Learning to Love Natto

March 31, 2014


The first time I ordered natto in a Japanese restaurant my server eyed me skeptically and said, “Are you sure?”

It only made me want it more. 

Then the fermented soybeans arrived, and I instantly understood. The stuff looked like a swamp and smelled like old socks. Each bean seemed to be held prisoner in a thick, slimy, metallic-tasting membrane. And the taste? The first rush on the tongue was sour and earthy. Then came a lingering bitterness that not even rice could temper.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How could so many of my Japanese friends revere something I found so utterly disgusting?  It was a challenge. I began ordering it all the time. When a chef told me he was convinced that every natto-loving white person was a liar I was all the more determined to learn to love the stuff. 

Legend has it that natto was created by accident. Japanese soldiers stored boiled soybeans in straw and forgot about them for a few days. When the straw was unwrapped, the beans were covered in their classic stringy film—the magic of bacillus natto, a wild bacteria prevalent in wheat and rice straw. Maybe it’s true: until the bacteria was isolated in a laboratory, natto was a strictly seasonal food. 

I kept eating funky fermented soy beans, and one day I discovered that I not only liked natto, I craved its nutty quality, its strangely appealing texture, its umami-rich flavor. Last week, at the little izakaya Yopparai I discovered homemade natto on the menu.  When I ordered it the server eyed me skeptically. "Are you sure?” she said.

I was. 


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My Lunch at Mission Cantina

March 29, 2014

How can you resist a restaurant that sends out a plate like this? There's a lighthearted feeling about this place, as if it's an experiment we're all in together; you're invited to not take it too seriously.  If you think of Mission Cantina as an eating adventure, you'll have a wonderful time.

I loved these togarichi chicharrones, thickly slicked with pimento cheese. The crisp little frisks of fried pork skin – all crackle and crunch – are spread with cheese,  sprinkled with Japanese chile powder and a splash of Sriracha. Explosively neon – and utterly lovable.

A tostada of raw scallops and veal hearts, two silken textures sliding together in the most surprising manner.  Dressed in a pungent little red rice vinegar dressing, alive with olives and fried capers.  More please!


Chicken liver tostada with crunchy salmon skin and pickled chile morita.  This is an exercise in bitterness, the flavors challenging you at every bite.  The liver is truly livery, the salmon skin the essence of fish, the chile a bitterness that lingers.  Francis loved it; I could not take more than a single bite.


Charred carrots and spring onions with crisped seaweed, butter and citron. An exploration of the dark heart of the carrot, the intensely smoky scent rising up to waft across the table.  If carrots are the new kale – and they are – this is one of the most enticing examples I’ve seen. I don't think I ever want to eat another carrot that isn't paired with seaweed; I loved the way the flavors danced around each other. 


Chicken wings with mole spice, vinegar, creme fraiche and celery. Buffalo by way of Oaxaca.  What’s not to like?


Cumin lamb and lard-braised brisket tacos.  A splash of lime. Some pickled onion.  Gone in a few bites. Delicious!

Tacos of shrimp and crisped beef tripe. This tripe was not so much crispy as chewy.  I chewed. And chewed. And chewed. Nice idea, but this one needs some work.

Afterward we crossed the street to an almost unbearably hip coffee shop. Stark. Quiet. At each little table solo drinkers sat plugged into their computers, earbuds in, fingers tapping.  I could hardly believe the place was named Whynot.





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A Taste of Spain in New York

March 26, 2014


It's still the best sandwich in the city, this crisp skinny ficelle slicked with butter, sharpened with mustard oil, stuffed with sea urchin and lightly pressed.  Each bite crackles before devolving into rich softness. The flavors are sweet, hot and round.  I could eat a dozen.

But I don't, because there's so much else to love when you're sitting in the cozy new dining room hidden in the back of El Quinto Pino. This, for instance:


a "bikini" of huitlacoche: pungent black corn fungus, folded into light, crisp little triangles of dough with warm mozzarella and peppers. A luxurious sandwich that tastes like nothing else I've experienced. Think earthy truffles, stretchy cheese, a hint of sharpness in the peppers. Then don't think at all, just enjoy the sensation.

