Anzac Biscuit, Down Under’s Cookie


A cookie, or biscuit as it’s called in New Zealand, that started out as a practical way for Down Under mothers and wives to send spoilage-resistant cookies to their sons and husbands on the front lines of World War I, is arguably the iconic cookie of New Zealand and Australia.

My first taste of the Anzac biscuit was in a café somewhere outside Wanaka, while on tour with a bus company. Its ingredients of rolled oats, dried coconut, butter, flour, baking soda and sweetened with sugar and golden syrup were revelatory; I’d never had such an unexpectedly crispy cookie, almost as hard as biscotti but denser, be so delicious. Anzac is an acronym for Australia New Zealand Army Corps.

Since that time, I’ve made several purchases of it, entirely in Kiwi supermarkets, packaged in quantity. These were certainly adequate, satisfying mostly the memory of the 2010 bus trip. Then today we came across a bag of Arnott’s Farmbake Golden Crunch cookies, a not-so-coded trade name for Anzac biscuits, at Countdown market. And while there’s no mistaking them for freshly baked, they are the best we’ve had coming right out of a bag.

arnott's anzac biscuits

Is Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy Worth the Extra Airfare?


Image from Air New Zealand’s website

Air New Zealand has a Premium Economy (PE) class that the airline touted as a significant step forward in comfort and service for economy passengers when introduced in 2010. Is it worth the more-than-double fare over economy?

On a flight between Los Angeles and Auckland, my wife and I upgraded to PE. I’ll explain how below. But first, let me describe our experience.

From the marketing, it surely seemed that our flight experience could be vastly more agreeable. The first improvement we experienced was the premium check-in line shared with business class. No hassles and, at the time of our check-in, no line.

PE seats are a big step forward in passenger comfort. On a Boeing 777-300, the seating configuration consists of six seats across, in groups of two separated by the airplane’s double aisles, a 2-2-2 arrangement, as compared to economy’s 3-4-3. The seat looks more like something out of an Apollo lunar module, which ANZ calls a Spaceseat. Made of ivory-colored leather and surrounded by a color-matched hard plastic shell, they contour to the body better than economy-class seats, with ample width for a large person and separate controls for reclining angle and tilt, though they’re awkward to operate. When reclining, the seat slides forward rather than leaning back into the space of the passenger behind. There is noticeably more legroom, enough to cross your legs easily or stretch them out. For electronic devices, a universal power port is provided as well as a USB port.

legroom

ports

entertainment center

The seats don’t point forward like they do in economy, but are rotated roughly 30 degrees, a design that provides more legroom at the expense of a loss of overall lateral space in the cabin.

PE occupies an entire section of the aircraft, meaning curtains are drawn between economy and business classes. and two toilets are dedicated for 44 passengers. The surprising amenity was a dispenser of hot cloth face towels.

Aside from cramped seating in economy class, one big reason I dread long flights, especially overnight ones, is my inability to sleep well when sitting. My head tends to bob forward when I get drowsy—and that wakes me up. ANZ claims their PE seats recline 50% more than economy’s. Coupled with more leg and seat room, the greater recline was enough for me to sleep better. And while sleeping at any position other than supine is not ideal, I was still able to get about 7 hours of shuteye, even if I had to shift my body around occasionally, a remarkable achievement for me. The topper was that I didn’t watch a single movie during the flight, extraordinary considering that during another flight to NZ on economy last year, I watched four to cut the tedium.

When we first boarded, at each seat were waiting bottled water, blanket, pillow with pillowcase and noise-canceling headphones. The headphones would prove to be adequate, greatly cutting down on cabin noise, but our Etymotics ER-6i isolator earphones were much more effective. Shortly, the flight crew handed out to each PE passenger a felt bag which contained complimentary eye mask, lip balm, moisturizer, foam ear plugs, toothbrush and toothpaste and a pair of socks. The socks can be used for extra warmth when you rest your unshod feet on a bean bag that serves as a foot rest. As soon as the aircraft reached straight-and-level, the flight crew passed out hot cloth hand towels, followed by orange juice and sparkling wine.

