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So crowded nobody goes there anymore

jason

Over the weekend Seattle Center hosted its annual spectacle of mediocre food. I almost completely forgot it was set to happen until I spotted a note about it in one of the Seattle weekly papers late in the week.

My left foot is still easily inflamed, so I didn't go, but I'm not sure I would have expended any more effort had circumstances been more favorable.

Perhaps I'm the only one, but Bite of Seattle no longer holds the same appeal to me it once did. Last year, Hiromi and I kept fairly busy attending most of the notable Seattle festivals, from Folklife to the Solstice Parade, from the Pride Parade to Bumbershoot. We even hit the Seattle Cheese Festival, accidentally found ourselves at a Leavenworth, WA parade, and even unexpectedly found ourselves at a hydroplane event on our way to Sol Duc in the Olympic Peninsula.

But I'm fairly sure we skipped what is ostensibly the most food-centric event of the year: The annual Bite of Seattle. Near as I can tell, we stayed home and grilled peaches and made falafel.

It's probably been two or three years since I last attended the Bite. The prospect of braving large crowds of people standing in long lines waiting for almost exactly the same food that appears at ever other summer event in the region no longer holds much appeal for me.

Sure, they have the semi-fancy John Hinterberger/Kathy Casey/Tom Douglas circuit (the featured Seattle food personality changes year-to-year), but I don't think the festival does much to highlight Seattle-area restaurants anymore.

It takes almost $3000 just to rent space for the booth for the weekend, not to mention all of the equipment and staffing costs, so I think most of the interesting restaurants in Seattle have been opting out. It's a shame, because as far as I understand, the event originally had the aim of promoting local restaurants, rather than being a place to get standard greasy fair grub.

When I look at the restaurant list this year, it seems that a fair number of "real" restaurants are on the list, but even most of those are fixtures of the festival event circuit. Aside from those few spots, I think I've seen enough of Biringer Farms semi-frozen hyper-sweet strawberry shortcake, Ziegler's curly fries, Shishkaberrys skewered chocolate dipped fruits and Scotty's seafood sandwiches. It doesn't look like even a handful of the restaurants are the kind of chef-owner-operated places that make eating in Seattle interesting and remarkable.

You can't even get a decent cup of coffee at the event thanks to sponsorship restrictions. In Seattle. Why even bother showing up?

I must be idealizing the event somewhat, because even thinking back to when I first went to Bite of Seattle in 1996 or 1997 or so, I can't think of any remarkable restaurants that I was introduced to via the festival. But I do think it was more exciting for me back then. Have I just become jaded, or did the "Bite" once have more bite?

What else to do?

Sparkling sake from Sakenomi

Fortunately, Seattle is vibrant enough that we have other things going on even during major festivals. Sakenomi bravely opened a small sake retail shop in Pioneer Square, and had their grand opening event all Saturday afternoon. A friend of mine from my Japanese Meetup went with me to chat with the owners and to nibble on champagne grapes and cheese and crackers.

The shop is pleasantly unpretentious, and Johnnie and Taiko are working hard to make sake as accessible as possible. Our brief conversation made it clear just how few degrees of separation there are in Seattle's Japanese community... the store features sake ware from Akiko's Pottery and the staff wears T-shirts designed by Masa of Three Tree Tea.

Considering the location, I'm a bit surprised that they've made the choice to create more of a retail venue than a bar, but the interior is constructed in a way that they can probably evolve in that direction if it turns out to make more sense.

Pioneer Square is a difficult place to operate a retail shop. Even a lot of the galleries have been struggling as Pioneer Square loses its hold on the art buying public. I'm curious if it's possible to make money on a retail project down there that isn't a convenience store.

I wish them well... the space is cute and the environment is much more welcoming and apprachable than the average Asian market sake aisle.

I took home a nice bottle of semi-effervescent sake.

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Summertime socials

jason

The last few days I've been fairly social, meaning that my kitchen is seeing only minimal use. Except for a Friday night experiment preparing chappati and Indira's green garbanzo and paneer dish with a haphazard, soft, homemade almost-paneer that was more like Ethiopian lab cottage cheese, I've mostly played it safe, seeing as I was heading to parties.

