae dressing
  • 1 medium-sized jicama (or half of a large one)
  • 1 large lime
  • 1/2 can of butter / broad beans, rinsed and drained well
  • 1 large clove of garlic
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Peel and slice jicama into matchsticks. Sprinkle with Maldon salt and the juice of one large lime.
Heat a skillet and coat with a little olive oil. Quickly fry slices of garlic over high heat, then remove when beginning to be tender and toasted. Add one half drained can of butter beans and allow to scorch slightly. Remove from heat.

Mix jicama with lime juice, garlic and butter beans in a large bowl.

Pour dressing over the beans and jicama, toss to coat. Allow to sit 30 minutes before serving.

 

Tea Time: Karigane 22 from Tea Wing, with Coconut Bread

11 am. Time for tea and a slice of cake. I mean bread.

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I have finally broken into the Karigane 22 green tea that I ordered from Tea Wing a couple of months ago. I’ve told you about Tea Wing before.

This tea is something special. The leaves and stems are vibrantly green, with a cellulose stiffness, and no powder. karigane2

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It brews into a lovely, bright green cup, with no cloudiness. The flavor is sweet, earthy and smooth with almost no bitterness. It feels a little thick on the tongue, which makes for very pleasant drinking. Great on its own, with a little slice of yokan, or of course, there’s always…

Coconut Bread

A beautifully browned coconut bread, subtle in flavor, with a thick crunchy crust and moist, dense crumb that mixes with chewy coconut to keep the texture interesting. This recipe is adapted from Deb of Smitten Kitchen, who in turn received it via Luisa Weiss at the Wednesday Chef (who I would trust with almost any baked good) via Bill Granger and the New York Times. Deb, bless her, browned the butter and reduced the amount of cinnamon, and I have followed suit. In fact, I reduced the cinnamon even more, and also swapped out Turbinado sugar for the called-for granulated. The result, I think, is a slightly enhanced butter and raw sugar flavor rather than the lighter notes of white sugar and cinnamon. I should say that this yields one mama of a coconut cake. She rose a full 2.5 inches above the rim of the loaf pan! So, be careful about the size of your pan, and if in doubt, fill a couple of muffin cups with any excess batter to bake alongside. Dare I say, as irresistible as this loaf is when it comes out of the oven, it is even better the next day, lightly toasted.

  • 2 large eggs
  • 1.25 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp table salt, rounded
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon, rounded
  • 1 cup Turbinado sugar, plus extra to sprinkle
  • 1.5 cups unsweetened coconut flakes
  • 6 Tbsp unsalted butter, plus more to butter the pan

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9″ (8-cup) loaf pan

In a small saucepan, melt butter and stir until it reaches a golden brown color and irresistible fragrance. Turn off heat.

In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and vanilla.

In a larger bowl, sift together flour through cinnamon. Stir in the sugar and coconut. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Give the egg mixture another quick whisk and pour into the dry, mixing together until just combined (avoid over-mixing). Pour the browned butter over and stir in until just smooth.

Transfer the batter into the pan and tap the sides to even it out. Sprinkle generously with more Turbinado sugar.

Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, depending on your oven (or until a toothpick comes out clean). I found that it took 1 hour and 10 minutes. Allow the loaf to cool for five minutes in the pan before transferring it to a cooling rack.

This will keep for five days, tightly wrapped, and also freezes well.

 

It’s simple

Despite two successive visits to Xi’an Famous Foods since returning to New York (they don’t make food like that in Europe, my friends) my tastes these days are running, well, a little vanilla. Not specifically vanilla, but you know, bland. Which I always thought was an unfair association to give to poor vanilla, but anyway. This granola is the ready-to-wear version of a maple and olive oil granola that I posted about earlier this year. Nothing crunchy except the oats, which shatter under your teeth like a florentine cookie. No spices. No toasted nuts or dried fruit or chocolate (but go ahead, please, and add them after baking). I swapped out some of the maple syrup for some lightly sweetened almond butter. I kept the touch of coconut flakes, because I’m tending that way these days. (A killer coconut bread is coming! Can you believe I purported to *hate* coconut not less than one year ago?)

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I guess I have a lot of nerve to claim to have ‘perfected’ that maple olive oil granola. It was, after all, a recipe that I learned of from the blog Orangette, and as I have said many a time, there is not much I do not trust its author Molly about, particularly regarding breakfast. But what’s a good recipe other than that dependable departure point from which you can foist your own personal tastes on others?  Having tried several batches and recipes of granola this year, I can say without hesitation that this is the keeper.

So here’s what I think of as my perfect granola, at least right now. Like the other one, it has straightforward, darkly sweet, nutty flavors. And this time, no distractions.

Maple Olive Granola, Perfected

Molly’s original recipe had you stirring every 15 minutes for a total of 45 minutes, but here I’m instructing you to only stir once, after 15 or 20 minutes, and to only leave it in there for 35 minutes… 40 minutes if you’re pushing it. It might just be my oven (you should always adjust times according to your appliance’s quirks), but I find that the flavor gets too dark (burnt) after longer than that. At 37 minutes, the granola is a beautiful golden color, shatter-crunchy, and with a clear, slightly nutty flavor. And ONLY ONE STIR! This ensures an even bake, but prevents the granola from getting too broken up… a bonus for those of us who like chunky granola. As ever, I recommend plain creamline yogurt, without any honey or maple syrup, stirred into sweet smoothness, as the accompaniment, but truly, I have been eating this right out of the container, moistened with a little dip into cold milk.

