Foundations of Flavor: Vegetables

When I first started learning to cook I was pretty religious about sticking to my recipe. Learning a new skill can be stressful, and nobody wants to put hours into a meal only to have it turn out badly. So I’d bounce between the stove and my cookbook or the computer, the sink, and my cutting board – like a chicken with her head cut off, which made it kind of hard to enjoy the process.

After a little while I started to notice patterns in the recipes I used the most, and understanding those patterns has made me a much more confident, relaxed, and competent cook. I no longer feel bound to a recipe and can add or subtract ingredients without worrying if it will ruin my dish. It’s changed me, I tell you, and I want you (everyone! all of you!) to be able to do the same. This little series, which I’m calling “foundations of flavor” will be devoted to demystifying recipes a bit, and I hope it will make you feel a little less tethered to your cookbook.

The first pattern I noticed was that my recipes always started with vegetables. Even the meat-centric recipes asked me to begin by chopping rabbit food. Not only that, but the recipes usually started with some combination of the same seven vegetables, namely: onion, garlic, celery, carrot, pepper, ginger, and scallion.

foundations of flavor

This roster of players is so ubiquitously, fundamentally necessary to good flavor that almost every country arrived at their own definitive foundational combination (with a few additions based on what’s regionally available). Here are SOME (there are soo many) of the most common:

Mirepoix (French) – carrot, celery, onion

Trinity (Cajun/Creole) – bell pepper, onion, celery

Batuto (aka soffritto, Italian) – onion, carrot, celery, garlic (and sometimes parsley)

Suppengrün (German) – leek (a type of onion), carrot, celeriac (the root of the celery plant, which tastes suspiciously like celery)

Sofrito – (Spanish) garlic, onion, peppers, tomatoes, and sometimes paprika

You can also get through a lot of Chinese and Indian recipes with scallion, ginger, and garlic, and every single Latin country has their own distinct version of sofrito based on these same ingredients (with the addition of some chiles).

What’s cool about these vegetables is their insane versatility and ability to play together so well, in so many unique ratios and combinations. They’re also pretty much the cheapest veggies in the produce section. I probably have at least five of them on hand at any given moment.

You’ve used these vegetables before. You’ve probably made mirepoix and sofrito many times, but maybe you didn’t realize it because you didn’t know the name or reason. These flavorful vegetables are important to good food, like underpinnings to an evening gown. When used properly you might not notice them specifically, but their absence would be immediately apparent and problematic. They are what take a soup from flat to full or a sauce from insipid to enticing. They are the supporting layers that add nuance and complexity to every good dish.

And now that I’ve beat that weak metaphor to within an inch of it’s life, you understand. If you want to turn broth into soup, add mirepoix (and maybe some noodles). If you want to turn tomatoes into sauce, add batuto and olive oil. If you want to make beans taste like dinner, add sofrito. Go forth, and cook.

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4 Tips for Better Grilled Cheese

April is National Grilled Cheese Month! Which is almost over, but it’s not like you need a lot of notice to throw together a grilled cheese. Especially when you understand how to do it up right.

What’s to understand, you say? Cheese and bread and a pan, right? There’s really not much more to it, but a few easily-overlooked tweaks can take an average grilled cheese and make it mind-blowing. Which it kind of needs to be if you’re going to justify eating one.

avocado pepperjack grilled cheese with garlic cilantro mayo

Tip #1 – Add condiments. You don’t need a lot. Just a little accent to add some complexity to an otherwise straightforward (sometimes simplistic) sandwich. Think of it as a little pairing. Mayo or mustard (or both) get along famously with cheddar. Brie loves honey, and you almost can’t taste how awesome swiss is without a tiny bit of ham. Here I made a little garlic-cilantro mayo to go on my avocado pepperjack sandwich – you see I’ve got a theme going.

