Thursday, August 30, 2007

Fava Bean Salad - No recipe required!

If fava beans are still around in your area like they are here, then this is the perfect "non-recipe" for a long holiday weekend. Serve it as a side dish with anything or leave it in the refrigerator so the flavors can marry as you snack on it throughout the day.

I have written about vanquishing my strange dread of shelling fava beans. Remember? All you have to do is take them out of their pods, boil for a minute or two, dunk them in ice, and slip off the skins. It will keep your fingers busy for a few minutes, hopefully while you are enjoying some lovely weather on your porch, patio or front stoop.

You could always put your freshly shelled favas in a dish like my Fava Bean Risotto with Pancetta and Mushrooms, but why would you spend the last weekend of the summer standing by the stove. Save that recipe for later, and toss together this simple salad instead.

Fava Bean Salad
These quantities are just suggestions if you have a pound to a pound and a half of fava beans (weighed when still in the pod). Do this recipe according to your taste.

In a bowl, combine shelled fava beans and half of a red onion, sliced as thinly as possible. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and juice of half a lemon, more or less. Be conservative with the lemon juice--you can always add more after you taste. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and coarse salt (if you have "good" salt, like fleur de sel or any nice sea salt, now would be the time to use it). Toss the salad. Add a small handful of chopped fresh parsley and toss again. A bit of fresh mint would be great if you have it. A little basil wouldn't hurt either. Enjoy the weekend!

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Corn and Shrimp Pizza with the Best Whole Wheat Pizza Dough Recipe

Recently, we got a pepperoni pizza from Papa John's for dinner. Mike was craving it, and we never order pizza. Our dial-for-dinner days ended when I bought a food processor and figured out how easy it was to make my own crust. Since then, I've just about perfected the recipe, experimented with all sorts of toppings and never looked back.

There's nothing wrong with good old fast food pizza, and I will admit that Papa John's was much better than I thought it would be--I love when thin slices of pepperoni get a little charred around the edges. With the weekly coupons we receive in the mail, I don't think we will let years go by this time before calling the Papa again.

So, has all the time and effort I have spent making my own pizzas been a waste? No way! Here's the thing: the pizza I make and the Papa John's takeout-or-delivery version are two totally different foods--apples and oranges. Papa John's satisfies a craving for nostalgia, taking me back to eating pizza and drinking soda (a special treat!) on Friday nights when I was a kid, or in college on the way home from a bar. My homemade pizza on the other hand represents the way I like to eat now: nutritious, fresh, topped with the flavors and ingredients that I love. You just can't get a pie topped with arugula, figs or sauteed shrimp from the Papa.

The recipe here is one of the favorites that we seem to go back to when we want something different. It is perfect in summer when corn is flavorful and crisp right off the cob and cherry tomatoes are sweet and inexpensive. This is my standard crust recipe, but I often substitute different flours depending on what I have. All-purpose flour will work and so will whole wheat pastry. You could do this with only white flour, but all whole wheat would probably be a little too intense and heavy.

As often as I make pizza, I've only written about it once on the blog. This fig, caramelized onion and prosciutto pizza is one of my favorite meals (the dough recipe in the fig post is essentially the same, but I have simplified and streamlined the directions in the updated version below). Make it now when fresh figs are in season.

One more note on homemade pizza: it sounds a little daunting to proof yeast and measure flour yourself, especially now that you can buy pizza dough in many grocery stores. I promise that once you do this two or three times, it will be the simplest baking you can imagine. It becomes second nature--something you'll start to fit into your day like taking out the trash or defrosting a chicken. You can do it the night before or if you are at home during the day, make the dough at lunch time and let it do its rising while you go about the rest of your life. Active prep time for this dough is 10 to 15 minutes, including cleanup. Even if you're on a first name basis with the pizza delivery kid, I'm betting you will get addicted to your own homemade creations after a couple of go-rounds.

