Sunday, October 31, 2010

Scarborough Fair: Do Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme Belong in Chicken Soup?

When life gives me chickens, I make chicken soup. This week, we had not just one well-meaning rotisserie chicken from Costco languishing in the refrigerator, but two, since Mom sent one home with me yesterday. As I was perusing the fresh herb aisle at Whole Foods, the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” ran through my head. I decided today’s soup challenge would be to find out if “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” actually could work together in a broth.

Just one word: Soup.

Whole Foods is also the only place where I have been able to find alphabet pasta. Even better, it’s Eden Organic’s 60 percent whole grain vegetable pasta. The tiny, colorful letters bear only the vaguest resemblance to the starchy, pillowy letters that dotted a bowl of Campbell’s Alphabet Soup when I was a kid. They’re about half the size of the old-school pasta letters when cooked, and like most print these days, I need glasses to read them. But I thought they would add a certain je ne sais quoi to the soup.

"Message in a Soupbowl" probably wouldn't have the right ring to it.

I have a love-hate relationship with Costco’s rotisserie chicken. As with most food cravings, the longing begins with a vague memory of the last time you had the object of your nostalgic desire.

Too often however, attaining the morsel can result in a bittersweet victory. It ends up being not as good as you remember. Or as in the case of the rotisserie chicken, I guess I’ve had too many of them. It’s a quick and easy dinner unless you factor in the lines at Costco, where on any given weeknight, hungry and crabby people run over for their roasted bird after work. It’s economical - a three-pound chicken for under $5. And it’s really very good. I’m not a big chicken fan, but I make an exception for this one, which is not as salty as the ones in the supermarkets, and very moist.

Sadly, after an average of two chickens a month for the last year, I have to admit I’m burned out on them. Yet I still bring them home, hoping that the family will eat what’s left after my chicken craving is sated by tearing into the crispy bronzed skin and juicy breast. My favorite thing is to put the chicken on top of salad greens with a little olive oil and lemon, topping it with whatever is in the fridge: organic garbanzo beans from Trader Joe’s or olive tapenade. In the summer, Jolene and I dress our salads up with avocados, or fresh fruit like peaches or figs.

But it’s fall, and the day before Halloween to be exact, so playing around with a little animal carnage seems appropriate. I start to dismantle the large chicken only to realize that more than three-quarters of the bird is there, disqualifying it as actual leftovers. It’s more like the food equivalent of that dress you wanted, wanted, wanted. Once you bought it, you didn’t want it anymore.

I set the meat aside and cover the bones with water. I assembled a bouquet of the herbs and threw it in. The chicken’s carcass lay in its final watery resting place, looking like that famous Pre-Raphaelite painting of “Ophelia,” its pale and gristly breastbone just under the water with herbs floating around it like so many dead floral tributes.

This one didn't make it to the nunnery soon enough.

I boiled the carcass down for nearly an hour and lifted the lid of the pot. The aroma was amazing, but the sips of broth I tasted were nothing to shout about. I boiled it for another half an hour and peered into the pot again. A lovely golden color was developing, but the flavor still wasn’t there. I tossed in another handful of the herbs, feeling reckless after the tentative bunch that I initially used and started to work on the mushrooms.

Sautéed mushrooms with shallots can save almost anything. I chopped up four large shallots and almost burned the olive oil in the pan while looking for a bottle of wine. We’re not big drinkers here and usually the only booze in the house is from gifts or something bought for a recipe. I rooted around in the “liquor cabinet” – which also holds a blender and about 50 cookie cutters – and found a bottle of 2006 pinot noir which was amusingly named "Jargon." Thankfully, the bottle had a screwtop since a) I am terrible at opening wine bottles and b) I wouldn’t know where to find a corkscrew in this house of teetotalers.

A jug of wine, a bag of sliced mushrooms and thou...

The scent of mushrooms and wine added to the olfactory overload in the kitchen. I strained the bones out of the soup pot, added the diced chicken, mushrooms, shallots, and a quart of chicken broth. I added a small palmful of damp grey sea salt and some freshly ground pepper and set it to simmer for another half hour.

