Gastronomic nemeses

I have cracked open suckling piglet skulls to eat its creamy brains and brainstem.  I have sipped on warm turtle blood, poured straight into a cup from its jugular.  I have chewed on live octopus legs, its powerful tentacles tightly gripping onto the insides of my cheeks.  I have drunk warm camel’s milk, freshly hand milked from the teats of a West African desert camel.  I have devoured whole sparrows, crunchy beak, skull, wings and all.  I have relished whale blubber, deliciously cold smoked in the dead of winter.  I have slurped creamy fish sperm sac, perfectly seasoned with a dash of ponzu.  I have noshed on charred armadillo flesh and mystery primate limbs.  Bugs, amphibians, mold, reproductive organs and appendages are no sweat for me.  In fact, every such unique culinary experience I have thoroughly enjoyed, licking my chops at the end of the meal.

My humanitarian work and travels have taken me all over the world, to countries some people may have heard of, but have no idea where to locate on the world map.  New types of animals, novel methods of cooking and interesting dining rituals have opened my eyes to a whole new way of appreciating food.  What may seem strange and bizarre to one can be a delicious afternoon snack in another country.  What may be perceived as animal cruelty in one place may be the only mode of survival and a long standing tradition with great historical significance in another.  Through sampling various types of foods all over the world, I have enjoyed learning about other cultures.

Opening your mind to trying local delicacies also means opening your heart to accepting the people and the customs of that particular culture, and for that reason I never turn down an exotic bite, no matter how strange or gory it may appear.  I will try anything twice, and as long as it tastes good, I will do it with an enthusiastic smile.  But even I, an adventurous eater with a strong stomach, have my Achilles heel- something that will bring me to my knees and leave me begging to be put out of my misery.  I have finally met my match, and my nemeses come in two forms: first, the French andouillette.

‘French, pork, tripe and sausage’ seem like a no-brainer. A culmination of all of my favorite things should automatically make it into my Top 10 favorites, but strangely enough, it is one of the most repulsive foods I have ever encountered.  A course grained bulky sausage stuffed with pork chitterlings, pepper, wine and onions, the andouillette is a French delicacy that dates back to 877 AD.  I’m still perplexed as to how I, an offal loving eater, cannot make peace with andouillette, but it is that distinct foul odor of dirty urinals that makes me shudder with disgust and defeat.  My first experience was in Paris as a teenager, completely sickened by this mound of innards that as a culinary icon holds a formal title: AAAAA, for Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique.  My second experience was 2 years ago in a well known bouchon in Lyon, one of the regions famous for andouillette (the other is Troyes).  Again, that distinct stench of locker room bathroom urine and feces made me wimper and recoil in fear, as I watched my dining partner roll his eyes in ecstasy as he savored every morsel of what he claimed was one of the best French inventions.

My other nemesis is a Japanese delicacy.  Funa zushi is a traditional and sacred Japanese dish, said to be the oldest sushi in history dating back 1200 years. Fresh female funa (Crucian carp) from Lake Biwa is scaled, then gutted through their gills to preserve the integrity of the body and the roe sack.  First it is cured in salt for 6 months, then rinsed and dried.  Then it is stacked inside a wooden barrel with cooked rice, allowed to ferment for up to 3 years under layers of salt, water and heavy stone weights until full maturation. As the mixture rots and ferments, it produces enough carbon dioxide to topple a 70 pound boulder off the top of the barrel.  The result is a well fermented piece of fish, rotted down to its bones and cartilage which have become soft enough to render the entire fish edible.  Some liken this extremely rare and valuable delicacy to Roquefort cheese.  I, an avid Roquefort fan, disagree.

Many years back, this seemingly harmless slice of fish with an impressive stuffing of bright orange roe, drove my body into sensory shock.  It wasn’t the initial sour smell or the doughy sticky consistency of rotting flesh that surprised me.  With the first bite, a caustic fume of ammonia-like gas shot straight through my palate into my eyes and my brain, precipitating massive tearing, temporary blindness and a strong gag reflex.  In the presence of important company, I forced myself to swallow and keep silent.

My second experience came, ironically, at the same restaurant with the same company- again, as I vow to try everything at least twice, I took a bite.  The funa zushi was just as horrible the second time around, its putrid smell and rotted flesh taking me back to anatomy class in medical school.  My dining partners, who were more accustomed to this highly prized delicacy, slurped up their sushi with joyful tears in their eyes as I held back my urge to hurl.

Andouillette and funa zushi have traumatized me for life, but I am determined to continue eating the world and not letting anything else come in the way of my appetite and my desire to connect with other cultures.  At least for now…until I’m faced with Cambodian fried tarantulas and decomposed walrus meat prized by the Inuit.

Where will your culinary adventures take you next?

