Monday, June 30, 2008

Smelt nanban zuke

If that name looks familiar it's because it's one of the dishes I had at Shiro's while I in Seattle.
I liked it a lot when I had it there and it looked straightforward enough so I thought I'd try to make it at home. If you don't want to click through, basically we're talking about deep-fried pieces of smelt in a vinegary sauce topped with a garnish of onion and pepper. Luckily, my visit to Shiro's was a couple weeks back so I have no real recollection of how it tasted there. I wouldn't want to put my version up to a direct comparison.

I looked around a bit for a recipe right after I went to Shiro's and settled on this one I found at Chilies Down Under although I couldn't tell you why at this remove:
"Nanban Zuke

  • 2 tblsp light soy sauce
  • 1 small chilli (serrano, birds eye, etc) seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 tblsp sake
  • 700g mackerel fillets, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • cornflour
  • oil for frying


  • 0.5 cup rice vinegar
  • 0.5 cup sugar
  • 0.3 cup water
  • 1 teasp salt
  • 1 tablsp sake
  • 1 small chilli (serrano, birds eye, etc) seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 tablsp light soy sauce


  • 2 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 0.5 small green capsicum, cut into thin strips
  • 1 cayenne chilli seeded and finely slivered
  • a few slices frish ginger, cut into slivers

Combine the sake, light soy sauce and chilli in a bowl and marinade the mackerel in it in a fridge for around 20 minutes. Take out the fish and let it drain for a minute. Dust with cornflour and fry in the oil in a frying pan until golden brown.

Blend the sauce ingredients together, place the fish in a serving dish, and pour the sauce over the fish.

Pour boiling water over the spring onion, capsicum, and chilli, leave for 30 seconds, then drain. Sprinkle the spring onion, capsicum, chilli, and ginger over the fish."

The author calls it a "classic example of the Japanese style" but "nanban" translates as "southern barbarian" if you believe Wikipedia. This article (which is pretty interesting nanban aside) explains that this dish evolved from Spanish or Portuguese escabeche, another dish I need to get around to making at some point.

I made a few adjustments to bring this recipe more in line with Shiro's. First, instead of mackerel fillets, I used whole (well whole-ish, they'd been beheaded and gutted) smelt cut into bite-sized pieces. I was hoping to find fresh smelt somewhere as Florida is known for its smelt, but I only found frozen at Whole Foods so that's what I used. Where the recipe says "cornflour" I assumed it meant cornstarch not cornmeal. I used chili oil instead of fresh chili in the sauce to better distribute the flavor. And I substituted slivers of sweet onion for the chopped scallion. And finally, I made sure everything was deeply chilled instead of room temperature

Since I wasn't using fillets I probably should have lengthened the marination. Twenty minutes wasn't enough for more than a bit of heat to soak in. Wilting the onion probably wasn't necessary; I liked the crispness of the onions at Shiro's.

Shiro's served the dish alone, but I served it over rice. I made a last minute decision to sushify my rice (1 1/2 T rice vinegar, 1 T sugar and 1/2 T salt for each cup of uncooked rice. Rinse the rice well; sushi rice should stick together because of the additions not because of starch. You might add a piece of kombu to the rice cooker too if you're thinking that far ahead.) so I went light on the sauce to keep the dish from getting too vinegary. Overall, a pretty nice summer dish. Cool, light, tart and not too much time or trouble in the kitchen. A green salad with that Japanese style dressing and some hot sake would accompany it nicely.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Seattle addendum

On the off chance anybody's been eagerly awaiting my return to blogging, I'd like to apologize for the delay. After the end of my Seattle vacation I spent a few days at a second conference in Pittsburgh. If you're looking for a way to avoid gaining weight on the buffets and boxed lunches foisted on you at conferences I strongly recommend a few days of fine dining immediately preceding. I pushed a lot of plates away in disgust. I did have a pretty good dinner at the Original Fish Market by the Westin Convention Center, though. They do a P.E.I. mussels appetizer that matches them with celery, a pairing that would never have occurred to me as I'm generally not fond of celery, but worked surprisingly well. The grilled talapia was nice too, golden brown, crispy and delicious on one side and tender and moist on the other. That must be tricky to get just right. When I got home I had to restock the refrigerator and then I got in a snacky mood as I caught up on all the podcasts and Daily Shows & Colbert Reports I recorded while I was out. But I'm finally back in the kitchen

First, I should also mention a couple last things from back in Seattle.

