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.

Little eggplants in the spring

These small “Indian” eggplants from Uwajimaya remind me of kyo-nasu (Kyoto eggplant). I love using these small eggplants for elegant side dishes. It’s a little early for great eggplant, but they’re starting to be quite respectable again.

But I chose to lean toward spicy…. Nothing terribly complicated; just fresh and full of little contrasts.

Eggplant marinated with lime

Eggplant and cilantro

Thai chilies, shallots, and lime juice marinated with briefly fried halves of eggplant, with fresh cilantro leaves. I salted the eggplant and rinsed to keep them reasonably shapely. Pleasantly tart and exciting the first night, they have an even better flavor on the second day. Just add the fresh cilantro at the last minute for a nice balance of flavor.

Eggplant and tofu with thai basil

Eggplant and atsuage

Extra soft atusage (fried tofu), braised eggplant, seasoned with a little green curry paste, and basil, served dry. A little indulgent, but somehow comforting.

Mouth openers as dinner

Mouth openers

Perhaps I'm just getting older, but I'm finding that I'm often happier eating starters than I am having a big main dish... Sometimes I don't even get to the main dish. Tonight was one of those nights. I had enough energy to do a little preparation of a few simple things, but nothing required more than three or four ingredients.

Salted roasted ginko nuts

Roasted ginnan, ginko nuts

These ginnan, or ginko nuts, were simply soaked in water for a few minutes, doused in salt, and roasted until tender. It's probably better to gently crack these before cooking them, because they'll be easier to peel at the table. Since these were all for me, I cracked and peeled all of them at the table.

The flesh varies from yellow to greenish. As with peanuts, there's an intermediate brownish skin inside the hard outer shell. You'll generally want to discard that thinner skin, as it adds nothing to the flavor and may be unpleasantly bitter com.

Salted, roasted ginnan are one of those snacks that I can't resist ordering when I spot them on a menu in Japan. There's really not much to making them. But the gently yielding texture, the mild bitterness and the touch of salt makes them a remarkable accompaniment to dry beer, sake, or shochu. (I'll have to take the beer thing on faith... I'm more of a sake and shochu guy myself).

I wasn't having anything to drink with dinner tonight, but I'm still a sucker for this salty snack. They also happen to have a fairly plentiful protein content, without the heavy fat burden that most nuts have.

Roasted Tomatoes Stuffed with Cheese and Basil

Roasted tomatoes stuffed with cheese and basil

Small tomatoes, slightly larger than cherry tomatoes, with some Seastack cheese and basil. Any cheese would do, but that was the creamiest cheese I had handy. Roasted for just a bit over 6 minutes at 425°F, the cheese just begins to melt and the tomatoes become a bit sweeter as the roasting process claims some of their water.

The tomatoes are served atop some curly endive. I would normally be inclined to dress the endive with a vinaigrette. Thanks to my urge to keep things simple, and because I already had a nice creamy cheese in the tomatoes to go with the greens, I just mixed them with a little citrus juice and a tiny sprinkling of salt, making something closer to an ancient Roman salad.

Roasted Potatoes

Butter-roasted potatoes with cumin, chilies, and salt

I baked these potato wedges with a couple of cloves of garlic and a knob of butter. They've been seasoned with a chili-cumin salt blend, and the garlic cloves gently roast in the butter, adding a subtle hint of garlic flavor without becoming overwhelming.

Grilled porcini with balsamic vinegar

nibbles 007

I've taken some thick slices of porcini and pan-seared them in a little olive oil, sprinkled with salt. They're finished with a simple splash of cheap sake and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, which thickens up and coats the mushrooms beautifully. The slightly pine-like aroma still comes through, allowing the sauce to provide just enough complexity to wake up the natural flavors of the porcini.

Nibbles

I thought I might want some pasta or something to fill me up, but I was happy with just the addition of roasted spears of garlic shoots sprinkled with red pepper flakes and parmesan. Perhaps my breakfast and lunch were a bit too heavy today?

