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.
Broccoli isn't particularly common in the Japanese kitchen, but it's gradually become somewhat popular in home cooking. To be honest, I can't think of many times I've actually eaten it when I've traveled to Japan, but I've certainly seen it at supermarkets and department stores.
The few broccoli dishes I've seen in American Japanese restaurants seem oddly unbalanced, overcooked, and out-of-place.
However, the ingredient can be very suitable for aemono or ohitashi. I might even be swayed to blanch it, mince it finely and use it in tamago-yaki.
Broccoli no toufu ae
This side dish, slightly strongly seasoned even for aemono, is made with a blend of soft tofu, toasted, crushed white sesame seeds, sugar, salt, and the tiniest splash of soy sauce.
The broccoli, blanched for about 90 seconds, yields, but still has bite. Once mixed with the ae components, it acquires a savory, juicy character. The flavors play very nicely together.
For a little color and slightly capricious flavor highlight, I also added a little sprinkling of yuzu-shichimi once the aemono was on the plate. Because I used only a tiny touch of this, each bite holds the potential of a little surprise, but the heat from the shichimi doesn't overwhelm the dish.
One of my favorite Japanese dishes, ever since I first started exploring Japanese cooking, was nasu no miso ni, a simple eggplant dish with miso. As I've mentioned before, there are probably as many variations on that dish as there are mothers in Japan.
This is one of mine. Pan-grilled deep-purple mini eggplant, cooked with a little tea seed oil, somehow became magically bright purple after a couple of minutes of heat
Normally I'd just add mirin, sugar, a bit of dashijiru and miso, but this time I also added a bit of mustard and a splash of vinegar. As the dish simmers, the sauce thickens up and some of it is absorbed by the eggplant.
I'd call this variation nasu no karashi miso ni.
I liked this style... It is a bit like serving konnyaku or tofu with sumiso (also a mustard and vinegar seasoned miso), except warm. It's a surprisingly delightful way to bring the flavor out of the eggplant.
Like most versions of nasu no miso ni, it looks best on right after cooking, but the leftovers taste even better after they've rested for a night or so in the refrigerator.
Although I tend to respect the traditions of the cuisines I borrow from, I'm not above mixing cuisines from time to time. I just don't tend to like the excesses of self-conscious fusion cuisine, often created by people who know next to nothing about the food or aesthetics of the countries from which they are borrowing.
I'm no genius in that regard... Although I'm reasonably well-traveled, I tend to rely on classic flavor pairings and a consciousness of the nature and function of my ingredients. While I might do some unconventional things, I don't really do fusion for the sake of shock or drama. Mostly I'm just adapting available ingredients to my situation (dinner tonight), which is pretty much how Italians figured out how to use the tomato or Koreans figured out how to make use of the chili.
Fortunately, Japanese and Korean ingredients and techniques can often be combined in simple ways without creating a culinary fiasco. It's not surprising to find some form of kimchi on a Japanese dinner table, for example.
I had some nagaimo, a starchy tuber, also called ma in Korean. Although I'm quite happy just to serve nagaimo with a little nori and soy sauce, I thought it might be nice to make use of the artisan gochujang I picked up in Korea recently. This is a fermented sauce made with Korean chilies, rice, salt, and soybeans. It's a really great way to season any number of otherwise simple vegetable dishes.
Nagaimo is very sticky, or nebaneba, and the glutinous rice in gochujang also has a kind of sticky quality. I thought it would contribute some natural glutamates (umami) and a modest heat to the nagaimo, so I simply stirred it together with the nagaimo until the sticks were relatively evenly coated. As the nagaimo is stirred, its nebaneba qualities become increasingly apparent: small strands of starch stretch into longer strands.
Because of this, it's better to serve the nagaimo in a small bowl rather than on a plate. As you eat it, the strands tend to want to stay where they started, and you might find a bit of a trail if you try to pick them up... the edge of the bowl will help head that off, and an individual serving in a little bowl that you can pick up will help minimize any embarrassment that might be caused by spreading your food around the table.
I added a little scallion and toasted sesame seed to provide some simple flavor contrast.
