November 6, 2014

Gluten-Free Gleefully: Tips for How to Host a Gluten-Free Thanksgiving

by Jen Wanous

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can be a complicated dance with dietary restrictions. A gluten allergy is a new food red flag to pop up around many dinner tables. In this post, we’ll figure out how best to host a gluten-free Thanksgiving dinner so that you and your guests strike a savory samba, without too much stress.

It may seem daunting at first to make an all gluten-free Thanksgiving dinner, but let’s think about it, really all you have to worry about is the stuffing, gravy and pie. The turkey, cranberry, vegetable side dishes- even the mash potatoes are all already gluten-free. Great. Feels more manageable already, doesn’t it?

Here are some general tips for making a gluten-free Thanksgiving meal and following is how to modify the traditionally gluten-full dishes: stuffing, gravy and pie.

  • Keep it simple: choose to make the whole meal gluten-free. That way you won’t have to worry about cross-contamination and you’ll be making fewer dishes overall.
  • Don’t skimp on the fat. You’re already taking out one comfort food, gluten; you don’t need to take out the other, butter.
  • Have store-bought rolls available to appease your guests who eat gluten.
  • Be careful of hidden gluten ingredients. Gluten is in some sausages, gravy thickeners, bullion mixes and is in cream of mushroom soup. (Make fresh roasted vegetables instead of the traditional green bean casserole.)
  • For your vegetable sides dishes, always start with the highest quality, fresh, organic vegetables you can find. A simple side dish is olive oil, salt and rosemary roasted root vegetables (like carrots, yams, potatoes and beets).
  • Be open to creating new family traditions. It may be hard for you or other family members to adjust to new recipes for such a traditional meal but they will prove to be delicious in a whole new way.

Stuffing:

Forego stuffing your turkey, besides the bacteria risk of possibly undercooking your poultry, your bird will cook faster and you’ll avoid any potential gluten cross-contamination. Bite the bullet and make your own stuffing. Of course it’s not as easy as the classic Stove Top, but you can make something much more robust and flavorful. I recommend making a gluten-free cornbread a couple days before and using that cornbread to make your own stuffing. Easily make your corn bread gluten-free by substituting a gluten-free flour mix, like Bob’s Mills in place of regular wheat flour.

Gravy:

Could there be anything more flavorful than roasted turkey drippings? It’s a great place to start! Add onion, carrots and celery to your roasting pan for an even more flavorful gravy. You can make your gravy just as you would before, by using pan drippings and turkey stock-only switch out the flour with an all-purpose gluten-free flour mix to thicken your gravy. Be careful when using a brined turkey, it can make for a gravy that is too salty. Be sure to taste your gravy as you go along, being careful not to add additional salt.

Pie:

In my family, the guests always brought dessert. We would end up with plenty of pie, (enough for our tradition of pie for breakfast the morning after). You can ask your guests to bring dessert too, this way there will be lots of options for everyone. Just make sure you have at least one that is gluten-free. You can make a gluten-free version of pumpkin pie by foregoing the crust all together to make a personalized pumpkin flan in a ramekin. Or you can also make a nut crust to go with most any pie filling. For a basic nut crust add 2 cups of roasted nuts, a little sugar and some melted butter into a food processor. Press into a pie plate and add your desired filling.

thanksgiving 14

August 15, 2014

Superfood Never Tasted So Good: Cherry Chocolate Chia Pudding

by Jen Wanous

Have you heard of chia seeds yet? They might ring a bell if you remember the popular: “Cha-cha-cha-chia Pet” from the 1980’s where the chia seeds sprouted and grew into cute pet-plants. Now chia seeds are hitting the market as the next big superfood.

Like their superfood cousin, the flax seed, chia seeds have a high omega 3 content which is an important fatty acid that reduces inflammation in blood vessels, protecting against diseases like arthritis and heart disease. Take away the kitschy clay pot pet and chia seeds are decidedly less fun, even with the health benefits…but that’s what chocolate is for.