12 sensational dishes of 2010

The food and beverage industry in Los Angeles saw its share of culinary trends in 2010, from pop-up restaurants, a return to good butchery, local sourcing of food (locavorism), Asian comfort food, a celebration of bacon, mezcal cocktails, house-made charcuterie, head-to-head competition on TV shows, good old fried chicken, snout to tail diningwholesome pies in lieu of cupcakes, celebrity chefs opening up shop in tinseltown, and food and restaurant wars.  It was a busy but fruitful year for me, navigating through these food trends and traveling around the world in search of delicious nibbles.

Through it all, there were 12 dishes that left a strong impression on both my palate and my heart.  I had many delicious dishes this year, but these 12 dishes that I selected had something else that made it truly special.  Food is an expression of a chef’s love and an extension of a chef’s soul.  When a chef cooks from the heart with genuine care and intention, that essence comes through in his or her food, and speaks directly to the diner.  Through personal interactions with these special chefs, I was able to taste, smell and see the beauty of their creations with a higher level of respect and understanding.  Behind each dish was a talented chef with a radiant smile that I will never forget.

Deep fried fugu- Chef Kenzo Sato, Shigeyoshi (Tokyo, Japan)

Despite its 2 Michelin star status, there is no pretentiousness or attitude at this humble 39-year old restaurant in Tokyo.  I have been coming here every year for the last 6 years, of course looking forward to the meticulously prepared food, but more eager to see Chef Kenzo Sato’s lovely smile.  His warm hearty laugh and funny stories are the finishing spices to each delicate dish that is prepared in front of me in the open kitchen.  There is a special comfort and security in coming here, for he knows my likes and dislikes, and prepares a sensational omakase meal according to my palate.  I never have to order or remind him of what I want- it is already understood, and the highlight of each experience comes in my favorite dish at Shigeyoshi, the deep fried puffer fish dish, which he saves for me.  It goes without saying that it requires a special license and tremendous skill in preparing the poisonous puffer fish, but it takes special love and thought to prepare this simple but comforting dish of fugu.  The best pieces are from the head, with thick wedges of white tender meat juxtaposed against gelatinous jiggles of fat fugu lips.  Chef Sato smiles as he watches me attack this dish, waiting to resume conversation until I am done licking my fingers clean.

Sea urchin tostada with pismo clams- Sabina Bandera Gonzalez, La Guerrerense (Ensenada, Mexico)

To this day, that life-changing satisfying bite into the crunchy tostada generously topped with sea urchin, heaps of freshly shucked pismo clams, avocado and home-made ‘Chilito Exotico’ salsa, haunts me.  My body craves it, my mind obsesses about it, my dreams are dominated by it.  Matriarch Sabina Gonzalez, who has been operating out of a small food cart on the street corner of Ensenada in Baja Mexico for more than 30 years, creates each tostada to order, smothering it with fresh offerings from the local Baja waters and topping it with motherly love.  It’s a family affair, and her daughter comes down from San Diego on the weekends to shuck clams and oysters as the master cocktailer.  Each bite releases a splash of ocean breeze inside my mouth before the distinct savory spices of the pineapple salsa kicks in.  This is pure Baja, and it doesn’t get any better than this tostada, followed by a big hug, both from Sabina.

Octopus carpaccio with nopales- Chef Javier Plascencia, Cebicheria Erizo (Tijuana, Mexico)

Photo of Javier Plascencia courtesy of Barbara Hansen, of Table Conversation

It wasn’t just the fun geometric shapes or the vibrant color palettes in this octopus carpaccio that won my heart, but the innovative concept of compressing octopus legs into round sausages and slicing them thin to reveal wheel-like cross sections that impressed me in the cebiche themed restaurant of accomplished Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia.  The gelatin coating around the octopus legs acted as a natural food glue to keep the circles together.  The tender octopus slices in ponzu sauce were given a unique Baja twist with the contrast of buttery avocados and crunchy, slimy nopales.  A refined and beautiful dish with unforgettable textures and delicious flavors is sure to be an industry secret, I thought, but I was struck by Chef Javier Plascencia’s openness about sharing his secrets.  ‘Shoot me an email and I’ll send you my recipe’, he told me, ‘and let me know when you come down to Tijuana, I’ll make sure to be there for you’.  Really?  The amazing thing about this incredibly handsome and kind chef is that he actually means every word that he says.  And with 7 amazing restaurants under his belt and a highly successful run at Test Kitchen where his fig leaf wrapped short rib dish was deemed one of the best dishes of the year by Jonathan Gold, he still maintains the same level of approachability and humility.

