Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Athletic Salmon

Saturday night I dined in Long Island with my partner-in-food-crime, Leanboy 2000. We schlepped to Whole Foods on Jericho Turnpike, where we got a wonderful lecture from the fishmonger about the differences between farmed salmon and wild-caught Sockeye salmon. Turns out the farmed kind (at Whole Foods, at least) isn't so bad. They don't add hormones and whatnot, but they do add color because nobody relishes eating gray salmon. Actually, the reason he gave was that they could have fed the salmon its natural shellfish diet that would turn its flesh red, but then people allergic to shellfish might have trouble eating it. Not sure I believe that one.

The main difference for eating purposes is that the farmed fish is bigger, so the fillets are thicker, it has never been frozen, and there is much more fat in between the muscle. This provides more healthful omega 3 fatty acids and makes the fish moister. But the wild kind is, after all, an all-natural product, colored a beautiful vivid red and lower in calories. According to the fishmonger, the wild kind is more athletic and fit. As you can see from this taxonomic drawing of a spawning Sockeye, it's an ugly bastard, at least during its spawning phase (I would have thought that would be exactly the right time to be good-looking).

I tried to take some photos in the store, but some paranoiacs in management have apparently made a rule against it. When an employee (a fearmonger, if you will) saw me whip out my camera, she asked rather forcefully, "Can I help you with something?" which everyone knows is code for "Stop doing what you're doing."

Thanks to a neat division of labor befitting two control freaks, Leanboy prepared the appetizer and I made the main course. Here he is with his famously long fingers shaving some parmesan cheese. We found a tasty variety called La Rinascente for sale at WholeFoods. Below is a photo I snapped when nobody was looking, at substantial risk to my person (I know, I'm incorrigible).

As you can see, this cheese has a lovely, romantic-sounding provenance. Tasted good, too.

Leanboy gingerly placed a cheese shaving on individual "endive boats," creating a unique salad that's fun to eat. The bitterness of the endive is well balanced with the sweetness of the olive oil and balsamic vinegar and the saltiness of the cheese.

For the main course, I glazed the salmon fillet with a drizzle of honey and olive oil. I might have preferred a more Asian blend of toasted sesame oil, molasses and soy sauce, but this worked better in combination with the rest of the menu.

I broiled this and served it on a bed of red swiss chard sautéed with shallots and shitake mushrooms, which was in turn placed on a bed of celeriac/Yukon Gold puree, generously flavored with thyme. In retrospect, I would have gone with more celeriac and less potato. At left, the lovely victim.

The final result was a winner. Although it was quite a bit trickier to get the salmon to cook just right than with the farmed variety. The fish was so lean, that by the time it stopped being raw and cold in the center, it was a bit more well-done than I like it. Still, the flavor of the Sockeye was richer and Leanboy cleaned his plate (a good sign, although, come to think of it, he always does).

Monday, October 29, 2007

Food of Devotion

Earlier this year I traveled to San Francisco and had one of my favorite meals at a restaurant called Medicine, the "new shojin eatstation," which I had first heard about in the New York Times. The word "shojin" is short for shojin riyori, which in Japanese means "devotional cuisine." This makes sense because it was first developed by Buddhist monks living in Japanese monasteries, cooking wholesome vegan food that was both rustic and yet often delicate, based on seasonal vegetables, soy and whole grains. The restaurant is not strictly vegan, but my dining companion, Felix Hunger, persuaded me to order only vegan dishes.

One of the most attractive dishes was called the Medicine Roll, an inside-out maki roll filled with crisp raw vegetables.

Another interesting roll was filled with fried tofu and pickled mango. Very fresh, clean tastes.

Felix ordered Udon Curry, which had a rich spicy broth, thick noodles and shredded veggie fritters, dramatically plated.

For my main course, I ordered the artisanal tofu bowl, with steamed vegetables. I'm a sucker for the fresh, nutty taste of house-made tofu, much more interesting than the pre-packaged version.

Felix and I had a few well-made but more commonly available dishes, such as goma ae (spinach salad with sesame dressing) and nasu dengaku (eggplant broiled with miso). However these were soon followed by another unique dish featuring dried bean curd skin, called yuba, artfully rolled up. The yuba was paired with kind of seaweed called wakame, and a dollop of wasabi.
I washed this all down with a delicious glass of cold green tea flavored with soy milk and spirulina.

