Saturday, January 29, 2011

Masochistic Mac and Cheese

I'm in the process of putting together a Boston Food Bloggers macaroni and cheese recipe index, much like this under-construction cookie one. I've been adding to it bit by bit over the last week or so, and this task unsurprisingly triggered a massive mac and cheese craving. (Update: Here's the link!)

As a kid, I'd only eat Kraft mac & cheese - especially the fun shapes! - and it had to be the stove-top version. Easy Mac is disgusting. Here's the weird thing, though: I wouldn't touch homemade macaroni and cheese. Once I hit college, I branched out ever so slightly to Annie's microwaveable mac and cheese. It was quick and easily do-able in my dorm room microwave, and it didn't taste too bad. But I still wouldn't go near homemade. I just didn't like cheese enough.

Now, though, I'm finally turning into a cheese fiend, so putting this index together inspired me to try my own homemade mac & cheese. It was also my first time making a roux, and I thought it was going to fail epically, but the end result was actually pretty awesome.

Why "masochistic"? Ghost chili powder. And a little bit of hot sauce, too.

Masochistic Mac and Cheese
These measurements yielded four medium-sized portions. Tasted great as leftovers!
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 3/4 cups milk (I used 2% - probably best not to use skim.)
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • Salt and pepper
  • Bread crumbs (I used store-bought regular ones. You can make your own if you feel so inclined.)
  • Generous drizzle of truffle oil (I used white. I don't know much about truffle oil, so I can't really tell you if black or white would taste better here. It's a pretty subtle addition anyway.)
  • Ghost chili powder (or your choice of a spicy addition: chili powder, cayenne pepper, etc. I bought my ghost chili powder here.)
  • Hot sauce of your choice
  • Cheese (I used 2 cups cheddar - Cabot's "Seriously Sharp", 1/2 cup Gruyere, and 1/2 cup Romano. I thought about using Asiago, which is my favorite cheese, but it melts kind of strangely so I wasn't sure it'd work well.)
  • Pasta (I used about half a box of mezzi rigatoni.)
First step: get some water boiling for the pasta. Pre-heat your oven to 375F.

While the water was heating up, I grabbed a giant pot and melted the butter in it. Once it was melted, I whisked in the flour. This didn't go so well...I ended up with a couple giant chunks of flour, and not much liquid. Next, though, I started slowly adding in the milk, and it started getting saucier. (Note: warm your milk before adding it.) This part requires some vigorous whisking. Keep going and going and going until you have a thick, bubbling sauce. (Meanwhile, is your water boiling yet? Put the pasta in!) Lower the heat on the saucepan and add your seasonings, followed by a good portion of your cheese - about two-thirds. Keep mixing until everything is nicely melted and mixed. Taste it. Adjust the seasonings until you're happy. This is where I added a ton of ghost chili powder. Woohoo!

When your pasta is about 2-3 minutes away from the doneness recommended on the package, take it off the heat, drain it, shock it in some cold water, and drain it again.

Once you've got your pasta and your sauce, mix them together.

Pour the cheesy pasta mixture into a greased casserole dish. Top the whole thing with breadcrumbs, the rest of the cheese, a big drizzle of truffle oil, and any other seasonings. (I added more ghost chili powder here, for good measure.)

Stick it in the oven for about 30 minutes. Mine was done in about 25; my oven runs hot. You want the breadcrumbs nicely browned (but not burnt) and the cheese wonderfully melted. Most recipes say to let it sit for a bit. We were too hungry.

We drizzled a bit of hot sauce on top after taking it out of the oven. You can never have too much spice!

I was shocked that this turned out so well. When making the roux, I couldn't get the flour to fully incorporate, so I was worried I'd end up with little chunky flour pockets. Fortunately they disappeared into the mix somewhere!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

5K on a whim: I need to stop adding things to my schedule.

Couch to 5k in less than two months when I'm insanely busy with work, food stuff, and music stuff? Sure, why not?

I just signed up for the Ras 5K (Davis Square, St. Patty's Day) on a whim. Do I have time to train? Nope. But I'm going to make this work somehow.

