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.

Listing posts

You'd think I'd be more motivated to cook

jason

Actually, I have been cooking, though mostly haphazardly and without particular care... I'm also less patient, and not generally willing to dig out the camera.

I'd like to blame this ennui entirely on the US Customs and Immigration Service, though I'm not quite sure that's entirely fair. It has been rather depressing to observe absolutely no change in status for I-130 applications on the USCIS web site's receipting update page, at least not for the last 8 weeks or so. This week I'm slightly more optimistic, as they've indicated that all the I-130 applications have been forwarded to Chicago. Perhaps next week I'll hear something.

It turns out one of my coworkers is facing the same thing, as he filed for his own wife about a week after me. I imagine a lot of people are similarly frustrated right now.

In about 10 days I'll be heading off to see Hiromi in Vancouver, BC for a couple of weeks, as we can't be sure Hiromi would be allowed to enter the US even as a tourist, since we've already filed an application for permanent residence. The convoluted logic of US immigration law makes it hard to enter as a tourist to see your spouse, because you might have immigrant intent. If we were both living abroad, and didn't have a pending immigration petition, we could actually enter under the normal visa waiver program that Hiromi has previously used for most of her trips to Seattle.

I'm hoping to eat well in Vancouver... we'd like to make a trip to Vij's and perhaps Lumière or something similarly celebratory... of course, we're probably going to be equally happy just cooking simple meals in our rented Yaletown apartment.

My impatience has gotten considerably worse in the last month, but of course, there's nothing I can do... Shouganai.

Saturday I visited (and co-arranged) a party celebrating nabe, the broad category of winter one-pot dishes that mark the arrival of winter in Japan. We had four varieties of nabe going in four different pots, and 27-30 people. Kimchi nabe (Japanese-styled kimchi jjigae), Ishikari nabe (a Hokkaido salmon and vegetable nabe), tounyuu nabe (fresh soymilk seasoned with miso, with tofu and shungiku, in this case), and a kinoko tofu nabe (mushroom and tofu nabe), for which I prepared a yuzu-meyer lemon-daidai ponzu.

This Friday night a few friends have been kind enough to arrange for a nice dinner at Carmelita, my favorite vegetarian restaurant in Seattle. I haven't been since Hiromi's birthday last year. In 2006, Hiromi and I did some role-reversal reversal: I took her to Carmelita on her birthday, she took me to a football game on mine.

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No time, no time

jason

I've had some busy trips to Japan before, but this one pushes the envelope... Today, I'm on my way back home.

After I get back, assuming I have any energy, I'll write about a few trip highlights.

Akarenga Soka, Yokohama

Akarenga Yokohama

Tokyo celebrates Halloween

jason

Bee Movie?

Bee Movie?

On the weekend we discovered that Japan has taken a marked interest in Halloween... Harajuku and Omote-sando were filled with costumed children and adults, some carrying plastic pumpkins to various shops that apparently were giving away small treats.

Small superheroes

Small superheroes

Some people even lined up outside department stores, presumably for some sort of treasure.

Mostly costumed lineup

Halloween lineup

Harajuku had clusters of costumed children. We didn't make it out to the annual Kawasaki-area Halloween parade, but I understand that's an even bigger event than what we spotted in Omotesando.

We can perhaps thank global commerce and expert marketing, but Halloween seems to be roughly a week-long event in Japan. Costumes start on the weekend preceding the holiday, as far as I can tell, and continued all the way into bars and restaurants on Halloween night.

Bakeries offer pumpkin filled cookie sandwiches and in the shape of Jack-O-Lanterns, and I even found a Halloween-themed tenugui, or dyed cotton cloth. Halloween is all about commerce, much as it is in the US, without all the visceral impact the symbolism of Halloween has to most Americans, weaned on ghost stories about witches and zombies, during horror movie season.

Ladybug and wizard: Off we go

Ladybug and wizard

Obon and Halloween are really the same holiday, differences in rituals aside. Since I usually avoid coming to Japan during the peak heat of summer, I have only witnessed Nikkei celebrations of obon, and those a month earlier than typical (to fit in to the more important Seafair schedule in Seattle). But both are ways for living people to come to terms with death and the unknown.

In Japan, though, any of Halloween's association with the supernatural is apparently nonexistent. Cuteness rules all costuming decisions; nobody tries to be over-the-top disturbing, and everyone appears to use Halloween as an excuse for consumption.

In contrast, I remember being at a shrine in Kamakura just after dark many years ago, and my Japanese companion was clearly slightly unnerved... I was unable to relate, as I felt none of the same goosebump-raising vibrations that come from a lifetime of association of shrines with death and ghosts. Americans, more influenced by Christian teachings that tried to quash pagan leanings in indigenous European cultures, are more likely to find their hair raised by the shadows and noises of Pan's forests.

Travel plans: October 24-November 6

jason

My little brother took off the entire semester to save up money so that he could come to Japan to attend the family wedding Hiromi and I had planned... then our plans became complicated.

William was committed to making the trip, wedding or not, so I'm dragging him along on a quite different itinerary.

The schedule that worked best for us turned out to coincide with a weekend trip Hiromi had planned with her parents in Nikko. After discussing things with Hiromi, I slightly adjusted the plan so that we'd all be able to travel together.

We're also planning a trip to Mashiko on November 4, but most of the time we'll be in or near Tokyo. I'll do my best to post photos during the trip... I've been a little sluggish about posting recently, but that's mostly due to work-related exhaustion, and other minor frustrations.

If your path might cross mine, please let me know. Perhaps we can have tea or a little lunch...

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Tortured eggplant

jason

Tomato-like eggplant

You think you're looking at fleshy beefsteak tomatoes.

But you are deceived. You're actually looking at an uncommon variety of eggplant. I picked it up from the Alvarez farms stand at the Pike Place Market a little while back.

