Breakaway Cook

Yuzu Dethrones the Lemon

yuzu-juice-780943.jpgMany of you have tasted yuzu before, but for those of you who haven’t, boy do you have a nice surprise waiting for you.

Yuzu is a citrus fruit, roughly the size of a tangerine. It’s often picked green but it eventually turns to yellow-orange. Look it up in a Japanese dictionary and it will say “Japanese citron.”

The green fruit does produce some exceedingly sour and delicious juice, but the more mature fruit is not very juicy at all; it is valued for its fragrant floral-scented zest. If you smelled it blind, you’d think it’s a combination of lemon, mandarin orange, and grapefruit.

It used to be pretty impossible to find fresh yuzu outside Japan, but lately I see, to my great delight, more and more nurseries that will sell you a dwarf yuzu tree. I know one man in Oakland who tends to what is the most beautiful yuzu tree I’ve ever seen; it must have at least 300 yuzu on it!

Bottled yuzu juice — which is almost as good, and certainly more convenient — is becoming widely available in Asian markets, especially Japanese markets. A 10-ounce bottle will cost you around $12, but it will last a long time (at least two or three months, even using it regularly).

Yuzu powder — dehydrated and pulverized yuzu zest — is also becoming increasingly easy to find. Doing a Web search for “yuzu juice” will yield a list of online purveyors.

In Japan, its zest is used mainly to accent cooked vegetables, hotpots, custards, and fish, and it’s sometimes added to miso or vinegar to infuse them with its floral wonders. Juice from green yuzu is often mixed with soy sauce to form a dipping sauce known as ponzu. And Japanese women love to put cut-up yuzu in their baths. How I wish I had enough fresh yuzu to use for this purpose!

I like to use a small amount of yuzu juice — its intense power means that one must be careful of quantity — in braising liquids for fish and vegetables, and sometimes combine a little with raw tuna and eat it spooned over good bread. It’s also delightful mixed into a spoonful of miso, and then spread on fish and broiled. Or try some in a salad dressing along with some good olive oil, yogurt, and maple syrup. You can pretty much use it anyplace you’d use fresh lemon.

Hunt it down (I get mine at Nijiya in SF) and let us know what you do with it!

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Nonstick Cast Iron


I used to loathe cast iron pans. The only ones I had experience with were neglected, sad ones with rust patches and untold grime. Ugh. And then there was the need to season them first, to not use dish soap on them, to oil them after use, etc. Way too many downsides! Besides, what was wrong with Teflon-coated cheapo pans?

I went through years and years of cheap Teflon in Japan, which is what everyone uses. They’re good for about a year of heavy use, but then just get too scruffy, with the Teflon coming off in flakes (and into the food — yuck).

But replacing pans so often felt so wrong; has anyone ever had that sick feeling of chucking what used to be a perfectly good pan into the garbage?
I gradually began to experiment with all kinds of pans — woks, copper, aluminum, stainless, enameled cast iron, and good old-fashioned cast iron.

  • Woks, though incredibly useful and versatile, were difficult to store and took up too much space on my tiny stove.
  • Copper is absurdly difficult to care for, as I found out after spending some $300 on a pan and never using it because I couldn’t deal with it.
  • Aluminum doesn’t work for me — it feels too flimsy and gets hot spots.
  • Stainless is a good choice for many types of cooking; I don’t know how I’d survive without my mighty All-Clad Dutch oven, despite my dig at AllClad in the previous post. But for everyday pans, not for me.
  • Enameled cast iron is pretty great; it is essentially just cast iron (and thus very heavy) with a coating applied to it that makes it stick-resistant, and the enameling process makes the pan nonreactive to acids, which is a huge plus. I’m slowly growing more and more impressed with the enameled cast irons pans I’m seeing.

