BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Top Ramen

When fresh noodles meet hot broth, some sort of strange alchemy occurs. It’s easy to understand the allure of ramen, and yet mysteries still abound, lurking at the bottom of each steaming bowl, compelling slurp after slurp as if the secret might be hiding in that very last spoonful. How on earth can such simple, humble ingredients meld together into something so sublime? Where exactly do those immense, throat-gripping savory flavors come from? Which came first; the pasta or the soup?

I paid a visit to my friend and accomplished chef Philip Gelb in hopes of answering these questions and gaining some insight on the way of the noodle. The promise of ending up with a taste of fresh, handmade ramen may or may not have been the primary excuse for attending his often sold out class. Either way, I got much more than I signed up for, which is the essential wisdom behind this dish.

It turns out that like most foods, there is no magic going on behind the scenes. Rather, the foundation is built upon quality ingredients that are treated with respect, prepared with the utmost care to coax out their full potential. The richest, most umami-infused broth you’ve ever splashed across your palate contains a minimal number of components, but is slowly simmered for a number of hours, allowing the water to reduce while the latent flavors to naturally emerge and intensify.

Ramen masters jealously guard the formulas to their patented brews, but even the die-hard fanatics rarely make their own noodles. Without means of mass production, the temptation to cut corners by sourcing acceptable starchy options is understandable, and indeed Sun Noodle provides very good ramen noodles for approximately 90% of the trendiest shops around the US. No, that’s not an overstatement, but the honest truth. Few other manufacturers have mastered the art form quite like the Hawaii-based company, eliminating a huge amount of labor for innovative restaurateurs nationwide. No matter how good this high standard may be, still nothing compares to the delicacy of a fresh ramen noodle made by your own two hands- And perhaps a pasta roller if you can afford the luxury.

Chewy, soft, and bouncy in all the right ways, the ramen noodle gets its great acclaim from its inimitable texture. Though traditionally imparted by kansui, a solution of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate that serves to toughen wheat proteins and create the signature mouth-feel for these distinctive strands, a more accessible alternative can be found right inside your kitchen cabinet. Philip smartly induces the same sort of chemical reaction in standard baking soda by burning it in the oven. Aromatic in a less than pleasant way, he recommends doing this step in bulk so that you only need to suffer the fumes once. You may question your sanity as the stench rises in growing waves, but you must persevere through the pain! The rewards on the other side of this acrid wall are great. The difference between alkaline noodles and plain old spaghetti are like night and day.

Toppings are another discussion entirely, but my impression is that pretty much anything goes. Consider it the pizza of noodle soups; strong opinions about what is “right” and what is “wrong” are prevalent among purists, but if it tastes good, there’s no reason not to indulge. For this demonstration, key additions include deeply savory shiitake mushrooms, fried tofu, spicy pickled bean sprouts, and roasted cabbage. Crazy as it may sound, a whole head of cabbage is simply rubbed with olive oil and tossed in a slow oven for two hours, yielding an impossibly buttery and dare I say meaty morsel that very well could steal the show in a lesser bowl of soup.

The beauty of this combination, though, is the perfect balance of ingredients. Each addition is a strong player in its own right, capable of standing up to competing flavors without drowning each other out. While some continue to argue about whether it’s the noodles or the broth that makes the bowl, the real secret is that it’s neither. It’s the bigger picture of the dish altogether that makes ramen so great, and anyone focusing on just one piece of the puzzle is bound to be disappointed. Sure, it’s quite a bit more work than tossing a quick-cooking block of instant ramen on the stove, but every eater owes it to themselves to try the real deal at least once. You will never regret the time spent when you consider the true satisfaction gained by fabricating each and every facet by hand.

Homemade Ramen
By Chef Philip Gelb

Ramen Noodles:

1 Cup Semolina Flour
1 Cup White Flour
1/2 Teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Burnt Baking Soda*
3/4 Cup Water

*Burnt baking soda is needed to alkalize the dough. Place approximately 1 cup baking soda on a sheet pan and bake at 250 F for 1 hour. Store in an airtight container for a few months.

Mix both flours, salt and burnt baking soda. Add water and stir well. Knead by hand for 20 minutes or until very smooth and pliable. Wrap tightly and refrigerate overnight.  Bring dough to room temperature and knead again for 10 minutes. Wrap tightly and let rest 1 hour. Roll out noodles to desired thickness and cut into thin strands.

When ready to eat, drop noodles in rapidly boiling water for about 1 minute or till desired texture. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 Servings

Kombu Stock:

Water
Dried Kombu
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Yellow Onion
Scallion
Fresh Ginger
Celery
Carrot

Place all ingredients in water to cover, add heat, bring to simmer, lower heat, cover, simmer for 2 hours. Drain all solid parts out.

Optionally, roast some or all the vegetables first for a darker, richer flavor.