Chocolate, cassis, vanilla and passion fruit macarons- Thomas Haas, Thomas Haas Patisserie (Vancouver, Canada)

As a fourth generation German Konditormeister, or Master Pastry Chef, Thomas Haas was genetically destined to become a sensation in the pastry world, and his talent is evident in every tasty morsel of chocolate ganache and chewy caramel.  At his namesake patisserie in Vancouver, he creates a peaceful haven of sweets where one can enjoy a warm cup of herbal tea with sandwiches, tarts, cakes and chocolates while shopping for hot chocolates and cookies.  I went in for his famous chocolates, but was swept off my feet by the perfection of his macarons, especially the passion fruit macaron.  A perfect crunchy outer shell that gives way to a soft moist merengue, leading right into the flavorful center filling- the textures and flavors were spot on in these delicate little bundles of joy.  Despite being a world-renowned patissier and busy restaurateur, Thomas Haas was behind the counter, packaging chocolates to order, working the cash register, giving advice to customers and even cleaning tables.  I had met him the night before at a restaurant in Vancouver, and he welcomed me with a bright smile to his patisserie, bringing over these wonderful macarons with a pot of tea to my table.  With such a hands-on approach to running his patisserie, I knew that he personally made these macarons by hand, which made them taste even better.

Scrambled eggs with black truffle- Chef Haru Kishi, my house (Los Angeles)

How do you honor an aromatic, majestic piece of black truffle?  Leave it to talented Chef Haru Kishi, formerly at the Gordon Ramsay restaurant in West Hollywood, and now executive chef of Chaya Brasserie.  Perfectly cooked scrambled eggs, patiently prepared at low temperatures, made fluffier with soft boiled egg whites passed through a fine sieve, spooned over a bed of asparagus and bacon, and garnished with dramatic shavings of black truffle that release its pungent aromas with each passing across the sharp blade of a truffle slicer.  The delicate crunch of asparagus, the smokiness of bacon, the soft pillowy texture of warm fluffy eggs, the final strong hit of truffle essence that spreads inside my mouth and permeates up into my nares- a decadent, rich and unforgettable experience worthy of a final meal.  Life is perfect at that moment, and nothing else matters. Everything that this talented chef makes is amazing, and I have personally seen the tremendous amount of thought that he puts into his work.  As a close friend, it makes me happy to see him blossom through his various struggles and finally come into his element at Chaya Brasserie, a most fitting location for his Japanese and French background.

Venison tenderloin tartare, macadamia nuts, beet chips, wasabi cream, lavender- Chef Marcel Vigneron, Venison dinner ( Los Angeles)

Marcel Vigneron has become a household name since he became famous on Top Chef season 2, and currently on Top Chef All-Stars.  Although he has gained a reputation as the Top Chef villain, in real life he is quite the opposite.  Personable, thoughtful, kind and extremely fun to hang out with, he is one of the most hard working chefs in Los Angeles.  He’s obviously talented and gifted with charisma, but behind the scenes he puts in just as much thought and hours into each beautiful and innovative creation.  One such plate that I still think back to is the venison tenderloin tartare with macadamia nuts, capers, pickled cipollini onions, beet root brunoise and walnut oil.  The venison was prepared perfectly with a fine balance of acidity and flavor.  Scooped onto a crispy red beet chip with a smear of wasabi cream and a hint of lavender aroma wafting from the board, this delectable dish transported me to venison heaven at a private dinner party at Terroni restaurant.  Spending the entire day with the chef, from shopping at the farmers market to prepping in his kitchen, I was able to see an inspiration evolve into an idea, an idea into a sketch, and a sketch finally culminate in the most breathtaking dish.

Kikouchi soba- Soba artisans Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai, Soba Pop at the Breadbar (Los Angeles)

Buckwheat flour and water- there are only 2 simple ingredients in making Kikouchi soba, making it that much more of a complex dish.  Soba master Akila Inouye and soba artisan Sonoko Sakai have been working hard all year to spread the culture of soba in Los Angeles.  Many trips to Japan, many suitcases of freshly milled Japanese buckwheat flour, many soba classes in Sonoko’s house and many long hours of preparation for their pop-up soba event at the Breadbar, all in the name of wanting Angelenos to understand the culture of Japanese soba.  Soba is Japan’s soul food, full of tradition and sacred history.  Thanks to these dedicated soba artisans, I was able to have a taste of home and a moment of peace as I dipped these delicate buckwheat noodles into their homemade bonito broth and happily slurped away.