Whole Wheat Pizza Dough
This recipe makes enough for two pizzas, each one serving 2 to 4 people, depending on how hungry you are and what else you’ve got going. The dough is thin with a chewy, slightly crisp texture. I love that I can make dough once and freeze half so that my next pizza is as effortless as defrosting the dough. My method for measuring flour by volume is to fluff it up, then lightly spoon it into measuring cups without packing it down or shaking the cup causing it to settle. I always eyeball the oil and honey measurements. This recipe could also be made by hand or in a stand mixer.

1 1⁄4 c. warm water
1 tblsp. granulated sugar
1 package dry yeast
2 c. whole wheat flour (I like King Arthur Organic Whole Wheat Flour)
1 1⁄2 c. bread flour (I like King Arthur Bread Flour)
1⁄2 tsp. salt
1 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for coating the bowl
1 tblsp. honey

Pour the water into a bowl, add the sugar, then gently stir in the yeast. Let it sit for 5 to 8 minutes or until the yeast forms a foamy layer on the surface of the water. Meanwhile, add the flours, and salt to a food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse to combine. Add the olive oil, honey and yeast mixture. Process until the dough comes together, forming a ball. This should only take about one minute. If your ingredients get stuck, you may need to open the lid and move them around a bit so they can come together properly. Lightly coat a large bowl with olive oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and lay a kitchen towel on top. Let it sit in warm, non-drafty place until the dough doubles in bulk, about 45 minutes.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured cutting board and knead for 1 to 2 minutes. Divide the dough into two equal balls. Let the two balls of dough rise for the second time on the cutting board, covered with a kitchen towel, for an hour and a half. Knead each piece 2 or 3 times, then proceed with the pizza. At this point, you can also refrigerate the dough in a Ziploc bag to use within 24 hours, or freeze it to use within 3 months.

Another option, especially if you are making the dough before bed or in the morning before work is to let it rise for the second time in the refrigerator, well-covered, for at least 8 hours, after which you can knead it for a few seconds, transfer it to a Ziploc bag, and keep it for use that day or freeze it. Always bring the dough to room temperature before rolling it out.

To make the pizza: Place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat to 500 degrees. Sprinkle 1 to 2 tablespoons of cornmeal on a large rectangle of parchment paper. Flatten one ball of dough into a disk, place in the center of the parchment paper and roll it out with a flour-coated rolling pin to form a large oval, about 1/8 inch thick. Sprinkle more cornmeal around the border of the dough, if desired. Cover with your toppings to within 1/2 to 1 inch of the edge. Use the parchment to lift the pizza and place the parchment directly onto the pizza stone in the oven. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until cooked through (the bottom of the dough should just barely take on some color). Transfer pizza to a cutting board, discarding parchment. Let it rest for 5 minutes, cut and serve.

Shrimp and Corn Pizza
Note: special equipment that I use for cooking homemade pizza is parchment paper and a pizza stone. The directions for rolling out the pizza are repeated here so that both recipes may be used independently.

1/2 tbs. olive oil
1/2 lb. medium or large shrimp, shelled and deveined
salt and pepper to taste
2 to 3 tbs. coarsely ground cornmeal for dough (optional)
1 cup grated fresh mozzarella cheese
fresh corn kernels, cut from 1 to 2 ears
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved (just under 1 pint)
1 red bell pepper, cut into very thin strips
6 scallions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced

Place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat to 500 degrees. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shrimp, season with salt and pepper and cook until opaque, turning once, 2 to 3 minutes total. Transfer the shrimp to a cutting board and chop into 2 or 3 pieces each.

Sprinkle 1 to 2 tablespoons of cornmeal on a large rectangle of parchment paper. Flatten one ball of dough into a disk, place in the center of the parchment paper and roll it out with a flour-coated rolling pin to form a large oval, about 1/8 inch thick. Sprinkle more cornmeal around the border of the dough, if desired.

Top the dough with the cheese, corn, tomatoes, shrimp, bell peppers and scallions. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper to suit your taste. Use the parchment to lift the pizza and place the parchment directly onto the pizza stone in the oven. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until cooked through (the bottom of the dough should just barely take on some color). Transfer pizza to a cutting board, discarding parchment. Let it rest for 5 minutes, cut and serve.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Healthy Bell Pepper and Zucchini Gratin

You hear the word, “gratin,” and you immediately think of cheesy, creamy goodness, right? So do I, but I also think of all the fat and calories that go along with them. And what about the vegetables? Whether it’s a potato gratin or any other variety, the nutritious, delicious veggies are all but lost in the decadent mix.

