Battle of the Snacks: Turkish vs. Japanese

For Christmas, I got my husband a package of dagashi or Japanese snacks. He went to Japan for work years ago, and fell in love with the place, but has never been able to return. A snack won’t make up for the lights of Tokyo or the majesty of mount Fuji, but it should at least remind him of the place.

The $25 box promised 30 snacks, but it was more like 20 snacks and several one or two bite candies. Still, it should give us at least three weeks of daily treats – and reviews!

My husband then reciprocated by getting me a box of Turkish snacks. My trip to Turkey was right after my year abroad in Egypt, and while I loved the country and the food, I don’t think I ever tried any snacks. I was traveling at a super small budget, and snacks didn’t enter into the question.

I don’t know if Turkish snacks were a big deal back then, but they apparently are now – at least in Amazon. Whether that’s because they’re particularly good and varied or relatively cheap, we’ll have to see.

The $28 box my husband got me is supposed to have over 1 1/2 lbs of snacks or at least 20 full size snacks. It came with a sheet explaining what they all were.

As you can see, this was true. At least from a price point, the Turkish box was a better value than the Japanese box – but Japan is a more expensive country. The question will be what’s the best value in terms of food and experience.

Our plan is to try one of the snacks every day and see which we like best. I’ll blog about them as well. I start with the first couple of days, and will add more blog postings as I go along.

Day 1: Ozmo Burger Chocolate Chip Cookies vs. Yaokin Unaibo Corn Potage

Winner: Japan

The burger cookies were super cute and very detailed. They would make great play food for dolls. Flavor wise, however, they were a bit lacking. They were a bit dry and they had a soft chocolate flavor, maybe with some hazelnut thrown in. Not something I’d be craving.

We expected weird snacks in the Japanese box, and this one did not disappoint. Umaibo, I learned, are puffed corn snacks (similar to a large cheetos) that come in a variety of flavors and, indeed, there are several of these in the box. This particular one was “corn potage” flavor, which apparently is a popular Japanese soup. At first, the snack was a bit weird, but we soon really got into it and we found it very tasty. I would definitely buy more. And I’m planning to make this actual corn potage.

Day 2: Ülker Çubuk Kraker vs Green Apple Konjac Jelly

Winner: Japan/Draw

The Turkish treat were think pretzel sticks. They tasted exactly like think pretzel sticks. I did like how thin they were, but otherwise you will like this as much as you like pretzels.

As far as I can tell, this is a flavor jelly candy made from the konjac plant. It has a consistency a bit more liquidy than jello which I found very pleasant. I couldn’t quite tell what the flavor was before I looked it up (and I did an image search for “Japanese green jelly snack” to find it). In addition to being a popular candy in Japan, it seems that you can buy the powdered konjac gelatin to make your own decorative jellies at home. Beware, however, that is also a known choking hazard.

While I did like this snack, my daughter didn’t like it and my husband wasn’t very excited about it either. Fortunately, though, there is another one in the box because my vegan daughter might like it. Getting vegetable gelatin is hard, so this may be a good substitute.

Pampa Direct – Review

This online store for Argentinian products really delivers

Argentine products used to be hard to find in the US. For years, we had to make our own dulce de leche by boiling cans of condensed milk or cooking it from scratch. Making empanadas meant making the shells by hand, and if you wanted yerba mate or Argentinian sweets, you had to wait until someone brought them to you from a trip.

Slowly in the 90’s and then quicker in the 00’s, Argentinian products started to make their way into Latin markets in the US. For years, I was able to find them at Casa Lucas in unincorporated San Leandro, but this closed a few years ago. Fortunately, there are several Argentinian stores in the LA area, so I’ve been able to fill my needs when I go to visit my parents. The pandemic, however, has put a stop to this so I went looking for a place to buy Argentine products online. Enter Pampa Direct.

Pampa Direct sells a wide variety of shelf stable Argentine products, from candy and snacks, to all sort of Dulce de Leche products, wines and even mate gourds. Their prices are very reasonable, in line with those of the Argentinian markets in LA, and most amazingly, they ship from Argentina.

I made a HUGE order that included alcohol and it took about 10 days to arrive. Shipping is free in order over $50, and they have a free gift if you order at least $100. They also added some extras to my order, perhaps because it was so big.

Christmas Eve Dinner 2020: A Pandemic Christmas

Like responsible people throughout the world, we spent the holidays in 2020 at home and alone, just our little nuclear family. It was a somewhat sad Christmas Eve, as my father passed away this year and our family has been feeling the weight of the pandemic. But we were abroad last year, and it was very important for all of us to get some semblance of normality.