They were surprisingly firm, which I thought would be an advantage over the occasionally quite mushy ancient eggplants I sometimes run into at supermarkets. In fact, these were firm enough you could probably hurt someone if you threw them hard enough.

Had I followed my usual impulses when playing with a new food, I'd have done my best to highlight the remarkable qualities it has and not fuss with it terribly much. I would have wanted to emphasize the remarkable color and the bold shape.

But that was not to pass. That week I had an absolutely relentless craving for comfort food, and my usual impulses were undermined by cravings for things roasted, baked, and cheese-laden.

So I chose instead to obscure my treasure by turning it into something fairly pedestrian, but certainly comforting... After slicing, salting, and removing aku from the eggplant, I pan-fried the slices with a dusting of flour, egg and breadcrumbs. While I was waiting for them to cook, I prepared a quick tomato sauce from some nice fresh tomatoes, using a heavy hand with red wine. I placed some buffalo mozzarella and parmesan on each slice, spooned over some sauce, and baked until everything was melted.

Eggplant Parmesan

food 297

As you can see, I managed to completely obscure any of the charms of the eggplant, but it did the trick appealing to my need for self-indulgence.

Surprisingly, the eggplant had a sharp edge*. The bitterness was more intense than most varieties of eggplant I've worked with, even though I did the standard salting and rinsing trick. The sweetness of the tomato sauce and the mozzarella helped counter some of the harshness, so perhaps my choice was clever after all.

I'm now tempted to see if I could tame the bitterness by pickling the eggplant, Japanese style. I haven't been at the Pike Place Market for a few weeks, though, so I'm afraid I've probably lost my chance for the season... but perhaps we'll meet again next season.

* I've since learned that this variety of eggplant, called Turkish eggplant, is generally consumed underripe; it becomes bitter as it transforms from green to orange.

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Polenta with grilled halloumi cheese and apricot sauce

jason

Polenta, grilled halloumi cheese, apricot sauce

It's hard to imagine now that Seattle's wind and rain have started to kick in, but only a month ago, local apricots were still in season.

Just around that time I had stumbled upon a beautiful bunch of apricots at the U-District farmer's market, and thought it would be nice to make anzu-zake, an apricot-infused liqueur similar to umeshu. Unfortunately, a few of the apricots I used were so ripe that a couple of them had hidden bruises. I spotted them just before they lost their color and reclaimed them from the vodka solution, and chopped up a couple more fresh ones from another source. Simmered with a little sugar, a bit of yuzu juice, a tiny knob of fresh ginger, and a pinch of salt, this makes a spirited accompaniment to cheese.

Bad puns are cruel. Sorry about that.

I happen to be a fan of the occasional grilled halloumi... that's a a cheese which comes from Cypress, most notable for holding its shape when cooked. It's best when quickly grilled and gently caramelized. Because it's somewhat salty, I tend to prefer serving it with a sweet accompaniment like quince paste, but this boozy apricot sauce was even better.

I wanted to have something more than just a big pile of cheese, so I boiled some polenta seasoned with salt and butter, then let it rest at the bottom of a small baking pan. After it cools for 10 minutes or so, it's easy to cut into rectangles suitable to rest the cheese on.

Dressed with the apricot sauce and some fresh black pepper, the strength of this dish is the relatively gentle interplay of flavors. To provide some flavor contrast as needed, I served it with some fruity olives and some pickled pepadew peppers.

When I made this, I was only in the mood for a light meal, so I had a little salad and not much else, but it would be even better to serve one per person as a nice appetizer. It looks fancier than it is; I had it on the table in about 15 minutes after the polenta was cooked, and I wasn't in a rush. You could easily substitute ready-made quince paste or probably some types of chutney...

For a little while I couldn't get enough halloumi, and I tended to serve it on a bed of Bibb lettuce instead of polenta. That's even easier... but I think this version is prettier.

Chayote squash minimalism

jason

I'm a complete sucker for simple preparations of nice ingredients.

It wasn't always that way. When I first had enough of an income to support occasional dining out, I always thought it was better to order food that required equipment or effort I was unlikely to duplicate at home. Why pay a premium for a dish I could throw together myself in just a few minutes?

But after a couple of years, I realized that complex cuisine tended to be disappointing, perhaps because so many variables made it hard to pull off "sophisticated" dishes with any degree of consistency. Now I tend to be happiest with simple, well-executed fare. I still love dining out, but I'm more likely to look for dishes that are simple and playful, or classically basic and seasonally appropriate, rather than elaborate or ostentatiously creative.

At home I've seriously simplified my usual fare, as well, and I just love doing as little as possible to bring out the best in an ingredient.

Chayote squash is one ingredient that benefits from pronounced yet fundamentally uncomplicated seasoning. I like it with little more than fresh citrus juice and salt.

Matchstick-cut chayote squash with lime and pico de gallo

chayote suqsh with lime and pico de gallo seasoning

Except for some brief high-risk mandoline maneuvering, this refreshing side dish is almost effortless. I simply matchstick cut the squash, rub the pieces with some coarse salt, and wait a few minutes for the squash to sweat while preparing something else.

I try to squeeze out excess moisture, but it's ok to be a little lazy about that. Then I squeeze in a generous splash of fresh lime juice and chill for a while to marinate. If the squash starts out cold, it could actually be eaten right away, but I didn't have that much forethought. I just let it rest for a while while I finished the rest of dinner. Besides, it keeps nicely for three or four days refrigerated, and it's nice to have a refreshing side ready to go.

On the plate, I sprinkle just a little pico de gallo seasoning, which is nothing more than salt, ground cumin, and chili. If this dish sounds like a typical preparation of jicama, that's no coincidence. It just works.

