Saturday, August 29, 2009

How to Make People Think You Are Awesome (aka Gyoza)

Though I'm glad that I've finally got some time to write another entry, the feeling is tempered a bit by the fact that it's only due to a complete lack of plans on a Saturday night. I'll take comfort in knowing that I've got lunch and dinner plans with friends on Sunday, so it's not like I'm a total loser.

Right, on to the food. Gyoza is one of my favorite things to take to parties and the like. Everyone is always amazed by the fact that you made them yourself, rather buy them (sad commentary on the current state of people's dietary habits, but that's another story), like you had moved a mountain or something. You will be praised to know end and people will tell their friends about it, but the truth is not only are they so easy to make it's stupid, they're pretty much impossible to mess up. If you have the core ingredients and don't use crazy ratios, they are almost guaranteed to turn out well.

I will admit that I sort of cheat on one thing: I buy the wrappers. It's not that they're terrible difficult to make, just a combination of flour and water, but buying them guarantees that they are the same thickness, so you don't have any that are too thick and end up undercookeded or too thin and break while cooking. Since they're just flour and water anyway, there's no worry about crazy artificial ingredients in the store-bought ones, so that's worth points in my book. If I had a pasta machine, I would probably use that and make my own, but I don't own one so that's that.

Anyhow, things you pretty much have to include in your filling: ground meat (what kind is completely at your discretion, though I imagine chicken would end up a bit dry), green onions or nira (chinese chives), ginger, and garlic. To be honest, you could get by without the last two, but gyoza are way better with them. My personal opinion is that you should use more green onions/nira than you think you should, at least close to 1:1 with the meat, if not more. It will keep your gyoza from being just a hunk of meat in a wonton. This time, I opted to throw in some minced onions as well, just because. Tekito? Yes, but delicious too.

So what do you do? mince up everything you're going to use in the filling. Add some salt and pepper as you see fit. Give it a little shot of soy sauce if you're in the mood, or whatever kind of seasoning sounds like a good idea at the time. Mix it all together really well and drop roughly a heaping teaspoon or so in the middle of a wrapper. Dip your finger in some water and paint the edge of the wrapper with the water (this is what makes it stick together). Fold the wrapper in half, pressing out any air, and add some crimps to the round side. I used to be too gentler when pressing the crimps in, but the real secret to getting sexy looking gyoza is to give it some tough love to make sure it really keeps its shape.

For cooking options, there are 4 ways you can go. The most common is to pan fry them, which gives you a somewhat crispy wrapper with a juicy inside. The second is to steam them, which will highlight the filling over the wrapper. You can also boil them for a more velvety wrapper or deep fry them for a crispy one. Since I usually pan fry them, I decided to steam this bunch, giving them 6-7 minutes per batch in the steamer, though I pan fried a few just because they taste so damn good that way too. Be careful not to overcrowd the steamer or they'll stick together and you'll have to risk ripping the wrapper to separate them

That's all there is to it. Chop some stuff up, mix it together, fold a wrapper in half and cook. Yet somehow that's enough to have people singing your culinary praise. Just smile and soak it in.

p.s. I hope everybody notices the fact that I am indeed holding that gyoza with chopsticks LEFT HANDED. Since you can't really work an SLR with your left hand and I don't have a tripod, I had to bust out my supreme skills to bring you that picture. Enjoy it and bask in the deliciousness of the food.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Day at the Beach + Mabo Tofu

Today I met up with the Michigan crew and spent the day at the beach. The weather was absolutely perfect, in the low 30s and sunny, and it was a great way to relax after a long week at the office. We met up down near Kamakura late in the morning and staked out a spot on the beach. We'd picked up some juice and tea on the way and I'd brought pineapple and grapefruit, so we started off with some of that. The beach is lined with little shacks and bars selling food and drink, so everybody grabbed a bit from there throughout the day as well. I tried to be fairly diligent with the use of sunscreen but alas, as always, ended up burning. I take some comfort in knowing that even the asian kids I was with, who are far less prone to sunburn than I am, ending up looking pretty red. The sun really is a different beast here and it will rock you if you aren't careful...

