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Japanese New Year Image

After Christmas, my family is ready for the holidays to end. By Dec. 26, we’ve had our fill of Christmas carols, tinsel, turkey, and most of all, family time. We heave a sigh of relief as we put away the Christmas china, dismantle the Christmas lights and recover from the craziness that is Christmas.

But the holidays aren’t really over for us — they’re just getting started. My whole family gets together once more on New Year’s Day to celebrate oshogatsu, or Japanese New Year. Oshogatsu is one of Japan’s most important holidays and typically includes traditions such as mochitsuki (preparing and pounding mochi rice cakes), osoji (cleaning one’s house) and lots and lots of cooking. Though oshogatsu typically lasts a full week in Japan, our family celebrates with one elaborate meal on New Years Day.

Being Japanese-American, my family serves a mix of traditional and non-traditional dishes. Osechi ryori are traditional prepared New Year’s foods served in a lacquered box. Each dish in the osechi has special meaning and is supposed to bring good luck in the New Year. Kuromame, candied black beans and chestnuts covered in syrup, are for good health. Kurikinton, mashed sweet lima beans, represents wealth because of its golden color. Kamaboko, savory fish cakes, are included for their lovely design, which typically features a cherry blossom or floral arrangement. We also serve sushi and a passion fruit cake for dessert, both non-traditional additions that make our meal special and memorable every year.

Chicken soup for the Japanese soul

The main event of the meal, though, is ozoni. Ozoni, a chicken soup made with mochi rice cakes, is only eaten on New Year’s Day.  Each family makes its own version according to the region of Japan they are from.

ozoni

My mom’s side of the family is from Kyushu province, and our ozoni is very hearty and filled with lots of Japanese vegetables. Big chunks of daikon, Japanese radishes, and sato imo, small starchy Japanese potatoes, add rusticity to the soup.  Gobo, a long, twig-like root vegetable, gives a pleasantly earthy and nutty flavor, despite its unappetizing appearance.

Every year, my mom makes a huge pot of ozoni that my family devours. My uncle and grandpa have contests to see who can eat the most mochis, glutinous Japanese rice cakes served piping hot in the soup. My favorite part of the dish is the broth itself, which is traditionally made with Dashi no moto, a soup stock base of dried bonito fish flakes and kelp. Soothing, soulful and satisfying, the broth tastes like New Year’s Day to me and gives me the strength and serenity to face another year.

Mom’s Ozoni

Serves 4

 

Ingredients
5 cups dashi no moto stock
1 bone-in skinless chicken breast
1 2-inch daikon radish, peeled and sliced into ½-inch rounds
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced into rounds
2 or 3 small sato imo, washed, peeled and sliced into quarters
5 to 8 dried shitake mushrooms, rehydrated and sliced, stems removed
1 2-inch gobo, washed and shaved (use a small knife to whittle off small, thin shavings)
4 or 5 medium napa cabbage leaves, washed and coarsely chopped (divide into leafy parts and white stem parts)
4 fresh mochi rice cakes
All of these ingredients can be found at a Japanese or Asian supermarket.

Directions

  1. Prepare 5 cups of dashi no moto stock according to package instructions. My mom uses Hime brand dashi no moto, which uses 3 cups of water and 1 bag of dashi.
  2. Bring the stock to a boil. Add the chicken breast and cook until the meat falls off the bone. Remove the chicken breast and let it cool. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred the chicken and set aside.
  3. Keep stock at a rapid simmer. Skim froth from the top of the broth.
  4. Add the daikon, carrots, shitake mushrooms and sato imo to the broth. Cook until the vegetables are tender and the daikon looks opaque, about 4 to 5 minutes.
  5. Add the gobo, mochi, and the napa stems (white parts) to the broth.  When the mochi float to the top, they are ready. Add the napa leaves at last minute and cook until wilted.
  6. Add shoyu and salt to taste.
  7. Serve the soup, along with one mochi, in each bowl.

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Osechi ryori for New Year's. Mackie Jimbo.

 


Mackie Jimbo is a Philadelphia-based food writer who writes about her budget-friendly dining adventures at her website, The Unpaid Gourmet.

