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.

Work in Progress: Yeasted doughnuts

Though I've made some cake doughnuts from time to time, and I've made decent cake-based anko donuts, I really haven't spent much time trying to perfect the yeasted donut.

I'm not sure my waistline could handle me getting it right.

Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure my waistline couldn't even handle the number of trials required to approach getting it right.

Peach glazed donuts, not ready for prime time

Peach glazed donuts, not ready for prime time

After being sold on some great peaches at the Pike Place Market (not local, but very flavorful), I had an impulse to make something pastry-like. I thought I might be able to make a passable peach glaze.

A little lemon juice, a good peach, and a heavy hand with powdered sugar, and a little amaretto liqueur cooked into a glaze: It seemed like a good idea at the time. The flavor was nice, but it turned out not to make a very good glaze, most likely due to the excessive moisture in the peaches. The texture was very filling-like, or, if used as a glaze, more suitable for something like a Danish or Brioche-based pastry. Had I the foresight to make Berliner instead of donuts with holes, this might have been the perfect use of some good peaches.

My urge to be as natural as possible while minimizing the sugar content turned out to fight me with the donuts, as well. I relied on a German recipe for yeasted doughnuts that I've eyed for years in the back of a cookbook I bought ages ago, thinking that it would be far more likely to get the sugar balance close to my preference than most of the American recipes I've seen.

Donuts with cinnamon sugar and powdered sugar

Donuts with cinnamon sugar and powdered sugar

I was right on that count, but the texture left something to be desired. The dough was a bit tough and excessively chewy. Even early on, working the dough was a bit of a fight. I should have followed my instinct and habit: normally, I don't precisely follow yeasted dough recipes, because the weather, the temperature of the water and other ingredients affect the moisture content. I always work in the flour until I get the texture I want, then add no more flour, even if the ratios don't quite match my usual recipe.

Next time around, I'm going to wing the dough recipe a bit, and probably create a much moister dough, kneaded a lot more gently. I still want to keep the sugar content low, but I might add another two or three teaspoons to see if it helps the texture. I also think I'm going to need to do a bit more research on glazes.

Sheep's milk custard, red wine kale, and some nice dates

This really ought to be made for two.

Of course, I'm on my own right now, so that doesn't quite work out. But that's no reason to eat like a prisoner. After all, self-indulgence is its own reward.

This weekend, I somehow developed an inexplicable urge to eat some kind of sheep's milk cheese.

It started yesterday, when I remembered I still had a couple of quince I needed to use up. I had more than I actually needed for an infused vodka I started last week, so I boiled the remaining quince with sugar and water to caramelization, added additional water and lemon juice, and pureed everything into a flavorful, smooth sauce.

As soon as I tasted it, for reasons I can't possibly explain or understand, I immediately thought I'd like to have some sheep's milk cheese with that sauce.

Somehow this urge was transformed into a craving for a sort of savory cheesecake or custard.

I found some nice manouri cheese, which has a texture similar to cream cheese but is made from a blend of sheep’s and goat’s milk. I blended this with grated Bellwether Farms San An Shee and an egg. Freshly grated nutmeg added a bit more magic, but no salt was needed, since the cheeses were already both a bit salty.

The ideal vessel in which to bake these “cheesecakes” would probably be a tiny springform pan or a custard cup, but the smallest springform pan I have is still way too wide. In retrospect, I could have used my non-stick mini-muffin pans, but I chose to hand shape the cheese into small rounds, and baked them free-form on a Silpat mat. Fortunately, nothing tragic happened.

Whipping the mixture with a blender would probably produce a lighter, smoother texture, but I was in the mood for something a bit more rustic.

I served the finished custard, embedded with a parmesan crisp, atop roasted thin golden beet slices, and spooned some of the quince sauce over the top. It’s nice with lightly dressed escarole and radicchio.

Winter makes me want to eat dark leafy greens, so I accompanied this with some garlic sauteed kale, simmered with vinegar and red wine. The pleasingly tangy kale still had a hint of crispness.

Two dates stuffed with pepadew-studded soft chevre provide a sweet-savory distraction from the saltier custard.

