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Posts Tagged ‘macaroni’

Uichiro, Yuki’s dad, makes a mean oyster gratin. Once a year one of Tamiko’s (Yuki’s mom) friends from her hometown of Miyagi in Japan (unfortunately not far from the recent earthquake, but fortunately everyone is alright, will be quite some time before the oyster population recovers though) sends her the famous oysters that she grew up on. A big container filled with the juiciest, most flavorful oysters you could imagine sinking your teeth into. Just so happens that I have timed a couple of my trips to Japan around oyster season. So, I’ve enjoyed Uichiro’s oyster gratin twice.

On to last night. While trying to decide what to have for dinner I remembered the oysters that I got at Whole Foods a while back that were freshly packaged. Nice big and juicy with great flavor. I asked Uichiro if he’d make his oyster gratin. He was happy to oblige but didn’t want to make the bechamel sauce. No worries, I happen to make a tasty bechamel.

At Whole Foods I noticed that they didn’t have the oysters I remembered in stock. All they had were oysters in the shell. It would’ve been a bit costly to buy the necessary amount to make gratin for 4. Improvisation is the key to cooking (life too), so we decided to get some of the beautiful shrimp behind the counter instead. Along with some chicken thigh we had the necessary fixens to make a classic gratin.

For the bechamel sauce I melted 5 tablespoons of butter over medium heat and then added 4 tablespoons of butter. I whisked it constantly for about  minutes until it became a dark golden color. Then I poured in 4 cups of hot milk and whisked that for 10 minutes giving it a nice thick consistency. Then I seasoned it with 2 teaspoons of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg. I set that aside.

Once I was done with the range Uichiro went to town on the rest of the ingredients. In some butter he lightly sautéed together about 1/2 pound of shrimp that he shelled and halved, 3 chopped skinless chicken thighs, 1/2 half large onion diced, 6-8 (not exactly sure how many) button mushrooms quartered, and some al dente macaroni (again, not exactly sure how much, but I think about 1/2 a package). He seasoned it all with salt and pepper and then mixed it in the bechamel sauce.

That all got poured into my ceramic baking dish. He topped it with some mozzarella and matzo meal. We didn’t have any panko, so again, we improvised. 35 minutes in a 400 degree oven, some parsley garnish, and it was ready to go.

Two things with this gratin. First, my bechamel, while extremely tasty, could’ve used another 3-5 minutes on the burner before letting it rest. A little bit thicker consistency would’ve been nice. Second, with oysters not used scallops would’ve been a little better than shrimp. Scallops are a lot more expensive though, so shrimp do a pretty good job, but scallops would be outstanding!

To balance out the heavy, creamy gratin Uichiro made this smoked salmon and onion dish. He thinly sliced a Vidalia onion and soaked it in cold water. He changed out the water 3 times squeezing the onions dry with each change. They were scattered all over a plate and then topped with thinly sliced smoked salmon. On to of the salmon went some thinly sliced lemon, including the rind with lends a nice bitterness to the overall flavor, not to mention a lot of nutrients the people usually waste by not eating the whole fruit. Then he scattered some chopped parsley all over the whole thing. I made a simple dressing to drizzle over the top. I whisked together 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, 4 tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and some black pepper until it emulsified.

Some sliced baguette and a cold beer completed the dinner. But, I still crave his oyster gratin!

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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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Alright, back to the Land of the Rising Sun. Better known as Japan. Yuki was at a gathering with a bunch of her friends one of the Saturday nights we were there last November. Instead of hanging out with her parents, whom I love to spend time with, I met up with an ex-coworker of hers that I am also friends with, Reiko-chan, who moved back to Tokyo. We decided to meet up at the Ebisu train station and then head to one of the many Izakaya in that neighborhood. Izakaya are Japanese-style bars. Much different from what we’re used to they usually have a great chef that focuses on creative small bites that match with different types of alcohol. I had done some research and found this great little Izakaya called Ippo that focused on seafood and sake, my drink of choice.

