As a child I loved small roe. In my neighbor’s kitchen I would often find bowls of tiny pink cooked fish eggs. They were firm and sweet and I loved them. We never had them at home as my mother wasn’t one for cooking, except for her yearly pot of curry stew. I was always happy to find them on my neighbor’s table and it took me years to figure out what they were. Karako are simply salt cured sacs of Pollack roe. Often cooked and served in onigiri or rice balls, the tiny eggs are fun to eat, especially if you happen to be a small child.
There are two kinds of cured Pollack roe commonly used in Japanese kitchens: karako and mentaiko. Oddly they are often referred to as cod roe even though they are made from the egg sacs of pollack, perhaps it's a quirk of translation that has lingered over the years. In Japanese homes they are basic staples. You can buy them ready made in Japanese supermarkets here in the United States. While Karako is simply salt cured, Mentaiko is salt and chili cured. Mentaiko cures may contain sake, yuzu, kombu or any number of other ingredients, depending on the chef, or they can be as simple as salt and chili powder. The eggs are tiny and can range in hues from light pink to a bright orange-red from the seasonings. They are salty and spicy and soft against the tongue. Mentaiko are seen in rice balls and salad dressings, but perhaps one of Japan’s best loved dishes with this spicy roe is a creamy pasta dish most often served at home.
When Alex first made the seaweed noodles, mentaiko immediately popped into my head. I needed to go shopping at Mitsuwa, a Japanese supermarket just over an hour away by car. To say that he was less than enthusiastic about the idea would be an understatement. He grumbled a bit and proceeded to ignore the idea until I told him I was going to pack up Amaya and go by myself. Bright and early the next morning he volunteered to drive us. Because as much as he didn’t want to trek out there, he certainly didn’t want to miss out on any cool ingredients that might be available. We found fresh yuzu and sudachi, beautiful daikon, several condiments, spicy nori strips, long Japanese onions, and of course, my mentaiko.
I decided on a warm noodle dish. We made a sauce with a touch of Kewpi mayonnaise, buttermilk, yuzu juice, and yuzu kosho and then generously thickened it with the mentaiko. A condiment of minced jalapeno, pickled ginger and garlic chives added texture and brightness to the seaweed pasta and a touch of seaweed puree finished things off. Mentaiko pasta, just not exactly the way your mother might have made it.
We are having more fun with our pasta extruder. Now we can execute flavors and preparations which we thought would be tough to knead and produce by hand. This is one of those cases when the machine is essential for the execution.
We continue to chase the flavor of the grill. More often than not, I do not like the texture of grilled foods. They tend to be drier and tougher than other cooked preparations. But the flavor of grilled foods is amazing. We have grilled bacon skins for sauces and potatoes for ice cream. The flavor of the grill is wonderful, especially when it is used as a flavoring agent. Recently we were working with leeks and realized that by trimming the vegetable we were generating a large amount of leek skins. On a whim, I seasoned the skins with salt and olive oil and then grilled them so they well were charred but certainly not ash. Then we cooled the them down and worked on a number of applications: from wrapping the charred skins around the cleaned centers to flavor them during cooking to infusing the flavor into the fresh king crabmeat. The results were amazing. The flavor of the grill and the leeks permeated the wapped ingredients while allowing us to retain the delicate texture of the underlying ingredient. While we used leeks here, the possibilites are endless and not necessarily confined to the vegetable world.
One of our favorite meals is a plethora of oysters on the half shell accompanied by an abundance of hot, crispy French fries. An afternoon spent slowly sliding cold briny oysters down our throats interspersed with bites of crunchy, salty potatoes is one well spent. Oysters can easily be enjoyed either raw or cooked. Slicked with cream and spiked with chilies they can be a warm soothing spoonful on a rainy afternoon. Happily oysters are sustainably farmed shellfish and their industry has a minimal impact on the marine environment. That makes eating them a good thing for everyone involved, except perhaps the oyster.
