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Osechi-ryori

Osechi-ryori is the Japanese style of traditional foods eaten on New Years Day. It typically consists of many different small dishes that are served in stacked jubako (fine lacquer boxes similar to bento). To purchase a ready-made Osechi can set you back well into the hundreds of dollars. Or, you can spend all of that money on an airplane ticket to Japan and let your mother-in-law cook all of the food and arrange the jubako for you, Kawabata family style. Now, I’m not completely sure of all of the ingredients that were used, but I’ll sure do my best to fill you in on what filled my belly.

First and foremost was a delicious bottle of sake. My father-in-law always gets a really nice bottle when I come to visit. This is a bottle of Junmai Daiginjo from Aomori (Aomori is the farthest north area of Honshu and I once hitchhiked from central Tokyo all the way up there, but that’s a story for another time) called Denshu. It’s one of the best bottles in Japan and you won’t find it anywhere in the States. Junmai Daiginjo is sake that is made from pure rice without any added alcohol or sugar, rice that is polished at least 50%, and cold brewed at less than 5 degrees celsius. While you can find some Junmai Daiginjo in the States, you won’t find any as nice as this. It’s smooth as a baby’s ass! Even if you don’t love a baby’s ass, you’ll certainly love this bottle of sake.

In this box there was some simple steamed pea pods, shiitake simmered in shoyu (Japanese soy sauce), boiled satoimo potatoes, simmered lotus root, simmered carrots, and koya tofu (freeze-dried tofu, something I’ve never eaten before but really like the texture).

Here we have braised beef wrapped gobo (burdock root), salmon wrapped in kombu, sweet-pickled daikon and carrot, and sweet shoyu glazed yellow tail.

This level of jubako contained dried herring roe, white and pink fish cakes, ikura (salmon roe), mashed sweet potato, soy-glazed dried anchovies, Cool Breeze Amongst Pine Trees (Uichiro’s name for his famous meatloaf, don’t ask me how he came up with that name, some things are probably better unknown), and ham.

Next to the jubako was a plate with some grilled red snapper. I’m always disappointed when I order red snapper in Chicago. I’m never disappointed with I eat it here in Japan. Tamiko got the skin nice and crisp while keeping the flesh moist and juicy. Extremely fresh fish.

Then, she brought out bowls of soup. A clear broth made from kombu and katsuo-bushi (bonito flakes) filled with mitsuba greens, fish cakes with good fortune written in the middle, mochi (an absolute necesity at the Japanese new years table), shiitake, and slices of yuzu peel.

Last, but surely not least, she served up some red snapper sashimi that was cured in kombu. A touch of wasabi was all it needed.

Dessert was simply fresh strawberries and green tea. Strawberries are extremely expensive here in Japan so they’re always a treat.

To wipe our mouths we used “Year of the Dragon” napkins since 2012 is the year of the dragon. I was born in a year of the dragon as well.

Happy new years everyone!

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Thanksgiving

I know I haven’t blogged in a while, but for all of my faithful reader (I know there’s just one of you), here’s what I made for Thanksgiving last night. We decided to stay home and just have a quiet dinner and I didn’t want to just roast a turkey breast, so I did something a little different. I made Turkey Paillard. Now, I did have to include a couple of the traditional (I say traditional, yet turkey wasn’t even served at the first Thanksgiving meal) ingredients on the plate being sweet potatoes and cranberries. Otherwise, I kept it pretty simple.

The first thing I did was make the stuffing for the paillard. I used about 3oz of baby spinach, 3.5oz of shimeji mushrooms, 3oz of oyster mushrooms, about 1/4 onion diced, 3oz of goat cheese, and three cloves of garlic minced (didn’t make it in the photo).

In my hot pan I poured in a couple of tablespoons of peanut oil and sweat down the onion and garlic for about 7 minutes. Then, I tossed in the mushrooms. Once the mushrooms were in I decided to add a sprig each of rosemary and thyme to add some depth to the flavor. As the shrooms were softening, I decided that some butter would be a good idea, which it was. I added a tablespoon and then seasoned with salt and pepper. When the shrooms were soft, about 5 minutes or so of cooking with the butter, I added the spinach and cooked that down just until it wilted, about 2 minutes. I removed the rosemary and thyme and then let the mixture cool down.