Just a few tablespoons of mayo, some chopped cilantro, pepper, and about a half a clove of grated garlic. Nothing to it, but it adds flavor and tang that brings out the richness of the avocado and keeps the melted cheese from getting rubbery as it cools.

garlic cilantro mayo

grilled cheese supplies

Tip #2 – Cook your sandwich on medium-low heat. I know you’re anxious to eat, but there’s nothing worse than a burned grilled cheese that’s cold inside. Especially if you’re using mild fillings like swiss or mozzarella. The burned flavor totally overpowers everything else you’ve got going on. Low and slow. If you remember nothing else, remember: low and slow. It is worth it.

grilled cheese

Tip #3 – Grill your sandwich open. It makes guessing when the cheese is melted a lot less…guessy.

avocado and mayo

Tip #4 – Add fillings at the right time. Here, for example, I waited until the cheese was completely melted before I added the avocado – which tends to get mushy with extended exposure to heat. Another classic topping to add late: tomato slices – because they are watery and retain heat and will basically destroy your mouth if you let them get too hot.

avocado grilled cheese

There’s really nothing else to know. Mash the sides together, let them get friendly.

grilled cheese

grilled cheese with avocado

avocado pepperjack grilled cheese with garlic cilantro mayo

And eat!

avocado pepperjack grilled cheese with garlic cilantro mayo

avocado pepperjack grilled cheese with garlic cilantro mayo

Happy cheese grilling!

  1. *drool*

    Caroline — April 24, 2014
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66 (bad) Photos of Awesome Japanese Foods

I ate a lot of food in Japan, and took a lot of photos. Not all the photos I took were pretty enough to merit their own post, but I think they’re interesting. So I thought that maybe all together they’d be worth sharing.

Behold: an experiment in photo quantity over photo quality.

ugly photos of yummy food

1: Japanese pasta salad, 2: Hand rolls (and I helped!), 3: Korean cold noodles with kimchi

ugly photos of yummy food

4: Katsu-don at a “family restaurant”, 5: Actual cronuts from the local kombini, 6: Fried chicken

ugly photos of yummy food

7: A little Japanese cheeseburger, 8: A bowl of noodles with pork belly and powdered cheese, 9: Oranges

ugly photos of yummy food

10: When you drop your gyoza in your ramen, 11: Kimchi and pork stir fry, 12: Pork-stuffed lotus root

ugly photos of yummy food

13: Chicken nanban (fried with a mayo-egg sauce on top), 14: Tonkotsu ramen, 15: Burdock root

ugly photos of yummy food

16: Biscotti from Coci’s Oven in Nakatane, 17: A ramen whose name I refuse to repeat, 18: Mo’s burger

ugly photos of yummy food

19: Salad and cat plates, 20: Chicken tail yakitori, 21: Chicken hearts, livers, intestines, skin, OH and meat

ugly photos of yummy food

22: My favorite veggie stir fry, 23: Gyoza, 24: Japanese breakfast with burdock root, fish, and rice with yolk

ugly photos of yummy food

25: Cooking chicken at our table, 26: Anchovy sashimi (I think), 27: Shiso and mushroom tempura

ugly photos of yummy food

28: Some kind of gelatinous sweet thing with crushed peanuts, 29: Tonkatsu, 30: Herb tea with roasted wheat

ugly photos of yummy food

31: Pork and veggie stir fry, 32: Boiled peanuts (not the only ones I had) 33: HUGE avocado tuna roll

ugly photos of yummy food

34: A really good salad, 35: Spring rolls at the Sun Pearl, 36: Sashimi at the Sun Pearl

ugly photos of yummy food

37: A BLT with a hard-fried egg, 38: A fancy meal at a set-meal place, 39: My favorite pastry

ugly photos of yummy food

40: Salt-broiled fish with miso soup, 41: “Western” style breakfast, 42: Lunch special at Hana Outa

ugly photos of yummy food

43: Men’s almond Kit Kat (of course) 44: Thai style yakisoba (pad thai), 45: My favorite vending machine drink

ugly photos of yummy food

46: Nabe stew with kimchi broth, 47: Tiny tanegashima fishies, to eat whole. 48: Tempura sweet potato

ugly photos of yummy food

49: Tongue and other off-cuts at Korean BBQ, 50: Intestines on the grill, 51: Japanese pomelo

ugly photos of yummy food

52: Broiled amberjack collar with shredded diakon, 53: Chicken tartare with egg yolk, 54: Sashimi

ugly photos of yummy food

55: Soba noodles with seaweed and fish cakes, 56: Egg don, 57: New year soba with tempura

ugly photos of yummy food

58: Tanegashima red rice, 59: Notorious chicken sashimi, 60: Fried fish and avocado burger

ugly photos of yummy food

61: Chicken curry, 62: Random fried snack from the kombini in Hakone, 63: Sweet potatoes, cooked and dried

ugly photos of yummy food

64: Japanese bento from the kombini, 65: Consomme served on JAL, 66: My favorite garlic fried rice

So much food, right? Looking at them all lined up makes me hungry. Some of my favorite meals are undocumented too, because of  bad lighting or just overwhelming enthusiasm for my meal, which makes it hard to remember to whip out the camera.