Pearl oysters are not the same as food oysters, so there’s no possibility of finding the rare perfect jewel in your dinner. The oyster you consume may contain a tiny pearl but it comes from a different family entirely. Edible oysters are from the Ostrideae family and are scattered in waters throughout the world. Two of the most popular varieties are the eastern American oyster, Crassostrea virginica, and the Pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas. The first variety is found in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the second in the Pacific. There are variations of these two species found from New York to Australia and everywhere in between. The three other cultivated species are the Kumamoto known as Crassostrea sikamea, the European Flat or Belon named Ostrea edulis, and the Olympia, otherwise called the Ostrea conchaphila.
Oysters grow best in areas where fresh water and salt water mix in spots that are protected from waves and storms. They tend to be oval or pear-shaped although their structure can vary depending on what they attach themselves to. Oysters reproduce in one of two ways. The European and Olympia oysters are hermaphrodites. Eggs are fertilized within the body and then carried in the gills for twelve days until larvae or spats form. The oysters from the Crassostrea branches begin life as males and then become female. They may change back and forth a few more times over their lifespan but remain primarily female after that first change. Females release eggs directly into the water and males do the same with their sperm. When the two cross paths the eggs are fertilized. These fertilized eggs mature into larvae in the water. Once the larvae have formed they swim through the ocean currents for two to three weeks, developing the beginnings of their shell, until they settle and attach themselves to a home using their sticky foot. There they remain until they are harvested and eaten by man or some other predator.
While oysters are not able to move by themselves, they can be dislodged by the pull of the waves. Their hinged shells are rough and irregular looking. The bottom shell is the one attached to their mooring, it is more curved and cup-like than the top. The shell itself is formed in layers with calcium carbonate in chalky middle and nacre, better known as mother of pearl, forming the smooth inner lining. The hinge is connected to the two halves of the shell with two ligaments. When the inner adductor muscle relaxes, the shell can be opened and closed using the ligaments.
Looking at a raw oyster you will see the visceral mass as the rounded center, which contains the stomach, intestines, and other internal organs, and the round, firm adductor muscle. The adductor muscle controls the opening and closing of the shell. The oysters body is covered by the three delicate layers of the mantle. The outer layer is responsible for the secretions that form and calcify the shell. The inner layers are comprised of muscle, blood vessels, and nerves covered by epithelium. They collect sensory input and relay it through the system. The mantle aids in reproduction by facilitating the release of the eggs. The mantle aids the gills in respiration, produces and secretes mucous, and supports elimination. Underneath the mantle around the outer perimeter are two curved pieces, one longer than the other. The longer piece that looks like it is imprinted with a delicate fringe is composed of the gills. The smaller piece is the labial palp.
Oysters filter feed by extracting food particles and algae from the water through their gills. They consume extremely small plant and animal specimens, larvae, and spores. The gills are covered with hair-like structures known as the cilia. The cilia beat on the gills, drawing in water and filtering it for nourishment. Food is sorted by the labial palp. Particles too large for consumption are passed to the edge of the mantle to be ejected from the shell. Smaller particles are passed down to the mouth and then carried through a short esophagus to the stomach. There it is digested and passed through the intestines where nutrients are absorbed. Finally feces are expelled back out into the water. It is a surprisingly complex process for something so tiny and innocuous in appearance.
One of the main issues with eating raw oysters is the texture. People either love them or hate them. There isn’t much space in between those two stances. They are undeniably slippery and soft, salty, sometimes creamy, sometime mineral-y, slightly sweet, and to our minds, delicious. Our years in fine dining kitchens have led us to cleaning raw oysters for use in composed dishes. We would shuck the oysters and save the juice. Then we would trim around the visceral mass, that plump centerpiece, removing the mantle, the gills, the labial palp, and all of their myriad parts. We would use the oyster liquor and the trimmed meat to make a sauce to highlight the smaller, single bite of the trimmed oysters.