Potato mousseline, poached egg, chorizo crumble- Chef Ludovic Lefebvre, LudoBites 5.0 (Los Angeles)

Chef Ludo needs no introduction- he took command of the Los Angeles culinary scene with his sensational and popular pop-up events, LudoBites 4.0, 5.0 and 6.0 in 2010.  Every dish was whimsical, colorful, flavorful and creative, delighting diners with his ever changing menu ideas.  There were many favorites, but the stand-out dish for me was the silky potato mousseline over a perfectly poached egg, bursting with warm yellow yolk that melted right into the fatty chorizo crumble.  Every bite made me want more and more.  I wanted to share this wonderful dish with my friends, but I also didn’t want to share this wonderful dish with my friends.  What was I to do?  Order another round, of course, which I did at every visit to LudoBites 5.0, my favorite of the 3 this year.  Ludo’s talent and success got much deserved praise from critics on both coasts, but there were always people who wanted to criticize, scrutinize, dissect and rip him apart.  People love to hate this handsome charismatic chef, but what they don’t know is that behind each artistic and poetic dish was a lot of blood, sweat and tears- literally.  Despite a debilitating medical condition that would normally deem a person completely disabled and incapable of working, Ludo fought hard through each day of LudoBites to cook for his dedicated fans.  He gritted his teeth to endure relentless pain and gave his best smile for at least 20 photos a night, but I could see the pain in his eyes. Dedication and hard work never meant more to me than at LudoBites this year, and for that, hats off to this amazing chef.

Quinoa crème brûlée, purple corn- Chef Ricardo Zarate, Mo-Chica (Los Angeles)

Mo-Chica and its star chef Ricardo Zarate are now on Los Angeles’ Best of list, and in the next few months we will be seeing the opening of Mo-Chica’s new downtown location and Zarate’s new anticuchos restaurant Picca, but he almost never made it this far.  In the first year of business, Mo-Chica nearly went under.  People didn’t think to try this new restaurant that was serving lamb shanks and arroz con pollo for close to $10 a plate, when adjacent taco stands in the Mercado la Paloma food court were offering $3 plates.  Zarate had a vision, and he didn’t want to compromise on quality or preparation.  He knew that some day, people would understand his food and how good it was.  Almost a year went by, and he was paying out of his own pocket to sustain the business.  Finally, food critics caught wind of this amazing Peruvian chef, and just like that, the news spread like wild fire and Zarate was well on his way to recognition.  His food is fantastic, each bursting with vibrant flavors, with a delicate sensitivity that reflects his training in Japanese cuisine.  The regular menu is solid, but every last Thursday of the month he offers a 6 course tasting menu for $30, possibly the best deal in the country.  I have had grilled octopus with cilantro pesto on a bed of aji mashed potato, mackerel tempura on seabass ceviche, and braised short ribs to satisfy even the most stern critic, all memorable and stellar.  However, it was a quinoa and purple corn crème brûlée on one such tasting dinner that made me gasp with delight.  Not too sweet, perfectly creamy, with a beautiful deep purple hue, and most of all a surprisingly delicious way to enjoy quinoa. ‘I was supposed to use kiwicha, but I didn’t have any, so I substituted quinoa at the last minute.  I hope it’s still good?’, the ever so humble, honest and kind chef told me.  Even such accidents, under Zarate’s spell, become a delicious miracle.

Cabrit, goat meat fricassee- Chef TiGeorges, Test Kitchen (Los Angeles)

In the wake of the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti in January, no dish tasted more soulful than the goat meat fricassee that Haitian chef Georges LaGuerre, affectionately known as TiGeorges, cooked for his Test Kitchen dinner.  TiGeorges himself lost his restaurant to a fire while working hard to raise earthquake relief funds, and this Test Kitchen dinner was the first time that he was able to cook for Angelenos again.  Goat meat was baked with key lime, boiled in vinegar, then grilled over a fire and served with a sauce of key lime juice, olive oil and habanero chiles.  The long process of cooking the meat resulted in an incredibly tender juicy plate of meat that fell effortlessly off the bones.  Haiti is a beautiful country that has endured years of foreign occupation, slavery, poverty, corruption and now one of the worst natural disasters that the modern world has ever encountered.  This cabrit dish represented Haitian pride, strength and soul, just like its talented chef TiGeorges.

Winter grain porridge- Chef Dominique Crenn, Atelier Crenn preview Test Kitchen dinner (Los Angeles)

Michelin starred and Iron Chef conquering female chef Dominique Crenn, who is opening her own restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco next month, graced us with her presence and her sensational talent at the Test Kitchen in Los Angeles for one special evening this month.  After having eaten at more than 12 Test Kitchen dinners this year, I can honestly say that her dinner was the single most impressive and delicious dinner of them all, displaying graceful beauty and culinary elegance.  As a speaker at the TEDx Bay Area Women event earlier this month, she shared her vision of using food as a medium for honoring nature as our ultimate nurturer, and her pledge for caring for our food sources by ‘returning to the soul’.  Indeed, every dish at her 5 course Test Kitchen dinner was a poetic tribute to mother earth and her plentiful bounties that sustain our lives, and was worthy of taking the top 5 places for my best 12 dishes of the year, but one stood out above the rest.  The winter grain porridge, a new type of dessert, that evoked a garden on a sloping hillside with its soft bed of red Peruvian quinoa cooked in chamomile tea, poached quince braised with Tahitian vanilla, hazelnut milk, nougatine, and micro chamomile and hibiscus flowers that sprouted from the soft earth, strewn between orange and green leaves that all together illustrated a portrait of nature.  The textures were soft, light, chewy and crunchy, and I felt like I was digging my spoon right into the earth.  It made me feel happy to be alive.

