Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions

A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

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Holidays are like work, only busier

jason

I thought the last couple of days before Christmas would finally calm down, but I didn’t quite get to rest. I had a flood of late orders, some of which may have been meant for after-holiday purposes, that kept me up late. This combination of working a contracting gig (a.k.a. a job) and operating a business has already been fairly overwhelming, even though I haven’t quite done a “full” work week at Revenue Science yet… Due to holidays and competing commitments, I’ve only been “on the clock” 28–38 hours/week for the first few weeks.

The good news is my web orders this month have now beat any previous month, so the “Christmas magic” seems to have done its job. Because I had quite a boost from previous months between July and November, and relatively conservative Google and Overture/Yahoo ad spending, the jump wasn’t quite as dramatic as it is for some retailers. I also failed to get much in the way of self-promotion done this season because I was just so overwhelmed with other work from November on, so I think I can do a better job with some advance planning and maybe some hired help next holiday season.

Hiromi and I took my brothers, stepfather, and stepgrandfather to the Christmas Eve Seahawks game last weekend, where I narrowly avoided a parking ticket. I thought Christmas Eve was a city holiday, but watched some other cars being ticketed on the way to the game, and made a beeline to my car to get it in a garage. My mother couldn’t make it to the game because she had to take care of my grandmother, and due to some misinterpretation I didn’t quite realize this until about 45 minutes to kickoff… we tried to offer the ticket on the street at face value, but most average folks weren’t interested in a single, premium 200–level ticket when their main goal was to get inside the gates, and the scalpers that came up to me wanted to pay less than face value so that they can claim they had to pay $74 or whatever for it; my rush back to my car made any further negotiations complicated, so we didn’t get anything out of the extra ticket.

I actually had a couple of deliveries to make on Christmas Eve, since I had a few locally-destined internet orders that I had planned to hand-deliver, but couldn’t squeeze in during the week. I liked bringing such orders in person, but it’s no longer feasible unless it’s a very large order. Under my current circumstances, I think I’m going to have to go back to using FedEx Ground for local shipments, because I can’t deliver in as timely a fashion as they can, and it doesn’t save me any money right now when it takes so much time out of my day.

We went to a family party at my grandmother’s house after the game, which involved about 20 dessert options and nothing savory, so I threw together a frittata to have some kind of protein source… Hiromi and I took my little brother out to dinner at a corporate restaurant in downtown Bellevue late at night.

In spite of a pretty hectic schedule, we’ve usually taken 30–60 minutes a night to make a passable meal, and a few times I’ve made some more interesting things.

The night before Christmas Eve we made some pleasant manicotti, with San Marzano tomatoes; the filling involved chevre in addition to ricotta fresca. I used fresh oregano and basil, and some shiitake mushrooms in the sauce.

Manicotti side viewManicotti in the pan

On Christmas Day, I made a pizza with a potato-based dough that, in my small circle, I’m known for… We roasted bell peppers in a hurry, and served it with some very nicely caramelized brussels sprouts, seasoned with garlic.

Jagaimo Pizza with roasted red peppersRoasted red pepperBrussels sprouts

I’m not quite caught up… more good food to come… and probably some end of the year thoughts.

Two breakfasts

jason

We’ve been on something of a Japanese food kick of late, and this has extended into breakfast.

Yesterday, we had an instant suimono (clear soup) made from magically expanding dried fu, a puff of wheat gluten. This is from a fancy gift set that Hiromi received as a farewell present on her way here.

Ofu no suimono

This morning, I made two pancakes, which I turned into dorayaki by adding anko (sweet red bean paste) and returning the first pancake to the pan before the second one was completely cooked, creating a “sandwich”.

Dorayaki

When made on a suitable pan, or with 3–4” pancake rings, the portion size is just about right for one serving, but these were made with an 8” omelet pan and needed to be cut into wedges.

Usually dorayaki are made with lots of honey and more eggs than normal pancakes, and tend to be almost too sweet to enjoy without the aid of some accompanying tea to provide some slightly bitter notes. I made mine with some honey, but a lot less sweet than normal dorayaki, making them suitable for breakfast instead of an afternoon tea snack.

