Friday, June 29, 2007


"In a sense, making sushi and sashimi has much in common with creating a Zen garden. On the grounds of a Buddhist temple, a monk snips away at the trees and shrubs until they have been reduced to abstract symbols evoking nature's beauty in miniature. A sushi chef snips away at fish, reducing them to abstract morsels of the sea." (The Zen of Fish, p. 152)

A Sushi Tale

Reading "The Zen of Fish" by Trevor Corson

"According to Japanese folk tradition, each grain of rice contains not just one spirit but seven. In his two batches of sushi rice, totaling roughly 20 pounds, Takumi was currently responsible for the fate of some three and a half million tiny gods." (p. 37)

As I read this amusing book, I'm thinking of my own recent enjoyment of sushi, as in the photo below, taken in Mountain View, or thinking of the sushi roll from Whole Foods that I ate for lunch yesterday.

"Like a martial-arts dojo or a school of tea ceremony, each sushi bar follows techniques handed down from the founding masters of the lineage to which it belongs. The most closely guarded secret is usually the ratio of vinegar to salt in the sushi rice. It's said that a master chef can tell the lineage of a sushi bar simply by tasting its rice." (p. 41)

Corson mixes bits of history, Japanese food lore, pop culture, American restaurant culture, and a big measure of food chemistry, for which he credits Harold McGee's books. All the information comes up as he follows a class for aspiring sushi chefs. It's my favorite type of writing, where everything seems spontaneous, but is clearly the result of careful intentions. His writing skill was equal in his book The Secret Life of Lobsters, but there's nothing repetitive about this.

"The cucumber roll gets its Japanese name, kappa-maki, from a mythical water sprite called a kappa, believed to inhabit lakes and rivers. Kappa are known for gobbling up children and generally causing trouble by farting and looking up women's kimonos. In old Japanese paintings, these ugly green water sprites look rather like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In fact, in one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle films, the turtles travel back in time to medieval Japan and get mistaken for kappa. The only food kappa prefer over human children is cucumbers. Thus, the name of the cucumber roll." (p. 86-87. Note: I found the photo online; it's not in the book.)

Eventually, Corson also talks a bit about Japanese history and how sushi developed for Japanese taste, and then about recent US restaurants and how sushi became popular with film stars, high-rollers, and eventually, with the rest of us. I loved learning about sushi secrets: like the machine that extrudes perfect rice balls for sushi, saving the labor of hand-rolling them, or the cost-effectiveness of the little trains or conveyor belts which were the main labor-saving device that enabled lower prices in Japan and also in the US.

"When it comes to aroma, uncooked fish fall flat. In the human brain, smell is linked to memory. A platter of raw fish cannot trigger the feelings of comfort and happiness that people associate with the smell of their favorite cooked foods. Perhaps that is one reason sushi chefs pay close attention to visual presentation." (p. 118)

I wonder about the smell issue: most Americans don't like the smell of fish, cooked or raw, and much fish here deserves that reaction. Maybe some of the loss of inhibition about eating sushi happens to Americans when they realize that sushi doesn't smell. Especially, it doesn't smell like fish. Remember what Trinculo said of Caliban: "What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish; he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell; a kind of not-of-the-newest Poor-John. A strange fish!" (The Tempest, II, ii, 16-20)

I've been thinking and reading about sushi quite a bit lately, and as I continue with The Zen of Fish, I'll be posting more. Here are my other posts -- Sushi in Mountain View, Sushi Rolls and Sashimi, and a post about two other books on Japanese food: Far-away Food.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Greenfield Village: Food, Fake and Real

The Greenfield Village Cafeteria offers Americana foods, though I don't think they are anywhere near as authentic or well-researched as the exhibits in the old houses and industrial demonstrations. I did enjoy an indulgent plate of real mashed potatoes, a dried-cherry sausage with onions, and a Diet Pepsi (free refills all day with receipt). Rachel Ray might ask: "How authentic is that?"

A boarding house's kitchen displays a patently fake fruit bowl and plaster cherry pie. The cutlery and china are no doubt antiques.
Quite a few of the reconstructed kitchens include original equipment and realistic food.

One kitchen included foods that were cooked "this week" -- turnovers, cookies, hand-made egg noodles, and corn biscuits. Two very nice women were there to share their stories of cooking and quilting, though the actual cooking seems to take place elsewhere.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Recipe for Olga: Corn Pancakes

1 cup flour
2/3 cup corn meal
2 TB white sugar
2 TB. baking powder
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk or milk + lemon juice or vinegar
1 TB Tabasco sauce (any flavor)
1 TB Tiger sauce, other mild sauce, or tomato juice
3 TB corn oil
2 chopped green onions or 1/4 cup chopped red onions
1 cup (approx) fresh-cooked, canned, or frozen corn kernels
1 TB chopped parsley (optional)

Mix dry ingredients in mixing bowl. Mix liquids in measuring cup. Stir liquid into dry ingredients and add vegetables. Drop 3-4 inch pancakes onto hot, lightly buttered griddle. When top side becomes bubbly, turn over, and cook until both sides are golden brown.

