Entries from October 27th, 2013

Kyoto

Sunday, October 27, 2013

I have this new(ish) file called “Writing Scraps,” or “DubScraps” for short. It’s an electronic home for the sentences and paragraphs that don’t fit anywhere else…yet. With the addition of much of this original post–an intro that was off topic, an unrelated story–the file’s word count has doubled. I keep these words for the same reason a person keeps a stash of ketchup packets. One day I might need them. This whole paragraph probably belongs to DubScrabs, too, or maybe in the electronic trash can, but I’ve given myself a deadline and I’m sticking to it. Shall we get on? Good.

What struck me the most about Kyoto was the serenity in everyday life, the meticulous and intentional presentation of everything from potted plants to espresso, and the mixture of hospitality and deeply honored privacy that is very much the Japanese way. I was lost a lot, but it was never a problem. I tried to capture what I saw, but the most unforgettable moments were too fleeting, and not meant for a camera anyway. I won’t forget the short exchanges with kids in uniform on their way home after school, the trio of businessmen I shared the counter with at a ramen spot, the irenic woman who sat diagonal from me during one lunch, quietly eating a nest of soba while reading the paper, or the seconds of eye contact with a geisha in the back of a taxi, her driver looking just as becoming in his white gloves and suit.

Yashi owns IchiEnSou, a great guesthouse in Gion, and Soba and Soon Young help him run it. Olga and I met in the guesthouse’s common area, the same room that houses the staircase to the attic, the kitchen, and a few clusters of wooden tables and chairs. During the day, we traveled separately to different corners of the city, and about the time it’d get dark, we’d find ourselves back in the common room where we’d swap stories about what we’d seen or eaten, both of us full and tired but hungry enough to go for dinner. We’d saunter down the block and get as far as the yakitori bar on the corner, and we’d order chicken livers or grilled eggplant skewers and beer, our warmup. One night Olga took me to her friend Yoshi’s restaurant, En Boca. They’d met in the Czech Republic years earlier when Yoshi was a guest at Olga’s hostel, and have stayed in touch since. Yoshi made us a drop-dead gorgeous salad of cucumber coins, oily shitake mushrooms, rosy-bellied radishes, yellow kiku petals, and smoked mackerel sashimi with silver skin and wispy veins that he filleted to look like butterflies. He swept the salad along the curve of the plate in a crescent and tucked in a fan of smoked leaves ripened with fall. We ate that while he topped a pizza in quarters with 1) basil pesto, lotus root, and pine nuts, 2) mozzarella and shitake, 3) mozzarella, crushed tomato, and basil, and 4) mozzarella and seaweed pesto. He floured a wooden paddle and sent the pizza to the brick oven. In less than two minutes it was cooked. Yoshi traveled to Naples to study pizza, and one bite of his crust is all it takes to feel the effects that trip had on him. He could have slathered his pie with soggy cereal, for all I cared. It may seem counterintuitive to eat pizza in Japan, but it’s the fusion of rustic Italian and intentional Japanese, of provisions and harmony, that make Yoshi’s food special. It is also his commitment to the connection with nature through food, which he views as one of our last.

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Chris and I met while we were both a little lost, but it turned out we were headed in the same direction. We made plans to have dinner at Kanesho, a covert spot at the end of an alley (by measurement, more of a hallway) behind a very small sliding door. You’d never find it on a whim, and we almost didn’t find it with a map. We slid the door aside to find a full house of heads all turned in our direction. A tall, silver-haired man was standing in the corner over a grill. He had one arm curved to his hip like the handle of a teacup and the other around a smoke-stained fan, flapping at the coals.

Reservation? He asked. We didn’t have one. But we could come back at 8:30, so we said we would. An hour and a tasting of sake later, we sidled up to two open seats at the counter. The young guy behind it helped us through the menu we couldn’t read, and we learned later that he was the older man’s son.

