December 4, 2013

Exploring One-Pot "Nabe" Cooking with Gramercy Tavern's Eric Takahashi

Chefs Takahashi and Romano.
Photo by George Hirose

One of the best things about the arrival of winter is the return of cold-weather comfort foods. For the Japanese, that means nabe-ryori, or one-pot cooking, preferably done tableside. It’s warming, it’s social, it’s delicious, and much cheaper than a tropical vacation.

To celebrate this tradition, Eric Takahashi, a cook at Gramercy Tavern, offered a nabe workshop a group I belong to called JAJA (Japanese Americans and Japanese in America). On hand to act as his assistant was recently retired Union Square Hospitality Group director of culinary development Michael Romano, whose work in Tokyo I recently chronicled.

Chef Takahashi likes to shop at the greenmarket, so the idea was to stage a summit between the greenmarket and the hot pot, a pretty enticing idea for a season in which staving off root vegetable fatigue is a major challenge. The demonstration took place in the kitchen of a loft near Union Square, generously offered by a JAJA member. 

Exhibit A was yosenabe, most often a mix of fish and meat trimmings (yose means “to put aside”), but in this evening's rendition, featuring flavorful rack of pork from Heritage Foods. Chef Takahashi started by building a dashi, or broth with konbu (dried seaweed), and water.  Most of the konbu available here is harvested in Hokkaido, the chef informed us, where very cold waters promote wide ribbons of seaweed. He prefers the narrower, and more intensely flavored konbu from the warmer waters of Okinawa. 

Next, strips of Napa cabbage, carrot, shiitake and white honshimeji mushrooms, cubed firm tofu, long scallions and shirataki (konjac yam noodles) went into the pot. Traditionally chrysanthemum leaves or spinach add a dash of green, but Chef Takahashi used locally grown mizuna from Lani’s Farm instead. He dislikes overly salty food, so he added salt and soy sauce sparingly.

Since this is a fairly light dish, it’s enhanced by dipping the pot’s components in a ponzu sauce before eating. This was Exhibit B. Chef Takahashi likes to makes his ponzu

Exhibit C: Zosui.
Photo by George Hirose

with a ratio of two parts dark soy sauce, one part yuzu, lime or sudachi juice, half part sake (alcohol burned off), a square of dried konbu (4” square per two cups of soy sauce), and one part bonito flakes. Let this marinate overnight or up to a week in the fridge, then strain the bonito and konbu and save for another use.

One fun suggestion of the chef’s:  you can make a great furikake, (a condiment for sprinkling on top of steamed rice) by cooking down the marinated bonito flakes and konbu with a little soy sauce in a non-stick pan until it’s completely dry and crunchy. Optional adds include some rehydrated dried hijiki and toasted sesame seeds.  

 For Exhibit C, chef Takahashi showed us how he makes a thick rice porridge called zosui with the rich broth that is left when all the nabe contents have been eaten. He simply juliennes the konbu that was used to flavor the nabe, adds cooked rice and beaten egg to bind it, and a little salt. The addition homemade pickled vegetables made with nuka, or fermented milled rice bran, gives the zosui that zing that completes the dish.

Stay warm this winter, friends, and eat nabe!

November 22, 2013

Talking Natural Wines with Rouge Tomate's Pascaline Lepeltier

Not long ago, I spoke with Pascaline Lepeltier, beverage director at Rouge Tomate, about her love for organic and biodynamic wines, and the restaurant’s holistic approach to beverages, food and nutrition.

A native of Brittany raised in the Loire Valley, she admits she’s been heavily influence by the great winemakers of that region. Hence the heavy representation of Loire wines on Rouge Tomate’s list, such as the organic 2012 muscadet Melon de Bourgogne from Domaine de la Pepiere ($11/glass) and Domaine Huet’s 2008 chenin blanc “Le Haut-Lieu Demi-Sec” Vouvray ($21/glass). By the bottle there’s the biodynamic 2010 Sancerre Domaine Vacheron for $39.

