June 27, 2012

Remembering Nora Ephron

Amid the well-deserved encomiums for writer-director Nora Epron, who died yesterday at age 71, that fill today's press, many only touch briefly, if at all, on Ephron's passionate love affair with food. Even though her novel Heartburn is about a food editor (the author, thinly disguised) and larded with recipes, it's easy to forget that aspect of her life because she was such a talented, prolific writer on everything from politics to feminist issues, and accomplished so much as a journalist, novelist, essayist, humorist, screenwriter and director. 

Yet Ephron's love of food was as central to her life as her identity as a New Yorker. In her Valentine to Krispy Kreme, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1997, Ephron wrote, "The modest, clean Krispy Kreme doughnut store on West Twenty-Third Street, with its retro green Formica tables and red-and-green neon "Hot Dougnuts Now" sign, has become a shrine--the sort of religious experience New Yorkers like me are far more receptive to than ones that actually involve God."

One of the few women to make it in the ranks of top Hollywood film directors, I can imagine exactly the kind  she was, because she once directed me--micro-managing me with bossy confidence--in the writing of a 1998 Wine Spectator article, "Sleepless at Citarella," about her New York food passions. 
This was no typical interview, where reporter asks questions and subject's thoughts tumble out, haphazardly, stream-of-consciousness fashion, to be whipped into shape later by reporter. Asked for her ten favorite New York food places, Ephron practically dictated her list to me, one one-liner at a time, meticulously and imperiously. I imagined that she must be the kind of director producers loved, who turned her films in on time and under budget. There were no second thoughts, no revisions. It was like Moses handing down the Ten Commandments, only they were about those New York religious experiences that were more her style, borscht and frozen custard. 

Sleepless at Citarella
From Wine Spectator, April 30, 1998
By Nancy Matsumoto
When Nora Ephron’s screenwriter parents picked up and moved the family from New York to Beverly Hills, Ephron immediately knew they had made a horrible mistake. Never mind that she was only four-and-a-half.
Then, as now, 50 years later, Ephron was someone who knew her own mind. “It’s one of my earliest clear memories,” she says. “I looked around in the beautiful golden sunshine of Southern California at all the happy, laughing children, and said to myself, “What am I doing here?”
Ephron fled east as soon as she could, graduating from Wellesley and then immediately striking out for New York. Her first apartment was on Sullivan Street, near Little Italy. “I moved in the week of the Festival of Saint Anthony,” Ephron recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh my God! This is some sort of miracle that I’m living on a street where there are cannoli 24 hours a day!’”
Ephron felt that she was home at last, and proceeded to prove to everyone else what she already knew: This town belonged to her. She leapfrogged from writing for the New York Post to crafting humor columns for Esquire and essays for New York magazine. Then, in the ’70s, while she was raising a family, she began writing screenplays.
When her second marriage, to Washington Post star reporter Carl Bernstein, blew up, she turned heartbreak into venomous, hilarious payback in the form of a roman à clef, and then a movie, Heartburn. Her screenplays for SilkwoodWhen Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle(which she also directed) were nominated for Oscars.
Her next film, You Have Mail, a remake of the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch comedy The Shop Around the Corner, will be set in her longtime neighborhood, the Upper West Side.
An accomplished cook, Ephron belongs to that passionate breed of New Yorker that takes its food seriously. Herewith, in no particular order, is her top 10 list of food-related places that no one should come to New York without seeing. (Four of them will even appear in You Have Mail.) “If they were in Paris,” she says, “you would make a pilgrimage to them, you would change subways four times to get to them.”
           Zabar’s:“It embodies the quintessential New York emotion, which is unrequited love,” says Ephron. “All of Zabar’s customers love Zabar’s more than Zabar’s loves them. Every time you think you’ve got the place nailed down, they move the bread department somewhere else.”
           The Sullivan Street Bakery:“It seems as if a 6-foot-long pizza comes out of the oven every six minutes, and is sliced up and taken away on the spot. Truly one of the great eating experiences in New York.”
           Barney Greengrass:“The greatest delicatessen, bar none, and not cheap, either. Everything they make is the best there is. You can practically serve the borscht for dessert—it’s so delicious.”
           The Vinegar Factory:“New York’s version of Fauchon, only better. You’d be crazy not to buy your steaks here, because they sell the T-bone that is identical to the one served at Peter Luger’s.”
           Krispy Kreme Donuts:“Of course, the only donut to have is the original glazed, although the jelly donut is good, too.”
           Soup Kitchen International:“Which I’m proud to say we put into Sleepless in Seattle long before Jerry Seinfeld ever mentioned it.”
           Citarella’s fish decoration window displays: “In which they do things like the Stars and Stripes in squid and shrimp.”
           Dean & DeLuca:“Where my favorite thing is the ginger cookie made with cayenne pepper.”
           Custard Beach(on East 8thStreet):“The only place in New York that I know of that makes old-fashioned frozen custard.”
           Gray’s Papaya:Ephron says her neighborhood branch of this citywide hot dog stand “has arguably the most hilariously untouched décor—stacks of papaya boxes on top of one another. Of any place in New York, in its own way, I think it’s one of the most romantic restaurants in the city.”

