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.

An donuts

Now considered kind of quaint and old-fashioned, an donatsu or sweet azuki paste stuffed donuts were once a staple of Japanese-style bakeries. Increasingly, mushy, cloyingly sweet, preservative-laden versions sold at convenience stores have displaced the fresher incarnations of this sweet, but it’s worth indulging in when you find the real thing.

An Donuts

Andonatsu-ogura

I can’t think of anywhere in Seattle to buy a decent an donut. But I can make a fairly decent interpretation myself...

Sunday morning, after realizing I had no more yeast left, I abandoned the idea of making anpan, the baked bread stuffed with the same kind of red bean paste. I did, however, have eggs, baking powder, and milk, so I put together a cake-like dough, incorporating a bit of melted butter and sugar. The dough was slightly sticky, but solid enough to allow for wrapping the dough around the filling.

The day before I had prepared some ogura-an, sweetened, coarsely mashed cooked azuki beans. I broke the usual convention of using about 50% sugar in the bean paste, preferring to use just enough sugar to taste the sweetness. I probably used no more than 25% sugar.

The main challenge is to make the outer layer thin enough that the dough can cook through, and almost all of them turned out just fine. After frying, I tossed the balls with some granulated sugar to add some textural contrast and an initial hit of sweetness.

We made a couple of lattes and indulged in a late breakfast.

Fresh from the fryer, our homemade an donuts were a totally different experience than I’ve even been able to have in Japan, since those are almost always sold after they have cooled down to room temperature. A tiny hint of crispness as we bit into each piece yielded to a soft cake texture, followed by the warm, sweet bean center.

Laugenbrötchen

I impatiently made Laugen with an inadequately smooth dough a few weeks ago, and the skin never quite became glatt enough to make for attractive rolls.

I’ve actually made nicer Laugen before, but I was careless that Sunday…

Laugenbroetchen

Anyway, it’s another thing that Hiromi became a fan of, thanks in particular to the Columbia City Bakery, while in Seattle. So I thought I’d make some one morning.

Anyway, the technique is not particularly interesting… I just made a yeast dough, a customary Natron  (baking soda) solution brought to a boil, and stewed the rolls a minute or so, pressed the buns into some coarse salt, and baked until browned.

With more careful attention to detail, and a slightly warmer kitchen on the day in question, I’d have a somewhat smoother skin, but they tasted fairly decent.

Tagliatelle with tomato-basil cream sauce

tomatobasilcream 007

I've gotten busy the last couple of weeks... I was so tired after my day job on Wednesday that I ended up eating out with a friend downtown just to make my late return home a little more relaxing. Thursday I had my usual Japanese Meetup, and since this week is one of the three weeks of the Seattle International Film Festival, a few of us went to watch a Japanese film afterward.

This week I also learned that what I thought was just a severe foot sprain caused by my own clumsiness a few weeks ago also decidedly involved a couple of small fractures in my foot. That means that I'll be wearing a clunky medical support boot for another few weeks. The initial X-ray a couple weeks back was inconclusive, but it was so obvious even I could see it on the follow-up. Thanks to that, and thanks to some ambiguity on another one of my left foot's bones, I also had a CAT scan on Thursday, and I'll hear back sometime Monday if it's anything more severe or if I can just continue relying on the ugly boot.

Friday night I got home late, too, and tried to keep dinner simple. I wasn't in the mood for complications today, either; I did go to another Japanese film this morning, this time on my own. I was feeling a bit under the weather after doing some vegetable shopping at the Pike Place Market, so I just made a simple pasta dish, along with a side dish of baked egg with porcini mushrooms and vegetables.

One of my go-to pasta dishes when I'm being lazy is whatever pasta is on hand served with a simple tomato-basil cream sauce. It's completely unhealthy, but it's always satisfying: Butter, cream, garlic, concentrated tomato puree, parmesan, and a little salt make a nice sauce, especially when the final dish is served topped with chiffonade of basil and a little pepper.

Since such simple dishes only require a few minutes of attention, I didn't need to struggle much to get dinner on the table.

I'm keeping a low profile tonight... I hope to catch up on some long neglected things on my task list tomorrow.