It took me a while to warm up to regular cast iron; After cooking in the kitchen of my friend Lucelle, who only uses cast iron, I was hooked; her pans were truly nonstick — I’ve never seen such nonstick pans! Yes, you can’t use soap on them, she said. Big deal. Just rinse them under very hot water and wipe with a scrubby. And after it’s washed, cast iron needs a few drops of vegetable (or other) oil and a quick wipe with a small corner of paper towel.

What about “seasoning”? Most cast iron pans sold today come preseasoned, but it’s really not a big deal. If you do need to season one, simply pour about a quarter-inch of vegetable oil into the pan and bake it at 375 degrees for about an hour. That’s it! But if you care for it as I described above, this shouldn’t even be necessary. I now cook almost exclusively with cast iron. It’s ideal for cooking meats (the heat is very even, and it retains heat incredibly efficiently), vegetables, eggs, pasta sauces . . . just about everything, really. It also goes from stovetop to oven or broiler beautifully.

For such performance one would expect a pricetag to go with it, but these iron workhorses–which can last for generations–are among the cheapest cookware items you can buy. A ten-inch beauty retails for about $15. I’ve since purchased all the ones photographed above, from the manhole-cover-like 15-incher to the little ramekin-like pots (ideal for baked eggs).

Any other cast iron fans out there? What’s your favorite dish to cook in it?

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Cooking Well in a Minimally Equipped Kitchen

simple-kitchen-shot-795636.jpgThere is no corelation between having fancy cooking equipment and cooking well. None. Zilch. In fact, fancy cookware can be a handicap, because it’s intimidating; you feel as if you have to produce something magical and accomplished just to justify its existence, and wind up rarely cooking at all, or do so in a guilt-driven way, since you’ve spent a small fortune on it. (I’ve found a similar phenomenon in notebooks: the crappier and cheaper the notebook, the more I find myself using it — fancy, expensive notebooks seem to require lofty, great thoughts, and thus remain largely empty.)

So many of us in the United States feel that we need to be maximally equipped with the latest and best to do anything properly, and this is especially true with cooking.

I was fortunate to have learned how to cook in Japan, where the typical kitchen is the size of a large US cutting board. No one uses AllClad, just cheap aluminum pots and pans. There are no ovens. (Although I did find a used countertop “oven,” much like a big toaster oven, for about $25, and eventually understood its many quirks well enough to produce tasty meals in it). Thermador, Sub Zero, Wolf, Viking? No one’s ever heard of them. The fridges are slightly bigger than “dorm” fridges — you’re supposed to get everything you need today today, and use it today.

Even worse are the “sets” of cookware that we believe we need. Many of the pans included in these sets are utterly useless, and just take up space. You should buy your cookware as you need it, one piece at a time. Kitchens that have disparate cookware are homier and have more character than a long row of matching cookware.

If I were advising a new cook on just one item to get, I’d start with a cast iron pan, in which one can cook just about anything, and whose virtues I’ll extol in the next post. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about your most-often-used piece of equipment.

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The New Look

My friend Brady has been slaving all day on integrating this blog into the main site. It’s nice to extricate myself from the Blogger look, and to bring it all into the main site. Your feedback is hugely appreciated! Thanks.

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Favorite Cooking Gear

I often get questions about cooking gear, what I use, what I recommend, etc. So I decided to make it really easy both to keep track of what I actually use and to find and purchase the cookware I use. It turns out that Amazon has a kitchen section that has, with a few exceptions, just about every single item in my kitchen that gets heavy use, so I set up a simple “store” there to show people what I use. I’ve placed a link on the upper right side for easy reference, but you can see it by clicking here. I do get a tiny percentage of all sales through that link, so if anyone is inclined to go shopping for cookware anyway, it would indeed be some beer money for me.

I’ve also included 20 or so cookbooks that I’ve used heavily over the years, each of which I’m inclined to write about at some length at some point. I actually recently wrote a few lines about six books I like a lot for Heidi at the incomparable In the unlikely even that you don’t know about Heidi, you’re in for a whirlwind of great food and aesthetics. Should we all be a fraction as talented.

