Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dinner for Two

This past weekend was “Silver Week” in Japan, the fall counterpart of spring’s Golden Week, with Monday through Wednesday being national holidays. It’s difficult to take time off work at Japanese companies, so people are pretty dependent on holidays to get away from work and I was pleased with the way I managed to squeeze in quite bit. There was a night of drinking with coworkers (complete with late night booze in a park), the arrival of my new 50mm 1.4f lens (it takes gorgeous pictures), a dinner party with the Michigan kids at Mike’s place in Yokohama (always a good time), a day trip to Hakone (obscenely crowded, but the hour spent in the hot springs made up for it), and a night cruise of Tokyo Harbor. It was certainly busy, but that’s fine by me as everything turned out so well.

With 5 straight days off, you’d expect that I’d also have been cooking up a storm but I barely spent any time in the kitchen. In fact, I didn’t cook anything particularly significant until the very last night of the break. Yuki and I decided to make dinner together and she happened to have pasta, bacon, and eggs on hand (quite fortunate considering how empty her kitchen is!), so we decided to take a shot at Pasta Carbonara. I picked up some parmesan cheese on the way over and we were pretty much set to give it a go.

The recipes I’d seen called for using the entire egg, but she insisted that one should exclude the white, so we went with that. Personally, I think it would have benefited from having the white in there as it ended up being pretty thick but it was my first time making it, so what would I know. The alternative would be to add some milk or cream, which is the standard here in Japan, but I wanted to try to keep it authentic and wasn’t down for that.

The past couple of times I’ve tried new recipes have been at friends’ houses, all of whom happen to have gas stove tops. Having been cooking on my stupid little IH surface for the past 6 months now, I’d forgotten how much power gas puts out. It just heats up so much faster. Sadly, this lead to significantly over-cooked (read: borderline burned) bacon for the carbonara, as you can clearly see in the pictures, though it still tasted decent enough I suppose. Yuki also threw together a salmon and onion marinade (salmon and onions marinated in rice vinegar and lemon juice) and a quick salad (I played like a champion, eating the tomatoes and giving the olives a shot) to make it a real meal. Dinner was followed by super creamy banana milkshakes. I added a little soy milk to them and, though I can’t say for sure if it would have been any different with regular milk, they turned out absolutely delicious. God, I love milkshakes…

All in all, it was a pretty solid meal. The carbonara wasn’t bad but it certainly wasn’t going to win any awards either, so I’ll have to work on that. It’s a very straight forward dish to make and has potential to be delicious, so I think it’s worthwhile to try it out a few more times to see if I can’t figure out how to make it better.

As this is first and foremost a food blog, I try to keep things focused on food. That being said, I think there is room for exceptions, so I’m going to make one now. You may have noticed a cute Japanese girl showing up a few times on this blog as my primary accomplice in my eating and traveling adventures. Without going into details, I’ll just go ahead and introduce my girlfriend, Yuki.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bringing Sexy Back

I was looking at my past entries and noticed that all my large pictures in recent posts were super pixelated and ugly. This was particularly strange considering that, though they are relatively large for this blog, the original images are more than 5x as big.

After digging around a bit, I found the root of the problem. I'd been linking to the picture that showed up in my photostream on flickr, which I thought was the full size image. As it turns out, those images have actually already been compressed to a size smaller than what I was using for the blog. As a result, when they were expanded for posts, they ended up looking a bit like someone went to town on them with an ugly-stick.

As it turns out, in flickr, when viewing an individual picture, there is an option to view all sizes. From there, if you pick the largest size and link to that your pictures will come out in all their original sexy glory.

Now to celebrate the new found sexiness, a picture from Victoria Beach, which just might have the best sunsets on earth.

You know you want some of that...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

ミシガン会@三品んち (Michigan Party @ the Mishina's)

One thing I miss the most about American social life is house parties. No, not the cheap-bear-guzzling-packed-wall-to-wall bits of organize chaos that are the standard for college students, I'm talking more along the lines of a dinner party like proper adults (don't laugh too hard at that one). One of the problems with living in Tokyo is that most people (at least, from the early 20s demographic) don't have a home large enough to host more than 4 or 5 people at a time and, as a result, if you want to get a decent sized group together, you pretty much have to resort to going out.

Lucky for us, our friends Mamiyu and Ayumi are from the Tokyo suburbs and open their house to us on occasion. It's quite a haul to get there (it's actually in a suburb of Yokohama, which is like a suburb of Tokyo) and the last train back is quite early, so they let us crash in their living room. It's amazingly refreshing to kick back and relax with friends without having to worry about how when you have to leave in order to make it home.