Broccoli no toufu ae: Tofu and sesame dressed broccoli

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

washoku 422

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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Hiromi's got the flakier crust

Somehow I’m always happy to make a standard American pie crust, slightly flaky and crumbly and crisp all at once. I occasionally veer toward a rough puff pastry but I’m usually just not that committed, and I do like a nice American pie crust, so I tend to just take the shorter way out…

Hiromi, on the other hand, refuses to produce anything shorter than a rough puff. It’s often just shy of a true puff pastry. So when she makes an apple pie, the edges erupt dramatically, and the top crust and edges have hundreds of little layers.

Hiromi’s After-Christmas Apple Pie

Apple pie by Hiromi

If memory serves me correctly, we warmed up the last two slices just minutes before the New Year’s Eve countdown, served with a little sweet potato ice cream, just after the fireworks ended… We were too tired to go out to a New Year’s party or even to stand in the cold in front of the Space Needle, so we just looked out toward Queen Anne from our balcony window and occasionally glanced at the 7–second delayed TV broadcast.

The pie was very nice… Although I suppose it was a little strange to be polishing off a bottle of Washington sparkling wine at roughly the same time…

Dinner and a movie: a date with myself

Friday I finished work at my survival gig late, as I had been trying to partially make up for time lost Tuesday, when the ice made car travel to the Eastside ill-advised. Fortunately, I finally got everything I had planned for the week done.

I was a little worried because one of the projects I’ve been working on, which was messy and complex when I started working on it, has been a real bear to clean up, and every inch of progress was fraught with new complications. Now things are almost pretty, and I can move on to other work.

Anyway, I felt this urge to do something interesting, and it was a little late to start cooking, so I went to a downtown-ish restaurant hoping to have some interesting nibbles. Suffice to say the experience was unremarkable; the interior was pretty, but the cocktail I drank had a top note much like the aftertaste of an artificial sweetener, the little appetizer that I ate was forgettable, and the only redeeming feature of the meal was a simple but reasonably well-executed dish with green beans and tofu. The front of house staff were pleasant even though I probably looked excessively serious and maybe even slightly dour when I arrived.

I left the restaurant slightly poorer and smelling loudly of garlic.

Initially, I thought I’d just go home after that, but I had a sudden urge to see a film. So I was turning my evening into half a date… the kind without a partner in crime… it might be pathetic if I were a more sympathetic character.

I didn’t do any advance research, but I settled on Babel, which I think I had heard a bit about on Ebert & Roeper sans Ebert last weekend.

For a Friday night, the film was Somewhat lightly attended. I suspect the whole parallel timelines thing is a hard sell for “date night.” Some of the online reviews I’ve seen since watching the film complain it is a poor variation on Crash, but I think that’s a bit myopic… The device of parallel timelines with scripted coincidences has been used in movies like the 1989 Mystery Train and the Tarantino “tributes” to that style, such as Four Rooms. It’s not like Crash invented that device. Crash and Babel are similar only in the sense that they are melodramatic rather than quirky in style.

Compared to Crash, Babel’s premise is far less heavy-handed, though perhaps similarly didactic. It is built on vignettes illustrating alienation, inhumanity, self-centeredness (both sympathetic and not), and occasionally, sacrifice.

The premise of the film, apparently, is that small tragedies needn’t explode into fiascos if we would, in the heat of the moment, stop a moment and listen to each other, rather than just reacting with some kind of misguided self-preservation impulse and escalating the small misunderstandings that result from our hasty judgments. That’s a complex premise, which might in itself be a weakness, but it would be unfair to the film to oversimplify the message. This isn’t some sort of goofy “if we all just communicate better we’ll achieve world peace” hippy idealism.

None of the tragedies in the film would be less tragic with less miscommunication, but perhaps such tragedies would not become such fiascos. And that’s essentially the message… Like most films with a message, the success or failure of the film is how much it draws you in and connects you with the characters. On that regard, it’s a successful film. It’s hard to build two complex characters into a film, and it’s amazing to build no fewer than 4 fully developed, evolving personalities into a film.

The most impressive achievement of this film is its sensitive portrayal of universal conflicts set in several complex cultural contexts, without devolving into some caricature of those cultures. Two preteen boys in Morocco play out predictable sibling rivalries, and do exactly what you’d expect them to do when handed a gun… and their behavior is not some canned stereotype of a Moroccan family, but a believable portrayal of the dynamic relationships between people in circumstances that escalate from ordinary to extreme.