Along some nice multigrain Macrina bread and an oregano-seasoned lentil soup, it was very satisfying.

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)

Matsutake!

Matsutake-banner

I started very quietly offering local matsutake, or pine mushrooms, on YuzuMura.com last fall. This year, I’ve had a surprisingly large number of orders in spite of relatively minimal promotion, but the season has not been as prolific as in the last two years. I wonder if the scarcity is making people notice my site more, or if it just took a while to get an audience.

Matsutake-bulk-web

This was from my first batch I got a couple of weeks ago, shipped just a day after they were picked… they were quite nice (although the photo was simultaneously overexposed and oversaturated). I wish I could have afforded to eat some of them… I did manage to score a deal on some slightly older ones, not pictured, which had lost a bit of moisture, and I turned them into a few simple dishes. I really wish I had spent the time to make dobin-mushi, which is still my favorite application of matsutake.

Matsutake are as eagerly anticipated by Japanese food lovers as truffles are to those fond of Italian and French cuisine. American and Canadian matsutake are whitish, whereas the extravagantly expensive Japanese ones (the kind that go for $300 for 6 small pieces in Tokyo department stores) are a much darker brown. However, the aroma is similar; in my experience, Japanese ones tend to have a more dramatic aroma and a milder flavor, whereas the North American variety, which is actually a different species as I recall, seems to have a milder aroma but a more intense flavor.

I actually had to raise the price a bit last week, unfortunately. Thanks to the low yields this year, the matsutake costs are close to double last year’s. Once I consider the cost of including 2–day or overnight shipping in the price, they’ve been fairly low-margin… Maybe the late season will change things if I’m lucky. Some of the local matsutake guys prefer the ones that come after the first freeze.

Culinary slump

I’ve actually been eating fairly undramatically in the last month or so… I can think of only two or three memorable meals that I prepared recently… While I usually feel compelled to cook for myself about as well as I do for guests, I’ve sometimes struggled just to come up with an adequate idea for dinner.

It has been a long time since I’ve primarily cooked for myself… but previously, when I faced such a situation, I still tended to want to eat well. So I don’t know what’s different this time. It’s not so much that I want to eat badly; I just find myself uninspired.

One meal was memorable primarily due to the leftovers it generated. I made a kind of roasted cauliflower and cannelini soup, which got me through about a week of lunches. It was a simple soup with a simple flavor, nothing particularly dramatic.

On Thanksgiving I cooked for a friend, since my nearby family hadn’t planned anything this year… I surprised myself by putting together about 9 dishes… some focaccia with a garlic cannelini spread (yes, that white bean has been a recurring ingredient as well), some sauteed broccolini with garlic, roasted red potatoes with dill, butternut squash gnocchi, a persimmon and almond salad, more roasted cauliflower, and a truffle frittata with some shavings of a nice smoked goat cheese. I also made a cranberry sauce… some marinated mushrooms, and some chanterelles with oven-braised leeks.

I don’t do mock turkey… it just seems like a disastrous concept, so I’ve never felt any urge to add it to my table… but Jennifer baked a few pieces of brined turkey for herself (and for future leftovers), along with a stuffing.

Speaking of truffles, Ballard Market started to carry black truffles at a fairly reasonable price… I only bought a couple of smallish ones, but I have gotten fairly good results… I think I’ll make a simple pasta with truffles and butter tonight.

Last night I went shopping a bit and then ate at Matt’s In The Market… I usually don’t eat by myself anywhere other than quick service restaurants, but I just felt like being self-indulgent.

I think if I can keep preparations simple but ingredients a little extravagant, I’ll at least feel a little inspired…

Hiromi's eggs florentine with rapini

Well, ok, I may have done a fair amount of work on this one. But I tried to use a guiding hand rather than take over.

Hiromi got hooked on Eggs Benedict after we made a stop at Fremont’s 35th St. Bistro for brunch early in the year. I’ve made Eggs Florentine or other vegetarian variants at home, and when we’ve found ourselves at brunch at a place which offers Eggs Benedict, there’s a fairly good chance Hiromi will order it. Her favorite so far was made with a sort of truffled hollandaise with mushrooms at Volterra in Ballard.

