Eleven Biased Rules for Japanese Food

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Recently the Cute Gardener and I were hankering for a Japanese food fix. This normally happens to us when we’ve spent a few months eating heavy doses of Italian and American gastropub cuisine and need a break. It typically comes on strong at the beginning of summer when we start itching for an elegant, simple and pure meal. Over the course of the past few years, we’ve had enough Japanese for me to compile a little observation guide below, illustrated by a trip to Kiwami.

Japanese Food 101

1. Don’t get suckered in by the edamame bowl. It’s a common bag in the frozen food section at Trader Joe’s these days and just like chips at a Mexican restaurant or bread at an Italian one, it keeps your tongue from experiencing the finely attuned parade of beauty that is yet to come.  Or, alternately, don’t get suckered in by the blistered shishito peppers, which I am more prone to do because you will numb your taste buds completely.

2. Always order sashimi but look for the daily specials imported from Japan for your first picks. Then wheedle your way through the exotics. There’s nothing like a fresh piece of raw, unadorned fish to bring your palate back into check and kick off your meal. If you can see through your sashimi, it means the chef/owner is stingy. It also means I probably won’t be coming back.

IMG_63813. Uni is meant to be enjoyed in its glory, not at the bottom of an overly vinegar and lemon spiked shooter. That’s an utter bastardization.

IMG_63834. I know all the walnut shrimp lovers of the world are going to hate me for this one but shrimp and aioli simply do not mix. I used to think differently until I got food poisoning.

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5. Try to stick with raw as much as possible. The Japanese are the best at creating fresh little taste sensations from fish to pickled vegetables to utilizing the least amount of ingredients to present something that still comes across complex and sublime. Like kumquats and cherry tomatoes on whitefish with bright notes of cilantro.

IMG_63856. Look for items on the menu that you may have never seen at another restaurant. Oftentimes the mysterious dishes are ones signature to the chef or the region of food he/she is cooking from and therefore, like old standards in mom’s kitchen, become the surprising treats. Like the lobster and crab soba noodles we found here swimming in an earthy broth and a nice juxtaposition of tart pickles.

IMG_63897. No one does mushrooms quite like the Japanese so order them, copiously.

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8. Don’t trust cute little gimmicks in a spoon unless you’re going to spring for the Spoonful of Happiness at Koo in San Francisco. After that bite, nothing since has been able to compare for me.

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9. Eat your vegetables. The Japanese do them of so well and it gives you a chance to try out all those foreign, tantalizing things you are afraid to buy at the supermarket like kabocha squash and pickled radishes.

IMG_638710. Save your fried food consumption for the pub. As delicious as halibut cheeks, and anything else for that matter, are while being enveloped in dough and scorched in hot oil, it seems like a blasphemy amidst an environment of such culinary elegance and grace.

11. Never, ever order a roll. Why waste a good piece of raw fish by mucking it up with mayonnaise, tiny bits of sharp veggies, and then mashing it all together between rice when you can have all those separate elements in another dish more true to the clean Japanese aesthetic?

Matthew Kenney M.A.K.E.S My Belly Happy

IMG_6391A few nights ago my morbid propensity for dire documentaries on the state of American health led me to a movie called Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead. The film, about two men who lose over 90 pounds on a fruit and vegetable juice fast, sheds a lot of light on our nation’s eating habits that are completely skewed on the wrong side of the scale. According to new health findings based on ancient inherent knowledge (I know the irony of this constantly rubs my ire) our food pyramid should be stocked at the bottom with vegetables, followed by fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and legumes and then narrowly filled at the top with protein, dairy and fat. What this means is that we are eating far less vegetables in our lives and it shows in the multi-billion dollar healthcare system that we cannot seem to shake our dependence upon.

I know it’s harder for people to get their vegetables today then it is to get a hunk of meat. Our grocery stores are filled with GMO versions of tomatoes and pears that no longer taste good and we’ve long since lost the natural aptitude for growing our own food in our backyard. What is convenient to buy and eat is not really what’s the best for us. This is why I love discovering local farmers markets where fresh produce is plentiful and remain an avid fan of the raw food restaurant. What’s unfortunate about these places though, is that enough people haven’t jumped onto the bandwagon of appreciating the fact that lack of convenience and organic sustainable products and supporting the small, health-oriented business are things that we should strive for and instead, opt for their two minute dive into the market for a can of parboiled instant easy thus driving the costs to eat naturally up so high that most can’t consistently afford it.

