Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ingredient Spotlight for the New Year: Many Faces of Persimmon

One of my food resolutions for 2013 is to try new foods, not necessarily new restaurants or even new preparations so much as actual new food items that I haven't yet been introduced to--like an unfamiliar vegetable or a cheese or a type of fish.  I've also decided that I would like to introduce others to my favorite foods as well in this increasingly global culinary world.

As a child growing up in Korea, one of my favorite fruits was persimmon.  I have since come to discover that persimmons don’t appeal to many western tastebuds.  A friend I offered persimmon to once (almost twenty years ago) diplomatically declared that it must be an “acquired taste,” one which he clearly had no intention of trying hard to acquire.  Of course, I’ve also had the rude awakening to the fact that many westerners don’t consider sweetened red bean paste a dessert delicacy worthy of a place next to chocolate.  (Okay, I kind of see that one, but I still like my red bean paste!)

But, really, the world is changing.  I’m going to advocate for persimmon again.  One of the great things about persimmons is that you can enjoy them in so many different forms.  Remember though that you need to start with Fuyu Persimmon if you don’t accidentally want to be turned off these fruits forever.  While Fuyu is a variety that can be eaten firm or mushy, you can only tolerate Hachiya Persimmon completely ripe.  Otherwise, you’ll have a mouth full of chalky tannins and won’t want ever to try another one.

As you can see from the picture above, Fuyu persimmons are the smaller, flatter kind—Hachiya persimmons are the elongated ones—and there are at least 3 different stages at which you can enjoy these persimmons.

1) Firm, julienned for salads.

Williams-Sonoma’s Cooking from the Farmer’s Market has a very simple recipe for “Fuyu Persimmon with Napa Cabbage Salad” in which you toss a light dressing with shredded cabbage and peeled and julienned persimmon.  I’ve made this salad with Napa cabbage as suggested, but I find I make it more often with Romaine lettuce since the lettuce is in my fridge more often.  Really, either will do.

The recipe also calls for making a dressing with vegetable oil, white wine vinegar (or lemon juice), sugar, salt, and pepper before sprinkling toasted sesame seeds on top.  You can certainly make this dressing—and you can even add a little sesame oil or even a tiny bit of soy sauce, depending on what flavors you are looking to complement.  A favorite dressing of mine requires no work at all.  I whisk together a lemony olive oil with an orange white balsamic vinegar.  The combination picks up the sweet, tart, and citrus flavors and marries them wonderfully in a light salad.

2) Medium ripe.

This is really the way most people like to eat persimmons.  They should be still firm enough that you can cut them into slices, but just ripe enough that you might feel them smush a bit as you peel—and, yes, please do peel persimmons.  By themselves, they should taste honeyed, slightly citrusy.  Parts of the persimmon might have a bit more firm bite to them while other parts might disintegrate easily in your mouth.  There might be still a tiny bit of chalky aftertaste, but it shouldn’t be overwhelming.

3) Very Ripe.

Asians also eat persimmons—both Fuyu and Hachiya varieties—very ripe, but I don’t see many westerners rushing to eat them this way.  Once you’ve forgotten about the persimmons ripening on your countertop and discover that they do not hold their shape very well, you are ready to whip out the spoon.  Carefully take the leafy top (calyx) off of your persimmon and either discard the top or peel it back to expose the ripened fruit beneath.  Using one hand to cup the persimmon carefully (or placing it on a small plate or bowl), take your teaspoon (a tablespoon would be too big for the opening) and scoop out the flesh.  Continue until you’re left with just the thin outer shell of peel.

Asian grocery stores also sell dried persimmons.  They are chewy and sweet, perhaps like a combination between dried apricots and dried mangos.

Hopefully your 2013 will be full of other new discoveries as well!

Friday, December 21, 2012

San Francisco Treats!

In the midst of the end-of-semester madness, Will and I were able to enjoy a brief respite with a weekend in San Francisco.  We were there just last summer, and it was nice to return relatively quickly to this wonderful city since we remembered all the places we wanted to eat in again.