When we were working in Maine we were lucky enough to get oysters delivered to us from down the road. Jeff was our oyster guy, Pemaquids were his bounty. Because we were local, he introduced us to jumbo oysters. These beauties came in shells that were almost a foot long. The oysters inside were large but not as gargantuan as the shells would lead you to believe. These plump beauties were singularly delicious and succulent. We used them to make a version of Oysters Rockefeller that was served in the giant bottom shells and the presentation was as popular as the dish itself. You will only find oysters this large close to their source because the cost of shipping the heavy shells makes them prohibitively expensive anywhere else.
As chefs we are always looking for ways to make food taste better. Sometimes that means making it more approachable. After all if diners wont eat something it doesn’t matter how good it is. We came up with the idea of gently poaching the oysters to firm up the flesh while still retaining the fresh briny flavor of the raw product. We don’t cook them for long, we simply shuck them and cook them sous vide with their juices in a 48°C/118°F water bath for twenty minutes. Then we ice them down to stop the cooking process. Finally we trim the poached oysters, separating out the liquid and the trim, and see where inspiration takes us. The low temperature cooking allows the oysters to plump up and sets the flesh to eliminate the slippery texture that many people find unpleasant. They still have all the flavor of the raw oyster with the added benefit of a silky, resilient texture. In fact we have convinced a few confirmed raw oyster haters to enjoy oysters on the half shell with these softly cooked beauties.
Once the oyster has been poached we strain the juices and store the oysters in it. We use these oysters in both cooked and raw preparations. We’ve found that the poached oysters retain their shape and do not shrivel up or lose their shape when we cook them again. They fry up beautifully and we can use the liquor as the basis for a tart, briny vinaigrette to dip them in.
I spent a long day in the dungeon with Tony, but man did we have a good time. Still processing the possibilities with pasta and beyond. I am now in tune with a noodle centric philosophy. Step one, capture the essence of the a flavor for a noodle. Step two, pick a shape specific to an application. Step three, refine the texture of the noodle. The less we do and add is essential to the enjoyment of the noodle.
Thank you to everyone who guessed what the piece of equipment was which changed my thought process on food; particularly pasta. The answer was the lasagna sheeter die for an Arcobaleno pasta extruder. It turns an extruder into a sheeter. Imagine the possibilities, we are.
We cooked our blood sausage to an internal temperature of 70°C and then cooled it. Once it was cold and had rested overnight to allow the flavors to blend and mature, we put the base into a blender and let it rip. The result was a blood sausage puree, which was the base for our blood sausage cavatelli and its sauce. We tucked a bit of the straight puree underneath them on the plate to add a hidden vein of richness and flavor to the finished pork and clam dish.
For the longest time, I have openly avoided whole wheat: bread, pasta, pizza, muffins, you name it. Aki would use whole wheat flour and I would refuse to eat things on principle because they were too healthy. The words "you ruined it!" may have been uttered a few times before a single bite passed my lips.To me adding whole wheat flour meant making things heavy and healthy and I just wasn't into it. That is until recently when we found some coarse ground whole wheat at a local market. The packaging was simple, a ziploc bag, and it allowed me to see the texture of the grain beneath. This was not whole wheat trying to be white flour. It was an unaplogetic expression of an ingredient and its character drew me in.
I picked up the bag and could feel the granules of texture in the flour. It was as if I was holding cornmeal in my hand. So me being me, I bought several bags, despite the fact that all things whole wheat were forbidden by my own rules. When I showed Aki my purchase she was pleased and pissed at the same time. She liked the fact that I had purchased whole wheat flour, but knew full well there is a difference between buying and eating. She assumed the flour would slowly turn rancid on our shelves and, if left to me, this would have happened. Thankfully, Aki is also pragmatic.
