My Japan: Top Ten Food Experiences – Part I

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I have finally managed to organize some of my thoughts following our recent trip to Japan, even though my mind is still buzzing with all the excitement. Nothing I can say will do justice to the incredible world of food and drink of Japan, but I will nevertheless attempt to briefly recount ten of our most memorable experiences of the two weeks:

1. Breakfast of champions

Upon arrival in Tokyo, one quickly discovers that in the land of the rising sun, there is actually not a whole lot to do at 6, 7, even 8am; which is why almost all visitors end up at Tsukiji fish market, where a breakfast of the world’s freshest sushi awaits. Alternatively, one can have the world’s freshest sashimi as part of a rice bowl (donburi, or don). Featured above is a particularly over-the-top luxurious version of ikura, toro, and uni (roe, fatty tuna, and sea urchin) don, available for only about 20 dollars at Nakaya, a donburi specialist (prepare to queue!). Perhaps, the ultimate decadent breakfast involves buying a box of freshest uni from a vendor in Tsukiji market, and eating the entire box with a big spoon!

During our time in Kyoto, as we were staying in a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan), we took advantage of the opportunity to start the day right with the traditional Japanese breakfast. It typically consists of grilled fish, pickles, rice, nori, miso soup, tamagoyaki (omelet), vegetables, and tea. While it limits one’s ability to snack during the first couple of hours of exploration, it is an experience not to be missed.

breakfast

If you are anxious to get the day started, a coffee and a pastry at a French boulangerie, such as Eric Kayser, can also do the trick (I ate my fair share of bichon au citron and miniature yuzu muffins). Or one can opt for a traditional sweet roll (anpan) filled with red bean paste from a Japanese bakery such as Kimuraya, or something else equally delicious.

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2. Food markets and street food

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If you need a break from structured multi-course meals, noshing in the food markets, such as the fantastic Nishiki market in Kyoto is easy as pie. Dashi-maki (omelet on a stick), oysters, takoyaki (octopus balls), grilled mochi, wagashi, soft matcha ice-cream, you name it. If you run out of ideas, just follow a flock of school girls.

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3. Coffee revolution

Japan (and especially Tokyo) is in the middle of a revolution, – a coffee revolution, that is. Exciting choices range from the very traditional kissaten (such as Chatei Hatou) to a coffee stand by the park (Little Nap Coffee Stand); from an artsy syphon bar (Cafe Obscura) to a pop-up coffee shop (Omotesando Koffee).

cafe l'ambre

Two of our favorites were Cafe de l’Ambre in Ginza (Tokyo) and Ogawa Coffee in Kyoto. Cafe de l’Ambre, a serious and classic kissaten, serves only coffee, and has a 30-deep list of single origin aged beans, including offerings like Cuban coffee beans from the 70’s. Ogawa makes simply fantastic espresso-based drinks, and puts the same amount of enthusiasm into one of the hottest trends right now, – latte art:

latte art

4. World’s best French pastries

in my opinion, are to be found in Tokyo. All the top French patissieres (Viron, Henri Charpentier, Hevin, Pierre Herme, etc. ) have long set up shop in Japan. In addition, they are in competition with such Japanese stars as Sadaharu Aoki who have managed to apply immaculate classic technique to traditional Japanese ingredients, such as yuzu, black sesame, matcha, genmaicha, etc.

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Most of them have their own stores, but the best places to search for treasures are depachika (the underground levels of department stores, such as Takashimaya, Daimaru, Mitsukoshi, Isetan, etc. dedicated entirely to food.

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5. Sushi and sashimi

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During the trip, we had sashimi almost daily, as it happens to be a very common course in a progression of any set meal. In addition to that, we went to a dedicated sushi restaurant (sushiya) a total of 5 times (three times to Tokyo Michelin-starred restaurants, once to Daiwazushi at Tsukiji market, and once in Kyoto ( to Izuju, for Kyoto-style pressed mackerel sushi and inari sushi). Even though all of the experiences were extremely enjoyable in their own right, the trip to the 10-seat, 3-Michelin-star Sushi Mizutani left me giddy for hours.

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Mizutani-san does not allow photography, as he finds it distracting; however, I found that not being a food paparazza helps one to focus on what’s important: the absolutely incredible fish, the amazing knife skills, and on sharing the fleeting ideal moment with the legendary itamae (sushi chef), considered by many to be one of the world’s best. It was intimidating at first (which is why I always recommend starting a Japanese meal with a beer to take the edge off), but overall I found him to be very approachable and gracious. Nevertheless, it was very humbling to be face-to-face with a true shokunin, – someone who has dedicated his life to relentless pursuit of perfection through his craft.

Naturally, one cannot speak of sushi without mentioning the rice. Mizutani-san is famous for his top-quality, perfectly textured, vinegared shari (rumored to be from the same purveyor as his teacher Jiroo-san). As he himself put it in response to my excited broken Japanese, “If the rice is good, then the sushi is good”.

