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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Gnocchi with tomatoes, kale and mushrooms

jason
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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.

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Nori furikake popcorn and an exercise routine

jason

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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.

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Golden beet and chanterelle pizza

jason

Beet greens, golden beet and chanterelle pizza

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.

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Vancouver treats

jason

Briefly reunited for a couple of weeks during the Christmas and New Year's holiday, Hiromi and I spent most of our time in Vancouver quietly. Most of our previous trips to Vancouver had been rather quick and hurried, and we ended up choosing where to eat without any particular research or care. This time, though, we had the opportunity to do a bit more exploration, and we made some pleasant discoveries.

The exchange rates made even the cheaper dining options a bit expensive. Hiromi's whim to eat some sort of Mexican food led us to a place that made many of Seattle's mediocre chain yellow-cheese laden places seem almost gourmet, and we paid almost twice as much for the privilege. But we also had plenty of favorable experiences.

Cru in VancouverWe met up with some local members of eGullet.org, a food community site that I participate in, at Cru, a Pacific Northwest focused restaurant on West Broadway. We decided to mostly entrust the chef with decisions on the food, and they made one or two dishes just for my benefit (I was the only vegetarian) that weren't on the menu.

I can't recall a single misstep in the menu. Mostly simple, elegant dishes focused on the ingredients, the food was pleasant and carefully prepared. I was particularly happy with a mushroom risotto garnished with some pea sprouts. We had a nice Syrah and some complimentary sparkling wine. The interior had a cozy-but-contemporary feel, and felt very relaxed. It resembles Seattle's Veil in some ways, but has perhaps a bit more comfortable atmosphere.

Eggy pasta with the last possible chanterelles

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We stayed in a little Yaletown studio apartment, which gave us the luxury of eating at home reasonably often. We kept most of our meals simple, constrained as we were by a minimalist pantry and a more basic set of kitchen equipment than I have at home, but most everything we produced worked fairly well. I carried some basic magic from my pantry in Seattle: olive oil, Spanish paprika, a little argan oil, soy sauce, mirin, salt and a pepper mill. We had a little salad with macadamia nuts and dried cranberries, along with an improvised version of my yuzu dressing.

One night we had a simple wide noodle egg pasta with some truffled sheep's milk cheese, shallots, cream, and some of the last possible chanterelles of the season.

Raw brie!

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I had brought a couple of varieties of crackers with me from Seattle, mostly because I wanted to make use of them before they lost their charms. During our stay in Vancouver, we went cheese hunting on Granville Island, and came home with an excellent raw milk Brie de Meaux, a truffled sheep's milk cheese from Italy, and some soft nice chevre from Salt Spring Island. The raw milk Brie was spectacularly flavorful, with an almost grassy, pasture-like aroma... I really haven't ever had a nicer one. I'm not sure who they bribed to make it possible to sell in Canada, but we delighted in knowing we were eating something that's essentially forbidden in the US. Even when I was living in Germany, I don't think I ever managed to find a raw Brie. The truffled cheese was also very nice, and the chevre worked particularly well as a stuffing for sweet dates.

Hiromi had a craving for cookies on Christmas, so I made some thumbprint cookies with a black currant jam.

West Restaurant & Bar in VancouverWe had a quiet evening on New Year's Eve, as we had planned a special dinner at West in lieu of attending some sort of New Year's Eve party.

We had some nice pre-dinner cocktails, though thanks to our indecision on the drinks the first course or two passed before we really moved on to the wine. We had sort of imagined we would order a B.C. wine of some sort, but when we asked for something in the Syrah/Shiraz world, the waiter steered us toward the French or Australian options, so we gave up on drinking local in favor of an excellent French Syrah, priced fairly reasonably at around $85.

Hiromi had the West Tasting Menu ($129) and I had the vegetarian ($89). My amuse, a truffled cauliflower pureed soup, served in an espresso-like cup for sipping, was a pleasant way to start things off, and Hiromi had some little seafood treat that she was quite pleased with. We both had a beautifully presented marinated beet dish, in which a soft chevre was sandwiched between slices of beet, brightened by a simple vinaigrette and pine nuts.

Hiromi's next course was seared foie gras and duck confit and pear salad, and I had a shaved truffle-heavy frisee salad sprinkled with some translucent crispy wafers of unspecified origin. The truffles were almost overpowering in my salad, but I still ate every bite.

Hiromi was thrilled by a seared scallop dish with a delightfully rich-yet-refreshing cilantro sauce, which she thought would be enjoyable even by people hostile to cilantro. The vegetarian course also featured a bit of cilantro, adorning a surprisingly endearing ginger and tomato braised artichoke.

