Monthly Archives: January 2013

Curry Rice: Not Very Pornographic, but Japanese

I’m following up from my previous post in which I intended to post my tried-and-true recipe for Japanese curry but timed out for ranting.

Japan, as anyone with connections knows, has a long and illustrious gastronomic tradition reaching into its antiquity. A friend of mine moved there some years back and works as a game designer. He observed even non-foodies (I don’t love that word) he knows in Japan seem to engage in highly nuanced discussions about food. In 2010, Michelin released its Red Guide of Japan. Michelin awarded more stars there than anywhere else in the world: even major seats of western gastronomy. Consider too that not only is Japan a small country, its geography is such that its population is cluster in just a handful of major population centers. And you know what?

Japanese people complained.

They said Michelin missed out on the real gems. They said they awarded multiple stars to restaurants that weren’t really that big of a deal. They said a lot of things.* This is a culture that doesn’t screw around with its food, and Japanese curry rice remains one of its most popular dishes**

So what makes Japanese curry rice so special?

Hard to say. Honest to goodness.

A little background. Japanese curry rice is a pretty old dish in Japan, with roots in the Meiji era, shortly after opening trade with the west. Let’s examine the ingredients of a leading brand of curry sauce mix marketed in the U.S.:

Wheat flour, edible oil, salt, sugar, curry powder, spices, food color, monosodioum glutamate, malic acid, sodium guanylate, disodium inosinate.

Essentially just flour, oil, and seasoning. With the exception of malic acid and the flavor enhancers, nothing, in fact, one wouldn’t find in a typical Western kitchen. The above paste is dissolved into water simmered with meat and vegetables. As you can see. Curry rice is essentially a Western stew thickened with a roux. Not something you’ll find in a Betty Crocker Cookbook, is it? And certainly not anything like the curry we would eat in the West. We just don’t cook stuff like this anymore. But British sailors did a hundred and fifty years ago. It’s a simple, homespun stew seasoned with ready-made curry powder–maybe or maybe not to mask pungency of subprime meat.

That’s right. Japanese curry is a page out of culinary anthropology. Like an alligator,a coelacanth, a Lincoln Town Car: a dish that’s remain unchanged as the world has moved on. It is, in a country with more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world, a dish invented by dirtbag seafarers to stave off scurvy.

I love it. Love it, love it, love it.

So on to the recipe. As I’ve written, you can find bricks of “curry roux” in most American grocery stores these days, but again, there’s not a lot in the commercial curry roux you don’t already have in your kitchen. In place of the malic acid and sugar in the store-bought stuff, we’re using grated apple. My first curry recipe came from a Japanese-language cookbook whose name I have trouble recalling–Something like “Mama’s 1000 Recipe Cookbook.” I use chicken, as did that recipe; thighs in particular. They’re not only one of the cheapest meats around, but also just about impossible to screw up. Variations will follow after the recipe.

Basic Japanese Curry Rice

Ingredients:

(serves 2-3)

½ to 3/4 lb. chicken, cubed

1 medium carrot, sliced into half-inch rounds

1 medium potato, coarsely diced

1 medium onion, coarsely diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 medium apple (such as a fuji), grated or shredded

1 oz. (2 tablespoons) butter

1 oz. (about 3 ½ tablespoons) all-purpose flour (short-patent works best as a thickener)

¼ tsp. salt plus more to taste

1 tablespoon curry powder (more to taste)

2 cups broth, stock, or water (if using water, more salt may be needed)

Cooking oil

Pepper to taste

My mise-en-place, clockwise from top right: diced vegetables, cubed chicken, minced garlic, grated apple, home-made potholders, and a gingerbread house our cats f*cked up.

My mise-en-place, clockwise from top right: diced vegetables, cubed chicken, minced garlic, grated apple, home-made potholders, my pay stub, and a gingerbread house our cats f*cked up.

Directions:

Heat a lightly-oiled pan to medium-high heat until the oil is almost smoking.  Season the meat cubes with salt and pepper and sauté until browned but not necessarily cooked through.  Remove from heat and reserve.  Reduce heat to medium.