Highlights: awabi (abalone), torigai (cockle clam), anago (saltwater eel), and, surprisingly, ika (squid), whose sublime soft and creamy flesh has nothing in common with the squid in the United States. By the way, just in case you have never seen real wasabi root, here is what it looks like:

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6. Tofu: it is not just for vegetarians anymore

Besides the incredible vegetables, Kyoto’s other claim to fame in the food world is tofu, which comes from a combination of centuries of experience from Buddhist monks and great mountain spring water. After eating at places like Okutan, Sosoan and Shoraian (currently considered the #1 tofu restaurant in Japan), it is fair to say that Kyoto has elevated tofu-making to an art. It is interesting to note that many tofu-centric restaurants are not vegetarian, as that connection primarily exists in the Western world (the only exception is shojin-ryori, – Buddhist monks’ ascetic and beautiful cuisine). At a place like Shoraian, tofu is not a bland block of protein, but an incredible handmade ingredient showcased in a tofu kaiseki which may include chilled sesame tofu, yuba (tofu skin), yudofu (hot pot), agedashi tofu, etc.

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…To Be Continued…

Be on the lookout for Part II of this post coming in the next couple of days!

P.S. Since this is a food & wine blog, I will not be talking about the amazing soccer-playing humanoid robot ASIMO at Miraikan, Tokyo’s Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. I will not mention the 1,000-year old Zen rock garden, or Kinkaku-ji,Temple of the Golden Pavillion, whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf.

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Nor will I describe our hike in Kamakura, culminating at the biggest outdoor Buddha statue in Japan, or a boat trip down mountain river Hozo from Kameoka to Arashiyama, or the Thousand Torii (Gates) at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. I will completely leave out stories of playing with the world’s cutest cats at Nekorobi, a cat cafe in Tokyo, and of gliding in a cable car from the top of a volcanic mountain to the lakeshore, while gazing at Fuji-san (Mount Fuji) in stunning Hakone…some things should be left to imagination.

Kinkakuji

I, Sultan

I am not cheap, but I love a good value! In my opinion, the legendary and the luxurious do not always have to carry a hefty price tag, and that is certainly true in Istanbul. Here is my list (in no way complete) of Istanbul experiences worthy of a sultan that ANYONE can afford. Most of them are free or cost close to nothing. (I must say it was an especially nice contrast to the meals I am currently researching for our May trip to Japan, – no fair being tempted by $400-600 per person life-changing lunches!!!)

  • Forget the Bosphorus boat cruises with their limiting schedules and a 25 lira price tag! Take in the beauty of the Bosphorus seaside for a mere 3 Turkish lira from a commuter ferry departing every 15-20 minutes (for example, from the Eminonu pier in the historic Sultanahmet area to Kadikoy on the Anatolian side). For a more serene experience, do try to avoid rush hour traffic. Especially recommended on a lazy weekend afternoon.

The only thing that is better than admiring the beautiful facades of some of the finest examples of Ottoman architecture from a boat is to do so while eating arguably the best yogurt in the world. Kanlica yogurt is a unique blend of cow and sheep milk traditionally served with powdered sugar in order to perfectly balance the intense sourness, and create the most refreshing snack.  I am sure one can get a good sized container for a couple of lira in Kanlica proper (a sleepy fishing village on the Anatolian side), but since it was served to us on a ferry, it was marked up to 3 lira :-).

Legend has it, back in the day it used to be so thick and creamy that it was sold in blocks which were cut with a knife.  Today, there is only one place that makes Kanlıca yogurt in the traditional way: Kanlıca Doğa Yoğurdu. The most important aspect of Kanlıca yogurt in comparison to others is that it is natural. There are no additives to increase the shelf life; only the pure, natural milk from the villages of Beykoz.

  • Don’t leave Istanbul without sampling seasonal fruit! Our fruit-eating schedule for September went as follows: watermelon with breakfast, melon with lunch and/or dinner, and figs and grapes as a snack. The voice of reason was telling me that there was no way figs that big could be great (smaller berries and fruit tend to be more concentrated in nutrients and therefore more intense in flavor), but it was wrong. Here is what 2 lira’s worth of amazing fruit looks like (see the picture above).
  • Escape to an island for an equivalent of 3 US dollars! A particularly good choice is Buyukada, the farthest of the Princes’ Islands (Adalar), where time seems to have stopped, and the main mode of transportation is horse and buggy, or a bicycle. It is also a nice place to watch a local “chef” make labor-intensive traditional dishes by hand, such as croquettes, or perhaps, sarma:

It also gives one a wonderful opportunity to eat island-style dishes (some of which will remind you of Greek cuisine), like slow-baked octopus in a clay pot, or my beloved fava,

and of course, the delicious garlicky deniz börülcesi (samphire greens, glasswort, or sea beans) that love the excessive salt and water of the seaside environment. Dressed with olive oil, lemon, and garlic, it is a very popular meze (appetizer), especially ideal for rakı, the anise-flavored Turkish alcoholic libation of choice:

  • Enjoy fantastic freshly squeezed juices available in virtually every part of the city. Nar (pomegranate juice) is the most expensive choice, but you can still buy a good-sized cup for 3-4 lira (that we often ended up sharing).