After over four weeks of relative physical inactivity, I haven't been feeling particularly healthy, and I'm starting to feel like what little weight I lost on my vacation to Japan and Korea has come back. I thought it would be a good idea to eat a little less oily food for a while, so I went to buy some oborodoufu at a local tofu manufacturer. Of course I went home with that, but then I saw a beautiful block of deep-fried tofu, and couldn't help but take it home. (Is that weird? I go out and I pick up pretty... groceries. I am not a normal guy).
Of course, that might well have undermined my intention to reduce the fat in my diet this week, but big atsuage aren't all that bad... since they're fairly large, most of the oil is in the outer layer, and there's not nearly as much surface area on a large block of tofu as, say, the smaller cubes more likely for agedashi-doufu.
Contrary to popular belief, tofu doesn't really absorb flavors very much; unless it's freeze-dried or frozen, it's just not that porous, which is why it's important to get very fresh tofu. You really want the tofu to taste good on its own. However, fried tofu does have little nooks and crannies on the surface that make it easier for flavors to attach to the tofu.
Even so, Japanese cuisine is more about tasting the ingredients, not covering them up. Accordingly, this dish really highlights the tofu and the fresh ingredients it's made with.
This dish is pretty simple, but it looks elegant and has some nice fresh ingredients. It just requires a little attention to detail.
I slice the tofu block in half, make a hidden incision parallel to the white tofu near the bottom of the block, and cut a rectangle in the interior. It's important to have a fairly substantial border of flesh to keep the block from collapsing... probably in the 3/8-1/2 inch range (1.5cm) I gently work the inner cube out of the block.
I season some dashijiru with mirin, Japanese soy sauce, salt and sugar to nimono strength, neither very salty nor incredibly bland. I cook shimeji (a kind of mushroom) for a few minutes in the seasoned dashi, and I blanch some matchstick-cut carrots and some snow peas. Once those have been shocked with cold water, I give them a little time with the dashi, as well as the tofu itself. The tofu can only handle a few minutes before it wants to disintegrate, so I pull it out with a slotted spoon and stuff it with the seasoned shimeji, the carrots, and some kaiware-daikon, or radish sprouts.
The snow peas are placed in the serving dish, I plate the atsuage, and I pour enough of the seasoned broth into the bowl.
It's just one of several side dishes, and like most Japanese dishes, it's assari, or just lightly seasoned. It's mostly about having very fresh tofu, very fresh vegetables, and good quality mushrooms. It can be assembled before everything else is plated, because this type of dish can be presented lukewarm.
It could be served with a little fresh ginger, but that kind of intensity isn't really necessary for this kind of dish. The kaiware provide just a hint of sharpness that balances out the relatively muted flavors of the dish. The contrast between this and other dishes in the same meal make having really big, bold flavors here unnecessary: my umeboshi, sunomono, an aemono, and a spicy nagaimo dish I served with it provide balance.
Since it looks a bit like a forest in the middle of the tofu, we could call it atsuage no mori, or tofu forest.
After a heavy breakfast and hearty lunch on a very lazy homebound Saturday, I thought it best to keep dinner lighter, so I had a big salad and a little more bread.
What did I have handy? Some Belgian endive, one bulb white and one red. A lime. Some tea seed oil, mustard, honey... That would work as a dressing. A little more of the robiola due latti from my unhealthy pizza fritti last weekend... not the most natural fit for this kind of salad, but at room temperature, it has a luxurious quality that certainly doesn't hurt.
When I was living in Germany many years ago, I was impressed at how big a full-scale German lunch was in contrast to relatively modest, mostly cold dinners. Granted, that's tradition: contemporary practice is all over the map. But many Germans still say they must eat "warm" for lunch and are perfectly content to have a simple evening meal of bread and cheese and sausage.
Sometimes I think it's better to eat that way... though I'm most in the mood to have a complete meal at dinner. I just don't feel comfortable taking two hours off of work to go make a nice lunch at home... in smaller towns in Germany, that was perfectly feasible.
But sometimes I just want to have something comforting and slightly refreshing.
Since I already had a big protein-rich lunch, some greens and cheese were perfectly in order. I didn't really have dinner until an insanely late 9:30 PM, so anything more elaborate would have probably been terribly overwhelming. This was just what I needed.
