Friday, January 24, 2020

Dashi Experiments #1

First post of 2020!
For Christmas, a dear friend gave me Sonoko Sakai's Japanese Home Cooking. This particular dear friend grew up in Japan, cooks Japanese food like nobody's business, and enjoys food as much as I do, so I knew this book would be a treasure.

Beautifully produced, it is the kind of cookbook I love -- one that tells a story. The photographs by Rick Poon are intimate--an invitation to really value and understand the food, the culture, and the chef. I might challenge the byline a bit: "Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors."  In truth, the "simple" part really needs two things: 1) access to some of the ingredients (read: city) and 2) a basic understanding of the culture of Japanese cooking, which is NOT "on-the-go" and "short-on-time."  That said, Sonoko Sakai honors her audience and is realistic about what will be challenging, and what will be more simple. I am so enjoying her prose--she has had a rich and varied life, making the book a joy to read. It is a primer on Japanese food culture as much as anything else, and you'll find yourself wanting to really memorize and internalize all the different kinds of seaweed, sake, etc, so you can navigate an Asian food store like a connoisseur in a wine shop.

So, after letting it sit on my table for awhile, as I looked at the cover image and thought about how I see myself in retirement, I finally cracked it open. I read every word about the "five flavors" and the "five senses" and the "five colors" and the "five cooking techniques" and the "five elements of a meal."  But what really stood out?
The ultimate goal of cooking and eating are health and pleasure. There is no greater joy than sharing good food with the people you love.
I'm Italian-American. Ok, so maybe the "health" part wasn't such a priority for my grandma, but certainly the rest held true. Food was the love language of my family--particularly for my late father. I remember a certain morning many, many years ago. I was a snotty teenager--hellbent on making sure my parents knew how miserable their divorce had made my life (not to say there wasn't a lot to account for on their part)--and my father was desperately using breakfast as a peace offering. I was having none of it. He said, "but you have to eat something! I made you an egg and toast!" I wanted that egg and toast, let me tell you. I was hungry. But my teenage mind said that to accept love (even in a form that wasn't my top choice) was to admit defeat. "I'm NOT HUNGRY," I said, defiantly and emphatically. Really it was: "You love me on MY terms or nothing!"

So that's a pretty extensive digression and I really try not to fill my food blog posts with prose, but let's just say that cooking has become part of my grieving process. So many of my memories of my dad have to do with great food and great wine and great rum. So I'm trying to let those emotions surface a bit when I'm in the kitchen. It feels safe.

Back to cooking. I decided not to bite off more than I could chew, and started with Sakai's very basic bonito and kombu dashi (27). I am blessed to have a wonderful Asian market within an 8 minute walk from my house, and had no trouble finding many of the ingredients that fill the first few pages of Sakai's book.

So after I made the dashi (which was very very simple), I thought I'd try making her shoyu tare (soy-sauce-based seasoning), (105). I was disappointed not to find usukuchi shoyu at the store, so I made do with tamari.  This slightly sweet shoyu is quite marvelous added to the dashi, as it turns out.

I had my dashi, and I knew that adding the shoyu was something prescribed for one of those "fancy" recipes later in the book, so I used that as a starting point.  I marinated some extra firm tofu in some wonderful smoked shoyu for several hours because you can't go wrong with marinated tofu in smoked shoyu, full stop.

After doing several hours of administrative work, I returned to the kitchen, ready to pull together something scrumptious and healthy.

I rehydrated some shiitake mushrooms. SAVE THE WATER!

I cooked some (dried) udon noodles until al dente (Italian, remember?) and then ran them under cold water so that they didn't stick together. I portioned them into two bowls and topped them with the marinated tofu.

I sautéed the shiitake mushrooms (now sliced) with some green onions (an idea stolen from her Noodle Soup recite).

I heated the dashi with a measure of the shoyu tare AND the shiitake mushroom water, and used it to blanch carrots, enoki mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, and spinach (because I had some I needed to use up).