Saturday night, Mamiyu, Ayumi, Yuki, Mike, Shunji, and I got together for one such party, with the game plan being that everybody would pitch in something to eat or drink potluck style. Satomi was also supposed, but it turned out that she would be coming later, once her choir practice ended. Satomi is the super cook of our group and we were all pretty much counting on her to make something awesome as the main dish, so it was a bit of a shock when she found out that she probably wouldn't be able to come until 9ish.

Faced with this monster setback to our dinner plans, we threw together a mishmash of dishes that would combine to constitute a meal. Mamiyu had already planned on making a gratin, Shunji pitched in his オムライス (pretty good stuff for a guy who pretty much never cooks!), and they also threw together a quick yakisoba. It was actually quite a solid amount of food...

Somewhere along the way it was decided that, in Satomi's absence, my dish was to be the main one. Considering I was planning on trying a dish I'd never made before, that was a good bit of pressure, but I'd put some serious thought into planning it. I'd originally wanted to do mussels (especially as I expected I would just be making an appetizer for Satomi's food), but Mamiyu had checked in advanced and said that none of the nearby stores had any. So instead I went with a recipe for Greek shrimp that had popped up a few months ago on one of the blogs I follow. It didn't look terribly difficult from a technical standpoint, though it did call for a couple ingredients that aren't so easy to find in Japan. Basil is hard to find but not impossible, mint is quite rare, and feta cheese is almost non-existant. Fortunately for me, the grocery store in the basement of the Kita Senju Marui came to the rescue again, with both types of herbs at reasonable prices and a special cheese shop that just happened to have feta (though you had to ask as it wasn't in the displays). The feta was a rather ridiculous $20/lb, but I only needed 1/4 lbs. and sometimes sacrifices must be made in the name of good food.

Garides Tourkolimano (Greek shrimp)
3/4 lbs. shrimp
3 tbs olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 red chilis (one deseeded), minced
3 medium tomatoes, diced
1.5 cups white wine (I used a Cabernet Sauvignon and didn't actually measure)
4 green onions (green part only), sliced
2 cups basil, ripped up
1 cup mint, roughly chopped
115 g feta cheese, chopped into small blocks
1/2 cup parsley, chopped

First, I gave the shrimp a quick shot in the pan, just until they started to turn pink, then set them aside. I added a couple solid slugs of olive oil the the pan and let the garlic and chilis get all aromatic and delicious. Next went in the tomatoes and wine, which I brought to a simmer and let be for a few minutes until the tomatoes started breaking down. Back in went the shrimp, along with the green onions, for another minute or two. The whole boatload of basil (seriously, it was a ton) and mint got dumped in next and stirred into the sauce. I tossed in the feta and gave all a good mix, though I left it for a little long and the feta melted a bit. A quick sprinkle of parsley and it was off to the table, along with some slices of crusty bread for wiping up extra sauce.

The dish was pretty straight forward to put together and got great feedback, so I'll definitely add it on my list of reliable recipes. I bought pretty good quality ingredients and it still only ran me about 2500 yen (~$25) to feed the 6 of us, which is quite reasonable. If I'd doubled the amount of shrimp it probably could have stood on it's own as a main course and would only just barely have broke 3000 yen. I'd worried that ~100g of feta wouldn't be enough, but I think it ended up being just the right amount. The only thing I think I would change next time is I'd go with just one chili or deseed both, as it was a little spicier than it needed to be.

It felt really good to turn out something that everyone liked, especially under pressure. It was also nice trying a recipe that wasn't Asian, as that's pretty much all I ever make and it's probably a good idea to round out my personal recipe list a bit. All in all, a top drawer party, so pats on the back all around!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Something Different (Thai Curry)

Today I'm going to try something different: I'm going to try to keep this brief. A lot of my entries have been far too long and, as I was reading through the updates of the food blogs I follow, I realized that I don't really like reading epically long entries. Most of the ones I enjoy most tell a quick story, get to the point, and call it a day. I'm not so good at that (this introduction is already getting long), but I'll give it a shot anyways.

I took the day off from work today, only my second day off in my more than 10 months of employment. I had no plans for how to spend the day and, to be completely honest, I didn't really do anything of significance, but it was nice to not have to go into the office all the same.