The obstacles:
  1. Time. I work weekdays 9-5:30 with a commute that's usually an hour, so I'm out of commission from wake up until generally 6:30pm or so. In this weather, the MBTA has been royally failing, so sometimes I get home later than that. A lunch workout is not possible (no showers, no time), and I don't think I can wake up any earlier to squeeze in a morning workout. I'm devoting a lot of time to Boston Food Bloggers, so between events, updates, and catching up on emails, I tend to put in several hours each night. Also, my band is having a release show February 26 (please come?), so until then, I'll be tied up several nights a week with lengthy rehearsals (plus neat promo stuff like radio shows and photo shoots! Super exciting!) Something's gotta give. I'm guessing it'll be sleep.
  2. Ability. I ran track all through high school, but I'm using the word "run" pretty loosely here. Although dedicated and determined, I was consistently one of the absolute slowest on the team. Officially a sprinter but occasionally testing out the distance workouts, I was pretty bad at both. The longest run of my life was 13.5 miles the morning after a drama-filled high school party. I hadn't eaten breakfast, I was hungover, I was depressed, and I had mono but didn't know it yet. I figure if I survived that, I can survive any run, but the fact remains that I'm still a pretty bad runner. I've jogged off and on through the years, and I've finished a couple 5Ks along the way, but I'm fairly out of shape at the moment. Since 1/1, my only exercise has been to walk up and down the Porter T station stairs rather than taking the escalator. I've stuck to this resolution faithfully, but I still emerge from the station wheezing, bright red, and lightheaded. As for my other resolutions...well...never mind.
  3. Snow. Yeah, yeah, I ran winter track for four years. I'm still not a fan of winter running. The burning, tight lungs, the slushy grossness, the slippery ice...not so fun. I've already slipped and fallen several times just walking.
So I need to make a training plan. What can I accomplish in six and a half extremely busy weeks, starting from a pretty low fitness level? Based on my prior running experiences, I think I could probably complete a 5K at about a 12- or 13-minute mile pace on absolutely no training. I might be selling myself a little short, but I don't know. If I can squeeze in some training, I'd love to end up in the 10- or 11-minute mile range for the actual race.

Aside from continuing to shun all escalators in favor of stairs, particularly the 200+ at Porter, what other pseudo-exercises can I sneak in? There might be one or two ski trips in the next six weeks, so there's that (but I'm a horrible skier - just started last year and honestly not really looking forward to trying again this year!) Realistically, I can probably fit in one long jog each weekend and one shorter jog on a weeknight. (When training for a 5K, what's a good distance for a "long" run?)

This race is right in my neighborhood. Is it good to run the course a few times during training, or will the novelty of an unfamiliar course boost my adrenaline on race day? (I'm leaning towards the latter.) 

Any other tips for a sort-of-experienced-but-still-pretty-bad-plus-busy-and-out-of-shape runner? Anyone else running the Ras 5K?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tomatoes Times Two

Subzero temperatures? Whatever. Nothing will stop me from attending a tomato tasting! While I can't claim to know much of anything about tomatoes - heirloom? What does that even mean? - I do know that they're pretty much my favorite food ever. The bulk of my diet is composed of tomato soup, pasta in a variety of tomato-based sauces, and salads made solely of greens and tomatoes.

Anyways, I spent this frigid evening at Garden at the Cellar at a promo event for Muir Glen organic tomatoes. Chef Will Gilson was one of five chefs chosen around the country to showcase Muir Glen's 2010 Reserve Tomatoes by creating recipes featuring these flavorful gems, and for the love of tomatoes, I braved the cold and met up with fellow bloggers Megan (Delicious Dishings), Meghan (Travel, Wine, and Dine), Elizabeth (Free Food Boston), Katie (The Small Boston Kitchen), and Brian (A Thought For Food) to indulge in a variety of apps and entrees showcasing the Muir Glen tomatoes. (I also got to say a quick hello to Glenn of Wine Dine With Us, and I saw Jen of Tiny Urban Kitchen from afar, but I have yet to meet her. If you haven't heard, Jen is totally representing the Boston food blogger community on the national front; she vanquished hundreds of competitors in Foodbuzz's Project Food Blog competition and took home the gold! Woohoo!)

This was only my second visit to Garden at the Cellar; my first was very enjoyable. (I had also previously tasted Chef Gilson's food at a fair trade event in October 2009, where he smoked meat using a bong. That technique was learned in the culinary school dorms, apparently.)

After a frustratingly long commute, I stumbled in cold, hungry, and disheveled, but I was warmly greeted with wine, blogger buddies, and apps, which I neglected to photograph very well. I tried tomato soup shooters with cheddar sandwiches (best. combination. ever.) and slow cooked pork belly with sweet and sour tomato jam (fatty, tender manna from heaven). Also available: grilled bruschetta with tomato, eggplant, and smoked feta and flatbread pizza with smoked tomatoes and roasted cauliflower.

