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.

Yaki-onigiri no ochazuke and rustic foods

I worked on some simple tasks today and did some customer visits, and finally got some photos I can use for the matsutake gift pack on YuzuMura.com.

My roommate and I had a guest for dinner, and I was in the mood to make some simple Japanese-ish dishes.

Yakionigiri no ochazuke with very good umeboshi

Yakionigiri top view

I prepared miso-brushed grilled rice balls, yaki-onigiri served with pickled Japanese apricots and pickling shiso. I poured a really nice organically-grown sencha from Shizuoka over the onigiri, but it was very light, because it was the first infusion... In retrospect, I realize I should have served the first pour to drink, and the second pour for the ochazuke.

Yakidoufu

Yakidoufu

This is a little bit American preparation of tofu, perhaps; I grilled tofu on my electric grill pan, and served it with a dipping sauce of ginger, shouyu, a few drops of roasted sesame oil, and negi (spring onions). I’ve seen grilled tofu in Japan, but rarely.

Kabocha no nimono

Kabocha no nimono

My absolute favorite fall nimono (poached/simmered dish) is kabocha, Japanese squash. This involves simmering squash, dashijiru, salt, Japanese soy sauce, mirin, and occasionally a bit extra sugar, until soft. The ideal flavor develops the next day, but it also tastes good served after it has cooled a little bit.

Dashi-maki tamago

Dashi-maki tamago

I also made dashi-maki tamago, which in this case has bits of some Japanese pickles between the layers of eggs.

Finally, I made an atypical, but very tasty aemono with broccoli, raw sugar, salt, and mirin. This would be more commonly done with spinach than broccoli, but my nearby supermarket didn’t seem to have anything other than expensive baby spinach. Alas, all of the photos of that were totally out of focus, but it was actually the surprise of the night; it tasted better than I expected.

Yaki onigiri dinner

Dinner is served.

Yakinasu: Feeding my grilled eggplant urges

washoku 188-lr

Yakinasu (grilled eggplant) is one of those incredibly simple but irresistible dishes... I can't help but order it whenever I see it on an izakaya menu. Sometimes we've even bought it at department stores to take home, as when Hiromi and I ate at her parents' home during my last trip to Japan.

Ideally grilled over Japanese charcoal with a shichirin, yakinasu can also be prepared on an ordinary grill or with a small flame on a gas konro. I used to rely on the broiler feature of my stove, but that requires very careful monitoring to pull off successfully.

You can use either the long, skinny 5-6" nasubi (Japanese eggplant) for this, or the 2-3" roundish ones reminiscent of kyō-nasu (Kyoto eggplant), sometimes called Indian eggplant here in the U.S. The larger European-style eggplants common in the U.S. are probably too big for this.

The one important question to ask when preparing this: Skin on or skin off? I tend to prefer the variations which keep the skin, mostly because it looks more appealing, but you can get a slightly smokier flavor if you're willing to sacrifice it. If you do that, you grill or broil the eggplant on all sides until the skin is more or less blackened, then wrap up the eggplant in aluminum foil, or place it in an airtight container to steam the skin until it becomes easy to remove.

When you remove the skin, you might dress the eggplant with some katsuobushi and soy sauce, or some nerimiso (sweetened miso sauce). Since I'm vegetarian, I make the latter.

For the skin-on version, I typically score the skin on either side, first lengthwise, then about 30 degrees off axis. I've chosen to cut the eggplants in half before grilling, and I rubbed the flesh with a little salt. Each side is grilled gently until the flesh slightly softens. After a few minutes of rest, the eggplant becomes a bit more tender thanks to residual heat, so it's better not to overcook it.

This version is ideal with some freshly-grated ginger, chopped scallions and a little splash of Japanese soy sauce.

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Godoufu memories

On eGullet, someone asked about what to eat in Fukuoka, but most of what I could think of was not particularly special to the city, alas. But it triggered a memory of godoufu (ごどうふ, more likely to be rendered in English as godofu), of which I’m a huge fan.

When I visited Arita on an outing in March 2000, I tried this mochi-like soymilk-based “tofu” in a little restaurant on my way to go ceramics hunting. Served three ways in the picture below: in the center is godoufu with ginger, soy sauce, and possibly some daikon oroshi. On the upper right is a bowl with godoufu, some sea vegetables, and dengaku-miso type topping but still served cold. This might have had some ginger or some ground sesame seeds in it… My memory has subsequently faded. The suimono in the bottom right has a smaller cubes of godoufu, some tamago-yaki, and some fu. The rest is standard teishoku fare; tsukemono on the upper left, chawanmushi below that,  rice, and some mostly vegetable tempura. (Ah, and shiso… mmm).