Chayote squash has the texture of a crisp pear or raw daikon but has hints of the aroma of cucumbers and melon.  When you add the lime juice, the magic starts.

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Stuffed mushrooms without a hint of grain

jason

stuffed-mushrooms-29

Perhaps it's just force of habit, but I  never really considered making stuffed mushrooms without some sort of starch as a foundation... rice is my usual standby, but I've used buckwheat, breadcrumbs, and a few other alternatives.

But I'd been feeling rather overstuffed lately, so I've been eating less in the way of refined grains than usual. Stuffed mushrooms are a relatively quick, simple side dish unless you're cooking them for an army, so I threw together a dozen or so one Sunday night recently to go along with some more substantial fare.

I took some fleshy tomatoes, gently seeded, and chopped them up, tossed with some chopped, sauteed shallots. I added some grated pungent cheese whose name escapes me at the moment, but almost anything would work. For flavor, I added some capers, and a little salt, pepper and nutmeg. After hollowing out the mushrooms, I stuff them with the filling, placing them in a porcelain baking pan. Then pour some light, minerally Grüner Veltlinger wine, seasoned with more salt, pepper and nutmeg, into the same pan with a little butter.

These bake until the mushrooms look tender and the cheese is melted. at about 425F/200C.

I was worried some disaster would befall me because I left out the usual ingredient binding, but no such misfortune ensued, and the dish avoided the dreary dryness that sometimes ruins otherwise elegant-looking stuffed vegetables. Now I'm inclined to leave out the starch most of the time.

In spite of the stick-to-your ribs look of this variation, it's quite light and flavorful, and you could probably eat the mushrooms by the dozen without weighing yourself down.

Served with a glass of that Austrian Grüner Veltlinger, they make a nice starter or side dish.

Smoky eggplant in yogurt sauce

jason

Along with our lentil pie we wanted a lighter, refreshing little eggplant side dish to share.

We adapted a Renu Arora recipe that calls for deep-frying eggplant. We didn't really want to break out the deep-fryer on a hot day, so we went with a less oily alternative.

Smoky eggplant yogurt curry

Using our gas konro (basically a single-burner camping stove), I roasted batches of Japanese eggplant on all sides on a moderate flame, letting the eggplant get soft without scorching the skin too much. I put them in a container with a tightly fitting lid for a few minutes while preparing some other things.

Then I toasted some freshly ground fenugreek and mustard seeds in a bit of oil with some fresh chilies. After a minute or two I added turmeric, garam masala, red pepper powder, ground coriander seeds, and salt. I then adding a generous helping of whole milk yogurt, stirred the ingredients, and worked in the eggplant, sliced lengthwise in quarters then halved in the middle. This needs to gently simmer for 5 or 6 minutes on low heat.

At the table, add fresh cilantro to taste. (Hiromi likes cilantro).

Fire roasting creates a pleasantly smoky character while concentrating the eggplant flavor, without adding unnecessary fat.

The dish tastes nice served warm or even at room temperature, and makes a nice addition to a lunchbox the next day, if you have any left.

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Collaboration makes better pie

jason

I've previously mentioned that Hiromi's pie crust is far superior to mine. Hers is closer to a rough puff than the standard American pie crust, but she pulls it off rather effortlessly. On the other hand, my attempts at rough puff generally turn out to be slightly inferior to the basic pie crust that I can produce with far less concentration..

During Hiromi's short stay, I wanted to take advantage of Hiromi's crust-making skills for a more savory application.

lentil-pie-10

I worked on a simple thick lentil dish made with garam masala, probably a few potatoes, onions, garlic, and ginger, some fresh tomatoes, and turmeric. As I recall, I only had split urad daal handy. These are black lentils which have lost their shells and become a sort of drywall white.

While I was taking care of the filling, Hiromi set out making the pie crust. She cut in the butter and prepared the first turn, and finished a second one before the lentils were done.

We wanted some kind of sweet-savory accompaniment, so I planned to make a chutney. Fresh figs looked nice that day, so we used them as the foundation. I prepared the chutney after the lentils were started, using a little fenugreek and fennel as the dominant notes, a little extra sugar, and a few additional spices. I think I added enough chilies to make the chutney more spicy than necessary, but they didn't hurt.

I'm already fuzzy on the details, but I think we had some other afternoon plan that day and we wandered off for a few hours, then came back to assemble everything. I think Hiromi did one more turn before we filled the pastry in small springform pans, baked, and then were treated to this nice pie.

The only thing I'd change is which fruit to use for the chutney. I think apricot, peach or tamarind would be a better compliment to the heavy lentils, especially on a fairly warm day. The chutney itself was very pleasing, but perhaps it would work better with a less rich accompaniment.

The distractions of being a long-distance newlywed

jason

Again I apologize for being so distracted of late... Since Hiromi left, I've been rather unmotivated to write anything. I have barely been keeping up reading blogs I'm subscribed to in Bloglines. I've just been working, cooking, eating, sleeping.

Well, that's not entirely true. I've gone out to eat a little bit, too, though generally fairly lowbrow or even actively disappointing stuff. I'm still arranging weekly Japanese-speaking meetups and spending a little time with friends. I haven't become a complete recluse, but I've just appreciated staying semi-hidden for a while.

Thanks to everyone who sent kind words when I posted about our courtroom ceremony.

It turns out that our plans for a family wedding in Japan became a bit complicated due to my mother's health. We've decided to postpone that ceremony until my mother thinks she can travel... the whole point of having the ceremony in Japan was to have our parents there. If things work out, we've considered having our family ceremony in the winter, but we're more likely to wait until spring, or perhaps arrange the ceremony as a renewal of vows around this time next year.

