Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Comfort Food - Butano Kakuni

Despite the hot weather (I think our brief “winter” is over now) I find myself suddenly craving for a Japanese dish called butano kakuni (豚の角煮). It’s basically a braised pork dish made with pork belly or any cut of pork with layers of fat and lean meat. It is not sophisticated food but it has to be done the right way with the right flavors in the broth. One of my favorite izakayas in Tokyo serves a very nice version covered in creamy mashed mountain potato. It has such a rich and complex flavor and the pork is so soft it literally melts in your mouth.

Lucky for me, I don’t have to go to my favorite Izakaya in Tokyo to eat this because while in Japan I started collecting recipes of my favorite Japanese food from magazines in preparation for the day that I would leave Japan. Butano kakuni being one of my favorites I have more than a few recipes on hand. After reading through all the recipes, I decided to combine a couple of them and make my own version with a few additions. First I added Japanese radish, or Daikon. When cooked with fish or meat for a long time it absorbs all the juices and flavors and becomes soft in texture. I often find myself eating more of the daikon than the meat itself. One other thing that goes really well with broiled meats is hard boiled eggs. It’s similar to daikon in its flavor absorbing properties and it bulks up the dish nicely.

This recipe takes a long time to make, but except for the initial step of browning the pork, most of it requires minimum supervision. You could get it started after lunch, and potter around the house taking care of other things while the pork stews away on the stove. The best thing is that it could be prepared ahead. In fact it tastes even better the next day or two days later. What’s more, you could chill the dish and skim off the fat the next day before reheating, making it healthier. Some people think that pork belly is too fatty, but surprisingly it is not greasy at all when done. As Jason always says, “The fat is all cooked away!”

Here’s the recipe and as simple food goes, it’s best eaten simply with a bowl of white rice and some steamed green vegetables. How’s that for comfort food that is healthy!

Japanese Braised Pork Belly/Butano Kakuni

2 x 400g pork belly strips
700g Japanese radish
radish leaves, if available
4 hard boiled eggs, with slits cut into them
6cm piece of ginger, sliced, with skin on
1 dried red chili
1 leek, green parts only, do not cut
100ml sake
2 tbsp sugar
100ml Japanese dark soy sauce

1. Peel radish and cut into 2cm thick half-moon shaped slices
2. Cut radish leaves into 4cm long and blanch in boiling water
3. Heat up Teflon coated frying pan over med heat. Place pork belly strips into pan and brown on all sides, wiping off oil with paper towel once in a while.
4. Place radish pieces into pan with pork and stir fry briefly so that radish is covered in oil. Remove radish and set aside.
5. Place pork, ginger, chili and green part of leek into a heavy pan. Add 600ml of water and heat over med-high heat. Once boiled skim off foam and cover with lid.
6. Let simmer for 1 hour, stop the fire and let sit with lid on for another hour
7. Remove pork and sieve stock into a clean bowl. Measure out 300ml and return to cleaned pot, along with sake and sugar.
8. Cut each belly strip into 4 pieces and place into pot.
9. Heat over med-high heat until boils. Then cover and simmer for 10 min
10. Add soy sauce, cover with parchment paper lid (otoshibuta) and then pot lid and simmer for another 50 min. Add radish and hard boiled egg to pot for the last 40 min.
11. Add radish leaves to pot and stir before serving.

This is an entry to the Monthly Mingle Comfort Food. Check out what other comfort food that people are cooking up =o)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Lynn's Cookie Factory

It all started one night when I was surfing the internet and discovered a website selling all kinds of cookie cutters. They were extremely reasonably priced, with most selling below $2. Now, if you ask me I’ll deny it but I think I might have a secret agenda to collect all the kitchen gadgets and pastry tools ever made, so finding this treasure trove really had me over the moons. An hour of blissful shopping later my wallet was $200 lighter. Who knew $1.99 could add up so fast?!

With the impending arrival of cookie cutters in more shapes than I know what to do with, I did some research on cookie decoration. To achieve the sophisticated look I want, there are basically two methods: flooding with royal icing, or covering with rolled fondant. I’m familiar with royal icing, having used it extensively to decorate gingerbread cookies, trees and houses, but I’ve never worked with fondant before. In my first semester at Le Cordon Bleu Tokyo, I managed to injure my wrist, so detailed royal icing work always results in achy joints that hurt for weeks afterwards. What’s more, it’s fun to try a new challenge, and that’s how I found myself doing more internet surfing on fondant tools. Another few hundred dollars later, I had placed an order on a great variety of fondant tools, most of which I’d never seen or heard of before.

By the time the two boxes finally arrived via Vpost USA a month later, I was in the midst of a year-end baking frenzy, which put a damper on my initial fascination over the whole idea of fondant-decorated cookies. I tried my best to organize the cookie cutters into themes but there were just so many of them that I finally gave up and chucked them all back into the original shipping carton that they came in. As for the fondant tools, I had no idea how to use them. I bought a bag of white fondant but let it sit in the drawer unopened, so I still didn’t know what fondant looked or felt like.

