Omakase (お任せ?) is a phrase that means “I will leave it to you” (from the Japanese, to entrust). When you indulge in that luxury of allowing a fine sushi chef to make the gastronomic calls — the aesthetics, the architecture, the inspiration, the dynamics, the visuals, the sensuous flavors, the enticing aromas, the intriguing textures — all rising to or sometimes transcending the level of theater. Plated delectation.

Young and old, exacting sushi chefs try to emulate masters like Morimoto, Jiro and Nobu. They bless and coddle your palate with riveting morceaux adroitly shaped with dazzling blade work and raw ingenuity. The genuine article shortly followed by those hushed tones of pure contentment.

So, I will leave it to you or them.

TUNA & AVOCADO CEVICHE

1 lb tuna (sushi/sashimi grade only), sliced 1/4″ thick
1/2 small red onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 T shoyu
1 T capers, rinsed and drained
Freshly ground black pepper

1 Hass avocado, cut into 1/4″ dice
3/4 C fresh lime juice
Small jalapeño chile pepper, stemmed, seeded and very thinly sliced
1/4 C cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
Sea salt

Cilantro leaves, whole

Line a baking sheet or jelly roll pan with plastic wrap. Arrange the tuna slices in a single layer, cover with plastic wrap and freeze until firm but not frozen, about 10-15 minutes.

Stack the tuna slices on a cutting board and using a supremely sharp chef’s knife, cut the tuna into 1/4″ cubes. Transfer the diced tuna to a medium glass or bowl and stir in the red onion, shoyu, capers and a pinch of black pepper. Cover both the tuna and the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about a half hour, stirring occasionally.

Just before serving, gently fold in the diced avocado, lime juice, jalapeño, and chopped cilantro and season very lightly with salt.

Transfer the ceviche to a chilled bowl or glasses. Garnish with whole cilantro leaves.

Clam Chowder Without Winter?

February 20, 2012

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.
~Andrew Wyeth

Waiting for a frigid, stark white night to savor some chowder seems futile this winter. The weather has bordered on the absurd here. In the lower 48, temperatures have been freakishly warm particularly from the plains to the east coast, confusing flora and fauna and upending snow resort life. This week was no different with another balmy February stretch and no end in sight to the warmer than usual temps. Cold refused to settle in this year, and a measly percentage of the land has been blanketed in snow. Even rainfall has been lacking.

Besides drought, there are downsides to this t-shirt and shorts weather. Our friendly mosquitoes, flies, fleas and ticks may emerge earlier and if the temps remain moderate, and they are given a longer times to reproduce, pest populations could be noticeably larger this summer. Yet another danger looms as plants, tree and shrubs start to grow sooner in response to warmer temperatures and longer periods of sunlight. If fooled by these warmer periods they may begin to bud, shedding their winter coats. Should freezing temperatures arrive, it can prove fatal to some.

Some of this aberrant winter weather has been caused by the Arctic Oscillation, a pressure system that drives where the jet stream divides warm and cold air masses across the country. This year, cold northern air was fenced off at higher latitudes than usual which helps explain our warmth and why Alaska has been enduring such a raw, arctic winter. Others have also credited the mild conditions to the La Niña climate pattern, a system in which low pressure systems pull warm air north from the equator.

Chowder is a generic name for seafood or vegetable stews and thickened soups, often finished with milk or cream although others prefer briny or tomato based. Debate rages on whose is better. The English word “chowder” was coined in the mid 18th century, apparently from the cooking pot called a chaudière (12th century term from fishing villages along the Atlantic coast of France), traced from the Late Latin caldaria (a place for warming things). The word and technique were introduced in Newfoundland by Breton fishermen and cooks, then later spread to New England. Others claim that the word derived from the old English word jowter (fish monger).