The next course, a fillet of sturgeon for Hiromi with fennel jam and artichokes, and a bell pepper confit risotyo for me. Both solid, nicely executed dishes.

The only misstep was in the fifth course, and the same error affected both of us. Hiromi received a lamb dish, and I had an "open raviolo" with butternut squash. Both of these dishes were accompanied by some unspecified savory foam and some sauteed wild mushrooms, and that's where the disappointment hit us: somehow they had been oversalted. When eaten together with another component of the dish, they were tolerable, but they were too salty to be enjoyed on their own merits.

The cheese course and dessert course took our minds off the imperfect 5th course. We both had a dark molded mousse (or "Marquis") between two rectangles of chocolate, served alongside a vanilla tapioca. For me this triggered a bit of nostalgia, but Hiromi has little to no experience with tapioca puddings, so it was more of a novelty for her.

We had a little grappa, one serving of a local dry, but slightly harsh B.C. product, and a fruity and memorable Alexander Platinum.

Service was not as flawless as our previous experience at Lampreia in Seattle, the only comparable meal we've had at a restaurant. The server was occasionally distracted, perhaps having too many tables to accommodate, so it took several attempts before we could order our drinks; of course, one was due to a bit of indecision after learning one choice wasn't available that night. But I was pleased to have a carefully constructed vegetarian tasting menu, an option that wasn't on the table at Lampreia. For that, we'd need to go somewhere like Rover's.

Hiromi's comment, after trying West, was that Lampreia seemed to delight in simple flavors occasionally constructed from impossible-to-imagine components such as a cracker made almost entirely from tomatoes, ravioli made with skins constructed from pineapple, and other fanciful pieces. On the other hand, in West's cuisine, every ingredient was recognizable; the effort seemed spent mostly on carefully composed, sometimes complex sauces with surprising, but not jarring flavors.

I've done most of my extravagant dining in Japan, in ryokan (Japanese inns), where the food is an elaborate but essentially rustic experience. I've not really done much in the way of true kaiseki, except some scaled-back versions in Kyoto. But I'm actually probably more familiar with the conventions of Japanese style multicourse dining than I am with the French tradition. I lived in Germany as a student with no money, so "fancy" dining meant going to a restaurant serving burgerliche Kuche and getting bland croquettes with overcooked vegetables, or perhaps a very, very buttery omelet.

I'm still excited by the experience of a place like West or Lampreia, but part of me wishes dinner included a Japanese bath and a place to sleep.

We got home early, around 9:30, thanks to our early seating. I think we were up until around midnight, because I recall hearing shouting and fireworks outside, but we weren't part of the revelry.

Hiromi goes snowboarding while I drink lousy coffee

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It's probably a good thing we had an early night. Although we were awake enough to hear the revelry at midnight, on New Year's Day we planned to wake up unusually early so that we could take Hiromi on a day trip to her first home in Canada, Whistler, B.C.

We haven't been to Whistler since Christmas 2003, when Hiromi made her first visit to the US to see me. Somehow I convinced myself to take a lesson in snowboarding, and then proceded down the mountain very, very slowly the next day. This time, I had a little cold, and my knees aren't what they once were, so I decided to opt out.

I spent most of my day drinking very mediocre coffee and hacking code on a pet Ruby on Rails project. When Hiromi was done for the day, we stopped at the home of Fusaki Iida, a snowboarder/writer/teacher that she knew when on working holiday in Whistler earlier in the decade.

My cold got particularly nasty at night. It was bad enough that, even though I'm sure Hiromi was completely worn out from snowboarding by the end of the day, she ended up making a run across the street to the pharmacy and took over making dinner while I collapsed on the bed, still in my wool coat

By the next morning, though, I felt much better... I was a bit congested, but not anywhere near the condition I went to bed in. The massive doses of hot, artificially cherry flavored cold medicine did the trick. Or maybe it was only a 24 hour bug.

During the trip, we also met a couple Hiromi's friends, from the days when she was living in Vancouver. We had coffee and desserts at Ganache down the street from us, and chatted for far longer than planned back at our apartment. We met another friend at Caffe Artigiano, which has decent coffee too.

A bit of good news arrived just after Christmas... After 4 months, the United States Customs and Immigration Service finally acknowledged receipt of our petition for Hiromi's permanent residence status. That particular step normally takes about 2 weeks, but things have been unusually sluggish. The attorney sent off the next batch of paperwork for her visa, which was acknowledged about 3 weeks later. We don't know how long it will take until Hiromi's visa is approved, but it's been a long process. The spouse visa is supposed to be done within three months or so, but can only be filed after the first petition is acknowledged. We're now expecting the permanent resident petition to be approved before the actual visa application, which adds some complications to the process.

