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.

Unplanned Valentine's Day Dinner

We had a couple of expensive grocery shopping days at Whole Foods and PCC this weekend… on a whim, we made an extravagant cheese fondue on Sunday night, full of cave aged gruyere, good appenzeller cheese, and a less noteworthy but still essential emmentaler, built upon a Swiss white wine and kirsch. We served it with some rye bread, some Granny Smith apples, red bell pepper, and blanched asparagus and lotus root.

This would have been a nice Valentine’s Day dinner. But it was still Sunday.

On Monday we picked up a few more ingredients to put together a Japanese-style rice casserole called doria, and we gave some consideration to Valentine’s Day dinner but never really settled on anything in particular. We decided we would make a chocolate fondue with various fruits and some sugar cookies, but the savory course never quite rendered in our imaginations.

When I got home that night, I tried to think of something that would make sense without requiring another trip to the supermarket. Somehow, the thought of a calzone fritti popped into my mind, as unromantic as it might seem. I proposed a few alternate options to Hiromi, but that one seemed the most interesting to her. I incorporated marinated artichoke crowns, olives, cheese, and a quick marinara sauce into the filling; the outer layer was a simple wheat dough. The whole pastry is deep-fried, producing a crispy but thin exterior.

Calzone Fritti

Calzone fritti

When Hiromi woke up this morning, she prepared the dough for some green tea sugar cookies or shortbread, made with matcha, and when I got to work on dinner, she started rolling out the dough and cutting it into shapes. These would serve as one of the dippables for our chocolate fondue.

Matcha sugar cookies

Matcha sugar cookies

The chocolate fondue featured a fruit selection of blood oranges, Granny Smith Apples, banana, and kiwi. We meant to include some kinkan, or kumquat, but I became a bit distracted and forgot about them entirely.

Chocolate fondue-destined fruits

Fondue-fruit

The chocolate wasn’t completely melted in any of my photos, so I’m purposely avoiding highlighting it. Besides, it was Valentine’s Day, so I should leave some things to the imagination.

Gifts for Hiromi

Hiromistash

This was my little gift to Hiromi for Valentine’s Day: Her favorite shaved chocolate from Fran’s, for making hot chocolate; Fran’s decadent hazelnut and chocolate stuffed figs; and 5 raspberry heart truffles and one lavender truffle from the soon-to-be legendary Bellevue, WA based chocolatier, Fiori. The heart-emblazoned guilt-free-plastic duckie complements our large collection of devil ducks. Since the Japanese custom is for women to give chocolates to men rather than receiving gifts on Valentine’s Day, this is something of a first for her. Of course, there is a Japanese reciprocal custom a month later, but the couples-ness of Valentine’s Day isn’t quite practiced in Japan… That’s what Christmas is for.

As my 15–year old rotary coffee grinder turned spice grinder went to its final resting place about a week ago, Hiromi’s Valentines gift to me was a more pragmatic one: a well-componentized rotary coffee grinder destined for the same spice-grinding labor.

The dangers of hiding for a week

I’ve somehow felt a little overwhelmed the last week… The last gasps of a cold still had a bit of a hold on me, and I usually had no energy left after dinner. I somehow managed to keep up on internet orders, but I’ve been avoiding the telephone for the most part, because I either coughed at inopportune moments or, in my better moments, sounded like I was choking on a frog.

That being said, I did my best to eat reasonably well, though weeknights were rather minimalistic.

Last Sunday, though, during the Superbowl, two of Hiromi’s former coworkers who had flown in from Japan on a business trip, came to visit us, and another friend of mine dropped by. They chatted and watched the game while I spent most of my time in the kitchen, which is probably how nature intended things.

I made a few of my signature cocktails, and a fair amount of starchy and oily nibbles. We didn’t stop for photos, but I made some fried yucca root served with a homemade mayonnaise-like sauce, made with freshly grated horseradish; some roasted potatoes with shiso; a little grilled halloumi with quince paste, olives, Marcona almonds and baby spinach. For a Seahawks-ish theme I served blue corn sesame tortilla chips with a homemade guacamole. I probably brought out a couple of other things, but I’ve quickly forgotten. My head was in a bit of a fog anyway, hopped up on Theraflu as I was.

