Kale salad: Eating well and cooking well

Last night I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which chronicles master sushi chef Jiro Ono and his tiny 10-seat sushi only restaurant located in the basement level of a Tokyo highrise in the bustling Ginza business district. Have you seen it? You should.

Also of note, I watched via Amazon Prime, for which after living in China I will forever be grateful for fast internet speeds.

Jiro Ono

The movie is, to put it rather simply, a spotlight on one aging man’s lifelong quest for gastronomic perfection. Jiro’s 85-year-old, tortoise-like face exudes wisdom in every expression, even the nods that he gives. There’s much praise for his 3-star Michelin rated restaurant, given throughout the movie, but there’s also some fairly sad bits to the story as well. Like when he talks about how he wasn’t really around much for either of his two sons’ childhoods, or when the movie takes a turn and is suddenly more about how his elder son, working by his father’s side for the last 30 or so years, will seemingly never receive the praise that he deserves.


But through it all the main message of the movie is clear: the quest for perfection in food and art is a lifelong pursuit. It requires work and lots of passion. It perfectly exemplifies a lot of traditional Japanese culture: a dedication towards art and appearance, the mastery of organization and cleanliness, a lifelong pursuit of perfection, as well as sacrifice…all in the name of work.

Food films always hit a sweet spot in me, and one line particularly stood out. About twenty minutes into the short 80 minute film, Jiro says

“In order to make exceptional food, you must eat exceptional food”

Gahhhh! So simple, but such a bold statement. Jiro goes on to explain that one must hone ones sense of taste in order to know what good food is. He continues, saying that if your taste is subpar, how will you be able to impress your customer?

kale salad

I really love this idea, that you can only learn by doing.

It’s no happenstance that people will indulge their senses for things they are passionate about. Those who are in the fittest of shape exercise daily. The greatest artists are the ones who attend every art opening. Those who are scientific geniuses (like my Dad) study up on the most up-to-date sciences, and are constantly reading and learning (my Dad took a Molecular Biology class through a local Extension when I was taking Biology in High School, simply because my curriculum made him miss it. I got a C in the class, and I’m sure he aced his). Those who are great cooks love good food and restaurants.

close-up kale salad

With regard to eating, in our American culture, we are taught restraint at the dinner table. As a mass, we tend towards gluten allergies, peanut allergies, fruit allergies, and dairy allergies. We moderate our habits and try not to look like a pig at dinner parties. We gladly eat the meatiest parts of animals but often discard the fat, bones, and gelatinous particulars. And gosh, I’m certainly guilty: I cleansed over Christmas!

I’ve never met a chef or cook who didn’t like to eat, or who practiced self-restraint at any meal. Frankly, a lof of cooks don’t practice restraint in many things, which is one reason I like them. Others I meet who are deeply involved and committed in the food industry and to food service are the same way – give them a tasting menu and they’re happy, tell them to eat anything and they’ll do it (or, at least consider it).

I’m a good cook, sure, but there’s always room to improve. I’m always looking to make new recipes and better the ones in my stable. Taking Jiro’s advice, I guess I’d better keep eating well. That’s certainly some advice I don’t mind following.

(movie images c/o NY Times and cinekatz.com)

side view kale salad

Kale Salad

  • 1 bunch kale
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 1 lemon
  • 1-2 Tbsp. kosher salt
  • 1 apple – gala or fuji work best, but any kind is ok.
  • 1 bulb fennel
  • 1/4 cup slivered almonds
  • olive oil
  • fresh ground pepper
  1. Rinse kale thoroughly and remove the tough stems and ribs. Cut kale leaves into thin, 1/8-inch ribbons. Thinly slice red onion (preferably using a mandoline). Toss with kale in a large bowl, and squeeze the juice of an entire lemon. Add a liberal dose of salt. Cover bowl, and set in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours (or more, even leaving it overnight will be fine).
  2. Take the kale out of the fridge and toss with your hands. Squeeze excess liquid from kale and transfer to another bowl. Slice apples and fennel into thin matchsticks (again, using a mandoline works best). Dress salad with extra-virgin olive oil, and some fresh pepper. Taste, and salt again if necessary. Add almonds and toss.
  3. Serve immediately, or cover and chill in fridge until ready to serve.

yield: 3-4 servings

All-star Dining in New Orleans at Maurepas Foods

Royal Street Balcony

So much of New Orleans made it a truly special place: its ornate iron-wrought balconies, its colorful additions of purples greens and golds decorating the city, its funny and virtually unintelligeable local dialect, its rich and completely self-preserved history, the Spanish moss draped over old oak trees throughout the city, the designation of “uptown” – in reference to upriver rather than any true North that I could point out on a map.