Even my home cooking was rather conservative, including some simple dishes like Roesti for brunch, with a sour cherry shake on Sunday afternoon, an idea stolen from a Matthew Amster-Burton article a month or so ago.

My camera wasn't really handy on the weekend, but since almost everything was a rerun, I'm just going to apologize for recycling some old photos.

Saturday I had to run an errand that made me late for my first party of the weekend, so I thought of two things I can make with about 5 minutes work.

Roasted potatoes 

Roasted potatoes

Roasted potatoes just take a little slicing, a little rubbing with olive oil, and a sprinkling with salt, seasoned or otherwise. I could carry all the equipment I needed with me to the party, do the quick preparation, and take over the unoccupied oven for about 25 minutes and out came some magic. The version I actually served involved Volterra/Ritrovo's porcini salt. (Roasted potatoes I last posted about here).

Insalata caprese

Insalata caprese

A staple of my summer repertoire, insalata caprese with heirloom tomatoes is always a crowd-pleaser when the tomatoes are at their best. Even though I prepared this before everyone's eyes at the party, people still thought there was some mysterious technique to make the dish taste good... But it was just the buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil that mattered most, along with a sprinkling of salt on the tomato slices and some fresh ground pepper over the whole thing.

Channa gobi masala cups

 Channa gobi masala cups

Channa gobi masala cups, a variation of the channa gobi masala nests I've made before, this time using sheets of filo rather than the shredded kadaifi. For some reason, PFI didn't hae the kadaifi, but the little filo cups are equally appealing. The curry was a simple cauliflower-split chickpea dish with finely chopped vegetables, just like above. The cups were just butter-brushed filo sheets folded so that they would make little cups in my mini-muffin tin. Baked until crispy and golden-brown, they provided a convenient package for party-sized nibbles.

I'd almost call this a rut, but I know better. I don't usually take big risks when heading to someone else's party... Simple, familiar (to the cook, anyway) and temperature-flexible fare is what potlucks are all about. Plus it's an unseasonably warm summer... even I want to get out of the kitchen as quickly as possible.

Pistachio saffron kulfi, slightly altered for life with an ice cream maker

jason

I can't remember exactly when I first heard of saffron kulfi, but I think it was mentioned in a Bharti Kirchner novel, or perhaps a desi short story collection. The book waxed poetic about the value of slowly simmering saffron and cardamom, which reduces the volume of the milk by about half while thoroughly infusing it with the aromas of the spices. This is a time-consuming, hour-long or more process, only possible to achieve on fairly moderate heat with plenty of patience.

It seems unlikely that you could accomplish the same level of flavor by pulling out a can of condensed milk and stirring the ingredients together, no matter how long you wait for the cold ingredients to meld together. The extra labor is totally justified by the results.

That being said, I'm fairly lazy, as obsessive cooks go... I delight in simplicity. The unusual level of labor means I haven't made this for about 5 years, when it was unceremoniously and completely devoured, along with some sort of sorbet, in less than 15 minutes at a dinner party I hosted. This time I served it to a much smaller crowd, so that I could guarantee I'd have more than a spoonful to taste for myself. I'm jealously guarding what remains.

Kulfi is not truly an ice cream, but simply a frozen dessert made in molds or even ice cube trays. It's rather unlikely to be churned, so the result will typically be quite firm and popsicle-like. However, thanks to my Cuisinart ice cream maker and a generous hand with cream, it develops a remarkably smooth, soft texture, and can fairly be called an ice cream.

Kesar Kulfi with Salted Pistachio

Kesar kulfi with pistachios

Ingredients

  • 8 cups milk
  • 1 cups cream
  • A generous pinch of saffron, about 8-12 strands
  • 1 tsp. ground cardamom (best if freshly ground)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • A few tablespoons shelled pistachio nuts, coarsely ground with a pinch of salt and a heavier pinch of sugar
  • Additional pistachio for garnish, if desired

Bring the milk, saffron and cardamom to a gentle simmer. Stir regularly as the milk simmers until the volume of milk is reduced by half.

Add sugar to dissolve. Add cream, and refrigerate until chilled, generally several hours or overnight.

Pour mixture into an ice cream maker with a 6 cup capacity (if your machine is smaller, the recipe can easily be halved). After 20-25 minutes, stir in most of the seasoned pistachio mixture.

