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.
So I've been buried in things and mostly devoid of energy for a few months... sorry about that.
Life hasn't been all work... Hiromi and I made a little trip to DC a couple months ago to see a friend of hers, who cheers for the Washington Redskins. I came back just a few days later so that I could avoid taking extended vacation from work, and Hiromi stayed with her friend a few days longer. Unfortunately, at roughly the same time Hiromi was boarding the plane back to Seattle, I learned that my job at Zillow faced foreclosure, along with the jobs of about 35% of my colleagues. (The press release noted a 25% reduction, but that excluded a number of agency temporaries).
The economy is ugly, but apparently people with my background are still in strong demand. Phone calls started coming in the day the layoffs were announced, and I had my first offer about a week and a half later. My ambition was actually to switch to a more web development focused role, instead of remaining a Software Design Engineer in Test. But the manager for most promising lead for that went on vacation just as I started making progress on interviews, and I didn't quite feel comfortable waiting on that.
I ended up choosing between a Microsoft contract at a convenient location, and a contract-to-hire role at a luxury travel company. I chose the travel company because it seemed like a more interesting opportunity, though some of the details made me nervous... On the bright side, one of my ex-Zillow peers made the same decision, after struggling with some of the same things as me, so I was pleased to see a familiar face again.
The financial pain of the transition was pretty substantial, but I should be ok in a few months. Fortunately, Hiromi also found work as of today, so things should be smoother by March or so.
We've had the lofty ambition of moving to a nicer place since, well, before Hiromi even arrived. We've been torn between buying something minimalist with a tiny down payment from my now completely brutalized stock portfolio, and renting something a bit better than what we're in now.
After some disappointing tours of places all over the city, we were about ready to shelve our plans until sometime next year. Last week, Hiromi spotted a rental that looked like a potential fit on Hotpads.com, and we booked a showing Saturday morning. It turned out to be pretty close to what we were looking for, so, after five years in a cramped apartment meant to be a one-year experiment in extreme frugality during the early stages of my business, we're finally getting a little more space...
Our new home is a pretty, well-appointed side-by-side duplex in one of my favorite parts of Seattle, just a few blocks south of a cluster of nifty Madison Park restaurants. The kitchen has a really nice open layout, a nifty gas range, and somewhat luxurious fixtures, and will no longer isolate me from my guests when we're hosting dinner parties... There's also enough space to keep my YuzuMura.com stuff out of the way of the rest of my life.
Of course, the timing of our move isn't exactly the most convenient possible time... we'll be juggling an attempt to visit family in Idaho Falls for the holidays with packing too much stuff, loading and unloading a truck, and, well, work...
I don't think you can say you've truly confronted your own mortality until you've been buried alive in volcanically heated sand.
When Hiromi and I discussed our plans for this trip to Japan, I mentioned I'd like to go to an onsen in Kagoshima, but I am fairly certain I never suggested that we should go to the beach and have some late-middle-aged sadists bury us.
Vacations don't always go the way you envisioned them, of course. Yet, it's important not to be close your mind to possibilities outside of the realm of your narrow experience. And, I'd say partly thanks to the limitations of my Japanese ability, I barely understood what I was in for, so I only experienced a surmountable bit of trepidation.
We were at Ibusuki, Kagoshima. Sane people take an airplane here, but after years of building my Japan itineraries one to three weeks in roughly the same place, interrupted by one or two short side trips, Hiromi and I elected to get a rail pass and see Japan like we're tourists. We took a 6-7 hour train ride from Tokyo to Fukuoka last Thursday, where we focused primarily on eating and sleeping (Fukuoka has other things to recommend it, but is a fine location for both purposes), before continuing on to our potential demise several hours further south.
We arrived at Hotel Shusuien Friday night at 6:30. This particular ryokan has consistently won awards naming its food the best in Japan (18 years running) from a ryokan-focused magazine, which we only knew a few days after Hiromi chose it. More on that later; I'll I show off what we ate in a subsequent post.
The staff suggested we try out the sand baths, and offered to start our dinner at an unusually late 8 pm. Most ryokan are nearly ready turn in for the night by this time, so we were pleased with the option. Hiromi looked forward to a quick sunamushi bath.
I didn't quite understand what was going on, but I did learn that most people can only stand 10-15 minutes of whatever we were about to do, and that if we couldn't endure it, we should shake our hips a bit. She demonstrated.
If you've never seen a 70 year-old Japanese obaachan demonstrate shaking her hips in a ryokan uniform-style kimono, it's a gesture which implants itself disturbingly deep in your psyche.
So on to the burial.
We had changed into the hotel's yukata, so we were presented with zouri and were shuttled by car a short stretch away.
On arrival, we presented a coupon from our hotel, and were provided with another yukata, into which we were advised to change. We followed signs that led us out to the beach, where we discovered a number of people already in the mummified state.
Staffed by two 60-something interrers bearing wide shovels, the sand baths occupy a long strip of land 30 meters or so from the water. Each bath is wide enough to support about 4 persons abreast, and 2 lengthwise.
The female attendant briefly explained to Hiromi how to position herself. My height and clumsiness presented a few logistical challenges, so the male attendant spent a bit more time guiding me into just the right position. They dig out a spot roughly based on the size of their typical customers, but with a little finesse, it works for everyone.
