Saturday, October 17, 2015

Ramen Gaijin - Sebastopolian happiness

Last night my close friend E and I had the opportunity to have a quick dinner sans entire family (her entire family that is) which is a rarity.  We had been gardening at her place all day, were famished, and welcomed the chance to go out without sibling rivalry between her 8 and 4 year old boys taking over the entire experience.  Why is one kid easy and the two together a total disciplinary nightmare?  BOYS!  Anyway, she mentioned the newish ramen place downtown, which I had forgotten after having had a disasterous date there with my ex.   What better way to exorcise a bad memory but to create a good one in its place?!   Plus, we were bringing the 4 year old, and noodles always seem to be popular with the kiddos.
Disclaminer:  This blogpost will not contain any original photos of food.  Sometimes I just don't feel like snapping photos at every meal.   Besides, as a restaurant worker, it smells of a possible Yelp review in the making, which reeks (ask anyone).  So as an alternative, I took screen shots of some decent photos from Yelp.  Ha ha - I really don't think I can get into trouble for copyright infringement - but if I do, this blog will be the first to report it!

I stepped into the queue for a table while E and M parked the car.  They said it would be 20 minutes so I asked for the sake list.  I was crestfallen to discover that the sake list was unavailable as their liquor license was in limbo, being reinstated in about a month (no foul here, they  had shared a liquor license with the neighboring place which was no longer in business).  I was a little bummed, but the smells of ramen were wafting my way, and E and I had already had a couple of Aperol Spritzers at her house, so...
Little M likes the phone and can break into my camera without even my password, so he snapped this:
Snapped from my phone by the 4 year old!
I know, super unexciting view of a server putting an order through the POS system.   There are lots of goodies on the menu, Japanese style goodies that is:  Oshitashi - spinach or greens with fish flakes, soy and vinegar.  The version that night had lightly pickled parsnips and carrots with wilted beet greens, furikake and a nice piquant soy-vinegar dressing.  M gobbled it up.  It is always nice to see a little kid gobbling up greens.  He is usually a picky eater!  Next came the Chicken karaage - marinated and fried chicken thigh with a Japanese style ranch dressing - Theirs is really one of the best around.  I mean, who doesn't like good friend chicken.  There is something sublime or dare I say umami-esque about their marinade(buttermilk?) and crunchy shell, not too thick, with just the right amount of spiece.  I could eat two orders of this with a salad and be done, done!  In fact, one of our pieces of chicken was a bit "medium rare" which we pointed out to the manager.  We were already done with the rest of the order, but he brought out another plate of freshly cooked karaage, and they took all of it off the bill. My fantasies about the night were already coming true.
full disclosure, not my photo , but still a pretty tasting looking rendition of the Chicken Karaage
I wasn't really in the mood for ramen, so ordered the Donburi which came very non-traditionally with pork belly, a fried egg, greens, kimchi, and pickled red onion.  
pirated again, this one of the Donburi
The only thing that made this a "Donburi" was the "over rice" portion of the event.  The sauce was a little heavy handed, as not one morsel of rice lay unadorned. The mayo topping sort of put the dish over the top with heaviness, but I did order a rice bowl after all.  That being said, I would definitely order it again, and ask them for sauce on the side.  The kimchee was perfectly spiced, and the flavor of each ingredient was spot on...  Who doesn't like a nice caramelized chunk of pork belly?

E got the Shoyu Ramen, as she was sharing with the tyke, so couldn't order the spicier version, or Tan Tan Ramen.  They did a solid on the ramen that night, as the kid could not get enough of those noodles.  I need to learn how to make that perfect 6 minute egg, the one where the yolk is still a little runny.
pirated ramen photo, probably the Tan Tan spicy ramen judging from the broth
I'm not sure where they get their noodles, probably the famous ramen factory in San Jose (seriously, there is a ramen factory in San Jose) - but they are nicely bouncy, and the broth, well the photo says it all - they know their broth at this place.  I appreciate it being little lighter, less oily than some.  I love the fatty broth, don't get me wrong (see my previous blogposts), but it is nice to not be inundated sometimes.   We were happy, so I let the boy use the phone again
Author, happy and full!
Considering it was Friday night, 6:30 pm and there was a queue, I would say that Sebastopolians are pretty okay with a restaurant without booze.   I'll be back in 30 days though, as I like my sake (and will probably be waiting much longer for a table), but this place is just fine without it!
Happy camper!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

La Croqueta - a little slice of Espana in my kitchen today

In between planning and managing private events and parties, I'm not one to sit down - unless of course it's to pound out a blog post because of something I ate or am about to eat or am inspired to cook then eat, or...   A day doing nothing is rare and that's perfect in my book.  So today, after a busy couple of weeks of smooth flowing, successful weddings and parties, I found myself in Whole Foods getting my weekly basics, and was hoping to additionally find a bit of fodder for my keyboard, as it had been over a week since I had written anything and was pretty much jonesing.  I tried to write a few days back, as I had taken an epic 3-hour hike on the East Ridge Trail in Armstrong Woods, a little slice of redwood paradise about 45 minutes north of me (and a couple of miles outside of Guerneville, CA), but the dry and tasteless brisket I tried to devour at a local restaurant afterward was just "so so," and as you may have noticed, I don't like to write negative restaurant reviews, so...

