Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review of Kokoro

I have decided that in addition to doing cooking posts, I'm also going to post quasi-reviews of some of the restaurants we frequent and love. The first restaurant to get this honor is going to be Kokoro. If you live in Albuquerque, I highly suggest you go there. Like tonight. It's on Menaul, just west of San Pedro, on the south side of the street. It's in a little strip mall just west of Arby's. Look for the black and red sign.

Anyway, on the stuff that really matters: the food. This is a traditional Japanese restaurant. When I say "Japanese", I want to be very clear about one thing: I don't mean that Amercanized teppanyaki crap. I mean this is what your Japanese grandmother would cook for you, assuming, of course, that you have a Japanese grandmother. They have a fairly extensive menu, on which you are bound to find something you will LOVE. The menu is broken down into categories. It starts off with sides, which can double as appetizers. You can make a full meal by ordering a couple of these. They have the expected gyoza (potstickers), which are probably the best I've ever had, and eggrolls. Kokoro makes a fantastic dish called potato croquettes. They are basically deep fried mashed potatoes. They have a very unique flavor, and are served with a delicious sauce. One of Ethan's friends thinks it tastes kind of like a Japanese Worcestershire sauce.

You can see in this picture how light and fluffy the insides of these little beauties are. I love them.

You can order the croquettes as a side, as we did on this visit. You also have several entree options that include these delicious fluff balls. They pair particularly well with the Japanese curry Kokoro has (more on that later). There is also an undon or soba noodle soup that contains these, as well. That is a really good dish for the winter. The heat of the soup and the heartiness of the croquettes melts away the cold and makes you feel warm and good about all things.

Kokoro has the best miso soup I think I've ever had. It has a more pronounced miso flavor than other soups I've slurped down. They don't skimp on the tofu chunks and seaweed, either. I'm convinced this soup can cure just about anything. It's far more effective for colds than chicken noodle soup (I have taken it upon myself to test this theory in the past. The things I suffer, all for the love of food...). It has magical hang-over annihilating powers. It repairs low spirits. It warms your heart, belly, and soul. Seriously, this is not just your average, run-of-the-mill miso. This is what all miso soup wants to be when it grows up.

Every time we go, Ethan and I tend to have a hard time deciding on what to order. You could do no wrong here. We have worked our way through the majority of the menu and have yet to get something that was not delicious. Sure, there are a few things I might not order again, but it's not because they weren't good. They just aren't quite my flavor. A perennial favorite is the chicken kara-age curry. This contains chunks of white and dark meat chicken that has been marinated to a totally flavorful and tender state. It is then battered and deep fried. Even though this chicken is fried, it is never heavy or greasy. The batter lends itself to a crisp perfection that perfectly envelops the meat. This is served with a heaping portion of rice and is on a bed of curry sauce.

The Japanese have developed a very unique curry that is quite unlike its Indian and Thai counterparts. It is not nearly as searingly hot as Indian curry, and has a far more subtle taste than the Thai incarnations. It is velvety smooth in texture, with a complex, almost sweet flavor. This dish has become one of my all time favorite comfort foods. The way that all of the flavors and textures combine is just beautiful. It is served with a small portion of pickled radish that lends a great salty flavor and unexpected burst of taste to it. It is a rare visit to Kokoro that one of us doesn't have this in front of us.

                                                                           Just Curry

Kokoro also has several other options for the amazing curry sauce. You could get the aforementioned potato croquettes, a fried pork cutlet, a chicken cutlet, and a great dish called Just Curry that is great when you want to do something different, but know that hankering for the curry Just. Won't. Go. Away.

They also have a great selection of donburi dishes. Donburi is basically a bowl of rice, with some sort of topping on it. This can be anything from the beef gyudon donburi, which is very thinly sliced peices of beef that are sauteed with onions and soy sauce, to an unagi donburi, to the sake cha-zuke, which is a salmon fillet with nori and green onions in a broth, so it's almost like a soup. Almost anything you want to put on rice, they have.

One of the things I really love about Japanese cooking is you can really tell which dishes were meant to be eaten in the cold depths of winter, and which are meant to cool you off in the middle of the summer. There are a ton of hot, hearty noodle dishes to warm your belly with the impending cold weather that's just around the corner. I love the udon noodles. They are thick and wide, with a good texture that you can really bite into. There are several good noodle soups to choose from. My favorite, hands down, though, has to the tonkotsu ramen.

