• Wednesday, March 29, 2006

    Shabu Shabu is the New Sushi

    Beyond Sushi: Shabu Shabu Beckons

    One of the best things about food is how it brings us together. We share an experience when we share a meal that can never be re-created and is inherently ephemeral. Same meal, same guests, different day = different result. Luckily, each meal has the potential to delight us in new ways. This is the power of food.

    Now imagine sharing a meal that is scrumptious, interactive and fun, completely customized to each diner’s liking, and healthy, too. It’s a cold winter day and you’re sharing this meal around a steaming hot pot in the center of the table. Now, throw in a little sake or a beer, and if this isn’t heaven, it’s darn close.

    Shabu shabu allows diners to laugh and share and drink and cook and eat all together over the course of a leisurely meal. Largely unknown until recently, it is a Japanese cuisine that is gaining in popularity. People introduced to the cuisine of Japan through sushi, have begun to explore what other traditions Japanese cuisine has to offer. This nabemono, or one pot meal, couldn’t be more perfect for the type of magic that happens over a shared meal.

    The name “Shabu Shabu” is said to come from the swishing sound of the meat being dragged through the bubbling broth. Onomatopoeia never tasted so good. The cooking style is thought to have been developed by Genghis Khan and introduced to Asia through his military campaigns.

    The components of the meal are simple: meat and/or vegetables, broth, and dipping sauce. Accompaniments usually include rice or noodles and plenty of sake or beer. Did I mention how fun and convivial a shabu shabu meal is?

    Once the order is in, the pots of broth are placed on burners in the middle of specially designed tables. Platters of extra-thin sliced meat and vegetables begin arriving. Diners cook their own items in a shared pot of bubbling broth.

    Traditionally, Japanese Shabu Shabu centered on very thin sliced beef and an array of vegetables. These days, most Shabu Shabu menus will include a large number of items which can be ordered a la carte. Rib eye, pork, chicken, prawns, clams, fish, even Ostrich may be offered. Dumplings may also be cooked in the broth and little meatballs of various combinations are common.

    In my favorite restaurant version, diners have a choice of about 6 different broths from Thai Tom Yum, Spicy Szechwan, Korean Kim chi, to Chinese Herbal. Milder broths are also available and might be compared to what would accompany a bowl of ramen. The simplest can be water seasoned with kombu (one of the essential ingredients in dashi – the all purpose Japanese soup stock.)

    Vegetables (napa cabbage – always better in winter, watercress, spinach are favorites) and many varieties of tofu can go in later, with each subsequent item lending its flavor to the broth. By the end of the meal, there’s a delicious soup with layers of flavor.

    Rice is the traditional accompaniment, but most places offer noodles, such as mung bean noodles, or udon both of which are toothsome and cook very quickly in the broth.

    Watching the broth begin to simmer whets the appetite. As the food begins to arrive, immediately people begin passing trays to each other, “Try this!” “Have some of the short-ribs!” “Did you try the prawns yet?” “Oooo, pass me the dumplings, please?”

    As each item is swished through the broth, chopsticks or a little strainer are used to remove the tasty morsels from the broth to a dipping sauce. Most often these sauces are combined by each diner to his or her own preference and include additions to a soy sauce base such as: hot pepper or chili sauce; garlic, sesame oil, scallions.

    In a home cooked Chinese hot pot meal it’s not uncommon to break an egg into the dipping sauce bowl. This makes for a really unctuous, richer dipping sauce. Our Auntie Anne prepares a hot pot meal for us every visit home. One of her tips is to cook the oil for the dipping sauce prior to the meal. As any chef worth her salt will tell you, this extra step is worth the effort as it deepens and softens the flavor of the oil.

    On top of the warm, gregarious feelings that fill the room and I’m convinced, aid digestion, there are health benefits to this type of meal too. For one, you can select exactly what you’d like eat. The meats are typically very lean and must be of the highest quality. Seafood is perfect for this quick cooking method. All the cooking is done in broth not oil. There are no heavy sauces.

    Nutritionists tell us to slow down our eating to reduce our intake. Our brains don’t register satiety for a full 20 minutes after we’ve eaten. The natural pacing of a shabu shabu meal allows for a healthier pace of eating. We may well end up eating less we might if the whole meal arrived at once. Okay, it’s a theory anyway.