Vin naturel, a term in France that straddles both the domains of “organic” and “biodynamic” wines, is both a very old and a very new phenomenon in her country, says Lepeltier. Before the industrialization of farming and the advent of chemical fertilizers, apart from a little bit of sulphur dioxide, all wines were natural. But technology “went too far” she says, and now a subset of winemakers are looking beyond just increasing productivity, to a “more thoughtful, conscious way” of making wine.

She calls conventional wine, with its yeasts and additives “ready-to-drink” wines analogous to ready-to-wear clothes. They yield “no surprises because the wine will taste the same” at any point and in any vintage. Natural wines, by contrast, are akin to “the freshest orange or tomato, one day super sweet, flavorful, the next a little more subtle, maybe not as ready.” Lepeltier adds, “You need to accept that, work a bit, give a bit.”

 If natural wines sound like the high-maintenance-relationship version of wine compared to the more predictable partner you'll find in conventional wine, Lepeltier is in the game for the highs and lows.  She also speaks what some sommeliers may consider heresy: “I don’t think any more in terms of the consumer. I sell a lot of [natural] wine to a lot of people not used to it. It just takes a couple minutes to explain.”

In keeping with its overall focus on flavor, nutrition and sustainability, Rouge Tomate has on staff a nutritionist who tries to maximize the nutrient content of both food and beverages. Similarly, head bartender Christian Molina incorporates a healthy amount of fruits and vegetables in his cocktails, coming up with combination like his Smoking Sazerac made with bourbon, crab apple, grapefruit, Paychaud’s bitters, and ginger syrup.

The restaurant also offers cocktail and non-alcoholic drink pairings. “A lot of people don’t want to drink all the time,” explains Lepeltier, noting that it’s far more difficult to pair non-alcoholic drinks than their buzz-inducing siblings. “It’s way more difficult in fact,” she says, “because those drinks don't have the structure of alcohol.”

October 24, 2013

Beet Soup with a Japanese Subtext

The red tones in this picture make me think of Matisse's "The Red Studio":
rich, mysterious and satisfying. 

This beet and potato soup was one of the most delicious dishes I had at a dinner that Japanese chef, teacher and cookbook author Hiroko Shimbo made not too long ago. The recipe for it, featured in her most recent cookbook, Hiroko's American Kitchen, includes a medium-sized Yukon gold potato, beets, and leeks. They're simmered in kelp stock, pureed, and then enriched with miso, mustard powder and spiked with minced parsley. The weather was still hot then (yes, I'm a slow and lazy blogger, I admit that) and the chilled soup completely charmed us with its silky texture, a flavor much milder and more subtle than Russian borscht, and as one guest said, without the metallic aftertaste that beets can sometimes bring to the party. The version Hiroko served us was topped with a small torpedo-shaped scoop of homemade shiso sorbet, It's probably more than most of us can muster at home on a weeknight, but was a total treat.

There was more to come, too: a Vietnamese-style squid dish stuffed with ground pork in an umami-rich European-style tomato sauce, and salmon baked in a salt crust, wrapped in a cherry leaf with a cherry blossom hidden within, both of which perfumed the fish. Each guest was called forth to wield a little hammer and crack open the salt shell and smell the fragrant steam that wafted up. There were potatoes roasted in miso with bacon, and simply steamed okra as well. We finished with an amazing cantaloupe sorbet with fresh watermelon and cantaloupe, which paired surprisingly well with the green Mifukuan yuzukosho (preserved citron and chile) liquid and powder that I brought back with me from Saga, Japan.

Virtually everything we ate that night came from the Union Square Greenmarket, only steps away from Hiroko's loft. It was the greenmarket that inspired Hiroko's American Kitchen, which teaches you how to make six simple sauces (including that kelp stock and several versatile and super-handy miso sauces) and use them as the base for a Japanese-accented seasonal cuisine, heavy on fresh produce found in American markets. As with the soup, the sauces aren't always detectable, yet add depth and mystery to each dish.

If you get a chance, stop by the Union Square Greenmarket this Saturday -- Hiroko will be there, selling and signing copies of Hiroko's American Kitchen. You, too, can make her beet and potato soup!

