Archive for the ‘Analysis of why a recipe fails.’ Category


June 07, 2015: Japanese Dinner for the Family

June 7, 2015

Family @ Sushi BarStory is king.

As an part-time chef and storyteller, it is not unusual for me to use food as yet another medium (to try, at least) to connect to my fellow-man, to make a bridge between thought and reality.

What experience should have taught me is that be it photography, literature, film, or food, you gotta play to the right crowd.

JoanneI have been known (sadly) to talk endlessly about how Joyce is sentence-by-sentence, the best writer of the last century…how Thoreau the most important and original. I can go on forever about my reasons for photographing the dolmens and burial tombs of Ireland…of how the interplay of light in nature may move me to almost ectasy…and how Japanese food is challenging, time-consuming and complex…and yet, at it’s very essence…simplicity and subtlety personified. I have to remind myself, that ‘tho I’m very passionate about all of these, it often means very little to your average person.


A couple of weeks ago, I got a birthday party invitation from my niece, Bryna’s 40th birthday. I haven’t cooked a big meal in a while so I offered to make a Japanese meal for the family as a gift. I knew this to be a substantial challenge as, my family would have little (if any) connection to Japanese food. However, I have been making dishes for the blog for a few years now, so I felt pretty sure of my limitations, as well as my strengths. I also had my ace-in-the-hole: Yoshio, and no one is better than bridging the East-meets-West cultures than him.

So, I dug in and created a menu that I thought would show Japanese food at its best, while catering (as best I could) to the Central New York palette.

Japanese Meal for the Family

Yoshio’s Salmon Ribbon:  a piece of salmon, wrapped around a shiso leaf (sesame leaf) a little lemon zest, fresh dill, salt and white pepper. This is all wrapped in a won-ton noodle,which is then fried and covered in a raspberry jam/lemon juice/Grand Marnier sauce and topped with fresh raspberries.

Sliced Cucumbers: Small English cucumbers sliced thin with a dressing of mirin, rice vinegar, and sesame oil.

Broccoli and Lime-Mayo: Blanched and chilled broccoli crowns in a mayo, yoghurt, mirin, and lime sauce with fresh dill weed.

Tamago Roll: an egg omelette sweetened with mirin, fried, rolled and topped with chopped scallion.

Age Dashi Dofu: Tofu, dusted in corn starch and fried, in a broth of wakame and shiitake mushroom, topped with shredded scallion, daikon, and carrot.

Kushi Katu: small pieces of salmon, shrimp, chicken, beef, sweet potato, crimini mushrooms, onion and asparagus, on a stick, covered in a batter of panko and fried.

Temaki Roll: a cone of nori wrapped around sushi rice, with matchsticked carrot, scallion, daikon, crab meat, and cucumber.

Temari Zushi: a ball of sushi rice, covered with strips of avocado. Topped with grated carrot, daikon and toasted sesame seeds.

Macha Ice Cream: vanilla ice cream, slightly melted and mixed with powdered macha green tea and re-frozen.

Yoshio's Mikan Cocktail: Plum Wine, Champagne and Cherry+Mandarian Orange

Yoshio’s Mikan Cocktail: Plum Wine, Champagne and Cherry+Mandarian Orange

The salmon ribbon was the appetizer, served with Yoshio’s “Mikan Cocktail” (champagne with a little plum-wine, garnished with a cherry and a slice of mikan [Mandarin orange.] ) We also had sake and green tea as well as a Japanese beer, rice crackers, and edamamae.

I had brought authentic Japanese music and my brother-in-law, Steve was kind enough to set it up on his music system. Both Steve and my sister, Mary Lou went halfsies with me on the meal, as a gift to Bryna and both did considerable prep-work for all the dishes.

A week before the meal, I met with Yoshio to concur with him on the menu. He approved and fine-tuned the dishes with good advice and a demonstration or two, to improve my technique. During my stay, he made a few dishes for me, one of which was a cold, silken tofu, garnished in shaved ginger on a bed of sauce that he made up on the spot. This dish was everything I wanted my family to experience: fresh, simple, unique and delicious.

