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.

Penne with rapini and chèvre

February 28, 2010, 9:59 PM

I love rapini, the bitter Italian turnip green sometimes called broccoli rabe. Hiromi compares it to nanohana, a similarly bitter green of the rapeseed plant that’s easier to find in Japan. Both are members of the big brassica family, and, as the “rap” in each word suggests, they’re closely enough related that one could easily be confused for the other.

But in spite of my affection for this vegetable, I’m the first to admit that, thanks to its bitterness, rapini is a tricky vegetable to work with. A few months ago, I made the mistake of trying to put together a stew-like preparation with lentils and briefly blanched rapini. The combination was so overwhelmingly astringent that nothing could save it, including some biscuits that I thought would provide enough contrast to balance out the greens. I made it for a party, in prodigious quantity, so it was kind of embarrassing. Even though many people did their best to eat a few bites, I knew it took more than a little effort to tolerate.

Rapini, aka broccoli rabe or friarielli

I know Italians often soften the bitterness by cooking this vegetable with some fatty sausage, but as a vegetarian, I needed to find some other option. I thought some soft cheese might do the trick.

First I cooked some shallots in a serious dose of good Vermont butter.

Cooking shallots in plenty of butter

I chopped the rapini and, near the end of the pasta’s cooking time, tossed it into the pan. Like most mustard relatives, the longer you cook this green, the more pungent it becomes, so it’s important to avoid cooking it too long.

Chopping rapini

I added the greens to the pan and tossed them around a bit with some Spanish paprika. Over the last year or so, I’ve developed an incredible weakness for Spanish paprika, thanks to its smoky aroma and deep flavor. It adds just the right kind of complexity to stand up to the assertive greens. No salsiccia required.

Working in the chevre

I worked in a healthy quantity of soft chèvre after the rabe was nicely coated with the butter and slightly wilted.Tossing the pasta with the rapini and cheese

I didn’t bother to wait until the chèvre melted before tossing the ingredients with the pasta. While I stirred everything together, the cheese and everything else developed into a much more uniform sauce. With just a few seconds to go, I threw in a few halved tomatoes. After a few shakes in the pan and some seasoning adjustments, I called it done.

Penne with rapini in chevre sauce, served

The result? Just what we were after. The bitter greens still held their own, but the chèvre and the pasta provided enough contrast that it was no struggle to enjoy the dish. The smoked paprika brought everything together, and contributed a really irresistable aroma. The penne itself I could take or leave; I would probably have been happier with a ridged version (penne rigate), but I used what I had in the larder. Some fresh fettuccini might be even better.

I’m convinced that rapini and chèvre belong together. I’m tempted to do a sort of white pizza with a chèvre and garlic base and a scattering of blanched rapini, served with some crushed dried chilies. Maybe a sort of chawanmushi-style savory custard would work. I’m pretty sure a simple omelet or frittata would turn out nicely, too.

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Shimeji-dill pilaf with corn and little tomatoes

February 24, 2010, 11:12 PM

As a child I was under the unfortunate impression that rice pilaf was something that came from a box. The first “real” pilafs I tried were usually bland affairs mostly involving overcooked frozen vegetables.

I never developed a great affinity for the pilaf, so I’m not predisposed to the same kind of nostalgia I might have for, say, mac & cheese or lasagna. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say it usually sounds too boring for me to even think of cooking.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A heavy hand with fresh herbs and a good mix of can work wonders for the humble pilaf.

One recent evening, Hiromi was feeling a bit of bread overload, so she asked for something built on rice. Most of what we had on hand was more suitable for Western rather than Japanese treatment, and I didn’t want to let any ingredients go to waste, so I reached deep into my arsenal of improvisations and decided to break out our casserole dish.

After washing the rice, I sort of toast it in the pan with a little butter before adding liquid. This does wonders to keep the dish reasonably moist, and it certainly adds a nice flavor, too.

Mixing ingredients before final heat

I like to parboil the rice in seasoned vegetable stock in my pressure cooker before combining it with the main ingredients. Then I finish the pilaf off by allowing it to “rest” in relatively gently heated oven, usually 350-375F, for about 10-15 minutes. This allows the rice to develop a reasonably fluffy texture without overcooking all the vegetable ingredients.

