too lazy to post, but i've been making bentos semi-regularly. click the photo for a link to my flickr account, which i've been updating with new photos:


a placeholder until i start blogging again for REALS

so lots of changes since i last posted in april. goddamn, it's been nearly a year! since then, i've graduated college, found a new apt, a new boyfriend, and a new job. also, i've started eating meat again (after 8 years of being a pescatarian).

i'm trying to figure out what direction to take this blog. i considered writing about new discoveries in meat-eating and preparing, but that seems like too big a project to deal with right now (altho one day i SWEAR i will learn how to properly pan-sear a new york strip!) instead, i've resolved to make my lunch everyday (or as often as possible) and practice the art of packing a satisfying, nutritionally balanced bento. eventually, i'd like to work on my style and make something sickeningly cute like this:
insane hello kitty bento
photo from fashionablycute.com
meh... sating of appetites first! aesthetic appeal... later.

anyways, this is the adorable bento kit i'm working with (purchased at mitsuwa for something liek $20). i have other bentos, but this is my favorite in terms of functionality (it's got tons of dividers and is much better sealed than my simpler bentos)
bento bag
bento box

these are the lunches that i've packed so far:

mini meatballs with tonkatsu sauce
broccoli dressed with soy sauce and sesame oil
fried rice with peas
daikon pickles

omg, took me FOREVER that one night to roll something like 80 mini meatballs out of 2 lbs of ground beef + pork + herbs + breadcrumbs. now i just have to do something about the 50 or so ones left in my freezer. help me.

"nicoise" style tuna salad sandwich (with capers & sliced hardboiled egg)
spinach with sesame dressing
blueberries & tomato wedges

this was not a particularly successful lunch. the tuna was okay, but tasted a little too fishy. also, half a sandwich does not a full grown adult feed. on top of that, my spinach spoiled. dnno why, but when i tried it, it tasted like... dishwashing soap. i can only suspect that maybe the high iron content reacted with the dressing? (tho the leftover dressed spinach in my fridge was fine)

i should point out that i pack my lunches at night, leave them on the counter overnight and then let them sit on my desk all morning the day after = about 16 hours of unrefrigerated bacteria party time. i keep them out of the fridge mostly because i don't want to refrigerate the rice that i usually pack. sometimes i refrigerate parts of my bento overnight (when i pack silken tofu in the top tier), or wait until morning to pack more perishable parts (like tomato wedges or stuff with mayo in it). sigh, planning for temperature changes, moisture levels and spoilage rates is HARD.

moving along...

gyuudon with curry pickles
broccoli, carrot sticks, tomato slices, blueberries

this lunch was a lot more hearty, but i need to work on my seasonings. i packed the beef at night, and by lunchtime, it was a little dry and bland. in the future i'll reserve some of the sauce/juices in one of my mini condiment bottles.

hmmm, i also just noticed that i need to work on my photography. the yellowness of my work desk is really interfering with the light adjustment. i'll have to put down a white place setting or something...

...more to come soon!



note: sorry for the bad, blurry photos in this post. i make do with a simple canon sd10 that i inherited from a friend.

煎餅(せんべい, senbei) are japanese rice crackers that are traditionally flavored with a soy sauce-mirin glaze. they are undoubtedly delicious and their addictive crunch is unparalleled. i can (and do) easily go through not one, but several packs in one sitting. there have been instances where i've eaten them to the point where my tongue numbs over from the sodium content.

so yeah, they're pretty damn good. every now and again, i get incredible cravings for them. they range anywhere from salty-sweet to spicy and crispy-flakey to a hard crunch. last week's paper-writing provided a particularly good opportunity to munch on senbei, and i worked my way through 5 packs, of which i have reviewed below:

kameda brand "kare-sen" (curry flavored senbei)

very light and crisp texture, but of the styrofoam-like variety (potato starch is added to the mochi rice). mild curry flavor and not spicy at all. nor salty enough to bring out the richness of the curry. of course freshness is key to any good rice cracker, and here, the product’s shortcomings is probably due the local jas-mart’s (under new management) poor stock maintenance.

kameda brand "soft salad" (salad flavored? senbei)

again, i don't really care for styrofoam-type crackers. however, they tend to have greater variety in terms of flavors (whereas traditional rice ones rarely deviate from the shoyu-mirin combo). nevertheless, these were also disappointing: very little flavor of any sort, reminiscent of popcorn...

kameda brand "onidaiko tamari aji senbei" ("devil's drum" senbei)

these are an oversized version of classic round senbei. these crackers were rather hard and really gave the jaws a workout. the flavor was salty and lightly sweet, but i would've preferred it to have a bit of heat (the angry sumo head would probably agree with me).