Like chia seeds, chocolate also comes from a seed: the cacao seed. In its pure form, chocolate is a superfood too. Cacao is rich in two groups of antioxidants in particular, flavonoids and polyphenols, both of which are seen to protect against heart disease. Pure chocolate, or cacao powder, is bitter in its original form. The good news is that you don’t need all the eggs, butter, cream, and sugar to make chocolate taste good. You just need to creatively combine some superfoods.

When going dairy-free, one has to think outside of the box to achieve the familiar textures that dairy offers. Chia seeds can miraculously hold up to 12 times their weight in liquid when soaked. This makes for a gelatin-like effect which is useful for mimicking the texture of pudding.

The last ingredient in this superfood recipe are cherries. Cherries are summer’s sweetheart fruit. They are ripe when picked and promise a sweet seasonal treat. They are available for only a month-long window in late summer so grab them while you can. A superfood in a small package, cherries are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Here is a simple recipe that combines a seasonal summer fruit, cherries, with other superfoods: chocolate and chia seeds to make for a creamy and cool summer treat. Cha, cha, cha, chia pudding!

Chocolate, Cherry, Chia Pudding

Serves 4

Equipment needed: blender

Ingredients

1 can or 13.5 ounces coconut milk

3 tablespoons cocoa powder, unsweetened, non-alkalized

2 tablespoons chia seeds, ground

2 tablespoons maple syrup or agave syrup

½ cup cherries, pitted, roughly chopped

Procedure

  1. In a blender, combine the first four ingredients. Blend on medium speed until well incorporated.
  2. Pour mixture into serving bowls, top with chopped cherries and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

If you don’t have cherries, try a berry like strawberry, blueberry, or raspberry instead.

Photo courtesy of Ella Leché, check out her incredible blog here: http://pureella.com

Photo courtesy of Ella Leché, check out her incredible blog here: http://pureella.com

May 29, 2014

Four Unique Ways to Prepare Fish

by Jen Wanous

1) Open a can! We all know how to make a tuna fish sandwich but there are other options in the canned fish department. Try a smoked fish like trout. Give the fish a quick sauté in a pan with olive oil, deglaze with a little white wine, add roasted cherry tomatoes, and combine with pasta.

2) Pack with spices and grill. Using a sturdy fish like salmon, create a spice mixture to press on the fish and grill on the stove top with a slatted pan. For a serving of four try: ¼ cup brown sugar; zest of one orange; 2 teaspoons smoked paprika; 1 teaspoon ground cumin; ½ teaspoon ground coriander; ½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper; 1 teaspoon salt; and cayenne to taste.

3) Sear. For this type of preparation, you’ll want to use the highest quality fish available-look for the “sushi-grade”. Portion the fish into 4-5 ounce pieces. Heat a large cast iron skillet on medium-high heat, add olive oil, place the pieces in the pan and sear each side for just 30 seconds. Serve with a soy-wasabi dipping sauce.

4) Bake with a salt crust. This is a sophisticated way to prepare fish and has a built in flavor enhancement and moisture lock: salt. For this you’ll use one whole fish like red snapper or sea bass. Rinse and pat the fish dry. Add whole stems of fresh herbs to the inside of the fish. Whip 4 egg whites until they create soft peaks. To this, add 2 cups of kosher salt. Spread ¼ of this mixture on a large baking dish, place the fish on top and cover the fish with the remaining mixture. Bake for 40 minutes at 450. Crack and remove the crust to serve.

For information on the sustainability of the fish you procure, please visit: http://blueocean.org/programs/sustainable-seafood-program/

Photo courtesy of Elaine McCardel, blogger at: http://theitaliandishblog.com

Photo courtesy of Elaine McCardel, blogger at: http://theitaliandishblog.com

February 11, 2014

Eat Your Heart Out: a Valentines Day Menu

by Jen Wanous

Valentine Chef

Did you know that garlic is an aphrodisiac? Yep, it gets your blood pumping. Its flavor can be too sharp sometimes, so I like to mellow it out with some slow roasting. Here, in this full menu, I’m inspired by Valentines Day. The menu starts off with a homemade pasta with shrimp in a tomato and garlic sauce. Of course, to simplify things, you can get a nice package of linguine and prepare that aldente, but making homemade pasta is a lot easier than you think. It’s a fun way to get hands-on with your meal and your sweetheart can help too! I always feel fancy when I eat shrimp, so I added some to this dish. Fancy. Oh and asparagus. Balsamic reduction, yeah, sexy.

