Saturday, April 27, 2019

Ready, Set, Infuse - It's Time to Make Homemade Umeshu, Japanese Plum Wine

If you love umeshu, Japanese plum wine, and you want to make your own, the race is on. Ume are only available for three-four weeks in the spring. Right now, in Los Angeles, they are available in Iranian and some Asian markets. Buy your ume right away or you will have to wait another year.

I first learned about umeshu from a supermarket news letter. Marukai, a Japanese market chain, with a store in West Los Angeles on Pico near Bundy, mails a magazine-style newsletter with the store's weekly specials. The opening article each month has an explainer about a particular Japanese food or cooking style.

The article described how to turn ume (Japanese plums) into umeshu (Japanese plum wine). The process was simple. Buy ume, wash them, pull out the little stems, place in a large glass jar, add Japanese rock sugar and a large bottle of vodka, put in a cool dark place and come back in a year.

Now I was on the hunt for ume. I found them at Marukai, at Iranian markets and downtown at a farmers market near the Los Angeles Public Library Main Branch.



Because I had made Limoncello, the idea of waiting a year appealed to me. And the added benefit of putting out very little effort added to what seemed like fun.



When we visited Yabu, our favorite Japanese restaurant, I told the waitstaff that I was going to make umeshu. They loved the idea. It turned out, when they were growing up, umeshu was a liquor made by their grandmothers. Store bought umeshu did not compare to their childhood memories.

They also told me was that after a year bathing in the vodka, the hard green ume would become sweetly edible.



Serving the fruit with the spirit is a nice touch. Kind of an alcoholic fruit punch. 
Umeshu or Japanese Plum Wine
Although frequently called plum wine, ume is actually more of a apricot than a plum and umeshu is a spirit, not a wine. 

Available in Japanese and Korean markets, ume are also sold in Middle Eastern grocery stores. Armenians and Iranians eat the unripened plums raw but do not use them to prepare a liquor. In Asia, ume are also eaten preserved in salt and called umebsoshi in Japan. 
Sold at a premium price because of the short growing season in the spring, only use green, unripe fruit. Blemished ume should not be used.

Available large and small, I prefer ume that are quarter-sized rather than dime-sized.

Some recipes call for each ume to be punctured all over with an ice pick. Doing so, it is said, accelerates the infusion process. That is probably true, but punctured ume discolor and are not good to eat.

Mention umeshu to someone from Japan and invariably they will smile

Traditionally umeshu is made by grandmothers. In the spring when the plums appear in the markets, bright green and hard as rocks, the grandmothers buy up all they can find, place them in a large jar, add rock sugar and shōchū (similar in taste to vodka). The jar is placed under the sink and everyone waits a year until the plums soften and the shōchū has mellowed.

A good friend described visiting her mother in Tokyo and finding a kitchen cabinet filled with giant jars labeled the year the umeshu was bottled. I have to confess, my garage has bottles of umeshu going back five years now. Today I bottled my 2019 vintage!

When you make your umeshu, wait one year. to enjoy it. Once the infusion is ready to serve,  taste and, if the umeshu is too harsh, add a tablespoon of Japanese rock sugar, stir well and wait another month.

The longer you wait, the more the umeshu will become rounded and mellow in flavor.  
After at least a year in their sweetened, alcoholic bath, the ume can be eaten. I like to include them in the cocktail, either whole or cut off the pit, chopped up and added as a flavor garnish that can be eaten with a small spoon.
Prep time: 10 minutes + one year
Yield: 2 quarts umeshu, 2 quarts macerated ume

Ingredients
2 pounds ume, washed, stems removed
1 pound Japanese rock sugar
1.75 l unflavored vodka, the most inexpensive you can find
Directions
1. Place the ume in a large bowl. Cover with water and let stand 2 hours. Drain, rinse and remove by hand any stems. Wash well a gallon glass jar with a lid.
2. Place the ume into the jar.
3. Add the rock sugar.
4. Pour in the vodka. Stir well.
5. Cover.
6. Place in a dark, cool area where the jar will be undisturbed for at least one year.
7. Serve ice cold with ice cubes, with seltzer and with whole or chopped up ume as a garnish.  








Thursday, April 18, 2019

Perfectly Delicious Tea Sandwiches, Ideal for Snacks, Dinner Parties and Picnics on an Airplane

Tea sandwiches aren't just for fancy tea rooms. They are easy-to-make and enjoyable for just about any occasion.  They look elegant, so they enhance a dinner party table. Easy-to-eat, they're ideal for afternoon snacks or picnics.



