March 21, 2013

Adventures in Fermentation Part II: Shio-koji

Hiroko Shimbo on  shio-koji.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been learning a lot about fermentation, Japanese style. After learning about the healthy properties of miso, I attended a talk by Japanese food expert, chef-instructor, cookbook author and consultant Hiroko Shimbo on the topic of shio-koji, the ingredient Japanese have fallen in love with for its flavor enhancing and tenderizing abilities.

Shio-koji is the miracle marinade, seasoning and tenderizer that’s made from a simple mixture of a substance called koji, sea salt and water It's the enzymes in shio-koji--protease, lipase and amylase—that act as tenderizers.

To understand shio-koji, you first need to understand koji, the mold-innoculated rice integral to making Japan’s favorite fermented grain products: soy sauce, miso, mirin (rice wine vinegar) and saké. Koji plays the key role of breaking down the starch of grains and converting it to glucose, and has been commercially available in Japan since the 14th century. You can find it at most good Japanese food markets. Even in small doses, koji teams with life; a teaspoon of koji contains about 100 million yeast cells.

Make shio-koji isn’t hard, that is if you don’t mind stirring your batch 100 times a day and letting it develop for five to ten days (it takes longer to ferment in the winter). At the recent International Restaurant and Food Service Show in New York City earlier this month, where she was a featured speaker, Shimbo demonstrated how to do it by mixing together koji  sea salt and water in a ratio of 3:1:5. Check out Shimbo’s shio-koji recipe, for details.  Since New York City has even softer water than Kyoko or Tokyo, she noted, we're lucky to be able to use water straight from the tap.

The possible uses of shio- and shoyu-koji boggle the mind.

If audience members had any doubts that this whole shio-koji thing is for real, Shimbo banished them with a parade of delectable sample dishes made using commercially available shio-koji and shoyu-koji from Marukome (the latter essentially made by substituting soy sauce for the salt and water). While shio-koji is best for fish, chicken and vegetables, shoyu-koji, explained Shimbo, is great with more robust meat or fowl such as pork, beef or chicken.
She passed out tender and umami-infused morsels of chicken that had been marinated overnight in shio-koji. Whole chickens should be marinated overnight, but if you’re working with small piece of chicken, a quick 30-minute marinade will do the trick; for white fish, an hour will suffice. Shimbo likes to use three parts shio-koji to one part mirin for her marinade. Since it’s salty, there’s no need for additional seasoning. Shimbo dressed a delicious Brussels sprouts and petit tomatoes salad with a mixture of shio-koji, mustard, rice vinegar, honey, canola oil.

The general rule for marinating, Shimbo instructed, is that the marinade should amount to 10 percent of the total weight of the food you are preparing.

We also tried a salty, thick and creamy tofu-yo, an Okinawan regional specialty that I first tasted at David Bouley’s Brushstroke, in which tofu is marinated in red koji, malt, and a type of local distilled rice alcohol, awamori. Shimbo improvised her version of tofu-yo by keeping it submerged in a  3:1:1 ration of shiokoji, mirin and sake for two weeks. The tofu-yo was the exception to the 10 percent rule, resulting in an umami bomb with the texture of cream cheese and the funky saltiness of blue cheese.

The possible uses of shio-koji boggle the mind: you can use it with olive oil to dress cold pasta, tomato, and red onion, for dipping sauces or in stir frys, Shimbo suggests, or as she did, to tenderize and pump up the flavor of Turkish-style lamb meatballs. Happy experimenting!

March 16, 2013

Playing House at Fishs Eddy's Vintage Playstation

A set of vintage book plates David owns gave us our color palette.

Yesterday I had the most fun I've had playing with tableware in, well, forever. The occasion grew out of a fun idea from Julie Gaines, who with her husband Dave Lenovitz, owns the Union Square store Fishs Eddy.

Julie, a churning idea factory who needs someone to trail behind her with a pail to collect the overflow, invited a bunch of design people and bloggers, including Todd Oldham, Design Sponge, Susan Brinson and me, to come down to the store, raid its deep stash of vintage tableware (Syracuse, Green Band, Buffalo, Sterling, Jackson, you name it, they've got it) and create a place setting to help inspire customers to mix and match with abandon.

Actually it's not just us, she's invited any and all to try their hand, so I encourage you to make your way down to 19th Street and Broadway soon.