For the turkey I used 1 cup of chicken stock, some rosemary, thyme, and a 1lb turkey tenderloin that I butterflied open.

I opened up the turkey and spread the mushroom and spinach mixture all over the inside, leaving about a half-inch border around the edges. Then I put chunks of the goat cheese all over that.

I rolled it all up and tied it with some kitchen twine, then seasoned it all over with salt and pepper. I will say this, it may be the ugliest rolled piece of fowl in the history of Thanksgiving. However, it was so ugly that it had to taste good! I simply put too much stuffing in, but hey, it’s Thanksgiving, you’re supposed to be glutinous.

I heated up my pan, poured in a few tablespoons of olive oil, and gently placed the turkey in. Had I done a better job tying the turkey I would have turned it so that the outside seared all over. I didn’t want it to fall apart though, so I just poured in the chicken stock and tossed the herbs on top. Once the stock was boiling I turned the heat down to low, covered the pan, and let it simmer for about 30 minutes.

While the turkey was cooking I whipped up my two sides. One was a simple pureed sweet potato. I simply steamed two sweet potatoes cut up in cubes for about 15 minutes and then blended them in my little hand blender with a few spoonfuls of the turkey’s cooking liquid.

The other side was pan roasted haricots vert with onion and dried cranberries.  I used a handful of haricots vert, about 1/4 onion thinly sliced, and a handful of dried cranberries.

I heated up my saute pan over med-high heat and poured in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and then added the haricot vert and onion. I let them cook for about 10 minutes until the onion became slightly carmelized and then added the cranberries along with some salt and pepper. A few more minutes and this dish was ready.

When the turkey was done I set it aside and tented it with foil. I took 2 tablespoons of butter cut into smaller pats and added them one at a time to the chicken stock that the turkey cooked in with the heat turned up high. Well, first I removed the rosemary and thyme sprigs. As the sauce reduced a little more I added more butter until I had a nice, silky gravy to spoon over the turkey.

That was all. A very simple Thanksgiving dinner for two. It didn’t take a ton of time to cook, I didn’t have a ton of clean-up afterwords, and it was much better than a regular old roasted bird. In fact, Yuki even commented that this was the best tasting turkey she’s ever eaten. I noticed that she didn’t say the best looking.

I had a half of a butternut squash in my fridge that I wanted to use up last night. The first thing that popped into my head was a puree. Squash puree’s really well, especially when you add a little ginger and garlic. So, Otis and I walked down to Trader Joe’s and grabbed some pork tenderloin to grill up for the protein.

Making a puree out of squash is one of the easiest things you can do. I took the squash and removed the seeds and skin then chopped it up. Along with that, I skinned and chopped one medium red-skin potato, 1/2 inch of ginger, 3 garlic cloves, and 1/4 cup of chicken stock. The potato is simply to add a nice smooth texture.

In a sauce pan, I threw all of the ingredients together and simmered them over medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, until everything was soft but not mushy. I let it cool down and then pureed it in my little blender. I set about 5 tablespoons aside and then salted and peppered the rest and let that sit aside ready to reheat just before serving.

While the squash was simmering I marinate the pork in 1 tablespoon sesame oil, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sake, 1 tablespoon mirin, 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, 1/2 inch of ginger grated, and 3 garlic cloves grated. I had 2 lbs of tenderloin and let it marinate in the fridge for about 2 hours, then let it sit out for about 45 minutes before grilling.

For my grill, about 10 minutes on each side at medium-high cooks it nice and medium with just a bit of pink left in the middle. I let it rest, tented in foil, for about 8 minutes before slicing it up.

To counter the Autumn sweetness of the squash I sautéed some asparagus with sliced shiitake, 1/2 an onion sliced, 2 garlic cloves minced, 1 tablespoon of butter, and 2 tablespoons of soy sauce.