And what about the meal? We were handed a menu for dinner with a choice of three main entrées.

supper menu

Would you believe a starter? Prosciutto with heirloom tomato and basil salad, marinated olives and baked ricotta cheese. It was served on a tray with dessert (cheesecake), which made me wonder about where the main dish fit into the sequence. It was to come later, placed on the same tray after the flight attendant recorded your selection and after offering a choice of three types of bread served from a basket. And how was the quality of the food? Very good as airline food goes, I’m happy to say, leagues better than what we normally got in previous flights in economy to New Zealand. My braised Asian-flavored beef was very tender, as was my wife’s salmon, flaky from not having been previously frozen. Flavors of both were good, more interesting than standard economy grub.

Breakfast, which in my experience is the least considered meal of airlines, was likewise a nice surprise. Again, the hot hand towel. Nice touch. Juices and coffee were served first. Next came a tray with fresh fruit and strawberry yogurt. The flight attendants refilled coffee and tea, served a croissant and took passengers’ hot meal orders. We both were surprised by how pleasant the breakfast experience was.

breakfast menu

The meals, in short, were a pleasure to eat rather than a means to pass the time, unhurried and more relaxed.

How is it that we got Premium Economy? ANZ has a program called OneUp in which passengers can upgrade one class by submitting bids as late as six days prior to departure. Bids, tendered as additional amounts over your base fare, have to be made separately on both inbound and outbound legs. Last year, our bids were summarily rejected. This time, we made similar offers but instead, for the LAX-AKL leg, were given an opportunity to improve the bid, which I did by a small amount. For $295 per person, the offer was accepted. (As time draws near, I’m sure we’ll be given the opportunity to rebid on the return flight.) So, the question at the beginning was, is it worth the extra roughly $2,000 roundtrip to purchase a PE fare outright? For us personally, no. Though our experience was undoubtedly excellent, it’s still a lot of money. But, we would be highly motivated to play the OneUp game when offered.

Sunrise as we approached Auckland

Sunrise as we approached Auckland

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Molcajete at Cabrera’s (Pasadena, CA)


Maybe it’s because I’m noticing it more, but the Mexican entrée known as molcajete has been appearing on more menus. Aside from being a stone kitchen tool for grinding food products, it is also the name of a kind of preparation typically served in the bowl itself. I’ve said before, the best one I ever had was the first one, in the small town of Orick (La Hacienda), inconspicuously nestled in the redwood country of Northern California. The restaurant has since shuttered its doors forever, no doubt a victim of location and little traffic.

The procedure for making molcajete is to get the bowl, fashioned from volcanic basalt, really hot, into which is poured either salsa or broth (typically tomato-based). The superheated vessel will quickly get the liquid boiling. Slices of meats (beef and/or chicken) and sometimes shrimp are handsomely draped over the rim of the bowl. Grilled whole chile and sliced avocado also make an appearance, as might other vegetables.

It happens that molcajete is one of the specialties at Cabrera’s Mexican Cuisine in Pasadena. My wife and I and three family members had dinner here, not by design but because our original choice, Kathleen’s, a half block away, was closed (Mondays). Cabrera’s has been doing business since 1985.

You can order molcajete here in three ways: with beef and chicken, shrimp only, or a combination of all three (my choice). It came to the table, not in a traditional molcajete vessel but a more polished stone one that retained its heat even after I was done eating and scooped the remainder of the generously sized entrée into a take-home container. Presentation was impressive. Slices of grilled steak and chicken draped the sides, nopal slices, shrimp tails and grilled guero chile poked up from the burbling broth, as were tongs and serving spoon. Despite being listed as an ingredient, no chorizo was to be found. Cabrera’s uses queso panela, a mozzarella-like cheese and equally mild, that held its shape nicely, a welcome relief from most cheeses that melt beyond recognition. The glory of this stew was the sauce, the finest I’ve tasted since La Hacienda’s, salsa-like with beef and shrimp flavors, spicy and garlicky. I’ve come to prefer this kind of sauce as opposed to tomatoey broths that are too acidic for my taste, though the version I had at Los Agaves in Santa Barbara was quite good. Even if I could eat this sauce all by itself, the dish was impaired by overcooked beef and shrimp, an otherwise very good example of what is possible with molcajete (☆☆½). Very fine rice and lardy refried beans were served on a separate dish, pico de gallo on the side. A “dry” version of this dish is another specialty, steak ranchero, grilled sirloin served with nopales, guera chile, grilled onions, all moistened with molcajete sauce, served with rice and beans.

