May 24, 2005

a short break

I have brought myself far away from home and now in the old world. I shall come back to Japan and normal blogging days in early June; I hope everyone is having a good time and see you in a while. Thanks!

May 15, 2005

different looks, same tastes

It's been quite cold for May over this past week, and it was this one week that Japan's Haagen-Dazs did a one-week only event called Haagen-Dazs Premier Lounge in Tokyo, in which they opened a small cafe and served special ice-cream platters exclusive to this event. My friend Namiko and I went and checked it out on one cold day.

It was a weekday afternoon but the place was full. We didn't have to wait too long though and got seated in a matter of ten minutes or so. They've got a menu featuring ice-cream sets inspired by several different countries' cuisines such as Italy, France, Argentine, etc. I had already known what I was going to have and I followed it through.

This was the set called Wa la carte - in Japanese wa often refers to Japan or something Japanese. As its name suggests - and as you can guess from the picture - it was a Japan-themed set. Here it went:

First plate: thin-wafer sandwiches filled with matcha (green tea) and adzuki (red bean) ice-cream, or monaka. Monaka is a very traditional Japanese sweet which is most often filled with sweet bean curd, but ice-cream monaka has been pretty common for the last couple of decades at least.

Second plate: vanilla ice-cream sushi roll "wrapped" with black sesame seeds and "filled" with frozen strawberry, served with "gari ginger" made of raspberry jelly; and yatsuhashi filled with matcha and adzuki ice-cream. Yatsuhashi is cinnamon-flavored thin mochi sheets filled with, again, sweet bean curd (oh it's everywhere in Japanese sweets, give me a break!), and is a very popular Kyoto sweet.

Third plate: sweet beans with small mochi balls and sweetened chestnut; and green tea cake filled with whipped cream, along with a long pretzel. This plate doesn't involve ice-cream, but just a little of nice Japanese-y sweets.

And a cup of real matcha green tea. You may notice a difference from thinner ryoku-cha green tea that I wrote about a while ago. This is a traditional way to serve matcha tea, in which a small amount of strong (unsweetened) ultra-thick tea is served in a large bowl. It was a small but nice cup of sips that helped me take a break from intensive waves of sweet and cold treats.

All in all, there was nothing really new about this limited-edition cafe, in terms of the flavors ice-cream they served there; there was no limited-version flavor exclusive to this event, but it was more a matter of how they present it, whether it be by serving it in a Japanese-style set of dishes or in cream puffs (like the one my friend had, which you can see in the first picture). It was nice though, I wish they do this more often and for a longer period of times - and hopefully in the warmer weather (sneeze, sneeze).

May 8, 2005

every rule has an exception, seemingly

Another strawberry dessert, another red wine reduction. This is called strawberries in spiced syrup, and that's basically what it is. Spices involved here include saffron, cinnamon, vanilla, and black pepper - what caught my eye in this recipe was saffron because, of course, I have quite a few strands of saffron from my recent purchase -, and all are blended into red wine along with sugar and zest of orange. Another fool-proof easy-peasy recipe. But I was a bit nervous.

Maybe not that nervous, but I did feel ambivalent. Put simply, I don't care for cooked strawberries. I am positively bitter about the prevalence of strawberry jams/preserves in this world. As far as I am concerned, English scones may possibly be the only acceptable use for strawberry jam; but even there, I'd choose another kind such as raspberry whenever I have an option.

Even so, I did cook my strawberries in the wine for five minutes over high heat, following the instructions.

Cooled and then chilled in the further-reduced wine syrup, my strawberries were served with ice-cream, as suggested in the recipe. What I found was - well, this could be an exception... they tasted okay. Not bad at all. Quite dainty, actually. Probably thanks to the spiced wine, the berries didn't really have that peculiar taste of cooked strawberries (if you know what I mean), and went particularly well with the vanilla ice-cream.

This time saffron wasn't really pronounced in the presence of a stronger spices namely cinnamon. I wouldn't mind making this again though, while the strawberry season lasts. (Actually, I am set to try a couple other strawberry recipes in this season. Busy!)

May 5, 2005

know you're there, but don't know who you are

When I first came to know of dessert using strawberry with vinegar years ago, I was stunned. Horrified. Petrified. Strawberry in vinegar, no way, I thought. The dessert I saw in a magazine was ice-cream with strawberries marinated in balsamic vinegar, and at that time I had never tasted balsamic vinegar, which wasn't common at all in Japan back in the day. It said balsamic vinegar isn't same as more "regular" vinegars we'd use, like rice or even apple vinegar but more fragrant and mellow kind. I couldn't help but wishing to try one, which I subsequently did.

Years after, I became a regular user of balsamic vinegar, mostly for cooking but sometimes in dessert as well. The easiest one was of course strawberries marinated in balsamic vinegar, but sometimes I'd boil down the vinegar and pour over ice-cream, a lot of times cherry or strawberry one. Balsamic vinegar is acid because it's vinegar after all, but when combined with fruits it seems to make a background flavor that enhances natural sweetness of the fruits.

I hadn't had any of such dessert for a while until recently when I had a pastry roll with freeze-dried strawberries, filled with custard flavored with balsamic vinegar. The bread was just okay, but it was good enough to make me feel like whipping up some dessert using the pair on my own.

And I brought myself to try and make strawberry mousse with balsamic vinegar. I wanted something very easy to make, and settled down with a recipe like this (in Japanese), one using strawberries, sugar and cream as the core ingredients, but not eggs.

At first I planned to make regular strawberry mousse and serve it with balsamic-marinated berries, but this recipe changed my mind; I decided to add the vinegar to the mousse, too, by marinating the berries before pureeing them.

Very dark, almost sepia-like balsamic vinegar turned the vivid red of strawberry into very dull brownish red, and for a moment I was worried that my mousse would look shabby. When added to the mousse base, to my surprise, the pureed berries tinted the mousse with pretty pink - not a happy bright pink but more subtle, nuanced pink. I liked it.

The mousse was extremely mellow and didn't quite taste of balsamic vinegar. You can tell there's something added to it, but might not figure it out. I served the mousse with diced strawberries tossed with balsamic vinegar on top, which added a more obvious balsamic flavor to the mousse and gave it a kick. I liked the mousse as it was, but I loved it with fresh berries and the little extra balsamic taste.

May 3, 2005

small universes behind the glasses

Last Saturday afternoon for late lunch I opened up my two brand-new grinders of spice mix to grind them over a simple plate of vegetables. The spices were Elements of Spice by the Cape Herb & Spice Company and the vegetables were roasted potato wedges and green salad.

Potatoes were oven-roasted with a drizzle of olive oil and a generous dose of Grains of Desire, a slightly hot and vitalizing mix of black peppercorns, red rose petals, grains of paradise, ginseng, orange rind, nutmeg, and cloves and salt, finished up with an extra grind before serving.

The salad had mizuna leaves, myoga, and tomatoes dressed with olive oil, vinegar, and several grinds of refreshing and mellow Splash, consisting of sea salt, parsley, black pepper, coriander, nori, sea lettuce, oregano, basil, onion, garlic, poppy seeds, clelery, bay, chilli, lemon grass, mustard seeds, and herb petals.

When my spices are already blended to perfection, there's little I should add on - prepare my vegetables as simple as possible and let the spices do the trick, allowing their flavors to take center stage on my dish.