We sat down to enjoy three entrees family-style:

Local Seafood and Tomato Stew

Braised Lamb with Tomato and Curry Leaf Confit

Pasta with Grilled Sausage and Parmesan
Rich and rustic, with little hints of spice, all three were quite enjoyable. A glutton for any carb-and-meat combo, I was a big fan of the pasta and sausage. The tomatoes really shined in every dish, bringing up memories of sun-warmed late summer tomatoes from farmers' market stalls, bursting with juice, a sweet/tart balance.

We left with a gift box containing four cans of Muir Glen tomatoes, plus a booklet of recipes created by the five chefs on the Muir Glen Tomato Vine Dining Tour.

Silly me, making new year's resolutions about walking up the 200+ Porter Station stairs. Tonight was no exception. I dragged this box up about 14 flights.
Worth the effort! Totally looking forward to trying out some of the recipes.
Tonight was fun - and worth the walk in the cold!

On the topic of tomatoes, back in September, I was invited to a five-course heirloom tomato dinner at Bistro 5 in Medford. I remember every course being fantastic, but I sadly never got around to blogging about it. I just hooked up ye olde external hard drive to resurrect my photos from the event so that I could share the photos and menu with you. Since it was so long ago, I won't comment on the courses except to say that I remember finding the tomato creme brulee very odd (although everyone else seemed to love it), and I was pleasantly surprised by the tomato dessert. (Tomato's a fruit, after all!)

All the tomatoes were from Kimball Farm, and each course was paired with a different type of basil from Soluna Garden Farm.

Lobster Bisque: Pineapple Tomato Bisque, Lemon Basil, Saffron Bubbles and Brioche (paired with 2009 Domaine Felines Jourdan, Picpoul de Pinet, Languedoc)

EVOO Fried Green Tomatoes: Copia Tomatoes "In Carrozza", Buffalo Mozzarella and Opal Basil Pesto (paired with 2008 Larochette Manciat, Macon Les Morizovittes)

Heirloom Tomato Risotto: Red Brandywine Tomatoes and Queso Leonora Goat Cheese with Crispy Prosciutto and Lime Basil (paired with 2008 Lancon, Domaine de la Solitude, Cotes du Rhone Rose)

Duck Confit Strudel: Smoked Speckled Roman Tomato Brulee, Sweet and Sour Kuri Squash, Port Poached Seckle Pear with Thai Basil and Pickled Ginger (paired with 2008 Vigneti Zabu 'Il Passo', Nero d'Avola Blend, Sicily)

Tomato...Sweet Tomato: Organic Peach Tomato Napoleon, Cinnamon Basil Yogurt Gelato, Vanilla Bean Creme Anglaise and Pistachio-Estevia Pesto (paired with 2009 Sarocco, Moscato d'Asti)

I can't wait until tomatoes are back in season! In the meantime, though, I'm looking forward to trying out these Muir Glen cans that I lugged home. Maybe I'll even branch out and make something other than pasta!

Disclosure: Both of these meals were provided to me free of charge. While on occasion I accept food and product samples and meals, my acceptance of these things does not obligate me to write a positive review - or any review at all. Regardless of cost or lack thereof, all opinions expressed in this blog are my full and honest opinions.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

My First Piece of Food Writing Ever (and Other Things Related to Iguanas)

No, my first piece of food writing doesn't involve eating iguanas. I've never eaten iguanas, in fact, but I've seen them for sale at Savenor's. Although an enthusiastic meat eater, I'll never eat something that I've had as a pet...except for fish. That's different somehow. Here's me looking super awesome at some point in the mid-nineties, hanging out with Iggy!

Anyway, a top secret band project sent me digging through pieces of writing from my childhood, and I resurrected a bound and laminated fifth grade writing book which included many assignments from the year. Towards the end of the book, I found what must be my first piece of food writing ever, a review of the now-defunct Iguana Cantina. (Actually, the place was already defunct at the time I wrote this.)

Wow. I'm particularly fond of the fact that I used the phrase "wonderful restaurant" three times. Also, "I try not to eat fries"? Who was I?? My favorite part is how I tell the reader, hey, this is a great restaurant...but it doesn't exist anymore! (Picture almost-eleven-year-old me sticking out my tongue at you here.)

