Articles in Cooking

Macaroons are a traditional Passover sweet, but this recipe brings a new dimension by adding homemade chocolate ice cream. The chocolate ice cream base is adapted from

Passover is a Jewish holiday celebrating freedom. The initial meal (the seder) and the way you eat for a week offer a small part of the ancient Israelites’ experience as they journeyed from slavery in Egypt to the complexity of freedom. Breads, cooked on the run during their flight, didn’t have sufficient time to rise. The result? Matzo.

Every year, for the first few days of Passover, matzo seems somehow so new. A fat shmear of Temp-Tee ultra-whipped cream cheese and a tart and fruity jelly on top. Or soaked and fried into a matzo brei (a French-toast-like dish) crunchy with sugar and cinnamon. These are the foods of memory to me.

But the problem is that Passover is a weeklong festival. And when it comes to cooking and eating, it is a very long week indeed. Matzo is eaten all the time. I mean ALL the time. It’s in every food, every dish, every treat and in every course. It’s ground into breading, pulverized into cake flour, crushed into farfel and layered into mini “lasagnas.”

Matzo fatigue and the dreaded matzo-pation set in. Desperation takes over by around day four. But frankly, what bothers me the most is when matzo invades desserts. Folks often cook more on Passover than all year long, often pulling out heritage recipes. Even I, a modernist, will cook up a heritage dish or two along with my flights of imagination and globally influenced dishes.

When it comes to desserts, though, many holiday cooks reach for box mixes. Virtually none taste good. These mixes are often packed with processed ingredients and artificial flavors. As a professional cook and culinary instructor — and honestly, a person with taste buds — I don’t make them and I don’t buy them.

If I want heritage desserts, I buy Passover chocolates. That does the trick.

But making desserts at home? What can you do that tastes great and is still Passover-worthy? Matzo in desserts always makes itself known in taste and texture — and I don’t mean that in a nice way whatsoever. No matter how you cut it (pun intended, sorry), matzo desserts are definitely not what I want in order to make a holiday more special.

My advice? If you can put the time and effort into cooking desserts, fear not. Here is a solution.

Delicious Passover desserts

This Sirio Maccioni's Cirque Crème Brûlée has been adapted from Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook -- a perfect Passover dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

This Sirio Maccioni’s Cirque Creme Brulee has been adapted from Molly O’Neill’s “New York Cookbook” — it’s a delicious Passover dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

Offer up some treats that are deliciously Passover-ready AND matzo-free and grain-free. Try a Pavlova, a macaroon, a flourless chocolate cake, ice cream, chestnut-flour crepes, custards, crème brûlée or nut paste-based cookies.

This Vanilla Pavlova is light, airy and sweet. The recipe was contributed by Elizabeth Schwartz. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

This Vanilla Pavlova is light, airy and sweet. The recipe was contributed by Elizabeth Schwartz. Photo credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

A world of matzo-free desserts awaits you.

These Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies strike just the right balance between sweet and tart. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies strike just the right balance between sweet and tart. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 24 cookies

Ingredients

14 ounces pistachio paste, King Arthur or another all-natural brand preferred

1 cup (200 grams) sugar

2 large egg whites

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Scraped seeds of 1 vanilla bean pod

1 cup dried tart cherries

1/2 cup pistachios, lightly crushed

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix the pistachio paste until it resembles big cookie crumbs, 20 to 30 seconds. Add the sugar and mix thoroughly. Add the egg whites, cardamom and vanilla. Mix until completely smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the tart cherries.

3. Drop 2 teaspoons of batter per cookie on the sheet, leaving 1 1/2 to 2 inches between the cookies. Sprinkle the pistachios over the top of the cookies.

4. Bake until light brown but still soft, 12 to 13 minutes. (The cookies will firm up considerably as they cool). Store at in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Main image: Macaroons are a traditional Passover sweet, but this recipe brings a new dimension by adding homemade chocolate ice cream. The chocolate ice cream base is adapted from “The Perfect Scoop,” by David Lebovitz. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

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Lamb skewers are cooked at the table at Songhwa Yanggochi near Konkuk University in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

As the Korean palate becomes more adventurous, a whole new meat has become South Korea’s next big culinary craze — lamb.

For years, lamb and mutton were considered unpalatable by Koreans — too strong, too smelly, not to mention too cute while prancing through the fields. Meat consumption was limited to beef, chicken, pork, sometimes duck, and very occasionally dog. But a booming Korean-Chinese population has got the country into the swing of lamb.

“When it started we aimed for Chinese people, but then they brought their Korean friends to the restaurant,” says Lee Hang-yung, a Korean-Chinese worker from Heilongjiang Province who lives in Seoul. “And people’s tastes slowly changed, and that’s what’s happened here.”

Chinese food booms

A Chinese restaurant in South Korea serves lamb skewers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A Chinese restaurant in South Korea serves lamb skewers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Lee helps operate Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the first Chinese lamb restaurant in what is now a small Chinatown outside Konkuk University. The street is end-to-end with Chinese lamb restaurants, some that Lee derides as “imitators.”