Once positioned, we are quickly buried. The attendants alternately dig, then drop hot sand over us. Dressed in simple yukata, head partially covered by a small towel, we are fully clothed, but somehow more vulnerable than we would be in a regular onsen or sentou.
After about 60 seconds underneath a pile of hot sand, you feel piercing heat on your naked extremities, the hands and feet. The rest of your body notices little more than the weight of the sand covering you, save for a hint of steam. After two or three minutes, you start to become incredibly conscious of your heartbeat. Every thump of your heart pushes the sand an inch higher, and yet it hasn't moved at all.
Your breathing necessarily slows as some kind of survival mechanism, even though the first impulse is to breathe more heavily. The ribcage actually does move; if you look at the person next to you, you will see that the sand rises and crests rhythmically.
After five minutes or so, your face becomes covered in sweat, and deeply red. Perhaps you feel the urge to shake your hips.
Seven or eight minutes into the burial, you cease to fight the improbability of your circumstances, and you are strangely relaxed.
And yet, after 10-12 minutes, you feel a slight discomfort again, and your toes and fingers want to find their way to the surface. You shake your hips, just as the obaachan instructed.
First, your toes emerge, and the ocean breeze against newly exposed skin makes the heat bearable again. Then, your hands are free, and you gain just a bit more energy.
But, barring some irrational competitive urge, you will last no more than 15 minutes. Any more would be too close to cheating death. You find a way to rise out from the sand, somewhat zombie-like at first, until you realize that you are still a mortal entity and that yes, in spite of your yukata, the sand has indeed made its way into every crevice of your body imaginable.
You retire to the shower, where you spend more effort than customarily needed to wash yourself, and take a brief dip in the onsen bath before returning to the ryokan for dinner.
You feel inexplicably refreshed.
You are still alive, and you have an extravagant dinner awaiting you.
As a 6'3" tall American with a slightly larger than desirable waistline, there's one thing I've never been crazy enough to seriously undertake in Tokyo.
I've never gone shopping for clothing.
Sure, I've been in department stores, but usually in the food sections or the dinnerware and lacquerware sections. I've never been brave enough to look for clothing, on the assumption that sizes suitable for my frame would not be easy to find, and that prices would be stratospheric.
In desperation, I once bought a few pairs of socks in a department store in Seoul, but that's as close as I've gotten. (Note: if you have any antipathy toward being heavily branded, don't look for socks in Seoul).
In an attempt to be somewhat frugal for the last 8 months or so, I haven't bought any clothing. By "haven't bought any clothing," I mean precisely that: no socks, no shirts, no shoes, no service. Not once. Even my book-buying impulses had been mostly curtailed. My single pricy indulgence has been dining out for dinner once or twice a week.
The last time I bought any new clothing was when Hiromi was visiting in Vancouver, and I desperately needed a shirt to go with the suit that I had brought in anticipation of dinner at West.
The problem with not buying any clothing is that I had precisely two pairs of shorts suitable for use anywhere more public than the gym, and Tokyo is hot in August. Really hot. In Seattle, I can get buy on two pairs of shorts in the summer, as I tend to use them no more than twice a week.
So we went searching for shorts. I found some that looked decent at Muji, but the largest size available was, shall we say, snug. As soon as I lose 20 lbs or so, I can consider coming back.
Most other department store options we tried were similarly impossible, including outposts of Seattle brands like Columbia Sportswear and Kavu. "Extra-large" corresponded to a 34" waist. I've had a 34" waist, back when I considered myself reasonably skinny. But it's been a few years.
We did find one suitable pair of shorts at the department store, but it was nearly $80. With only about 4-6 weeks of "shorts weather" left when I return to Seattle, I balked a bit.
So finally, I did something else I've never considered. I looked for something at the Gap. For mostly irrational reasons, I've never been motivated to look for anything there.
XL here was actually the same as XL in US shops, so I managed to comfortably fit into three of four pairs of shorts that I tried. Sale pricing reduced the sticker shock considerably, and Japan's lower sales tax made the price roughly equivalent to what I'd expect to pay for similar items at home.
It's rather sad that I've come all this way only to find myself shopping at the Gap, but you do what you've got to do. Plus I did find some plain T-shirts and socks for a reasonable price at Muji, which I've been going through at twice the usual rate thanks to the warm weather, so I've stocked up a bit.
Hiromi planned lunch with a few friends at Yurakucho yesterday, so we went a little early and shopped a bit at the Wakayama specialty shop and an Okinawan store to pick up some umeboshi, awamori, and various snacks and treats.
After browsing shelves full of tofuyo, Hiromi was in the mood to eat something Ryukyuan, so it was a fortunate coincidence that our group stumbled on an Okinawan restaurant in a nearby department store building.
Indulging my vegetarian habit in Japan is essentially impossible, at least with any degree of rigidity. But Okinawan food is even trickier. (More impossible?)
With a heavy reliance on pork wherever an excuse can be made to use it, even a basic noodle dish is served with hefty portions of tender braised pork belly (buta no kaku ni). Hiromi orders Okinawan soba as part of a set meal, and discovers that Okinawan soba is somewhere between ramen and udon in texture, and is made entirely of wheat flour, with poetic license much like "chuuka soba" or "yakisoba."