The truth is, I pretty much never make gratins. I would rather have a side dish of roasted vegetables with salt, pepper and just a wee bit of olive oil. That doesn’t mean I am not willing to try something new. When I saw this recipe in the June issue of Cooking Light, I almost passed right over it. But because I’ve never really given up the hope of a luscious, healthy vegetable gratin, I skimmed over the recipe—no milk or cream in sight! Could it be any good? It sounded good, and this magazine does have a pretty healthy (no pun intended) track record.

So here it is, folks (after some tasty changes and simplifications from the original, of course): a moist, extremely flavorful gratin that tastes like something special even though the components and the technique couldn’t be more straightforward. I served this with the cumin and honey marinated lamb kabobs that I mentioned in the previous post. The gratin is great all by itself, but piled into homemade pita bread with the tender cubes of lamb and my garlic-yogurt sauce, it makes the meal.

Bell Pepper and Zucchini Gratin
Adapted from this recipe in Cooking Light magazine

Substitutions are a natural in a dish like this. I omitted the yellow squash called for in the original recipe and used all zucchini. Yellow, red or orange bell peppers are all great, but I would stay away from the green ones if you can. I don’t think they are as sweet. My trick with this recipe is to brown the vegetables in a skillet to get some caramelization going instead of just tossing them into the oven raw—it pays off with great flavor.

Serves 4 to 6

Nonstick cooking spray
1 to 2 tbs. olive oil, divided
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced into half moons
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 yellow or orange bell pepper, thinly sliced
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Hungarian paprika
3 zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/4 cup (packed) sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, patted dry with paper towels and thinly sliced
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves (or 1/4 tsp. dried)
1 1/2 tbs. dried bread crumbs
2 tbs. freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and coat a 9-inch round or 8-inch square baking dish with cooking spray. Coat a large skillet with half to one tablespoon of the oil and heat to medium-high. Add the bell peppers and cook for 3 minutes, then add the onions. Season with salt, pepper and paprika to taste. Continue to cook, stirring often until the vegetables are tender and lightly browned. Remove to a large bowl. Add another half to one tablespoon of oil to coat the bottom of the skillet. Add the zucchini, stir well, and season with salt, pepper and paprika. Cook, stirring often until zucchini is lightly browned on both sides. Add to the bowl with the bell peppers, along with the thyme and sun-dried tomatoes, and toss to combine.

Meanwhile, combine the breadcrumbs and cheese together in a small bowl. Transfer the vegetables into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the breadcrumb-cheese mixture evenly over the top and bake for 20 minutes. Let the gratin rest for 5 minutes, then serve right away.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Lamb with Tomato-Fennel Vinaigrette

Why am I roasting leg of lamb in the middle of the summer? For one, there’s no grill in sight here on the 5th floor of condo-land. But tell me honestly—you don’t leave your oven lying dormant all summer do you? It’s just too easy to season up something tasty, pop it in, and let it roast completely unattended while you take care of whatever business needs taking care of.

The other reason for this lamb is that a representative for the American Lamb Board contacted me and offered to send me a leg of lamb along with some handy cooking necessities. I rarely get any offers of free goodies, and if I do I’m usually not interested. But, I love lamb. So does Mike. We already know this.

I usually buy lamb at Whole Foods market, and it is usually flown in from Australia or New Zealand. I’ve never had any complaints about this lamb from Down Under, and I thought that is where the best lamb comes from. Naturally, the American Lamb Board would like to raise the profile of their product. What I really wanted to know was what lamb tastes the best—foreign or domestic? I said I would happily accept the lamb, as long as they knew I was making no promise of reviewing their product, favorably or otherwise. Honestly, I expected the American meat to be more bland than imported lamb, lacking the grassy, gamey quality that makes lamb taste like itself. Even the Lamb Board's literature says the meat is "mild." We would have to find a way to negate this prejudice in order to do a proper evaluation.