Melt the butter in the pan.  Add the flour and curry powder and stir until it forms a paste.  Cook this mixture, stirring frequently until it begins to brown.  Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two, until fragrant.  Add remaining vegetables, browned meat, and grated or shredded apple.  Add the broth, stock or water, salt, and pepper and stir until the butter and flour are incorporated.  Increase heat to high and bring to a boil.  Once it has come to a boil, reduce heat to low and cook covered for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the meat and vegetables are tender. The sauce should be about the consistency of a gravy. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Serve with white rice.  May be garnished with beni shoga or other Japanese pickle.

Notes:

More heat can be achieved by adding cayenne pepper or increasing the amount of curry powder.

Japanese curry is a very versatile dish. Beef. pork, or seafood may be used instead of the chicken. Beef is more stereotypical of an authentic curry in fact. For cubed beef chuck, do not add the carrots, onion, and potato immediately to the pan. Instead, braise it covered with the roux and  broth for about an hour. Add the remainder of the vegetables for the last half-hour of cooking.

Other vegetables may be used–the recipe upon which this one was based called for minced carrots, celery, and onion. I’m also a fan or parsnips and sweet potato in curry.

Leftover curry makes a great sauce for breaded, fried cutlet (katsu curry; カツカレー)

  • Optional ingredients can be added for a more complex taste:
  • About ¼ cup wine or coffee (the wine should be allowed to boil down before adding the broth)
  • Several dashes of Worchestershire sauce
  • Five-spice powder
  • ¼-inch slice of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • demi-glace
  • 1 to 3 teaspoons tomato paste

JapaneseCurry

* I’m over-simplifying. A lot of people criticized Michelin. Here is a longer discussion from the Wall Street Journal.

** For a relatively brief, but more detailed account of the history and popularity of Japanese Curry rice, see this page on the Kikkoman Corporation website.

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My Inability to Create Foodporn

There are some gorgeous blogs on WordPress featuring gorgeous food photography. This is not one of them.

I created this blog in order to connect with others and exercise my writing chops. Also, I’ve spent years crafting original recipes and thought I may as well share them lest they spend a limited existence in a falling-apart notebook.

I had a number of Japanese friends in college and studied the language for a few years. Being a recovering Japanophile, I fell in love with Japan’s take on that pan-national delight, curry. The thing is, I’ve never been a great photographer. I began this adventure about a month ago armed with a Macbook, Photoshop Elements 11, and my iPhone camera. It couldn’t be too hard to hard to create sumptuous foodporn, right? Right?

gah.

My wife glanced over the picture I’d captured to accompany my recipe for Japanese curry rice:

JapaneseCurry

 

 

“Hm…” she said. “Very beige.”

Our house isn’t terribly bright. And I suppose it is rather beige. My camera tends to be rather grainy in the dark. Of course, there’s always the flash, right?

Well.  No.

Exhibit A:

Our cat, Rose: a beautiful black short-hair with oriental features…

rose1

 

in the presence of flash photography becomes Zuul, minion of Gozer.

"Eat your soul?"

“Eat your soul?”

 

So many other sited here make it look so damn easy. I suppose I could get a nicer, dedicated digital camera. There are just a few problems:

  1. I’m cheap.
  2. I’m horrible at remembering to use nice cameras I’ve had.
  3. I’m cheap.

 

I’m not getting a five-hundred-dollar camera just yet. That’s why God made Photoshop. So, reader, I present to you, Phenix Nash’s Pornographic Japanese Curry.

foodpr0n_edited-1

(Recipe to follow next post.)

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High Fantasy for Five-Year-Olds

We bought a copy of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn recently. The Rankin / Bass cartoon is one of the first movies I remember watching. Our five-year-old daughter was fascinated by the notion her parents were reading a book about unicorns. We have the cartoon, but I’m afraid it might be a little intense for her yet. Still, she has wanted me to read her excerpts and tell her about the story.

The following contains spoilers.

Daughter: Why is she the last unicorn?

Father: The others were kidnapped by a man named King Haggard.

Daughter: Why did he kidnap them?