We had a bunch of documents to assemble in order to apply for Hiromi's visa and permanent resident status. Under current regulations, these documents get filed in a rather curious order: first, a petition for permanent resident status for an immediate relative. Then, when the receipt of this petition is acknowledged, I file a petition for permanent resident status for a fiance (precisely the same immediate relative. Finally, Hiromi makes an application for a non-immigrant spouse visa at the consulate. Then she can come to the US. So we get married, then engaged to marry, and then we get to see each other finally. Then we pay a large fee for an "adjustment of status" when her permanent resident status is finalized.

Had we been a little more prepared, we could have made sure these documents were ready before Hiromi left. Of course, her original purpose for this trip was not at all to get married, but to go to a dance workshop in California and spend few leisurely days with me before going back to Japan. So we only had a small subset of the stack of papers we needed ready to go, and of course, we had plenty of small complications getting the rest of them together.

On Thursday, my attorney sent off the paperwork for the first form, the I-130. It turns out that it's been taking much longer than usual just to acknowledge the receipt of this document. Currently, it's around 3 weeks, from what I can tell.

I'm glad we engaged the services of an attorney to help with the process. Although I've filled out almost all of the forms myself first, the paralegal involved on our case caught numerous small issues that could have complicated the application process, resulting in additional delays.

We were somewhat optimistic in thinking that it should take 3 or 4 months for the visa to be approved. It looks like that's only true for the initial petition itself under optimal conditions. Thanks to a surge of applications this summer related to some fee increases, processing is running far behind schedule, from what I understand. Beyond that, it may take a fair amount of time to get an appointment at the embassy in Japan.

Although we've been in a long-distance relationship for most of the last 4 years, it's even more frustrating to have so much of a wait ahead of us now that we've officially committed to spend our lives together. Most of the ugly paperwork stuff to get Hiromi here is done; now we just have a lot of waiting, and a number of large checks to write.

We've been entertaining the idea of meeting in Vancouver, BC, or somewhere similar for a week or so around the holidays, where I could still conduct my day job remotely without too many complications, and we could have some time together. And I'm still planning to go to Japan for about a week sometime this fall, though it's no longer connected to our wedding ceremony plans.

I promise to get back to food posting shortly, and probably even a few business-related postings... I have a fair backlog of photos to plow through, and I've been taking advantage of the simple cooking that summer ingredients invite, sometimes spending less than 20 minutes to prepare what turn out to be very nice meals.

Reunion and union

jason

Sorry for my absence the last couple of weeks. Did you miss me?

I've been a bit distracted.

Certificate of Marriage

Certificate of Marriage

Hiromi and I have been quietly planning to marry in September in Japan... most of our friends and family have known about it for a while, though I haven't been shouting it from rooftops...

I guess it's time for that to change.

In the lobby of Seattle Municipal Courthouse

Entering the courthouse

A little over five years ago, I met Hiromi in person for the first time while on business for Microsoft in Japan. We weren't really working together directly on anything at that time, but several people from the MSN Japan team went to lunch at Misato-ya in Chofu with me, and Hiromi may have been the person to suggest that we go to the popular organic vegetable teishoku restaurant whose korokke and unpredictable okazu I still crave. I'm pretty sure I spent all of lunch talking about food, cooking and ceramics, probably exhausting anyone who wasn't interested in my personal obsessions.

On another trip that year, Hiromi wasn't even in the office. She had been surprised by a brain tumor and was unable to work for a while while it was being treated.

Somehow Hiromi remembered me a couple years later when we started working on something together. It's rather embarrassing to admit now, but at first I wasn't entirely sure which Hiromi I was working with. There were two contractors named Hiromi on the team back then.

Anyway, I planned a little vacation to Japan after about a year without any business travel. Hiromi invited me to meet up with her on a trip I made to Japan in 2003. We had dinner together one night, and then went touring around Yokohama on another.

I owe my entire relationship with her to my clumsiness... While we were walking around in Yokohama, I nearly ran into a post in the middle of a shopping center, she grabbed my hand to pull me out of the way, and never let go. The wind and rain that day was furious, and a brief trip outside left us chilly and well-soaked. Our lives would be permanently intertwined that day, though I don't think either one of us really knew it then.

In Chambers with Judge Judith Hightower

Seated with Judge Hightower

I didn't really deserve her... I sent all sorts of mixed messages when we first started dating. I was conflicted about starting up a long distance relationship, as I'm sure she was. It took more than a year of trips back and forth before we removed all the ambiguity. Yet somehow she stuck with me.

Things evolved, and Hiromi decided to come to Seattle to take some classes so that we could get to know each other better. Somehow she didn't become bored of me. I don't know how I managed to keep her interested. I wasn't at my best. I was, as now, juggling a day job and my fledgling internet business, more exhausted than usual, and occasionally a bit depressed that I couldn't devote all my energies to that project. But we stayed together, and it became harder and harder for me to imagine my life without her.

We seriously started thinking about marriage, but neither of us was in great financial shape. She went back to Japan, after a little under a year in Seattle, so that she could start earning some money again. I started saving money while paying down some business debt.

At the time, it seemed like it was best to marry in Japan and arrange for the immigration paperwork there. Perhaps a bit sentimentally, we picked the anniversary of the day that I nearly walked into a pole in Yokohama, which coincidentally turned out to be a taian day this year, an auspicious day for a wedding.

Then immigration policies changed again, and we learned we wouldn't be able to start the process of bring Hiromi back to Seattle until after I would return to Seattle after our September wedding... And at first we were just resigned to a fate of things taking longer.

I had a little conversation with my attorney earlier in July to discuss our plans, and he said it was too bad we didn't just get married when Hiromi was still in town. If we weren't hung up on the date, he said, we might have been able to speed things up by starting the application process a bit earlier. I realized that she'd be in Seattle briefly after attending a dance workshop in California, and we started discussing having a simpler municipal wedding before our bigger family ceremony next month.