Tiramisu tops off this sensuous menu. It is simplified from its original version but still has layer upon layer of creamy chocolaty sweetness. Go grab your Boo, Bestie or Bubbie and cook up this special meal for two.

Handmade Pasta with Shrimp in Tomato and Garlic Sauce

Serves 2-4

Fresh Handmade Pasta

Be creative with your pasta shapes, just be sure they all have the same thickness so they cook evenly. If you are making this with your sweetheart, divide the flour in half and you each can have one mound of flour and one egg.

Ingredients

1 ¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 extra large eggs

Procedure

1. On a clean dry surface, mound the flour. Create a well in the center and crack the egg into the center. With a fork, gently beat the egg, slowly gathering in the flour as you go around in a circle. Try to keep the outer rim of the flour intact to keep the egg from running out.

2. When about half the flour is incorporated, begin kneading with your hands, adding in more flour as you go if it is too sticky. Once the dough comes together in one big mass, knead it with your hands for three minutes. The dough should be elastic and just a little sticky. Add dustings of flour when needed. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 20 minutes.

3. With a rolling pin or wine bottle, roll out the dough on a floured surface making sure that the thickness is similar all around. Cut into your desired shape. (I like to make rectangles.) Set aside on a floured surface until you are ready to boil them.

4. To cook, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and gently boil for about 3-7 minutes. Test for doneness along the way. Your pasta is finished when it is cooked all the way through and has a pliable, yet not mushy texture. Gently drain and do not rinse pasta.

Shrimp in Tomato and Garlic Sauce

Ingredients

1 pound cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

6-9 cloves garlic, smashed

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt to taste

4 tablespoons butter

pinch of red pepper flakes

½ pound medium shrimp (15-20), de-veined, peeled, pat dry

¼ cup dry white wine

Salt to taste

Cracked fresh pepper

3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Grated parmesan cheese, for garnish (optional)

Procedure

1. Preheat oven to 350. In a large rimmed baking sheet, add tomatoes and garlic. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, tossing quickly with your hands to coat all. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the edges of the garlic turn golden brown.

2. Right before the tomatoes are ready to come out of the oven, heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Melt butter and red pepper flakes 2-3 minutes until butter is slightly nutty and light brown. Add the shrimp and sauté 3-5 minutes, until shrimp are entirely pink (no gray).

3. Take the tomatoes out of the oven and deglaze by pouring the white wine onto the baking sheet and with a wood spoon, scrape up any brown bits (this is where the good flavor is). Add the tomatoes and garlic to the butter and shrimp. Add salt and pepper to taste. Toss with cooked pasta. Garnish with basil and parmesan.

Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic Reduction Drizzle

Serves 2-4

1 pound asparagus, woodsy stem removed

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon maple syrup

Procedure

1. Preheat the oven to 350.  On a rimmed baking sheet, toss asparagus with olive oil and salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer. Bake for 20-25 minutes.

2. While the asparagus is baking, in a small saucepan, combine the balsamic vinegar and maple syrup. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to low until reduced by half, about 15 minutes.

Tiramisu for You and Your Boo

Serves 2-4

Assemble the dessert in a wine goblet or 6 ounce dessert cup. (You can also assemble one big tiramisu and scoop it out.) This is best enjoyed within a couple hours of assembling.

Ingredients

1 cup fresh, strong coffee (can be decaffeinated)

4 tablespoons bourbon, whiskey, or dark rum

8 ounces cream cheese (low fat is fine)

½ cup confectioners (powdered) sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon salt (optional)

½ cup whipping cream

12 ladyfingers

2 tablespoons unsweetened coco powder (optional)

6 raspberries, sliced in half vertically, for garnish (optional)

¼ cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, grated, for garnish (optional)

Procedure

1.In a wide bowl, combine the coffee and 3 tablespoons of the liquor. Set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese, vanilla extract, salt, and 1 tablespoon of the liquor until well incorporated. Gradually add the powdered sugar until fluffy. If using a stand mixer, transfer mixture to a large bowl.

