Wednesday, June 16, 2010

You know what's coming.

I'm all, "What to write about?" And... I'm drawing a blank. It's just a Significant Time in my life, now; I'm working on important things, Significant Things, and that's not what this blog is about.

(What is this blog about, by the way? I haven't quite figured it out.)

But, I need to write, and I thought, and I thought, and all I can come up with? Bananas.

Bananas! There's this banana commercial I saw the other day, about a happy banana taking a boat ride to the US of A where happy consumers can revel in its freshness, and besides the gall of SPOTLIGHTING the egregious carbon footprint of a single produce - the banana doesn't even look that good. They make it a bright, smooth yellow, capped with a touch of green right at the top.

Green, on a banana. Just seeing it makes me a little nauseated.

Green bananas are a little hard, not that sweet, and hard to digest. Green bananas are not tasty, and yet they're considered the holy grail of bananadom, while brown bananas are the pariahs, despite being mellow and pure cream in fruit form. Why, I ask, why are priorities so misplaced?!

(If you haven't guessed, the whole carbon footprint dilemma doesn't bother me too, too much. You're not about to find local bananas if you're in the Tri-State Area. I deal.)

Frankly, if I could, I'd buy all of my bananas right when they're perfectly yellow - I don't want bruises, but I want them brown within the week so that I can peel them, wrap them in plastic, and freeze them; or slice them to top cereal on the occasions that I forget just how dangerous the flaky stuff can be; or just mash them up as is and mix them with yogurt and maple syrup, and it's like eating pudding, or sorbet, and not nauseating even a little bit.

And then it got dangerous, because I was at Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia the other day, and ran into a Japanese friend who was shopping to make curry. He was grabbing ingredients, musing about what to add to this batch, and I lightly pointed out some pineapples. He got thoughtful. "I... was kidding," I explained. "No, no," he responded, "people make curry with fruit sometimes... pineapple, apples, bananas..."

My brain exploded.

See, pineapples and apples are a little bit tart, and firm enough to hold their shape, so I have no doubt they would add a fabulous complexity to the spicy, savory curry. Bananas, though? I'd never have considered. Bananas, in their spotted apotheosis, are - see above - creamy, mellow, and sweet. I love bananas, and I love curry, but for the life of me, I cannot imagine them together.

Yet, others have.

So if I can't imagine it? I have to taste it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Salt Cake. (It isn't salty.)

One thing I love about (in case you haven't noticed, I'm a bit hooked at the moment) is the "Most Searched Keywords" bar at the top. See, I noticed the themes from the start. First thing in the morning, everyone's looking up "breakfast," or "toast"; in the spring, you start seeing searches for lima beans and komatsuna, just like around Valentine's Day, "chocolate" tops the list. So, I figured, people base their searches mainly on times of day, times of the season, that sort of thing.

No, wait, pop culture!

The moment of realization came after I watched an episode of the anime, "Chibi Maruko-chan." (It was one of my favorites since it met the notable criteria of A: being animated, and B: being on while I was awake.) In it, the main character tastes her first baked apple (an unusual treat in Japan, where ovens aren't standard to many homes), and becomes fixated on recreating the recipe. So the next morning, I fired up Cookpad, and what do I see at the very top? "Baked apple." I felt in the loop, all right.

Since returning to the U.S., I've enjoyed keeping up with food-related trends by checking oddly specific keywords. Sometimes it's a member, introduced on talk shows like "Hanamaru Cafe"; sometimes, a specific, even brand-name, ingredient. Most are transitory, but others linger. I'm still waiting on trying a recipe for baked doughnuts, which dominated the site for a while earlier this year. Right now, the boom seems to be something called "Keiku Saré." Clearly, this was a Japanese pronunciation of a foreign word, and the recipes themselves appeared to be a savory baked good, but I had no frame of reference beyond that.