June 21, 2012

I Learn How to Make Tofu and Yuba

Narita sensei lifting a sheet of yuba.

I have never had a burning desire to make my own tofu before, but a tutorial with Mitsuhiro Narita, a professor at the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, and chef at David Bouley's Tribeca kaiseki restaurant Brushstroke, actually has me contemplating it.

The event, held earlier this week, was the second-to-last Japanese cooking class in a series at the Bouley Test Kitchen just down the street from Brushstroke and Bouley.  The cheerful title of the class was "Egg, Tofu, Yuba and Some More!"

There was a lot more, but the tofu and yuba making was a highlight. Maybe you won't think it's worth the bother, but here's how you do it: Wash and soak soy beans overnight in water in a 1:1 ratio. The larger the beans the better, and if you can get some from Hokkaido you've really got it made. They are the best, according to Narita sensei.

The next day, you turn the whole thing into a paste in a food processor or blender, doing this in batches if necessary. Key warning: Don't taste this paste! Apparently very bad things will happen to your stomach if you do.

Next, put 6 cups of water in a large pot (or if you are changing amounts, 3:1 ratio of water to soybean paste). Bring the water to a boil, or really the first suggestion of a boil, then add the paste and mix it over high heat. There will be a lot of foam or awa, which you will have to keep skimming off. Also make sure you scrape the bottom of the pot as you mix. As soon as the soybean paste water mixture comes to a boil, turn the heat down low and cook for 7 minutes while continuing to skim foam off the top.

Turn the mixture into a cheesecloth lined sieve and squeeze out as much of the liquid as possible.Return the strained liquid to the pot. At this point you can make yuba, the delicious skin of the tofu, by pouring a small amount of the soy milk in a flat pan and heating it at 80 degrees celsius (170 degrees fahrenheit) until a top layer starts to form, just like the skin on heated milk. Lift the layer off with a chopstick and you've got yuba! Narita sensei made a delicious dish of battered, fried soft shell crab with yuba-ankake sauce, the latter made with dashi, mirin, light soy sauce and kudzu powder to thicken it.

Tempura soft-shell crabs with yuba-ankake sauce.

(The soybean mash that's leftover, okara, can be fried up with vegetables and simmered with dashi and mirin for a delicious side dish.)

Gomoku (five-color) okara on the left
 with dashi-maki tamago rolled omelette.

To make tofu, you'll need, nigari, a natural coagulant derived from sea water that consists mostly of magnesium chloride, available in Japanese food markets. For 2 cups of soy beans, use 4 tablespoons, stirred in while the liquid is kept at a steady temperature of 70 celsius (158 degrees fahrenheit.). It works like magic. As soon as you stir in the nigari, the tofu begins to thicken, at which point you turn it out into a strainer lined with cheesecloth and gently squeeze out the excess liquid. The taste is very fresh and unadulterated.

Since there are no preservatives at all in this tofu, it only lasts about a day. To best appreciate your fresh tofu's pure flavors, serve it with a little grated fresh ginger, some chopped scallions, and a little soy sauce.

Not many Japanese people make their own tofu, Narita sensei told us, but recently a machine has come on the market in Japan that makes the process super-easy, with temperature controlled settings similar to a rice cooker. Perhaps this will be the next fad, just like yogurt makers in the '70s, and the current cocktail and paleta-making fads. How about tofu cocktails and yuba pops?


June 16, 2012

National History Day Competition Entry Spotlights WWII U.S. Government Prison Camps

A while back, I was interviewed by two fifth graders and one sixth grader from Acaciawood School in Anaheim, California. They were preparing their entry for something called the National History Day competition, and their topic was the illegal forced roundup and imprisonment of West Coast people of Japanese descent during World War II.

I answered a series of questions from the team of girl researchers, Emma Chen, Rachel Kuai and Emily Rangel, and referred them to a Nisei friend and former Military Intelligence Service buddy of my father's in Michigan, Nob Shimokochi. 

Little did I expect that their final product would be this polished, impressive website.* Over half a million kids a year participate in the competition, according to NHD's site, so it was a big deal for Emma, Rachel and Emily to advance first through the county level competition for their category, and then win the state competition to gain the right to compete for the national award in Washington, D.C.

The finals were held earlier this week and I was pleased to hear from the girls that they got 7th place in the junior group division. Congratulations, Emma, Rachel and Emily!

They worked on the project over the course of the school year, first visiting the Nixon Library to learn about primary resources. They visited the Manzanar National Historic Site, and they interviewed former Secretary of Commerce and Transportation Norman Mineta and numerous other people. It's an impressive body of work that they can be proud of forever.

To give you a sense of how good the entries were, go to the NHD home page and click on the "student web sites" box in the left-hand column. Another entry I particularly liked was the winner of the senior individual web site category on the Meiji Restoration.

* [One thing I should note is that for their web site, the Acaciawood girls use term "internment camp," which is widely used and understood, though it is one that many others dislike, and point out is a euphemism. For more on that, see Densho's note on terminology.]