Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fresh strawberry season

It's such a fleeting thing, the truly ripe, local strawberry. I remember picking strawberries as a little kid, sitting in the rows between plants, probably getting more in my tummy and on my shirt than in the basket. We used to go often, as a child, but most of these memories have been stored on the same shelf and come out just like that.

I remember picking strawberries as an adult in the hot, searing sun. The kind of sun where you can actually feel your skin burning after just a few minutes. I was surprised how much it hurt my back to bend over, my hamstrings burning from the stretching, my face hot from the sun and the labor of it. It seemed like sticky work, on the wrong end of the cost/benefit analysis. Plus, I saw a great big creepy spider. Yeilch.

I remember picking strawberries two years ago, with my rather pregnant friend, and finding the fun in it again. It was quiet work, she being the type you can comfortably be silent around, but we chatted in that way women do when they're engaged in common task. My fingers were stained red but my basket was bulging with fruit--some big and blobby, some small and pert, some dusty and some slick with red juice. None of them looked picture perfect, but each of them was sweet, with just a tiny touch of tart, topped with a crunch. Biting into a sun-hot strawberry is one of life's sweetest little moments.

Last year I was too pregnant to even consider picking my own strawberries. This year, Baby Girl is just a few weeks shy of her 1 year mark, which magically makes it less dangerous for her to eat strawberries and (heaven forbid!) develop an allergy. I'd like to take her picking, but I think she'll get more out of it next year.

I like to eat strawberries unadorned and uncut, freshly washed. The moisture sticking in little drops to the bits around the seeds, adds to the flavor. My sister has been known to make bisquick shortcakes and have cut up strawberries, lightly dusted in sugar and left to create their own syrup, for dinner. I like them this way, too, but prefer my shortcakes unsoggy. Oooh, and who can forget dunked in molten chocolate? Romolo's does it best (but of course, they have the best chocolate in town) but I usually do mine at home with the chocolate melting wafers.

Some add strawberries to salads, some make salsa, some make pie, some make milkshakes and still others jam. My grandmother-in-law makes the most amazing strawberry rhubarb jam I've ever had.

Hmmm, then there could be cocktails, too. Strawberry daiquiri, of course, but what about strawberry mojito? What a season... too bad it's so short!

If you've never gone picking, I recommend you try. But if time and other constraints are too much, be sure to stop by a roadside stand or local farmer and pick up a quart. Soon enough they'll be gone, and we'll be left with styrofoam impostors in the grocery store.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The power of an ingredient

Sometimes just one ingredient can make a dish. I can think of two recent examples from our dinners.

1. Fresh sheets of pasta. I bought them at Wegman's, although when Darling Husband and I first set up house, we used to make homemade pasta quite often. (I remember a wonderful sriacha pasta we made...) These sheets were on sale, and too good of a deal to pass up. I dropped them, two at a time, into salted, boiling water and swirled gently with a spoon. It only took a minute or so for them to be pliable and tender, but not fully cooked. We removed and shocked the pasta in cold water. These sheets, cut in half, became manicotti. I used an egg to bind some ricotta, salt and pepper and julienned sundried tomatoes. We wrapped the pasta around a few spoon fulls of the ricotta, then topped with a blushing sauce made from a blend of marinara and alfredo, thinned with a little milk and spiked with a healthy amount of black pepper. A sprinkle of mozzarella on top and the manicotti went into the oven to allow the flavors to marry and the cheese to melt. It was fantastic, and I think it's all due to the pasta. (The four cheese marinara and cheesy alfredo, mozzarella and ricotta probably didn't hurt. I think the key to a good meal is to just keep adding cheese.)

2. A perfectly ripe avocado. Mashed with some salt, pepper, cayenne and a squeeze of lemon juice, it was creamy dreamy greeny heaven. I don't even remember what we ate it on. I just remember licking the bowl.

On a related note, the Father's Day fairy delivered two containers of duck fat to Darling Husband via USPS. I wonder what that ingredient will do? Side question: can you plan a religious experience??

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Aoyama-- oh, mama!

