Monthly Archives: January 2009

Curried Pantry Raid

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

“Look into your pantry, into your refrigerator/freezer and on your kitchen counter, then take a mental snapshot. Then using only the ingredients that you have in those places, create a dish for eight people. Go.”

No, …but the devil… is not getting all Top Chef Quick Fire challenge on you but a recent themed dinner I participated in used exactly this as it’s theme. Even though my mission was to create a starter, it was an interesting food-to-brain exercise to put something together this way. To make it even more interesting, I decided to use only what I could “see” and didn’t uncover or dig into the far recesses of my pantry and fridge. The first two items I saw were a box of cous cous and a box of Japanese-style curry roux. Then things got interesting.

I had recently been craving both Japanese curry rice and kurokke (koo-row-kay), a deep-fried, panko-crusted mashed potato-meat patty, known better in Western cooking as a croquette. Suspecting that cous cous might make a interesting substitute for potato, I landed on a curried cous cous croquette. And a natural sauce for a curried dish is chutney and the kitchen counter near the sink had two recently purchased Piñata apples and a yellow onion. Piñata apples are a newish variety that are a nice mix of sweet and tart and keep their crispness and color longer than other varieties. This makes them versatile for both cooking and slicing up raw for salads. I had intended to make a dish or two of quickie apple cobbler with them but they were just begging to be chutneyed.

chutney-ness (photo by wm. christman)

chutney-ness (photo by wm. christman)

The only apprehension I had was getting the curry flavor into the cous cous. Japanese curry roux comes in flat blocks in packages that make 4 or 9 portions depending on the size of the package. When dropped into a pot of simmering meat, potato and carrot, the roux thickens very quickly. I didn’t want to have a liquid so thick that the dried cous cous couldn’t soak it up so it was a bit of crap-shoot as to how much to use. I settled on three small blocks out of a twelve block package. As soon as I dropped the curry roux into the boiling chicken stock, it started to thicken and it looked like maybe I had used too much. I stirred in the cous cous, slammed the lid on and waited. After 7 minutes or so, I peeked under the lid. I was expecting a sea of curry sauce with semi-hydrated cous cous floating around in it but instead all of the curry liquid was gone and the cous cous was plump and had turned a deep curry-brown. And it tasted really good. Score.

Most of the battle was over and it seemed like I had won. Making the chutney was an easy sauté and simmer. Adding a binder with a bit of cream, some beaten egg and flour to make croquettes was a no brainer for the actual frying part of the adventure. My ever present bottle of sambal was also on the counter so I had a heat component to give the dish another dimension. The end result was a dish of crisp edged croquettes with a fall-apart texture inside. The frying also toasted the outside cous cous grains so there was yet another flavor in the mix. The chutney added sweet and fragrant spice.

I had a real blast stretching my head around creating a dish where I had to resist the urge to go out and buy ingredients. My pantry is pretty overloaded so maybe it’s time to do more invention. There’s no guarantee of success 100% of the time but that’s not the point. It’s fun to really play with your food.

Curry Cous Cous Croquettes (Korokke) with Apple-Onion Chutney

1 10 oz. box plain cous cous
3 curry blocks from a “serves-9” package of Japanese curry roux
(you could also use a third of a package of a small size box of curry roux)
2 cups of chicken stock

1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon each coriander seeds, fennel seeds and cumin seeds
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 apples (I used Piñata apples but you can use any apple that stands up to sautéing, like Granny Smth), peeled, cored, cut into medium (1/2 inch) chunks
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup Sherry wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of chipotle powder (optional)
ground black pepper to taste

3 eggs, well beaten
4 tablespoons of flour
1/4 cup heavy cream (you may need to add a bit more to get cous cous to “bind”)
canola or peanut oil for frying

sambal oelek for service
Cous Cous
1. In a medium sauce pan, bring chicken stock to a boil.
2. Add curry blocks and stir until dissolved (the mixture will start to thicken as the roux dissolves).
3. Add the cous cous and stir.
4. Remove the pan from the heat and put the lid on and let the cous cous steam for 5-8 minutes.
5. Check to see that the cous cous has soaked up all or most of the liquid, then fluff up with a fork.

Let the cous cous cool. You can even make this a day ahead of time an store it in the refrigerator.