Yasaiya Mei: Robata-ya for madamu in Omotesandō

If you're a suitably fortunate madamu, you wouldn't be caught dead in your husband's favorite, smelly neighborhood robata-ya restaurant. However, that doesn't mean you would completely eschew the idea of charcoal-grilled altogether. You just want it to be a little more elegant... and perhaps a little less heavy on the smoke.

For those well-heeled women, there is Yasaiya Mei, a high-drama robata-ya in the sparkly, mine-like structure known as Omotesandō Hills.

Hiromi and I had eyed this spot after our previous outing to Omotesandō, and put it on our list of places to come back to. The dinner menu was out when we first walked by in the late afternoon, and it was fairly tempting, so we tried to find an excuse to come back.

We made plans for lunch with Kristin of eGullet and some of Hiromi's friends for a weekend lunch, and ended up choosing this spot since absolutely none of us would be able to make it there for lunch on a normal workday. For most of us it was a bit of a splurge, certainly for lunch, though some people got away with a slightly less expensive set. Lunch goes for JPY 2400-4000 ($22~40).

Two people, including me, ordered a spring vegetable set meal with some partial vegetarian accommodations. A British software developer in our group also prefers to eat vegetarian, so we ordered the same menu option. However, in just a couple months in Japan he's resigned himself to eating fish, preferring just to avoid chunks of pork and chicken and the like because it adds so much complexity to dining out, so he

On this trip I've found that restaurants we've visited have been surprisingly accommodating for my vegetarian quirk. It's not customary in Japan to accept special requests (or, more importantly, to make them) at restaurants, so that hasn't always been the case. I don't know if it's because we tended to eat in fairly high-end spots, if we just happened to stumble on places with excellent service standards, or if things are gradually changing.

Hiromi and Kristen ordered a special-of-the-day lunch, and one person ordered a simple curry set meal. Grilled items weren't terribly prominent, but were featured in most of our meals.

First course, vegetable set

First course, vegetable set, Yasaiya, Omotesando, Japan

Five little vegetable-highlighting dishes... as usual, practicing a vegetarian diet in Japan requires a sense of humor and a tolerance for fish-as-garnish, as in the case of the typical katsuo-bushi (shaved bonito) dressed ohitashi (blanched vegetable dish, center) and the sakura-ebi (tiny shrimp) garnished sunomono (sweet vinegar dressed dish, left).

Sappari Aloe

Sappari Aloe 

Our server noticed that one of the dishes in this starter course was made with crab, and without me asking, quickly swapped that dish out for an elegant and refreshing aloe ohitashi, which was meant for today's special lunchbox. A few years ago, aloe as a vegetable became all the rage throughout Asia, and this simple dish is reflective of that. It's reminiscent of mozuku, thanks to the neba-neba (sticky) qualities of the aloe and the slightly acidic sauce.

Ume gelee-dressed vegetables

Ume gelee-dressed vegetables

This ume-gelee dressed vegetable dish was surprisingly sappari. I guess I'm a sucker for Japanese apricot, but I was almost expecting this to be either strangely sweet or intensely sour; instead, it was well-balanced and full of pleasing contrasts.

Potato and green bean salad in bamboo "bark"

Ume gelee-dressed vegetables

This simple bamboo shoot and green bean aemono gets a dramatic treatment with a garnish from the outer layer of a bamboo shoot.

Vegetable curry rice set

Vegetable curry rice set

One of Hiromi's friends ordered an elegant Japanese-style curry rice with an unusual presentation... the rice comes adorned with goya (bitter melon), takenoko (bamboo shoot) and other vegetables, and the curry itself is served in a gravy boat, which the guest uses to pours the hot curry over the rice herself... some pickles and another small side dish accompany this.

Two-tiered lunchbox

Two-tiered lunchbox

I was too distracted to remember all of the things that come in the day's special two-tiered lunchbox, but the list was so long on the menu that I stopped reading carefully. It includes some agemono (fried foods), a rice dish with ikura (seasoned salmon roe) and bamboo shoots, a few yakimono (grilled fish, vegetables and meat). I think the confetti-puff-rice covered ball is a kind of meatball.