NoLA architecture

And, let’s not forget the local cuisine, so historically infiltrated with immigrant influences combined with seasonal local catch from the bayou and the nearby Gulf waters.

New Orleans is a city of leisure – much of the population is content to pass their days without a lick of work, only making efforts to eat and drink with friends and family. Minus the hurricane threat and huge percentage of welfare population, it’s much of what I imagine one version of heaven to be like.

case at Cafe D'Or

Within the immediate city borders there are numerous options to grab ‘n go, ranging from beignets to muffulattas to hurricanes and New Orleans gin fizzes (made with milk! ick!). Then there are the restaurants, sprouting up one after another following Katrina’s aftermath, with a local epicurean fervor that I could have only dreamed of. Prior to this trip, a heated exchange of emails occurred not only planning a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal, but also figuring out where our dining options on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were to be.

Cochon marquee

sausage and charcuterie platter

We settled on three of the hottest, culinariest (that’s not a word, I just made that up), and highly recommended restaurants in three corners of the city: Root, Cochon, and Maurepas Foods.

My favorite?

Maurepas Foods.

Hands down.

Dinner at Maurepas

The Bywater section of New Orleans runs up against the Ninth Ward, and along with the Ninth Ward was one of the areas hit hardest during Katrina. It’s now a growing area of teeny tiny houses surrounded by large warehouses and a swampy waterfront view. On the night that we visited Maurepas, our cab driver got lost in the narrow streets of the neighborhood and overshot the restaurant by a few blocks. This would have typically been fine, but that night the air in the bywater smelled like some sort of burning sewage and was making me nauseous. Increasingly being referred to as the Williamsburg of New Orleans (read: hipster central), Bywater still had a far way to go before a complete gentrification was to be achieved.

We eventually arrived to what seemed like the only visibly lit corner of the neighborhood, with a yoga shop facing kitty-corner to the restaurant. Ahhh, the first sign of true yuppification, a yoga studio!

As soon as we walked into the restaurant, the smell of toxic tar was replaced by a welcoming warmth of food and conversation inside. Settling into Maurepas was quick and immediate. The host, though a bit over-the-top and intrusive, was nice enough, and sat us after a short 15 minute wait. The menu was something straight out of my dreamworld: heavy on vegetables and sides, mostly straightforward though with a few unique twists from around the world, and best of all- cheap. A simple appetizer $4-6. A side of greens $3. Main dishes $7-$12. Having such a beautiful menu come so cheap was a surprise to all of us who had lived in New York and Los Angeles.

Highlights of the evening included Whistle Pig rye whiskey for only $10 a pour!!!!!!!!! Beat that anywhere, and I’ll send you a check. Food-wise, I loved the side of greens, which was so simple but not overdone as you would find in most southern food restaurants. I was also a HUGE fan of the goat tacos. I tend to find goat a little too funky in flavor, but the meat in these tacos were mild and the corn tortillas lovely and soft, and the tacos were paired with a nice zesty green salsa. Yum.

Maurepas was BY FAR my favorite meal of the trip. In terms of dishes, ambience, and cost,   and of course that order of Whistle Pig, it alone is a major reason to visit New Orleans.

Here is where I had the best meal in New Orleans:

Maurepas Foods3200 Burgundy Street, New Orleans, LA
open everyday except Wednesday, 11am-2am 

My love of markets, and a short personal history on eating well.

spring onions

I’m ethnically Chinese (mostly, anyway), so culturally speaking, eating is what I’m supposed to do best after playing the piano and taking SAT prep classes. And since my piano career was cut short due to never wanting to practice and SAT prep just wasn’t my thing (because my test-taking skills stunk), I tended to focus on the eating part, which I really excelled at. So, I make my parents proud, I think.