3. In a now empty bowl (no need to wash bowl), whip cream 2-3 minutes until the cream holds stiff peaks. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the two cream mixtures together.

4. In your dessert cups, begin to assemble the tiramisu starting with a few tablespoons of the cream mixture. Next, prepare the ladyfingers by quickly (2-3 seconds) dipping and flipping the ladyfingers in the coffee mixture. (Break the ladyfinger to fit your cup size.)  Add a layer of ladyfingers and alternate with a layer of the cream mixture until your cup is near full and you finish on a cream layer.

5. Garnish with a dusting of coco powder, sliced raspberries, and shaved chocolate. (To dust, put the coco powder in a fine mesh strainer and gently tap the edge over the top of the dessert. You might want to do this over the sink if you’re using small dessert cups.)

January 8, 2014

A Dinner Out at: Take Root

by Jen Wanous

A bitter cold night greeted us as my date and I stepped out of the subway and made our way to Take Root, a tiny Brooklyn restaurant somewhere between Caroll Gardens and Red Hook. We eagerly entered the warm, homey interior and quickly found our seats.

Chef Elise Kornack and her life and business partner, Anna Hieronimus, make up the entire Take Root team. Anna welcomed us, making sure we had everything we needed, while Chef Elise plated food in the tiny open kitchen in the back. We felt more like we were at a friend’s house for dinner; that is, until the food arrived.

We were about 10 minutes late for our 8 pm seating, which meant the three other tables in the dimly-lit dining room already had pillowy slices of bread in front of them and heavenly caramelized brown butter. It also meant we would get a sneak preview of each of the seven courses on the pre-fixe menu that Anna delivered.

Each dish got a well-deserved eyebrow raise and an appreciative nod from my date and me. The colorful drizzles, perfectly placed micro greens and poised crackers wowed us, almost as much as the bold flavors and textures on each artistically plated offering. Dishes like a Jerusalem artichoke, chestnut, eucalyptus and mushroom ravioli had us from the first creamy bite of “hello.” And the beef heart with black garlic, lentil and brassica proved that a creative cut, in all its earthiness, can still enchant — even if we didn’t know what brassica was!

We were serenaded by the likes of Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell and more subdued Sapphic favorites like Beach House and Cat Power. Swayed by the music, dim lights, wine pairings and dessert, we wondered if we could just stay there all night instead of braving the cold again. Luckily, cabs were in good supply and as we headed home, we savored the gift of love and attention that only a good meal, so beautifully attended to, can bring.

ravs

Check out other great blog posts by my friends at Put a Egg On It zine: http://www.putaeggonit.com/word/

December 29, 2013

Get Spicy This New Year: a greens recipe

by Jen Wanous

Some believe that the more greens one eats, the larger one’s fortune will be for next year! Lord knows we can all use some more greens in the form of dollar bills. After all the sweets and meats I ate over Christmas, I’ll take any excuse to eat some hearty veggies.

Invigorate your New Year’s day with this spicy dish of greens and may prosperity fill your new year!

Ingredients

3 pounds of mixed winter greens like collards, beet greens, mustard greens and kale

1 cup red onion, small dice

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar

1 tablespoon spicy brown mustard

1 teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon sea salt

red pepper flakes to taste

olive oil

Procedure

1. Thoroughly soak and rinse the greens. Remove the stem of the leaves and coarsely chop.

2. In a large 6 – 8 quart heavy pot, over medium heat, add two tablespoons olive oil and sauté the red onion. After 5 – 7 minutes, add the garlic and cook for 3 – 5 minutes, stirring often.

3. Turn the heat up to medium-high and add mixed greens, brown rice vinegar, spicy brown mustard, sugar, salt and red pepper flakes. Sauté for 5 – 7 minutes, stirring often until the greens are fully wilted and the ingredients are fully incorporated.

sfksfksfk.tumblr.com

sfksfksfk.tumblr.com

September 16, 2013

Tips for Staying Healthy on a Budget – recipe for fish tacos too!

by Jen Wanous

Eating healthy on a dime, let alone 50 dimes, is not so easy these days. With a few simple tips, you can save money while at the same time main a healthy diet. Here are some simple ways to stay healthy on a budget.