I reserved some of the pistachio mixture for a nifty silicone mold I generally leave, neglected, stowed above my kitchen cupboards. I simply sprinkled the pistachios into the bottom of the mold before pouring in the ice cream mixture. Freeze the molds overnight. Unmold and serve, perhaps with some additional broken pistachios.

If you don't have such a mold, sprinkle the pistachio over scoops of ice cream after it's hardened in the freezer overnight.

In place of pistachios, almonds work quite well.

This kind of kulfi is ordinarily poured straight into a mold and frozen, rather than using the intermediary step of an ice cream maker, but the ice cream maker results in a smoother, softer texture. The extra cream, generally not used in Indian recipes, makes the ice cream extraordinarily rich and indulgent.

Although it's also not typical in Indian recipes for kulfi, the small hint of salt in the pistachio helps bring out all the other flavors in the ice cream. Like the great salted peanut butter ice cream at Seattle's Veil, one of the most remarkable items I've sampled there, it may evoke some strong reactions: At Veil, people either love it or hate it. I don't use as much salt as Veil does in my pistachio blend, so nobody who has tried my version was terribly shocked, but getting the balance might be tricky. Start with just a little pinch.

This is my little entry for YumSugar's For the Love of Ice Cream Challenge.

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Chestnut focaccia

jason

Seattle doesn't really believe in air conditioning.

It's not that it doesn't exist; we only use it as a way of guaranteeing productivity, at offices and schools, or for keeping people restless and uncomfortable so that they'll make their purchases and efficiently move on to some other errand, like in supermarkets and department stores.

So the few times each year when we really would benefit from air conditioning at home, we simply don't have that option, so we tend to go out and drink mediocre syrupy iced cocktails at one of the three restaurants in town that has a deck. Today it was too hot for outdoor dining to be remotely comfortable, at least before 9pm or so.

During that time, I suppose we just sit at home and bake.

Chestnut focaccia

chestnut foccacia

No, not like this. Turning on the oven in weather like today's is a truly awful idea. It merely contributes to the dreaded Seattle Warming. Our fragile Seattleite bodies are not able to handle 65°F high temperatures one day and 98°F highs three days later. This is why we have so many activists and scientists working on reversing global climate change.

So it's really a good thing that I made and served this bread over a week ago. It's been a little hot to do any serious blogging, much less baking... I'm sure you've seen a slightly lower productivity among Seattle bloggers in the last week or so, except from those who blog from air conditioned coffee shops.

Aside from a slightly disastrous transfer onto the baking stone (the focaccia was a little too long), and a slightly too crispy texture thanks to a minute or two of overbaking, this was a nice little bread. It was perfect with good butter, as well as with olive oil.

It's an ordinary focaccia dough, except for one distinct feature: It's made with one-third chestnut flour. This gives the bread a surprisingly rich character, and a long fermentation time added a deep complexity. The aroma of chestnut pervades the bread, although the end result is nothing like your average roasted chestnut or mont blanc pastry.

I brushed the dough with olive oil and topped it with a little chopped flat-leaf parsley.

On a day like today, I might be satisfied with little more than some bread and cheese.  Or, as Hiromi and I did on a hot day last summer, perhaps it would be nice to serve some sakuranbo sōmen in a bowl of ice water with a cold dipping sauce.

Instead, though, I went out for a cold cocktail and some watermelon carpaccio and panzanella style salad at Oliver's Twist, under the mistaken impression that they might have functioning air conditioning.

Apparently some Seattle restaurants don't believe in air conditioning, either.

But the icy drink, constantly refilled ice water, and cool salads helped... followed by another cold nibble or two at Gaspare outside as the sun started retreating for the night. Gaspare didn't invest in air conditioning either, so in today's sweltering heat, nobody sat down indoors... it would have been too dangerous.

Just tabbouleh... but still unforgettable

jason

Tabbouleh. Perhaps unfairly, I somehow associate it with college, wannabe hippies, and 70s-style vegetarianism. Not that there's anything wrong with any of that.

But this marginalization in my mind means tabbouleh (tabouleh, tabouli, take your pick... Arabic is flexible about the rendering of vowels) somehow never seems to find itself on my radar when I plan dinner for a crowd. It just seems so hopelessly quaint and dated, like lentil loaves and cheese-laden casseroles.