Hiromi wanted to learn to make hollandaise sauce before leaving, so I walked her through one of the effective “cheating” methods that involves melting the butter with the warmed egg yolk and lemon-water mixture. I’ve done the traditional method, the blender method (particularly effective when a rescue effort is required), and  this approach, and I think it’s the most fool-proof.

Eggs-florentine-rapini

I had blanched some rapini for ohitashi the night before, but we had a bit leftover. The slight bitterness of the rapini is a good way of balancing the luxurious richness of the hollandaise and poached egg.

We also had some crispy fried potatoes, which I oil-blanched and fried like frites.

A year in Madison Valley

It’s hard to believe that Hiromi and I have already been in Madison Valley over a year.

We moved from a tiny apartment in Fremont that I originally intended as a temporary place while I started up a little business. It was far from luxurious, and had a number of flaws, from bad carpet to an impractical kitchen, but it did the trick when I needed to be especially frugal. But we wanted to be able to have more than 2 people over for dinner again, and finally settled on a recently remodeled midcentury duplex with an open layout in an area that borders Madison Valley and the Central District.

Jason's birthday party 2009

A lot of things have changed since then… I realized I was no longer committed enough to my business to provide decent service, so I shut down my web storefront and decided to focus on enjoying our lives together. It turns out that, a couple of years after returning to the software industry to pay bills, I started enjoying the work again. Outside of work, I’m doing research inside and outside my areas of expertise, and it always seems that the “new” areas I explore prove startlingly relevant not too long after I take them on.

2009 was tumultuous. After Zillow’s major restructuring in October 2008, I immediately went to work for a software vendor at a luxury travel company doing test tools development, but they were constantly in turmoil; my employer replaced the majority of the client’s existing technical staff and made three different employment arrangements with us over the course of about 10 months, and it seemed like every couple of weeks there were some notable staff departures, layoffs, or self-immolations. I got bit by one of the late rounds of restructuring after the client company exercised another cost-cutting clause in the contract. It was about the same magnitude as Zillow’s big cut, and Hiromi and I actually saw it as a bit of a relief after all the insanity we had hitherto been passively observing. Things were not much better for the people who stayed on, who were advised that the company couldn’t predict what would happen with the next round of contract revisions expected three or four months later.

I’m incredibly fortunate that the economy didn’t hit me as hard as it has impacted some of my peers. Although the last 15 months have been among the most unpredictable in my career, I’ve had a wonderful network of recruiters and colleagues that have made it almost painless to transition to new work very quickly both times I needed to, and I was lucky enough to be able to choose between several opportunities each time.

My current job is more closely aligned with what I like to do, and it’s within a healthy walking distance (35-40 minutes) of home, so I am getting a decent amount of exercise most days.

Hiromi and I just came back from a short trip that took us to Washington, DC, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. It was kind of a delayed honeymoon, and in fact it was the first time I’ve gotten out of North America in well over a year. Hiromi went to Japan for a friend’s wedding last summer but I couldn’t quite escape work at the time. This was our first post-wedding trip together that wasn’t driven by some sort of external commitment, and was free of immigration-related hassles. We had some hurdles thanks to nasty winter weather, but the overall experience was great, and I’m sure I’ll be making some effort to recreate the gnocchi alla romana we had in an alley of the Trastavere in Rome soon enough.

In completely unrelated news, I realize that 9 months is a long time to take off from blogging… In penance, I promise two food-related posts this week.

Tagged

Pirikara no kimpira renkon

Kimpira (alternately kinpira) is a small category of side dishes in Japan typically involving finely sliced or shaved root vegetables. I don't think there's a strict definition, but you sort of know it when you see it. It typically involves sesame seeds or sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar or mirin, and often but not always includes some kinds of chilies. The technique is similar to braising. It might be compared to chorim in Korean cuisine, though the foods typically used for this technique differ between Korea and Japan.

Kimpira renkon

Kimpira renkon (金平れんこん) 

Kimpira gobou, made with burdock root (gobo) and carrot, has made an appearance here. It's the most typical preparation of burdock root in Japan.

