Growing up, every commercial for cereal ended with the caveat that is was “part” of a complete breakfast, a tacit admission that puffed corn and fructose don’t accomplish much. Inevitably, the next shot was a table crammed with the supplemental foods needed to finish the job: glasses of juice, milk, toast, jam etc. Even then I realized they had no idea what they were doing. At school, teachers annoyingly reminded me it was the most important meal of the day, and yet everyone seemed to go out of their way to eat the worst possible things.
Breakfast has been in decline throughout much of the world since the industrial food revolution pushed our diets to the limits of common sense. Japanese tried to take to the Western style, frying eggs and, not knowing any better, serving them up cold with thick toast and milk coffee. The French, like a bunch of bad children, decided they would skip to dessert, filling their plates with brioche, croissant, and tartine. In America, it was cereal. The only thing cereal ever told me was to go back to bed, that life is a tale told by an idiot, and that nothing worth doing, or eating, happens until at least noon.
The Kingsley Amis book Everyday Drinking features a short review of breakfasts as taken by famous men, which I hoped would lend some perspective. Instead, the list historicized this trend toward self-nullification, paradoxically as done by people who had intended to wake up, from Winston Churchill with his cold snipe (some kind of game bird) and port wine, to Horatio Bottomley’s pickled herring and brandy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Sunday breakfast, six fried eggs with a glass of laudanum, guaranteed a hazy afternoon of Romantic poetry and little else.
All of which reminds me of brunch, an event I’m often invited to and confused by, a display of what is generally considered degenerate behavior, getting drunk before noon and eating pancakes, put on by the most put-together people I know. Is it their weekly chance at dolce far niente? I’d rather sleep in.
I spent years in this haze, turning down brunch invitations and fasting through the antemeridian hours until I found myself in the Japanese countryside, jetlagged and waking up at six every morning. Signs of life were scarce, a pleasant fog drifted through the pines, and from the distance, a familiar aroma, which I traced to kitchen where I found the only other person awake, the house matriarch as she made breakfast. It was a scene straight from a costume drama, this little old lady in a pale pink kimono setting the table: steamed rice with homemade tsukemono, a broiled fish, and a bowl of miso soup. It resembled something that I would eat at lunch or dinner, when more awake. The funny thing is that she was about to run to the store to get cereal for me, assuming it was what Americans like to eat.
“Yes, we do eat it, but I don’t think anyone really likes it,” I told her, and we had breakfast together on the tatami mats by the window. I had the strangest feeling that I had been expected, that the cereal line was a joke, and that she was about to reveal some life changing wisdom, as it often transpires, quite unexpectedly.
Her advice was simple: never eat anything for breakfast that you wouldn’t eat for dinner. Good food is good food, and every meal is the most important.
Such is the philosophy of the full Japanese breakfast, and I’ve been slowly working its finer points into my daily routine. The idea is to nail the formula: rice, tsukemono, broth, some fruit maybe, a light vegetable, green tea, and a little piece of fish. Improvisations and small compromises allow this to be an everyday thing, rather than the big to-do it might turn out to be. In the absence of a freshly broiled sanma, for example, one might have tinned sardines, or preserved salmon. The rice can be made the night before, left covered on the countertop. Pickles keep well in the refrigerator. The soup could just be a chicken broth or leftover dashi with a bit of miso mixed in. The point is, a traditional Japanese breakfast is easier than it sounds. In a rush, it can be as easy as pouring tea over rice to make ochazuke, or with a half hour to spare the decision might be made to go to town.
Full Japanese Breakfast
Rice: If there’s time, freshly cooked short grain rice is hard to beat, but rice keeps well at room temperature overnight. Many Japanese with electric rice cookers take advantage of the timer setting to wake up to hot rice, the way Americans use Mr. Coffees.
Natto: Not everyone’s cup of tea, but fermented soy beans have been a staple of the Japanese diet for centuries, with its slimy consistency and singular, savory taste. Mixed with soy sauce, sliced scallions, and a little wasabi or hot mustard, it goes well over a bowl of rice.
Tsukemono: Good quality Japanese pickles are those made with a short list of natural ingredients and provide sour, sweet, and savory counterpoints to plain white rice. Umeboshi is a classic, as is takuan, and both are commonly available at Asian grocery stores. For an easy homemade touch, overnight koji pickles can be made with sliced cucumber, daikon, or eggplant.
