Archive for July, 2009
Guest Post: Adventures of a Ninja Chef

First, who’s Ezra?

A friend and new Portland transplant who writes things like:

“Cooking
Like jazz
(Like all art, really)
Is an expression of love, joy, pain and sorrow.
The delicious sustenance that results is almost an afterthought.”

He’s also an Excel whiz. And he doesn’t like to be bound by the constraints of pre-figured directions or maps (which, considering that quote, shouldn’t come as a surprise), as I found on a recent field trip to Uwajimaya. The next time I get turned around in the US-26 / downtown spaghetti tangle I’ll try to remember I’m not lost at all, merely “riffing”.

What else to know? My dog loves him. She has no use for Google maps either.

I don’t know if Ezra would have needed extra inducement to Koko-sit during our Seattle trip, but I figured that opening the pantry and pointing out all the weird foodstuffs he could play with wouldn’t hurt. And indeed, that clinched the deal.

Now let’s be clear: Ezra has a large, gorgeous kitchen at his disposal, filled with healthful, vegetarian products, while mine is tiny, battered (mmmm…batter) and sullied by all manner of questionable ingredients. But he kept his eye on the adventures that he could concoct within this small, tiled space, transcending physical limitations, ethnic boundaries and, once or twice I’m sure, common sense.

In this guest post, Ezra describes his time. “A lot of ideas really crystallized for me during that week.” says he, and for that I’m so glad!


The Space
I pause for a moment at the entrance to the kitchen. It’s the same whenever I enter an unfamiliar house. I’m thinking about how this room reveals the soul of the house and of the people who have made it their home. I cross the threshold and suddenly I’m an anthropologist. What do I know about the inhabitants? What is their relationship to food? What traces of life do I sense in this place?

A quick tour of the garden, pantry and cellar reveals that these folks have a healthy and positive relationship with their food. I’ve cooked in many kitchens, but this one is set up perfectly for an improvisational cook. The utensils are in their proper place. Spices and herbs wait patiently in their containers and packets. This is a kitchen where good food is honored.

The Preparation
Before cooking I envision the food to be created. I breathe in the smells of the kitchen, orienting myself among the shelves, racks and cupboards. I feel the temperature and humidity in the air.

For me cooking is about creating and maintaining optimal conditions for food. I enjoy the prospect of creating food out of whatever’s available. This kitchen is bursting with possibility. Wherever I turn there is culinary inspiration.

Eating
Eating is one of my favorite aspects of food. It’s easy to take this step for granted. But it is just as important as all the other parts. And it is equally rewarding.

Cleanup
There’s an old saying, “when you are finished eating, clean your bowl.” This is most true when practicing food preparation. A fundamental aspect of cooking is care for utensils. They are for the cook what brushes are for the painter.

When I’m finished eating I lovingly clean every knife, bowl, spoon and pan. Ingredients are replaced in their original location. A ninja chef, I leave the kitchen with barely a trace behind me. Perhaps the space has been altered subtly by this process. But everything is just as I found it, ready for another food adventure.

P.S. Two other things came to mind as I was writing this. Big surprise, they are both about food and are both Japanese. Hmmm… I definitely see a pattern emerging here.

Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto) is one of my favorite books. A major theme throughout is food in general, but especially the energy created by the kitchen space and different types of people and kitchens.

Tampopo (Juzo Itami) is one of my favorite movies. It’s all about food, cooking, eating, food culture, the art of food, etc. Basically it’s two straight hours of Ramen. Every time I watch it I want to make miso soup with noodles.

Editor’s Note:
“But what did you MAKE, Ezra?” I wail.

“The trouble is I don’t know what I made. I know what I used, what I did, and it was all really good. But I was aiming for *formless* food (ed: and by this he means without boundaries or limitations, not literally formless), going by what I know about the way the food works, and whatever inspired me. So I could list the ingredients, the specific processes. But in a sense these are accidental and it’s the finished product which matters. These are meals which will never, can never, be made again.

Perhaps this is an unsatisfactory answer. Or maybe I’m just trying to maintain an air of mystery. But I really am trying to develop an approach to cooking which is scientific, creative and focused on the larger issues of what food is all about.”

img_1288(What I do know is this: our aged, DOC balsamic hand-carried back from Italy in 2002 had been shifted. My, what good taste he has! And the jar of South African salted, green papaya was open in the fridge. As long as he didn’t use them together, I’m pleased.)

“Not unsatisfactory at all, Ez. Just hard for a process-oriented, don’t-like-to-get-lost person such as myself to accept. But okay. There. I’ve just accepted it.”

To read more of Ezra’s posts, check out his eclectic thoughts on cooking, movies and inspiration here.

Summer Bounty Followup: Corn Soup Recipe

img_1277Here’s Michael Chiarello’s recipe for the corn soup served at our recent vegetarian dinner party. If you want to keep it veggie, disregard my thought that some chicken stock might be nice. Also, IMO, sauteeing a bit of onion and corn in butter would do more than the small of amount of cream he adds, but I haven’t tried it this way; it’s just a guess.