Prioritize Your Organics

The price of organic foods is daunting. The good news is that not all food needs to be organic. Some foods are exposed to more harmful pesticides than others and you can save money by prioritizing organic food where it really counts. The “dirty dozen” list below outlines the most important items you’ll want to shell out for organic.

1. Meat

2. Milk

3. Oil

4. Coffee

5. Peaches

6. Apples

7. Sweet bell peppers

8. Celery

9. Strawberries

10. Lettuce

11. Grapes

12. Potatoes

Buy in Bulk

Dried goods in bulk at your local natural market are a treasure trove of money saving ingredients. The beauty of buying bulk is that you can get exactly how much you need. If you’re cooking for one or two, this can really help save money.

You can save dollars per pound compared to the canned or boxed versions. (Plus it’s a lot less sodium.) And the silver lining is that there is no silver lining! Canned food is almost always coated with BPA which is a harmful endocrine disruptor linked to a higher risk in diabetes, prostate cancer, and heart disease. Steer clear of this and save money too by buying in bulk.

Penny-Pinch Proteins

Anyone who has perused the meat case lately can tell you that grass-fed beef is worth a pretty penny, sometimes up to $8 a pound for ground beef. One way to save money is to re-think what the star of the plate is. With bold flavors and creative portioning, you can have the protein in the meal make up 25% with vegetables at 50% and a grain at 25%. This will help keep your heart healthy too.

You can also select cuts of meat that are less expensive. I like to use chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts. This saves me money and I enjoy the flavor more. When making fish, talapia or catfish can be substitutes for cod or the more expensive mahi-mahi. Both Tilapia and catfish are rated as “best choice” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Food Watch website.

Using selective organic ingredients, bulk dried goods, and more economical proteins, you can create menus that are gentle on your bank account and good for your health too.

—————–

Here is a menu for fish tacos. It shows you how to utilize an inexpensive piece of fish, talapia, and also works with an inexpensive vegetable, cabbage making a vibrant tart slaw. There is also a recipe for a simple pot of black beans. They are easy to make with some forethought and a bit of slow cooking. There are many accompaniments to add and a must of course, are the corn tortillas. As a bonus, this meal is a great gluten free option for you and your guests.

Serves 4

Fish for Fish Tacos

2 limes, zested and juiced

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon chili powder, try chipotle if you have it

2 gloves garlic, pressed or chopped very fine

1 teaspoon salt (less if desired)

1 pound Tilapia

1-2 tablespoons cooking oil

Procedure

1. In a baking dish, combine lime, cumin, chili powder, garlic, and salt. If the fish is frozen, first defrost it in its packaging under cold running water for about a half hour until thawed. Add the pieces of fish making sure all sides are coated in the marinade. Leave out to marinate for 15 minutes.

2. In the meantime make the slaw (recipe below). Warm a slated grill pan or regular skillet over medium- high heat. Add oil, wait a few minutes for the oil to warm, then place the pieces of fish down. Cook for 3-5 minutes on each side until the fish is cooked through. You can tell the fish is ready by sticking a fork in the thickest partt, it should be completely opaque (white and not shiny) and should flake off easily. Break fish into small pieces and place on a serving platter.

Purple Slaw

2 cups purple cabbage, shredded

2 limes, zested and juiced

2 green onions, sliced thin

½ cup cilantro, chopped

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

½ teaspoon salt (less if desired)

Procedure

1. Combine all ingredients and serve on top of tacos.

Black Beans

– 2 cups black beans, pick over and soaked

– 8 cups water

– 1 onion, quartered (any variety of onion will do)

– 3 cloves garlic, smashed

– 1 tablespoon salt (optional)

– 1 bay leaf

Procedure

1. Pick over dried beans to make sure there are no pebbles. I like to spread out my beans on a rimmed baking sheet. Then, in a large pot, cover the beans with at least two inches of water and soak overnight or for 8 hours.