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

jason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tortured eggplant

jason

Tomato-like eggplant

You think you're looking at fleshy beefsteak tomatoes.

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

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

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

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

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

Eggplant Parmesan

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

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

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

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

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Polenta with grilled halloumi cheese and apricot sauce

jason

Polenta, grilled halloumi cheese, apricot sauce

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

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

Bad puns are cruel. Sorry about that.

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

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

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

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

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

Chayote squash minimalism

jason

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

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

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

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

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

Matchstick-cut chayote squash with lime and pico de gallo

chayote suqsh with lime and pico de gallo seasoning

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

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

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

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

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Stuffed mushrooms without a hint of grain

jason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoky eggplant in yogurt sauce

jason

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

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

Smoky eggplant yogurt curry

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

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

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

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

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

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Collaboration makes better pie

jason

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

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

lentil-pie-10

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

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

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

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

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

Summertime socials

jason

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

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

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

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

Roasted potatoes 

Roasted potatoes

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

Insalata caprese

Insalata caprese

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

Channa gobi masala cups

 Channa gobi masala cups

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

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

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

jason

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

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

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

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

Kesar Kulfi with Salted Pistachio

Kesar kulfi with pistachios

Ingredients

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

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

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

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

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

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

In place of pistachios, almonds work quite well.

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

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

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

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Mustard greens and manouri cheese ravioli

jason

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

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

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

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

This was an occasion for the latter.

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

Soft ravioli filled with mustard greens and manouri cheese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow peas and aburaage itame ni

jason

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

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

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

Sayaendo and abura-age with carrots 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eggs and cactus: Saboten no tamago toji

jason

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

Saboten no tamago toji

Saboten to tamago touji

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

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

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

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

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Broccoli no toufu ae: Tofu and sesame dressed broccoli

jason

Broccoli isn't particularly common in the Japanese kitchen, but it's gradually become somewhat popular in home cooking. To be honest, I can't think of many times I've actually eaten it when I've traveled to Japan, but I've certainly seen it at supermarkets and department stores.

The few broccoli dishes I've seen in American Japanese restaurants seem oddly unbalanced, overcooked, and out-of-place.

However, the ingredient can be very suitable for aemono or ohitashi. I might even be swayed to blanch it, mince it finely and use it in tamago-yaki.

Broccoli no toufu ae

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This side dish, slightly strongly seasoned even for aemono, is made with a blend of soft tofu, toasted, crushed white sesame seeds, sugar, salt, and the tiniest splash of soy sauce.

The broccoli, blanched for about 90 seconds, yields, but still has bite. Once mixed with the ae components, it acquires a savory, juicy character. The flavors play very nicely together.

For a little color and slightly capricious flavor highlight, I also added a little sprinkling of yuzu-shichimi once the aemono was on the plate. Because I used only a tiny touch of this, each bite holds the potential of a little surprise, but the heat from the shichimi doesn't overwhelm the dish.

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Nasu no karashi miso ni: Eggplant with mustard miso

jason

One of my favorite Japanese dishes, ever since I first started exploring Japanese cooking, was nasu no miso ni, a simple eggplant dish with miso. As I've mentioned before, there are probably as many variations on that dish as there are mothers in Japan.

Nasu no karashi miso ni 

This is one of mine. Pan-grilled deep-purple mini eggplant, cooked with a little tea seed oil, somehow became magically bright purple after a couple of minutes of heat

Normally I'd just add mirin, sugar, a bit of dashijiru and miso, but this time I also added a bit of mustard and a splash of vinegar. As the dish simmers, the sauce thickens up and some of it is absorbed by the eggplant.

I'd call this variation nasu no karashi miso ni.

I liked this style... It is a bit like serving konnyaku or tofu with sumiso (also a mustard and vinegar seasoned miso), except warm.  It's a surprisingly delightful way to bring the flavor out of the eggplant.

Like most versions of nasu no miso ni, it looks best on right after cooking, but the leftovers taste even better after they've rested for a night or so in the refrigerator.

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Spicy nagaimo (ma) with gochujang

jason

Yesterday, I mentioned a spicy nagaimo dish I served with that pretty tofu dish.

Although I tend to respect the traditions of the cuisines I borrow from, I'm not above mixing cuisines from time to time. I just don't tend to like the excesses of self-conscious fusion cuisine, often created by people who know next to nothing about the food or aesthetics of the countries from which they are borrowing.

I'm no genius in that regard... Although I'm reasonably well-traveled, I tend to rely on classic flavor pairings and a consciousness of the nature and function of my ingredients. While I might do some unconventional things, I don't really do fusion for the sake of shock or drama. Mostly I'm just adapting available ingredients to my situation (dinner tonight), which is pretty much how Italians figured out how to use the tomato or Koreans figured out how to make use of the chili.