masuya brand "onigiri senbei" (riceball crackers)

these were pretty standard senbei, although the riceball shape and mascot were a cute touch. taste-wise, a nice tangy soy sauce & mirin combo with nori confetti to amp up the umami.

toko brand "friendly pack" (a gregarious collection of tiny crackers)

not really senbei proper, this "party mix" type has an assortment of mini-crackers, coated peanuts and peas. i was surprised by how fresh this package was. though we are talking about MSG-laden snacks, it seems to me that this product tasted brighter and bolder than most of the other bags i worked through. the crunch was crisper than that of the others'. the peanuts were especially fresh and their sweetness complimented the spiciness of the half-moon crackers.

toko brand "mamegashi" (coated peanuts & peas)

further deviating from the subject of senbei are coated peanuts (don't really know the correct term here, they’re usually called “mame”-something). my love for these snacks rivals that of my love for senbei. whereas peanuts are a pretty boring snack for most of the world, the japanese have given the lowly peanut new life by dressing it up in different flavors. my favorites in this mix are the yellow ones (curry flavored) and the red ones flecked with nori (spicy squid flavored, i think). there's just so much variety to be had! and yet, each piece has a shelled peanut in the middle, whose nutty sweetness is the perfect accompaniment to its salty, crunchy exterior.

kameda brand "ume no kaori maki" (ume-plum flavored senbei with nori)

my favorite flavor in the senbei family. mostly b/c I ADORE EVERYTHING AND ANYTHING UME. ume is the greatest: it's salty, sour, sweet and umami-y all at the same time (maybe even a little spicy?). i went through these the quickest (you can see there are very few crackers left in the package). the nori was stale though.

toko brand "shisomaki noritsuki" (shiso (beefsteak plant) flavored senbei with nori)

shiso is used to make umeboshi (pickled ume), so i suppose that's why this product tastes almost exactly like the ume flavored crackers above. i liked these better since the nori was crisper and the ume flavor was stronger. both products boast real ume flesh in their list of ingredients, but these crackers simply tasted better. also, plus points for not packaging crackers individually (a wholly unnecessary and wasteful practice)

glico brand "pretz - salad flavor" (pocky’s savory brother)

also not a type of senbei, but they're sort of in the same family of snacks. pretz are buttery little sticks that are made to resemble western crackers in taste and texture. the classic "salad" flavor is my favorite, though in china, i was able to taste other varieties like curry, roasted corn, pizza and butter. though they don’t taste like salad per se, their inexplicably rich taste is addictive. pretz are a testament to the great things that the japanese can do with a little ingenuity helped along by a little MSG.


adventures with ruth reichl, my personal lord and savior

photo from booksamillion.com

i've been trying to cook my way through ruth reichl's memoirs. though i am more fond of her earlier works that document her gloriously capricious youth, i've been paying particular interest to garlic & sapphires in the interest of writing a paper for my silly little sociology class.

the recipes in her books are straightforward and less time consuming than most of the recipes i've come across in her magazine (yes, her magazine). in an earlier post, i put up a photo of fairly successful gougères:

having never had gougères at a restaurant proper, i have no idea what to expect. still, i was quite happy with my own version of them. i cut the little cubes of gruyère a little too large and the dough fell away from the cheese, creating large pockets of air inside. as a result, they were a little crisper round the edges rather than soft, foofy puffs.

i have to say, the smell of the baking gruyère really stank up my kitchen. surprisingly, this funk was not at all present in the gougères themselves. all in all, pretty tasty, if not slightly on the salty side (prob due to the brand of cheese used). the security guard in my building really liked them. i've been bringing him food every now and then and he lets me into the building without having to swipe my columbia card.

moving beyond gougères...

one sunny monday so long ago (seriously, new york weather has been simply tragic of late), i cooked myself a little ruth reichl dinner of crab cakes and primavera risotto.

i think i used the wrong kind of crab cuz my crab cakes came out more starchy than meaty. last time i was at zabar's, i bought a couple cans of roland white crab meat, but the stuff inside was just tiny little shreds of crabmeat sitting in crab juice. i don't know where reichl expects anyone to buy canned lump crabmeat. maybe that super gourmet cat food maker supplies that sort of thing.

images from the internets

other than that, the recipe was really simple, adding bulk to the crabmeat with bits of torn white bread and spiced mostly with paprika. i used panko (japanese bread crumbs) instead of regular breadcrumbs cuz i like crunchy bits and also cuz i have a ton of panko left (i should really deep fry more often).