It is the most refreshing beverage on a warm day, even more so than the ubiquitous ayran (Turkish yogurt drink that tastes like buttermilk), although there is simply no better accompaniment to lamb-based dishes! For example, the incredibly moist and tender sis at Antiochia, or Sultanahmet-style köfte (meatballs) at the legendary Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi:

  • Don’t miss two Turkish staples, – mackerel and Black Sea anchovies (uskumru and hamsi). Eating fresh fish can be pricey, and fish restaurants can be prohibitively expensive if you are on a tight budget.
  • Luckily, from a mere 3 lira balik ekmek (mackerel sandwich), to the 10-lira fried hamsi or hamsi pilav (anchovy-specked rice), there is a slew of options that will allow you to have a proper fish meal on the cheap. It is Black Sea comfort food at its finest!  Turks are crazy about hamsi, and you should be, too.

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Perhaps, the ultimate luxury in a super-vibrant city like Istanbul is a few moments of peace and quiet. Luckily, one can duck into a tea and nargile (hookah) shop such as Çorlulu Ali Paşa Medresesi, to find a few precious moments of tranquility:  

If you can spare a bit more time, take a trip to Rüstem Paşa Camii. Far more peaceful and intimate (and in my opinion, just as beautiful) as the Blue Mosque that you have likely already visited with several thousand of your closest friends (after standing in line for a long while). Rüstem Paşa Camii was designed by Sinan in 1561 for Rüstem Paşa, Grand Vizer under Süleyman the Magnificent. It is one of the architect’s most celebrated small mosques (Sinan has been described as “the Michelangelo of Istanbul”), and is nestled nicely into what has been a bazaar for well over 500 years.

And at night, one could look for a quite corner on a roof top terrace (such as the impressive Mikla bar on top of the imposing Marmara Pera hotel) to have coffee, or something stronger, and take in the jaw-dropping panorama of this incredible city…

Istanbul: Redefining Breakfast

It has been a week since we got back, and every day I find myself reminiscing about Istanbul. The trip was so satisfying that it was almost impossible for me to pick what to write about first. Finally, I decided to start from the beginning, as in Turkey, breakfast is definitely in the top 3 most important meals of the day.

We experienced a wide variety of breakfast menus, from a simple but satisfying simit (an iconic Turkish snack of circular bread with sesame seeds) and tea, to the ubiquitous traditional tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and feta plates (plus slices of watermelon in the summer), to the over-the-top lavish Van-style breakfast. One thing stayed the same: it was always made with local fresh ingredients, and it was often savory rather than just sweet.

Çay (tea) is what many Turks start the day with, and drink throughout the day. Contrary to what one might think, they do not just drink Turkish-style coffee; as a matter of fact, the quality of coffee available in Istanbul widely varies, and many settle for the weak, milky Nescafe. Some believe that the best coffee in the city can be found at Mandabatmaz in Beyoglu. I certainly thought that their rich, dense, and aromatic version was pretty close to the Platonic ideal of türk kahvesi :

Now back to Van-style breakfast (Van is a city in the Eastern part of Turkey). A Van-style Kurdish breakfast takes the traditional Turkish breakfast of feta, tomato, cucumber, olives, and bread, and turns it up more than a few notches.

At Van Kahvalti Evi, along with the standards, the breakfast plate comes with an assortment of local cheeses (including the wonderfully grassy otlu and orgu, and string cheese), cacik (thick yogurt), homemade butter, jam, olives, selection of bread, and tahini. Along with the breakfast plates, they also serve casserole-style dishes, such as my favorite sucuklu menemen (scrambled eggs cooked with sautéed onions, green peppers and tomato, with an addition of sucuk, a spicy Turkish sausage):

They also serve excellent gozleme, which are thin sheets of hand-rolled dough wrapped around cheese, beef, potato or spinach; kind of a cross between a quesadilla and a crepe:

One of the highlights of the Van breakfast was an amazing dish that could easily double as dessert: local honey with tiny bits of wax served alongside kaymak, the Turkish version of sweet clotted cream. (Besides the porcine gene, I believe I have always had the ursine gene, as am terribly fond of good honey).

The fabulous kaymak (besides being eaten with a spoon :-)) can also be tasted as a lokum (Turkish delight) filling, as well as in kaymakli baklava, where it gets baked into a luxurious layer, pushing the envelope on perfection just a bit further:

At a place like Van Kahvalti Evi, breakfast can be had throughout the day (one of the many things I loved about Istanbul restaurants is that they are open all day, – virtually any time I might feel hungry!).

Another notable breakfast example was served at Hotel Amira, which, among many, many other things included sheep’s milk yogurt with grape molasses, or rose jam (my favorite!), or dried fruit and nuts. They also offered the best freshly squeezed orange juice I had ever tasted in my entire life. Incidentally, my daily intake of nar (freshly squeezed pomegranate juice) was something one gets used to very quickly.

Whatever the source, after breakfast we would feel sufficiently fortified to go about our day, exploring the secrets of the Ottoman Empire, or just gazing over at the Bosphorus…

Cooking Outside the Box

I am in complete agreement with Sybarite Sauvage who recently remarked that it was just “too darn hot” to mess around with elaborate stories. Hot weather makes creative juices dry up, and one needs an extra effort and a reason to get excited about writing and cooking. So, why not use a little trick, and challenge yourself by using fun new ingredients?

