Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions

A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

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Sunday crullers, Saturday scones

jason

This is why, given a choice, you should either learn to cook or find someone to spend your weekend mornings with who can cook.

Crullers with cinnamon sugar

Crullers with Cinammon Sugar

Crullers have nearly disappeared from the shelves of most donut shops, mostly due to the fact that they’re seen as a bit more labor intensive than ordinary donuts. I find it hard to believe that there no machines exist that could reduce the burden, but the fact that they’re now so hard to find presents opportunities for the industrious home cook.

And here’s the thing: They’re not really that much work. Perhaps they pennies don’t work out when you’re making them on the scale that a bakery would need to, but I was able to go from nothing to having them on the table in about 35 minutes. I only made six, but I’m sure I could have scaled up the recipe to about 24 pieces without adding more than a few minutes work.

This is just a classic pâte à choux with a little added vanilla. I added salt and sugar in roughly the same ratio I would use for cream puffs, with perhaps a bit more salt than usual. I pipe the dough out onto waxed paper. There are a few ways you can pipe them, depending on the visual effect you want; I piped small stars in six segments. An alternative would be to use the star tip, twisting gradually, making one continuous round shape.

After piping, I stuck them in the freezer for just about 10 minutes to firm up, which makes them easier to drop into the fryer. They could have easily been kept in the freezer for a week or so. This time, though, I took advantage of the simplicity of the ratio and made just the amount I thought we’d need, which was about 60 ml water, 30 grams. butter, 30 grams flour, and 60 grams eggs (about 2 whole eggs). This makes slightly more than 6 crullers.

Last winter, the first time I made these, I underestimated how much they would expand in the fryer. The steam pressure causes them to blow up into about four times their original size, so make sure you keep that in mind when shaping them. Think small.

I fried them for about 5 minutes total, flipping them about half way through to let them brown evenly. They continue to darken a bit after they’re pulled from the oil.

This time, I dusted them with sugar mixed with cinnamon and a pinch of salt. They could have just as easily been glazed, or chocolate dipped.

What I really like about crullers is how sweet they aren’t, even after they’re dusted with sugar.

Blood orange scones

Blood Orange Scones

Not that long ago, I posted about some very basic scones served with blood orange jam.  Hiromi was craving scones for breakfast yesterday. I remembered that I had recently prepared a pseudo-marmalade of blood oranges meant to serve over waffles not that long ago. The leftovers contained only a little liquid, and a lot of blood orange peel.

So I thought I might make good use of them by incorporating them into the basic scone pastry. I placed the peels on a cutting board and chopped them a bit more finely than I had them originally, then added them to the dough just before the final splash of milk that holds them together.

The result? Success! The scones needed only the slightest splash of milk since they still had a little residual liquid from the blood oranges. The blood orange added a great aroma and a little bitterness. I was worried that they’d get a little tough since I was adding another step to the process, but they turned out tender yet crisp, just as I wanted.

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A rare braised pork dish

jason

Rare only for me, of course. As regular readers know, I’m as close to vegetarian as possible for someone who travels to Japan on a regular basis.

Hiromi’s doctor said she’s got somewhat low iron levels. We’ve been mitigating that a bit with supplements and with a heavier use of beans and darker greens, and Hiromi’s been consuming a fair amount of orange or tangerine juice to help absorption. But it’s a lot easier to deal with this kind of challenge by incorporating more red meat and liver in to a diet than to rely on vegetarian sources of iron, and Hiromi only practices vegetarianism when I cook, and I’m far from dogmatic. So we’ve made some little adjustments.

DSC_0673

Cooking is usually my job, though, and since Hiromi usually cleans up after the aftermath of my food, I don’t mind making the occasional carnivorous dish for her benefit.

I took some aniseed, coriander seed, allspice, black pepper, some dried smoky chilies, and the seeds from a couple of cardamom pods and ground them in my spice grinder, then mixed this with a bit of salt. I rubbed the pork with this mixture and some olive oil, then I added the seasoned meat to a hot pressure cooker. I let the meat brown a bit, then turned each piece to brown on at least two other sides. I pulled the browned meat out of the pan and let it rest while sauteeing some onions with some young ginger.