In a medium-hot pan I poured in a couple of tablespoons of peanut oil. I sweat down the onion for about 7 minutes. Then I added the garlic and shiitake. I let those cook for about 5 minutes before tossing the asparagus in. Another 8 minutes and I added the butter and soy. I let it all cook together for a few more minutes. so the butter could coat everything, then served it up.

Pan roasting asparagus and shiitake with some butter bring out more of the woodsy notes rather than more sweetness.

White rice was on the side of course.

The night’s triumph, however, was that it was Otis’s first successful adult food feeding! We tried some sweet potato a couple of weeks ago, but it didn’t go over so well. He just wasn’t quite ready. With all the butternut squash puree, we gave it another shot. Remember the puree that I set aside before adding salt and pepper? (babies shouldn’t eat added salt) I mixed in about 2 oz’s of breast milk, not from my breasts or he’d get nothing but a hairball, until it was really smooth and thin enough that he could just swallow it down. Sure, his bib got fed too, but he ate the whole thing. I’m sure I’ll have a fun mess to clean up today because of it. But he’s worth it.

Carnitas

Carnitas…the mere thought of that word brings tingles to my tongue. Bits of juicy, yet crisp little pork pieces topped with cilantro, onion, and salsa, then wrapped up in a warm blanket of corn tortilla. I, myself enjoy being wrapped in a warm blanket of corn tortilla. However, as much as I enjoy that, I far prefer to stuff my face with carnitas. When my buddy Nick invited us, as a few others, over for some homemade, backyard carnitas there was absolutely no way to turn down an offer like that. To say I jumped at the chance wouldn’t be quite accurate, but it was something along those lines.

To do carnitas the kind of justice they deserve, you have to use lard. Pure, creamy white, rendered pork fat. What better way to bring out the flavor of pork than with the flavor of pork? No double-negative here, just heart-stopping bliss. Nick picked up, I think 6 lbs of lard? Maybe it was 5. Whatever it was, he wasn’t screwing around.

He brought the big pot from his turkey fryer in to his kitchen and scooped all of that lard right in. I didn’t look like much while it was solid, but looks can sometimes be deceiving.

He rigged the fryer up to the propane tank on the concrete section of his backyard, lit that sucker up, and let that lard melt down into a 275 degrees pork hot tub. As he told me, the trick is not to deep-fry, but to keep it at 275 and let it simmer in the lard for about an hour or so. That’s how you get the nice golden crust with the juicy center. If the oil’s too hot, the outside will burn before the middle is cooked.

Look at that! Approximately 5 lbs of pink, fat-strewn hog heaven. How can you not want to maul that down with some cilantro? Nick sliced the chunks about half way through to give more surface area to brown in hot lard. That means more flavor!

One by one he carefully lowered each piece into the hot lard. (Hot Lard, that’d be a great band name)

No stranger to greasy knuckles (that’d be another great band name), he constantly checked the temperature with his handy frying glove. Like I said before, he wasn’t screwing around. He takes his lard simmering seriously, as he should.

You’re eyes are not playing tricks on you, this does look delicious!

After about an hour he took the pork out. He tented it in foil while getting the tortillas steamed. This allowed all of the juices to re-distribute throughout the meat.

Once the onions and cilantro were chopped, salsa (his was home-made, I think chipotle, not sure but definatley some sort of roasted and dryed chili) poured into serving dish, and tortillas nice and warm, he shredded the pork and we proceeded to carnitas like we’ve never carnitas’d before.

I wish I had a turkey fryer now. These were so tasty all I can do is wait until he decides to buy more lard. Until then, fond memories will have to suffice.

The Bad Apple

Alright, so a month ago Yuki, Otis, and I moved in with my little brother for a couple of weeks in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. A friend of ours, who happens to be a major burger whore, helped us move. Since he’s a burger whore, what better payment then a burger? While moving he had mentioned how he tried to get a table at The Bad Apple once, but the wait was too long. I made a mental note, did some research, and concluded that this was definitely a place I wanted to check out as well. So, I strolled Otis over before Yuki and Eric (the burger whore) got out of work and grabbed an outside table. My little brother came with to have a beer with me while we waited for everyone else.