Usually when I have a good bit of time on a weekend evening, I like to try to cook something more difficult and demanding, since I can spare the time required. I was planning on making Red Curry Mussels, a dish I fell in love with at Ray's Boat House in Seattle, but the mussels weren't looking so awesome at my usual stores today, so I skipped out on that idea and settled for regular Thai red curry.

One thing I quite like about soupy-brothy type dishes like curries, mabo tofu, and the likes is that you can put pretty much whatever you want into them and it will be totally fine. Today, I loaded up my curry with onions, carrots, bell peppers, eggplant, and tofu. I've got a bunch of meat in my freezer that needs eating, but wasn't on top of my game enough to actually have any of it defrosted in time for dinner, hence the vegetarian-ness.

The recipe is based off of a basic red curry recipe from Rasa Malaysia, though as usual I didn't particularly stick to it beyond the rough ratios for the broth. I pan fried the tofu until it was golden brown (ok, that's a lie: I made one side a beautiful golden brown and thoroughly burned the other), then made sure the carrots and eggplant were cooked long enough to properly soften up. My mom will probably feint upon hearing that I voluntarily ate eggplant, but I've come to realize that it doesn't taste like much on it's own and absorbs other flavors quite well (making it great for a curry) and getting some extra veggies in my diet certainly doesn't hurt.

I love spicy foods, with much of what I cook lately coming out bright red from all the chili-based ingredients, and I tried to be generous with the red curry paste this time, but it didn't have much affect. I don't know if the base recipe is just quite mild, if it's the curry paste I'm using, or a combination of both, but this definitely could have done with more heat.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Lunch for Two

I've been wanting to write this entry all week but work kept making me come home so late that it just wasn't possible. Monday was Yuki's birthday, so I took her out for lunch on Sunday at Cicada in Hiro. I'd actually wanted to take her to La Table du Joel Robuchon in Ebisu, but it was completely booked, so I went with Plan B. I'd read several good reviews of Cicada and their menu looked good, so I decided to give it a shot.

Best. Decision. Ever.

I'm absolutely comfortable saying it's the best meal I've had in Tokyo to date. I cannot say enough about how good this place was. The bill was a bit higher than I'd expected (more on that later) but it was so good I wasn't going to complain.

As a brief aside, one of my shortcomings as a food blogger is that I'm just not comfortable whipping out my camera in a restaurant and snapping away. To me, it just destroys the atmosphere, which is pretty important in my books. It's a different story when you're traveling because you've got that tourist mentality and anything is fair game for photography for the sake of preserving those memories after you go back home. But when you're in your own backyard, it's a different story. As such, I apologize for not having any pictures of the food. You'll just have to trust me that it was all absolutely amazing.

The food follows a general Mediterranean theme, with influences from Morroco, Tunisia, Greece, and Spain. Our waitress was very informative, explaining the origins of almost everything we ate, though she was a bit sales person-ish in making recommendations. Nevermind, the whole experience was good enough to overlook that. Since we were celebrating, we got drinks, Yuki getting the sangria (dangerously easy to drink) while I had a strawberry bellini (pureed strawberries + sparkling wine? yes please!).

They start you off with a cumin and fennel flat bread which, besides being delicious, had a really pleasant chewy texture. You could actually taste the cumin and fennel, which I found nice as many places are so light on the spices that the flavor doesn't stand out. There was also a small bowl of sea salt to sprinkle on it, which boosted the flavors even more. They also have several kinds of olive oils to go with the bread and we went with a Spanish one (we don't know enough about olive oils to make any kind of proper decision and Yuki has a soft spot for Spain, having spent some time there during college). Our waitress informed us that it was a special early harvest one (I honestly have no idea what that changes about the oil itself, but whatever) and that there was a very limited number of bottles produced every year. Lots of fancy schmancy explanations and such, but the bottom line is that it was some of the best damn olive oil I've ever had. It's hard to put into words what was different about it, but it really was top drawer stuff.

Weekend lunch is a course meal at Cicada, which includes an appetizer, a main course, dessert, and coffee/espresso. The waitress told us that the appetizers are quite large (they were) and the best way to go was to order different things and share, so that's what we did. We started off with a feta and olive Greek salad (yes, I eat salad now. I know...) I left the olives to Yuki since she loves them and I'm not a huge fan (I did try them though, just to give them a chance). The salad was quite good and enjoyable, with generous slabs of feta being the key part for me. It was large, even for two, and probably could have been enough to just move on to the main courses. Fortunately for us though, there was one more appetizer to come.