I precooked the shimeji a bit so that they wouldn’t dry out while in the oven. I just gave them a quick sauté with butter and shallots, letting them brown a tiny bit.DSC_1511

I mixed the partially cooked rice with the cooked mushrooms, plenty of raw dill, raw tomatoes, and a handful of frozen corn. I did zero planning on this dish, so it was all about what we had in the kitchen, so it’s a rather eclectic combination.


The dill made the dish. I don’t think I would have bothered without a generous helping of fresh herbs… thyme, dill, rosemary, or oregano would have done the trick. Basil or mint could have worked in some circumstances, but mushrooms like earthier herbs.


It’s probably best to serve this with something high in protein, like a lentil soup, but we had overdosed on beans that day thanks to a spicy soup at lunch, so I served the pilaf with a slightly more complicated than necessary vegetable gratin for a late evening dinner.

To prepare the gratin, I took some more shallots, rehydrated sundried tomatoes, basil and pine nuts, and sauteed them together with a little salt. I then mixed this together with romanesco broccoli.DSC_1521

I can’t quite remember if I blanched or roasted the romanesco before finishing it off in the oven. But either way would work, with the caveat that over-roasting would produce an unpleasantly dry result, and blanching would really only need about a minute of boiling before refreshing in ice-cold water, since the dish gets additional cooking when the cheese is melted.


I was getting a little impatient that night, and most of the ingredients were already hot and cooked, so when the cheese didn’t have quite the right golden-brown texture I flipped the oven into broiler mode and slighly charred the vegetable.

Baked romanesco broccoli with mozzarella, sundried tomatoes, and pine nuts

Cheap mozzarella works well for this, so I just broke out a big log of mozz we often have on hand from Trader Joe’s. If I repeated this dish, I would rather have used some oil-marinated sundried tomatoes rather than simply rehydrated ones, since they did get a bit dry, but overall, the dish was comforting and rounded out a simple weeknight dinner nicely.

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Rogue River Blue with pear and walnut

January 20, 2010, 11:07 PM

Rogue River Blue only makes the briefest of appearances whenever Beecher’s gets hold of it. Last weekend I was lucky enough to snag some, and the only hurdle to obtaining my treasure was a misbehaving point-of-sale system that was backing up the cashiers as they hand-entered every transaction into a paper ledger.

The cheese is wrapped in grape leaves and washed with a pear brandy. Production is very limited, and it seems to get a bit more expensive every time I find it, but as an occasional splurge it’s completely worth it.

Like most great cheeses, it likes to be served at close to room temperature. Leave the leaves on the cheese when serving, because they contribute a lot to the flavor.

Rogue River blue with walnut and Taylor's Gold pear

You don’t need to do much to enjoy Rogue River Blue. I usually just dig in, or serve it with some crackers, though I’ve occasionally melted it over some vegetables when the mood struck.

This time, I thought I’d do a more classic combination, and break out some pears I picked up at the Pike Place Market.

US production of the pear variety, called Taylor’s Gold, is mostly concentrated in Washington and Oregon, and right now they’re absolutely fantastic… The aroma is really intense and they’re almost shockingly sweet.

I sliced them thin and fanned them out on slices of seeded baguette, and put little triangles of the cheese on top, finished with some freshly toasted walnut. I finished everything with a little drizzle of chestnut honey over the pear and a bit of freshly ground black pepper.

The Rogue River Blue is magical. It’s powerful but the brandy makes it almost fruity, and the rind has has none of the ammonia you might expect. The pear and honey nicely balance the slight saltiness of the cheese. You could have this as a little pre-dinner snack, or even as a stand-in for dessert.

Nagaimo with umezu

January 19, 2010, 12:00 PM

Umezu, or Japanese apricot vinegar, is a byproduct of umeboshi production. It’s salty and sour, with emphasis on salty. It really doesn’t get a whole lot of play in ordinary Japanese cooking, and most likely owes its relatively wide availability in the US to its popularity among macrobiotic freaks practitioners. Thanks to that, it’s almost easier to find at natural foods stores than it was to track down my local Japanese supermarket.