Here's the inefficient part, but a good call: I removed the veggies from the broth using a slotted spoon and then ran them under cold water in a strainer so that they were truly blanched:

Finally, I placed the veggies on top of the noodles & tofu, and poured over the dashi-shoyu tare-shiitake broth: 

What a wonderful, healthy, and joyous meal this was! Note: NOT vegetarian as the dashi is made with bonito flakes, but you could make yours with just kombu, or kombu and shiitake and that would take care of that!

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Easy Pepper Chicken Stir Fry (review) -- or How to Survive without Oyster Sauce

It is Sunday. I spent the day working at my actual workplace, getting some good work done because...Sunday.

My very sweet spouse offered to pick me up, and as we drove home, I realized I hadn't really thought about what to make for dinner. A quick mental inventory of the fridge: bell peppers, chicken, mushrooms. Next, Google.

The last thing I wanted to do was cook, so honestly I picked the first recipe I could find for which I had ingredients. I could have done a stir fry without a recipe, of course, but I needed some sort of inspiration.

Enter "Easy Pepper Chicken Stir Fry" from Holly at Spend with Pennies. On Pinterest it says "This Pepper Chicken Stir Fry recipe is ridiculously easy to make with ingredients that you already have in your pantry..."

MOSTLY true.  But I will tell you---I do not have oyster sauce in my pantry.  Do you? (Not a rhetorical question---I'm actually curious if that is a standard ingredient that people keep on hand).
*featured product in photo not an endorsement

So, despite finding myself without oyster sauce and feeling like a very deficient home cook in not having such a thing in my pantry, I decided to give it a go. I added honey to the stir-fry sauce.  This is not because I think that honey tastes remotely like oysters. Or oyster sauce, for that matter.  But I figured it a) wouldn't clash with the other ingredients and b) would provide some needed gooeyness to the texture. Turns out, I was right.

This was also another excellent opportunity to highlight the glory that is my larger-than-life cast iron skillet. The one my spouse thought I'd never use. It was perfect for this dish because it allowed me to cook all the chicken in a single batch with plenty of room to spare.

Slightly less cranky (thanks to a cocktail) but no more patient, I did not want to make rice, so this seemed like the right time to use those RICE NOODLES that I've had on hand for no reason other than the fact that they cook in 5 minutes. I wish I was kidding. Sometimes I really have no patience.
So, there you have it. The moral of the story? Well, there is none, except that perhaps I should add oyster sauce to my pantry staples. But this was VERY good, semi-easy, and that's even without the oyster sauce. I also did not use freshly ground pepper, but pre-ground black pepper (yikes! I know---scandalous). I think that was a good call here--it calls for a lot of pepper and the flavor came through in a way I'm not sure it would have had I patiently freshly ground all that pepper.

If you are looking for a tasty, quick (ish), and above-average stir-fry recipe, this is it!

Friday, January 4, 2019

Cookbook Review: Heidi Swanson's Near & Far

Near & Far: Recipes Inspired by Home and Travel

Swanson's narrative is one of privilege, it is true. A lot of the reviews at Goodreads have mentioned this, with varying degrees of annoyance. The book, however, does not pretend. The minute you touch the embossed hard cover and look at the photos, you know that this is a chichi cookbook, not Betty Crocker's Cookbook or The Joy of Cooking. The subtitle does not lie: "Recipes Inspired by Home and Travel." And traveled she has: India, Japan, Morocco, France, and Italy. The photos of the destinations are sometimes so artsy as to feel contrived, but they anchor each section in its own ethos. I haven't yet made any of the recipes, but I am inspired. As a committed omnivore, vegetarian recipes rarely inspire me, but I find her approach to flavors intriguing.

