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.
I love rapini, the bitter Italian turnip green sometimes called broccoli rabe. Hiromi compares it to nanohana, a similarly bitter green of the rapeseed plant that’s easier to find in Japan. Both are members of the big brassica family, and, as the “rap” in each word suggests, they’re closely enough related that one could easily be confused for the other.
But in spite of my affection for this vegetable, I’m the first to admit that, thanks to its bitterness, rapini is a tricky vegetable to work with. A few months ago, I made the mistake of trying to put together a stew-like preparation with lentils and briefly blanched rapini. The combination was so overwhelmingly astringent that nothing could save it, including some biscuits that I thought would provide enough contrast to balance out the greens. I made it for a party, in prodigious quantity, so it was kind of embarrassing. Even though many people did their best to eat a few bites, I knew it took more than a little effort to tolerate.
I know Italians often soften the bitterness by cooking this vegetable with some fatty sausage, but as a vegetarian, I needed to find some other option. I thought some soft cheese might do the trick.
First I cooked some shallots in a serious dose of good Vermont butter.
I chopped the rapini and, near the end of the pasta’s cooking time, tossed it into the pan. Like most mustard relatives, the longer you cook this green, the more pungent it becomes, so it’s important to avoid cooking it too long.
I added the greens to the pan and tossed them around a bit with some Spanish paprika. Over the last year or so, I’ve developed an incredible weakness for Spanish paprika, thanks to its smoky aroma and deep flavor. It adds just the right kind of complexity to stand up to the assertive greens. No salsiccia required.
I worked in a healthy quantity of soft chèvre after the rabe was nicely coated with the butter and slightly wilted.
I didn’t bother to wait until the chèvremelted before tossing the ingredients with the pasta. While I stirred everything together, the cheese and everything else developed into a much more uniform sauce. With just a few seconds to go, I threw in a few halved tomatoes. After a few shakes in the pan and some seasoning adjustments, I called it done.
The result? Just what we were after. The bitter greens still held their own, but the chèvre and the pasta provided enough contrast that it was no struggle to enjoy the dish. The smoked paprika brought everything together, and contributed a really irresistable aroma. The penne itself I could take or leave; I would probably have been happier with a ridged version (penne rigate), but I used what I had in the larder. Some fresh fettuccini might be even better.
I’m convinced that rapini and chèvre belong together. I’m tempted to do a sort of white pizza with a chèvre and garlic base and a scattering of blanched rapini, served with some crushed dried chilies. Maybe a sort of chawanmushi-style savory custard would work. I’m pretty sure a simple omelet or frittata would turn out nicely, too.
As a child I was under the unfortunate impression that rice pilaf was something that came from a box. The first “real” pilafs I tried were usually bland affairs mostly involving overcooked frozen vegetables.
I never developed a great affinity for the pilaf, so I’m not predisposed to the same kind of nostalgia I might have for, say, mac & cheese or lasagna. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say it usually sounds too boring for me to even think of cooking.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. A heavy hand with fresh herbs and a good mix of can work wonders for the humble pilaf.
One recent evening, Hiromi was feeling a bit of bread overload, so she asked for something built on rice. Most of what we had on hand was more suitable for Western rather than Japanese treatment, and I didn’t want to let any ingredients go to waste, so I reached deep into my arsenal of improvisations and decided to break out our casserole dish.
After washing the rice, I sort of toast it in the pan with a little butter before adding liquid. This does wonders to keep the dish reasonably moist, and it certainly adds a nice flavor, too.
I like to parboil the rice in seasoned vegetable stock in my pressure cooker before combining it with the main ingredients. Then I finish the pilaf off by allowing it to “rest” in relatively gently heated oven, usually 350-375F, for about 10-15 minutes. This allows the rice to develop a reasonably fluffy texture without overcooking all the vegetable ingredients.
I precooked the shimeji a bit so that they wouldn’t dry out while in the oven. I just gave them a quick sauté with butter and shallots, letting them brown a tiny bit.
I mixed the partially cooked rice with the cooked mushrooms, plenty of raw dill, raw tomatoes, and a handful of frozen corn. I did zero planning on this dish, so it was all about what we had in the kitchen, so it’s a rather eclectic combination.
The dill made the dish. I don’t think I would have bothered without a generous helping of fresh herbs… thyme, dill, rosemary, or oregano would have done the trick. Basil or mint could have worked in some circumstances, but mushrooms like earthier herbs.
It’s probably best to serve this with something high in protein, like a lentil soup, but we had overdosed on beans that day thanks to a spicy soup at lunch, so I served the pilaf with a slightly more complicated than necessary vegetable gratin for a late evening dinner.
To prepare the gratin, I took some more shallots, rehydrated sundried tomatoes, basil and pine nuts, and sauteed them together with a little salt. I then mixed this together with romanesco broccoli.