Fish: An oily fish like mackerel or salmon is one of the best tastes in the morning. Salt generously and broil for a few minutes on each side, until the skin has a nice char to it. Garnish with grated daikon and soy sauce.
Soup: I use a teapot to create a quick dashi every morning with a handful of katsuobushi and a small square of kombu. Just allow it to steep for a couple of minutes. For miso soup, add a tablespoon per cup of dashi and whisk to dissolve.
Ochazuke, or green tea over rice, is a quicker, condensed version of the full Japanese breakfast. Similar to ojiya, the dish easily absorbs the ingredients at hand, from leftovers to the freshly-made, balancing the subtle taste of green tea and dashi, with salted fish, tsukemono, and a hundred other garnishes. What follows is only a starting suggestion of the toppings I often use.
preserved fish (I used porgy marinated in shio koji)
toasted sesame seeds
finely sliced nori
tsukemono (takuan, umeboshi)
dashi brewed with green tea (I prefer the roasted hojicha)
While you bring a kettle of water to boil, prepare the rest of the ingredients: in a soup bowl, add rice, fish, sesame seeds, nori, and pickles. The amounts are up to you, depending on how hungry you are. When the water boils, prepare a quick dashi according to instructions here, adding about two teaspoons of hojicha leaves per cup of dashi. Again, the amount of soup you add is your preference, but an equal amount of soup and rice is a good place to start. After steeping for a few minutes, pour the hot tea over the other ingredients and add a bit of salt to taste.
Spring has slowly emerged from the cold and grey, bringing the nettles, mushrooms, and the talk of wild ramps. The alleyways, once narrow corridors of icy brick, have come to life with wildflowers and weeds of every sort. Next will be the old Korean women, noses to the ground, picking through the meadows by the lake for dandelion greens. The air carries with it a verdant quality, the sweet smell of fleeting flowers and the earthiness of warm rain, and as the city literally becomes alive once again, we throw open our windows to catch every little breath. For me, these are the days of shiso, the ubiquitous Japanese herb that combines the floral qualities of mint with the light peppery note of arugula for a taste that is indescribable but quintessentially fresh and of the season.
Growing up we had it in the garden, ready to serve as a garnish for hiyayakko and somen, a Japanese culinary afterthought. It took a trip to Basta Pasta, an Italian-Japanese restaurant in New York, to make me realize shiso’s wider potential. At the top of the Primi Piatti list is a shiso and tobiko spaghetti that captures the full essence of summer, combining airy slices of the fragrant herb with a taste of the ocean in the sweet and salty fish roe. Since that revelation, I’ve added shiso by the handful to salads, pizzas, sandwiches, and even cocktails, as a way of refreshing the palate on those first perfect, warm days of the year.
Shiso Tobiko Spaghetti
makes 2 large portions
8 oz. dry spaghetti
1/3 cup tobiko (we used squid ink tobiko but there are many varieties available)
1 handful of shiso, chiffonade
4 tbsp butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 oz. clam juice
2 oz. sake
salt, to taste
Put a large pot of salted water on to boil and prepare pasta according to package instructions. In the meantime, melt the butter over medium low heat in a skillet or sauce pan and add the chopped garlic, cooking just until fragrant. Add clam juice and sake and bring to a boil, and continue to simmer until the sauce has reduced a bit, to about 1/3 cup of sauce, or what looks appropriate to coat the pasta. When the pasta is ready, quickly drain it and add it to the sauce, tossing well to coat it. Wait for it to cool for just a moment, then add the tobiko and salt, to taste, and toss well to mix. Plate the pasta and top with the shredded shiso.
Shiso is a available at many Asian grocers, often labeled as perilla. The Koreans have a similar, but distinct cultivar deulggae translated as “sesame leaf.” For the classic Japanese taste, look for delicate, fully green leaves. Seeds for shiso are available at many home garden stores or online, and are best potted, as they are quite invasive.
I bought a sack of 00 flour years ago, with the intention to make homemade pasta “one of these days.” It took the BBC series Two Greedy Italians, which I watched nonstop this week, to finally bring those plans into action. Gennaro Contaldo, the show’s enthusiastic co-presenter, threw together what he called dunderi, little dumplings of ricotta, from his childhood on the Amalfi coast. He is a classic Southern Italian man, a character he seems to relish playing up: shirt buttoned halfway, gesticulating wildly, and bringing every topic of conversation back to his mother, who first prepared dunderi for him when he was a boy. His encouragement and casual ease with the dish finally convinced me to give it a shot.