Last summer, after spending a few days in Napa Valley eating rich foods—with accompanying expensive restaurant bills—we were astounded to be reminded of how good, and how cheap!, Chinese food could be.  Of course, we were in the right place for it since San Francisco’s Chinatown district is world famous, right up there with New York’s Chinatown.  After dining at the likes of Girl and the Fig and Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, Will and I found ourselves almost weeping with the discovery of the joys of salt and pepper fish and sauteed string beans with spicy ground pork.

This visit, I planned ahead.  Having mapped out our hotel location in relation to the top Tripadvisor and Yelp Chinese restaurants (cross-referenced), we tried two  places in Chinatown which received high marks—and which were not too outrageous a walk from our hotel off of Powell St.  Hong Kong Clay Pot Restaurant offered up excellent Chicken Clay Pot with Mushroom and Chinese Sausage, and the clay pot being studded with gads of whole roasted garlic cloves was a nice surprise.  The rest of the dishes, however, were greasier than we cared for.  I suspect though that our choice of dishes might have been at fault since the table next to us had a plate of beautiful Chinese cabbage (also with those delicious roasted garlic cloves) that we coveted over our own rapidly congealing green bean dish.

The other Chinatown restaurant was definitely a find, and we are already planning to return.  Z&Y Restaurant at 655 Jackson Street was bustling with people at 1:40 when we got there.  We joined the cluster of people standing around at the register and hoped to get some recognition from the very busy staff.  It wasn’t until another couple sauntered in and wrote their names on a notepad that we realized that there was a system to get recognized—just one we didn’t know about.  Belatedly we put our name down after the other couple and slightly begrudged their earlier seating (though clearly they were not responsible for our own ignorance) when they got a table about 30 minutes later.  We waited another 10 minutes before our growling stomachs could finally dream of food.

We are still praising ourselves for our clever combination of choices for our lunch.  Rather than the usual Americanized Chinese restaurants that offer “Lunch Specials,” Z&Y—whose chef has actually cooked for President Obama, no less, according to their website—had us choose from their regular menu.  We ordered an appetizer portion of Salt and Pepper Calamari (two pictures above); Scallion Pancakes with Beef (right above here--flavored with five spice, with the lovely addition of fresh julienned cucumber and a nice plum sauce); and Mabo Tofu with Ground Pork (pictured below--spicy, with faint but unexpected black bean addition).  Something about the combination of fried seafood, spicy saucy tofu with meat, and fresh vegetables peeking out of scallion pancakes really hit the spot.  Our stomachs quieted their grumbling and allowed us to enjoy our walk to the wharf, content and sated.

After our exploration of Fisherman’s Wharf with their numerous and vociferous sea lions, we walked back around the Washington Square area and stopped for hot drinks at Mario’s (Bohemian Cigar Store CafĂ©), a quaint coffee shop serving good espresso and a pleasant view of the park with its many well-behaved dogs enjoying themselves.

By this time, we had walked over 4 miles and spent several hours enjoying San Francisco which boasted better weather this December than it appeared to in June of last year.  (It might really be true what Mark Twain said about how the coldest winter he experienced was the summer he spent in San Francisco.)   As we wended our way back—it feels like we know San Francisco inside and out now—we decided to swing by The House, our favorite restaurant from our last trip. 

The House (1230 Grant Ave.) offers Asian-fusion cuisine, and it is one of the more successful in appealing to both Asian and western tastebuds.  When we called earlier, we couldn’t get a reservation for the weekend, but they suggested we might get a walk-in table if we came early.  It turned out we got there at just the right time since we were able to snag a table before the rush.

Still somewhat full from lunch, we might not have been able to do justice to the restaurant, but their food was, as we remembered, innovative and tasty.  We were particularly enamored of their Cream of Shitake Mushroom Soup with Truffle Oil.  As you can see above, we were almost finished with their Charred Octopus Salad with Crispy Pork Skin (and lots of fresh julienned vegetables) before we remembered to take a picture of this unique dish.  We weren’t too late though with their Wasabi Stir-Fried noodles with Grilled Flatiron Steak (cooked a wonderful medium rare and just nestled on top of the noodles).

