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.
Hiromi and I sometimes find it challenging to use up a full loaf of bread before it loses its charm. Since we tend to favor local Seattle artisan bakeries, that can become a bit expensive.
I usually like to use slightly old bread as croutons or French toast, but our other meal plans somehow distracted me from that kind of frugality. But as of last Saturday, I realized I had accumulated a fair stash of bread remnants. It turned out I had not one, but three potentially irreconcilable bits of dry bread around… one piece was the end of a baguette, one was from a walnut whole wheat loaf, and a third was a very nice rye bread from Essential Bakery, studded with pieces of onion.
Any other time I had some excessively crusty bread, I might make a bread pudding, but I thought the onion would be a bit of a dealbreaker. I can almost imagine making a dessert built on a caramelized onion jam, but working with onions trapped inside someone else’s loaf of bread would make for a bit of a stretch.
So I went the other direction, creating a savory bread pudding instead.
Savory bread pudding with soft chevre
After soaking the breads in a fair amount of milk until they were moist, I cut everything into bite-size chunks. In a separate bowl, I whisked together a couple of eggs, and folded them into the chunks of soaked bread, along with some extra walnuts, some soft chevre, and a bit of freshly grated nutmeg. I added a nice pinch of salt to compensate for the addition of the eggs, but bread is usually fairly well-salted, so I didn’t need much.
I baked it at about 375F in small souffle ramekins until they looked set and slightly browned, probably about 25 minutes. If I were picky, considering it’s a custard, I might have stuck an instant read thermometor into one of the puddings and make sure it had reached at least 140F, but I decided that I trusted my eggs and neither Hiromi or I are pregnant or otherwise have immune problems right now. Besides, it looked done.
After cooling a bit, I carefully extracted the bread puddings from their forms and put them on a plate, slathering them with Irish butter and topping them with a reasonably indulgent helping of sour cream. It turned out better than I expected: rich, custardy, smooth, aromatic with the help of the nutmeg, and studded with capricious chunks of chevre and flavorful pieces of onion.
Asparagus season kicked off in earnest last week, so I also roasted about 12 spears of good Washington asparagus in the oven on a grill pan while waiting for the bread puddings to cool a bit.
In a small saucepan, I let some butter melt and sizzle with some miso, and, when the butter melted, added some milk. It thickened up without the aid of flour, and I spooned it over the roasted asparagus. Maybe 8 or 9 years ago I first encountered a really clever polenta dish at a restaurant on the Harbor Steps in Seattle, topped with a miso bechamel sauce… I’ve been hooked on the butter-miso combination ever since.
We had a nice brunch, and incredibly frugal, with the help of things that might have otherwise gone to waste combined with seasonally inexpensive local vegetables.
I’m really learning to appreciate dining out on weeknights.
Last Tuesday, we dined at Matt’s in the Market. If we had attempted to do so on a Friday or a Saturday, we would have waited for at least an hour, I’m sure. I’m increasingly disinclined to go out for dinner on weekends without reservations (at least at places that take them) because restaurants that have above average food and atmosphere (and even some that don’t) require a lot of waiting, and some of my favorite places in such categories don’t take reservations at all.
One such restaurant, Lark, also generally only allows walk-ins. It offers such a quintessentially Northwestern kind of dining experience that visitors to Seattle really should place high on their list of priorities. Lark’s chef, John Sundstrom has a very pan-Pacific consciouness, with a somewhat Japanese approach to ingredients. To me, this means allowing the ingredients to do most of the work but sort of awakening their fundamental characteristics with careful preparation and usually gentle flavoring techniques. At the same time, he emphasizes local and artisanally-produced ingredients, and conscientious production practices.
I’ve wanted to take Hiromi there but we’ve always missed an opportunity to go there, either because I forgot they aren’t open on Mondays, or because we didn’t have the patience to wait on a weekend. I haven’t been there since my Dragon Beard Candy tour when Bamboo Garden visited in December 2004 and we celebrated the tour on the last night of their trip.
Last night, Hiromi and I met with a friend of hers from Japan who has made it through the first two rounds of auditions for the Seagals. I thought it would be a good opportunity to make our way to Lark.
As with my previous experience, everything was lovingly prepared and spot on. We had an interesting creamy farro dish with pickled spring vegetables, including some fiddlehead fern fronds. We had a selection of cheeses with almonds, quince, and olives (one sheep, one goat, and one blue cow’s milk cheese; the details I’ve forgotten, but the sheep milk cheese bore the cutesy name “Ewephoria.”)