The second appetizer was roasted baby squid stuffed with prosciutto, bread crumbs, and spices. Wow. Probably the single most inspirational dish I can remember eating. There really aren't words to describe the awesomeness. The squid was tender, the stuffing juicy and flavorful, with just a little kick to it. Eyes-roll-back-in-your-head kind of delicious. It was a fairly simple dish, but made with quality ingredients and so freakin good to eat. When I try to imagine what people in those picturesque, warm, sunny parts of Europe eat, dishes like this come to mind. Honestly, if lunch had ended there and we'd just walked out, I would have been perfectly content.

The first main course was grilled snapper with potatoes, olives, and rosemary. It was good, made with nice fresh ingredients, but it takes a lot for white fish to really wow me and this wasn't going to be it. Yuki said the olives pretty good, but the ones in the salad were better. The rosemary potatoes were good, but you places serving up potatoes like that are all over the place. All in all, tasty but completely forgettable, especially following the squid.

The second main dish was a tangine that came in a super cool dish with a crazy cone-shaped lid (I don't know what the deal with it was, but I'm sure it had some sort of cool purpose). There were 3 choices for the tangine: seafood, lamb, or chicken. Considering we're already had 2 seafood dishes and chicken is relatively boring and plain, we went with the lamb. The tangine was basically a spiced stew with lamb, tomatoes, eggplant, onions, and bell peppers. We also got a bowl of couscous to go with it, though I tend to think that couscous doesn't really offer much to a dish besides a kind of weird texture. The tangine was good, particularly the lamb, which was unbelievably tender to the point where you wonder how many hours they must have let it cook. It pretty much just fell apart in your mouth. I thought the tangine itself was pretty good, but it jumped up to an entire new level with the addition of a little chili paste that was provided on the side. It added both gentle spiciness and an irresistible sweetness that made me wish I'd added it from the start. Really, they should just mix the two of them for you, cuz it was average without it and amaaaazing with it.

Next up was dessert. Yuki is a huge creme brulee fan, so she couldn't help but go with the pistachio creme brulee. Normally creme brulee comes in a little ramekin and is a little bit less than you'd really want, but not this one. This came in a rectangular dish about the size of a salad plate and was a solid size for the both of us. The pistachio flavor was very subtle, kicking in more as an aftertaste than anything, which is probably for the best, since a dessert that tasted too strongly of pistachios probably wouldn't be all that appealing anyway. There were several desserts on the menu that sounded good, including a marsala tirimisu and a chocolate cake made with Valhrona chocolate, but I'm of the opinion that when you go to a quality restaurant it's a bit of a waste to not order the more creative stuff on the menu. It was that thought process that lead me to the fennel and apple cake with mascarpone. Normally, I am not a huge fan of warm fruits, but I'd never seen apple and fennel combined together, much less in a dessert, so I thought it'd be worth a shot. The cake was warm, moist, and soft, with the juicy chunks of apple adding both flavor and texture and combining quite well with the fennel flavor. I have to say, outside of Indian curries, I have almost no experience with food that includes fennel, but it was a very interesting flavor. I really liked the cake and think it was probably one of the best desserts I've had in Tokyo.

The bottom line is that the food was fantastic. Having personally picked the squid, tangine, and apple fennel cake, I believe I win the award for good choices (not to brag, of course). Though the lunch we had at Calm Terrace a few weeks back was probably more creative, I think this one wins out slightly in the taste department. The lunch course by itself is only 2900 yen (~$29), which I would say is a bargain for the quality and quantity of the food, especially considering how little that will get you at dinner in Tokyo.

Unfortunately, it can't all be sunshine and puppy dogs. The one knock I have against Cicada is that they kill you with the extras. I'm not sure if I was just distracted and not listening carefully enough, if my Japanese wasn't quite good enough to catch it, or if the waitress just straight up didn't mention it, but most of her recommendations throughout the meal came with their own separate little price tag. The olive oil was about $4, though I would still call that money well spent considering how delicious it was. But the water. Oh the water... At the beginning of the meal, we were told they had sparkling and mineral water, so we went with mineral water. The waitress opened a bottle and filled our glasses. I always drink a lot of of water when I eat out (I would say I usually go through at least 6 or 7 glasses in meal), so I was just drinking away as I always do. A few glasses in, the waitress asks me if I'd like to drink some more, so I said sure. She opened up another bottle and loaded me back up from there. It wasn't until I saw the bill that I realized that those bottles of water ran me 800 yen (~$8) a piece. Say what you will about restaurant mark ups, but $8 a bottle for water is a bit ridiculous if you ask me. For that kind of money, there had better be some virgin in Greece who lives out in the middle of nowhere and whose sole task in life is to collect rain (only in the spring) for the sole purpose of bottling in glass bottles blown by hand by her elderly craftsman father whose family has been making glass bottles for water for generations. Something like that. Ok, maybe that's a bit much, but you get the point. $16 for water is stupid. Fortunately for them it was a birthday celebration and the food had been damn good, so I just took it as being like a service charge and didn't say anything. So, while I highly highly highly recommend Cicada for a weekend lunch, say no to the water. You're probably better off washing your food down with cocktails and it will certainly be more enjoyable.