Still, I went back and forth between making a full multi-course dinner as I usually do, or just have a main and dessert. I sort of leaned towards the latter option as we haven’t been particularly hungry during the pandemic, so I wasn’t sure we could even go through a full meal, even with small courses.

Ultimately, I compromised and went with something in between, a multi-course dinner but without any real frills. I served:

1 – A macaron

Actually, this came earlier in the afternoon as we were all watching a movie in the living room.

2 – Brie and Apple Tart

Quite nice.

3 – Ravioli in a Truffle Sauce

Mushroom & truffle ravioli from the Pasta Shop, served in a taleggio cheese, truffled butter and cream sauce and topped with black truffle shaves and fresh Argentinian Parmesan cheese.

4- Apple Pie Granita

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A little bit sweet for a palate cleanser but lovely nonetheless

5 – Standing Rib Roast with Rosemary-Thyme Crust served with roasted shallots and carrots and Field Roast Hazelnut Cranberry Roast served with roasted baby potatoes and Brussel sprouts

I used this recipe from epicurious.com for the standing roast. I’m not bothering to copy it because while the roast came out great, I don’t think it was any thanks to the recipe. The mustard & herbs coating burned to the point of pulverization, and I’m not sure how much flavor it imparted on the meat. The roast, more over, was done by the time I took it out to add the shallots and carrots, so I had to keep it warm while these cooked – and then the shallots and carrots turned out too greasy. Still, what really matters is that the meat was great.

I served a Field Roast Hazelnut Cranberry Roast for my vegan daughter. She was reasonably content with it, but did not think it was worth the $16 I paid for it. It reminded her a lot of the Field Roast sausages she likes.

6 – Granny’s Sponge Cake with Lemon Frosting

This cake turned out great, despite one of my daughters opening the oven in the middle of baking.

All in all, it was a good meal. We accompanied it with Martinelli apple cider and some delicious alcoholic apple cider I got from Argentina.

Marga’s Holiday and Party Recipes

Raley’s Beef Ribeye Roast – Review

Standing Rib Roast with Rosemary-Thyme Crust

This year, I made a standing rib roast for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. The 2-rib Thanksgiving roast was bought at a local butcher. It was expensive, so much so that my husband hid the total price from me to not give me a heart attack. Still, we had had a similar roast from that butcher 16 years before and he had dreamt about it every since, the Pandemic Thanksgiving seemed like a good time to revisit it. We all loved it. My husband rated it a solid 8.5-9 in a 10 point scale.

When time came for making our Christmas menu, both of them requested a prime rib roast again. I wasn’t thrilled about cooking the same thing, and there was no way I was going to revisit that expense – but when I saw that Raley’s had the equivalent cut for $6/lb I decided to give it a go.

I will admit that I was apprehensive. These days you a chuck or eye of roast costs about that much. But Raley’s advertised the meat as being choice grade, so I figured why not? I was pleasantly surprised.

Even though I kept the meat in the fridge until its “sell by” date, the roast was very good, tasty and tender. Not as much as our uber-expensive Thanksgiving roast, but much more than it had any right to be for the price. My husband gave it a 7/10. I would not hesitate to serve it to guests.

And I just might, because it seems Raley’s has sales on prime rib every year around the holidays.

Finally, Raley’s advertised its roast as “Beef Ribeye Roast, Bone In” which confused me for a while. I knew that butchers call a prime rib roast devoid of bones “ribeye roast”, but I thought that if it had the bones it was called “prime rib” or “standing rib roast”. So I spent a fair amount of time researching this. You can do the same, but for all extents and purposes, if what you want to make is prime rib or a standing rib roast, this is the same thing by another name. Do remember that “prime” can refer both to this cut, but also to the grade of meat. Prime grade beef has greater fat marbling than choice grade meat, which has itself more marbling than “select”, a grade that seems to have disappeared from supermarkets in the last few years.

Apple Pie Granita – Recipe

This apple pie granita tastes exactly like frozen apple pie, and it’s absolutely delicious. I served it as a palate cleanser for my 2020 Christmas Eve dinner, though it’s probably too sweet for that. It would work just as well as dessert. Everyone enjoyed it nonetheless.