The beer list is one of the best in town. Both the draft and bottle list are enormous with great variety. Wanting to try something I’ve never had I explained the flavors I was in the mood for to our server and she brought me out an IPA that I’ve never heard of, but thoroughly enjoyed. It ticked everything I had asked for in a beer at that very moment. What I’m trying to say is that their servers, at least ours, are very knowledgable about the libations the offer up.

But, I did not come to The Bad Apple for beer, as much as I love beer. I came for the burgers. So, without further ado, here’s the burger breakdown from that night.

Eric’s wife went for The Bad Apple Burger, deciding to keep it simple. I can respect that. In all honesty, someone had to get their house burger just to see what they do before screwing around with various flavors. With lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and provolone this burger had no frills about it. It was a straight-talkin burger if ever there was one. While I didn’t try it myself, the fact that it was devoured tells me she enjoyed having those classic flavors grace her taste buds.

Yuki got the Red Dragon. A juicy burger topped with brisket hash, an over easy egg, pepper jack, and roasted red pepper sauce. You put roasted red pepper sauce on just about anything and Yuki will go for it. That’s how I was able to snatch her, but that’s a totally different story for a completely different blog. I did try this one, and I gotta say, wow! I mean, this would’ve been great without the burger. Add that patty of bovine deliciousness to a classic hang-over breakfast and you have yourself a winner.

Eric got the Belly Burger. Honestly, I almost got this one, it was a tough decision. When he said he was going to get this one it made my life easier. This burger is topped with braised pork belly and a herbed horseradish sauce. Instead of a regular bun this one has a pretzel bun. We expected just a little pork belly on top to add a little sumptuousness to this thing, but oh no, they put as much pork belly as there was beef! Let’s be honest here, you put burger with pork belly, what else do you really need? That is, besides a cold refreshing beer from their list.

As good as Eric’s Belly Burger was, and it was damn good, I’m very glad he chose to get that one because it allowed me to get the Elvis’s Last Supper. This burger broke all of the rules for me. It’s really a simple burger. You take ground beef, grill it to juicy perfection and place it on a bun with 2 toppings. It’s the 2 toppings that make this such a revelation…peanut butter and bacon! You read that right, peanut butter and bacon. The bacon part is nothing new to a burger. It’s been done to death, yet is always welcome. Kind of like when the radio plays “Stairway to Heaven”. You’ve heard it hundreds of times, but you don’t change the station, you rock out and enjoy every minute of it. But peanut butter? On a burger? In all of my years I never would have thought of that. Mind you, this was no Jiff creamy, not even close. This was house made, throw some roasted peanuts into a blender, and let ‘er rip! Chunky and oily, this was peanut butter! I’m still besides myself on that one. It is hands down the best burger I have ever ordered off a menu and right up there with the best burgers I’ve eaten period (my famous ghetto burger not-withstanding). I’m salivating as I type this. My stomach is rumbling for more. I imagine a balding gray-haired man with a long white coat in the kitchen concocting burger theories, picture Doc Brown. Truly genius!

As you can tell, I am a big fan of The Bad Apple. Besides a great beer list, knowledgable service, and flippin fantastic burgers with creative toppings and high quality ingredients, the prices are extremely reasonable. Other than their special Wagyu burger (upwards of $45 per depending on toppings du jour) all burgers are $8-10!

If you’re a fan of burgers and beer, get yo tuchas out to The Bad Apple!

Tapas Valencia

Sorry to all of my loyal readers (all 3 of you) for not posting anything in a while. Been pretty busy with life and life itself. Yesterday was by birthday however, so Yuki and Otis took me out for dinner. Tired of overpaying for mediocre celebrity-chef meals I wanted to go somewhere more casual and Otis-friendly. Also, now that we’re in the South Loop I wanted somewhere close. So, Tapas Valencia it was.

We’ve actually been there once before a long time ago. We joined a couple of friends for their happy hour tapas specials before heading down to Hyde Park to watch the movie, “Food, Inc.”. I remember it being very good and had a taste for bacon-wrapped dates. It all made perfect sense to head there last night.

Without further ado, here’s what was on our dinner table.

First up was the Calamares A La Plancha. The squid was perfectly cooked…soft and tender, yet crispy at the same time. A little too much salt, but not so much that it killed the dish.

