Saturday, November 28, 2009

Food Philosophy for Everyday Cooking

The food philosophy in my house for everyday cooking is, "Take good food and do as little as possible to it."

Even though we're busy people, Boyfriend and I eat dinner together pretty much every night. The only way we could possibly pull this off is by preparing meals that take 20 to 40 minutes at the most. The philosophy that we cook by helps: Take quality ingredients; add nothing more than salt, pepper, olive oil or butter, and perhaps a handful of herbs; and add heat.

High quality ingredients don't have to be anything crazy. Most of the time, it's a fresh piece of fish bought from the fish market on the walk home from the subway, or a few chicken thighs from the Halal section of the grocery store, or a plump eggplant from the produce stand, or a couple of cage-free eggs from the little organic market around the corner.

We'll pair whatever we cook with a salad, bread and cheese, or another vegetable cooked in the same way: olive oil, salt, pepper—sometimes black pepper, sometimes red pepper flakes, what we call pepperoncino—maybe a bit of parsley, basil, garlic. Depending on what the main ingredient is, we'll pop it under the broiler or toss it on a grill pan, or do some other one-step cooking.

At least once a week, we do something more involved, like braise some pork. Two weeks ago, Boyfriend braised a rabbit, which fed the two of us three meals each. Last week I cobbled together a vegetable lasagna on Sunday so that later in the week, when I knew we'd both be busy, whoever got home first could pop it in the oven for an hour and be done with the cooking.

If the weather has been particularly hot, or if we are suddenly busy and late to come home from work, we'll grab a package of smoked salmon and a baguette from the market and pair it with a salad and a bottle of wine.

We eat well daily, and healthfully, and it actually takes less time and effort&mdashmuch less time and effort—than it would to prepare food that's unhealthy. That's the one thing I wish I could convey to people who want to improve their eating habits. It takes minimal effort to stir up together two omelets and a baked sweet potato, or a lay out a few ounces of smoked salmon on bread with sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions and a lentil salad.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Review: Yakitori Totto


A skewer of grilled chicken oysters.

This blog post might be titled, "The Review that Never Got Written: Yakitori Totto." I've had all these photographs hanging around for a week now and have been focusing so intently on other things that I just haven't written much about the restaurant.

Yakitori Totto is a yakitori restaurant, a Japanese style of street foods, mostly grilled meats on sticks. Each piece costs somewhere around $2-$4, so a small group of people can try literally dozens of items.

Yakitori Totto is chicken-centric, and the prize piece on any chicken is the oyster, which is not the anus exactly, as many people assume, but is a small piece of dark meat attached to the thigh and backbone (see diagram).



Rather than give a play-by-play review, I'd like to just share some photos and say Yakitori Totto was very good. The atmosphere is casual, and prices are flexible, as you can order heavily or lightly. I have no complaints, and I could nit-pick if it were a restaurant with loftier aspirations, but it's not.


Fried squid pieces.


Battered and deep fried soft tofu.


Asparagus pieces wrapped tightly in chicken skin.


Shishisto peppers with fluttering bonito flakes.


Salt and pepper sea scallops (right) and gyoza (left).


Chicken meatball, highly recommended.


Smelt served with lemon.


Seaweed salad, highly recommended, and out of focus at right are cold chopped tuna livers served with blobs of cream cheese.


Chicken with scallions.


Ground spiced chicken stuffed in hot shishisto peppers, highly recommended.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Postcard from Long Island: Azuma



There's a tradition that says a bride and groom are supposed to save the top tier of their wedding cake and eat it on their first anniversary.

Last week, two of my closest friends celebrated their one-year anniversary. Their cake was swaddled in seven layers of plastic wrap and aluminum foil at their bride's mother's house.

A few days before their anniversary, I got this email:

"Ok, so i just got a crazy idea, and i'll understand if it's too last minute for y'alls but here it is: G and I are running out to L.I. tonight to pick up the year-old frozen cake. I thought maybe you'd like to come along and we can have dinner at Azuma." She added, "You of course might have already planned out your evening, which I totally understand. But you're totes invited to ours after for year-old cake anyways. (just kidding)."

I had been to Azuma once or twice before with my mother, who lives around the corner from the bride's mother.

It's not the most amazing restaurant by any means, but for that area, a suburban neighborhood, it's one of the more interesting places to nosh.

Azuma is your standard Japanese-with-a-touch-of-Asian-fusion restaurant, the kind of place that could have focused just on Japanese food, or just on sushi, or just on specialty rolls, but for its location and clientele.


Azuma's chicken teriyaki.

I imagine Azuma attracting an adventurous eater who lives nearby, but who also needs to convince his mother, wife, kids, or father-in-law — who happen to shutter at the thought of eating raw fish — to dine out with him. I imagine a middle-aged man who is enamored with the idea of eating a bright purple nugget of yellow tail side-by-side with warm banana, but whose wife demands, "What am I going to eat there?" Maybe he replies, "Honey, they have chicken teriyaki!" ($13) the most prominently displayed non-sushi dinner on the menu. Everyone's happy!

The first time I went to Azuma three or four years ago, I remember it vividly because it was my introduction to scallops served raw. Giant sea scallops are by far my favorite seafood, and a major part of my love for them has to do with texture. So to slurp at their buttery flesh, doused in a light and clear sauce, adorned with a streak of seaweed salad (another food that I swoon over) flecked with red pepper, and served in the shallow bed of a saucer-sized scallop shell was memorable. Ever since that experience, I have been on the hunt for a restaurant item that features raw scallops: ceviche, sushi, on the half shell.

My mother on that visit ordered a special roll called something like "snowy mountain," if I recall. It was your standard California roll buried in a haystack of shredded coconut and panko, which stuck to the roll via Japanese mayo.


Azuma's unappetizing sushi pizza.

On this most recent visit, a few of us shared a couple of things. The special tuna pizza, hastily designed, was a mess and a disaster in flavor profile: a Styrofoam matzoh-like flatbread, layers of sliced avocado, imitation crab meat shredded and piled atop and smothered in some kind of deep red barbecue sauce, with a scallion chiffonade garnish, which would not be its saving grace no matter how deftly sliced.

Much better, though surprisingly bland, were two special rolls not on the online menu. One, called "spicy girl," featuring salmon, lacked any spice or heat. The other, a tuna and banana roll, could have hit the mark, but seemed unseasoned, as if the vinegar had been left out of the rice. As I've become more attuned to sushi, I've slowly moved away from using wasabi and soy sauce to seek out the delicate essence of fish and other ingredients. However, these rolls needed something to punch them up. Dunk I did.

And, I did not eat the cake.


Azuma's spicy girl roll.

Azuma Sushi Asian Fusion
252 Broadway
Greenlawn, New York

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Beer of the Month Club: Shipment 1


One of my birthday presents this year, from two of my very generous friends (thanks, guys), is a four-month Microbrewed Beer of the Month Club membership.

Around the middle of each month, a case of beer shows up on my doorstep. Each shipment contains both domestic and international microbrews. For the first delivery, I got three bottles each of four varieties (I'm down to just two bottles already): Buzzard Limited ale, Tallgrass Ale, Primátor Maibock, and Primátor Double Bock.

Of these three, my favorite was the Maibock, although the two Primátors were both very different from the ales.

The double bock, like most double bocks, is noticeably sweet. And this one was heavy, a sipping beer with a syrupy mouthfeel. The Maibock, on the other hand, is creamy but much more drinkable.

Of the two ales, I definitely preferred the Tallgrass, which boasted more flavor all around. Both were very dark brown, a bit hoppy and bitter, and with no head.