Chieko illustrates classic coming-of-age dramas in the context of urban alienation, a handicap, and a complex family story. She’s starved for affection, detached from the world and yet wishes for nothing more but to be a part of it, and simultaneously suffers from feelings of guilt related to her mother’s suicide. She acts out in nearly tragic ways and yet is treated with great sympathy.

The scenes in Mexico are simultaneously unlikely and believable portrayal of a rural, poor family, and the implicit trust the children have for their caretaker even when she’s exercising terribly poor judgment, is fascinating and full of contradiction.

Brad Pitt’s character as a loving but somehow fatefully inadequate husband is more complex than at first glance, and avoids the trap of dwelling on the troubles in their relationship while still completely integrating that backstory into every gesture the two characters make.

It might be a bit overblown to tie together all of terrorism, sibling rivalry, the trials of coming of age, immigration, marriage troubles, the emotionally unavailable father dynamic, racism and fear of Islam.

Outside of the world of this film, it’s clear that policial forces that create hysteria around terrorism have other causes beyond poor communication; in that case, anyway, communication problems are a result, rather than a cause, of the execution of a tragic political agenda. And I wouldn’t buy that poor communication is the underlying cause of most of the other social problems examined in the film; it’s merely a catalyst of further alienation and inhumanity.

But perhaps that is the key theme… this film is not pretending to articulate a solution for all of the problems of  contemporary world politics, interpersonal relationships, and everything else, but perhaps a small examination of one of the fuels of human tragedy.

The acting is almost without exception above par, even the otherwise rarely nuanced Brad Pitt. It’s not a great movie, but it’s certainly a good one. I know that the end-of-year release is calculated primarily to extend the film’s theatrical life on hopes of the “Oscar effect”, but if it does win for cinematography, director, or a supporting acting role, it wouldn’t be undeserved.

(Trailer)

Tortured eggplant

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

food 297

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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Back to my roots again

During the summer, save for the occasional roasted potato, and maybe the carrots in mirepoix, I tend to mostly ignore roots and tubers. But in the fall and wintertime, when it’s a bit cooler, I occasionally get the urge to just load up on them.

Roots and green beans

Roasted vegetables are the ultimate winter comfort food, and only take a few minutes to prepare; they just need to be cut up and quickly seasoned, tossed in a hot oven, and flipped once or twice during cooking. This time, I roasted white-fleshed sweet potato, a golden beet, a small yukon potato with rosemary, and a carrot, all seasoned with a bit of salt and rubbed with olive oil.

Served with some some fresh skinny green beans sauteed with shallots, and accompanied with some garlic and rosemary seasoned cannelini puree, it’s not really high drama cuisine, but it warms me up on a cold night.

Out-of-town visitors

This week ended up being relatively unproductive when it came to work, because I needed to prepare for visitors and run various errands. On Thursday, I had two visitors from Japan and one from Victoria, BC.

Hiromi came in on Thursday morning and I picked her up at the airport. We were hoping to take a look at tulips up in the La Conner area, but the early spring weather this year had forced all of the growers to top their tulips a little early this year, so we ended up relaxing on the beach at Golden Gardens in Ballard, then having a little iced tea at Masalisa.

I had a conference call with one of my suppliers around 7pm. It was encouraging. I'll need to make some changes in my plan with that product and revise my sales objectives, but actually they are going to be more conservative than before, and that makes me feel a little better about the project because I don't have to take risks quite as substantial as I had expected.

Sachi and her Canadian friend, Sandra, arrived via the Victoria Clipper a little after 8:30, and cleared customs a little shy of 9pm. We made our way to La Spiga restaurant on Broadway and ordered Crescioni and Piadina in addition to various pasta choices. I had a pretty nice asparagus tortelli with a lemon butter sauce. We stopped at Dilletante and shared a single piece of cake between the four of us.

Friday, we played tourist all day and into the night. I took everyone to breakfast at Cafe Besalu in Ballard, we stopped at Archie McPhee and at the Ballard Locks, and we headed over to West Seattle for some postcard photography opportunities at the fishing pier and at Alki beach. We ate a little lunch at a tiny restaurant on 8th & King in the International District, Szechuan Noodle Bowl. I ordered their cold seaweed dish, a little braised bamboo shoot dish, and green onion pancakes. Two of us ordered vegetable dumplings in la-yu and soy sauce, and two ordered a vegetable udon dish in soup.