Ippo is an extremely hard place to find. We walked all over the neighborhood for about 30 minutes trying to find it. Since Reiko is Japanese, and being Japanese speaks Japanese, I left it to her to ask various retail stores for directions. No one seemed to know exactly where it was even though we had an address. About to give up and go to a different Izakaya, I turned around and noticed the big Fugu hanging in front of the door. Finally! I needed some sake!

When we sat down the bartender handed us each a couple of little starters. One was a cold pork and green bean salad, the other was a macaroni salad in a mayonnaise dressing. Nice little starters, good with either a beer or sake.

Speaking of sake, their list was over fifty long, all written in Japanese. I had no idea where to start. Luckily, one of the bartenders lived in Las Angeles for a while and spoke fluent English. He also knew that sake list off the back of his hand. There were all varieties of sake from brewers both large and small as well as from every region of Japan that produces it. I honestly can’t remember what all I drank, but throughout the night I ended up putting back 4 cups of different sake, all delicious in their own way. Some more floral, some herbal, some sweeter, all fantastic selections. When I say 4 cups I don’t mean those little sake cups we’re used to getting at sushi joints, I mean 4 12oz cups filled to the rim! Love it!

We started off with a plate of sashimi. I don’t know all of the different types, some of the communication was lost in translation, but there were two kinds of tuna and three different kinds of hamachi. I do remember that they were all fresh as can be (they get their fish every morning from the Tsukiji Market) and cut by a chef who knows how to cut a piece of fish. You can’t get sashimi that good here in Chicago.

After the sashimi we got a plate of the house specialty, Namero. It’s basically a tartare of mackerel in miso, ginger, and scallions. Mackerel is a strong-tasting fish with a lot of natural oil, but this was incredible! The miso and ginger masked the strong fishy smell and fit the flavors perfectly. I can see why this is a house specialty as it was probably the best match with sake I’ve ever had.

Then we got the Daigaku Imo, candied sweet potatoes. These were prepared different than normal though. They’re usually deep fried and then coated in a sweetened soy sauce with black sesame seeds. Here, they lightly coated them in batter that had black seseame seeds mixed in before frying, basically tempura style. The were sweet enough that they didn’t need any added sugar. Served only with some grated daikon they were a great snack to eat at a bar.

Kaki was next up. Some of the biggest, juiciest oysters I’ve ever seen on a plate! Removed from the shells and grilled all the chef did was add some herbs to them. With a squeeze of lemon they’re ready to go. If you’re a fan of oysters, you’d love these. If you hate oysters, you’d still probably love these.

After the Kaki we ordered up some Ankimo. Steamed monkfish liver served with grated daikon, ponzu, and green onions this is one of the great delicacies of Japanese cuisine. It’s called the foie gras of the sea, but in all honesty, I think foie gras should be called the ankimo of the land. It’s so soft and creamy. If not for the next dish I’d call it Japan’s greatest contribution to the world of food.

Here it is, one of the greatest things in the world. An item that will make most Americans sick to their stomach but makes my mouth water…Shirako. The king of seafood. Meaning “white children” in Japanese, shirako is the soft roe of male fish, usually monkfish, cod, or fugu (pufferfish). Basically, it’s the male fish’s genitalia. You read that right, it’s a fish sperm sack! You may be wincing at the thought of eating that, but think about it, you eat caviar don’t you? Well, this is the male counterpart to caviar. It’s extremely soft and delicate with a slightly sweet briny taste that literally melts in your mouth (and it’s not sticky!). Ippo serves it raw with ponzu, scallions, and sesame seeds. It can also be steamed. Any way you look at it, I luz me some fish balls!

My experience at Ippo really makes me sad that we have nothing like this in Chicago, or really anywhere in America for that matter. Sure, there are a handful of Izakaya-style bars throughout the country (mostly on the west coast), but nothing quite like Ippo. Just a long bar in a hidden space that serves up some of the best quality seafood and sake one could ever ask for. Why are we stuck with bars that serve nothing but big greasy burgers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), frozen wings, and chicken fingers? Let’s get some creativity into the American bar scene! Great chefs don’t need to be in a white cloth atmosphere to shine. We’d all be better off for it there were Izakayas scattered throughout the country.