Having never been to a sushi restaurant, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Knowing that this particular building used to be a Chi Chi’s didn’t help me get a picture in my mind’s eye. When we first walked in, a decidedly Caucasian teen wearing a kimono and plastic flip flops greeted us and led us to our table. She was the only one in a kimono and, I should note, the only non-Asian employee I saw that evening. I assume all the host/hostesses wear kimonos, because I later noticed a small stash of them hanging on the coat rack.

Near the entrance was a bar, strangely lit with blue lights. I was dim and a little unearthly, kinda alien. It was also unoccupied. If more people had been there, would the lighting be different? Apparently not; when we left, three people sat there sipping drinks in the same azure glow.

There was really nothing of the old Mexican restaurant left (although one of the first things I noticed after sitting down was a waiter coming by with a big, ridiculous margarita). The center of the restaurant had a sunken-in dining area, set apart from the bar further by a large waterfall cascading over shale-like brick wall. Several fake but realistic trees seemed to grow up from the floor, and the ceiling and surrounding pillars gave one the impression of being inside a wooden temple. To the right were raised rooms, walled off with ricepaper screened walls. These rooms had the hibachi tables in them. To the left were similarly raised and screened rooms with extra dining areas. At the back of the restaurant was a sushi bar, where the chefs assembled their bitesized art pieces on plates. Behind them, presumably, was the kitchen.

The set-up was encasing, cut off from the outside world. It could be midnight or noon outside, you wouldn’t know it from in the serene building. It makes for an ideal get-away, but I might go batty if I worked there. (Although one could say the same about a lot of places; Disney World comes to mind.)

I might have been overwhelmed by the many, many pages of the menu if I had taken the time to read it all and try to put together a meal. Most restaurants have entrees; essentially, you pick one. Here, though, picking one would leave you rather hungry, as it’s meant to be a tapas sort of thing. How many do you choose? What’s normal? What’s etiquette?

The whole etiquette concept was, I admit, intimidating. There are all kinds of ways to offend another culture, particularly one as custom-conscious as Japan. I once read an article warning never to rub one’s chopsticks together, as this is an insult suggesting that the chopsticks are made of inferior, splintery wood. I had never thought of doing this until I read it, and I’m not likely to do it now, but I think about it every time. It’s also not done to spear one’s foods with chopsticks. Or to leave them pointed… uh… okay, here’s the problem: I can’t remember all the rules! I know drowning your sushi in soy is a no-no, and leaving a bit of rice floating in your shoyou is very uncouth. You're supposed to put the sushi fish-down on your tongue, so that the first thing you taste is the fish and not the rice. This is hard because you have to twirl the sushi upside down as you get it to your mouth. I also heard Iron Chef Morimoto say once that he’s very offended when people cut their sushi or bite at it, as he’s the chef and he’s decided how big of a bite you’re to take.

In other words, it’s not exactly as service oriented, customer is always right, your wish is my command sort of dining that Americans are used to and have come to expect. (Could I have the 76er burger please? But with Monterey jack instead of mozzarella, no green peppers, and jalepenos instead of mushrooms? Thanks. And I’ll also have a side salad, no croutons, extra tomato, honey mustard dressing on the side. Ooh, and a refill on my water? No ice with a wedge of lime? Thanks…)

We were saved from making too many decisions by the option of the Sushi Plate for Two. Ah, thank you. You just give me what you know is good and I’ll eat it. Marvelous.
It was fantastic, fresh, and a feast for the eyes and the stomach. Case in point: they made a little palm tree on the plate out of a mound of wasabi and a sprig of celery leaf. How cute!
As you can see from the picture at the beginning of the post, there was tempura shrimp roll, tuna, salmon, yellowtail, shrimp, unagi, mackerel and california roll. The tuna was so buttery and melty--everything I wanted it to be. The mackerel was very fishy tasting, and the skin on it was a little off putting to me. But that's just a characteristic of the fish, and not a problem with preparation or service. The shrimp, usually a throw-away piece, was surprisingly sweet and free of the chewy, bad shrimp cocktail taste it can so often be. The shrimp tempura roll was surprising and succulent, with just the right amount of crunch. I really, really enjoyed myself. And while on the one hand it seems like a lot to eat, it's also not a lot in any one bite. Plus, it's a dish to share. I was almost surprised to find myself full. Of course, it came with a salad (with an unusual creamy sesame dressing) and soup (tuna broth based--too fishy for my taste. I was expecting it to be miso, though, so had I not been surprised, I might not have been displeased).