Yet, I knew there going to be problems reconciling the Japanese diet with that of your average CNYorkers: for instance, the delicious silken tofu dish Yoshio made, would never fly with my folks. In fact, tofu was completely off the menu, until my niece told me that she loves tofu, so I included the age dashi dish (which only Bryna and I enjoyed, as the rest of the folks finding the idea of tofu repellent.)

Age Dashi DofuI also knew that I had not the training for, nor would the folks find appetizing, raw fish for the sushi. I actually brought a tube of wasabi, but as soon as I started serving food, I knew that wasabi would only detract from the experience.

I had a few surprises of tastes that I now take for granted that I should have considered to be rather foreign to my family: green tea, for instance. No takers on that one (except, once again, my niece.) Sake, also was rather strange to them. A few people tried the warm rice wine and expressed surprise that it only had only the alcoholic content of wine (they all thought it was a liquor.) Any form of seaweed was right out: my sister tasted a seaweed rice cracker and pretty much retched at the taste. Anything wrapped in nori was not eaten.

Tamaki IngredientsA big surprise was the disappointing response I got to my macha ice cream. I have made this a few times before and have gotten a favorable reactions from those that had never had it before: it’s only slightly sweet, but balanced by the slight bitter of he pulverized green tea mixed in. I caught my sister making a face after one spoonful, then she proceeded to lather the raspberry sauce from the salmon ribbon over the ice cream. In her defense, she is used to her very rich and sweet desserts she makes every Christmas, to great effect with her guests…so it stands to reason the subtleties of a Japanese dessert (which are invariably not as sweet) are lost on her.

Nicky & TysonMy own mistakes did not help at all: I have forgotten that even ‘tho I’ve made all these dishes to perfection before, these Japanese dishes take practice! Although the taste was perfect, the shape and presentation of some of the sushi rolls could have been much better. I also could have done a better job with mastering my sister’s stove top (a technology I am not used to) better. The oil temperature was way too high.

Still…bless their hearts, my family showed up and took a leap and could very much appreciate the work involved in such a meal. Perhaps I should be most surprised that some of my dishes were tasted and appreciated! Sadly, those that were appreciated were mostly the creations of others (all of Yoshio’s recipes were liked, as well as Baba’s Temari Roll.)

Temari ZushiThe world is an ocean of wonderful tastes, some from strange and foreign lands, just waiting for the stout sailor to brave the new horizons of culinary experience.

Thanks to my family for attempting this brief journey with me for an afternoon’s mini-adventure! I’ll be back with more delicious food (albeit more traditional fare) the next visit!

[One of the best things about a big meal like this is that I always end up relying on the contributions and input from others. Thanks to Steve and Mary Lou Swasey for being perfect hosts: their time, effort, remarkable prep-work skills…down to their ornamental china, which was perfect. Thanks to Steve for the photos of the day. Thanks also to Chris & Sara for their gift of the *best* sesame oil from the Saratoga Olive oil Co. and to Regan for the gift of dried shiitake mushrooms, and especially to Yoshio, for his recipes, good ideas, guidance, and for providing the rare supplies for the meal.]


June 15, 2014: “Green Brain” Sushi

June 15, 2014

%22Green Brain%22 SushiTwo weeks ago I helped Yoshio cook for his daughter’s wedding. Yoshio had a tough job as he had all the responsibilities of a father of the bride plus he was also food designer and had to make sure his creations were made to his specification…all this for close to 100 people! It was also a tough job for the wedding couple, Katrina and Jonah, also to whittle down Yoshio’s immense list of food options to what they wanted. They did a fantastic job choosing dishes that were personal, as well as visually pleasing and delicious!

My job was to help organize the food and do as much prep work as possible. The true star of the food crew, ‘tho was Baba Takashi. A friend of the family, Baba was imported from Japan by Yoshio as a sushi chef for the reception. Yoshio had ordered all the sushi supplies, including the fresh fish, which arrived on ice just before Baba himself arrived from Japan.