There's this too:


a little platter containing fat chunks of chorizo, cubes of manchego cheese marinated in zaatar, and the piece de resistance, a "spreadable Menorcan sausage" (it's topped with thick honey but people like me can simply munch around it). That sausage is dangerous stuff:  pliant and spicy, it has a tingle that lingers on your tongue. I couldn't stop eating it.

And then there's this:


squid smothered in its own deeply intense ink so that it stains your lips, your tongue, your fingers as you dig your fork in again and again.  It transforms squid, a normally uncomplicated creature, into something dark, mysterious and utterly seductive.

Dessert? I'd end it here. But for those who need a final bite of sweetness, there's this version of cheesecake:


Lovely texture. But what I like best is that passionfruit sauce on the top. 

And there's still so much more to try: if you want to taste fideua, which David Tanis talks about in today's  New York Times, this is the place to do it. The Cuban sandwich. Those potatoes with aioli. And of course, El Quinto Pino's spectacular hamburger, El Doble. 

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Tokyo in New York

March 25, 2014


Talking to Colman Andrews always makes me hungry, so last night, after the "conversation" at Powerhouse Arena, I gathered a small group of friends and we went looking for something to eat.

How were we lucky enough to stumble into Yopparai?  The tiny izakaya on Rivington Street is so hidden it feels like a secret; you walk up a narrow staircase, press a buzzer and wait for a disembodied voice to answer. Standing outside on the icy steps I was sure we had the wrong place, were intruding on someone else's evening. Inside, however, the tiny restaurant is so warmly welcoming, the sake list so long, the food so delicious that I was instantly happy. I can't think of a better place to spend a freezing evening.  Or, for that matter, any other.

Forgive the pictures.  After the first bottle of sake everything became a little fuzzy, and by the end of the evening I put the camera down and simply ate everything that landed on the table.  It was so much like being in Tokyo, where we closed almost every evening in a little izakaya down the street from the hotel, that I was shocked to go outside and find yellow cabs whizzing past.


We began with cold homemade tofu, the texture thicker than anything commercially available, the flavor cleaner.  With good soy sauce and shaved bonito, it was a refreshing counterpoint to the first bracing sip of sake.


Uni clinging to translucent squiggles of raw squid.  I love everything about this dish, but in the end it's the texture I remember; it has a particular kind of slippery chewiness that I find endlessly seductive.


Japanese quenelles?  Japanese gefulte fish?  Yopparai calls these airy little dumplings "fish cakes." By any name these light, fluffy little orbs (they're made of minced rock shrimp and black cod) are a delight.





They call this dish "slimy bomb."  Of course I couldn't resist it.  Home made natto mixed with raw egg yolk and vegetables (in other versions I've had it with uni and yama imo – slime piled on slime).  The point is to wrap the pungently fragrant goop into sheets of crisp nori. (How does the nori stay so crisp? There's a little heater in the bottom of that cedar box.)  The result is something that goes crackling into your mouth and then disolves into sheer softness.  It's a fascinating (and appealing) sensation.

 More texture: a thin, crisp rice cake topped with marinated cod roe and a tangle of shredded seaweed.


Stewed tripe, a bit like Japanese menudo.  And like menudo, reputed to be good at preventing hangover. Which, at this point in the evening, I badly needed.  This is when I stopped taking pictures, but I remember that grilled eel, at the top, and more of those fantastic little rice cakes, this time topped with uni.

And, of course, a great deal more sake. When I go back to Yopparai – which I plan to do very soon – I want to try the kurobata pork belly scrambled with eggs.  If I'm very lucky, they might even have mozuku on the menu…..

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Ten Steps to a Better Deviled Egg

March 22, 2014

It may not seem like spring, but the hens haven't noticed; suddenly farm-fresh eggs are everywhere. All these beautiful eggs just make me want to start deviling them.

Deviled eggs have been delighting people in all corners of the world for at least two thousand years.  One of life’s most affordable luxuries, a good deviled egg leaps joyfully into your mouth to dazzle you with its tender softness and luxurious flavor. Originally known as “stuffed eggs” or “mimosa eggs,” they did not become “deviled” until the eighteenth century, when the culinary use of the term was appropriated for everything containing hot spices or condiments. (Interesting aside: Deviled ham is the oldest existing American food trademark. Patent number 82 was awarded to the William Underwood Company in 1870.)  