The buta no kaku ni is lighter in color than the typical Japanese version, thanks largely to eithered reduced quantities or the complete absence of soy sauce.
Normally, making substitutions at lunch is impossible, as it severely messes with the kitchen's mojo during the business lunch hour. But we came a little after 1pm, and the restaurant said they'd be happy to cook something off the dinner menu if I couldn't find something suitable from the lunch menu.
So we ordered the closest things to vegetarian dishes we could find.
First up was nigana no shiro-ae, made with a bitter herb indigenous to Okinawa. Nigana is a somewhat ambiguous term in Japan, but in Okinawa it seems to refer to one local species of plant. I was expecting this to be more of a vegetable dish than a tofu dish, but considering the intensity of the flavor, the proportion of tofu to herb made sense.
I can't quite place the flavor, but it would be somewhat fair to compare it to arugula or maybe dandelion greens.
Another dish, recommended by one of Hiromi's friends, was a soft tofu dish called yuri-doufu, somewhere between oborodoufu and kinugoshi-doufu in texture. It's quite similar to Korean-style soon-dubu. The soup it's served with is far from vegetarian, but was mild in flavor.
I had another dish called hirayachi, an Okinawan-style pancake comparable to a the simplest Korean pajeon, but described in Japanese as "Okinawan okonomiyaki."
Unlike pajeon, the hirayachi I had did not contain scallions. The Okinawan dish is often made with nira, usually translated as garlic chives, an essential ingredient for making gyoza. I think there may have been a few pieces of tiny dried shrimp in the batter or maybe finely chopped kamaboko, and it's topped with katsuobushi, but I retain a sense of humor when dining out, especially in Japan.
The pancake is served with substantial portion of a mild soy-based dipping sauce, much less salty than the typical Korean equivalent. It's very simple, and since it's so thin, it probably just takes a few minutes to cook, but I like it.
We lingered long enough that it was already coffee hour when we finished, so we stopped and had some espresso-based drinks at some concept chain from the Illy brand. I ordered some odd (but actually nice) stuffed marshmallow concoctions, one made with tomato jam and the other flavored with coffee, as a little sweet thing.
So my laptop hard drive has been complaining about little problems from time to time, and I decided to run a scanning and repair tool that came with my Dell (the Symantec equivalent of Chkdsk) on Sunday.
When I got home from a friend's birthday party across Puget Sound in Kingston, I saw that the appropriate magic had happened and I tried rebooting.
Thanks to a late night call with a Dell tech support person I deleted my primary partition, losing a number of nice food photos and a few semi-important documents, along with some pet software projects that I haven't recently backed up. I don't think the losses were tragic, but they are disappointing nonetheless.
Dell sent out a replacement hard drive, but we were cutting it really close... Hiromi and I were leaving for Japan on Tuesday. It was destined to come via overnight service, but we wouldn't know if it would arrive before we had to leave.
I managed to bring my machine up to a semi-usable state, went to bed around 2am, and had a suitably restless night.
I think I had a similar fiasco a few years back just before an international trip, and about 7. I seem to be very hard on my machines.
Anyway, just minutes before we absolutely had to call a cab in order to get us to the airport on time, DHL stopped by. I was lucky I was able to get things semi-working without the new drive, because I wasn't looking forward to spending the first day or two of the trip installing software. I decided to chance the hard drive melting down more permanently, and left the replacement equipment behind.
We're in Tokyo now, and I rented a cell phone through Docomo. We thought I'd be able to get a local SIM card for my nifty new iPhone 3g, but Softbank's rental counter had a little apologetic sign in Japanese indicating that this wasn't an option right now. Apparently their web site had jumped the gun, or they had some problems, or they just don't want the support headaches yet.
The rental rates seem to have gone up. I had been getting nice 250 yen/day rates from Softbank on recent trips, but their best deal today was 525 yen/day. I caved in and got the cheapest domestic-only phone plan from Softbank at 300 yen/day, since Hiromi has her Japanese cell phone service still and we'll mostly be together on this trip, except when we're not.
I'm a bit tired. It's hot, but not as bad as I had expected, yet. I've always done my best to avoid summer in Japan, except for a brief business trip about 7 or 8 years ago. It's steamy, but it doesn't feel too hot right now. Even so, I think I need a shower.
Hiromi made it safely to Seattle last Tuesday. I managed to stay away from the office all day, though I did a little bit of work during Hiromi's inevitable afternoon crash.
Though I arguably had time to do something more elaborate, we kept it simple, mostly due to the warm weather Seattle's had the good fortune to encounter for the last few weeks.
Grapefruit segments, red onion, soft chevre
We wanted something refreshing, so I segmented some nice ruby red grapefruit, sliced a little red onion, and sprinkled on a touch of salt. With a little drizzle of good olive oil, some freshly ground pepper, and a few dabs of soft chevre, this is perfect for a warm summer night. If it weren't so much work to segment a grapefruit, it would be almost no effort at all.