Baba and I worked together for almost eight hours, the day before the reception. I can’t tell you how hard it was to work with a master sushi chef in the room! All I wanted to do was to watch every move he made, and it was only my dedication to Yoshio, the wedded couple, and to my obligations, that kept me from doing just that! The great part of working with a sushi-master (and a kind and generous one at that) was being offered a few of his creations as the evening progressed. Every once in a while, Baba would come over with one of his unique (vegetarian) sushi variations. Not only was each piece visually stunning, but absolutely delicious!

One of my favorites of Baba’s sushi I nicknamed “Green Brain” sushi.This was thinly sliced avocado wrapped around sushi rice. Simplicity itself…right?

Not so simple when I tried to make it for myself. Remember what I said about wanting to watch Baba? Well, I never got to see how he created “Green Brain” sushi. It took me several trials to get the thickness of the avocado right. Then, when I formed it, it was a decent effort, but not even in the ballpark of correct.

I got to catch up with Yoshio this weekend. We were so busy working the weekend of the wedding, we never got to visit. Between sips of a very good bourbon, delicious cheeses and  frites  truffe (truffled french fries…made the correct way by Yoshio) he was able tweak what I had done wrong and to shorten the road to my making Baba’s sushi better. My second effort came closer to what I wanted….not perfect, mind you, but better…thanks to Yoshio’s input.

The day of the reception, I was very busy, but I occasionally caught glimpses of Baba’s work: Every one of his creations a masterpiece! The queue of guests waiting to partake of his sushi was wrapped all around the yard! At one point, just about every guest was chanting his name! If any sushi chef ever came close to rock-star status, it was Baba!

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I only wish I was able to flatter Baba more. I only hope that sometime in the future I can get the chance to see Baba (my new rock-star friend) in action again!


March 24, 2014: Recipe Errors & Judgments

March 24, 2014


There is something about a recipe that just begs to be trusted.

I always want to trust to that someone writing a recipe has put in the necessary research, experimentation, and documentation that I myself would do (and have done for recipes featured in the blog.) Sadly, this is sometimes not the case. I now look at recipes as a guide only and tend to trust my experience and judgment to freely  amend any recipe I use.

Veggie Bisque

Veggie Bisque

I first started doing this, years ago, while this making biscotti from a recipe in a pretty good cookbook that I had come to trust and had guided me in making a number of delicious dishes. Looking at the quantity of flour required for the recipe, my first reaction was “Wow. That’s looks pretty skimpy.” Sure enough, the recipe called for roughly 1/3rd the amount of flour that made a good biscotti! I wrote a scolding comment in the margins of the cookbook and have now made it correctly many times since.

Ratatouille Nicoise

Ratatouille Nicoise

So, knowing how wrong recipes can sometimes be, I feel particularly burned when I go against my instincts and completely trust a recipe. I tend to do this only with meat recipes, as being a vegetarian for many years I feel as if I don’t always have the proper experience for meat dishes. Such was the case last week when I was asked to make a French dinner to celebrate my young friend Katie’s 11th birthday party. I pulled out all stops and made a meal which I thought might appeal to the palate of her young guests:

Zucchini Crown2Vegetable Bisque (topped with a dollop of sour cream and chives)
Crepes (with choice of grilled chicken and lemon-bechamel sauce OR Beef Bourguignon)
Ratatouille Nicoise
Minted Green-Pea Timbales
Zucchini Crowns
Salad (of lettuces with Spiced Pecans, Blood Orange, Star Fruit, and Raspberry Coulis)
Homemade Eclairs
Kiwi Slices with White Chocolate and Blackberry

Raspberry Coulis

Raspberry Coulis

The recipe slip-up for this meal was the Beef Bourguignon. It called for 3lbs. of beef to feed six people. As 18-20 people were expected at the party, I felt as if I had no choice but to double the amount, although my instinct told me that was too much. Sure enough, my instinct was correct, and I stuck the hosts with double the amount of the most expensive part of the meal. I could juxtapose this faux-pas with my own recipe for raspberry coulis which then, as ever, was just perfect.

So…I guess the general rule is: if your haven’t actually written the recipe, give it the benefit of doubt, and when in doubt….trust your instincts.

Minted Green Pea Timbales: A fine dish, yet nonetheless hated by my entire family and 11-year-old girls.

