Breakaway Cook

Jaggery Syrup


Another syrup that’s made its way into a quasi-permanent slot in the fridge, next to the maple syrup and the ginger syrup.  For those lucky few who have not yet met jaggery, are you in for a treat. It’s raw, unprocessed sugar, popular in India but also in Mexico, where it’s called panela.

I’ve been using jaggery for many years as a substitute for white-ass sugar; it’s really caramelly, almost like a crystallized dulce de leche, and is delightful just about anyplace where a slight, complex sweetener is called for. My only issue with it: it’s pretty sticky, and doesn’t melt as easily as, say, brown sugar (not a complaint, but still). So I thought: maybe I could capture that dulce de leche essence of it somehow in liquid form, and use it in ways that I use ginger syrup and maple syrup, i.e. in salad dressings, on pancakes, pan reductions, soups … anything that calls for a slightly sweet hit. Its gorgeous caramel color doesn’t hurt either!

Formula is dead-on simple: 1 part jaggery, 2 parts water. Simmer until you get the viscosity you like.

it’s really delightful stuff. Give it a shot, and tell us what you do with it!

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The Allure of Shiso

The shiso plant on the deck lasted surprisingly long this year. Maybe it was Minna the black cat’s watchful eye. And, being a member of the mint family, it almost invites abuse and still thrives, even for those with the blackest of thumbs. It tolerates shade, and grows like condos in Florida.  My kind of plant! It’s an annual, but in warm places it seems to re-seed itself if left to grow wild, i.e. not in containers. But be careful; it can, like mint, really take over large swathes of garden space if you let it.

Shiso, that green, hard-to-describe leaf most often seen in sushi restaurants, is sometimes awkwardly described as “Japanese basil.” This enigmatic herb is hard to describe for lots of reasons, but the primary one, I think, is that it goes by too many other names — perilla, ohba, summer coleus, and even, improbably, beefsteak leaf.  But shiso now seems to be the leading candidate.

It comes in two varieties, green and purple, with the latter used primarily in combination with ume as a coloring and flavoring agent in the making of umeboshi. It’s used widely in Japanese cuisine (especially for sushi), but also in Vietnamese, Korean, and Indian cooking.

Shiso is almost always served raw, and for good reason: cooking it obliterates all the qualities that make it special. It’s really about seasoning, coloring (purple/red shiso was the original added-red color for pickled ginger; now it’s red dye #5 for most store-bought pickled ginger), garnishing, and  pickling.

Its flavor is unique: pungent and grassy, it contains strong flavors of spearmint, basil, and cinnamon, but also has hints of apple,and even curry. Slicing it into a chiffonade (long skinny strips) really brings out these flavors. Most sushi fans outside Japan are reasonably familiar with the leaf, but shiso buds are specially delicious, and pack an enormous amount of flavor (the photo with Minna shows little bud packs — you just strip them, and chop them up).  Shiso seeds, too, are wonderful, and pack a global flavor blast wallop. They’re especially good, toasted and crushed, on top of sashimi-grade salmon.

I like shiso:

  • julienned, and sprinkled on a simple citrus salad (blood orange, pomelo, and tangerine, say). It adds just the right spice notes.
  • in tossed salad; it delivers its pungent notes in the most pleasing way, like a good spice crust does for a piece of mild fish.
  • in tea infusions; it makes a terrific drink. Make a pot of your favorite green tea, and toss in a handful of shiso leaves. It will infuse its spicy notes that will stick around, even when chilled.
  • on a tuna sandwich — it seems to LOVE being with tuna.
  • as tempura. I don’t do much deep-frying, but shiso tempura in a good restaurant is pretty magical, and pretty addicting, especially with sips of good chilled sake.
  • chopped up with fresh fruit (plums, especially) and olive oil, and drizzled on roasted veggies.
  • as a wrapper for barbecued shrimp or fish.
  • in herb pestos — it lends a really vibrant, bright flavor profile.
  • in scrambled eggs, especially with a generous spoonful of greek yogurt.

Any other shiso fans out there? Favorite uses? Would love to hear some new ideas, since I’m planning on getting my seedlings in the next month or two. I get mine from the Japanese nursery in the Japan Center (SF); I find it grows way better from seedlings (as opposed to from seeds, which are fussy about germinating, it seems).

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Winter Salad of Persimmons, Anchovies, and Dates


OK I realize that persimmon season is officially over. But I just can’t seem to help running into them.  They follow me around! I got the recent batch at Berkeley Bowl, that Mecca of all things breakaway. These came from Israel, and were very tasty. I know all too well that buying fruit flown in from Israel can’t possibly be a good thing, but hey, we’ve all got a few vices, and one of mine is buying every single persimmon I ever see.