  1. i really am so confused about the chicken sashimi. is that approved by the FDA? so, would you say that this experience opened your palate a little? did you end up liking some things you didn't in the beginning? loved these pix! thanks for sharing. some interesting stuff there.

    miranda — April 23, 2014
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  2. It's really weird, but Japanese chickens aren't kept the way we do here, so you aren't likely to get sick from eating them raw. Salmonella happens when chickens have to stand around in their own poop all day, which they don't do in Japan. Texture and flavor-wise I'm not a fan of raw chicken, just because I know if I was in America I'd be in the hospital the next day. My head says it's wrong! As far as things I developed a taste for - I'd have to say miso and seaweed (to an extent) and sashimi. I went in not loving any of them, but now I like miso and sashimi and I can totally deal with seaweed.

    courtney — April 24, 2014
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Spring, Brunch, and Sakura

Last weekend I went to brunch and the cherry blossom festival with my sister and her husband. Brunch was at Farmers Fishers Bakers in Georgetown, and it was pretty great. I’m a sucker for buffets because you get to try a big, huge, ridiculous variety of stuff. I know most foods don’t perform that well in extended hot holding, but I think they’ve struck a pretty good balance here. They have lots of salads, grilled veggies, flatbread and spreads like pimento cheese and crab with artichoke, a make-your-own taco station, roasted meats, french toast, cheese grits, jambalaya, eggs scrambled to order, and then biscuits and cinnamon rolls which are brought to each table. The only thing that really shouldn’t work is their fried chicken, which is something that usually ought to be eaten straight out of the fryer for the best textural exprience. But their honey fried chicken was good enough that the slight loss of crispness didn’t really matter. Though I would recommend going for the dark meat pieces, cause white meat dries out a lot faster.

brunch at farmers fishers bakers
So it seems like they’ve been thoughtful about what they’re putting out, and steering clear of things that are just going to get nasty if they have to sit out for a bit. The other clever thing was the passed trays of fried shrimp, eggs benedict and florentine, and fancy pizza – all served to the tables within a few minutes of plating. It’s hard to resist absolute gluttony in a situation like this. We moaned to the waiter about how full we are and he said “here, you aren’t done when you’re full. You’re done when you hate yourself.” And so we continued.

eggs florentine at farmers fishers bakers
The cherry blossom festival reminded me of Japan for two reasons. First, cherry blossoms are a big deal in the spring in Japan (they’re called sakura in Japanese, which is also the name of probably 25% of suburban Japanese restaurants in existence, right?). Second, the metro was as packed as the trains in Tokyo. But the flowers were beauteous and worth the proximity with sweaty strangers.

cherry blossoms
The highlight of the festival, apart from the blossoms, was a little bit of a break-dancing stage show we caught on our way through the crowd. Most of the dancers were hitting stunt after stunt without much time for swagging about in between. But then “Single Ladies” came on, and the only white boy in the group got up and basically did Beyonce’s choreography step for step. A blonde, bearded hipster with hips that did not quit.

cherry blossom festival
I’m considering spring officially rung in.

  1. great pictures! that food looks too good to be a buffet!

    miranda — April 18, 2014
    1. Thanks Mir! It is definitely one of the best buffets I've been to. Come to DC and I'll take you.

      courtney — April 18, 2014
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  2. we're going there for brunch for the second time tomorrow. i'm ready to hate myself all over again.

    hannah — April 18, 2014
    1. Kindred sprits my friend! If you haven't tried a taco on a corn cake instead of a tortilla, you should :)

      courtney — April 18, 2014
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  3. I just want to point out that you perfectly framed Thomas Jefferson in between the columns of the memorial! Such an awesome shot.

    Caroline — April 22, 2014
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Jamaican Burgers and French Surfers (In Japan)

One of the NASA team’s favorite haunts on Tanegashima was the Steppin’ Lion. It was one of the only restaurants on the island that made burgers, so we’d all head over when we were missing American food. The burgers are great, but even better is the jerk chicken, which also comes in burger form.

steppin lion jerk chicken burger
I was googling around for info about Tanegashima and found a few videos from French surfing magazine, Oui Surf. I was sort of tickled to see they’d made a video of the Steppin’ Lion. They captured it well, in my opinion.