Usually made with white bread and also called finger sandwiches, the crustless sandwiches have fillings that can feature salmon, beef, tuna, crab, ham, chicken and cucumber. 

Fun to make, delicious to eat

When I'm working at my desk, a plate of tea sandwiches and a cup of hot coffee keep me happy all afternoon.

I have two favorites. One is made with chopped hardboiled eggs mixed together with finely chopped parsley, carrots and capers, flavored with mayonnaise, sea salt and freshly ground back pepper.


The other is as delicious as it is elegantly simple.

Thin radish slices are placed on buttered bread, seasoned with flake salt and freshly ground black pepper. For added flavor, I top the radishes with slices of homemade picked onions. 

On airplanes, I make a picnic lunch to counteract tedium and discomfort. After I'm settled into my too-snug seat,  I look for ways to make the experience more fun. I put on headphones, watch a movie and pamper myself with a meal of tea sandwiches.

No matter the turbulence, the discomfort of sitting too close to a stranger or the lack of leg room, when I'm snacking on my elegant sandwiches, I'm happy.

Quality above all

Tea sandwiches are only as good as the ingredients. 

Ideally the eggs and radishes come from a farmers market or a quality grocery store. Use sweet butter (unsalted), Best Foods/Heilman's Mayonnaise (my preference) and a good quality white bread. Marukai, our local Japanese Market, carries baked goods from MamMoth Bakery.  I use the bakery's thin-sliced white bread. 

Tea sandwiches can be as heavily seasoned as you enjoy, or, like the egg salad and radish sandwiches, lightly seasoned with flake salt (or sea salt) and freshly ground black pepper. 

Pickled Spring Onions

Spring onions are scallions that have matured in the ground and developed a fat bulb.


Thin-sliced pickled spring onions brighten the flavor of the radishes. Prepare them a week before use. Kept refrigerated in a sealed jar, the onions will last for months as their flavor evolves. Besides placing in tea sandwiches, serve the pickled spring onions with seared steak and roast chicken or added to stews.

Only use kosher salt that is additive-free like Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt.

Ingredients

1 bunch spring onions, washed, root ends and discolored leaves removed

2 cups water

2 cups white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns

1/4 - 1/3 cup kosher salt, depending on preference

4 dried bay leaves

Pinch hot pepper flakes (optional)

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Directions

Sterilize a large glass jar by boiling in water or cleaned in dish washer.

Leaving 2" of greens attached to the bulbs, cut off the remaining length. Place the bulbs and all the greens into the jar.

Stir kosher salt into water to dissolve. Mix together with vinegar. Add aromatics and olive oil. Stir well. Since the pickled spring onions will have the same flavor as the brine, taste and adjust seasonings by adding more kosher salt, vinegar or water as desired.

Pour brine into the glass jar. Make more brine if needed to cover the onions. Place into refrigerator for a week before using.

Thin-Sliced Radish and Sweet Butter Tea Sandwiches

These days, there are a great many radish varietals at farmers markets. If you like one of the exotic radishes available, use those. 



For me, a basic red-on-the-outside, white-on-the-inside, fat radish reminds me of the appetizers my dad liked. After a long day at work, he'd settle into his favorite easy chair, sip a Seagram's 7 and 7 and enjoy a pre-dinner plate of appetizers that often included radishes. 


My mom taught me to soak the radishes in clean, cold water for ten minutes. That loosens any dirt so the radishes can be easily cleaned with a damp cloth.


Serve the radishes open faced or sandwich-style. Layer the radishes one-deep or pile them on as much as you like. 

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

1 bunch radishes, greens and root discarded, soaked in cold water 10 minutes, washed clean of any grit

6-8 slices, thin sliced white bread, crusts removed

2 tablespoons sweet butter

Flake salt or finely ground sea salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 spring onion bulbs, sliced thin (optional)

Directions

Cut the crustless bread slices in half or in quarters. Arrange them on a cutting board and butter them, assemble-line fashion.


Using a sharp knife, slice the radishes into paper-thin rounds.



Arrange the radishes on the buttered bread. Add sliced spring onion onions (optional). Season with flake salt and black pepper. Serve open-faced or as a sandwich.

Egg Salad Tea Sandwiches

Use good quality, extra large eggs and fresh Italian parsley.