In this same binder of fifth grade writing, I found an amazingly horrible poem called...Iguana! I might have been a little bit obsessed. Nearly everything in here was about iguanas or cats. My very first AOL screenname was IguanaCat! (The best part of this booklet is the short story entitled The Day my [sic] Stuffed Cats Came Alive, an epic adventure taking place in the Cattalachians, in which I battle dogs, who have allied with fish, mice, and birds to take over Catland.)

Anyways, enough about Catland. I have to share this iguana poem with you. (By the way, I think the assignment was to imitate the structure of an existing poem. Any ideas what this could be modeled on? I can't remember, and now it's driving me crazy!)

Poor defenseless iguana. Your toothless bites don't hurt at all.

And now for one last iguana-related item: my aforementioned band, The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library, has recently been awarded a $2000 grant from the Passim Iguana Music Fund! This will allow us to finish our debut CD without artistic compromise.
In that vein, I'm going to sneak in a bit of self-promo spam here. Our CD release show is at The Middle East (downstairs!) on Saturday, February 26th. We currently have a great deal going on where you can buy a ticket for the show, plus our CD, plus a digital download of the CD, plus an extra special surprise gift from band! If you're interested, please visit the following links:
I'm playing flute, oboe, and piccolo (plus some background vocals, rain stick, and hand claps!)  By the way, my lovely food friends, there's a rumor that we might be playing a set at the Somerville Winter Farmers Market at some point. I'll keep you updated.

Don't forget...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Mystery Meet in Hell

Mystery Meet Boston has previously taken me to the slightly inaccurately named Ten Tables in Cambridge and to a blind dining experience at Hampshire House. Last night, it took me straight to Hell.

Oh, I've been there four times already. You can read about my first experience and my fourth experience, if you'd like.

The Hell that I'm referring to, of course, is East Coast Grill's favorite punch to your stomach, the once-every-few-months Hell Night. Attendance at Hell Night typically requires sitting with a finger on redial for an hour before (hopefully) snagging a reservation for a night of pain. I've done it four times and loved it; might as well make it five! I felt a bit guilty grabbing a ticket for this one; Mystery Meets sell out fast, and I've already been to two Mystery Meets and four Hell Nights. I didn't feel guilty enough to not buy the ticket, though! If you haven't heard of Mystery Meets, by the way, they're monthly dinner events with mystery locations - and sometimes other mysterious elements, like the blind dining one - with clues released in the weeks leading up to the sale of tickets. When you buy a ticket, you may have a good idea of where you'll be eating, but you won't know for sure until the day before the event. The clues for this one were a dead giveaway:
  • If you can’t take the heat, get your ass outta the kitchen. ("I wonder if it's Hell Night," I thought to myself. "That'd be awesome!")
  • No, seriously. It’s going to be hot. You’ve been warned. ("Oh, it's totally Hell Night. Should I go? Should I take a break this time? After all, I was just there last month. But I'm addicted to ghost chili. Yeah, I should probably try to get tickets. My addiction needs feeding.")
  • Adam Richman was here. (After Wikipedia-ing "Man v. Food", Adam Richman's show, I saw that there was only one Boston episode. He visited Eagle's Deli - nope, nothing spicy there, The Barking Crab - nothing spicy that I know of and not a likely Mystery Meet destination, Coast Grill.)
  • Milk = $5/glass. (Yep.)
It's no secret that East Coast Grill is, hands down, my favorite Boston-area restaurant. I've written about it on multiple non-Hell Night occasions as well: Cinco de Mayo, my 25th birthday, and Joel's 27th birthday, which I declared to be "The Best Meal I Have Ever Had".

Since this was a Mystery Meet, it was slightly different than a typical Hell Night. In fact, East Coast Grill is now offering Hell Night for private parties, so this was an example of what that's like. (Spoiler alert: It's not quite as cool as the real thing, but it's still pretty awesome.) First of all, it was lovely to finally meet Bianca (Confessions of a Chocoholic), along with the rest of our table: Tracey (40-Something Life), Frank (The Earnest Life), and Frank's wife Adriana (Today's iPhone). It was also nice to see some fellow bloggers from afar: Amanda (Tales from a Kitchen Misfit), Nicole (I am a honeybee), and Jacki (Just Add Cheese!). (Hope you all had a wonderful time!)