As Koske’s father hung out by the grill, Koske would glide through the rest of the tiny restaurant, washing a few glasses or refilling a beer mug gone dry. When an order of eel was ready, Koske would scoop rice into a bamboo steamer, then fold in a drizzle of tare (eel sauce) and sesame seeds before mounding it into each dish. His father would slide the eel off the skewer on top of the rice, and Koske would deliver the goods. These two did a dance back there, and it was addictive to watch. At Koske’s advice, we ordered unadon (grilled eel over seasoned rice in a bowl) and unaju (grilled eel over rice mixed with dried seaweed in a box). With the nudge of chopsticks, the crispy skin split apart, and the flesh collapsed into oily flakes with bones so inscrutable, you couldn’t feel them.

In Arashiyama, I rode a bicycle into the unknown without a map (and if you ever plan to visit Kyoto, I highly recommend you do the same) foremost because I needed both hands to steer, but also because I believe it is a virtue to be graciously lost, or rather, to admit to not knowing exactly where you are or where you’re going, but believing where you are is good enough for now. (A daily practice, that one, and a hell of a challenging one, too).

Every place has a formula for engaging the senses. Kyoto is cocoa, vermillion, and weeping willow green from the trees that flank the Takase Canal and the Kamogawa. I’d recognize it by the chime of electronic bells at crosswalks and the metro, the staccato delivery of yes and thank you, the click of bicycle wheels and the way the whole city is able to muffle regular urban clamor and turn it to music. Kyoto tastes like sweet, whipped miso and grated yuzu skin, and feels like the tingling of a single sansho berry the size of a peppercorn after it pops in your mouth.

Other highlights: pickle tasting at Nishiki Market, The Kyoto Museum of Modern Art, The Golden Pavilion, shopping for local ingredients at grocery stores, lunch at a diner in Nishijin, the women who drank pink champagne, Emi’s cooking class, a train ride to Kansai airport with Soon Young.

Recommended restaurants (many of these were also recommended by Yashi at IchiEnSou):
en boca (pizza) :: 075-253-0870 :: Ikesu-cho 406 Kyoto City :: lunch 11:30-2:00 dinner 5:00-10:00

Mimio (pork ramen) :: 075-525-3304 :: 354 Kiyomotocho Shijo Agaru Hanamikoji Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City :: dinner M-Sat 7:00-2am
detailed walking map from Shijo Station here.

Kanesho (unagi) :: in a tiny alley off of Nawate-dori in Gion. Best to stop at the sake bar inside Jam Hostel (around the corner) first for a sake tasting and marinated miso and ask for directions to Kanesho. Jam’s address: 605-0079 Kyoto, Kyoto, Higashiyama-ku, Tokiwa-cho, 170

Grelot (French bistro) :: across from IchiEnSou

Yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) :: on the corner of Yamatooji-dori and the same alley as IchiEnSou

 

The Panna Cotta That Was

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Hye Rae came back from her husband’s parents’ house after Chuseok a few weeks ago with a homegrown pumpkin the size of a beach ball. She sent me a picture of the beauty and a text that said she wanted to share it. I realize this is not the kind of message that would excite the average person, but I’m nothing if not easily provoked by edible surprises. Also, Hye Rae’s brand of generosity never fails to shake me back to center. The last time she and I got together to cook, which we try to do once a month these days, she taught me how to make jangjorim, a side dish of beef that you cover with water and soy sauce and cook down with garlic until both are hopelessly tender. She requested a winter cocktail, so I taught her how to make hot buttered rums with extra nutmeg, cinnamon and ground cloves. That’s what we do: she teaches me, I teach her. It’s become the sort of tradition you never want to lose.

Right before it was time to call it a night, Hye Rae disappeared to the front of her apartment and emerged back in the kitchen with her mother-in-law’s pumpkin. She split it in two with a carving knife, and we sat on the floor and scooped out the seedy guts so that I could take them home. She planned to make hobak juk, or pumpkin porridge that goes down like liquid silk. I wasn’t sure how to use my half, save for the seeds.

pumpkin seeds

If there’s a simpler way to do justice to pumpkin seeds than to heat them til crisp, shower them with salt and eat them straight out of the oven, of that I’m not aware. They’re pretty delicious with a sweet savory kick, too, and are meant to be scooped with your fingers. Which you’ll probably want to lick after each bite.