Well, that's what we did... perhaps a bit hurried... Hiromi's ring won't even be ready until just before I go to Japan, and we haven't figured out mine yet. The judge kindly provided symbolic rings for the ceremony.

There's still a long way to go before we're really together, but now the end of our long time living apart is finally in view.

Exchanging vows

Making our vows

Ron Mamiya, the presiding judge of Seattle's Municipal Court, had requested to do our ceremony because he shares Hiromi's family name, but Hiromi's tight schedule meant she'd be gone before he returned from his own vacation. Instead, the Honorable Judith Hightower took care of our ceremony in her chambers. She kindly indulged us taking lots of photos, actively encouraging the two camera-wielding witnesses to move about the room for the best possible angles. She even took a few shots of our group together.

Our witnesses

Judge Hightower's snapshot of everyone

Hiromi's former manager Tsuneo, a couple of layers removed, attended at Hiromi's request as a witness. Our friends Jennifer, Hal and Noriko also attended.

After the ceremony, on the steps of the courthouse

Outside on the steps of the municipal court

Unfortunately, this was also one of the briefest trips Hiromi's ever made to Seattle, and we didn't really have a lot of time to enjoy each other's company after the wedding. We had a little dinner with Jennifer and we came home early in the evening. We only had one night before I had to take Hiromi to the airport.

This was the most painful trip to the airport I've ever made.

I don't remember us posing for this

I don't remember posing for this 

Fortunately, I'll be in Japan again in just over a month. There's still a lot of planning to do, and I'm not sure how we'll get everything all done by then, but I'm sure we'll figure things out.

Just before dinner

Outside the courthouse

I was surprised at how much this small ceremony changed the way I look at Hiromi. I was completely inarticulate on our way outside the courthouse afterward, but a thousand thoughts were racing around my head. Even at my worst, most selfish moments, I haven't been able to imagine my life without Hiromi for a long time, but everything became so real to me all at once. I was more than a little overwhelmed... after going to the airport yesterday, I was completely useless for the rest of the day.

So crowded nobody goes there anymore

jason

Over the weekend Seattle Center hosted its annual spectacle of mediocre food. I almost completely forgot it was set to happen until I spotted a note about it in one of the Seattle weekly papers late in the week.

My left foot is still easily inflamed, so I didn't go, but I'm not sure I would have expended any more effort had circumstances been more favorable.

Perhaps I'm the only one, but Bite of Seattle no longer holds the same appeal to me it once did. Last year, Hiromi and I kept fairly busy attending most of the notable Seattle festivals, from Folklife to the Solstice Parade, from the Pride Parade to Bumbershoot. We even hit the Seattle Cheese Festival, accidentally found ourselves at a Leavenworth, WA parade, and even unexpectedly found ourselves at a hydroplane event on our way to Sol Duc in the Olympic Peninsula.

But I'm fairly sure we skipped what is ostensibly the most food-centric event of the year: The annual Bite of Seattle. Near as I can tell, we stayed home and grilled peaches and made falafel.

It's probably been two or three years since I last attended the Bite. The prospect of braving large crowds of people standing in long lines waiting for almost exactly the same food that appears at ever other summer event in the region no longer holds much appeal for me.

Sure, they have the semi-fancy John Hinterberger/Kathy Casey/Tom Douglas circuit (the featured Seattle food personality changes year-to-year), but I don't think the festival does much to highlight Seattle-area restaurants anymore.

It takes almost $3000 just to rent space for the booth for the weekend, not to mention all of the equipment and staffing costs, so I think most of the interesting restaurants in Seattle have been opting out. It's a shame, because as far as I understand, the event originally had the aim of promoting local restaurants, rather than being a place to get standard greasy fair grub.

When I look at the restaurant list this year, it seems that a fair number of "real" restaurants are on the list, but even most of those are fixtures of the festival event circuit. Aside from those few spots, I think I've seen enough of Biringer Farms semi-frozen hyper-sweet strawberry shortcake, Ziegler's curly fries, Shishkaberrys skewered chocolate dipped fruits and Scotty's seafood sandwiches. It doesn't look like even a handful of the restaurants are the kind of chef-owner-operated places that make eating in Seattle interesting and remarkable.

You can't even get a decent cup of coffee at the event thanks to sponsorship restrictions. In Seattle. Why even bother showing up?

I must be idealizing the event somewhat, because even thinking back to when I first went to Bite of Seattle in 1996 or 1997 or so, I can't think of any remarkable restaurants that I was introduced to via the festival. But I do think it was more exciting for me back then. Have I just become jaded, or did the "Bite" once have more bite?

What else to do?

Sparkling sake from Sakenomi

Fortunately, Seattle is vibrant enough that we have other things going on even during major festivals. Sakenomi bravely opened a small sake retail shop in Pioneer Square, and had their grand opening event all Saturday afternoon. A friend of mine from my Japanese Meetup went with me to chat with the owners and to nibble on champagne grapes and cheese and crackers.

The shop is pleasantly unpretentious, and Johnnie and Taiko are working hard to make sake as accessible as possible. Our brief conversation made it clear just how few degrees of separation there are in Seattle's Japanese community... the store features sake ware from Akiko's Pottery and the staff wears T-shirts designed by Masa of Three Tree Tea.

Considering the location, I'm a bit surprised that they've made the choice to create more of a retail venue than a bar, but the interior is constructed in a way that they can probably evolve in that direction if it turns out to make more sense.

Pioneer Square is a difficult place to operate a retail shop. Even a lot of the galleries have been struggling as Pioneer Square loses its hold on the art buying public. I'm curious if it's possible to make money on a retail project down there that isn't a convenience store.

I wish them well... the space is cute and the environment is much more welcoming and apprachable than the average Asian market sake aisle.