Photos, from top:
Sushi.
Ozoni chicken soup.
Credit: Mackie Jimbo
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Is Kimchi the New Sushi? Image

With the national popularity of Roy Choi’s Korean taco concept and the growth of David Chang’s Momofuku empire in New York, Korean food is gaining attention and influence among chefs and foodies across the country. Some might even say kimchi is the new sushi.

Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in Los Angeles, home to one of the largest Korean communities in the U.S. On Saturday, Aug. 7, thousands of hungry diners descended on a parking lot in L.A.’s Koreatown for the second annual Korean BBQ Cook-Off hosted by the Korean American Coalition. The event featured several top Korean BBQ restaurants and vendors, whose offerings were rated by a panel of judges including Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold, critically acclaimed LudoBites chef Ludo Lefebvre, and award-winning actress Sandra Oh.

The cook-off was conceived as a way to introduce Korean identity and culture to mainstream Los Angeles. “We thought the best way to accomplish this would be through food, specifically Korean BBQ,” said Allen Park, community outreach director for the Korean American Coalition. “It’s easy, delicious, and fun to eat, and getting to be very popular in LA.”

Korean restaurants are beginning to notice changes in their clientele as their cuisine starts to appeal to a wider audience. “Even three years ago, most of the people in Koreatown were Koreans and a lot didn’t speak English,” said Max Shin, whose father owns Hansong Restaurant, a Korean BBQ and seafood buffet in Koreatown. “But that’s definitely changing. Now, I’d say on an average night at our restaurant, it’s a 50/50 split between Koreans and Westerners.”

Korean cuisine influences and gets influenced

Diners aren’t the only ones embracing Korean cuisine. Chefs are also hopping on the bandwagon, with Korean ingredients and flavors showing up more and more at high-profile restaurants around L.A., including LudoBites, where Lefebvre frequently uses kimchi in his dishes. “Korean food is a big influence in America,” Lefebvre said. “I am French, and I cook a lot with kimchi at my restaurant. I’ve made kimchi foie gras, kimchi with cheese, and now I’m working on a kimchi dessert.”

Korean chefs are incorporating American influences into their native cuisine as well, perhaps playing off the success of Roy Choi’s Kogi tacos. At the Korean BBQ Cook-Off, visitors waited in line for half an hour to try Kalbi Burger and Seoul Sausage Company, which sold Korean-inspired burgers and hot dogs. But it was Choonchun Dakgalbi’s signature dish of chicken, rice cakes, yams and cheese in a spicy red sauce that won the attention of the judges. Cook-off judge Oh presented the restaurant with the award for best fusion dish. “I love the fact that Korean food, especially in LA, is moving forward,” she said. “I’m totally there with you guys to expand Korean flavors.”

The rise of Korean cuisine may be more than just a passing trend. Last year, the South Korean government launched a “Global Hansik” campaign to make Korean food one of the five most popular ethnic cuisines in the world. To accomplish this goal, the campaign plans to open Korean cooking classes at culinary schools such as Le Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America, promote celebrity Korean chefs and health benefits of Korean food and increase the number of Korean restaurants overseas to 40,000 by 2017. This year, the Korean government poured thousands of dollars into its newly opened Korean Food Foundation and plans may still be in the works for a kimchi institute.

Everyone goes to Koreatown

Despite these aggressive marketing tactics, some think Korean cuisine’s popularity may be more organic. “The Korean nightlife scene in Los Angeles is so strong,” said food critic Gold. “There’s something about how Korean cooking more than anything else ties into the drinking culture. The strength and purity of Korean flavors makes it a perfect match.” Lefebvre echoed Gold’s sentiments. “In Los Angeles, everyone is talking about Koreatown,” he said. “When people want to go out, they go to Koreatown for Korean food, soju (Korea’s answer to vodka) and karaoke.”

Gold also pointed to Korean-Americans’ willingness to share Korean culture as a catalyst for the cuisine’s rise. “There’s something about young, second-generation Korean-Americans assimilating to American culture — they’re just really good at it,” he said. “First-generation Koreans banded together, and Koreatown was almost impenetrable when it started out. But now, everyone knows Koreans, everyone has Korean friends, and everyone goes to Koreatown.”