That's a shame, of course, because tabbouleh is actually quite wonderful. In fact, it's really hard to get wrong, assuming you start with decent ingredients and make the mint and parsley, rather than the bulgur, the focus.

The most important ingredients, of course, are fresh mint, fresh parsley, bulgur wheat, lemon juice, tomatoes and olive oil. It's seasoned with salt and pepper, and generally includes an aromatic like onion, shallot or scallions.

tabouleh 735

Only two things can ruin this dish: too much bulgur, or attempting to substitute dried herbs. Even sad supermarket tomatoes won't be a tragedy if chopped finely enough, but excellent tomatoes can be featured more prominently.

The dish is probably prettier, and easier to eat, if served on a bed of romaine lettuce leaves. But even a minimalist version is a beautiful way to put some summer in your meal.

It's far better with flat leaf parsley, but you can get away with the stuff that used to be used solely as a pointless garnish at your local diner.

You can play with a hint of additional seasoning such as cinnamon, sumac, allspice, or pomegranate molasses, but if your ingredients start out fantastically fresh, you can get away with just the fundamentals.

Mustard greens and manouri cheese ravioli

jason

After a run of Japanese food, I started craving pastas and breads again. Somehow an  urge to do something with mustard greens kicked in. A weekend trip to the supermarket with no particular time pressure put me in a playful mood.

I thought about the Nagano specialty oyaki I sometimes make with mustard greens.

I tried making some beggar's purses on a whim, but realized the wrappers I rolled out were a little too thick. So for the next batch, I chose to make thinner, ravioli-like dumplings.

When I go through the trouble of making stuffed pasta at home, the last thing on my mind is recreating something that I could easily acquire at a supermarket or local Italian specialty shop. So I either go the route of using much better quality ingredients than I'd ever find in the fillings made by one of those fresh pasta making companies, or take the opportunity to play with combinations that I'd be unlikely to find anywhere else.

This was an occasion for the latter.

For the filling, I rub some washed mustard greens with coarse salt and let them sit for five or then minutes, then I come back to rinse them and squeeze out excess moisture. They shrink nicely, and I add some soft manouri cheese, a tangy sheep's milk cream cheese from Greece. I grate a little nutmeg in, then work an egg yolk into the mixture, along with a spoonful of bread crumbs. I might have added a little black pepper.

Soft ravioli filled with mustard greens and manouri cheese

ravioli 707

I chose to make these with regular wheat, rather than hard semolina flour. Durum wheat pasta, or semolina pasta, is more common in the US, thanks in part to the strong southern Italian influence in Italian-American cuisine, not to mention its advantages to pasta manufacturers. But much of northern Italy actually prefers pasta made with ordinary wheat, and both Chinese and Eastern European cooking is full of noodles made with soft or hard all-purpose flour.

Unlike those with the luxury of an extravagant, beautiful exhibition-like kitchen, I have no room for a pasta maker in my home. I'm not really sure I even have room for the things already spilling out of my tiny cupboards. So I relied entirely on manual labor.

I start with a hand-kneaded pasta dough made from flour, egg yolks, a hint of freshly grated nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. The dough rests for an hour or so.

Then I divide the dough into manageable chunks that I can roll out on my limited counter-space, dusting with flour as needed to keep things from getting too sticky. I flip the dough a few times and do whatever I can to achieve a fairly even thickness.

A cookie-cutter comes to the rescue when I want to cut out round pasta shapes. Or rather, it would have, were I able to remember where my one round cookie cutter was stashed. The urgent need for improvisation leads me to a suitably-sized plastic lid from a spice jar, which has just enough sharpness to do the trick.

I top one half of the pasta circles with a small amount of filling, rub each outer edge with some water, and seal the ravioli shut with one of the unused circles.

During the summer I often want lighter sauces than I typically rely on during colder weather. So rather than some heavy cream sauce, or even a big marinara sauce that might compete with the flavor of the filling, I played with a sauce constructed upon an inexpensive, moderately dry Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewurztraminer.

I simmer the wine with a little porcini-kombu soup stock for several minutes, then added some butter and salt. Initially, the flavor is a bit acidic, but the butter goes a long way to mellow out the wine. As the pasta boils, I toss some shimeji mushrooms into the wine sauce.