Molcajete with beef, chicken and shrimp

Molcajete with beef, chicken and shrimp

On the other hand, my sister-in-law’s carnitas Michoacan was simply outstanding (☆☆☆☆), packing great pork and grill flavors. Cut into large chunks, no one complained after the first bite.

Carnitas Michoacan

Carnitas Michoacan

I was hoping that my wife would order shrimp and crab enchilada, but she decided on cocido, a beef soup with sliced corn on the cob, zucchini, carrots and cabbage. Beef chunks were very tender. The tame broth could have been improved by a beefier flavor (☆☆).

Cocido

Cocido

Cabrera’s Mexican Cuisine
655 N Lake Ave
Pasadena, CA 91101
626.795.0230

Tendon at Hannosuke (Mar Vista, CA)


We arrived at LAX just before the noon hour. The cacophony and immensity of the airport easily dwarf those of Sea-Tac which we left a few hours before, the warm and sunny weather in Southern California being a fair exchange for Seattle’s current spate of rainstorms and relative chill. My wife’s sister and her good friend M picked us up to take us to my father-in-law’s house in the San Gabriel Valley, but not before having lunch.

M suggested ramen at one of the restaurants along West LA’s Sawtelle Blvd. An excellent idea, I thought, because this area has become a mecca of sorts for Japanese food in the last five years or so. Unfortunately, we decided to move on after a quick drive through the area didn’t reveal a single parking spot.

Not too far away, in Mar Vista, is Mitsuwa supermarket. Even here, we just barely found a parking spot on a Saturday that is the grocery shopping day for most people. Inside, throngs of shoppers and diners were flooding the food court that exclusively hosts Japanese restaurants, several of them franchises from Japan. A long line had already built up at Santouka, the chain that has ramenya throughout the Southland and elsewhere, and is on the brink of opening one in the Seattle area. A quick stroll through the area also uncovered a sushi shop (Daikichi) and Sanuki Sando Udon. What caught my eye though was a restaurant that specializes in tendon, not to be confused with connective tissue, but the Japanese word for tempura served atop a bowl of rice, a class of food called donburi.

Hannosuke started in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo where it gained quite a following. Mitsuwa seems to be playing the role of providing space in food courts for Japanese franchises that want to expand into the American market. Such is the case for all the restaurants in the Mar Vista store. Hannosuke (the full name is Tendon Kaneko Hannosuke) currently only operates stateside at this one location. Its popularity in Japan stems from the secret sauce that is poured over the tempura. Among its offerings here are various combinations of tempura served by itself, on top of rice or with zaru soba (cold buckwheat noodles served on a bamboo tray). There is even a seafood curry. I chose the original tendon, single battered and fried pieces of shrimp and white fish, shishito pepper, a square of nori, an egg that released its still runny yolk, just like in ramen. Even if the menu also advertised kakiage (fried shredded vegetable mixture), my order came instead with a green bean. Sides included a bowl of miso soup, pickled ginger and a minuscule serving of what must be secret sauce pumped up with red chile flakes.

The best tempura is almost greaseless and its batter light and lacy, almost feathery, which takes skill to make. As Hannosuke coats its tempura with a sauce, it makes little sense to go to the trouble of performing magic with the batter. In fact, theirs is more compact, but still light and crunchy. The sauce can loosely be called teriyaki, but that wouldn’t go far enough to explain its complexity, no doubt the reason for its being “secret.” I would call it tasty. It was judiciously applied, too, which helped keep the pieces crispy. The ingredients were all fresh, including the fish. Rather than coating it entirely, the nori was half-dipped in batter and fried, which makes for a nice presentation. Enough sauce dribbled from the tempura pieces to flavor the tops of the perfectly cooked rice underneath. Overall, this was a pretty good donburi (☆☆☆).