After the game ended I also made dum ki ghom, a sort of mushroom curry with ground cashews and tomato paste, and a sort of pseudo-naan baked on a pizza stone. I also threw together a simple olive oil and cheese pizza topped with marinated fennel… These are almost all things I’ve made before, and I wasn’t in the mood to be terribly consistent with any culinary theme, save for the predominance of high carbohydrate, high fat options. It was, after all, an American event, surrounding a TV.

Here are some of our weeknight meals from this week.

Tagliatelle, broccolini, portabello in garlic cream sauce

Tagliatelle broccolini and portabella

Quick, simple, basic, comforting.

Karashi-na to nagaimo no oyaki

Oyaki-take2

Although I’ve made oyaki a few times before, I considered it a bit of an experiment. Now I’m fairly comfortable with the process, and although they still aren’t as consistently shaped as the ones I find at roadside venues, they taste at least as good. This time I used karashi-na (mustard greens) and coarsely grated nagaimo (a starchy tuber), seasoned with the typical miso-shouyu base.

Toufu no shouga-miso yaki

Miso shouga tofu

The same night we figured we needed a bit of protein to accompany our vegetables, so this is what emerged as an afterthought. This is not a typical Japanese side dish, but I was too lazy to make a proper neri-miso for dengaku-toufu. So after pan-grilling some tofu for a few minutes on each side, I added some slightly mirin-and-sugar-sweetened miso with a hefty dose of freshly grated ginger.

Eggplant and sweet potato sabji

Nasu to satsumaimo sabji

One night Hiromi was craving spicy food, and we had some nice little eggplants that begged for attention. I decided to riff off of an eggplant and potato based dish featured in a Japanese-language Indian cookbook, but we only had a sweet potato or squash handy. I substituted the regular potatoes suggested in the recipe with sweet potatoes, and it worked out very nicely.

Black daal

Black daal

The black lentils I picked up at Trader Joes recently proved useful for the daal to accompany our meal. I made this with tomatoes, onions, a stick of cassia, fresh turmeric, and other spices. Homemade ghee for the chaunk added a nice roundness to the flavor.

Kuromame and satsumaimo ice cream

Don’t be fooled. This is not your usual vanilla and chocolate ice cream.

Kuromame to satsumaimo ice cream

It’s very wafuu and hip. I’m a trendsetter, I promise.

Actually, I’m a follower, because both of these flavors have been popular in Japan for a fairly long time. But if I bring them to the U.S. first, that makes me hipper than Nobu, right?

On the left is satsumaimo ice cream, one of my perennial favorites. When fall and winter roll around, and Japanese-style sweet potatoes appear, it’s one of the first on my list for seasonal ice creams. I’ve been making it nearly every year since I first got my nifty ice cream maker back in 1999 or so. I don’t have a precise recipe, since the requirements change depending on how sweet my particular sweet potatoes happen to be. But rest assured, you can do it too: cream, milk, cooked (mine were baked) Japanese sweet potatoes (but your yellow ones will do in a pinch), sugar, a hint of vanilla. Use enough sugar so that it’s just a tiny bit sweeter than you’d like to eat at refrigerator temperature, and the frozen result will be just about right. The sweet potatoes should be fork-mashed when their internal temperature is a bit shy of 160 Fahrenheit.

On the right is my deferential nod to the grand inexplicable “kuromame cocoa” (black beans and cocoa) trend in Japan of the last three years or so. I saw several companies promoting products with that flavor at the last two FoodEx shows. Many years ago I saw black sesame cocoa, or kurogoma cocoa, meant to be blended with milk and sugar, which I related to instantly, but koromame cocoa was a bit of a surprising concept for me at first glance. The contrasting flavor bodies against a common element of slight bitterness produce a pleasant, mellow result.

Of course, in the drama-obsessed food culture of the United States, where hitting you over the head with flavors is prized far more than subtlety, it probably will only draw reactions of perplexion from the average food critic, and it will only sell with the truly adventurous on even the trendiest of New York or San Francisco Japanese restaurant dessert menus, but I promise you, it’s a fine combination. It’s as good as the far more ubiquitous “red bean” and far more suitable for surrealist cuisine, which is important if you are into postmodern culinary deceptions.