Stuffed eggplant with farro
In spite of the warm weather, I did turn on the oven. Both Hiromi and I have a weakness for stuffed eggplant, so I make variations on the theme on a regular basis when eggplant is in season.
When I make stuffed eggplant as a main dish, I typically use rice, but this time I elected to make it with farro, a nutty variant of spelt. It was gently seasoned with fresh rosemary, but works well even when the rosemary is more assertive.
This version is made with that same soft chevre along with some mozzarella, but I like almost any kind of goat cheese along with a mellow cheese that readily melts.
I've managed to keep us incredibly busy most of Hiromi's first week, but we actually have part of the upcoming weekend free, which is absolutely shocking. Somehow, I doubt the nice holes in our schedules will last...
Hiromi is finally due to arrive in Seattle on Tuesday. It would probably be smart to get the small errands done that I have fallen behind on, but I've only made a small dent. I've got a rather long list.
I have to pick Hiromi up at the airport, which is likely to take longer than usual thanks to the extra time involved in processing her visa. I'm still debating whether to take the whole day off from my day job on Tuesday or just skip out for the morning.
This week is sure to be busy, as we have a full dance card almost as soon as she arrives. I'm hoping to have a day to relax sometime in the next month.
Our travel plans have firmed up. We'll be in Japan from August 13 to 28th. We have to be in Tokyo from the evening of August 17 to August 20th (though we might be able to make a little day trip on the 19th).
I'm hoping we'll head up north, though I'm not sure how far north, between August 14 and 17th. From the 20th-28th, we have no pressing obligations, so I want to find some way to go as far west as Kagoshima, maybe spend a little time in onsen. If possible, I'd like to stop in Karatsu and Hagi. Hiromi's got her eye on Takamatsu to see a friend, and I think Fukuoka might have been on her list as well.
I usually avoid the JR Pass these days, but this is the first time Hiromi will be eligible to use one, so we're going to be crazy and do the complete opposite of the style of travel I've been accustomed to.
Normally, I prefer to make a couple of small trips and not spend too much time in transit. But every once in a while, the whirlwind tour has its place... And I haven't been further west than the Kansai region in about 6 or 7 years, so it'll be nice to get to the other side.
Yes, I know I'm a slacker and all that. I promise I'll be somewhat motivated to write more in the near future. I might even cover something more interesting than the frustrations of navigating the US immigration system, like food.
I do have some good news, though it throws a wrinkle in my budget for the next several months. Hiromi got an interview date for her permanent resident visa at the Tokyo embassy.
It turns out that it's on her birthday, August 18.
She didn't want to be separated on either our anniversary or her birthday, so it looks like I'll be making a short trip to Japan in mid-August.
Ouch. Mid-August. That's going to hurt in at least two ways.
The average daily high temperature in Tokyo during the month of August is 87F (courtesy Weather.com), and it generally doesn't cool down below 75F at night. It's also incredibly humid.
The last time I visited Japan during the summer, it was late July, and my very light summer shirts soaked all the way through with sweat just minutes after going outdoors. You should have seen me walking through Kamakura...
Needless to say, for the last 7 years, I've avoided revisiting Tokyo in summer.
The other source of pain is this: mid-August is Obon season. Flights will likely be quite expensive, as will almost all over our lodging and travel. That's not even considering the impact of massive fuel surcharges and fee increases on airfare that have hit hard this year.
Hiromi has been tentatively planning to come to Seattle mid-July, as she does have a perfectly adequate spouse visa, and she also has some plans in Dallas for late July. As I've mentioned before, we wanted the most expeditious way of getting permanent resident status. Barring any disastrous complications, we should be able to quickly move on to the next steps, like finding Hiromi a job (anyone in Seattle need an experienced localization/globalization tester or PHP/Rails hacker starting in late August?), and moving out of my very confining Fremont apartment.
As of last night, Hiromi tells me she got her passport back from the embassy with her K-3 visa, which allows her to enter the US painlessly.
Of course, as usual, there are some complications. Hiromi's work obligations, a friend's wedding, and incredibly high airfare mean that she'll not actually depart for Seattle until sometime in July... While her visa allows her to go back and forth, coming in June, then making a special trip back to Japan in early July seemed financially not so prudent. Right now, all the "cheap" tickets cost around $1200.
I miss being able to find $515 round trip tickets, taxes included, from Seattle to Tokyo.
We've elected to have the interview for the actual immigrant visa in Tokyo, so, unless the National Visa Center moves at light speed, there's a good chance she'll have to make a trip back to Japan sometime after July. The other option would be to do an "adjustment of status" in the US, which is somewhat more expensive and arguably more convenient, but we won't be able to start that process until she arrives in Seattle. That means it would be at least October before she'd have work permission. It also assumes that US Customs and Immigration Service moves at something approximating reasonable speed.
After almost 5 years together, it's hard to imagine that we were once just coworkers in different offices, 4800 miles apart, and knew each other mostly from email, bug reports, and one or two lunches during business trips.
In a few months, we'll be hunting for a new place to live, finally. After 4.5 years in the tiny apartment I choose only because it was "good enough" and cheap enough in anticipation of starting a new business, I'm looking forward to finding a place where we can comfortably entertain dinner guests more often. I thought I'd be in that place for a year or two. So much for temporary.