I mentioned that I'd be trying Jidori chicken at the Skyline Lounge. Jidori chickens are free-range, clover-fed chickens delivered fresh to restaurants daily. Beyond the ethics of it all (I just finished reading the Omnivore's Dilemma so the ethics of meat are on my mind) it ought to taste better, or at least chickenier, than your average chicken. Hard to tell at the Skyline Lounge as they only used the breast, which generally has less flavor than most cuts, over-seasoned it, overcooked it and covered it in gravy. Ah well.

The other thing I wanted to mention was the Savor Seattle tour I took of the Pike Place market. I think it was a pretty good tour if you like that sort of thing, but I'm coming to the conclusion that I don't. Oh, I did learn some interesting details of the history of the place and got to try eight or so samples, but I also had to sit through a good bit of schtick and get stared at by the tourists as the group awkwardly stood either in their way or on display behind a counter. I think I would have been happier with a self-guided audio tour sort of thing. I was limited in what I could buy due to my travel plans, but I did pick up some lavender extract I want to use for ice cream and some xanthan gum I can use to experiment with foams and such.

This went on a bit longer than I expected so I think I'll put it up and talk about the meal I just cooked in a separate post.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Seattle trip - Steelhead Diner

Steelhead diner is in the greater Pike Place market area. That is, it's in one of the market buildings, but not in the building where you can only sell what you grow or make yourself. I knew I wanted at least one meal in a restaurant that sourced most of its ingredients from the market and, when I was poking around I found that one generally considered well above the rest is Mel's on the Market. However, Mel's is tiny, hard to get into without a reservation (I didn't know quite when the interview I went to see was going to end) particularly a half hour before closing (the most likely time I'd find my way back downtown), and also harder to find as I wandered through most of the market and never stumbled across it despite having it clearly marked on the map I got on my tour.

But, hey, nothing wrong with Steelhead Diner. It's commonly cited as the first runner up and it was recommended by Salumi's owner earlier that day. I wouldn't have called Steelhead a diner if it wasn't in the place's name. I suppose you can see some hints of that focus in the sandwiches on the dinner menu, but the decor is more upscale casual. I ate out on the patio which was a mixed experience. Thankfully, there was a closable door between me and the drunken singing inside (not the Harvard Glee Club this time, unfortunately). On the other hand, I got to listen to skateboarders rattling down the cobblestones at the end of Pine street nearby. On the third hand, the sound of an unmanned board rolling away after a failed trick was distinctly identifiable and pleasantly common. I neglected to bring my phone/camera so no pictures of food or skaters wiping out this time; sorry.

One dish Steelhead is known for is it's caviar pie. It's not described on the menu so I was figuring a little tart mounded with local salmon roe. Instead, I got what looked like a thin slice of cheesecake striped with dense rows of brightly colored caviar--yellow, red, crimson, orange and black from the outside in. The whole pie must have looked like an archery target for someone who really doesn't like fish eggs. The slice was surrounded by piles of crumbled hard-boiled egg, capers and diced onion along with maybe a dozen slices of thin crisp toast. I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't a savory cheesecake, just a layer of whipped cream cheese and even more disappointed to discover how the mild the all the caviar save the bullseye of salmon and sturgeon roe was. The substantially more flavorful garnishes, cream cheese and toast crisps completely overwhelmed them. Impressive presentation, though, so you should encourage someone else to order it so you can take a look.

For my main dish I had an oyster po'boy made with local oysters. And I have to commend my waiter for taking it back to the kitchen and having them fry up a new batch instead of letting it sit under a heat lamp when he saw that I wasn't quite done sampling the various bits of the caviar pie. It was a pretty good po'boy. I'm looking for whatever's inside the deep-fried breading to be flavorful enough to be identifiable through a spicy breading and remoulade. And there shouldn't be too much of that remoulade; too many places spread it on thick. Steelhead did add sweet pickles which I don't think are too traditional, but it's not like I was dining in New Orleans so I'm not going to be too picky so long as the flavors work which I think they did.

No dessert so that's it. Frankly, if it wasn't for the caviar pie I may not have bothered writing it up. Next post should be more interesting.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Seattle trip - Union restaurant

My final dinner in Seattle was at Union, another French influenced American fine dining sort of place that plays in more or less the same cuisine area as Dahlia Lounge. They also focus on fresh seasonal local ingredients.

Union is in a bit of mixed area. From my seat I could see construction, a museum, and a strip club. The market's not far away either. It seems to be a semi-special-occasional sort of place. There are families with children but its too fancy and pricey for just a night out. Like Dahlia, it's dimly lit with dark woodwork but it's a bit more formal.

Union's schtick is kind of like those old Chinese restaurant menus where you picked one dish from column A and one from column B. At Union the menu is designed for a complete meal to be one appetizer, one pasta, one main dish and one dessert which you can get for $50. You can stray from the plan, but they don't encourage it.