Due to my magnificent eating prowess, I’ve always known what it meant to eat plentifully and generously, though I hadn’t always been keen about eating wholesomely and healthfully. Thankfully my mother got pretty down with the California natural foods movement early in the 90’s, and my family would occasionally splurge on a farmers’ market purchase every now and again. Shopping and eating these fruits and vegetables made it easier to see the benefits of eating more sustainably, something that has become a national trend in the last decade.

fresh ears of corn

peaches at the peak of summer

Now that my parents are older, wiser, and frankly, richer than they were twenty years ago, these farmers market purchases are more of a weekly habit rather than monthly splurge. Whenever I go home to visit, I’ll accompany my parents on a trip to our local farmers’ market at West Valley Junior College. Now, I love seeing markets all across the world– you probably gained that through some of the entries on this blog throughout my time in China and beyond. But there’s really nothing that beats being home at summer’s peak, when there are buckets of blueberries, bushels of corn, and a bonanza of peaches, ripe and sweet in all their glories, just waiting to be purchased on a Saturday morning in sunny yet temperate Northern California. I know that was a long, run-on sentence, but it just had to be.

Plus when you throw in a freshly baked almond brioche, that’s the definition of #winning.

beautiful farmers' market blueberries

There’s been a clear and conscious lean towards eating healthier, more organic, and more local in the last twenty years. I’m happy to find that most of America is trending towards the direction of good food– away from the supermarket heyday and frozen food novelties of the 50’s and 60’s. (I guess when I say most of America, it might just be coastal America, but that’s all I’ve ever known. You can feel free to leave me nasty comments about this presumption, below.)

The main reason for my waxing poetic about going home to the market was to share with you this recent article from The Atlantic, which emphasizes the USDA’s support for local agriculture and farms. Because the better the local systems, the better your local economy. Support your hometown farmers today (or, this weekend)!!

Local Ice Cream from Scream!


On a chilly LA night- well, chilly in comparison to Guangzhou- I gathered with a group of friends at the Venice home of one very good friend who is one very good cook. I ate lots of cheese, prosciutto, and all kinds of salads- the kinds that make me happy and proud to be from California. It was the perfect vegetable-heavy respite to several days of dining out. Conversation topics ranged from a black diamond engagement ring to stories of revenge on a bike, but even that was in good humor.

I like it here in China, and I’m definitely looking forward to the adventures both in this city and throughout Asia in our short nine months left in Guangzhou. But no matter what happens here, it’s the little yummy things- like this potato and green bean salad, or the fresh figs and buratta cheese next to it- that make me miss home.

Where is home? Right now, it’s a little bit all over. Home is where my loved ones are, home is where my best friends are, home is where I can understand everyone, home is my mom’s kitchen. And without fail, home is definitely where good food is, too.

Red Medicine

In LA I had dinner on my third night in town, after which I declared, “best meal of 2011”.

Hyperbolic statements like that, particularly about food, often get discredited after the haze of Manhattans and clucking of girly gossip wear off the next morning.

But I’m standing by this one.

Throughout my time in the states, I indulged in as many soup & sandwich combos, salads, cheese, and cold cuts as I got my hands on. When asked what I wanted to eat, my only opinion was “no Chinese food” and even broader but not explicitly stated, “no Asian-ish foods”.

I had heard of Red Medicine through various dining section sources, who were all touting the new restaurant as part of a group of young, game-changing chefs in LA’s traditionally lagging restaurant scene.

So as the four of us sat down at a table with tin tea cans and chopsticks as a centerpiece, then handed a meny very obviously influenced by Vietnam, one of my friends laughed apologetically at the presence of Chinese Lion Peppers, Rice Porridge, and Crispy Spring Rolls on the menu. Now, if we had been at Panda Express I would have thrown my drink in her face (partly for laughing but mostly for bringing me to Panda Express in the first place). But here at Red Medicine, as I read each ingredient on the menu, I knew I would have no regrets.

Rather than drone on about what I ate, here is photographic evidence that can, hopefully, speak for itself:

GREEN PAPAYA / pickled roots, crispy taro, tree nuts, nuoc cham

BRUSSELS SPROUTS / caramelized shallots, fish sauce, vermouth

OCEAN TROUT / cured with sugar cane, grapefruit, trout roe, burnt chili

ARTICHOKES / “en barigoule”, green apple, green mango, green tea, tofu skin

HEIRLOOM RICE PORRIDGE / egg yolk, hazelnuts, ginseng, echire butter

BITTER CHOCOLATE / kecap manis, oats, parsnip, brown butter, soy milk sorbet

RHUBARB / mahlab cremeux, hibiscus, gentian, aromatic willow

There’s still three full months left of the year, but I’m doubtful I’ll have another meal quite like this one.