When I went in for another sample, it had started to take on more of the mushroom flavor. However, I wished it was more “chickeny.” I added about a cupful of the alphabet pasta to cook in the broth and remembered how hard it was to find the stuff last year when I was trying to come up with a blog post for “Deadline Delight – Or How to Procrastinate on a Freelance Assignment and Make Soup Instead.” I did make the soup, and sadly, it was not that great. And I ended up with procrastination upon procrastination by not writing a post on the experience, but still have photos of steaming pots and dimly lit ingredients to remember it by.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble... And more procrastion from writing... old habits die hard!

I interpret the removal of plain old-fashioned alphabet pasta from grocery shelves as another sign of the full-fledged attack on the English language as we know it. Perhaps a more international approach to language in today’s United States might bring it back as the staple it once was. It would be great to have kanji to grace Asian noodle soups, Hebrew letters to give even more di treyst to classic “Jewish penicillin,” and the Cyrillic alphabet to float atop a bowl of borscht.

And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. A text-message version of alphabet pasta, complete with emoticons, would be some real KAW in a cup of instant soup.

Bowl of Babel.

The soup is now cooling in the refrigerator. I’m hopeful for that overnight magic that often occurs when flavors are allowed to blend and intertwine after an evening’s labor.

I’ve just started reading “Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens.” Food writer and historian Andrew Beahrs starts off by recreating a typical Mark Twain breakfast, replete with aged beefsteak and biscuits from scratch. The book takes Beahrs and the reader through a journey to find the origins and the reason for the disappearance of foods that were once standard fare in an America, a nation that once raised its own game, baked its own bread, and raised produce for flavor, not size.

I remembered the book while I was boiling the chicken bones and when I was surprised at how little flavor the broth had. I don’t know if it’s because I tried to make the soup in such an abbreviated amount of time – doesn’t soup from scratch take hours and hours? Or because my prized poulet from Costco is bred for size and yield, with a flavor that only comes through when served in its intended form - roasted en masse with Costco's secret seasonings.

Epilogue: Another Art Garfunkel song fits my inspection of the brimming pot of soup. “Morning Has Broken”, and so have my taste buds. I lift the lid expectantly and find that what little fat there was has risen to the top. I skim it off and take a spoonful of the soup. If revenge is a dish best served cold, my soup is no exception. I can taste the herbs – mostly the sage – and really like the richness of the mushrooms. The chicken is in there, somewhere.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

To Market, To Market: Turning Japanese at Mitsuwa

Warning: Anyone who is overly sensitive to political incorrectness should stop reading here. This is a tongue-in-cheek account of what happens when people who have been raised in mainstream American culture are assumed to be knowledgeable about aspects of their ethnic background. They (let’s face it, I mean me) often realize that they are often clueless about their own cultures. In short, I’m a stranger here myself.

I was recently invited to serve on a committee to rejuvenate the Asian Pacific Studies program at the university where I work. It doesn’t matter that I don’t eat balut or realize that “Domo arigato” is not just a lyric in a Styx song. But somehow displaying photos of half-Filipino, half-Japanese nephews alongside a small kokeshi doll collection has somehow given me street cred as an authentic Asian.

But don’t ask me if I know a good place to buy authentic Japanese tea, which Sheela did a few weeks ago after purchasing a fancy hot water dispenser for her office. The only place I could think of was Yamamotoyama at Mitsuwa Marketplace in Torrance.

I like matcha with its slightly soapy flavor and grassy green color that is often used in desserts and pastries. I enjoy genmaicha, which is the best tea to drink with a meal. But my cha of choice is Trader Joe’s Organic Green Tea, which comes in (gulp) tea bags and which I make with a cup of hot water (2 minutes and 50 seconds on the office microwave) at my desk.

We oohed and aahed over beautiful Yixing clay teapots and mysterious porcelain accessories, and puzzled over mounds of dried tea leaves that were displayed in acrylic cases and sold in prepackaged portions. Sheela chose a light variety called sayama-cha. And the requisite bag of 100 tea bags simply labeled “green tea.”

