Friday, December 24, 2004

On the Pleasures of Saké

On miserably wintry days (like the one we had in Ottawa yesterday), there is something to be said for indulging in two things:

1) a hot bath; and
2) hot saké.

As in Japanese rice wine. Being a Nipponophile (or otaku), when I drink saké I think of the old Kurosawa samurai movies, with the rough-and-tumble Toshiro Mifune gulping down a small cupful as he contemplates his next move against the Yakuza, or perhaps his sipping from a saucer and brooding just before he sees and attacks a ghost. In other words, in Japan saké is a drink for Men, and not just for dilettantes. Which means the idea of soaking in a tub full of steaming hot water, with a small bottle of warmed saké and a cup beside you and a good book or manga at hand--doesn't that sound like a good idea for a cold night?

These days there's been a trend towards drinking sake chilled or cold, with new premium-priced rice wines coming into the market suggesting you do just that. And that's fine for the summer. In winter, though, what's needed is warmth. And saké (along with mulled red wine and mead) is one of those drinks that's nice when it's hot.

So, some tips for drinking warmed saké:

1. Use a regular brand (i.e. the cheap stuff). Brands like Hakutsuru or Gekeikkan or Ozeki; the last two are actually brewed in North America as branch plant operations of the brands in Japan. The premium stuff tends to be delicate; their flavor disappears with heat.

2. Get a proper tokkuri and cups. That's cups, plural. This is especially a good idea if your bathtub can accommodate more than two people--or, better yet, if you have a jacuzzi. Because in accordance with Japanese tradition, saké is a drink meant to be shared.

A proper tokkuri (which is what they call the small ceramic saké bottle) will have minimal decoration, if any, because it's meant to be immersed in hot water. They come in various shapes and sizes, but they are always ceramic. The cups can vary from little wooden boxes to shallow saucers to Chinese teacup-shaped dainties, but they're meant to be small. Ian Fleming's spy James Bond complained about this in You Only Live Twice, but what he failed to realize is that warmed saké can infiltrate the bloodstream just as fast as a good belt of Scotch.

3. Use the microwave. Remember, half the fun of being an Urban Possum is knowing how to cut the time for cleanup. The traditional method means heating water to a simmer in a small saucepan and immersing the filled tokkuri into the water for about 5 to 10 minutes. But why dirty a perfectly good sauce pan -- unless you're out camping?

Instead, fill your tokkuri to a safe level (usually, within an inch of the opening), put it in the microwave and heat for 30 seconds to 1 minute, on high. You need less time if your microwave has a higher wattage, and it depends on the makeup of your tokkuri. You don't want to go any more than 1 minute because overheating the saké can cause it to become bitter.

(There's a traditional Japanese maxim that says that saké is best heated between the legs of a young woman, and should be the same temperature as her body. I don't think I'd care to try that method.)

4. Snacks aren't necessary, but they sure are nice. One thing that should be clear: saké can be drunk before the main part of a meal, or after it as a socializing drink. But it's not meant to wash down your main course. The reason for that is, Japanese main courses always feature rice, and you don't serve rice dishes twice during the same course. And saké, being made of rice, qualifies.

Now, with that said, there are some snacking foods that do go well with saké, assuming you're not going the bathtub route. Saké goes will with oden (a type of Japanese stew), yakitori (grilled meat on skewers, or any form a kebab), and other finger foods.

But like I said at the beginning, there's nothing like a warm bath and warm saké to get one through a bad winter day. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to turn off the water ...

Monday, December 20, 2004

Pseudo Lembas

On Sunday, I went to an informal Christmas potluck, hosted by the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Since this wasn't a formal SCA event, we weren't required to bring "period" (i.e. pre-1600 European) dishes.

I was put on the list of people that was supposed to bring a bread or starch dish. So I brought ... lembas. As in the legendary Elvish traveler's biscuit as popularized in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Actually, to be more accurate, this was a "pseudo"-lembas. The recipe I used came off the web, courtesy of the Fading Trees fansite. This form of lembas can be thought of as a cinnamon biscuit, as opposed to the shortbread-like packet that Peter Jackson used (and, according to DVD commentary, nibbled on during takes) for his filmed version of the trilogy.

(There's a different recipe available at the Tolkien fansite, but that one uses self-rising flour which I don't have at the moment. I may try it later.)

I found it pretty good the first time I made it, and so did the other diners at the potluck. So I'll reproduce the recipe here.