Japon / Nourriture / Steppin Lion from on Vimeo.

And one about a Tanegashima specialty: chicken sashimi. Yes, I tried it. And no, it ain’t for me.

Japon / Nourriture / Tori Sashimi from on Vimeo.

Bodacious burgers and scruffy surfers that speak French. You are welcome.

  1. chicken sashimi? how is that possible??

    miranda — April 12, 2014
    1. Tanegashima chickens are a lot healthier than American chickens I guess? I didn't get sick when I had it but it didn't exactly agree with me either :)

      courtney — April 12, 2014
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South Border

All those buzzwords foodies like to throw around; local, artisan, organic – they’re good words. But they tend to lose their punch when written into every food establishment’s marketing copy ad nauseam. While I was in Tanegashima, I had the rare privilege of meeting people with businesses that can be described with all those words, but not because their PR department told them to. Just because they are.

My favorite restaurant on the island was South Border. It’s a cafe owned by a cute little surfer girl named Machi-san. Attached to the cafe is her husband’s workshop where he builds custom surf boards. Out front is a homemade pita-oven, a dog house, and it’s resident, Sunny.

pita oven and sunny

Sunny is a perfect, good-natured dog who could teach Murdock a thing or two about manners.

sunny the dog

Machi-san runs the whole cafe without help most days. She takes orders, cooks, makes coffee, and waits tables. The restaurant only seats about ten, but if it’s full she’s on her feet nonstop.

soda and dessert

Machi-san is a particularly good baker. Every week or so she makes a new featured dessert like mocha cheesecake or whoopie pie. She’s got a really good sense of balance in her sweet dishes – none of which were cloyingly so. The pita oven is used regularly for, guess what, pitas. Which she stuffs with fresh veggies and house roasted meats for lunch.

south border pita

I ordered the avocado chicken pita pretty much every time I went in. It was delicious, and her homemade whole wheat pitas were nutty and perfect. I gravitated toward this one the most though because I was homesick for turkey sandwiches. It hit the spot.

avocado chicken pita

Cody’s favorite pita was the pork with onions and garlic, which I also liked, but the lunch time show-stopper at South Border is the chicken curry. There are a lot of restaurants in Japan that serve curry, and Japanese curry is different from Indian or Thai or American versions. It’s sort of sweet and cheaply beefy when it’s bad, but when it’s good it’s rich and spicy and complex and balanced. This curry was literally the first curry in Japan I loved, and the best I had the entire trip.

pita and curry

And I got her recipe. Which I will share here in due time.

japanese curry

The cafe doubles as a little surf shop, selling themed trinkets and locally handmade beauty products.

i heart surfing

A bumpy translation, but nothing lost here.

keep on smile

This was Machi-san’s whoopie pie with peanut cream. She got the recipe from an event that Wolfgang Puck hosted in Tokyo. I’ve never actually had Wolfgang Puck’s food, but Machi-san’s version was good enough to make me curious.

whoopie pie

With the help of a bi-lingual Tanegashima native, I asked Machi-san why she opened the cafe. She said “I just wanted a place for my friends to hang out and have coffee when they visited the workshop, so I made one”.  I miss this place, and Machi-san’s cooking and general cuteness. Like so many places on Tanegashima, this one was the genuine article.

machi san

  1. […] couple of months later I decided to revisit curry at Machi-san’s cafe, and it was night and day different from my first bowl. This curry was complex, spicy, very clearly […]

    The Ultimate Japanese Curry | Sweet Salty Tart — February 24, 2016
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Tanegashima Sugar

Staying in a country where you don’t speak or read the language sort of forces you to buck up in confusing situations. And when you don’t know the language, or even how to make the sounds of the characters in the alphabet, confusing situations abound. The first time we drove down the main drag in Minamitane, Cody pointed out of the car window to buildings that looked, to me, like houses or offices, saying “that’s a restaurant, and that’s a restaurant, and that’s a restaurant”. It’s like that a lot in Japan, but especially in Tanegashima. The general collective signage is minimal to begin with, and even when there are signs on storefronts, I can’t read them at all. We kind of had to get used to walking in unmarked, unfamiliar doors and seeing what would happen.