1. Cucuzza squash

During a recent trip to the farmer’s market, I was delighted to see an old friend, – gargantuan-sized Italian squash that goes by the name of “cucuzza”. When we were hiking on the Amalfi coast last September, we saw cucuzzi hanging down from the trellis like some alien baseball bats:

So, I quickly bought the smallest specimen I could find, and spent a good part of my yoga practice thinking about what I was going to do with the darn things. All-in-all, they could be used like other types of summer squash; but they tend to be more flavorful and nutty, plus they keep their shape very well during cooking.

Once I started thinking Italy, squash, zucchini,…the next thing I was remembering was the fabulous zucchini pizza from Forno Campo de’ Fiori in Rome:

Thus, it was decided: it is going to be quasi-pizza, with WholeFood’s tandoori bread as the base:

The first creation was “pizza bianca” with cucuzzi, mountain oregano (indigenous to Amalfi), whole-milk ricotta blobs, a little drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice, freshly ground pepper, and shredded Pecorino (salty and sharp sheep’s milk cheese). Before serving, I sprinkled it with finely julienned mint.

It was followed by “pizza rossa”, built with a very thin layer of arrabiata, cucuzzi, Pecorino, pepper, and combination opal & Italian basil. Here is what it looked like just before I put it in the oven for 5 minutes at 400F:

Ok, now I have used up half of the smaller squash…the question is, what in the world am I going to do with the rest???

2. Tamarind

My must-have dish at any good Vietnamese restaurant is Hot and Sour Soup (Canh Chua), the current favorite being from Saigon Café (located across from Eden Center in Virginia). It is, essentially, a shrimp, tomato, and pineapple soup in tamarind broth. My goal was not to recreate anybody’s version, – I was not following any particular recipe, nor did I have all the ingredients that traditionally go into the soup (such as the wonderfully spongy elephant ear). However, I wanted to make sure it maintained its distinctive taste.

This type of soup epitomizes everything that I love about Vietnamese food, such as the use of fresh ingredients (a variety of herbs and vegetables) to provide different textures and flavors within one dish.  The goal is to create perfect balance of hot (from the chili paste or chili flakes), sweet (from the pineapple), and sour (from the tamarind and lime juice) components.

So, first, you must make your stock using vegetable broth (or shrimp stock), water, tamarind paste,  fish sauce, lemongrass, chili flakes, or chili paste (such as the Pantai paste I used, complete with chilis, garlic, shallots, spices, shrimp paste, etc.). Strain it, and if you can, let it sit in the fridge overnight, in order for all the flavors to marry. The rest takes no more than 10 minutes, as you throw in the pineapple, okra (my approximation for elephant ear), and tomatoes.

A symphony of flavors and colors

At the last possible moment, add shrimp, lime juice, and aromatic herbs (I happened to have opal basil and cilantro on hand). Serve with additional basil and cilantro, if you wish.

In order to push things just a bit further, try a Txakoli (pronounced “Chacoli”) from the Basque region of Spain with your makeshift pizza and soup. In general, it can range from a simple, undemanding quaffer to a wine of extreme focus and character. Getariako Txakolina from Mokoroa certainly has enough acidity, minerality and freshness to bring out the most harmonious chorus from the crazy symphony of textures and flavors of the hot & sour soup.

Singing flavors *are* the best remedy for heat-induced sloth!

I Like a Good Beer Buzz Early in the Morning

Ok, I lied. Actually, it is entirely untrue: I have never even tasted beer early in the morning. But, on Friday night I came close to purchasing VIP tickets to Drink the District (Beer Edition) for 11am entry, if only to find out whether I did enjoy an early-morning buzz. In the end, I could not bring myself to spend the morning with hundreds of others in the 95-degree heat clamoring for unlimited 3-oz artisanal beer pours. But a good idea is a good idea, and we started our own search of refreshing ways to beat the hot weather (and taste craft beer).

The ever-refreshing Summit Lake

A cool 40 degrees, even with a ray of sunshine…

Certainly, the best escape from the heat would involve going back to Mt.Evans, the closest fourteener  to Denver where we spent our 4th of July holiday.

Yes, the white patches are snow…

On top of the world, with a bigger picture perspective…

By the way, that was a fantastic trip full of culinary delights, such as the amazing omakase from Sushi Den (one of the very best sushi restaurants I have ever been to), Paul Bara champagne, and a perfect sundried tomato risotto made from scratch by my dear friend The Blissful Adventurer.

courtesy of sushiden.net

However, Denver is not exactly stone’s throw from DC, and we had to get creative.

So, we hid in our apartment and had a picnic lunch on our cool granite floor (one can sit or lie on a sheepskin rug). We fortified ourselves with Watermelon & Feta salad and Fattoush, before heading to a local watering hole by the name of Churchkey, in order to taste through some stellar locally produced stuff.