I took home a nice bottle of semi-effervescent sake.

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Summertime socials

jason

The last few days I've been fairly social, meaning that my kitchen is seeing only minimal use. Except for a Friday night experiment preparing chappati and Indira's green garbanzo and paneer dish with a haphazard, soft, homemade almost-paneer that was more like Ethiopian lab cottage cheese, I've mostly played it safe, seeing as I was heading to parties.

Even my home cooking was rather conservative, including some simple dishes like Roesti for brunch, with a sour cherry shake on Sunday afternoon, an idea stolen from a Matthew Amster-Burton article a month or so ago.

My camera wasn't really handy on the weekend, but since almost everything was a rerun, I'm just going to apologize for recycling some old photos.

Saturday I had to run an errand that made me late for my first party of the weekend, so I thought of two things I can make with about 5 minutes work.

Roasted potatoes 

Roasted potatoes

Roasted potatoes just take a little slicing, a little rubbing with olive oil, and a sprinkling with salt, seasoned or otherwise. I could carry all the equipment I needed with me to the party, do the quick preparation, and take over the unoccupied oven for about 25 minutes and out came some magic. The version I actually served involved Volterra/Ritrovo's porcini salt. (Roasted potatoes I last posted about here).

Insalata caprese

Insalata caprese

A staple of my summer repertoire, insalata caprese with heirloom tomatoes is always a crowd-pleaser when the tomatoes are at their best. Even though I prepared this before everyone's eyes at the party, people still thought there was some mysterious technique to make the dish taste good... But it was just the buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil that mattered most, along with a sprinkling of salt on the tomato slices and some fresh ground pepper over the whole thing.

Channa gobi masala cups

 Channa gobi masala cups

Channa gobi masala cups, a variation of the channa gobi masala nests I've made before, this time using sheets of filo rather than the shredded kadaifi. For some reason, PFI didn't hae the kadaifi, but the little filo cups are equally appealing. The curry was a simple cauliflower-split chickpea dish with finely chopped vegetables, just like above. The cups were just butter-brushed filo sheets folded so that they would make little cups in my mini-muffin tin. Baked until crispy and golden-brown, they provided a convenient package for party-sized nibbles.

I'd almost call this a rut, but I know better. I don't usually take big risks when heading to someone else's party... Simple, familiar (to the cook, anyway) and temperature-flexible fare is what potlucks are all about. Plus it's an unseasonably warm summer... even I want to get out of the kitchen as quickly as possible.

Pistachio saffron kulfi, slightly altered for life with an ice cream maker

jason

I can't remember exactly when I first heard of saffron kulfi, but I think it was mentioned in a Bharti Kirchner novel, or perhaps a desi short story collection. The book waxed poetic about the value of slowly simmering saffron and cardamom, which reduces the volume of the milk by about half while thoroughly infusing it with the aromas of the spices. This is a time-consuming, hour-long or more process, only possible to achieve on fairly moderate heat with plenty of patience.

It seems unlikely that you could accomplish the same level of flavor by pulling out a can of condensed milk and stirring the ingredients together, no matter how long you wait for the cold ingredients to meld together. The extra labor is totally justified by the results.

That being said, I'm fairly lazy, as obsessive cooks go... I delight in simplicity. The unusual level of labor means I haven't made this for about 5 years, when it was unceremoniously and completely devoured, along with some sort of sorbet, in less than 15 minutes at a dinner party I hosted. This time I served it to a much smaller crowd, so that I could guarantee I'd have more than a spoonful to taste for myself. I'm jealously guarding what remains.

Kulfi is not truly an ice cream, but simply a frozen dessert made in molds or even ice cube trays. It's rather unlikely to be churned, so the result will typically be quite firm and popsicle-like. However, thanks to my Cuisinart ice cream maker and a generous hand with cream, it develops a remarkably smooth, soft texture, and can fairly be called an ice cream.

Kesar Kulfi with Salted Pistachio

Kesar kulfi with pistachios

Ingredients

  • 8 cups milk
  • 1 cups cream
  • A generous pinch of saffron, about 8-12 strands
  • 1 tsp. ground cardamom (best if freshly ground)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • A few tablespoons shelled pistachio nuts, coarsely ground with a pinch of salt and a heavier pinch of sugar
  • Additional pistachio for garnish, if desired

Bring the milk, saffron and cardamom to a gentle simmer. Stir regularly as the milk simmers until the volume of milk is reduced by half.

Add sugar to dissolve. Add cream, and refrigerate until chilled, generally several hours or overnight.

Pour mixture into an ice cream maker with a 6 cup capacity (if your machine is smaller, the recipe can easily be halved). After 20-25 minutes, stir in most of the seasoned pistachio mixture.

I reserved some of the pistachio mixture for a nifty silicone mold I generally leave, neglected, stowed above my kitchen cupboards. I simply sprinkled the pistachios into the bottom of the mold before pouring in the ice cream mixture. Freeze the molds overnight. Unmold and serve, perhaps with some additional broken pistachios.

If you don't have such a mold, sprinkle the pistachio over scoops of ice cream after it's hardened in the freezer overnight.

In place of pistachios, almonds work quite well.

This kind of kulfi is ordinarily poured straight into a mold and frozen, rather than using the intermediary step of an ice cream maker, but the ice cream maker results in a smoother, softer texture. The extra cream, generally not used in Indian recipes, makes the ice cream extraordinarily rich and indulgent.

Although it's also not typical in Indian recipes for kulfi, the small hint of salt in the pistachio helps bring out all the other flavors in the ice cream. Like the great salted peanut butter ice cream at Seattle's Veil, one of the most remarkable items I've sampled there, it may evoke some strong reactions: At Veil, people either love it or hate it. I don't use as much salt as Veil does in my pistachio blend, so nobody who has tried my version was terribly shocked, but getting the balance might be tricky. Start with just a little pinch.