2. Rinse the soaked beans in a colander. Cover with water, add all other ingredients, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 2-4 hours. Taste the beans as they cook. You’ll want a firm but easily yielding bean. Alternately, you can put the soaked beans and other ingredients in a slow cooker to cook while you’re away. Simply add the soaked beans and all other ingredients to cook on low for 8 hours. Remove bay leaf and onion before serving. Keep any leftovers in the fridge for up to a week.

Accompaniments for the Tacos

– Corn tortillas, warm on a flat skillet and hold in a clean dishtowel until ready to serve

– Sour cream, as a garnish (optional)

– Slices of avocado, as a garnish (optional)

– Slices of lime, as a garnish (optional)

– Hot sauce, as a garnish (optional)

April 24, 2013

Voilà: Vegan Steak Frites

by Jen Wanous

I often cook for people with dietary restrictions. These restrictions have ranged from no dairy, soy, nuts, to the stricter, no gluten, sugar, or refined carbohydrates. I look at these restrictions as fun challenges. It’s kind of like being on Survivor (though with access to the greatest organic coop in the country) and trying to make the best out of what you have within the parameters you’re provided. (Wait, is this already a Food Network show?) I particularly like to make oxymoronic dishes like vegan and gluten free lasagna or, like I was most recently asked to create, vegan steak frites.

It was a French themed party, after all, and what is more reminiscent of a late night café rendezvous in Paris than steak frites? The berets could stay on their shelf; I had tofu to work on! From my vegan stint in the redwoods of Santa Cruz, I recalled a thing or two about dressing up tofu. One trick I learned there was that freezing tofu gives it quite a meat-like texture.

According to Cooks Illustrated, May and June 2013, “Tofu is about 86% water; as it freezes, the ice crystals expand, pushing apart the protein network. When thawed, the water drains away, leaving the tofu with a spongy consistency that is highly absorbent.”

With this in mind, I fashioned a solid block of tofu into three “steaks”. First, I sliced the block into thee planks and rounded the corners. (This made for wonderful meaty dramatic effect!) I then popped the planks into the freezer and left them to their meat-tastic transformation. In the morning, I took them out to defrost in the fridge and added a steak-like marinade, invoking the help of the flavor classics of A-1 and Worcestershire sauces.

For real dramatic effect, you could grill the tofu steaks on a slated grill pan. I opted to bake mine with the frites. You guys! Making French fries is so easy;  you, too, can enjoy this comforting snack at home with just a little bit of knife precision. The mini-recipe for the frites is as follows:

Slice two large potatoes into ¼ inch planks then slice again into ¼ inch sticks. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil, toss, sprinkle with salt, and bake for 25-30 minutes at 425 degrees, flipping after 15 minutes. Top with Maldon flake salt, truffle oil or minced fresh parsley, if available.

The next time you find yourself caught between two conflicting culinary worlds, let the accommodating versatility of tofu come to your rescue. Et Voilà! C’est parfait.

 

vegan steak frites

Vegan Steak

Serves 3

Time, active: 30 minutes; inactive: 7 hours

Ingredients

1 Block of firm tofu

2 tablespoons A-1 steak sauce

1 teaspoon vegan Worcestershire sauce (Amy’s brand makes one and so does Trader Joes)

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 clove garlic, smashed

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, groun

Procedure

1. Slice tofu length-wise into three planks. Fashion into any meat-like shape that appeals to you. (I like to round off three corners and keep one end pointed.) Place in a large Ziplock bag and place in the freezer until frozen, at least five hours.

2. Add to the bag the remaining ingredients to make the marinade. Mix well, making sure all sides of the tofu are covered in the marinade. Place in the refrigerator for at least one hour and up to 10 hours.

3. Heat the oven to 425. (Cut your potatoes now for the fries.) Place the tofu planks on a baking sheet and bake for 25-30 minutes, flipping halfway through. Serve with frites!