1. In a small, dry saute pan over medium-high heat, add mustard seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds and cumin seeds and “roast” until the spices start to give up their oil (they’ll become fragrant). Immediately remove spices from the pan, put them into a coffee grinder or a mortar and grind into a coarse powder.
2. Add olive oil to saute pan over medium heat.
3. Add onions to the saute pan and cook 10-15 minutes until caramelized to a golden color.
4. Add 2-3 tablespoons of the ground spices to the pan and stir
5. Add apples to the pan and saute until edges of apple start to soften
6. Add the vinegar, sugar, allspice, ginger and chipotle powder to the pan and stir until well mixed.
7. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently until apples are cooked but hold their shape.

The chutney will have a chance to develop it’s flavors after sitting covered overnight in the refrigerator

Cooking and service
1. In a shallow, non-stick pan, pour oil to about a 1/2 inch depth (you’ll want to “shallow” fry the croquettes) and heat over medium-high heat.
2. Re-fluff the cous cous with a fork or break it up with your fingers
2. Beat the eggs and add them to the cous cous.
3. Add the flour and cream to the cous cous and mix until the cous cous can stick together enough to make croquettes (small patties or oval falafel-like balls). You may have to add more flour and/or cream to get cous cous to “bind”.
4. Test the oil temperature with a small patty of the cous cous mixture – it should start to sizzle around the edges right away.
5. Make 6-7 small (2-2 1/2 inch diameter, about 1/2 inch thick) croquettes of the cous cous mixture
6. Cook the cous cous croquettes on each side until lightly crisp (about 2 minutes per side, depending on your oil temperature). Watch the croquettes carefully, they will burn quickly if you don’t.
7. While the first batch of croquettes is cooking, form a second set of croquettes.
8 When each batch of croquettes are done, put them on a rack to cool. Don’t put them on paper towels – they’ll get soggy on the bottom side if you do.
9. Repeat Steps 5 through 8 until you run out of cous cous mixture.

Arrange 2-3 freshly cooked croquettes on a plate and serve with the apple-onion chutney (best at room temperature) and sambal.

Makes about 30 croquettes.

2008 Food Blog Awards

Just a quick post since I have been slacking lately…actually, I have been cooking a whole bunch. That’ll result in some posts later this week so this quick hit will be worth it. Really.

The Well Fed Network’s 2008 Food Blog Awards have been announced. Click here to see the list.

The good news is that the Blog of the Year, Tartlette is a beautiful looking blog. A quick skim over the posts on the front page showed some interesting recipes and commentary too.

Later on this week or early next, …but the devil… will have an expanded review of some of these sites. In the meantime, check the URL above and tell us what you think.

Five Cookbooks

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

I was reading the lead article in the latest issue of the Art of Eating titled “Throwing The Rest Out” (by the magazine’s editor/publisher, Edward Behr) about slimming down a cookbook shelf down to a set of essential tomes. The premise of the piece was that if one had to get rid of their cookbooks save for a small handful, what would one keep and why.

Being somewhat of a cookbook whore, I glanced at the well-overloaded four shelves of cabinetted cookbooks and shook my head. Every time I open the doors to that I can almost feel each shelf continuously groan under the weight of all those books. And that’s not even counting the overflow shelves in the stove island cabinets and the 15-20 other books lying around the house.

So after finishing the article I started to construct my own list and found it quite difficult to sort down to just a few. There are whole genres of books that I use for particulars, sausages for example. And an equal number of random books that I just plain like to read, let alone use to cook with. These days, I find inspiration (starting points, if you will…) in reading cookbooks and food magazines rather than studying to follow a strict roster of ingredients and steps. But I thought I would be fun to try and narrow my bookshelf down to my five essential cookbooks that I could not live without.

My five essential cookbooks (Amazon URLs on each image above):


1. Mastering The Art Of French Cooking (Volume 1) by Julia Child
Like the Edward Behr, my cookbook tastes bend heavily toward French cooking and if there’s one book that I have learned the most from it’s this one. Although it is somewhat rigid and austere at times when describing proper technique, it’s that element that really hammers home the concepts that truly good food begins with mastery of technique. Back when I first bought this book, I fumbled at some of the techniques (for a beginner, I was quickly in the weeds usually through sheer ignorance), and scoffed at others (did I really have to beat egg whites that way?). Over time though, I discovered that following Julia’s instructions as faithfully as possible, was usually the path to glory. There is so much in this book, that it’s indispensable and if I were on a desert island, I would want this cookbook to be the one.