As I mentioned, this past work week was a long one and not a good week in food for me. Work was crazy busy, with the earliest day ending a little after 10pm and racking up almost a months worth of overtime, so I didn't cook a single proper dinner the whole week. I often packed a lunch to eat as dinner while I was at the office and often had a granola loaded smoothie as a meal substitute. I wasn't particularly ever in the mood for eating (it happens to me sometimes) so I didn't eat very much over the course of the week and I'm pretty sure I lost some weight. Sadly, most of the muscle mass I'd built up during the earlier part of the summer has fallen off during the past few weeks and I'm pretty much just skinny now. Hopefully I can get myself back into the habit of regular exercise again and get back in shape.

After such an unimpressive eats, I felt the need to make up for it this weekend. I had some tofu in the fridge that was in need of eating soon, so I went for one of my staple dishes that's not terribly difficult to make but tastes so damn good: mabo tofu. Really the only problem I ever have with the dish is that it's so easy to make too much and so hard to not eat it all. Fortunately the ingredients are all cheap and for what honestly couldn't cost me more than 5 dollars tops I made enough to comfortably serve 2-3 people. I always am generous with the chili sauce because I like it spicy, but this time I also tried added some garlic and black bean sauce which I thought worked out really well. The meal comes together fairly quickly and honestly doesn't require much attention. To be honest, if you put in most of the main ingredients in reasonable proportions, you're pretty much guaranteed to end up with a delicious dish.

Mabo Tofu
~15og ground pork
200g firm tofu
1.5 tbs toubanjan (chili sauce)
1 tbs garlic and black bean sauce
2 tsp ginger, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
4-5 stems of green onions, minced (save about a tbs of the green part for garnishing)
1 Japanese long onion, cut on the bias (it's a lot like a leek)
1 tbs tenmenjan (sweet black bean sauce)
1 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs shao xing rice wine
salt, pepper, and sichaun peppercorns to taste
1.5 tbs cornstarch disolved in 3 tbs water

Saute the pork, toubanjan, and garlic & black bean sauce until the pork is mostly cooked. I don't use any oil since there tends to be enough fat in the ground meat already. Add the ginger, garlic, long onion, and most of the green onion and saute for another 30 seconds or so. Add the tenmenjan, soy sauce, and shao xing then stir everything until well combined. Stir in the salt, pepper and sichaun peppercorns, then add the cornstarch and mix thoroughly. I usually drop the heat a bit before adding the cornstarch to help buy some time to mix it in evenly before it thickens too much. Otherwise, you might end up with some kinda goopy bits and that's just not fun. Let it all simmer for a bit until it's close to the desired consistency (I like it fairly thick) then gentley stir in the tofu. Give it another minute after that to make sure the tofu gets completely heated (a bite of cold tofu in this dish would just be weird), sprinkle with the saved green onion and a bit more sichaun peppercorn, then serve.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Mixed Week in Food

No pictures today as I've barely had a chance to bust out my camera recently. My food consumption this past week was like a rollercoaster, with some amazing highs and pretty unspectacular lows. Work has been super busy, keeping me at the office until 11:30pm on Monday (dinner = small salad) and Wednesday (no dinner) and until 2am last night (dinner = food I'd made for lunch but skipped eating in favor of going out with a coworker). To be honest, I wouldn't really say I had dinner on any of those three days, or at least not a proper one. I went out for lunch a few times during the week and had some pretty decent lunch specials, the best being my initiation to dosa and Indian curry. All in all, a lot of highly forgetable eating. Fortunately that was all offset by two spectacular meals to break up the mediocracy.

Last Sunday, I met up with Yuki in Ebisu to grab lunch and check out a photo exhibit that was going on. Our original plan had been to go to a highly rated Italian place that was supposed to serve up some good pizza, but we couldn't find the place. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we stumbled upon Calm Terrace. Yuki and I have are both big fans of the crazy deals you can get for weekend lunches in Tokyo (especially compared to a standard night at an izakaya) and had been talking for a while about doing less cheap eats + booze in favor of high quality lunches. I had actually found Calm Terrace, which does California-esque fusion food, online a couple of months ago but was unable to convince the college crowd back on summer break that, at the same price as a night out drinking cheap beer, it was in fact not too expensive. But as Yuki and I found ourselves wandering Ebisu unable to locate the Italian place, when Calm Terrace popped up there was no need to think about it.

