Wednesday, September 30, 2015

An attempt at imitation: the O Chame' Pancake

Green Onion, Corn and Hijiki Seaweed Pancake
Sometimes you just get a craving.  I've been spending so much time at home lately, every day it seems a new dish pops into the "must eat now" part of my brain.  That happened the other day - a cold and dreary one - my car practically drove itself up to Hana Japanese in Rohnert Park for their amazing Tonkotsu Ramen.  If you haven't been, please make it a destination.  They only serve the Ramen at lunch - and it is ridiculously delicious - sticky rich pork broth, wakame and nori seaweeds,
spinach, bamboo shoots, one of those perfectly cooked eggs, and of course, succulent kurobuta pork belly.  The funny thing is they don't even specialize in Ramen, but are known for their amazingly fresh sushi and sashimi.  Hana is truly my favorite Japanese restaurant north of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Did I mention to make a special trip?   Don't be put off by the fact they are in a strip mall behind a Mary's Pizza Shack and next to a variety of non-descript real estate and investment offices.  They just expanded, pretty much doubling in size, adding a beautiful sake bar, lounge and private dining room.  Did I mention you should go to Hana?
Notice the fat globules floating on the broth?    Some of you think I'm crazy, but eating fat is underrated.  What do you think every cell wall in your body is made up of?  Two layers of lipids.  That lipid "bi-layer" as they call it, monitors and controls all the molecules going in and out of our cells. That lipid bilayer needs to be on its game in order to keep the bad stuff out, and let the good stuff in.  So,  don't be afraid of some honest to goodness high quality lipids!

Okay, so onto the real reason for this post.  Apparently my trip to Hana inspired a little Japanese-esque tangent and I began dreaming about my other all time favorite Japanese Restaurant:  O Chame'.  O Chame' (formerly in Berkeley) closed about a year or two ago, much to everyone's sad surprise, and right after Chef David Vardy received yet another gold star by SF Chronicle's food critic Michael Bauer by making the Bay Area Top 100 Restaurants for perhaps the 10th year in a row (or possibly more!).  O Chame' was open for over 20 years though, so I'm sure David needed a break and why not exit at the top of one's game?

Anyway, of the many, many delicious items on the menu, especially memorable were the appetizers.  Remember the Grilled Eel on Belgian Endive?  Or, the Sashimi Salad with just the perfect amount of dressing.  How about the Blanched Spinach with Sesame Dressing, the Cucumbers with Wakame, the Seared Tuna on wilted leeks with a drizzle of horseradish studded mayo?  Oh no, I feel another craving coming on...
There was one appetizer though, one that kept every kid (and parent) within 10 miles of O Chame' coming back for more:  The White Corn and Green Onion Pancake.  With it's piquant dipping sauce (an elegant mixture of mayonnaise, soy, vinegar and mirin) and light crunch,  there was practically no table in the place that didn't order one.  Rumor is that David's wife, Hiromi, whipped up one of these at home late one night (or early one day?) - tossing in this and that from the refrigerator.  The most memorable dishes often come about in interesting ways...
David changed up the pancake seasonally, doing one with pumpkin in the fall and winter, portobella mushrooms in the spring, and corn in the summer.  Way back at the beginning, the original pancake on the menu was white shrimp and green onion (can still taste it...).  Sometimes we would talk the kitchen into making one with crab (oh, I guess that was just for us employees - did I mention I worked there?).
Anyway, a few times a year i decide I need some of David's food, so I channel the O Chame' kitchen - thinking of Yuji-san, Juan, Saul(not jewish Saul, but Sa-UL - he is from Oaxaca) and even Raju (blast from the past).  Yesterday, I definitely channeled Saul as I remember him lifting the pancake edges from the griddle, adding a little more oil, giving it a little spin...  When it wasn't busy in the front of the house, I spent a fair amount of time with my head stuck through that little window near the bar, watching, asking questions, tasting things.
I digress.  So yesterday the pancake popped into my head.  Had to have it.  The ingredients are pretty simple - David always said it was just flour and beer as the base.  We know there is more to it than that, so I decided to google "savory pancake."  I found an article written by Amanda Gold of the SF Chronicle with a recipe by Stuart Brioza (  Incidentally, before Stuart and his amazing wife, Nicole, opened their very popular State Bird Provisions in the City, I actually had the pleasure of working a few parties with them as their server.  Top notch people I tell you.  And Nicole made the most amazing home-made crackers I have ever tasted.
Okay, back to the pancake.  I sort of used Stuart's recipe as my guide, but altered a few things.  I may not have hit David's recipe on the head, as he used Guisto's Vita Grain Flour (which I didn't have at home) - all flours aren't created equal and I imagine the Vita Grain flour probably has a higher protein content (i.e. less gluten) and therefore made for a less glutenous end product.  However, what I did come up with was pretty good, so good that I had to make it again the next day.  Plus my friend Linda sort of mildly double dared me to post my results (it didn't take much nudging) - which meant I really had to make it again to give you the proper measurements and proportions.  Here it is:

