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Posts Tagged ‘cucumber’

Ah yes, horse, the other red meat. You know, I’ve never understood why horse meat was off-limits in America. I mean, it’s an animal not all that dissimilar to deer or elk and we certainly have no problems eating them. Is it because we ride horses? Would you eat a cow if you rode it? I don’t know. I do know that many other places in the world do eat horse, and Japan is one of them. While it’s not a prominent animal in the extremely large, diverse, and interesting encyclopedia of animals consumed by the Japanese, it is featured in various areas where other meats might not be as readily available. As such, in places like Tokyo, there are restaurants dedicated to serving this animal on a platter rather than saddling it up for a gallop. The other night I finally got my first opportunity to enjoy the succulence of these animals when a friend of mine asked me if he could take me out for a horse. Not only is that the first time another man had ever asked me that questions, but that was a proposition I was only too happy to jump on. So, we headed out to the Ebisu district of Tokyo and headed to a place called Uma Yakiniku Takeshi. Uma is horse in Japanese, yakiniku is the style of grilling meat at your table, and Takeshi is the name of the proprietor of this establishment, he also happens to be a well-known Japanese comedian. Before I get to the food, one thing I love about Ebisu is that there are numerous interesting little izakaya’s serving up weird and exotic cuisine that you would never find unless you stumbled upon them. We ended up walking around for about 15 minutes before finding our destination.

When we sat down we were greeted with a cold glass of draft beer and some lightly pickled cucumbers with salted kombu. I’m not a big pickle or cucumber guy by any stretch of the imagination, but honestly, this wasn’t too bad at all. I even think my younger brother, he who has even stronger negative feelings toward pickled cucumbers than me, would eat this. At least he would if he was hungry enough to eat a horse.

We started off with horse tataki. Rolled in black pepper and lightly seared on all sides, this piece of meat (what part of the animal is still up for debate, but I think it’s the tenderloin) was covered with in thinly sliced onion and chopped scallions.

After a quick dip in ponzu (the horse meat, not me) here I am about to have my first taste in equestrian delights. MMMMMMMMMMMM! Honestly, it reminded me of kosher pastrami. I could throw this on some rye bread, slather on the mustard, and wash it down with a Dr Browns and be a happy man. Very delicious and surprisingly familiar to me. I had heard that horse tasted quite a bit like beef, but I think it’s a little more like bison as the muscles don’t have as much fat as cow does.

Next up was horse sashimi. Just think of this as beef carpaccio, except that it went nay instead of moo. A bit of fresh grated ginger and garlic, a splash in some tamari, and down the hatch. A little sweeter than beef, and much more tender than I expected. I can’t recall ever eating a beef carpaccio that I enjoyed as much.

Then we got the yakiniku going. The first plate had some napa cabbage, eggplant, the green part of the scallion, and, of course, some horse meat. This part of the animal comes from the belly/rib area. Think of it as thinly sliced ribeye.

Here’s our tabletop grill in full effect. I didn’t get a pic of it, but we each had a dish with three different dipping options for the grilled meat. There as a ponzu-based sauce that was my favorite, some sea salt, and some rice vinegar.

For the next cut of horse to be grilled my friend thought he’d throw me curveball, something I’d be hesitant to shove down my throat. He was wrong as it turned out to be one of the most delicious pieces of meat I’ve ever grilled yakiniku-style…the heart! I’m telling you, this was so tender and sweet, with a bit of black pepper it was heavenly! I’d jump a fence to get me some of this.

So good, the heart was (that’s my Yoda speak), that we had to get more on our next plate. Besides the heart and horse food (vegetables) this dish also had blood pipes. I don’t know if they were arteries or veins, but they were also delicious. A little rubbery, but after a few chews the clean flavor of the animal really came through. It was almost like eating thick intestines, but clean intestines. Very good indeed.

We put the grill aside after that and got a plate of horse weiner. No, not that kind of weiner, I don’t have that big of an appetite. This was a plate of weiner-style sausages. Again, a little sweet, but a very deep, rich flavor. It was also very juicy.