Experiment by adding other vegetables such as cilantro, pumpkin, sweet potato, celery root, parsnip, lemongrass, and so forth as desired.

Soup:

12 Cups Kombu Stock (Above)
1 Cup Mirin
3/4 Cup Sake
1 1/2 Cups Soy Sauce

Combine all ingredients, bring to simmer and cook 5 minutes to burn off some of the harsh notes of the alcohol. Balance with more shoyu or mirin if needed, to taste.

Makes 7 Servings

Topping Options

Roasted Cabbage:

1 Whole Head Green Cabbage
Olive Oil

Rub cabbage generously with olive oil and wrap tightly with aluminum foil. Roast at 350 for 2 hours. Let cool completely before slicing thinly.

Quick Pickled Sprouts

1 Pound Mung Bean or Soybean Sprouts
2 Quarts Boiling Water with 1/8 Teaspoon Baking Soda Added
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil (FOR SPICY SPROUTS add hot chili oil instead)

Plunge sprouts into boiling water. Immediately remove and rinse well under cold water. Place blanched sprouts in a bowl and add vinegar, soy sauce, and oil. Toss to coat.

Shiitake Mushrooms

6 – 8 Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
1 Cup Kombu Stock
1 1/2 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce

Bring water to boil with sugar and soy sauce. Add shiitake and cook over medium-low heat until the liquid evaporates.

Slice each mushroom into several sections. Use one mushroom per bowl of soup.

Tofu

1 Pound Firm Tofu, Drained
Oil for frying

Cut tofu into 1/4-inch wide strips and pat dry. Deep fry tofu till crisp.

Printable Recipe


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Silent Sunday: Omakase

Sushi Plate, Featuring Smoked Beet Nigiri: Nitsume sauce, wasabi, shiso, sesame snow.

Abalone Mushroom Sunomono: Shredded and marinated abalone mushroom, accordion-cut cucumbers, wakame, daikon sprouts, and a tosa vinaigrette.

Cauliflower Kara-age: Marinated cauliflower fried in a light yuzu-kosho tempura batter, and served with yuzu aioli and dusted nori.

Soba Noodle Mazemen: Buckwheat noodles, nuka-pickled veggies, charred Tokyo negi, soy-pickled shiitakes, koji-cured carrot, tofu misozuke, and tempura wakame.

Soba Noodle Mazemen: Caramelized tare dashi poured tableside.

Strawberry-Matcha Cheesecake: Cashew-based cheesecake with strawberries and matcha layers. With macerated strawberries and matcha meringue.

Five course plant-based omakase dinner by Chef Kevin Schuder.


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Mochi Madness

Standing outside on the first cold, crisp day of 2014, I could have sworn I heard the distinctive “don…don…don” of a kine (wooden mallet) striking an usu (stone mortar), far off in the distance. Though unlikely, the tradition of making mochi for oshogatsu is so ubiquitous in Japanese culture, it would be unthinkable for anyone immersed in the culture to ignore it. Pounding sweet glutenous rice into submission is no simple task, typically requiring a whole village to pitch in and churn out enough mochi to ring in the new year. Celebrations are based around the ritual and everyone gets something delicious as their reward. Though ozoni soup is the most authentic way to commemorate the turning of the calendar, ensuring good luck and prosperity for the coming months, mochi is the perfect blank canvas for any flavors sweet or savory. Naturally, my inclination is to play up its capacity for creating unique sweet treats.

Forget pounding stubborn grains of rice until your arms ache and your hands throb. This is mochi for the modern baker, dressed up in a rich cloak of chocolate, no less. Mochiko, otherwise known as finely powdered sweet rice flour, makes the process move along much more smoothly- literally. Crossing cultural boundaries and incorporating some unconventional ingredients, the resulting brownies are a curious hybrid of Japanese and American tastes. Shockingly decadent in comparison to the plain white spheres produced from typical methods, these mahogany brown squares are a definite indulgence, which strikes me as a fitting way to kick off a joyful new year. For anyone expecting a standard brownie though, the texture may come as a shock. Chewy with a delightfully bouncy, sticky texture between the teeth, it makes no secret of its glutenous rice foundation. To some who struggles with anything that isn’t either crispy-crunchy or pudding-soft, these may not be the most winning recipe.

For the rest of you adventurous eaters and bakers though, it’s a stunningly simple mash-up that’s long overdue. Have your mochi and enjoy it too, without any of the hard labor (or choking hazards) associated with the original. As a side bonus, these rice flour-based treats are “accidentally” gluten-free, so everyone can start their year on a sweet note!