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So, Yuki and I took a few days to visit some of the early temples and castles in the Kansai region of Japan. Most of the structures we saw date back to the 8th century and are truly amazing! Besides the structures there were also tons of great sculptures from the same time period. However, as you all know, this blog isn’t about architecture, it’s about food. This post is to let you know about the incredible Kaiseki we ate our last night in Nara at the Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) we stayed at, Yoshino.

Kaiseki is the classic multi-course meal that progresses through various cooking techniques using regional, seasonal ingredients. It’s the highest art form you can find in food anywhere in the world. Focus on the subtleties of each ingredient to draw out natural flavors and not cover then with heavy sauces (sorry Frenchies, but the Japanese have your asses kicked in food culture!).

It started with that dish in the middle of the picture above. From left to right was a little fish grilled in a sweet soy marinade, a roasted chestnut, ama ebi (sweet shrimp), some sort of seafood that had a jellyfish-like texture in a miso sauce (I have absolutely no idea what it was, but it sure tasted good!), then a three-colored fish cake.

After that they brought out this dish. It was obviously a shrimp, but I’m not quite sure what else there was. I think it was a gratin made with the roe of the shrimp. Also on the plate as a macaroni salad and some lettuce with a tomato.

Then we moved on to the sashimi plate. It had some fantastic Chu-Toro (tuna), Tai (snapper), and the star of the plate….Ika (squid). In the States when you order Ika it’s usually very thin and a little rubbery. Not these two slices. They were about a half centimeter thick, squid steaks! Rubbery? Hell no! Each chew and the squid literally melted away in our mouths. Hands down the best squid I’ve ever eaten.

Then they brought us a plate of steamed Ayu (sweet fish). It’s a river fish that eats moss attached to stones giving it a really fresh and clean taste. It was served with a light ginger sauce. The thing that makes Ayu special is that it’s eaten when the belly is full of fish roe. There isn’t much meat, so it’s like dipping chopsticks into a bowl of fresh water caviar.

Being the meatavore that I am, the next plate was what I was most looking forward to….Beef Tataki. Lightly seared beef to give a little texture to the soft raw meat laden with mouth-watering fat. The dipping sauce is a soy-dashi mix. You see the little mound of reddish gew on the side of the dish? That’s a mix of togarahsi (Japanese red pepper) and yuzu (a small citrus fruit). You mix that into the sauce like you would wasabi for sushi, along with thinly sliced chives. With the tataki there was a small dish of sliced cucumber and I think seaweed in a vinegar sauce that cleansed the palette from the fatty beef.

Then we ate the Shabu-shabu. Unfortunately I forgot to get a picture of the individual hotpots we used, but here’s the ingredients. The broth was a light sake base, in it we added cabbage, enoki mushrooms, and shimeji mushrooms. Once they were cooked, we sloshed the thinly sliced beef around to cook it and then dipped it all in a light soy with more of the togarashi yuzu and chives.

After that we got two different preparations of Unagi. To be honest, I have absolutely no clue what the difference was. One was served on top of rice, the other with rice on the side. All I can tell you is that you will never find eel of that quality anywhere in the States. It tasted like they just caught it that morning. Best eel ever! Both came with a little dish of Japanese pickles. They were probably damn good pickles, but I don’t like pickles so I let Yuki eat mine.

After the Unagi was a clear broth soup with an ingredient we couldn’t figure out. At first, we thought it was some sort of mushroom. It wasn’t. Then we thought it might be shiroko, fish sperm sack. It wasn’t that either. We finally found out that it was eel liver, probably from the Unagi we just ate. It had kind of a crunchy yet soft texture. Not something you’ll find on any old menu.

Finally, to finish things off was a plate with fresh persimmons and grapes. persimmons are in season right now and are everywhere while Japanese grapes are absolutely huge compared to what we get.

All in all this was my 5th Kaiseki. I wish I could afford to eat like this every night as there is always something unusual and strange to the western palette. If any of you get to Japan I highly recommend splurging at least once to experience the delicate yet sophisticated Japanese cuisine at it’s finest.

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