Before walking home from an appointment in Santa Monica yesterday, I stopped to eat at M.A.K.E. – a restaurant owned by raw food guru Matthew Kenney. This is a man whose culinary school I have considered enrolling in based on the descriptions of food and the concepts of creation he believes in. There is a lot of arguing in the food community about raw food. Aficionados swear it’s the healthiest way to eat because the living enzymes are still in the food when it gets to your gut. Traditional Chinese herbalists argue that the food is too rough to digest and puts a lot of pressure on your system in flushing it through. I think, like anything, it should be a part of a balanced diet rather than a whole 24 hours worth of eating although I do admit, oddly enough, that there is nothing in this world that tastes better to me than raw food. I can’t explain it other than to say when I eat raw, I feel like a crystal blue virgin geyser in a remote and untouched part of the world has decided to flow like a wildfire through my entire system leaving me intoxicated and full of energy. It IS my favorite food in the world. It also explains why I love the simplicity of Japanese food over all other cuisines.

I resisted going to Matthew Kenney’s Santa Monica outpost for a while as it resides in a trendy mall food court. I resisted it like I resisted Café Gratitude, the raw food franchise, when it came to town based on my fear that like Gratitude, it would be full of over sauced, over seasoned, overly sweet eats. I much prefer my small, locally owned Euphoria Loves Rawvolution where you feel like every meal is thought out considerably before it reaches your plate. But I was completely bowled over by how creative, out of the ordinary and utterly delicious the food was.

IMG_6392For $25 you can order a prix fixe lunch with choice of a starter and a main. Yes, pricey, but entirely worth it once in a while. Although it was almost impossible to choose from selections that included tree nut cheese plates, summer squash with saffron yogurt, kimchi dumplings, and mushroom pate, I ordered the sous vide Portobello salad. Succulent strips of pickled and meaty Portobello came atop a luscious red wine-dressed salad adorned with half an avocado, cherry tomatoes, coconut bacon, and sprout greens. Small oil cured black olives added pungent little sparks between bites of the lettuce.

My entrée was a bowl of black pepper kelp noodles and in my glee I forgot to take a photo.  Which is unfortunate, because I wanted to make a point about my large bowl of kelp noodles dressed with silky cashew cream and how the whole of it was only about two hundred calories compared to its fresh pasta sibling that would have clocked in at nearly 500. What’s so beautiful about kelp noodles is that they are vitamins from the sea but what was perfect about this particular dish was that it was an identical stand in to a traditional Cacio e Pepe. I swear, I could have been eating the pasta, butter and pepper dish without all the fat and calories – I couldn’t tell the difference. Chanterelle, snap peas, olive crumbs and pea vines brightened it.

I washed everything down with a glass of sweet green juice made from green apple, kale, cucumber, celery, lemon and lime hankering for my own home juicer. I’ve also made a commitment to myself that when I am done with my herbalist school, it’s an absolute must that I go to Kenney’s culinary school and learn the art of raw food. Why spend all the money eating it out when I could so easily learn to cook it at home and for others?

Contemplating Soul with Earl Grey

IMG_6353Sometimes it takes a gradual revisiting of complex concepts to understand the most obvious things in life and oftentimes, the revisiting in itself creates the momentum of familiarity that causes you to finally have an “aha” moment about something which may have escaped you on all prior visits. Or maybe, we just come to understand things in finality when the timing is right and we are finally ready to receive the information. This has been my course of discovering and understanding the shape-shifting, life-impacting operations of the soul.

According to Deepak Chopra in his book The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire, “A soul is the observer who interprets and makes choices based on karma, it is also a confluence of relationships, out of which emerge contexts and meaning that creates experience.”

What this means is that any given moment our soul is operating from a conglomeration of things: our past actions both energetically and physically, our current intentions, our moment to moment interactions and what we decide to fill them with, our hopes, dreams and desires, and anything else that is stuck in the amoebic soup of our lives. Once conscious of this, we become aware of the importance of what we fill it with and become armed with the knowledge that we can indeed create our lives going forward with a directed content towards what we really want. It requires an accountability once we know this, that we are indeed the products of ourselves and that we can blame no other thing, event or person for the course our life takes. Every thought, word and deed going forward then becomes something to choose with sacred discernment and an astute awareness of the present. The more we begin to act out our lives from the crux point of every forward moment, the more we are able to listen to that quiet voice inside of us and turn off the endless chatter that worries about yesterday, tomorrow, outcome or guarantee and we may succumb to the flow. We become a part of the primordial fluid of our own existence and steer it like the captain of a well-oiled boat.