Mochi Brownies

2 Cups Mochiko
1 1/2 Cups Granulated Sugar
1/3 Cup Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
2 Teaspoons Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
9 Ounces (1 1/2 Cups) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips, Divided
1 1/2 Cups Plain Vegan Creamer
1 14-Ounce Can Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1/2 Cup Plain or Vanilla Vegan Yogurt
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease an 9 x 13-inch rectangular baking pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together the mochiko, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and powder, and salt. Stir until all the ingredients are evenly distributed throughout the mixture and set aside.

Place the margarine and 6 ounces (1 cup) of the chocolate chips in a large, microwave-safe container along with half of the creamer. Microwave for a minute, stir well, and then continue heating at 30-second intervals, mixing thoroughly in between each new cycle, until the chocolate has completely melted. Add in the remaining measure of creamer plus the coconut milk, yogurt, and vanilla. Stir until smooth.

Pour the liquid ingredients into the bowl of dry and stir thoroughly with a wide spatula. Don’t worry about over-mixing, since there’s no gluten here that might form. Go ahead and beat the tar out of that batter! Toss in the remaining 3 ounces (1/2 cup) of chocolate chips and mix until evenly distributed throughout the mixture. Once there are no lumps remaining, transfer it into your prepared pan and smooth out the top. Bake for 55 – 60 minutes, until dry and slightly crackled on top. The toothpick test won’t be particularly helpful for this brownie, so just trust your intuition when it appears to be done on the surface.

Let cool completely before slicing into bars.

Makes 16 – 24 Brownies

Printable Recipe


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Kajitsu, Reborn and Revisited

There’s something different about Kajitsu, and it’s not just the seasonal menu, refreshed every month to highlight fresh produce at its peak. The entire restaurant itself has picked up and moved to a new space in Midtown, large enough to accommodate two separate dining rooms containing two very different food philosophies. The original vegan concept of Kajitsu resides upstairs, now open for lunch and literally showing off the food in an entirely new light- Large picture windows improve the ambiance immeasurably from the previous location. Downstairs, open only for lunch, a second concept called “Kokage” offers eggs and various seafood in traditional kaiseki style. Happily, there’s more than enough to delight the senses with their shojin cuisine that one would never feel the need to venture back down to the lower dining room.

Previously a dinner-only spot, the addition of lunch service has opened up not only more cost-conscious prices, but a wider range of choices. In addition to the typical prix fixe filled with authentic (and perhaps challenging) delicacies, diners can pick from more familiar dishes such as rice and noodle bowls.

Tanuki Udon, a regional specialty of Kyoto, is presented with finesse that elevates the humble soup far beyond its deceptively simple roots. Vibrant green and still crisp scallions swim amongst the chewy wheat strands, enveloped in the hot and ginger-spiked broth. Generous squares of fried tofu add richness, all while soaking up that aromatic liquid like the tender edible sponges they are. Yomogi-fu, a new ingredient to me, is made of mugwort; I’d compare it to a savory cross between tofu and mochi. Posessing a unique chew that seems to bounce between the teeth, the surprising texture is a welcome interjection in the otherwise low-key, soothing stew. The oversized bowl seems bottomless, but should your spoon finally clink against the polished ceramic, it’s a sad moment indeed.

Not to worry though, because there’s more! Inari Sushi is included alongside, putting all previous experiences I had with the stuff to shame. Nothing more than fried tofu skin stuffed with vinegared sushi rice, the quality of ingredients and care of preparation are key to creating anything beyond subsistence rations. Soft yuba yielding easily to the lightest pressure, each grain of rice was perfectly cooked. Coated with the lightest hint of sweetness, it is an excellent study in contrasts, balancing out the gentle acidic bite within.

For those craving a bit of tempura, the Kakiage Donburi is sure to satisfy. Thin ribbons of various roots and gourds, with the incongruous handful of corn kernels mixed in, are expertly fried to a crisp consistency. The whole wispy jumble is perched upon sticky rice, and sides of miso soup and pickles round out the meal. Not a lick of grease is to be found here; you’d hardly know it was even deep-fried if not for the batter.

What makes Kajitsu a truly memorable experience, however, is still their carefully curated set menu. On this occasion, spring was in full force and the offerings gracefully reflected that transitory period from start to finish. “Ichi Ju San Sai” means “one soup and three dishes,” a format that ensures both balance and variety in a given meal. The rice is masterfully cooked, of course, but rather unexciting in comparison to the other culinary delights. Miso Soup always hits the spot, no matter how hot or cold the day is outside, and this particular interpretation held delicate strands of fresh yuba, reminiscent of an umami egg drop soup. After warming up on the savory, salty miso, the very next side brings some relief; chilled, refreshing, and wonderfully slippery…

Yes, the Spring Jelly would be best described as slippery, or perhaps gelatinous if one were feeling less charitable. It’s a texture that I happen to adore, but it may be more challenging for unfamiliar eaters. I hastily deconstructed the artful dish, plucking the finely shaved radish off the top and fishing out the jelly-like tokoroten noodles. Somewhat like a vegan aspic, the spring jelly itself was a melange of star-shaped crunchy vegetables, suspended in a dome of clear agar. The only thing I could positively identify in the mix was okra, since the other vegetables provided more crunch than flavor. Regardless of how strange that might all sound, may the record show that I adored this dish. No where outside of Japan would you ever find such a thing, and even then, I wouldn’t trust it to be without some fishy addition. This is what my memories of Japan taste like, and I only wish it was available a la carte so I could reminisce all year round.