Pancake Batter Base:
1.5 cup  AP Flour
1.5 tsp Baking Powder
1.5 tsp Kosher Salt
1.5 cup beer - lager, non-hoppy, light beer
1 cup water
1 egg

Additions to batter (per pancake)
3-4 Tbsp raw white corn
1 heaping Tbsp chopped green onion
1 Tbsp chopped hijiki seaweed (optional)

4 Tbsp Mayonnaise (Best Foods)
1 Tbsp Rice Vinegar
2 tsp Tamari (or low sodium soy sauce)
1 Tbsp Mirin (sweet cooking sake)
1/2 tsp ground ginger (optional)
a sprinkle of shichimi togarashi to garnish

Make sauce by combining all ingredients and whisking together well.  Store in refrigerator until ready to use -  shichimi togarashi is a japanese pepper mix commonly served with soba and udon noodles to spice up the broth.  It is the mix you see on the table that has the random hemp seed in it.

Prepare additions to batter so they are ready when the batter is ready to go.  The hijiki seaweed isn't 100% necessary - as the end product will be just fine without it - but you  may have to go to the asian market anyway, so you may as well pick some up - it comes dried, so lasts a long time well sealed in a dark cupboard.

For the batter, in a medium sized mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt.  Mix together well.

In a separate bowl combine water, beer and egg.  Whisk together.  Pour into dry ingredients and lightly whisk together.  Don't overmix - a few lumps are okay.  The batter should be the consistency of regular pancake batter - not too thick.

In a small mixing bowl, combine about 1/2 - 3/4 cup of batter with enough ingredients for one pancake (below)

Gently combine these ingredients
Heat a cast iron skillet or a griddle on medium heat until oil almost smokes.  I use olive oil but feel free to use peanut oil or even canola oil.

Pour batter as one would a pancake, immediately spreading ingredients with a spatula so the middle isn't too thick.

Lift edges and add a little oil, the pan should be hot enough that the oil sort of "slides around" instead of just pooling.
Spin the pancake around a bit to make sure nothing is sticking.  Turn over when first side is golden brown (about 4 or 5 minutes).  Add a little more oil underneath and cook another 4 or 5 minutes until the second side is golden brown.

Slice into squares and serve along side the dipping sauce.

This version turned out a little more like the chinese version of the scallion pancake, a little more glutenous than I would have liked, and it picked up more of the oil than I remember. I believe the key really is the flour.  Nonetheless, it was super delicious!   I sprinkled a little shichimi on my sauce (not how we served it to the customers by the way) and was instantly transported to many sweet times and memories.  Funny how good food can do that!  Please try this recipe and give me feedback.  Mess with flour and liquid proportions.  Add some shrimp!   Enjoy!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Comfort Food for new parents

Golden yet not browned is the ideal way your meatballs should look.
When my friend, Erin, mentioned she was going over to her close friends' house to see their new baby, I instantly had a reason to cook!  What better gift for parents of a newborn than a home cooked meal?  Besides sleep deprivation and body readjustments, what mother (or father) would want to spend precious moments away from gazing at their new little addition to whip up  dinner?  Not to mention, it's J & K's 2nd child, and their other baby bird needs to eat!  Take-out can be good and quick and delivered.  But nothing replaces something homey from a friend's kitchen.