  • 3 cups rolled oats (not quick-cook)
  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut chips / flakes
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar, scant
  • 1/4 cup Turbinado sugar, scant
  • 2/3 cup Grade B dark maple syrup, scant
  • 1/2 cup almond butter (see note below*)
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Spread a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a small sauce pan, combine almond butter and maple syrup and gently heat, stirring, until the almond butter is softened and more or less uniformly incorporated with the maple syrup. (Don’t boil.) Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, mix the oats through the sugars. Stir in the olive oil and maple syrup / almond butter mixture.

Pour onto the prepared baking sheet and smooth to about 1/2-inch even thickness with a spatula.

Bake for 35 – 40 minutes until golden brown, but not dark brown, giving it a quick stir after 15 or 20 minutes. The granola will still be soft, but it will harden as it cools. Carefully move the parchment paper to a drying rack and allow the granola to cool completely before attempting to store, breaking up any granola shards as necessary.

* I use Barney‘s smooth almond butter. As someone with a peanut allergy, I appreciate the clear labeling that indicates separation from peanut products. Besides that practical concern, this almond butter is delicious, with the consistency and oil content of a classic peanut butter that I find works best for the ratios listed in the above recipe.

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Happy Spring!

A Series of Mornings, and Belleville Brulerie

I have always liked mornings. They feel light and clear and ready. The minutes seem to stand on tip toe.

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I woke up this morning in my own bed in New York City, hip hop already blaring in from the street, truck engines rattling and trash cans thwunking. It feels good to be back, to be here in my apartment with the chilled spring air, the two-week’s worth of accumulated dust bunnies swept up into the trash, the fridge newly filled with yogurt and tangerines and vegetables, thank goodness (I’ve eaten well, but two weeks of Viennoiserie, baguettes, cheese… it gets to a fiber-lover like me), and our own espresso machine humming, so I can have just the amount of milk I want in my cappuccino.

It’s funny though: when I travel I can suspend myself beyond the sill of my life back home, and forget about all the objects on my desk, my resume, my sweaters, my debt… I can almost feel like to never take a plane back would be the easiest thing in the world. Like I could go on living where I am forever.

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There are many things to be said about the trip–too many in fact. But right now, I want to tell you about coffee. We were really lucky to be very close to excellent coffee spots in both Paris and Berlin, and it was in Paris where we discovered the relatively new Belleville Brulerie, which roasts the beans used at our two favorite coffee joints in the city, Ten Belles (10e) and Fondation (3e). Fondation was on the street right below our AirBnB apartment, so for four days we were treated to really interesting and delicious espresso. Unfortunately, Belleville Brulerie is only open on Saturdays, so we missed out on visiting the actual roaster.

Both Ten Belles and Fondation are small but mighty (as my mom would say), with a very Brooklyn/Nordic white-and-wood contemporary interior, and they are both less than a year old. Ten Belles has an in-house American baker, and offers really good American-style baked goods like banana bread, big chocolate chip cookies (“le cookie” is blowing up in Paris right now), lemon bars, and excellent little scones. You can order an assiette of scones (raisin or au nature) for breakfast, and they come with a little dish of jam.

This is Ten Belles:

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And here is a blurred snapshot from Fondation, which is much smaller:fr45

It is funny that Paris, a city where espresso (un café) is both ubiquitous and legendarily shitty, is now home to several new coffee shops that pride themselves on all the coffee-culture obsessiveness and attention to detail as in the United States. I’m glad about it, but also amused to find that the best coffee in Paris is inspired by places here in the states. I spoke for a little bit with one of the barista at Ten Belles, and he told me that they were trying to make their own style of coffee, one that is inspired by American coffee culture but, because it is unencumbered by established expectations, can also be unique and experimental, distinct from American or Italian or Nordic coffee. Both cafes are extremely popular, probably not just because they know great coffee and comfortable spaces, but because the Parisian coffee scene is not yet saturated.

I’m not at all an expert on coffee, but I can say that both Ten Belles and Fondation make a very unique espresso, unlike any that I had had before. Maybe Americans prefer rounder and louder cups. The espressos I had at Ten Belles were light, bright and citrusy. The Fondation espresso tended to be a little more chocolate, bright citrus on top but with a rounder finish. I liked them both.

We bought a bag of Belleville beans from Ten Belles when we were there on our last day (an afternoon pick-me-up after a long day walking), and this morning, Miles brewed me a cup.

It’s a little bit of America in Paris back in America again. It’s comforting sometimes, this globalization thing. Those habits that formed so easily in Paris, and which made staying there forever seem not so hard to imagine, can be recreated here, without too much angst. Of course, it’s not the same. But then, this is New York, so as they say in France, tant pis.

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