I have long enjoyed a lesser-known kind of sushi called battera, it is rarely seen in the States, even at the most traditional of sushi restaurants. This sushi is comprised of sushi rice, densely pressed into a square wooden form. A layer of rice is pressed down, and then a layer of Japanese mint leaves are placed on top. This is followed with a second layer of rice, pressed, then a layer of salty mackerel and finally topped with sweet pickled kelp. The whole lot is pressed one last time and then cut into rectangular pieces, approximately one inch wide by three inches long. This sushi is to be eaten in two bites, unlike most maki or nigiri. Each bite of battera fills ones mouth with sweet sticky rice, expanding as one chews. The salty mackerel dances in a sea of rice, perfectly complimented by the sharp mint. I’ve used this experience as an inspiration for the following recipe, featuring soy-glazed shiitake and blanched kale. Continue reading
When I was young, my family would have a fish fry every few weeks. Whenever my mother would bring home a few pounds of fresh cod and buttermilk from the grocery store, I immediately knew I was in for a treat. I used to love the process of it all, dipping the fish in the flour, then the buttermilk, and then the flour again. I loved listening to the oil pop and sputter, being to short to watch my father place the battered fish into the pot. There is such theatre to a fish fry, the purposeful steps forming a dance of comestible intent. The flurry of these dancers’ movement is scored by the scents and sounds of sizzling spiced batter and hot snapping oil. No one person takes a passive role in this dance, while the surrounding viewers may only first stand and watch in anticipation, they later become eager participants in the eating. Food is about more than just the things that we digest, it is also about the process, the participants, and the community that create it. These food traditions become an act of modern story telling, a form of ritual that groups use unconsciously to pass on the customs and teachings that make up a heritage. Continue reading
Fall flavors start with the harvest of late summer’s produce, awakening some primal urge for slow cooked meals and poultry. Its the time when we dust off grandma’s cast iron dutch oven or our mother’s crock pot, and begin to plot meals laced with sage, starch, and plenty of butter. Fall brings layers of flavors and layers of clothing, layers that both increase and hide our bulging waistlines. A welcome reprieve from the dreaded swim suit season, allowing ourselves another helping of sweet potatoes under the security afforded only by woolen sweaters and understanding family. Yes, it is a pleasure to start to indulge in gastronomic overkill during a time when we all start to huddle around a warm dinner table as opposed to sitting on a warm beach. A time when it is more pleasurable to hold close to the unconditional positive regard of our loved ones, who are keen to set an open chair at the table, so long as we agree to sit and eat in their company. It is a ceremonial offering of the work and toil we all endure in the hot late summer months, a promise kept by our elders who kept the fires warm as the young return tired from their months of play. Fall is for family, fall is for food, and why shouldn’t it? So when the sun starts to set early, and cotton teeshirts give way to flannel button downs, please consider the duck. Continue reading
Some time back we hosted at our Old Town store a book signing with New York Times Food Columnist, Melissa Clark, who had been making rounds to promote her then-new cookbook, “Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can’t Wait to Make.” We entertained a small crowd as attendees had the opportunity to meet the author, get her autograph, and pick her brain as she fielded questions about cooking and beyond. The book’s release, and subsequently the event, landed in mid-Fall, so it was no surprise that many of the questions and much of the advice she doled out, centered on, among other seasonal topics, brining, stuffing, or otherwise preparing turkey. Melissa Clark, I realized then, is uniquely talented. Besides being a good cook, she has a way of making some perennially nightmarish kitchen projects sound and look surprisingly manageable. Case in point: I’d been trying for a good while with limited success to concoct my own flavor-infused mayonnaise when I stumbled upon some classic Melissa Clark wisdom in the form of a recent column, “Mayonnaise: Oil, Egg, and a Drop of Magic.”
There might be a reason you love a good curry and can’t stomach spinach. A group of European scientists have begun work on a project that could eventually explain everything from your insatiable sweet tooth to your superhuman tolerance for spicy foods. New research on the “genetics of food preferences” suggests our tastes and distastes for certain foods may have their origins in our evolutionary histories, and that our genetic makeup may actually dictate which foods we find attractive, and which ones we abhor. The project – officially called Marco Polo (after the explorer who famously travelled the trade route centuries ago) – examines DNA from a number of cultures and communities along Eurasia’s historic Silk Road in an effort to determine how genetic variation translates to palatal differences within and across cultures. And while Marco Polo’s orchestrators still have significant work to do before the project sees its conclusion, early research has already turned up some interesting results which could, given time, lead to advancements in food science and changes in the direction of food industry research.
One of the benefits of working at The Spice House is the opportunity to have new and unique sensory experiences on a regular basis. Just how our senses are stimulated depends on the nature of the task we are handling at any given moment, but the truth is there is very little work to be done at our store that won’t open the eyes, clear the sinuses, or intrigue the taste buds. Indeed, there is a lot to take in at our little shop, from exotic sights and scents to vibrant flavors and even sounds (our founder, the late Bill Penzey Sr., often proclaimed there was music in the spices themselves, although it might go undetected by the untrained or inattentive ear). Of all the work at The Spice House, however, there may not be a job that so deeply buries the hand in sensory stimuli as blending spices.
We at the Spice House would like to extend our sincerest congratulations to newlyweds Dimitri and Naomi Moore. Dimi and Naomi tied the knot on August 25th at Pilsen’s Living Room Lounge, following a seven-month engagement. It is always special to play a part in a story with a happy ending, and we were honored to learn that the Moores remember our store fondly as the place they began their romantic journey together.
There is a tasty tradition at the Spice House (at least in our Old Town store), which we typically celebrate with the return of a manager or another from vacation or travel. Many of us spend a good amount of time taking food very seriously, and our connections as spice retailers often bring about opportunities to sample a lot of seriously high quality food and treats from kitchens around the city. So, from time to time it is refreshing, as a change of pace, to lower our standards a bit and indulge in something that is not overtly culinary, but still very delicious: snack chips.
Last week, a kind gentleman representing the fine spiced liqueur, Bénédictine, stopped by the shop. He was looking to procure a wide variety of herbs and spices, each representing prime flavor notes in Bénédictine's closely guarded secret recipe. Using these, he would create an aroma kit, like those used by wine tasters, to demonstrate his liqueur's depth to costumers. With the aid of Bridget, Old Town's manager, the gentleman was so pleased with the Spice House that he offered a bottle for us to enjoy. So the question was posed, “how best to honor such a fine gift?” With a custom cocktail, that's how! This is how the “Spice House Sling” was born. Continue reading
For as long as I can remember, which isn't long, the focus of American cuisine has trended in two decipherable and opposite directions: (1) cooking and eating more healthily, and (2) extreme flavor indulgence at, sometimes, the expense of good health. It could be the lack of necessity (I haven’t yet eclipsed the quarter-century mark), or maybe it is the way I was raised (my dad served many a bacon-wrapped bratwurst for brunch), but I’ve found over the years that food trends rooted wholly in maximizing flavor and deliciousness have held my attention far better than the ones that purport to keep my cholesterol down.