Seared toro, ankimo, caviar- Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa, Urasawa (Los Angeles)

Stepping through the entrance of Urasawa for the second time, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief, for I knew that I could just relax, sit back and get the best food and the most stellar service of my life.  Beer poured in a ceramic beer mug was at the perfect temperature, the cypress countertop sanded down every day with 3 types of sandpaper was soft and supple, and when I took my camera out of my bag, Chef Hiro summoned his server to lay a white cloth napkin on the counter upon which to place my camera.  It was like being back home in Japan, where attention to detail and meticulous service was the standard.  Here, in this Beverly Hills haven, I had many amazing dishes, one of which was a seared toro wrapped around monkfish liver and myoga ginger, neatly tied in the center with a strip of Kyoto turnip and topped with a heap of caviar.  Little yellow flecks of yuzu rind added a refreshing aroma to the ponzu sauce, all perfectly presented on a golden ceramic pedestal.  Chef Hiro is a true professional who exemplifies the Japanese culture of precision and obsession.  What people don’t know is that despite Urasawa’s reputation, Chef Hiro doesn’t make much money from his business.  He pays an enormous amount of rent, to honor the same space that his teacher, Chef Masayoshi Takayama of Masa, has given him, and he spends most of his money in preparing the best quality ingredients for his meals.  He lives in a rental apartment in downtown LA, and doesn’t even own a computer.  Oblivious to the fact that Urasawa has been on numerous blogs, he thought about it for a second, and then asked, ‘so…these blogs…it’s like, free advertising?’  Indeed, Chef Hiro, indeed.

Thank you to all of these wonderful chefs for making 2010 a special year for me, and bringing beauty and meaning to my life.  Their dedication and hard work to their craft is admirable, and is reflected in their food.  May 2011 be an equally delicious year for all!

Opinionated About Dining- Best Meal of 2009 survey

I received an e-mail from Steve Plotnicki of Opinionated About Dining a few weeks ago while I was traveling through India.  He was surveying various people in the food industry, and asking them all the same two questions:

1.  What was your best meal of 2009?

2.  Name the chef that showed the most potential in 2009?

Unfortunately, when I received the initial e-mail I was deathly sick from some unidentified virus and in the midst of receiving my painful initiation into Indian travel.  Yes, I know that everybody who goes to India gets sick at least once, but after surviving 7 healthy months in the deep African bush, I didn’t think that it would happen to me.  In any case, being asked such important heavy-weighted culinary questions during a 5-day vomiting marathon was pretty tough.  I take these questions seriously, and I wanted to give him my best answers.

I had many fantastic meals this year, but in the end it was L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, France.  There’s a reason why he’s been named ‘Chef of the Century’ and continues to expand his global empire.  His food is fantastic and flawless.  Nobody can argue with that.  Every dish was executed with perfection and grace, and there wasn’t a single dish that disappointed.  Egg cocotte with morel cream sauce was a divine masterpiece, grilled ribeye was dripping with flavorful juices and roasted beef marrow never tasted so luscious.  It was a magical evening of excellent food and wine in the trendy neighborhood of Saint Germain des Prés.  The evening ended with a crazy impromptu night tour through the deserted streets of Paris with a friendly taxi driver named Michel.  Gazing up at the enormous steel structure of the Tour Eiffel at 2AM, still drunk on Savigny-les-Beaune reds and high on the succulent veal liver with crispy onion rings, it now remains a happy memory that will always make me smile.

Egg cocotte with morel cream

As for chef showing the most potential?  I chose local celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre, as his 2 successful LudoBites events have created quite a sensation here in LA.   Unlike traditional restaurants, LudoBites is a temporary pop-up event held in other restaurants that are normally only open for breakfast and lunch.  It’s a new style of dining that completely breaks free from the traditional and stuffy molds of restaurant bureaucracy.  During the limited engagement events at both the Breadbar and Royal/T, I saw a very energetic and happy Ludo shine in an environment where he could be free to express himself and his creativity without being bound by any chains.  In true Ludo style, his food was bursting with radical flavors and concepts.  The rich and smoky chorizo soup, topped with a dollop of tangy cornichon sorbet and tempered by the sweetness of the juicy cantaloupe cubes, was epic.  Black foie gras croque monsieur, grill pressed to a perfect crispy exterior to contrast the buttery foie gras treasure inside, was inspirational with the cherry amaretto sauce.  Escargots got a break from their standard corkscrew coffins to bathe in a warm bowl of aromatic yellow ginger curry.  I really feel that these limited time pop-up restaurants are the next wave of the future.  It’s a fresh new way for chefs to express their ideas and inspirations, and it’s an exciting avenue for diners to experience novel flavors and menu concepts.  Chef Ludo, you have potentially started an incredible culinary trend- and for that, I named you for this survey.

