87-94/1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die
Some odds and ends from around the country and around the book in this entry.
Let’s begin with Japan…
Sushi — Japanese (87)
A few weeks ago I went to visit my family in Louisiana, and my mom took me to her favorite sushi place in Lafayette. I know that sushi in the South might sound less than authentic, but if you think about it, nobody knows fresh fish like the citizens of Louisiana (except, perhaps, the citizens of Japan). And while I do one day hope to be able to eat sushi in Japan, right now, stateside sushi will satisfy the urge. Of course it’s possible to take sushi very, very seriously, as Mimi informs us. “Serious connoisseurs always sit at the sushi bar, eating each offering as it is presented, so there is no chance for the temperature or texture to go wrong. The freshness of the fish is so important that a bona fide maven — a tsujin — would have sushi only for lunch, as the morning’s catch ages as the day wears on.” Of course, I want my fish to be as fresh and delicious as the next tsujin, but I also like to enjoy my meals, so I take a slightly more relaxed stance on sushi etiquette. Mimi, however, delights in laying out all the rules for prep in her book, which I will refer you to for the full report, but I did want to share one little nugget. Apparently, in the strictest tradition, a woman is not allowed to be a sushi master (an itamae) because “women’s hands are too warm.” I guess I need to add itamae parity to my list of causes.
In the bottom left corner of the photo below, you will see…
Tamagoyaki — Japanese (88)
Those yellow strips of sweet omelet served over rice are a must-order for me at any sushi dinner. Mimi corroborates: “Sushi connoisseurs believe that you can tell how good the chef is by tasting his tamagoyaki… what they’re looking for is a delicately sweet flavor and a soft texture that is neither spongy nor wet, neither dry nor browned, but instead perfectly light, airy, and almost soufflé-like, a bite-sized morsel full of delightful nuance.” Now, we know that Mimi runs hyperbolic, of course, but I have to say that her description has made me question whether or not I’ve ever had really authentic tamagoyaki, and resolved to continue to tasting it whenever possible until I find that Platonic Ideal omelet.
Of course you’ll also see in the photo below, a bold green blob of…
Wasabi — Japanese (89)
No sushi meal would be complete with out that “bright, neon-green, strongly-flavored paste on your sushi platter.” Wasabi is made from the root of the mountain hollyhock, an herb that grows wild along the banks of cold mountain streams in Japan. The paste that adorns your sushi bit-by-bit (never mixed into the soy sauce, per both Mimi and Anthony Bourdain) gives an added punch of heat to the flavors of the sushi, with almost no aftertaste. Apparently, wasabi herbs are very hard to cultivate and very expensive, so it is most likely that (except when I’ve eaten at very expensive sushi places), I have not usually had fresh wasabi, but instead, a paste made from dried wasabi powder. Years ago, I read that wasabi kills bacteria, and that’s why it’s a perfect complement to raw fish — it actually makes eating sushi safer. A quick internet search, however, says that “contrary to popular belief,” wasabi does not kill bacteria, but does aid in digestion. The more you know.
My mom is the person who taught me to love sushi when I was just a wee tween, and she also graciously allowed her hands to be included in the picture below, “so they’ll know I was here.”
Our Japanese dinner that night was not limited to sushi. We also had…
Miso Soup — Japanese (90)
Which can be, fascinatingly, a breakfast food. Mimi reveals, “It’s estimated that more than 70 percent of Japanese citizens begin their day with a bowl of the savory soy-based soup thought to alkalize blood and revive the nervous system.” I love the stuff, and have had variations involving tofu, jalapeños, mushrooms, clams, and just about everything else. It’s deeply comforting and simple, as most bean-based dishes are. I’m not alone in feeling this way. Mimi says that miso can be found anywhere, any time, in Japan; it can even be purchased from miso-specific vending machines.
We also partook of…
Tempura — Japanese (91)
Like everything else in Japanese cooking, it seems, there are a lot of rules about tempura. You’d think deep-frying shrimp and vegetables would be pretty laissez-faire, but you would be wrong. According to Mimi, everything about tempura is deeply intentional, from the decision about what to fry (“the strong inherent flavors of chicken, pork, and beef are generally believed to overwhelm the batter”) to the choice of oil. But the batter is where the tempura rules get really specific, not so much in the ingredients, but in their treatment. “The water must be iced, and the batter must remain discernibly lumpy… this last is what prevents gluten from forming and creating a heavy, bready coating.” Indeed, its lightness is what sets tempura batter apart from the rest of the deep-fry pack, and enables someone to eat it as a simple, delicious appetizer before a big meal of raw fish.
Now, moving on to other chapters of the book and corners of the world.
Prosciutto — Italian (92)
I went to Foragers for a late-night drink with my friend Holly a few days ago, and since all the meat there is locally-sourced and happy, we partook of some excellent meats and cheeses. Prosciutto is arguably the world’s finest preserved ham, though this is a controversial statement among people who get into arguments about ham. But even I, a casual meat-eater, have to concede its deliciousness, which is a result of labor-intensive preparation and time (as so many great things are). Mimi explains to us that the hind legs of hogs are heavily packed in sea salt and hung to air-dry from six months to two years — the longer the drying time, the higher the price and more intense the flavor. “The result is firm but supple meat, teasingly salty but with buttery overtones and without any smokiness to compromise the flavor.” I love smokiness myself, in practically any food, but I get where she’s coming from. The prosciutto at Forager’s met all of Mimi’s benchmarks for thinness of slice, rosy-red color, and saltiness. A+.
Pizza — Italian (93)
NYC pizza is ubiquitous and justifiably famous (not to mention, one of the few things you can get for under $2 in this incredibly expensive city). I have a two favorite sliceries: Artichoke Basil and Joe’s Pizza, depending on how fancy I’m feeling. But to check this box on Mimi’s list, I thought it would be even more fun to make a pizza at home with Miles, so we did. Dough from Whole Foods, topped with tomato sauce, thinly sliced tomatoes, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, crumbled chicken meatballs, and an absurd amount of mozzarella cheese. It was, as you can tell from the below photo, an enormous success. Now, I will tell you something that I would never tell Mimi: my favorite pizza toppings are pineapple and jalapeño. Together. I know that’s shameful, but the sweetness of the roasted pineapple and the bite of the jalapeño are perfect compliments, and I can’t help myself. This is an especially effective combo in a casserole-style Chicago pizza. Mimi chastises, “to the most serious cognoscenti, the Margherita [tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil] is still the only pizza worthy of the name,” but I say, especially when you’re baking it at home, follow your bliss.
And now, for a complete wildcard…
Hasselbackspotatis — Swedish (94)
Hasselback Potatoes are a dish Miles and I have been making at home for years, but I used Mimi’s recipe this time, for added authenticity. Basically, it’s the simplest thing ever, that looks really impressive when you serve it to friends. You slice a potato a bunch of times, really thinly, 3/4 of the way through, brush it with butter, salt and pepper it, and bake in the oven. Mimi’s method calls for adding more butter, breadcrumbs, and a sprinkle of parmesan halfway through the baking process, which gives the potatoes a little bit of a crunch, but I don’t mind the simpler preparation we’re used to around here. Mimi also advocates for peeling the potatoes at the start, which we did not do; I heard as a child that the skin of things is “where are all the vitamins are,” and I’ve latched on to that as some kind of food gospel. So here they are are: skin-on, lightly cheesed, totally delicious.