This beautiful winter salad had:

  • baby spinach
  • baby arugula
  • chicory
  • radicchio
  • persimmons
  • sliced dates
  • toasted pine nuts
  • anchovies

Every bite packed an umami wallop, mainly from the anchovies. The sweet dates nicely offset the bitter greens/chicories. The whole thing was brought together by a creamy persimmon dressing, made by pureeing persimmons, unfiltered fruity green olive oil, greek yogurt, and champagne vinegar in the mighty Vitaprep. Dusted with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and flecks of tangerine salt.

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Why I Like Chopsticks, Even for Ice Cream


I wrote the following a few years ago, someone remembered it, and requested that I reprint it here.  So here it is. Plenty of hyperbole, yes, but what the hell. Does anyone else vastly prefer chopsticks for salads?

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I’ve pretty much stopped eating with forks; it’s almost exclusively chopsticks these days. I’ll still use a spoon occasionally, when it’s called for, but, for the most part, I try to avoid eating with utensils made of metal.

Why this aversion to metal? It may be because I already have so much metal in my mouth. By the time I was about 10 my sweet tooth had turned into several metal-amalgam teeth; I had imagined, on my way back from the dentist, that “only one cavity!” was a mark of achievement.  I may thus be especially sensitive, but there is something scary about a heavy metal forkful of food slightly missing its mark and landing squarely on one of my metal-dominated molars, and sending the dreaded ping of metal-to-metal pain in a quadrant of my mouth, in hideous and direct contrast with the delight of the morsel I am simultaneously attempting to chew. I have nightmares about chomping down on a small piece of foil, innocently clinging to a piece of food.

Moreover, there’s something crass about the shoveling motion for which the fork is designed. It is imprecise, even fumbling, to an alarming degree. We often need a blocker just to make it work: a pile of mashed potatoes,  a piece of bread, a thumb. And then there’s the “stabbing” function of a fork, which lends even more associations of unpleasantness, if not downright violence. Plopping the fork on the plate between bites can also be a delicate operation — more metallic clanging — and is discernibly and unpleasantly audible in any restaurant the moment you decide to tune in to it.

Not so with wood or bamboo, on any of the above charges.

The most obvious and most pleasing characteristic of the chopstick is its material composition: wood or bamboo. Not plastic; I can ‘t think of a single reason ever to use a plastic chopstick, when vastly superior wooden and bamboo sticks are both inexpensive and widely available. There is something about the feel of wood inside the mouth. Most of us probably remember the rough and warm texture of the twigs we tasted as children. It is a most pleasant memory for me.

The Japanese-style wooden or bamboo sticks are tapered, almost to a point. The square-bottom sticks represent a serious design flaw. Tapered sticks afford great precision; one can easily, quietly, quickly, and elegantly select the precise morsel of any pile or formation of almost any food, an especially useful feature when eating salads. The more varied the size and texture of the salad components, the more useful sticks become. Pastas, too, especially shells or penne — no stabbing, falling, or shoveling. Gravity and the sheer awkwardness of the shovel motion of a fork conspire constantly to derail a what-you-thought-was-a-well-timed-and-well-placed forkful of desperately desired food, and embarrassing you in the process. The gentlest of squeezes of the sticks effortlessly brings the morsel into your mouth; it slides in the exact mouth location you desire. The pleasure is heightened yet again by the feel of the smooth, warm grain passing both into and out of your lips. And,when finished, down they go, noiselessly, into their little rests (I like using wine corks as stick rests) or on the edge of a plate.

And then there’s the issue of actual taste. Metal often contrasts, most unpleasantly, with acidic foods, which I happen to love. I emphatically do NOT want to taste metal of any sort in my food. This is why no one drinks wine from metallic glasses: it destroys nuance. Metal dominates, takes over, destroys subtlety.  Cut bamboo and wood, on the other hand, are totally neutral if the utensils are old, or  lend a barely discernible grassy subtlety if they are freshly cut.

Nor are knives normally set out at my table. I do not wish to cut or saw anything when I am sitting down to eat. All cutting, slicing, and carving takes place in the kitchen; I don’t want to pick up a big piece of meat with chopsticks and begin gnawing away at it — I cut it into bite-size piece before serving it. In fact, I don’t want to mess with or manipulate the food in ANY way. I just want to eat it, not mess with it. Knowing beforehand that the meal will be eaten exclusively with chopsticks  can change the meal’s whole dynamic.

I like to set a big ceramic utensil jar on the dining table, stuffed full with an enticing variety of sticks (the one above is actually a munition shell picked up at a flea market in Germany). Guests choose their own pairs. This also obviates the need to “set the table,” a task no one in their right mind looks forward to.

Chopsticks can be intimidating to someone not well-versed in them, but we can rapidly dispel that fear in well under five minutes with an easily learned technique.  With one chopstick, imagine that you are writing with a long thin pen. With the second, place it parallel to the other so that it rests between the webbed area of the thumb and the inward side of your ring finger. The bottom one never moves; you only work the top one. Be relaxed and gentle. Practice on grapes, then on raisins, then on a tossed salad, picking out precisely what you want.