Hannosuke
Mitsuwa Marketplace Food Court
3760 S. Centinela Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90066
310.398.2113

Vietnamese Kitchen Mastery: Tamarind Tree


Is it possible that Tamarind Tree is the best Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle? One might be tempted to say so after patronizing it.

And why is it that it doesn’t come up in culinary conversations as much as, say, Green Leaf, which many do regard as without equal in these parts? One reason could be its location where the parking is always dreadful, the restaurant obscured from view atop a steep driveway just off Little Saigon’s South Jackson Street. The parking lot is ill-designed, slapdash, a pain-in-the-butt. Tamarind Tree has been doing business in the same place for many years. I’m embarrassed to say that 2005 was our last visit, three times! Had it not been for friends who took my wife and me there for dinner tonight, the pitiful streak may have gone on indefinitely. My wife and I did, however, enjoy equally fine food at Tamarind Tree’s sister restaurant in downtown Seattle, Long Provincial, in 2010 and 2011, the last visit with the same friends with us tonight.

As soon as you walk through the front doors, the tastefully decorated and appointed interior is in stark contrast to the strip-mall hodgepodge outside. Even in midday, it’s dark inside though not in a bad way, subtle lighting giving enough illumination to read the menu. We got seated next to an indoor gas fire pit. The radiated heat from the towering flames made us too warm.

Though we ordered green papaya salad, what arrived instead was a regular papaya salad that didn’t appear on the menu. That the salad was different didn’t dawn on us until later, still a good version (☆☆☆) topped with nicely grilled shrimp. With a bamboo skewer running down its length, the entire shrimp with carapace and abdominal segments still attached was meant to be eaten, shell and all. Not being keen on eating the head, I pulled it off and ate the rest. The sliced papaya, beautifully scored on the outer surface, jicama and carrots provided nice crunch and minced basil and fried shallots added their distinctive flavors.

papaya salad

Papaya salad

Next to arrive was chili chicken lemon leaves (thịt gà xào xả ớt), looking like a plateful of sauced boneless chicken thighs. These were savory, garlicky and sweet with herbal and citrusy lemongrass notes (☆☆☆).

Chili chicken lemon leaves (thịt gà xào xả ớt)

Bún chả Hà Nội is always an impressive presentation, a platter with a deep dish of meats, rice noodles and a garden of lettuce and herbs. Using whole green lettuce leaves as wrappers, you’re encouraged to place a small amount of noodles in the middle and add slices of grilled pork (thit nướng̣), pork patties (cha nướng̣) and herbs (Thai basil, mint, perilla leaves), roll the whole thing up, dip into nuoc cham and eat. The sauce served with the meats is good enough to eat by itself, almost like a boldly seasoned gravy. This was an outstanding bún chả (☆☆☆☆).

Bún chả Hà Nội

Bún chả Hà Nội

A vegetarian clay pot may not seem to hold out much savory promise, but La Vang pot rice (cơm kho thố La Vang) was quite a revelation (☆☆☆½), courtesy of three kinds of mushrooms (oyster, shiitake and tree ears). The rice dish was further enhanced by braised tofu, carrots and daikon radish (in place of the menu’s chayote squash), altogether a special vegetarian dish.

La Vang pot rice (Cơm kho thố La Vang)

La Vang pot rice (Cơm kho thố La Vang)

Grilled eggplant (cà tím nướng) had not yet arrived when we were well into the spread before us, so we were hoping that the waiter forgot to write it up. He hadn’t. It takes the kitchen longer to make the dish. There were five slices of grilled, charred Chinese eggplant (☆☆☆½), soft and silky, sprinkled with chopped peanuts and green onion. What was amazing still was yet another outstanding dipping sauce, sweet, savory and spicy like nuoc cham but sharing the eggplant’s appealing smokiness.

Grilled eggplant (cà tím nướng)

Grilled eggplant (cà tím nướng)

The four of us couldn’t possibly finish the magnificent feast. It did convince me though that Tamarind Tree’s Vietnamese kitchen is one of the best in town and that the restaurant deserves our returning more than sporadic visits once in a long while.