Our final dish was horse fried rice. With a little scrambled egg and some scallions this was a very typical fried rice, but with horse meat.

I have to say, Americans are a weird bunch. We shun so many different food items that the rest of the world consumes. As I write this blog it becomes clear to me that the reason we’ve not been exposed to things like horse as an edible creature is solely because of politics. If the beef lobby wasn’t so powerful I think we’d be eating all sorts of other animals…guinnea pig, various insects, horse, etc. It really is a delicious animal, and one that doesn’t contribute nearly as much to Climate Change as cows do. If we open our minds as well as our mouths, there’s a lot of tasty things out there we could enjoy. Mr Ed, sorry, but you are one delicious creature!

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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.

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When walking around just about any market in Israel you’ll come across all sorts of really good food. Falafel, schawarma, and various kabobs. Another staple of the Israeli street food scene is grilled chicken. With Tamiko headed back to Japan last Thursday I wanted to make her one last delicious dinner that she couldn’t get at home. Since she really enjoyed the Middle Eastern food that she had, and loves cucumbers (even though I’m not the biggest fan), I decided to make this dinner for her.

I thought, what better soup to accompany Israeli Grilled Chicken than Israeli Couscous Tomato Soup? I used about 1/2 cup of chopped parsley, 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric, 1 teaspoon of cumin, 1/2 small onion diced, 3 garlic cloves minced, 1 carrot cut into half-moons, 14oz can of diced tomatoes, 1/2 cup of Israeli Couscous, and 1 cup of chicken stock. Oh, once I cut everything up I noticed that I had 1/2 red bell pepper in my fridge, so I diced that up as well.

I heated my soup pan up and poured in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. I added the garlic and let it go for about 30 seconds and then tossed the onion in. The onion sweat down for about 6 minutes and then I added the carrot and red bell pepper. I let them sweat down for another 6 minutes and then added the can of tomatoes. Once the tomatoes started to boil I poured in the chicken stock and added the spices, along with some salt and pepper. I let it come to a boil and then added the couscous. Once it started to boil again I covered the pan, turned the heat to med-low, and let it simmer for about 15 minutes. When the soup was done I realised that I needed a bit more liquid as the couscous absorbed a good amount, so I poured in about 1/4 cup of water and added the parsley.

While the soup was simmering I threw together an Israeli cucumber salad. I used 1/4 cup of chopped parsley, the juice of 1 lemon, 2 tomatoes diced, 1 cucumber seeded and diced, a  few leaves of lettuce chopped, and some olive oil.

I threw all of the vegetables into a glass bowl. Then I made a lemon vinaigrette. I squeezed the lemon juice into a cup and then poured twice as much olive oil in as there was lemon juice (rule of thumb, for vinaigrettes use 2 parts oil for every 1 part acid). I seasoned it with salt and pepper and then emulsified it with my whisk. I poured the vinaigrette all over the vegetables and tossed it all together.

For this chicken there was no need for a long marinade. I simply took some skin-on, bone-in thighs and squeezed some lemon juice all over them after scoring the skin. Then I sprinkled a little turmeric, cumin, and paprika all over them, along with some salt and pepper. Then it was off to the grill.

On the grill I started them off skin-side down on the lower rack with the flames at med-high. I left it there for a few minutes in order for the skin to get nice and crisp. Then I moved the chicken to the upper rack, turning it over skin-side up. I lowered the heat to medium, closed the lid, and let it cook for about 6 or 7 minutes until it was cooked through. Each grill is different, but for skin-on chicken thighs it’s best to use a direct heat first on the skin and then an indirect on the bottom. That gets the skin crisp and keeps the meat moist.

I garnished the plates with some chopped parsley. We had some white rice on the side and cold beer to wash it all down.

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I made this dish last Monday, so I’m a little late putting up here. A couple of our friends had a party for us since we’ll be new parents in a couple of months, and we came home with leftovers. We had some vegetables from the veggie tray as well as some leftover catered Middle Eastern food. Looking in my cupboard I found some lentils and thought a simple stew would go well and help use up the ingredients.