    Now get out there and find a shabu shabu restaurant and tell me your favorite finds!

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    Wednesday, March 22, 2006

    Capogiro Gelato and Sorbetto: Proof God Loves Us and Wants Us to be Happy

    I’m paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin who said the same about wine. He might have been talking about the gelato and sorbetto produced by his fellow Philadelphians of a more recent vintage: Stephanie and John Reitano.

    Wine and gelato have more than a few things in common, especially the ones made under the attention of a true artisan. The best winemakers are skilled at producing consistently good wine while facing seasonal challenges. They can blend, balance, and age wines to exploit the best qualities a particular vintage has to offer, showcasing the varietal’s unique character.

    Wine Enthusiast notes the use of wine like Barbera and other liquors in some of Capogiro’s 300+ flavors. Drawing a parallel between a vintner’s craft and Reitano’s, they describe her dedication as “painstaking” noting fewer artisans possess this kind of determination these days, even in Italy.

    The skill with which Reitano combines flavors while extracting the best from her ingredients is very similar to that of a skilled vintner. The true character of the main ingredient, whether it’s Moro (Blood Orange from Spain) or Melograno (Pomegranate), explodes on the tongue. Maybe it has to do with the fact that gelato has less air than American ice cream, so the flavor is more intense.

    Red Papaya, one of the flavors in my freezer this week, has a peppery bite I adored immediately, but couldn’t place. Speaking like a winemaker, she explains: “finish was a little thin” so she added a touch of ginger to round it out. Other flavors in my freezer this week: Kiwi, Grapefruit w/Campari, Melograno (Pomegranate), Moro Blood Orange, La Columbe Cappucino.

    Capogiro Gelato and Sorbetto are exquisitely perfect and they consistently delight us. Reitano carefully chooses both ingredients and suppliers. She rigidly adheres to these choices and once described herself as “a little psycho” in this way. I beg to differ.

    She is close to the land and a tireless booster for Lancaster County and its many farmers. She partners with Amish and Mennonite farms, small family farms and large organic cooperatives. She is devoted to promoting sustainable agriculture and heirloom varieties. She uses quality exotic items from around the world and hand-picked produce from around the corner. She only uses milk from grass-fed, hormone-free cows.

    All these choices reflect values characteristic of old world artisans.

    Her passion for the perfect sorbetto and gelato could make Cupid blush. One can sense immediately that the unpredictability of seasonal harvests, the diversity of suppliers and the sometimes surprising customer preferences are merely things to spark her creativity. Her delight is the same whether waxing rhapsodic about “blackberries the size of your thumb” or describing how she worked through the challenges that would stop the rest of us dead in our tracks. This kind of passion is infectious.

    By the way, “solutions” like artificial ingredients or less than perfect products are never an option to Reitano. She would rather forego making a coveted flavor than compromise. Just ask her customer who took home a bag of hickory nuts because that season’s yield was too small to produce his favorite butter pecan gelato. Oh well.

    Capogiro - the name conjures that light-headed, giddy (literally head-spinning) feeling of falling in love. If we're lucky in love, a fleeting infatuation can ripen into true love. Intense, authentic, pure. Full of passion, devotion and care. And rich, too?

    Sounds like true love to me!

    Fall In Love
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    Monday, March 20, 2006

    Jury Duty for the LDG

    Finally, I have been seated on a jury and get the opportunity to see how a trial works when you’re not one of the attorneys, as I once was. But have no fear: a couple of things are cooking on the back burner and will be posted soon.

    Cooking for Dummies? Not!
    Stay tuned for The Leather District Gourmet’s ideas on how we can stem the tide of cooking ignorance cited in the WaPo article “Cooking 101: Add 1 Cup of Simplicity.”

    Frozen delicacy proves existance of God.
    Also in the wings, artisanal gelato. Pull up a spoon, you won’t want to miss this one!
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    Friday, March 17, 2006

    Bracketology and Blogs

    Okay, so math has never been my strong suit, but I guess the mention in WaPo, NYT and others indicating web traffic slowing to a crawl everywhere should have been a tip off.I have been fretting, dear readers, about getting you my note about my latest post.