Father: Well, he thought they would make him happy.

Daughter: Did they make him happy?

Father: For a while they did.

Daughter: But then they didn’t?

Father: Not really, no.

Daughter: Why?

Father: Well, he tried a lot of things to make him happy.

Daughter: And they didn’t?

Father: No.

Daughter: Why?

Father: Well… Some people have something called clinical depression.

Daughter: What’s that?

Father: That’s when, for some people, no matter what they do, they’re always going to be depressed. Sometimes, only medication can help. But a long time ago, they didn’t have medication. So people just stayed depressed.

Daughter: … Until someone invented medication?

Father: Yes.

Daughter: Did King Haggard get medication?

Father: No. He fell out of a tower.

Daughter: Why?

Father: Because sometimes, people with clinical depression fall out of towers.

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Dirtbag Deus Ex Machina Eagles

The other day while driving to a former job site, I ran into this guy.

baldEagle

Yes, that is an honest-to-God American bald eagle. I got within twenty feet, but my iPhone camera just doesn’t do it justice. I told a friend and former co-worker. He shrugged. “There’s a deer carcass near the woods. He must’ve wanted some.”

It’s easy to forget that as much as we venerate these beautiful animals, they’re kind of dirtbags. I suppose I shouldn’t judge. After all, would you want to subsist on whatever nasty bits hunters leave behind?

We had a huge list of must-see movies this month. Predictably, we were lucky to catch one of them. We didn’t get around to seeing Lincoln. We didn’t get around to seeing Skyfall. We didn’t get around to seeing Flight. But we wouldn’t have dared starting of 2013 without the Hobbit. I went in with neutral expectations and have to say I really liked it.

A little background. It’s not so much that I like Tolkien as it is I frickin’ love Tolkien. Leading up to seeing this film, we bought a copy of the original Rankin/Bass Hobbit from a going-out-of-business rental store for less than $3 (Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, Blockbuster). What sentimental value! By eighth grade I’d read all of his completed works concerning Middle Earth. I liked the Lord of the Rings films well enough, but I don’t love Peter Jackson. I’m of the school of thought that good direction doesn’t make itself obvious. For as much pretty filmmaking went into Jackson’s King Kong, the part that sticks out above all else to me is Jack Black typing “Skull Island” in low frame-rate slow motion.

It helps I went into the film with low expectations. The Hobbit as a trilogy concerned me. All in all, I thought the film hit most of the right notes. I had predicted beforehand Jackson would increase the epic about 50% while decreasing Tolkien’s humor and charm by about 70. I was a little off on the percentages. Ian McKellan’s sentimental Gandolph was a delight, as always. Andy Sirkis’ Gollum was, as before, just the right mix of charming and creepy-as-fuck. Martin Freeman blew the part of our nuanced hero out of the water. Smart casting counts for a lot IMHO. Was the film bloated? Yes, but Jackson at least scaled back on the slow-mo. Was it too long and too special-effecty? Yes. In the Misty Mountains, they probably could have gotten away with killing about 243 fewer goblins. They could have done without both a flashback and a flash-forward prologue. I mean, don’t they explain all of this through dialogue a couple of times over anyway? I don’t fault Jackson for this too much though. I think this is a problem endemic to Hollywood, where economical storytelling is an endanger species. No one really seems to believe in the importance of editors anymore.

I had a few other quibbles, but frankly, for as much as I love Tolkien, they ended up directed at him.

Why didn’t the eagles just drop them off at Lonely Mountain? If I’m not mistaken, in Lord of the Rings, they take Frodo all the way from Mt. Doom to Rivendell. Of course, without the wood elves and spiders, the book would have been a lot less awesome.

Maybe about 30%?

In the end, I suppose we all need a little deus ex machina in our lives from time to time. But thirty-foot eagles? All I can say is I’m glad I haven’t seen that deer carcass. I’m even more glad I never saw the hunter.