Light-up lava mural!
For regular Hell Nights, my friends and I typically order everything family-style (one appetizer per person, two or three entrees depending on whether we have six or eight people, and plenty of cornbread to go around). For this event, there was a fixed menu: four appetizers to be shared family-style, a choice of one of two entrees, and one dessert. This was priced at $45/person, and drinks and cornbread (yep, we wimped out and ordered some) were extra. For comparison, when I go to a normal Hell Night with 6-8 people and we order in the way I described above, it generally comes out to $45/person including the drinks and cornbread. It's a little bit more cost-effective doing it that way. Onto the meal...

Signing away my life...
East Coast Grill makes killer mojitos.


Russian Roulette Style Spicy Meatball Challenge with Angry Tomato Sauce (2 bombs to 8 bombs): one meatball per person. Some are very mild, some are very hot. Mine had the distinct taste of Scotch bonnet and stayed with me for awhile, but it wasn't quite as insane as the one I got last time. I'd say this was about a 5.5-bomb meatball. Joel also got a pretty spicy one; the rest of the table got mild meatballs.

Smokin' Hot Pork Spare Ribs with Guava Lava Glaze and Inner Beauty Hot Sauce (3 bombs): Delicious. Only hot if you get a saucy piece. (That yellow sauce is the Inner Beauty, East Coast Grill's wonderfully hot condiment that comes with a few items on the non-Hell Night menu as well. Woohoo!

Wings of Mass Destruction "Phuket Style" with Ghost Chile Oil, Aromatic Herbs, and Nuoc Cham (7 bombs): Definitely the hottest dish of the night. Sweet, meaty, and oh-so-good...but then the burn starts. And it doesn't go away. Ten minutes later, your lips will still be tingling. These may have brought a tear to my eye...because they were so delicious. (Right...) (Note: On regular Hell Nigh menus, these are usually called "Wings of Ass Destruction.")

Korean Fried Chicken Thigh with Apple Kim Chi and Super Charged Kojuchang (4 bombs): Not spicy at all, but so good - possibly my favorite dish of the night. The apple kim chi was a sweet variation on the typical cabbage, the chicken was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, and the "super charged" sauce was tasty (but not hot).

We kind of wimped out and ordered cornbread to provide relief from the wings.

Helpful, but not sufficient. If you plan on taking out contact lenses or touching body parts that are important to you, wash your hands multiple times, preferably with a good dish detergent to get the oils out.

Main Course
There was a spicy pork chop option and a mild mahi-mahi option. Most of us went with the pork.

Jamaican Jerk Grilled Pork Chop with Banana Guava Ketchup, Real Inner Beauty Hot Sauce, Curried Sweet Mashed Potatoes, and Cumin Seared Greens (6 bombs): Only six bombs if you slather it with the hot sauce, which was served on the side. Otherwise, this is actually a mild dish. It had some wonderful flavors - the creepy-looking banana guava glaze tasted great, as did the mashed potatoes. 

Mango-Berry Crisp with Fresh Whipped Cream (0 bombs): A spicy dessert would have been awesome - a dark chocolate/chili combo, perhaps? - but this was light and refreshing, and the ice cream provides sweet relief after all the heat.
One person at my table had a cinnamon allergy, and East Coast Grill apparently takes allergies very seriously. A card arrived with her entree that notified the chef of the allergy, and it was also prominently marked on the bill. (I'm assuming they leave the card with the entree as a reassurance to the customer; I've read Yelp reviews that described the same occurrence.)

Overall, this was a fun experience; it's always interesting to sit down to an adventurous meal with total strangers. Compared to regular Hell Nights, though, this seemed a bit watered down. First of all, you're missing out on the energy of the whole restaurant being decorated for the occasion, packed full of excited people, with chili pepper-laced smoke wafting out of the kitchen and Dr. Pepper making his rounds. Also, for the Mystery Meet, the famous Pasta from Hell was not available, and the pace was more relaxed - one appetizer at a time - whereas during a regular Hell Night, everything arrives at a frenetic pace. The bombs on the Mystery Meet menu seemed to be overestimates; the only really spicy dish was the wings.

