How to Visit Japan Without Getting on a Plane

February 3, 2017

These days, the longing to leave the country is often overwhelming.  A couple days ago, after a morning spent calling elected officials to urge them to do the right thing, I needed to escape. I chose the easy way out: a little lunchtime trip to Japan.

No restaurant in New York offers a more compelling illusion of being elsewhere than Sushi Azabu. The journey begins as you make your way past the hanging black curtain and down a narrow flight of stairs; by the time you reach the bottom you are in one of those tiny subterranean Tokyo sushi bars, being greeted by a chef quietly cutting fish behind a wooden counter.

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Pick up the chopsticks and you are instantly enchanted; light and lithe, they fit happily into your hand, a subtle way of forcing you to pay attention.

You might order a lunchtime “set” – a plate of sushi followed by a shining pair of grilled red snapper collars.

IMG_9488Or you might decide to splurge on the omakase, which promises a flight of dreamlike dishes beginning with a cold appetizer.  Today it was  tiny squid tentacles in seaweed paired with a little dish of lightly pickled fish draped in shawls of onion.

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Now the warm appetizer.  This is the luxury of snow crab, the leg still snuggled into its shell and swathed in a creamy blanket of crab miso.

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A beautifully constructed platter of sashimi tells an interesting story. All the fish is imported from Japan, and while the gentle octopus is deliciously familiar, the abalone is a startling experience. Simultaneously toothy and tender, it offers a fascinating textural paradox.  IMG_9485

Another contrast of color, taste and texture.

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And finally the purity and pleasure of raw sweet shrimp.IMG_9487

The restaurant makes a point of serving uni from Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan.  This is quite different from the sea urchin found in either of America’s oceans. Here the contrast is uni from opposite ends of the island, each with its own unique flavor. The idea is to roll a bit of urchin into a crisp strip of nori, add a dab of freshly grated wasabi, give it a quick dip in soy and pop the entire package in your mouth. I could happily do that all day.

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Now the nigiri arrives, one indulgent piece of sushi after another, each superb.

Red snapperIMG_9495Scallop

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shrimpIMG_9499

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sea eel

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Finally, a strangely irresistible tamago that resembles custard more than the customary omelet.

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I’ve missed a few dishes here: wagyu beef, lightly torched and set on a little pad of rice, a few fishes, and the tiny scoop of yuzu ice cream that is the final offering before you’re sent back up into the world.

It’s hard to climb the stairs and find yourself in the gritty snowy streets with headlines blaring from every corner. But the tang of that citrus stays on your lips, reminding you that for a little while at least, you managed to escape.

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When the White House Kept Cows

February 2, 2017

9b959ff43cf84714a59553ac13b324c9President William Howard Taft (seen here in The Philippines) was undoubtably one of the most spectacular eaters to ever live in the White House. At 335 pounds, he was also the largest. Though he lamented his weight (and even kept a food journal in an attempt to slim down), he never outran his lust for the delicious.  Rumor has it that once, in desperate need of a midnight snack, he had a diner car attached to his train in the middle of the night.

Taft’s white house cook was primarily a grill master: Taft desired steak three times a day. (This was, after all, in the days when men routinely consumed five pounds of meat at grand Beefsteak dinners.)

Taft’s breakfast? A 12-oz steak, two oranges, toast, and copious amounts of coffee. Lunch was more steak, lobster Newberg, potatoes, pates, boiled vegetables, bonbons and pie. Dinner was a repeat, except that Taft doubled down, eating twice as much –  and almost always began the meal with turtle soup.

To satisfy the family appetite, First Lady Helen Taft kept several pet cows to supply fresh milk. Meet Pauline Wayne, a champion milk cow, standing in front of what’s now the Eisenhower Executive building.

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And here are some puckish workers, demonstrating the impressive capacity of the president’s custom-made bathtub: taft_bathtub

And finally this absurd account of Taft being served one of his favorite dishes.

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More from Ike the Cook

January 31, 2017

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Can’t help it; in these fraught times, the notion of a President and General who loved to cook is so appealing that I keep going back to the book.  Here’s the President, at Camp David, making breakfast for the staff.

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Ike obviously liked cooking for crowds; the following recipe feeds sixty. I love the straightforward quality of the ingredients; note that it calls for a roux made with marrow bone fat.

FullSizeRender (19)Turns out that Ike didn’t just cook; he was also a rancher and gardener.  Here’s Mamie in the corn.

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A few more of Ike’s no-nonsense recipes:

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Ike in an Apron: The President Who Cooked

January 30, 2017

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My family were never friends of Ike; we were Adlai people all the way.  Still, from where we now sit, the man looks like a saint.  Turns out he did more than issue a warning about the military-industrial complex; in a time when real men wore no aprons, Ike did all the family cooking. He’s looking better all the time!

This is from Ike The Cook. I found a copy on my bookshelf, but if you want one, you can find it here.

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Here’s Ike and Mamie on their wedding day – a surprising picture since you’re used to seeing them only as grandparents.  Who knew they were both so beautiful!

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Here are a few of Ike’s favorite recipes:

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And because I can’t resist, here’s Ike in his apron.

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Here’s Hope: Happy Year of the Rooster

January 28, 2017

IMG_0503.JPGJust listened to an interview with Cecilia Chiang on NPR, offering some optimistic news. At 97, Cecilia sees the move from the Year of the Monkey – nothing’s worse than that troublesome trickster – to the Year of the Rooster.  “The rooster wakes you up,” she said, “and that’s a hopeful sign.”

Cecilia is never wrong.  Twenty-eight years ago, when I was nine months pregnant, she insisted that should the baby fail to arrive by the end of the month I must have him induced. “You want a dragon baby,” she insisted. “Very important.”

The baby obliged, showing up in the nick of time. To this day Cecilia calls him “Little Dragon.”

If you want to celebrate Chinese New Year and a better future, here are Cecilia’s recipes for a few classic recipes:

lion’s head

steamed fish and dumplings.

Feeling more ambitious?  Here’s a recipe from Taiwanese cooking celebrity Pei Mei’s  1969 cookbook. IMG_0506.JPG IMG_0504.JPGIMG_0505.JPG

And while thinking of Cecilia, I was reminded of another nonagenerian San Francisco Chinese food celebrity, Henry Chung.  His tiny Hunan Restaurant introduced many of us to the fiery food of the region. Here’s his easier idea for duck.

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