January 22, 2013

Finding Ramen in Tokyo

by Jen Wanous

The guidebook weighed heavily in my hand as I attempted to navigate Tokyo streets. I couldn’t read a single sign, but thanks in part to my gumption but mostly to the overwhelming generosity of the people in my host country, I always found my way. Food destinations topped my itinerary. I planned to hit the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Ramen Museum, a Michelin star-rated sushi restaurant, and any Seven-Eleven I came across. (They have the most interesting snacks and sell cute socks too!) Sure there were temples, shrines, and architectural gems to pursue as well, but these were mere cultural diversions to fill my time between meals.

Turning off the main drag onto a crowded street, I found myself wandering through a maze of market stalls selling various aquatic creatures. The Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest in the world. I had to stay on my toes, dodging speeding forklifts, flying fish guts, and rushing merchants. I had expected a pungent olfactory experience but every smell I encountered was fresh and salty like the ocean. The busy scene was all very “Where’s Waldo” and I fit into it all perfectly with the camera strapped around my neck and the big goggling grin on my face. The fish lay out on ice in all of their clear-eyed glory. Crabs were neatly tied together; salmon roe was bright popping orange. The tuna was the most remarkable though. Fetching the prettiest penny (well, yen) in these parts, tuna is sold in an early morning auction. But the steep price comes as no surprise. If you’ve ever had sushi, you know how special taro is. Melty, soft, yielding—there is hardly any better sensation in your mouth.

I had heard that this fish market was the best place to eat sushi, but as much as I wanted to rally, it was 9am. I just couldn’t bring myself to breakfast on slices of raw fish, no matter how fresh. Plus, the temperature hovered around 35. I needed something warm. I decided to ask one of the fish merchants wearing a full rubber jumpsuit where to go. “Ga,” I said—which means “where”—and then gave my best try at “eat” in a universal gesture (One hand cupped, the other going from hand to mouth with a chomping motion and a big smile.) Seeing his puzzled look, I squeaked out, “Ramen!?” This he understood. Laughing a little, he said something in Japanese. I looked at him earnestly (but probably a little blankly), desperate to get his recommendation. He repeated but I obviously had no clue what he was saying. Taking mercy on my poor hungry tourist soul, he motioned for me to follow and I trailed along behind him. He hopped in a forklift and motioned for me to get on back. Without hesitation, I jumped on and, heeding his safety advice, grabbed on to the back metal pole. It was ice cold but I held on tight as he sped off and we zipped around the market. I was laughing at the absurdity of the moment and somehow managed to snap a picture while riding. We zoomed over to an outdoor ally where he stopped abruptly and exclaimed, “Ramen!” I hopped off, patted him on the back and said “Arigato!” He nodded and off he went.

I stood at the mouth of a row of small eateries. A piece of fabric with Japanese characters flagged each short entrance.  After passing several sushi places, my gaze caught on a steamy window bustling with activity. Inside I found a low diner counter and stools enough for ten. The customers, all men, sat in front of steaming bowls of ramen, quickly slurping up the noodles. I saw one stool open, so I went in. The waitress and all three cooks in the back welcomed me with a resounding, “Irrasshaimase” I took my seat in the quaint throwback of an eatery and when the waitress came over to ask what I wanted, I pointed to what the man next to me was eating. She said, “Oh, pork ramen?” I said, “Hi” (which means “yes”). It still was early in the morning, but I could handle soup.

When she brought out my breakfast, the intermingling of language, cultures, and eras seemed to coalesce into the giant bowl of ramen before me—like some sort of holy cultural moment had found me there and I partook by slurping up the sacrament.

The trip was far from affordable but when I find myself subsisting on ramen of the instant variety at home in the coming months, at least I’ll have plenty of fond culinary moments to look back on and savor.

October 15, 2012

When Directing a Culinary Event for 3,000, Try This

by Jen Wanous

With walkie-talkie in hand, I entered the raw space that took up an entire city block, as ready as I could ever be. The task at hand: to set-up a three-day culinary event for 3,000 people. Set up included: six kitchens for 140 chef presenters, seven different workshop rooms, one main stage that seated 400, two walk-in refrigerators, one freezer, a tradeshow floor room for 50, two pop-up restaurants, 24 different food cart chefs, electricity and plumbing to it all…and two days to do it.