The main event, Tofu with Ginger Sauce, arrived at the table in a heavy but shallow stoneware vessel, bubbling madly. Like a box full of edible treasures, the surprises never ceased with each successive bite. Sure there was tofu, both fresh and fried, plus a big dollop of freshly grated ginger just as promised, but it was otherwise nothing like what I had imagined. A starch-thickened sauce coated everything, infusing ginger into all the components. More of that chewy yomogi-fu made an unexpected cameo, and the addition of avocado was particularly inspired. Hot avocado rarely appeals, although something about how soft and tender it became, practically melting into the sauce itself, was utterly delectable. Though not a meal for the texturally challenged, I would it again any day, or every day if given the chance.

So how does the new Kajitsu compare to the old? It’s hard to make any definitive judgement so early on, although all signs point to greater success on the horizon. The very same spirit propels the establishment forward, while fresh inspiration pushes cooks and diners alike down a new path. I can’t wait to see where this new departure will lead.

Many thanks to Liz of Kosher Like Me for treating me to this unforgettable culinary adventure!


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Day of Celebration

Nothing motivates quite like a hard deadline, and this one certainly lit a fire underneath me. Kajitsu, temple of shojin cuisine in NYC, had been on my radar for years, but always seemed just outside of reach, despite its easy accessibility. Offering a set menu that changes each month, your only choices are between four courses or eight, with prices that match the painstakingly crafted edibles on offer. There just never seemed a proper occasion or reason to visit, never enough justification to drop that kind of cash on the experience of a single meal. As it turns out, the reason is presented right in the name: Kajitsu, translated as “fine day,” or “day of celebration,” says it all. In other words, treat y’o self, because today is just as worthy of celebration as any other.

When it came to light that the restaurant was closing up shop and moving to a new location, that was the catalyst for finally dropping by. Sure, it was due to reopen only a few weeks later in the heart of Manhattan, but I wanted the full, original experience. Moreover, I wanted an excuse, and this was as good as any.

Seated at the chef’s counter, we were privy to some of the fine details to go into composing these plates, but without seeing any of the real hustle and bustle in the kitchen. To call the atmosphere “meditative” is an understatement; there is no music, no loud chatter. Overhead lights focus directly on the food, which is the only place your attention is desired to fall. Distractions are at a minimum, right down to the tableware. Everything has a place and a purpose, including the attentive waitstaff, never missing a beat.

After the shorter kaze menu was chosen and our fate effectively sealed, the performance began.

Real, sharp, pungent wasabi grated mere seconds before hitting the plate took me by surprise. It was nothing like the colored horseradish found in most other eateries, but that was only an accent flavor to the Sashimi Style King Oyster Mushroom. Served chilled, the slippery slices of mushroom were paired with a savory sauce, a perfect compliment to the natural umami found within. Another delicious surprise came by way of the pickled celery, delightfully tender and yet crunchy all at once. That’s the sort of condiment I would buy by the jarful if only they would package it.

Daikon Soup may not sound like much on paper, but the surprisingly thick broth, enriched with a light asparagus puree, perfectly hit the spot. Concealed by a thin sheet of simmered daikon, a single piece of wheat gluten shaped like an ume blossom stood out in brilliant pink, a playful addition that lightened the serious mood. It would be a stretch to describe a bowl of soup “fun,” but that little touch brought a smile to my face.

The main course ,which was named the Plum Tree Plate, was a collage of complimentary components, displayed together on one plate. Standouts include the lily bulb puree, which is something never before seen in my world, and tasted for all the world like classic, comforting mashed potatoes. Fava beans and string beans came coated in a crispy, completely grease-free shell of tempura, adding just the right degree of indulgence into the meal.

Finally, ending on a soothing note, Baby Mountain Yam Soupy Rice gave diners an opportunity to play with their food just a little bit. Soup came in a separate pitcher, to be poured over a perfectly molded square of yam-filled sushi rice. Sheets of nori practically melted upon contacting the hot broth, seamlessly adding just a hint of oceanic salinity into the mix. Though my sweet tooth still yearned for a sphere of mochi or a small matcha cookie, I found myself perfectly full and content after that last spoonful of soup.

It was a meal worth the wait, although I certainly won’t let so much time pass before my next visit. Happily, they’re due to reopen in Murray Hill by mid-March, so there’s no excuse not to celebrate the day, for any reason at all.

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