Monday, January 29, 2007

Japanese Noodle Soup

Noodle soup can be a wonderfully comforting meal on a cold winter night. For many years I have been experimenting with Japanese noodle soup, with little success. The past attempts were edible, but not quite right--they just didn't reproduce enough of the aromas and flavors I remember from my trips to Japan. But recently, Elizabeth Andoh's Washoku has helped me close in on what I'm seeking.

One of the keys is to have a good dashi (stock), as it forms the base for the other flavors and the aroma profile. I make a simple vegetarian dashi using kombu sea vegetable and shiitake mushroom stems. (The recipe I use is near the bottom of this post.) After you have a good stock recipe, there are endless possible variations: different kinds of tofu, mushrooms, other sea vegetables, greens, and so on.

The Basic Recipe

  1. Make some dashi (vegetarian recipe below). After you strain the stock, add some mirin and soy sauce (about 1/2 tablespoon each per cup of stock).

  2. Add the additions to either the stock or your soup bowl (see list and instructions below).

  3. Cook some udon (fat noodles made from wheat) or ramen (medium-sized egg noodles) noodles. When done, either drain and rinse for later use, or put them into a soup bowl and immediately cover with hot broth.

Additions, and when to add them

Different ingredients require different treatment. Some cook so quickly that the heat of the broth in the soup bowl is sufficient. Others need a few minutes in the hot broth to soften or gain seasoning.

  • Diced tofu - add to broth about 10 minutes before serving
  • Tofu "skin" (abura agé or yuba) - add to broth a few minutes before serving
  • Enoki mushrooms - put in soup bowl (the hot broth will cook them)
  • Shiitake mushrooms - if dried, rehydrate them in hot water, then strain the soaking liquid through a coffee filter into your broth. If fresh, add to broth a few minutes before serving.
  • Sliced scallions - put in soup bowl
  • Greens like mizuna or spinach - put in soup bowl
  • Grated diakon - put in soup bowl
  • Wakame (a sea vegetable) - add to broth a few minutes before serving
  • Other vegetables - add to broth in advance so that they'll be cooked to your preferred tenderness
  • Miso - add to broth at the last minute

Vegetarian Dashi
Adapted from Elizabeth Andoh's Washoku

To make a vegetarian dashi, place a piece of kombu sea vegetable and several dried shiitake mushrooms into some cool water. The ratio that Andoh uses is 15-20 square inches of kombu and three mushrooms to 4 1/4 cups of water. Let this mixture steep as long as possible in the refrigerator, preferably overnight. A long soaking allows the natural glutamates (flavor enhancers) to go into the water (indicated by slime on the kombu). When ready to make the stock, put the mixture in a pan over medium heat. Bring it almost to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly to keep it at a low simmer. Keep it at this point for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat. Let the mixture steep for 5 minutes more, and then strain into a saucepan.

Indexed under Japan, Main Dishes
Technorati tags: Japan : vegetarian : Food

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Let Cookies Be Cookies

From the "Seemed like a good idea at the time" or the "Some things just shouldn't be" file:

I made a batch of my favorite oatmeal-chocolate chunk cookies the other day, and thought I could make them a little bit healthier by tossing in a quarter cup of amaranth seeds. Amaranth seeds contain a nearly complete protein and are high in iron and other minerals. Usually I put them in my oatmeal while it is cooking -- either raw or popped in a hot dry skillet -- or in my favorite whole-grain sunflower seed bread (I'll post a recipe someday), two places where the seeds will soften.

But adding the amaranth seeds to the cookie dough was a bad idea. They make the cookie look a little more interesting -- the amaranth seeds are the small light-yellow dots in the photo below -- but cause trouble for the cookie's texture. Amaranth seeds are tough little things, and can be hard on the teeth and disrupt the cookie's "cookie-ness".

My lesson from this experiment: Let cookies be cookies. Save the multigrain concepts for oatmeal and other "wholesome" dishes.

Note: The title of this post was inspired by the title of Langston Hughes' 1938 poem Let America Be America Again. My plea about cookies, however, is much less righteous and far more frivolous.

Indexed under Baking, Ingredients
Technorati tags: Baking : Food

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Mole, the Amazing Sauce

In my Week of Eating post, one of the frequent meals was enmoladas -- corn tortillas covered in mole sauce. There are as many recipes and variations for mole as there are cooks. But in general, a mole is a paste of made from some of the following ingredients: chilies, nuts, seeds, spices, greens, chocolate, bread, fruit, and other ingredients. After a personal story about mole, I'll present excerpts from a New York Times article to show more of the history (or speculation) and specifics of mole.