Summer Corn Soup
Michael Chiarello (italics=dds modifications)

4 c corn kernels (~5 ears corn; reserve cobs)
6 c water (or 2 c low sodium chix stock/4 c water)
1 onion, chopped, divided into 2 piles
1 celery rib, chopped
1 bay leaf
3 T butter, preferably unsalted
1/2 c heavy cream (optional)
Salt
Topping / garnish of choice

Cut corn off cobs and set aside. Cut cobs in half and add to water with celery, half the onion and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes; remove the cobs.

Saute the remaining half of onion in butter until soft, add corn and salt, saute another minute, add to stock. Bring to a boil until the corn is tender, about 3 minutes. Remove bay leaf, adjust salt, add cream.

Transfer in batches to a blender and blend thoroughly (start at a low speed & then ramp it up to avoid lid eruptions). Strain through a fine mesh sieve placed over a clean pot, pushing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible.

Reheat the soup gently to serve; do not allow to boil! Serve warm, cool or cold, and top with garnish. A dollop of pesto, creme fraiche, basil or tarragon leaves….

I also froze a bit of this, stirring as it hardened to produce crystals. Delicious corn ice resulted, but I have yet to think of what to put it on. Not interesting enough to stand on its own. I keep thinking about chorizo…..

Flavel Street Farm Report

A tweet from Ruth Reichel (Gourmet’s editor) pronounced: “10 vegetarians to dinner. Too bad it’s not corn and tomato season.”

By coincidence, I was having vegetarians to dinner the same day, and tomatoes (cherry) and corn (soup) were most in-season on the west coast, and precisely what were on the menu. But that’s neither here nor there, since we bought both and this was supposed to focus on eating what our garden produced. Damn my wandering attention span…

flex-012And the winning plant for first ripe tomato of the year (last week) is….Stupice! Once again. Tiny even for a Stupice but we’ll take it. And the Sungold cherry tomato plant is starting to squirt out some ripe babies. Mmmmm, tomato candy. And in third place, after this weekend’s heat, Stupice plant #2 has red clusters galore. Tomorrow I’ll be able to slice them on toast with olive oil, pepper and salt…the best breakfast in the world.

Because I keep forgetting to use it, we had enough lettuce to feed six for a first course on Saturday. My typical French vinaigrette weighs down the tender leaves, so we had a semi-successful light dressing of lemon, oil, worcestershire and salt. [Oh gads! Just realized that's not vegetarian! A thousand apologies...it was just a dash.... So much for mindfulness.] Had intended to add whole parsley leaves along with the thinly sliced radishes, something my Persian cousin does which is so simple but unique, but it got left behind in the flurry of plating. (Which is more acceptable than the post-bbq marinade that got left off shish-kebabs the week before, but that’s a subject for a different day.)

Whole “needles” of fresh garden tarragon adorned a simple vegetarian corn soup for the second course of that same dinner. Bright and licoricey, and a nice change from basil. I can share that super simple recipe (actual recipe! From a book and everything!) if the experienced vegetable eaters thought it was tasty enough. Cold the next day, on a palate unpolluted by raw garlic & tomato drenched bread, it tasted richer. Next time I’d double the onion and saute it and the corn kernels in a bit of butter and salt. Cuz y’know, what’s not better with a bit of butter and salt?

A cup of home-grown basil provided the base for course #3′s pasta sauce: basil blended with two cups of cherry tomatoes (courtesy of New Seasons), toasted almonds, garlic and oil. Cooks Illustrated said to mix a half cup of parmesan into the pasta, but I think it dulled the bright taste of the “pesto”. Thanks to Skip’s shrimp pasta, I thought to mix in a big batch of raw arugula, which leant a peppery, fresh bite.

flex-006 All boy flowers on the pumpkin so far. Except for the first girl back in June…before there were any boy flowers for fertilizing. Isn’t that just the way it is in love and life? Well, I suppose if we get no pumpkins we’ve at least enjoyed the vines carousing across the lawn. Next year I know I’ll be brave enough to harvest the blossoms. It’s one of my favorite things to eat but I have a mysterious block against picking and cooking them. (The photo at left is two weeks old. After consuming a boot and a neighbor’s cat, we reigned in the vines with a climbing corral.)

flex-011Ah, and a footnote, appropriate because it’s directly related to Oregon’s bounty. I made this Berry Crumble for the second time, this time using local blueberries and boysenberries from New Seasons. It was, once again, spectacular and I can’t wait to make it with peaches. The boysen wasn’t as bright as the raspberry, even after adding extra lemon and cutting the sugar by 1/3, but it still killed. After seven years in Portland, I still can’t get over the size, flavor and variety of these monsters.