I'm glad the wait is almost over. Just a few more hurdles...
Trying to be clever sometimes gets me into trouble.
I was planning to make a soup this week. I thought it would be a good idea to cook some black-eyed peas one night ahead of time, so that I'd be able to eat dinner at a reasonable hour when I went to prepare the soup the next evening.
I didn't soak the beans earlier in the day, so I pulled out my 70s-era slow cooker after dinner, and let it do its thing. Clever, yes?
Just before bedtime, I went to check on the peas. Disaster had struck.
The peas were way overcooked. The soup I had in mind was not based on a puree. Of course, I didn't want to let the effort, or the food, go to waste.
A small disaster, yes, but I was disappointed. I lose interest in hearty soups the moment warm weather takes hold in Seattle, and there's not much time left before that happens (he says hopefully).
A rescue operation was in order.
I remembered having a sort of black-eyed pea hoppin' john (or is that johnnycake?) at Seattle's Kingfish Cafe several years ago, and then I thought that these overcooked beans might have a second chance at life. Not being a Southerner, in spite of a couple of years living in Knoxville, TN as a teenager, I'm not the right person to ask how to make the "real" thing, but I ground up a bunch of cumin, a little coriander seed, and even a touch of dried gobo (burdock root), only the first of which is terribly likely in any Southern version of this dish.
Although the beans were already pretty well mashed on their own, I used a fork on a little over half of the beans to make them a little more likely to hold together, and then worked in a couple of eggs, some panko, the spices, and salt.
The only kind of cornmeal I have around is instant masa, so I went ahead and used regular flour (an early experiment with the masa wasn't promising). I formed the bean mixture into patties, dusted each patty with the flour, and placed them one-by-one in an hot cast-iron pan. I used plenty of oil, more than coating the bottom of the pan, but not so much that the patties would be floating in it.
The patties are cooked until just a bit beyond golden brown.
To serve, I mixed up some harissa, a chili and garlic mixture with cumin, coriander, and a bit of olive oil, with some prepared mayonnaise. This went on each patty rather artlessly, as my squeeze bottle's tip fractured, leaving me to resort to a spoon. A little parsley made it almost look pretty.
From a near fiasco, I had a very high protein, fairly flavorful dish, built from the humblest of ingredients. Sometimes failure is rewarding.
I thought it would be nice to do breakfast at home this morning, so I decided to give them a try. All I did was put out a couple on a sandwiched aluminum cookie sheet last night, then I woke up, preheated the oven, and baked them for a little under 20 minutes. They reminded me of the quality of croissants I found at average chain bakeries in Tokyo, which is pretty good. If I walked down the street to one of the coffee shops in my neighborhood, I'd have croissants with no crunch, a victim of transport... they resemble dinner rolls more than croissants, even though they come from a reasonably decent bakery.
The Trader Joe's version were also just the right size... I usually want two pastries just for variety's sake, but in the typical portion sizes in the U.S. that's a prescription for a heart attack, or at least some substantial weight gain. These ones work out to be 150 kCal a piece, assuming you don't slather too much in the way of toppings on them. I ate two with some kaya custard, so it wasn't exactly diet food, but I should live to see tomorrow.
Cafe Besalu is an occasional (frequent?) weekend indulgence for me, and their laminated pastries are hard to beat, but there's something to be said for being able to eat freshly baked croissants in your bathrobe.
Even though I like eating well on my own, I tend to keep breakfast and brunch rather basic, so I thought it would be good to have some more good stuff that required little work.
I had half a grapefruit from Harbor Island Citrus in Florida, which I picked up at Sosio's. These grapefruits were labeled in Japanese with the phrase 「糖度センサー使用」, which means that they are sugar-tested with a brix sensor (yours for just $3000, or $9000 if you want the melon-testing model). They're sweet, but also incredibly full-flavored. Thanks to the label, I discovered that this grapefruit is exported to and sold in Japan (at least online), and are actually fairly reasonably priced... not much different than I paid, and slightly cheaper in quantity.
The season's pretty short, so I bought a couple more this weekend, just in case it's my last chance. They might have them for another week at Sosio's downtown; I was told that there are only about 40-50 cases left in the country.
I also had a sunny-side up egg with truffle salt, making a simple but luxurious breakfast. Sometimes it's good to stay home.
Variations of baked chevre always haunt me. Deceptively basic, this dish really only needs a little chevre and some tomato sauce, and some fresh bread or maybe toast. And yet, I continue to succeed in finding new ways of botching a good thing.
What do I do wrong? Well, I occasionally get wistful for a dish of baked eggs, which I enjoyed once at brunch on a trip to Orcas Island. Some self-defeating part of me wants it to be possible to combine baked eggs with baked chevre. Every time I attempt that, the eggs end up being a gelatinous monstrosity. I do like the slightly gelatinous hanjuku tamago, or not-quite-hard, not-quite soft boiled eggs, but that's not at all what I end up with, in spite of valiant attempts. As soon as the egg white turns opaque and reasonably solid in the tomato sauce, the yolks are nearly inedible.
I've decided that trying to do both at the same time is a losing proposition.
So this time, I reverted to the basics. The only particularly creative touch I took this time around was adding some freshly peeled fava beans to the tomato sauce.