Takikomi gohan in donabe

jason

During spring about a year and a half ago Hiromi and stopped at a kamameshi-ya-san, or cast iron pot rice restaurant. They served us a simple dish of seasoned bamboo shoots with rice, but on a cold day it’s very comforting. It’s a classic one-pot meal, usually featuring big chunks of vegetables.

We don’t have a lidded cast-iron or similar pot to make kamameshi, but we do do have a nice clay pot, or nabe, with a sturdy lid. We decided to make takikomi-gohan. Last night, I prepared some dashi with soy sauce, mirin and salt yesterday, and started soaking some hijiki. Tonight Hiromi soaked some rice and chopped some carrots, and I sliced snow peas while she prepared some water for blanching.

Hijiki-takikomi

It cooked with the lid on, topped with seasoned hijiki, aburage and carrots, for a bit over 30 minutes. After the rice had cooked the rice was stirred a bit to incorporate everything somewhat evenly, and we added the blanched snow peas.

Before I got home, Hiromi also prepared another nimono, this time with our remaining quarter of kabocha. I’m a big kabocha fan.

Kabocha-nimono

A few years ago, one of my Japanese friend’s mother explained that Japanese men who lived through World War II tended to dislike kabocha because it was one of the few sources of nourishment that was widely available. I fortunately don’t suffer from any such hangups, but the only way I ate squash growing up was baked with brown sugar and butter. Japanese preparations of kabocha, as simple as they tend to be, opened my eyes up to all sorts of possibilities.

Kabocha korokke and winter comforts

jason
Kabochakorokke 037-640w

I always crave kabocha croquettes in the fall and winter. I think I first experienced them at some chain izakaya in Japan, but even there they made an impression. I now seek them out anytime I am in Japan during in the cooler months. The sweet nuttiness of kabocha squash, mashed with potatoes, contrast nicely with the crunchiness of panko.

Unlike the usual Japanese croquette presentation, served with tonkatsu sauce or a similar fruity thickened worcestershire-enhanced sauce, I served mine with an apple-ginger chutney from a Washington apple orchard (Woodridge Farms, perhaps).

Hiromi and I collaborated on tonight’s meal, and she made this beautiful satoimo to gobo to ninjin no nimono (simmered baby taro root, burdock and carrot).

Gobo, satoimo, ninjin no nimono

Since we went through the trouble of frying foods, we also decided to make agedashi-doufu. I’ve made this occasionally, but usually I’m so intent on getting what little crispiness I can from the experience of eating it that I don’t want to distract myself by letting it absorb the soup stock while I’m trying to take a few pictures. Today, though, I caved in, even though this is not one of my best agedashi-doufu. It would have been a bit nicer with some daikon-oroshi; all I could find in my refrigerator was some negi and shouga (scallions and ginger). It was reasonably crispy, though.

Agedashi-doufu

We also had some dotori muk, a Korean dish made from acorns. I served it with nothing more than a little soy sauce blended with sesame oil, which is just about right to bring out the nuttiness of the starchy dotori.

Kabocha korokke in the fryerApple-ginger chutneyKabocha korokke with chutneyDotori Muk
 
 

Kabocha cheese okonomiyaki, and a holiday tree

jason

My vegetarian variations of okonomiyaki are necessarily limited, but Hiromi and I decided to make okonomiyaki for dinner today, and we happened to have a nice kabocha on hand at home.

I stole this idea from a serviceable but unremarkable (save for the cheap drinks) okonomiyaki chain in Japan. This okonomiyaki variation features thin slices of kabocha in the cabbage and batter mixture, and some pureed steamed squash added after both sides of the okonomiyaki have browned.

It’s topped with some cheese (I used some good gruyere, but ambiguous white processed cheese would be more likely in Japan), and the usual mayonnaise and okonomi sauce.

Kabocha cheese okonomiyaki

The sweetness from the kabocha makes this a pleasant but relatively mild-flavored variation of okonomiyaki.

Neither Hiromi or I have any religious reason to celebrate Christmas, but in Japan Christmas is a purely secular event, partly an excuse for fancy meals and hotel packages. For me, it’s part of an annual family reunion of sorts, but mainly a chance to wind down after difficult work schedules.

In the U.S., I haven’t usually decorated for any holiday, but Hiromi thought it would be fun to set up a tree this year.