It was by no means a cheap lunch and my mom will probably put her hands on her hips and frown when she finds out what it cost, but ohhhh was it good. To me, going out to eat is only worthwile if you either are comparing the dish to your homemade version to improve or if it is something you simply wouldn't be able to put together on your own. This meal definitely fell in the later category with beautifuly fresh ingredients, creative combinations, clean flavors, and elegant presentation all in a uber-chic setting. The restaurant itself is absolutely gorgeous, with clean modern lines and lots of open space. The restaurant is all one room, with a high ceiling and a small balcony (or perhaps... TERRACE...) elevated 7 or 8 feet above the maining dining area. In the back is the kitchen, which you can see into from the counter seats and is so small it probably couldn't handle a third chef, and a small bar (they seem to have a pretty good sized wine list). This is going to sound really cheezy, but it honestly was a calming place to be. Quiet, laid back, it just feels completely removed from the Tokyo hustle and bustle.

We opted for the pre-fixed course, which was made up of an appetizer, the pasta of the day, an entree, and dessert. Yuki started off with chili con carne and avacado - pizza style, which was a crispy fried tortilla topped with the best chili I have ever tasted. The sauce was a sweet cajun honey sauce that I would probably kill to get the recipe for. I went with steamed clams in white wine, a dish that I can make myself but was curious to see how they did it. The biggest difference is that they were clearly pretty generous with the olive oil for the sauce, which made mopping it up with bread at the end all the more satisfying. The pasta of the day was a thin spaghetti in meat sauce, but with the sauce using shredded white fish rather than ground beef as the meat. It was an interesting twist that made it much lighter than your standard meat sauce and kept a very basic dish from being boring. For our entrees, Yuki went with what they call Spicy Asian sauted scallops and prawns, but was really more like a light Japanese curry with scallops and prawns. The curry was absolutely amazing and the seafood cooked perfectly. Again, not a very standard combination but the execution was phenominal. I had a rare tuna steak with white sesame seeds and a sweet vinagrette sauce. Though the fish was good, it certainly wasn't the highlight of the meal. But I will forgive it, because beside the fish were two pieces of tempura, baby corn and avocado, that won me over. To me, the brilliance of using those two ingredients is all about the texture. Standard tempura is almost always the tempura shell with something moderately soft inside, but not these little bits of goodness. With the baby corn you get a crispy tempura crust wrapping even crunchy baby corn. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the avocado has the crunchy outside with a melt-in-your creamy avocado center. Simple yet brilliant and avocado is now on my list of things I will be tempura-ing for my sister when I go home this Christmas! The meal concluded with a refreshing but not terribly memorable combination of coconut ice cream and mango parfait. Though the portions at Calm Terrace are admittedly fairly small, the pacing of the meal and the number of dishes makes it feel like a huge meal and I had no complaints picking up the $70 tab. I think it took us nearly two hours to get through the whole thing, but it was a beautiful way to pace an early Sunday afternoon.