Just in case the pictures are making you hungry, and you would like one of your own, the W & F salad features sheep’s milk Greek feta from Lesbos co-op, watermelon chunks, spearmint, salt-packed Sicilian capers from Il Mongetto, lemon juice, a splash of olive oil and red wine vinegar, and baby local red onions.

My version of Fattoush (a popular Lebanese peasant salad) is made with toasted pita strips, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, purslane, red onions, parsley, mint, green bell pepper, lots and lots of lemon juice, olive oil, and sumac.

After a couple of scoops of Talenti sea salt caramel gelato (highly recommended!), we finally embarked on our tasting adventure. Churchkey boasts a 555 unique label selection from 30 countries, including 5 authentic cast conditioned ales, and 50 draught beers, in different tasting formats. As I prefer variety, 4oz pours is my usual format of choice.

We tasted through some 10 microbrews (all on tap), ranging from summer ales and pilsners to American IPAs to Altbier and cask ale. All-in-all, nothing over 7% (so, no imperial stouts, tripels, double IPAs, etc).

Thus, our Top 5 list of local artisanal summery brews (from East Coast microbreweries) was born. The general criteria were aromatics, complexity, refreshing mouthfeel (must be appropriate for summer), and of course, the looks, such as a pretty head coupled with a beautiful translucent amber-hued body. (That doesn’t make me a shallow person, does it :-)?

Here is goes (in alphabetical order):

1. Dominion Hop Mountain by Coastal Brewing Company, DE. An American Pale Ale (authentic cask ale), dry-hopped in the cask with Chinook hops. Dangerously smooth and balanced. Piney, citrusy, hoppy, and moderately malty.

2. Prima Pils by Victory Brewing Company, PA. A German pilsner made with whole-flower Czech & German hops. (***Jeff’s strictly summertime favorite). Lemony, grassy, bitter, crisp, and earthy.

3. Smuttynose IPA “Finest Kind”, NH. An American IPA made with Amarillo, Simcoe, and Santiam hops. (***Jeff’s overall favorite). Floral, very grapefruity, pleasantly bitter, and balanced.

4. The Corruption by DC Brau, DC. It is an American IPA made with Tomahawk hops. (***my overall favorite, – perhaps, not surprisingly, as I am very familiar with the concept of corruption :-)). The most intense, aromatic, and complex of the bunch.

5. Victory Altbier by Victory Brewing Company, PA. A lively Altbier that is spicy, hoppy, earthy, and bready.

The efforts of these breweries are quite refreshing, although I am unsure if I would drink them first thing in the morning. I think maybe you have to warm up your body and mind first, to be able to cool down and fully appreciate what they have to offer. Those are not just some brainless blonde ales but, to borrow the wine world term, “birre da meditazione”, – beers that command contemplation.

Cheers!

A Creature of Habit

A few years back, my orange tabby Kuzya really disappointed me. He was totally unexcited by Wellness Chicken & Lobster, Turkey & Duck, and Sardine, Shrimp & Crab flavors that I had lovingly picked out for him at the store (instead of his usual boring Chicken & Herring flavor). I thought he would be all over the new delectable-sounding entrées, but he plain refused to eat them. When I eventually gave up and fed him his Chicken & Herring stuff, he was in heaven. I was miffed and confused. How can he not want to eat lobster, duck, and crab? Even more importantly, how can he keep getting excited by the same dish every single day?

“Oh boy, it’s dog food again!”

When you think of it, we humans are not that different. Three of my co-workers eat the exact same thing for lunch every day (and we are talking about senior management, not starving college students). A real-life example: a turkey sandwich on white bread, a pint of milk, and applesauce for dessert. Every single day.

Heck, I am not all that different. I start every morning with coffee and a Balance protein bar (cookie-dough flavored). Granted, the actual coffee changes (today was  5 de Junio Maragojipe Microlot from Las Sabanas, Nicaragua; tomorrow will be Santa Elena Pacamara from Santa Ana, El Salvador, or perhaps Haru, an Ethiopian high-elevation heirloom coffee from Yirgacheffe(all of them freshly roasted by Counter Culture coffee) . But still…

I could eat good-quality tomatoes, bread and sea salt every day (actually, I do!). In our household, Odwalla Superfood shake and WholeFoods-brand lemon flavored sparkling mineral water are also consumed on a daily basis.

Les tomates mon amour

At least every other day, I eat warm whole wheat pita by The Perfect Pita and 365 brand Greek or Lemon hummus; 0% fat Greek yogurt with tangerine & clementine marmalade or Skyr (an Icelandic style dense yogurt); and scrambled eggs with tomatillo salsa. It is almost a rule…

Unless we are traveling, every Saturday, after the trip to the farmer’s market, I make Horiatiki, or Fattoush (Greek and Lebanese classic peasant salads, respectively). More often than not, they are repeated during the week, as well. Here is my version of Horiatiki made with tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, dried oregano, red wine vinegar, EVOO, mild banana peppers, olives, green bell peppers, and French goat or sheep’s milk feta:

At least once a month, I have to cross the state lines, and drive to Eden Center in Fairfax, VA to get good Vietnamese food.

