Sunday, January 31, 2010

Weight loss products?

Some (presumably) unintentional humor at my local Rite-Aid pharmacy:

Let the snarking commence.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Making gyoza

Inspired in equal parts by our recent visit to Kajitsu and the utterly wacky yet strangely informative YouTube series "Cooking with Dog," Michael and I decided to try our hand at making gyoza (Japanese potstickers).

The video in question:

We obviously didn't follow that recipe since it called for pork, but it was helpful for getting the general idea of how to fill and seal the little guys.

There aren't any hard and fast rules about what should go in the filling, but for our first time we wanted to use a recipe to give us some general guidelines. Having only two Japanese cookbooks on hand made it fairly easy to settle on a recipe by Miyoko Nishimoto Schinner (from Japanese Cooking: Contemporary and Traditional), which called for textured vegetable protein and vital wheat gluten as replacements for the meat. We reconstituted the TVP in water and a little soy sauce:

Then Michael sautéed some Chinese broccoli (wrong culture, I know, but it's what we had)...

...while I chopped a few scallions.

All of that was tossed into the bowl with the TVP, along with some reconstituted dried shiitake mushrooms and a little of their flavorful soaking liquid.

We seasoned it with finely chopped garlic, grated ginger, soy sauce, and sesame oil. The vital wheat gluten was added last, and it soaked up the remaining liquid and added a little chewiness and texture to the filling.

Filling and sealing the gyoza turned out to be a good deal easier than I thought: Just mound some filling inside a wonton skin, fold it over, and fork it closed. Those of you who are frequent readers (ha! anyone? anyone???) will recognize this technique from Thanksgiving, where we stuffed and folded puff-pastry squares. Same idea, only here we had to spread a little water along the edges of the wonton skins to make sure they sealed together.

Emboldened by some early successes, I tried out a slightly more complicated folding technique, which involved tucking one edge of the wonton skin back on itself to yield a little package:

Not perfect, but not bad for my first try, I think.

Michael with a tray of finished gyoza:

We cooked them by first pan-frying them in a little oil until they browned on one side.

Then we flipped them over, added some water, and put lids on the pans so that they could steam. That's all there is to it. Please enjoy your gyoza with soy sauce and rice vinegar for dipping. :)

Much as I've grown fond of Trader Joe's frozen Thai potstickers, I think I probably won't buy them anymore since this was so easy. Plus, the recipe made enough filling for, like, 100 potstickers, so I froze the leftovers and now we have lots of ready-to-eat homemade snackies.

To round out our meal, we recreated a favorite dish from our California days: Japanese eggplants with sweet miso sauce. The eggplants are supposed to be deep-fried, and they taste better when they are, but then doesn't everything? Lacking a deep-frier (and/or the desire to heat and then store several liters of oil), we just sliced them in half gave them a generous squirt of oil before they went under the broiler. We let them cook until they went soft on the inside and started to char a little on top.

The sauce is made of white miso, mirin, and sugar, which is mixed together and then slathered onto the hot eggplants.

The recipe doesn't call for this, but we like to put them back under the broiler at this point to caramelize the sugar and make them nice and gooey and melty. They get topped with sesame seeds when they come out, and should be eaten immediately. Which they were.

Again inspired by our dinner at Kajitsu, we scoured the local Pennsylvania state liquor store for some saké and turned up a decent organic one --- made in California, but still quite good. Kanpai! (Cheers!)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Or else!

One final note from my recent trip to New York City: I spent a lovely afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art. It was shockingly crowded, which was a little annoying when one is trying to contemplate a Picasso, but I was quite gratified to see so many people at a museum --- as opposed to, say, at M&M World. (Although they were mostly European, not American. Big surprise.)

I was browsing through their collection of contemporary sculpture when this little sign caught my eye:

Um...whaa??? What the heck is this supposed to mean? Please do not touch, or else we'll CUT YOUR FINGERS OFF?!?!?!

I mean, I know this is New York, but I would have thought that a museum would have a tad more delicacy.

At first I thought that I was being warned that some of the sculptures had sharp edges, which might injure me if I touched them. That might make a little sense, right? But just to set the record straight, the objet d'art in question was this one...

...which, in addition to looking soft, actually is soft. (No, I didn't touch it. Geez, what kind of philistine do you take me for? I read the curator's notes; it's made out of wool.) So while I definitely understand the need to keep people's greasy paws off of the artwork, the sign seems more than a little extreme. Especially with that spurting blood.