they came out quite tasty. as did the risotto, which was lovingly, lovingly stirred for a full 40 minutes. i tried to tie together the flavors/not waste available resources by using the leftover/squeezed out crab juice (nearly a full cup's worth) to the risotto. i could barely taste the crab broth in the risotto, but this was due to the fact that salty, MSG-powered bouillon cubes kill all other flavors. man, i really gotta learn to how to make stock.

since the recipe had a fairly high yield, and since i was cooking for one, there was the problem of leftovers. for the entire week, i ate asparagus-dotted risotto and suffered through that asparagus-induced funny-smelling pee phenomenon.

risotto doesn't reheat well (rather, i don't know how to do it), so i shaped the cold, sticky risotto into little cakes and cooked them in a pan. this was somewhat time consuming since i couldn't get the cakes to crisp up. even when i tried using extra oil, the rice just wasn't dry enough to form a substantial crust. still, lightly frying the cakes gave it an earthy, caramelized aroma while keeping the risotto rice tender:

i felt kind of bad serving these to my friday night potluck people, because i was trying to get rid of the risotto by that point. they liked them alright, but i was a little sheepish to serve it seeing as i took no joy in eating it myself.

i also considered making balls of risotto and then deep-frying them, but i've been getting fluffy round the middle and thus, am avoiding fatty starchy things (though i love them so).

i quickly broke this rule just days later at the ghetto mart (c-town) and noticed that cream cheese was on sale. i bought 2 packages, remembering there was a recipe for new york style cheesecake in reichl's book.

her cheesecake, modified from a recipe for lindy's famous cheesecake, is just a little unusual and not too heavy (though the ingredient list would have you think otherwise).

the crust consisted of fine graham cracker crumbs and an entire stick of butter, melted. i tossed in about a 1/3 cup of chopped toasted pecans to the mix, thinking the nuts would add texture and richness to the crust. while this seemed like a good idea at the time, i would not recommend making a nutty crust for cheesecake. for fruit crisps and pies, yes, but not for something so delicate in flavor like cheesecake.

the cheesecake portion required all of 3 packages (1.5 pounds) of cream cheese. i only had the two on hand and thought that 3 would be overdoing it, so i just went with what i had. someday, i'll have to make this recipe again at full cream cheese power, though 2 packages turned out a fine cheesecake of respectable density.

the best part of reichl's cheesecake was the layer of sweetened sour cream that formed the last layer of the cake. 16 oz of sour cream with tbsp of sugar, poured on top and baked until set. having never seen a cheesecake paired with sour cream, i was a little skeptical, but the mild sourness really bolstered the flavor of the lemon zest and the silky texture was a nice, moist contrast to the drier cakey layer.

the recipe says that the cheesecake should be chilled at least 8 hours. i've found that the cheesecake needs a full day of sitting in the fridge to really develop its flavors. at the very least, time mellowed out the toasted pecans in the crust so they weren't overwhelming.

cheesecake is not at the top of my list for favorite sweets, but i was proud to serve this rather impressive (if not delightfully lemony) version of the new york classic.


memories from my freezer

i'm trying to set a good example for my suitemates by doing my part to clear out our overstocked freezer. for several months now, it's been impossible to get anything out of the freezer without rearranging everything inside. we've also learned how to best position ourselves to avoid falling hunks of frozen meat.

for tonight's dinner, i finally extracted the vegetarian chili i made in january. yes, JANUARY.

mostly, i followed the recipe for black bean chili in the Gourmet cookbook. unfortunately, at that time in my life, i had not yet discovered where to purchase chipotle peppers in adobo. ah... the naivety of youth. i vaguely remember nearly burning the toasted paprika and stirring the pot for ages. it came out quite well, though not as superflavorful as the stuff you can make with instant packets. i could never figure out how they got those envelopes of taco spice to be so potently pungent.

so 3 months later, i've confirmed that chili is yet another food that can keep well in the freezer. especially when you reheat it and spruce it up with meat/protein (veggie burger in my case) and some sort of cheese (nearly inedible shredded cheese product in my case). i ate it soup-style with a bit of leftover baguette from the fancy dinner i made for jack (this update coming soon).

so many memories came to me while i defrosted, reheated, and plated the chili. i thought about what the weather was like when i first made this chili. i thought about who i wanted to eat it with and who i wanted to save some for. it had been a very special chili. a chili that required lots of prep. i even bought a green pepper for the occasion. i really don't like green peppers. that may have been the only green pepper i have ever purchased in my entire life.

so much has happened since i last ate this chili. so many people in and out of my life. so many lessons learned and bad habits still uncorrected. such are my musings on leftovers.