And this is not even the end of the list…

It is rather ironic I almost never write about the things I love the most (and apparently, cannot do without). Instead, most of the time, I choose to write about deviations from the norm, – about things I make rather rarely, or even about once-in-a-lifetime food&wine experiences. But definitely about something food-blog-worthy, such as this pea shoots, fava bean, and shaved Pecorino salad dressed with EVOO and lemon juice:

Or perhaps, a memorable meal, such as dinner at Annissa on the most recent trip to NY featuring:

  • Fluke crudo with black lime and radishes

  • Eggplant with two Turkish chilis in yogurt water

  • Seared fois gras with soup dumplings and jicama (naturally, the dumplings are stuffed with fois gras as well :-)).

Alternatively, I go on and on about an interesting tasting, such as our self-guided aged European beer exploration at DC-own Churchkey this weekend. (Apparently, aged beer is all the rage these days, so beverage buffs, pay attention!). And of course, there are visually striking and delightful dishes I often come across in my travels, be it the simple house-made pickles at Cha-An Japanese tea shop in the East Village,

or a Grapefruit Givré at Boulud Sud (aTurkish-inspired concoction made with sesame halva, rose loukoum, and grapefruit sorbet):

And yet, when I return home, I keep craving tomatoes, bread, and sea salt…

Russia Day

Russia Day (June 12) is not a holiday I grew up with, as my entire childhood was spent in Soviet Russia. It has been celebrated only since 1991, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Russia’s newly found independence (although it is hard to define from whom, exactly). At any rate, this holiday presents a perfect excuse to celebrate being a snooty Moscow girl :-).

This year I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the reception at the Russian Embassy in Washington DC hosted by the Russian Ambassador and his entourage.

The focal point of the evening was Russian food. The spread was lavish and exquisite; it lacked the grotesque excesses of the pre-revolutionary aristocracy, and of the “new Russians” (as in, large tubs of caviar and champagne fountains). The event as a whole was in amazingly good taste, and it was marked by the conspicuous absence of scantily dressed leggy 20-year old Russian babes. Instead, it was full of classy and beautiful women who have managed to escape the curse of premature aging so common in Russia. (The unintended consequence of looking young is that some Russian women currently living in the U.S. still get stern looks from the cashier and demands to see some ID when buying alcohol at a grocery store :-))

The spirit was clearly celebratory. Delicacies abounded, – caviar, sturgeon, tongue, roasted piglet, you name it. They were served side by side with homey but amazing meat pies (“pierozhki”), shish kebabs (“shashlik”), dumplings (“pelmeni”), eggplant rolls, a shrimp-laden version of “Olivier” a.k.a. “Russian” salad…the list goes on almost indefinitely. 

Libations were as plentiful and potent as the Volga river, the traditional drink of choice being pure, unadulterated liquor (no mixers, no ice cubes). Those of you who have read “The Master and Margarita” may even recall Behemoth’s immortal line, “Do you think I would offer vodka to a lady? This is pure grain alcohol!”

Joking aside, we did toast with Rossijskaja vodka, – smooth as a baby’s bottom, with all the traditional chasers (caviar, smoked salmon, pickled mushrooms and cabbage, tongue with horseradish, herring, hot-smoked sturgeon, etc. The other “choices of a new generation” were whiskey and gin; this was no place for molecular mixology.

Thank God, there was no “Soviet Champagne” (“Sovietskoje Shampanskoje”), ubiquitous at every Russian gathering back in the day. Essentially an alcoholic grape soda pop, it bore as much resemblance to the real stuff as American pumpernickel bread to the Russian “black” rye bread . A “Soviet” sparkler would not be appropriate for the occasion, anyway.

After the party we did not feel the need to check off any additional boxes, and decided to skip the original plan of tasting blini, caviar, and premium vodkas at the nearby Russia House lounge and restaurant. It has one of those inviting façades marred by Russian bandit  bouncer types, sporting the mandatory bad haircuts, jogging suits, and gold chains. Instead, we just slowly walked home…

This holiday made me think of one of my favorite childhood treats: spoonfuls of homemade dulce de leche (soft caramel), made by boiling an unopened can of condensed sweetened milk for several hours (“var’onaja sgushenka”):

If I weren’t lazy (of course that would be starting with a counterfactual :-)), I would make something ambitious like a traditional cake called “The Count’s Castle Ruins” (“Grafskije Razvalini”), in order to celebrate the occasion. It is one big delicious mess featuring layered soft caramel, merengue, nuts, etc. that perfectly illustrates the aftermath of many political events of the past.

photo credit: nn.ru

Purple Cauliflower Is a Cosmopolitan Polyglot

Emboldened by the postmodernist innovative ideas from our recent trip to Chicago, I embarked on culinary experimentation of my own. Inspiration was promptly provided by a beautiful purple cauliflower from Dupont Circle farmer’s market called Sicilian-Violet. I thought it to be a particularly appropriate choice, given the fact that my good friend The Blissful Adventurer has just returned from a trip to Sicily.

The idea was to start with a simple base (such as oven-roasted cauliflower florets), and to pair them with a few different flavors. Clearly, I was already nostalgic about playing with the succulent brine-and-butter Glidden Point oysters from Maine, and a set of tinctures at the Office on our Chicago trip (green peppercorns, smoke, curry, lemon, ginger, and fennel, for anybody interested :-)).