For this kimpira, I heated up a bit of sesame oil in a nonstick pan and added sliced renkon. Renkon, known as lotus root in English, is crispy and juicy when cooked briefly. Typically, for kimpira, it would be a good idea to blanch the renkon for a minute or two and then ice shock it. This time, I just used some packaged renkon, which has been boiled in the packing process.

The sesame oil adds a lot of flavor, but it would burn at high temperatures... While I usually prefer to sauté things at high temperatures, that doesn't really work for sesame oil; however, it actually quite matches the goal for kimpira, where the oil is being used more for flavoring than to aid cooking. The oil certainly sizzles and bubbles, but it's not a true "sauté". I'm just kind of heating the renkon and tossing it around occasionally to help it cook evenly.

I season the kimpira with Korean dried chili flakes, because they're handy; other chilies work too. It's not meant to be incredibly spicy, but a little capricious heat is a good thing. Mirin, sugar, soy sauce and occasionally some vinegar are added to taste, and many people would put additional sesame seeds into the dish. It's very forgiving... I can't remember making the dish exactly the same way twice.

The sesame flavor, the nice little crunch, and moderate heat all work together to add a little "stamina" to meals that might primarily feature mild flavors. In small quantities, it will help balance out the rest of the flavors in your meal.

 

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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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Broccoli rabe standing in for Nanohana

Occasionally I've suggested that yu tsai or yu choi can stand in for nanohana, the greens of the rapeseed plant that are widely available in Japan during the springtime.

In fact, though, rapini, also called broccoli rabe, is far more like nanohana than yu choi is, at least in terms of flavor and appearance. Both rapini and nanohana are generally fairly bitter, and both respond well to blanching.

Although the standard rapini treatment in the US seems to involve sauteeing with garlic and olive oil, the bitterness of rapini mellows out considerably after being blanched for about a minute in acidulated, salted walter, then shocked in ice water. So much, in fact, that such rapini actually seems quite mild in comparison to similarly prepared nanohana.

Tonight I decided to take advantage of rapini for two dishes... one is a simple suimono, or clear soup, and the other is aemono, a simply dressed side dish.

Rapini to Shimeji no suimono

For the soup, I prepared my usual konbu-porcini stock and seasoned it with salt, light-color soy sauce (usuguchi shouyu), a bit of sake, and a bit of sugar. This time, I added a tiny bit of katakuriko to give the soup a little body. After tasting the stock, I added some shimeji mushrooms and let them simmer a bit; just a minute or so before serving, I added the blanched rapini to warm it up before serving.

Rapini to shimeji no suimono

Rapini no Goma-ae

For a cold side dish, I toasted white sesame seeds in a dry pan before grinding them up. I combined the ground sesame with a bit of sugar and salt, added some water and a tiny bit of soy sauce, and briefly boiled the paste to thicken it slightly. Though it's certainly not the standard choice, I added a bit of a syrupy-thick aged balsamic vinegar at the tail end, which adds a hint of complexity that ordinary rice vinegar wouldn't provide. Since the blanching water was slightly acidic from rice vinegar, I also didn't need much vinegar in the gomadare (sesame sauce).

The sauce is simply tossed with the blanched rapini and served in a small bowl.

Rapini no goma-ae

In the US, outside of aromatics like onions and garlic, we often seem to try to avoid serving the same vegetable in two different dishes at the same meal. However, in Japan, I found it was fairly common to do so, especially when something was particularly plentiful and in season.

For American and European cooking, we often serve such large portions that it would become tedious to eat too much of the same ingredient. However, the smaller portions in Japanese cooking make it worth considering, especially if you can think of an interesting textural or flavor contrast for a particular item. In this case, one dish is served hot, and the other cold. One is soupy and mild, and one is slighly salty and has a strong flavor from the sesame sauce.

Both bring out something different in the rapini.

I remember a small Kyoto restaurant run by an interesting obaachan I visited almost 4 years ago... Unprompted, she served a hot variaton of a vegetable side dish my friend and I had previously ordered cold, just to demonstrate that greens can be completely transformed with a slight adjustment in preparation.

Whenever I'm faced with a surplus of a particular ingredient, recalling that moment helps me realize that only a small touch of creative energy can make something familiar and boring into something new and compelling all over again...

 

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