After all that, it pretty much felt like fate when my local fishmonger had baby squid for sale Saturday morning. Getting the big full size squid is super easy, but I had never seen (or at least noticed) the smaller ones before, so I took it as a sign. 498 yen (~5) for a tray of them seemed reasonable enough, so I snatched them up in preparation for my attempt to recreate that oh-so-amazing appetizer at Cicada.

Unfortunately, I had almost finished making them when I realized that my camera's ISO was set at 1600 (I'd been taking night shots when I last used it), so a lot of my pictures are completely usesless, to the point where even digitally processing the RAW files can't save them. For some reason they look pretty good when I look at them in Picasa, but when I open them in Adobe Lightroom to convert to JPEGs, they are no good. In any case, apologies upfront for a lack of good pictures for this one.

I had expecting the package to have 5, maybe 6, of the little suckers in it, so it was a bit of a surprise to a full dozen 3-4 inch squid. I guess I'll be looking for other ways to use a couple of them for dinner tonight. Squid are not particularly hard to clean, especially these little ones, but it is a little time consuming at first. Once you get into the swing of it, you can fly through them pretty quickly.

I looked up several recipes for stuffed squid to get an idea for what was commonly used and came up with the following list: onions, chorizo, bread crumbs, basil, garlic, and chilis. Several recipes also called for you to dice up the squids tentacles and use them so, not wanting to be wasteful I decided to give that a shot as well. I've recently discovered a surprisingly well stocked (and affordable!) grocery store in the basement of the Marui department store in Kita Senju, which falls on my commuter rail pass for work, letting me go to and from for free. I already had onions, garlic, and panko, so headed over there to pick up some red chilis, basil, and chorizo to use for the stuffing.

I gave the onions a good run in the frying pan to get them soft and sweet and tossed the squid tentacles with them for a split second to make sure they got cooked properly as well. After letting that cool down a bit, I mixed all the stuffing together and started loading up the squid. I had forgotten the garlic when I took the pictures, so I chopped up a couple cloves and tossed them in as well. I completely forgot to season with salt and pepper (the whole process up to this point had taken longer than I'd expected and I was rushing things a bit). In hopes of avoiding having it turn out too boring, I was pretty conservative with the panko, but half way through the first squid I realized that there wasn't going to be nearly enough filling for the 8 squid I'd planned on cooking, so I doubled the amount of panko.

One thing about the dish at Cicada's version that I wasn't able to try to copy was that they roasted their squid, which put a nice browning on the outside. Not having an oven, that wasn't really an option for me. Most recipes I read called for simmering the squid in a tomato sauce and, since I just so happened to have some chunky tomato sauce in my fridge, I went that route. I also happened to have a bottle of red wine that I was drinking that night, so I alternated between adding slugs of that between the pan and my mouth. One for the food, one for the cook and all that. Since the stuffing will expand and the squid will shrink when you cook them, you need to seal the opening or else your stuffing will just gush out. I gave the squid about 15 minutes to each side and ate them with some of the tomato sauce. Since there was still a good bit of sauce left over, I cooked up some pasta and ate that as well. I will be the first to admit that they're not the most delicious looking dish ever. In fact, they kind of look like slugs. But if you can get past that they're good eats. My squid turned out quite well, though still just a shadow of the dish I ate at Cicada, but nothing to be ashamed of, that's for sure. I think next time I will try searing the outside first before adding in the sauce, to get that browning goodness.

Mediterranean Stuffed Squid
8 baby squid, cleaned and tentacles diced

1 3-inch chorizo sausage, diced
1/8 onion, diced
1 tbs basil, minced
2 red chilis, seeded and diced
~1/2 cup panko

Enough tomato sauce tomato sauce and red wine to cover squid half way
Salt and pepper to taste