Did this result in disaster?
Thankfully, no. Fava beans are almost as frighteningly easy to overcook as eggs, but somehow they survived a bit more than ten minutes in the oven. Their texture remained firm, as the oven's radiant heat concentrated their signature spring flavor.
I served the baked chevre with slices of some excellent pumpernickel bread from Tall Grass Bakery.
Maybe my dreams of baked eggs and chevre will never be realized, but now I have something else to tempt me.
As a small child, I already had vegetarian leanings, and generally refused red meat. Then, one night, my parents and I went out to dinner at their favorite nearby "fancy" restaurant, a Black Angus, where, without warning or provocation, I placed my order for prime rib.
The waitress was taken aback, as that was a pricey cut of meat for a 3 or 4 year old in the 7 Especially at a restaurant. She checked with my parents, who said "if that's what he wants, give it to him." My mother was surprised and, apparently, somewhat relieved, and she figured it was best to indulge me on a rare occasion when I was willing to entertain the idea of eating meat. Even if that meant that I was condemned to have expensive taste for the rest of my life.
While I did eschew meat, I still hadn't overcome the typical childhood fear of salads and bitter greens. During the same period that I was refusing red meat, I was equally hostile to eating salad, even though the standard salad in the 70s was a mound of nearly flavorless iceberg lettuce drenched in about a pound of Thousand Island dressing. Reportedly, my reaction to being served salad (quite possibly with that very same steak) was to say, "I can't eat that, it might kill me!"
In retrospect, maybe I was on to something. Although I warmed to that style of salad in my junior high school and high school years, it only took a couple years beyond that before I couldn't imagine a salad with anything less flavorful than romaine, nor any dressing poured heavily enough to resemble a lettuce soup. And I now generally reserve Thousand Island dressing for its divinely intended purpose: as a sauce for french fries.
Artery-clogging quantities of mayonnaise do not belong in something ostensibly healthy; they belong right out in the open, served with something you expect to be bad for you*.
So what does steak and expensive taste have to do with kale? Well, a little bundle of kale in the supermarket runs over $3, which is probably more than a pound of prime rib would have cost in the supermarket during the 1970s. That's about three times the price of spinach. (Or maybe not... spinach has been expensive of late, too).
How interesting that kale, a much feared vegetable by even reasonably adventurous cooks, is nearly a luxury item.
And yet, treated reasonably well, kale is a remarkably flavorful and pleasing green. Most of the hard work of washing the kale is done for you, at least as far as I've seen; I still give the greens a bath in a big bowl of water and let any sediment settle to the bottom. I separate the tender leaves from the sturdiest parts of the ribs by ripping the leaves along either side of the rib.
Then I usually do a quick braise with good, gently heated olive oil, garlic, a little bit of flavorful vinegar or a squeeze of lemon juice, and sometimes some wine. This time, I actually started with quick-sauteed onions, cooked down the kale a bit, and added a heavy splash of red wine and a little lemon juice, along with some sliced, toasted almonds. I added just enough salt to bring out the flavor of the greens, and to let everything cook for a few minutes to let the wine and kale come together.
Kale is certainly more bitter than spinach, but it stands up to longer periods of cooking than spinach tolerates, allowing for more intensely flavored creations. The red wine-olive oil combination creates a beady, tangy sauce, brightened up by the acidity of the lemon. The almonds add a little textural contrast, though they'd be more flavorful if freshly toasted and used as a garnish.
Along with a few other plates of more substantial fare, the kale adds a massive boost of Vitamin A and other nutrients, but my fork keeps wandering back to this plate for the flavor.
And it won't kill me.
* I reserve the right to inconsistency when you later catch me eating copious quantities of my homemade citrusy mayonnaise with theoretically healthy artichokes.
Cauliflower soup may look homely, but the most minimalist preparation of roasted cauliflower can still make heads turn.
Roasted cauliflower became trendy a few years back, and I fell in love with it long ago. In my kitchen, it's become such a common fixture at when I bring home cauliflower that I never give it much thought.
It's certainly fun to play with the basic ingredients. Sometimes I add a few pine nuts in the last few minutes of baking; maybe a splash of wine and a few currants; perhaps some herbs.
But roasted cauliflower is equally satisfying at its simplest. I usually slice the head of cauliflower or break it into florets, then I do little more than add a generous sprinkling of olive oil and salt.
This time, I used some Korean bamboo salt and a little bit of Spanish paprika. The bamboo salt that I used has a small amount of a Korean herb incorporated into the blend, but the flavor is very subtle, if it's recognizable at all. The Spanish paprika adds a pleasingly smoky quality and a sweet aroma.
Roasted at 375F until golden, the cauliflower requires little attention. I usually flip over the florets once or twice, usually after each 15-20 minutes in the oven. I usually bake it somewhere around 40 minutes in total, sometimes a little longer. Most vegetables don't hold up to long periods of cooking, but cauliflower is an exception.
The best thing about roasted cauliflower is that it only takes two or three minutes to prepare, and you can let the oven do the hard work while you're preparing the rest of the night's dinner.