Despite the gloriousness of Sunday's lunch, terribly dull meals from Monday to Wednesday had put me in a bit of a food slump, so Thursday's dinner came at just the right time. I managed to leave the office around 6pm, the first time in quite a bit that I've gotten out while it was still light outside. The plan had been to meet up with Yuki in Gaienmae over near her office since they were having a big fireworks show at Meiji Jingu, which is really close by, then grab a bite to eat afterwords, but I was able to get out so early that we decided to get dinner first before the firework-watching masses decended on the area for post show eats. I've gotta say I would looooove to work in that part of Tokyo; it's so much more stylish and sexy than the Tokyo Station area I'm currently at, which is pretty much just a big depressing mass of Japanese salarymen. While Tokyo Station is surrounded by izakaya and the like that cater to salarymen on their way home from work, the Gaienmae/Aoyama area is loaded up with trendy little cafes and the like. Yuki lead me to one such place, Nos, a super cool place tucked just a little ways down a side street in Aoyama. We arrived at about 6:45 without reservations, but they told us they could give us a spot until 8pm. Since we planned on catching some of the fireworks action afterwards anyway, we were totally cool with that. As they showed us to our seats, it was like a progression of trendy-ness. Each floor is quite small, but different from the others and very cool. The first floor is a simple bar that only has 5 or 6 seats and standing room for 20 people max. The second floor is four small private rooms that looked like they were probably big enough for 6-8 max. The third floor was a more traditional dining room with a number of tables for 2-4 people and a huge 20 foot glass window view. But we were taken to the real money spot: the 3.5 floor loft, a private party space. Oh my was it cool. Low lit, lots of dark wood and soft lighting, I will almost certainly throw a part there at some point. And we had it all to ourselves. Niiiiiice.

The food at Nos is what generally falls into the category of 創作料理 (sousaku ryouri), or creative cooking. I guess it's sort of like fusion, with no real national identity and a focus on interesting or uncommon combinations. Yuki had a 20% off coupon, so we just ripped through the menu and ordered a bunch of stuff. We started off with Nos original cocktails, Yuki getting "Darjeeling Squash" (I think it was Darjeeling Tea and vodka) while I went with "L'azool Moni", a mysterious blue drink that I honestly could not tell you what was in but tasted good all the same. We started off with blow-your-mind good spring rolls. They were at least a full inch in diameter with huge shrimp, sweet crunch lettuce, and a few other shredded veggies wrapped up in the thinnest rice paper I've ever had. Delicious on their own, they were taken to a whole new level by the accompanying sauce. I tried so hard to identify what was in it, but in the end the only thing I could really put my finger on was ginger and something that tasted a lot like oh-so-fantastic tonkatsu sauce. Whatever it was, I would buy bottles of it if it were available in stores. That was followed by a tuna (raw of course; this is Japan) and avacado salad that was very refreshing, though the light swirl of Japanese mayo on top kinda took it down a few notches in my book. Would have been fabulous without it. From the "hot dish" part of the menu, we couldn't make up our minds, so we asked for the waitress' recommendation. She pointed us in the direction of the satsuma-age (a type of fried Japanese fish cake) which, to me, spoke volumes about the restaurant. Satsuma-age is one of the cheapest items on the menu, but she told us that it was unlike satsuma-age anywhere else and even people who usually aren't fans of satsuma-age love it. The fact that she would give us an honest opinion about what she thought was best, with no regard to how much it cost, pretty much won me over on the spot (not that the food wasn't already doing that already). Just like she said, the shrimp and basil satsuma-age was logic defyingly light and fluffy for something fried and each bite was a little bit of happiness. +100 points for creative awesomeness. Next up was crab and asparagus risotto, with crisp fresh asparagus and big chunks of crab mixed into a creamy risotto. Two things about this dish stood out to me: (1) they were generous with the crab and you could taste it. It wasn't just an ingredient in the name, it was a well represented part of the food, without overpowering the other flavors; (2) the risotto tasted like it was made with real milk. This may not sound particularly amazing to anyone in the US, but here in Japan pure milk is not all that common. Of the dozen or so brands of milk available at the grocery store, I would venture to say all but two or three of them are made of milk and 牛乳製品, or "milk products". In any case, attention was once again paid to the quality of the ingredients used and it showed. We had originally planned to end the meal there, but felt like we could go for a bit more, so we went with the boiled pork and daikon with grated daikon and ponzu citrus sauce, which Yuki had tried on a previous visit and said was really good. The dish was served cold after having been boiled until super tender. It was a pretty simple dish with a very Japanese taste to it that was light and refreshing; just the thing for a hot summer night. Thanks to the coupon, the bill came out to just over $50, which is a steal for such a big dinner and a drink.