Speaking of Chicago, we had a tasty cauliflower dish at the Purple Pig (a “cheese, swine, and wine” kind of place, by their own description), which involved charred cauliflower, toasted breadcrumbs, cornichons, and parsley. I think it is only logical to eat purple cauliflower at the Purple Pig, if it is too hot to eat pig…

Our favorite homespun combination turned out to be furikake-seasoned cauliflower (a perfectly balanced Japanese mixture of sesame seeds, salt, sugar, and seaweed). This method is also perfect for Hakurei turnips that remind me of the Russian baby turnips (“repka”) that I liked to snack on when I was growing up. I ate them raw – they had delicate skin, and were as sweet as honey, as a Russian would say. As you can imagine, roasting makes them even sweeter.

The other two combinations involved dips: a Greek yogurt dip ( seasoned with lemon, salt, mint, red pepper, and sumac, which is one of my very favorite Middle Eastern spices), and Thai sweet and sour curry made with a Por Kwan-brand Tom Yum paste, light coconut milk, and kefir leaves.

Cauliflower and turnips were washed down with a Spanish Verdejo, which, to me, is the ideal summer wine. It tastes of the salty ocean and tropical fruit, and has the acidity and backbone to stand up to garlic, spice, aged cheese, char, and just about anything else you throw its way. Besides, you can get a very tasty version for as little as $12.

To complete my light lunch menu, I made a super-quick summery Russian-style sorrel soup with new potatoes. Just in case you are unfamiliar with sorrel, here is what it looks like:

The fastest way to make sorrel soup is as follows: cut up new potatoes (I don’t bother with peeling them), and cook them in vegetable organic stock. Once they are very close to being done, add the sorrel, and lots of lemon juice. Cook for another minute. To serve the soup, add quartered boiled eggs, and sour cream, or crème fraiche, to ramp up the tang. You can eat it hot or cold.

So, to recap: a Sicilian cauliflower variety with a Japanese seasoning, also served with a Greek dip with a Middle Eastern spice, and with a Thai curry. A Japanese turnip as a Russian childhood food memory. A Russian soup with American cage-free organic eggs, stock, and French-style crème fraiche.

This is one tasty melting pot…

Chicago: The Future Is Now

A mere two hours away from home, I have hit upon a place of confluence of futuristic trends. Architecture, cocktails, food, coffee, art, you name it. I am an impressionable type, and this was my first time in Chicago :-)

 

 

 

Let’s face it: Chicago is home to some of the most exciting restaurants in this country, including Next, Schwa, Alinea, El Ideas, etc… Unfortunately I did not manage to get into all the restos I wanted to visit, – Chicago proved to be the hardest city for reservations that I have ever encountered. Silly me – I had thought reserving a month and a half in advance would get me everything I desire…

Still, I was pretty pleased with my weekend line-up: Topolobampo, the Art Institute of Chicago, L2O, Intelligentsia, futuristic landscapes of the city, the Girl and the Goat, the whimsical Aviary/The Office, Avec, Sable… I was fortunate to explore and experience the efforts of such restaurant moguls and weather-makers as Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz, and Paul Kahan.

 

 

Many of those experiences were light-years beyond your average resto experience. I could certainly delve into the imperfections of each place, but I think this time (for the most part), I will focus on their refreshing originality, innovation, and playfulness.

Chicago clearly packs a ton of food knowledge and passion, most of which is delivered with a very flat Midwestern accent. The general theme is subtlety and purity of ingredients (with the exception of Girl and the Goat, who made it their calling to cater to the American palate with in-your-face flavors, while encouraging their patrons to eat and drink more through use of loud music). Here are some comments on just a few places we visited:

Avec: Ironically enough, the decor makes it look like a sauna, except that it is actually quite chilly inside. If you show up in early afternoon, before the hordes descend upon the restaurant, you can enjoy delectable dishes such as their chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo-pepper tomato sauce in peace, and drink fun obscure stuff like the grassy, assertive biancolello from the island of Ischia and a mouthwatering pecorino from Abruzzo.

Aviary/the Office. One word: molecular mixology. I have heard it aptly described as one-fourth chemistry lab, one-fourth theatrics,  one-fourth “How the… and WTF?”, and one-fourth blur. The theatrics are certainly hokey, but all-in-all, this crazy cocktail is pretty balanced. If you have an occasional need to feel important (I do!), perhaps you can score an invitation to the Office, a VIP-style underground speakeasy, inaccessible to the uninitiated. There, one can quietly enjoy a well-crafted pre-Prohibition-style cocktail, such as a rum, green tea, blood orange, pu-erh, and lime concoction. Accoding to Chef Achatz, they have about 30 different syrups, 165 different tinctures, eight different fresh juices, and five different fresh herbs to complement their drinks, as well as house-made custom ice that is hand chipped and/or molded in Japanese press molds. Pretty cool stuff…

I will venture a few random personal predictions about the future (hopefully, this will catch on in the rest of the country):