This creates a beautiful microscopic field around all of our decisions. Our choices become crystal-clear gems made with utmost care and we become accustomed to joy, pleasure and fulfillment because we understand we are the carvers of our own experience. In the beginning, we may spend a lot of time clearing out old muck by setting straight any errant paths we may be on due to old traumas, negativity, misguided words or conflicts in relationships, but once we clear out those things, we become a blank slate of pure potentiality.

This trickles down to everything we do, say, consume, participate in and surround ourselves with. When it comes to food, it means being aware of what your body wants to eat, hungers for and why, what it naturally needs as fuel, and what comforts you most in times of emotional highs and lows. It’s not about extreme dieting or gluttonous overeating; nor is it about numbly self-medicating with sugar or becoming blindly addicted to butter and fat. It’s about knowing what’s in your food, being conscious of what you ingest and how it makes you feel, tweaking your intake to represent a balance of what you need for nutrition and what you need that fortifies your pleasure zones and about fine tuning what moderation means to you. It’s about creating your consumption patterns based on the things you learn along the way by listening to your body tell you what it enjoys and what makes it sick. We have all the information inside of us like a quivering gauge if only we would learn to dial closely into our own souls.

Every morning when I wake, the first thing I do is put on the water for tea. When I am feeling optimistic about a productive day ahead, I tend to reach for a citrusy vanilla rooibos. When I am feeling the effects of a rich-food weekend overload, I reach for a stark yerba mate or a rice or genmaicha blend deep with branches and twig essence. When I am feeling the need to alert my mind and body and shake it up a bit, I opt for gingko biloba varieties spiked with mint or ginger. When I am feeling the lull of a lazy Sunday I enter the day slowly with a potent chamomile. But for most all of the other days, when I wake up with a smile on my face and the willingness to slowly flow into the great unknown absent of a to do list but just the desire to see where the day might take me, I choose my favorite comfort brew of husky Earl Grey – which like a favorite pair of flannel pajamas and winter boots, never fails to lift my spirits just right.

IMG_6354Of late, I have gotten used to the idea of special little sandwiches to accompany my tea – also changing per the mood of my soul and a treasure hunt through the refrigerator to see which version might call to me on any given morning. Recently, my favorite creation is a slice of toasted 7 grain bread, halved and then sprinkled on one side with quality, crumbled blue cheese, a dollop of Armenian rose butter and studded with tiny, earthy filberts. Sipping my tea and taking my rich, indulgent little bites becomes a morning meditation—a self-created pocket of space from which I may ponder ideas as large as the soul.

Irish Lass Butternut-Matcha Muffins

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I am a firm believer that food can heal. Not only through the use of ancient Chinese and Indian herbal lore but also in the choices of specific ingredients cooked with love for people with particular ails –both physically and energetically. In my healing practice, when I have a special client who I have both known for a while and worked on consistently, I enjoy making foods that come from a spark of intuitive inspiration for them as a special addendum to a fruitful session. This is why I spent an hour on Sunday afternoon whipping up a forest green-topped cupcake muffin for an Irish lass I know who will be returning from a journey to her home country today and ready for a refill of spiritual and emotional substance.

This is no ordinary cupcake muffin. The bottom half, in homage to the feisty Irish blood that colors the hair in hues of red and scatters freckles across the flesh is blended from spices and butternut squash. The top half, in homage to the landscape of the banshees, is a deep smoky green concoction made from white chocolate and matcha.

Matcha refers to a fine powder Japanese green tea which doubles as a heavy duty cancer-fighting and fat-burning antioxidant. Because you are ingesting the entire pulverized leaf rather than a decoction from the leaf like with traditional teas, you are getting at least five times the benefits at once. Not only do I love it as a tea sweetened with almond milk and honey, but I love adding it to foods that are creamy and sweet like frostings, yogurt, cheesecakes and melted chocolate.