We had brought home some celery and carrots that I diced. I also diced an onion, minced 3 garlic cloves, minced an inch of ginger, chopped up 3 skinless chicken thighs, and got out 1 cup of chicken stock, 1 14oz can of diced tomatoes, and 1 cup of lentils.

I heated up a pot and then added about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. I threw the ginger and garlic in for about 30 seconds, then added the onion, carrots, and celery. I let them sweat down for about 6 minutes and then added the lentils. I wanted the lentils to sort of saute for about 2 or 3 minutes before adding anything else.

Then I poured in the chicken stock. Once it started to boil I added the can of tomatoes and seasoned with salt and pepper. I noticed that I had a big sprig of rosemary, so I tossed that in as well. Once everything started to boil again I added the chicken. I let it come to a slow boil, covered the pot, and turned the heat to med-low. I let it stew for about 15 minutes.

I realized that I had some spinach in the fridge, so I chopped up a large handful, threw that into the stew, and let it go for another 10-15 minutes.

I served the stew with leftover hummus with pita and some Jerusalem Salad which consisted of chopped cucumber and red bell pepper with a parsley and lemon vinaigrette. I added some red leaf lettuce. The sides were all from Salam.

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My buddy Tony and his wife Sandra took Yuki and I to Salam for lunch this past Saturday. Tony’s been talking about how fantastic their hummus is for a long time as he’s an even bigger hummus snob than I am. He took me up there for lunch a while back only to find they were on vacation, so I never got to try it. Well, Saturday worked out. We went and we dined. I have to say, that hummus is not only the best I’ve had in Chicago, it’s right up there with the best I’ve ever had period! I lived in the Middle East for a year so I know a thing or two about hummus. For the life of me I have no idea how they get such a creamy texture. Fantastic! Funny enough, Yuki found online that their hummus voted the best in Chicago by WGN Sunday night.

At any rate, when we were there Saturday I had the shawerma and Yuki had the chicken kifta, both also fantastic, but neither of us tried the falafel. Craving that hummus and wanting to not only try their falafel but also their baba ganouj we decided that we ought to go back for Meatless Monday.

We were meeting a close friend for dinner up there and got there early, so we walked around a little bit. Albany Park is a great neighborhood full of culture that I need to explore more of. We walked into the Tannourine Bakery just to check things out. They hand bake all of their own goods, including their pita bread. After chitchatting with Mike, the head honcho there, we ended up buying some spinach pockets, cheese pockets, and thyme manakeesh. He and I hit it off so he not only gave me a discount, but he also threw in a box of free anise cookies. Everything is so delicious and you can tell they care about their goods. I will definately head back to Mike when I need some good pastries.

Back to Salam. We started off with baba ganouj, hummus, and lentil soup. Believe it or not what you see in the pic are the smalls! Huge portions, only order large if you’re feeding an army. One of the best lentil soups in Chicago and that baba just might qualify as the best in town as well.

The falafel is also outstanding. If not the best in town, definately in the conversation and definately one of the largest falafel sandwiches! Perfectly cooked fresh falafel, diced tomato and cucumber, and tahini…a classic.

Just look at how green and fresh the inside of that falafel is. I know the picture sucks, but trust me, that falafel was heaven in a fried chickpea.

I also ordered the spinach pie, but honestly, I was so stuffed from the huge falafel sandwhich that I didn’t even touch it. I’m going to eat it tonight. Judging by everything else I’m sure it’s one of the best spinach pies in Chitown.

We ordered the combo plate full of kifta and kabob on rice with a tomato and cucumber salad to go along with six more falafel balls. The idea being that we had a bunch of left over hummus and baba that we ought to just have leftovers for lunch today. Not only did we have leftovers for lunch, we still have enough for dinner tonight as well. For about $40 we both got 3 full, healthy and delicious meals. You can’t beat that.

Service is also pretty good. It’s a bare bones little restaurant, but very attentive. I’ll definately make this little joint a regular stop in my rotation. I just cannot say enough good things about Salam except for “Peace be with you”.