i feel uncomfortably gassy.


my snacks

i've gotten into the expensive habit of having afternoon snacks. while i have been known to get sudden "pregnant woman" cravings (one time, i wanted to eat an entire pie from the middle with a spoon), i usually don't have much of a sweet tooth. i am, however, a sucker for carbs in all their glorious forms.

lately, i've been popping into bakeries between running errands. i figure my body deserves a little something to keep up its energy. if i'm willing to make the 10 block trek, my dessert dealer of choice is silver moon bakery. their decor is delightful, their baked goods are consistently tasty (though a little overpriced), and the staff is cheerful (though they could stand to give you a few minutes to decide between the 724809278348 choices available). i can still remember the taste of the juicy raspberry tart i had there last year. i can't wait for fresh fruit to be in season again.

unfortunately, the lemon tart (4.50?) i had there some time ago was tough and unpleasant. the crust was very hard and the plastic fork they gave me could barely pierce the armor-like shell. lemon curd is difficult to get right and this one was too eggy and too acidic, making for an unsavory sensation in your mouth. even the blackberry was shockingly sour:

last saturday was saint patrick's day, and i was in the grand central area, distributing brochures for columbia japan society's matsuri. i traveled further north and east, into the "turtle bay" neighborhood. it was there that i was bombarded by masses of out-of-towners, decked in green and laden with beads, stupid hats, and obnoxious novelty sunglasses. they were everywhere: pouring out of taxis, tripping over the piled up snow, screaming from bar balconies. manhattan had turned into a big drunken high school sleepover and everyone was invited.

during my wanderings, i found buttercup bake shop, magnolia bakery's arch-rival. now i really don't get why specialty cupcakes have become such a big deal, but i do admire their clever marketing strategy. it's brilliant, creating an adult/luxury version of happy childhood treats that they can sell at $24 per dozen.

i chose to bypass the rows of cupcakes slathered with green, paint-like frosting and went for a slice of red velvet cake (another inexplicably widespread cake fad):

my slice (4.95) was ridiculously large since it was left over from the previous cake rather than cut from the one on display. my first bite was nondescript, but as i chewed, i found the cake to be very moist and rich, with a lightly sweetened (though otherwise heavy) cream cheese icing. i was surprised that the cake did have a distinctive flavor of its own, a hint of dark cocoa against all that dense, buttery comfort.

the cake was good, but the massive slice was simply too much for one person to handle. i made it through maybe 2 of the 3 layers before i gave up and reluctantly tossed the rest. maybe i will go for a cupcake next time.

this past week, i've been frequenting the local french joint, le monde. moderately priced, but still out of the range of most collegiates, the bistro is known for classic, though unremarkable, french fare. however, after reading in our campus paper that the chef de cuisine used to be a champion patisserier, i was convinced i needed to sample all those gleaming confections in their pastry case.

on wednesday, i had an intense craving for macaroons. real macaroons, not those silly mounds of coconut that come in cans during passover. i couldn't think of anywhere around campus that would have them and i wasn't too keen on making a special trip all the way to columbus circle just for a bag of bouchon's. i walked into le monde and sure enough, they had a few pastel-colored macaroons on display, next to a row of similarly pastel éclairs.

i bought one of every flavor: strawberry, vanilla, pistachio, chocolate and lemon (not pictured). they were small, not quite 2 inches in diameter and sold six for $5. the adorable korean girl behind the counter was really nice and threw in an extra macaroon for me.

the strawberry and pistachio ones were my favorites. the lemon one was kinda weird. i may try to make my own sometime though they're quite difficult to master. i've also not had a good relationship with egg whites in my past. heavy cream and i get along fine, but eggs are rather tricky. i learned that the hard way when i was trying to make madelines and they came out with hard little clumps of flour baked in.

yesterday, i made another le monde trip to tide me over between proper meals. the weather was nice so i didn't wanna coop up in the library but it was also too cold out to wander ‘round the city. thus, i gathered my books and had myself a little snack & study session at le monde. the hostess was reluctant to give me one of the prized window tables, but couldn't really refuse me as it was only 4 pm. i ordered a pain chocolat (3) and cafe au lait (3.50) and started reading. service was kinda off since my waiter didn't bring any water until asked and never bothered to remove the menus. he also asked if i wanted any sugar even though it was already at the table.

i finished the croissant in just a few bites (flakey, buttery, but cold and a little dense). several pages later, i was in need of more sustenance, so i foolishly ordered their gigantic napoleon (5):

the marbled icing was a little on the sweet side (i prefer my treats very faintly sweet). the pastry layers were a little tough and i struggled to cut them with my fork, but that's to be expected of a mille feuille that isn't assembled to order. the pastry cream was heavenly: light yet custardy, gently sweetened, and not too eggy. i couldn’t finish the whole thing right then, but now i crave more. i was surprised at how big this thing was, considering the rest of le monde's pastries came straight from munchkin land: baby fruit tarts, mini-éclairs, not even the madelines were full-sized.