CLAM CHOWDER

8 ozs thick sliced bacon, cut into 1/2 ” lardons
Extra virgin olive oil

2 T unsalted butter
2 C leeks, white and green parts, clean and coarsely chopped
2 C yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/3 C celery, finely chopped
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, lightly smashed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 T unsalted butter
1/4 C all purpose flour
3 C whole milk
3 C heavy whipping cream
2 bay leaves

2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes
Tied cheesecloth with thyme, oregano, and parsley
Sea salt
Water

4 C clams, chopped, strained with juice reserved
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Chives, chopped

Drizzle a slight amount of olive oil in a large heavy stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the bacon first to a cool pan, then heat to medium, and let render for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon from the pan and strew on a paper towel covered plate to drain. Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of bacon fat.

Return pan to stove and add 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the leeks, onions, celery and garlic to the pan and stir to coat with the bacon fat and butter. Season with salt and pepper, and cook slowly over medium until the vegetables are translucent and tender, about 15 minutes. Remove and discard garlics. Add 3 more tablespoons of butter and when melted, stir in the flour to coat the vegetables and cook for about 3-4 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cream, add bay leaves, season some with salt and pepper, and bring to a low simmer. Slowly stir in some reserved clam juice to taste.

Meanwhile, put the potatoes, cheesecloth with herbs, and salt in a pot or large saucepan, add cold water to cover, bring to a lively simmer, and cook until the potatoes are just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and spread potatoes on a pan to cool and discard the bag with herbs.

Remove and discard bay leaves from the chowder. Again season with salt and pepper to your liking. Gently add the potatoes, reserved lardons and then the clams, and simmer about 5 minutes to blend flavors, stirring frequently.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls and garnish with chives.

Ponzu Scheme

February 16, 2012

Tradition is the illusion of permanence.
~Woody Allen

Centuries old, yet rarely recognized east of Honshu until just a couple of decades ago, ponzu has experienced a spirited culinary birth and finally flourishes in the West. Was about time for a break from the usual food-ethnocentricity, self-adulation.

Ponzu (ポン酢?) is traditionally made by heating mirin, rice vinegar, bonito flakes, and konbu (dried kelp). Some chefs substitute dashi (a light fish stock) for the bonito flakes. The simmering liquid is cooled and strained to remove the solids and then citrus fruit juice is added for tartness. In Japan, ponzu is customarily made with an obscure citrus fruit called yuzu, but cooks here have substituted lemon, lime, orange and/or grapefruit juices to create a rough equivalent.

At once subtly sweet, sour, tart, tangy and salty…ponzu is commonly served as a sauce with tataki, nabemono, sashimi or even sushi, but is also for dipping with or drizzled over rice, noodles, tempura, greens, vegetables, spring rolls, shellfish and grilled, seared or sautéed meats, poultry and fish. Adding fine soy sauce creates the ubiquitous Japanese condiment, ponzu-shoyu.

Befitting its versatility, ponzu has a West meets East etymology, deriving from the Dutch ponsen (citrus punch) and Japanese su (vinegar), and so the name loosely means “citrus punch vinegar.” (Nagasaki roots?)

BASIC PONZU SHOYU

3/4 C mirin
1/2 C aged, unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1/2 C bonito flakes
1 T honey
3″ piece of konbu

1 C shoyu
1 T fresh lemon juice
1 T fresh orange juice
1 T fresh lime juice
1 T fresh grapefruit juice

Wipe the konbu with a damp cloth to remove most of the powdery white coating. Combine the mirin, wine vinegar, bonito flakes, honey and konbu in a small saucepan and bring just to a gentle simmer over medium heat for about 8-10 minutes. Remove from the stove and allow to cool completely.

Pour the sauce through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl and discard the solids. Whisk in the shoyu and citrus juices. Tweak the citrus ratios to suit your tastes. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight, so the flavors meld. Just before using, taste and consider adding a small squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice or some shoyu.

SESAME PONZU VINAIGRETTE

1 1/2″ piece daikon, grated

1/2 C ponzu
2 T sesame oil
1 T white sesame seeds
1/2 T ginger, grated
1/2 t sea salt
1 green onion, chopped

Using a cheesecloth, squeeze the liquid out of the grated daikon. Combine the remaining flesh with the remaining ingredients, and whisk together in a bowl.