Minted Green Pea Timbales: A really fine dish, yet nonetheless hated by my entire family and now….11-year-old girls.

My other error is ever thinking that I could please an eleven-year-old with a meal of this caliber. After a weekend of hard work followed by disappointment, now I know that young American adolescents have a preternatural radar for….and aversion to…anything even remotely healthy. If it had carbs and sugars, they were all over those. The refill batch of eclairs never made it to the table, as they were snatched up on route! The dark and milk chocolate towers of Eiffel, the girls swarmed and devoured in the manner of (as one adult  put it) ” a school of piranha!” All veggies were eschewed (as opposed to chewed.) The main course was mainly eaten by grown-ups or (pathetically) went to leftovers.

So my new chef’s rule: if you aren’t old enough to partake of the wines that go with a fine French meal, it’s boxed mac and cheese all around!

[Much thanks to Teja Arboleda for the snaps taken with his IPhone]

Homemade Eclairs: Nothing but a fancy Boston Cream Donut

Homemade Eclairs: Nothing but a fancy Boston Cream Donut

The two majestic Eiffels. Dark and light chocolate.

The two majestic Eiffels. Dark and light chocolate.


June 20, 2013: First, Do No Harm

June 20, 2013
Photo by Teja via IPhone

Photo by Teja via IPhone

People tend to associate the phrase “First, Do No Harm'” (Latin: Primum non nocere”) with the code of ethics that the medical practitioners should adhere to. I would say that it should well apply to not only all professional fields, but also, as general ethics, trumps “the golden rule” as a good maxim in order to better treat our fellow-men. After all, if you are human you will, sooner or later through action or inaction, harm at least one other of your fellow humans. All one can do is use “First, Do No Harm” as a way to be aware of your capacity to hurt someone else.

A a chef, “First, Do No Harm” is absolutely necessary rule to make sure your patrons are safe on all accounts. These days, there are a plethora of food allergies and sensitivities that could harm a guest. Most common allergies are to milk and eggs, fish and shellfish, nuts from both trees and ground, wheat, soybean, but there are many others besides the major allergies. In addition, people can be sensitive to food. While not giving them an allergic reaction, certain foods may unsettle their stomach. There are also foods that people choose not to eat or simply don’t like.

For chefs, all these food sensitivities may be a challenge to delight guests while most importantly, keeping them safe. Before I cook for people who I have not met I do an advance poll (usually through the hosts) to find if anyone has food sensitivities and even general likes and dislikes. I always inform the hosts what I plan to make and make sure they clear it with the guests (I find this also increases anticipation for the meal.)

Last weekend I had a chance to make dinner for Teja, Barb, Katie and Teja’s mom, Marlis. I have been working on Indian food lately, so I thought I would make Aaloo Mattar (potatoes, peas and beans in a korma sauce, over basamati rice) Chicken Tandoori, and grilled veggies. Teja OK’d the meal, but later contacted me to say that his mom has lately become very sensitive to spices. I did a rethink of the meal and found I could exclude spices from her portions.

Cooking for Teja’s family includes the double-joy of having 10-year-old Katie as a helper. Not only is Katie quite adept in the kitchen, but she is wonderful company and her cheerful and industrious demeanor makes cooking twice as fun. She is also a good guardian. I almost (by habit) added spices to the rice that was going to Marlis, and Katie stopped me in time! While preparing the meal, Katie thought the meal might be too spicy for her, as well, so I gave her a small potion of the sauces I was going to include and she agreed that they did not taste too spicy….and this is where I dropped the ball.

What I should have done is discuss Katie’s tolerances to spices with the parents. It turns out Katie also has an increasing sensitivity to the more strong spices. My poor little helper could not finish the meal and went to bed a little worse for the wear, thanks to my error.

So…chefs take to heart my lesson and my adaptation of the popular medical maxim “First, Do No Harm” to the cooking world and make your guests happier, clamoring for more…but mostly, to keep them safe!