    Your LDG blogger has been working on getting you updates on my posts. Well, imagine, trying to deliver a pizza (pizca, D?) in during rush hour - my little teensy note is wa-a-a-y behind/lost in all the bracketologists' posts...betting...viewing...

    At least March Madness is delivering some crazy nail biters, treys in the last seconds? Double OTs, are you kidding me. BAY-BY?
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    Thursday, March 16, 2006

    Order form PDF!

    Many of you have emailed me asking for the order form for the Seri Oregano. Here it is - enjoy!
    English Order Form (pdf)
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    Tuesday, March 14, 2006

    All Oregano is not created equal.

    When Garth Clingingsmith declared that “any brand of dried oregano is fine” he was probably correct as far as he went. With all due respect to the major brands cited in his Dried Oregano Tasting (Cook’s Illustrated, March/April 2006), you ain’t see nothing yet.

    How about some hand-harvested Oregano from the Seri people of the Sonoran desert? Now, before you think I’m just another “I can outspend you on exotic foods” type, let me hasten to add that this Oregano is undeniably superior. Moreover, you can feel good about enjoying its unparalleled quality. (Seriously, though, I could outspend you on exotic foods in a Sonoran second. Really, just ask my husband.)

    But, I digress - back to the Oregano. This Oregano is a Fair Trade, sustainable harvest product. Through a remarkable program administered by the University of Northern Arizona’s Center for Sustainable Environments – the Seri people are now able to market directly to chefs, gift shops and enlightened consumers rather than losing profits through middle-men.

    The arid environment in which this Oregano grows encourages the plants to concentrate their aromatic oils as natural protection against drought. This high concentration of the oils also protects it against most animal threats since animals, other than humans, find the aroma off-putting. Lucky for us!

    And, lucky for the Seri people that the Center for Sustainable Environments program exists. With only 750 people who still speak their native tongue and very few sustainable agricultural products, the CSE program helps remind us of the rewards of life in balance. Fair trade practices, old-world hand-harvesting, and forward-looking distribution models maintain - rather than deplete - the people and land from which it comes.

    The fruits of this harvest enrich far more than food in our kitchens. And when was the last time you felt this good about buying gourmet food?

    Did you know that Oregano

    • Is said to be named from the Greek words for “Oros” mountain and “ganos” for joy?
    • Belongs to the family of herbs that includes marjoram, spearmint, peppermint, rosemary and thyme?
    • Is closely related to Lemon Verbena and sometimes confused with Marjoram?
    • Was often referred to as “wild thyme” in Europe?
    • Has superior anti-oxidant, anti-fungal, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties?
    • Can also be used to calm toothaches?
    • Is essential to the combination of herbs and spices that make up “chili powder”?
    • Can also be included in Herbes de Provence?
    • Is essential to pizza and gained popularity in the US after soldiers returned home from WWII craving this new exotic dish?
    • Is essential to many Greek, Italian and Mexican dishes and all three varieties possess superior anti-oxidant qualities?



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    Monday, March 13, 2006

    "Learn to eat spicy food and you'll never know the cold."

    That’s a rough translation for the phrase I sometimes hear when asking for a little chili paste to accompany my Chinese food. Like a cousin-through-marriage, my cuisine-through-marriage has become Cantonese. For the uninitiated, Cantonese cuisine focuses on simple preparations designed to highlight the freshness of the main ingredients. Based in the Asian culinary capital of Hong Kong, much of the food is in fact seafood. Here in Boston, most all the Chinese are from Hong Kong. Similar to the way I’ve heard Indian friends talk about the ‘brain drain’ of talent leaving India for the US, I hear locals talk about how Hong Kong faces a steady drain of good chefs, coming to Boston. While the Chinese are given to exuberance in story telling, sometimes even exaggeration, it is true that we are fortunate to have really great Cantonese style cuisine right here in good ol’ Beantown.

    I often tease my husband about his repeated mini-lectures about the superiority of this region’s cuisine. “See, with really fresh seafood, superior chefs need no heavy sauces. We really just let the quality of the ingredients shine through.” I grew up with more of an affinity for styles of cuisine favored in the Northern, mainland China. Rich, garlicky Hunan style sauces and fiery Szechuan are what I crave. Another of our favorites is dim sum, again in the HK style. Thin, delicate wrappers around lightly steamed morsels of shrimp and so forth, freshly made and served on the continuous steam carts pushed through tables and tables of eager diners. One of our favorite dumplings is made with a heavier wrapper and served with a sharp red vinegar, julienned ginger accompaniment. Heavier wrapping means what? You’ve been paying attention – Northern style!