When the opening day hit, like meat in a grinder, time crunched down hard. With a year of planning now behind me, hours transformed into minutes as every request that came in needed immediate action. Crises were near boiling points around every corner. Everyone needed solutions and I was in a role to give them. Like being a chef in a kitchen, this was trial by fire. My mind ran at a fevered pace as names and schedules flew around. There was no time to write down notes; everything was one long mental note demanding immediate action. Bruises on my toes told of my speedy pace, just shy of running for the 100 hours I worked that week.

With problems popping up left and right, I honed my skill of bringing solutions. Here are a few examples.

Problem: Chef Morimoto (read: uber famous chef, aka: “The Iron Chef”) needs wasabi powder in 15 minutes.
Solution: Instruct assistant to go to the nearest store stating, “Seriously, like Super Market Sweep style, run and get it and run back now.”

Problem: Your boss, and CEO of the company (during the second hour of the event), screams at the top of her lungs at you, bursts into tears citing a myriad of crises. Problems like a sign that is not hung and a walkway that is not wide enough. Oh and also during this moment, she threatens to fire you if you take another Instagram picture.
Solution: Fix all noted problems (it takes five minutes) and definitely hold off on posting Instagram pictures until after the event. (Discovering that deep place of compassion for her helps, but may take up to a week to attain.)

Problem: Your only dishwasher breaks.
Solution: Pray.

Problem: Unions threaten to blow up the rat in front of your event and set up a picket line.
Solution: Hire a union member to be your liaison (aka: Wonder Woman) and have her negotiate the union labor needs so that everyone is happy.

Problem: Upset stomach.
Solution: Don’t eat a doughnut covered in peanut butter, thinking you’re getting more protein that way. Eat a Clif Bar instead.

Problem: Your production assistant decides to drink and then has a diabetic crash, passes out cold on the floor, and refuses medical attention then insists on going to the drug store to get meds. You don’t think that’s a good idea but then a few minutes later, you realize he’s already left. Having visions of him passed out in the street, you leave your event and run after him.
Solution: Get an umbrella (it had to be raining), call your mom (because she always knows what’s best), follow your mom’s advice to go back to your event (he can take care of himself) and then when he returns, put him in a cab home and tell him not to come back. (Did I mention cry? Crying is definitely a factor in the solution.)

All in all, I was given a job to manage something that was unmanageable. This was a three-day culinary event for 3,000 people in a completely raw space on a shoestring budget with very little infrastructure. This gargantuan feat was only made possible by the amazing talents of the team I had assembled. I gave them my trust and they gave me their absolute best.

As the Event Director, I could sure sling a walkie-talkie, but what good was that if the people on the other end were not ready on the draw?

If this were a novel, this would be my page of thanks: Candy, the kiwi intern who worked for free (free!) and added value beyond measure. Jacquie who made more than her fair share of super-market sweeps. Amy–another stellar volunteer–caught the pieces before they hit the ground. Sam was the saving grace and saving sass of this event. Layla, was the backbone of the event, her victory (and mine) lied in not needing anti-anxiety meds! Renata, Renata!, my mentor and confidant. Her grace under fire inspires me like none other.

The whole Wizard crew including, Dana, Matt, Sarah, Caryn, and the redheaded guy John. You all bolstered our faith when you helped come up with solutions and powered through each day. To the electricians, the dishwashers, the carpenters, the film crews, the security guards, the cleaning crews, the volunteers, you all are the foundation of this event.

And to the StarChefs crew, everyone rallied! Thank you for humoring me, trusting me, and helping me.

This has been one wild ride of a culinary adventure. Oh, the highs, you ask? Well, eating a deep-fried pizza made by a chef from Naples, *just* happening to be there when the wining pastry champion passes around his cake for a taste; getting Richard Blais his liquid nitrogen (and getting his cell phone number); and tasting and interacting with 140 of the worlds best chefs. Amazing. These are the things that will feed me moving forward.

Check out the official event wrap up here: http://starchefs.com/cook/events/icc/2012/wrap-up

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