I like their sort of unconventional habit of serving cheese as a mouth opener rather than as a final course, although I suppose that’s really just an Americanism born of dinner party culture. We had some very nice mozzarella and artichokes. We also had their signature Rösti, and some sauteed mushrooms. Hiromi and her friend ate some raw oysters with a citrusy dressing, salumi from Salumi, and a braised short rib dish. We also had a smooth, creamy panna cotta topped with a wine jelly and a lacy cookie for dessert.
We each ordered an unrelated glass of wine owing to our idiosyncrasies, but everyone left happy.
Afterward we made a brief stop at Chapel for cocktails, which was reasonably busy but not insanely crowded, perfect for a relaxed evening out.
I was a bit at a loss on what to make for dinner Thursday night, but I had a few things in the refrigerator that I wanted to take advantage of. I was home a little late and wanted to keep it simple, so I just cut some vegetables up and prepared them for roasting.
Roasted artichokes, sunchokes, and acorn squash
We had a medium-sized purple artichoke handy, some acorn squash, and some sunchokes, sometimes called Jerusalem artichokes. I tossed the sunchokes in a bit of salt, and everything else just went in a grill pan straight into a hot oven. While the vegetables were roasting, I whisked up a harissa-seasoned mayonnaise. I also toasted some walnuts, chopped finely and seasoned with salt, and pressed some soft chevre, which has been sitting neglected in the refrigerator since I first used it last weekend, and it needed a sense of purpose.
I also made a quick pesto pasta, taking advantage of some leftover pesto.
Actually I wasn’t very excited by this meal, because I put no thought into it. I didn’t think roasting vegetables was anything to write home about, but Hiromi was far more enthusiastic… Simplicity is also rewarding.
Last night I also kept things simple, I made a few slightly tweaked Japanese dishes, including a nimono of acorn squash, a suimono or clear soup of fiddlehead fern fronds and tofu, some kyuuri no sunomono with iyokan no kurosu (cucumber marinated in citrusy black vinegar), and some grilled tofu drizzled with soy sauce seasoned with yuzu-koshou (yuzu peel and chilies). Each dish just requires a couple of minutes of attention, and it all comes together when it’s time to eat.
Nagaimo no negimiso dengaku
The most interesting dish of the night was sort of izakaya-ish. I lightly broiled some slices of nagaimo, the starchy tuber that is an essential component of good okonomiyaki and a breakfast staple served as tororo-imo with rice and soy sauce. I boiled miso, mirin and sugar together until it was bubbly and thick, then added some minced scallions into the mixture. I flipped the nagaimo, topped them with this negimiso concoction, and put it under the low-heat broiler again just long enough to bubble. Topped with a little more chopped negi, it’s a pleasing twist on dengaku dishes. The yamaimo took on a slight softness, retaining an almost juicy quality, without providing much of a hint of its nebaneba (sticky) tendencies, and the sweet-salty topping provided enough flavor and contrast to balance the starchy base.
Tuesday night Hiromi and I set out to join a Japanese language meetup group that I’ve been fairly regularly attending for the last year or so, but which seems to have quietly fizzled in the last couple of months. We’ve tried to attend the last few weeks but they’ve been rather sparsely populated and the one or two people we do see usually lose their inspiration to stay when they see how small the group is that week.
Well, we found ourselves the only ones there this week, and decided to duck out and find dinner after a few minutes. Not terribly inspired by the Belltown options we stumbled upon, we headed toward Pike Place Market and made our first trip to Matt's in the Market, a place often spoken of reverently by its devoted followers.
I'm a little bit late to the party, as I've known about Matt's for years but never found my way there for dinner. Even though the Pike Place Market is a quintessential Seattle institution, I'm primarily dependent on the market as a source of local and unusual fruits and vegetables, and I just never think of it as a dining destination.
For those who haven’t encountered Matt’s, there are three things you should know: the menu is short, simple and seasonal. This is not a place filled with fancy kitchen equipment, as the space is simply too small and the ventilation just too limited. Including counter seating, only about 23 people can squeeze in to the place. Most dishes are cooked on one of three butane burners, and some are at least partly finished in the oven. The atmosphere is a bit like a dinner party at a private home. Nobody rushes; there’s no point, because the food just takes as long as it takes.