My Mole: Smoke and Splatting
I once made the mole negro from Nancy Zaslavsky's A Cook's Tour of Mexico, and it was one of the most harrowing cooking experiences in my life. Although the recipe was well written, it didn't fully prepare me for what was to come. This mole consisted of three kinds of chilies, almonds, raisins, white sesame seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, thyme, oregano, onion and garlic. The process was tricky and messy: lots of smoke (one of the early steps: "Cook the chile seeds and stems with 3 tablespoons of oil until the seeds turn black. Yes, open the windows, turn on a fan, cover the smoke alarm, then burn the seeds and stems to black-black."), a difficult to blend mixture (at least with my old blender), hot blobs of sauce flying into the air as I simmered the sauce for an hour to thicken it, and more excitement. But in then end, I was left with a complex, aromatic paste that I kept in my freezer for many months, pulling out a container every now and then to make a batch of enmoladas.

The New York Times in Puebla
The New York Times published a story about the city of Puebla, Mexico and its culinary appeal, with particular attention on the moles of the city (Wikipedia entry on Puebla). Below, I have extracted just the parts that describe the sauce and its history (and also stopped italicizing "mole"):


When most Americans hear the word mole (pronounced MOH-lay), they often think specifically of mole poblano, but there are several types of moles, in a variety of colors and flavors -- and not all of them include chocolate.

I had just witnessed this diversity firsthand at the annual October Mole Festival in San Pedro Atocpan, a tiny farming town on the outskirts of Mexico City. In the kiosks there, women slapped at big balls of dough, shaping fresh tortillas to scoop up mole from steaming pots. Local suppliers waved their hands magicianlike over fat slabs of mole paste -- varying shades of rich brown mole poblanos; bright green cilantro-infused mole verdes; orangey-red pipián moles made with pumpkin seeds; peanut-butterlike cacahuate moles; and mole almendrado, a dark almond mole that's the local pride of San Pedro Atocpan.

For years, mole was a special-occasion dish only, the preparation notoriously time-consuming. But all of these powders and pastes were ready to roll -- add a dash of oil and chicken broth, and you've got a delicious mole in minutes. This was good news for hardworking homemakers, but I wanted to get back to the beginning of mole. I needed to find Puebla.

To say that there is competition in Puebla over where to eat your mole poblano is an understatement. Almost every restaurant in town promotes the dish, and many hosts stand outside beckoning to passers-by. Signs everywhere shout ''Típico!'' -- a reassurance to customers that yes -- yes -- here, you will find the authentic food of Puebla. But many Poblanos still cook the best moles at home, and it can be difficult to find a great one among the masses.


Mole itself is evidence that the Indian culture was never defeated. Though the invention of mole poblano is usually attributed to a Spanish nun, the word itself comes from the Náhuatl Indian word molli, meaning ''concoction'' or ''sauce.'' And most food scholars agree that some form of the sauce dates back to pre-Hispanic times.


There are a few legends detailing the origins of mole poblano, but Mr. Hernández spun out the most popular -- a mid-17th-century nun, Sor Andrea de laAsunción of the Santa Rosa Convent, was asked to create a special dish for a visiting archbishop. After class, I walked over to the enormous Talavera-tiled kitchen where it all went down and tried to imagine the beautiful chaos that must have ensued.

BUT here's the burning question. If a mole can be any number of different sauces, what differentiates it from, well, sauce? As the chef Zarela Martínez, of the New York City restaurant Zarela, defined it: ''A mole is a puréed main-dish sauce with chilies, either fresh or dried, and other ingredients, such as fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, with a thickener. This could be seeds, nuts, bread, masa, corn tortillas or a combination of the above.''


Mole on Pico
If you live in Los Angeles, or are planning on visiting, you might want to check out a restaurant specializing in mole, Las 7 Regiones de Oaxaca, 2648 West Pico Boulevard (between Normandie and Vermont, phone 213-385-7458). I haven't been there yet, but heard about it on KCRW's Good Food program (a must Podcast for foodies), LA Weekly food writer Jonathan Gold joined host Evan Kleiman to talk about the restaurant (and here is Gold's LA Weekly review).

Indexed under Restaurants, Mexico, Ingredients
Technorati tags: Mexico : Food

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Sponge or Vegetable?

One of my recent first-time purchases was the ridged gourd (Luffa acutangula), a vegetable also known as angled loofah, Chinese okra, tori, and patola. Ridged gourds have soft, edible skin when young, taste somewhat like zucchini, and are popular in Asia. In California, a few of the farmers of Asian descent sell them at the Farmers' Market.