Lee speaks Korean with a Chinese accent, and though he is ethnically Korean, he is, like most of the workers and owners on this street, a Chinese national, born and raised in the People’s Republic.

He is part of a growing minority in South Korea called — sometimes derogatorily — Joseonjok, a name that references a former Korean kingdom. Like ethnic Koreans from the former Soviet Union, Korean-Chinese are not granted automatic right of return in South Korea the way Korean-Americans, Korean-Japanese and many other ethnic Koreans are.

Still, since the re-establishment of ties between South Korea and China in the early 1990s, Korean-Chinese have come in large numbers, usually to work the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs local Koreans won’t do. Like immigrants the world over, some open restaurants, and Chinese lamb has proved to be the safest investment.

Serving up lamb

Yanggochi has spread well beyond its initial market of Chinese living in South; 80 to 90% of customers are now Korean. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Yanggochi has spread well beyond its initial market of Chinese living in South Korea; 80 to 90% of customers are now Korean. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

The flavors are a bit different, but the dish is basically the same as in China.

Yanggochi, meaning lamb skewers, are cubes of skewered lamb barbecued at the table over hot coals. Holding the skewers together while turning them is quite a skill, and as a result, most restaurants now have a machine that automatically rotates the skewers.

“In China, the yanggochi is prepared with the fat and the meat together,” Lee says. “But here it’s more like galbe,” referring to common Korean barbecue, with the fat trimmed from the meat. The meat and the seasoning is much less strong than in China, to cater to Korean tastes.

Once the skewers are cooked, they’re placed on a rack above the heat to cool, then dipped in a seasoning of red pepper, cumin, parilla, mustard seed and other spices. There is a bevy of side dishes that can go with it, including steamed dumplings, mapo tofu in hot and sour sauce, peanuts, cubes of radish kimchi, and thick sliced tofu with chili sauce. The lamb can be wrapped in ggotbbang — literally, “flower bread,” or mandarin rolls — a rolled, steamed bun, along with zha cai, pickled mustard plant stem.

For drinks, Chinese Tsingtao beer is a must for most patrons — a series of ad campaigns and clever product placements have made yanggochi and Tsingtao inseparable. Goryangju, a very potent clear Chinese liquor, is also popular, as is Korean soju.

Trying new flavors

A worker stokes the coals at Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the oldest lamb restaurant on the block. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A worker stokes the coals at Gyeongsong Yanggochi, the oldest lamb restaurant on the block. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Korean lamb restaurants can be found all over this restaurant-dense city. The trade magazine “Meat & Livestock Australia” noted in a report this February that Australian mutton and sheep exports to Korea have risen sharply year-on-year over the last six years.

The report says that despite a continued “general negative perception” toward lamb, “the market’s younger generation is more willing to try new flavors, and there has been an emergence of Chinese-influenced lamb barbecue and skewer restaurants in Seoul, commonly frequented by male consumers in their 30s to 40s.” Australia is the source of 94% of South Korea’s sheep meat.

Yanggochi recently also got a boost when celebrity TV chef Baek Jong-won recommended it on his TV show a few months ago.

“In the past, our customers were all Chinese, but now it’s 80 to 90% Koreans,” says one young woman who works at Kondae Yanggochi, and declined to provide her name. “I think they’ve been trying yanggochi, have gotten used to it, and now they really like it.”

Main photo: Lamb skewers are cooked at the table at Songhwa Yanggochi near Konkuk University in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

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Tater Tots, long a staple of school lunches, have been elevated to gourmet fare by some chefs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

It’s the side dish of my childhood, what school cafeterias invariably paired with burgers, sloppy Joes, hot ham-and-cheese sandwiches and sundry other entrée staples. Growing up, I must have eaten Tater Tots at least once a week, but after college I turned my back on those golden brown, crunchy-yet-soft, mild-yet-savory fried potato puffs.

While I never would have guessed that we’d be reunited, tastes and times have changed with the re-invention of my old school friend. Today these potatoes are no longer relegated to institutional fare. Tots appear everywhere from upscale, New American-style restaurants to bars, burger joints and food trucks. Nor are they merely side dishes for hot sandwiches. Chefs partner them with omelets, pulled pork and fried chicken or serve them on their own as a hearty appetizer or entrée.

Fond memories of Tater Tots

Tater tots have long been a staple of school lunches. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Tater Tots have long been a staple of school lunches. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Nostalgia drives this renewed passion for Tater Tots, said Julie Crist, owner of The Tot Cart in Philadelphia. “Parents used to make Tater Tots for their kids. Now they have souped-up versions of those elementary school lunches,” she said.

Among The Tot Cart’s offerings are “chicken tot pies,” which feature chicken potpie filling layered over potatoes, and a dessert tot consisting of tots tossed in cinnamon sugar and drizzled in dulce de leche. “The salty-sweet mixture makes tots ideal for dessert. With their crispy outsides you really can put anything on them,” said Crist, who serves more than 100 types of tots from her food truck in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

At Alexander’s Tavern in Baltimore, tots are the house specialty. “Tots play on Alexander’s theme of taking a childhood classic and giving it an adult twist,” said executive chef Faith Paulick.

