Monday, January 31, 2011

Japan, I Love You

I thought I would share about my journeys as we traveled and as it turns out, I was wrong. Japan swallowed me whole, and I loved every bit of it. (well, maybe not the freezing, toes-numb parts, but more on that later) Our time in this fabled land was richly sensory: visual beauty and bombardment; culinary explorations in many, many directions, most, exceedingly delicious; and lots and lots of walking. We did take trains, buses, and the metro quite a bit, but it was our lucky feet that brought us to one destination after another and all of those treasured points in-between.

After our 14+ hours in a plane and 2 additional in a shuttle from the airport to Tokyo proper, we muscled our luggage to the rental apartment in Shibuya - a youthful, bustling area and a great anchor from which to move about. We got settled in, cleaned up, and then collapsed. And that brings me to our first day. We set out for my favorite nook in this incredible city, the neighborhood of Shimokitazawa, and true-to-memory it remains as vibrant as when I visited it last.

artwork on storefront gate

It was a beautiful sunny day meant for wandering. We were wide-eyed to drink it all in, and one of the first orders of business was to get to drinking some coffee. We found a little corner shop, and as we walked in I was surprised to see a coffee I knew well - the fruity Yirgacheffe that I have loved sipping at spots here in NYC. We got whatever their daily roast was - still brushing up on our *VERY* limited Japanese, we did not attempt to find out what it was. Only that it was delicious and I wished to have more of it. :)

cute teapots lined up along the window

sitting in the warming sun
photo by Jim Lafferty

Meandering around as shops began to open and bicyclists pedaled by, we came across various things.

fun sp moment!

outdoor restaurant display, weathered design on a large urn

Along another small street, there was a flower shop selling exquisite blooms.

such a thoughtful, smart presentation!

Peeking into various shops and taking our time, we were having a blast. Here's another sweet flower shop we happened upon - and I thought I'd be trudging in the freezing cold, it being winter and all!

We had arranged to meet A for lunch and in retracing our steps to meet with her, I found these - a little table that looked like the beginnings of a produce stand, and someone's refined display outside their home - gorgeous, right?

We dined at a place called Cafe Zinc, an artsy, light-filled space with enough room to remain intimate, even when full. The food was simple and a delight, a mix of Japanese comfort food and western-inspired offerings. I loved how the menu was composed: daily selections could be added or removed as per what the chef could source and wanted to make.

iphone photo, Jim Lafferty

What better way to top off a tasty meal than with a rich cup of joe? This place set a new bar for what coffee can be - we found ourselves measuring the flavor of every subsequent cup to the one we had here. It was a divine experience. Sigh.

The day wore on and we set out again. Seeing this orange tree growing on a corner was a warming treat during the late-afternoon.

We did finally leave Shimokitazawa to find a new area to explore. More on that soon. Our first day was bliss. I hope these scenes help you to enjoy it as much as we did!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Delicious Winter Time

This meal is a winning combination with its sweet-savory juiciness, the tender bite of the bitter greens, and the nuttiness of the soft mash.

My husband brought home some boneless pork loin not too long ago, and I knew then that I couldn't simply make them into dinner without first documenting these precious cuts. So I went to our wonderful farmers' market and selected a bunch of fresh rosemary and a head each of gorgeous chicory and cauliflower to do justice to the vittles waiting for me back home....

Without having a formal recipe, I followed the guide in my memory of how pork loves some sweet + spice. As in apples & nutmeg, or peaches & shallots...and in my case, maple syrup (grade b, less brightly sweet) and rosemary. I also added a tiny amount of soy sauce (use only good quality, here) for an extra kick, and seared them in a hot pan to get them nice and browned.

For the cauliflower mash, I used a half-head and separated the curds into medium-small bunches, placing the lot into a metal basket to steam in my pressure cooker. I don't like to boil anything as most of the nutritional value transfers into the water, so I steam instead, and I even save the leftover water to add to stocks or sauces - thanks, mom! After opening the lid I checked to be sure the cauliflower is soft enough that it gives way when I press a fork into it (if no, I can simply replace the lid - make sure enough water still remains at the bottom of the pot - and turn the heat back on until the knob returns to rattle).  Place the curds in a food processor and add a little chicken stock or the water from steaming,  a little butter, cream, and creme fraiche and give it a whirr. I pulsed the mixture until it was pretty smooth - do so until it's to your liking.

And lastly, the greens! I removed seven or so leaves and rinsed them (and then shake or pat them dry), and sliced cross-ways until I had elegant, thin strips. I heated my small cast iron skillet until pretty hot, added a little olive oil, and tossed all of it in. After letting the chicory wilt from the pan heat for a couple minutes, I turned them about, getting new coverage and repeating the same. All told, they only need to cook for about 4 minutes or so - you want them to retain a little crunch.

Measurements are approximate - adjust to your taste
Serves 4
4 boneless pork loin chops
1/2 head cauliflower - look for no blemishes and tight curds
1 small head fresh chicory or other hearty, bitter greens - leaves should be firm

2 tbsp olive oil, for wilting and pan-frying
3 tbsp fresh rosemary 
3 tbsp grade B maple syrup
2 tsp quality soy sauce

for cauliflower mash
3 tbsp butter
1/4 cup creme fraiche
1/4 cup heavy cream
3 tbsp chicken stock or vegetable water
use sea salt & freshly ground pepper to taste - I put it on everything

As you see I used pork, cauliflower, and chicory. You are welcome to use this as a launch pad and substitute lamb, chicken, or beef in an appropriately sweet-savory complementary dress. Also, feel free to use parsnips, potatoes, turnips, celery root, etc. If you prefer something other than the wilted chicory, you may use escarole, chard, broccoli rabe, mustard greens, or other similar hearty greens. Have fun first and foremost, and let me know how it turns out! :)

One everything is prepared, find a serving dish you like and put it all together. I assure you, it is very hard to resist licking the plate after a tasty dish such as this.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Come Fly with Me

We have officially lived the first week of 2011, and it’s the only time I haven’t gotten a calendar in time to ring in the New Year. That might mean something (please feel free to discuss) but I’m more interested in other things right now… There are many wonderful things on the horizon and the year has only just begun!

The most notable and great news is that J and I are headed to Japan in less than two weeks! We will be photographing a wedding for a dear friend, and making sense – or just fun – out of the layers and labyrinths that are Tokyo. We will also spend some time exploring the beautiful shrines and temples in Kyoto, and hopefully, happen upon a third place as of yet undetermined… We shall see. Having been there before, I was treated to many delightful sights as well as incredible meals (thank you A!). 

This however, will be my first time without a host leading me to all the best places - if anyone has advice in navigating - or recommendations - I welcome them. It will be interesting to see how we fare (sticking out like sore thumbs, maybe?). There is one thing I do know: wherever we go, we will eat quite well!

If January is off to a start such as this, the rest of the year is bound to share fruits even more bright and ripe. Now is the time to cherish these soothing winter moments as we incubate what we want to create for ourselves,  growing more and more as the weather warms and blossoms unfold.