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Traditional kalbi, Korean marinated beef spare ribs. Credti: Mackie Jimbo

 


Mackie Jimbo is a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who writes about her budget-friendly dining adventures at her website, The Unpaid Gourmet.

Photo: A vendor hands off a plate of food at Saturday’s Korean BBQ Cook-Off in Los Angeles.
Credit: Mackie Jimbo
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Top Chefs Go to School Image

Life after “Top Chef” doesn’t always lead to fame or fortune (whatever happened to past winners Hung Huynh and Hosea Rosenberg?), but two former contestants are making a name for themselves on the school lunch front. Chefs Spike Mendelsohn and Carla Hall, finalists on “Top Chef” seasons four and five, are participating in Michelle Obama’s latest initiative to combat childhood obesity, Chefs Move to Schools.

The program pairs chefs with public schools across the nation in an effort to educate and excite students about food and nutrition. Chefs will work together with teachers, administrators and cafeteria workers to promote healthy eating through performing cooking demos, planting school gardens, and eventually revamping school cafeteria menus to include nutritionally balanced, cost-effective dishes. So far, 990 chefs and 448 schools across the country have signed on to participate.

Hundreds of chefs, including Hall, attended June’s inaugural Chefs Move to Schools event at the White House. “The event was nothing short of moving,” she said. “To see that many chef coats and toques in one place was quite special.” Michelle Obama told chefs they are in a unique position to change kids’ eating habits: “You’ll be elevating the role of food in our schools … You know more about food than almost anyone — other than the grandmas — and you’ve got the visibility and the enthusiasm to match that knowledge. That’s really what’s key.”

Hurdles ahead for campaign to improve school food

Moved by the first lady’s remarks, Hall is considering adopting Mount Rainier Elementary School, a public school just outside of Washington, D.C. “The school is in the same community as the farmers market I’ve been participating in,” she said. “I’m hoping to connect the two in some way, even if it’s just small field trips to the market.” She also wants to start cooking classes for students and their parents, and work closely with food service professionals at the school to incorporate healthy dishes into the cafeteria menu.

But Hall is cognizant of the hurdles that lie ahead, including budgetary constraints and reluctance from the school. “I think the program will be effective if the chefs don’t move in like bulls in a china shop,” she said. “It’s going to take real team work between the school and the chef. Patience will be in order.”

Mendelsohn expressed similar concerns. “It’s difficult to start programs like this,” he said. “A lot of the time, the teachers, principals, and parents aren’t into it. They think it’s just some strange guy in a chef coat coming in and telling them what to eat.” To figure out how to counter that bias, White House assistant chef Sam Kass organized a meeting of ten D.C.-area chefs, including Mendelsohn, Todd Gray of Equinox, Jose Andres of Jaleo, Robert Wiedmaier of Brasserie Beck, and Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve. They decided the best solution would be for chefs to adopt schools and integrate themselves into the school community. From there, the Chefs Move to Schools program was eventually born.

In deciding which school to adopt, Mendelsohn researched several charter schools before settling on KIPP DC, the local branch of the national Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). KIPP is a network of 82 public schools across the country whose students are predominantly African-Americans and Hispanics living in underprivileged areas. There are seven KIPP schools in Washington.

Carla Hall and Spike Mendelsohn

Mendelsohn was impressed with the program’s commitment to its students, particularly at KIPP DC LEAP Academy, a pre-kindergarten through kindergarten school. “I met with the principal and teachers and they’re really passionate about their work,” he said. “But they didn’t have anyone on staff teaching about food, so they were excited to see me. Right then and there, I felt the chemistry and thought well, this is amazing.”

Over the past eight months, Mendelsohn has led healthy cooking demos for students, parents and teachers at LEAP Academy. Abraham Clayman, vice principal of LEAP Academy, said participants were excited about the demos and hoped to come back for more. “Chef Spike did an excellent job of highlighting students and making them feel great about trying new foods,” he said. “Exposure to new foods, new people, and new activities is good for our kids.”

Mendelsohn also planted his first “Good Stuff Garden” (named after Good Stuff Eatery, the popular D.C. burger joint that he owns) with students from KIPP DC Key Academy, Promise Academy and LEAP Academy. He hopes to be able to replicate his success and bring his program to KIPP schools in other states as well.