The egg salad can be spiced up by adding pepper flakes, curry powder or any spices you enjoy. I prefer a simpler flavoring.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

6-8 slices, thin sliced white bread, crusts removed

4 extra large eggs

1/4 cup Italian parsley, leaves only, washed, pat dried, finely chopped

1 tablespoon capers, drained, pat dried, finely chopped

2 tablespoons mayonnaise, preferably Best Foods/Hellman's, taste and add more mayonnaise as desired

1 teaspoon kosher salt, preferably Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt

Sea salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions

Place eggs in a large sauce pan, add kosher salt and cover with water. Place on a high flame, bring to a boil  and cook 10 minutes. Drain eggs and cool with cold water.


When cooled, peel and discard shells.


Finely chop the eggs. Place in mixing bowl. Add parsley, capers and mayonnaise. Mix well. Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.


If not used immediately, refrigerate in an airtight container for up to three days.


Cut the crustless bread slices in half or in quarters. Using a flat knife, spread egg salad on the bread. Serve open-faced or as a sandwich.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Cold Weather, Hot Plantains, Delicious Costa Rican Patacones

As a remedy to rain, snow and cold temperatures, patacones, a Costa Rican treat, will brighten up a meal. Warm, crisp and savory, patacones are one of many ways to prepare plantains.


I was intimidated by plantains. Having eaten them in Latin American restaurants, I knew they were good when served with roast chicken, rice and beans. But seeing them in the market, I had no idea how to cook them.


A trip to Costa Rica changed all that when a chef demonstrated how plantains are easy to prepare and delicious.

Plantains vs. Bananas

Unlike bananas, their ready-to-eat cousins, plantains need to be cooked before being eaten. Naturally fibrous and a good source of potassium, while they look like fat bananas, they are starchy when green and become sweeter as their thick bark-like peel turns black.


Delightfully easy to cook, plantains are used to create side dishes and desserts.

Available all year round and grown primarily in the southern hemisphere, plantains are cooked in a great many ways. Steamed, deep fried, sautéed, boiled, baked and grilled.

The first time I visited a Mexican market in Los Angeles, I noticed what I thought were bunches of very large bananas with mottled yellow and black skins. I thought the fruit was spoiled. In fact, those were plantains not bananas. I subsequently learned that when the peel turns from green to yellow and finally to black, the starches in the plantain have converted into sugars.

Patacones - a Costa Rican Treat

In his kitchen at Villa Buena Onda, an upscale boutique hotel on the Pacific Coast in Costa Rica's Guanacaste Provence, Chef Gabriel Navarette demonstrated how to prepare patacones.


Plantains are easy to make, I cook them all the time. The only difficulty is finding a market that sells them. Not available in supermarkets in most U.S. cities, it is best to find markets serving the Spanish-speaking community. Those markets, usually mom-and-pop businesses, are also a good source of mangoes, papayas, tomatillos, chayote, fresh chiles, Latin spices and a good selection of dried beans and rice.

Navarette demonstrated how to prepare plantains three ways.

He stuffed green plantains with cheese and baked them in the oven. He flattened green plantains and fried them twice to make patacones, thick, crispy chips served with pico de gallo, black beans, guacamole or ceviche. And, he caramelized yellow plantains to serve alongside black beans and rice for the Costa Rican dish called casado which always has a protein such as chicken, fish, pork or beef.


Villa Buena Onda, known locally as VBO, is an intimate destination with eight rooms. Feeling more like a private home than a hotel, a stay at VBO includes all three meals. Having a personal chef during the stay makes the experience even more luxurious. Navarette and his fellow chefs make each dish to order.

Navarette studies at Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje, a prominent school training professionals in many fields. He worked in resort and hotel kitchens, moving up the ranks from server to line cook, then as a sous chef and finally as the head chef at VBO for the past ten years.

What attracted me to his food, as well as that of his cousin Chef Diego Chavarria on the weekend and Chef Rosa Balmaceda in the morning, was that each dish tasted home cooked, plated in the most beautiful five-star way.


Aided by translator Céasar Allonso Carballo, Navarrete was happy to show me how to cook plantains. I was amazed at how easy they are to prepare.


Cooking black plantains to serve as a dessert is the essence of simplicity. Peel each plantain, heat a half-inch of safflower or corn oil in a carbon steel pan over a medium flame, cut the plantain into rounds or in half lengthwise and cut into 5-inch long sections.  Fry on both sides until lightly browned, drain on paper towels and serve. All that can be done in five to eight minutes. The sweet plantains are an excellent way to end a meal.

Crisp and savory patacones are slightly more complicated to prepare, but not much more so.

Patacones from the kitchen of Villa Buena Onda

Yellow or black plantains should not be used to make patacones because they are too soft.