I highly recommend this restaurant and can't wait to try it again. My only regret was that the uni we ordered on the side was unavailable (due to being on special that day--they ran out.) A good excuse to go back!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Favorite things in my mouth this weekend

Zenzero, or ginger, gelato from Gelateria Barbara on 18th and Cherry. This place is phenomenal. They use fresh ingredients and have flavors like blood orange, green tea, basil, pineapple with chili peppers, lemoncello, tiramisu. Mmmh, it's a big, soft scoop of frozen heaven. We always get two flavors in a cup, since it's never easy to decide. Plus, when you walk in, the proprietor wishes you good day/good evening in Italian, and asks you what you want to sample. This is clever; if he asked if you'd like a sample, many would say "no, thanks." But he encourages you to try things, whatever you like and however many, without making you feel like you're imposing or scamming the system. He actually seems disappointed when I choose and he can't press any more tiny plastic spoons shaped like shovels, just big enough to hold a tantalizing nibble. (Just right for Baby Girl to try some, too. Her first gelato experience was ginger. Her second, from daddy's bowl, was blueberry lavender.)

Amazing sushi from Aoyama, the Japanese steakhouse in what used to be Chi Chi's at the mall. It was date night, and Daring Husband took me to my first sushi restaurant. I like sushi, but this place opened right around the time I found out I was expecting and wasn't allowed raw fish (or rare steak, which sucked big time). We've been meaning to go for a long time. I was interested to see if it still looked like Chi Chi's inside. What we found was wonderfully decorated spaces and a fantastic panoramic waterfall. It reminded me of the temples that have been reconstructed inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art; I was immediately put at ease and felt myself breathing deeper. When we first arrived, we sat at one of the hibachi tables. Five minutes later we told the waitress we changed our mind and were moved into the dining room near the waterfall. With the right group of people, it would have been fun. The couple we were seated next to, however, were dour and surly and refused to return my greeting. They seemed like sticks in the mud. Besides, we had seen the sushi menu... We ordered a sushi assortment for two and oh, was it good... Perhaps I'll devote an entire blog to it another time.

Leftover fajita fritata, made by Darling Husband Saturday morning. Green peppers, onions, meat and cheese set in egg--what could be wrong? The cheese was melty, the peppers and onions slightly al dente yet not at all harsh, the meat surprisingly still tender and the egg perfectly set without being gooey or rubbery. It was just right.

Watermelon, popped into my mouth to encourage Baby Girl to try it. I don't really like watermelon, except in limited ways and certain times. This wasn't even the best watermelon ever, but it was just right for that moment.

Risotto with fresh grated lemon zest, arugula and seared scallops. Technically, this was Monday night and not, therefore, the weekend. But risotto is one of my favorite dishes. It tastes like a million bucks and is the kind of dish that seems really hard to make. It was a reputation for being hard to make, even. To me, it's really a piece of cake. It just takes attention, but it's hard to screw up and the pay out is huge. Plus, for my money, there's nothing like the sweet taste of a seared scallop, with just a touch of crust and a hint of the sea.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


I'm typing this with Baby Girl asleep on my chest. We're lounged on the couch, getting some extra TLC while she recovers from double ear infections. Poor honey. I'm also hunting and pecking one handed...

I like to make barbecue sauce myself. One great, simple version Darling Husband invented uses just 3 ingredients: passion fruit nectar, canned chipotle in adobo, and chopped sweet onion. Soften the onion, add the other two, and simmer an hour or more. We run the stick blender through it for even consistency. It's very spicy but has great sweet/smoky flavor.

I tried my hand at baked beans this weekend. Flavor wise, I made fire beans, hot enough to singe the devil's own nose hairs. Oops. Texture wise. I made gerbil pellets, dry and hard as... gerbil pellets. Oops.

Better luck next time...