Sunday, July 5, 2009

Comfort Food

Everyone has their comfort foods--foods from childhood, foods from home, foods that remind us of our favorite people and places and times. The thing about growing up in Kentucky and the Carolinas is that my comfort foods are not always the best for me. My sweet dirty dirty. The gravy, the butter, the sugary smoky sauces. Fried pork chops, fried apples, and the completely seriously named chicken fried steak. The pie crusts are made with lard and the biscuits are made with buttermilk. There is no part of an animal that can't be fried or pickled, and there is no vegetable that can't be improved by boiling it for hours with something cut out of a pig. The church picnics and family reunions with their deviled eggs, buckets of fried chicken, and mayonnaise soaked salads topped off with sticky cobblers and cakes so rich and sweet your teeth hurt. Chicken and dumplings. Pimento cheese. Bacon.

Obviously, I haven't been eating like this in Japan; that would be next to impossible. I think food like this is the very reason I hear Japanese people talk about smuggling in suitcases full of dashi and miso when they travel to the states. But that doesn't mean I wasn't trying. One of my biggest fears about going to a more plant based diet was losing my comfort foods, especially while I'm living abroad. Some days food is the thing you miss the most, and--judging by he laments of Brits without baked beans, Brazilians in stage 4 beef withdrawal, and Aussies setting up underground Vegemite-based economies--it's not just a southern thing

But I've been realizing that my comfort foods aren't all bad for me. I mean, after you take the pig (ok the mayonnaise, too) out of the equation, the foods I ate growing up were quite healthy. I took another look at the tables of my mother and grandmother's houses, the picnics, the barbecues, and I saw corn on the cob, black eyed peas, vinegared cucumbers & onions, beans and rice, and a huge watermelon staying cool in the creek. All the fresh raw fruits and vegetables we ate without even thinking about it. My time in the Carolinas was the first time I'd ever had seafood straight from the ocean, all steamed in a big pot with potatoes, carrots, and onions. Then there was all the stuff that was around when I was a kid that I wouldn't eat because I was a little weirdo--turnips and tomatoes and greens and beets--but my mom just kept serving them up.

Living in Japan and traveling in Asia has been awesome for my cooking. I make stuff I would have never dreamed of trying just a few years ago. But I always come back home. I'm trying hard to stay out of the mindset of eating the same but minus the meat, and I'm doing pretty good most of the time I think. In the end, though, you can take the girl out of the south, but, well, just ask me about the piggy-dawg some time. It sometimes feels like I could never make even my favorite non-meat foods without meat flavoring, but I'm finding that's not true. It's amazing how just a little touch of vinegar, molasses, hot sauce, cornmeal, or liquid smoke takes me back home. How much biting into still warm summer vegetables is just as satisfying when they're from my Kosugi yasaiya.

For some reason, summer makes me miss home more than any other season in Japan. Here's what I've been doing to keep myself sane.

My 4th of July Dinner. (1) Cole slaw. Red cabbage, carrots, & onion tossed in apple cider vinegar, honey, mustard seeds, and a soy milk-sunflower oil emulsification. (2) Baked beans. Pinto beans, onion, garlic, tomato paste, soy sauce, liquid smoke, molasses, mustard seed, & chili pepper, but there might have been one or two other things. (3) Shredded BBQ seitan. I can't remember exactly how I made the sauce, but mostly ketchup, sweet chili sauce, apple cider vinegar, liquid smoke, and chili pepper. (4) And of course, corn on the cob with a bit of S&P. Yummers!

The "I'm Homesick" Dinner I made for Max. (1) Okra soaked in soy milk, then dredged in a cornmeal mix and fried in sunflower oil. (2) Tomatoes are so good right now. (3) Sliced cucumbers and onion soaked in apple cider vinegar and honey. (4) Potatoes, green peppers, and onions pan fried in a bit of olive oil, then sprinkled with salt & pepper. (5) Tofu scramble.

One of my best food memories ever was going down to Rough River with my mom and Dave. We went out on the boat--a long, hot, fun day. Just as I was starting to feel peckish, my mom started pulling individually wrapped muffuletta sandwiches out of a cooler. It was the best thing I had ever eaten. Seriously. Just last week, when I replaced the stacks of salami and ham with roasted eggplant, mushrooms, and bell peppers, I realized that it wasn't the meat, but the olive relish that took me back to that day.

In a real-life example of how (not) to Southernize something, my mom used to love to eat a half an avocado with a spoon of mayo in the little bowl (surprisingly, she stayed quite slim). I thought it was gross at the time. These days I love avocados, though i like to fill mine with lime juice, chili pepper, & powdered garlic.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The History Of A Breakfast

This morning's breakfast was beast: tofu mushroom scramble, cucumber-tahini-miso dip, cucumber tomato couscous with sweet pomegranate vinaigrette, all scooped up into lettuce wraps and washed down with with a hot cup of yerba mate.