I made it using Martinelli’s apple juice rather than “natural-style apple juice” like the original recipe called for, because that’s what I had at home. If I made it again using regular apple juice, as I did, I’d probably reduce the sugar to 1/4 cup or leave it off altogether.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups apple juice
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • a dash of nutmeg
  • a dash of allspice

Instructions

Place all ingredients in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Transfer it to an 8″x8″ glass baking dish. Place in the freezer until the sides start to freeze, about 1 to 2 hours. Using a fork, break and mix and put back in the freezer for another 2 hours. Break again with a fork and transfer to small serving glasses. Keep in the freezer until ready to serve.

Based on Emerile Lagasse’s recipe at Food & Wine magazine.

2020 Christmas Eve Dinner

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Brie & Apple Tart – Recipe

I made this simple tart because it sounded divine – and it might have been had I been able to make it fresh. Unfortunately, I had a dish I had to cook at a much lower temperature right before this was meant to be served, so I decided to cook it earlier at 400F, and then just reheat it before serving. This wasn’t a truly successful endeavor, as the bottom of the pastry burned. Fortunately, it was very easy to scrape off. In any case, I wouldn’t recommend making it in advance. I would, however, try to make it again – when I can eat it right away.

Ingredients

  • 1 sheet puff pastry
  • 10 oz Brie, thinly sliced
  • 1 Golden Delicious apple, cored and thinly sliced
  • 2 tsp honey for dripping
  • 2 Tbsp sliced almonds
  • 2 Tbsp pomegranate seeds (optional)

Instructions

Preheat oven to 400F

Place the puff pastry on a large sheet of parchment and roll into a 10″ x 12″ rectangle. Crimp the sides, forming an elevated border.

Place the brie slices on the puff pastry sheet and then cover with the apple slices. Transfer parchment with the tart to a baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, about 30-35 minutes.

Drizzle with the honey and sprinkle almond slices on top. Top with pomegranate seeds if using.

Based on Lauren Conrad’s recipe at Good Housekeeping.

2020 Christmas Eve Dinner

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Ravioli in Truffle Sauce Recipe

Plus what I learned about truffles & are the truffles sold at the Berkeley Bowl any good?

During a very brief stay in Barcelona, my daughter fell in love with a dish of truffle ravioli in a parmesan and truffle oil cream sauce at one of the Sensi tapas restaurants. So when she asked that I include a pasta dish for our Christmas dinner, I immediately thought of that dish – and started researching recipes and truffles.

Truffles, I knew, were very expensive and rare fungi that grows naturally in Italy and France and is only available at exorbitant prices for a few months of the year. What I didn’t know is that it’s extremely hard to preserve them – because it’s their aroma which actually gives dishes the ethereal earthy flavor that we so like. Infusing them in oil doesn’t really work, but food scientists were able to isolate its most prevalent odorant – a compound called 2,4-Dithiapentane – and replicate it. This is what is mixed with olive oil, butters or salt and sold as “truffle” whatever. That is to say, this is what most of us know as truffle flavor. The little pieces of truffle we see in commercial products are apparently there mostly for show.

There seems to be a revolt against truffle oil among some top chefs, who belief its fake flavor confuses diners and stops them from being able to appreciate the subtleties of real truffles. Thinking back to the truffle dishes I’ve had, I think this is likely to be the case. I still dream of Aquerello‘s ridged pasta with foie gras, scented with black truffles, which I believe is topped with real truffle, but most other truffle dishes I recall did seem to be rather one-dimentional. Years ago, my husband gave me expensive botles of black and white truffle oil for Christmas, so I know those flavors quite well. While I didn’t care much for the white truffle oil, the black truffle oil does impart a rather tasty flavor.

I found many recipes online for pasta in a truffle sauce, and at first my decision was on whether to use truffle oil or butter. While researching what was easily available to me, I found that the Berkeley Bowl was actually carrying fresh black truffles for about $160/lb (via instacart). Given that the page offered no information about these truffles, and that French black truffles are currently selling for $95/oz (a regular truffle weighs an ounce or less), I was quite doubtful of these – but I did learn that truffles are also grown in the West Coast – indeed, as close as Napa Valley – so I imagined they were domestic. My daughter suggests, however, that they might just be expired truffles – not fresh enough to retain much of their flavor. She might have been right.

Ultimately, I decided to give them a try – and so far I’ve had mixed results. I first used them the night I got them by shaving them on a dish of plain pasta served with vegan butter. The truffle shavings completely failed to impart any flavor on the dish. It was a total failure.