I knew I had potatoes in the pantry at home and thought, "Hmmmm, some sort of Japanese style croquette sounds pretty good...," basically mashed potatoes, meat or veggies, formed into a patty, coated in Panko bread crumbs, shallow fried then served with Tonkatsu sauce.   The Japanese call them Korokke, which, if you sound it out, is: Ko -roke-que (as in que pasa or que sera, sera).  It is interesting and sometimes sort of funny how the Japanese adapt an English term to their language, phonetically pronouncing it by how the word looks and sounds to their ears.   I.e. que is like saying the letter "k" and the ending of the adapted word often has an "eh" on the end.  Am I getting too off track?  Probably. Do I know the ins and outs of how the Japanese adapt English etymology?  No, definitely not.  However, just believe me that they call it a "korokke" and that when they say it, it sounds like they are trying to say croquette but can't figure out how to do the ette part.  I realize I'm on a tangent (who, me???), made even funnier because the Korokke isn't even what I ended up making, but it got my brain working along those lines. Crunchy, coated goodness was on my inner menu, and as one thought lead to another in this food oriented little brain of mine,  another style of croquette quickly followed: the Spanish style "Croqueta," traditionally made with chicken (and sometimes ham) in a creamy sauce and coated in breadcrumbs and fried.   A perfect crunchy bit of creamy deliciousness to go along with a beer, a nice glass of Sangria or a more serious cocktail.   Croquetas de Pollo make a regular appearance in tapas bars all over the world.  My Brazilian friend, M, swears they originated in San Paolo, but then again, he thinks everything good is from Brazil (and is often correct).  As I pondered this thought, I remembered it was his birthday just yesterday (my mind has a way of working  in organized randomness) so took it as a sign that Croquetas de Pollo were going to be my dish for the day.

I had never made Croquetas de Pollo before, but took it as an additional sign I  was on the right track when I mentioned them to my sister and she said, "oh, don't you remember Mom's super delicious turkey croquettes?" What!!??  My Mother was a Julia Childs and Graham Kerr fan (and by default, so was I) and she was also the "Queen of the Leftover" - as she had to feed 6 children, a husband and sometimes a great uncle on the mindset of a depression era childhood.  Leftovers were a regular appearance several times a week on our suppertime table.  Turkey croquettes?? okay, they are sort of coming back to me now. ( Oh my!  Can i get to the topic of this blogpost already? you may be wondering?!)  Again though, this is how I come up with stuff, taste bud memory, leading to taste bud memory, leading me down a path to a dish that practically invents itself.

Okay, so, back to my kitchen and today's recipe.  The best ones I recently had were at Bravas Bar de Tapas in Healdsburg  (, a little gem tucked away from the square serving craft cocktails, the requisite sangria (red or white) and a pretty authentic menu. Theirs are bite-sized and served in a little cone, sprinkled with salt, and oozing with creamy goodness: Jamon Serrano, chicken and gruyere cheese.  They are addictive.

As often is the case with a dish I've never made before , I browsed online to find a recipe that sounded like it was going to produce the taste and texture I wanted.  It isn't unusual for me to look at several recipes and combine them, adjusting for personal taste but looking for commonalities between their techniques and ingredient proportions.  The recipe I used as my base is on one of my favorite websites:  http:\\  The founder used to work for Cook's Illustrated and I find their food research and recipes pretty spot-on (not to mention, the writing is good).  It is a pretty basic recipe combining chopped chicken with a thick onion studded Bechamel sauce, forming them into little two bite sized nuggets, using a standard breading, then shallow frying.  That's pretty much the long and short of it.  I'm outlining my version of their recipe below, as I adjusted some things for my personal taste, always encouraging you to do so, to trust your instincts.  The more you do it, the more cooking won't seem like a daunting task and may possibly transform you into an inspired food freak like myself!

Because I'm a super geek, I actually own the perfect trio of "breading pans" for the 3 pan method: flour-egg-breadcrumbs.  I picked them up for probably less than $10 in an Asian restaurant supply store in SF.  I'm always silently congratulating myself every time I whip them out, because seriously, how many people do you know that have special trays for their 3-pan coating system?  Yeah, I didn't think so.

flour, egg, breadcrumb - in that order

You'll notice here that the photo shows regular breadcrumbs (at the far end).  You can use those or Panko bread crumbs.  I actually changed my mind after this photo and opted for panko as you will see in future photos - it made the texture a bit more crunchy.   The most important thing about breading is to do in the same order each time: Coat with flour, dip in egg (or gently roll in egg), then roll in Panko (or regular breadcrumbs).   Don't manhandle these things, as they will fall apart easily.  Take your time.