Alexander’s Tavern diners nosh on “tot-chos,” potatoes smothered in queso and jack cheeses, salsa, sour cream and jalapenos, as well as chili- and cheese-covered tots and BBQ sweet potato tots. The best-selling item on the menu is Maryland tots, Paulick said. These are tots blanketed with lump crab meat, crab dip and Old Bay seasoning.

To keep tabs on the food’s popularity, Alexander’s Tavern maintains a “tots sold” counter on its website. To date, the restaurant has sold more than 3 million.

Tater Tots a boon to profits

Tater tots were created in an attempt to make use of the potato scraps leftover from cutting French fries. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Tater Tots were created in an attempt to make use of the potato scraps leftover from cutting french fries. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Although Tater Tots now feature in an array of clever dishes, they had far humbler beginnings. They simply were a way to use the scraps from freshly cut french fries.

In 1952 F. Nephi Grigg of Nampa, Idaho, began considering how he and his brother Golden could turn the leftover slivers at their potato-processing plant into something more profitable. At that time the cuttings were being sold as livestock feed. Grigg decided to try grinding up the pieces, mixing in some spices, pushing the concoction through a form and then deep-frying the bite-sized chunks. With that, Grigg created the first batch of Tater Tots.

He premiered his invention at the 1953 National Potato Convention in Miami, and the tots were an instant hit.

Thanks to Tater Tots, by the late 1950s the Grigg brothers possessed a quarter of America’s frozen potato market. In 1960 the brothers changed their company name from Oregon Frozen Foods to Ore-Ida, a nod to their facility’s proximity to the Oregon-Idaho border.

Five years and multiple new facilities later, the Griggs sold Ore-Ida and its Tater Tots to the H.J. Heinz Co. for $31 million. Heinz, in turn, made these frozen potatoes a staple of American kitchens, cafeterias and childhoods.

While I may have been raised on those mass-produced, frozen tots, I now prefer to make my own. It’s not a complicated or labor-intensive process. In fact, I only need a few ingredients — potatoes, flour, salt, pepper and oil — and a grater, a slotted spoon and a deep pot.

As I’ve learned through trial and error, the key to good tots is to fry rather than bake them. The difference between those two techniques is night and day,  Paulick said.

“Frying gives you nice, even cooking. The potatoes are crispy on the outside and cooked completely on the inside. Unfortunately, you don’t get the same result when you bake tots,” she said.

Crunchy tots allow you to pile on a host of ingredients, including cheeses, meats and sauces. They also enable you to serve them school-cafeteria-style, unadorned except for a dusting of salt and pepper.

Scallion Potato Tots

Scallion Tater Tots ready for frying. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Scallion Potato Tots ready for frying. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

2 pounds Russet potatoes, washed

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white ground pepper

3 tablespoons minced scallion, whites only

Grapeseed or canola oil, for frying

Salt (optional)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Prick the potatoes with a fork and place them in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool for 10 to 15 minutes, until they are no longer too hot to touch.

Using a pairing knife, peel off and discard the potato skins. With a box grater, grate the potatoes into a bowl.

Add the flour, onion powder, salt, white pepper and minced scallion and, using a fork, toss together until evenly combined.

Fill a deep pot with 2 1/2 to 3 inches of oil. Heat the oil on medium-high until it reaches 350 F on a thermometer.

Drop the tots into the oil one at a time. Cook until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, scoop out the cooked tots and place them on a clean, dry cloth to drain. Repeat until all the tots have been fried.

Sprinkle a smidgen of salt over them, if desired. Serve warm.

Main image: Tater Tots, long a staple of school lunches, have been elevated to gourmet fare by some chefs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

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Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, diners can taste not just local Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself.

One restaurant that embodies that spirit is Lilac in downtown Billings, the largest city in Montana. The restaurant has earned local adoration and national accolades. The year after it opened, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.

Crafting good food, good staff

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

At Lilac, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance or exclusivity here.

Rather, proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson describes Lilac’s food with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch, responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”

Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Montana has ranked among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food by Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index. For Lilac, Engebretson, who grew up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.”

It’s a food worldview that brings ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, beef, cheese and honey together with, for example, wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.

Cooking as ‘a soulful experience’

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” Engebretson says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”

And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams and bake bread — all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.

These close quarters are part of what crafts a deeply committed team, comfortable in the back of the house and the front. Ask any server or chef at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it. Chefs and cooks share their intimate knowledge as they serve from a seasonal menu.

Dishes range from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli and micro salad. At the same time, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house.

Innovative but approachable

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson asserts, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand.” The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. Concurrently, he says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies and ideas that speak to us today.”

It can mean hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking and variations on flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques and a heritage focus.

Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness and a strong sense of purpose. In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. “At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”

Main Photo: Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

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Main caption: Gino Sorbillo, Italy's famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Seganv

Fried street foods are popular in every region of Italy, where you’ll often hear: “Fried, even chair legs are delicious.” Neapolitans in particular have a cult-like devotion to fried fare, especially pizza fritta.