In conclusion: MoMA, WTF?

Well, at least they said "please."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Eating the Big Apple

I was invited to give a talk at this year's meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. For those of you who think that this sounds like a delightful and prestigious way to convey my research findings to an audience of interested peers, think again.

The Eastern APA is always held between Christmas and New Year's, so it utterly screws up the holiday relaxation schedule. More to the point, it's the conference where all of the job interviews are conducted, so it's populated almost exclusively by super-nervous philosophy grads in ill-fitting suits trying not to make eye contact with each other or with the super-bored philosophy professors in ill-fitting suits who make up the hiring committees. Because it's inevitably freezing cold outside, everyone stays indoors the whole time, drinking shitty conference-center coffee, trying to avoid being sneezed on, and not actually going to any of the talks because they're either participating in or preparing for job interviews. So basically, it's a flu-inducing depression-fest that gives me no career points since it's not even my field.

But you know me: When life hands me lemons, I make yuzu-infused miso dipping sauce for slow-steamed daikon radish.

Well, okay, I don't make it, but I do use the conference as an excuse to go to a restaurant that does: Kajitsu, a vegetarian Japanese restaurant serving traditional Shojin cuisine on the Lower East Side.

They have two prix-fixe menus, one full and one abbreviated. Michael and I went for the longer one ("Hana"):

Celery Roots Tempura with Grated Apple

Vegetable Miso Soup
Tofu, Shiitake, Burdock Root, Carrots, Turnip, Japanese Taro

Sticky Rice with Tea Tree Mushrooms, Umeboshi and Shiso;
Kabocha Pouch with Red Beans;
Grilled Sesame Tofu in a Bamboo Leaf

Simmered Daikon Radish with Yuzu Red Miso

Grilled Nama-Fu and Butternut Squash with Black Trumpet Mushroom;
Leek and Fig Tempura

Hanamaki Soba
Nori, Mitsuba, Wasabi

Snow Ball Mochi

Matcha with Rakugan Candies by Shioyoshiken

The food was exquisite, in every sense of the word. Everything was prepared perfectly, but more than that, everything was paired perfectly with the other elements in the dish, in terms of flavors and textures and temperatures. Example: The sticky rice with tea tree mushrooms was gooey and a little sour and served hot, but on the same plate was a cool firm square of sesame tofu with pink sea salt, and a creamy dab of warm kabocha squash stuffed with sweet red beans. Or take the sharp-tasting and crunchy leek tempura paired with the sweet and meltingly tender figs. Or the sticky mochi ball filled with firm, fresh strawberries. Exquisite.

It was a tough call, but the winning dish of the night was the first one, the celery roots tempura:

The celery root was prepared in two ways: creamy tempura and a firm, shallow-fried version, topped with fresh chopped apple and a tiny radish flower, served in a warm slightly salty sauce, the ingredients for which have slipped my mind. But damn, it was good.

The place is small, with only a few tables, so Michael and I were seated at the bar. It was a little awkward, since the waitstaff had to keep coming up behind us to serve the food, and we were sitting side-by-side rather than across from each other, but we were more than compensated for these minor inconveniences by being able to watch the chefs at work.

Here's their publicity photo of the dining room. We sat on the far right side, at the end of the bar:

Speaking of the waitstaff, the service was impeccable. We don't eat out very much anymore, what with the mortgage payments and the fact that we love to cook, so when we do, we like to get the full treatment. Kajitsu did not disappoint. Our water glasses were never empty, everything was served and cleared at the same time for both of us (amazing how few restaurants can manage this! It's not that hard, people!), and the server always explained what we were getting and the best way to eat it. E.g., "Please enjoy the tofu dipped in a little of the pink sea salt." Seriously, this was like Iron Chef: East Village edition.

There was a saké pairing available, which we chose not to indulge in, although we did have two different kinds of ethereally delicious saké with the meal. Dangerous stuff, saké, since it's so refined one often can't taste the alcohol. Next time we'll definitely get the pairing, though, since I'd love to expand my palate when it comes to saké. Following the meal, we did a little research on the subject and found a fantastic saké shop around the corner from the restaurant, where we picked up two bottles to take home. Cursèd Pennsylvania liquor board has a ridiculously thin supply, and of course no one to offer recommendations or explanations. Alas.