Here's the recipe I adapted:

1 boneless/skinless chicken breast (yields approx 1 cup cooked, diced chicken)
1-2 T olive oil for sauteeing
1/2 cup cooked chopped sausage, ham, chorizo - your choice
6 T butter
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped fine
2/3 cup A/P flour
2 cups milk (or substitute unsweetened non-dairy beverage)
a few pinches of salt (used here and there)
1 tsp nutmeg (used on chicken and then the rest in the mixture)
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

for breading
2 eggs whisked with 1/4 cup of water
2 cups (give or take) Panko or other breadcrumbs
1 cup A/P Flour

2 cups or more oil for frying (Canola, Peanut or Mild Olive Oil)

Basic ingredients:
I just happened upon this in my freezer - but ham is the traditional

Fresh nutmeg is preferred but I was out, so...

chicken breast seasoned with salt and nutmeg

onion with root left on for easy chopping 

cooked chicken and sausage, ready to go
I actually had some leftover chinese sausage in the freezer, but ham or chorizo or any cured pork product will do.  The spanish would use straight up ham.  I didn't bother to buy any,  so I scoured my freezer for some sort of pork product, defrosted one link and chopped it up pretty fine.  I seasoned the chicken breast with salt and ground nutmeg and sauteed it, covered,  on medium low until cooked through (approx. 5 minutes each side) - be careful not to brown it too much, as you want the texture to be tender and not caramelized.  After letting it rest for 5 minutes, I chopped it into 1/2" cubes and set that and the sausage aside.  (You can use leftover chicken for this, no need to cook up a fresh breast)

For the main component of this dish you will be making an onion-white sauce, or, to get technical, a Soubise.  White sauce, better known as Bechamel, is the foundation for many other sauces and involves simply butter and flour (cooked together to make a "roux") and added milk.  Knowing how to make a decent white sauce is super easy and the foundation for great classics, most commonly Mornay, or Cheese sauce.  So, for your Soubise:  Melt the butter on medium heat and add finely chopped onions.  Cook until translucent (but again, not browned) - about 10 minutes.
onions sauteed until translucent but not browned
Something I can't stand about recipes is that they don't seem to ever turn out as good as you want them to.  Part of the problem is little tricks and asides are often not written in.  So, in an effort to not do that here - why wouldn't you want to go ahead and melt the butter/saute the onions in the same pan you pulled the chicken from, chicken bits, drippings and seasonings included?  You should!  

While your onions are cooking, heat milk in a saucepan over low heat.  Add a little crack of pepper and a pinch of nutmeg.  You just want the milk hot, not boiled or scalded.  

After onions are finished, sift 1/3 cup of flour into butter/onion mixture.  Stir well (keeping heat on low).  Add the 2nd 1/3 cup of flour.  Stir well.  Mixture will be quite lumpy.  Cook and stir around for about 2 more minutes.  Add hot milk and with a whisk in hand, continue to stir and dissolve the flour/butter mixture for about 3-5 more minutes.  The mixture will be thick and paste-y by this time, the only lumps being from the onion chunks.  (Incidentally, this is much more flour one would use for a classic white sauce, but remember, we are making croquettes so we need it to be thick).  Also incidentally, the technique of making a sauce out of fat and flour and liquid is the foundation for most gravies:  Meat drippings = fat, flour = well, flour, and broth or stock = liquid, just thought I'd tangent here for a second...
the "roux" before hot milk is added
Thick Soubise sauce, lumpy from onion bits

sauce plus chicken, to be gently combined

Remove mixture from heat and gently fold in the sausage and chicken.  Taste and season with salt if needed.  Get creative.  You could add some chile for a zing at this point, or just leave simple as is.

Spread mixture onto a baking sheet (that has been sprayed with a little non-stick spray) and put into refrigerator for 15-30 minutes to cool and firm up (it won't take long).  After cooling, add 3/4-1 inch oil (I use canola - as I buy it in gallons from Costco for this purpose, but a mild olive oil would work) to a heavy bottomed straight sided pan (cast iron even better).  Heat oil to about 350 F. While oil is heating you will be breading your croquettes.  Stay with me, you are almost done!

Pinch off and form croquettes into meatball size balls.  They don't roll like meatballs, as there are no protein fibers holding them together.  Gently keep them pinched together.  Using your three pan method, roll in flour, then egg (be sure to coat all surfaces, then panko (or regular) breadcrumbs.
egg wash after rolling in flour
Coat in panko, sprinking it over at first to create a non-stick surface
Have a plate or clean baking sheet handy to put all your ready to fry croquettes on.  Line a dish or pan with paper towels or something absorbent to place your finished croquettes on after they come out of the fryer.  I use a candy thermometer to check my oil for temperature.  Most people don't have one of those laying around.  To test for temperature, throw a few breadcrumbs in the hot oil.  If they immediately float and start frying, you are probably ready.  To be sure, try one or two croquettes and they should start to fry immediately.  Flip them over halfway through to get browned on other side.  
First side then second - Almost done!
Remember, the inside of these doesn't contain raw ingredient, so you are really only looking to brown them well and heat them through.  Be sure to sprinkle with salt while hot and serve immediately!
Open a cold beer and enjoy these tasty little bites!  Be the hit of your next cocktail party.  Hell, make a pitcher of Sangria (easiest thing ever, but for another post!) and wow all of your friends!