Because it was still 90 degrees and I felt the need to have the oven on (!), I chose to make Spaghetti and Meatballs.  There is something about meatballs that simply makes me happy.  Maybe it's just that: they're simple.  Not much needs to be done to take average ground beef (and pork or lamb) and elevate it to delicious, savory, tender juicy morsels.  In fact, I order them every time I see them when I'm out.  Sometimes though,  they are tough and dry - and that makes me wonder about the person behind that proverbial kitchen door.  There's a trick to a nice, tender, meatball:  breadcrumbs.   More than just breadcrumbs, you have to soak them in milk (or any unsweetened milk substitute). Combined with just the right proportion herbs, spices, meat of course, and some heartfelt kneading, and you will have yourself the perfect scrumptious few seconds of happiness (because that's all it takes to wolf one or two down).  A thing about breadcrumbs:  use anything for breadcrumbs.  I recently used old stale brioche buns, left out in paper bag until hockey puck hard, then threw them into the food processor until pulverized.  I keep these in an airtight container or ziplock in the freezer.

The other thing about meatballs that I like:  They are surprisingly versatile and can be adapted to a variety of cooking cultures.  Think Japanese:   Ground chicken with panko breadcrumbs, hijiki seaweed, green onions and a little shoyu floating in a nice dashi broth with a dot of sesame oil; or Middle Eastern with sumac, cardomom, cumin, and smoky paprika - serve that with some yogurt marinated cucumbers and...  Since the texture is pretty much worked out, you can try a variety of spice mixes and not go wrong.  Use your instincts.

So here's a "recipe" for Italian style meatballs.  I like to use good Italian sausage from my local grocer and mix it half and half with ground beef.  Even better if it is spicy sausage to give that extra kick (depending on who's eating of course).  The proportion of breadcrumbs is usually about 1/3 breadcrumbs, 2/3 meat.  I have used up to half breadcrumbs at times to stretch the meat.   Place breadcrumbs in a bowl and stir in enough milk to make them pretty wet.  In a few minutes, they will soak up the milk and the mixture should be like a thick paste. (see photo)

Preheat the oven to 350 F (can be a little cooler at 325 but not hotter than 350)
Combine the meat and breadcrumbs in the following proportions:   2/3 meat to 1/3 (wet) breadcrumbs.  For this recipe, I used 1/2 pound each of ground beef and italian sausage.Add the well-minced fresh and dried herbs, spices and salt.
I usually have oregano, thyme and rosemary growing in my yard most of the year.  Because dried herbs are stronger than fresh, I add them as well to beef up the flavor profile.  I also add nutmeg to mine, as I got this idea from a chef friend, and like the way it gives the meat a solid undercurrent of flavor.
Once the ingredients are well mixed (did I mention the best way to do this is with your hands?),  you will want to sample the spice mixture to adjust salt, heat and herbal levels to your liking.  I do this by heating a small skillet on medium and flattening a small piece of the mixture (to expedite the cooking process) - quarter size or so - cook well on both sides - taste that bad boy and make adjustments.  You want the flavor to be bold so that they hold their own in tomato sauce, alongside pesto, or just by themselves (my favorite way) I make extra because at least 4 or 5 make it into my mouth without making their way into the dish I'm actually cooking!

Once they are seasoned and ready to be cooked, line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Pinch off a golf ball portion of meat mixture.  Roll between your hands into a ball (not rocket science here as I'm sure you played with clay at some point in your life).  Don't worry about your hands getting sticky and greasy.  Warm water and soap will take care of that after you are done.

Place into preheated oven for 18-20 minutes until cooked through but not necessarily browned or crispy (this is yet another chance to sample to make sure they are done).  The center should be void of pink (especially if you are using pork sausage). (see photo at top of page)

Add your favorite pasta sauce (I actually just spruced up a jar of Whole Foods Marinara sauce with a few extra herbs and a pinch of sugar), some shredded parmesan cheese and you are set!
For an easy to go container, I lined a small box with plastic and then foil so I wouldn't have any serving dishes to retrieve.