I'm almost done waxing poetic, but I do have to point out that one of the best things about the meal was how different it was from all of the other haute cuisine I've ever had. Eating upscale European food, or even upscale Indian food, I feel safe --- I know which fork to use for what, or how to pair wine with the flavors, or when to expect the soup course. But this meal made me feel like a blundering novice. Okay, so I know a few things about Japanese eating habits, like the fact that it's not impolite to slurp one's noodles, but that's about it. This was a whole new level of culture shock. Should I leave the chopsticks placed sideways, as I found them at my place setting, or can I move them upright? Would it be considered rude to drink the soup, and should I wait to do so until I've eaten all the vegetables out of it, or should I just use a spoon? Am I supposed to eat the different parts of a dish in a certain order, or in a certain combination? Believe it or not, this was the thing that I loved the most about this meal: being pushed so far out of my depth. It doesn't happen all that much, at least not in culinary settings, and it was so delightful to have to consider every step of the meal and the eating process with fresh eyes.

To top it all off, the menu changes every month to reflect what's in season. I'll be back.

We had two other culinary adventures on the trip, one at Counter, a hip veggie place with an impressive selection of organic/biodynamic wines and spirits, and one at Otto, which is Mario Battali's casual pizza restaurant. Both meals were very, very good, although they couldn't quite hold a candle to Kajitsu. So I'll just share the highlights.

At Counter, I started the evening off with one of their specialty cocktails, the Bumble Burn: whisky, Meyer lemon juice, honeycomb, and winter spices, garnished with whole cloves. Like a whisky sour, but much much much better. For dinner, we ordered a few small plates to share, the best of which was the broccoli raab with roasted sunchokes, although the sweet potato gnocci came in a close second. Dessert was awesome, though, and deliciously sinful after all that Japanese restraint the night before: a sundae with black cocoa cake, chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and house-made fudge and caramel sauce. Mmm! (And all vegan, by the way. Yes, even the ice cream.)

At Otto, we had a collection of antipasti and a small pizza each. The clear favorite of the bunch was the braised salsify with blood-orange sauce. Since I don't work with salsify much at all, I can't really compare it to other preparations, but this was delicious. Maybe it's time to move a new veg into the winter repertoire? My pizza con fungi e taleggio was delicious too, although not quite in the league of the best pizza I've ever had. But the chef gets extra bonus points for not using truffle oil and instead relying only on the flavor of the mushrooms in the dish to give it lots of rich earthiness. Bonus points are also in order for running a rather large restaurant and still managing to turn out wonderfully crispy crusts on the pizza and taking care of orders in a very efficient manner. They were serving a number of large groups, too, and the food wasn't all that expensive, so I'd definitely recommend it for your next family get-together. Besides, who could argue with pizza?

Friday, January 1, 2010


Happy New Year! Don't worry, I'm not going to get all self-reflective and sappy. I just wanted to point out two things:

First, it's interesting that this has been such a wonderful decade for me personally, despite being such a terrible decade for the world. I met my husband, graduated from college, was admitted into a fantastic graduate program, traveled to Australia (twice!), got married, earned my Ph.D., landed an awesome postdoc, attended many happy high school and college and grad school and law school graduations for my brothers and friends, watched my brother-in-law get married, and bought a house. Oh, and the Lord of the Rings movies came out (*fangirl squee!*). The world, meanwhile, has gone to hell in a handbasket: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, two fruitless wars, economic collapse, defeat of many gay marriage initiatives, increased polarization of the political and social sphere, and the death of George Carlin, just to name a few. Life's funny that way, I guess.

Second, I wanted to share a thought from my yoga instructor, although I might not be remembering this correctly since I was straining my calf muscles and sweating bullets when she said it. But the basic idea is this: Don't make resolutions. Resolutions are static, easy to break, and set us up for failure. I'm going to write six papers! I'm going to lose 10 pounds! I'm going to go to the gym twice a week! Ugh. It's exhausting just to think about.

Instead, adopt an intention. Having an intention is not the same as having a concrete goal. It's less tangible than that, and it asks one to try to shape one's behavior in all aspects of life. I think it's close to Kant's concept of the regulative ideal: something to strive for, without necessarily having an expectation of reaching it. For the new year, I can adopt the intention of patience, or openness, or being in the present moment, and I can try to use these intentions to inform everything I do --- at least, as much as I can on any given day. I don't have any particular hope of succeeding at becoming a thoroughly patient person, or someone who can truly just live for the moment (me? really.), but in this case, it's the trying that's counts.