When the cauliflower is finished, it becomes soft and inexplicably sweet. You can serve it naked, like I did, or, if that's not exciting enough for you, it goes nicely with a little tsatziki or aioli.
Although bell peppers are available year-round, they're really a summertime thing. But bell peppers have been a bit cheaper than typical for this time of year, and I've noticed a few good deals. So I threw seasonality to the wind and brought a few home.
When I have bell peppers around, the first thing that occurs to me is to roast them, which brings out an incomparable sweetness. I can eat them with nothing more than a sprinkle of salt, and I can make them disappear like candy.
With just one or two peppers, I typically roast them on my little tabletop gas konro which I bought to enable nabe-making, but starting at about 3 bell peppers, it's far more efficient to stick them under the broiler in the oven. The only problem is that, when the skin finally blackens under my broiler, the peppers are more than fully cooked, and they become mushy and undesirable by the time I get to eat them.
As a result, when using the oven, I now halve the peppers, and I only roast them until about 1/3 of the skin has turned black. Then I place them in an airtight storage container for 15 or 20 minutes to let the skins loosen up and the flesh cool down enough to handle.
With this method, the peppers get just enough caramelization to have all the desirable flavor, without turning into a near-puree. The downside is that the skin is a bit harder to peel than when the skin is fully blackened.
This time, I picked up one yellow, one orange and one red pepper, so I thought I'd turn them into a simple and colorful salad.
After I finished roasting and peeling the peppers, I sprinkled a little salt and olive oil on them, and mixed in some broken cheese curds I had picked up the same day at Beecher's. Because the roasted peppers are so flavorful, no special seasoning is needed, but some fresh basil or shiso might be a nice addition.
This spring, Seattle has frequently been visited by unwelcome blustery, unpredictable spring weather, punctuated by misleadingly clear and balmy days that invite unfortunate delusions... During such moments, Seattlelites indulge vivid fantasies of leisurely walks around Greenlake that won't be interrupted by a sudden downpour, only to be disappointed by the harsh reality of rapidly encroaching storm-clouds after hours of deceptive partly sunny skies.
And those of us who are fooled, as all Northwesterners want to be, find ourselves shivering and craving the comforts of winter.
Even if it is April.
I gently roasted golden cauliflower in the oven, knowing that the next unseasonably cold day could strike as soon as tomorrow. I prepared a dark blonde roux of butter and flour, stirred in minced onions and garlic, then worked in some milk and soup stock. I realized that I needed a bit more liquid, so I called to duty a bottle of stale beer left since I last entertained people who, unlike myself, like to drink hoppy fermented beverages. I added some ground mustard and celery seeds.
I took some cannellini beans cooked overnight in a slow cooker and pureed them in a blender, added them to the stockpot. After things simmered for a while, I incorporated the roasted cauliflower, and ultimately added plenty of sharp white cheddar.
White cheddar. Yes. Like the partly sunny skies of spring in Seattle, the yellow color of this soup is, in fact, a deception.
I was not pleased when my lovely smelling soup took on an unpleasantly beige color, likely thanks to the perhaps-too-dark roux and the white beans.
So I improvised, as one does.
I have a plentiful supply of annatto seeds, which are, in fact, the same source of coloring used in the aggressively orange cheddar sold in massive loaves at most supermarkets.
I cooked a fair tablespoon in a heavy dose of oil on medium-low heat, until the sizzling annatto seeds produced a pleasing aroma and colored the oil.I strained the oil and incorporated it into the pot of soup, and the color became... well... eerily orange. But I suppose that's better than beige.
On this first serving of the soup, I drizzled a bit of argan oil onto the surface of the soup. This proved to be wholely unnecessary, as the soup had sufficient depth of flavor that the nutty aroma was merely a slightly expensive distraction. When I brought the leftover soup to work for lunch, I didn't even consider such pointless additions. The freshly ground pepper, on the other hand, was far more well-considered.
The cheddar and beer provided a well-balanced complexity, and the white beans contributed plenty of protein and fiber. The soup had just a hint of the onions and garlic, which added body and aroma without dominating the flavor.
I served the soup with a whole-wheat breadstick, whose dough I prepared the night before serving the soup. I retarded the yeast dough overnight in the refrigerator, and let it rise in a cool kitchen while I was at work. When I got home, I turned on the oven, formed several long cylinders from the dough, and brushed each with a bit of milk. (An egg wash would have worked equally well). I rolled each breadstick in plenty of poppy seeds, and baked them at 425°F about 15-20 minutes, until they were crisp and golden outside and reasonably moist inside.
Although I have a weakness for ravioli, tortellini, and other stuffed pastas, the prototype of stuffed pasta, gnocchi, is really the stuff of my dreams.
It's alluring because, without any special equipment, one can quickly pull together a decent result, even on a weeknight, so long as only one or two people are eating. But the perfect gnocchi is often elusive: nearly melt in your mouth, proper gnocchi must still have enough texture to hold together, and should not be dense, uneven, or hard in the center. But circumstances sometimes conspire against us.
While I'm inclined to reserve the most attention for clever variations such as kabocha gnocchi, the simplest and most basic version, built on little more than hot, riced potatoes, an egg yolk or two, and flour, is everything I really could ask for. Sometimes I add a bit of salt to the dough, and sometimes I salt only the water for boiling.