Since then I’ve had a hard time eating anything else, simply changing the sauce from day to day to suit my mood. The taste of fresh pasta is special, a certain airiness, dressed with a pomodoro sauce like buttering bread, just enough to taste both. The preparation is remarkably easy, and takes even less time than making dry pasta, since it cooks faster in boiling water. Far from the time-consuming, expert process it’s made out to be, homemade pasta is perfectly conducive to sprezzatura and the golden rule—never spend more time cooking than you spend eating and enjoying.
Dunderi (Adapted from Two Greedy Italians)
makes 2 large portions, or 3-4 side portions
For the sauce:
1 28-oz. can of whole Italian tomatoes
few tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic
salt, to taste
chiffonade of basil
For the pasta:
220 grams ricotta
3 egg yolks
200 grams flour
20 grams parmesan
1/2 tsp salt
To prepare the sauce, warm some olive oil in a skillet or sauce pan over medium heat and quickly fry the garlic. Pour in the can of tomatoes and a bit of salt and let simmer while you make the pasta, occasionally breaking the tomatoes apart with a wooden spoon.
While the sauce is on, prepare the pasta. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. With a fork, mix together the ricotta, egg yolks, parmesan, and salt. Then add the flour and mix well with your hands, continuing to knead until the dough comes together smoothly and is no longer dry and crumbly. Continue to knead on a lightly floured surface, then pinch off 2 inch balls of dough and roll them out into long, thin cylinders, about and inch in diameter. With a knife, cut the pasta into half inch pieces, and repeat with the rest of the dough. Drop the pasta in the boiling water and gently stir; once they start to rise to the top (which will be quickly), skim the finished pasta off and toss into the tomato sauce.
Now add a copious drizzle of olive oil and toss the pasta well with the sauce. Plate, then garnish with a bit more parmesan and a nice handful of basil.
Picture Luis Buñuel during his final years in Paris, holding court at home by making drinks on the patio for his guests. The old footage begins with a classic martini: a drop of angostura and dry vermouth into a glass with ice, twirled and drained, then the English gin for another twirl before straining into a chilled glass. To the delight of the crowd, his next drink, made with gin, Carpano, and vermouth, is one of his own creations, the Buñueloni, and the boyish smirk on his face reveals one of the great passions in his life: inventing cocktails.
Drink plays a small but persistent role in his work during this period, in the 1960s and 70s when he was living as a wealthy Parisian satirizing cinematically the lives of wealthy Parisians. Of all the conventions and institutions subverted in these films—family, church, military, dinner, sex—the great European tradition of drinking manages to escape unscathed. Instead, his characters drink magnificently while delivering rather earnest critiques of the declining art of indulgence. In the brothel of Belle de Jour, for example, the patrons complain that the champagne is never served at the correct temperature. In The Phantom of Liberty, the chief of police laments the trend of playing loud music in bars. Fernando Rey’s character goes through great pains, in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, to create the perfect martini, even chastising his chauffeur for gulping it down.
“The decline of the aperitif may well be one of the most depressing phenomena of our time,” he said once, and I couldn’t agree more.
I think anyone with a Catholic upbringing will likewise have a certain reverence for bartending, from those childhood memories of the priest turning wine into blood. Even before I could speak I used to mimic this ritual, breaking the imaginary eucharist, adding the wine with a dash of holy water. As I turned through pages of Buñuel’s autobiography, My Last Sigh, I realized he did the same, and this is the religiosity which we, as lapsed Catholics, can never fully distance ourselves from: the beautiful culture which produced Chartreuse, Trappist beer, and Vin Santo.
At home, my bar is on a sideboard to the right of the kitchen counter. It dawned on me only recently that this is the exact configuration used in churches, where I served as an altar boy, bringing the priest the cruets of wine and holy water from this right hand bar cart. Sitting on the bar are a line of reused bottles stuffed with leftover herbs and fruit steeping in alcohol, sprigs of rosemary, spices, fruit peels. From time to time I’ll return to a classic like the Manhattan or Old Fashioned, but I prefer drinks created on the spot, improvised with the moment’s flavor. Capturing the ineffable is at the root of the matter, like the blessed sacrament, to create a drink greater than the sum of its parts.