If you are someone who likes hunting down interesting ingredients, you will likely enjoy this book. She isn't writing for someone who does not know anything about ethnic foods, so you will not find explanations and definitions for a lot of the ingredients. I think she could have done more in that regard, and it was a missed opportunity. Overall, however, this is a beautifully produced cookbook, with accessible-but-not-accommodating prose. I'm looking forward to digging in to the recipes.

Cross-Posted at Rebecca's Reading Rants and Raves

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Pan-Roasted Pork Chops with Cabbage (Review)

Yeah, I know, that doesn't sound very exciting does it? Well, when you combine two great recipes, it turns out even the mundane can be awesome!

First, let me say that any recipe that asks me to sauté chopped shallots and fresh herbs in pan drippings is a good recipe. Oh, and there's of course butter in them there pan juices.

The pork chops were "Pan-Roasted Berkshire Pork Chops with Vermont Ice Cider" (173) from The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook by Tracy Medeiros. For copyright reasons, I can't produce the recipe here, but suffice it to say, the secrets here are the bone-in chops (with fat), shallots (of course), fresh herbs, and then ice cider for the sauce. The first time I made these I used Neige ice cider that I picked up in Québec, but this time I stayed closer to home with the very lovely "dessert cider" ("Pommeau") from Carr's Ciderhouse in Massachusetts. They are apparently sold out of it for the year, so now I'm regretting finishing the bottle. The Carr's Pommeau provided a really lovely rich addition to the sauce. Unless the chops are really thick, the browning/oven time seems just a tad too much, but I have to take into account that I tented them for quite some time while I made...

"Sautéed Savoy Cabbage with Bacon"

Except that I didn't. Not really. I hate when people cite recipes and then say "but I substituted practically every ingredient and changed it and here is my review!" Let's say I let Ina Garten's recipe (page 169 of Cook Like a Pro) *inspire* me because I had bacon and leftover regular cabbage in the fridge that I needed to use. Suffice it to say, if you take the time to slice the cabbage thinly, this recipe will work with any kind of cabbage (including red/green). I am eager to try it with the Savoy because I know it will impart a more delicate flavor, but the thinly sliced red cabbage (with some green) worked well here. Instead of draining off some of the bacon fat in the pan, I left it all there and didn't use any butter (which the recipe calls for). Also key is taking the bacon out of the pan, draining it on a paper towel, and then adding it back in just before serving. That way it keeps its crispiness.

This was a lovely winter meal, and surprisingly light (another reason to slice the cabbage very thinly).

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Slow-Roasted Tomato Open-Faced Sandwiches (or Shout-Out to Antoni Porowski)

With the heat wave we've been having in Boston, our tomatoes have been busting out all over. I've read a lot about the MIRACLE of slow-roasted tomatoes but thought it was just one of those trendy things designed to make you use your oven for 90 minutes so that you feel like you've done something amazing. Well, it turns out that may be true, and they really are amazingly flavorful and it can work miracles even on tomatoes that are underripe OR a bit (A BIT) past their prime (e.g. NOT ROTTEN, just overripe).

I took inspiration from Deb Perelman's Roasted Tomato Picnic Sandwich from Smitten Kitchen Every Day (p. 107), but unlike that, which is really a RECIPE and involves baking pizza dough, this is a lot more akin to one of those recipes Antoni shares on Queer Eye. Now, I mean NO SHADE here--when you are trying to get a person who can barely maintain the rudiments of personal hygiene to cook for their significant other, you don't have them try their hand at chicken cordon bleu. So, in defense of Antoni, I'm going to advocate for simple recipes that get people IN THE KITCHEN--particularly if they haven't spent much time there.  But I digress...