2 1/2 cups of flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
8 Tablespoons cold butter (1 stick, cut into 8 pieces)
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2/3 cup milk or heavy cream (heavy cream is recommended)
1/2 tsp vanilla
honey, homemade jam or maple syrup for dipping

1. Preheat over to 425 degrees.
2. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.

3. Add butter and mix with a fork or pastry cutter until mixture looks like fine granules. (This part will take a fair bit of work.)
4. Add sugar and cinnamon; mix well.
5. Add milk and vanilla and stir with a fork until a stiff dough forms.
(You can add up to 1/4 cup more milk to moisten, if you have trouble incorporating all of the mixture into the dough.)
6. Roll into balls and place on cookie sheet, mashing them out
until they are about 1/2 inch thick and 3 inches across. You should have enough dough to make 12 - 14 biscuits.
7. Bake for about 12 to 14 minutes. They're done if you poke a toothpick into one and it comes out dry.

Serve with honey, homemade jam or maple syrup on the side.

An important note: if you have baking powder in your cupboard but haven't baked in the past few months, check its potency by dissolving a little in cold water. If you don't hear it fizz, it's gone flat and you'll need to buy fresh.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

About Those Mashed Potatoes ...

WICKED THOUGHTS has a funny post on holiday eating tips. For the most part it's worth a chuckle or two, but there's one point where there's a bone of contention:

4. As for mashed potatoes, always ask if they're made with skim milk or whole milk. If it's skim, pass. Why bother? It's like buying a sports car with an automatic transmission.

The contention? Why the heck do you need milk of any sort to make mashed potatoes?

If we're talking about those paper-tasting "instant" muck, then I suppose you could put milk in to add some backbone to that taste. But really -- why not use fresh potatoes and do it the right way -- the old-fashioned way?

It's not hard -- at least not if you know how. Just follow these steps:

1. You need a minimum of two large potatoes, or three medium-sized potatoes. After that, you add one large potato per person being served. White or red-skin doesn't matter; Yukon Gold is a nice choice especially for its color. The trick is to use the potatoes within a week from when you bought them; otherwise you risk sprouting.

2. Rough-cut the potatoes into cubes before you boil them. The smaller you cube them, the quicker (and softer) they'll cook. You shouldn't go smaller than 1.5 inches per cube.

3. You need at least half again as much water as you need to cover the potatoes, and the water must be salted.

4. Just prior to boiling, take out butter from the fridge and let it get to room temperature.

5. Potatoes should be boiled for a minimum of 10 minutes on medium-high heat.

6. If you want garlic mashed potatoes, squash 3 cloves of garlic per two potatoes, take the skin off and boil them at the same time. Don't chop them; you'll get a milder flavor this way.

7. You can use a regular fork (just make sure it's good and thick) if you don't have a masher.

8. Just prior to the mashing stage is when you add pepper from a pepper grinder. You also add in 2 tbsp. of butter per serving.

9. Mashing shouldn't take any more than 5 minutes. Have fun and squash'em; this is the type of thing that eight-year-old kids like to do. Don't worry about lumps too much. Lumps give mashed potatoes character. They tell the diner that you took the time and care to make these fresh.

And now they're done and ready, all mashed and mixed with the butter (which has melted over the freshly boiled potatoes while you were mashing), the pepper and the garlic. A perfect accompaniment for steak, roast chicken or turkey, and all set for the gravy.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Pierre Berton's Clam Chowder

"Lunching in the Connaught-Sheraton Hotel in Hamilton one day, my eye was caught by the words 'New England clam chowder' on the menu. As this magnificent dish is a rarity in restaurants, I ordered it instantly, my jaws slavering like those of a half-starved boarhound.

"The waitress arrived presently with a bowl containing a pink and noxious fluid which I identified at once as Manhattan clam chowder, sometimes known as Coney Island clam chowder, an inferior compilation rendered hideous by the addition of tomatoes.

"A giddiness came over me at this imposture and, insensate with rage, I seized an olive spear and sped toward the kitchen to confront the chef.

"'Did you make clam chowder with tomatoes and advertise it as New England clam chowder?' I asked him.

"'I did,' the forger said, and without a second thought I stabbed him through his black heart. There was no blood in him; only tomato juice.

"I surrendered to the gendarmerie at once and was dragged, unrepentant, before the magistrate.

"'Why did you do it?' the kindly jurist asked.

"'Because he made clam chowder with tomatoes,' I answered, in a ringing voice. Naturally, they set me free."