It took some Googling and guess work, and I'm still not sure what initiated the popularity surge, but it turns out the recipes are for "Cake Salé," and it's French. This is bizarre on numerous counts: usually, the Japanese word for cake is "keiki," not "keiku"; and more importantly, as far as I had known, the French adamantly refuse to use loan words. But there it is: "Cake" is, according to Wikipedia, the French term for "fruit cake." More specifically, there are two varieties: "Cake sucré," or sweet cake... and "cake salé," the savory version. Both are quick breads, baked in a loaf pan and leavened with baking powder, but the savory version swaps dried fruit and sugar for vegetables - "salé" being French for "salt." Not that there isn't salt in fruit cake, probably, not that I'd know for sure, since we were always busy with latkes that time of year. Latkes, too, being on the savory side.

What a great idea! I mean, sweet is great, but it's not really an anytime food. I eat a slice of banana bread, and I sort of feel like I spoiled my appetite for the day - sweets just leave me wanting to nosh. On the other hand, a loaf full of spinach and sauteed onions, maybe topped with some goat cheese? That's breakfast.

So, of course, I need to find a recipe, and it needs to be in Japanese, and it needs to allow me to play Mad Kitchen Scientist. Voila! "Cake Salé * Basic Recipe," by a user calling herself "Witch Diner in the Station," calls for a few basic ingredients and free choice of vegetables. So, you take:

120 grams flour
2 eggs
50 mL skim milk
1 tbsp olive oil
70 mL vegetable broth
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

and whatever vegetables you have on hand; you mix the wet ingredients in one bowl, then the dry in another; you microwave the vegetables for a few minutes, let them cool, then drain whatever liquid came out; you mix the dry ingredients with the wet; you pour a little batter into a small loaf pan (this doesn't make much), add most of vegetables, and add the rest of the batter; tap the loaf pan on the counter a few times to even everything out, then sprinkle on the rest of the veggies; and bake for 30 minutes in a 180° C oven.

Ew, weights and metric. I could have made that easier, couldn't I? Okay, scroll to the end for that, but anyway, I was sitting there thinking, "What vegetables would work?" We have corn, and I decided I wanted corn. What else? Well, we didn't have many leafy greens at the time, but there were some jalapeños, always good. Corn and jalapeños; well, why not make this salsa-like? No tomatoes, but... black beans...?

And then I remembered the black bean salad. The one that I made for memorial day, and everyone RAVED about it, and proceeded to ignore in favor of bowl after bowl of dry cereal. (I've stopped buying it. I have a problem.) Here was my chance to give it its well deserved comeback. Even better, since it had been sitting a while, I hardly needed to microwave it to ensure that it had shed just about all the juices it had to shed.

And then I imagined a poor, forgotten loaf with a single slice removed, gathering mold in a plastic bag or freezer burn as it hid in foil. So I made muffins.

The muffins... wow, were wonderful. They were! The beans kept them moist, the seasonings made them interesting, and the batter held enough filling together that they were really and truly FILLING. (This, incidentally, prompted certain household members to snub them entirely, but, meh, more for me.) Except, they clung fiercely to the paper wrappers, and were a bit spongy, and oh, yeah, they didn't brown. I left them in the oven a good five minutes extra before giving in, taking them out, and remembering that, oh, yeah, sugar makes things brown, doesn't it? No sugar, no pretty color. Crud.

Lucky for me (us? No, just me), this recipe makes all of seven muffins, so, do-over! This time, I decided to throw in some molasses, just enough to cross my fingers and hope for a Maillard reaction. (Science is fun!) I also needed to use corn meal to up the corniness (which, in itself, makes this post a little cornier), and to use whole wheat cake flour for no other reason than that it's in the fridge and I'm me. And then I ran out of salsa halfway through, but still had cubes of cheddar cheese from a previous recipe, so that, too! Finally, I ditched the muffin cups in favor of nonstick cooking spray on a nonstick pan. I upped the temperature a tad, crossed my fingers, and went upstairs to get dressed.

This is the recipe you're getting. Because it was amazing. And because, seriously, I'm not safe with cereal anymore.