October 11, 2013

Being Japanese American during World War II: East Coast Stories

American Flag Over Barbed Wire Fence, by Koho Yamamoto.
Having grown up in California, I know some things about the West Coast Japanese American World War II experience of evacuation and imprisonment. But I know little about what happened here on the East Coast. So it was a treat to catch the eye-opening exhibit "If they came for me today...East Coast Stories," part of Community Works NYC's "Japanese American Internment Project," which (too bad for you), closes today at the Interchurch Center Treasure Room Gallery on Riverside Drive in Morningside Heights.

A series of portraits, biographies, reminiscences and artwork tells the story of seven Japanese Americans who were affected in different ways. Some were born and grew up in New York and only learned later the various ways that their parents were persecuted during the war.

Others, like Masako "Koho" Yamamoto were imprisoned on the West Coast, and then made their way east after being released. Yamamoto was locked up in Topaz, Utah, and then moved to the high-security Tule Lake prison camp, where those who refused to renounce loyalty to Japan or agree to serve in the U.S. armed forces were shunted off to. There, ignoring the deplorable conditions, she wrote poetry and studied ink brush painting under Chiura Obata, a widely admired artist and UC Berkeley emeritus professor.

Describing the above painting, Yamamoto says, "They treated us like prisoners even though we were American citizens." Recalling a time when a group of Obata sensei's students came to visit him at Tule Lake, she writes, "They were crying, saying he looked like he was in prison standing behind the barbed wire fence. He first said, 'Don't cry.' Then he added, 'From where I'm standing, you look like the ones who are in jail.' He had great wit." He coped, in other words, with the means that were left to him.

October 4, 2013

Native Sons of Fresno, California Look Back

I'm writing a Densho Encyclopedia entry now on the poet Lawson Fusao Inada. He's a third-generation Japanese American who was locked up in three different U.S. government prisons during World War II.

It's not surprising that even though he was only four years old when he was first placed behind barbed wire,  the "camp" experience became a major theme in Inada's poetry, a wound he revisited repeatedly. It's as if he wanted to figure out what happened and recast it on his own terms, not those of the government--who said it was for his own protection--or of many of his fellow prisoners, who wanted so badly to prove their loyalty they enlisted to fight, and in many cases die, for the U.S.

There are two other great themes in Inada's poetry that he returns to frequently for grounding and inspiration: Fresno, California, where he was born and grew up, and jazz. Fresno is where his maternal grandparents opened the city's first fresh fish market in 1912, which became an institution that stood for 70 years. The writer William Saroyan, another native son of Fresno, recalled his grandmother sending him to The Fresno Fish Market in Chinatown.

When the order came declaring all Japanese and Japanese Americans "enemy aliens" and telling them to pack a bag and be ready to clear out, Inada's grandfather handed the store over to trusted friends. Stories abound of prisoners who came back home at war's end to find their businesses and property had been stolen, sometimes by "friends." That didn't happen to Inada's family. When his grandfather got back, writes Inada, "he hit the ground running."

In a short essay titled "Seven Words of Poetry," Inada recalls that post-war period when he was studying poetry at Fresno State and helping out at the store in the afternoons:

My uncles are on break, making deliveries, whatever; my grandmother, Yoshiko Saito, is taking an order, in Japanese, over the phone. My grandfather, Busuke Saito, is out back, in the sunlight, by an orange tree he planted, placing pieces of salmon to soak in a miso cask.
    Who is he? What is he like? Well, let's just say that he's ready. He's always been ready, and he's readier than you are. He's old, fast, muscled, smart. You don't mess with him--unless you want to be chased down the street with a knife.

Inada's mother was born in the fish store, and Inada grew up nearby, in Chinatown on the westside of town. In truth, it was a mixed-race neighborhood of Chicano, Black, Chinese, Japanese and Italians. In his poem "Finding the Center," Inada writes about playing in the rich agricultural soil of Fresno with a friend.

Mama Gomez was calling us in for supper--
but tonight, if we were good, or lucky,
she would feed us sweet tortillas
and the crunchiest iced tea
as we sat on the porch, watching
moths meet the moon, fluttering stars,
and whatever else was doing on C Street.