This is my little entry for YumSugar's For the Love of Ice Cream Challenge.

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Chestnut focaccia

jason

Seattle doesn't really believe in air conditioning.

It's not that it doesn't exist; we only use it as a way of guaranteeing productivity, at offices and schools, or for keeping people restless and uncomfortable so that they'll make their purchases and efficiently move on to some other errand, like in supermarkets and department stores.

So the few times each year when we really would benefit from air conditioning at home, we simply don't have that option, so we tend to go out and drink mediocre syrupy iced cocktails at one of the three restaurants in town that has a deck. Today it was too hot for outdoor dining to be remotely comfortable, at least before 9pm or so.

During that time, I suppose we just sit at home and bake.

Chestnut focaccia

chestnut foccacia

No, not like this. Turning on the oven in weather like today's is a truly awful idea. It merely contributes to the dreaded Seattle Warming. Our fragile Seattleite bodies are not able to handle 65°F high temperatures one day and 98°F highs three days later. This is why we have so many activists and scientists working on reversing global climate change.

So it's really a good thing that I made and served this bread over a week ago. It's been a little hot to do any serious blogging, much less baking... I'm sure you've seen a slightly lower productivity among Seattle bloggers in the last week or so, except from those who blog from air conditioned coffee shops.

Aside from a slightly disastrous transfer onto the baking stone (the focaccia was a little too long), and a slightly too crispy texture thanks to a minute or two of overbaking, this was a nice little bread. It was perfect with good butter, as well as with olive oil.

It's an ordinary focaccia dough, except for one distinct feature: It's made with one-third chestnut flour. This gives the bread a surprisingly rich character, and a long fermentation time added a deep complexity. The aroma of chestnut pervades the bread, although the end result is nothing like your average roasted chestnut or mont blanc pastry.

I brushed the dough with olive oil and topped it with a little chopped flat-leaf parsley.

On a day like today, I might be satisfied with little more than some bread and cheese.  Or, as Hiromi and I did on a hot day last summer, perhaps it would be nice to serve some sakuranbo sōmen in a bowl of ice water with a cold dipping sauce.

Instead, though, I went out for a cold cocktail and some watermelon carpaccio and panzanella style salad at Oliver's Twist, under the mistaken impression that they might have functioning air conditioning.

Apparently some Seattle restaurants don't believe in air conditioning, either.

But the icy drink, constantly refilled ice water, and cool salads helped... followed by another cold nibble or two at Gaspare outside as the sun started retreating for the night. Gaspare didn't invest in air conditioning either, so in today's sweltering heat, nobody sat down indoors... it would have been too dangerous.

Just tabbouleh... but still unforgettable

jason

Tabbouleh. Perhaps unfairly, I somehow associate it with college, wannabe hippies, and 70s-style vegetarianism. Not that there's anything wrong with any of that.

But this marginalization in my mind means tabbouleh (tabouleh, tabouli, take your pick... Arabic is flexible about the rendering of vowels) somehow never seems to find itself on my radar when I plan dinner for a crowd. It just seems so hopelessly quaint and dated, like lentil loaves and cheese-laden casseroles.

That's a shame, of course, because tabbouleh is actually quite wonderful. In fact, it's really hard to get wrong, assuming you start with decent ingredients and make the mint and parsley, rather than the bulgur, the focus.

The most important ingredients, of course, are fresh mint, fresh parsley, bulgur wheat, lemon juice, tomatoes and olive oil. It's seasoned with salt and pepper, and generally includes an aromatic like onion, shallot or scallions.

tabouleh 735

Only two things can ruin this dish: too much bulgur, or attempting to substitute dried herbs. Even sad supermarket tomatoes won't be a tragedy if chopped finely enough, but excellent tomatoes can be featured more prominently.

The dish is probably prettier, and easier to eat, if served on a bed of romaine lettuce leaves. But even a minimalist version is a beautiful way to put some summer in your meal.

It's far better with flat leaf parsley, but you can get away with the stuff that used to be used solely as a pointless garnish at your local diner.

You can play with a hint of additional seasoning such as cinnamon, sumac, allspice, or pomegranate molasses, but if your ingredients start out fantastically fresh, you can get away with just the fundamentals.

Mustard greens and manouri cheese ravioli

jason

After a run of Japanese food, I started craving pastas and breads again. Somehow an  urge to do something with mustard greens kicked in. A weekend trip to the supermarket with no particular time pressure put me in a playful mood.

I thought about the Nagano specialty oyaki I sometimes make with mustard greens.

I tried making some beggar's purses on a whim, but realized the wrappers I rolled out were a little too thick. So for the next batch, I chose to make thinner, ravioli-like dumplings.

When I go through the trouble of making stuffed pasta at home, the last thing on my mind is recreating something that I could easily acquire at a supermarket or local Italian specialty shop. So I either go the route of using much better quality ingredients than I'd ever find in the fillings made by one of those fresh pasta making companies, or take the opportunity to play with combinations that I'd be unlikely to find anywhere else.

This was an occasion for the latter.

For the filling, I rub some washed mustard greens with coarse salt and let them sit for five or then minutes, then I come back to rinse them and squeeze out excess moisture. They shrink nicely, and I add some soft manouri cheese, a tangy sheep's milk cream cheese from Greece. I grate a little nutmeg in, then work an egg yolk into the mixture, along with a spoonful of bread crumbs. I might have added a little black pepper.

Soft ravioli filled with mustard greens and manouri cheese

ravioli 707

I chose to make these with regular wheat, rather than hard semolina flour. Durum wheat pasta, or semolina pasta, is more common in the US, thanks in part to the strong southern Italian influence in Italian-American cuisine, not to mention its advantages to pasta manufacturers. But much of northern Italy actually prefers pasta made with ordinary wheat, and both Chinese and Eastern European cooking is full of noodles made with soft or hard all-purpose flour.