PONZU DIJON VINAIGRETTE

3 shallots, peeled and minced
3 T Dijon mustard
1 plump fresh garlic clove, peeled and smashed
2 T ginger, peeled and minced

1 C ponzu
2 T sugar
1/2 C shiro shoyu

2 C grapeseed or canola oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk together shallots, mustard, garlic and ginger in a medium glass bowl. In a smaller bowl, dissolve sugar into ponzu and shoyu and then whisk into the mustard mixture. Whisk in grapeseed oil and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pourboire: in the interest of brevity, you may simply create ponzu shoyu by mixing fine unfiltered bottled Japanese ponzu with really good shoyu in a ratio to suit your liking.

Mustard — Good only in Dijon. Ruins the stomach.
~Gustave Flaubert

The word mustard derives from the Anglo-Norman mustarde and Old French mostarde. The term evolved from the Latin mustum, (must or young wine) as Romans mixed the unfermented grape juice, with ground mustard seeds (called sinapis) to make “burning must” or mustum ardens.

Dijon, once a Roman settlement, is now the capital city of the Côte-d’Or département in Bourgogne (Burgundy), a région in central eastern France. Once ruled by the infuential ducs de Bourgognes, it lies about 1h 40 southeast of Paris by TGV rail. By the 13th century, Dijon had became the gathering place for fine mustard makers and has since become known as the mustard capital of the world. Dijon mustard originated in 1856, when Jean Naigeon first substituted verjuice, the acidic juice of unripened grapes, for vinegar in the traditional recipe. The mustard is crafted from finely ground brown or black mustard seeds mixed with an acidic liquid (vinegar, wine, and/or grape must) and sparsely seasoned with salt and sometimes a hint of spice. No artificial colors, fillers or other additives are allowed.

Dijon mustard is customarily pale yellow in color, smooth in consistency, but fairly sharp in scent and flavor. Nose burning, nasal clearing, eye watering Dijon forte (strong) awaits you at pommes frites stands across France.

As for tomorrow. That woefully amateurish event, Valentine’s Day, is again upon us…when florists are deluged, chefs are beset, servers are frazzled, chocolatiers are harried and lovers are just barely that for one day. So, eschew that trite restaurant night and instead indulge that Hallmark moment at home. Shun the cloying mundane and think passion, ardor.

Open with seared scallops with apple cider vinegar or gougères — follow with rib eye steak au poivre or chicken dijon, puréed potatoes or risotto and haricots verts or asparagus with garlic — and end with hand crafted chocolate truffles or mousse au chocolat. Start with a glass of Champagne, then couple the app with a Chardonnay or Rosé de Provence and the entrée with a red Côtes du Rhône, Bourgogne or Oregon Pinot Noir. Just a traditional thought or two…the choices are boundless.

With that menu, candlelight, choice tunes, lively banter, and no dish detail, a night’s kiss may become a tad more carnal. Old school romance is still in vogue.

Cin-cin!

CHICKEN DIJON

1 T coriander seeds

2 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 T unsalted butter
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
4 chicken leg-thigh quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Dried tarragon

1/2 C shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
4 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1-2 T cognac or brandy
1 1/2 C chicken broth

1/2 C Dijon mustard
1/4 C crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream
Chopped tarragon

In a small skillet over medium heat, toast the coriander seeds until fragrant. Allow to cool then transfer the seeds to a spice grinder or mortar and let cool. Grind until coarse.

Season the chicken with salt, pepper and tarragon. (Lightly sprinkle the tarragon on the skin side only.) In a large, heavy skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium high heat until shimmering, but take care to avoid burning the butter. After pressing them into and around the pan, discard the smashed garlics. Add the chicken to the skillet skin side down and cook over moderately high heat, turning once, until golden brown all over, about 5 minutes per side. Remove the chicken to a platter and tent.