These evocative images and tales were rolling around fresh in my mind when I read a wonderful article titled "From a Tortilla, The Feeling of a Warm Embrace" in The New York Times earlier this week. Writer Manny Fernandez also looks back in time to a grandparent in Fresno, a Mexican American grandmother who, like Inada's mother and grandmother, "straddled the three cultures of her state, her country and her heritage." Fernandez, a reporter for the Times, writes of how his grandmother, Cuca, cooked meals of tacos and burritos for the Mexican farmworkers who lodged at his great-grandmother's boarding house.

"The masa pressed by her hands made the flour tortillas flattened by her hands for the tacos filled by her hands. Decades later, I probably walked by those anonymous farmworkers and their descendants at Fashion Fair Mall or Fresno State University. We had Cuca's tacos in common," he writes. 

What's a little amazing to think about is that Inada probably walked by those farmworkers and their descendants and maybe even Fernandez or his parents, all of whom had tasted Fresno's sweet tortillas, tacos and burritos--and maybe even fresh fish from The Fresno Fish Market. 

September 18, 2013

The Interconnected Worlds of Japanese, Western Craft Beers

The Red and the White: Kagua beers on display with yuzu and sansho.

I didn't know we had Jimmy Carter to thank for the legalization of home beer brewing back in 1976. Yet we do, and it's why Brooklyn Brewery's maker-in-chief Garrett Oliver says of our often unappreciated former President, "He did all right by me."

Oliver had lots to say about beer, Japanese kaiju monster movies (which were the first thing about Japan he ever liked) sake, and many other beer and non-beer topics at a recent Japan Society event, "The Delights of Craft Beer & Japanese Cuisine."

Oliver pointed out that beer is by far the more popular drink than sake in Japan. There are 40 Belgian beer bars in Tokyo alone, and Japan is the fourth largest beer market in the world. The major Japanese beer companies, Kirin, Sapporo and Osaka Beer Company (later renamed Asahi) were all formed in the late 1800s not long after Commodore Matthew Perry cajoled Japan's doors open to the West.

Japanese beers have traditionally been made in the style of German wheat beers. Since about 2000 or so, however, the country's brewers, inspired by the wild craft beer goings on in America and the West, have been experimenting with beers that express distinctly Japanese characteristics.

Oliver warming up the crowd with thirst-creating stories and pictures.

Among the brews we tasted from eight Japanese or Japanese-style brewers, we particularly loved the Kagua Blanc and Kagua Rouge. Both are scented with yuzu, the beautifully aromatic citron (in this case from Kochi Prefecture), and sansho, the lemony pepper with the heat of its close relative the Sichuan peppercorn. The white beer is brewed with wheat and the red with roasted malt.

The beer, described as "Japanese scented beer," was dreamed up by Tokyo-based Nippon Craft Beer Inc., which sends the raw ingredients for Kagua from Japan to Belgium to be brewed by a a master brewer there. The bad news on this enticing beer is that it's not available in the U.S. just yet.

Other standouts that are available here included the Yoho Brewing family of beers, Yona Yona Pale Ale, Aooni IPA, and the luxurious Tokyo Black Porter. They not only tasted great, but had the most beautiful can design, too.

In one example of how American brewers have influenced Japanese styles, Oliver told the story of his own invention, Brooklyn Brewery's Sorachi Ace, made with a hop that was developed in Japan by Sapporo in the late 1980s. With its strong lemongrass flavor it was considered a dud at the time. Oliver stumbled upon the hop, love it, and created his beer. In the strangest chapter of the story, he boarded a plane with 11 pounds of the hops to reintroduce them to Japan, which was by then ready to embrace their own invention. Oliver returned home and found out from his supplier that the Japanese had ordered 800 pounds of the Sorachi Ace hop.

September 10, 2013

Congrats! AAJA 2013 National Journalism Awards

I was honored recently to receive an Asian American Journalists Association 2013 National Journalism Award for this story on Asian American chefs that I wrote for Even better was to be in the company of a group of print, radio and tv journalists whose outstanding contributions were a treat to read, listen to and watch.

I loved this piece that NPR freelance reporter Heidi Chang did on the music director Alexander Payne selected for his movie The Descendants. Payne discovered the enchanting Hawaiian music of the late singer and slack key guitarist Gabby Pahinui, and showcased him on the soundtrack, along with a roster of other past and present Hawaiian music standouts.