I have no desire nor illusions toward changing the way people get food into their mouths, so this is not meant as any kind of evangelical screed. Bang around all the metal you want. But next time you’re in Costplus, or Pier One, or any imported goods store (why doesn’t some enterprising domestic company come out with a line of really cool, well-designed chopsticks?), just take a ten-second peek at what they’ve got, and let the aesthete in you imagine.  Better yet, take a trip to Japan and come back with a lifetime supply!

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The Breakaway Wordle!

Java Printing

I recently stumbled upon a very cool little applet called Wordle. You simply type or paste in a list of words, and it randomizes them into one highly customizable image; you can control font, colors, placement, and lots more. Check it out!

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Hot Chopped Salad


OK  I know this looks fake, photoshopped to death. But it isn’t! That’s really what color it was, mainly because of the hallucinogenic quality of the calendula flowers, one of my favorite toppings for, well, just about everything salad related. (And yes, salads can be served hot — it’s just veggies + olive oil + vinegar.)

You know that happy-stomach feeling you get after eating something you KNOW was exactly what you needed/wanted? This was that.

In the fridge, needing to be used: a renkon (lotus root) bulb, a few carrots, some cooked edamame, half a fennel bulb, onion.  Chop all the same size, roughly. Saute in olive oil, season with pomegranate (or other) vinegar, herb salt and plenty of black pepper. Victory was most definitely declared.

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Orange "Bacon" "Jerky"


Lots of quotation marks up there!

My friend Lucelle came over recently bearing a beautiful jar of homemade orange marmalade, made mostly with blood oranges. My first thought was a dish I made frequently in Japan, because of the ubiquity of very, very thinly sliced pork loin, sliced that way for sukiyaki or shabu shabu. My guess is that the pork is frozen first and then thinly sliced with a deli-style meat slicer. My favorite thing to do with it was to put about a half pound in a bowl, add some olive oil and a good glop of orange marmalade, gently mix, and lay them out on a cookie sheet (lined with parchment or a silpat) and roast the living hell out of them at 550 (broiling is also an option). The sugars of the marmalade caramelize pretty quickly (maybe five minutes), and infuse themselves, along with the small amount of fat on the pork, into porciney orangey nirvana, especially when dusted with tangerine salt and plenty of good black pepper at the end.

So the next time I found myself in Nijiya, in Japantown (SF), I picked up a half-pound. Other Japanese grocers carry this particular cut of pork, but I’ve never seen it anywhere else. One could, of course, purchase a whole loin just about anywhere, half-freeze it, and, with a very sharp knife, practice one’s slicing skills. It might even be benriner-able at the right degree of freeze, though I’m not sure. You can always ask a friendly local butcher to slice it up for you, too.

  • 2 tablespoons good orange marmalade
  • fruity olive oil
  • 1/2 lb. or so pork loin, sliced extremely thinly, as in sukiyaki
  • fresh, coarsely ground black peppercorns
  • tangerine salt

This is about as “instant” a food as it’s possible to get, taking about as much time as it takes to make a pot of tea. They’re good at room temperature, too. It’s not really bacon and not really jerky, but it does taste like a cross between the two. Whatever we wish to call it, it’s guaranteed to disappear quickly at parties!

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A New Pickled Daikon


I picked up two gorgeous daikon from the farmers market, one for a wacky yet delicious “lasagne” made of big sheets of daikon and plenty of red savinas (it had 16 layers of various vegetables in it as well), the other for pickling. We’ve talked about pickled daikon before, but not this one: its complexity and color comes from matcha salt, which replaces regular salt. Why had I not thought of this before?? The result is a supercrisp, superflavored pickle that I can eat all day long. I really like the wabi-sabi off-green color, and the subtle taste of the tea.  It’s incredible when taken with well-cooked meat, and acts with the same palate-cleansing sensibility that pickled ginger does with sushi. Here it is:

Peel the daikon and thinly shave it with a benriner, that el-cheapo mandoline that’s incredibly useful for tasks like this (or, just thinly slice it with a sharp knife). You should wind up with something like 5 cups. Place the daikon in a large mixing bowl and add a big handful of matcha salt. Spread it around with your hands, so that it’s reasonably evenly distributed. Let it sit for 30 minutes, then squeeze all the (by now green) water out it with your hands. Then add

and gently mix around. They’re excellent straight up — truly instant pickles – -but they get even better over time, and will keep, tightly covered in the fridge, for a long time (at least several weeks, but probably much more).  But I wouldn’t count on them lasting that long — they’re pretty addictive.  Try it out.

And if we needed another bonus: another use for matcha salt!

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