Last weekend, I made the medically unfortunate mistake of going to the Fremont Solstice Parade last Saturday with a not-quite-healed metatarsal. Even though I was mostly standing, wearing a supportive medical boot, and generally resting on my unbroken right foot, this wasn't so clever. I mostly succeeded in irritating my right knee, exacerbating the dull pain in my left foot into acute agony.
So I decided not to repeat that mistake by being all in-denial and active... I stayed domestic most of the weekend. I didn't even shave until 3pm on Sunday, though I owe that mostly to the fact that I ran out of shaving cream.
As a completely irrelevant aside, don't ever bother to use the shaving cream supplied in a little 5ml packet that comes from the shaving kits in hotels and ryokan in Japan. You only have this at all because you stash it in your luggage in case your tiny sample-size shaving cream suddenly runs out on your trip, and you completely forget about it until returning to the US, when it gets unceremoniously stashed somewhere in your medicine cabinet until, one day, you run out of shaving cream. Then, you discover that it's not really enough cream to do much good, and that, in terms of quality, it's just a slight step up from a moisturizing soap. Second, it smells almost exactly like a Band Aid.
So I was really craving something along the lines of a dinner roll, but I wanted something a bit more protein-dense than the average bread, I also thought it would be nice to have a nice stew, so I made a variation of the channa masala that I previously served with the besan roti.
I wanted just a hint of spice and I wanted something moist and reasonably soft, so I chose to use a little garam masala and some butter and milk in service of that ambiguously dinner-roll like quality that is easier experienced than described.
This is prepared like most yeast doughs: mix dry ingredients together except for the yeast, create a well, add the melted butter and milk with the yeast. Gradually incorporate the flour into the sponge by stirring along the outer edge of the well, until the dough comes together.
Kneaded until smooth but fairly sticky, the dough rises for a couple of hours before I divide it into into 12 rolls. I let the rolls have a second proof while the oven preheats to 425F on a cookie sheet, then I bake them until golden-brown, about 15 minutes. I test for doneness by tapping on the bottom of one of the rolls, making sure it sounds hollow.
They need to cool down and rest a few minutes, but can be served warm with butter and a nice stew or curry.
The outer exterior is still crisp, but the interior is moist and aromatic with hints of cumin, coriander, cloves and cinnamon. With a little bit of butter they're just rich enough to be eaten on their own, but they're also a perfect foil for a stew or daal.
Baby carrots, as we know them, are a clever innovation of industrial agriculture: Carefully milled down into unnaturally smooth specimens from big torpedo carrots, baby carrots might as well be kokeshi dolls.
So I wasn't sure what to think when I spotted some miniature zucchini at the supermarket last week.
Baby zucchini could be some sort of bizarre genetically manipulated factory agriculture monstrosity, for all I know. Since I found them at Whole Foods, though, I made the assumption that they are at least arguably natural, even if they did come in a sealed plastic bag. Every time I've seen home-gardened zucchini, though, they've been unnaturally large... I'm not sure what kinds of tricks make them stay small.
I took the zucchini home, not quite sure what I had in mind, but when I got home, I just wanted a simple side dish to accompany a couple of other things.
This dish required the least bit of attention, but it was the star of the show. It's made with some sauteed onions splashed with vermouth, and maybe a little garlic.
Sliced lengthwise, the zucchini were gently caramelized, flesh-side-down, in a little olive oil. I added the onions, fresh tomatoes, and a little additional tomato paste, the tomato paste would have been unnecessary with good tomatoes, but the fresh ones I had on hand weren't really that aromatic. A little fresh oregano wakes up the rest of the flavors.
I served this with a flavorful but very ugly savory custard. If I hadn't been eating something so rich along with it, I might have added a little shaved parmesan or some nice feta. I wanted something a bit lighter this time. Keeping things simple has its own charms...
These asparagus-like treats, sometimes called garlic sprouts, seem pervasive in the summertime in Seattle farmer's markets.
They apparently come from only a small number of varieties of garlic. I really like them, but I've found them slightly temperamental to cook: they seem to transform from slightly-too-hard to hopelessly mushy in mere seconds.
This time I managed to get the texture just about right.
When I'm giving them a more Japanese treatment, I tend to blanch them before using them, which helps keep the texture firm and the color brilliant.