Black Bean Salsa Corn Muffins
Adapted from
Note: I measured by weight, but I'm including volume measurements since it's the only way most people will try these out. Just be warned, I haven't tested it that way!
90 grams (3/4 cup) all purpose flour, cake flour, or whole wheat cake flour

30 grams (1/4 cup) cornmeal
2 large eggs
50 mL (or a bit under 1/4 cup) milk (fat free should work)
70 mL (or a bit over 1/4 cup) vegetable broth
1/2 tbsp molasses or sugar
1 tsp baking powder
About 1 cup black bean salsa, homemade or bought; or, 1/2 cup black bean salsa + 2 oz cheddar cheese

1. Preheat oven to 360° F. Cut cheese into 1/2" cubes. Lightly grease a nonstick muffin pan using additional olive oil or nonstick spray.

2. Whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. (Add sugar, too, if using.)

3. In another bowl, combine eggs, olive oil, broth, and milk, plus molasses, if using; whisk after each new addition.

4. Pour wet ingredients over dry; stir just until combined with a rubber spatula.

5. Place 1 tablespoon batter into 6 of the muffin cups, then top each with 1 tablespoon salsa. Add another tablespoon of batter, then top each muffin with another tablespoon of salsa or a few cheese cubes. Don't mix! If there is batter left over, repeat with additional muffin cups. (I got seven, but better to play it safe.) The cups should not be full to the brim.

6. Bake in preheated oven for about 30 minutes, or until muffins are lightly browned. Don't bake over 30 minutes, though; they'll be done when they're firm to the touch.

7. Allow to cool in pan for about a minute, then gently remove from pan and finish cooling on cooling rack.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I sat up for the typing part.

Smoky Duck doesn't care that I've had a knot in my back since last night.

It matters not to Mr. Duck that no amount of stretching or massaging will assuage the pain in the slightest, and in fact, it's simply migrating further towards my tailbone.

He does not consider it his concern that even the sight of anything but a straight-backed wooden chair now makes me wince at visions of stale, salty pretzel spines.

All that my little cat knows is, I'm lying on the tiled floor while he's curled up on the sofa.

As it should be.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The first time was from running in the halls. 'Swhy they tell you not to!

What I really love about how I jog right now is, there are double the milestones. See, I have a "speed" run, where I get to finish under 10:00 miles! I have long runs, where I get to run over 4 miles! And I have, um, the "miscellaneous" day, where I do things like forgetting that the human body includes one of the most sophisticated cooling mechanisms of all living things, and wind up jogging in a t-shirt carrying ten pounds of sweat. But then I can pretend that day didn't count.

All on a treadmill, of course. Wouldn't want to be serious, or anything.

So, yesterday, I hit 4.25 miles, and to celebrate, I... stumbled outward on my right foot and can't rotate it without soreness, now. But after THAT, there was a running shoe producer giving anyone who asked a full foot analysis (to determine the idea level of support in their shoe) and a free t-shirt. Awesome!

Oh, the twisting? Pah, nothing to see here. It's a chronic problem, and it's already much better than yesterday. We won't dignify it with our usual histrionics. Today.

No, I don't want new running shoes. I'm actually quite happy with what I've got now, and ever since I started using cords in place of actually tying the laces, all of the pressure pain on top of my feet has vanished. Still, while I'm always reluctant to take advantage of an obvious sales tactic when I have no intention of making a purchase... they had a foot scanner! Geez, it was the coolest thing ever. Back, conscience! Begone with you.

And the results! A whole lot of "average," actually - average ankle flexibility (with a sprain? Am I a superwoman, or are the salespeople mildly indifferent?); neutral leg axis; normal connective tissue flexibility. I do over-pronate a bit, and I've got a narrow foot with a high arch, which excites the heck out of me because I believe it's the least common foot type, but on the other hand, it probably explains why I've been twisting my ankles so regularly and severely that my whole foot turned purple during summer camp before ninth grade.

Hey, did I tell you about the time my whole foot turned purple?! ...yes? Many times, and always unsolicited? Oh, go stick your head in the sand.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A task for us with stunted olfactory abilities.

Step One: Chop up extremely cheap organ meat.