I chose a geoduck with cucumber, radish, salmon roe and horseradish appetizer; potato gnocchi with lobster and bacon; veal sweetbreads with morrel mushrooms, garlic spears and turnips; and a frozen chocolate pate with pistachio brittle and cherry soup. I neglected to make a note of the wine I ordered, but the glass came with a little carafe of extra which was much appreciated.

Unlike Shiro's preparation of bite-sized chunks, the geoduck came in shaved paper-thin slices piled up and shingled with rounds of radish and cucumber, topped with roe and sprinkled with grated bits of horseradish. The geoduck was pretty mild and the flavor only came out in a lingering aftertaste. The forward flavors were the cucumber and radish so, as you might imagine, it was a pretty understated dish. The roe provided the dish's salt so you had to try to get a bit in each forkful to make the flavors come out right. A bit of the broth, which I think also had cucumber and geoduck in it helped to blend flavors together as well. It was a pleasant enough dish, but, for me, it didn't really come together into a coherent whole.

I had the same problem with the gnocchi. The gnocchi itself was nicely prepared--light, fluffy and with a nice potato flavor, and the lobster was soft and the bacon crispy, but I didn't get any synergy that elevated the dish above those three, admittedly very nice, components. There was a sauce, based on lobster-stock I think, that helped tie things together, but it didn't stick to the gnocchi so it mainly stayed in a puddle on the plate.

Now the sweetbreads really worked for me. On Top Chef a few weeks back one of the chefs said that sweetbreads, prepared well, were like chicken nuggets, a statement that caused some skeptical comments on a discussion board I was reading. But not a bad comparison, really. The photo here is pretty lousy--the sun had set at this point and I didn't have enough ambient light--but that's a pile of deep-fried chunks of sweetbread you're looking at and a chicken nugget's not far off, although they were a bit softer and gamier. The sweetbreads by themselves were a bit too spicy and salty due to their breading, but they were balanced by the wine reduction sauce and brightened the flavors of the vegetables. The turnip was nicely cooked, retaining some firmness and flavor. The garlic spears were slightly on the raw side of al dente, but not really undercooked to my tastes. It was quite rich so the small serving size was about right.

Finally, the frozen chocolate pate'. The picture didn't come out at all, but you can kind of make out a rectangular slice in the middle of bowl. This was actually milk chocolate mouse coated with a bit of ganache and frozen so it could be sliced. It was served in a pool of cherry soup and topped with a big chunk of pistachio brittle which you can see stretching into the upper right corner of the picture. You can see, I think, that it was huge and unwieldy. I couldn't break the thing and I wasn't willing to pick it up and gnaw on it so it just sat there. The flavors and textures here were disappointingly single-note and familiar--all very Whitman's sampler. The temperature was different, but not any real improvement I thought. I suppose the pate presentation was interesting, but like the caviar pie I had the previous night, a cute presentation doesn't improve the flavor. Not that the flavors here were bad, they just weren't anything special.

And that would have to be my reaction to the meal as a whole. Nothing was bad, but nothing knocked me out either. The gnocchi and pate were too straightforward for my tastes, the geoduck a bit scattered and the sweetbreads a bit heavy. I think if I were in Seattle longer (and could afford another $80 meal) I'd want to go back and try some of the other menu items to tell for sure, but maybe Union's approach just isn't for me.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Seattle trip - Salumi

I've been mostly trying to focus on the food and only describe the atmosphere as a bit of preamble but you can't do that with Salumi, it's more of a dining experience.

Salumi is basically a family-run hole in the wall lunch sandwich shop if a) they cured all their own meats, b) were world famous and constantly mobbed and c) deserved every bit of that fame and attention due to their fabulous food. I got there five minutes after they opened at 11 am on a Friday and the line was already halfway down the block. That's mainly because the place is tiny with just a few individual tables and two bigger eight person tables. They seem to have a system set up where taking and fulfilling an order takes just long enough for a seat to open up. The line moves slowly, but steadily and is livened up by the occasional plate of samples passed down. The line was a mix of neighborhood locals who were stretching their lunch-hours that day, Seattlites who took the day off to go (Salumi only does weekday lunches and Friday dinners for long-time customers and friends of the family. I get the impression that those two categories inevitably overlap. And they do mail order, too.) and touristas like me.

After about twenty minutes I made it inside, checked out the menu and days specials, placed my order at the counter and tried to find a seat. I found one at the eight person table in the back room. The three people already sitting there, it turned out, were a couple from a local community kitchen and one of the owners, Armandino Batali (Mario's dad), who were chatting while sampling everything Salumi makes. Now I was all in favor of minding my own business, but the table filled up, people got chatty and one must be polite. So I've got about three weeks worth of dinner recommendations for my one night without a reservation.