Next we had the Jamon con Melon. You really can’t beat quality Serrano Ham on top of ripe, sweet, juicy cantaloupe. With cantaloupe at it’s finest about now we couldn’t pass on this one. Served with a simple cucumber and tomato relish this was tapas at it’s finest.

Then we had the Pado Confitado, duck confit with apples and mushrooms. Fall-apart duck leg, apples, and mushrooms…need I say more?

I can’t remember the name of this dish in Spanish, it was a special on the menu. Short rib braised in Rioja and then served with garlic and rosemary Israeli Couscous and spinach. While this dish was missing one note, something slightly acidic like tomato or even a small squirt of orange or lemon, this could’ve been an entrée unto itself.

Finally, our last tapas (or is it tapa?), the Datiles Con Tocino. Crisp bacon around sweet dates smothered in a roasted red pepper sauce, that’s where it’s at! A true crowd-pleaser if there ever was one.

While I did say that was our last tapas, it wasn’t our last dish. We also split an order of the Paella Valenciana. Paella with mussels, clams, shrimp, and chicken. This was huge! I’m glad we only got one order. I will say that my paella is a little better, but this was a very delicious paella, it just didn’t have that crisp burnt rice on the bottom that I love. I wasn’t dissatisfied at all though.

For dessert we split the flan of the day, coconut. Not too rich or sweet, this one was just right. I don’t think coconut is typical in Spain, but coconut almost always makes a great flan. This is one of the better flan in Chicago.

To drink it all down we forgoed the Sangria and went for a couple of glasses of Clara, which apparently is Spain’s most popular drink right now. It’s Alhambra Beer (a Spanish Lager) with a little lemonade. I was a little skeptical at first, but I will say that it wasn’t bad at all. I mean, you put lime in Corona, why not a little lemonade in Spanish Lager?

The service was great too. Very friendly and attentive. They gave us more of a private table where Otis’s stroller wouldn’t get in the way, and where it’d be a little quieter for him. Food was served and cleared in a timely fashion as well. It was a little slow being a Wednesday night, but this seems to be a very well run restaurant.

All in all, there are probably better Spanish and Tapas joints somewhere, but I haven’t found them yet here in Chicago. The dishes are well prepared, the portions are big, and the quality of ingredients are high. If anything, and I hate to say this, the prices might be a little too low for what you get. But don’t tell Tapas Valencia that.

Last night was the perfect night to grill up some juicy pork tenderloin. I’m not one to waste an opportunity like that, especially with a bunch of rain in the near future forecast. So, that’s exactly what I did, I grilled up some juicy pork tenderloin.

I made a simple marinade using 2 garlic cloves minced, 3 green onions thinly sliced, the juice from 1/2 lemon, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sake, 1 tablespoon mirin, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, and 1.25 pounds of pork tenderloin. Before letting the pork take a dip in the marinade I stabbed it all over with my knife to allow the marinade more easy access to the juicy center. I covered it and let it sit in the fridge for about 2 hours, taking it out about 30 minutes before grilling.

For my veggies I used 1 red bell pepper chopped, 1 clove garlic minced, 1/2 onion chopped, 3 fingerling potatoes chopped, 1 head of broccoli, 5 shiitake chopped, 1 tablespoon butter, and 2 tablespoons soy sauce. I also used the juice from the other half of the lemon, but forgot to get that in the pic.

I melted the butter in a hot pan and then fried the potatoes in it for about 10 minutes till they were a bit crisp on all sides. Then, I added the onion, bell pepper, and garlic. I let them sweat down for about 6 minutes. After that, I added the shiitake and broccoli and let everything cook for about 7 more minutes. In came the soy sauce, then the lemon juice along with some cracked black pepper, and then I served it up.

While the veggies were cooking I grilled up the pork. On my grill, each grill is different, tenderloin cooks best on the top rack with the heat at med-high. I can leave the pork for about 10 minutes each side leaving it just slightly pink in the middle, the way fresh tenderloin should be. I let it rest for 10 minutes and then sliced it up.

Of course, white rice was on the side.