Step Two: Combine meat with chopped/freeze dried vegetables.

Step Three: Cook until soft.

Step Four: Mix in some cooked rice.

Step Five: Inform your dog that she's luckier than anyone else she is bound to meet in the near future.

The hardest part is shoving the cat away with the side of your foot.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I, um, don't actually have a Darling Only Child.

It's like the setup to an old joke:

What did you eat for breakfast? Chirashi-zushi.
What did you eat for lunch? Chirashi-zushi.
What did you eat for dinner? Two helpings of chirashi-zushi.
What did you do all night? Slept an hour and a half later than usual and woke up with unprecedented Foggy Brain, why do you ask?

Clearly, my version loses momentum on the punchline, but yeah. This stuff was tasty.

It really started a few weeks ago, when a Minimalist column focused on raw fish-less sushi. Now, look, I've been around the block, sushi-wise - I've had it prepared a la carte with sea urchin, salmon roe, and squid; I've played chicken with conveyor belt sushi, grabbing what appears to be onions on a blanket of pink foam resting on it's white rice bed; my crab and miso-loving heart has been seduced into ordering a place of "kani-miso" sushi, only to recall too late that A: The Japanese eat EVERY part of anything from the ocean, and B: "miso" can also mean "brains." And it cost me a buck fifty for two tiny pieces and I was surrounded by Japanese friends who had been too polite to ask if I knew what I was ordering, so yes, I have eaten crab brains.

That said, even in Japan, where they sell clearly marked sashimi-quality fish at every grocery store, I never tried to prepare my own raw-fish sushi; it just feels wrong. This is something you leave up to the professionals. I did, however, try my hand at inari-zushi, little packets of vinegared rice stuffed into sweetened fried tofu packets. The recipe I followed had me mix the rice with seasoned hijiki seaweed, which didn't do much for flavor or even texture, but created a peppered effect and probably provided a few vitamins or a gram of fiber or something.

So yeah, this was old news to me, yet it struck a cord: removing the raw fish seemed a tidy way to eliminate the skeevy factor that keeps many from attempting to branch out into a new - by which I mean, long since integrated and increasingly popular in the US - cuisine. And thus, lately I've been promising everyone and anyone that should they ever be fortunate enough to find themselves at my dinner table, I would "make them sushi rice." Everyone! Anyone! Piles of sour, sweet, and starchy buried under fresh, crisp cucumber, creamy, rich avocado, and not to worry, because even the nori seaweed shall, for one night only, remain verbatim.

And then mom defrosted some fake crab meat and I figured, what they hey, tonight's the night.

With memories of the colorful vinegared rice topped with slices of seafood that always seemed to take on an air of celebration at my dorm back in Tokyo (and that I, myself, always eyed with a wary disappointment - adventurous eating is still pretty new to me, too!), I immediately combed the ever reliable Cookpad for chirashi-zushi recipes (and, later, kinshi tamago - strips of thin omelet). The name literally means "sprinkled sushi," and the result looks not unlike a confetti cake. Look - it takes work. I seriously simplified my version, yet I probably spent a good hour and a half thinly slicing and parboiling carrots and snap peas; straining cornstarch-stabilized eggs to make thin omelets to be rolled up and cut into julienne; boiling konbu seaweed (YES, the Japanese use a lot of seaweed) and dried shiitake mushrooms in their own soaking liquid with soy sauce and sugar, then slicing those up, too. I steamed some rice - 2 cups of water to 1.5 of dry grain, people, if you don't want to eat mush - then cut in a quarter cup of vinegar, a couple tablespoons of sugar, and a couple teaspoons of salt, before mixing in the strips of egg and vegetable and letting it all sit a few minutes more. I served it with the crab on the side. If I had wanted to be really fancy, I'd have topped it with pearls of salmon roe and briefly boiled shrimp and served it as part of a huge bento lunch to celebrate my Darling Only Child's latest school club gathering under a cherry blossom tree in full bloom. However, for a late spring dinner with my mom when the weather is convinced that it's mid-summer already, I think I went comfortably beyond "well enough" last night.