I tossed in some quartered mushrooms  with a bit more salt. Finally, I added some rolling-cut carrots and a stick of chopped celery to the mix, completing the mirepoix trinity. Then I added a half cup of read wine and a half cup of water, and restored the meat to the pan. I put the pressure cooker’s lid in place. Once it reached full pressure, I let it cook for 10 minutes.

Hiromi discovered it wasn’t quite perfectly tender when the valve released, so I brought it back to pressure and reduced the temperature to the lowest possible setting that would keep the pressure up. I’m not quite sure how long we let it cook, but it was probably about 25 minutes total.

When the valve released the second time, it seemed ready to serve. When Hiromi tasted it at the table, she reported it was surprisingly tender. We only served about half of it, and it was more than enough with the other dishes we had prepared, so she had a bit leftover for lunch the next day or so.

It was pretty easy to pull off, apparently satisfying enough, and probably no more complicated than anything else we made that night. Braised pork. Pressure cooker. I can work with that.

 

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Our pagan Easter Sunday

jason

Last night we visited a friend who had planned a sort of traditional lamb dinner, to be followed by Easter egg decoration. I don’t really remember much about Easter dinners from my childhood, since we focused more on the egg thing, so I brought some gougeres made with Valdeon blue cheese (which I’m sure I’ll make again, but I didn’t take a photo), and pressure-cooked baby artichokes prepared with shallots, Meyer lemons, garlic, butter, olive oil, and a splash of wine, and a broccolini dish.

The one child present fell asleep before we got to the egg decoration, so the adults took over that very important responsibility. We took a few of them home with us for breakfast this morning.Easter eggs, made by adults

Hiromi made Doraemon. Mine is the ugly one in back. It was supposed to be an owl, but turned out to look more like Frank Zappa.

Apple coffee cake

For breakfast, I made an apple coffee cake with a little allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, clove, and grains of paradise. It’s topped with a simple salted butter streusel. I was a little careless, so it turned out slightly underbaked, so it was a bit pudding-like, but still perfectly serviceable. I used very little sugar, so it was more spicy than sweet. Next time, I should let it bake a bit longer.

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Green beans and unseasonable caprese

jason

Hiromi always says that when I’m trying to use up ingredients, the results are often more exciting than when I do something more planned. I think that’s been the case since I was in college, when I would sometimes change course after I started cooking if a particular whim struck me as a good idea.

Usually on weeknights, I’ve got a few ingredients in less than ideal condition that have been sitting around too long. The purple mashed potatoes from my previous entry were in that category, and the ton of bell peppers in that Pope’s bean dish were also completely driven by excess.DSC_0668

I don’t know how many times I’ve made some variation of this simple side, but we always like sautéed green beans. This one had onions, mushrooms, red bell peppers, garlic, and smoked paprika, and was made with those skinny so-called French style green beans sometimes called haricots vert. “Green beans” apparently sound much more sophisticated when rendered literally in French.

DSC_0680

Normally I don’t attempt to make anything remotely like insalata caprese this time of year, but we had some better-than-average-for-this-time-of-year strawberry tomatoes, which are slightly larger than cherry tomatoes and a bit more flavorful. If I were a little more industrious, I might have roasted them a bit first, but this was still pretty good for a completely out-of-season dish. I’d be a little embarrassed to serve this for company, as the tomatoes were a lot more tart than they were sweet, but they beat anything you’d find in a supermarket this time of year.

Gobodoki in roasted gobo soup

jason

Ganmodoki, a deep-fried tofu dumpling, are kind of a staple of Kyoto-style tofu cuisine, and find their way into nimono, among other things. I’ve made them before, but this time, I took a slightly different route.