I think it's awesome that East Coast Grill is making this modified Hell Night available for private parties...and I kinda want to do it for my next birthday...but I would highly recommend partaking of the real experience if possible. No dates have been announced for the next Hell Night yet, but the last one was in December, so keep an eye out in February/March.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chopstick it over, Tokyo! - These are a few of my favorite meals

This is a guest post by Joel Edinberg, my frequent dining companion/co-conspirator/etc. Just over a year ago, he took a business trip to Japan. He took tons of food photos to make me jealous. He succeeded. This is the last of four posts by Joel about the food he encountered on his trip. You can read the first post here, the second post here, and the third post here.
I was in Tokyo for the weekend, staying in Shinjuku. My colleague had left to go visit family in China, so I had the night to myself. Although sitting around my small hotel room watching Lost in Translation in a language I didn’t understand sounded like a lot of fun, I figured it would be more fun to explore Tokyo. The first thing to do was get some dinner. Tokyo has some similar planning to Montreal, in that there’s a lot of underground passageways and mall type areas. I explored these places until I found a place that looked pretty good. Almost every restaurant in Tokyo has plastic moldings of the type of food they serve or posters showing pictures of the food. I highly recommend just walking around until you find a place that you like. It’s much easier than going for a specific place, and you might even find some really fun things. So, my first stop of the night was a restaurant on the basement floor of some building in Shinjuku. I know you’ll be able to figure out which one it is based off the description. It was also the restaurant with a lot of Japanese people inside. Anyways, they seated me at the bar and gave me an English menu. I started off the night with some fried oysters. These are easy to find at a lot of Japanese places in America, and they are just a great food. But, I decided to eat my food more like tapas, so I ordered some more food. After a beer, I found it much easier to order the crazier items. My favorite item was the sliced raw beef. I figured that in Japan they are probably a lot more careful about their meat quality than in America, based off of absolutely no real knowledge of this sort of thing, so it would be ok to eat this. It was good, though I think it may have given me the hunger.

So, another thing I learned that night was that Japanese people like to drink with Americans… or at least they like to drink with this American. While eating my dinner, a businessman was sitting next to me and wanted to talk with me so he could work on his English. I still haven’t figured out how he determined that I wasn’t a native Japanese speaker, but I went with it. That’s when the sake started pouring. As he was the one buying, he was also the one pouring the drinks. He was a manager at the Hyatt Regency in Tokyo, so I could understand how we would like to improve his English.

That was a great start to the night, but my adventure was not over. The last time I visited Japan, I somehow ended up at this awesome dive bar called Love and Peace in Golden Gai. This is not necessarily the greatest area, but it’s not without its charm. I enjoyed it a lot the last time, so I figured it would be fun to go there again. Now, it’s quite an adventure to get to this area. The easiest way to there is to go through Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s red light disctrict. Yeah, I know what you’re all thinking, but I found it more annoying than anything else. I don’t really like to be bothered by a bunch of creepy looking guys telling me they have a girl who I should meet. I also don’t like syphilis. Oh, and I’m not one to cheat on Rachel. I really just wanted to go to a dive bar and drink with the locals. But, finally, I was able to get out and made it to Golden Gai. This place has history. It’s the old red light district, which is now a series of alleyways that consists of a bunch of dive bars. Love and Peace is a really cool bar, as the owner really likes American music. There are posters of Jimmy Cliff, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, etc. and they’re playing really good music. As a tourist, I had to pay a cover charge to drink at the bar (as they prefer their locals), but they eventually opened up to me. The start of that was with some shochu. Basically, shochu is a Japanese liquor made from grains or potato. It’s a lot like a weaker version of vodka, and I like it mixed half shochu and half water. I haven’t seen it around Boston, but while in Japan, I figured it should drink it as much as possible to make up for that. And, after telling them that it’s hard to find in Boston, they were even nice enough to give me a bottle. Not just any bottle, but this was sweet potato shochu, which is hard to find. It was such a nice gift, and I made sure to buy plenty more while I was there anyways.

I think people really appreciate it when you show an interest in their culture. The bartender was really happy to show me different types of shochu. I also think she enjoyed my conversation with a neighboring patron, Taka. This guy was a computer programmer and was very helpful in teaching me English, with some help from the bartender (whose English was very good). He asked me if I was “otaku,” which he explained, “otaku is strong!” So, I went with it and said, “sure, I’m otaku.” I figure I’m pretty strong and bigger than most people there, so it sounded correct. So, we drank a lot to our new bonding experience. The bartender and her other friend were secretly laughing at this conversation, and it was very hard to get a description of what otaku really meant. It was either a mix of not having fluent English, or just the fact that they enjoyed our bonding over being otaku. But, at around 3am, I figured it was time to head home and get some sleep.

So, the following week, I was back in Isehara and decided to go to a more traditional Japanese restaurant in the area. There is a really nice family-owned place near the hotel that my colleagues had recommended. Though, at this restaurant, no one really speaks any English. There was no English on the menu, and even the prices were written in Japanese.