    Knowing I did not want to offend either the chef or my new husband, I waited quite a while to ask for anything that might “mask the clean flavors of fresh seafood.” On one of his mother’s first visits I noticed her liberal use of red chili sauce with her meals. I was saved! I have shown that I need no fork or knife, I can de-bone a whole fish, and I know better than to smother good fresh food with too much soy or chili. I use just the right amount and waited a respectable amount of time to ask for it (a bit after our first anniversary) It’s with a bit of admiration now that when our regular servers bring the hot chili oil for me, they say: “Learn to eat spicy food and you’ll never know the cold.”
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    Thursday, March 09, 2006

    So what's with the Leather, you ask?

    I have incorporated this name into my writing (a nom de plume is what now, nom de blog?) in the hopes of introducing more people to the unique place "the LD" is. In these days of rampant homogenization, it's truly something to be treasured when a neighborhood can maintain an identity independent of the cookie cutter "improvements" eradicating so many of the remaining special urban places.

    Rich in history and alive with anticipation, Boston’s historic Leather District is comprised of approximately 16 square blocks between the Financial District, 93 South, South Station/Ft. Point Channel and Chinatown.

    The lofts originally were leather manufacturing facilities and many of the residences maintain rough hewn wooden floors with hand hammered nails, pressed tin ceilings and large open spaces.

    Home to restaurants, clubs, cafes and businesses it also supports a growing number of loft residences. Like Greenwich Village or SoHo, the neighborhood maintains a funky urban grittiness, combined with a growing cosmopolitan feel. My mission is to bring gourmet food, or at least gourmet food writing to the LD.

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    Tuesday, March 07, 2006

    A lesson for the living in the passing of a "first"

    Edna Lewis has left this world but not without doing best that any of us might aspire to do - she offered a superlative example of how to live. Plain-, yet soft-spoken, entitled to be bitter but evincing none. Living fully and deeply loving life. Displaying open delight in her relationship to food and her relationship with her friend Scott Lewis - the so-called the Odd Couple of Southern Cooking, he being white and several years her junior. They shared a love of good, mostly Southern food and the talent to impart it so personally that to hear them, even if only on TV one could imagine you were perched at the kitchen counter.

    As is often the case with women of her generation who achieved something that warranted public attention if not recognition, she was a woman of firsts. Born a grand-daughter of slaves and raised close to the land, she nonetheless rose to become a chef and an author of cookbooks when being either female or black would earn you that recognition as a first. She was both and carried it with typical Southern grace. Next time you fry up some chicken, say thanks and blow a kiss to Edna. I know I will.
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    Monday, March 06, 2006


    Am I your first member? I am excited to see this unfold...
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    Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Pappadam

    Eschewing Oscar themed meal advice (cowboy beans for Brokeback Mountain?), we went with an Indian meal that was spicier than Jon Stewart's opening segment - even with George Clooney in his bed.

    Maya Kaimal's Gourmet Indian Simmer Sauce (now marketed by William Sonoma, Whole Foods, and many other sources as well as online) was the star of our show - Tamarind Coconut Curry over jasmine rice. Supporting cast included Mulligatawny soup, Shahi Aloo Ghobi (spicy cauliflower), Naan and my beloved Pappadams.

    If you have not tried Maya Kaimal's simmer sauces (www.mayakaimal.com) you must. All the luscious complexity of homemade recipes in a simple simmer sauce. If you're like me and love to read cookbooks, her Curried Favors is gorgeously photographed and lovingly told. It is a cookbook, but it reads like a treasured family bible.

    Having the benefit of dear friendship with Maya's sister-in-law, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting her parents and learning of her work with her father as they carefully converted "about this much" mustard seeds into teaspoons and such. Her simmer sauces were gifted to me before they hit stores here and we carefully chose special moments to try the first one, then the next. Fortunately for all of us they are available widely now. See the website for a store near you or online options.

    To Oscar! To Maya!
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