With food this good, we will definitely return for some more San Francisco treats!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Finals Week Dinner Challenge: Quick Naan Pizza

90 term papers and 90 final exams.  That’s what I’m faced with for a few days.  And since Will is on end-of-calendar-year rush of business trips, the entirety of doggie care is left solely to me.  Our condo looks like a war-zone with papers, and exams, and junk mail, and envelopes strewn all around; and our refrigerator is rapidly depleting itself of anything remotely resembling “fresh” produce.  I really hope no one decides to drop in for a visit!

The other day, I probed the contents of the refrigerator for something to sustain myself while generating exam questions.  Just when I was about to opt for carry out—but begrudging that trip which would cost me extra 20 minutes and ashamed enough of my plight that I did not want to get food delivered—I decided to play a little game with myself and to treat my mission as a dinner challenge.  What, amongst the desiccated remains of the fridge, could serve to produce a meal under 20 minutes?

Once I remembered that I had a store-bought “Stonefire Tandoori Naan” (which advertises itself as an “authentic” flatbread) in the freezer, everything clicked into place.  I remembered being twelve years-old and raiding the fridge for a lunchtime snack.  Out came a slice of bread, a jar of Ragu, and a slice of American cheese which got toasted under the broiler for “pizza.”  It wasn’t the greatest, but it did hit the spot.  So why not now when I have slightly better ingredients—well, usually—to play with?

So I turned the oven to preheat to 400 degrees and brought the naan out to defrost while I gathered everything else. 

If I had pizza sauce, I would have used it.  If I had extra 20 minutes, I could have made some good pizza sauce (by simmering and reducing a can of chopped tomatoes, a minced clove of garlic and some parsley, and 4 tablespoons of olive oil).  Lacking either, I opened a jar of ready-made pasta sauce.  At least it was Mario Batali’s Cherry Tomato Marinara, made from “fresh ingredients.” 

It’s been decades since I ate fake yellow cheese that came in individually wrapped slices, and I knew that our refrigerator usually has fresh buffalo mozzarella.  (I am a cheese fiend and have to have some sense of decorum, even during finals week!)  The “Best if used by” date had long passed, but since the tub was not opened, I decided the date was just “recommended.”  Of course, you can use regular mozzarella—or most other kinds of cheese.

Luckily, I was able to salvage a few leaves of rapidly-darkening basil.  (Otherwise, you can use any other dried or fresh herbs like basil, oregano, thyme, “Italian Seasoning,” or just parsley.)

Because it’s so thin, the naan should be mostly defrosted by the time you got all your ingredients together and sliced or shredded your mozzarella.  Spoon some sauce—of whatever you decided to use—and spread on the naan.  You want a fairly thin covering since you don’t want to overdo the sauce and result in a soggy mess.  Then place slices of cheese on top—or sprinkle shredded cheese—of the sauce, and then tear up some basil leaves over the cheese and sauce.  (Alternatively, if your basil is in good shape, you might just want to tear up leaves over the pizza after it's baked.)  Lightly salt and pepper the pizza before putting it in the oven on a pizza screen—for ventilation. 

Check after about 8-10 minutes.  If the cheese looks mostly melted but not browned, turn on the broiler function.  In about 2 minutes, the cheese should be to the consistency and appearance that you want.  After you remove from the oven, you might drizzle a bit of extra virgin olive oil as a final Italian flourish—and to convince yourself that you are no longer twelve.

Now, back to grading. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Pumpkin, Sweet Potato, or Roast Kabocha Pie?

Our organic food service has lately been including in their boxes many varieties of root vegetables—which only makes sense if they are still trying to provide fairly local flavors in the Chicago area in early winter.  With the abundance of sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and squashes which we couldn’t entirely consume in our meals, we’ve had to resort to baking pies for dessert!  I know, it’s a rough life.