We found a reasonably healthy, apartment-sized “living holiday tree” at Target, though we originally went there for accoutrements, expecting to pick a cut tree somewhere else. This small potted tree should be able to survive under my neglect out on my balcony after the holiday season passes, because our climate favors evergreens.

Jason and Hiromi's Holiday tree

We decorated the tree with some lights, ribbon and ball ornaments we picked up at the same time, and I extracted the ornaments collected during my childhood from storage.

Since we got a small tree, the huge satin ornaments I had from my childhood didn’t quite match the scale of our youthful tree, and the other small ornaments I had tended to be too heavy for our tender branches. But I found a couple of pieces that still worked.

I can’t quite remember where it came from, but this walnut-backed ornament was made by a family member when I was young. I wasn’t much of a baseball player, so it was probably a distant relative, but it’s still somehow cute.

Walnutjasonornament

What my birthday week was like

jason

I started a contracting gig on Monday at Revenue Science, which has an advertising platform that focuses on targeting behaviors rather than demographics or keywords alone. I ended up choosing the project which would be a little more challenging for a bit less money, favoring a shorter commute and a less familiar environment. I’m mostly responsible for driving international quality for an upcoming release that needs to support the needs of a Japanese internet advertising consortium… That’s about all I can reveal for now, but I got off to a half-decent start.

While getting settled, I also needed to hurriedly fill a bunch of wholesale, corporate gift, and internet orders, most of which are for Christmas… This often kept me up quite late at night. This week it also meant I had a few late starts because I couldn’t always finish everything at night and had to cram some things in first thing in the morning.

On Wednesday morning, Hiromi arrived from Japan, and I picked her up from the airport and tried to squeeze a quick lunch with her in before going to Bellevue for a meeting, and I took care of more orders before subjecting her to more errands I needed to undertake. We didn’t get home until around 8pm, so on our way back, we stopped at Hiroki to obtain some semblence of birthday cake.

I tried to prepare a simple dinner both to enjoy our first night together and to celebrate my birthday. So I made a few quiet dishes.

Wilted Spinach Salad

Wilted spinach and almond salad

Toasted almond slivers, some sauteed onions and some artisanal American Farmstead cheese accompany this olive-oil wilted spinach salad, drizzled with some 12 year-old Balsamic vinegar.

Gruyered Roasted Potatoes

Gruyered roasted potatoes

I rarely tire of variations of roasted potatoes, and this cave-aged gruyere added a nice raclette-like quality to my baked slices of potatoes.

Masoor Daal

Daal

A simple version of masoor daal, simply boiled until soft and then seasoned with a ghee chaunk with cumin, garam masala, and chilies (maybe a few other things; it’s been a few days).

Canoe Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Canoe ridge cabernet

We had a little wine from Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Birthday Cake, Sans Candle

Birthday cake

After dinner, Hiromi and I devoured the Espresso Hazelnut Torte and a cassis mousse with chocolate supplied by Hiroki.

We didn’t spend much time preparing dinner, but the food was simple and pleasant. On Friday night, we joined some other friends at Brasa for nibbles, cocktails and wine, which gave us a more sociable outlet for my birthday celebration, if a couple of days past… actually, it was the only really relaxed moment this week, because I managed to forcibly avoid thinking about work or business… though, of course, I darted out of the restaurant when a customer inquiry phone call came…

Alas, both Hiromi and I have been dining out this week more than would normally be reasonable. I had a few lunches with my new coworkers, and sometimes I’ve grabbed something quick just to avoid late night cooking. I usually don’t mind cooking late at night, but when I’m harried and it’s already approaching 9pm and not quite ready to go home, it’s hard to imagine squeezing in some shopping

We didn’t even notice we were out of breakfast fixings this morning until it was too late, and some of my almost last-minute FedEx 2–Day Christmas orders were constrained by our need to obtain food, which was, today anyway, supplied by Fresh Flours, rather than me.

Potato pancakes, Two Ways

jason

Yesterday I had a craving for Roesti (or Rösti), a Swiss variation of potato pancakes. But I’d been intending to make a Korean style kamja-jeon, also a potato pancake, for about a week now.

Not wanting to repeat myself, of course, today’s dinner involved a smaller portion of the pancake and numerous Korean-style side dishes.