In the VBO kitchen, Navarette uses a deep fryer to cook patacones. That is fast and easy so he can keep up with the orders, but I discovered at home that by using a carbon steel pan I was able to achieve a similar result using less oil with an easier clean up.

The oil may be reused by straining out cooked bits and storing in a refrigerated, air-tight container.

Enjoy the patacones with an ice-cold beer and, as the Costa Rica's say, Pura vida! Life is good because everything is OK.

Prep time:  5 minutes

Cooking time:  10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield:  4 servings

Ingredients

2 green plantains, washed

8 cups corn or safflower oil in a deep fryer or 1 cup oil in a sauté pan

Sea salt and black pepper to taste (optional)

Directions


1. Cut the ends off each green plantain. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut along the length of the tough peel being careful not to cut the flesh of the plantain. Pry off the peel and discard.

2. Preheat oil in a deep fryer to 350 F or a half-inch of oil in a large sauté pan over a medium flame.

3. Cut each plantain into 5 or 6 equal sized rounds.


4. Place the rounds into the deep fryer for 3 to 4 minutes or until lightly browned. In the sauté pan, turn frequently for even cooking, which take about 5 to 8 minutes to brown.


5. Remove, drain on paper towels and allow to cool.

6. Prepare one round at a time. Put the round on a prep surface. Place a sturdy plate on top of the round. Press firmly in the middle of the plate until the plantain round flattens. Work assembly-line fashion until all plantains are flattened.


7. Place the flattened plantains into the deep fryer for 2 minutes, or 4 minutes in the oil in the sauté pan as before. Turn as necessary to cook until lightly browned on all sides.

8. Remove from the oil, place on paper towels to drain and cool.

9. Season with sea salt and black pepper (optional).


10. Serve at room temperature with sides of black beans, pico de gallo, sour cream or ceviche or all four so guests and mix and match.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Cold Weather, Hot Wings - Kimchi Hot and Sweet Chicken Wings

Right now, it's cold and rainy in Los Angeles. Which makes me think about warm comfort food. It's also playoff season in NFL-land and only weeks away from Super Bowl Sunday.

Comfort food comes in all sizes, shapes and flavors. With the rain pattering on the roof, I enjoyed time in the warm kitchen making one of my favorite taste treats. Kimchi chicken wings. They are great because they're succulent, spicy and sweet. And they are easy to make.

Chicken wings can be expensive. I buy mine in the Vietnamese markets in Little Saigon. You can buy wings either as the part with two bones or the one that looks like a miniature drumstick or, as I prefer, to buy the whole wing and cut the parts apart and use the wing tips to make stock.

Kimchi Chicken Wings


The wings can be cooked the day ahead and refrigerated, then reheated and served hot or at room temperature.

Servies 4

Ingredients

2 1/2 pounds chicken wings, washed, pat dried, separated into 2-bone sections and drumsticks 
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup kimchi, finely shredded
2 tablespoons kimchi water 
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, washed, peeled, sliced thin
2 tablespoons soy sauce

Directions

In a large bowl, dissolve the brown sugar in the kimchi water, olive oil, and soy sauce to create a marinade.  Add kimchi, onion slices and chicken wings to the marinade. Mix well, cover or transfer to a plastic bag and seal and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Line a baking tray with aluminum foil or a Silpat sheet for easy clean up. Place a wire rack on the tray.

Remove the wings from the marinade. Arrange the wings on the rack being careful to leave at least a 1/2" between them so they cook evenly.


Put in oven. Bake 30 minutes.

While the wings cook, place the marinade with the kimchi and onions into a saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir, reduce and thicken. Set aside.

Turn over the wings with tongs. Using a spoon, spread half the marinade on one side. Return to the oven and bake another 30 minutes.

Turn over the wings with tongs. Spread the remaining half of the marinade on the second side.

Bake another 30 minutes.

The wings should be tender and golden brown. If not, turn the wings over and continue baking another 10 minutes. Check again and continue baking at 10 minute intervals, turning the wings each time, until they are done.

Remove the wings from the rack and plate to serve hot. Reserve any of the marinade drippings on the bottom of the baking pan and spread on the wings or place into a small ramekin to accompany the wings. 

Make sure everyone has plenty of napkins and a chilled drink of choice.

Variations

Add 1 tablespoon julienned garlic and 1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley to the marinade



Just before serving, top with 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds and 1 tablespoon thinly sliced scallion

Ready, Set, Infuse - It's Time to Make Homemade Umeshu, Japanese Plum Wine

If you love umeshu , Japanese plum wine, and you want to make your own, the race is on. Ume are only available for three-four weeks in the ...