Since we are calling this an original, I'll share general amounts too, including some brand names*

Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Serves 2


  • Unspecified quantity of tomatoes (garden-fresh are great, but you could use any tomatoes, really--I like small ones. The cooking time will change if you use large ones).
  • 4 - 6 garlic cloves, sliced lengthwise in half
  • 2 - 3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • 5 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper 
  • 4 slices of a nice doughy bread like focaccia (I used Iggy's but you could certainly make your own if you had ambitions!)
  • 2 - 3 oz. kalamata olives, sliced in half lengthwise (I used Greek Gourmet, pitted)
  • any kind of salty, crumbly, flavorful cheese (I made one sandwich with feta, the other with bleu cheese)
  • parchment paper
  • baking sheet (large enough to hold your tomatoes in a single layer)
  • Heat the oven to 300 degrees. You are SLOW-roasting, so be sure to set aside about 90 minutes for the roasting part.
  • Cover the bottom of your baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Slice the tomatoes in half and place them skin-side down on the baking sheet.
  • Intersperse the sliced garlic cloves among the tomatoes.
  • Pull the leaves off the rosemary (you should be able just to gather them in a bunch starting from the top and strip them down the stem, in the opposite direction to which they grow. Here's a helpful video in case you've never done this before--DO NOT CHOP THEM, however).
  • You can try doing the same thing with the thyme, although the thinner stems might prove frustrating. Just separate the leaves in the way that works best for you (DO NOT CHOP).
  • Sprinkle the whole (unchopped) rosemary and thyme leaves over the tomatoes, making sure that a lot of it is making contact with the actual tomatoes (seed side).
  • Drizzle olive oil (1 - 2 tbsps) over the tomatoes---you don't need to worry about total coverage as the liquid from the tomatoes will help disperse the oil a bit. Do try to make sure the rosemary, thyme and garlic cloves get a good dose of the oil, however.

  • Pop the whole thing in the oven for 90 minutes and go read a good book or binge on one Netflix show and a half. Your home will smell amazing.  Or do something productive like clean the bathroom.
  • When the tomatoes are done, they should be mostly dehydrated, but with enough liquid to look appetizing. 

  • While the tomatoes cook, and when you tire of cleaning the bathroom, assemble 2 slices of focaccia on a plate, sprinkled with the cheese and kalamata olives. You can toast the focaccia if you like, but I left it alone because it was very fresh.
  • Artfully arrange tomatoes on the foccacia while they are warm. This will semi-melt some of the cheese (particularly if you are using bleu cheese) and I think they just taste better warm.
  • SERVE immediately with the immense satisfaction of your new understanding of the "slow-roasted tomato" craze.
I served them with cucumbers marinated in rice vinegar. Keep it simple so that the tomatoes shine!

NOTE: Roasted rosemary leaves are wonderful. You can eat them. They are crispy and delicious.
*I am not affiliated with any brands mentioned here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Recipe Review: Apricot Pistachio Salad with Cilantro Lemon Dressing (Cardamom & Tea)

Warning---more prose than usual. I'll try not to do that too often.

I've been trying to intentionally cook vegetarian meals at least twice a week. I like MOST vegetables, but the ones I don't like, I REALLY don't like (I'm looking at you, eggplant).

I also have legume/bean issues.  This makes it hard to cook vegetarian as I also want to be low-carb and my hypoglycemic-self needs some protein.

So understand that it is with some measure of pride that I substituted chickpeas for cannellini beans in the recipe below.  I actually LIKE cannellini beans (one of the few), but we had none in the cupboard. What we did have was a can of chickpeas, of which I'm not a fan. But it turns out I'm even less of a fan of walking to the store in 88% humidity for one can of cannellini beans. So, I opened the can of garbanzo beans/chickpeas to make sure they were still ok (that can was there for a looooooooooong time), and here's where the pride comes in:

I ccouldn't do much about the texture, but certainly I figured I could do something about the taste (or lack thereof). I drained and rinsed the chickpeas and then salted the heck out of them and tossed them with some paprika. Then they sat in the fridge for several hours.  This was...


I actually....liked them.  I mean, enjoyed eating them. Miracles can happen with salt, evidently.