Monday, September 21, 2015

In the Heat of the Moment - Slow Braised Short Ribs

Crock Pot Braised Short Ribs with Chive and Yogurt Studded Baked Potato

I've been staying home a lot lately, hitting the reset button on my seemingly ongoing midlife crisis and feeding the need to be grounded and secure.  For me, there's no better way to do that then to spend some serious time in the kitchen.  Yesterday, with temperatures reaching beyond 90 degrees, I had the hankering for short ribs!  Yes, slow-braised, cook all-day, are they done yet? short ribs.  Usually a fall or winter item,  I was determined for that fall-off-the-bone-stick-to-your-ribs goodness despite the weather, and took it as a sign when my friend snapped up a barely used $3, 3-quart Crock Pot at our local thrift shop that very morning.  She had no idea my plans of using mine that day and that my next stop would be Whole Foods for some grass fed local beef, carrots, onions and stock (unemployment aside, factory farmed isn't an option).  Short rib recipes nearly always call for a slow braise, covered with foil in the oven for 4 hours sort of treatment.  For the past several years I've been making them in the crock pot/slow cooker - great for leaving all day to come home to a delicious smelling house and a dinner ready to go - not to mention in this heat it's probably not the best idea to have my oven on!
3 Quart Old-School Version

Easy to prepare and hard to wait for (stew meat is supposed to stew for Chrissake!) - here's a recipe for that rainy Sunday watching Netflix (or, as the case may be, hot as hell Saturday).  Better yet, try this mid-week before you leave for work and you will save yourself from a day of salivating and wondering "are they done yet?"  Feel free to experiment with different broths, wine, some brandy, more wine, less broth.  Anything braised for 5-8 hours is going to turn out tender and savory...

A note about the crock pot high and low settings for this recipe:  If you plan to stick around and want your ribs to be done in 5 or so hours, start your cooker out on high - about an hour in,  the mixture will begin to simmer, then turn down to low.  If you are leaving for the day, simply set the temperature to low and go on your merry way.   New crock pots come with instructions and a recipe book - neither of which I have - so feel free to just wing it like I always do!

Crock Pot Braised Short Ribs 
(feeds 3-4)
(this recipe is designed for the smaller, 3 Quart, crockpot)

6 - 8 Beef Short Ribs
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 - 4 medium carrots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 stalks celery (optional), chopped
1 T each dried thyme, oregano, rosemary, dried onion, dried garlic - amended with some fresh herbs if you have them
1 Bay leaf
1 T salt
1 t black pepper
4 T all purpose flour
1 quart vegetable, chicken or beef broth
1 cup red wine (if it's been sitting around that's okay), brandy, more broth, water...
Olive Oil for browning

It's always best to leave meat out at room temp for a half an hour or so before beginning to cook.  Liberally salt and pepper all sides of meat and dust with a nice coating of flour.  Add about a tablespoon of oil to skillet and heat to medium.
 Brown shortribs on all sides until they have a nice  golden crust.  Remove from pan and place into crock pot.
most everything you'll need

Add herbs to hot pan and saute for about 30 seconds.  Add onions and carrots for about 3-4 minutes.  Add broth to vegetable and herb mixture to help loosen all of the browned bits.  At this point you can taste the broth and adjust the salt level (I usually don't add additional pepper until serving time, as black pepper tends to get bitter with long cooking).   The broth should be slightly on the salty side.  Pour mixture into crock pot over the short ribs and turn it to high or low (depending on your schedule).  Add wine and/or other liquid to cover.
ready to braise, for hours and hours...
 Place lid on and wait... and wait.... and wait...  it's good to have some ridiculous binge watching scheduled so you don't notice how long you are waiting, and waiting...  Can you tell I'm a bit impatient???  Just to reiterate, if you place it on high you have to stick around so you can turn it down to low when it starts to simmer (i.e. don't go out shopping, go to your kids' soccer game or take a prolonged nap).  If you start high and turn to low, the ribs will be done in about 5 hours (this is a slow cooker, remember).  If you start low and stay low, give yourself about 6-7 hours.  If you have a larger, 7 quart, crockpot, feel free to double everything and then have lots of delicious leftovers for freezing, making hash, chopping into stew or beef pot pie, mincing into ravioli filling...

To serve, fish rib meat out of liquid and place on bed of mashed potatoes, egg noodles, rice or whatever makes you happy- the meat  will have fallen off bone by now.
bubbling cauldron of goodness
  Spoon out some carrots and gravy.  Give it a healthy dose of fresh cracked pepper and dive in.  By the way,  toss one of those rib bones to the dog that has been wimpering at your feet for hours (my sister's dog was doing this and we had no idea what the problem was until we realized the smell of meat was absolutely driving the poor pup crazy!)