Pour off some of the residue oil and juices from the chicken. Add the shallots to the same pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Pour in the brandy and allow to cook off, then add the broth and ground coriander and bring almost to a boil. Add chicken, reduce heat, cover and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Turn the chicken once while cooking.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, crème fraîche and 1 tablespoon of fresh tarragon. Whisk the mixture into the skillet and simmer the sauce over moderate heat, occasionally stirring until thickened, about 5 minutes. While simmering if it appears the sauce needs thining, add some heavy whipping cream. Return the chicken to the skillet and turn to coat with the sauce and heat.

Serve the chicken ladled with sauce, then garnished with chopped fresh tarragon.

Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.
~Mahatma Gandhi

These finger wielded morsels, carved from a lamb loin rack are sometimes dubbed “lollipops” especially when the bones are frenched (i.e., when the meat on the long bone ends is resected). At this house, the debate rages whether or not to french as some serious next-to-the-bone cooks and eats are discarded in favor of the look. Wasteful of the tasteful, to me. Others rightfully differ and prefer degloved–the chops do appear more elegant. Kitchen diplomacy is ever at work.

LAMB CHOPS WITH PORT, FIG & BALSAMIC

1 rack of lamb, evenly cut into single chops
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 T thyme leaves, minced

2 T olive oil
1 T unsalted butter
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 rosemary sprigs

1/2 C ruby port
3 T chicken stock
1/4 C fine Provençal red fig preserves
1-2 T aged balsamic vinegar of Modena

Fresh rosemary sprigs

Season lamb with salt, pepper and thyme. In a large, heavy sauté pan, add the olive oil, butter, garlic and rosemary sprigs and heat over medium high until simmering. But, do not brown the butter or garlic. Remove and discard garlic and rosemary then add lamb chops and sauté until browned some and just medium rare, about 3 minutes per side. Remove lamb chops from heat and tent with foil.

Increase heat, add port to pan and reduce some scraping and stirring with a wooden spatula. Then add chicken stock and reduce further, occasionally stirring. Moderate heat throughout to maintain a lively simmer. Whisk in preserves first until dissolved and then balsamic vinegar, cooking and stirring until reduced to a saucy consistency which nicely coats both sides of the spoon or spatula. As needed, season the sauce with salt and pepper to your liking.

Briefly re-introduce lamb chops to pan and turn to coat with sauce and heat some.

Serve arranged on platter, drizzle with pan reduction and garnish with just a few fresh rosemary sprigs.

Pourboire: alternatively, you can briefly grill the lamb chops at the outset, dropping rosemary sprigs onto the hot coals. On the back end, consider a light touch of chopped toasted pistachios and chiffonaded fresh mint as garnishes in lieu of the rosemary sprigs.

Beloved Slaw(s)

February 10, 2012

Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed.
~Toni Morrison, Beloved

February is African American History Month, and the theme this year is “Black Women in American Culture and History,” honoring women who shaped the nation. Where to begin and to end? Ella Fitzgerald, Marian Anderson, Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ruby Dee, Althea Gibson, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Rosa Parks, Leontyne Price, Angela Davis, Wilma Rudolph, Harriet Tubman, Alice Walker…and countless nameless, faceless sisters, mothers, cousins, daughters, aunts and grandmothers who steered, coddled and bettered their families and communities.

While all deserve deep praise, the eloquent and imaginative author, Toni Morrison, comes to my mind. The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner’s spellbinding stories are crafted with evocative prose that soars with poetic hues. Each of her novels are rich in character and unearth dense imagery. She is a writer’s writer whose works teem with passionate insight and vitality. Sula, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, Love, A Mercy. And she reveres Paris, “a haven for the fastidious and ferocious and the smart,” and loves the “arrogance” of the city which also fostered a generation of post-colonial French-African thinkers.

While the term coleslaw derived from the Dutch koolsla, a shortening of koolsalade, which means “cabbage salad,” it has become a staple at barbeques and picnics across the states. Soulful slaw should be invited to the table more this month and later.

BEET & FENNEL SLAW

2 chioggia (candy-stripe) beets, peeled and julienned
2 yellow beets, peeled and julinned
1 medium carrot, peeled, julienned
1 small fennel bulb, cored and coarsely shredded
1 C napa cabbage, thinly sliced

Toss beets, carrot, fennel and cabbage in a large bowl. Add just enough dressing du jour to nicely coat, but not drench, the slaw. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking.