And why shouldn’t you be? You’re beating the Japanese ice cream manufacturers by at least one food trade show’s worth of flavor development.

As ice cream, it’s also an excellent excuse to use up excess kuromame from osechi season. We were pleased.

My little cold, rice porridge, and Families with Children from China

I came down with a bit of a cold this weekend, and Hiromi thoughtfully prepared some okayu, or rice porridge, for me. This is standard comfort food for anyone the slightest bit ill in Japan. We ate it with some pickles, some of which were Chinese, and some of which were Japanese.

Okayu

She was craving dengaku-nasu, so my responsibility was to broil the eggplant and prepare the neri-miso, or dengaku-miso, and carefully broil the dengaku-nasu once again with the miso topping just until it starts bubbling. Its very easy to turn dengaku-anything into a crunchy mess, and I’ve had a few disasters before, but this one worked out. I’m sure I’ve explained it elsewhere, but neri-miso is made with miso, sugar, mirin, and, optionally, some dashi-jiru (Japanese soup stock) in roughly equal proportions. The further west in Japan you go, the milder this will likely be, and the further north, the the saltier.

Dengakunasu-arita

On Sunday, in spite of my slight health complaints, we went to an event for Families with Children from China, where we showed off dragon beard candy, and some matcha chocolates. Hiromi offered samples and some product information, and I filled in details about the products and handled credit card transactions and so on. We had fairly good results, and I left a bit more than was officially requested for the space fee.

After the event, we got crepes and coffee for a late, light lunch at Cafe Javasti in Maple Leaf. When we got home, Hiromi wanted to watch the Seahawks game, so I served some “vegetable chips” and tea for both of us, and later brought her a beer and some Theraflu for myself. She thought it was kind of funny that I was bringing the food so that she could watch the game.

(Although I’m happy that the Seahawks won handily on Sunday and I did pay some attention, I’ve never been a huge afficianado of spectator sports and she was far more excited about the game than me…)

Takikomi gohan in donabe

During spring about a year and a half ago Hiromi and stopped at a kamameshi-ya-san, or cast iron pot rice restaurant. They served us a simple dish of seasoned bamboo shoots with rice, but on a cold day it’s very comforting. It’s a classic one-pot meal, usually featuring big chunks of vegetables.

We don’t have a lidded cast-iron or similar pot to make kamameshi, but we do do have a nice clay pot, or nabe, with a sturdy lid. We decided to make takikomi-gohan. Last night, I prepared some dashi with soy sauce, mirin and salt yesterday, and started soaking some hijiki. Tonight Hiromi soaked some rice and chopped some carrots, and I sliced snow peas while she prepared some water for blanching.

Hijiki-takikomi

It cooked with the lid on, topped with seasoned hijiki, aburage and carrots, for a bit over 30 minutes. After the rice had cooked the rice was stirred a bit to incorporate everything somewhat evenly, and we added the blanched snow peas.

Before I got home, Hiromi also prepared another nimono, this time with our remaining quarter of kabocha. I’m a big kabocha fan.

Kabocha-nimono

A few years ago, one of my Japanese friend’s mother explained that Japanese men who lived through World War II tended to dislike kabocha because it was one of the few sources of nourishment that was widely available. I fortunately don’t suffer from any such hangups, but the only way I ate squash growing up was baked with brown sugar and butter. Japanese preparations of kabocha, as simple as they tend to be, opened my eyes up to all sorts of possibilities.

WaFooD: 5/29 is Konnyaku Day!

Update: For those of you coming from elsewhere, the roundup so far is posted here. Please send me your entries by Sunday and I can include the procrastinators...


A couple of weeks ago on eGullet, member Hiroyuki noted that May 29 is Konnyaku Day.

5/29 could be read “Go Ni Kyuu” in Japanese, which sounds very roughly like “Konnyaku”. That little dajare, or wordplay, is as good an excuse as any for the Japanese konnyaku farming industry to celebrate the gelatinous products of the devil-tongued root.