January 21, 2013: Here There Be Dragons

January 21, 2013

Brussel Sprout & Miso-WalnutI suppose, all in all, I have had my few brave moments. I did manage to get the “highest initials in the oak tree” (our childhood game/challenge) when I was a younger. True, I was lighter than most of the boys in the neighborhood, but I reached those top, thin, swaying branches on pure guts. Then, in college, there was rock-climbing. I was always the first one up…and off, the cliff. These days, with my precarious economic condition, I suffer a kind of enforced day-to-day bravery, so I find I tend to seek less challenges. There is, however, a built-in safety net with cooking. Food, to me, is a kind of mini-adventure: it will most likely not kill you unless you do something really bad, so I am more apt to try more weird stuff.

Last weekend I was dying to try my miso-walnut sauce once again, and having all the ingredients, it was just a matter of finding another worthy vegetable. My first choice was pearl onions. I suspected that the natural glossy texture of these onions would not hold the sauce as well, but I wanted to give it a try. I still think this could work, but after the holidays my store no longer stocked pearl onions. Rats. I guess I was still in “small, round, veggie mode” because what I finally settled on was Brussel Sprouts.I know that I have lost about half of you right there because I am aware that Brussel Sprouts are a bit of an acquired taste. I knew it would be a weird East-meets-West combination, but I also thought it just might be weird and wonderful East-meets-West combination.

Brussel Sprouts with Miso-Walnut Sauce
The brussel sprouts are the easy part of dish. I took a bag of frozen sprouts and put them in boiling, salted H2O for about three minutes. Drain and add Miso-Walnut Sauce. I topped this off with toasted white sesame seeds and toasted nori crumbles.

Miso-Walnut Dressing:  Toast 1/2C. walnuts in pan on stove top on low-medium heat, turning often until toasted, but not black. Grind walnuts in suribachi or any other mortar and pestle (or grind in food processor) until smooth-ish. Add 3 Tblsp. dashi or veggie broth; 1 Tblsp. mirin; 1 Tblsp. sweet white miso; 2 Tblsp. shoyu; and 1/4 teasp. sal de mer. Whisk.

I was fairly pleased with the combination. I think the onions might have been a better mix overall, but this recipe was indeed a weird and wonderful second. Last weekend, I got a very nice visit by my good friend Teja, who grew up in Japan, so I wanted to give him a taste of my latest concoction. Poor Teja. One taste and he almost gagged! As he is handing back the bowl, he said “Sorry.” and I replied, “No…no. For years now, I’ve been begging you guys to give me good feedback on how my recipes are coming along, and I just got the most clear opinion ever!” But now comes the hard part: Why didn’t he like? At first, I thought it being a “leftover” may have changed the taste, but no…the sauce had separated somewhat, but the taste was fine (to me.) “Are you just unfamiliar with brussel sprouts” I asked him. Turns out, that he regularly grills sprouts for the girls, so that wasn’t it. So, then I asked him to taste the sauce alone, and that was it! He thought the combination was just awful! The sauce…while certainly my variation, was derived from a bona-fide Japanese recipe. Now, Teja will freely admit that despite growing up in Japan, he like most people, limited himself to the food there that he knew but he certainly knew that my dish was not for him!

I feel bad for making Teja into a guinea pig in an experiment where it all goes wrong for the pig, but I really think that in this case it is was just a matter of individual taste. The one thing a cook cannot control. To Teja, whom I’ve made many, many delicious feasts, I promise to do better the next time, for you. I however, really enjoyed the leftovers!

Here There Be DragonsLook, if you are a cook and you want a safe recipe, make chocolate cake. I’ve tasted all sorts of “bad” chocolate cakes in my day…dry ones, squishy ones, even vegan ones and all of them were just fine and more than edible!

But the cooking world needs pioneers. People who stir the pot (metaphorically and actually) the other way. It’s like that (probably apocryphal) story of the cartographer’s map from the ancient mariner days which read “Here There Be Dragons” when the charts were unknown. The explorers who went ahead anyway, you read about in eighth grade history. The rest, turned back to the harbor and to obscurity, presumably munching on their chocolate cake (OK…it was more like a chocolate biscotti, back then… a chocolate hardtack if you will, but you get the point.) It’s also like the moral to the old Aesop’s fable, “Do Bravely What You Do At All.”

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