But now the food. I got the cured meats and cheese platter. I honestly couldn't tell you what's what and since it was all great in various ways I'm not certain it really matters. I'm pretty sure there's a smoked paprika salami, sopressata and mole salami (made with chocolate) in there. I also got to try a bit of Salumi's cooked meats shared by the other folks at the table and it was equally as good--some of the most flavorful, tender and moist roast pork I've ever had.

And then the Harvard Glee Club came in a sang a tune. Really; they're touring the country and had a concert in Seattle that night. See? I was busy seeing William Gibson being interviewed that night or I might have gone.

And that's about it, really. In a way I regret going. Whenever I try top quality versions of a product I'm ruined for the cheap stuff. It happened with beer, chocolate, bread and potato chips (I favor Kettle Chips Krinkle Cut Salt and Pepper). With the CSA subscription it happened with vegetables (which is why I've been trying to cook more with meats and grains this summer) and now I think it's happened with cured meats. I think my only recourse will be to start hunting around Miami for the best jamon serano. Any suggestions?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Seattle trip - FareStart

If you've been in suspense since Rebecca, FareStart's donor relations manager commented on my post last week, you'll be happy to hear that I e-mailed her back telling her not to waste her time on a penny ante blogger from across the continent, she insisted and, since it's her time to waste, I accepted her offer of a tour.

So Rebecca spent a half hour showing me around FareStart's facilities and explaining the operation. Basically, what FareStart does is give homeless, or nearly homeless, people a 16 week course in the kitchen skills they need to start a career and the life skills they need to keep it going.

They spend the first few weeks in the basement kitchen working on simpler prep skills creating family-style meals for local childcare centers and shelters using donated ingredients and in the classrooms learning getting basic kitchen knowledge and life skill counseling, training and services.

In the middle weeks they move up to the ground-level kitchen that serves lunches on weekdays using a deliberately widely varied menu to work the skills needed in a variety of different sorts of kitchens and the Thursday night guest chef dinners which also each week. A student will work with five different guest chefs before graduation to get a sampling of different cuisines and kitchen work styles.

In the final weeks they move on to catering work giving them another range of cooking challenges. I think I've got all that right. I'm sure Rebecca will pop up in the comments with corrections, clarifications and elaborations.

Fifty-nine students graduated the program last year out of 102 entering (most dropouts are after the first week) with an 89% job placement rate which seem like pretty good numbers to me.

As you can see in the photos, the kitchens are large and nicely appointed. I've seen plenty of worse teaching kitchens. The dining room is pretty nicely designed, too. The community table in the middle is a nice touch and tonight it was filled with the actual FareStart community including a new graduate, a hostess and admin staff. I had the option to sit there as I was dining by myself, but honestly I would have felt like a complete jackass sitting there taking notes on the food.

So, how was the food? I'm happy to say it was pretty good.

The appetizer was a grilled Japanese eggplant drizzled with sesame ponzu and topped with crunchy tempura bits and little shreds of shiso leaves. I really liked how the eggplant came out, with the thinner slices chewy and the thicker slices creamy. My favorite thing about eggplant is how it can take on both textures (although I've never quite been able to work out how to do it myself). The ponzu and shiso are a trendy pairing, but they work well adding complimentary citrus and herbal notes.

The main dish was tuna tataki, rubbed with wasabi and lightly fried in panko bread crumbs with a pair of spicy mayos, yam fries, a cabbage salad and taro chips. I've got to admit that I didn't care for the tuna, but my main problem with the dish is conceptual; I don't like treating fish, even tuna, like a chunk of chunk of red meat so preparing and presenting it like tenderloin irks me. Also, it really wasn't quite high enough quality tuna to be serving in thick raw slices so the texture wasn't terribly nice. But during my tour I saw chef Dews telling the cooks how thick to slice it so it's all her fault, not theirs. On the other hand, the fries were well done (a vital cook's skill at any level) and I really liked the cabbage salad. I've had trouble making cabbage salad myself so I'd like to have the recipe. The texture was just right with a bit of bite, but not actually crunchy and the seasoning managed to highlight the cabbage's natural flavors without overwhelming them. The taro chips were toasty and crisp but mine had a bit too much finishing salt.

Dessert was chocolate lavender mousse with a candied lavender wand. The mousse was well done; I saw some pretty good folding technique as I walked through the kitchen. There was enough lavender to round out the chocolate flavor but not enough to be identifiable on its own if you didn't know it was in there. The lavender wand was a fun little accessory and pretty tasty on its own. I probably should have resisted the temptation to stir my coffee with it, though.