Those who have been over for dinner have tasted these inventions and will remember how terrible some of them were, like the poor man’s gin of juniper berries, coriander, and lemon peel steeped for days in vodka. But I reject the idea that all drinks should be pleasant and good tasting, for it is against the ecclesiastical roots of bartending to seek only pleasure. They must instead capture something like a distant memory, a mood, a fading caprice. Bad taste resulting from carelessness is another matter.
In the spirit of Buñuel’s epic explorations of memory and the subconscious, I created a cocktail entitled Grandmother’s Pocketbook in honor of my maternal grandmother Genevieve, a devout Catholic whose purse is like a sachet of potpourri and loose peppermints.
5 drops peppermint spirits or a sprig of peppermint, slightly muddled
2 oz. gin
splash of rosewater.
Stir in ice long enough to say a Hail Mary and strain into champagne coupes. Garnish with lemon peel.
For a peek into what I’m cooking and eating everyday, follow @Gorumando on Instagram.
Spring weather always seems to find a way to frustrate, and in this misty April that feels like November I’ve consoled myself with hiyayakko, a simple preparation of cold tofu which tastes of summer in Japan. Topped with grated ginger, scallions, soy sauce, and katsuobushi, the dish lightens and revitalizes on those tsuyu days when the country is engulfed in a humid fog. If only we could be so lucky right now.
To recreate the effect at home, slice a block of soft, cold tofu into cubes and add the condiments to taste. Beyond the aforementioned four, fresh ingredients like shiso, myoga, and yuzu zest are also excellent. Fill it with the tastes of summer, whatever that means to you.
Even in Chicago I still feel its gravity from time to time, it having pulled in some of my closest friends, both my siblings, and a slew of peripheral people from the foggy past. It insists upon itself in that way, forcing you to play its games: finding a place to stay, applying for dinner reservations, darting on the train to the faraway corners where everyone is living. Inevitably I’ll run into some old friends who want to know what I’m doing. They’re swamped with a thousand projects, wanting to know what I’m up to as well, and when I respond that I like to sit around talking, cook, eat, and do nothing, their eyes widen and then look away. Insanity. Life in New York requires an agenda. My sister called me a month in advance with that familiar phrase: “What’s your plan?”
The truth is I barely had one, apart from seeing my friends: Deniz was in town, with her spring-breaking sister Piril who I hadn’t seen for years, Marguerite had moved back after nearly making a break for Barcelona, and Andrew started a PhD this year at Columbia. With Jaimie and I soaring miles overhead, there was the feeling of a college-era party coming together and we all agreed on Friday night at Deniz’s pied-à-terre in Fort Greene.
In anticipation we had been to Sunrise Mart, the little grocery store above the St. Mark’s bookstore in the Japanese part of the East Village. Taking the cramped elevator up to the second floor, I began imagining the possibilities—shime saba, shabu shabu, yakitori perhaps. I wandered through the maze of aisles, zigzagging, as I always do, past wasabi root, vacuum-sealed katsuo, and mascara, awaiting that moment of inspiration inspired by what looks fresh. Chicken backs for stock, boned jidori legs, chinese cabbage, scallions, grilled tofu, daikon, and 3 kinds of mushrooms (maitake, shiitake, enoki): must be mizutaki, the steaming chicken soup which got us through the winter.
Deniz’s place in Brooklyn is a modern marvel: floor to ceiling windows spread a panorama of the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges from 30 flights up. Its weakness is the kitchen, and Deniz admits to rarely cooking in it: a petite counter outfitted with a gas range, an electric oven, and a basic set of utensils mainly used for boiling pasta. This is fairly typical of life in New York—even the larger apartments cram the kitchens into some corner, as if to hide them. Of course that meant I didn’t have my beautiful donabe to cook with, and I missed it dearly, but as they say in Japan “弘法は筆を選ばず,” Koubou didn’t choose his brush. So in the spirit of the cool calligrapher I hacked through the scallions with a serrated Ikea knife and steamed the rice in a little stock pot.