After World War II, the city found itself in crisis, and the materials needed for pizza — the mozzarella and even wood for the ovens — became a luxury. Fried pizza, a less-expensive alternative nicknamed “pizza of the people,” was filled with “poor” ingredients — pork crackling, pepper and ricotta. Housewives sold it on the streets to supplement the family’s income. Times were so hard, customers could even buy pizza fritta on credit: Called pizza-at-eight, pizza a otto, it was eaten on the spot but paid for eight days later.

Simple, homemade food

Gino Sorbillo fries pizza fritta at his Naples restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Gino Sorbillo fries pizza fritta at his Naples restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Naples-born Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, made one for me recently explaining, “Pizza fritta comes in different shapes. Round, called montanare, or half moon calzone.” For the dough, which is the same as for classic oven pizza, Sorbillo uses only a minuscule pinch of leavening to create chewy, never spongy, dough. He stretches a round, fills it and pulls the ends into a whimsical mimicry of the clown Pulcinella’s hat. Sorbillo flash-fries at just the right temperature for a crisp, non-greasy outside and warm, gooey center.

“Pizza fritta is a simple food, easy to make at home because unlike classic pizza you don’t need a wood-burning stove, just a frying pan,” Sorbillo says.  It’s very versatile and can be filled with virtually anything: a traditional ricotta, provolone and Neapolitan salami combo; mozzarella and ham; or sautéed broccoli rabe or other greens. And it is great plain or served with a side dipping of tomato sauce.

When you’re in Naples, be sure to have a classic wood oven-baked pizza at Gino’s famed restaurant on Via dei Tribunali. But if the lines are too long to get in, which they always are, enjoy a piping hot pizza fritta at his small fried pizza spot just a few doors down.  If you can’t get to Naples, make Sorbillo’s fried pizza at home with the recipe below. Use his excellent dough recipe or use store-bought pizza dough.

Gino Sorbillo’s Pizza Fritta

If you can't make it to Naples, you can make your own fried pizza at home. Note the tips folded in like a hat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

If you can’t make it to Naples, you can make your own fried pizza at home. Note the tips folded in like a hat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus 8 hours passive

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

A tiny pinch, 0.07 ounces, brewers yeast

2 cups, about 1 pound, organic “0” or pizza flour

3 teaspoons salt

Sunflower or other vegetable oil for frying

Sorbillo’s suggested fillings: sheep’s milk ricotta, thinly sliced ciccioli  (Neapolitan pork salami), diced smoked provolone cheese, diced fresh peeled tomatoes, black pepper

Directions

1. Dissolve the yeast in 1 1/3 cups of warm water in a bowl, and then sift in the flour and salt. Knead on a floured work surface until smooth, 10 to 12 minutes.  Divide the dough into 4 balls and let rise at room temperature, covered in a clean cloth, for about 8 hours.

2. Heat enough oil in a deep-sided skillet to cover one pizza at a time. Heat to 400 F.

3. Stretch each section into a flat circle, pressing down with your palm to flatten it. Put the ricotta, salami, provolone and a tablespoon of diced tomatoes in the center. Season with black pepper, fold over and pinch the edges closed, taking care to leave an air pocket in the center.   Pull on the two ends a bit and slowly lower into the hot oil. Fry in the hot oil, about 1/2 minute per side, until golden. Drain on absorbent paper and repeat with the other three pizzas. Eat while warm.

Main photo: Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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This Japanese meal has miso sauce, daikon radish, salmon, omelet, purple radish, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, burdock, chestnut, grapes, dried baby fish -- some of these rather small amounts. I give it a score 10 item including the accompanying bowl of rice and miso soup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

An official slogan for improving the nutrition of the Japanese population was issued by the Japanese government in 1985: “Consume Thirty Different Food Items Each Day.”

The food items were divided into six categories, and we were advised to choose evenly from each category. Each ingredient, it was said — meat, poultry and fish, soybeans, grains, vegetables and fruits, milk products, and sea vegetables — contains its own nutritional properties, so following this slogan will help to create balanced meals.

Even before this public announcement, there was a growing awareness that the Japanese diet since the turn of the 20th century had succumbed to influence from the West. It was thought that we must return to our own traditional diet to achieve optimum nutrition.

Just for fun, from time to time I still count how many different food items I have consumed in a single day.

A realistic goal?

A high-scoring lunch at home of kinpira ( flavored carrot, parsnip and burdock) and soba buckwheat noodles, fried tofu, cabbage, onion, fennel bulb and egg). Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

A high-scoring lunch of kinpira (flavored carrot, parsnip and burdock) and soba (buckwheat noodles) with fried tofu, cabbage, onion, fennel bulb and egg. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

This practice was instilled in me by my mother. Recently I made the count for all three meals, and found I’d consumed 21 separate foods on that day; far short of the government’s recommendation. This caused me to think. How and why did this government recommendation come about? Is it still a realistic guiding principle?

Here is what I found.