The starter tier

The starter tier

The upper tier includes an aloe dish (as above), a kind of nagaimo pudding (I think), renkon (lotus root) chips, and a little maguro.

Vegetable set second course

Vegetable set second course

My order comes in two stages, and this second course features a rice dish, a grilled dish, a poached glutinous rice ball, and miso soup.

Steamed rice with fava beans

Steamed rice with fava beans

Soramame (fava beens), maybe some nanohana (rapeseed greens), and some kind of ingen (green beans), along with some mushrooms and an herb garnish top my steamed rice.

Nimono, perhaps, with glutinous rice

Nimono, perhaps, with glutinous rice

This glutinous rice ball is poached a bit in seasoned soup stock and served with shiitake slices. It was hard to resist.

Yakimono

Yakimono with bamboo, asparagus, shiitake and cherry tomatoes

This was my set of robata-grilled dishes... the always-tempting spring takenoko, grilled bamboo shoots; grilled asparagus, shiitake, a cherry tomato, and a little nut that I'm forgetting the name of.

The bowl makes the miso soup

The bowl makes the miso soup

Spring greens in a strong miso soup.

Pickled gourd

Pickled gourd

Most of us got this surprisingly tasty pickled hyōtan, or gourd. I can't recall actually eating hyoutan anywhere else before. I wouldn't hesitate to eat it again... I was surprised. It was fairly ordinary, as pickles go, but I just haven't seen it before.

Shokugo

Shokugo

To finish the meal, everyone received a little tea (low-end matcha), and two kinds of wagashi. One is similar to warabi-mochi (right), and the other is a flavored rice cake.

We weren't quite finished... After our big lunch, we wandered off to chat more and to have some contemporary, reimagined wagashi at Toraya just a few floors below...

Yudoufu

After stopping in Ballard briefly I went to my office to work on a long outstanding, slightly complicated project, and it kept me there a little late. I started to get fairly hungry, because both breakfast and lunch were quite minimal.

I had a simple dinner in mind.

During wintertime in Japan, nabe-ryouri (most clearly translated as hot pot cuisine or one-pot meals) is a preferred way of warming up at dinnertime. It’s a communal kind of meal, and generally involves multiple additions of various ingredients. In a restaurant, however, sometimes everything is placed in the pot before bringing it to the table. It’s typically heated on a small portable gas stove or a small induction cooktop at the table.

Kinoko-iri Yudoufu

Yudoufu 027-640w

Yudoufu is perhaps the most assari of nabe meals. It’s light flavored, sometimes consisting of no more than some dried konbu (giant kelp) and fresh, chopped tofu. It is generally served with a sappari, or refreshing, dipping sauce, like ponzu.

Yudoufu must feature tofu, but a number of additions are quite typical. Hakusai, or napa cabbage, is a natural, and contributes a bit of a broth. I frequently include shiitake mushrooms and occasionally the thin, long enoki. For tonight’s version, I didn’t use enoki, but I did come across another good deal on chanterelles, which were cheaper than my shiitake. They provided a kind of earthiness that I don’t usually experience with yudoufu in Japan.

Other nabe might contain chicken, lighter-tasting shellfish such as hotate (scallops), and in some cases, the occasional crab or lobster. Heavier, meaty nabe are also popular. After the raw ingredients are exhausted in these stronger-tasting nabe dishes, many families will add cooked rice to make zousui, or rice porridge.

Yuzu ponzu

Hidden in my freezer is a small, slightly freezer-burned stash of grated yuzu peel. I owe this treasure to ceramic artist Minowa Yasuo, who acquired several for me from a conveniently located neighbor last fall in Mashiko, Japan. My remaining stash still seems to have a fair amount of the incomparable aroma of this citrus fruit.

To make the dipping sauce, yuzu zest is indispensible. Because of its power, I don’t really need complicated seasonings: Japanese soy sauce, a little citrus juice (I used yuzu juice also), and the yuzu peel make an aromatic, refreshing foil for the mild tasting yudoufu ingredients. Some people add might add shichimi.