The two styles are quite different. In the realm of Roesti, there are two schools of thought: one favoring parboiled potatoes, and the other preferring raw potatoes. I’m not partisan; the results are different in both cases, but quite pleasant either way. Last night I chose to parboil the potatoes for roughly 10 minutes, and then I peeled and shredded them. For me, the distinguishing feature between Roesti and, for example, German Kartoffelpuffer, is that Roesti usually involves tossing the shredded or chopped potatoes in the hot pan with some fat (in my case, Butterschmalz, clarified butter), before shaping into a patty. Kartoffelpuffer, on the other hand, are essentially shredded, soaked briefly in water, and drained; the starch is recovered from the settled water and mixed in with the potatoes, and generally, onions.

Roesti with sour cream and toasted almonds

Roesti

Roesti take quite a long time to cook; a fair 5–10 minutes on each side. The Kartoffelpuffer, like Latke, are cooked in a lot of oil for just a few minutes on each side. Roesti are generally also a bit thicker than Kartoffelpuffer. The potatoes in Roesti may be chopped rather than shredded, but this time I used the biggest holes on my cheese grater.

The first Roesti recipe I followed as a student in Germany suggested serving with some toasted sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds. Last night I didn’t have any in my pantry, but I did have some almond slivers, which I toasted briefly before adorning my sour cream-enhanced Roesti with them.

In another part of the planet, a similar style of potato pancakes is made with very finely shredded potatoes, onions, and a bit of salt. The Korean version comes close to Kartoffelpuffer or Latke, but is usually not cooked with as much oil. The potatoes are generally only browned lightly, but if done right, they still have a nice crispness.

Like Kartoffelpuffer, kamja-jeon are made with recovered potato starch. However, the potatoes tend to be shredded much more finely. I used a slightly coarse Microplane grater.

Kamja-jeon

In Korea, perhaps because I tend to stay in or near Seoul, which is not the region associated with these pancakes, I’ve never had earth-shatteringly good kamja-jeon. I tend to prefer my own, because mine are somewhat crispier and a bit softer inside. I think some less impressive restaurants in Korea tend to rush them, so they sometimes seem not very crispy and slightly raw inside.

Another distinction between these and their European counterparts is a savory dipping sauce, rather than an additional layer of fat from a sour cream accompaniment, or sweet applesauce. The dipping sauce, in this case, is soy sauce, a bit of vinegar, some finely chopped scallions, and a few pieces of chopped Korean pepper. I usually skip the pepper, but since the rest of my side dishes weren’t terribly spicy, I wanted a hint of chili in there.

Because I cooked Korean food, I wasn’t done when I started the pancakes; I needed a few side dishes to go along with the kamja-jeon, so I made some vegetables and some tofu.

Grilled tofu

Grilled tofu

Kong Namul (Seasoned bean sprouts)

Namul

Napa kimchi

Kimchi

Choy sum (sweet cabbage) with gochu

/Choy sum

Limited resources and a job as a revenue stream

jason

Not terribly long ago I noted here that I’ve been struggling with my revenue stream… my business is essentially breaking even, but with ever shrinking resources, because it doesn’t pay for me. So I’ve been seriously considering looking for some side work to bring in an income as I grow my business.

I’ve been torn because I know it will make my own business more stressful to operate, and it will change the nature of my business. Most likely, I’ll focus more on the web end of the business and less on the wholesale end.

Anyway, I’ve been quietly sending out my resume here and there, and I managed to get competing, substantially equivalent offers for a day job at two different companies this week.

Both are related to software internationalization, and both are closely related to projects I’ve done before… One’s a multitiered consumer-facing web app at a… familiar company… in, actually, a familiar division. It would involve implementing test coverage and test processes for a familiar product, initially for European markets.

It’s very seductive because I know I can successfully execute on all of the required tasks, and I’m familiar with all of the available resources and processes.

The other job is at a younger company with a focus on advertising technology, which is also familiar territory to me since I worked on such a project in my previous life. But it’s more focused on the Japanese market, at least initially, and I have a stronger personal interest in that region.

It might be a bit more technically challenging, but I don’t think it’s a huge leap from my previous work. It might also stretch my Japanese language skills a bit. It has some risks, because I never tried implementing an international test strategy in an organization without some established localization processes and resources.