After dinner we wandered around the area, checking out the fireworks from several different vantage points before settling down just in time to watch the big finale. To avoid the post-show crush on the subway, we decided to walk over to Akasaka and grabbed dessert at Haagen Dazs. By the end of the evening it felt like I'd done an unbelievable amount of stuff after work despite having been at the office until 6pm, which made me feel a bit of jealous towards those with more balanced work schedules and a little pang of regret for turning down exactly such a lifestyle in California. Even though I think I made the right choice coming to Tokyo, I think I will always feel a little mix of doubt and regret about what I gave up to be here. Regardless, it's the life I've chosen so all I can do is make the most of it! This coming week should be even busier than the past one, but if I can stick in a couple more of these amazing meals there will be no complaints from me!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dinner For One

Summer means fireworks in Japan and for the last month or so there have been fireworks shows somewhere in the Tokyo area almost every weekend. I tried to organize all the Michigan kids to go see this week's big one, but pretty much everyone either already had plans or wasn't interested. As that group pretty much constitutes my entire social life in Japan, I was left with a completely open calender for Saturday night.

There had been some construction going on near my place all day, so I didn't think too much of it when I first started hearing loud banging noises around 7pm. I finally figured out what was really going on and, having nothing better to do, thought I'd check it out a little. I had been able to see the fireworks from the train on my way home last weekend and since this week's were also supposed to be going on a little South of here, I thought I might be able to see something if I headed to the river near my place since it runs North-South. When I got there, I discovered that not only were they being launched to the South (which I could only just barely see off in the distance), they were also going on much closer to the east. I watched for a little while, taking some pictures, then headed back to my place. Unfortunately, it took me a while to realize that not only could I see the fireworks from my balcony (my room faces east) but that the view was far better from up there. Still, I managed to catch the last hurrah, so that was nice.

I have to say, fireworks really are not meant to be watched by oneself. It was a nice cool summer evening that would have been perfect for having a picnic and watching the show, which only made the loneliness all the more poignant.

To make matters worse, when grocery shopping that morning, I had bought ingredients to cook the kind of dish for dinner that would be far better for a dinner date than dinner for one. For some reason, scallops scream date food to me. They certainly aren't something often served for dinner for a large number of people and something just seems strange about the idea of eating them by oneself. But, most weekends, my local grocery store has a local fishmonger set up shop in a part of the store and the scallops had been catching my eye for quite some time. I honestly haven't had scallops that many times in my life, so I'd hardly call myself a big fan, but something about the idea of the fishmonger picking out the shell, cutting the scallop out, tossing it into a bag, and handing it over to me suggested a kinda of freshness that I wanted to try. I picked up 3 of the little suckers at ~$1 a pop, which seemed pretty reasonable to me.

I'd looked at a few recipes to try to find inspiration and though I didn't find anything that sounded quite like what I was in the mood for, I did find some good tips on how to sear the scallops. I think particularly important is making sure to dry them off really well and having a really hot non-stick pan. Having the heat up high is also key, as the inside will continue cooking even after you remove the scallops from the pan, so you want to sear the outside as quickly as possible to avoid overcooking the whole thing. Though I'm not a fan at all of my IH stovetop, I will at least acknowledge that it will get crazy hot if you jack the temperature up and it did the trick well enough for the scallops.

I'm a big fan of light and sweet sake-soy sauce based sauces with seafood, so I threw together a mix of roughly 2 tbs sake, 1/2 tbs soy sauce, 1/2 tbs mirin, 1/2 tsp sesame oil. It's a pretty basic set of flavors that seem to match well without overpowering the fish. I sauted some sliced up bell peppers as well to keep things from being too boring and to add a little nutritional balance to the meal.