Yudoufu 044-640w

 

Feeling a little Mediterranean

I go through these mini-phases. Two weeks eating nothing but Japanese food. A pasta-heavy month. A week full of salsa and guacamole. A lot of tofu in a little time. A series of soups.

Sometimes it's just a matter of what I've been shopping for, and what's in the refrigerator at any given moment. Sometimes, though, I get the feeling that my body is telling me that it wants something. Maybe that's what's been going on this week.

Actually, I remember that I was craving falafel last weekend. It didn't work out; the place I went to was closed, and I ate something entirely different. But when I was going home hungry late Thursday night, I got an urge for hummus. So I grabbed some preservative-free ready-to-eat hummus, pita, and a cucumber at the Wallingford QFC, and went home and ate a light late-night meal.

Friday night, when talking about dinner with a colleague of mine, I suggested a couple of restaurant choices, one of which was Vios Cafe, probably Seattle's best Greek restaurant. I brought another friend along, too. So I had two nights in a row of pita... but wait, there was more! I still had to use up my hummus and pita from the supermarket, so Saturday's lunch was familiar.

You'd think that'd be enough, but with two more pita to go, I realized today that the hummus wouldn't be the end of things.

After having a semi-Cajun lunch at the Pike Place Market, and indulging on little donuts not long after, I thought it would be nice to have a simple dinner tonight. I went to the gym to work off some of the damage, and bought some big marinated gigandes beans and grilled marinated artichokes to take home.

I roasted a red pepper, made a little cucumber salad, and brought out some pickled peperoncini from the refrigerator. Even though the pita are store-bought, I used the restaurant trick of refreshing the bread by grilling the pita a bit, which made them soft and fluffy again. Then I brushed the pita with really good olive oil, which just makes them indulgent.

I still have some of the gigandes and the grilled artichokes, but now that I've finished up the pita, I think I've satisfied any lingering cravings for flatbread. Maybe tomorrow I'll make a little farro.

The financial pain of demo travel; last night's dinner

I do a lot of demos of my products at grocery stores where my products are carried. If I’m the broker, my client usually pays for the cost of sampling materials. But for things I import, I pay for the samples I give out. The cost of sampling is by itself quite painful.

The theory of doing demos is not that you will sell a lot of product the day of the event. Demos are a way of introducing products, getting feedback, and hopefully, getting such products in the mind of the customer. A few people buy something right away, and some people buy on their next trip to the store, and some people will remember the item when just the right occasion comes up. And, of course, quite a lot of people won’t take any action at all, but this is true of any promotional method.

The advantage of conducting a demo is the immediate feedback, the rapport you can establish with at least a few customers, and the potential for building long-term repeat customers. It’s very hands-on, and very much a way of telling the story of a product.

Alas, thanks to the ever-increasing gas prices, my occasional trips to Portland are never very financially rewarding. I’ve averaged about two trips per month to the Beaverton Uwajimaya, at a cost of about $30–35 per trip in gas, without considering any additional impact on my car’s lifespan or maintenance needs. Yesterday, when I fueled up in anticipation of this trip, I spent almost exactly $45 for 16 gallons of gas. When I got home tonight, I had to fill it up again, and away went another $42 or so.

On the one hand, this is a very difficult way to build product recognition. On the other hand, if I don’t do these demos, my products may not move at all, because people don’t get to know anything about them.

Of late, I have substantially increased my portfolio of products that I sell at wholesale, so I believe that these challenges are really just a matter of scale. But it’s still very frustrating to look at money disappearing so rapidly.

Last night I made a late bit simple dinner for three. It included a vaguely greek salad (feta, kalamata olives, tomatoes, cucumber, atop lettuce) with a garlic-citrus dressing, some hummus which I adorned with some olive oil and mild chili powder, some grilled mushrooms with garlic, some roasted red peppers, and some decent pita I found that is made in Seattle without the use of any scary additives or unpronounceable ingredients, and still happens to be moderately pillowy for something obtained at a supermarket. I also did some nice roasted potatoes again.