The following morning Amaya was calling for pancakes and Aki "slipped" some of the whole wheat into the batter much to my annoyance. The first bite I had of the pancakes was infuriating. These were not the light and fluffy syrup carriers I had come to demand on a regular basis. There was texture involved and I was not going to... and then I realized that I did like them. The pancake had a nutty flavor from the grains toasting on the griddle. The wheat granules had absorbed moisture from the batter and were tender with a slightly coarse texture showcasing a distinct ingredient and one which made my pancakes more enjoyable. The next time she made plain pancakes and my first response was "You left out the wheat flour!"
Now I, actually we, are looking into utilizing this coarse and flavorful wheat in other preparations. Not for health benefits because that would mean I would have to avoid it. We are looking at the whole wheat as a delicious ingredient with which we may cook better and enhance the flavor and full experience of our preparations.
180 grams whole milk yogurt
15 grams muscovado sugar
2 grams salt
0.2 grams ground cardamom
0.1 grams ground cayenne
Combine the ingredients in a bowl and mix to blend evenly. Reserve.
310 grams sun chokes
Reserved yogurt marinade.
Wash and trim the sun chokes to remove any dirt, grit and blemishes. Dry the sun chokes and place them in a vacuum bag. Add the yogurt marinade and seal the bag on high pressure. Place the sealed sun choke bag in a circulating water bath set at 83 degrees Celsius. Cook the sun chokes for two hours, then remove the bag from the water bath and place the bag in an ice bath to rapidly cool the vegetables. When the sun chokes are cold, open the bag and wash off the yogurt marinade. Use the tip of a pairing knife to peel the thick skin off the sun chokes. The skin will come off in large strips and pieces, revealing the translucent white flesh of the cooked sun choke. Peel all the sun chokes and reserve.
60 grams dried powdered yogurt
25 grams muscovado sugar
10 grams mastic tears
2 grams salt
Place the ingredients in a spice grinder and pulverize into a fine powder. Reserve the mixture.
685 grams concord grapes
2.5 grams salt
2 grams garam masala
25 grams rose syrup
Mix the grapes, salt and garam masala together. Place the ingredients in a vacuum bag and seal on high pressure. Once the grapes are sealed, use a meat mallet to flatten the grapes in the bag. Place the pounded grapes into the freezer and allow them to freeze solid. Once the grapes are frozen solid, place the pounded grapes in the refrigerator and allow them to thaw.
Place the thawed grapes in a pot and add the rose syrup. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook the grapes for five minutes. Turn the heat off and let the cooked grapes stand for fifteen minutes. Strain the cooked grape pulp through a fine meshed strainer and press on the pulp to extract all the juices. Cool the grape juices and strain another time through a fine meshed strainer to remove any more coarse particles, which may have formed during the cooling of the grape puree.
305 grams Concord grape puree
0.31 grams high acyl gellan (.1 % of the puree)
0.92 grams low acyl gellan (.3% of the puree)
Place the grape puree in a blender and turn the power on low. Increase the speed until a vortex forms in the center of the puree. Sprinkle both types of gellan into the grape puree and blend for ten seconds to allow them to be evenly dispersed. Turn the blender off and pour the mixture into a pot. Slowly bring the mixture up to 90°C, constantly stirring throughout the heating process. When the mixture reaches 90°C, the gellan will be properly hydrated. Pour the mixture quickly into a shallow pan and allow the mixture to cool. When the grape puree is cold and set as a firm gel, break the gel into pieces and place back in the blender. Turn the blender on low and begin to puree the mixture. Increase the speed to medium and puree for three minutes. The mixture will become smooth and silky. Remove the grape mixture from the blender and strain through a fine mesh strainer. Reserve the concord grape pudding.
Peeled sun chokes
Concord grape pudding
40 Young shiso sprigs
Spread the mastic-yogurt powder in a 0.5 cm layer on a sheet pan or in a shallow pan. Pat the sun chokes dry and then roll them in the mastic yogurt powder. Turn the sun chokes in the powder so they are evenly coated. Remove the coated sun chokes from the powder and gently shake to remove any loose crumbs. Set the coated sun chokes on a dry tray, continuing the process until they are all coated with mastic-yogurt powder.