Roasted and Spiced Pumpkin Seeds
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon cumin
1 1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 or 2 teaspoons of olive oil

Rinse pumpkin seeds completely first, ridding them of all pumpkin guts. Rub them between a clean kitchen towel–you want them to be totally dry. Lay seeds flat on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil (seeds should be evenly coated, but not saturated in oil). Roast for 5-7 minutes at 325 degrees F. Meanwhile, mix all dry seasonings together in a bowl. Take seeds out of the oven and sprinkle with seasoning, then mix around the pan to coat evenly. Return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes of roasting. The tricky part about pumpkin seeds is that they cook super quickly from the inside out. It’s best to stick close to the oven and check a few seeds by splitting them open after the first 10 minutes or so of roasting. If they are brown inside, they’ve burned. Look for an inner golden color and a crisp, bitable shell. These are best eaten while fresh and hot.

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I’ve thought a lot about panna cotta since the first incident, and about what kind of flavors would be redemptive to the panna cotta that wasn’t. Other than a splinter from the stem of an eggplant, there are no serious kitchen injuries to report at this time. If you’re sitting there wondering how the hell someone could get a splinter from a vegetable, you wouldn’t be the only one. And if I’ve just completely jinxed myself, you’ll be the first to know.

While this panna cotta was good, it wasn’t something I’d serve the president, if you catch my drift. Sometimes I do that–imagine that I’m cooking for President and Michelle Obama. They’ll call me up on short notice and invite themselves to dinner, and then they’ll arrive all debonair and settle themselves in my humble little apartment and eat exactly what I’ve planned to cook that night anyway, even if it’s grilled cheese sandwiches. The thought both terrifies and exhilarates me, and eventually calms me when I realize it’s just a very fantastic reverie. Like, if I’m having a few friends over and I’m nervous about a new recipe, I’ll say to myself, “Well, why? S’not like it’s Obama and Michelle.” And then I relax a little.

I didn’t puree the pumpkin well enough, but I bet if I had, I would have liked the panna cotta better. So if you try this, puree until your blender begs for mercy. Make extra whipped cream. You can use it the next morning in your coffee.

pumpkin panna cotta pie

Pumpkin Panna Cotta (adapted mostly from Say Yes to Hoboken)

1 cup pureed pumpkin (make by hollowing out a pumpkin and cutting into wedges, then roasting at 350 degrees F until tender all the way through, about 40 minutes)
1 or 2 sheets of gelatin*
1 1/2 cup milk, divided
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

*I used two sheets of gelatin, and it made for a stiffer panna cotta than I like. Depending on how you plan to serve this, two sheets might be necessary to give the panna cotta enough strength to stand unmolded. I would try just one sheet next time if serving it straight from the glasses. The most helpful information I’ve found online about using gelatin was written by David Lebovitz, though I’m still not sure what the correct conversion is between powdered and sheet gelatin since the sheets I used were smaller than what he writes about. My advice: go with powdered gelatin if you aren’t sure either. I’ve written directions for both forms in step 1.

1) If using powdered gelatin: In a bowl, mix gelatin with 1/4 cup milk. Whisk until gelatin is dissolved and then let sit.
If using sheet gelatin: In a bowl, immerse one sheet of gelatin with 1 cup of cold water. If using two sheets, use two cups of water. Wait five minutes for the gelatin to bloom, then squeeze out the excess water and mix the gelatin with 1/2 cup warm milk. Let sit.
2) In a blender, add the sugar, pumpkin puree, heavy cream, remaining 1 cup of milk, spices, and vanilla. Blend until smooth.
3) Pour the blended pumpkin/cream mix into a medium pot over medium heat.
4) Simmer for five minutes, then add the gelatin/milk mix to the pot. Turn heat to low. Whisk until blended, about two minutes, then remove from heat and let cool a bit.
5) Pour warm mixture into glasses or ramekins if you want to serve plainly on a plate. Make sure to lightly oil your ramekins first so that the panna cotta will slip from them easily.
6) Chill for six hours, or overnight. Top with whipped cream and crumbled grahams, if you like.