PitaAlittlegriechisch-mushroomsAlittlegriechisch roasted peppersHummus etc. Alittlegriechisch-saladAlittlegriechisch-potatoes

FoodEx 2005, Day 1

I spent most of the day in the international section of FoodEx, mostly because that’s the hall where I entered. I wanted to briefly say hi to my dragon beard candy supplier, and I also had a meeting planned with a yuzu juice supplier in the afternoon, who planned to meet me in the international hall.

A few companies I ran into had products quite compatible with my vision, so I spent a little extra time talking to a few of them. Among them, I met a Hong Kong based supplier of certified organic teas from China, which also seemed to have an excellent packaging design team. The woman who manages their business said that she spends a lot of time finding the teas and might only take one of the many selections of tea from a particular farm. I found a Malaysian-based producer of beautifully packaged moon cakes, very contemporary and hip looking, and fairly nice quality; the same company makes some nicely packaged European/Asian style cookies and cakes that have some crossover appeal. Another interesting concept was a Singapore-based old-school cafe with a contemporary interior design, and a signature toast spread that’s a sweet custard base flavored with a Singaporean herb. Most of those companies have products that would fit in beautifully in upscale supermarkets; they wouldn’t have an appeal limited to a first-generation immigrant audience. At the same time, the prices should be a little more compatible with the needs of these types of markets than my ultra-high-end candy.

As last year, official policy prohibits me taking photos during the food show, but I may get some packaging shots online from samples in the next day or two.

I met with a yuzu juice company I’ve been trying to get prices out of for the last 6 months or so. It sounds like it might be a bit of a problem to get the exact configuration I need from them until summer or so, when some new factory equipment is coming online. However, I now have a source should I need, say, 5000 or 10,000 liters of yuzu juice in bulk packaging. The main problem is that it will need to transport such an item in a refrigerated container, which would preclude any consolidation. And the pricing isn’t really that pleasant to look at for anything shy of 15,000 liters (which is nearly a full container load). So I might have to hold off on yuzu juice and related products until they can supply their shelf-stable products this summer.

It turns out, though, that they would be able to custom manufacture some salad dressing recipes and other related products I’ve been investigating, and they can also supply other useful Japanese fruit commodities made from kabosu, daidai, shikuuwaasaa, and so on. They even can provide me with pure yuzu oil, which is even higher grade than most cosmetics are using. So, although I’m not thrilled with the cost, I’m happy I can finally answer customer requests for yuzu products.

Tomorrow I’ll be at FoodEx again, and I will probably take all of Thursday at Hoteres.

Hanami: Cherry blossom viewing

Everything seemed to move in slow motion today, except my watch.

I got out of my hotel around 10:30, about 30 minutes after the official checkout time. Today the plan was to go meet some of Hiromi’s friends for a slightly premature hanami (cherry blossom viewing) in a park at Nakayama (Yokohama). I think we arrived about an hour and a half after our intended time, and we started preparing sandwiches to take with us to the park.

My contribution was roasting some red peppers and eggplant, then making roasted pepper, cheese and lettuce sandwiches, and some sandwiches made with briefly marinated eggplant and cheese. We arrived at the park around 2pm and snacked on various things, drank some aged 1988 Japanese sake (18% alcohol, caramel-like color, brandy-like flavor). Some drank “off time” beer, a recently introduced brand which has had its alcohol reduced by 40% compared to typical Japanese beer, or “happo-shu” which is a cheap beer-like drink produced in such a way that it once evaded various beer-related taxes.

The cherry blossoms in this park were probably at about 30% of their peak, but the weather was pleasant, and, as I experienced, the flowers are only an incidental aspect of the hanami experience.

After a couple of hours we cleaned up, and I gave a piggy-back ride to Sanae’s little girl Kyouka on the walk back to their home. We moved rather slowly, but Hiromi did some research to find hotel accommodations for tonight and tomorrow night; I’m going to Mashiko on a buying trip tomorrow and planned to stay overnight either in Utsunomiya or Mashiko. I also needed something for Sunday night close to Shimbashi or Toranomon, so that complicated things too. I should have figured all this stuff out on my own, but I really appreciate receiving help.