Fortune magazine writer Mina Kimes did a thorough investigative job on this story of corporate malfeasance and the deaths that resulted following illegal clinical trials and the off-label use of a type of bone cement.

Reuters anchor and reporter Fred Katayama delved into the science behind baseball's knuckleball to explain why it's so hard to hit, and Houston's KTRK ABC 13 reporter Adela Uchida filed this report on the Vietnamese American fishermen who were hit hard by the 2010 BP oil disaster,

Here's an introduction to all the winning pieces that Heidi Chang posted on YouTube, taken from the AAJA awards night gala. Congratulations to all!

September 3, 2013

Craft Food and Drink in Columbus, Ohio

  • New Yorkers and their urban counterparts on the West Coast think they have the market cornered on small-batch foods made by artisanal savants. But the truth is that superior handmade eats are being dreamed up by entrepreneurs in every corner of the country.

    In Columbus, Ohio, for example, where I spent a few days not too long ago, here’s what you can buy under one big roof:  a mango habanero Bavarian pretzel, bubble tea, goat cheese made in Cleveland, a Vietnamese bรกnh mi sandwich, and cherry lambic sorbet. Granted, this is one special roof, belonging to the not-for-profit North Market,  a 19th century wooden structure packed with 35 different vendors. Outside the downtown structure, an outdoor farmer’s market takes place every Saturday featuring the handiwork of 22 different farmers. It reminded me of Toronto's great St. Lawrence Market.

    Quiver Full Family Farm Buckeye popcorn.
    Rick Harrison Wolfe, who came on as North Market’s executive director earlier this year, was surprised at how developed the locavore movements was here: “I couldn’t believe how into it people are and how much they care” about where their food comes from, he notes. Part of it that may be due to the fact that if you drive 45 minutes from Columbus in any direction “you’ll hit a farm."

    Doug Denny's The Fish Guy's shop.

    Although North Market, which began in 1876, is the oldest farmer’s market in the city, the boom in the local foods movement has led to a mini-tsunami of markets. Up until probably ten years ago, North Market was the only game in town, says Wolfe. “Now," he adds, "just about every enclave has some sort of farmer’s market. There’s a full schedule for farmers."

    Increasing diversity—in the form of large influxes of Somali, Vietnamese and Latinos—has added color and excitement to the once white-bread food culture of the city, too.

    Mike Kast''s Curds & Whey.

    Wolfe, who returned to his Ohio roots after a career in the fashion industry and a stint as a food truck owner, has also been impressed with a revitalized restaurant and drinks scene. “I’ve been back for almost three years,” he notes, “and during that time at least a dozen super-interesting things have popped up close to downtown, some in neighborhoods that are being revitalized because of these restaurants.”

    Ohio residents receiving food assistance can shop at the market.
    Old-school Ohio pizza at Rubino's.

    One place he likes is Chris Crader and Bethany Lovell’s Harvest Pizzeria and craft cocktail bar Curio in the city’s German Village. While the traditional Ohio pizza (see photo above) sports a crust as thin and crispy as a cracker and cut into party squares, Harvest makes a thick-crust, chewier pizza showered with local meats and produce, many of the latter produced at the owners’ small farm.

    For more on the local craft foods movement, check out the Columbus Experience.

    Local favorite Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

    The North Market is just one part of this scene, and one that Wolfe plans to grow selectively. With a finite amount of space in which to expand, he’s in the position of sifting through hundreds of applicants and selecting the best of the best upcoming food businesses, making the market an incubator for start-ups. “From this point on, it has to be about what do our guests need, what don’t we have?” explains Wolfe. If it’s not in that stack [of applicants], then I need to seek it out.” 

    North Market
  • 59 Spruce St.
  • Columbus, OH 43215
  • 614-463-9664
  • Website:

August 21, 2013

Bagging Bread, Stocking Shelves: Volunteering at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger

Pantry Masters Kerry Reid, Haydeth and Ruth Tavira.
Last week I dusted off my bread bagging and shelf-stocking skills and put them to work for a good cause, The West Side Campaign Against Hunger.