On a more trivial note, the second job is about 7 miles closer to home than the other, which saves about 20 minutes a day in commute time with average Seattle-to-Eastside traffic. Considering I still plan to operate my business, that may add up to quite a difference.

Both are contract gigs, which is perfect for my current situation; I just want to pay bills and build some room for growing my business. But I have conflicting motivations: I’m driven, far more than I normally would be, by financial considerations. On the other hand, I’d like a bit of sense of adventure.

I guess I have a lot to think about overnight. I’ll try to sleep early.

I have to make some kind of decision by tomorrow, so it’s going to take some serious reflection.

Lacking spectacular moments, I forge on

jason

My silence the last few days is merely a reflection of a rough schedule, combined with relatively uninteresting eating.

I did my usual supermarket demos on Friday and Saturday, one of which was a long stretch away in Beaverton. I think I’ll be doing one more Portland area demo this holiday season, then maybe one in January. It’s still painful to go down there because of high gas prices, but someow I got decent mileage on the last trip.

My dragon beard candy has been selling at a fairly decent clip, presumably due to holiday demand. I restocked the Seattle Uwajimaya faster than I expected. I hope that keeps up. But for cost reasons, I’m not doing anything dramatic this year; last year, I brought the candymakers to Seattle, Portland and the Bay Area to run some promotional events. I can’t quite cost justify that this year, because my available resources are too tight, and unless I do something larger in scale, maybe in New York or very dense urban outlet, this kind of promotion only just barely pays for itself.

Last night I had a decent dinner, but I just haven’t been eating well lately. Today I had no time for lunch. I don’t like to eat “out” right now because it doesn’t save much time and even at the low end of the cost scale, is more expensive than making the equivalent food myself, but I’ve caved in and grabbed a burrito, slice of pizza or similar pretty much daily recently.

I wanted to make nabe-yaki udon for dinner last night, and I realized I had no udon, or even soba. So I settled for some thin “glass noodles”, turning my essentially rustic Japanese dinner into an accidental pan-Asian fusion dish. It was comforting and fairly healthy, consisting mostly of vegetables, shiitake, and tofu. I hope it made up for my slice pizza, eggnog latte and cookie lunch, which was quite the opposite.

Les Cadeaux Gourmets and a face from my past

jason

This week was completely crazy, and I rarely had a spare moment before, say, 7 pm, in the best case. Today was like that, but more so. I had a couple of urgent shipments to take care of, which I handled, but the rest will unfortunately have to wait until Monday. I hate to delay sending off orders but I haven’t been able to keep up completely.

After running over to Redmond for a few hours, I got back to Seattle with just about an hour to take care of several outstanding tasks before I needed to make some final preparations for a demo event at Les Cadeaux Gourmets.

I haven’t done a lot of events in this type of venue before, and it was nice to have an audience that was already excited about specialty foods. It never fails when I do a demo in Uwajimaya that someone will complain that my products are too expensive. In that context, they are at the top end of the scale, but for most specialty gift stores, my products are in a fairly comfortable price range, and nobody visibly compained about the prices (which I cannot make any better without selling at a loss). The only thing that makes the products atypical is that they are Asian rather than European.

So today, I had slightly more intimate conversations with customers, and a very receptive audience, and, although I didn’t do a detailed analysis yet, an apparently higher conversion rate than I usually see. I was fairly happy with the results, even though store traffic was a bit quieter than I’m used to handling at supermarkets.

While doing my demo I ran into the group manager for my team in MSN, which was quite a surprise. I don’t know why it should have been a surprise, as I vaguely remember hearing he lived in the Queen Anne neighborhood when I worked at MSN, but somehow it didn’t register. Anyway, I introduced my products (at least the objects of today’s demo) to him and caught up a little bit.

After finishing up with my demo I met up with Lisa of Three Tree Tea to get more demo materials for the next few weeks. I finally got to eat dinner at that time: a quick burrito at the West Seattle Tacqueria Guaymas. Today worked out to be about 14 hours of nonstop activity…

Persimmon and tofu salad with miso vinaigrette

jason

I wanted a light dinner today because I’ve been eating too much bread and dairy products for comfort.

I didn’t entirely lay off the bread tonight, I served a nice simple salad with a persimmons and very fresh tofu. The dressing consists of a small spoonful of white miso, a little mustard, a neutral vegetable oil, a bit of lime juice, and a hint of sesame oil with some grated fresh ginger.