Layering began with a larger charger. We wanted bold colors that would photograph well. 

When Julie and Dave  started out over 25 years ago, the idea of mismatched plates on a table was heresy. Today, it's the matchy-matchy table that looks out of step with how most of us live. Heck, FE is even selling a barrel of unmatched sugar bowl lids and bottoms and showcasing creative ways to use them.

Adding an array of Fishs Eddy's great tchotchkes. 

Anyway, back to the challenge. To vastly increase my table-dressing prowess, I cajoled my good friend David Cobb Craig to join my team. A master of many arts (look at these posts of his to see what I mean), I knew this was right up his alley. Fishs Eddy will be displaying photos of all the Playstation table settings and you can check its blog, Pinterest and Facebook pages for more photos.

Enjoy our table settings!

March 15, 2013

Everything was Ducky in Jimmy's Back Room

Over the weekend, I had the enviable honor of being a judge for Duck-Off 2013, a Food Systems Network NYC fundraiser held at Jimmy’s No.43, in the East Village. FSNYC is a membership-based non-profit that works to change our food system in a way that will allow universal access to nourishing, affordable food. It’s a subject I feel strongly about. I’m lucky to be able to shop at the greenmarket and eat the best, most nutritious foods daily, and I want everyone to be able to do that.

Since FSNYC raises its entire operating budget on its own, the organization has to get creative; this event was a perfect example of how it does that.

So the idea was that contestants had to wow us with their creative preparation of some beautiful ducks generously donated by Matt Igoe of Hudson Valley Duck Farm.

There were too many great entries to list, so I’m highlighting a few of my favorites here. Keep an eye on FSNYC’s webpage and Facebook page for full recipes, which will be posted soon.

Winners Andrew Gumpel, left, and Micah Mowrey

Micah Mowrey and Andrew Gumpel from Gramercy Tavern walked away with the judges’ first place award for their impeccably constructed Duck Pastrami with Sunchoke’s & Aji Dulce Pepper Jam. It was a little like awarding first to LeBron James amid a cast of NCAA hopefuls, though, so you’ll just have to go to Gramercy Tavern to learn more about what these talented young chefs can do.

Jamie Saurman's duck legs doing their thing.
All the judges loved the flavor combinations of Jamie Saurman’s Cumin-Coriander Duck Leg Confit. It’s no wonder, since his inspiration was his wife Hemali, whose family in Mumbai has been mixing small-batch spices for 75 years.  Using his favorite slow-cooking method, Jamie flavored his duck legs with curry leaves, freshly ground cumin seeds and a turbo-charged coriander powder to highlight the natural savory flavor of the duck. Then he used rendered duck fat and bacon fat to confit his Hudson Valley Farm duck legs in a 250-degree oven.

Hemali, spice muse, and Jamie
 “I love to submerge things in their own fat, or borrow even tastier fat from other sources and slowly cook them,” says Jamie, a Johnson & Wales grad who is preparing to open his own restaurant and brewery in Brooklyn. (The intriguing part of his business plan: DIY beer brewing for restaurant guests.)

 It was the combination of the shredded confit, green mung beans (cooked in a pressure cooker with garlic, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves), fresh pomegranate seeds and crispy lentil papadum that made the dish so alluring. As judges, our only quibble with this delicious dish was that it was hard to scoop up these disparate and truly complementary flavors into one bite amid the scrum of the duck-off. Jamie placed second, after the Gramercy team.

Duck Confit Tart and proud maker, Laura Luciano.
Everyone knew that besides the Gramercy guys, the contender to beat was Laura Luciano, winner of the recent cassoulet cook-off at Jimmy’s No. 43 and a scarily talented cook and blogger from the East End of Long Island.

The confit's close-up.

Sure enough, her Duck Confit Tart did well, taking third place from the judges for its beautiful and complex combination of pâte brisée, brie, and a very duck-y confit mixture. She made and baked her tart shell the night before. The first layer onto the pastry was a slathering of triple-cream brie, which Laura puréed in a food processor with the rind on. For the duck layer, Laura brined and then confit-ed her duck legs in duck fat, roughly chopped them and mixed them with caramelized onions (deglazed with vermouth and cognac) and some fennel and Bosc pears that had been roasted with thyme. She also threw in some garlic confit salvaged from the duck confit-ing process.