Instead of handing out pre-packed bags of groceries this worthy organization runs a supermarket-style food pantry that puts the emphasis on self-determination and dignity. Shoppers push carts through well-stocked aisles, dividing their choices evenly among eight food categories, their allotments based on family size.

No sloppy air pockets or ugly knots here. 
Serving between 200 and 300 families (averaging three to four members) a day, you can imagine how much food WSCAH goes through. My my son and I bagged giant bin after bin of beautiful bread donations collected by the food rescue organization City Harvest. Eli's Manhattan delivers their leftover bread directly, and Lincoln Square Synagogue congregation members deliver remaindered Orwasher's products.

Our supervisors were Pantry Managers Haydeth Tavira and Kerry Reid. Haydeth's seven-year old daughter Ruth was our demanding taskmaster, calling out any bread bags tied sloppily, or with too much air left in them ("They won't stay fresh like that!"). I worked in a bakery at one point in my life,  but no one there ever took quality control as seriously as this spunky, glasses-wearing little Latina girl did. The next day, alas, Ruth wasn't at WSCAH. Haydeth told us she had worked so hard the day before that she was at home sleeping. No doubt keeping on top of our sloppy work did her in.

Shoppers figure out how much of each type of food
they're allowed  on a point system.

Some of our fellow volunteers were also pantry shoppers; one of the smart things about the way the pantry works is that it is run as a customer cooperative. Helping out more than 25 hours a week at the pantry will earn you an extra food allotment.

Our other job was re-stocking continually emptying shelves with yogurt, coconut water, cereals, grain and fresh fruits and vegetables donated by local CSAs. Stewart Desmond, WSCAH's executive director proudly told us that in June the pantry received a Best Practices Award from the state's health department for providing healthy foods way above and behind required levels. You'll find plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables here, and no prepared foods, or foods high in salt and sugar.

WSCAH also offers a full range of social services, from helping clients arrange health care, identifying educational and job training opportunities, providing advice on financial matters and helping navigate New York's public housing system. The organization even offers exercise classes, nutrition workshops and chefs training classes.

The sobering news is that despite improvements in the job market and economy, an increasing number of New Yorkers are in need of WSCAH's services. When I wrote about the food pantry a little over a year ago in this post its resources were being stretched to the limit due to a 40 percent increase in demand over the previous two years. Now, says Desmond, "After a dip earlier this year we are rising again toward our highest [demand] level ever," which he says may reflect the economy's last quarter dip.

August 7, 2013

The Upside of the Cyberspace Echo Chamber

I love it when an article I write leads to the discovery of interesting new people, sites and blogs. Such was the case in the wake of my article on eating invasive species.

An Oxford, England-based environmental geographer named Shonil Bhagwat, mentioned me in his blog, a thoughtful meditation on nature and culture in the anthropocene (a term adopted by ecologists to describe a new geological epoch dominated by the impact of humans). I've learned more from him about the importance of agrobiodiversity and wild crop conservation. Even weeds, he points out, are sacred because we'll need different, hardier species as our climate and geography continue to change.

In writing about out-of-control invasive species, Bhagwat notes that we can try to eradicate them, but another approach is "to reverse our gaze and accept that the invasives will continue to flourish alongside us. For a species of our size, we have changed the rules of the game by having a disproportionately large impact on the planet and in the process created space for other species like us."

I like that. Here we are bent out of shape that feral hogs or zebra mussels are so rapacious (for a list of the most destructive alien invasives, check this out). They might well be thinking in disgust, "that's the pot calling the kettle black."

Here's another example of the ability of social media to bring together worlds within worlds: When my Edible Manhattan profile of catering company Great Performances and its visionary CEO Liz Neumark appeared, it was picked up by a site I'd never heard of called The Triple Bottom, named after the term coined to describe a certain type of organizational success that equally values people, profit and planet. Browsing that fascinating site brought me to similar sites, like Triple Pundit, and this article on how increasing the number of women on corporate boards increases both profits and sustainability.

The only downside to all this connecting? When you fall down one of these virtual rabbit holes, it can be hard to get any work of one's own done.