Again, if you’re in the market for innovative and excellent cookbooks, getting them through that link might buy me a vegetable or two at the Ferry Plaza. And let me thank you in advance for doing so!

And: if anyone has any questions about the gear, how/why I use it and recommend it, etc., post away and I’ll try to answer them.

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Raw Kale Herb Pesto

greenkalegoo.jpgraw kale
fresh coriander/cilantro
fresh parsley
really nice olive oil
greek yogurt
umami salt
freshly ground peppercorns
homemade plum jam

It’s the usual formula for an innovative meal: snarling stomach, very little in the fridge. But I did have all of the above, and felt like pasta, so into the blender it all went.

My friend Charles Holmes, who undoubtedly makes the world’s tastiest, funnest, healthiest, and all-around great breakfasts at the Gaige House Inn in Glen Ellen, showed me how good raw kale can be. It exudes a real grassiness, as if the essence of a winter garden were somehow bottled and concentrated. It’s also slightly bitter (a feature, not a bug, in my book), so I decided to offset the bitterness with a little sweetness. I could have reached for honey or maple syrup, but we still have a jar of Delia’s lovely plum jam, so a tablespoon went in. The yogurt gave it a nice creaminess.

Total prep dinner time: about five minutes, made while the pasta water heated up.

Would love to hear about other favorite “last minute, lazy-but-hungry” meals from you, so please post them here!

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Breakaway Pickled Ginger

One of the many takeaways of gari, the commercial pickled ginger served in sushi restaurants throughout the world, is its laser-like ability to erase the taste and feel of fat on the palate. It’s meant to be taken between bites of raw fish, ideally very fatty raw fish. As with Japanese domestic beef, especially Kobe beef, the higher the fat content of tuna, for example, the higher the price and general desirability among Japanese connoisseurs (sushi “pros” are legion in Japan, and are known as sushi tsuu; their utter conviction that they are pursuing, with great ardor, one of life’s great pleasures makes them intriguing and endearing; they are a group worthy of a full post sometime).

My personal moment of epiphany came with the realization that gari cuts and cleanses all fat, not just fish fat. So it was a no-brainer to serve with anything that has a surfeit of fat: most cuts of lamb, beef, and pork. But somehow it didn’t make sense to serve industrial-style gari with meats, especially if they were prepared in culinary styles other than Japanese. The idea, I reasoned, could stay–a quick bite of gari between bites of meat changes the experience completely, just as it does with sushi; it’s as if your palate gets to start over with every bite, instead of being somewhat deadened by the varying layers of fat sitting all over the tongue and roof of mouth. But it had to be rethought, using more appropriate ingredients, and it definitely had to lose the red dye.

It turns out that you can make a nearly infinite variety of gari, using the following formula:

  • 1 part vinegar of choice
  • 1 part young, very fresh ginger, shaved with a mandoline
  • as much sweetener as you like

The vinegar should have some character; fruit vinegars work well, especially raspberry, fig, blood orange, pear, red or white wine, or even persimmon or pomegranate. You can combine vinegars; you may want to use some rice vinegar in your blend. All vinegars are up for grabs, including balsamic, apple, citrus, date, and herbed vinegars.

Likewise, sweetness is better when it’s more complex. Thus, instead of just white sugar, try sweetening your gari concoction with complex, tasty sweeteners like honey (all honeys work; it can be orange blossom honey, blueberry, clover, mesquite, or any other honey you run across), maple syrup, agave nectar, rice syrup, cane syrup . . . .

Here is how to do it:

  • Set a small saucepan of water to boil.
  • Peel the ginger and, with a mandoline, slice it very thinly until you have about a cup of it (one piece of a large root will accomplish this).
  • Blanch in the boiling water for about 3 minutes. Drain and transfer to a jar big enough to comfortably hold it.
  • Pour in one cup vinegar or vinegar blend of choice
  • Add some sweetener, usually about two to three tablespoons. Shake it up to dissolve completely.

It’s now ready to use, though it will only get better as time goes on. It will keep indefinitely in the fridge.