Most of the following recipe was provided by Matcha Source but I made tiny adjustments here and there. The idea of adding a cup of cream for the frosting in a recipe I was creating for healing purposes seemed skewed so I shifted it to becoming a simple chocolate topping rather than the traditional light and fluffy dollop and it worked beautifully and made the cupcake taste like a dense and perfect breakfast-worthy muffin. For dessert or a bright eyed morning starter, this is an equally good match.

IMG_6334BUTTERNUT MATCHA CUPCAKE MUFFINS

1 1/4 cup whole grain flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup organic, maple syrup
1/2 cup melted clarified butter
1 cup butternut squash puree (Bake a small split squash at 400 degrees for 30-40 minutes and then scrape out and smash into puree.)

Preheat oven to 350˚. Put cupcake papers into a muffin tin. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and sea salt. In a separate, smaller bowl, mix the eggs, maple syrup, clarified butter and squash purée. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, mixing until just blended.

Spoon the batter into the paper cups, dividing evenly, and bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool on counter.

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MATCHA GANACHE

5.5 oz. white chocolate, finely chopped
1 large, rounded teaspoon Matcha powder

Melt the white chocolate over low heat, stirring continually. Add the matcha and blend well. Spread over the tops of cooled cupcakes.

 

 

A Fava Bean Stretches My Hummus Horizons

IMG_6241I am used to eating hummus the traditional American girl way. I either buy a tub floating with pine nuts and olive oil at Trader Joe’s for big parties as a dip for crunchy pita crackers or I adventure out to my favorite Armenian market for their ultra dense version of the chickpea paste when creating lavish middle eastern finger food spreads for college football weekends parked near the coffee table. Hummus has always been a condiment for me. That is until I was sent an email by a gentlemen named Hattem Nigma about his company Fava offering curious varieties of hummus made out of fava beans instead of the customary garbanzo* bean.

Having grown up in Egypt, Nigma’s favorite food was the fava bean and after immigrating to the United States he missed his mother’s traditional dishes. He created his own brand of hummus. After sharing his recipes with customers of a friend’s teashop, his assortment of Fava hummus became so in demand that he started his own company.

I love fava beans because they are rich in L-Dopa, a precursor to the neurotransmitter Dopamine that promotes good mood, memory and stamina. I anticipate their yearly return to the Cute Gardener’s yard when I am able to shuck and sauté them weekly as an addition to pastas, simply plain cooked in olive oil and salt. I never imagined the idea of turning them into hummus until I gave a bushel to my friend Leslie and she told me that she had successfully done a twist on the hearty dressing. So when Nigma asked me to review his product, I gladly jumped at the chance.

IMG_6253Six tubs arrived promptly in the mail and I learned that not only were the products all natural but also GMO free, gluten free, dairy free, vegan, soy free and heart healthy. As I surveyed the different types I noticed that the ingredient lists for each centered around extra virgin olive oil, fava beans, tahini, lemon juice, sea salt and only one or two other additions depending on their flavor such as spices, olives or peppers. The CG (who is not a heavy spice or heat person) and I (who am a solid seven-eight at Indian restaurants) spent some time on the weekend dipping crackers into all the brands to test our favorites. He liked the kalamata olive version because it tasted heavily of olive as well as the roasted garlic version, which was bright and lemony. I preferred the classic tahini for dipping but the spicy Calabrese and the roasted red pepper versions for cooking. The fire-roasted eggplant was a smoky twist on baba ganoush but was probably our least favorite. Overall I was impressed with the freshest and purity of the ingredients and the lack of preservatives.

IMG_6243I was happy to find a recipe card that portrayed various ways hummus can be incorporated into mealtime. This is where the fun began. I set off experimenting. The first night I made a one-pan sauté of garlic, olive oil and about four cups of freshly chopped kale. Once the greens were wilted, I threw 8 ounces (one tub) of the red pepper Fava hummus in and mixed it all around. Although the directions called for spinach and suggested serving the greens over rice, I ate the whole thing plain like I would a side of greens. It was delicious. The red pepper hummus was spicy and accentuated the dark heartiness of the kale, standing up to it with an earthy and rich base tone. I never would have thought to throw hummus in with greens but the bean-y texture and smooth mellow taste of the fava opposed to the normal thick, tangy taste of the chickpea made it a perfect marriage to both pump up and diversify the typical prepared green. In thinking of hummus as a sauce now, the possibilities seemed endless and future dinners suddenly loomed quick and easy.