This is Pierre Berton's final recipe in his compilation of columns, Just Add Water and Stir. Mr. Berton passed away a few weeks ago, and of the four recipes he's published this is the one I have enjoyed the most. (Of course I've made his version of corned beef hash more often, and it's quite good, but there's a higher degree of pleasure with this one.)

Before we go on, I'd like to say that I have a very fond memory of Manhattan clam chowder, having eaten the Campbell's condensed version of it fairly often in my childhood. Times have changed, of course, since Mr. Berton's denunciation of Manhattan chowder, and the New England version is far more commonplace nowadays.

Note that this is an adaptation of Mr. Berton's recipe. For his chowder, he starts with "two tins of butter clams." Today, of course, you are more likely to see baby clams on grocery shelves; they'll do just fine. He also uses two pots, a large saucepan and a skillet; being Practial Men with no patience for dishwashing, we'll make do with the one.

New England Clam Chowder

4 slices side bacon (low-salt if available), cut into matchsticks
2-3 medium onions, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and sliced thin
1 stick celery, chopped fine
2 tins baby clams
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. celery salt
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
2-3 cups milk
cayenne pepper
Madras curry powder

1. In a 4-quart pan over medium heat, cook the bacon until some fat has melted out. Add the onions and carrots and cook until soft.

2. Open the tins of clams and pour off the liquid -- but not the clams -- into the pan. Add the chicken broth and white wine. Season with thyme, celery salt, paprika and black pepper.

3. Add the potatoes, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and let simmer for about an hour.

4. After the hour, add the clams and milk. Season to taste with cayenne and curry powder, raise the heat and cook another 10 minutes.

5. At this point the chowder is ready for serving, but it tastes better if you take it off the heat, let cool, covered, for about half an hour, then put in the refrigerator overnight and re-heat the next day.

For a thicker chowder, add 1/2 cup water mixed with 2 tbsp. cornstarch, at the same time that you add the milk.

Friday, December 10, 2004

On Livening Up KD

Purists, of course, are going to cringe at the thought, but it's time to admit a truth: Kraft Dinner has officially become a "comfort food."

It's a no-brainer of course. KD (and its grocery-store equivalents) are cheap, filling and (thank to our knowledge of carbohydrates) somewhat nutritious. They bring back memories of college, of a man's first apartment and his first outing on his own, when he didn't know too much about cooking apart from how to boil water. (Which is definitely enough knowledge for making KD.)

And since the boomers grew up with the "convenience-food" era of the 50s and 60s, is it any wonder that KD is a "comfort food" now?

I still eat KD about once a month or so, when the back account is low and I haven't thought about a new recipe to try. Its virtue is in its simplicity; its directions are quick and its yield is soothing to the stomach. (Incidentally, I've found that you can get away with 2 tablespoons of butter or margarine, as opposed to a quarter-cup.)

For an urbanite coming home after a long commute, KD's simplicity in preparation sounds like a very good (not to mention cheap) idea.

But I've never been able to eat KD "as is." I've always indulged in a few tricks to make it a bit more livelier to the palate:

1) One green onion, end trimmed and finely chopped, added to KD at the same time as the cheese powder. This does wonders to the savoriness of the sauce.

2) Two hot dogs, sliced into rounds, added with the macaroni to the water and boiled at the same time. Meat adds a bit more protein to KD that processed cheese lacks.

3) A quarter of a can of Spam, any flavour, diced and added as above.

4) Fresh herbs, finely chopped, such as Italian parsley, added at the same time as the cheese powder.

5. A couple of medium-sized tomatoes, diced and stirred in after adding the milk.

5) Any combination of the above.

KD, as with any good pasta, is a "canvas" food; you can add almost anything and it'll be good. (I wouldn't recommend adding chocolate, though.)

Monday, December 06, 2004

The Real Man's Cream of Beer Soup

Before there were metrosexuals, there were the Quiche Eaters.

In the 1980s, humorist Bruce Fierstein wrote a book that identified a subset of the American male. Essentially a backlash of the women's movement, Real Men Don't Eat Quiche decried the development of a "fake" male, wussified by continually catering to the so-called "liberated" female, "sensitive" to his own emotions -- in short, what we today would identify as the metrosexual.

Fierstein, however, identified this class based on a culinary preference: this type of male (as personified by Alan Alda, Dick Van Patten, Hugh Grant, etc.) had a preference for quiche, that French-derived egg-custard savory pie. In his own way, Fierstein anticipated the development of the the 21st-century Man Industry, as embodied by Hooters, Maxim Magazine, etc.