That mission accomplished, we each had a cup of green tea with apple and strolled throughout the Marketplace. Mitsuwa is a national chain with stores everywhere from Costa Mesa to Edgewater, New Jersey. However, in the Los Angeles area - including eight-year-old Seiji, who is impressed by the assortment of Japanese toys, books, and magazines offered - agrees that the Torrance outlet is the best one. Along with the main Mitsuwa Supermarket, there are smaller merchants with everything from curry-filled doughnuts to Utsuwa- No-Yakata, an upscale but affordable outlet of Japanese ceramics.

It's a doughnut. It's an entree. It's wicked good.

We started to go through the grocery store and were amused at some of the brands of products that were clearly named to mimic Western food items. I had a “Beavis and Butthead” moment laughing at cream-filled wafer cookies called, “Coque d’Asses.” And I called Jolene to ask which instant coffee she favored the most. She recommended the ubiquitous Blendy, which I have to say will change your mind about instant coffee.

"Heh, heh. She said, "asses."

Sheela said we should check out the baby food because she had read an article about Gerber products in Japan. They didn’t carry Gerber, but had several jars of a Japanese brand that reflected the more native tastes favored in Japan. Instead of peas and carrots, Japanese babies are started out with daikon, fish, and hijiki.

These sound good to me now, but probably would have seemed strange to me as a child. But then again, I’ve had them in solid form.

My sister made most of the food that Seiji and Kenzo ate as infants, pureeing traditional Japanese foods like kabocha and saba with rice.

What we eat as children undeniably guides our palate later in life. Sheela, who is an Indian American, doesn’t like barfi, the colorful Indian sweets made with condensed milk and a variety of nuts and flavorings. I don’t like halo halo, which could be considered the national dessert of the Philippines with its syrupy fruits and again, the sweetened condensed milk that seems to be the dessert topping of choice throughout Asia and Southeast Asia. We both like the traditional Japanese sweet mochi, which ironically is now made with “exotic” ingredients like good old American peanut butter.

Wonder what this would be like with grape jelly.

While Sheela and I were both weaned on solid American diets – she grew up in Ohio, she had no choice – what we did both gain was a hybrid sensibility toward food. Although we might not always embrace our parents’ native cuisine, the exposure to it does make us more adventurous toward any food of other cultures.

This is a laudable quality in others as well. I often wonder what it would be like to live in a place that didn't have the exotic culinary options that Los Angeles offers, where the mingling of many cultures results in culinary assimilation. We explore and bond over other cultures. Case in point: Sheela bought a box of Giant Pocky for her Mexican-American friend who learned about the chocolate-coated cookies from her Chinese stepmother. As John Mellencamp would say, ain't that America.

The prize of the day for me was a chocolate covered doughnut from Hamada-Ya Bakery. While this may sound fairly pedestrian, it is the size of a small tire, a light but not-too-greasy ring topped with a very thick confectioner’s quality chocolate glaze. Only a cross-cultural exchange of ideas – namely the Asian obsession with French pastry – can bring us all together. It’s a small world, after all.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pei Wei's Big Adventure

A weekday dinner at Pei Wei Asian Diner can be most illuminating and amusing. In Los Angeles, home to numerous and authentic opportunities to experience food from throughout Asia, it is kind of amusing to see a menu that boasts "something foreign, yet familiar." You realize that it is familiar because elements of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese are blended in a Disney-esque attempt at creating a small world - or a least a small continent - on your plate.

Eleanor says that she read somewhere that red dishes make you eat more than you should. For me, red dishes with good food on them is what does the trick. Despite my snarky observations, Thai wonton soup with tofu and pork dumplings hit the spot. So did the Mongolian beef with scallions. I don't know what Genghis Khan would have thought of brown rice. But as it was a bit undercooked, he probably would have considered it a warrior-worthy test of gastronomic fortitude.

I've just seen a face. And my fortune - "cookie," that is.

I believe in eating dessert first, whenever possible. Apparently, so does Pei Wei, as they have a basket of fortune cookies at the self-serve drink station. Our fortunes were of course, cryptic. But at least they could be considered fortunes, rather than affirmations and lotto numbers.

A fortune that would have been pretty amusing to receive the last time I ate Chinese food would have been, "You will eat your words." It's hard to believe a whole year has passed since I started the moveable feast that is GMS with nothing but my smartass outlook and an appetite for food adventures.

So here's to another year of soup and sass!