This time, though, I simply sauteed the garlic stems of the scapes in olive oil with a generous pinch of salt, added some walnut pieces, and, toward the end of their time on the stove, I added the upper bulbs to the pan and poured in some vermouth. The bulbs take less time to cook than the rest of the vegetable, and tend to suffer the most from overcooking, so they should be cooked until just tender enough to enjoy.
I've bought garlic scapes in supermarkets in Japan, where they are called ninniku-me, but they are nearly always sold with the bulb cropped off. I think that's probably because the visual appeal has a longer shelf-life; the tips turn brown much earlier than the rest of the scapes.
Garlic scapes require only minimal seasoning: they are both an aromatic and a vegetable in one. If you take advantage of that attribute, you can have an excellent side dish on the table in just about three minutes...
One of the best things about the Seattle is the remarkably quirky character of its neighborhoods... Fremont is perhaps the quirkiest of all of them, and happens to be home for me. I'm increasingly partial to Ballard, but Fremont is the historic heart of Seattle's expressive streak.
The Fremont Solstice Parade is probably the only event in the entire country where political statements, ambiguously nature-worshipping themes, unashamedly contemporary art, well-decorated public nudity, unstructured individual expression, and family entertainment come together all in one place, while remaining mostly devoid of overbearing corporate sponsorship messaging.
If you ever find yourself in Seattle during the summer, you really owe it to yourself to come to the parade. There's nothing quite like it.
Inspired by a post from FXCuisine.com, I thought it would be fun to try making something approximating Napoli-style pizza fritta at home. It turns out to be delightfully simple, though, like most deep-fried foods, the logistics of making it at home are slightly awkward.
I usually reserve deep-frying for parties, since I don't really like committing to filling up my deep fryer unless a lot of people are going to enjoy the results. However, I also tend to stick to familiar, safe things when deep frying for a crowd... With a large group, I just don't want a fiasco.
Trying something completely unfamiliar creates a small dilemma... commit to using lots of oil, or risk a culinary disaster in front of a bunch of hungry friends and acquaintances.
Fortunately, the fryer I bought last year has a surprisingly decent filter, so I can reuse the oil a few times before it starts to take on any unpleasant flavors. This gives me a little more freedom to experiment, without leaving me with the un-frugal feeling that I'm wasting perfectly good cooking oil. On the other hand, it still means I'm consuming a high dose of fat all at once, which certainly can't be healthy.
Well, I can only live once. I got over the health thing... at least as far as this weekend is concerned.
Pizza fritta with onions
I made this twice, but I couldn't imagine eating more than one of these in a single day, especially after eating really heavily during the Fremont Fair on Saturday. The first version was made with little more than onions and cheese. I used a medium-firm cheese and coarsely chopped onions. I didn't want to have very wet ingredients in the pizza on the first attempt, since an explosion could get ugly.
The dough, a fairly moist yeast dough, needs to be rolled out into two thin, fairly identically-sized circles. I dust the dough and the counter with a fair amount of flour, and carefully put the filling atop one of the discs, leaving enough room on the outer edge to seal the dough shut. I slightly moisten the outer edge, place the second disc on top, and try to massage the edges together to form a good seal.
One critical detail that I overlooked: I didn't measure the diameter that my fryer could accommodate. I certainly had the presence of mind to realize I couldn't do the big 13" crusts I usually bake in the oven, but even with an eyeball approximation, my first attempt was still just a little too big for my equipment, so the edges folded over a bit.
Robiola due latti
My second variation, a more precise 6" pizza, featured robiola due latti, a very soft cheese made from a blend of sheep's and cow's milk cheese. This cheese is reminiscent of reblochon cheese... soft, creamy, and grassy, it was moderately ripe and had a slight pungency. I added finely chopped tomatoes, basil and garlic. I was a little more brave with the moisture content of the filling this time, since I knew I could do a reasonable job sealing even a fairly thin dough. This second version tasted much more interesting, thanks to the tomatoes, but the steam pressure was much higher, so the dough puffed up very dramatically. I was nervous that the dough might explode if there were any weak spots.
A heavier tomato sauce would probably reduce the water content a bit, and slightly reduce the steam pressure. But I really enjoyed this with fresh tomatoes, even though these are still early, not very flavorful hothouse tomatoes.