Since the non-Japanese blogging world is probably oblivious to such events, I thought it might be fun to invite a few English bloggers to make their favorite konnyaku dish, or try something completely new. It’s a bit short notice, but if you have a blog and you would like to join in, send me a link to your “5/29” celebration anytime from now until May 30. Contact me using the “Email" link at the top of my blog, or just leave a comment below. I’ll round up anyone who participates and include them in a roundup starting on May 29. This will be the first event in a series I’ll call WaFooD, explorations of Japanese cooking ingredients and techniques.

Dengaku Konnyaku with Sansho

Konnyaku dengaku

What is Konnyaku? Wikipedia says it’s a tuber valued for its starchy corm, which still leaves me bewildered, and I actually cook with konnyaku relatively often. I guess I must not spend a lot of time with corms.

You might be surprised to find out that konnyaku’s starch is processed much the same way that corn for making tortillas or hominy is treated: subjected to some torture by limewater, the starches from the plant are apparently converted to something magical.

Insanely gelatinous, but relatively low in calories on its own, konnyaku is popular in Japan as a diet food. People believe that it expands in their stomach and keep them feeling full, though I suspect most of that expansion has happened already when it’s processed. I'm not really into food as medicine; for me, it's just another fun ingredient.

Popular applications include blocks of konnyaku which can be used for dengaku konnyaku or any number of other treats, thinly sliced konnyaku for “sashimi”, tied konnyaku for oden or nimono (poached, simmered dishes), noodles called shirataki popular for one-pot meals called nabe. In Taiwan, some manufacturers have turned konnyaku into yet another vegetarian "meat."

Sometimes konnyaku is processed into sweet confections with fruit flavors, but a skittish FDA forced recalls after discovering cases of a dozen or so people that carelessly swallowed the snacks whole and choked. The remaining products in that category were reformulated, and the remaining examples of those products in the US barely have any konnyaku in them. I guess Jello Jigglers weren’t considered dangerous, but these mysterious foreign vegetable products had to be stopped!

Eat small bites, but be adventurous! A few extra grams of fiber can’t hurt you.

OK, get in touch with me and tell me about your konnyaku creations. They can be Japanese-style, fusiony, or adapted to your local cuisine. If you’ve got photos, even better! See you May 29…

To make it easier to find you, you may also include a technorati tag for WaFooD in your post, just like below:

Technorati:

Making difficult decisions, pressing the pause button

Over the last two years, I invested a substantial amount of money trying to build a market for one of my signature products, Dragon Beard Candy, from Bamboo Garden.

Other than Japanese ceramics, it was the first big product that I started with, so I have a pretty strong attachment to it. I want to continue to invest in the Dragon Beard Candy, but I analyzed the last two years of sales and trends over the last couple of months and I realized that it doesn’t make much sense to throw more money at the product during the summer months, when sales are not quite as vigorous as in the fall and winter. I also don’t have the time to fully invest in promoting it right now, as I’m trying to build up more resources before the next holiday season.

There’s only about a 3.5–4 month shelf life from the time I receive it from the manufacturer on average, so I tend to import very modest amounts because I’d rather run out than throw it away or give it away.

Fuel costs went sky-high over the last year, so my freight costs have made wholesale sales of that product, which really needs to be shipped by air, almost without value, and I just got another notification from my freight vendor that air freight fuel surcharges went up again. I have been emphasizing retail sales on my web site more this year partially for that reason, as the margins on the web site make profitability more attainable.

Unfortunately, there’s just not that much value in selling the product in the summertime, unless I do more large-scale corporate gift sales… Of course, those orders tend to cluster around the holidays, as well.

I don’t expect the fuel costs to get better, but I want to assign my resources toward some new products this summer, so about a week or so ago I clearance priced the last little bit of candy I have from my spring shipment.

I plan to pick up a few other products that I’ve had in the back of my mind for the last few months… some Japanese snacks, some more gifty stuff, and maybe a few other unexpected things. I’ll pick up the dragon beard candy again when appropriate holidays are approaching, starting around September. That’ll coincide with the Chinese mid-Autumn festival, sometimes called the Moon Festival in the U.S. For the last two years, that’s when sales for the product really started picking up. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and to a lesser extent, Chinese New Year also drive a lot of sales.

I also think it’s more compelling as a special occasion product, with limited availability. When I was at FoodEx this year, I started thinking that I might shift into selling a few featured products and only offer them until I run out… It would let me feature a wider variety of interesting products, and of course, I could always revisit a product that turns out to have particularly enduring demand.