This time, the gnocchi alchemy worked out in my favor, and I got almost exactly the texture I wanted.
In spite of the unavailability of decent tomatoes this time of year, I had an uncontrollable craving for some form of tomato sauce. A decent variety of canned tomatoes came to the rescue. I made a thyme-heavy sauce with onions and garlic. I wanted something a little more substantial, though, so I worked in some nice black kale and ordinary crimini mushrooms.
I made enough to have leftovers for lunch at work the next day, and my lunchbox version also featured the addition of small balls of mozzarella, which I actually meant to be part of this dinner, too, but, you know, I'm occasionally a little forgetful.
Over the last 5 months or so, I've been stepping up my exercise routine. The last couple of years working in software during the day have been particularly bad for my waistline, and a broken foot last year kept me away from the gym for several months. My newer office is inches from dozens of cheap, massive-portion quick-service lunch joints, and for most of my return to software I've just not been exercising as much as I used to. It's a dangerous combination.
A long time ago, I had an ugly knee injury from running, and I never quite got back to normal. Every time I tried running more than about 3 miles, the pain would come back.
While Hiromi was staying with me in Seattle, both of my knees started acting up, inflamed by little more than walking. My usual standby of walking long distances, either out and about or on the treadmill, just became too painful to handle.
In November I realized that my avoidance of exercise was unsustainable, and I started hunting around the gym for something that wouldn't be murder on my knees. I found most of the cycling machines boring, and elliptical striding machines were more stressful on my knees than running, so things seemed hopeless. Then I stumbled on the Concept2 rowing machine, and everything started to click.
For the last few weeks, I've been focusing on strength training, but I'm really glad to have found a cardiovascular exercise that doesn't punish my knees.
My routine since November has kept me in the gym 4 or 5 nights a week, and I get home pretty late on weeknights. I usually manage to eat a reasonable dinner, though I'm not usually finished cooking until around 9:30 pm.
Weekends are more complicated. Somehow I often end up eating irregularly, and my appetite strikes at the most inconvenient moments.
Last Sunday, I got an after-dinner craving, so I went straight for my go-to snack: popcorn. Often I toss a little truffle salt and melted butter on it, but I have another favorite: nori-shio popcorn.
I stole the idea from a microwave popcorn product that comes from Hawaii, and the nori-shio potato chips popular in Japan. That brand of microwave popcorn is crazy expensive in Seattle, so I started making it on my own.
It's easy enough to make popcorn on the stovetop with a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan; I just heat a little oil on medium heat, add a few tablespoons of popcorn to the bottom, and shake occasionally as the kernels heat up. When popping starts to slow down, I turn off the heat and wait for the last few popping sounds.
Most of the time, I use a mortar and pestle to grind up prepared nori furikake, which I buy at Uwajimaya in Seattle. If I don't have that, I sometimes mix up aonori, sesame seeds, salt, and a bit of sugar, and work that into a fine powder with the mortar and pestle or a spice grinder.
I toss the cooked popcorn and the nori blend in a big bowl. Sometimes, there's not quite enough oil to get the furikake mix to stick to the popcorn, so I might spray or drizzle a little more oil onto the popcorn, which usually helps a bit.
Nori, sesame and salt get along with popcorn swimmingly, so this is one of my favorite snacks.
Coming home from the gym tonight, I read an email on my cell phone announcing that my petition for Hiromi to come to the U.S. has finally been approved.
It's a relief. It really only means that we've started round three of the waiting game, as the next layer of bureaucracy enters the picture. But the most grueling, time consuming part of this process is now over.
It's been 208 days since I filed the petition. We spent about 3 weeks after our minimalist wedding gathering documents, filling out forms, correcting forms, mailing them back and forth, reviewing them with my attorney and an immigration paralegal, and accumulating a small fortune in legal bills and government fees.
The approval means that we now wait again... in about a week, we should be assigned a visa number after the National Visa Center receives the petition, which will be forwarded to the consular service at Tokyo embassy. Sometime after that, Hiromi will receive a new stack of paperwork to fill out, and I expect I'll have to assemble a bunch of financial documents as well.
If we're lucky, within a month after the documents are sent off, Hiromi will get an appointment for a medical exam and an interview.
I'm not sure yet, but there's a reasonable chance Hiromi will be able to come to Seattle by late May.
Maybe I'll finally be able to concentrate during the daytime again...
OK, chanterelle season is more than over. What can I say? I've been busy.
I made this back in December, so you'll probably need to make something slightly different. Maybe you can substitute some hedgehogs or skip the mushrooms if something suitably foresty isn't available.
All I can say is that this worked. I blanched thinly-sliced golden beets, followed by the beet greens. Then, I dry-fried chanterelles with a bit of salt and fresh dill, feeding them some butter after most of the liquid had boiled off.
I put these on a pizza dough base brushed with olive-oil and garlic. The cheese included a little orange-fennel soft goat cheese and mozzarella.
When the pizza was finished baking, I hit it generously with more fresh dill.
It's not Italian, but it works. I particularly liked the little hints of orange aroma coming from the cheese, but I think other soft chevre would add a nice brightness that would balance out the earthy foundation.