I had a packed schedule today, so simplicity ruled dinner.

Kaki salada

 

Food blogging: why?

jason

The Girl Who Ate Everything has a bit of a homework assignment to explain food blogging. I started writing a short comment, but it kept growing, even though I don’t think I have the “answer.” Because I seemed a little too verbose, I thought my thoughts would work better as a blog entry than as a comment.

For those who don’t know already, Pursuing My Passions is not, strictly speaking, a food blog, but food is one of the things I’m most passionate about. I cook fairly obsessively, and my business was founded in part because of how much I enjoy food browsing in Japanese department stores.

My food obsessions started fomenting when I was quite young, as I began cooking for myself, to a limited extent, as a child. By the time I was about 7 years old, I had some basic microwave oven and frypan skills, and in my pre-teen years I played with Bisquick and perused the Joy of Cooking. During my final semester in college, before looking at my student loan bills, I briefly entertained the idea of going to graduate school to study the role of food in revolutionary movements and peasant rebellions. (At the time I also wore my political stripes very loudly).

I'm not sure blogs are reactions against glossy idyllic portrayals of food, considering how much culinary celebrity worship goes on in blogging contexts, and how happily food bloggers devour "food porn."

Blogs do let relatively ordinary people connect their culinary experiences with other people who share similar passions. It may be hard to share my food obsessions with my friends in the same way I can do in a blog; many of my friends are happy to indulge along with me when I'm cooking, but are mildly amused by my ability to steer any conversation toward food topics. Online, people self-select when they want to participate in that conversation, so they are at least as interested in food as me, at least for a moment.

Blogging is, however, a kind of democratization of "cuisine." Without a “target market", unlike a food magazine or TV show, bloggers can, comfortably and without shame or bashfulness, rapidly shift focus between homemade haute cuisine and humble, lowbrow daily fare. Unless they want to, bloggers don’t have to make pretentions of healthfulness or authenticity, and they don’t have to promise easy results in 30 minutes or that your neighbors will be impressed by all the work you’ve done if you just follow some lovely focus-group tested recipes. They just have to celebrate food in an endearing way.

Instead of a traditional media priesthood of good taste (ahem), food blogging is more like a potluck. We might occasionally try to impress each other, but blogging is more about sharing the joy of little discoveries, minor food tragedies, and culinary triumphs. And sometimes guilt, giddiness or discontent.

The thing that makes blogging more real than a magazine, cookbook or TV series is the lack of editors and producers who needs to balance the interests of advertisers, the fickleness of their audiences, and the egos of their writers or hosts. We’re relatively content regardless of who shows up to the party.

As food bloggers, each one of us can wear many hats… restaurant reviewer, chef, event planner, food diarist, food stylist, cooking class instructor, co-conspirator… for most of us, our ability to shift between these roles wouldn’t be possible in other contexts.

Blogging has a low barrier to entry, but fairly powerful network effects… I once saw photos someone in Holland and someone else in Malaysia had taken after making a variation of a cookie recipe I had originally posted on my blog. Similarly, I’ve been inspired by flavor combinations I wouldn’t have otherwise thought about from people blogging around the world. That kind of global influence, even on a small scale, is just incredible to think about. I’m not likely not get my 15 minutes of fame by posting an occasional article online, but this ability to reach other people, and learn from each other, is really appealing.

French toast and real maple syrup

jason

Nothing is more comforting than some nice French toast on a weekend morning, even if I do have a full day of work ahead of me. I cut some 1– or 2– day old Essential Bakery baguette into roughly 1 inch thick slices, and dipped each slice into some milk, then into some beaten egg. I dusted the slices with some Chinese-style five spice powder, and grilled them in a buttered pan. I served the toast with some medium amber maple syrup and a few slices of banana.

French toast

My Thanksgiving weekend was no weekend… I spent a lot of time doing supermarket demos. I hope they pay off.

Small culinary diversions from a busy Thanksgiving week

jason

A midnight snack

Earlier this week, I had a late night hunger pang, and I wanted something small and simple to nibble on. With some leftover renkon (lotus root) handy, I started cooking the renkon in a bit of butter until slightly golden brown on each side, then I added a splash of soy sauce and the tiniest hint of mirin.