  • stuffed morels are in; they are tasty little devils.
  • succulent and pure seafood (this time of the year, ceviche from Topo alone will make anyone happy, with choices like Ceviche Fronterizo (lime-marinated Hawaiian albacore with tomatoes, olives, cilantro, green chile), Ceviche Yucateco (steamed Mexican blue shrimp & calamari, lime, orange, habanero, avocado, jcama & cilantro), or Coctel de Atun Tropical (sashimi-grade Hawaiian yellowfin tuna, avocado-tomatillo guacamole, tangy mango-grapefruit).
  • cubed food is in :-)
  • in the coffee realm, stunning springtime centrals have arrived. It is all about seasonal coffees, such as the gorgeous El Machete from Panama, or La Tortuga from Honduras. Another favorite: Ngogomo Burundi – funky and floral, bursting with flavors of cola, pecans, and dates; perfect as cafe solo.

I yet have to find a shop that would match Intelligentsia’s quality and skill level. They meticulously select the perfect method (V60 pour-over, cafe solo, chemex, espresso, etc.) for the best quality beans money can buy.

Lest anyone think of me as a person who only eats cube-shaped food, I wanted to mention that one of our culinary highlights in Chicago was lunch at Spoon Thai (we ordered from the unpriced Thai menu at the back, of course). Rustic and inelegant in its presentation, the food was to die for: Isaan-style lightly fermented rice and pork sausage, shrimp and lemongrass salad with scallion and lime juice, preserved egg salad with garlic, peanuts, ginger, and lime juice; and lightly sour fish soup with lime leaves and lemongrass (tom khlong plaa chawn).

And finally, our architectural tour on our last day in Chicago confirmed something for me that I already knew: I am a child of the postmodernist era.

The movement of Postmodernism began as a response to the perceived blandness and the perfectionism of the Modern movement, which was focused on the pursuit of an ideal, and attempted harmony of form and function, through dismissal of “frivolous ornament”.

My idea of postmodernist contextualism (check out the earrings purchased at the Art Institute of Chicago!)

Postmodernism openly challenged Modernism as antiquated and “totalitarian”, favoring personal preferences and variety over objective, ultimate truths or principles. This is how the modernist “Less is More” is replaced with the postmodernist “Less is a bore”, and I hope this trend really does catch on…

Goats (and Sheep) Do Roam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last weekend we went to Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Before any of you make any smart-alecky comments like, “Why???”, or, “Is there something I don’t know about you?”, let me explain.

No, I am not interested in animal husbandry, nor do I have a secret sheep shearing hobby. Simply put, animals are one more participant in the farmers’ market experience, usually as the donor of wool, meat, milk, or eggs. Someone we don’t usually get to meet.

Besides, they are terribly cute, sometimes to the point of grotesqueness:

The Festival, one of the biggest of its kind in the US, is not just about the sheep to shawl contests, showcasing hundreds of breeds, or working sheep dog demonstrations (which are pretty cool, by the way).

It is also about fantastic locally produced food, be it lamb, goat milk products, or sheep’s milk cheeses. A large variety of local farmstead meats and meat products were available for purchase, or immediate consumption (tasty lamb burgers, barbecued lamb ribs, grilled lamb, 100% lamb hot dogs, kabobs, etc.).

my homemade version of Provencal lamb shoulder, about to be slow-roasted with ramps, thyme, zest, lavender, peppercorns, EVOO, and red wine

Besides the a la carte options, one could buy tickets to the Shepherd’s Feast, which is a full-blown lamb-eating bacchanalia…

 

drool-worthy French chevre…sigh

Besides the meats, I was suitably impressed by the artisanal raw sheep’s milk aged cheeses from Shepherds Manor Creamery that reminded me of simple Pecorinos. But for me personally, the real stars of the show were goat cheeses from Caprikorn Farms, as after being in France, I am desperate for fresh goat milk products. The chevre was made earlier that week, and was still quite goaty, even though it was made with pasteurized milk. The 60-day raw milk goat Gouda was delectable, as well. I ended up with a nice supply of both, and left the festival to enjoy them in the privacy of my own home.

Reminiscing about France, the first thing I put together was a vegetarian-friendly version of salade lyonnaise, with warm herbed fresh goat cheese discs instead of lardons:

My mock lyonnaise shows off the striking indigo frisee, paired with cage-free local poached eggs, the aforementioned goat cheese, and a simple vinaigrette dressing.

The next appetizer appeared in the form of grilled baby zucchini from the farmers’ market stuffed with fresh chevre:

It was followed by more goodies from the market: goat butter, French breakfast radishes, Persian cukes, fleur de sel de Camargue, cornichons, chives, rosemary boule, and raw milk goat Gouda:

 

And finally, a rustic salad of roasted new potatoes, raw milk 60-day goat Gouda, chives, roasted ramps, and cornichons:

Everything was washed down with a fantastic little-known white from a pioneering wine region in eastern Languedoc called Larzac (classified vin de pays de L’Herault) : 2010 Domaine du Pas d’Escalette Les Clapas. It is an amazingly complex, fresh, and elegant field blend with great limestony minerality.

Thank you, goats and sheep, for a lovely lunch!