Roasted gobo soup with burdock ganmodoki

 

Inspired by a crazy cheap deal on burdock root at Rising Sun Produce in Seattle’s International District, I decided to emulate a soup Hiromi and I tried years ago at Del Cook, a French restaurant in a rural extension of Osaka in the Nose valley, made with Japanese burdock root, called gobo.

I took bunch of burdock roots and roasted them in the oven with a bit of salt until the burdock softened up a bit, probably around 20-30 minutes. Then I broke out the blender and busted up the roasted roots with some milk and vegetable soup stock. The process took a bit longer than I would have liked, but even after all that pureeing, I discovered that the texture of the mixture was far chewier than I’d want in bisque-like soup. At first, in denial, I tried pressing on, seasoning the liquid with salt and some “Balinese Seasoning” that I first discovered at World Spice Merchants a few months ago, cooked in a bit of butter. But I realized chewy wasn’t going to work for this, and I needed to find some workaround.

So I pushed the liquid through a sieve, extracting as much as I could manage. I realized I had a lot of burdock fiber that might still be put to good use. If we eat all this roughage in kimpira-gobo, there must be some way to make it edible, right? That’s when ganmodoki came to mind. I got myself a block of momen-doufu, medium-firm tofu, broke it up, and mixed it with the solids from my sieving efforts, along with black and white sesame seeds. The ratio was probably about 1:1 burdock fiber and tofu, without considering the seasonings. Even before I fried them, the mixture tasted pretty nice, so I had some confidence that things would work out. The chewy texture that had caused me consternation in the soup was nicely mitigated by the custardy texture of the tofu, and in a solid form, whatever fiber in the texture remained was far less disconcerting.

Roasted gobo soup with burdock ganmodoki

Using a couple of spoons, I made small balls out of the solids and placed them into the deep fryer.

I was surprised at how deeply the ganmodoki browned. There’s a touch of sugar in the spice blend I used, and probably a reasonable amount of sugar in burdock root itself, but I have never had this kind of result when making more conventional ganmodoki. Even deeply browned, the little balls were pretty tender inside, and just barely held together.

I modified the soup from my original plan, incorporating some pureed cannelini for protein, so in many ways, save for my use of burdock root in place of the cheddar in the version of the soup that was recently featured in Seattle’s Japanese newspaper, Soy Source, it was not a huge departure from that. The roasted burdock totally transforms the flavor from rich to earthy, so they’re certainly not identical. Certainly, the little tweaks are proof that you can make very small changes to a dish and turn it into something nearly unrecognizable. The white beans contributed protein and some iron to a dish that would otherwise best serve as a small side dish, making it a more substantial part of dinner.

To serve, I ladled the liquid into onion soup bowls, and placed three pieces of the “gobodoki” (half gobo, half ganmodoki) on top. I was convinced Hiromi would groan at my bad Japanese wordplay when I unabashedly mashed two unrelated words together, but she embraced the name unreservedly.

To finish, I topped the soup with deep-fried, salt-sprinkled burdock root. We served it with some gnocchi alla romana, which I’ll try to feature in a future post. A little bread and a nice green vegetable side dish would make a nice alternative.

I really like the Balinese seasoning spice mixture that in my cream-style soups. I have no idea if it even resembles anything actually used in Indonesia, but that’s beside the point; the dishes I’ve made with it so far simply aren’t indigenous to any particular country, so I feel free to do whatever tastes good. I dig the shallot, lemongrass and peanut base notes that it provides in anything creamy. There’s a little cinnamon, white pepper, and chili in there, and a hint of dried ginger, so it adds a little magic to anything it touches.

It’s spring, so it must be time for warabi

jason

The last couple of weekends we’ve been taking advantage of the fiddlehead fern fronds found at Sosio’s. Go get them before they disappear for the rest of the year!

Fiddlehead fern fronds, aka warabi

We’ve been preparing them using our usual nimono-style treatment… Blanch briefly in a boiling solution of water and baking soda to remove aku, or bitterness, shock in ice water, then gently poach in dashi (or really, any soup stock), soy sauce, sake, a little mirin, and, if needed, additional salt and sugar.