We cooked the American lamb on two different occasions. First we tasted it right next to New Zealand lamb cooked in exactly the same manner and did a blind taste test. While both were delicious, but the one I preferred—the one that tasted most “lamb-y” to me—was the American meat. I was pleasantly surprised! Mike could barely detect a difference, and we both concluded that any quality lamb—cooked properly—is going to taste good.

For this first experiment, we made a marinade with cumin and honey from the June issue of Cooking Light magazine. The honey helps created a caramelized coating as the meat, skewered for kabobs, cooks under the broiler. I substituted dried marjoram and tarragon for fresh mint. Sure, it sounds like a stretch, but the licorice flavor of tarragon has an affinity for sweetness that really works here.

The tomato-fennel vinaigrette in the photo above is from the August issue of Bon Appetit. It is dead simple and makes a pretty, summery topping for lamb that has been marinated with garlic, rosemary, anchovies and fennel seeds. No matter where you prefer your lamb to originate, remember the most important rule of cooking lamb—keep it medium rare or 130 degrees F on a meat thermometer. Otherwise, the luscious lamb will go dry. We attempt to keep ours on the rare side of medium-rare, and are always rewarded. Here is the link to Bon Appetit's Tomato-Fennel Vinaigrette. I scaled this down to serve 4, and of course I roasted the meat instead of grilling it.

Have any of you lamb-lovers ever compared meat from different regions? Can you detect distinct differences in flavor or texture?

Here are some lamb recipes of all sorts from around the food blogosphere, including a few of my own...I found them using my new searchable recipe index (check it out!).

1) Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb from Simply Recipes
2) Walnut and Fig Braised Lamb from 80 Breakfasts
3) Grilled Lamb Kabobs from Christine Cooks (she's another lamb-lover!)
4) Braised Lamb Shank (one of my favorite lamb dishes) from Seriously Good

From A Mingling Of Tastes:

Phyllo Triangles with Lamb, Onions and Pine Nuts --An excellent appetizer
Spiced Lamb Patties with Minted Yogurt Sauce --Serve as apps, a main course, or turn them into burgers
Exotic Rack of Lamb --Get out your spice grinder for this seductive special occasion meal
Curried Lamb and Lentil Stew --Easy, satisfying and flavorful
Herb-Marinated Lamb Kabobs with Garlic Yogurt Sauce --A simple marinade courtesy of the Barefoot Contessa, and an addictive yogurt sauce

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Genius New Searchable Recipe Index- We have that technology!

When he took time out from being my bartender and sous chef (see above), my husband Mike would update the recipe index page on this blog. Eventually, he thought there were too many recipes, making it cumbersome to find what you wanted just by scanning the list. Being the smart and wonderful guy that he is, he built a database for the recipes and created a search function so it is a piece of cake to find exactly what you want.

Click on the "Recipe Search" link in the right column and check it out. You can simply pull up all the recipes in the "desserts" category OR you can search using a keyword, say "chocolate," within that category. If you want to see all my recipes with the keyword, "tomato" just leave the category on "All" and type "tomato" into the box.

Pretty cool, right? Even I get tired of reading through my list of over a hundred recipes just to find that chicken thing I remember making about eight months ago.

One tip: remember to type your keywords in the singular form, for example "tomato" instead of "tomatoes," and you should find what you want. If you use the search and notice any bugs, send me an email and I'll get my fabulous tech guy on it right away.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country

Wine Tasting in Buellton, Solvang and Los Olivos

Although we go to wine tastings any chance we get, Mike and I have never visited any wine regions. Since the Santa Ynez Valley is only a two and a half hour ride from my mom's house in Torrance, CA (see the previous post), we decided to take a side trip.

Every aspect of this trip was better than we could have planned, and there was more than the usual amount of serendipity involved. We stayed at the Best Western Pea Soup Andersen's Inn in Buellton. For about $80/night, we got a big room with fab 70s light fixtures and a great location. The hotel even had a putting green behind the pool...Mike was happy. It is right next door to Andersen's restaurant, the place that claims to have invented split pea soup. I haven't done any research regarding that claim, and we didn't try the famous soup because that's not really what I want to eat with a good bottle of wine.

