Benkyodo: A Japanese Tradition

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things.”

This song comes to mind when I think of the mochi and manju that I get from the Benkyodo Company in San Francisco’s Japantown.  There is something very special about these hand made confections.  Benkyodo opened in 1906 as one of the original businesses in Japantown.  During WWII, Benkyodo was forced to close when the family was interned.   The endurance of the family allowed them to reopen after the war and the business has been handed down generation after generation.

What is mochi and manju?  Mochi is the specific name for glutinous rice that is pounded into paste and molded into a shape.  Manju is the general term for Japanese confections, and there are many, many varieties.

For Christmas, my friend and I picked up some manju from Benkyodo.  During the holidays, it’s always best to pre-order so that you can ensure they have the varieties you are looking for when you arrive.

I decided to get a few of their seasonal varieties – blueberry mochi and apple manju, as well as one of their popular varieties – the green mochi filled with red bean paste sprinkled with soybean flour.  I enjoy these treats as they are not too sweet and come in bite sized portions.  As you bite into the blueberry mochi, you get a rich burst of blueberry in your mouth.  This is the first time I enjoyed the apple manju, one of their baked varieties which tasted like a miniature apple pie.  The green mochi with the red bean paste is more traditional, and the soybean flour adds a nice nutty flavor.

There is definitely a rich tradition and an art in the making of mochi and manju.  More than I enjoy eating them, I love unwrapping the packages that are tied up with strings.

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BSK: Best Breakfast in Oakland

I have heard great things about Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen (BSK) and finally went there this weekend.  Located in a flatiron building in the industrial part of West Oakland, this soul food restaurant serves breakfast and lunch daily.  Our party of five arrived before 10am on Saturday.  Although we were told it would be a 45 minute wait, it was more like 20 minutes.  Considering that reviews have mentioned waits over an hour, we did very well.

We shared an order of beignets and three of us had their house made hot chocolate with marshmallow.  The beignets were great, but still not as good as the ones in New Orleans.  The hot chocolate was divine.  Even the marshmallow was homemade.  The quality of the chocolate was definitely top notch.  The only hot chocolate to top this one is the one I had at Angelina’s in Paris.  Dipping the beignet into the hot chocolate became double delicious.

I was excited to have gone with a good sized group that was large enough to be able to try many different items.  Although I really wanted to order their famous fried chicken and waffles, I was just not in the mood to have it that early in the morning.  As I perused the menu, I really wanted everything on it.  I decided to order the most curious of choices which was the smoked pork hash with two poached eggs.  Although I would’ve liked the eggs less cooked and more runny, they were still great and perfectly shaped like a pouch.  The hash was very interesting giving off both smoky and spicy flavors. 

I managed to try a taste of everyone’s food.  The waffle was served with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup.  This cornmeal waffle was golden brown and perfectly crisp and delicious; and the accoutrements were a great match. 

The baked egg and vegetable tart was wonderful as well.  It was perfectly cooked into a soft, delicate mouthful. 

The cheese grits were awesome and probably my favorite.  I enjoy grits and wonder how they could be this good for such a simple food.  I imagine that the grits were cooked in some type of broth instead of the usual water, and the cheddar cheese added some density while maintaining its smoothness. 

BSK is thee place for down home breakfast and I’m so fortunate it is right here in Oakland.  Eating there kept triggering fond memories of having breakfast at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon without having to travel or pay extreme prices. 

Dear BSK, I love you and I’ll be back to have the fried chicken and waffles and order my own cheese grits.

Lake Chalet: Best View in Oakland

Lake Merritt is one of my favorite places in Oakland.  I spend a lot of time enjoying my walks and jogs around it.  It was the passing of Bond Measure DD in 2002, the Oakland Trust for Clean Water and Safe Parks that was the road to improvements to Lake Merritt.  The road seemed to be a long one, as the improvements didn’t start to show until a few years ago, shortly after the city partnered with the restaurant proprietors of Beach Chalet and Park Chalet in San Francisco.  The historic Municipal Boathouse would be converted into a restaurant called Lake Chalet.  The restaurant opened in August 2009, and I was so excited that I attended the public ribbon cutting ceremony.  Between happy hours and lunches, I’ve been there at least six times and think it’s about time to blog about my most recent experience.  It was a holiday luncheon for a fairly large group and I had to pre-order off a set menu in advance. 

For my first course, I chose the puree of cauliflower and fennel soup with tarragon oil.  This was absolutely fabulous!  It was creamy, delicious, and made me happy.  I had offered a spoonful of the soup to a disbeliever and I think she became a believer.  Note to self – look up this recipe to make at home. 

My second course was the house made herb gnocchi with butternut squash and brussels sprout.  This was cooked in a balsamic brown butter sauce.  I thought the dish was good, but the individual ingredients felt too separated. I don’t think it blended that well together, in other words there wasn’t much of a sauce at all.

 

The dessert I chose was the pumpkin cheesecake with crème fraiche.  This was rich, creamy and pure indulgence.  I loved it, but after a full meal, I couldn’t eat more than a few bites.  I took it home and had later indulged more. 

Lake Chalet is a good choice for good food in Oakland, but better than the food is the beautiful restaurant with amazing views of the lake.  This is a restaurant that has shaped an important piece of Oakland landscape and that is why you should go. 

Below are some photos of some of the other lunch options.

Eggplant Parmesan: The Sopranos Way

At the height of the popularity of the television show “The Sopranos,” in 2002, I received a copy of The Sopranos Family Cookbook.  This book was compiled by the character Artie Bucco, chef of the restaurant Vesuvio that Tony Soprano would frequent.  It is based on many stories and recipes from the characters and theme is Napolitan cuisine.  In the past, I would pull a recipe here and there.  With the television series over, I left the book behind me as well. 

Recently, I decided to make the dish Eggplant Parmesan and found one from this book.  I made a few small adjustments.  Instead of making my own marinara sauce, I use a jar of store bought sauce. I could make my own, but this simplifies this dish in half.  It makes it much easier to accomplish and won’t change the flavor much.  Just use one you like.  The recipe calls for only 2 ½ cups of sauce which I don’t think is enough.  I also spread out my eggplant on parchment paper during the *degorging process.

Ingredients:
2 medium eggplants
Olive oil for frying
One 26 oz jar of marina sauce or make your own
8 oz of fresh mozzarella cheese sliced thinly
½ cup of shredded parmesan cheese

Directions:
Slice the eggplants into ¼ inch pieces.  Lay the slices on parchment paper and salt both sides.  Let the slices sit for 30 minutes.  Rinse the eggplant and pat dry.  *The degorging process draws out the moisture in the vegetables removing some of the bitter flavor.

Pour enough olive oil in a deep pan to cover about ½ inch.  Heat oil over medium heat.  Fry the slices of eggplant in batches until browned on both sides.  Drain onto paper towels.  This is really the hardest part which can be done in advance.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

On a baking dish, spread a layer of marina sauce, then eggplant slices, mozzarella cheese, sauce, and parmesan cheese.  Repeat and end with eggplant, sauce, and parmesan cheese.

Bake the dish for 45 to 60 minutes.  This dish is ready when the sauce is bubbling hot and the mozzarella cheese melted.  Let cool slightly and enjoy.

I’ve made this dish twice so far and the results are in that this is the best eggplant parmesan.  Forget the restaurant and unless you have an Italian mama, DIY (do it yourself.)  Buon appetito!