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Last night we finally got to try Ruxbin Kitchen. It was our third attempt, and I guess it’s true what they say, the third time’s the charm. You see, Ruxbin Kitchen is a new restaurant just down the street from us that opened up this past summer. They don’t take reservations and word must have gotten out quick about how good it is because the first two times Yuki and I went there the wait was 1.5 hours. Yesterday we planned on going early, at 6pm, to ensure a table. We got our table, and while I don’t think there was a wait after we got there, the restaurant was full, for good reason.

It’s a small space, only about a 40 person capacity maybe. It’s real kitschy inside. Comfortable seats, wood tables and fixtures, cookbooks displayed on the walls, and pages from cookbooks plastered all over the ceiling.

Service was good. Not the fastest, not the slowest, but a nice pace. Our server was knowledgable of the menu and didn’t push us in any direction. It is BYOB, so be prepared. They do offer the proper glasses and openers. They also brought out popcorn sprinkled with ground nori to nosh on while perusing the menu. That replaced bread service.

We started off with the Crispy Eggplant. It’s sliced, quartered eggplant coating in bread crumbs and deep-fried. Served with roasted beets, sticks of cucumber, frisee, and honey-cardamom yogurt. There’s also some pepper sprinkled around one edge of the plate for you own pleasure. I have to say, as much as I love the classic beet salad with mixed greens, walnuts, and fried goat cheese that everyone serves, this was a really nice change of pace. Even though it’s called Crispy Eggplant, for me, the beets were the dominant flavor. Very nice salad to start with.

Next, we shared the K-Town Empanadas. Two empanadas stuffed with masa, kimchee, Oaxaca cheese, and covered with a chimichurri creme fraiche. Who on earth would put cheese and kimchee together? Chef Ed Kim, that’s who. What a stroke of genius! The kimchee took center stage while the cheese added a subtle sweetness and the masa some texture. definitely a winner.

We split two entrees. One was a perfectly cooked piece of trout with nice crispy skin and moist flesh. It was served on top of a bulgur wheat tabbouleh with black sesame seeds and dates, asparagus spears on top, and basil pesto drizzled around the plate. I’m not usually impressed by trout, but this dish was fantastic. The sweet dates, bitter asparagus, earthy bulgur wheat and sesame seeds, and herby basil all worked really well together.

The other entrée we got was their play on chicken and waffles. There was roasted breast with crispy skin along one side of the plate. That came with a citrus sauce of some kind. Then was a cumin cheddar waffle with dark meat carnitas and apple walnut compote. The waffle was sliced in half with the carnitas sandwiched in between and the compote on top. The rest of the plate was a slaw with arugula. The waffle was outstanding. The most creative take on chicken and waffles I’ve ever eaten and another home run by Chef Kim. My only gripe with the plate was that the breast was a little over salted, not so much that it was bad though. That’s something that most chefs do and I’ll never understand. I like salt, but chefs almost always put a little too much on chicken. Oh well, the entire dish was great.

We didn’t have any room in our guts for dessert so I can’t comment on them. Next time we go back we’ll keep it to one appetizer so that we have room for dessert. And believe me, we’ll definitely go back! Not sure it’s worth a 1.5 hour wait (I don’t think any restaurant is worth that) but it’s definitely worth waiting for a while if you get there and it’s full. I love having a joint like this so close to my place. A great place to take out-of-town friends who want something hip that’s off the beaten path.

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The other day Yuki requested macaroni and cheese. I thought that was weird because that’s not her favorite dish as a main, she prefers it as a side. Then she went on about how she misses her parents gratin. I have to agree, they make delicious gratin, especially with oysters. So, I found a recipe on Food and Wine’s website by Jeremy Fox that looked interesting using a carrot and cheddar sauce. It looked to me more like a side, so I put my own twist on it to make it a more fulfilling main.

The ingredients I used were 1 Valencia orange, 3 ounces medium cheddar cheese, 1/4 onion, 9 ounces serpentini pasta, a sprig of rosemary from my back porch, 3/4 pound carrots (turned out to be 2.5 carrots), and 3/4 pound ground turkey thigh.