I used a south Indian recipe as a guide to cook the gourd, braising it with some grated coconut, then topping with a spice, chili and curry leaf infused oil. Perhaps the gourd was too old, or perhaps I didn't trim it properly, but in my finished dish half of the pieces were so fibrous that I could not eat them. I understood why one of the names of this vegetable is angled loofah! The actual loofah sponge, however, comes from the Luffa cylindrica gourd. The Hinata Diaries has a funny story about a trip to Egypt that includes a hungry tourist, a language barrier, and a cart of loofah gourds.

Back when I regularly wrote scientific papers for journals and conferences, my co-authors and I would always seem to include a clause at the end of the article saying "more research is needed." But with the ridged gourd, I don't feel that the clause is needed, as the flavor of the non-loofah-esque pieces which was not good enough to make it worth the gamble to buy this vegetable and possibly find much of it to be inedible.

Indexed under Ingredients
Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Tofu Squares with Miso

I don't remember if I was in Japan or in the U.S. when I first had "tofu pops." These "tofu pops" weren't some kind of frosty, soy snack, but were small rectangles of grilled tofu slathered with a savory miso sauce and skewered with a popsicle-stick shaped piece of bamboo.

Using my toaster oven instead of a grill, these little pieces of mildly-flavored tofu topped with a thick and pungent miso sauce make a great appetizer or side dish for a Japanese meal. The photo above shows two sauces: the reddish-brown one is barley miso, red miso, and leeks; the yellowish one is citrus-infused white miso. Recipes for preparing the tofu and the citrus-miso sauce are provided below.

Tofu Squares with Miso Sauces

Firm tofu
Miso sauces

Press the Tofu (optional, but recommended)
The photo collage to the left shows one way to press tofu. 1) cut the tofu block in half and place each piece on a cutting board or pan. I use the pans that came with my toaster oven, as the holey roasting pan and baking sheet form a self-contained draining system. 2) Put a knife or wooden spoon under one corner of the pan. 3) place a plastic lid or cutting board on top of the tofu slices. 4) Apply weight to the lid to force water out of the tofu. 5) Wait for one to two hours.

After pressing the tofu, cut the tofu pieces into slices of about 3 cm by 3 cm by 1 cm.

Cook the Tofu
Ideally, the tofu would be grilled before the sauce is applied, but if you don't have a grill ready, the toaster oven works nicely. Turn the toaster oven to "broil" and cook each side of the tofu for about 5 minutes, until the pieces have a light golden color.

Apply the Sauce and Broil
The final steps are to apply a dollop of sauce to one side of each piece, then place the pieces under the broiler until the miso sauce is hot, probably a few minutes.

Serve hot or at room temperature.

Citrus-Miso Sauce
Adapted from Elizabeth Andoh's Washoku

3 T. light miso (shiro miso)
1 1/2 T. sake
1 t. mirin
1/2 t. fresh grated lemon zest
Sugar, salt and water, if needed

Place the miso, sake and mirin in a small saucepan. Stir until well mixed. Add half of the lemon zest and stir.

Cook over medium-low heat for a few minutes, stirring continuously, until the sauce has the thickness of ketchup. Take care when stirring, as this thick sauce might bubble and sporadically spurt hot bits of sauce.

Remove from heat and let cool. Adjust the sugar, salt and thickness (using water). Add the remaining lemon zest and stir.

The sauce will keep in a sealed glass jar in the refrigerator for a few weeks.

Indexed under Japan
Technorati tags: Japan : vegetarian : Food

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Food Blogging in Tolstoy's War and Peace?

Quite a few months ago, The Atlantic Monthly had a review of a new translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace. I have never read War and Peace, nor seen the movie adaptations, but I read the review anyway (sometimes one can pick up useful trivia in reviews, or at least read some good writing). The reviewer (novelist Ann Beattie) mentioned that one of her favorite scenes was about a German tutor trying to keep track of the dishes he ate during a lavish banquet at one of the noble houses. Sounds to me like an early forerunner of the food blogger. The scene is in chapter XVIII:
...The German tutor was trying to remember all the dishes, wines, and kinds of dessert, in order to send a full description of the dinner to his people in Germany; and he felt greatly offended when the butler with a bottle wrapped in a napkin passed him by. He frowned, trying to appear as if he did not want any of that wine, but was mortified because no one would understand that it was not to quench his thirst or from greediness that he wanted it, but simply from a conscientious desire for knowledge.
There is no mention, however, of whether the tutor carried a sketchbook and pencil to make drawings of each course of the dinner...

You can read the full text of War and Peace and hundreds of other books at Project Gutenberg.

Image credit
Photo of the Peterhof from lyng833's Flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Indexed under Writing
Technorati tags: Food