The version I made today, shown above, was a combination of vinegars that needed to be used up: red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, and rice vinegar, about one cup total. The sweetener was plum syrup, an interesting concoction I found a few weeks ago in a Chinese supermarket. I can’t wait to try the liquid in salad dressings.

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The Epiphanies of Pickled Ginger

gari.jpgDoes anyone recall the first time you had pickled ginger, that small mound of ginger that comes with your sushi? I still vividly remember mine, one of a small number of “whoa!” culinary milestones that is so different from what’s come before it that it’s not an exaggeration to call it an epiphany.

I remember trembling at the thought of eating raw fish for the first time, too. Same day! But gari, as Japanese sushi chefs call pickled ginger, was an even stronger epiphany. Even more remarkably, the chef kept refilling my mound of gari, gratis! How could it be that this magical substance was FREE, as long as I ordered some sushi? To this day, I still probably eat ten times the amount of gari as the average person when I go to sushi restaurants.

I soon discovered that I could actually buy large bags of gari, cheap, at both Japanese and Chinese markets around town, and began chowing on it at home, as a snack, with dinner, with all kinds of meals. But one casual glance at the ingredient list on the bag one day also produced an epiphany of sorts: ginger, white sugar, white vinegar, and red dye. Aiii!

Well there are worse things you can eat. But, I thought, why not try making some? No dye, better vinegar, and better sweetener must, ipso facto, produce better gari, right? Not only is homemade pickled ginger made with high-quality ingredients–organic young ginger, small-batch fruit vinegars of all stripes, artisanal honeys, organic maple syrup, agave nectar–better tasting and better for you, it’s INSANELY better.

Enter breakaway pickled ginger (continued in the next post).

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Matcha Sparkling Water

Even the most dedicated oenophiles can’t serve wine EVERY night, but the problem is always the same: what the hell else do you serve with good food? Soft drinks? Juice? Uh, no. Water? Well, yes. . . . Sparkling water? Sure, there’s nothing like a little sparkling at the table. But its solo presence in some ways highlights the ABSENCE of wine, at least to this dedicated wino.

So the task I set out for myself was: come up with a nonalcoholic beverage that actually pairs well with food. My first thoughts centered around tea. But hot tea doesn’t really work with food, and iced tea is great when it’s hot, especially for lunch, but a pitcher of iced tea at the table just doesn’t, I dunno, set the right mood somehow.

And then I serendipitously tasted something that changed the whole game. My friend Eddie had brought over what I thought was chilled champagne. It was champagne colored, and in a champagne bottle. But it was … tea! Jasmine tea, fermented as konbucha, and blasted with C02 to produce one of the cleanest, creamiest, perfect-with-food beverages I have ever tasted.

I bugged Eddie to set me up with a tank of my own, so that I could explore this pretty brave new world of carbonated waters and teas. We started off by making pomegranate-meyer lemon water, which was so good I could barely control myself! The possibilities seemed endless — I could do savory herb infusions, every tea known to mankind, tisane blends, citrus waters of all stripes . . . .

And then, just for fun, I made my usual afternoon cup of matcha and instead of drinking it let it cool, and poured it into a glass bottle. I filled it with icy filtered water, blasted it with CO2, and voila! It has no sugar, and all the sophistication of matcha. Refreshing as hell, and yet pairs well with food, especially Japanese-inspired food. I imagine it would look incredible with a fancy label in a real champagne bottle. Quite the unusual gift to bring to a dinner party!


Eddie has since started his own sparkling tea line, and it’s remarkable.

My other sparkling favorites so far have been Marriage Frere Marco Polo, hojicha, rooibos paradiso, and the pom-meyer. Let me know if you have ideas for more, and I’ll try them and report back!

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Interview with Saveur's James Oseland

saveurcover.jpgOver on the Well I’m leading a really fun online interview with James Oseland, exec editor of Saveur. Please join us! You can either post your questions for James here, or send them to [email protected], with “Oseland” in the subject header.

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