2. The Provence Cookbook by Patricia Wells
This is one of several cookbooks that I own by Patricia Wells. The food of the Provence region of France is my favorite because it straddles that line of sophisticated but simple. There is a year-round supply of vegetables and fruits from the mostly mild climes and, it being France after all, the meat first-rate. All together, the options are very, very wide and those who cook from this region are possibly some of the most fortunate to take advantage of all the region has to offer. To top it off, I find Wells’ writing to be information packed writing that enhances the entire process of cooking. From her hints and tips on getting the best out of your local proprietors to simple, non-nonsense preparations, I turn to this book time-and-time again.


3. Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page
In some ways, this is literally the kitchen bible to me. It’s not a cookbook per se, but a book of theory and techniques about composing flavors, dishes and menus and complimentary ingredient lists. I find the latter particularly useful because in alphabetical order, Dornenburg and Page, painstakingly list ingredients and cooking techniques and other ingredients that go well with them. There are a large handful of recipes that showcases what constitutes “composing” a meal. Think of this as your kitchen encyclopedia, dictionary, and thesaurus, all rolled into one.


4. Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook (Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking)
Although this is a relatively new book, Bourdain’s biting and acerbic banter make this worth the read alone. Since he spent the better part of a decade cooking this type of fare, it is fully packed with classic bistro recipes. The introduction does spell it out clearly: “This is not a cookbook. Not really. It will not teach you how to cook.” Bistro cooking is yet another French cooking love of mine and this is about as gritty and real as it gets. Forget the fancy platings, and visions of taking over the culinary world. If you’ve got a kitchen work-ethic, then you’ve got tons of meals you can get to.


5. The New Doubleday Cookbook by Jean Anderson and Elaine Hanna
For me, this is about as old-school as it gets. This is the very first cookbook I ever bought and it has been through drownings, fires and one nasty earthquake. The cover is battered as are the pages that have been stained with use over and over again. It is an all-around cookbook with sections on just about every type of food imaginable. There are even things in here that put some more cutting-edge cookbooks to shame…squirrel fricassee, anyone? This, along with Culinary Artistry, is encyclopedic in nature. I use it as a jumping-off point for many dishes and still refer to it when roasting meats. And my base recipe for my yearly baklava run comes directly from page 792 of this important book.

So that’s five. There are several beyond this set that I’d fight to keep: Ruhlman’s Charcuterie book, a handful of James McNair books, the Fannie Farmer Baking book, and others. What are your five can’t-live-without cookbooks? Use the comments URL below and let us know.

Iron Chef Redux

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

Unless you’ve been trolling your cable or satellite tee-vee listings on a daily basis, it probably escaped your notice that Iron Chef episodes are being re-run on the Fine Living Network (FLN). These are the ones that ran with dubbed English voice overs on the Food Network when the clamor about the original version reached a fever pitch. The original Japanese language episodes ran in major television markets on stations that cater to the large Japanese communities in those areas. Language barrier or not, foodies quickly caught on and Fuji Television (the originator of the series) had a minor hit on their hands.

Although it sounds like some of the original voice overs have been updated with second takes and commentary, the same pleasantly inane banter is still there in force. Having watched a majority of the original Japanese language episodes, the English translations are pretty accurate but are delivered so hilariously over the top that you could easily devise a drinking game for key phrases, like “Fukui-san!” “Ohta, GO!”, that get hammered over and over again.

FLN (now the exclusive home to Emeril Lagasse…BAM!) is running up to three episodes aday depending on east and west coast satellite/cable feeds. So two of these are usually the same show but still, that’s 14 episodes a week!

So why get so enthusiastic about a show that had it’s day, and spawned two spinoffs, including the ludicrously pompous Captain Kirk version and the current overblown-on-it’s-own-hype Iron Chef America? Well, aside from the entertainment value, it’s not like I’m going to go out become the Delacroix of Charcuterie by intensely studying IC episodes in slo-mo. However, watching all of the interesting ideas and combinations of ingredients that all of the chefs come up with has been fueling lots of my own home cooking adventures recently. And having that on hand as a semi-passive reference is kind of refreshing.

I am still working my way through 20+ episodes that I told my TiVo to record, usually with a pad of paper or my laptop nearby when the inspiration strikes. More arrive every day and as long as FLN is running them, I’m recording them. It’s one piece of television worth its weight in foie gras or pork belly…it just depends on what you’re hungry for.

Winter Comfort

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

When it’s cold just about everything is comfort food. If it stews, roasts, braises or simmers, I want it in my mouth now. But cooking your favorite comfort food can elicit just as much warmth as eating it. And because the simple techniques of turning food intocomfort food involve liberal amounts of wet and dry heat, cooking becomes a comfort in itself.