Before they got on the wine tourism bandwagon, this area was best known for being a little enclave of Dutch culture and kitsch, nestled between the lovely mountains of the Santa Ynez Valley. Solvang, adjacent to Buellton, is the center of the Dutch thing with several blocks of shops, beer gardens and bakeries with windmills generously sprinkled throughout. Solvang also has a cute open-air theater where their summer theater festival is held, but we weren't here for another summertime production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Since we weren't interested in the theater festival or the famous pea soup, then what did we have left? This trip was all about the wine. You don't have to drive around to the individual wineries, although you can visit a few of them on site, like Rusack, pictured at the top of the post. All you have to do is wander down the main drag in Solvang or Los Olivos and visit the tasting rooms that many wineries have set up. Most charge between $5 and $10 to taste several wines and take home your glass. The prices are really reasonable, and if you look for promotional maps and brochures like we picked up at our hotel, you can find coupons for 2-for-1 deals at a lot of the tasting rooms. This is a tasting room in Solvang that showcased wines from several very small producers not large enough to have their own tasting room.

In the Santa Ynez Valley, I also recommend:
  • I also highly recommend Carina Cellars, Alexander and Wayne and Daniel Gehrs, all in Los Olivos.
  • Los Olivos Grocery where we picked up cheese and charcuterie for lunch at a nearby park.
  • Trattoria Grappolo, a Tuscan restaurant that one of the tasting room attendants tipped us off to. We sat at the counter in front of the brick oven in their open kitchen and got wonderful stuffed calamari and penne with sausage and mushrooms. It's a great little restaurant in Santa Ynez with a nice menu...and supposedly Giada De Laurentiis filmed a segment of her travel show there.
The Greatest Hamburger of My Life

No doubt about it, we totally lucked into this one. I shudder to think how we could have missed it. We had heard of the Hitching Post, Buellton's renowned steak house. We were afraid it might be an expensive tourist trap even though it has a good reputation. There was nothing to worry about. The place is reasonably priced, homey and delicious. When we stopped in to make a reservation, the hostess informed us that Monday was burger night in the bar area. We were intrigued, and by dinner time we decided burgers were the way to go.

Our waitress clued us in to the secret of the Hitching Post burger: they grind up all the odds and ends left over when they cut the meat for their steaks. The result is a thick, juicy, beefy patty. You can top it with a thick slice of cheddar if you want, but the real show stopper is the homemade bun. It is an egg bun, not too doughy, but soft, golden brown on the outside and covered with what I think was asiago cheese, creating a baked-on crust. They serve it with mango ketchup on the side, but I just crave good old Heinz with my burgers. The fries are wonderful, but this is the rare instance when you'll hardly care.

The hitching post also has their own line of locally made wines. We had a juicy, medium-bodied bottle of their Merlot with tannin in all the right places. Priced at about $25, it was a good deal for any restaurant. I would not hesitate to go out of my way to arrange a trip in order to be in Buellton on a Monday.

Santa Barbara, aka Taco City

Santa Barbara is just a half hour south of Buellton, so we passed through on our way in and out of the wine country. Several months ago, we read an article in the New York Times highlighting the best taco stops between L.A. and San Francisco. According to the article, Santa Barbara is a hotbed of taco activity, and based on the two lunches we enjoyed, I would agree.

Now, when I say tacos, I mean soft corn tortillas with some kind of meat (preferably marinated pork), topped with fresh salsa and hot sauce, if you want--a real Mexican taco. La Super Rica was supposed to be the place, and we got some amazing tacos on tortillas that were being freshly made before our eyes. But, then we went to Lilly's Taqueria. In a slightly grittier location (which, for Santa Barbara, means hardly gritty at all), this place made a pork taco that rocked my world. The meat was tender and flavorful and the hot sauces were fresh and bright. See for yourself (that's actually a beef taco on the left)...