The dessert, a two-tone pair of treats, was truly a case of the best being saved for last. One was a kind of chocolate mousse. The other, made with coconut milk, was a delightfully odd kind of mushroom soup, of all things. Delicate, sponge-like "silver mushrooms" swam in the creamy liquid, topped off with toasted buckwheat groats. The groats provided a perfectly contrasting crunch, and stumped me for a while by reminding me of something I couldn't put my finger on. I finally figured out what I was associating it with: the familiar, unmistakable flavor of my Jewish childhood, kasha varnishkes (bow tie noodle casserole with buckwheat groats). I never particularly liked kasha varnishkes but I liked the special occasions it appeared at. Holidays like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, when the whole extended family would gather. High Holy Days. Like Proust's beloved madeleines, something about the taste brings a host of involuntary memories. And for me, coming full circle with the theme of the restaurant, it's the taste of devotion.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Mystery Flower

Up in a secluded corner of Bali this summer, I was wandering the grounds of an abandoned, recently bankrupted hotel where I used to stay. I suddenly came upon one of the most interesting and strange looking flowers I've ever seen. Fortunately I had my camera with me, so I took a photo of it for later identification. I had assumed it was some kind of bizarre orchid because of the protruding stamen. Several friends told me I was wrong.

Today, after several months of guessing, I unexpectedly came across a photo of an almost identical flower while researching different varieties of passion fruit. Wikipedia had a picture of the passion fruit flower. Eureka! That's what I saw in Bali. Even the surrounding leaves are identical.

Here's a photo I took of the type of passion fruit available in Bali. It's not wrinkled and purple like the ones in American specialty markets. Its skin is orange, rather like a large kumquat. The Indonesians call it a markisa. The flesh is tart, slippery and refreshing.

Once again, my love of tropical fruits has led me to learn something new.

Tamarind From On High

This summer I spent a few blissfully idle days on Gili Air, a tiny island off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia, east of Bali. With no paved roads, there are no cars or motorbikes, only miniature horses dragging little buggies called cidomo. The mountains on the mainland cast shadows on the clear blue water.

There's only one village on the island, and most of the food is brought over from the mainland every morning by boat. A notable exception is tamarind fruit, which the women of the village collect as it falls from trees throughout the island. In Indonesian, tamarind is called asam, meaning "sour."

The women collect the pods, peel them, and carefully pick through the sticky, tawny flesh to remove the seeds and the stringy fibers. The bits of flesh are then wadded together and collected in neat orbs about the size of baseballs. These are sold in the local market and also exported to the mainland. Tamarind is used sparingly in cooking, lending a wonderful tang to all sorts of dishes.

After a long day of collecting tamarind fruit in the hot sun and cleaning them by hand, what better consolation than an unparalleled Gili Air sunset?

Ultra Permium

How much would you pay for a nice piece of meat? Last week I was at the big Japanese market in Edgewater, New Jersey called Mitsuwa, which has adopted the strangely arousing motto "Eat Joy Feel."

There among the seaweed, tofu, shiso leaves, daikon radish, rice crackers, sushi fish and mochi cakes, were selections of meat selling for up to $100 per pound. I know, I know, that's why I'm posting photographic proof. Run that bar code if you don't believe me!

Kagoshima beef is named for a place in Japan and is a type of Wagyu, commonly known as Kobe-style beef. The cows are coddled, massaged and carefully fed, at ridiculous expense, bringing animal husbandry to the level of fetish and beyond. The final result is meat extremely marbled, tender and, as the label clearly states: PERMIUM GRADE!

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Somewhere along the line, coleslaw came to be defined as a soggy pile of white cabbage dripping with watery mayonnaise. I actually sort of like it on occasion, especially tucked into turkey sandwiches that might otherwise be dry.

But I have recently developed a tastier, healthier and much more colorful alternative. There are several variations to it, but my main idea is simple.

The basic ingredients are shredded red cabbage and carrot. My grater doesn't have a "coarse" plane, so I use a steak knife to shave off fine slices of cabbage, cutting against the grain. As for the carrot, I just use a peeler to make thin slices.

Instead of mayo, I add a generous splash of raw apple cider vinegar and a light drizzle of honey or agave syrup. A touch of olive oil is nice, but optional. A few raisins perfectly counter the vinegar, and I have also taken to adding a few goji berries, a slightly tart Himalayan berry available dried from most health food stores or in Chinatown (more postings on that soon).

It's important not to use white vinegar or balsamic vinegar, as they completely change the balance of flavors. If possible, look for Eden brand apple cider vinegar.
Another optional ingredient is a little diced red onion or a few fine slivers of red bell pepper for a bit of additional color and crunch. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Another variation to keep your tastebuds on their toes: grate in a little orange zest. Not too much, though, or it will dominate.

Store the coleslaw overnight before eating, preferably packed snugly in its container, so the vinegar has a chance to soften the vegetables and plump up the raisins and/or goji berries. It goes great on sandwiches, roll ups, as a side dish, or on its own. It's all raw, full of vitamins and enzymes and 100% free of mayonnaise!


I've always wanted to be one of those persnickety, world-weary columnists who wears a bow tie and rails against a world going to the dogs (or to the cats). And here's my chance.

