Monthly Archives: February 2009

Natto Spaghetti

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

The bulk of this is from my old food blog (called Two Ate (linked here if you’re curious to see it…)). I was inspired to repost it here because Linda from Playing With Fire And Water started a soybeans set of postings in the past few days and she just posted a beautiful photo of sticky delicious natto.

And when she posts just a photo, the very next post is usually an extremely clever dish/concept using that ingredient. I am looking forward to what she posts next. My natto spaghetti repost starts here:

I love (LOVE!) natto. Natto is fermented soybeans…it’s primarily Japanese (I think) and it’s fragrant, sticky (REALLY sticky) and goes well with a bowl of hot rice, on toast, or rolled up in a maki sushi roll (natto-maki) but I like it best mixed with spaghetti. Lots of people think natto is disgusting, rotten food…ah, those who don’t know….

NATTO SPAGHETTI (“natto-spa”)
(If you read Japanese, you can also see a version of this recipe I wrote and submitted to Japan’s here.)
– spaghetti
– natto (one pack per person)
– two green onions (I have also substituted very thinly sliced white onion in place of green onion. It gives a slightly stronger flavor.)
– canned tuna (in oil), broken apart into small pieces
– 1-2 TBSP soy sauce
– karashi (japanese mustard) to taste
– canned tuna oil (from tuna can above)
– nori seaweed
– 1/4-1/2 stick butter at room temp (optional)

0. Toast nori over flame (if you’ve got it). Cut into small strips. Or just find some small strips of nori and use those.
1. Boil water for spaghetti.
2. Thinly slice green onion.
3. Open and drain tuna, reserving oil.
4. Scrape out natto into a mixing bowl. Mix natto w/ chopsticks to avoid crushing beans. I usually mix it about 40-50 turns/times…maybe more. Mix until it becomes slightly frothy, being gentle to not mush the beans…don’t worry, it’ll get frothy REALLY quickly.
5. Squeeze out tsuyu (sauce) and mustard packet(s) into natto. Mix some more.
6. Add onions, 1/2 of tuna, 1 TBSP soy sauce and continue mixing natto. It will get less sticky once you add these things.
7. Taste and add tuna oil, additional soy sauce, karashi to taste if you want. Basically, season to taste.
8. Salt boiling water and cook spaghetti.
9. When spaghetti is done, heat and dry a bowl to toss spaghetti in…
10. Put half of butter in bowl followed by cooked (hot) spaghetti and the other half of butter and toss.

Or omit butter and go to step 11.

11. Pour the natto mixture onto the spaghetti and continue to toss until distributed in spaghetti.
12. Taste and adjust soy sauce if you want then plate.
13. Put shredded nori on top of spaghetti.
14. Eat!

Polenta Stories

A few days ago, I was having a vigorous debate about polenta with a friend of mine. Polenta used to be pretty trendy and far too many restaurants didn’t do it very well but priced it as they would price risotto. A few times it was done nicely (in both loose and solid renditions) but most of the time was mediocre even straying into cliche territory in some cases. But the discussion pressed on. What about the creaminess, chided my friend, and the the pleasantly grainy mouthfeel, and the comfort food aspects?

Yeah, yeah…ok, I get that but that kind of creaminess works only if I’m eating breakfast. Polenta seems to be the ticket but then so do grits and at the end of the day, I don’t think there is much difference. But my love-hate of polenta goes beyond reasonable and is wrapped in a few memories that remind me the there are a few sides to every story.

Little City
Creamy vs. grilled. If there was any place that did the latter better, it was the late (lamented) Little City restaurant in San Francisco. I’m sure there are several other eateries in San Francisco’s traditionally Italian North Beach that do grilled polenta well, but Little City was the genesis for so many eye-opening dishes that their polenta just became one of those “aha” moments that was repeated over and over again. Fat, triangular hunks of nicely dense polenta grilled over open flame to put just the right amount of char to play off both taste and texture: charcoal vs. sweet corn, crispy char vs. creamy denseness. Served with grilled/sauteed vegetables and a bare hint of light tomato sauce, this was simply satisfying. It is really the model for my love of polenta. Grilled, that is.

Romo’s Dad
When I worked as a graphic artist, my boss came from an Italian family and we shared many of the same family experiences. Naturally, food was a part of that and when got around to talk polenta, he related a story about his father’s original polenta recipe. He said his dad called it “polenta with small birds”. It involved going out around the neighborhood and capturing small birds (sparrows, he recalls), cleaning them then threading them onto two skewers so their bodies would be splayed out, spatchcocked style. The skewers (with birds) would be stood up in a moderately deep dish of polenta and baked so that the juices of the birds would drip into and flavor the polenta. If you think about it, it does sound plausably delicious. But even today, part of me is still sort of appalled by the image of those sweetly singing (or frighteningly annoying) birds dripping their essence into a dish of creamy polenta.

At some point, my mother (bless her 100% Italian kitchen hands) leapt to the conclusion that there was nothing that I loved more than a giant steaming dish of creamy polenta with a nice-sized dollop of homemade spaghetti sauce on top. It might have been one of the constant lively food discussions that I, my mom and my sisters have when we get together. And mom does like to please…

That said, she can certainly whip up an amazing dish of the gooey corn-y goodness and the first time was great. Second time too. But then it became a standard whenever I was invited over for dinner. It took many dinners for her butt-headed but well meaning son to finally say, “um, how about some other starch next time, huh Mom?”. It has never appeared since. And I feel bad about it. And I cannot look at a dish of liquidy polenta without thinking of that. Some day, I’ll throw myself at the mercy of my mom’s killer sideways glance and ask her if she’ll make it again. And it’ll start all over.