It was already 10pm so we unwrapped the cheese: some Roquefort and a truffled Camembert, spread across water crackers after our factory-puffed baguette, thank god, was dropped on the city street. Marguerite hadn’t even arrived yet. Trying to speed things along Andrew sent her a text and picked up a knife to help with the cabbage as Jaimie wandered around taking pictures. I was still adjusting the salt content of the broth, trying to overdo it just enough to balance the liquid the vegetables would release. More cheese. I grated the daikon, placing little mounds into each dish and poured over a makeshift ponzu of equal parts soy sauce and lime juice. Deniz poured glasses of ouzo on ice, and we made a standing toast, to nothing in particular, while I added the finishing touches, feeling like Keith Floyd.
Once a certain Marguerite arrived with two unexplained bottles of champagne, we tossed the ingredients into the simmering pot and after a few minutes began eating. Soon we were left with only the broth, to which we added the cooked rice, some whipped egg, and the rest of the scallions to create a creamy ojiya which disappeared just as quickly. Reclining as I was in a kind of hazy, overstuffed trance, I began thinking of the past. It used to be that getting together meant going out, playing the New York game, off to some new place that someone had heard about. As the years go by we’ve been able to distill the gathering to its essentials: tears of laughter, a well-stocked bar, music, and the simple finesse of the home cooked meal. In truth, New York will always be dear to me as long as it lends itself to the people I love.
So glasses in hand we made for the couches, carrying on until the sun rose, making sleep impossible.
Meat is often the main event when it comes to barbecue, but I can never resist the charred allure of a perfectly grilled vegetable. Thinking about the cast-iron skillet as an indoor grill, I imagined platters piled high with the summer’s harvest of sliced eggplant and zucchini, halved tomatoes, red peppers, scallions, all branded with deep black marks. The genius of cast iron, though, is that it allows us this luxury year-round, opening the door for favorite vegetables of all seasons. In addition to summer produce, we can have our earthy root vegetables—carrots, potatoes, beets—in the fall; kale and brussels sprouts bringing a touch of green to the winter; and even asparagus as the first taste of spring.
What was true for meat also holds true for vegetables, which benefit from that same caramelized crust that the cast iron gives to steaks and hamburgers. The main difference is when to season and the level of heat. Meat should be seasoned well before cooking, so that the salt has time to penetrate and tenderize. Vegetables, on the other hand, should be seasoned at the end or after cooking, to avoid drawing too much water from the plants’ cells, destroying their texture by steaming them in their own juices. And because they tend to be more delicate, vegetables should be cooked at a slightly lower heat than meat. For this reason, it makes sense to cook the vegetables first, while the pan is still warming up, so that by the time they’re finished, the pan is searing hot and ready for the steak.
As with meat, the possibilities are endless and well worth a bit of experimentation. Though I’ve tried many vegetables on cast iron, two that I keep coming back to are eggplant and brussels sprouts. Think of these as guidelines for technique rather than recipes, and use them to branch out into other vegetables and preparations.
When choosing brussels sprouts at the store, try to look for one that are small and tight, as they’ll be the freshest and most tender. Rinse the sprouts well and shake the water off, and then trim off the base of the stem end and cut them in half from top to bottom. If your brussels sprouts are on the larger side, you might want to quarter them so that they’ll cook more quickly.
Warm up the pan over medium heat and add a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Because of its higher smoking point, I prefer regular olive oil to extra virgin for cooking. Add the halved brussels sprouts to the pan and turn them all cut-side down. Cover the pan (with the lid of another pot if you have one that fits, or just with some aluminum foil) and let the sprouts steam in the water still clinging to them for a few minutes, depending on size. If they’re very large, this may take about ten minutes, and if they’re small, about five. Don’t stir them, but you can flip one over just to check how brown it is. When the outer leaves are softened and the bottoms are getting charred, remove the lid, turn up the heat slightly, and begin to stir them. At this point, add in about half a teaspoon of sea salt and stir well. Cook until they reach the level of doneness you desire; I like them a bit al dente, but some may prefer them softer.
For the eggplant, choose fruits that are dark purple, still firm to the touch, and heavy for their size. While the skillet is warming over medium heat, slice the eggplant into half-inch rounds and generously coat the pan in olive oil. The eggplant will act like a sponge at first, soaking up much of the oil, but as it cooks and softens it will release some of it back into the pan, so you shouldn’t have to add more after that. Cook until both sides are deeply caramelized and sprinkle with sea salt before serving.