September 30, 2007

rice can bubble, too

Just as not every French likes wine (or do they?), not all Japanese like Japanese "rice wine" or sake. At least I don't. It's customary in Japan to have a bit of sake as a part of New Year's celebration (often children as well), which would always be one of a few things that spoiled my otherwise fun New Year's break as a kid. I can quite happily spend the rest of my life without its help (not even in cooking, in which case I just use white wine).

Then, recently I read somewhere that they now have "sparkling sake" as an up and coming item especially among young women (yes, like myself!) who usually steer clear of sake; now produced and sold by an increaseing number of sake brewaries, sparkling sake is fast finding its way in restaurant and household tables, the article read... hm, not my home, I thought, not yet.

So I grabbed a couple of bottles of different brands a few days later, and just opened one this evening... and I must say I quite enjoyed it, even if it still had that distinctive smell of sake which put me off when I opened the bottle. Definitely sweeter, lighter and fruitier than regular sake, it was quite refreshing and almost too easy to drink... it went down quite quickly among three of us.

Not quite like champagne as the manufacturers advertise, and would perhaps be a bit too sweet to be served along with a meal to my taste, but some other brands are supposed to be drier, so I should try them one of these days while watching if they make it to become a staple at liquor shops and restaurants, or just flat out after a while like so many other things in Japan that come and go in a matter of months, if not weeks. At least, flatly speaking, it tasted way better than a Japanese sparkling wine (which is rare) I tried the other day, which was basically best forgotten. Can't possibly beat champagnes, but at least we can make something decent that bubbles other than beers....

September 8, 2007

herbs of summer

After the herbs of summer have gone. Well almost...

As I ponder now that September's slightly cooler air has brought back my ability to use my brain, I can't quite think of any summer that I ever had that I so wished to be over as hard, as badly, as desperately as I did this summer. It has been a long, rough month this past August; I've always positively disliked lousy Tokyo summer, yet this was beyond tolerance. Nights were too muggy to sleep through, and days were too sultry to sit up and do anything. I felt as if I couldn't breathe. I felt ill when I wasn't. I couldn't think properly, and the only thing that occupied my head was the dreadful yearning for the end of the summer - the sooner the better.

And I am well aware that some people may have been having a worse summer elsewhere in the world, and probably one of the shabbiest would be these past July and August that the Brits had. I'd talk to friends in London, and while I was complaining about the harsh sun and heat over here, that was exactly what they were longing for, with record rain hit all over the place during what was supposed to be a summer, in the country where they never have a real "long" summer anyways. Blow that heat and sun along this way, they would say, and I couldn't wish more to do so in return for their cooler air (okay, maybe not all that rain).

While I didn't have a chance to have a taste of that lovely English summer, I did have a little taste of lovely English summer, through some vibrant herby delectables created in England, recreated here in Tokyo at the height of summer, a real summer.

Goat's Cheese And Lemon Thyme Souffle (recipe here), which was exactly what the name suggests. A simple mixture of fresh goat's cheese, fresh lemon thyme, cream and eggs (and a bit of Parmesan) baked in the oven made this simple yet stylish starter - or so they are meant to be. I had it as a light lunch, and it was more filling than it may look - perhaps thanks to the richness of cheese and cream, and of course, eggs. No lemon is used here, but the hefty handful of fresh lemony herb was substantial enough to fill the air with a scent of lemon while cooking - a pleasure before the first bite.

And just as light in texture and rich in taste was this Mint Ice Cream (recipe here). The pretty mint green color here did come from fresh mint, a lot of it, and nothing else. It's a real (vanilla) ice cream with real mint, it can't be any simpler. And what's even better is that it is not complicated to make, although it does require a bit of extra steps, which I thought was totally worth it.

Now I had another recipe for "real" mint ice cream that I was going to try, which basically makes a regular vanilla ice cream with added fresh mint leaves, finely chopped along with the cream and mint in a food processor. Here in this recipe, the idea is basically the same, but you blanch your leaves first - this extra step works to brighten the vibrant color of the leaves, and also remove the intense bitterness of the fresh herb, which I sometimes find too strong. You are also told to refrain from chucking away the mint stems after you've picked the leaves off - you instead tip them into a saucepan along with sugar and water to make mint-infused syrup to add to the cream base.

I found myself being compulsive enough to serve the ice cream with a drizzle of melted dark chocolate or even cacao nibs, both of which naturally went extremely well with the mint goody, obviously, but the ice cream tasted simply amazing as is. I'm not into making home-made ice cream as much as I wish, mainly due to the lack of an ice-cream maker in hand, but this ice cream I found was mind-blowing and totally addictive. A real tang of fresh mint gives a character to a plain ice cream that would taste already good without any added flavor, and it couldn't be any more different from those mass-produced stuff sold under the same name.

The recipe does require a heap of fresh mint, so if you happen to have it growing out of control in your kitchen garden or backyard (which I don't), this is what you might want to turn it to. If you won't, FedEx a bagful overnight to me - I know I'll use it up! And oh, in the case of basil that you have around, the zingy basil lemonade that I made earlier this summer - along with the classic pesto genovese, that should be one of the greatest ways to help tame a thick growth of basil.

These two, along with several more herb-stubbed summery dishes like Fritto Misto Of Herbs With Anchovy, Mint And Basil Dressing and Fillet of Beef with Salsa Verde, Deep-fried Globe Artichokes and Rocket, appeared in August 2007 issue of Waitrose Food Illustrated, that featured herb-themed recipes and essay by Skye Gyngell, accomplished head chef at the idyllic Petersham Nurseries Cafe. Sitting just off Richmond Park, a stone's throw away from the River Thames, this place could now be London's best-known hideaway spot - it's a garden center in itself, but its two eateries, a friendly Teahouse and a cozy Cafe (which really is a restaurant), are apparently what makes this spot a popular destination for food-loving Londoners, tourists and the likes.

I was lucky to pop in for a tea or a lunch a few times while I was in London earlier this year, a, and as much as their food was stylishly presented, the whole place was utterly photogenic - from plants and flowers to tableware and garden tools , even spades and hoes! -, everything was placed so picture-perfect we couldn't help but keep clicking away (God Bless digital cameras...) in every direction. So it's a little shame that I haven't gotten around to sharing them on this blog, but there's a set of photos from one of my visits there, if you haven't seen them and are up for them:here (to launch slideshow). Certainly not from a day when the Petersham looked at its best, but it was in the middle of dull and wet London winter - it still looked fabulous, and we can easily imagine how radiant it must look on nicer days.

Never made it here, either, but I have also tried about a dozen recipes from the chef Skye Gyngell's book, A Year in My Kitchen (Quadrille Publishing, 2006), about which I'm hoping to do a post here sometime not too distant future (and yes, I know just how much has been left pending around here...).