Afterword, we made a stop at Pacific Place mall, and then walked over to the Pike Place market to get vegetables and other things for dinner. We did a little gift shopping, and then briefly visited Vivace's for coffee and tea. We also made a quick run to Fran's chocolates at University Village.

Finally, we came to my place and tried unsuccessfully to get Japanese natural oak charcoal to burn in a tiny tabletop grill called a “shichirin“. This was the first time I have actually tried to use the shichirin so it was a little more trouble than I expected. I had gotten one of my potato pizzas done while my guests were fighting with the shichirin, and finally we gave up on it. I was asked to re-warm the potato pizza, which on a baking stone turned out to be a bad idea because there would have been no way to quickly bring the oven temperature down to a “warming“ temperature. and I managed to char the previously flawless but cold pizza. I them promptly managed to drop a slippery and unfortunately too flexibly plastic bottle of oil into the sink and it splashed back on to Sachi's clothing. I don't think I've ever had so many things go wrong in one meal. We did manage to eat grilled vegetables and my guests had shrimp, scallops and squid also; I just used my indoor grill pan and a cast iron skillet to stand in for the finicky oak charcoal. It didn't occur to me until far too late that I probably could have used my small “konro“ (like a gas camping stove) to ignite the charcoal.

We also had some nice yuzu ice cream and a kona coffee sorbet that I made, and dipped into a quince infused liqueur that I had started back at the end of January. Except for the comedy of errors, the food was mostly pretty good.

We finished the evening by going up the escalator in the Space Needle during the last open hour, and taking in the cityscape. Sachi and Sandra went back this morning, and Hiromi is here until the 4th.

Earlier in the week I finally got my car detailed by Fremont Auto Detail, which seems like a bit of an indulgence for someone without any consequential revenue but was very worth it... my car had been looking very sad especially on the interior. I also took care of getting some shelving I need to handle the ceramics boxes that will be coming from Japan later in May. I didn't do much that was actually useful for my business except for creating some price lists. I have another visitor to entertain from the 4th through the 7th, and then I'll get back into the swing of things.

Hanami in Hirosaki, Part 1

 

May 2. Hirosaki, Aomori, Japan.

Sakura (cherry blossoms) bloom late in northern Japan, and the blossoms typically coincide with the Golden Week holidays.

As I always seem to find myself in Tokyo toward the end of March, and never at the beginning of April, I was looking forward to finally seeking sakura in full bloom on this trip... For Hiromi's schedule, late April worked better, so we chose to make a special trip up north to take advantage of the seasonal progression

Hirosaki Park in Aomori prefecture has more than 2600 cherry trees, and the timing of the blooms makes this park a popular destination for both locals and out-of-towners.

May 2 wasn't technically a holiday, and we faced some rather dreary weather... overcast skies and occasional rain, along with periodic bursts of wind. Thanks to that, the crowds were fairly mild.

I don't think we ever got around to having a normal lunch that day, but we did have some nice sakura-mushi-dorayaki, steamed dorayaki pancakes made with salt-preserved cherry blossoms and sweet white bean paste, found at one of the many vendors inside Hirosaki park. Later, we discovered a section populated entirely with yatai and hungry park-goers, and snacked on kabocha dango with a sweet miso sauce, as well as some black simmered konnyaku on a stick.

We imagined we might come back at night when the park was completely illuminated for night-time hanami, when various salaried workers would congregate, drink a little too much, and eat some combination of yatai treats and hanami bento... Alas, we reached our evening destination, took a bath, had dinner, and were completely exhausted... we didn't make it back until daylight.

Moat

Moat

Shidare-zakura

Shidare-zakura

Botan

Botan

Hashi

Hashi

Solo

Solo 

Branch 1

Branch 1

Branch 2

Branch 2

Clusters

Clusters

Petals on water

Petals on water

Petals over water

Petals over water

It could be snow

It could be snow

Hirosaki-jo

Hirosaki-jo

View from a castle

View from a castle

Exhausted

Exhausted

See part 2.

 

 

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