The instant ramen that college kids everywhere are familiar with shouldn't be allowed to share the same name as this dish. This is what the instant crap was trying (and failed) to recreate. It has the wavy, long noodles you'd expect, but there, all similarites end. These noodles are made fresh, in house. Which, my research has led me to believe, is a long, painstaking process. It involves stretching the dough for hours, which is what gives ramen is characteristic wave. Anyway, back to the Kokoro ramen. Like the udon, there is a good texture for your teeth to bite into, and unlike the stuff you get on the mac n cheese aisle of the store, there is no telltale sheen of oil floating on top of the broth. The tonkotsu ramen has a pork flavored broth, with a delicious, tender pork cutlet floating in there. I know it sounds simple, and it is, but sometimes simple is just GOOD. This is one of those times. A great cold-weather dinner.

They've also got a few awesome warm-weather dishes up their sleeves over at Kokoro, as well. On our visit today, both Ethan and I favored these dishes, holding on the the last vestiges of warm weather we're likely to see till our cruise. Ethan got the tuna soba dish. Soba is yet another Japanese noodle. This one, though, is made from buckwheat flour, so the noodles themselves have a distinct flavor, which lends itself well to simple, cold dishes, as you are not relying on a sauce for the flavor. Kokoro takes the cold soba, piles a generous portion into the bowl, tops that with fresh green leaf lettuce, and places thin chunks of raw tuna on the lettuce. The whole thing is topped with smelt eggs. This dish has excellent presentation. The green of the lettuce, the pink of the tuna, and the orange of the smelt all blend and play off each other beautifully. Once you start eating  it, the slightly brown of the soba comes into play as well. This whole thing is finished with a sauce, served on the side, that is at once sweet, salty, and hot. All in all, when you want to fill your belly with a refreshing dish on hot day, this is an excellent option.

                                                 So pretty you almost don't want to eat it....


Kokoro has a small, but outstanding sushi menu. you won't find any fancy rolls on it, but what you will find is quality, fresh seafood. They serve it the way the Japanese have been for many a year: simply. Most of what you will find is traditional ingredients rolled in rice with nori. Their spicy tuna is one of the few truly spicy rolls I've had. Their kitchen does an great job of not letting the heat overpower the delicate taste of the tuna, and I can not say how much I appreciate that. They do have a few more American-style sushi rolls, but none of the crazy stuff you'll see at Shogun or Japanese Kitchen. The craziest it gets at Kokoro is their caterpillar roll, which has unagi and cucumber inside, and avocado on the outside. Their tempura California roll is also killer, and just about the only California roll I'll eat.

I also went the sushi route today and got the chirashi donburi. It's basically a deconstructed roll. Like all donburi, it starts with a bed of rice (sushi rice, in this case) and has different sushi components on top. Kokoro includes tuna, salmon, unagi, an egg omelet slice, seaweed salad, smelt eggs, imitation crab, and kampyo (a type of marinated gourd), with the requisite wasabi and pickled ginger. I modified it a little, as I am not the biggest fan of raw salmon. I love the stuff cooked, but raw, it's just a bit too oily for my taste. I left that off and got a double portion of tuna instead. I also really am not a fan of smelt eggs. Something about the way they just burst in your mouth puts me off of them. Those were left off the dish as well. I have never had any problems modifing dishes there, although usually, the original is perfect enough to not need it.

If you've never had unagi before, Kokoro is a good place to try it. The pieces are always small, so they are manageable and not at all overwhelming. It is cooked perfectly, every time. The natural creaminess of the eel is fully showcased. Knowing what these little guys look like alive, it never fails to astound me at how good they taste in death. The barbeque sauce that the unagi is usually coated in can verge to cloyingly sweet sometimes. Not at Kokoro. They use just enough to bring out the taste of the eel without overriding it.

I had never heard of kampyo before eating here. I don't think I've seen it anywhere since. It has a sweet flavor and a very interesting texture. It's soft without being mush, sweet without being cloying. Slightly salty. Altogether delicious. You can order it as part of the chirashi meal, as a roll on its own, or in the futo maki roll, which also has egg omelet, cucumber, smelt eggs, and imitation crab. I would highly recommend trying kampyo at some point.

Chirashi donburi. From the bottom green blob (which is wasabi) and going clockwise: pickled ginger, imitation crab and egg omelet, seaweed salad, kampyo, unagi, shrimp, tuna, and cucumber in the center.

One of the best things about Kokoro is how affordable it is. You can feast and eat like a king for a very reasonable price. The menu pricing ranges from $1.25 for a side of rice, to $10.95 for the chirashi donburi. Most of the sides are priced between $2-$3.50, which means you can easily try new things. The sushi rolls go from $2.50-$8.50. Several of these would easily make a full meal for two people. Most of the entrees are between $7-$9. They don't really have a whole lot in terms of dessert, but do carry a good variety of a candy called Hi Chew, which is kind of like Starbursts. It has a really good chewy consistancy, and all of the flavors actually taste like the fruit they're supposed to. I am a big fan of the cantaloupe (no worries about listeria here!) and the grape flavored ones. Kokoro also has several types of mochi desserts to take with you.