Until 1868, Japan lagged far behind Western countries in technology, science and engineering because of the closure of the country to foreign trade for 260 years. Even the small physical stature of the Japanese population was blamed on a poor, very limited Japanese diet that was based on small quantities of rice, fish, soybean products, with some vegetables and seaweeds.

The Meiji Emperor encouraged the population to begin consuming beef, a food item previously banned for ordinary citizens. Newly imported Western ingredients included meat, meat products, milk and butter, and new preparation techniques led to the creation of new “Japanese” dishes that were called “yo-shoku” (Japanized Western dishes).

Yo-shoku dishes with their rich flavors and large servings instantly became national favorites: beef steak, pork cutlet, curry and rice, “omu-rice” (stir-fried morsels of chicken and rice, seasoned with tomato ketchup and wrapped in an omelet), to name a few.

Dietary changes brought risks

Chikuzen-ni: This dish features broccoli, carrot, onion, purple baby potato, white baby potato, parsnip, shiitake mushroom, chicken and olive oil -- a 9-item dish.

This dish (Chikuzen-ni) features broccoli, carrot, onion, purple baby potato, white baby potato, parsnip, shiitake mushroom, chicken and olive oil — a nine-item dish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

During the heyday of Japanese boom-times in 1970-1990, even more varieties of Western foods became available and popular (provided by the major Western fast-food companies). And Japanese began consuming increasing quantities of rare cheeses, foie gras and expensive wines.

These dietary changes came with hefty penalties: Diabetes became more widespread. Heart disease became the number No. 2 killer in Japan. And — this was formerly unthinkable — morbid obesity is now present in the country.

Meals dominated by fat, meat, meat products, egg, sugar and milk products push up calorie consumption but not the number of daily food items. The broad categories of foods of the traditional complete Japanese diet such as seafood, seaweed, vegetables and more fruits are lacking. So the 1985 rule was an attempt to bring variety back to the everyday diet.

Want to try eating 30 different foods in a day? Choose at least two items from each of the six food categories. Since consuming vegetables and fruits is good for our health, add two additional items from categories 3 and 4. If you do this, you will easily approach 20 separate food items — a good start for reaching the goal of 30 items that the Japanese government recommended.

By following this practice, you can change the way you plan and prepare meals to the benefit of your health.

Six categories of food items

This Japanese style fish stew includes porgy, squid and hard-shell clam from fishmonger, Blue Moon, which sets up their store at Union Square Market, New York City, from spring through early winter. Also onion, corn, tomato and green and yellow zucchini are mingling with seafood in dashi (Japanese stock) broth -- an 8 score dish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

This Japanese-style fish stew includes porgy, squid and hard-shell clam from fishmonger Blue Moon, which sets up at Union Square Market in New York City from spring through early winter. Also, onion, corn, tomato and green and yellow zucchini are mingling with seafood in dashi (Japanese stock) broth — an 8 score dish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

The six categories of food items and what they provide:

1. Meat, fish, poultry, egg, tofu products (protein).

2. Small fish that can be eaten whole with bones, milk and milk products (calcium).

3. Green and yellow vegetables (carotene, plus other vitamins and minerals).

4. Other vegetables and fruits (vitamin C, plus other vitamins and minerals).

5. Grains, potato, bread/cakes/cookies (carbohydrates).

6. Cooking oil, nut and seed oils, nuts and seeds (fat).

Rules to follow

I taught 3-5 years old kids at Children's Museum of Manhattan in New York City to eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. The little audience was very curious about the colors of beautiful vegetables. Credit 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

I taught 3- to 5-year-old kids at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan in New York City about the value of eating vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. The young audience was curious about the beautiful colors of vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

As you begin your “Thirty Different Food Items Each Day” project, please observe the following rules. Do not count the same ingredient twice. Do not count ingredients used for garnishes in soups, salads and the like; they have minimal nutritional and caloric value. You can, however, count ketchup, mayonnaise and sauces, which have substantial caloric content.

When you reach 21 food items in a day, please send me photos and a description of the meals. I will share them with my audience.

Before then, please enjoy this stir-fried rice recipe, which gives you a 7 score for the dish.

Seven Score Vegetable Stir-Fried Rice

I make this rice dish very often for lunch and dinner. The ingredients used here - carrot, onion, fennel bulb, kale, brown rice, pine nuts and olive oil - can be replaced with other ingredients that you may have in your kitchen. A flavorful and satisfying vegetable rice dish anytime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

I make this rice dish very often for lunch and dinner. The ingredients used here — carrot, onion, fennel bulb, kale, brown rice, pine nuts and olive oil — can be replaced with other ingredients that you may have in your kitchen. A flavorful and satisfying vegetable rice dish any time. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 4 minutes

Total time: 49 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

Sea salt

1 cup chopped carrot

1/4 cup chopped fennel bulb or celery

3 1/2 ounces kale; leaves, cut into thin slices crosswise; stems, cut into thin slices slanted

4 cups cooked and cooled brown rice (preferably made a day in advance)

1/2 cup pine nuts

2 tablespoons butter

1 to 2 teaspoons shoyu

Freshly ground black pepper corn

Directions

Heat a wok or deep skillet over medium heat and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion along with pinch of salt and cook, stirring, 1 minute.