I just heard Barbara Smith, owner of B. Smith’s Restaurant on Restaurant Row, interviewed on Joan Hamburg’s WOR radio show. Smith identified herself as a “restauranteur.” For many years, this lowly word has been one of my biggest pet peeves in the realm of food and eating. There is, in my opinion, no such word. It is some kind of Franglish monstrosity that adds the French ending "eur" to the end of the French word "restaurant," presumably to mean "someone who restaurants." This is neither good French nor good English.

People who own or run restaurants should, of all people, know better. On a previous occasion I wrote in to Hamburg's web site correcting her own use of this "word" on the airwaves. I seek only to help, to edify, but I never received a response, not even a form letter from her staff, let alone any thanks. I know what they're thinking -- persnickety!

But a few moments of clear thinking should resolve the issue. A vendor vends and a server serves. But the word restaurant is a kind of gerund to begin with, meaning in practice "a place one goes to be restored." The root word is to restore, and therefore a person who does the restoring would be a "restorer," or a restaurateur -- no "n."

I don't mind recasting French words and phrases like "à la mode" to mean "served with ice cream" instead of literally "as per the fashion," or "entrée" to mean a main course instead of its obvious original meaning as an appetizer or "entrance." And of course “menu” has lost its original context of “menu de repas,” meaning the “details of the meal.” This is all a natural part of sharing and developing language. I would even make allowances for redundant phrases like "head chef" or nonsensical inheritances like "maître d'."

I certainly don't insist on using the feminine formulation "entrepreneuse" to describe a female entrepreneur, even though that would be technically correct in French. “Entrepreneur” has become a legitimate English word that need not be subject to the mechanics of French grammar. We have no more need of an "entrepreneuse" than we do a "murderess" or a "directrix."

“Restaurant” is a fully English word, and I have no problem considering many other words of French origin as true English words. For example, the word "poseur" is a terrifically useful word. The English form "poser" can be substituted, but to me, that means someone who sits and poses for a painter, or something like that. The word "poseur," just by virtue of its French origin, happens to sound a little pretentious and adds to the meaning of the word. And more importantly, it distinguishes itself from the true English form. The more shades of meaning the better! We all win.

But "restauranteur" adds a French ending to a French word incorrectly, in a way that renders the word ridiculous. It's not acceptable. It's not a "variant." It's wrong.

In the meantime, I'm off to a restaurant now, looking persnickety wearing my nœud papillon (butterfly knot), better known as a bow tie.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


I came across this blurb today about Andrew Zimmern, the “full-figured foodie” who has his own Travel Channel show called “Bizarre Foods.”

"[Zimmern] has sampled a menu so hideous it makes the gross-out fare of "Fear Factor" look like a Happy Meal. He's nibbled on a beating frog's heart in Japan, slurped up cow's heel soup in Trinidad, sucked down mosquito eggs in Mexico, crunched some fried bees in Taiwan, and somehow gnawed through fermented whale blubber in Alaska. Not icky enough? How about the Malaysian durian fruit, its odor of rotten flesh so legendary that simply carrying one on Singapore's mass transit system is strictly prohibited? (Truth be told, Zimmern didn't quite get that one down, one of only three eats he couldn't swallow.)”

What a wimp! Prohibited in Singapore? So is chewing gum! (True.) The durian, which means in Malay simply "spiky" or "thorny," has been called the King of Fruits. I must admit, I did not like durian when I first encountered it in 1999, during my first year living in Bali (see the above photo I took on a recent trip to Bali -- although it was actually out of season at the time and I bought this imported from Thailand). But I took note of my Balinese friends who literally ran to feed on its luscious flesh pods when the opportunity presented itself.

And the opportunity certainly has a way of announcing itself, for the durian is one of the oddest smelling things in nature. I would characterize its texture and odor profile as somewhere between custard and feet. Let's call it "foot custard," if Baskin-Robbins were to inquire. And Zimmern, a "food daredevil," has apparently drawn a line in the sand at the foot of the mighty durian tree. Here's a photo of him eating a grub or something. (Note: Real daredevils don't wear plaid.)

Although I have already confessed that durian is an acquired taste, I hasten to add that I evntually followed my Balinese friends into being utterly obsessed with the unique funky, creamy sweetness of the durian. They claim it's also an aphrodisiac, but they say that about pretty much anything that tastes odd. Although I've heard there really is a Malaysian saying, "When the durians come down, the sarongs come off."

Now I make regular trips to Chinatown to buy one of these babies, expensive at over a dollar a pound, but worth every penny. Check out this wonderful site that sings the durian's praises, extols its high nutrition, and teaches how to choose and eat one (rather difficult tasks, actually).

What I can't understand is why this much-maligned and feared fruit is more repugnant to Zimmern than mosquito eggs and bat balls, or whatever else he is paid to consume.

Ah well, more for you and me!