School lunches ‘let kids down’

Working with KIPP DC has shown Mendelsohn both the importance of the school lunch program and the need to change it. “Most kids don’t have the opportunity to have a good meal at home. They rely on the meals at school and I feel like we let them down,” he said. Right now, the government allots a mere $2.68 per meal and processed foods such as chicken nuggets, strawberry milk and frozen pizzas are readily available and heavily subsidized for schools. More than 31 million children across the country receive meals through the National School Lunch Program. And one in three children in the U.S. is considered overweight or obese.

Critics of school lunch reform argue that incorporating healthy dishes into cafeteria menus is futile if kids refuse to eat healthy food. But Mendelsohn disagreed with that notion. “Healthy food doesn’t necessarily mean steamed broccoli. You can take food that kids love and are used to, but make them healthy and better for you,” he said. Mendelsohn does just that in this month’s issue of Food and Wine, in which he offers healthy makeovers of kid-friendly dishes such as pizza, burgers and burritos.

Perhaps the most important factors for Chefs Move to Schools’ success will be collaboration and creativity from the chefs. “Everyone needs to jump on board for this to work — the farmers, the purveyors, the schools, the chefs, the government. If we have one missing link, change isn’t going to happen,” Mendelsohn said. Creativity will be needed to work within several existing constraints and inspire kids to eat healthy. Both Mendelsohn and Hall believe chefs are more than well prepared to deal with these challenges. “After all, that’s what we as chefs do on a daily basis — we play with our food,” Hall said.

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Chef Spike Mendelsohn teaches a KIPP DC LEAP Academy student and her father how to slice vegetables for a Greek salad. Credit: Micheline Mendelsohn.


 


Mackie Jimbo is a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who writes about her budget-friendly dining adventures at her website, The Unpaid Gourmet.

Photos from top:
A KIPP Academy student waters a tomato plant in the garden. Credit: Micheline Mendelsohn.
Carla Hall and Spike Mendelsohn. Credit: Matthew Lyons and Micheline Mendelsohn.
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Changing Baltimore’s Diet Image

Nearly 40 years ago, before “organic” and “farm-to-table” became buzzwords in the food community, Antonia Demas realized the importance of promoting nutritional education in schools. Her philosophy was simple: If students are taught about healthy food in a positive and engaging way, they will be more willing to eat those healthy foods, both in the classroom and at home.

That philosophy eventually developed into a comprehensive curriculum called “Food Is Elementary” — widely regarded by nutrition educators as one of the most effective approaches to encouraging students to eat healthier. T. Colin Campbell, a professor of nutrition and biochemistry at Cornell University, endorsed the program, saying Demas’ “curriculum ought to be in every school in the country.” To date, “Food Is Elementary” has been taught in more than 2,000 schools across the country.

Fifteen of those schools are in Baltimore, a city not exactly known as a bastion of healthy living. A 2007 report by the Centers for Disease Control found that 18 percent of high school students in Baltimore were obese, compared to 13 percent overall in the state of Maryland. Part of the disproportionate effect may stem from socioeconomics. Recent studies showed that 14 percent of Baltimore’s low-income families did not have access to healthy food, such as fruits and vegetables. Many of those families depend on the school lunch program to feed their kids — 73 percent of Baltimore students qualify to receive free or reduced lunch from the program.

But, there are signs that change is on the way. The Baltimore school lunch program underwent significant reform this year, with Meatless Mondays instituted in the cafeterias, healthy snacks substituted for junk food in vending machines and more local ingredients on the menu.

However, even with these new practices, one large hurdle remains: Persuading students to actually eat the healthier options. And that problem is precisely what Antonia Demas is trying to solve with “Food Is Elementary.”

How Antonia Demas fights resistance

In the late 1960s, Demas moved to Vermont with her family and volunteered at the local Head Start center. While volunteering at the school, she noticed that the food served to the children was not thdixe healthiest. “I thought I could concentrate my volunteer efforts on improving the quality of the food and teaching kids about nutrition and cooking,” she said.