Serve with chopped vegetables and salsa or more Tiger Sauce.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Happy Birthday Ellen!

Saturday night we hosted a 75th birthday party for Ellen: her actual birthday is next week. She's having a serial celebration with several small parties and visits from her children and grandchildren and a cousin. For this one, I invited a total of 8 of us, a comfortable seating for my table. Unfortunately the photos of our guests weren't a success so I can only show the food here.

We started outdoors with a shrimp appetizer that Abby made, and drank a champagne toast. For the main course, we had a classic Salade Nicoise and two "rogue" salads that aren't part of the classic. One was a lentil salad with citrus, red onions, and dried cranberries. The other was cucumber salad with sour cream garnished with red peppers.

The photos show the main course ready to serve. Enough Salade Nicoise for eight people won't fit into a single bowl or on a single platter. Guests thus arranged their own on their plates.

I arranged the classic components as follows:

I put the main vegetable ingredients in a big bowl: lettuce, marinated green beans, black olives, and tomatoes with a few rogue yellow pepper slices. I didn't get a photo of this bowl.

I served the pommes a l'huile -- that is boiled potatoes in vinaigrette with a bit of parsley-- in two small bowls to make for ease of passing them around. This is my favorite part of the Salade Nicoise, usually, though this time I also loved the tuna.

In the middle-sized glass bowl is the tuna steak that I had marinated for around an hour and Lenny had grilled outdoors a couple of hours before the guests arrived. The tuna is garnished with the last classic item, hard-boiled egg wedges.

Finally, you get to see a photo of my effort at a layer cake. I just don't practice enough to make a really presentable layer cake. This one had a slight disaster when layer 3 from the bottom cracked and sort of protruded between layer 2 from the bottom and the top layer. I pasted it all back together with lemon icing. I loved the taste. The guests were all very understanding of my weakness. I topped each slice with two flavors of Whole Foods' in-house brand of sorbet: Red Raspberry and Meyer Lemon.

Note to self: make 9 x 13" sheet cakes!! Give up on layers!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Miriam and Alice Make Lunch

For Father's Day, Miriam and Alice made food from their cookbook, Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

I want to see "Ratatouille"

It's about a Parisian restaurant and all its intricate politics. Who cares if the star is a rat!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How Long is a "Food Mile"

In every story I read about food issues in Britain, I see references to "food miles." By this, the authors mean the distance that an item of food travels from where it's grown to where it's eaten. In the articles about Whole Foods in London I saw several mentions of this as a question about the bona-fides of Whole Foods. (American commentators on Whole Foods have thoroughly explored this and most other questions, I'd say.)

The local food movement in the US, which I've thought about and blogged about, has a somewhat different approach. The local-eating proponents are less concerned about a formula for ecological responsibility and in many ways more fixated on whether the food has been traveling too long to still taste good. Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle had a more nuanced view, for example (my brief comment: Barbara Kingsolver: "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle").

I have been skeptical about the claims that writers seem to be making regarding food miles as a measure of social responsiblity in eating. Today I've finally found a commentary that summarizes my concerns. It's of course much better and more comprehensive than what I have come up with:
Local food must be more environmentally friendly, they say – the distance it travels from farm to fork is shorter so its carbon footprint is smaller. Right? Wrong. Local food, per se, is not necessarily more environmentally friendly than that produced overseas. There is no reason, per se, that food produced in Kent has a lower environmental footprint than food produced in Kenya.

The concept of food miles remains easy for consumers to grasp but, in practice, it is too simplistic and we lose sight of a raft of wider sustainability issues. How does, for instance, the issue of Fair Trade fit into a concept of food miles?

And how can the food industry effectively communicate those issues on sustainability to consumers in a way they are willing and able to understand?

And just how “turned on” to environmental issues are consumers anyway? It would be na├»ve to assume that price and convenience are no longer the two key drivers in food consumption.
-- See the blog Just Food: permalink url

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Whole Foods Opens in London

"Whooping staff, hordes of photographers and a symbolic bread-breaking aren't usually associated with the opening of a supermarket," reported the BBC last Wednesday, "But this is no ordinary supermarket - this is Whole Foods, the all-American brand that has cornered the market for all things organic, natural and, well, wholesome, across the pond." Accompanied by photos of the "Greens' Wall" (at right) and of the enormous crowds, the article was a pretty straightforward description.

Beyond the BBC coverage, the Guardian's online Food and Drink section had a fairly scathing description of Whole Foods and the entire movement for organic, local, or hand-made food. Here's the title -- "The sausage division: Britain is starting to split into two nations: the ingredient obsessives versus the food ghetto."

The "food ghetto" receives this description: "In one corner is the fifth of the adult population who don't realise that sausages come mostly from pigs and are stunned to learn that oats are grown by British farmers. They are joined by the thousands of children who told an earlier poll they were quite certain that cows laid eggs and that the source of bacon was, in fact, sheep. This is the part of the nation that lives in a food ghetto, where fish is never seen without a coating of breadcrumbs."