Add the carrot, fennel bulb and kale stem along with pinch of sea salt and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add the kale leaves, and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Move the vegetables to one end of the wok (or transfer to a temporary bowl). Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in the empty space of the wok.

When the oil is hot, add the rice and cook, over medium heat, stirring, until the rice is fully heated up, or about 2 minutes. Then combine and toss the rice with the cooked vegetables. Add the pine nuts and give several large stirs. Add the butter, soy sauce and freshly ground black pepper and toss the mixture thoroughly. Divide the rice among 4 plates and serve hot.

Main photo: This Japanese meal has miso sauce, daikon radish, salmon, omelet, purple radish, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, burdock, chestnut, grapes and dried baby fish. Since some are rather small amounts, I give it a score of 10, including the accompanying bowl of rice and miso soup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

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Kimchi in wok to make kimchi fried rice at Hanjip. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Steamed rice is a perfect side dish.  Never threatening to overshadow the qualities of a main dish, rice is a good accompaniment for grilled proteins, braises, stir-fries and steamed veggies. But there are times when a meal needs not symbiosis but fiery contrast. That is when Chef Chris Oh’s kimchi fried rice can save the day.

Located near Sony Studios, Oh’s Hanjip Korean BBQ  is one of a dozen new restaurants that have created a culinary district in what was once sleepy Culver City, Calif.

An unlikely path to becoming a chef

If you met Oh before he was 30, you would have known an economics major who studied at the University of Arizona and followed his supportive parents into the world of entrepreneurial businesses.  Within a few years of graduation, he owned a home, a real estate company and a car wash in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was living the American dream.

Then one day, as has happened to many others, he woke up and asked himself, “Is this it?” His answer was, “No.” He wanted to follow his passion and pursue the life of a chef. But this is where Oh’s story takes an unusual turn. Unlike many others who want culinary careers, Oh did not enroll in a cooking academy. He did not seek out a talented chef and apprentice himself for years.

He abandoned his successful life, sold his house and all his businesses, packed his car and drove to Los Angeles. He knew he wanted to be a chef, but his only cooking experience was preparing meals for his younger brother when they were growing up.  He rented a house, bought a TV and turned on the Food Network. For days and nights too numerous to count, he sat on his couch and watched cooking shows. He studied classic recipes and learned to improvise by watching competition cooking shows.

Even though he had never worked in a professional kitchen, after his third interview, he was hired to be a line cook.  A quick study, within two years Oh was working with some of Los Angeles’ top chefs. Fast forward another two years and he was the chef-owner of two food trucks and three restaurants. Along the way he won the third season of The Great Food Truck Race and had become a judge on cooking shows.

Korean flavors for American palates

Korean barbecue offerings at Hanjip. Top row: ribeye, brisket, marinated pork belly, pork belly, lamb. Middle row: baby octopus, beef bulgogi, skirt steak, short rib. Bottom row: pork jowl, marinated short rib, marinated pork shoulder. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Korean barbecue offerings at Hanjip. Top row: ribeye, brisket, marinated pork belly, pork belly, lamb. Middle row: baby octopus, beef bulgogi, skirt steak, short rib. Bottom row: pork jowl, marinated short rib, marinated pork shoulder. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The driving force behind his success is Oh’s love of Korean food. Many people have not experienced Korean food so his intention is to create dishes with authentic flavors but to make them more friendly to the American palate. Korean barbecue, he told me, isn’t just for Korean people.

Eating at a Korean barbecue restaurant is like going to a dinner theater except the show is not on stage but on the table. A gas-powered brazier gets the spotlight. Using tongs and chop sticks, everyone at the table plays chef and places thin slices of meat, seafood and vegetables on the hot grill. The conversation bubbles and the meat sizzles as everyone picks off the flavorful crispy bits and eats them with rice.

Based on his mother’s recipe, Oh adds a few chef’s secret touches to elevate his kimchi fried rice. Essential to the flavor profile is the addition of a barely cooked egg.  Just before eating, the egg is broken up and mixed into the rice. The kimchi fried rice with its comfort-food creaminess is a good complement to the tasty, crispy bits that come off the grill.

Hanjip Korean BBQ’s Kimchi Fried Rice

Hanjip Korean BBQ kimchi fried rice. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Hanjip Korean BBQ kimchi fried rice. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Of the special ingredients needed to make the dish, only kimchi is essential. Found in the refrigerated section in Asian markets, there are many varieties of kimchi. The version used in Oh’s recipe is made with Asian cabbage. Most often sold in jars and prepared with MSG, there are brands that prepare their kimchi without MSG and are recommended.

Kimchi continues to ferment in the jar, which explains the gas that sputters out when the lid is unscrewed. To protect against juices staining clothing and the counter, always open the jar in the sink where cleanup is easy.

Furikake and nori, the other specialty ingredients called for in the recipe, are also found in Asian markets. Nori is a dried seaweed sold in sheets or pre-cut into thin strips. Furikake comes in several varieties. Chef Oh’s furikake is a mix of sesame seeds, nori, bonito flakes and seasoned salt.