Renkon butter

My first memory eating renkon bataa was about a year and a half ago with some of Hiromi’s friends. The simplicity of the dish may obscure its charm… it’s an excellent shared plate, especially when served with some good cold sake or other favored intoxicant. When made well, you’ll be fighting over the pieces. You might like to add some grated katsuobushi as a garnish. 

I made no plans with my local family for this year’s Thanksgiving, or vice versa, for that matter… the only thing I had planned was a brief supermarket demo at Uwajimaya; I ran my demo until about 4:30 or so, and got home just shy of 5pm.

I conspired with a friend to do a simple dinner close to standard Thanksgiving fare. I made some roasted sweet potatoes gratin, a mushroom-shallot cream sauce baked fresh green bean dish, some beautifully red cooked apples, and a dish of oven-baked dill-garlic mashed potatoes. We also had a mulled spiced apple cider.

Originally I had planned to make some protein-heavy dish for myself, but I somehow distracted myself and never quite got around to it. For me the whole meal was about butter and cream. I prepared gravy for Jennifer, who brought over three brined turkey pieces and one untreated one (needed to produce suitable fats for a gravy).

My camera batteries died unexpectedly when I was trying to photograph yesterday’s dinner. I never got any decent photos before the camera died.

Tonight I had battery power, but a much more basic dinner. I made a little yakisoba and some mapo doufu.

Yakisoba

I tried to cram too much into this week. I really had a difficult time managing everything. I tried to squeeze in demos, pack orders, run down to the airport and pry the new shipment from the slow moving airfreight warehouse, and plow through more insanity than I knew what to do with.

Rushed bread

jason

I’ve been swamped today trying to catch up with orders. Unfortunately, I didn’t get as far as I had hoped, so I need to knock out a lot of the rest tomorrow or I’ll be in desperate shape.

I was able to pick most of my orders for in-stock things picked but some complications made it impossible to get everything out. I’ve never been this overwhelmed before.

Just after making the ground cutoff for FedEx, I went back home and got a yeast dough started, while I worked on some other things. I really needed a brisk walk to decompress, so stepped out for about 30 minutes. I’m really exhausted, and I really got minimal sleep last night. Right now I’d like to be packing a few more orders to get a jump on tomorrow, but I’m so worn out I’m afraid of making mistakes.

This bread proofed only for about an hour, so it never developed any real flavor or textural complexity, but it formed a nice crust.

Rushed bread

Food-related taboos in Japan

jason

On eGullet an innocent inquiry by a restaurant-savvy Manhattan denizen about disposable chopsticks turned into a lively discussion about Japanese food-related taboos.

Namely, Japanese seem to be resistant to reusing chopsticks, and people are far more comfortable with disposable chopsticks than reusable alternatives (unless they are using their own pair). Chopsticks become strongly associated with the person that uses them. On the eGullet thread, I suggested that the origin of this is in old taboos about touching other peoples’ belongings, and also tied to Shinto rituals related to chopsticks.

Actually, although Japan has a reputation for elaborate ritual, it’s not so difficult to learn basic Japanese dining etiquette. Most of the rules about how to behave when eating are just related to chopstick usage.

You don’t need to worry about the order of utensils to use since there’s usually only one to choose from. You don’t really need to worry about where your left hand is. You don’t even need to worry about the order of what to eat, although it’s more delicate to take a bite of rice, when present, between tastes of different side dishes.

I think you need to worry more about whether you have holes in your socks than the way you eat.

Gourmets may argue about the preferred order to eat certain foods, but it’s not necessary to follow such rules to be polite; it’s sort of like knowing the preferred order to eat cheese in the U.S. or Europe. It might reflect on your sophistication or lack thereof, but doesn’t make you a barbarian.

I have sometimes tended toward nervousness when eating with unfamiliar people in Japan, perhaps from some anxiety that I may do something inappropriate. This is perhaps slightly amusing or occasionally endearing but completely unnecessary. Except for some easy-to-follow rules about manipulating chopsticks, you don’t need to worry much.

Hua juan and yuba-vegetable soup

jason

My favorite steamed Chinese bun is one of the simplest. After proofing a fairly standard, slightly sweetened yeast dough, I massage in a tiny bit of baking powder, which seems to affect elasticity. I roll out the dough as thin as practical, then rub in a liberal amount of roasted sesame seed oil. After that, I usually add nothing more than scallions, but occasionally I add some chili flakes or some sesame seeds according to my whim.