Tamarind Tree
1036 South Jackson Street, Suite A,
Seattle, WA 98104
206.860.1404

Recipe: Oatmeal Congee


Congee is a rice porridge served throughout most of Asia. Owing to its easy digestibility, it’s usually given to people who aren’t feeling well—chicken soup of the East, so to speak. It typically is made by adding a small amount of rice to plenty of water and cooked anywhere from half an hour to several hours, depending on the culture. Nowadays, many dim sum restaurants include congee as part of their repertoire. Mom used to give okayu (the Japanese version) to me and my brother with umeboshi (salted plum) when we were under the weather. As they were growing up our daughters became beneficiaries, though they now have an aversion to it because they claim it reminds them of when they were sick and probably because it’s rather bland.

For many years now, we’ve made congee for breakfast with oatmeal and chicken broth, not because we’re ailing but because it’s a satisfying meal in its own right. We add minced green onions and cilantro, a dollop of fukujinzuke (Japanese pickled vegetables) and, if on hand, minced or shredded leftover chicken.

Oatmeal Congee

4 cups chicken broth
½ cup quick-cooking oatmeal
2 tbsp. minced green onions
2 tbsp. minced cilantro
½ cup shredded leftover chicken (optional)
fukujinzuke
for garnish, additional minced green onions and cilantro

Bring broth and oatmeal to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan, reduce heat to very low and simmer gently for at least 30 minutes with saucepan lid partially ajar (otherwise the oatmeal might boil over and make for a messy cleanup). Whisk occasionally to help break down the oatmeal. Add green onions, cilantro and (if using) chicken and heat for an additional minute. Serve with fukujinzuke and additional minced onions and cilantro.

How to Keep Berries (and Other Produce) Fresh


The tendency for most of us is to keep produce in the bags or containers in which we bring them home from the market. I mean, who wants to fuss with fruits and vegetables when they’re ready to be put away, right? Over the years, all I did was transfer produce from shopping bag to fridge and hoped for the best. Many of you can relate to this: after a while, things started to spoil, sometimes pretty quickly. I’ve had to throw away my share of produce that simply became, as they say, a science experiment on the many forms that mold can take. There had to be a better solution. I buy groceries pretty much once a week, so any technique for extending the lives of fruits and vegetables would be welcome. I hadn’t intended for this blog to feature tips for the kitchen. But since I already did one on making cilantro last longer, I had to pass along another one, namely, how to keep berries fresh longer. I also advance a generalization.

I read somewhere that glass jars do wonders for prolonging the lives of produce. One big problem is space if we were to transfer everything botanical to glass containers. This is something you’ll have to weigh on your own. Luckily for me, I had all these Mason jars lying around from the days I used to can fruits and jams. Would they serve me now? It turned out, yes indeed, they would.

Here is a surefire way to keep berries longer in the refrigerator. Toss out fruit that already shows signs of rot or mold, are bruised or past their prime. Place unwashed berries (and unstemmed, in the case of strawberries) in glass jars. Rinsing berries beforehand will hasten spoilage. I primarily use different size Mason jars or Luminarc jars with snap-on plastic lids, depending on the space the fruit needs. Any glass jar with a lid will do though. Using this method, you’ll be amazed at how much longer berries last.

This tip doesn’t only apply to berries. After being dissatisfied with wrapping them in wax paper bags or zipper-lock plastic bags, I’ve resorted to putting cut bananas and avocados in glass jars. While this doesn’t prevent browning, the rate is markedly slowed down.

The outer leaves of scallions have a stubborn tendency to turn brown if kept in plastic produce bags. I found that by placing the stalks, root-side down, into a glass jar with about a half inch or so of water (enough to submerge the roots) and loosely covered with a plastic bag, they will last much longer. The outer leaves will also not brown.

Arugula, spinach and basil transferred to lidded Pyrex bowls or the like similarly last longer than when they’re kept in their plastic or cellophane bags.

The rule-of-thumb seems to be to chuck the plastic and use glass. I plan to do more experimenting.