Luckily, I had learned how to ask for something grilled – Yaki Mono. The only problem was that after I asked for that, I had to follow it up with something. I remember from eating sushi how to ask for sea bream – Tai, so I went with that. I basically got a whole fish grilled and with just chopsticks.

I learned that eating a whole fish with just chopsticks is actually easier than with a fork and knife because it’s easier to avoid the small bones. It was relatively plain, but the fish was really fresh so it didn’t need much flavor. But, I was still hungry so I asked them what they would recommend. I ended up with rice-balls. This was a ball of rice, wrapped in sea-weed, with a special surprise in the middle with soy sauce for dipping.

Inside the first ball was a bunch of small fish. It was a different taste and texture than I’m used to, but I still enjoyed it. The fish were coiled up inside the ball, so when you opened it, they expanded. It’s sort of like those joke peanut butter cans where the spring pops out. And, the same thing happened when you ate them, which was actually a fun feeling. You can say that it’s disgusting, but Pop-Rocks do the same thing.

But, the next rice ball had me a little weirded out.

I was thinking that this was a fish heart, or a mouse heart, or just something really weird. I figured that it was edible, so I’ll just do it. Sometimes it’s just easier to not know what you’re eating. It was a really sweet and soft object that was really enjoyable to eat, but I was getting really worried until the end of the meal. As I left, they gave me a hard candy that had the same flavor… plum.

After talking with my main contact person in Isehara about this, he decided to go to the restaurant and translate the menu to English for them. This was such a nice thing for him to do, and the restaurant really appreciated it as well. So, two days later I went back to try the more interesting food. They had even reserved a seat for me. I decided to start my meal with some grilled oysters with miso.

Outside of fried oysters, I’ve never really had cooked oysters. These were amazing. The miso and scallions blended really well with the oyster flavor. They were grilled just right so it was still a really juicy oyster. After I finished the oysters, a woman sat down next to me and then explained to me that the restaurant owners has asked her to come there for dinner to keep me company. Not like that, but because she speaks English really well. Her husband came about a half hour later. So, now I had an English menu and a translator. This was just so nice of everyone to make an effort to spend the time with me, so I hope I was interesting enough for them.

They even gave me a Christmas gift, Japanese action figures. I think they are from some TV show. So, realizing that I had a translator, I figured I should ask her what otaku meant. After a giggle, she explained that someone who likes those toys would be otaku. Yeah… I was still confused so I let it pass and ordered some more food. I got a marinated fish, though the translation left out the word “head” in the description.

There was actually a lot of meat there in just the fish head, and it was marinated in some soy-based sauce. Once I got past the fact that it’s a fish head, I dug in and really enjoyed it. And, using chopsticks actually help get meat from some of the smaller areas of the fish head. I accompanied that dish with some sake. This restaurant specialized in sake junmai. This stands for “purely rice” so there are no other grains or anything else in this sake.

Here you can see the co-owner showing me the bottle of sake.
I can say, I definitely prefer sake junmai to other sakes. There’s just a distinct flavor that the junmai has compared to other sakes that I’ve tried. It also had a stronger flavor than other types of sake. I've also found this to be true for other sake junmais that I’ve had since my trip to Japan.

After we finished the sake and the fish, I figured it was time to order my favorite Japanese drink. They were very impressed that I like shochu, so they brought in a good bottle for me. I figured it would be good to order some salted ginkgo nuts with the shochu. Salty nuts with alcohol go well together. The owners were oddly impressed that I would match the two together, and I wasn’t going to tell them that bars in America serve salted nuts all the time for free because it just goes well with booze.

Here's the other owner showing me a fine bottle of shochu.
Ginkgo nuts with a glass of shochu and water
Ginkgo nuts were not what I would expect them to be. They had a shell very similar to pistachios, but inside they were actually chewy, like a grape. They had a mild slightly nutty taste, which really blended well with the subtle taste of the shochu.

After the sake and the shochu, I was finally worry-free enough to order the big dish my colleagues had talked about. They had accidentally ordered this dish two weeks before when they came here, but I figured I should give it a shot. They had raw duck with bitter orange squeezed over it. I guess the Japanese people just don’t like to cook food. This was a special type of duck called “Kamo,” which flies in from Russia and is in season this time of year.

I remember the raw beef being good, but it was nothing like this. Duck has a similar texture to beef, but has a much stronger flavor. This was no exception. This was better than any rare steak I’ve ever had. The hint of orange provided a nice balance to the meaty and fatty flavors of the duck. This was one of my two favorite dishes I ate while in Japan (the other being the grilled oysters).