So, on the whole, a pretty successful meal. The service was lousy, but they were volunteers so I didn't expect much and the place was filled with people enjoying themselves and supporting a good cause so if you've got to sit around waiting for your entrée it's a fine atmosphere to be doing it in. If I lived in Seattle I could easily see myself coming every week, but since I'd probably still be a jerk critiquing the food on my blog, perhaps it's for the best that I"m not.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Seattle trip - Dahlia lounge

Dahlia Lounge is not far off from the main touristy heart of downtown Seattle. I had passed within a block several times earlier during my visit. You can't really make it out in the photo but there's a big animated neon chef holding a fish on the sign. A bit tacky, really. The inside is classy, though. Kind of clubby and a bit dark. Dark enough that I had trouble taking photos anyway. Some turned out better with a flash, some didn't. None turned out great. Sorry. I felt a little under-dressed without a sport jacket, but felt no need for a tie. It was full up at 7:45 on a Wednesday.

Having seen the menu on-line I knew I wanted to order the sea bar sampler, particularly as at least one item on it was suspiciously similar to one in Abokado's taradito sampler and I wanted to compare and contrast. It was a bit large to have a full main course with so I had another appetizer, the pork belly (and I really must get around to curing and slow-cooking my own pork belly one of these days.) and had just enough room left for dessert.

The sea bar sampler was comprised of five little dishes:
Kanpachi with yuzu, nashi pear and shiso

Dungeness crab with bread crumbs, crispy capers and lemon aioli

Dahlia smoked salmon topped with a dollop of hot mustard

Seared albacore tuna with togarashi and pickled ginger
Citrus cured halibut with a scoop of avocado-green chili sorbet

I'm not sure if I ought to bother describing each in detail. I did like them all and, in my notes, I found I had to describe them like wine with the flavors progressing from first impression to aftertaste. Oddly, I didn't describe the wine that way. Huh. It was a pleasantly light grassy Austrian Gruner with mineral notes. I don't think I've ever had a Gruner before.

I've just now checked Abokado's menu and I was remembering incorrectly. The tiradito I was thinking of was actually salmon with pear in a ponzu sauce so it's not quite fair to make a direct comparison. I will say that in general Abokado's tiradito sampler was much prettier than Dahlia's sea bar sampler and a bit more inventive, but Dahlia was way ahead in terms of flavor. I won't bore you with detailed descriptions of all five, but here are my two favorites.

The kanpachi had small pieces of fish topped with matchsticks of pear in a pool of sauce--that's it in the bottom left corner of the picture. Each bite started with a sharp hit of yuzu, then the fruity crunch of the pear followed by a mellow creamy finish of the kanpachi. No one flavor dominated. It was a bit surprising that such a little bit of pear could hold its own. It must have been a particularly flavorful, nicely ripe fruit.

My favorite of the five was the salmon which you can sort of see on the upper left of the picture. It started with a mustard with enough horseradish for bitterness and spice, but not enough to burn. The spice faded, but the horseradish stayed as an undertone through the sweet smoked salmon which was tender and chewy (with just a bit of crunch from a sprinkling of sesame seeds) which faded into a long smoky finish. Really, this description comes nowhere close to doing it justice. It was truly spectacular.

I followed the sampler with honey lacquered pork belly with Chinese black bean sauce, congee and radish pickle. As you might guess from the description, this is an interpretation of the standard Chinatown-style roast pork on white rice dish. The lacquer actually reminded me more of the sauce on the soy-sauce chicken you can get at the same places (my favorite is on west 38th street in New York). It's less salty than the Chinatown version , the bean paste less spicy, and the glaze more caramelized. So caramelized it stuck to the plate, actually. And most importantly, roasted pork is no match for a layer cake of tender pork, honey glaze and delicately melting fat.

The white rice was replaced by a pretty standard congee (a rice porridge) with traditional garnishes of peanuts, scallions and sesame oil. I was impressed that the congee was perfectly done with creamy soft rice that hadn't quite fallen apart and lost its texture. It's hard to get it to just the right point and must be even harder to keep it there during an evening's service.

I enjoyed the dish a lot, but the Chinatown original is pretty great when done right, too. If I was served it in a Styrofoam box I would have missed the pow-socko of the usual flavors and probably would whine about it as is my unfortunate wont. The flavors here weren't dull at all, just dialed down to fine dining levels. The texture of the pork belly pushed it right back up though.