The other side of course includes Whole Foods' Target Market: "consumers in pursuit of 20 varieties of tomato, 12 sorts of asparagus and 400 types of cheese. What matters to these shoppers is not simply getting their hands on recherche ingredients but the provenance of even quite familiar foods. Where did this cow live before it ended up on your fork? What Whole Foods consumers seem to crave is narrative, in contrast to those respondents to the polls who want to be relieved of the burden of storymaking."

I live around a mile from a palacial Whole Foods, where I do much of my grocery shopping, so I'm amused by the perception that it's so extremist. I've also visited Whole Foods markets in Palo Alto and Mountain View, CA, near Fairfax VA, and at the source of it all, the original, gigantic Whole Foods in Austin, TX. I don't consider myself that obsessive. But then, I'm here not there.

The BBC says Whole Foods is "a temple to all things foodie" while the Guardian says "The worry is that this type of initiative has made the business of buying and eating food so complicated that those of us who feel we can't keep up are increasingly minded not to try in the first place."

The Guardian can really get off on some crazy tangents, it seems to me. Even the BBC seems a little overwhelmed by what might be just another grocery store with marketing differentials and upscale foods in greater-than-usual variety. I just don't see that Whole Foods is as marginal as they make it out to be.

Well, I admit that England has changed in my lifetime, and in my own experience. I recall that in 1976, on a visit to Oxford, we made a very mild American-Mexican dinner for my sister's neighbors. The ingredients other than meat, onions, and canned tomatoes had come with us on the train from London -- I mean, we understood that corn chips, canned tortillas, and red beans were unavailable in the whole of England except at one or 2 specialty shops in the Megalopolis. No fresh medium-hot or hot peppers appeared at any British markets, even in London. (I didn't have time to experiment with Asian markets and peppers of potentially toxic levels of heat.)

During that long stay in Europe, on the chance that I would have to produce exotic fare for Europeans, I always kept a container of chili powder in my toiletries case. It came in handy for this event. What I cooked was not at all highly spiced, but one neighbor chose to eat dinner before she left home. She very politely explained that she only wanted to see the food, but not to taste it. I had made the same meal for some Parisians earlier that year, and was received with greater curiosity.

Yes, the world is flatter than ever. But I suspect that a spiritual relative of that neighbor is writing for the Guardian.

Note: The International Herald Trib had a totally business view of the new store, writing:

Analysts said the new London store would appeal to the rarefied breed of shoppers who currently buy organic produce at health-food stores, prepared products at a specialty store like Marks & Spencer, and paper goods and pantry staples at the local supermarket.

Mainstream shoppers are another matter, especially in traffic-choked London, where location and loyalty rule: Many shoppers rarely venture beyond the store nearest to their home, even when the experience is less than ideal. And Whole Foods in London will not offer parking, an amenity that Londoners say could make or break success.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


I just read a New York Times review, How Sushi Conquered the World, describing two brand-new books on sushi:
  • THE ZEN OF FISH: The Story of Sushi, From Samurai to Supermarket by Trevor Corson and
  • THE SUSHI ECONOMY: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy by Sasha Issenberg.

The first is by the author of The Secret Life of Lobsters, a favorite read of mine. The author has a website for the book, And the book sounds as good as his first one. The second book also sounds like a winner. I just bought three new books so it will be a few weeks before I get to buy and read these. Meanwhile, I'll keep eating California rolls whose history is evidently covered in interesting details.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Medicinal Properties of Olive Oil from the Curious Cook

One of my favorite food writers, Harold McGee, has done it again in his newest Curious Cook column in the New York Times. He describes an olive oil tasting, where the tasters often cough, due to an irritant in the oil. He particularly discusses the reaction of Dr. Gary Beauchamp, the director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia:

At the 1999 international workshop on molecular and physical gastronomy, in the mist-shrouded mountain town of Erice, Sicily, the physicists Ugo and Beatrice Palma brought along oil freshly pressed from their own trees. Dr. Beauchamp tasted the oil and felt his throat burn, as did I and all the other attendees. But he was the only one who immediately thought of ibuprofen.

Then McGee reports on some research about what causes people to cough, and how the chemical responsible may prove incredibly valuable. Here are the amazing results:

“The moment I felt that burn from Ugo and Beatrice’s oil, I saw the whole picture in my head....There’s a natural analogue of ibuprofen in olive oil, and it could have anti-inflammatory properties, too.”

He, Dr. Breslin and several collaborators confirmed that the pungent substance in olive oil is a phenolic chemical, which they named oleocanthal. And they showed that oleocanthal is even more effective than ibuprofen at inhibiting enzymes in the body that create inflammation. “It took five years of spare-time unfunded research to prove it, but that was some of the best fun I’ve had doing science,” he said.

In their 2005 report to the journal Nature, the team noted that anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen appear to have long-term health benefits, including reduction in the risk of some forms of heart disease and cancer. They suggested that the oleocanthal in pungent olive oils might be one of the things that make traditional Mediterranean diets so healthful.