I roll up this sheet tightly, then take a dough cutter to create 1.5”-2” wide sections. I use chopsticks to smash the end of the spiral into the bun, causing the bun to expand out into a flower-like shape. The buns need to be steamed for just about 15 minutes.

Hua Juan: Steamed Flower Rolls

Huajuan

Yuba and vegetable soup with kikurage

Alas, because I never progressed very far when studying Chinese, I only know the Japanese names for most of the ingredients in this Chinese-style soup. Although essentially a simple soup, I used a lot of different vegetables, including onions, celery, garlic, sichuan ja tsai (zasai) pickles, snow cabbage pickles, carrots, napa cabbage, carrots, chilies, and, perhaps atypically, some turnips, and some shungiku (chrysanthemum leaves).

I incorporated some rehydrated yuba (soy milk skins), and dried “tree jellyfish” mushrooms (kikurage in Japanese) some pressed, slightly dried Chinese style tofu.

In order to add an earthy nuance, I seasoned this soup with a moderate amount of sesame oil. I also incorporated a fair amount of black vinegar and, of course, soy sauce and salt. To thicken the soup slightly, I relied on a bit of katakuriko dissolved in liquid.

Huajuan 016-640w

Dinner is served.

Huajuan and yuba vegetable soup

 

Tsuji Ayano

jason

I was pleased to hear a feature on Japanese ukulele player and singer Tsuji Ayano on PRI’s The World. I’ve been listening to her music since around March 2000, when I ran into one of her early full-length albums at a “New Release” listening station in HMV Shibuya. (A Japanese site has some sound clips).

That album was a refreshing change from standard-issue Japanese pop fare, mostly because the production aesthetic was so austere.

Most Japanese musicians are barely distinguishable under the weight of their usually far more famous producers. In contast, Ayano’s work has an infections, unpretentious style, slightly boyish lyrics, and is relatively free of the standard issue self-conscious cuteness endemic among Japanese female vocalists. She has a kind of singer-songwriter style that, while certainly Japanese, would not be shocking on a playlist of contemporary American folk music.

When I first heard her music, I was hooked. Ever since then, I tend to seek out her newer albums whenever I travel to Japan, and I buy them before I even have a chance to listen to them.

The funny thing is that I started listening before most of my Japanese friends had ever heard of her. A year or so after I started listening to her music a friend in Japan told me she had a bit of an ear worm from a song of Ayano’s that had apparently been featured on a TV commercial or movie or something, but apparently the marketing department of her record label took a relatively soft approach to promoting her work.

I wonder if the little mention on The World will build some awareness of her work in the U.S.

I’m not a big fan of Japanese pop music, but Ayano’s work has made me hopeful to find more quality music from Japan.

Mini galettes with chevre and caramelized onions

jason

On a whim, last Friday night I made a savory galette-style cheesecake. I improvised the dough, cutting a bit of clarified butter into flour, adding a bit of mace and salt, then working in a bit of cold water in a well.

I hurriedly caramelized some onions, which is not a process that likes to be rushed, but it worked out reasonably well. I mixed soft chevre, cream cheese and sour cream together, beat in an egg, adjusted salt, and filled a large round of dough; I baked the cheesecakes until the filling set, and served warm.

Tonight I took advantage of a bit of leftover dough and filling, and made a smaller version to go with yesterday’s borscht.

Savory mini galette cheesecakes

Mini Galette

 

Full of borscht

jason

As winter approaches, I like to get back to my roots and tubers. (Insert groan here.)

Borscht is a colorful way of incorporating several earthy fall and winter vegetables in one simple, comforting dish.

It doesn’t take much: tonight’s borscht involved onions, celery, turnips, potatoes, beets, cabbage and carrots. After sweating the vegetables a bit with salt, I add soup stock and simmer until the beets are tender.

Borscht, plated with sour cream

Borscht

When I did my Bellevue demo today, I was pleased to see that most of the big boxes of dragon beard candy I delivered on Friday had already disappeared. I hadn’t expected that. I’m guessing that someone was waiting for the new shipment and bought several boxes, but of course there’s no way to know.