After frying I let the oil drain off the pizza and let it rest for a minute before cutting into quarters. The cheese would love to ooze out all over the place, so the short rest actually makes the pizza easier to serve intact.
Serve hot, but eat carefully... the cheese could give the heat of a volcano some competition.
Stuffed chilies, or chile relleno, are one of my favorite things in the world. They're typically cheese-laden and deep-fried in an egg meringue, and often drenched with a heavy sauce. All that fat is certainly part of the charm, but even a small serving is a serious caloric commitment.
It's not that I want to completely avoid the cheese, or even the pleasure of a creamy, spicy sauce. Sometimes I just want a less over-the-top indulgence.
So how does one apply a bit of restraint to a classic dish like chile relleno?
Chile Relleno reinterpreted
I originally thought I'd stuff these chilies with rice and cheese, but a slight change in plans required me to make a last-minute adjustment. I took advantage of some much faster-cooking couscous, which I splashed with some lime juice, tossed with some chopped mint and a little tomato puree, and mixed in a little soft chevre and a few pine nuts.
The chilies I flame-roasted until the skins turned black, and let them steam in a closed container to make the skin easier to peel. Finally, I carefully cut out the stem and seed the pepper. If I were frying these, I'd probably cut the chilies lengthwise and fold the walls so that they overlap, but in this case, I figured it would work better to fill the chilies from the top. They can be stuffed a little more aggressively than if I had to worry about things falling out in the fryer.
Once stuffed, I stuck the chilies in the oven to warm up for 10 or 15 minutes. While they were in the oven, I wanted to throw together a simple sauce that would provide some complexity and richness.
Since I was using a fairly mild chili, a pasilla, I wanted to bring up the heat a little bit, so I thought I'd do that with the help of the sauce. I soaked some dried chipotle, the slightly smoky, medium-spicy Mexican chilies, in hot water to soften up. When they were reasonably hydrated, I put them in a blender with some cream, a couple of sun-dried tomatoes, and a little garlic.
The sauce then just needs to be brought to a boil and simmered for a minute or two to thicken up.
Certainly not a low-fat creation, this variation just scales back the over-the-top excesses of the typical relleno, but it's creamy and flavorful and exciting.
There was one slight problem, however.
A little porcini
I had one last porcini mushroom left from my weekend shopping at the Pike Place Market, and I really needed to use it before it could get too dry. So I grilled it up and served the slices with the relleno... It certainly looks tasty, and it was, but it's a bit unfair to the porcini: The otherwise remarkable flavor of these pricy mushrooms was somewhat masked by the intense chipotle flavor of the cream sauce. In retrospect, I might have been better off just eating the porcini as a small plate with a mild salad. I suppose that some kind of spicier creations must be possible with porcini, but I think I'd be happier just having them on their own.
Perhaps I'm just getting older, but I'm finding that I'm often happier eating starters than I am having a big main dish... Sometimes I don't even get to the main dish. Tonight was one of those nights. I had enough energy to do a little preparation of a few simple things, but nothing required more than three or four ingredients.
Salted roasted ginko nuts
These ginnan, or ginko nuts, were simply soaked in water for a few minutes, doused in salt, and roasted until tender. It's probably better to gently crack these before cooking them, because they'll be easier to peel at the table. Since these were all for me, I cracked and peeled all of them at the table.
The flesh varies from yellow to greenish. As with peanuts, there's an intermediate brownish skin inside the hard outer shell. You'll generally want to discard that thinner skin, as it adds nothing to the flavor and may be unpleasantly bitter com.
Salted, roasted ginnan are one of those snacks that I can't resist ordering when I spot them on a menu in Japan. There's really not much to making them. But the gently yielding texture, the mild bitterness and the touch of salt makes them a remarkable accompaniment to dry beer, sake, or shochu. (I'll have to take the beer thing on faith... I'm more of a sake and shochu guy myself).
I wasn't having anything to drink with dinner tonight, but I'm still a sucker for this salty snack. They also happen to have a fairly plentiful protein content, without the heavy fat burden that most nuts have.
Roasted Tomatoes Stuffed with Cheese and Basil
Small tomatoes, slightly larger than cherry tomatoes, with some Seastack cheese and basil. Any cheese would do, but that was the creamiest cheese I had handy. Roasted for just a bit over 6 minutes at 425°F, the cheese just begins to melt and the tomatoes become a bit sweeter as the roasting process claims some of their water.