Godoufu has a nice chewy texture and could easily find its way into both sweet and savory dishes. I think you could serve it with some kuromitsu and kinako to get something approximating soy milk warabi-mochi (豆乳のわらびもち). You could have it replace siratama or mochi in an oshiroko/zenzai (sweet red bean “soup”). It might even be an alternative to the jellies often found at the bottom of cream anmitsu or mitsumame… As is usually best with Japanese foods, simple preparations are likely to be the most impressive.

If you ask the average Japanese person about godoufu, they’ve probably never heard of it. It’s fairly specific to Saga prefecture, though like most regional specialties, through the magic of mail order and perhaps the mura-kara-machi-kara-kan type places, you may have a chance to get this in other parts of Japan. It is completely nonexistent, to my knowledge, in the US.

I have attempted to describe the process to make godoufu. I’ve probably made it about four times successfully, with usually very nice results, save one time when I scorched the bottom of my pan.

I think I have a weekend project ahead of me sometime soon.

Nasu no miso ni

It's totally out of season right now, but even during inappropriate times of year I can't resist nasu-no miso-ni.

Unseasonble Nasu-no miso-ni

There are as many ways to make it as there are mothers in Japan. Northern Japanese versions tend to be salty, western Japanese ones tend to be almost sweet.

I'm somewhere in the middle, though I'd say my I was pleasantly suprised by one that a friend's mother made in Ube, Yamaguchi prefecture many years ago, and it made me realize that the variation I had been making was heavily influenced by the recipe author's Akita heritage.

Ever since that Yamaguchi experience, I've added a tiny bit more sugar, a bit more mirin, and a little less miso to my version of this dish.

This time I made the dish with tiny Indian eggplants that remind me of the eggplant of Kyoto, or Kyo-nasu. They're only two or three inches (5-8cm) long.

I gently rub the lengthwise-quartered eggplants with a little salt, let them rest a few minutes, then briefly soak in water to remove any aku. I then add the eggplants to a hot pan with a little vegetable oil, trying to partially sear the flesh. I then add miso, sugar, mirin, and a little soup stock, and braise until the eggplant is thoroughly coated. You can adjust proportions to taste; I like both salty and sweet-savory variations.

Some variations of nasu-no miso-ni actually involve deep frying the salted eggplant, which is great, but unnecessary if the eggplant is slightly seared. It's a little trickier to get the timing right if you use a saute pan, but probably uses a bit less oil.

Frequently you'd top this dish with a few sprinkles of sesame seeds (either black or white will do), but when I ate this I had at least two other sesame flavored dishes, so I skipped it. You can eat it all right away, like the more general category of nimono it actually improves a bit with a day or two in the refrigerator.

In Japan, people consider the best time for eggplant to be early fall... Of course, it's usually primarily a summer vegetable in Europe, the US and most of China. I often try to find my way to Japan in September just so I can eat aki-nasu, or fall eggplant.

(OK, maybe that's a little bit of an exaggeration... but no, it's truly worth it).

 

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Nasu no karashi miso ni: Eggplant with mustard miso

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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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...

Umeboshi cheese no kushiyaki

Umeboshi cheese kushiyaki

Crazy, I know.

But umeboshi and cheese were always meant for each other. Grilled is even better.

I promise.

Camembert is probably a more natural fit, but I had some very respectable raw milk farmhouse-style cheddar from a Washington dairy farm snagged at last weekend's cheese festival. I was eating some pieces of the cheddar when a craving for umeboshi struck, and ate at least one pitted umeboshi on top of a cube of cheese, and it occurred to me: this needs to be grilled.

Where do such crazy ideas come from? Perhaps I owe the initial thought to some "yaki ume" I tasted at the Wakayama specialty shop in to Yūrakuchō... As far as I understood it, those premium umeboshi were at some point briefly cooked over charcoal, though the taste was barely noticeable, if present at all. I settled for some nice $16 umeboshi instead of the more than twice as extravagant "grilled" ones.

How do you make them?

Start by carefully pitting the umeboshi, taking care to pierce only one side; I suppose an olive or cherry pitter might work on some types of umeboshi. Medium-firm umeboshi probably work best; mine were already incredibly soft and I ruined a few while stuffing them.

I did the pitting by hand; I could feel the sharp side of the pit through the skin of the umeboshi, and squeezed the pit out through that pointy side.