Beyond tucking into a steaming bowl of oxtail soup or winter root vegetable stew there’s an equal amount of comfort in a warmed and fragrant kitchen.

the culprits... (photo by wm. christman)

the culprits… (photo by wm. christman)

In a scene that is repeated throughout comfort food season, I made quick trip to the grocer to pick up some basics. This time it was smoky andouille sausage, a bit of tasso, a giant bushel basket of vegetables, and some dried red beans. I put on a kettle of water for tea, set the beans to boil, started chopping the vegetables and meat, and in short order I turned my kitchen into a red beans and rice sauna.

the outcome... (photo by wm. christman)

the outcome… (photo by wm. christman)

The actual labour of production pales when spending a relaxing afternoon in a kitchen that has wafts of smoke, bean, thyme, and onion. For me, it’s a repeat performance that pays off before and after the meal.

A XEX Education

(photo by leslie scurry)

(photo by leslie scurry)

The wide-eyed anticipation of just about anything worth experiencing can sometime blind you. Having never eaten at a Masaharu Morimoto restaurant, the expectations were all over the map. On television, this was the guy who could just about kick any chef’s ass with his uniquely high-octane-fueled culinary visions and creations. Perhaps this contributed to the slight apprehension that accompanied the hyper-excitement of having the opportunity to eat at restaurant morimoto XEX in Tokyo. Visions of elaborate and perhaps near-frightening but incredibly delicious creations causing symptoms of cardiac arrest (just from the sheer thrill) danced in our heads.

We were half correct but instead of having a thoroughly mind-blowing experience focused only on just Morimoto’s food, the XEX experience was beyond excellent from arrival to departure. And through it all, the signs, both conscious and subconscious, were a series bright neon signs that flashed “relax” at regular intervals. Those wide-eyes turned soft and any apprehension melted away like so much gentle stream silt.

(photo by leslie scurry)

(photo by leslie scurry)

XEX is in the Roppongi ward of Tokyo. Roppongi is the home to many of Japan’s foreign embassies and their staff residences. For many years, I avoided Roppongi for this very reason – as a foreigner in Japan the last thing I wanted was to be in the company of more foreigners. But shedding all that faux-predjudice, Roppongi to me is just another ward with the interesting and dull; inspiring and banal. One could apply this to any district of Tokyo or any other city in the world, large or small. It doesn’t mean that avoidance is warranted without some exploration.

Because lots of official (and governmental) business is done in Roppongi, large expense accounts are still thrown around like beads at Mardi Gras. And for many years, this has attracted several super-high-end restaurants. In fact, if you choose to shoot your wad on a really expensive meal in Japan, chances are you’ll do it here. But coming in on the lower end of the scale, XEX is not cheap but it’s not about to cause you to break any international currency laws for bringing three hundred metric tons of yen just to enter the party.

Walking through what amounts to a residential area off the main drag of Roppongi, a severely minimalist black granite half-wall with cut out brilliant white kanji characters spelling Morimoto and XEX greets you as your only clue to where to enter. Once inside, the staff at the front treat you like royalty and guide you to whichever floor you’re dining on. All of the floors are lit softly and have modern fixtures and muted colors which immediately put you at ease. There is teppan yaki on the basement floor and sushi on the first floor. The second floor is half private dining and half an eye-popping retro-late 70’s lounge replete with a fine selection of single malt and other quaffables, cigars and dessert. The sushi floor was our choice of the evening.

As with most sushi bars, one can order by the piece or allow the chefs to pick for you (omakase). But XEX also has a couple of tasting menus: one is straight-ahead sushi selection menu and one is called “Morimoto” tasting which incorporates the innovative interpretations of Japanese cuisine that Morimoto is famous for. Each of the menus also features a wine/sake pairing for about $50 more. We chose the Morimoto tasting menu because it seemed like the best showcase of modern and traditional. And while the sushi was certainly excellent, the modern dishes excelled.

baked onion with pork miso and bonito (photo by leslie scurry)

baked onion with pork miso and bonito (photo by leslie scurry)

There were four “modern” courses featuring buffalo mozzarella, baked onion, oyster and foie gras, and toro tuna tartare. Substituting buffalo mozzarella for the rice in a sushi setting was visually delightful and stunningly delicious. The creaminess of the mozzarella is a real swerve from grains of vinegared rice and pairs nicely with raw fish. A nod to the Italian nature of the dish included a nicely marbled slice of prosciutto wrapped around one of the pieces of mozzarella. The baked onion featured caramelized sweetness with the tang of pork miso and a substantially thick shaving of bonito. The saltiness of the bonito drew out the sweetness and tang even more. The oyster and foie gras course was a mouthful of richness and texture with sea urchin adding some extra creaminess to an already dense foie gras.