I pretty much followed Jeremy Fox’s recipe in the beginning. I sliced the carrots and simmered them for a half hour with the zest and juice from the orange as well as 1/4 cup of water. Then I discarded the zest and puree’d the carrots into a smooth paste. During that time I boiled the pasta until it was al dente, then reserved 1 cup of the boiling liquid and drained the pasta. Then I added my own touch.

I diced the onion and sautéed it in olive oil for about 4 minutes and then added the turkey meat. I broke the turkey meat up as it cooked through, about 6 or 7 minutes. Once it was cooked through I got back to the recipe on hand and added the pasta, the reserved cup of water, and the carrot puree. I mixed it all together and let it thicken for about 5 minutes. I added 3/4’s of the cheese after grating it and mixed it in well. Then I seasoned it with salt, white pepper, and the rosemary. Once everything was well mixed I poured it into my glass baking dish.

I topped it with the rest of the cheese and then some panko. That all went into a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes and was left to rest for about 5 minutes before I cut it up and served it.

While the macaroni was cooking we made a side to go with it. I cleaned 3 ears of corn and chopped them into 2 inch pieces. I tossed them into boiling water and let them par-cook for about 3 minutes. Then I drained them and cut the kernels from the core.

In a heated pot Yuki melted some butter and added two minced garlic cloves. After a minute she added the corn and some halved haricots vert. She sautéed it all together for about 7 minutes and seasoned with salt and pepper.

I also made up a simple salad. Torn iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumber, and shiitake vinaigrette.

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For Meatless Monday last night I had an almost failed attempt at making falafel. To make falafel, you need to start way in advance and soak some dried chickpeas in water for about 8 hours. We were out at the Morton Arboretum all afternoon when I got the urge to make falafel, so I tried to make it using canned chickpeas. As you’ll see, that just doesn’t do the trick as canned chickpeas are way too soft and don’t have nearly the same texture. Lesson learned.

In my food processor I tossed in 2 cans of chickpeas (the pic shows 3, but I only used 2), half a chopped red onion, 5 garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, 1/2 tablespoon baking powder, and a handful of basil leaves. Typically, besides soaked dried chickpeas, you’d use parsley. I didn’t have any parsley so I used basil. It actually worked quite well flavor-wise. At any rate, I processed everything into a paste and let it sit for about half hour. During that time I got everything prepped for the Israeli Couscous soup I made to accompany.

For the soup I used 1 14oz can of diced tomatoes, the half of red onion diced, 1 quart of vegetable stock, 1 carrot chopped, 2 cloves of garlic minced, 1 cup of Israeli couscous, some basil, 1 teaspoon of coriander seeds crushed in my pestle and mortar, 1 teaspoon of turmeric, and 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne.

I also had time to throw together my tomato and cucumber salad. I chopped up 1/2 head of iceberg lettuce, half a seedless cucumber, and halved the rest of my cherry tomatoes (about 1/2 the container). I set the lettuce aside and threw the cucumber and tomatoes in a large bowl. I zested the lemon on top. In a separate bowl I juiced half of the lemon, tossed in a pinch of salt and a pepper, and then poured some olive oil in at a ratio of 2 parts oil 1 part juice. With a wisk I emulsified it into a smooth dressing and poured that in with the cucumbers and tomatoes and then tossed to coat. I set all of the salad ingredients aside.

Then, I laid some wax paper on a baking sheet and formed walnut-sized balls of the falafel mix on top. I sprinkled the tops with some sesame seeds. I was a little worried about the texture because it was kind of soft, but I thought everything would be ok. I let the falafel balls sit for about 15 minutes while I got the deep fryer ready and made the soup.

To make the soup I poured a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a hot pot. I added the onion and carrot and let them saute for about 5 minutes. Then I added the garlic. 30 seconds later I poured in the can of tomatoes with the juice, the stock, and all of the spices along with some salt and pepper. Once it came to a light boil I added the couscous, partially covered the pot, and turned the heat down to medium-low to let it slowly simmer while I fried the falafel.

