Archive for the ‘Cooking Disasters’ 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 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!


July 09, 2012: Mistakes my brain just won’t…

July 9, 2012

Oh yes, the memories of all the mistakes return. Often, it’s late at night, the quiet time, just before falling asleep. Sometimes it’s in the shower, or shopping, at a stop light. I’m not totally sure why my brain likes to torture me with them. It’s not like I haven’t had a plethora of happy, satisfying, and successful moments my brain could dwell on. No. My brain takes the errors, the faults, every single goof, and snuggles them in its warm crevices, nurturing them gently, like some kid coddling a water balloon, only to yank them out at any given moment to chuck in my face, and say, “Bleahhh! You are SUCH the DOPE!”

And yet, my brain is also very selective: it seems to hold on to all the psychological tortures and seems to forget all the physical ones! I remember when I was twelve, on a dare I jumped from the top of Johnny B.’s shed and I simultaneously twisted my leg, knocked the breath out of lungs, and bit my tongue. I remember being very uncomfortable to say the least, but the memory of the actual level of pain is lost. Scientists say this is a survival mechanism. If we didn’t forget pain like this, mankind would never evolve. We’d never risk another injury. We would shelter ourselves and become like our rotund ancestors portrayed in “Wall*E!” Certainly, there would never be a second child born in a family!

So the brain cherishes those embarrassing, ego-diminishing, pride-squelching mistakes. I’ve got about a million of them, and I’m sure you have one or two you wish your brain would let go of, and just get off your back, for chrissakes!!! OH! and the best (i.e. worst) of these mistakes seem to happen in front of a lot of people! It’s practically a rule…and justifies why public speaking is the most prevalent terror of the human race!

So, the classic memory my brain just loves is the time I made bouillabaisse for my friends. If you’ve never had bouillabaisse, make it, order it, somehow get it! Do NOT leave this life without tasting bouillabaisse, at least once. I promise you will not be sorry. Bouillabaisse is a fish stew, native to Marseille, France. It is a luscious mix of fish, crustaceans, leeks, broth, tomato, and spices. The French say that one cannot make a true bouillabaisse without a certain Mediterranean fish, but they are full of it, and this stance just makes them so….FRENCH! No, just make sure that the fish and herbs are fresh. There are tons of recipes out there that are just as good as mine, so I will let you explore. Just whatever you do…don’t do what I did!

The sad thing is that I had made bouillabaisse a number of times before this. In my first year out of college I lived in D.C. which had a number of very good fish markets, so I always made bouillabaisse when guests visited. When I moved to Boston and got settled I decided to make it for everyone I knew here. EV-ER-Y one (as in: every person I knew!) Dinner was: bouillabaisse, bread, salad, and wine. Because I had thirteen people coming, I needed to dig out the biggest pot I  had, which I decided, was my lobster pot. [Here, experienced cooks will cringe. That’s OK. We grow from our mistakes, and up to this point I hadn’t made this particular one.] Throwing all the delicious ingredients in, I set the bouillabaisse to boil. After 15 minutes it wasn’t boiling, so I did what came natural…I cranked up the heat. [It’s OK, I cringe here too. My brain actually insists on it!] An hour later I had yet to get a boil on the bouillabaisse, so I was like “What is the DEAL?!!!” Then I taste it. Yep, the yummy treat I had made a number of times before, tasted just like liquid cigarette ash!!!

What I did not know at that time, is that lobster pots are made to boil water and only water! They do not conduct heat well enough to cook soup. The soup had been cooking, but only at the bottom of the pot. Of course, as soon as I discover my error is when people started showing up! Despite the torture it gives me, my brain has one saving grace: a quiet resolution to fate. So, I suck it up and confess my error to my friends and we have this little back and forth:

Me: “Well, I always suspected this day might come. I’ve screwed up totally. Dinner is ruined and I think we should send out for pizza”

Friends: “Oh, you’re being ridiculous! You’ve made many meals for us and you are always far too critical. I’m sure it is just fine.”

Me: “Really, folks! This is a total disaster. This bouillabaisse just cannot be eaten!”

Friends: “Just stop! You are being silly”

So the other trait my brain has, is its mischievous side. Given no option, there was nothing to do but serve up the dinner! I confess I did actually enjoy watching my friends taste the most terrible thing possible with them trying to make-believe that it was just fine. And then we sent out for pizza!

So, all was not lost. We had a great time (mostly at my expense.) We now have friend-code we can use: “Don’t pull a bouillabaisse” has meaning. They could just as easily say “Don’t pull a Steve” but they are very kind people and understand that our creations are made better from our mistakes. I think every mistake I’ve made in cooking has contributed to my being a more successful cook. The trick is to rememb….

Hey! Waitaminute!!!…maybe these memories my brain won’t let go of have a purpose after all! Maybe now I can finally stop praying for early dementia!

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