Cinnamon Whipped Cream
Whisk one cup of heavy cream in a big bowl until soft peaks form. Mix in sugar to taste, and cinnamon by the teaspoonful, adding more for a headier flavor. Chill.

pumpkin panna cotta

 

 

 

Kinfolk in Korea

Sunday, October 6, 2013

For a long time, I’ve wanted to create a food-centric event in Korea. Last Saturday, inspired by Kinfolk‘s monthly initiative of gathering in small groups around the world, Sonja and I worked with our friends Yaeri, Sooji, Ji Sun and Sewon to host a fermentation workshop at a meditation retreat center Chungju, about two hours south of Seoul. We put our heads together with Mi Soon, Irene, and Bora, the women who run the impressive food program at Ongdalsam. Ongdalsam is a meditation retreat center in the mountains with the perfect backdrop and matching philosophy for what we’d hoped to create.

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Mi Soon Nim walked us around the grounds of Ongdalsam, lifted the lids and pulled the paper shields away from heavy earthenware pots, urging us to dip our fingers into soy sauce that had been fermenting since 2007. She fed us samples of her pickled garlic, plum juice, and gochujang. Mi Soon is nimble and soft-spoken at first, but put her in front of a group and she shines.

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Days before the workshop, Mi Soon and Bora fermented a gigantic batch of soybeans so they were pungent and sticky. Called cheonggukjang, these beans are either loved or hated, and I think it was Mi Soon’s objective to make lovers out of all of us. Which she did. We buried them inside sesame-covered rice balls, mixed them in a salad with 3-year old kimchi, and stuffed them inside soft envelopes of tofu with mild, pickled pepper. Then we sheathed a giant batch of yeolmu with minced ginger, garlic, and red pepper and turned it into kimchi. At the end of the day, we set a long table with tea lights and platters of pickled vegetables, steamed white rice, and the foods we’d just finished making. Before we knew it, it was time to catch the bus back to Seoul.

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Food can’t connect with the same complexity as shared history, tragedy, or triumph, but along with a compulsion for safety and intimacy, the traditions we build, honor, and share through food are the bona-fide common threads between us. There are a dozen ways to share the company of others, though probably none better than the act of breaking bread. And it’s always made better by the combined effort of many.

Sincere thanks to Mr. Godowon and the whole team at Ongdalsam for making the workshop so special.

All photos above are courtesy of Jun Michael Park. Photo below courtesy of Ongdalsam.

Kinfolk Group

 

 

Concord Grape Ginger Jam

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The thought of holing up in the house all day on a Sunday to make jam sounds very Little House on the Prairie, I know. And yet, the act of saving a super ripe bundle of fruit by turning it into something you can keep for much longer is as satisfying as climbing between the sheets of your own bed at the end of a long day. Making jam takes time, which is probably why most of us don’t do it more often (me included). But once you’ve got the fruit in a pot over the flame, there’s time to walk away and do other things, so long as you return to stir now and then. Also, jam is incredibly forgiving, much like soup. This jam is not so sweet, but it tastes clean and honest and as good as I want it to, anyway.  The grape skins split as they’re heated, like tomatoes. The soft, fleshy underbellies pop with the help of a wooden spoon, releasing the “free run”–which is grape speak for the thirst-quenching, sweet sour nectar that makes the fruit so damn irresistible.

A few notes:
*If you like jam that’s very sweet, you might want to use sugar instead of honey.
*You could opt not to strain the juice from the skins for more of an unevenly textured jam. Just be sure to seed the grapes right after you wash them.
*If you’re looking for advice on how to sterilize jars, read here. It isn’t hard, just a bit time consuming. Since I knew I’d be finishing my batch within a few weeks, I skipped sterilizing this time and stuck the jars straight in the fridge.

Concord Grape Ginger Jam adapted from this recipe and this recipe
5 cups concord grapes, washed well
1/2 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons of minced, peeled ginger root

Over medium heat, simmer grapes with ginger for about 30 minutes. Every so often, stir and gently pop the grapes with a wooden spoon or whatever tool you’re using. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Pour into a mesh strainer and press as much juice and pulp through as possible. Discard the seeds, skins, and ginger, then pour the strained liquid back into the pot. Add honey and lemon juice. Simmer for 45 minutes to an hour until the liquid has reduced by half.