Unlike those with the luxury of an extravagant, beautiful exhibition-like kitchen, I have no room for a pasta maker in my home. I'm not really sure I even have room for the things already spilling out of my tiny cupboards. So I relied entirely on manual labor.

I start with a hand-kneaded pasta dough made from flour, egg yolks, a hint of freshly grated nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. The dough rests for an hour or so.

Then I divide the dough into manageable chunks that I can roll out on my limited counter-space, dusting with flour as needed to keep things from getting too sticky. I flip the dough a few times and do whatever I can to achieve a fairly even thickness.

A cookie-cutter comes to the rescue when I want to cut out round pasta shapes. Or rather, it would have, were I able to remember where my one round cookie cutter was stashed. The urgent need for improvisation leads me to a suitably-sized plastic lid from a spice jar, which has just enough sharpness to do the trick.

I top one half of the pasta circles with a small amount of filling, rub each outer edge with some water, and seal the ravioli shut with one of the unused circles.

During the summer I often want lighter sauces than I typically rely on during colder weather. So rather than some heavy cream sauce, or even a big marinara sauce that might compete with the flavor of the filling, I played with a sauce constructed upon an inexpensive, moderately dry Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewurztraminer.

I simmer the wine with a little porcini-kombu soup stock for several minutes, then added some butter and salt. Initially, the flavor is a bit acidic, but the butter goes a long way to mellow out the wine. As the pasta boils, I toss some shimeji mushrooms into the wine sauce.

When the pasta looks ready to go, I strain the ravioli and let them simmer briefly in the sauce.

You may want to add a little shaved parmesan or black pepper. Since dinner had other sources of cheese, I kept it simple.

The sauce is lively with slightly herbal notes, and just rich enough to cut the acidity of the wine without weighing it down.

The Gewurztraminer has enough complexity to mitigate the need for aromatics like garlic or onions, especially with those intense mustard greens. I also had an audience that appreciates light, sappari flavors and I was serving a few other dishes to provide a balance of intense and light flavors.

However, if you wanted this to be the main focal point a meal you might work in some caramelized shallots, either finely minced and worked into the sauce, or simply sliced and presented as a final touch to top the pasta.

Snow peas and aburaage itame ni

jason

Although sautéed and stir-fried dishes do not figure prominently in Japanese cuisine, simple dishes in that category will appear on the tables of most Japanese homes.

The scale, however, is much more diminutive than most Chinese, and certainly most Americans, would expect.

Historically, oil was fairly expensive in Japan, and a typical farming family might have gotten away with a single modestly-sized bottle of vegetable oil over the course of an entire year, even in the era of cast-iron pots. A tiny bottle of toasted sesame oil, mostly used a few drops at a time, might provide a flavor boost to otherwise simple dishes.

Sayaendo and abura-age with carrots 

Itamemono, or pan-sautéed dishes, generally have a fairly subtle flavor. Even soy sauce is used with a very light hand. Dishes do not acquire the "red" color of Chinese-style stir-fried dishes.

This type of dish is best with a short list of ingredients, prepared in small batches; I don't think I made this with much more than 1 to 1 1/2 cups of raw ingredients, and it was enough for two or three Japanese servings along with other dishes. My tiniest omelet pan did the trick. For a group of four or five people, you could get away with making a larger quantity in a 10" skillet.

I used some snow peas (sayaendō), carrots prepared with a simple rolling cut, and onions. I dunked some abura-age (tofu puffs, perhaps) in very hot water and squeezed the water out to prepare it for the pan. This helps the aburaage more readily absorb salt and seasonings, and coincidentally slightly reduces the oil content.

This kind of sauté is done with very little oil at a fairly high temperature. I add a small pinch of salt every time I put a new ingredient in the pan, then finish with some soy sauce, sake, and mirin.

Japan doesn't have the French convention of caramelizing onions, but if you bring the onions just past translucent they'll add a great aroma and natural complexity to the flavor of the dish. Add the carrots, cook for a minute or two longer, then add the snow peas and aburaage. Once these are a bit shiny, add a small splash of soy sauce, a good tablespoon of sake, and maybe even a little dashijiru, then perhaps one or two drops sesame oil. In some cases you may want to add a touch of sugar or mirin, but I think the onions and carrots are naturally sweet enough that additional sugar is usually unnecessary to achieve an ama-karai (sweet-salty) taste.

Simmer briefly, taste, adjust seasonings if needed, and serve in small bowls.

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Eggs and cactus: Saboten no tamago toji

jason

Another home-style dish with a Japanese approach to non-Japanese ingredients, this nopal dish, made with a couple of eggs, dashi, soy sauce and mirin, is really basic, but it's a great little side dish for two or three people.

Saboten no tamago toji

Saboten to tamago touji

The eggs are set firmly enough that this probably doesn't seem much different than scrambled eggs, tamago toji tends to be a little bit more on the liquidy side, but I think mine is soft enough to qualify. Sometimes tamago toji refers to eggs poured into soup, over udon or similar noodles.

This is made with blanched and then briefly sauteed prickly pear cactus paddles. Shaped like a leaf, nopales have sharp, thorn-like spines need to be assiduously pared away with a knife before they are suitable for consumption.

Once I've prepared the nopales, I briefly blanch them in salted water to brings out the slightly tart flavor and okra-like texture of the nopales.

The nopales need only a short cooking time, but they're slightly time-consuming to trim. Even with the extra prep work, I think this would become popular in Japan if the vegetable were more widely available. The flavor and texture are quite compatible with Japanese cuisine, which is full of nebaneba (mucilaginous) foods.

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