Maybe I’ll do them another way before the season ends, but somehow this simple version pleases me the most.

I’ve written about them before, but the easiest flavor comparison to make is to white asparagus. They’re slightly bitter, as you’d expect from white asparagus, and some of the sweetness and you’d expect from asparagus, but they have a bit more of a foresty aroma.

They usually only have a 4-8 week run, depending on factors that I don’t yet know how to predict. I think they’ve come in a bit early this year, as I’ve gradually been trained to expect them sometime in April. But if morels can be early, so can warabi. In any event, if you want to give them a try, get them while you can.

Satsumaimo soufflé

jason

So I’ve had this dangerous affinity for meringues in the last year or so. I like them on cakes and pies, I like them on savory dishes, and I sometimes like them all by themselves.

This occasionally results in something approaching culinary genius, but more often than not, something goes slightly wrong. The most common problem is usually my piping effort. My technical mastery of piping can, more often than not, be fairly compared to the artistry of a six year old. Occasionally I just over-bake them by a few minutes and they come out far too dark.

Sweet potato souffle in situ

This one decided to explode.

You may not see it here, because I tried to find the best possible angle, but my meringue mostly deflated before it ever finished baking. It spread out more than it puffed up.

In fact, it’s technically more of a soufflé than a meringue. What I did was roast a Japanese sweet potato, slice it in half lengthwise, and scoop out a good amount of flesh, which I mashed. Then I mixed the mashed flesh with egg yolk while the flesh was still warm. Separately, I beat egg whites into a meringue, adding a small amount of sugar and a heavy pinch of salt. Then I gently folded the sweet potatoes back into the meringue, and filled the scooped out part of the potato with the mixture. To finish it off, I piped a bit more of the mixture on top with a star tip, and sprinkled black sesame seeds on top. I then baked the dish at about 375F until it was nicely browned.

I think I used a bit too much egg white. But the result, even if a bit ugly and quite technically flawed, tasted pretty nice. I added enough salt to the mixture to make this a savory side dish rather than a dessert, but you could certainly adjust the preparation to make it work either way.

Done right, it could look quite elegant, but I’m almost happy with my admittedly rustic results. It’s a little wafuu without being something you’d typically find in most Japanese mothers’ repertoires, and compatible with both Japanese and American taste sensibilities.

Next time, I want to make some adjustments to improve the stability of the foam. But it’ll go on one of my menus again.

Famous for 15 minutes again

jason

I’ve had a few brushes with fleeting, mostly inconsequential fame.

My very first letter to the editor was published when I was about 14 years old in Knoxville, Tennessee. Something that was ostensibly my own writing, heavily edited, was first “published” in a computer magazine when I was about 15 years old, for which I received about $50. During college I was quoted in the West Coast edition of USA Today because I said some silly but, well, quotable thing about the 1992 Vice Presidential debates in the Media Fellows lounge at my university, which happened to be Dan Quayle’s Alma Mater. I had a few decent articles and some not so great ones published in my college newspaper and in a Seattle Asian American newspaper. Once I was even featured in a Japanese newspaper in Japan for dressing up as Santa Claus at a friend’s family’s nursery school. And, of course, when I started my business, a few local papers published an article or two about my project.Jason in "otoko no ryouri"

Photo source: Soy Source, shot by Hiro Yamada. I’m on the right side.

But I’ve never been featured in a newspaper just for doing the most ordinary of things… making a nice lunch.

This week Hiromi and I were in a local Japanese newspaper called Soy Source, which was doing a feature called “Otoko no ryouri,” or Men’s Cuisine, featuring four different Seattle-area men who cook, and who presumably have some sort of connection to Japan. Teruyo Koshimaya, an editor at the paper, and Hiro Yamada, a photographer and member of my Japanese speaking social group, dropped by for lunch about a week and a half ago, and I made a few dishes while we chatted about food, travel, ceramics, work and other things.