But although deviled eggs may be delicious, they aren't always easy. Farm eggs are infinitely tastier than industrial ones, and the hens aren't tortured as they are on factory farms, so you can feel good about eating them. But they're fresh – and fresh eggs are almost impossible to peel. To begin with, you have to start early. And that's just the first step.

1. When eggs are new, the membrane beneath the shell sticks so tightly that peeling them is a serious challenge. As eggs age, the protective coating on the shell becomes porous and begins to absorb air making the whites less acetic. (This is why the whites of freshly laid eggs are cloudy; as they absorb air they lose some of the carbon dioxide in the albumen, the ph rises, and the whites become clearer.) So buy eggs that come from a real farm and put them in the refrigerator for a week or so to age. 

2. While the egg whites are losing their acidity, they're also getting thinner, meaning that the yolk is moving farther from the center. So if you’re intent on perfect deviled eggs, store them on their sides rather than in a traditional carton.

3. Bring the eggs to room temperature before cooking. This will prevent cracking.

4. Put your eggs in a pot that will hold them in a single layer, so they cook evenly. Cover them with cold water and raise it quickly just to a boil.  Cover the pot, turn off the heat and let the eggs sit for 12 minutes.

5. Chill the eggs, immediately, in a bowl of ice water.  This will prevent the dread green circle around the outside of the yolk, which occurs because the iron in the yolk reacts with the sulfur in the white when the temperature of the egg reaches 158° F.  Although perfectly harmless, it lends your deviled eggs a slightly ghoulish air. 

6. Shell your eggs, then put them in the refrigerator for half an hour.  This will make them cut more cleanly. 

7. Cut the eggs in half lengthwise, then slice a  bit off the bottom of the white of each half so they won’t wobble on the plate.  It make them considerably easier to fill.

8. Whip the yolks in a food processor; it will make them smoother, and give you the ethereal tenderness that you want in a deviled egg. 

9. Use a pastry bag to fill your eggs; it is so much easier than trying to do it with a spoon. 

10. Use homemade mayonnaise in the filling. Most of the flavor is going to come from the mayonnaise. Wouldn’t you rather be in charge instead of relying on an industrial ingredient?  If you like the bite of olives, use olive oil. If you prefer to let the flavor of the eggs come singing forward, use a more neutral oil. 

Deviled Eggs

There are two questions you must ask yourself before you start. The first is whether you prefer your filling to be thick or creamy. The second is what you plan to put on top. Everything else is elementary. 

12 farm fresh eggs, hard boiled as above

1/2 to 3/4 cups homemade mayonnaise

1 teaspoon mustard

a splash of vinegar

salt, pepper

cayenne, caviar, pickles….. 

Once the eggs have been cooked, peeled and chilled, cut each one in half.  Cut a small slice off the bottom of each half so it sits flat on a plate.  

Scoop the egg yolks into a food processor.  Add a half cup of mayonnaise, the mustard and vinegar, and process until it's very smooth. If you like a looser filling, add the rest of the mayonnaise. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and spoon the filling into a pastry bag.

Pipe the yolk mixture into the egg whites. For the world’s best deviled eggs, top with caviar or salmon roe.  You can also sprinkle some cayenne on top, add a jaunty little bit of beet, a small triangle of pickle, a bit of crumbled potato chip, some chives, caperberries or…. the possibilities are almost endless.  


Easy Food Processor Mayonnaise 

(This will make about 2 cups, which is more than you need. But it keeps for at least a week, and there’s something wonderful about knowing you have homemade mayonnaise on hand for sandwiches, tartar sauce and dressings.) 

2 egg yolks

1 egg

1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar

1 teaspoon mustard

pinch of salt

about 2 cups oil, at room temperature (not cold) 

Put everything but the oil into a food processor and process until creamy, about 15 seconds.  With the machine still running, slowly pour the oil into the machine until your mayonnaise is the consistency that you want.