Once the oil was ready, 375 degrees, I dropped 3 balls in and let them go. A minute later when I checked on their progress I noticed that they were much smaller than they were at the start. I put them back in for a minute and then checked again…even smaller. The oil had basically disintegrated them. They were way too loose. What a waste of oil! While I was pissed, I didn’t panic. I had to switch gears and do it quickly so that the couscous wouldn’t overcook.

I quickly got out my big pan and heated it to high. I poured in some oil and ended up shallow frying the falafel. They turned out to be more like falafel latkes and did start to fall apart in the pan as well. I was able to salvage most of it though and turn out a decent dinner. It did take a little longer than I wanted and the couscous overcooked a little, they were a bit soft. Oh well, what can you do? Disasters are half of the fun of cooking.

To serve I added the basil and juice from the other half of the lemon to the soup just before ladling it into the bowls. On the plates I laid down some of the lettuce, then the cucumber and tomato salad, and then topped that with the falafel…we’ll call them patties. All in all it didn’t taste bad at all. Complete failure averted.

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Last night Yuki and I went to see RUSH at Northerly Island. What a great band! Because of that I didn’t cook Meatless Monday, though I did eat a falafel sandwich with some babaganoush before the show to keep with the theme. I tell ya, being at the concert really drove home the point that all Americans need to adopt a healthier diet as at least 75% of the concert goers were way overweight. That might be an understatement too. Concert seats are only so big and literally everyone around us was well over 200 pounds. I felt claustrophobic at time. America, start eating healthy well-balanced diets!!! But that didn’t stop us from enjoying the show. At any rate, I’m going to blog about the dinner we had Saturday night.

We were out in Schaumburg so that we could stop at the Tensuke Market, which is actually in Elk Grove, but just south of Mitsuwa. It’s smaller than Mitsuwa but sometimes has better deals and has the absolute best retail seafood in the Chicago area. If you want to make sashimi at home, I highly suggest making the trek to Tensuke for your fish. There’s a restaurant called Daruma that Yuki had wanted to try for a while so we decided to give it a try. Honestly, walking through the doors was almost like walking into Japan. I mean that in every good way possible.

The decor is very traditional of casual dining in Japan. The Japanese don’t put a whole lot of stock into gaudy decor, instead they prefer to focus on high quality food. The walls were poorly painted, the tables and seats a little worn down, cheap napkins (in Japan you usually don’t find any napkins). It really felt like a restaurant in Japan. Made me feel homesick even though I’m not Japanese.

Service was pretty good. All Japanese servers, but bi-lingual so don’t worry. It was the food that starred though.

We started off with some Miso Soup. Nothing fancy, just a well made miso soup with wakame and tofu. I also had some sake. I was torn between two kinds so they gave me a couple of samples. The samples were very generous and I honestly didn’t need to order any sake due to the large pours. But, I did get a sake from the Nara Prefecture.

We got a Daikon Salad. Thin sticks of daikon served with carrot stick tempura and a shiso dressing. Carrots often accompany daikon, but this is the first time I’ve seen carrot tempura with the daikon. Nice touch. Little pea shoots for a bit of peppery bit and color.

We ordered two maki rolls. Ebi Ten, shrimp tempura with avocado, cucumber, and smelt roe. Unakyu, fresh water eel with cucumber. The sushi was good. Not the best I’ve ever had, but overall solid.

Tatsuta Age, deep-fried chicken thigh. Usually served in smaller pieces and called karage, these were pretty big chunks of chicken. Served with shredded cabbage, potato salad, pea shoots, and a slice of lemon this is a classic. It’s also one of mine and Yuki’s favorites.

Niku Tofu, a play on the popular Japanese home cooked dish called niku jaga (meat and potato). Instead of potato Daruma used tofu. It’s thin sliced beef with tofu simmered in a sweet soy broth. Also simmered in the dish were chopped napa cabbage and green onions. This was delicious!