If you want to impress someone with over-the top improbable towers of culinary audaciousness, it’s not the place for you, but if you appreciate simple preparations of top-quality, incredibly fresh ingredients, it’s a good bet.
We shared a grilled asparagus salad, served with some pistachio-encrusted soft chevre. It was served with some marinated peppers and a tart vinaigrette featuring small bits of pickled lemon. Hiromi wasn’t expecting much from the restaurant, and then she tasted the salad… she quickly changed her tune.
Halibut, I learned Tuesday night, is apparently Hiromi’s favorite fish. Despite brief temptation to try the night’s salmon special, she polished the plate of a harissa-seasoned halibut with olives and a potato-fennel base. I had the sole vegetarian main, which was a superbly comforting, if somewhat heavy, baked macaroni dish with mushrooms and cheese. Both are served with broccoli rabe, which Hiromi appreciated because they remind her of nanohana, the bitter greens of rapeseed plant. It’s somehow not spring in Japan without nanohana; rabe provides a decent proxy.
We also dug into a lime cheesecake, prepared off-site by another company, but quite respectable; it had just a hint of acidity, and was just sweet enough to bring out the richness of the cream cheese.
Atypical in our Seattle dining experiences, we left exactly sated, without feeling incredibly stuffed, and without leaving mounds of leftovers behind.
Expect to wait for a table, even on a Tuesday night…Stop in next door at Chez Shea for a cocktail, and, if the staff isn’t too distracted, they will come and get you when seats are available.
Yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised that my taxes went a little more quickly this year than last year… I guess I understood the stuff a little better. The business schedule is fairly tedious, and the instructions are rather bewildering to parse, but somehow I figured it out.
However, I’m pretty sure that next year I’ll need a real accountant. The list of numbers to keep track of is just getting too long.
I face a lot of buy-vs.-build or pay-for-help vs. do-it-yourself decisions for which the correct answer is not entirely obvious… in theory, I should pay for help for things that are not part of my core business, but I sometimes feel tempted to do it myself when I have the skills. For example, I’m not running a technology company but I frequently debate with myself whether I should pay for someone else to do my web design and storefront work, and often find myself doing it because it’s not that difficult for me to understand, even if it can be terribly time consuming.
But I think that I don’t have much of an excuse for doing my taxes myself. I can’t possibly keep track of all of the rules and exceptions related to preparing taxes, and I don’t have much to gain from doing it myself except for moderate cost savings. Yet I’ve hung on to the habit of handling the work on my own… Am I stubborn, foolish, or something else?
Now considered kind of quaint and old-fashioned, an donatsu or sweet azuki paste stuffed donuts were once a staple of Japanese-style bakeries. Increasingly, mushy, cloyingly sweet, preservative-laden versions sold at convenience stores have displaced the fresher incarnations of this sweet, but it’s worth indulging in when you find the real thing.
I can’t think of anywhere in Seattle to buy a decent an donut. But I can make a fairly decent interpretation myself...
Sunday morning, after realizing I had no more yeast left, I abandoned the idea of making anpan, the baked bread stuffed with the same kind of red bean paste. I did, however, have eggs, baking powder, and milk, so I put together a cake-like dough, incorporating a bit of melted butter and sugar. The dough was slightly sticky, but solid enough to allow for wrapping the dough around the filling.
The day before I had prepared some ogura-an, sweetened, coarsely mashed cooked azuki beans. I broke the usual convention of using about 50% sugar in the bean paste, preferring to use just enough sugar to taste the sweetness. I probably used no more than 25% sugar.
The main challenge is to make the outer layer thin enough that the dough can cook through, and almost all of them turned out just fine. After frying, I tossed the balls with some granulated sugar to add some textural contrast and an initial hit of sweetness.
We made a couple of lattes and indulged in a late breakfast.
Fresh from the fryer, our homemade an donuts were a totally different experience than I’ve even been able to have in Japan, since those are almost always sold after they have cooled down to room temperature. A tiny hint of crispness as we bit into each piece yielded to a soft cake texture, followed by the warm, sweet bean center.
Last week Hiromi and I decided to take advantage of one of the packaged foods we picked up at Takaragawa-onsen called houtou, which are fantastically wide noodles typically served with fall or winter vegetables.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to completely ignore the fact that we’re already seeing the bounty of springtime. I picked up some fiddlehead fern fronds, and thought a simple warabi no nimono, simmered fiddleheads in seasoned soup stock, would be nice.