Dessert was a warm rice pudding cornet with strawberry and rhubarb compote, caramel bits and horchata ice cream. Actually, I'm not sure that was ice cream and not just horchata that had been run through a churn. A good industrial ice cream maker could get that creamy texture without cream or eggs. This dish didn't really knock me out. Making rice pudding is like doing easy skills in gymnastics; even if it's perfect, scores of 10 just aren't going to happen. It was a really interesting dessert, though. Mixing and matching each pair of components gave a different result. Neither the ice cream or rice pudding were terribly sweet, so you had to scoop up a bit of the fruit or sugar to balance it out with sweetness and either tart or caramel notes. Or you could pair the ice cream and pudding for an interesting contrast in temperatures with similar textures. The actual cornet, while nice visually, I don't think added much otherwise.

With dessert I had the menu's suggested pairing of a glass of Lillypilly noble blend muscat. It was a syrupy, but not overwhelmingly sweet dessert wine. It had strong white grape flavors with late sour notes that kept the long sticky finish from cloying. It matched really well with the horchata.

I should mention the service. My waitress noticed me taking notes and switched from asking how my food was to how the flavors were which is just the excuse a pretentious ass like me needs to start pontificating so I think she had me pegged there. She also offered to get me another dessert when I mentioned that I wasn't entirely wowed by it. I should go to nicer places more often; professional service is a real treat.

I ended up spending around $65 including a good tip, but it would have been another $10-$15 if I had had a proper main dish instead of a bunch of appetizers. Well worth it. I usually read while eating, but this meal required attention. Every bite had multiple flavors and texture to savor. I have one night's meal unscheduled while I'm here in Seattle and I'm strongly considering heading back to Dahlia.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Seattle trip - Shiro's sushi restaurant

I just got in to Seattle today for my conference and I skipped the free buffets at open houses and instead walked over to Shiro's Sushi Restaurant. Seattle is lousy with sushi places--I passed four or five on my way over--but Shiro's has a Local Specialties section on the menu I really wanted to try. I've also read that chef's choice will net you some really interesting and odd dishes, but it was a full house and it didn't look like they had time to get experimental.

I was a bit surprised about where I found the restaurant. It looked like a Williamsburg-esque hipster-infested mid-gentrification neighborhood, but Shiro's has been there and, apparently been a hot-towel glass-covered-white-tablecloth sort of place, since 1994.

It was a full house at 7 pm on Sunday with a good mix of families, the aforementioned hipsters, and Japanese young professionals boozing it up at the sushi bar. The amount of customers may have been unusual; the wait staff seemed a little overwhelmed.

I didn't order any sushi myself, but I wasn't far from the sushi bar so I got a look at the orders. I liked how they were laid out--prettily garnished with bean threads, shrimp heads and such but not sculptural. It's a bit of a peeve of mine when dishes are laid out so they look great, but are a pain to actually eat.

So what I did order was:
Geoduck Butter Yaki--Tender giant clam sauteed w/butter and mushroom sauce
Smelt Nanban--Marinated smelt w/fresh sliced Walla Walla onion
Asari Sakamushi--Steamed local Manila clams w/sake sauce
and a bowl of miso soup with baby mushrooms.

Let's start with the soup which I didn't photograph because you know what miso soup looks like. I think you can get a sense of a Japanese restaurant from their miso soup. I was particularly impressed with Shiro's because it had such a nice balance between the miso and the bonito and kombu in the dashi. Most places use a lot of miso and drown the dashi and most dashi goes heavy on the bonito and drowns the kombu. Really tasting all three is pretty rare and pretty nice. The cilantro garnish instead of the usual wakame was a good match with the baby mushrooms.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the smelt. Looking at it, I expected it to be warm, fresh from the deep fryer, and to taste primarily of tempura batter. Instead, the fish were deeply chilled and bursting with a bright vinegary flavor well balanced against the raw sweet onions that topped them.

The geoduck I was actually a little disappointed with. It's the first time I've had geoduck (a giant clam native to the Pacific northwest) and I don't know if sautéing it with butter and mushrooms is a great showcase. I've made similar recipes with chicken and the flavors and textures in dish were hard to distinguish from them until the shellfish aftertaste hits. Maybe that's the point? If it's deliberately using geoduck as just another meat then it succeeded well as it was a well prepared and pleasant enough dish. I'll have to have more geoduck in other preparations to really get a sense of what was going on here, I think.

Finally, the Manila clams. They were cooked to just the right level of doneness, firm but not chewy and tender enough to de-shell using chopsticks. I'm assuming the broth I got was the advertised sake sauce, but I couldn't taste any sake in it. It tasted of clam liquor rounded out subtly with other flavors, a squeeze of lemon, a bit of kombu, maybe some sake. The scallions on top were raw but wilted slightly in the broth. Quite straightforward, which is how I like my clams generally, but carefully managed to get just right. Not a hint of grit either which I appreciated.