Dressing I
2 T sugar
Sesame seeds or sliced almonds, toasted
1/2 C canola oil
2 T fresh lemon juice
3 T seasoned rice vinegar
1 T soy sauce
3 t sesame oil
1 t fresh ginger, peeled and minced

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, whisk together sugar, sesame seeds, canola oil, lemon juice, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil and ginger. Season with salt and pepper to your liking.

Dressing II
1/2 C plain Greek yogurt
2 t finely grated orange zest
6 T fresh orange juice
2 t fresh lemon juice
2 T finely chopped fresh dill

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, whisk together yogurt, zest, orange juice and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to your liking.

Dressing III
2/3 cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade
1/4 C yellow onion, peeled and minced
3 T dill pickle, minced
2 T pickle juice
2 T white wine vinegar
1 T horseradish
1 T sugar
1/2 t celery seeds
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, onion, pickle, pickle juice, wine vinegar, horseradish, sugar and celery seeds. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Pourboire: it should go without saying that a mix of traditional white and red cabbages with carrots is supreme.

Gruyère & Walnut Scones

February 9, 2012

The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification.
~Thomas H. Huxley

To those who still cling to blind faith, failing to relentlessly test assumptions and rejecting rational inquiry, here are just a few of the more egregious beliefs that have been disproven and no longer enjoy acceptance in the scientific community…

The earth is the center of the universe and all celestial bodies revolve around it. The universe is static, neither expanding nor contracting. The earth is not spherical, but flat. The earth is a hollow sphere containing light and housing an advanced civilization. The earth was created by a divine being 5,000 years ago and is not some 4.5 billion years old. The theory of evolution is wholly false and imaginary. The human body contains four balanced humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. The functions of all living things are controlled by a “vital force” or “life spark” and not by biophysical means. Life is generated spontaneously from inanimate matter. People are born with a tabula rasa (“blank slate”) bereft of innate traits or genetic proclivities. Modern alchemy, in which ordinary metals are turned into gold, is on firm footing. All combustible objects contain a special element called phlogiston that is released during burning. Global warming, the increase in atmospheric temperatures that results in climate changes due to anthropegenic causes, is a conspiratorial hoax. Santa Claus and the tooth fairy exist.

That is an extreme short list which does not even touch a host of fictions, but you get the drift. Empirical knowledge trumps raw faith.

When pandering to worldly warmth, please share these savory scones–best nestled up to a mate, with a bowl of hearty soup and a glass of vin rouge.

GRUYERE & WALNUT SCONES

1 1/4 C walnuts

2 1/4 C all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
6 T cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 C Gruyère or Comté cheese, shredded
1 1/2 t fresh thyme leaves, stemmed and chopped

1 large egg, room temperature, lightly beaten
4 T buttermilk
4 T heavy whipping cream
1 T honey
1 T Dijon mustard

Gruyère cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 400 F

Place walnuts on a baking sheet and bake until toasted. Allow to cool, remove to a cutting board, chop and set aside.

In a large bowl combine walnuts, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add butter and rub in until the mixture resembles coarse meal. It is important that the butter be cold so when it is worked into the flour mixture it does not become a smooth dough. Do not overwork–it should be like a pie dough. Add the Gruyère and thyme thoroughly but gently.

Make a well in center of the dough mixture. In a small bowl combine egg, buttermilk, cream, honey, and mustard and add to the flour mixture, stirring with a spoon until moist. If overly dry, add some more buttermilk and if too wet add more flour.

Gather dough into a ball. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead dough by folding and gently pressing it for about a dozen times. Shape dough into a round about 3/4″ thick. Using a cookie cutter or small wine glass, cut rounds of dough. (Alternatively, you may cut the dough into triangles.) Gather the scraps, reshape the dough into the same thickness, and cut into more rounds or triangles. Arrange on a baking sheet about 1″-2″ apart and sprinkle the top of each with just a little more Gruyère.

Bake scones until tops are lightly golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 15-20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.