Fierstein's book was sucessful enough that a sequel was demanded. This time around, he teamed up with Scott Redman. Real Men Don't Cook Quiche was a cookbook featuring the humor of Fierstein woven around a selection of basic recipes. While some of them are doubtful, others work quite well. "Cream of Beer Soup" is one of the latter.

Note that while the recipe uses beer, cabbage is actually the main component. I made this soup recently in order to use up half a head of cabbage I had left over from making New England Boiled Dinner. (Note to cookbook authors: in winter there is no such thing as a small head of cabbage.) It works pretty well when accompanied by bread and butter, for a light meal.

I've modified the recipe a bit. The original calls for just salt and pepper as seasonings, but caraway seeds go well with cabbage, so I added that. I also had some potatoes left over, so they went in as well. The thing about soups is that, since they're boiled, you can add ingredients without worrying about burning; and if you simmer for longer than what the recipe calls for, no one will really notice.

This will make enough for 6 people as an appetizer, or 4 people as a light meal with bread and rolls.

Cream of Beer Soup

3 tbsp. butter
2 medium or 1 large onion, minced
1/2 head cabbage, cored and shredded
2 cans condensed chicken broth
2-3 cans or bottles beer
salt and pepper to taste
caraway seeds
2-3 large potatoes (optional)
1/2 pint heavy cream

1. In a 4-quart pot over medium heat, melt the butter.
2. Add the onion and cabbage. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring to coat the cabbage with the melted butter, until the vegetables are soft.
3. Pour in the chicken broth and 2 cans of beer. Season with salt, pepper and caraway seeds.
4. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for about 50 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. After 50 minutes, the cabbage should be tender enough that you can purée the soup with a stick blender. If the puréed soup seems too thick, you can thin it out to a desired consistency by stirring in the required amount of the third can or bottle of beer.
6. If you're using the potatoes, add them in at this time and let the soup simmer for at least another 10 minutes.
7. Five minutes before serving, stir in the heavy cream.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

On Ramen Culture

There's a Japanese grocery store called Kadeya, a couple of blocks away from where I work in downtown Ottawa. They sell a hot lunch for customers; for $10 CDN you get a donburi (grilled meat or fish with pickled vegetables over a bowl of rice) with miso soup. It's a couple of bucks less than what you'd pay for the same dish in the Japanese restaurant next door.

They also sell ceramics and knickknacks, but what I like about them is that they sell instant noodle bowls. Of course, nowadays any grocery sells Cup Noodles and similar products, but these ones are imported from Japan. They're expensive compared with regular noodle bowls (about $4 to $5) but for a guy who eats lunch at his desk, they make better financial sense than a $10 pasta dish at a nearby restaurant.

Instant noodles are of course a college student's godsend for a winter meal. Despite their high salt content, they give the illusion of nutrition because a) it's hot and b) it's a soup, so it's a fluid that the body needs. Noodle bowls are a convenience because if you use disposable cutlery or chopsticks, you don't have to waste time washing dishes afterwards, which makes them good for eating at a workspace.

I can't recommend a favorite brand because I can't read Japanese very well, though I've no complaints about the ones sold by Kadeya. They do sell one brand where the noodles are fresh (sealed in a pouch) as opposed to dried; it also uses a miso-flavored stock. That one, I think, is the closest one can get to the fresh ramen culture of Japan.

Anyone who's ever seen the movie Tampopo will have an idea of what I mean when I say "ramen culture." It's pretty much related to animé-nia or manga-natics; it celebrates an aspect of Japanese pop culture through practice and appreciation.

The best way to enhance the ramen culture experience is to have a special way to prepare and eat them. At work, I have a push-button hot water dispenser which is perfect for noodle bowls; it heats up water and keeps it at a hot temperature for up to 6 hours. You push a panel on the top to pour. It's an unusual and yet ideal way for making ramen and steeping tea.

When the noodles are ready, you go through a sort of ritual: breaking the disposable chopsticks as cleanly in two as you can; inhaling the aroma of the piping hot soup; eating with bowl in one hand and chopsticks in the other. No spoons; ramen culture says you sip the soup straight from the bowl. Undignified, yet satisfying.

Of course, it's an axiom that the diligence with which you follow the ritual varies inversely with the quality of your work day. Can you guess how my workday's been going?