Gently insert a small cube of cheese into the umeboshi. Carefully thread the stuffed umeboshi one-by-one onto the skewer.

Ideally, you should grill them over a shichirin grill, but I cheated and used my little gas konro, which I usually use for nabe; I fitted it with a little protective grating to keep the umeboshi from falling into the flame and disintegrating.

No need to use your best umeboshi on this, but please use umeboshi with a short ingredient list: Ideally, ume, salt, shiso, maybe shochu for initial curing. Use a creamy, rather than salty cheese.

Plate, then gently brush with a little olive oil.

Like umeboshi, they're tart. Like cheese, they're creamy. Like anything salty, they would go great with a little shochu, though on this occasion, they served as a little afternoon snack and I remained a teetotaler.

They're a little tricky to pull off, but worth it.

Tsukushinbō-don: Tamago-don revised for spring in Seattle

Tamago-don is a homely thing. It's the stuff of busy, frugal mothers trying to throw something together for lunch on a Sunday afternoon. It's the kind of thing a salaryman trying to save a couple hundred yen on lunch might choose during a particularly rough month. It's comfort food.

Little more than sautéed onions with eggs, seasoned with a heavily mirin-sweetened, soy-sauce based dashi base,  cooked to a soft curd, the prospect of tamago-don won't trigger a lot of enthusiasm in most Japanese, but perhaps you'll catch a hint of wistful nostalgia.

On the other hand, if you offered to cook such a thing when the weather is bad and spirits are low, your efforts would probably be appreciated.

Tsukushinbō-don

Tsukushinbō-don: spring tamago don

And if, for example, you happened to have a huge supply of local morels that you really needed to make use of, and some just-picked mizuna greens, and perhaps a little chopped negi, you might be able to enliven this dish just enough to make it interesting.

If you happened to use a heavy hand with said morels, and sauteed them until almost, but not quite charred, along with the softened onions, then added a little seasoned dashi, folded this into an omelet pan full of your seasoned egg mixture, stirred the curds, and poured the just-barely-set eggs over rice, you might have something else entirely.

You might consider how much the shape of morels, more properly translated as amigasatake, resembles the tops of tsukushinbo, or horsetail shoots.

In that case, you might call this variation of tamago-don tsukushinbo-don.

Up way too close 

Extreme closeup of tsukushinbō don

The result?

Well, it's still tamago-don. It's not life a life-altering transformation, but it's certainly a worthy use of an excess of morels. I'll probably continue to cook my morels with lots of butter or olive oil, but when I'm looking for a more assari taste, this is a good alternative.

Note: Hiromi deserves all the credit for seeing the similarity between tsukushinbo and morels.

Shishito and Shiitake Kushiyaki

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Kushiyaki is the Japanese equivalent of kebabs. Most anything that's grilled on a stick can be called kushiyaki, though items that are served already in their sauce tend to have other, more specific names (yakitori, for example).

Ideally, I'd break out my shichirin on a warm night and keep eating various nibbles of grilled goodness until the coals burn out... but since I was dining alone tonight, that seemed like overkill. The All-Clad grill pan came to my rescue. I really only needed one stick, as I had a few other things to eat as well. I started cooking dinner with a persistent headache, so I wasn't in the mood for anything that required a lot of commitment.

Tonight's kushiyaki featured some oversized shishitou, which are generally small, wrinkly chilies with just a slight hint of heat, and some fat shiitake mushrooms.

Shishitou are actually probably best dipped in nothing more than a bit of salt, but I prepared some ginger and soy sauce as a dip for the grilled shiitake.

Thanks to some ibuprofen and the comfort of warm rice and daikon-shungiku miso soup, my headache gradually dulled and mostly disappeared by the time I finished eating dinner. A little imo-jochu might have helped even more...

Fujiya Hotel at Oowani Onsen, Aomori

After our cherry blossom viewing, we retired to Oowani Onsen to rest a bit, with the overly ambitious intention of returning to Hirosaki for night time cherry blossom viewing.

Fujiya Hotel has insanely roomy washitsu, or Japanese style rooms. The washitsu, which features tatami flooring, consists of a large dual-purpose room and a smaller one that might sleep a couple of children. But wait, there was more! For those who don't love Japanese-style bedding, or for particularly large parties, two twin beds are available in another chamber off the hallway.

We felt like we could live there... it was probably slightly larger than the weekly apartment where we were staying in Tokyo, and that was one of the roomiest places I've ever rented in Tokyo.