We’d heard that there was a sugar cane processing facility somewhere on the island that invited tourists. But when we arrived we couldn’t really tell if we’d come to the right place. But we gathered our tolerance for uncomfortable situations and pressed on.


sugar cane processing

Aha! Sugar cane. That’s a good sign.

sugar cane chopper

And we kept walking, into a sanctum of steam. At this point we sort of figured that if we weren’t supposed to be there, we’d have been yelled at.

sugar cane processing

This is where they boiled the cane juice down into syrup.

sugar cane dudes

These dudes were mostly unfazed by our presence. Which made for good candids.

liquid sugar

That’s the sugar cane juice after it’s been boiled for a while and reduced.

tanegashima sugar

This place pours out straight reduced sugar cane syrup to make this clear, foldable yet somehow breakable taffy/candy stuff for tourists to taste. Then they take crystallized sugar and add it to the big bowls to help the rest of the batch form crystals. The crystallized sugar is a lot more useful than the foldable stuff, for obvious reasons.

tanegashima sugar

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are given a shard of fresh sugar candy, take it and eat it, but do not chew it unless you want your teeth to be superglued together for 20 minutes.

sugar shards

These guys are stirring the sugar to encourage crystallization (I think).

stirring sugar

And here’s a bag of the finished product. Really nicely textured, richly flavored stuff. It felt pretty special to get to see these people make sugar without the help of a lot of big machinery, almost like going back in time.

crystallized tanegashima sugar

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Tanegashima Kids

While we were in Tanegashima, the NASA team caused a bit of buzz, and a few people were invited to give presentations about space and the GPM satellite at some of the local schools. I was graciously invited to tag along. During our two visits I learned a few things.

shimama elementary

Firstly, the shoes rule applies to schools as well as homes. Indoor shoes indoors, outdoor shoes outdoors. Also the schools are neither air conditioned nor heated, and the kids wear shorts and skirts.

shimama shoes

Kids start learning english in elementary school.

enjoy english

They sit on the floor, and the little kids are very well behaved.

school presentation

Tanegashima is isolated enough that we were probably some of the first Americans most of them had ever seen in person.

shimama kids

I learned from one of the JET teachers at this school that these kids have to eat everything they’re given everyday at lunch, and they have to help clean up the dishes. I like that. I think the uniforms help with that “we’re in this together” mentality.

shimama kids

That garden is planted and tended by the kids at this school. Nice work huh?

shimama umbrella

The backpacks! So cute but so expensive. I saw a few of these up close in a store, and they can run $400 or more, and are often made of full leather with metal framing. Serious luggage.


Noodle intermission. This is a long post.

noodle intermission

A few days after we visited the elementary school, we got to go to the local Jr. High school which was beautiful and far too large for the number of students that attended.

Minamitane Jr. High

Tweenager uniforms look a liiiiitle different.

student stampede

Tweens in Japan are just like tweens in America, a little rowdy, but generally good.

Jr. High Presentation

And this character, kept winking at me and waving to me before and after the first of the two presentations we did that day. Harbinger of events to come.

Jr. High Boys

After the second presentation, I was quickly surrounded by tween girls. It was the cutest and weirdest experience of all my time in Tanegashima. Luckily I was holding the camera when it started. But handed it off to Cody just in time to capture the rest.


They wanted to shake my hand?


I am an object of curiosity?

what just happened

This cutie was the leader of the pack. She came up to me and asked, in English, “do you like chocolate?” and it turned out we had that most important thing in common.


I’m sure the language barrier gives them an advantage, but I was pretty charmed by these kids.

baseball kid

  1. Hahaha you are so cute! I love the pic of you looking at the camera and the girls in a crowd giggling. Too funny. So what do you think…would you want your kids attending Japanese schools? They sound pretty awesome!

    Miranda — April 2, 2014
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  2. So cute! I love the uniforms! Wouldn't it be fun to teach English there?

    Carrie — April 2, 2014
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  3. Mir, I think I'd like having my kids in Japanese schools, but I don't know if they'd like it. It'd be hard to be a foreign-looking student, especially in Tanegashima. And Ma, teaching English would be so fun! The American teachers I talked to LOVED it.

    courtney — April 2, 2014
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  4. I love this! I wonder what children like that are thinking when they meet foreigners!

    Amy — April 2, 2014
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