 French-Mex? Duck Burrito Pie

Adrian “The Cook-off King of Queens” Ashby describes his Duck Burrito Pie as a cross between a Mexican burrito and an English shepherd’s pie; to me it evoked the tortilla casseroles and tamale pies of my Southern California childhood. Adrian didn't place in the competition in part because judges felt that in a duck-off, the duck had to be front and center, not one note among many.

Still, the dish was appealing and addictive, the way a great chicken pot pie or bowl of mac & cheese is. The layered casserole starts with wall-to-wall overlapping tortillas on the bottom, then a layer of room temperature shredded cheese to act as a binder. Rice (any kind will do, says Adrian) and sofrito form the next strata. Adrian makes his sofrito by sautéing garlic, onion, green peppers, cilantro, and tomato paste in olive oil over medium heat until the onions are transparent.  Other layers involve beans, jalapeno, and the duck meat, which he shredded and seasoned. I couldn’t keep track of the exact ordering of all these layers, but they repeat and add up to something that would be great around a campfire or to feed to a hungry horde of teenagers.

I can’t end the post without a shout-out to Jimmy Carbone, whose generosity is as wide as his craft beer list at Jimmy’s No. 43. He’s a huge supporter of sustainable farming and local purveyors, who always know they have a room for their events in his handy and well-used Back Room—thanks, Jimmy!

March 11, 2013

Fermentation, Miso, and the Health Benefits of Soy

In the past two weeks, I attended two lectures that vastly increased my knowledge of two powerhouse fermented ingredients in Japanese cooking. One was a lecture on shiokoji, the miracle flavor enhancer and umami conductor that has for some time been all the rage in Japan. The other was a nutritional talk on the miracles of miso, the fermented soybean paste at the heart of miso soup and countless other flavorful Japanese dishes.

Nutrition researcher Lawrence H. Kushi, ScD, delivered a scientifically detailed and convincing ode to miso at a recent Japan Society lecture. The room was packed. Who knew there were so many miso lovers in this city?  Miso paste is pretty simple stuff. It's made of three ingredients: some type of grain, usually soybeans in Japan, koji (mold-innoculated rice) and water. 

Dr. Kushi's main points were nutritional. He  pointed out that Japan is third in worldwide average life expectancy (compared to the United States' sickly 51st place), despite Japan's famously high sodium intake. Dr. Kushi showed slides of numerous epidimiological studies. One of the earliest studies on miso and chronic diseases followed 250,000 people in Japan and showed a clear link between daily consumption of miso soup an a lower incident of stomach cancer. Miso has also been associated with lower rates of breast cancer. The doctor noted that "what you eat early in life makes a difference," so a high intake of soy products during childhood can exert a protective longterm effect. And even though miso is high in sodium, studies indicated that it is "a safer salt vehicle than salt," Dr. Kushi added.

There is a controversial side of miso, as one audience member pointed out. Soy contains isoflavones (a naturally occurring chemical compound) that are are similar to the hormone estrogen. The worry is that for women undergoing treatment for breast cancer, soy products may negate the effect of estrogen-blocking breast cancer drugs. Both Dr. Kushi and the American Cancer Society (see their "Expert Voices blog post on the topic) point out the shortcoming of studies that raised these fears, and stress the much more abundant evidence on the protective effects of soy.

Kushi, by the way, comes from a long line of educators; his father was Michio Kushi, the famous proponent of macrobiotics. One last interesting point, also raised by an audience member, is that studies have shown that gut bacteria of people in different cultures differs significantly. Apparently there is some evidence, for example, that Japanese people can extract more nutrients from seaweed-based foods than non-Japanese. Dr. Kushi noted that intestinal microbiata (the microbes that live in our intestines) are of great interest to the NIH, but that more study is needed. He also pointed out that when people move to another culture "they take on the disease characteristics of the place they live as they take on different eating habits and food choices."

If you're interested in how the typical Asian diet differs from a standard western diet, check out the Asian Diet Pyramid. Rice, noodles and whole grain products form the base, eaten daily, while meat is at the tip of the pyramid, a once-a-month rarity.

Since I didn't even get to the fascinating lecture by Japanese cooking expert Hiroko Shimbo on shiokoji, stay tuned for my upcoming post, which will be all about that!