For a vegetarian or vegan version, omit the butter and egg and use kosher salt instead of beef bouillon.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes or 45 minutes if the rice must be cooked or 60 minutes if using a sous vide egg

Total time: 20 minutes or 65 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 egg, sous vide 60 minutes or coddled for 4 minutes in boiling water or fried sunny side up

1 tablespoon sweet butter

2 tablespoons sesame oil

¾ cup chopped kimchi

3 cups cooked white rice, Japanese or Chinese

Pinch of beef bouillon powder or kosher salt

2 tablespoons kimchi juice

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh garlic

2 tablespoons scallions, washed, ends trimmed, chopped

2 tablespoons nori strips for garnish

1 teaspoon furikake for garnish

Directions

1. Cook the egg sous vide, coddled or fried sunny side up. Set aside.

2.Heat wok, carbon steel or cast iron pan over high heat.

3. Add butter. Lower the flame and stir well to avoid burning.

4. Add sesame oil and kimchi. Stir well to combine.

5. Add cooked rice. Mix well with oils and kimchi. Do not over stir to encourage bottom layer to crisp.

6. Season with beef bouillon powder or kosher salt, kimchi juice and garlic. Stir well.

7. Add scallions and stir well.

8. When the rice is well coated and some of the grains are crispy, transfer to a serving dish.

9. Top with the egg and garnish with the nori strips and furikake.

10. Serve hot.

Main photo: Kimchi in wok to make kimchi fried rice at Hanjip. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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Yotam Ottolenghi's yogurt-drizzled butternut squash. Credit: Reprinted with permission from NOPI: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Food photography: Copyright 2015 Jonathan Lovekin Location photography: Copyright 2015 Adam Hinton

Yogurt is not for just breakfast or smoothies anymore. While the dairy cases in supermarkets across the nation populate with more brands, tubs and tubes of yogurt — including novel flavors like sriricha-mango and carrot — a parallel trend is making it a star ingredient in cooking. Beyond its compatibility with granola or fruit blends, yogurt is becoming a foundational ingredient in dips, soups and sauces for roasted vegetables and meats in American restaurants and home kitchens.

The recent adoration for cooking with yogurt is not the result of some new flavor or formulation. This is plain (old) yogurt, an ancient staple food in many cultures of the world. Yogurt’s natural creaminess and acidity, coupled with its versatility, are feeding 21st-century culinary inspiration.

Why, over 70 years since yogurt’s introduction to the United States, has its moment arrived now?

Groundbreaking yogurt

There’s no doubt that Americans have claimed the world’s favorite cultured dairy product as our own. In  fact, it’s one of the fastest-growing food groups of all time. Although nearly all of the yogurt sold in the United States is sweetened, the natural tang no longer puts people off as it did when the Dannon company introduced its brand in 1942.

The sea change came with Greek yogurt. Since 2005, domestic sales have doubled each year, and today over half of all yogurt sold here is Greek-style. With more liquid whey strained, this thicker, creamier product won consumers over, despite costing nearly twice as much. Yogurt’s alluring halo as a low-fat, high-protein, calcium-rich health product with the benefit of probiotics has made it the go-to breakfast choice and snack alternative.

At the same time, the DIY culture has inspired a renaissance in age-old cooking traditions, including food preservation and fermentation. Since yogurt is the product of fermenting milk with bacteria cultures that preserve and thicken, it has helped inspire the pickle-, sauerkraut- and jam-making crowd and has kicked off an online wave of homemade yogurt machines, how-to recipes and Pinterest posts.

Yogurt infatuation

Long before yogurt became the one of hottest-selling foods ever, I encountered the concept of cooking with yogurt in two landmark vegetarian cookbooks, “The Moosewood Cookbook” and Deborah Madison’s “Greens.” Drawing on world cuisines, both featured soups with yogurt, yogurt sauce and raita, the Indian side dish often made with cucumber or other vegetables.

“Yogurt isn’t new. Not even a little,” writes Cheryl Sternman Rule in her 2015 cookbook “Yogurt Culture.” In many cultures throughout the world, yogurt is more than a healthful substitute for mayonnaise and sour cream but “is enjoyed globally in countless incarnations and preparations, both savory and sweet, across every meal.”

While it is common in Turkey to eat cucumbers and tomatoes with yogurt, for example, it’s only recently that such savory notions have enjoyed broad appeal here. It took a slow shift toward vegetarianism (even among meat eaters); world cuisines, especially those of India and the Middle East; and wholesome cooking to win this ancient staple newfound status. It is also due, in no small part, to the singular influence of an Israeli-born, London-based chef named Yotam Ottolenghi.

The Ottolenghi effect

With five cookbooks published in the past four years, Ottolenghi is wildly popular among professional and home cooks alike. His influence on American cooking is so widespread it is impossible not to encounter his mark in food magazines and popular blogs. Several of his recipes, including roasted butternut squash drizzled with yogurt, have become iconic.