And then I thought I’d like to have a little protein in the dish, and my mind turned to a favorite oden classic, which is ganmodoki, a sort of tofu fritter. I started looking at packaged ganmodoki, and wasn’t inspired at all. I realized it wasn’t that hard to make ganmodoki, and so I decided to make it at home.
Ganmodoki often has some hijiki in it, but I discovered I was completely out. Instead, I used some shredded gobo or burdock root, along with the typical shredded carrots. Hiromi told me that she’s partial to ganmodoki made with sesame, so I also used some kurogoma (black sesame) and the slightest hint of sesame oil. The fried ganmodoki went into the seasoned soup stock, perhaps not quite long enough to get the incomparably oden-like quality of pervasive soupy richness, but just about right to bring out the freshness of the tofu.
Houtou is seriously rustic. You are probably less likely to find this nabe dish in a U.S. Japanese restaurant than you are to find a fortune cookie in China, which means the odds are almost infinitely improbable.
Our favorite nabe is sadly leaking a bit, but houtou would normally be prepared on top of a portable konro at the table. We had to improvise, and prepared it in a pot on the stove and transferred it into my largest Hagi earthenware bowl.
Houtou aren’t really substantially different than udon, except that they are cut thinner and substantially wider. The soup usually has root vegetables such as carrots and satoimo (small taro), along with Japanese kabocha squash.We also used strips of abura-age, loosely translatable as tofu puffs. They have a slightly spongy texture that just loves to absorb tasty liquids like broth. The seasoning base of our broth is miso, along with, of course, some dashijiru. Although the gift package Hiromi found at our ryokan’s convenient omiyage-ya-san includes some miso-based seasoning, she wanted some more miso intensity, and we used a blend of hatcho-miso and a lighter miso.
The result is rib-sticking comfort food. It’s the kind of food someone’s grandmother would make: not terribly fancy, but somehow incredibly satisfying. We look forward to devouring the other half of our stash of houtou sometime soon…
Hillel of Tasting Menu has issued a bit of a challenge to himself to elevate the average quality of U.S. dining experiences. It's a frustration I share... I know a few places in Seattle that make me very happy, but most of them are out of the reach of everyday dining prices, and it's incredibly hard to find things that do a few simple things very well, and make me want to go out of my way to get a modest lunch or dinner there.
In Japan, countless television shows will obsessively document what it takes to make the most perfect omelet, which soba places do the best job of making buckwheat noodles (a fundamentally simple, but deceptively challenging task), or which ryokan is best taking advantage of their local ingredients. In the U.S., the closest thing we have to that mentality on TV is Alton Brown, and maybe Cook's Illustrated in print. In Japan, it's pervasive.
In the U.S., we are more excited by drama than by perfection. That's why people like Emeril, unfamiliar towers of incongruous ingredients at trendy fusion restaurants, and big fat California rolls. In Japan, more often than in the U.S., the pursuit of perfection is the drama.
In my first few years cooking regularly, during college, I followed a predictably American pattern of rebelling against bland foods from my childhood and I overseasoned absolutely everything. It was an improvement over what I had eaten before, but it's not necessarily worthy of much praise. After 8 years of regular visits to Japan, I increasingly strive for minimalism, trying to find ingredients that do most of the hard work simply by being wonderful and fresh.
Often enough, when I give an example of this, it's something as simple as a blanched spinach dish with a little freshly grated ginger and a splash of good quality Japanese soy sauce. When I explain it, it doesn't sound interesting, but when it's done right, it's easy to understand its simple poetry.
To elevate the U.S. dining scene, we have to give appropriate due to small places with short menus that get the food right, and take what they are producing very seriously. I can point out a few examples in Seattle, but mostly in a liquid context: Vivace and Victrola coffee, Sambar's signature cocktails that often feature house-squeezed juices and purees, tea at Floating Leaves.
Every Japanese restaurant in Seattle seems to feel obligated to offer sushi, tempura, donburi, and an assortment of over-sized side dishes, all in the same place. Nobody does just ramen, just okonomiyaki, just soba, just kushiyaki, or just udon. It seems like there's some sort of unwritten law that, even if you've hired 3 decent sushi chefs at $80,000/year each and contracted with a first-class interior designer, the restaurant has to devolve into some sort of family restaurant style of having something mediocre for everybody.