I can’t quite remember if I blanched or roasted the romanesco before finishing it off in the oven. But either way would work, with the caveat that over-roasting would produce an unpleasantly dry result, and blanching would really only need about a minute of boiling before refreshing in ice-cold water, since the dish gets additional cooking when the cheese is melted.
I was getting a little impatient that night, and most of the ingredients were already hot and cooked, so when the cheese didn’t have quite the right golden-brown texture I flipped the oven into broiler mode and slighly charred the vegetable.
Cheap mozzarella works well for this, so I just broke out a big log of mozz we often have on hand from Trader Joe’s. If I repeated this dish, I would rather have used some oil-marinated sundried tomatoes rather than simply rehydrated ones, since they did get a bit dry, but overall, the dish was comforting and rounded out a simple weeknight dinner nicely.
Rogue River Blue only makes the briefest of appearances whenever Beecher’s gets hold of it. Last weekend I was lucky enough to snag some, and the only hurdle to obtaining my treasure was a misbehaving point-of-sale system that was backing up the cashiers as they hand-entered every transaction into a paper ledger.
The cheese is wrapped in grape leaves and washed with a pear brandy. Production is very limited, and it seems to get a bit more expensive every time I find it, but as an occasional splurge it’s completely worth it.
Like most great cheeses, it likes to be served at close to room temperature. Leave the leaves on the cheese when serving, because they contribute a lot to the flavor.
You don’t need to do much to enjoy Rogue River Blue. I usually just dig in, or serve it with some crackers, though I’ve occasionally melted it over some vegetables when the mood struck.
This time, I thought I’d do a more classic combination, and break out some pears I picked up at the Pike Place Market.
US production of the pear variety, called Taylor’s Gold, is mostly concentrated in Washington and Oregon, and right now they’re absolutely fantastic… The aroma is really intense and they’re almost shockingly sweet.
I sliced them thin and fanned them out on slices of seeded baguette, and put little triangles of the cheese on top, finished with some freshly toasted walnut. I finished everything with a little drizzle of chestnut honey over the pear and a bit of freshly ground black pepper.
The Rogue River Blue is magical. It’s powerful but the brandy makes it almost fruity, and the rind has has none of the ammonia you might expect. The pear and honey nicely balance the slight saltiness of the cheese. You could have this as a little pre-dinner snack, or even as a stand-in for dessert.
Umezu, or Japanese apricot vinegar, is a byproduct of umeboshi production. It’s salty and sour, with emphasis on salty. It really doesn’t get a whole lot of play in ordinary Japanese cooking, and most likely owes its relatively wide availability in the US to its popularity among macrobioticfreaks practitioners. Thanks to that, it’s almost easier to find at natural foods stores than it was to track down my local Japanese supermarket.
But even if the word macrobiotic gives you frightening flashbacks to the 1970s, I can assure you that umezu (sometimes romanized as umesu) does have its charms.
Hiromi and I visited one of the Vancouver fireworks shows last year and discovered a simple but clever use for the ingredient at Zakkushi on Denman, where we had a trio of little vegetable dishes including this nagaimo preparation.
It’s really nothing to make… You take the nagaimo, a starchy tuber somewhat similar to cassava, and cut it into matchstick-size pieces. If you’re feeling a bit lazier, thin moon-shaped slices would do the trick.
If you haven’t worked with nagaimo much before, you may want to wear gloves when peeling it; some people have a bit of a itchy skin reaction to the peel. For some reason, this has never caused me trouble, so I like to live dangerously.
Then, you do very little: mix in some umezu, and maybe a little chiffonade of shiso. That’s it, you’re done. If you want it to be a little more visually obvious, you might add a touch of mild rice vinegar and a drop or two of red food coloring, but I don’t find that necessary; I just serve it in a pink Hagi ware bowl to provide a visual hint.
Umeboshi have a really intense flavor, but the flavor is a little more subdued in the case of umezu. When used to season the nagaimo, this simple side dish provides an excellent contrast to other conventional home-style Japanese foods, or to the heartier fare typically served at an izakaya, because it’s crunchy and raw and sharp-tasting.
On its own, nagaimo is crunchy but mucilaginous (I prefer the onomatopoeic Japanese word neba-neba because I can't recall the last time I said "mucilaginous" in English), and it's one of very few vegetables frequently served raw in Japanese cuisine. It gets stickier as you stir it, much like chopped okra or nattou; the effect was more obvious in this gochujang-flavored preparation.
The vegetable is almost sweet, but it has a very high water content, so it doesn't have a really strong flavor by itself. That makes it a prime candidate for salad-like preparations like this one.
Ages ago on an ancient rerun of the original Iron Chef, I remember being fascinated by a pizza topped with thinly-sliced Japanese eggplant. I’m sure it was the least sophisticated, easiest to replicate dish on the show, but I always dug the idea. It only rarely occurs to me to make it, but a month or so ago, I got a great deal on some nasubi at Uwajimaya and couldn’t help myself.