When the pasta looks ready to go, I strain the ravioli and let them simmer briefly in the sauce.

You may want to add a little shaved parmesan or black pepper. Since dinner had other sources of cheese, I kept it simple.

The sauce is lively with slightly herbal notes, and just rich enough to cut the acidity of the wine without weighing it down.

The Gewurztraminer has enough complexity to mitigate the need for aromatics like garlic or onions, especially with those intense mustard greens. I also had an audience that appreciates light, sappari flavors and I was serving a few other dishes to provide a balance of intense and light flavors.

However, if you wanted this to be the main focal point a meal you might work in some caramelized shallots, either finely minced and worked into the sauce, or simply sliced and presented as a final touch to top the pasta.

Snow peas and aburaage itame ni

jason

Although sautéed and stir-fried dishes do not figure prominently in Japanese cuisine, simple dishes in that category will appear on the tables of most Japanese homes.

The scale, however, is much more diminutive than most Chinese, and certainly most Americans, would expect.

Historically, oil was fairly expensive in Japan, and a typical farming family might have gotten away with a single modestly-sized bottle of vegetable oil over the course of an entire year, even in the era of cast-iron pots. A tiny bottle of toasted sesame oil, mostly used a few drops at a time, might provide a flavor boost to otherwise simple dishes.

Sayaendo and abura-age with carrots 

Itamemono, or pan-sautéed dishes, generally have a fairly subtle flavor. Even soy sauce is used with a very light hand. Dishes do not acquire the "red" color of Chinese-style stir-fried dishes.

This type of dish is best with a short list of ingredients, prepared in small batches; I don't think I made this with much more than 1 to 1 1/2 cups of raw ingredients, and it was enough for two or three Japanese servings along with other dishes. My tiniest omelet pan did the trick. For a group of four or five people, you could get away with making a larger quantity in a 10" skillet.

I used some snow peas (sayaendō), carrots prepared with a simple rolling cut, and onions. I dunked some abura-age (tofu puffs, perhaps) in very hot water and squeezed the water out to prepare it for the pan. This helps the aburaage more readily absorb salt and seasonings, and coincidentally slightly reduces the oil content.

This kind of sauté is done with very little oil at a fairly high temperature. I add a small pinch of salt every time I put a new ingredient in the pan, then finish with some soy sauce, sake, and mirin.

Japan doesn't have the French convention of caramelizing onions, but if you bring the onions just past translucent they'll add a great aroma and natural complexity to the flavor of the dish. Add the carrots, cook for a minute or two longer, then add the snow peas and aburaage. Once these are a bit shiny, add a small splash of soy sauce, a good tablespoon of sake, and maybe even a little dashijiru, then perhaps one or two drops sesame oil. In some cases you may want to add a touch of sugar or mirin, but I think the onions and carrots are naturally sweet enough that additional sugar is usually unnecessary to achieve an ama-karai (sweet-salty) taste.

Simmer briefly, taste, adjust seasonings if needed, and serve in small bowls.

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Eggs and cactus: Saboten no tamago toji

jason

Another home-style dish with a Japanese approach to non-Japanese ingredients, this nopal dish, made with a couple of eggs, dashi, soy sauce and mirin, is really basic, but it's a great little side dish for two or three people.

Saboten no tamago toji

Saboten to tamago touji

The eggs are set firmly enough that this probably doesn't seem much different than scrambled eggs, tamago toji tends to be a little bit more on the liquidy side, but I think mine is soft enough to qualify. Sometimes tamago toji refers to eggs poured into soup, over udon or similar noodles.

This is made with blanched and then briefly sauteed prickly pear cactus paddles. Shaped like a leaf, nopales have sharp, thorn-like spines need to be assiduously pared away with a knife before they are suitable for consumption.

Once I've prepared the nopales, I briefly blanch them in salted water to brings out the slightly tart flavor and okra-like texture of the nopales.

The nopales need only a short cooking time, but they're slightly time-consuming to trim. Even with the extra prep work, I think this would become popular in Japan if the vegetable were more widely available. The flavor and texture are quite compatible with Japanese cuisine, which is full of nebaneba (mucilaginous) foods.

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