Overall I was quite happy, and, surprisingly, full for only $36 including tip and tax. (It would have been more if I had went with sake instead of tea.) I can only hope my other meals here are as good.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What's next

Posting is going to be light for a little while; I'm headed off to a couple of conferences for work soon so I've been more concerned with clearing out the refrigerator than with making anything clever. I'm a science librarian by trade so the conferences themselves are off-topic and my meals will mainly be scrounged from whatever 's being handed out for free with so there's not likely much of culinary interest to report. One exception is the American Physical Society dinner in the Seattle Space Needle restaurant. It looks like we're getting selections off their normal menu, which I've heard isn't all that great, but I am curious if the high quality of Jidori chicken makes a difference when it's covered in country gravy.

I do have a few days in Seattle after the SLA conference before I head to Pittsburgh for ASEE so I'm making a foodie vacation of it. Luckily many of Seattle's best restaurants are clustered downtown near the convention center and are quite affordable compared to Miami prices. I have reservations at Dahlia Lounge, Union and a FareStart dinner with a guest chef from Sook catering (which I can't find any reviews of so I'm hoping to find time for another Japanese meal at Shiro's which has a local specials menu including a geoduck yaki I want to try). I'm also doing a Savor Seattle tour of the Pike Place market and plan to head down to wait in line at Salumi for lunch one day.

I'm also going to go to some art museums and the Locus awards at the Science Fiction Museum but you're not interested in that stuff. I don't know if anybody's actually interested in my meals at Seattle restaurants either but other food bloggers post about their travels so I'll give it a try. I figure having to write it up will make me think harder about my meals anyway and probably enjoy them more fully as a result. And, hey, maybe a waiter will notice me taking notes, mistake me for a proper reviewer, and try to bribe me with a free dessert.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Raspberry swirl ice cream

This is my, I think, third attempt at a swirl ice cream. I tried a peanut butter swirl that turned into chunks of taffy (which wasn't at all bad, really) and a coffee swirl that turned into granita (which was). There seems to be a trick in getting the texture just right that I don't have the hang of.

I came across this recipe in Lebovitz's Perfect Scoop when I was looking for something to do with in-season and on-sale raspberries. The ice cream itself is a basic custard-based vanilla (although made with Splenda blend to accommodate the coworkers I've driven to Weight Watchers by bringing in my ice creams. I take no particularly pride in this; I could have accomplished the same thing with weekly bags of circus peanuts.) so I won't bother talking about that, but the swirl recipe was interesting:

1 1/2 cups raspberries (about 6 oz by weight)
3 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tablespoon vodka

Mix well, crushing the raspberries. Chill an hour and layer with ice cream by spoonfuls.

That ought to work. The vodka and high sugar content should serve to keep it soft at freezer temperatures and the pectin in the berries should hold it together a little. The practical problem comes in the "chill an hour" step. Maybe Lebovitz owns a blast chiller--If I were writing an ice cream cookbook I'd invest in one--but an hour of chilling wasn't nearly enough. When the relatively warm swirl mixture hit my just-churned ice cream, the ice cream immediately melted. Instead of layers of bright red and creamy white, I mostly got a lot of pink. The ice cream froze pretty solid; I think I lost a good bit of churned in air when the ice cream melted. It refroze quickly in the freezer, but there are still some noticeable ice crystals.

I should have known better. An hour chilling isn't nearly enough. I should have made the swirl the same time as I made the ice cream base, refrigerated it overnight to get it down below 40 degrees and then gave it ten minutes in the freezer as the ice cream churned. Also, I think I might crush the fruit somewhat less so there is less juice to run free. Well, the flavors are still nice enough and the texture's not too bad if you let it sit out on the counter for a few minutes first. I'll do better next time.

Semi-crustless quiche

A while back I tried out a recipe for a savory crumb crust to use with quiche. It worked out well enough that I was planning to try it again using different crackers, but I took a look at the four Tablespoons of butter it adds to an already pretty fatty dish (and an increasingly fatty me) and decided against it.

Instead, I just laid a layer of breadcrumbs on the bottom of the pie pan to see how it would turn out. It required a bit of delicacy in placing the fillings (bacon, caramelized onions and spinach) and in pouring the egg mixture (three eggs, a quarter cup heavy cream, three quarters cup milk, three quarters cup semi-soft cheese, a quarter cup hard cheese, salt, pepper and a sprinkling of nutmeg), but you shouldn't be throwing that stuff around, anyway. I used Bittman's crustless quiche recipe from his Minimalist column in the New York Times. It called for mixing the cheese into the egg mixture instead of into the fillings which was an interesting difference from other recipes I've used.

Here's the result (after 20 minutes at 325 degrees).