We are back in Fort Lauderdale now, and I don't think we will be traveling again for at least a little while. I have a bit of a back log of recipes to blog about while I'm detoxing from our California trip...then maybe I can work on my own version of Lilly's tacos.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

California...Here We Come!!

Anyone else out there still mourning the very untimely demise of The O.C.??? No? Well, you should be. This was the most awesome thing to happen to TV teen dramas since Beverly Hills 90210. But they had one thing 90210 didn't have--Peter Gallagher's eyebrows. If you don't know what I'm talking about, go add season 1 to your Netflix queue. I miss you, Sandy Cohen...

I know Marissa and her drunken, anorexic hijinks mucked up season 2, but by season 3 Taylor Townsend totally made up for it, and what about the tour de force performance from Kirsten Cohen (don't know her real name) as a secondary season 2 storyline? Don't tell me that's not Emmy-worthy.

Anyway, even though The O.C. is dead and gone, I can still relive it in all its glory whenever I visit my hometown of Torrance, CA. You see, the O.C. doesn't look anything like the TV show because they filmed most of it on studio lots and in Redondo or Torrance, a good 40 miles north Newport Beach, the supposed location. The exterior shots of the rock club where 16 year olds could see live performances by national bands without having to worry about having ID or being crushed in a mosh pit were done on the Redondo Beach Pier. There's Mike trying to grab a little of that Ryan Attwood stardust...
And all those scenes of Marissa contemplating suicide at some deserted life guard station are all on the stretch from Redondo to Torrance Beach. See, it's beautiful...

I grew up in Torrance, a low-key beach city south of Los Angeles that has one of the most perfect climates on earth. They say that about San Diego, but San Diego is cold. I wouldn't lie to you. Torrance is just right. Mike and I flew in to visit my family and attend a wedding this weekend in San Diego. My sister who has been living in Brazil for the past few years is in CA too, along with her fantastic boyfriend, so we've been having a lot of fun in SoCal. They took us to the Torrance farmer's market where stone fruit, figs, squash blossoms and summer tomatoes are abundant...heaven!

They also made Sangria for us, and it was outrageously good. I'm still wrangling the actual recipe out of them (like most great things, it's sort of intuitive), but when I do, I will definitely share it. It transforms inexpensive sauvignon blanc into something amazing involving strawberries, oranges and Bigelow peach tea.

Right now, Mike and I are in Buellton, CA. You might know it from the little movie, Sideways. We are loving the local wines, and I had the greatest burger of my life last night at The Hitching Post. We also stopped for lunch at the taco stand in Santa Barbara where Julia Child used to go. As we watched the cooks making the corn tortillas in their little kitchen, we knew it would be great. We were right. More on California to come in the next post.

What is everyone else doing for their summer vacation?

And for all you O.C. fans...if you were Josh Schwartz, how would you have saved the show????

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

10 Things to Love About Tokyo

1) Noodles are taken very seriously-Udon or soba, which noodle reigns supreme? Who cares! The noodles we ate were a revelation. I have never had udon or soba like this, and no wonder. One night we tracked down an udon restaurant (no small feat since it was a shoebox of a place on the third floor and had no English signage) and slurped silky noodles with the perfect firm, elastic texture. We also ate at a lunch place twice where soba was the specialty. Whether served hot with trimmings or cold and simply dipped in broth, these buckwheat noodles were a wonder.

2) Beef is taken very seriously-Whether it is grilled over charcoal or cooked in a bubbling cauldron a la shabu-shabu, the Japanese have a way with beef. Their choicest cuts are a lighter red color than the typical American beef with more fine marbling. The thinly sliced shabu-shabu meat looks a bit like graying deli roast beef when you pull it out of the cooking water, but it was some of the most luscious, flavorful beef we’ve ever had.

3) Fish is taken very seriously- This probably comes as no surprise. The wonderful fact that hit home for us during our 5 days in Tokyo is that sushi is not the only thing for dinner. We had wonderful, pristine sushi (the fatty tuna looks like a seafood version of bacon, but tastes like the finest, most buttery tuna sashimi imaginable), but Japanese food is so much more (see items 1 and 2). We also got up very early to wander around Tsukiji Central Fish Market (the largest fish market in the world) where the sheer volume and variety of sea creatures moving in and out each day is a marvel.