toro tuna tartare palette (photo by leslie scurry)

toro tuna tartare palette (photo by leslie scurry)

The toro tuna tartare is classic Morimoto; combining the familiar with a unique “play-with-your-food” presentation. A “palette” of finely chopped fatty tuna belly and eight “seasonings” was presented on a mini-artist’s easel standing in a decorative bowl filled with ice, surrounded by native Japanese flora including a “mountain” peach (yamamomo), and a small bowl of dashi soy. A wooden “paint brush” completed the artist’s concept. The presentation of these simple ingredients was so visually impressive that I was torn between staring at it for a good, long time and diving right in.

The eight seasonings included wasabi, creme fraiche, avocado, a variety of Japanese pickled vegetables (tsukemono) and small, bb-shaped arare rice crackers. The initial suggestion from the chefs was to use the “paint brush” to take a bit of the tartare and dip it into a bit of each of the eight seasonings but not the dashi soy so you could get the taste of all together. Beyond that, we could go nuts with whichever combinations we wanted. Even though there were 8+ flavors competing for attention, the simplicity of each of them made this a uniquely uncomplicated dish, and because of that, it was one of the most “fun” dishes I have even had anywhere. Anywhere.

The sushi part of the tasting menu was very good but not nearly as impressive as the dynamic mix of flavors in the courses before it. Although it was a bit anti-climatic, the sushi was near the top of the heap, quality-wise, it was just that the toro tartare palette, the onion, and the oyster/foie gras dishes just overshadowed it a little bit more than I had expected.

Still, the fish was impeccably fresh, the rice was so near perfect that any sushi lover would swoon. The standouts were the raw shrimp with a nice pad of olive-green shrimp roe, a beautiful sliced piece of aji with glistening silver skin and freshly grated ginger and tare sauce, and melt-in-your-mouth scallop. We received a few extras including a realCalifornia roll made with triple-finger fat fresh king crab leg and some gorgeously roasted out-sized fresh chestnuts.

Dessert was another deceptively simple affair. A lip-puckeringly tart lemon sorbet was offset by a sweet and spicy raspberry/wasabi macaron. The macarons were so good, I wanted a take away box of a couple dozen…

masters of the house (photo by leslie scurry)

masters of the house (photo by leslie scurry)

Through out the entire meal, our three chefs were a joy to talk with (being able to speak a nice handful of Japanese helped move that along…) and went out of their way to make everything enjoyable. In fact, the staff in the front and the wait staff on both the sushi floor and in the bar afterward all went out of their way to make XEX an experience that enhanced Morimoto’s food. As it sometimes customary in upper-scale restaurants in Japan, the front staff also accompanied us out as we were leaving and stood in the street outside the restaurant and watched and waved until were were on our way back to the main street to catch the subway home.

restaurant morimoto XEX, 7-21-19 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan, ph. 03-3479-0065

Simpler Times Now

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

Welcome to 2009.

“…but the devil…” has enjoyed it’s holiday time off but now it’s go time. Thanks for your support and we hope to fill the year by featuring lots of interesting restaurants, food opinion and discoveries and even some chef and food writer interviews. And as always, we enjoy your comments, suggestions and encouragement.

As with so many other years, the beginning of 2009 holds both promise and doubt. The fragile state of the economy is palpable and that, in turn, has created tentativeness all around. For my family and friends, this means drawing closer together and looking to a simpler ways to enjoy the season. Some of the frills may be gone (for the moment) but innovation presses on.

The best example this season was a traditional turkey dinner with all of the down-home elements you’d expect only used in unique ways. From savory bread puddings with leeks and pancetta as a replacement for a traditional stuffing, to a frozen piece of molasses and balsamic vinegar ice cream (that’s right, a savory ice cream) served at the bottom of a bowl of butternut squash soup, to two versions of homemade butterscotch pudding. It didn’t need truffles, foie gras or gold leaf; it was the height of no-frills fancy and deeply soul-satisfying.

Perhaps all of the present and predicted economic turmoil means that we all have to creatively use what we have on hand right now. I’m especially encouraged if this means that more people either take the step and start cooking, or continue stretching the limits of their kitchen for their families and friends. After all, sharing food is one of the best ways to continue to stay close, tough times or not.