And so I ended my last supper in Japan. Had a nice stumble back to the hotel and realized that maybe I should look up otaku. Yeah… apparently I’ve been calling myself an anime geek this entire time, not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Chopstick it over, Tokyo! - Japan, what a funny place

This is a guest post by Joel Edinberg, my frequent dining companion/co-conspirator/etc. Just over a year ago, he took a business trip to Japan. He took tons of food photos to make me jealous. He succeeded. This is the third of four posts by Joel about the food he encountered on his trip. You can read the first post here and the second post here.
This section of Chopstick It Over, Tokyo! is dedicated to all the really funny foods and wonderful cultural differences that I saw during my travels. Just to warm you up, I’ll show you a store I saw every day on my way to work.

Yeah… they sell eyeglasses. It actually took me a few minutes to figure out that it wasn't some chic Japanese porn shop.

I have always heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and Isehara certainly knows that. Here they have the best available breakfast you could get anywhere.

What better way to start your day?

While walking around Tokyo one day, I had spotted an American cuisine restaurant. In Japan, most restaurants will have plastic plated food outside on display to show people what type of food they were serving. This was no exception.

So now, all of you know what the Japanese think of as American food.

As you walk around Tokyo, there are vending machines everywhere. I’m pretty sure they got rid of the “used women’s underwear” vending machines, and this time I didn’t see any of the beer vending machines (I did see one last time). But, most of the vending machines sell coffee and tea in a can. Apparently you can also get corn potage in a can, from a vending machine.

I made sure to save the best picture for last. Before I arrived in Japan, my colleagues had been to one restaurant where they had a separate English menu. This is actually a somewhat common practice as it does help with tourists. My colleagues found this gem of a menu while in Tokyo.

My favorite item is the second from the bottom in the left column.

That concludes part 3 of Chopstick it over, Tokyo! Be sure to check out the final post!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Chopstick it over, Tokyo! - Yakitori

This is a guest post by Joel Edinberg, my frequent dining companion/co-conspirator/etc. Just over a year ago, he took a business trip to Japan. He took tons of food photos to make me jealous. He succeeded. This is the second of four posts by Joel about the food he encountered on his trip. You can read the first post here.
Yesterday, I told you about some of the not-too-weird foods I ate in Japan. Today, I'm going to focus on one in particular. While my colleague was still in town, we went to a yakitori restaurant. This is just a great type of food that is also not too weird for Americans. If you don’t know what yakitori is, it’s basically meat on a stick… and who doesn’t love meat on a stick (besides vegetarians and people who hate sticks)? I wish I could remember the name of this restaurant, but it’s quite difficult to remember all the Japanese characters. Either way, a great part of this place was that the owner/head chef speaks English very well and has traveled to the USA a few times. This made it really easy to get translations for the menu.

Here you can see the master at work.
After my colleague left town, I was still craving some yakitori, so I had to come back. The owner even remembered me, though I guess I did stick out a little in Japan. So, I decided to start off my meal with some pork and beef sausage. Grilled to perfection is a great way to describe all the food I ate here. It was just a little charred on the outside and really juicy on the inside. I followed that up with some beef and onion on a stick, accompanied by some special sauce, and some grilled pork and onion with a good mustard dipping sauce.

Yakitori beef and pork sausage.
Yakitori beef and onion.
Yakitori pork and onion.
As one could imagine, a good Japanese beer went perfectly with this meal. But, that’s a lot of meat to just eat alone, so to make this meal a little healthier, I ordered some grilled peppers. They were lightly salted and actually ended up being one of my favorite dishes here. The peppers made the meal feel complete, allowing me to have four of the important food groups: Beef, Pork, Vegetable, and Beer.

But, I have learned one very valuable lesson when sitting at the bar at a restaurant and talking with the waitstaff and head chef. You should always ask about the chef’s favorite dish. Considering that all the other food was just so good, I had to know what he would recommend. This was a great idea because he makes some killer fried chicken wings.

These were fried with a special sauce and topped with some sesame seeds.  They were just so good.  Crispy on the outside with a nice salty and sweet flavor, and fried just right.  I only wished that I hadn't eaten all the other food before ordering these so I could have ordered more.

Well, that’s about it for the less adventurous food that I ate while in Japan.  Sake helps a lot with my willingness to eat less conventional my third post and you’ll find out what that actually means ;)
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