The tomatoes are served atop some curly endive. I would normally be inclined to dress the endive with a vinaigrette. Thanks to my urge to keep things simple, and because I already had a nice creamy cheese in the tomatoes to go with the greens, I just mixed them with a little citrus juice and a tiny sprinkling of salt, making something closer to an ancient Roman salad.
I baked these potato wedges with a couple of cloves of garlic and a knob of butter. They've been seasoned with a chili-cumin salt blend, and the garlic cloves gently roast in the butter, adding a subtle hint of garlic flavor without becoming overwhelming.
Grilled porcini with balsamic vinegar
I've taken some thick slices of porcini and pan-seared them in a little olive oil, sprinkled with salt. They're finished with a simple splash of cheap sake and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, which thickens up and coats the mushrooms beautifully. The slightly pine-like aroma still comes through, allowing the sauce to provide just enough complexity to wake up the natural flavors of the porcini.
I thought I might want some pasta or something to fill me up, but I was happy with just the addition of roasted spears of garlic shoots sprinkled with red pepper flakes and parmesan. Perhaps my breakfast and lunch were a bit too heavy today?
Though I've made some cake doughnuts from time to time, and I've made decent cake-based anko donuts, I really haven't spent much time trying to perfect the yeasted donut.
I'm not sure my waistline could handle me getting it right.
Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure my waistline couldn't even handle the number of trials required to approach getting it right.
Peach glazed donuts, not ready for prime time
After being sold on some great peaches at the Pike Place Market (not local, but very flavorful), I had an impulse to make something pastry-like. I thought I might be able to make a passable peach glaze.
A little lemon juice, a good peach, and a heavy hand with powdered sugar, and a little amaretto liqueur cooked into a glaze: It seemed like a good idea at the time. The flavor was nice, but it turned out not to make a very good glaze, most likely due to the excessive moisture in the peaches. The texture was very filling-like, or, if used as a glaze, more suitable for something like a Danish or Brioche-based pastry. Had I the foresight to make Berliner instead of donuts with holes, this might have been the perfect use of some good peaches.
My urge to be as natural as possible while minimizing the sugar content turned out to fight me with the donuts, as well. I relied on a German recipe for yeasted doughnuts that I've eyed for years in the back of a cookbook I bought ages ago, thinking that it would be far more likely to get the sugar balance close to my preference than most of the American recipes I've seen.
Donuts with cinnamon sugar and powdered sugar
I was right on that count, but the texture left something to be desired. The dough was a bit tough and excessively chewy. Even early on, working the dough was a bit of a fight. I should have followed my instinct and habit: normally, I don't precisely follow yeasted dough recipes, because the weather, the temperature of the water and other ingredients affect the moisture content. I always work in the flour until I get the texture I want, then add no more flour, even if the ratios don't quite match my usual recipe.
Next time around, I'm going to wing the dough recipe a bit, and probably create a much moister dough, kneaded a lot more gently. I still want to keep the sugar content low, but I might add another two or three teaspoons to see if it helps the texture. I also think I'm going to need to do a bit more research on glazes.
I've gotten busy the last couple of weeks... I was so tired after my day job on Wednesday that I ended up eating out with a friend downtown just to make my late return home a little more relaxing. Thursday I had my usual Japanese Meetup, and since this week is one of the three weeks of the Seattle International Film Festival, a few of us went to watch a Japanese film afterward.
This week I also learned that what I thought was just a severe foot sprain caused by my own clumsiness a few weeks ago also decidedly involved a couple of small fractures in my foot. That means that I'll be wearing a clunky medical support boot for another few weeks. The initial X-ray a couple weeks back was inconclusive, but it was so obvious even I could see it on the follow-up. Thanks to that, and thanks to some ambiguity on another one of my left foot's bones, I also had a CAT scan on Thursday, and I'll hear back sometime Monday if it's anything more severe or if I can just continue relying on the ugly boot.
Friday night I got home late, too, and tried to keep dinner simple. I wasn't in the mood for complications today, either; I did go to another Japanese film this morning, this time on my own. I was feeling a bit under the weather after doing some vegetable shopping at the Pike Place Market, so I just made a simple pasta dish, along with a side dish of baked egg with porcini mushrooms and vegetables.