Chorizo soup with cantaloupe and cornichon sorbet

Check out the interesting OAD Best Meal of the Year 2009 survey, and see what the other 75 participants, which include Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Thomas Keller and Jay Rayner, named in the survey.  This wonderful website is also a great reference for any of you gourmands looking for exceptional eats all over the world.

What was your best meal of 2009?

Grana Padano cheese grater

My latest obsession:

IMG_2977I discovered this fun and wonderful toy during a dinner outing at Terroni this past weekend.  When our server brought this plastic cheese grater to our table to complement our pappardelles and tagliatelles, it was love at first sight.  I was more mesmerized with this ‘Little Grater That Could’ than my duck ragu pappardelle.  Each plastic grater comes with an 8.9 ounce block of fine 16-month aged Italian Grana Padano cheese inside, nicely packaged in plastic to keep it fresh until opened.

IMG_2978Grana Padano is an Italian hard cheese that is similar in appearance and concept to Parmigiano Reggiano, but more grainy in texture and milder in taste.  It goes with pretty much any type of bread, soup, salad, or pasta dish.  Have you ever groaned over the cumbersome task of taking a block of cheese out of saran wrap, fishing in your cabinet for a cheese grater, placing it all on a plate, bringing all of that to the table and back, then washing the sharp stainless steel grater and re-wrapping the cheese in saran wrap?  Well, this innovative yet simple contraption solves all of our woes.  It’s a self-contained cheese grating system, so all you do is take this cute cheese stand straight from fridge to table, turn the bottom part, and perfectly thin and delicate cheese ribbons come right out.

IMG_2979It’s simple, it’s compact, it’s light, it produces no mess, and it’s quite genius. It comes with an orange cover to keep the cheese fresh and moist.  It’s tall and thin, so it occupies very little space in your fridge.  It’s sturdy, so it won’t break even if you drop it.  The bottom grater is well engineered to produce consistent thin strands of fresh cheese with minimal torque.  In this day and age of expensive mechanical cooking instruments and superfluous over-the-top culinary utensils to pick, scrape, ball and inject things that we can easily do by hand, this practical and simple device is refreshing.  How in the world have I gotten this far in life without it?  My only lament is that these are made for one-time use, and the plastic container is not reusable.

It inspired me to cook Italian food today.  Home made linguini pasta with farmers market heirloom tomatoes, basil, garlic and olive oil…

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…was transformed into something more special with a simple twist of the wrist.

IMG_2987Although it cost me $16 at Terroni, you can buy it for $9.99 at iGourmet.com.  It’s like a new pet: you can put it in your bag and take it with you to the office.  You can travel with it.  Bring it to restaurants and sneak a few twists on your food when the server isn’t looking.  Treat it well and it will reward you with unconditional love and companionship.

Don’t be fooled by the Kraft imitation for $4.99, it’s domestic Parmesan cheese.

Random trivia:  Did you know that the whey from Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production is fed to pigs which will eventually become the famous Prosciutto di Parma ham?  Ah, the circle of life…

Sea cucumber delicacies

In my last blog entry I talked about Japanese delicacies, rare delights of strange and exotic flavors so unique to the tongue that it does not taste like anything familiar.  Among the 3 Japanese delicacies is konowata, or sea cucumber guts.  For those of you who don’t know what sea cucumbers are, here’s a photo of these soft squishy bottom dwellers:

Sea_cucumberSea cucumbers, also known as bêche-de-mer, holothurians, or trepang, come in all varieties: bright multi-colored, dull grey, spiked, smooth, firm and slippery.  To reproduce, sea cucumbers simply shoot eggs and sperm out into the water and hope that there are enough chance meetings for fertilization to occur.  When threatened, sea cucumbers violently contract their muscles and eject sticky threads and internal organs out of their anus to ensnare their enemies.  Amazingly, even after ejecting their organs out of their anus, they can regenerate these body parts within a day. Such interesting creatures!

Sea cucumber flesh in itself is a delicacy that is commonly eaten in Asia.  I love sliced raw sea cucumber in ponzu sauce.  It has a very crunchy yet slippery texture. Konowata, the salted intestines, is one of my favorite appetizers to enjoy with a cold glass of dry Japanese sake.  Every time I go back to Japan, I buy a jar to take home with me.