Place a spoonful of the concord grape pudding in the center of a plate. Arrange three yogurt crusted sun chokes in a tight formation in the center of the grape pudding. Place two sun chokes two cm to the side of the concord grape pudding at the four o’clock position. Place three sprigs of shiso on the sun chokes in the center of the plate. Place one shiso sprig underneath the farthest offset sun choke and place another sprig on top.
I have a tendency to go overboard. I have a tendency to want to combine too many odd parts in one place. Thankfully Aki is a strong and influential counter balance. We have continued to work and refine our preparations of blood sausage cavatelli. Aki came up with the idea of serving them with clam sauce; stating pork and clams, implying duh! And so we we worked through the elements making a blood sausage bolognese style sauce, finished with minced surf clams. We incorporated a blood sausage puree underneath the pasta and topped the dish with basil from our weed patch and shavings of aged gouda. The dish is almost there.
As chefs I think it's easy to forget to cook for ourselves. That sounds ridiculous doesn't it? For most chefs their lives are devoted to cooking, to expressing ingredients, to making great food. What Alex and I do is a little different, we balance expressing our food on our time with helping other other chefs better execute their food on their time. And still somehow at the end of the day we are often scrambling to come up with something for supper.
Looking back to my younger days, no mater how nice family meal may or may not have been, as a young cook my most significant meal of the day was usually a burger and fries wolfed down with liberal amounts of beer at bar at the end of my shift. On days off we'd go for broke at the city's best restaurants to experience the different cuisines and to learn from what was on the plate and from what happened in the dining room. Still, when you gather a group of ravenous cooks to talk about food the conversation rarely revolves around fine dining or cutting edge ingredients. When we're truly hungry we talk about the food that resonates with us, the food we'd be happy to eat at that very moment. Burgers and pizza may be a given but depending on the company and the time of year, dishes range from porchetta to pupusas, banana pudding and fried clams, lobster rolls and shepard's pie, visceral pleasures rather than intellectual.
On the other hand, my most memorable meals run the gamut from utterly finger lickin' down home to fine dining. They are unique moments when the stars align and the food, atmosphere and company come together to create something completely satisfying on every level. Those meals are few and far between, and all the most precious for that reason. As chefs we choose the moments we wish to pursue and as diners we do the same. Choosing a restaurant may seem difficult but some days the hardest thing in the world is to cook for ourselves.
Don't get me wrong. There are definitely meals when I relish my solitude. Cooking for myself can be a true indulgence, everything exactly the way I like it with no compromises for anyone else. In this case, I'm speaking of meals at the end of the day or the week, when I'm mentally exhausted, my stomach is gnawing at itself from the inside out and I'm looking at the clock wondering what on earth to make for dinner. Nights when I want something simple and delicious, preferably cooked in one pan and eaten on one plate for easy clean up because I am one of those neurotic people who cannot sleep if there are dishes in the sink but I am cooking for at least one other small person who must be satisfied as well.
So what do I make on these evenings? It's almost embarassing to say. The dish a throwback to my Aunt Marie who always kept a box of noodle soup mix and one of pastina in the cupboard for emergencies. She would prepare the soup with enough pastina to turn it into a pasta dish instead of a soup. She would pour it into a deep bowl and just before serving she would add a generous knob of butter and grinding of fresh black pepper. Served with a spoon it was salty and rich and utterly soothing. I use organic canned chicken vegetable soup so that I can pretend there is some nutritional value involved and instead of butter I prefer layers of swiss or fresh mozzarella cheese, melted and stirred into the noodles. Amaya will happily share this and be perfectly content with her supper. It's a meal for when Alex is away and the metaphorical wolf is prowling at the door. By the time dinner is over I am relaxed and mellow, comforted by both the meal and the memory of the woman who inspired it.