The most recent attempt was a revelation.  For over a week, a large, dark green, roughly textured exterior of a kabocha squash (a Japanese variety) had been imploring me to do something with it.  It was simply too big—and unevenly corrugated—to cut or peel easily, so I kept on ignoring it, hoping that it would simply go away.  While it was certainly not our first kabocha, it did appear to be the least appealing and most unwieldy of its variety.  I know that kabochas tend to run 2-3 pounds, but I’m certain this one was more like 4-5 pounds heavy.  (I wish I had weighed it!)  So I roasted the whole thing.  I often roast whole pumpkins and squashes when fearful that a slip of a knife might make me ever regret having picked up cooking.  

To Roast and Puree Your Squash:

Preheat the oven to 400, prick a series of tiny holes all around the squash with a sharp paring knife, put it on a cookie sheet (to catch the oozing juices), and bake it for about an hour.  It could take shorter or longer—depending on the size and texture of your squash—so be prepared to start checking after 45 minutes, especially once you start smelling something that resembles roast sweet potatoes.  You might see that juices have started to form brownish jelly on the bottom of the cookie sheet.  Poke the squash to see if it gives a bit.  Of course, if it looks like it’s about to collapse, get it out of the oven.  It’s ready.  Don’t worry about its appearance as it roasts since this is not an exact science, and roasting vegetables—especially ones with hard skins—is a pretty forgiving process.

Let the squash cool before handling it!  Then, make a vertical cut along the stem line so that you have two halves with seeds in the middle.  Take a spoon and just scoop up and discard the seeds and fiber inside, leaving just the cooked flesh.  Then scoop the flesh away from the skin and place in a food processor.  Repeat with the other half. 

The cooked flesh of the kabocha should resemble something like that of sweet potato—fairly firm and even, not as watery as a butternut squash or a pie pumpkin.  Puree in your food processor until the flesh is of spreadable consistency—like cake frosting or softened cream cheese.  You might be tempted to skip the pureeing process since the flesh will be nicely textured, but it never hurts to have the beautifully creamy consistency that a food processor will yield.

Above, you can see a picture of pumpkin puree.  Pretty and bright amber color, and fairly moist.  Below, you can see a picture of kabocha squash puree.  Still an amber color, but creamier, firmer, more solid in consistency—more resembling whipped sweet potato.  In fact, if you were to taste both the pumpkin and the kabocha puree, you’d see that the kabocha tastes much more like roast sweet potato—sweeter, more notes of molasses, on its own before adding any spices.  And, yes, you can just eat the puree on its own.  It’s that good.

To Bake the Pie:

Nancy Silverton’s Pumpkin Pie recipe that I modified for an earlier post actually will work quite well here.  Since her original recipe used a combination of pumpkin and sweet potato puree, it’s already closer to the texture and taste of a kabocha, which is often described as having a taste profile resembling both.  The fact that she uses less spices also seems appropriate for a kabocha pie since it, like the sweet potato, already has more sweetness and molasses going for it than the pumpkin pie.

Some changes I might suggest after having made the Roast Kabocha Pie which you can apply to any other favorite pumpkin recipe:

*With the firmer consistency of the kabocha puree, you can just skip the step of pushing the puree-and-butter mixture through the sieve.  Simply melt butter, then add vanilla extract or scrape just the vanilla bean seeds into the butter, let cook another 2-3 minutes, and then mix the melted butter-vanilla mixture with the puree before adding the liquids and the spices.

*Because the kabocha puree is thicker and firmer than the pumpkin puree, I would suggest increasing the heavy cream from ½ cup to 2/3 cup.

*Because the roast kabocha is already sweeter than pumpkin puree, I might even decrease the brown sugar by 1-2 tablespoons, depending on your taste preferences.

As the pie bakes, you might see that it resembles a rising cake more than the pumpkin pie usually does.  Its consistency, once it cools, is also less custard-like and more bread-pudding-like.  I like pumpkin pie fairly cool, but I enjoyed the kabocha pie—as I would also like a sweet potato pie—just slightly warm.  The molasses flavor seems to come through best that way.

Tip: If you think the idea of eating a squash pie will not appeal to others, you can simply call it a sweet potato pie.  No one will know the difference.