One of my go-to pasta dishes when I'm being lazy is whatever pasta is on hand served with a simple tomato-basil cream sauce. It's completely unhealthy, but it's always satisfying: Butter, cream, garlic, concentrated tomato puree, parmesan, and a little salt make a nice sauce, especially when the final dish is served topped with chiffonade of basil and a little pepper.
Since such simple dishes only require a few minutes of attention, I didn't need to struggle much to get dinner on the table.
I'm keeping a low profile tonight... I hope to catch up on some long neglected things on my task list tomorrow.
Umeboshi (pickled Japanese apricots*) are an acquired taste, perhaps, but I grew to love them early on in my encounters with Japanese food.
They are the olives of Japanese cuisine.
They range from very salty and sour, to slightly sweet and sour. Some are tiny and some are huge.
I'm very fond of the flavor of sweeter, generally medium-sized varieties, but one look at the ingredient list of most hachimitsu umeboshi (honey umeboshi) or usu-jio (lightly salted) varieties makes my head spin. I appreciate receiving the better-tasting of those additive-heavy variants as gifts, because I can enjoy them as a gesture of kindness, but when my pocketbook is involved, I prefer to buy all-natural umeboshi with short ingredient lists.
Ume (Japanese apricots*) themselves are greenish, firm and incredibly tart when fresh. Thanks to the magic of red shiso, they transform into something very red as they cure. If you find very red umeboshi made without shiso, they likely have added food coloring. I usually like to umeboshi that come packed with pickled shiso leaves, because I'm as big a fan of shiso as I am of umeboshi.
Umeboshi larger than life
The beautiful umeboshi featured above is made with very good Wakayama ume, salt, and red shiso, along with some additional shiso just used in the brine. Wakayama is one of the most famous locations for ume, and I recall the ume trees all around Wakayama castle when I visited a friend in the capital city several years ago. Further west, I remember standing under blooming ume trees in Dazaifu, eating a candied strawberry, thinking that ume blossoms surely give cherry blossoms some serious competition.
Since this is an all-natural umeboshi, it's fairly salty... you'll generally want to eat one or two with rice and several nice side dishes. The other dishes can be assari (lightly seasoned), as the intense ume flavor will brighten up the whole meal if you nibble a little bit at a time.
* Ume are not plums. I promise. When you see them fresh, you can clearly see the telltale fuzz. Anzu-zake (apricot liqueur) has much of the flavor of umeshu (usually mistranslated as plum wine) with less acidity.
Long abused by the canned food industry, which has perfected the art of turning perfectly good beets into gelatinous salt licks, beets rarely get the attention they deserve. The best you can hope for, on average, is a nicely done borscht.
While I'm as big a borscht fan as anyone, I can only make it so often... I always end up with too much. I end up eating the borscht for days and days on end.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. But sometimes, I just crave a simple, refreshing dish to accompany the rest of my dinner.
I had some nice golden beets with their fresh greens still attached, so I decided to blanch the greens as a base for the beets themselves. My greens were full of mud and required multiple baths in cold water, but once washed, they require just about 15 seconds in boiling, salted water. The water should be about as salty as the ocean, much like you'd season water for perfect pasta.
Drain and shock the greens with ice water.
The beets themselves can be sliced with a mandoline, or with a knife, if your knife skills are more consistent than mine. I put them on a Silpat mat on a baking sheet and baked the slices until tender, but not mushy, at 350˚F (about 175˚C).Without an oven handy, I might carefully boil the beet slices instead.
Taste the beet greens to make sure they have enough salt for your taste. If you like, you might toss them with a little vinegar to counter the slight bitterness of the leaves; I didn't feel the need for that.
Arrange the blanched leaves on a plate with the cooked beets.
Gently simmer slices of garlic on low heat with way too much olive oil for at least 5 minutes... don't let the garlic brown. Pour the olive oil all over the arrangement. Don't worry about the fact that you are using so much oil; it's mostly used to transfer the garlic flavor onto the greens and the beet slices. Certainly you consume some of that, but much of the oil will simply rest on the bottom of the plate.
