Thursday, August 24, 2006

Alpha and Beta's Adventures in Eating: Japanese

With apologies to Alpha, who is spending the week with his grandparents in South Dakota, this was Beta’s adventure—and I must say he was spectacularly adventurous. It also seems clear that Beta is highly impressionable. So, if Alpha screws up his nose at the meal before him, then Beta will too. But, we know that Beta likes sushi so Hambone had this bright idea to take him to our neighborhood sushi joint, Saji Ya.

Starting conservatively, we ordered shrimp tempura, thinking that if Beta balks at raw fish, he’ll at least have had a little something to eat. Needless to say, eating the tempura was not a hardship—what’s not to love about fried food? Well, that, and the dip. Beta really loves a good salty dip, and I think the broth accompanying the tempura gave it a certain credibility. Beta ate every shrimp on the plate, including mine.

Then, the sushi arrived on a large plate: tekka maki, hamachi (yellowtail), maguro (tuna), unagi (eel), ame ebi (sweet shrimp), spider roll (deep-fried crab, carrot, and daikon), sockeye roll (salmon and avocado), and tobiko (flying fish roe). We hook Beta up with a piece of tekka to play with while Hambone and Spice tuck into some seriously good sushi.

I start with the ame ebi—“fish” first, head next. As I addressed the head, Beta noticed that I was about the eat a deep-fried shrimp head and asked, “Could I eat an eye?” Um, sure. So, I pluck off a beady black eyeball and hand it over to the four-year-old, who pops the eyeball in his mouth and pronounces it delicious. Then, he asks if he can have a bite of the “other end”—the end with the creamy, crispy gray matter. I hesitate slightly, only because there isn’t a lot of the good stuff, and I’m afraid I may not get enough of it. Then I capitulate and learn that Beta likes the shrimp head—again, what’s not to like about fried food?

Beta eats more tekka and tobiko, one teeny orange egg at a time until a wreath of nori and a few scraps of rice remain. We order a second round: more hamachi (because one can never have too much hamachi), hamachi and scallion roll, and California rolls (what a difference lump crabmeat makes!).

It’s a good thing that Alpha won’t eat sushi, or we’d need to take out a second mortgage to keep the family in raw fish.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

We're Back!

Hambone and Spice have returned from a fantastic trip to France, where we ate absurdly well. I am pleased to report that Alpha and Beta traveled like pros with their own backpacks, loaded with Walkmans and music, books, “armies” (plastic knights), and Goldfish crackers. No self-respecting traveler under the age of seven leaves home without Goldfish crackers in a few flavors.

The dinner party we hosted the weekend before we left town was a success. Our guests contributed to the meal with nibbles (an assortment of cheese and crackers, olives, and teeny champagne grapes) and dessert (a fruit tart with sweet-tart apple slices and dried cranberries from A Piece of Cake). As for our part, Hambone and Spice trekked to Coastal Seafoods, which delivered with monkfish, halibut, shrimp, mussels, and small clams—all of which enlivened a fish soup. Initially, I wanted to recreate the fish soup I had eaten weeks earlier at Margaux—a red pepper flake and saffron-spiked broth with mussels, clams, and white fish. Truthfully, I could have skipped the fish, which, while perfectly cooked, did not hold a candle to the tender, sweet fennel.

So we scoured our cookbooks to find something approaching Margaux’s soup, but none of the fish soup recipes we own offered a version with fennel. I thought about thinly slicing a bulb and sautéing it with the aromatics, but Hambone objected on the grounds that fennel’s licorice taste was not to his liking.

The next criterion for the recipe had to be ease of preparation. We read through many bouillabaisse recipes, including one in the September/October 1996 Saveur, which was deemed too authentic and labor intensive. I liked the idea of serving the broth as a first course, followed by the fish and garlic toasts topped with rouille—a spicy condiment—but it didn’t feel right for this particular meal. Another recipe—this one from Julia Child and Jacques Pepin’s Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home—was served as a one-dish meal with rouille-style toasts. Close, but what we were really trying to achieve was a rustic meal that could be put together quickly while our guests were hanging out in the kitchen with us.

Finally, an opportunity to press into service Nigel Slater’s inspiring cookbook, Appetite, which offered a recipe for fish soup that was exactly what we wanted: sauté aromatics, add seasonings and liquid to make a broth, then cook fish in broth, and serve. Easy. Even though we added a quart of fish stock (found in the freezer case at Coastal Seafoods), I think the broth lacked a little depth that could have been improved by more stock or more salt. Our guests had no complaints, and we had no leftovers.

My favorite part of the meal though was serving a salad and cheese course before dessert. I love to load up a salad bowl with lettuce of some sort and accessories (a combination of nuts, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, or vegetables), tossed with Bittman’s basic vinaigrette (from How to Cook Everything: shallots, mustard, salt, pepper, vinegar, and oil). But, this evening we dressed the greens simply with a classic balsamic vinaigrette. The cheese plate featured a tomme and Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, both of which were outstanding.

an extremely versatile fish soup
Appetite, Nigel Slater (Clarkson Potter, 2002)

olive oil—just enough to cover the bottom of your pan
onions—1 or 2, small and sweet
garlic (one clove per person)
hot pepper flakes
to season—1 or 2 of the following: dried oregano, orange peel, white wine, bay leaves, flat-leaf parsley
saffron—a big pinch of threads
tomatoes—1-1/2 pounds, canned or skinned and seeded fresh ones
fish—2 pounds, an assortment of skinned and filleted white fish and some mussels, shrimps, and clams; ask your fishmonger (I used quite a bit more than 3 pounds to account for shells and for feeding six hungry adults. Also, adjusted liquid levels so as to leave plenty of broth.)

(I've interpreted Slater's loose instructions as follows:)

1. Warm the oil in a large, heavy pan; let the onions cook gently in the oil until they are soft and pale. It is best not to let them color. Stir garlic in with the onions and continue cooking for a minute or so before adding about a teaspoon of hot pepper flakes, any other seasonings you fancy, and a pinch or two of saffron stamens.

2. Introduce the tomatoes and let them cook slowly, bubbling gently, squashing them with a spoon. Once they have collapsed into a rough sauce, pour in enough water to make a loose, soupy stock—about 2 cups for 2 pounds of fish—and bring to a boil.

3. Add fish, cut in large, meaty chunks, to the stock. Add the firmest fish first (monkfish) and cook until it is firm but opaque—a matter of ten minutes or less—then add the shellfish and carry on cooking only until the mussels and clams open and the shrimp change color from gray to pink.

4. Serve steaming hot, with the garlic toasts.