Fortunately, Japanese and Korean ingredients and techniques can often be combined in simple ways without creating a culinary fiasco. It's not surprising to find some form of kimchi on a Japanese dinner table, for example.

Nagaimo with gochujang

I had some nagaimo, a starchy tuber, also called ma in Korean. Although I'm quite happy just to serve nagaimo with a little nori and soy sauce, I thought it might be nice to make use of the artisan gochujang I picked up in Korea recently. This is a fermented sauce made with Korean chilies, rice, salt, and soybeans. It's a really great way to season any number of otherwise simple vegetable dishes.

Nagaimo is very sticky, or nebaneba, and the glutinous rice in gochujang also has a kind of sticky quality. I thought it would contribute some natural glutamates (umami) and a modest heat to the nagaimo, so I simply stirred it together with the nagaimo until the sticks were relatively evenly coated. As the nagaimo is stirred, its nebaneba qualities become increasingly apparent: small strands of starch stretch into longer strands.

Because of this, it's better to serve the nagaimo in a small bowl rather than on a plate. As you eat it, the strands tend to want to stay where they started, and you might find a bit of a trail if you try to pick them up... the edge of the bowl will help head that off, and an individual serving in a little bowl that you can pick up will help minimize any embarrassment that might be caused by spreading your food around the table.

I added a little scallion and toasted sesame seed to provide some simple flavor contrast.

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Atsuage no mori: fried tofu stuffed with shimeji mushrooms

jason

After over four weeks of relative physical inactivity, I haven't been feeling particularly healthy, and I'm starting to feel like what little weight I lost on my vacation to Japan and Korea has come back. I thought it would be a good idea to eat a little less oily food for a while, so I went to buy some oborodoufu at a local tofu manufacturer. Of course I went home with that, but then I saw a beautiful block of deep-fried tofu, and couldn't help but take it home. (Is that weird? I go out and I pick up pretty... groceries. I am not a normal guy).

Of course, that might well have undermined my intention to reduce the fat in my diet this week, but big atsuage aren't all that bad... since they're fairly large, most of the oil is in the outer layer, and there's not nearly as much surface area on a large block of tofu as, say, the smaller cubes more likely for agedashi-doufu.

Contrary to popular belief, tofu doesn't really absorb flavors very much; unless it's freeze-dried or frozen, it's just not that porous, which is why it's important to get very fresh tofu. You really want the tofu to taste good on its own. However, fried tofu does have little nooks and crannies on the surface that make it easier for flavors to attach to the tofu.

Even so, Japanese cuisine is more about tasting the ingredients, not covering them up. Accordingly, this dish really highlights the tofu and the fresh ingredients it's made with.

Stuffed atsuage

This dish is pretty simple, but it looks elegant and has some nice fresh ingredients. It just requires a little attention to detail.

I slice the tofu block in half, make a hidden incision parallel to the white tofu near the bottom of the block, and cut a rectangle in the interior. It's important to have a fairly substantial border of flesh to keep the block from collapsing... probably in the 3/8-1/2 inch range (1.5cm) I gently work the inner cube out of the block.

I season some dashijiru with mirin, Japanese soy sauce, salt and sugar to nimono strength, neither very salty nor incredibly bland. I cook shimeji (a kind of mushroom) for a few minutes in the seasoned dashi, and I blanch some matchstick-cut carrots and some snow peas. Once those have been shocked with cold water, I give them a little time with the dashi, as well as the tofu itself.  The tofu can only handle a few minutes before it wants to disintegrate, so I pull it out with a slotted spoon and stuff it with the seasoned shimeji, the carrots, and some kaiware-daikon, or radish sprouts.

The snow peas are placed in the serving dish, I plate the atsuage, and I pour enough of the seasoned broth into the bowl.

It's just one of several side dishes, and like most Japanese dishes, it's assari, or just lightly seasoned. It's mostly about having very fresh tofu, very fresh vegetables, and good quality mushrooms. It can be assembled before everything else is plated, because this type of dish can be presented lukewarm.

It could be served with a little fresh ginger, but that kind of intensity isn't really necessary for this kind of dish. The kaiware provide just a hint of sharpness that balances out the relatively muted flavors of the dish. The contrast between this and other dishes in the same meal make having really big, bold flavors here unnecessary: my umeboshi, sunomono, an aemono, and a spicy nagaimo dish I served with it provide balance.

Since it looks a bit like a forest in the middle of the tofu, we could call it atsuage no mori, or tofu forest.