I made a basic tomato sauce and my signature potato-based pizza dough, then used the usual weapons of thinly sliced mozzarella and parmesan to turn out this not-so-old-school variation on eggplant parmesan. The flavor is brightened up a bit with a chiffonade of fresh basil.
This one barely survived a group of hungry food photography buffs during our December gathering.
The fascinating thing about squash soups is how absolutely minimalist they can be. Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine from Quebec served me a butternut squash soup that was really little more than a thinned puree topped with a little cream, but it was still fantastic.
The one I usually make has a little more complexity, but I still take a rather restrained approach to seasoning it. I like to take advantage of nuttier, mealy squashes to get the most flavor.
Kabocha fits the bill nicely. I used to go through the trouble of halving and seeding the squash before working with it, but I’m happier now sticking the squash in the oven whole and roasting it until tender. When it softens up, slicing through the beast is no longer a chore, and it’s relatively easy to extract the seeds and guts after a couple of minutes of cooling.
While the squash is roasting, I prepare a mirepoix, nothing more than equal amounts onion, carrot and celery sautéed until tender. Once soft, I puree the soup base in a blender, where it takes on an orange hue that could almost pass for squash itself.
The roasted squash also takes a whirl in the blender, with a little water added as needed. Everything goes into a big pot, and I adjust the liquid ratio to make the soup to whatever consistency the occasion calls for… in this case, I was after a light pre-dinner soup, so I made it fairly thin.
This time I seasoned the soup with a small amount of a berbere seasoning blend, which has all the spices Americans love with squash (cloves, ginger, allspice) as well as a little coriander and ajwain seeds. It’s just cooked in a bit of butter in a tiny skillet until fragrant, and I pour it over the soup and stir it in. I then adjusted the salt and, in this case, added a touch of sugar.
My absolute favorite thing to complete squash is sage brown butter. This requires nothing more than a stick of butter and 10-12 leaves of fresh sage, cooked at medium heat until the leaves get crispy. You extract the leaves as soon as they’re crunchy and let the oil drip away, but you want to keep cooking the butter until it takes on the color of a hazelnut shell. It adds a fantastic aroma to anything it touches, and you can use the fried leaves as a savory garnish if you like.
You can serve the soup with a touch of cream and a few drops of the brown butter. I served mine with a little breadstick made from my potato pizza dough.
It’s hard to believe that Hiromi and I have already been in Madison Valley over a year.
We moved from a tiny apartment in Fremont that I originally intended as a temporary place while I started up a little business. It was far from luxurious, and had a number of flaws, from bad carpet to an impractical kitchen, but it did the trick when I needed to be especially frugal. But we wanted to be able to have more than 2 people over for dinner again, and finally settled on a recently remodeled midcentury duplex with an open layout in an area that borders Madison Valley and the Central District.
A lot of things have changed since then… I realized I was no longer committed enough to my business to provide decent service, so I shut down my web storefront and decided to focus on enjoying our lives together. It turns out that, a couple of years after returning to the software industry to pay bills, I started enjoying the work again. Outside of work, I’m doing research inside and outside my areas of expertise, and it always seems that the “new” areas I explore prove startlingly relevant not too long after I take them on.
2009 was tumultuous. After Zillow’s major restructuring in October 2008, I immediately went to work for a software vendor at a luxury travel company doing test tools development, but they were constantly in turmoil; my employer replaced the majority of the client’s existing technical staff and made three different employment arrangements with us over the course of about 10 months, and it seemed like every couple of weeks there were some notable staff departures, layoffs, or self-immolations. I got bit by one of the late rounds of restructuring after the client company exercised another cost-cutting clause in the contract. It was about the same magnitude as Zillow’s big cut, and Hiromi and I actually saw it as a bit of a relief after all the insanity we had hitherto been passively observing. Things were not much better for the people who stayed on, who were advised that the company couldn’t predict what would happen with the next round of contract revisions expected three or four months later.
I’m incredibly fortunate that the economy didn’t hit me as hard as it has impacted some of my peers. Although the last 15 months have been among the most unpredictable in my career, I’ve had a wonderful network of recruiters and colleagues that have made it almost painless to transition to new work very quickly both times I needed to, and I was lucky enough to be able to choose between several opportunities each time.
My current job is more closely aligned with what I like to do, and it’s within a healthy walking distance (35-40 minutes) of home, so I am getting a decent amount of exercise most days.
Hiromi and I just came back from a short trip that took us to Washington, DC, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. It was kind of a delayed honeymoon, and in fact it was the first time I’ve gotten out of North America in well over a year. Hiromi went to Japan for a friend’s wedding last summer but I couldn’t quite escape work at the time. This was our first post-wedding trip together that wasn’t driven by some sort of external commitment, and was free of immigration-related hassles. We had some hurdles thanks to nasty winter weather, but the overall experience was great, and I’m sure I’ll be making some effort to recreate the gnocchi alla romana we had in an alley of the Trastavere in Rome soon enough.
In completely unrelated news, I realize that 9 months is a long time to take off from blogging… In penance, I promise two food-related posts this week.