Making Duck Confit

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

Subscribing, but not adhering, to the belief that you can find anything if you look hard enough allows me to be lazy. When it comes to food, I’m an adherent to that belief most of the time. I have gone to three or four grocery stores to fill a prep list just because my favorite stores often have exactly what I want. However, when it comes to making duck confit, I balk.

Many of the grocery stores in the South Bay Area (I mean, there aren’t really any independent butchers around here anymore…California is weird that way) don’t carryfresh duck, either whole or in parts. Sure, you could order in advance but being relatively impulsive makes even that a chore. And for as much as people say that using frozen duck yields the same results, there are some things that I simply won’t use if they’ve been frozen. Duck legs are one of those items.

Baron's and their fresh duck legs. (photo by wm. christman)

Baron’s and their fresh duck legs. (photo by wm. christman)

Enter Baron’s Meat and Poultry inside the Alameda Marketplace. Walking by their shop, my eyes immediately went to a pile of pale yellow fresh duck legs nestled in a white tray sitting on a pile of crushed ice. There was no hesitation in buying four of them – they were as beautiful looking as their price, which is about half of what you can get them for in the South Bay. For a decently pleasant drive, I can now keep duck confit in my fridge on a regular basis, inexpensively.

As long as you’ve got some basics, duck confit is pretty easy to make. You’ll need about 2 1/2 cups of duck fat (about 500 grams), some fresh rosemary and thyme, a clove or two of garlic and some sea salt and black pepper. That’s it. Because you’re depending on the duck fat to both cook and preserve, everything needs to be scrupulously clean, from start-to-finish. Done this way, duck confit will keep for a few months but chances are you’ll eat it long before then.

Starting a day ahead, you salt the duck legs liberally and put them in a clean covered ceramic dish and refrigerate overnight. The next day, start melting the duck fat over medium heat in a clean saucepan. Set your oven to 350°. Blot any excess moisture from the duck, grind a small amount of black pepper on them then put them into a high-sided clean ceramic casserole dish (I use a souffle dish).

Aromatics nestled and ready for duck fat. (photo by wm. christman)

Aromatics nestled and ready for duck fat. (photo by wm. christman)

Take a sprig of fresh rosemary, cut it in half. Pick out 4-5 sprigs of thyme. Peel one large or two small cloves of garlic. Take all of these and nestle them in between and underneath the duck legs. Push down on the duck legs to pack them into the dish. Then carefully pour the melted duck fat over the duck legs until the fat just covers the legs. Cover the dish with foil and put it into the pre-heated oven.

Covered in fat - before and after cooking. (photo by wm. christman)

Covered in fat – before and after cooking. (photo by wm. christman)

Covered in fat – before and after cooking. (photo by wm. christman)

You’ll want to cook the duck for about an hour. At the hour mark, carefully peel the foil up to look at the knuckle end of one of the duck legs. If the meat has started to pull away from the knuckle, then the duck is done. Re -cover the dish with the foil, then carefully transfer the dish (that duck fat is HOT!) to a trivet or cooling rack and let it cool. I usually put the whole shebang in my garage where it is usually extra cool.

When the dish has gone from blazingly hot to merely warm (about 1-2 hours), put the whole thing in the refrigerator. Take it out the next day to admire your handiwork. The duck fat should be pale yellow and creamy looking and you may see small portions of the duck leg slightly sticking up out of the fat.

To use the duck, you can dig the legs out of the cold fat (messy) or warm the dish until the fat melts slightly. With the latter, you can pluck the legs out easily…just let the excess fat drip back into the dish because you’ll want to keep any legs you don’t use underneath a chilled layer of fat. At this point, put the extra confit legs back into the fridge.

Duck confit is one of my kitchen staples. I like to have it around because it can be either a quick bite or used in more elaborate dishes. Listed here, from easy to quite involved, are my favorites uses for duck confit:
– Broiling the legs to crisp the skin then putting them on top of individual entree-sized salads with a basic vinaigrette and some peach, or other stone fruit, slices.
– Grinding up the meat and skin and mixing it with cooked and ground mushroom to use for making fresh duck ravioli.
– Using the legs, as is, as part of a cassoulet.

Want more? Try clicking here.

Ace Of Grades!

(screen capture courtesy of Achewood © 2009 Chris Onstad)

(screen capture courtesy of Achewood © 2009 Chris Onstad)

This really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with …but the devil’s usual M.O., but it is very funny.

For those who don’t follow Chris Onstad’s excellent Achewood online comic strip, Lyle T. Gabriel is a Motorhead loving, all-the-time-drinkin’-n-cussin’, bonefide badass. He has spent his time going from restaurant job to restaurant job where his chief talent is being fired (usually for dippin’ into a customer’s leftovers or the steam table itself…).

I had a hard time getting up off the floor because I was laughing so hard at Professor Lyle’s “lesson plan” in today’s edition. You might too.

In Memoriam, Tom Dowdy

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

One of my best friends passed away in his sleep one year ago today.

Tom Dowdy had a giant passion for all things food, and was always wanting to learn more. He gave of himself freely and taught me so much both in and out of the kitchen. I consider myself truly blessed to have been one of his close friends and to share a common love for food, cooking and technique. A relationship like that is worth so much more to me than any amount of riches could buy.

One year has passed. And yet today, it still seems like it was yesterday. So close, yet so far. I will continue to reach out and grasp and hold the memories and never let them go.