Hamachi Kama, the absolute star of the show! Yellowtail jaw broiled to perfection. You got all of that flavorful cheek meat, easily the best part of any large fish. I don’t know why this part isn’t served more in American cuisine because it has so much more meat and flavor than our prefered filets. This chunk of fish was so tasty it almost brought a tear to my eye. My stomach thanked me for eating this.

Overall, the food and ambiance at Daruma were fantastic. So far it’s the most authentic Japanese restaurant we’ve been to in the Chicagoland area. The food is delicious, portions are priced accordingly (we had leftovers), and the sake was flowing. The only downfall of this place is that I have to fight Hwy 90 traffic to get there. Next time Yuki’s parents are in town we’re definitely taking them there to show them that there is real Japanese cooking here.

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Alright, so I’ve been working on perfecting a hamburger that tastes like a bowl of Pho for a while now so that I could enter it into a contest that has a nice payout for the winner (wish me luck everyone!). I think I finally nailed it Saturday night. Here’s how it all goes down.

Instead of using regular old ground chuck I picked up a 2 pound brisket. Pho commonly uses brisket or rump, so I wanted to get that type of beefy flavor for these burgers. You could have your butcher grind it up for you, but what’s the fun in that? I don’t have a meat grinder (anyone seeking to get me a gift for whatever reason take note, I would gladly accept a meat grinder) but that didn’t stop me from giving it a go.

First thing I did was cut the brisket up into 1 inch cubes. I threw all of the meat into my food processor and pulsed it until it turned in the consistency I was looking for. I had to be careful not to over process it as that would start to melt the fat and ruin the texture. Then I put the meat in a bowl and prepared all of the seasonings.

The spice mix included ground cloves, cardamom, ground cinnamon, star anise, and coriander seeds.

With my pestle and mortar I first had to grind up the whole seeds. I took enough seeds out of the star anise to measure about 1/4 teaspoon (cracking out the seeds is a pain!). Then I cracked open enough cardamom pods to get me 1/4 teaspoon of its seeds. I also measured about 3/4 teaspoon of coriander seeds. I ground those up into a fine powder and then added 1/2 teaspoon each of the ground cinnamon and ground cloves. I also mixed in there 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper and 1 teaspoon of pure cane sugar.

Once my dry spices were mixed together I zested a lime to get about 1 tablespoon, and I minced up 1 tablespoon of ginger and 1 tablespoon of garlic.

I also sliced up 4 green onions, just the white and pale green parts.

I put all of my seasonings in the bowl with the meat and then added 2 tablespoons each of fish sauce and sesame oil. With a metal spoon I mixed it all together until the flavors were evenly distributed. It’s important to use a metal spoon when mixing things into burger meat. When you use your hands the body heat can melt the fat, you don’t want that. You want the fat to mix in just like the other ingredients so that it melts properly when cooking keeping the meat nice and juicy.

After the meat was mixed nicely I let it rest for about 10 minutes to let the flavors settle in. Then, I wetted my hands and formed 6 patties.

I heated the grill up to a medium-high heat, brushed it off, and oiled it. Just before putting the burgers on I lightly salted both sides of the patties. With the fish sauce there’s no need for a lot of salt, but sprinkling a little on just before grilling helps get a nice crust on the outside of the meat. I let the cook for about 6 minutes or so on each side.

When the burgers were cooked to my liking I put some sesame seed buns on the grill to lightly toast them. That only took a minute.

To assemble the burgers I placed one grilled patty on each bottom bun and squeezed one wedge of lime on each patty. On top of each patty placed 1 ounce bean sprouts, then 3 basil leaves and 3 cilantro sprigs. 1 tablespoon of Sriracha got squeezed on the underside of each top half of bun and they were ready to go.

For the side Yuki wanted to make Japanese-style potato salad. She skinned and diced two large russet potatoes and then tossed them into boiling water. She let them boil for about 15 minutes until they were cooked through. Then she mashed them up with enough mayonnaise to keep them nice and moist and a little mustard for flavor. She mixed in a cucumber that she skinned and chopped up, a carrot that she also chopped up, and some black forest ham that she cut into short slivers. That all got mixed together well and provided a nice cool counterpoint to the spicy burgers.

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