Notice that I gave all the measurements for the rice, itself, and nothing else. If you don't have an hour and a half  in your spare pocket, consider going for 20 minutes. Mix in a few tablespoons of sesame seeds, then top it with thinly sliced cucumber and cherry tomatoes, then tell everyone about it. The stuff is tasty.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I made it to 3, at least. I mean, I'm not THAT smart.

I learn so much about running every time I get on the treadmill.

Like, today, I learned that when it's 90º Farenheit already at 8 AM and you're running indoors and you need to get your bangs trimmed and you haven't done your laundry yet so you just put on an oversized t-shirt and your jogging bra's on the snug side and you forgot to get a drink of water so all you've had since 9 PM the previous night is a cup of fully caffeinated coffee, and for that matter your feet were a little stiff and you're trying to run medium speed for a quarter mile longer than usual?

You're pretty lucky that you made it to the water fountain before common sense smacked you senseless, because clearly, you weren't doing anything with those senses.

See? Now my fancy book smarts are supplemented with awkward memories of the guy in the parking lot reassuring me that, "At least you worked up a sweat!" Us girls, we pride our sweatiness. ("Sweatiness" might not be a vivid enough adjective. Think, front row of the killer whale performances at Sea World. Be sure to summon your olfactory imagination.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Instant gratification.

I don't always wait forever to follow through on my Brilliant Plans.

Moving to Japan? Well, let's just say that after the idea struck me, I spent a good six years with a sore cheek. Tasting new foods? The goal was to start that at ten years old, which seemed SUPER mature at age seven, but it turns out that twenty was a better fit. Writing enough to justify attempting it for a living? Er, this would be day three, attempt... forty? Along those lines.

And that's just the mundane! All of the stories that were never written, the projects never started! I'm itching to knit a pair of knickers surrounded by tuille, and to create a batch of "I can NOT be the first to think of it" Taco-yaki. I have every intent of following through as soon as possible, but don't wear out your mouse hitting the "Reload" button in your eagerness for pictures.

Every now and then, though, something comes along that actually happens, and happens quickly. It helps if the supplies are easily obtained; it helps if the process is so straight-forward that it's finished before I have a chance to hesitate.

Enter moyashi.

I'd considered this before (and there I go disassembling the foundation of my very point), but the catalyst was an entry from The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl in which she waxes poetic on sprouting. There were canning jars in the sink; they sold mung beans for spouting at Whole Foods; I'm a little hooked on weeding right now. All this was enough to turn my thumb green for the four days it takes to make a batch o' bean spouts.

When living in Japan, I had a period of slight infatuation with these critters. They're pretty pleasant to munch on, with a watery crunch evocative of snap peas (though cooking mellows out the raw flavor and, frankly, is the route to take if you're less lazy than I.) They're all kinds of healthy; beans are good enough, but there's a mindset that sprouting grains and legumes makes them easier to digest and increases absorption of nutrients. (Or so I've heard, and Google kind of affirms that, well, it's holism. Beans are still healthy!) They're - what's the word? CHEAP - even in the US, you'll be hard pressed to find a hefty bag for more than two bucks, but there were places in Japan throwing around half a pound for 20 yen, around 15 CENTS. (The seeds resulted in a bit more than that, and all at the low low price of $2.50. I wonder if it'd work with normal mung beans.) And, finally, they're great in soups or stir fries, the type of veggie that sucks up all the flavor around it and adds a little texture and heft for your trouble.

Plus, they're adorable! Lookit!

Doesn't it just remind you of a mussel peeping out of it's shell? (And nothing else - ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ELSE - stop thinking like that!) Precious, precious, oh I love it.

I may be the only one raised in this country to think so. When I pressed my Facebook network to tell me what to do with a jar of mung bean sprouts, the very first commenter said he would "throw them out." A subsequent brilliant mind seconded his opinion.

So I just parboiled them, then mixed in a little soy sauce and a little curry powder and everyone was very happy. And the naysayers can't have any. So there.