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The Case Against New Year’s Resolutions

What’s the definition of insanity? doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. I used to bake bread a lot, but haven’t so much lately. My wife bought me the Bouchon Bakery cookbook (hint hint?) for Christmas, so I’d had bread baking in the back of my mind. A few days ago while visiting her home-town, her high school best friend’s father offered us some starter. It turns out he’s an avid baker and had a delicious, freshly-baked sourdough boule on the counter. Since a well-maintained starter is use it or lose it, he happily loaned me a batch.

Ambitious cooking runs in the family.

Ambitious cooking runs in the family.

Here’s the thing: sourdough doesn’t like me. I don’t know how much it really likes anyone, but It seems to have a special loathing just for me. I didn’t used to have this problem, but the last couple of times I’ve tried making starter from scratch, they’ve fizzled. They start out strong–precocious even. They double or triple in bulk, and on the next refresh, dissolve into nothing. Maybe it was the wrong time of year or temperature–the last two years, I’ve started my starters in the spring time when pollen is high. Also, since we got our cats, we haven’t had much luck either. I have theories, but the bottom line is, for the last couple of years, every recipe I’ve tried, following directions to the letter, has failed.

A lot of that, I think, is just the nature of sourdough. If baking is a science, then bread-making is microbiology. The arms race of yeast, lactobacilli, and enzymes isn’t something you can gauge with everyday kitchen tools. Try as you may, there’s only so much within the home baker’s control.

I’m a pretty easy-going person, but cooking brings out all of my type A. I cook savory. I bake. I barbecue. I’ve dabbled in curing meat. I’ve cooked for a hundred plus a handful of times. Nothing pisses me off more than having to acknowledge I want to cook something but it’s just not within my ability.

And that’s how baking is like a New Year’s resolution. They’re both about exercising control. Or at least trying.

A few friends tell me it’ll be a crowded couple of months at their local gyms. These friends have been working out for years. They’ve built it into their lifestyles. A lot of folks make their way to the gym on January first or second with a sigh and a grumble. Losing weight or getting into shape isn’t something they want to do. It’s something they “should” do.

I made, I think, three resolutions last year. I achieved none of them. You see, I also work a full-time job, a part-time job several weekend days a month, and am a parent. I’m not trying to make excuses for why I didn’t achieve my resolutions. In fact, I’m pleased I made as much progress on them as I did. The problem is, with as much time as I spent last year checking off “should do” boxes everyday, I regret time I didn’t spend doing other things.

I didn’t do a lot of creative cooking and recipe crafting. Truth be told, we ate out a lot.

I could have spent a lot more time enjoying the presence of my wife and daughter.

I could have been more mindful and present in the moment. That one thing more than any other seems to help everything else click into place, though it’s often the first to be sacrificed.

The New Year is a time we tell ourselves a lot of things we should be doing. Frankly, I think that happens when we lack confidence in our own ability to juggle priorities and just do what we need to do, when we need to do it. I know that’s the way it is for me. My gym-going friends are going to be working out to dual-screen CNN and Fox long-after the rush fades away in a couple of months, maybe because their desire to stay in shape comes from a place of conviction rather than insecurity. There’s a great saying you hear a lot around folks in recovery: “wherever I am is exactly where I’m supposed to be.” We all have a lot on our plates. We all have a ton of things that aren’t even within our control.

And that’s why I would offer we talk less about New Year’s resolutions and more about New Year’s serenity.

Oh, and wouldn’t you know it? The sourdough turned out awesome! I started the process accepting it would probably bomb. Then I remembered one of the essential skills in making sourdough: patience. The starter doubled in a generous 12 hours, so I figured it was a go. I used this recipe for Chad Robertson’s Tartine bread. The gluten seemed a shade underdeveloped and it took a lot longer than the recipe suggested for the dough to rise, probably on account of our home’s temperature. That being said, the taste was astonishing. It reminded me of my favorite local artisan bakery’s bread–a nutty and sweet attack with a tangy, but not-too-sharp finish. Here was my New Year’s breakfast this morning:

Sourdough and Nutella. Do it.

Sourdough and Nutella. Do it.

Yes, that’s Nutella on top–I tried it on a whim. Try it, you must too! For me, it was more evidence that the unplanned things in life can also be some of the best.

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