Red Medicine

8400 Wilshire Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Open until 2 am

What we’ve all been waiting for

Visit the original version of this article over at Honest Cooking

I wish I could say we explored all of Mexico City by foot in the one week we were there. I wish I could say I ate at hotspots like Pujol or Izote and visited amazing markets like this one, or went into the home of an abuela and learned to make mole. sigh.

I wish I could have attended an amazing wedding.

Oh, wait, I did. (I guess I can only wish for so much, right?)

Despite staying in a posh, hotel-ridden neighborhood, the DiploMan and I were, of course, most drawn to the least decorated strip of Polanco’s center which housed a fruit market and neighboring hole-in-the-wall taquerias. Rather “underdeveloped” in comparison to its fellow restaurants and bars in the area. And lest I forget to mention yet again, that Coffee Bean down the street.

After recovering from a flu that left me, so frustratingly, without an appetite for the first three days I was in town, I was finally feeling well enough to stomach my pre-ordained craving for tacos. Under a glowing azure overhang, as we approached the rotisserie on the sidewalk that skewered a chunk of al pastor meat, looked past the open griddle and taco counter, I knew we were in the right place when I spotted a small cluster of formica fold-out tables and flimsy plastic school chairs.

I don’t know if it’s living in China that’s changed this perception, but those formica tabletops really did set off some nerve  in my brain, alerting my food memory banks for the potential of a great meal to be had. Though Polanco’s posh hotels, well-dressed women in heels and beautiful architectural gems had quite the appeal, THIS is what had enticed me about Mexico, this is what I had been waiting for since we landed.

When I spotted the takeout tacos in trays waiting to go out to hungry customers and caught a whiff of the spicy meat and fragrant onions, I knew for certain we were in the right place.

Kitchen in the front and seating in the back is a layout often seen in small hole-in-the-wall eateries abroad, where Health Inspection does not reign supreme. It’s a change of pace that is quite welcome in my book, for the displayed kitchen serves as a demo booth for the heart and soul of the menu.

Clearly, the heart and soul of this ‘restaurant’ was tacos. Tacos with chicken, tacos with al pastor, tacos with steak, with cheese, without cheese, so many options for tacos!!! Equipped with a griddle, two chopping stations and an antiquated cash register, the presumed brother and sister duo took orders (her) and cooked tacos (him) with automated frenzy. Many of their customers ate their orders perched on the narrow wooden “bar” across from the griddle, others took their tacos to go, with many a taco quickly disappearing as soon as they stepped onto the street.

A few clientele, mostly off-shift workers from neighboring restaurants and old Mexican men who seemed to be reminiscing of their youth over several bottles of beer each (and us), chose to sit in the rear of the restaurant, at the aforementioned cluster of formica tables.

Posted on the wall were large, bright cardstock that acted as menus, in addition to flimsy laminated and bound menus that were informally distributed to the table. Foregoing what was put in front of us, the DiploMan and I, along with the rest of my family, were mostly drawn to the bright orange display featuring the Orden de Tacos, five tacos of our choosing for $33 pesos (about $2.50USD). With cheese, a modest $53 ($4USD).

A revelation was had when I asked about the Campechanos, a mix of chorizo and steak. Consider my mind blown.

In total, the five of us splurged on five Orden de Tacos along with an order of Birria– all supplemented by the homemade green and red salsas, a bottomless supply of limes, and a large bowl of chopped onion and cilantro.

The tacos arrived at the table, double corn tortillas generously piled with seasoned meat and cheese, one piled atop the other barely accommodated on a regular-sized plate. Our orders of tacos con queso were topped with a griddle-melted pile of Mexican cheese, which was not unlike a less-salty version of Mozzarella. The issue of cheese on tacos, commonly referred to as Gringo style, is an area that is often left wanting in my dining experiences. These tacos certainly did not disappoint nor were they wanting, and if anything there was- dare I say it- too much cheese (!!). Then the Birria arrived, an oily, fragrant stew of mystery meat (lamb? veal?) waiting to be stuffed into their own little tortilla pockets, a lovely milder, warm, and soupy counterpart to the tacos.

What ensued was what often happens when simple, good food is placed in front of individuals- a chorus of munching and grunts of approval, the swapping of plates and exchanging of tacos (one chorizo/steak for one pollo? Deal.), some swooning and even rolling of eyes from delight, and definitely minimal conversation. If they hadn’t known it before, as I surely had, this was definitely a meal that we had all been waiting for.