Then a friend of mine wanted something different this year for Chinese New Year. Here’s a little bit of background information: during Chinese New Year, people go around visiting friends and relatives and it is tradition (at least in Singapore) to bring the host two oranges. In return, the host gives the visitors two oranges to bring back. Somebody explained it to me once, and I can’t remember for sure, but I think it has something to do with the exchange of luck or prosperity, or both. Anyway, my friend thought that instead of giving out oranges, she could give out orange shaped cookies. She wanted me to think about what I could make, so I thought about it, hard. The challenge is that orange is a boring round shape, but not perfectly round, and I have no cookie cutter for it. Then there’s the problem of texture. Poured royal icing would yield a smooth surface, but for it to really look like an orange, it has to have those little dimples. I was stumped, until I thought of fondant. So this is what I did. I colored the fondant orange and cut them into shape, then I pricked them all over with a marzipan tool to give it texture. Voila!

It was my first time working with fondant, having shunned it in the past due to their less than desirable taste. But I have to admit, I had fun with these cookies. Have you ever played with clay when you were young? Then fondant is for you! It was like play clay, for adults. And being an adult, the result is much more eye-pleasing than the shapeless globs that used to come out from under my fingertips. And I’m happy to report that my friend is very pleased with the results too.

After the success with the orange cookies, I decided to break out the baby cookie cutter set that I ordered and make something really pretty for a friend who’s having a baby girl. I thought she could use them as gift tags as part of her baby’s one-month confection gifts. Aren’t they pretty?

I was even pleasantly surprised by the taste of the cookies. Because I used freshly grated lemon/orange zest, the cookies were fragrant and I rolled the fondant really thin so it was not overwhelmingly sweet. And above all, I had so much fun making these cookies I’m going to go through the cookie cutters and experiment with designs so I can add them to my Cookie Factory. Next up, wedding/engagement themed cookies.

Monday, January 07, 2008

A New Beginning on Flickr

First of all, let me just say that one should never surf the internet while half asleep. Because when you’re almost falling asleep you tend to make decisions without using your brain, which is what happened to me around New Year’s. I was browsing through flickr as a means to put off going to bed, as I tend to do on so many late nights. As always, I checked comments that people left on my photos. At this time of the year there are a lot of Happy Holidays greetings and it’s always nice to get them, even from strangers who just happen to pass by. One message contained a link and when I clicked on it, it took me to another page that required re-entering my password. I thought it was odd that flickr would do that, but being half-asleep I was on autopilot and entered my password as asked. I was then taken to a page with a nice photo of a pretty girl and some flowers. I thought it was rather strange but didn’t think too much of and went to bed.

On Saturday I was still in bed when Jason yelled from the study that he couldn’t find my flickr account. Being half-asleep (I seem to be doing that a lot lately) I dismissed it as a glitch in the system. When I got up I had to take Libby to the vet and proceeded to spend half a day there. It was only after lunch when I tried to log in myself that I found out that my account was gone. Poof! My comments on other people’s photos, my faves, everything was gone. It was as if I never existed on flickr, except the groups that I created were still there, only that the admin is now a faceless icon instead of me. It was at that moment that I realized that I had been phished. I wrote to flickr help but it seems pretty clear that they cannot restore the thousands of photos and tens of thousands of comments that are linked with my account (those that I made on other people’s photos and those that other people made on mine).

On Sunday, I started to get emails asking me what happened to my account. Some are from friends and some are from people I didn’t know or remember. While it’s comforting to know that I am actually missed on flickr, it also made me realize that losing that account means losing touch with friends I’ve made on flickr.

I’ve been with flickr from almost the very beginning. When I first joined I had just started taking photos again after quitting my job, using a dinky little Sony T-1, yes, the first generation super-slim Sony mini cameras. I found inspirations on flickr everyday, and saw myself striving to do better. Gradually, I improved. Three years and three cameras later, my photos are regularly seen on Flickr Explore (the most interesting 500 photos selected everyday) and have even made it to the top ten on more than a few occasions. My photos were published in the Wall Street Journal thanks to flickr; I was commissioned to take photos for Le Gouter Bernadaud (a lot of photos on this website are taken by me) because of photos on my flickr site; and last year, I photographed a cookbook. I still find inspirations from people who I count as contacts: MatthewA, Imapix, speedM, bokchoyboy, La Tartine Gourmand, rosemary*, Ya Ya, Lulu & Phillipe, Tommy Oshima, pfong, just to name a few. I also value the comments and critique that people leave on my photos. To say that I feel that a little part of my life is gone when my flickr account was deleted is to put it mildly. The only saving grace is that I have double, triple backups of every file I’ve ever uploaded on flickr so the photos are not lost.

I don’t know whether I will or even want to attempt to rebuild my account because it was more than just a couple of photo sets, it documented part of my life for the past three years. I thought about not returning, but giving up on flickr also means giving up on all the wonderful people on flickr. Above all, the emails that people sent me saying they’ll miss my photos and a friend’s wise words made me decide to return:

“And remember, never get angry or else the person who did this will be even happier..never punish yourself with others mistakes..

At one point of time in life we have to go through such bad experience, stay cool and move on if nothing can be done..

Stay happy and bake some good cookies and a cuppa of great coffee on your weekend

So to the person who did this: deleting other peoples’ accounts doesn’t make you a hero or a smart guy. You will not get any satisfaction from me because I will come back and my photos will be even better.

And to the one who made the callous remark that I somehow deserved this: when I said have a nice life, I mean it. Stop stalking me!