Here in Brooklyn, there’s a popular Australian coffee shop that does a brisk brunch business catering to folks who seem to come more for the fashionable crowd than for the coffee (which is excellent, though perhaps not as good as that at another Australian-owned spot a few blocks east). Now, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call this cafe’s food offerings a proper brunch, as the menu mainly consists of “toasties,” a quaint-sounding (and quaintly sized) open-faced sandwich. For two dollars extra, one can add a dollop of chunky guacamole to the toast; an additional dollar fifty buys a poached egg, which sits jauntily and wobbly atop the avocado. It’s an almost ridiculously simple concept, and in that sense brilliant from a business perspective: a toastie with avocado and an egg plus coffee can run well over $10, plus tip.
Excellent coffee aside, this is an experience that can be easily replicated in the comfort of one’s own home. Aside from provisioning the right ingredients – fresh bread, ripe avocados, and interesting seasonings – there is almost no labor involved in the creation of an avocado toast. But what, exactly, comprises a good avocado toast? Or better yet, what is the ideal?
Having previously waxed poetic about turnips – specifically the petite variety known as Hakurei – it may seem repetitive to sing their praises again. Yet as winter’s darkest days dissipate and spring creeps ever closer, I can think of no better way to celebrate the season than with a feast of these knobby roots. Their mild, crisp bite is enough to appease even the crankiest cold weather haters, while their humble appearance appeals to those of us with an unexplained penchant for the unloved castaways of the vegetable bin.
Many years ago, I read an article about Michel Richard, a French pastry chef who moved to the U.S. in the 1970s and now sits at the helm of a veritablerestaurantempire. In the course of his cross country travels, Richard discovered that Americans seemed to be singularly obsessed with all things crispy. More precisely, he noted that there was a premium placed on the textural play between interiors (moist) and exteriors (crunchy), Kentucky Fried Chicken being the prime example of this sort of texture-driven cookery. Indeed, the fast food establishments that increasingly dotted the American landscape were particularly adept at a particular kind of culinary alchemy, which melded a relatively sophisticated understanding of sensory pleasure with mass-market tastes (and, of course, standardized supply chains). It was this discovery, claims Richard, that led him to rethink the way French food was prepared and presented in this country.
I once found the passing of the holidays a rather melancholy event. After all the parties, baking, and gift wrapping, we’re left with empty bottles, stray crumbs, and crumpled paper. As a student, the unpleasant feeling was heightened by the prospect of facing the long march through the Chicago winter. Living in Japan, however, each new year seemed to hold so much promise. In Tokyo, the January sky is bright, blue, and unmarred by the humidity and clouds that settle over the city in other seasons. Returning from the States, the gentle, late afternoon light and long shadows streaking across the rice fields near Narita airport seemed to be as warm a welcome as any weary traveler could ask for. On the train back to Koshigaya, I’d find myself marveling at the fact that this seemingly strange place could feel so much like home, even in the year’s darkest days.
Nagano prefecture is known throughout Japan for its buckwheat, which finds its way into much of the region’s cuisine, from the famed Shinshū soba (more on which here, here, and here) to soba manju (sweet red bean paste wrapped in a thin buckwheat skin) and soba cha, a mellow, caffeine-free tea made from buckwheat kernels. The buckwheat harvest, which takes place in the late fall after October’s rice harvest, is hard and laborious work. Preparing the buckwheat for cooking is no easier: after harvesting, the buckwheat grains are threshed and sorted. Traditionally, stone mills are used to grind the grains into flour. Freshly milled buckwheat flour has the most delicate flavor, and so soba made immediately after the fall harvest is held in high regard.
You never forget your first quince. I first saw this strange fruit while driving through rice paddies on the western outskirts of Matsumoto, in mountainous central Japan. The trees themselves were small and scraggly, their knotted branches laden with the golden, apple-like fruit. Though tempted to jump out of the car and gather a few, I continued on, only to discover that quinces were practically impossible to find at Japanese markets. Even here in New York, quinces are remarkably difficult to come by, appearing only sporadically in the autumn. Yet as any quince aficionado knows, finding the fruit is only the beginning, for they take as much perseverance to procure as to prepare.
In the past, whenever I found myself with a surfeit of parsnips, I’d turn to my standby technique: a giant roast with carrots, red onions, and leeks, liberally coated with olive oil and strewn with slivered garlic and fresh thyme branches. The ghostly pale parsnips, cut into thin batons and roasted into oblivion, transformed into a crisp-edged, caramelized tangle with a deep, earthy sweetness that almost belied their humble origins. This is a perfectly acceptable and delicious way to cook most vegetables, but after years of making the same recipe, I was ready for a change.
Readers, I’ve missed you so! Summer has officially passed, and so far all I’ve managed to write about is frozen sweets. Rest assured, my love of vegetables has not waned in the slightest, but I’ve found myself short on time to cook them in new and interesting ways. This recipe, however, is an exception. The inspiration for this dish came by way of a small restaurant in Matsumoto called Dengaku Kiso-ya. Housed in a traditional wooden building just a few paces from the Metoba river, the shop specializes in a simple dish known as dengaku (田楽). At its most basic, dengaku is tōfu or vegetables (usually eggplant) slathered in a sweet miso sauce and broiled until crisp-edged and caramelized.
Ah, August, that most bittersweet of months. Its early, languid days shimmer with heat and promise, offering the tantalizing prospect of an endless summer. Within weeks, dusk vibrates with the hum of cicadas, hinting at autumn’s inexorable approach. Those days are not far off, but there’s something I’ve been dying to share with you before it’s too late: peach and white miso ice cream. Imagine: creamy, caramelized custard layered atop salty tang, each mouthful tinged with the acidity and fragrance of impossibly ripe peaches. The mood of this ice cream is slow and sensual, like eating peaches licked with sea spray and sand after a leisurely day at the beach. It’s summer in a spoonful, and it’s both as peculiar and delicious as it sounds.
In the spirit of brevity, I’ll leave you with the recipe and some favorite scenes from summers past.
Having experienced a few of Japan’s notoriously hot and sticky summers, I’ve picked up some survival tricks that don’t necessitate cranking up the air conditioner. This was particularly important last summer, when energy-saving measures (setsuden) were in effect following March’s disaster. At the time, I was living in a dense Tokyo suburb that routinely ranks as the hottest city in the country. The heat-trapping effects of concrete and asphalt combined with the suffocating environment of a 15 square meter (roughly 160 square foot) apartment meant I had to devise some creative strategies for staying cool, not to mention sane. (Cold showers, frozen washcloths, and a trusty sensu were all critical components of this endeavor.)