And I can pick on most cuisines in this regard: we torture Italian food the same way, not to mention Thai, Mexican, and others. If I'm in Japan, I don't think "I want to go to a Japanese restaurant," I think "I want to go to an izakaya", "I'd like some good soba", or "I'd like to have a teishoku lunch at that little vegetable shop near the office for lunch."
We need to reward the places that are obsessive about getting details right, from perfectly cooked pasta sauced with just the right amount of liquid, to serving just the amount of food that makes you wish you had just a little more, rather than making you feel guilty that you don't want to take the inedible leftovers home. Japan does have a certain level of uniform expectations that means there's far less variation in what's considered "perfect", and the benefit of generally high population density, but in the U.S. we usually have lower rents and more tolerance for idiosyncrasy, so the restaurants can be more maverick-like if they build a passionate audience.
Japanese cooking shows typically show professional cooks as careful, serious, diligent and avoiding wasted motion, respectfully repeating orders and executing them, and the guests are the ones who get all excited. In the U.S. the same kinds of shows have clanging pots, chaotically moving employees trying to avoid bumping into each other, kitchen staff telling jokes of questionable taste, and often haphazardly tossing food onto plates, often portraying the dining room is an ocean of calm customers. We want our celebrity chefs to be exciting; Japanese would rather the food and the guests do the talking.
Restaurants also have to get better at telling their own stories, explaining why they don't have 300 menu choices and why they serve their zarusoba with just a little bit of dipping sauce and a few pickles. The story-telling is part of what makes unconventional restaurants succeed in the U.S.; they have to teach their guests to do their marketing.
We can improve the taste of average restaurants by expecting better... When one place starts making the perfect taco, stop spending so much money at the big-as-your-head burrito place. More realistically, I imagine we will have to take more incremental steps, since we might be trapped in a part of town where we don't have better lunch options... So I'll give more money to places that make me happier, even if they aren't flawless.
And hopefully the occasional web rant or rave will help people find better food, so I'll spend some time writing about the good stuff...
A weekend ago we made a trek to Washington Park Arboretum to do Seattle-style cherry-blossom viewing. That means completely devoid of public drunkenness, which would of course be de rigeur in Japan… Seattle style cherry-blossom viewing involves a moderately brisk trek across a large, uncrowded park, perhaps after a dose of coffee.
Seattle’s cherry blossoms tend to be a bit earlier than most of Japan, but April 4 is sort of the officially appreciated day for cherry-blossom viewing, so my sluggishness in posting these works out to have a slightly commemorative effect.
Now, if only we had a little blanket, a lot of shochu, some cold snacks, and no laws against drinking in public parks, we might have a complete hanami experience…
I’ve been sleeping very little the last week or so, but not so much from jetlag… just a lot of stuff going on, and my insomnia truly kicks in when my little mind is fully engaged. I might be back to normal this week, but I think I’m going to need to spend a lot of time at the gym to take my mind off things.
We did eat reasonably well, but I was usually completely dead after dinner, save for the inability to sleep.
Orange cauliflower gratin
Sometime last week, Hiromi took the second half of our orange cauliflower and made a wafuu gratin, complete with a toasty panko topping.
Purple potato pizza
I wasn’t quite finished with my stash of lavash, so we covered it with some blue cheese and something else mild and meltable, now long forgotten, with just the slightest brushing of olive oil, and some pre-roasted purple potatoes. Hiromi thought that I had bought purple sweet potatoes, because the concept of an ordinary purple potato never entered her mind.
Although purple potatoes are slightly less sweet and creamy than a typical white-fleshed potato, that worked out as a strength when played against the creaminess of the melted cheese. Hiromi devoured her half.
Larry Anne plum crumble
We had two spectacularly beautiful Larry Anne plums, and two that were so sweet they bruised a bit on the way home. We turned the less pretty ones into this plum crumble. I usually wouldn’t torture such lovely fruit by cooking it, especially since the season for these Chilean plums is so painfully short, but we risked losing the damaged fruit so some more nefarious forces if we didn’t make immediate use of them.
I took a little butter, oatmeal, flour, sugar, and toasted soy butter, in roughly equal parts, to make the crumble topping. I would usually use peanut or almond butter, but I happened to have this toasted soy butter Hiromi and I bought a few weeks ago as a bread topping. It reminds us of kinako, which is toasted ground soybeans, and a frequent source of flavor for Japanese sweets and for boiled mochi. It turned out to be a great foil for the sweetness of the plums, providing a nutty contrast without competing for attention as aggressively as peanut butter does.