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The sea cucumbers are first kept in clean seawater to empty the intestines, then they are carefully removed by hand to make sure the viscera does not break and the intestines are kept intact.  These intestines are then cleaned with saltwater, and prepared through a multi-step salting process that takes a lot of time and patience.  The best konowata are freshly prepared ones in sushi restaurants in Japan, but this is hard to find.  I’ve only had the pleasure of having fresh konowata at Kyubei in Tokyo, Japan.  The bottled ones are often too salty, though it’s still delicious.  I love eating them with grated yuzu rind sprinkled on top, but I also enjoy it with a warm bowl of white rice. It has an intense salty ocean flavor, almost like licking moist seaweed growing on jagged rocks by the shore.

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Another wonderful sea cucumber delicacy is konoko, also known as kuchiko, bachiko, or hoshiko.  These are dried sea cucumber ovaries that are extracted, salted and dried in the sun.  Amazingly, removing the intestines or the ovaries can be done without killing the animal.  They can be extracted through a small incision/cut which will heal in about a week, and both the ovaries and the intestines will automatically regenerate.  Wow! The ovaries are carefully layered together and dried in the sun in a triangle shape.

IMG_8883The best way to enjoy this delicacy is to lightly toast it over a flame and shred it.  The toasting awakens the deep ocean flavors and releases the intense fragrances.  As you chew the konoko pieces, the flavors become more complex.  It almost tastes like caviar, but with a nutty undertone.

IMG_8885It takes about 10-20 large sea cucumbers to make a bottle of sea cucumber intestines, and even more (sometimes up to 100!!) to make one triangle piece of sea cucumber ovaries.  As you can imagine, it is a time consuming process that is done by hand, so these wonderful delicacies are extremely expensive and hard to come by.  They can only be purchased through specialty stores and websites, but if you can get your hands on these treats, it is well worth it.

Random trivia:  Did you know that sea cucumbers have no brain?

Bottarga / Karasumi

One of my all time favorite tasty delicacies is bottarga, or karasumi in Japanese.  It’s very popular and well known around the Mediterranean and in Japan, but few Americans know about it.  Bottarga is silver mullet roe, cured in its original sac form with sea salt, then dried, waxed and vacuum sealed for preservation.   The wax coating prevents further drying and exposure to light.  Although it’s been called the poor man’s caviar, it’s highly prized and just as expensive! Each package comes with 2 roe sacs, and in Japan a good quality bottarga can cost as much as $200-300.  Taiwanese versions are less expensive, so many Japanese tourists who visit Taiwan come back with a suitcase full of bottarga.

Here are 2 packages that I got from Japan:

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IMG_5235These are both high quality Japanese bottarga.  Notice how one is long and flat, and the other is short and plump.  They differ not only in shape and size, but also how dry/moist they are depending on how much they are salt cured.

Bottarga is very popular in Italy, where they usually grate the roe into a simple olive oil pasta dish.  Last month I took the long flat bottarga over to my trusted Italian chef friend Giuseppe’s house to have him cook up a feast.  In preparing the bottarga, the outer skin and wax layer need to be carefully removed first.

IMG_5248Giuseppe, as expected, made the most delicious bottarga pasta dish with spaghetti, olive oil, parsley and cherry tomatoes.  It paired nicely with a bottle of Louis Jadot Pouilly- Fuissé.   Bottarga has a deep salty ocean flavor with a nutty finish that is more delicate and refined than anchovies, and more mellow and rounded than caviar.

Giuseppe's fabulous bottarga pasta

Giuseppe's fabulous bottarga pasta

By the end of the evening, this white plate was completely clean.  The dish was so delicious, that we scraped up every last bit of roe possible with our fingers.  Bottarga has such a unique deep robust flavor that it is best enjoyed plain and simple without too many other interfering flavors.

Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills offers a similar bottarga pasta dish, though it was not as delicious as Giuseppe’s.  Italian bottarga also tends to be overdried and rock hard, whereas Asian bottarga is more moist and flavorful.

Enoteca Drago's bottarga dish

Enoteca Drago's bottarga dish

Last year I had the unique opportunity to get my hands on freshly cured bottarga/karasumi from the renowned Kyubei sushi restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo.  The sushi chef at Kyubei told me that they prepared the bottarga through a 10 step salt curing process over 10 days.  It’s a painstakingly long and laborious process to prepare these roe sacs, but it’s very well worth it.  Wow….this was the best bottarga I had ever tasted in my life.  It was extremely moist and soft, almost juicy, and I could really taste the true essence of the mullet roe.  Deep and briny but with a sweet kumquat-like lingering flavor that sent an intense aroma through the back of my palate up to my nose.