And here's the bottom. Not much to see there, but it does give a bit of firmness to a rather loose and creamy quiche. Since the center was firm I thought I had left it in the oven too long, but really it could have used another five minutes. There was no browning, though, which was a bit of a disappointment. So it's not quite a success but I think there's promise.

For the last crumb crust I had laid down a layer of cheese just on top which I think melted through, insulating it from the main filling and holding it together. I'll try that with the bread crumbs next time.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Southwestern black bean hominy stew

My original plan was to make a traditional pozole--a stew of just hominy, peppers and pork--but things got a bit out of hand.

Well, backing up a bit, the origin of this dish is the tiny ethnic food isle in the local Whole Foods. They've got a rack of various southwestern peppers and herbs packaged by a company called Los Chileros out of New Mexico. They also sell dried hominy. I had no idea there was such a thing. Hominy is made by soaking dried corn in lye- or lime-water and I figured once it was soaked it was soaked and I had only ever seen it in cans. So I was intrigued and determined to try it out.

I also had on hand some dried black beans and some fresh corn on the cob that seemed like good additions. And, since I wanted something fire roasted in there and don't have ready access to fire, a can of fire roasted crushed tomatoes seemed like a good addition.

All that plus the pork--I think I accidentally made chili. It's nothing like a real bowl of red, mind you, but chili is such a degraded term these days I think this is somewhere under that broad umbrella.

Anyway, it went like this (keeping in mind that I didn't actually measure anything at the time):

1 cup dried black beans
1 cup dried hominy
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 cups finely chopped onion (I used red and white as I had those available)
1 cup finely chopped green bell pepper (only because I had no fresh hot peppers handy)
1 Tablespoon Mexican oregano
1 Tablespoon epazote (epazote supposedly reduces gas, but best to use the beano anyway)
1 Tablespoon ancho chili powder
1 Tablespoon ground cumin (whole cumin would have been nice but I seem to be out)
2 dried casabel chiles
2 dried chipotle chiles
1 lb pork roast (not stew pork as that does best when the stew never reaches a boil, but you've got to boil to cook the beans and hominy), chopped in 1 inch cubes
kernels cut from 1 small ear of corn, including the milk if you've got any. Mine didn't.
14 ounces crushed fire roasted tomatoes
1 cup chicken broth
vinegar hot pepper sauce

white onion, finely sliced
green cabbage, finely sliced

1. Soak beans and hominy separately overnight

2. Heat oil in dutch oven on medium heat. Add any whole spices you're using, cook until aromatic, add onions and peppers, sweat onion and pepper until soft but not browned. Stir in oregano, epazote, chili powder and cumin and cook until aromatic.

3. Add hominy, black beans and enough hominy soaking water to cover by 1 inch. Crumble, crush or chop peppers and add to pot. Simmer on low heat until hominy and beans are just getting tender, around 1 1/2 hours.

4. Add corn, tomatoes, enough chicken broth to thin out the stew to your preference and salt to taste. Simmer for another 1/2 hour.

5. At some point during that half hour add the pork. Exactly when depends on your cut of meat and how large the pieces are. Use your judgment. I added mine with the corn and tomatoes and it ended up a bit overdone. Ten minutes would have been sufficient.

6. Taste and adjust seasoning. I found mine a bit muddy so I added a vinegar based hot sauce, specifically Urban Chefs hotlicious pepper sauce which is a micro-brand out of Columbus, Ohio. Tabasco or Cholula would do fine, but Urban Chefs has a fruitier character that I like a lot.

7. Serve garnished with onion, cabbage, strips of tortilla and a squeeze of lime.

The end result is pretty good. Looking at it you expect chili pretty much, but the strong corn element in the broth (and the fact that it's actually soupy) is pretty distinctive and interestingly tasty. I like the variety of textures in the chewy hominy, creamy beans, firmly tender corn, not too overdone pork and crisp garnishes. Tasting the dish today, I found the tomato a little forward and the chiles a bit mild and dissociated from the other flavors. These sorts of stews always taste better and usually spicier the second day after the flavors had time to meld. It's actually tasting better every time I try it as it cools. I'll add a note tomorrow when I have a final result.

OK, it's tomorrow. I'm a little disappointed. The flavors did meld nicely but the broth turned into a chili-style sauce and the flavors all mellowed a bit so the end result is kind of undistinguished. I was hoping for something with more pizazz. Still, a couple shots of hot sauce and it's perfectly palatable.

I might try a different mix of peppers next time; I picked what I used fairly randomly. It's easy to find out how hot each pepper is, but its the other flavors they have that are important and that's much harder to learn so you just have to try them and see. Wow, I just found myself respecting Bobby Flay for a moment there. What an odd sensation.