If you haven't ever had any Japanese drinks, you are in for some fun! Kokoro carries the popular soft drink called Ramune. It's in a super cool bottle. They have both the original and strawberry flavors. The original has a very mellow, sweet flavor, which is a nice shift from the super-sweet American soft drinks (I'm talking to you, Dr. Pepper). To open a Ramune, you have to knock the marble that seals the bottle down into the purpose-designed area for it. If you've never done it before, it can take a few attempts, which are good for a few laughs.

                                                 Setting up to knock the marble in
                                                            There it goes!!
                                                       The whole bottle, with the marble in it.

All in all, Kokoro is a great place to eat. I love it, and greatly appreciate that they have such high-quality food at an incredible price point. I think that Albuquerque is truly lucky to have this little gem, which is why I'm telling you about it. If you've never been, please go. Try it, and leave me a comment about what you got and what you thought about it. It's the small, local guys we need to be supporting to help this economy out of stagnation. If eating at a really good restaurant is the price I have to pay, then I am thrilled to do it. Now, what are you waiting for?? Go!!!!

Kokoro Japanese on Urbanspoon
Open Monday-Saturday 11:00 am to 8:00 pm
Closed Sundays

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Veal Piccata

Hello, all! So, I've been thinking quite a bit about this whole blogging thing. I've been trying to think of what recipes I would like to feature, whether or not I should plan it out, or just cook what sounds good to me in the moment, all that jazz. I've decided I'm going to do a bit of both: Have a plan, but if I don't really feel like cooking what I was planning on that day, I'll be flying by the seat of my pants.
Also, the pictures on this particular post may not be as great as the last one. I apologize. My photographer/soul mate was not helping as much as I would have liked, so I was trying to take photos and cook, one-handed. Not an easy feat, I assure you. So, bear with me, please.
I understand veal is kind of the controversial child of the culinary world, and as much as I am all for animal rights and cruelty-free meat (kind of an oxymoron, I realize), I have to say I. Love. Veal. That being said, this dish works equally well with chicken cutlets.
One of the many, many reasons I love piccata is that it is fast. With the salad included in the post, I had everything done in under half an hour. It's also super easy, but does have a bit of "wow" factor to it, which is awesome if you have to entertain during the week. Assuming I do the chicken version, I almost always have everything I need for it on hand. It's also pretty cheap to make; again, assuming that's with the chicken version.
This is another recipe I got from my Momma. Most of our family recipes won't have exact measurements. I'll try to give ratios for things, but I'm not one for measuring things out by the exact teaspoon (which is why I don't bake much). If you are the type of person who needs measurements for cooking, both this recipe, and the Stroganoff I posted last week may be good places to start breaking away from that. I've found that I really don't like measuring out everything. For me, it actually makes cooking more stressful. Even with new recipes, I read the quantites given, so I know rough proportions and ratios and just go with it. It has yet to backfire on me. However, when I get into some more complicated stuff, I will give you exact measurements.
So, If you love to have your measuring spoons and cups out at all times while cooking, I challenge you to make this without them. Drink a glass of wine first, it will help you get used to the idea (plus, you need the wine for the sauce!).
And, away we go!!!!

Here's what you'll need this week: Veal cut for scallopini (or one chicken breast per person, cut through the center and pounded thin), white wine (I've been in love with Rex Goliath Chardonnay recently. It's a great quality for the price), chicken broth, one or two lemons, capers, parsley, and pasta. I really have been enjoying Barilla's whole grain thin spaghetti.

You're going to want to flour your veal/chicken. Warm a pan over medium-high heat. Add some butter and olive oil. Heat till butter melts and is bubbly. Add the veal/chicken and cook for just a few minutes per side. For veal, 2-3 is usually enough. Chicken may need closer to 4-5 per side, though. Flip and cook through on the other side.

                                                           Look how yummy that is!

If you need to work in batches so not to crowd the pan, please do. When your last batch is turned, set a pot on to boil. Make sure to salt your water and put some olive oil in it to keep the pasta from sticking while cooking. I like a generous pinch of salt, as I've found it adds flavor to the past itself.

Remove all the meat from the pan. Time to start on the sauce! Deglaze with the white wine and make sure you loosen any of those delicious browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

                                           This is one of those pictures I was telling you about.