Leek quiche with hedgehogs, fennel with yuzu

I think I might be repeating myself, but I usually refer to vegetarian quiches as “tartes”, on the advice of a French neighbor of mine during my student days in Germany. Apparently she considered a hamless quiche a savory tart.

Call it what you like; the resemblance to the classic version is faint… I’ve taken a page from my mother’s version of this dish, completely eliminating the usual wheat-based pastry. In its place, I use some shredded potatoes and onions, soaked briefly in acidulated water and squeezed, then tossed with butter, salt, and recovered starch from the soaking water. This is baked until somewhat golden, then filled and baked again.

Quiche with leeks, chevre and hedgehog mushrooms

Quiche/tart with leeks, hedgehog mushrooms, and chevre

This variation features some sauteed leeks and hedgehog mushrooms, and some soft chevre and a milder Gruyere cheese.

The side dish is something that I know 5 years from now I’m sure will be as ubiquitous and passe as balsamic vinegar dressed salad. It’s a simple dish of shaved fennel, tossed with coarse salt and yuzu juice. We ate it right away, but it tastes even better marinated for an hour or overnight.

Yuzu marinated fennel

Yuzu marinated fennel

I started making this two or three summers ago, and, despite a couple of attempts to make a more dramatic version with more ingredients, simplicity absolutely wins. It does make a nice topping for pizza, however, and lemon works almost as well.

Gefüllte Windbeutel

Pâte à Choux is the pastry base for a number of sweet cream-filled treats, but it’s often overlooked as a stage for more savory flavors.

Savory choux detail

In Germany, I remember running into “cream puffs” with such savory fillings, generally built on Frischkäse, essentially anything along the lines of cream cheese, quark, or soft chevre. Sometimes the filling is little more than whipped butter, an egg, and cheese. It’s possible for the filling to involve cured ham, and I’ve seen some recipes that have them topped with a bit of extra soft cheese and some variety of caviar. Occasionally such treats are served to guests at the home of a particularly generous host.

Maybe due to the weight of all that cream and butter, they are often described as “hearty” (Herzhaft), though sometimes as “pikant” (savory).

I went the savory route, with American style cream cheese, parmesan reggiano, thinly sliced scallions, garlic, pepper, and a tiny splash of whiskey for aroma. In an ideal world, I should have used cognac, but none was handy Sunday morning. It worked well enough, and I might even specifically seek out that peaty character again.

Hiromi was fond of the blue cheese gougères we recently indulged in at Pair Restaurant, a tasting-friendly small plates-focused restaurant hidden away in the Ravenna area in Seattle. I thought it would be fun to make gougères at brunch, but then I remembered I had a package of cream cheese in the refrigerator crying for attention, and found myself distracted by the temptation of something creamy surrounded by that crisp choux.

The biggest difference is that gougères have the cheese incorporated into the choux pastry, whereas in savory cream puffs the cheese is a filling. While I’m attracted to the simplicity of gougères, I just can’t help but indulge in the tempting contrasts of savory cream-cheese filled puffs.

Konnyaku Soba!

I’m afraid I didn’t get around to making it for “Konnyaku day”, but I got this nifty sample of konnyaku soba from a Yamagata-ken based company at FoodEx. That company makes “konnyaku balls” as well, which have a nifty texture, but they don’t travel as well as soba.

Konnyaku soba

Anyway, on the weekend, we were craving a light lunch, so I made zarusoba from the sample package, a homemade tsuyu with negi, porcini-konbu dashi, a touch of real Oregon wasabi, and daikon-oroshi (grated daikon). Hiromi shaved some gobo (burdock root), and I turned it into kinpira gobo. I also made renkon baataa (renkon with butter and, in this case, some miso, instead of the usual soy sauce)…

Does it look like I’m putting enough butter in my Japanese dishes lately?

Anyway, the texture of the konnyaku soba is noticeably different than more typical variations like yamaimo soba, but not unpleasantly springy. I definitely recommend trying it if you can get your hands on it.

If I can figure out a way to bundle it into an order for other stuff from Japan this fall, I might import it myself, but I’m not quite sure yet.

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