I served a potato-based focaccia topped with mizuna pesto (later used in this fettucini and morel dish), a simple blanched broccolini topped with hot browned shallots, garlic, and good balsamic vinegar, a marinated mushroom dish, and a cannelini-cheddar soup topped with fried gobo (burdock root). Nothing turned into a disaster, which is always the thing I worry about when I have unusual amounts of attention paid to my food…

Two recipes, which are probably approximations of what I made because I almost never work from exact recipes and I had to estimate quantities, were included here (in Japanese) as a sidebar to the article. I did try to measure things out somewhat carefully, so they shouldn’t be too far off.

It was a lot of fun. I look forward to someday being semi-famous again.

Pseudo-samosas with repurposed colcannon, and cranberry bean cakes with pear chutney

jason

No matter how hard we try, the two of us cannot eat a large pot of what amounts to be little more than mashed potatoes, regardless how many greens are involved.

So I decided to repurpose the leftovers a little bit. I melted some butter in a 6” skillet and added a spice blend (Kashmiri garam masala, I think) and turmeric, then poured it over the remaining colcannon in the refrigerator. I also added some frozen peas.

Mini samosas, Night two

I improvised a dough by rubbing some of flour and salt with a bit of butter, then added just enough water to combine. I worked the dough together and let it rest for a while in the refrigerator.

Mini samosas, night one

I then rolled out the dough and cut it into small pieces, and Hiromi and I got to work stuffing them.

The first night I prepared them as just a little snack to go along with a couple of other dishes, but tonight I noticed I had some ungracefully aging pears in the refrigerator, and thought I should make quick use of them before something nefarious happened. I put together a simple chutney built on fenugreek, allspice, a little black pepper, and coriander, along with some fresh young ginger, onions, and a couple of fresh chilies, along with a bit of salt and unrefined sugar.

Pear chutney

A couple of nights ago, I prepared some cranberry beans with some Chinese spices like star anise and some large white seed I’ve never learned the name of, and some fennel seed. I thought I was going to use these as a little bean side dish that never quite happened. By the time I needed them again, I had a far different craving, so I mashed the beans with some egg, flour and breadcrumbs, and pan-browned them in a nonstick omelet pan with a little oil. (They could just as easily be deep fried).

Cranberry bean cakes

I was ever-so-slightly worried that the vaguely Chinese seasoning of the beans would fight with the vaguely Indian seasoning of the chutney, but actually they worked quite nicely together. The star anise and fennel added a nice depth to the bites of the cranberry bean cakes, and the chutney added a nice gently-fiery sweetness. We also found that the baby spinach underneath, motivated mostly by color, proved to be an useful utensil for carrying the bean cakes to our mouths, and added a little textural contrast.

Morels with homemade fettuccini

jason

We self-indulgently bought a pasta roller last summer. It’s a single-purpose device, and I don’t have many items like that, at least not when they take up as much room as that, but pasta is a staple food for us and I wanted to have a tool that made it easier to produce pasta of a consistent thickness and texture.

I’m still not quite at the level where I’m going to beat anyone’s Italian nonna if we undertook some sort of pasta death match, but it’s surprising how little practice is required to develop perfectly respectable results.

First morels of the year, homemade fettucini, and mizuna pesto

One of the guys at Sosio’s happens to go to the same gym I do, and he’s there nearly every day. He noticed me fighting the dumbbells little over a week ago and told me I needed to come in and get some morels, which seem to have come in a bit early this year. So I went in on the weekend and grabbed some.

I thought it was a good excuse to break out the pasta maker. It’s really not too time-consuming to make a small amount of pasta, at least in the amount required to serve 2-4 people, so it’s even manageable on a weeknight. The only difficult thing is allowing the prepared dough to rest 30-60 minutes before attempting to roll it out. If you don’t do that, it fights with you, and you get these crazy holes inexplicable places. But once it’s reasonably well rested, the gluten in the semolina relaxes and the dough cooperates nicely. It just requires a little patience, and, when possible, another pair of helpful hands.