Next, juice your lemon. I always roll mine along the counter/cutting board and my palm before cutting and juicing. This serves to help break up the little pulp cells (no clue if that's what they're called) so that you can get more juice out of the lemon. This also works great with any other citrus. Juice one to two lemons into the pan.

Then you're going to add your chicken broth. I use equal parts chicken broth and wine for this one. Next, let the sauce reduce. This is pretty close to where my pasta is done, too. Remember to stir and check it.
Once the sauce is reduced by half, put the meat back in the pan, with any collected juices, turn off the heat, and cover the pan with a lid. This helps rewarm the meat, as well as thicken up the sauce a bit.

 Start working on the salad. I used a base of mixed greens, and chopped green leaf lettuce. I also chopped up a red bell pepper and a seeded cucumber for this.

For the dressing, I put some Dijon mustard, one clove of crushed garlic, and salt and pepper in a bowl and mix them till they form a sort of paste.

This will make it easier to encorporate into the wine. Because the alcohol won't be cooked off with the dressing, if you have kids, you may want to use a balsamic vinegar or lemon juice instead.
Add a little bit of olive oil and you're done with the dressing!

Just before plating the veal, add the chopped parsley and capers, cover, and give the pan a few good shakes. Place the meat over some pasta, add some sauce, and if you're feeling super fancy, garnish with a few thin slices of lemon.

Mix all the components of the salad, top with some blue cheese, if you like, and you're done!

It seriously took me longer to post this than it did to make it. I hope you enjoy!!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Beef Stroganoff

I love this recipe. It is a great winter comfort food. It's warm, hearty, creamy, and pasta-y. Perfect for this time of year. As for the origins of this recipe, I'm the third generation to make particular recipe. I'm not sure where my grandmother found it, but I am sure glad she did. I would get so excited when my mom would make this when I was a kid. I used to love stealing pieces of the meat out of the pan while it was browning. Ethan (the fiance) does the same thing with me when I make it. Usually a piece somehow gets to the dog, too.
One note about this recipe: it's good. Like really, really good. I've had people tell me it's better than their moms. That, folks, is a compliment. So let's get to it!

The lineup: Two smallish steaks. Nothing fancy, I've had great luck with plain ol' eye of round. Next, an onion. You're going to need half of it chopped. Heat a pain with a combo of olive oil and butter. Saute the onion and the steak together until the steak is browned. Now for the red wine. Deglaze the pan with it. Throw in some beef broth and let it reduce. Slice the mushrooms, put a pot of water to boil, add the mushrooms, some more broth, and let reduce once more. While reducing, cook the egg noodles according to package instructions; drain and set aside. Add the sour cream and stir until incorporated and melted. Finish with a hearty dose of paprika, and serve over pasta.

This is a good thickness for the cut. You don't want it too thick or your meat will end up chewy.
This is the easiest way I've ever encountered to flour stuff: Put the flour, salt, and pepper in a zip top bag and shake!

Onions and meat.... This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!

A little bit for you, a little bit for the pan. See? I told you we'd all get along.

Add the beef broth and the mushrooms. Let it all reduce to a nice, thick sludge. It's a technical term.

How awesome does all that sour cream look, melting and blending into everything?

Serve over the egg noodles and finish with a dash or two of paprika, and dig in to some amazing Stroganoff!

My first blog!!

Hello, all! Welcome to the inaugural posting of Cooking on a Whim! My name is Madeline, and I will be your host until, well, I decide to stop. I feel I should explain a bit of what I plan on doing with this blog. I love to cook. So much so that I'm going to make my living doing it. I'm currently in school for Culinary Arts here in lovely Albuquerque, NM. I will post (hopefully, about once a week) pictures of food I've cooked and the recipes to go along with it.
I take my inspiration with food from many places. The first, and likely most integral, influence has to be my mom, Kathy. She is an amazing cook. When I was growing up, most kids would have meatloaf for dinner. Not in my house. Chicken piccatta was oft on the menu. That's not to say we didn't have meatloaf; we did. Generally, though, it was something altogether more gourmet. My mother's impeccable taste has influenced many areas in life, but most noticeably, my dinner table. I think nothing of making short ribs on a Tuesday, or veal on a Monday. We don't always save Champagne for special occasions.
That being said, in this house, we do love a good mac n cheese or beef Stroganoff, too. There is something intrinsically comforting about a big bowl of cheesey, pasta, carb-rich goodness in front of you. I love it.
So, you can expect for this blog to be fancy and high-brow some days, and on others, you'll find some good, old fashioned chicken noodle soup.