As she led more cooking and nutrition classes, Demas noticed a trend. “When kids literally have a hand in preparing healthy food, they are more willing — and even excited — to try it,” she said. “Kids aren’t the problem in terms of eating healthy food. It’s the way we introduce food to them that’s the problem.”

Using this observation as her guide, Demas created hands-on, food-based units of study designed to engage students with healthy eating. “The lessons use food as a vehicle to incorporate a variety of subjects, from science to math to art to culture,” Demas said.

In one lesson, for example, children build whole-grain gingerbread houses, utilizing their geometry, art and science skills.

Despite her 25 years of experience, Demas believed fellow educators weren’t taking her seriously. “Some thought it was just ‘women’s work,’” she sighed. To counter that bias and provide concrete research of her program’s efficacy, she enrolled in Cornell University’s doctoral program in nutrition, education and anthropology. Her dissertation, which was eventually published as “Food Is Elementary,” won national awards for excellence in nutritional education and creativity in implementing U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. She later founded the Food Studies Institute, a nonprofit based in Trumansburg, N.Y., dedicated to improving children’s health through sensory-based nutrition education.

‘Food Is Elementary’ arrives in Baltimore

In 2003, Demas brought “Food Is Elementary” to her first Baltimore public school, Hampstead Hill Academy, thanks to a grant from the Weinberg Foundation. The Stadium School was added the next year, after Demas acquired additional money from Baltimore-based foundations and national organizations such as the National Gardening Association. Today, 15 city schools in Baltimore have used the program on some level, including Hampstead Hill Academy, the pre-kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school that first adopted “Food Is Elementary.”

The program, renamed “Food for Life” at Hampstead Hill Academy, includes an after-school culinary club, monthly community dinners that students prepare for parents and school staff, food-based murals painted on the cafeteria walls designed by students and artists, a custom-built kitchen, and a school garden. “It’s exciting to be a part of something cutting-edge in terms of providing lots of information and hands-on activity for kids around nutrition,” Principal Matthew Hornbeck said in a video promoting the “Food for Life” program.

But, because of budget cuts, the Stadium School, which was the second school to implement Demas’ program, has struggled financially to keep the program running. Lack of space also has been a problem. This year, the school’s food educator, Catherine Dixon, resorted to moving from classroom to classroom to teach, hauling all of her materials and ingredients on a cart.

Despite the lack of resources, Demas applauds the Stadium School for its loyalty to the program. “The principal is very committed to the program’s mission,” she said. Ronald Shelley, principal of the Stadium School, echoed these sentiments. “Students become what they eat,” he said. “When they eat well, they perform well. We need to change the culture around what our students eat.”

Funding is the single-largest hurdle for Demas. She strongly believes that long-term funding from the schools is necessary for the program to be financially sustainable, especially considering the hefty startup fees. Implementing “Food Is Elementary” in 130 Baltimore elementary and middle schools for 130,000 students would cost $2,970,630 for one school year. That breaks down to $22,851 per school.

But instead of focusing on the initial costs, which include the food educator’s salary, benefits, ingredients and equipment, Demas urges schools to consider the following: A study conducted by a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University found that “Food Is Elementary” costs just $228.51 per student per year. By contrast, the average yearly medical costs associated with Type 2 Diabetes come to a grand total of $6,650.

Putting food educators on staff

Although challenges remain, Demas is optimistic, given the enormous change she has witnessed in Baltimore during the past seven years. “When I first started working here, there was very little going on in terms of food education,” she said. “But now, there is growing support for this type of work, and lots of community efforts have sprung up all over the city, especially with gardens.” Her long-term goal is to have a food educator on staff (paid for by the district) in every school in the country.

Demas also noted how food education is becoming a cause celebre nationally, thanks to Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. While grateful for the positive exposure, she is saddened that it has taken so long for Americans to realize the gravity of the situation. “Unfortunately, it took the devastating consequences of poor eating — from diabetes to obesity to heart disease — to bring the issue to the forefront,” she said.


Mackie Jimbo
is a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who writes about her budget-friendly dining adventures at her website, The Unpaid Gourmet.

Photos, from top:
Catherine Dixon, food educator at the Stadium School, teaching “Food Is Elementary.”
Mural at Stadium School.
Credits: Mackie Jimbo
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