A traditional topping for short ribs is  Gremolata -  an Italian inspired aromatic citrus and herbaceous mixture commonly called for to brighten the flavor of all cuts of braised meat.   Easy to make, it is simply a mixture of minced lemon zest, parsley and garlic sprinkled over the top.  I personally like to lighten up on the garlic and add in salt and fresh grated horseradish.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Lunch the next day - Curry Chicken Salad

Getting creative with leftovers sometimes can feel a bit droll and daunting.  And having them for lunch the next day is often a repeat that comes way too fast.  Especially if you're single and cooking for one, having lasagne for the fifth meal in a row becomes just not do-able.  Recently I've been working a regular job- yes, the quintessential 9-5 American grind.  Going to the local gourmet market for a $10 salad bar or a quart of soup, or the local take-out restaurant easily turns into a $15 daily adventure. Those who know me and have read my past (okay, maybe way past...) blog entries, you'll know that I've never balked at dropping $20 for lunch, or even $30; and for dinner, well,  read my prior blog entries...  

As I've gotten older, I've suddenly gotten a bit more conservative with my money, and unfortunately seem to  have less of it rolling in (not something I had imagined happening by the way).   Add retirement savings looming over my head, and that $10-15 for lunch, not to mention $3-5 morning coffee just isn't acceptable. Spending $100 per week just to get me back home safely every night - throw in a kombucha and a bottled water and, well, you see where this is heading.  It seems a lot of what one would deem "disposable income"  or better yet, put into that IRA, has become locked up in just getting me through my work week.  Perhaps I'm late to the game, having worked in restaurants most of my life and getting free and discounted and made by mistake food.  But now that I'm having to feed myself out of a very tightly squeezed wallet 3 meals a day, I'm not willing to let the cash flow out that easily.  Some of you are probably rolling your eyes by now, "welcome to corporate America," - I suppose I'm a late bloomer.

Okay, back to my story about leftovers (and you thought I wouldn't be long-winded???)

We've all done the big beginning of the week shop, and for most of us, that shop would include one of those pre-roasted, ready to eat chickens.  It is probably the best deal one can get.  Even at Whole Foods one can buy a whole, organic free range chicken, fully roasted, for $14.99.  Not organic, and it is $9.99.  Get it at Costco, and it is $5.99.  Seriously  - try buying an organic, free range raw chicken and you are looking at $25 minimum.  Not to mention the 1.5 hours of roasting time and you are ready for bed before it's done.  Okay, I know, roasting a chicken at home your way: beer can style, or german ceramic roasting pan style, or some special barbeque technique;  nothing surpasses that.  But, having an already cooked $15 chicken piping hot off the spit from Whole Foods is nothing to sneeze at.  (what?  sneeze at???)

God, get to the recipe already you ask!  Okay, so yes, I'll scarf that leg right away while unloading groceries (or maybe even in the car!),  but then I stick it in the fridge when I get home and feel like eating something else that night.

By the time I'm sick of roasted chicken for dinner, over half of it is left.  Here's one way to breathe some life into the second half of that poor neglected little bird.  Feel free to add other ingredients to make it more crunchy

Curry Chicken Salad (serves 2-4 depending on who's eating)

1/2 leftover chicken, taken off bone and cut into bite-sized cubes (keep that carcass for stock!)
1 green onion, chopped from white to top
2 small apples chopped into bite sized pieces -  I prefer Fuji's or Braeburns but anything will work
2-3 T chopped cilantro
1/4 cup Mayonnaise - more or less depending on how dry you want it (Best Foods is my preference)
1/2 t salt to taste
2-4 T curry powder to taste (depending on the brand)

optional additions:  chopped seedless grapes, raisins, red onion (instead of green), finely chopped cabbage, fried wonton noodles  (add right before eating), celery etc.

Combine chicken, green onion, cilantro and apples (I keep the skin on everything because I like to do things fast and I don't mind chicken or apple skin).

Add mayonnaise, salt and curry powder.  Depending on what you use, more or less curry powder will be needed.  The S & B brand I use is mild and I may add up to 4 Tablespoons at times.

Combine well, taste and adjust curry and salt if needed.   Bring to work in a separate container and sandwich it between romaine leaves and your favorite bread.  Or, leave the bread off for a delicious low carb option.