...and then later that evening, i made gougères for the first time! (yes, i'm tacking the photo onto this post cause i can't be bothered to do a write up for it)


baking. a japanese tradition.

over spring break, i spent my days a-cookin’. at the end of the tragically short week, i decided to make something very labor/time-intensive. i baked an pan. no, that wasn't a typo. an pan (あんぱん) is a very popular asian bread that is filled with sweet azuki bean jam. also, it is what this guy's head is made of:

it being spring break and all, i went all-out hardcore and dug up a recipe off e-recipe.org. in JAPANESE. i then spent nearly an hour meticulously translating the 17-step recipe:

though the recipe wasn't quite as tedious as it looks, it provided way too much info about the basics of bread-making, which just aren't all that fascinating for someone who's baked before and wants to plow through the prep. still, practicing my rusty japanese was quite fun and i discovered interesting little tidbits like the characters for "bread flour" (強力粉) literally translate as "strong flour."

on that note, the recipe called for a little too much "strong flour" and really should've used a mix of regular and bread flours. the end product was a little too chewy and dense for a light snack-type bread.

not to go too much into the tedious recipe (which was further complicated by the metric measuring system), but the ingredients consisted simply of bread flour, sugar, salt, egg, dry yeast, warm water and butter. prep was pretty standard: mix, knead, 1st rising. de-gas, shape, 2nd rising. fill, shape, proof & bake.

the filling was something of my own concoction since i was too cheap to buy canned anko. i've also been told a few unnecessarily gruesome stories about the unsanitary conditions at anko factories, so that justified my purchasing of a $2 bag of beans rather than a $5 can of them in mashed, sugared form. my own version of anko took nearly 4 hours of boiling:

it was quite tasty and pleasantly sweet, but i foolishly decided to forgo the addition of any fats. later, i would discover that my attempt to be health-conscious resulted in a crumbly (rather than creamy) filling that just wasn't sweet enough (despite several tastings and countless heaping spoonfuls of sugar). i've now learned my lesson and will respect the full fat and sugar content of future pastry-making endeavors.

shaping and baking went pretty well. only 3 or so of my an pan buns leaked their fillings! ...out of 12. still, they're quite beautiful, non? a very lovely breakfast when toasted and served with a side of lightly sugared strawberries:


making pasta II

the january issue of bon appetit had a feature on the "top trends of 2006." they named gnudi as the “dish of the year”. gnudi, meaning nude, is most often described as a "naked ravioli." consisting of ricotta and flour held together by egg, it's as fluffy and cheesy as gnocchi could ever dream to be.

bon appetit's gnudi recipe was delightfully easy, but required a lot of wait time (maximize your time: prepare this while you’re busy with something else. i made it while baking an pan):

1) drain 1 cup fresh ricotta over paper towels for half an hour
2) beat 1 egg and mix with 1/3 cup pecorino romano, 1/2 tsp salt, and a bit of white pepper as you see fit (i used black)
3) mix in ricotta
4) sprinkle 3/4 cup flour and gently combine
5) cover & chill for 1 hour
6) roll 1 tsp of gnudi dough into a ball, toss with flour to coat and shape (i made mine to look like deceptively like gnocchi)
7) cover with plastic wrap until ready to cook

to cook, simply throw the gnudi in lots of boiling water seasoned with salt. the recipe said to boil it about 8 minutes, but i found that to be too long. pasta's ready once it floats. i think just 4 minutes does the trick. it's fully cooked through by then.

gnudi is pretty flavorful just on its own, so you don't need heavy sauces. still, it pairs just fine with a little canned marinara:

three days later (today), i cooked up the last bit of gnudi. having not gone grocery shopping for some time, i was at a loss for how to serve it. i wanted some protein, so i started frying some crumbled veggie burger. in another pan, i attempted to make a brown butter sauce. i melted a big pat of butter, waiting for it to stop bubbling and caramelize. unfortunately, i was hungry and didn't have the patience to let it brown properly. for flavoring, i added minced garlic, then some lemon juice to slow the cooking, and stirred in chopped parsley and basil to finish. finally, i tossed the gnudi and veggie burger in the butter to coat. it was very tasty and not at all greasy.