I eat huge amounts of greens per week and grew very excited when realizing I could switch up tubs of flavored Fava hummus to shake up the monotony. There’s something about the comforting richness of the Fava hummus that contradicts even the most bitter chard leaf and turns it into a melt in your mouth dose of vitamineral scrumptiousness as I found out with my own recipe below.

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SWISS CHARD AND FAVA BEAN HUMMUS RICE BOWL
Makes two bowls

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small white onion, diced
1 small red chili pepper, deseeded and minced
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
9 big leaves of swiss chard
Salt
Pepper
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 cups cooked basmati rice
8 oz. Spicy Calabrese Fava hummus

In a large skillet, sauté the onion and red chili pepper and mustard seeds in olive oil for about 3 minutes until softened and seeds start to pop. Add the greens, season with salt and pepper, and wilt until tender for about six minutes. Stir in the vinegar and the hummus and blend evenly. Spoon half of the mixture over one cup of rice in a bowl and the same in another bowl. Serve!

The last remaining smears of Fava hummus left after my week of experimenting will serve as daily dollops on eggs –another amazing combination for the almighty fava spread or perhaps as an addition to a cold summer pasta salad.

*I don’t know why I am privy to overhearing so many arguments in various grocery store lines about the difference between chickpeas and garbanzo beans, but let me just settle the score here – they are the SAME thing.

Fig Foraging Fool

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At forty I have become a foraging fool.  I have my reasons.

For one, I try to buy as little as possible from the grocery store. Whereas most people make a grocery list and then go supplement that list by things they find on the shelves; I tend to wait to see what produce the Cute Gardener might give me from his garden in any given week as well as the bounty I might find naturally out in the open before deciding upon what else to spend my money. The CG has been a huge inspiration to me as I have watched him eat seasonally from his garden. Not only does he maintain a healthy body from working the land so to speak, but also, he eats what is fresh, ripe, nutrient rich and literally dirt to table so that there are no chemicals from preservatives or plastic packaging getting into the dinner mix. I am a fan of getting off of the large, consumerist American food products teat; the one that has us constantly buying things that we could probably find better versions of if we looked around the great outdoors or learned to cultivate on our own.

Secondly, in my herbal studies, I have found that we benefit energetically when we eat things that are grown or developed in the same geographic regions that we dwell. If we are all connected energetically (our bodies being the only pseudo-boundaries that make us actually think we are egotistically non-connected to each other and all things), then it makes sense that we would eat the dandelion greens that grow up through the cracks in our backyard sidewalks rather than send for a package of them from another country. Two like energetic things from the same place have less of a problem integrating with each other’s systems thus allowing for better digestion machinations all around. This applies to farm raised cattle just as much as the raspberry clinging to the vine in your public park.

IMG_0316Lastly, it’s super fun to forage; kind of like a treasure hunt. One of my heroes is a Swedish chef named Magnus Nillson who created a restaurant in his town where he serves only a few people a night with things he finds out in the landscape he calls home. Reindeer lichen, trout roe, scallops and juniper berries delight his guests who travel to eat his magnificent creations. I have begged the CG to pull over in Visalia, California so I could pilfer some fallen oranges from the freshly stripped corporate groves abandoned by the pickers. I have enjoyed a plump and juicy orange from the state capitol lawn fallen and cracked open seemingly just for me. I have scoured the beach neighborhoods of my town for loquats and pineapple guava to make jars of jam for all my girlfriends. I have swiped bizarre jelly fruits that taste half of banana and half of apricot off the towering palm tree on the corner in front of a Burbank Bob’s Big Boy. And just last week I traversed the parks near my home to bag up just fallen figs from the ancient and sprawling trees which are currently producing so much that I am sure the homeless who dwell on the grass are enjoying three meals a day.

IMG_6246Fig Jam

11 figs with stems removed
1/2 cup organic sugar
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Combine figs, sugar, water, and lemon juice in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the liquid has thickened slightly and has turned a rosy, golden shade, about 6-8 minutes. Turn off the heat. Mush with a fork to desired texture. Keeps in a mason jar in the fridge for about a week.

Foraged Fig and Blue Cheese Sandwich

2 tablespoons fig jam
1/2 oz. of high quality blue cheese, crumbled
1 slice Mestemacher whole grain rye bread

Toast the bread and cut in half. Spread with the fig jam, the crumbled blue cheese and enjoy!