Breakaway Cook

Wasara — The World’s Coolest Disposable Tableware

I’m not a paper plate and paper cup kind of guy, and I imagine not too many reading this are, either. But one look at this elegant little cup — ideal for matcha, no less — sure spun me around on the possibilities of disposable AND biodegradable tableware.

The Wasara series of  single-use tableware is pretty freaking elegant. It’s made from 100-percent renewable, “tree-free” materials: a combo of bamboo, reed pulp, and something called bagasse, a substance leftover from  the sugar-refining process that’s typically thrown away as waste.

This stuff hits all the sweet spots of good design: it’s clean, crisp, utterly utilitarian, and minimalist. It feels good, and stable, in your hands. It’s got lovely texture.  It’s thin, paper-light, and yet robust; it feels terrible and wrong to throw it away after only one use.  And it goes right into the compost pile, not the garbage, not even the recycling bin. Designed (and made) in Japan by Shinichiro Ogata.

Do disposable plates get any better than this?

Branch Home in SF is the exclusive US distributor of this rather stunning series (disclaimer: Branch’s founder, Paul Donald, is a friend. But he didn’t ask for a feature in this space — Wasara is featured because it’s gorgeous, and useful to breakaway cooks everywhere).

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Nonstick Cast Iron

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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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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!

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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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Come Get Your Umami Salt

Want to make your family and friends drool? Literally? Give them some umami salt. There’s a lot to be said about umami, and we’ll be saying plenty of i tright here, but let’s just jump right in and make some flavor-walloping salt and ask questions later. Here’s what you need:

  • a few shavings of parmesan
  • a dried mushroom (shiitake work well, as do porcini)
  • some kelp (kelp granules make this easy)

Whir the shroom in the spice grinder first and get it all powdery. Then add the cheese and the kelp, whir a litle more, and finally pulse in a few tablespoons of sel gris, always the salt of choice for breakaway salts because of its high moisture content and incredible oceany taste.

This salt is, essentially, pure MSG. Except is a billion times better than the reviled white powder — “gourmet powder” in Chinese — that so many people have come to dread (some are even allergic to it). Why do so many Chinese cooks, in restaurans and in homes, use so much MSG? Because it makes food taste GREAT!

Evolution has made sure our tonges and palates come equipped to easily detect naturally occuring glutamates, which make us involuntarily salivate — an excellent mechanism for getting food down (and, it turns out, for really enjoying it). Umami — that “fifth taste sensation” along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty — has really come a long way in establishing its legitimacy. Umami is realy ALL about glutamates and our ability to detect them. Sometimes umami is translated from the Japanese as “savory,” and this strikes me as sort of accurate, but I’d add something like, “foods that make you drool.” Things like parmasan, bacon, sardines, miso, konbu (kelp), dried mushroooms, oysters, mackerel, even green tea. Want to know more about umami?

So what’s this salt good for? Everything! Try it on a piece of steak, or your morning eggs. Saute onions with it. For the drooliest corn on the cob ever, sprinkle some on a hot ear that’s been freshly buttered. Stir-frys, salads, salad dressings, roast chicken, baked tofu. Or, have fun with the kids — sprinkle some on their tongues, and watch them drool!

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