In the end, the whole process went like this:
(1) Clean scallops, drying thoroughly. Lightly season with salt and pepper
(2) Quickly saute bell peppers until about half done. Remove from pan.
(3) Add a glug of olive oil to the pan and turn the heat up high.
(4) Place scallops in pan and leave undisturbed for 1.5~2 min
(5) Flip scallops and cook for another minute
(6) Remove scallops and deglaze pan with sake. Scrape up any bits of scallop stuck to pan
(7) Add remaining sauce ingredients and reduce for 3~4min (the time is a total guess on this one, but that's about what it felt like). About 2/3 of way through add the bell peppers back to the pan and finish cooking
(8) Plate bell peppers. Place scallops on top, then drizzle with sauce

The scallops seared up beautifully, with that sexy brown crust on the outside but the tender, just barely cooked middle. But, to be totally honest, I just don't think I'm a big scallop fan. Before you go telling me that I just didn't cook them right, I'll point out that I've had them in restaurants before as well and they just don't really do it for me. I had been hoping it would be different this time because I was using good fresh ones, but it really wasn't. That's not to say they were bad, it's just that there are a lot of other kinds of seafood or meat that I think I would have liked more. In any case, it's one more thing I can say I've tried cooking and I think the things I found out about searing them will hold true for other types of seafood as well. Oh well, live and learn.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Weekend Breakfasts

My whole life, I have been a skinny. On occasion, I've been teased about it or told I should probably gain some weight. But, to be completely honest, I love being skinny. To me, skinny is beautiful and getting fat ranks up pretty high on my list of fears. Growing up, I could eat however much of whatever I wanted and wouldn't gain a pound. Unfortunately, those days are over, with the sedentary life of a desk job only making things worse.

In order to avoid picking up extra pounds, I've changed up my diet quite a bit recently. Meat consumption is waaaay down, often swapped out for seafood or excluded all together. Veggies play a huge role and I've even taking to eating salads on occasion (I think I just heard my mom gasp on the other side of the Pacific). Snacks and desserts are rare, bordering on non-existent. Portions are generally just large enough to get me through to the next meal (which, to be honest, is probably the appropriate amount, but certainly not what I, or most people for that matter, am used to). And you know what, it absolutely works. The calorie count is probably too low, but I don't feel like I lack energy and I'm confident that I'm getting the necessary nutrition.

There are times, however, where I worry that I'll do a Michael Jackson: develop an ideal image and go too far pursuing it. Michael Jackson was a cool guy way back in the day. But he decided he wanted paler skin and a thinner nose. At first, he lightened up a bit and trimmed the nose down a little, and that was ok. But then he kept going; paler and paler, thinner and thinner. When all was said and done, he'd gone too far and it just didn't look right anymore.

I don't want to be like Michael Jackson's nose, ending up so thin that it's not cool anymore. So, in the midst of all my dietary control, I allow myself some indulgences, one of which is weekend breakfasts. I do most of my grocery shopping for the week on either Saturday or Sunday morning, but since nothing is open before 10am and I wake up at 7am, I've got some time to kill so I try to make something a bit more luxurious than my weekday granola-and-banana breakfast.

My latest undertaking in weekend morning indulgence was based off of a recipe discovered on one of the food blogs I regularly follow. French toast is one of my favorite breakfast foods and snickerdoodles also happen to be delicious, so how it sounded like win-win to me. Plus, I'd recently bought a bunch of cinnamon sticks, so I was able to use fresh ground cinnamon to make the cinammon sugar (yes, I do indeed have too much free time on weekends). I mixed together an egg and some milk (I think I used about 100ml, but really wasn't paying too much attention to the details) and tossed in some bread for a little bath. For those who are into sticking to a recipe, the original can be found here.

From there, I melted a bit of butter in a pan over medium heat, added two slices of bread, and gave it a healthy dusting of cinnamon sugar. After a minute or two, I flipped the bread and gave it another dose of the sweet stuff. I used up most of the amount in the picture above, probably about a tablespoon and a half (again, didn't really measure) between four slices of bread. Was it a lot? Yeah, but damn was it delicious. If I'm going to indulge, I like to get the most out of it.

After the bread was good and coated, I left it to brown on both sides, then repeated the whole process with the other two pieces. Since clearly this wasn't enough sugar for one day, I finished it off with a healthy sprinkle of powdered sugar and the remaining cinnamon sugar. It probably would have been good with some syrup on there too, but that stuff is stupid expensive in Japan and my heart might have exploded with that extra sugar anyway. It doesn't really matter as it was freakin awesome just as it was. I figure I can get away with letting go like this once every week or two and it's an absolutely wonderful way to celebrate not having to be in the office!