Even though I’m just now getting it together with my nutrition for the rest of the day, my breakfast game has been on point for some time now. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day--that’s what they say, right? And even though I know in my head that it’s true, it’s hard to feel that way when I am stumbling around my kitchen in a state that could in no way be described as lucid. I have never in my life been a morning person. Whether I go to bed at 9PM or 1AM, whether I work 1st shift or 3rd shift, whether I exercise regularly or binge drink regularly, that first hour after I wake up, no matter the time, is one filled with feelings ranging from anger to confusion to near catatonia.

That’s why I like to keep quick, easy breakfast foods around, things I can throw together while waiting for my teapot to boil. I’ve found a good mix of fiber & protein is best for getting me through the bike ride to work, waking me up in time for first period, and keeping me going all the way through to lunch. I generally mix and match from 3 groups—granola/bran flakes/oatmeal/rice + yogurt/soy milk/eggs + banana/apple/orange/berries. I throw in little treats like coconut milk, honey, Sriracha, nuts, sesame paste, dried fruit, spices, shredded coconut, etc, and I really don’t get bored. Anyway, this is my least picky eating time of the day.

You might have noticed eggs in that second group. Well, I’m off eggs now. I didn’t really eat eggs that often, so it’s not a huge deal, but I do like them. I’ve been reading about tofu scrambles for a while now, and this one looked promising especially, but still I’ve been incredibly wary. I just kept thinking that the sadness of biting into a disappointing animal product analogue first thing in the morning might be too much to bear. Plus the whole production is about 5 more steps than I’d like to take for breakfast. But last night I realized I had all the ingredients, and I decided I’d go for it in the morning.

OK I’m getting ahead of myself. This breakfast didn’t start with a scramble. It started with cucumbers—a Sunday morning craving brought on by one wild Saturday night (a night that quite weirdly yielded me 2 big limes, but that’s something else). By some serendipitous turn, Monday happened to be cucumber harvest day in the garden at my visiting school, and a 100 yen coin in the jar in the teacher’s room bought me 5 huge (for japan) ones. All I wanted was to combine these cucumbers with 3 things--green cardamom pods, pomegranate juice, and whole wheat couscous (due to an online shopping spree last pay day, every space in my kitchen is packed with ingredients exotic by southern United States standards and unheard of in rural Japan), but I couldn’t find a good recipe. So 1 lime, 2 cucumbers, 3 green cardamom pods, and a whole bunch of experimenting later, I had an enormous bowl of cool, sweet, tart, crunchy, yummy couscous. I’ll blog the recipe eventually, but I’m not exactly sure what I did, so I need to do a complete remake.

Tuesday night, I shredded the rest of my cucumbers and added them to this tahini miso dip. Normally I don’t like to use my blender after 9PM since I live in an apartment made of paper, but after listening to my upstairs neighbor’s kid switch between practicing judo and working on his best banshee scream while I was trying to watch Weeds, I didn’t feel so bad. This dip was supposed to be for the Toyama Book Club Meeting on Wednesday night (my choice this month—Geek Love—best book ever, but don’t read it while eating this, or anything), but I had to give it a little testaroo at breakfast.

So, back to breakfast. I had one serving of couscous left--I eat leftovers for breakfast sometimes, too—and a huge bowl of cucumber-tahini-miso dip, so no hassle there. But the scramble, well actually it was quite easy. The night before, I left the tofu with a plate on top to press out the moisture, cut up my onions & mushrooms and a little wedge of lime for the juice, and pulled all the spices I’d need and sat them next to the stove. And the result was….amazing! So good, no kidding. The texture was great—I use eringi mushrooms, which are kind of fibrous and chewy, and the drier, meatier yaki tofu was a good choice for this recipe, I think. The turmeric and paprika gave the scramble a beautiful color. And the flavor was just ridiculous—thyme, cumin & lime—never would have thought of it, but it totally worked. The nutritional yeast gave it the bit of umami it needed. But the real star, and really the whole reason I wrote about this breakfast, was black salt.

Yeah, I didn’t know what it was, either. During my online spendorama, I was feeling adventurous, so I ordered a bunch of mystery ingredients from indojin. Turns out black salt comes from volcanic rock and smells like sulfur, which, you know all too well if you’ve ever been to a sulfur bath, smells like eggs. I read it’s sometimes used to give egg flavor to a vegan dish, but come on, not really, right? I added a bit to this recipe out of curiosity, and BLACK SALT ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME? It’s magic egg rock. I’m not playing. Don’t wait another day--make this recipe, add some black salt, and blow your mouth’s mind.

So yeah, that was breakfast.