For my Christmas Eve dish I decided to do something different. I took part of a truffle and chopped it very finely and infused it in good quality melted butter early in the day – so that it was solid by the time I actually made the sauce for this dish. This, by itself, didn’t give the sauce much truffle flavor, but I think it helped it build, so by the time all the ingredients were combined – the truffle ravioli, the sauce and the shaved truffle on top – the results were delicious. The dish had a very earthy flavor, truffly but not as strong as truffle oil.

I was lucky enough that I was able to follow this recipe closely, as I was able to find the called-for taleggio cheese at the Berkeley Bowl as well. The recipe writer suggests that you can substitute this cheese with Fontina, Robiola or Brie, though to me its flavor was closer to camembert. Indeed, I added a couple of ounces of camembert, as I hadn’t gotten as much taleggio as the recipe called for. I’d probably had done better using less cheese, as the sauce was a tad too salty – I’m making this recommended adjustment in the recipe below.

I wanted to make ravioli in the first place, and was happy to find porcini & truffle ravioli from the Pasta Shop at the Berkeley Bowl. These are made with “truffle essence”, that is to say, the artificial aromatic compound. They were tasty by themselves, but they were really elevated by the sauce and the shaved truffle.

To store truffles before using them, dry the surface with a paper towel and then place in a bowl filled with uncooked rice (to help draw moisture away). Store in the fridge or a cool place in your house.

Ravioli in Truffle Sauce Recipe

Ingredients

  • 12 oz fresh or frozen mushroom ravioli
  • 2-3 Tbsp truffle butter
  • 8 oz taleggio cheese, cut into 1/2″ cubes
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 truffle
  • Parmesan cheese to taste

Instructions

Cook the ravioli according to package instructions, drain.

Meanwhile, melt the truffle butter, cheese and cream over medium heat – stirring frequently. Transfer the ravioli to the sauce and coat all over. Transfer to a serving dish or individual plates.

Shave truffle and Parmesan cheese to taste.

Based on Jacqui’s recipe at The Pasta Project.

2020 Christmas Eve Dinner

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Pasta with Creamy Pesto Sauce

My vegan daughter wanted pasta with a creamy pesto sauce for Thanksgiving, and I, of course, obliged. I was fortunate to find this amazing recipe online and both my daughter and her non-vegan sister loved it. It did require a couple of adaptations from the original recipe, noted in the one below.

Ingredients

  • 12 oz pasta
  • 2 cups plain, unsweetened oat milk or another vegan milk
  • 1/3 cup vegan pesto
  • 2 Tbsp corn starch
  • 1 Tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 1 tsp salt

Instructions

Make pasta according to package instructions.

Meanwhile, add the milk, pesto, corn starch, nutritional yeast and salt to a medium sauce pan. Heat over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until it starts to boil. Turn heat down to medium and continue whisking until it has the consistency you want, add more cornstarch if necessary.

Adapted from Monica’s recipe at The Hidden Veggies.

Vegan Pesto

This is very good recipe for pesto, that tastes just like a good non-vegan pesto. I made it for my daughter using the basil she herself grows. It makes about 1/3 cup (I know, it doesn’t seem possible, but sometimes the sum is lesser than the factors).

Ingredients

  • 2 cups basil leaves
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/3 cup nutritional yeast
  • 2 Tbsp pine nuts 
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Instructions

Put all ingredients, save for the olive oil, in the bowl of a food processor or blender and process into a paste. Gradually add the olive oil and blend in.

Adapated from Monica’s recipe at The Hidden Veggies

Vegan Pecan Pie Recipe

I made this recipe for vegan pecan pie for Thanksgiving, and my vegan daughter was quite happy with it. Unlike most vegan pie recipes this one didn’t use corn syrup and it wasn’t too sweet. It had the right consistency, however, and the pie set perfectly – no need for eggs.

I was cheap and made it using a Safeway refrigerated pie shell and it was horrible! There are far better vegan pie shells out there. The filling, though, was good:

Ingredients

  • 1 pie shell
  • 3/4 cup canned coconut milk
  • 3 Tbsp cup corn starch
  • 2 Tbsp vegan butter
  • 6 oz pecans, chopped
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake pie crust for 7 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a bowl. whisk together the coconut milk and corn starch until dissolved. Set aside.

Heat butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until it melts. Add the pecans and cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds. Whisk in the coconut milk mixture, brown sugar, maple syrup, vanilla extract and salt.

Pour the mixture onto the pie crust. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Cool on the counter for two hours and then let cool completely on the fridge.

Adapted from Ana’s recipe at Making thyme for health