We had plenty of pesto I prepared for a lunch meeting on Sunday afternoon. The particular pesto I made was not prepared from the usual Genovese ingredient of basil, however. I turned to mizuna, a Japanese green with a flavor similar to, but slightly brighter than arugula. This is one of my favorite versions of pesto, and turns out to be ever so slightly cheaper than the basil version, since it comes in roughly one-pound bundles for $2.80 at Uwajimaya; I usually have to pay at least $4/pound for basil when I buy it in bulk, if not more, and it’s crazy expensive when purchased on those obnoxious $3 one-ounce plastic containers at the supermarket. So it not only makes a refreshing change of pace; it’s also surprisingly frugal.

I suppose that’s kind of moot after paying for morels, but they were surprisingly inexpensive for ones sold so early in the season. I’ve paid more in the peak of the harvest in past years, so we must have a particularly prolific crop in store.

Under the more relaxed conditions of weekend pasta-making, I like to let the rolled and cut pasta dry out a touch, maybe an hour or so, before I try to boil it, but for fettucini, it’s not really necessary. We once tried the spaghetti cutter on a weeknight and tried to serve that with a tomato sauce before letting it dry at all after cutting, and we produced something very similar to ramen-shop ramen instead of spaghetti. I might be wrong, but my limited experience seems to tell me that, when under time constraints, wider noodles like fettuccini or tagliatelle work better.

The morels were just cooked with a generous knob of butter and salt as the pasta cooked. I drained the pasta after cooking it for 2-3 minutes in salted water, leaving just a touch of water in the pan, and tossed the pasta, morels and mizuna pesto together until combined.

It’s best served hot, and pesto cools quickly, so get it right out there on the table and eat!

We had it with a nice serving of lentil soup, which was part of dinner a couple of times last week, and maybe a little salad.

There’s not much of a recipe, as it was really about having everything around when I needed it and adjusting seasoning as required, but the mizuna pesto goes a little something like this:

Mizuna pesto

Ingredients

  • 2/3 of a bundle of mizuna, about 300g (2/3 lb)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons raw pine nuts
  • Good extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese (about 50g)

Technique

  1. Toast pine nuts gently about 5-6 minutes on low heat in a pan. Set aside to cool.
  2. Wash mizuna. Remove sprout from garlic, if present, to avoid unwanted bitterness. Add mizuna to a blender with garlic, pine nuts, and a little olive oil. Pulse the blender with the "chop" mode (medium speed). Add additional olive oil through the lid opening until an emulsion forms. You should still see small pieces of mizuna, but all the leaves should be broken.
  3. Grate parmesan and stir into the pesto.

Rogue River Blue with pear and walnut

jason

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.

Rogue River blue with walnut and Taylor's Gold pear

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.

Okinawan Lunch at Yurakucho

jason

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.

Nigana tofu and yuri doufu

I had another dish called hirayachi, an Okinawan-style pancake comparable to a the simplest Korean pajeon, but described in Japanese as "Okinawan okonomiyaki."

hirayachi

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.

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First dinner in Seattle (again)

jason

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

Grapefruit salad with red onion and 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

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...

 

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Black-eyed pea cakes, snatched from the jaws of defeat

jason

Black-eyed pea cakes with harissa mayonnaise

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.

One part convenience, two parts easy

jason

Sunday brunch with brix-tested grapefruit

A couple of weeks ago Matthew Amster-Burton wrote about some frozen croissant dough which Trader Joe's now carries, and gave the product the thumbs up.

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.

Baked chevre and fresh fava beans

jason

Baked chevre and fresh fava beans

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.

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Kale with onions and almonds

jason

Kale, onions, almonds, and red wine

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.

 

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Naked roasted cauliflower

jason

Naked roasted cauliflower with Spanish paprika

Isn't this sexy?

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.

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Tricolor roasted peppers and cheese curds

jason

Tricolor roasted peppers and Beecher's cheese curds 

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.

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Cheddar and cauliflower soup with cannellini puree

jason

Cheddar and cauliflower soup with cannellini puree

Soups aren't the sexiest food in the world.

But they can be seriously comforting.

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.