Actually we had planned to head off to Utsunomiya by car around 6 pm today, but we didn’t even get to the car until 10pm, so it’s going to be a long night, especially for Hiromi, who’s driving.

Okara burger with tounyuu pan

No, I am not a great fan of meat analogues, but every once in a while I get an odd craving for a veggie burger. Most of the frozen products are not very exciting, and they've gotten incredibly expensive in the last few years, so they're almost never on my shopping list. But I do sometimes decide to make them at home.

This week, I still had a substantial amount of leftover okara, the soybean mash that's a byproduct of soymilk-making, a consequence of my godoufu-making endeavors. It really has a short lifespan, so I've been doing my best to make use of it before it's too late.

Some of the okara I had went into a croquette-like dish I made last Sunday. Seasoned okara has a slightly longer lifespan than unseasoned okara, so I repurposed some of the remaining croquette base, and blended it with some of the filling from some mushroom gyoza that was also sitting in my refrigerator. I shaped the resulting mixture into patties and carefully slipped them into a deep fryer.

What goes into such a concoction as okara croquettes or okara burgers? Well, there are other options, but basically I seasoned everything with a little salt, maybe a splash of some soy sauce, some pepper, and, in this case, and some mitsuba, a Japanese herb slightly similar to flat-leaf parsley. I used a little flour, and maybe even an egg yolk, to help everything hold together. The mushrooms added a bit of aroma and flavor, and since they were repurposed from a gyoza filling, they also benefited from the garlic-like flavor of nira, a chive-like herb. 

 

The okara burgers are, in this case, served on soymilk buns. The excessive surplus of soymilk in my refrigerator perhaps made this inevitable, but it works.

There's no way I'd be able to give a precise recipe for the okara "burgers", but a little experimentation and tasting before cooking should be enough of an indication of the likely success or failure. In this case, I deep fried them, instead of using a frying pan, but either way would work. Deep frying, counter-intuitively, absorbs less oil than using a frying pan, because the temperature is more stable.

They're served with mixed greens, onions, and brie, and the usual mayo/mustard/ketchup (corn-syrup free) condiments.

Potatoes were yukon golds, fried at a bit lower than normal temperature to keep them from browning too quickly, are twice-fried and tossed with porcini salt and a bit of additional sea salt. These would be equally nice roasted in the oven with olive oil.

The soymilk bread is reasonably simple... Unlike the okara burgers, I actually measured the ingredients, though the recipe was still fairly improvised.

Tounyuu Pan (豆乳パン)

  • 400 g flour (I guess that's about 3 cups... get a digital scale and be sure).
  • 225 ml warm, not hot, soymilk (about 1 cup)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp. dry yeast or one cube of "fresh" yeast.

Place the flour into a bowl, making an impression large enough to accommodate the soymilk. Pour the soymilk into the bowl and add the yeast. If your yeast requires it, proof it in the soymilk in that impression. Otherwise, add salt and slowly blend the milk with the flour, using small circles with a wooden spoon.

Knead for a few minutes until the dough is smooth and slightly sticky. The goal is to have a fairly moist dough for rolls, so resist the temptation to add much more flour unless the dough just doesn't hold its shape.

Allow to rise for at least an hour, then use a dough cutter to separate the dough into six equal pieces. Massage these into rounds, and use a rolling pin to make each bun a fairly even thickness, roughly 1/2 inch (1.2 cm). Allow to rise for another 20 minutes or so.

Preheat an oven to 200C (425F). Place an oven-safe pot filled with hot water in the top rack of the oven.

Brush a little soymilk or egg on top of each roll. Gently press the wet side into a plate of sesame seeds.

Bake the buns for about 25 minutes, until golden-brown on top. Remove from oven and cover with a cloth, allowing them to mostly cool before consuming.

These buns are, perhaps, a bit too chewy for a "burger" bun, but they're also quite nice as breakfast rolls. They would likely become somewhat less chewy with a touch of sugar, some egg, or added fat such as butter or olive oil.

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