We chose to have a late dinner after a long bath. Both the men's and women's bath offer rotenburo, but the water wasn't especially warm, and it was more comfortable to bathe inside. They also had a sauna room, which I stepped into briefly before realizing I should have taken off my glasses first... I popped into the cold water for a bit and started turning my attention to dinner.

Menu

Fujiya Hotel Menu, Onsen hotel in Aomori

We ate in the hotel's dining room, which meant dinner was a little less intimate, but close to the kitchen, allowing for some surprisingly fresh, well-made food.

This menu reflects Hiromi's meal, and closely parallels my pleasingly customized one. Although

Grilled bamboo shoots

Grilled takenoko, bamboo shoots 

It's springtime, and I had a lot of fantastic grilled bamboo shoot dishes on this trip. But this was far and away the most visually dramatic, and one of the best tasting. I think it's seasoned with little more than salt and soy sauce and perhaps a hint of butter. I really enjoyed it and will be longing for this simple, elegant dish until I can find my way to Japan in springtime again.

The bamboo sprout's skin also decorated a dish made with soramame (fava beans) and potatoes.

Mango puree with shrimp

Mango puree with shrimp

This was Hiromi's, and at first I was a little bit jealous, but eventually my own version served with shibazuke instead of shrimp came. I can't say I've ever seen mango on the menu at a Japanese inn...

O-Sake

Joppari sake (stubborn sake!)

Apparently this sake's name, joppari, means stubborn, which fascinated Hiromi so much that she had to try it. It also happens to have a pleasingly complex flavor, even as it drinks rather smoothly.

Yakimono on urushi

Yakimono

This fish-like fillet for Hiromi is actually kabocha atop ham and cheese, with a few pine nuts. I believe it was served with a grilled scallop and a carved vegetable.

Aemono

Blanched and dressed with gomadare, sesame sauce.

Zenmai

Zenmai

More mountain vegetables, in a simple but pretty ohitashi.

Salad

Another example of Aomori-ken's fascinnation with Western food, this salad featured mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, cheese, and a fairly intense vinaigrette.

Terrine

Hiromi's featured youshoku dish, featuring cooked and cured ham and mint, koku no mi (the red berry sometimes put on top of okayu) or capers. 

Wagyuu

Wagyuu

Hiromi also has a grilled wagyuu dish featuring local beef, cooked on a ceramic plate over a small flame.

Kiritampo nabe

Kiritampo nabe

In place of the beef, I have another variation of that northern Japanese specialty, kiri-tampo. This is a simple kiritampo nabe, or hot pot dish. Since I can't have this in the US very easily, I'm pleased to have another chance to taste it.

Oh, and a very nice chawan-mushi, or savory egg custard, arrived at just about the same time as this was ready... Alas, it didn't photograph very nicely, but I'm a sucker for a vegetarian interpretation for chawan-mushi. It seemed to take advantage of some seasonal vegetables as well.

Kinoko no foil-yaki

Kinoko no foil-yaki

A simple grilled foil parcel of various mushrooms...

Ringo to sansai to shiitake no tempura

Ringo to shiitake to sansai Tempura

Ryokan tempura is often a little bit dreary, as it tends to be made quite far ahead of service... However, this one was served close to the end of our meal and was still mostly fairly warm. It featured tara no me (one of many Japanese mountain vegetables), fuki (butterbur) sprouts, shiitake, and, most interesting of all, a slice of apple. I've had heavy American fast-food fried apples before, and I have to admit having a soft spot for them, but this was surprising. The fruit was unprocessed, and fried just a short time, so it remained crisp and gently tart, and had the same light crispness that the rest of the tempura featured.

Kamameshi and Suimono

Kamameshi Suimono with sakura no shiozuke and mushrooms

Rice is cooked at our table... Hiromi's is a seasoned kamameshi with bamboo shoots and I think some pork. Mine was plain, but rice cooked in this kind of pot always tastes better. We also receive a simple clear soup with thin slices of mushrooms and salt-cured cherry blossoms.

Apple sorbet, in apple

Apple sorbet in fruit shell

This was a very good apple sorbet inside an apple shell... It's Aomori, after all, and apples are a big deal here.

Before dinner, Hiromi had thought we'd go back to Hirosaki, but I think we fell asleep no later than 9 pm. We somehow woke up again, but it was already approaching midnight... too late to seriously consider the 25 minute trip back to Hirosaki Park, but not too late to head to the outdoor ceramic onsen tub on the same floor as our room.

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