OK, now why you are really here. If you haven't visited Kathryn Pauline's beautiful blog Cardamom & Tea, you are missing out. The focus is Assyrian cuisine, so this will count as part of that Other Cultures Cooking Project I began long ago...  She's also a tremendous photographer, so if you like food p*** (sorry, I don't want this showing up in a weird Google search), you should follow her on Instagram.


Apricot Pistachio Salad with Cilantro Lemon Dressing


  • garbanzo beans/chickpeas for cannellini beans
  • roasted, unsalted pistachios instead of raw pistachios
If you don't like blue cheese or cilantro, she gives you other options. If you don't like blue cheese or cilantro, we may not get along, but that's ok. Kidding, of course.  But if you DO like cilantro--MAKE THIS DRESSING! 

Otherwise known as Rebecca's Chickpea Miracle
I let the apricots ripen on the counter for a few days and they were near perfect. Right now is the time to get them--at the end of the season. The combo of ingredients and the dressing makes for a superb salad, which we used as the only course for dinner. It is nutritious and delicious!! 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Classics: Pasta Primavera (Review)

This past week I needed to make Pasta Primavera for the women's shelter. According to Wikipedia, this dish has its roots in Manhattan in the 1970s--something that surprises me. Certainly it was not part of the culinary legacy my grandmother passed down to me, but I had always assumed it was a traditional Italian dish. Had I the time to dig more deeply beyond Wikipedia, I might be able to unearth different origins.

At any rate, my mother-in-law gaveme an old British cookbook from the 90s called Classic Pasta Cuisine, edited by Rosemary Moon, complete with illustrations more reminiscent of a cookbook from the 1970s. I decided that this was probably the best opportunity to use it, so I cracked it open and found a Primavera recipe that looked legit inasmuch it had pasta, spring veggies, and herbs.

Per usual, so there is no copyright infringement, I will list the ingredients, but not the amounts: 

  • pasta (I used De Cecco penne rigate no. 41)
  • salt
  • asparagus
  • green beens
  • carrots
  • butter
  • mushrooms
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • tomatoes
  • spring onions (see substitutions below)
  • double cream (see substitutions below)
  • fresh parsley
  • fresh tarragon.

The recipe serves 4 but it wasn't clear as if that was a main, or a side. I needed a side dish for 20 people, so I roughly doubled the recipe with an undetermined fraction beyond.

Quick n' Dirty directions

  • cook pasta in salted water 
  • cut and trim vegetables (you may want to do this ahead of time) 
  • blanch veggies (asparagus, green beans, carrots)
  • melt butter in pan, add blanched veggies and mushrooms and sauté (season with salt and pepper as you go)
  • stir in tomatoes and onions (see note below--I will revise this order next time)
  • add cream, herbs, and more salt and pepper
  • allow cream to thicken (via a quick boil)
  • combine with pasta


  • heavy cream for double cream
  • I could not find spring onions, so I substituted leeks and green onions--this worked very well.


I chopped up all the vegetables (including the leeks/green onions) the night before, so that I could quickly blanch them first thing the next morning.

I used rainbow carrots to add more color and blanching is an important step in this regard. It is a very bright and happy looking pasta. I ignored the direction to peel and seed the tomatoes because I see no need for this. The seeds have lots of flavor and unless you find the look of peeling tomato skin offensive, I don't think there is much benefit in going through the trouble of peeling them.

After you have blanched the vegetables (be sure to stop the cooking in an ice bath to retain color), melt the butter in a large pan. If you are making for a large group, you may have to do this in batches. Add the blanched veggies and mushrooms and sauté. Stir in tomatoes and onions. If I do this again, I'll do the onions first.

Then add the cream and your herbs.  If you like tarragon, I suggest chopping up quite a bit. It is a delicate flavor, but it comes through nicely here because it doesn't have to compete with garlic. Let the cream boil rapidly for a bit so it thickens. Add pasta to the pan, OR toss the pasta in a large bowl, add the sauce, and toss. 

This was a lot more flavorful than I expected and the vegetables provide a great variety of texture and flavor!