Pairing yogurt with meats and fish, grains and legumes, herbs and spices, vegetables from eggplant to zucchini and even eggs, Ottolenghi has helped to transform our basic conception of the ingredient. In “NOPI: The Cookbook,” his most recent release based on his London restaurant, Ottolenghi again translates the idiom with another dozen yogurt-centric recipes using beets, chickpeas, lamb meatballs and more.

In falling so hard for its nutritional values, we’ve finally come to recognize yogurt’s vast culinary assets.

Yogurt’s bounty

Grilled hanger steak with grilled red-onion raita. Credit: Reprinted with permission from "Yogurt," by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

Grilled hanger steak with grilled red-onion raita. Credit: Reprinted with permission from “Yogurt,” by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

“Yogurt Culture” is one of two cookbooks devoted to the subject of cooking with yogurt released last year. Amid recipes for smoothies and fro-yo, the bulk of the book explores yogurt’s savory side. Poring over appetizer, lunch and dinner recipes, I discovered yogurt in marinara sauce for pasta, tangy mashed potatoes and a more stable whipped cream. Under the book’s spell, I served Rule’s yogurt dip of blood orange, Kalamata olive and red onion with pita breads when a friend came over for a glass of wine. A first.

“Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner,” by Janet Fletcher (Ten Speed Press) is akin, presenting a globally inspired collection of yogurt-centered recipes. Salted yogurt creates a bed for a farro and vegetable salad; it is a marinade for chicken and a topping on pizza. No fan of fusion, Fletcher nonetheless blends boundaries via an irresistible cumin-spiced raita with red onion to accompany grilled steak or lamb burgers. That’s a new one for cookout season.

Together, these cookbooks expand our understanding of plain yogurt in all its current forms, from organic and grass-fed to Australian (whole milk, unstrained) and Icelandic (even thicker than Greek) to homemade. Grounded in its history, they inspire some serious and fun exploration through cooking.

“As a cook, I love where yogurt has taken me,” writes Fletcher. I heartily agree. From here on out, yogurt — spiced, herbed, smoked and, yes, even sweetened (lightly, with fresh fruits and preserves) — promises to be anything but plain.

Cheryl Sternman Rule’s Blood Orange, Kalamata and Red Onion Dip

Note: Excerpted from “Yogurt Culture” copyright 2015 by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Prep time: Approximately 10 minutes

Cooking time: None

Total time: Approximately 10 minutes

Yield: Serves 2

Ingredients

3/4 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt or labneh, homemade or store-bought

Kosher salt

1 blood orange (or Valencia, Cara Car, or navel orange if blood oranges are unavailable)

1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, drained and minced

1 tablespoon minced red onion

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon sumac (optional)

Toasted whole-wheat pita triangles, for serving

Directions

1. If using yogurt, season it with a good pinch of salt. (Don’t salt the labneh.) Scrape the yogurt into a shallow bowl and smooth it with the back of a spoon to create a wide indentation. Using a sharp knife, cut away the peel and white pith from the orange and dice the flesh.

2. Scatter the orange pieces over the yogurt. Sprinkle the olives and onion on top. Drizzle with the oil in a thin stream. Season lightly with salt and more aggressively with pepper. Dust with the sumac, if using. Serve immediately with the toasted pita triangles.

Grilled Red-Onion Raita for Hanger Steak

Note: Reprinted with permission from “Yogurt,” by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Prep time: Approximately 20 minutes

Cooking time: Approximately 25 minutes

Total time: Approximately 45 minutes

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

1 large red onion (10-12 ounces)

Vegetable oil

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt

1 clove garlic, grated or finely minced

1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro or 1 1 ⁄ 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh mint

1 ⁄ 4 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin seeds

1 ⁄ 2 teaspoon mustard seeds

Directions

1. Prepare a moderate charcoal fire in the center of your grill, leaving the outer rim devoid of coals so you can grill the red onions over indirect heat. Alternatively, preheat a gas grill to medium, leaving one burner unlit for indirect grilling.

2. Peel the onion and slice neatly into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Carefully thread a thin bamboo skewer through each slice to hold the rings together. Brush the slices with oil on each side, and season with salt and pepper on each side. Grill over indirect heat — not directly over the coals or gas flame — turning once, until the onions are soft and slightly charred, about 25 minutes. Do not rush them or they will blacken before they are fully cooked. Transfer to a cutting board and pull out the skewers. If the outer ring of the onion slices is dry and papery, discard it. Chop the remainder of the onion coarsely.

3. In a bowl, whisk together the yogurt, garlic, cilantro or mint and cumin. In a small skillet or butter warmer, warm 2 teaspoons vegetable oil over medium heat. Have the skillet lid handy. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds. Protecting your face with the lid, cook until the mustard seeds pop and become fragrant, 1 minute or less. Pour the hot oil and mustard seeds over the yogurt and stir in. Fold in the grilled onion. Season the raita with salt.

Main photo: Yotam Ottolenghi’s yogurt-drizzled butternut squash. Reprinted with permission from “NOPI: The Cookbook,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Food photography: Copyright 2015 Jonathan Lovekin. Location photography: Copyright 2015 Adam Hinton

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