I topped this with some soft chevre and a drizzling of real balsamic vinegar, and some freshly ground black pepper. This particular chevre is made from delightfully grassy spring goat's milk, and comes from Port Madison Farm on Bainbridge Island.
Yakinasu (grilled eggplant) is one of those incredibly simple but irresistible dishes... I can't help but order it whenever I see it on an izakaya menu. Sometimes we've even bought it at department stores to take home, as when Hiromi and I ate at her parents' home during my last trip to Japan.
Ideally grilled over Japanese charcoal with a shichirin, yakinasu can also be prepared on an ordinary grill or with a small flame on a gas konro. I used to rely on the broiler feature of my stove, but that requires very careful monitoring to pull off successfully.
You can use either the long, skinny 5-6" nasubi (Japanese eggplant) for this, or the 2-3" roundish ones reminiscent of kyō-nasu (Kyoto eggplant), sometimes called Indian eggplant here in the U.S. The larger European-style eggplants common in the U.S. are probably too big for this.
The one important question to ask when preparing this: Skin on or skin off? I tend to prefer the variations which keep the skin, mostly because it looks more appealing, but you can get a slightly smokier flavor if you're willing to sacrifice it. If you do that, you grill or broil the eggplant on all sides until the skin is more or less blackened, then wrap up the eggplant in aluminum foil, or place it in an airtight container to steam the skin until it becomes easy to remove.
When you remove the skin, you might dress the eggplant with some katsuobushi and soy sauce, or some nerimiso (sweetened miso sauce). Since I'm vegetarian, I make the latter.
For the skin-on version, I typically score the skin on either side, first lengthwise, then about 30 degrees off axis. I've chosen to cut the eggplants in half before grilling, and I rubbed the flesh with a little salt. Each side is grilled gently until the flesh slightly softens. After a few minutes of rest, the eggplant becomes a bit more tender thanks to residual heat, so it's better not to overcook it.
This version is ideal with some freshly-grated ginger, chopped scallions and a little splash of Japanese soy sauce.
Beyond their slightly mustardy flavor, mizuna greens share some of the peppery character of arugula. I had a bit more mizuna with perhaps less than a day left in its usable lifespan, so I thought I really needed to find a way to make good use of it.
I still had some pizza dough retarded in the refrigerator from a few days ago, which can only hang on so much longer...
Pretty odd leftovers
Even better, I also had some buffalo mozzarella, already open, which also has only a little time left, and some aged, intense gouda-like cheese whose name I forget.
Oddly enough, I also had an ear of corn that needed attention.
Americans don't put corn on pizza.
Although the carefully constructed menu of an "American" pizza place near my dormitory in Marburg, Germany, whose signature "American pizzas" almost invariably included either corn or canned mandarin oranges, might make certain people think otherwise, Americans do not put corn on pizza.
I've seen corn on pizza menus in Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea, but Americans do not put corn on pizza. The only time I ever ate corn on pizza was when we had lunch delivered from Domino's Pizza when I was on a business trip to Hong Kong about 7 years ago. Because that lunch involved the dual tragedy of eating mediocre chain pizza inches from hundreds of other culinary treasures, pizza with corn did not make a good first impression.
Never again would I ever have pizza topped with corn, I thought.
And then I made a small exception.
Thursday night I was out at one of Seattle's very few izakaya, and our table had at least two butter-shōyu dishes: one with renkon, or lotus root, and one with lightly sauteed potato shreds only slightly different from a dish previously featured. One we didn't order, for whatever reason, was "corn butter"... so I made up for that tonight.
I scraped all the kernels off my corn cob with a knife and sauteed them in butter, later adding a splash of soy sauce.
Originally I was thinking this would just be a nice little side dish. And then I did something that I'm not, by nature, inclined to do.
I put the corn on the pizza.
The mizuna pesto, like most basil or arugula pestos, featured garlic, olive oil, and pine nuts. It served as an excellent base, though I think it would be even better from mizuna a day or two fresher. I still don't know what possessed me to add the corn, but its salty, buttery goodness was not harmed by its appearance on a crisp foundation of pizza... and the herbal notes from the pesto were surprisingly complementary.
Corn on a sweeter base, such as more conventional tomato sauce, still seems bizarre to me, but I'd do this one again.