I brought this prized piece of heaven back to Los Angeles with me, and took it to the one person who I knew could do it justice.  Sushi chef Ken at Kiriko.  When he took a bite of the bottarga, he too cried out in joy and couldn’t stop shouting “ume~!!”, which means ‘OMG delicious!’ in Japanese.

He first prepared it in the traditional Japanese way: simply sliced and eaten straight up, and also sandwiched between thinly sliced daikon radish.  The fresh crispy bitter daikon complements the salty intense bottarga flavor very well.  I love bottarga so much, I prefer eating it straight.

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Next he grated the bottarga over fresh seared squid.  A wonderful collaboration of ocean flavors!  Again, this dish worked because the bottarga was paired with food that has a lot of texture without a strong overpowering flavor.

IMG_5047Finally, Ken made a simple and delicious bottarga pasta dish.  He grated the bottarga into a chilled tomato sauce with capellini pasta, and garnished it with shiso leaf ribbons.  This was an amazingly refreshing dish!  I loved the concept of having a chilled pasta with only the sweetness and acidity of fresh tomatoes to accentuate the bottarga flavor.  I don’t think the Kyubei sushi chefs who made this bottarga only a week before, ever imagined their bottarga being used like this.  So innovative yet simple and delicious!  I loved it.

IMG_5048 If you’ve never tried bottarga/karasumi, you MUST!  It will open your eyes and taste buds to a whole new world.  Thought caviar was good?  Well, honestly, I think bottarga has more flavor and depth.  Eat it straight, grate it into pasta, shave it onto buttered toast, mix it into mashed potatoes, or slice it over scrambled eggs.  However you eat it, you will not be disappointed.

Random trivia:  Chinmi (珍味)literally translates to  ‘rare taste’, though it means ‘delicacy’, in Japanese.  The 3 famous chinmi/delicacies of Japan (日本の三大珍味)are uni (sea urchin), karasumi (bottarga), and konowata (sea cucumber guts).  The 3 famous chinmi/delicacies of the world(世界の三大珍味)are said to be caviar, foie gras and truffles. Yum to all 6!!

Spring Tea Break

Cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms

Spring is in the air and I see vibrant colors of the rainbow all around me.  Vivid bright pinks to deep cobalt blues, fresh tropical greens to warm saffron oranges.  The earth is alive and the sun feels warm and cozy on my skin.

On one of those warm and sunny days, I spent a lazy afternoon with my childhood friend Emi.  We both received dessert care packages from Japan and we were excited to share these sweet delights.  We sat on her couch as we waited for the Lupicia muscat grape green tea to steep in the white teapot.  Meanwhile, her 2 black cats yawned and stretched their long limbs in a downward-facing-dog yoga pose before they curled up on the warmest spot on the couch where the sunlight filtered through the window.

Emi's cats

Emi's cats

We had baumkuchen and sakura mochi with our green tea.  Baumkuchen is a layered German cake that is known as the ‘King of Cakes’ because it is very labor intensive to make it.  It literally means ‘tree cake’ because of the many thin ring layers it has.  It must be baked layer by layer around a round spit, and some may have up to 25 layers.  The largest baumkuchens can be up to 3 feet long and weigh over 100 pounds! Baumkuchen may be covered with a sugar, chocolate, or jam glaze.  The one we had from Juchheim bakery had a white sugar glaze. There is also something called baumkuchenspitzen, which are the small pieces that drip off the spit which are then coated with chocolate. Just like donut holes, no part of a pastry must go to waste!

Baumkuchen and sakura mochi

Baumkuchen and sakura mochi

Emi provided the sakura mochi, which is a traditional Japanese confectionary.  It means ‘cherry blossom rice cake’, and it’s made with glutinous rice flour with a red bean paste filling.  It’s usually wrapped with salt cured cherry blossom leaves, though this one was not.  Sakura mochi is commonly eaten from March 3rd, which celebrates National Dolls Day, or Girls Day (Hinamatsuri) until the end of March.  It’s a very fitting dessert to enjoy on Girls Day because it’s pink.

Hinamatsuri dolls

Hinamatsuri dolls

Here are some other traditional Japanese treats that I had at my friend’s house for Hinamatsuri last month:

Hinamatsuri treats

Hinamatsuri treats

Japanese pastries are usually not too sweet.  The subdued sweetness complements the bitterness of green teas, and never overwhelms the taste buds. After Emi and I finished our sweets over a wonderful heart-to-heart conversation, we yawned, stretched our limbs and curled up on the couch next to the cats. Zzzzzzzzz……

Random trivia:  Most families take out their display of dolls around mid-February and put it away immediately after Hinamatsuri is over.  There is a superstition that says that families slow to put away the dolls will have trouble marrying off their daughters!