4) The vending machines sell beer- It’s a funny (and sometimes convenient) novelty…what can I say?

5) Traditional Japan is easy to find- One morning, we walked around Shitamachi (the low city), visiting Senso-ji, an impressive Shinto shrine with a 5-story pagoda on the grounds. Afterwards, we walked around the Asakusa neighborhood, a place that somehow escaped the consumerism of Ginza, the glamour of Aoyama and the youth-crazed glitz of Shibuya. Buildings are low and old, shopkeepers sell traditional clothing and trinkets, and the general pace feels a bit slower.

6) Modern Japan is easy to find (just go shopping)- “Easy” may be an understatement. Technology and the signs of a thriving modern city are all around you. Perhaps not more so than when you go shopping. The department stores are the kingdoms of the retail world, with floors upon floors full of anything you desire. The food halls in the big department stores are a Candyland for foodies and not to be missed. Roppongi Hills is a beautifully designed complex with office space, a gorgeous museum, and a very high-end (and slightly sterile) mall. Go see whatever exhibition is on at the Mori Art Museum (we really enjoyed a well-curated show on French architect, Le Corbusier), then enjoy Tokyo City View, a 360 degree observation Tower that lets you take in this massive city.

7) Pierre Herme! Pierre Herme!- Tokyoites love all things French, especially when it comes to food. I meant to see if there was a Pierre Herme shop in Tokyo, but it slipped my mind until we walked right past it while checking out some of the great retail architecture in the ritzy Aoyama shopping district (the Commes de Garcons and Prada stores are stunners). Pierre Herme is perhaps the most famous pastry chef in the world, known for the flawless execution and innovative flavors (rose, jasmine tea, olive oil) of his French macarons. Honestly, I was more tickled about visiting the Herme shop than I was about a lot of things, and it lived up to my hopes. There is a dessert bar upstairs from the retail shop where we ordered this beautiful raspberry and rose-flavored napoleon. I was in heaven. And of course we got macarons to go.

8) Everybody walks- I love cities where walking is the preferred mode of transportation. Of course we used the subway a lot (not as complicated as it looks) and took the occasional cab. But with picture-perfect early summer weather, we logged major miles everyday.

9) Even the locals get lost sometimes- Everything in Tokyo is orderly and logical…make that almost everything. The system of street addresses (I’m not going to attempt to explain it here), is utter madness. If a restaurant does not have a clearly displayed English sign, there is a very real possibility that you will never find it. Think I’m kidding? Just wait. The only consolation is that even locals don’t always know what’s around the bend. My advice is to remain calm, ask for help and go with the flow. Even our guide book’s directions did not always provide adequate support. But getting lost is half the fun, right??

10) They even take fake food seriously- A lot of casual Japanese restaurants display their entrees in a front window. But wait, look closely…that’s not real soba with seaweed and bean curd. That food is fake! It’s a funny phenomenon, and restaurants have to get this fake plastic food somewhere. There is a restaurant supply district on Kappabashi-dori not far from Senso-ji temple where all this plastic food supposedly originates. Vaguely curious, we went strolling and found store after store stocked not with plastic food, but with every possible size of tart pan, cooking utensil and gadget you could imagine. I loved it and fervently wished I had the money and luggage space to shop for real. As Mike pulled me away from Kappabashi-dori so we could catch an act at Ginza’s kabuki theater, we passed this fabulous tea cup building.

Tokyo was a joy from start to finish. A lot of people have asked if it’s expensive—It’s just as easy to find a deal here as in any American city, so don’t let cost deter you from visiting. The great thing about eating in Tokyo is that the everyday “fast” food that workers eat on their lunch breaks is not Big Macs and Subway sandwiches, but simple, delicious Japanese fare like the soba noodles I mentioned.

If there’s anything else you want to know about Tokyo, Thailand, Vietnam or Singapore (I don’t profess to be an expert, but I can speak from my own experience), leave a question in the comments or send me an email.

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