But even if the word macrobiotic gives you frightening flashbacks to the 1970s, I can assure you that umezu (sometimes romanized as umesu) does have its charms.

Nagaimo with umezu and shis

Hiromi and I visited one of the Vancouver fireworks shows last year and discovered a simple but clever use for the ingredient at Zakkushi on Denman, where we had a trio of little vegetable dishes including this nagaimo preparation.

It’s really nothing to make… You take the nagaimo, a starchy tuber somewhat similar to cassava, and cut it into matchstick-size pieces. If you’re feeling a bit lazier, thin moon-shaped slices would do the trick.

If you haven’t worked with nagaimo much before, you may want to wear gloves when peeling it; some people have a bit of a itchy skin reaction to the peel. For some reason, this has never caused me trouble, so I like to live dangerously.

Then, you do very little: mix in some umezu, and maybe a little chiffonade of shiso. That’s it, you’re done. If you want it to be a little more visually obvious, you might add a touch of mild rice vinegar and a drop or two of red food coloring, but I don’t find that necessary; I just serve it in a pink Hagi ware bowl to provide a visual hint.

Umeboshi have a really intense flavor, but the flavor is a little more subdued in the case of umezu. When used to season the nagaimo, this simple side dish provides an excellent contrast to other conventional home-style Japanese foods, or to the heartier fare typically served at an izakaya, because it’s crunchy and raw and sharp-tasting.

On its own, nagaimo is crunchy but mucilaginous (I prefer the onomatopoeic Japanese word neba-neba because I can't recall the last time I said "mucilaginous" in English), and it's one of very few vegetables frequently served raw in Japanese cuisine. It gets stickier as you stir it, much like chopped okra or nattou; the effect was more obvious in this gochujang-flavored preparation.

The vegetable is almost sweet, but it has a very high water content, so it doesn't have a really strong flavor by itself. That makes it a prime candidate for salad-like preparations like this one.

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Nasu pizza

January 13, 2010, 12:00 PM

Ages ago on an ancient rerun of the original Iron Chef, I remember being fascinated by a pizza topped with thinly-sliced Japanese eggplant. I’m sure it was the least sophisticated, easiest to replicate dish on the show, but I always dug the idea. It only rarely occurs to me to make it, but a month or so ago, I got a great deal on some nasubi at Uwajimaya and couldn’t help myself.

Nasu pizza (pizza with Japanese eggplant)

I made a basic tomato sauce and my signature potato-based pizza dough, then used the usual weapons of thinly sliced mozzarella and parmesan to turn out this not-so-old-school variation on eggplant parmesan. The flavor is brightened up a bit with a chiffonade of fresh basil.

This one barely survived a group of hungry food photography buffs during our December gathering.

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Kabocha soup

January 11, 2010, 12:00 PM

The fascinating thing about squash soups is how absolutely minimalist they can be. Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine from Quebec served me a butternut squash soup that was really little more than a thinned puree topped with a little cream, but it was still fantastic.

The one I usually make has a little more complexity, but I still take a rather restrained approach to seasoning it. I like to take advantage of nuttier, mealy squashes to get the most flavor.Kabocha soup

Kabocha fits the bill nicely. I used to go through the trouble of halving and seeding the squash before working with it, but I’m happier now sticking the squash in the oven whole and roasting it until tender. When it softens up, slicing through the beast is no longer a chore, and it’s relatively easy to extract the seeds and guts after a couple of minutes of cooling.

While the squash is roasting, I prepare a mirepoix, nothing more than equal amounts onion, carrot and celery sautéed until tender. Once soft, I puree the soup base in a blender, where it takes on an orange hue that could almost pass for squash itself.

Potato breadstick with kabocha soup

The roasted squash also takes a whirl in the blender, with a little water added as needed. Everything goes into a big pot, and I adjust the liquid ratio to make the soup to whatever consistency the occasion calls for… in this case, I was after a light pre-dinner soup, so I made it fairly thin.

This time I seasoned the soup with a small amount of a berbere seasoning blend, which has all the spices Americans love with squash (cloves, ginger, allspice) as well as a little coriander and ajwain seeds. It’s just cooked in a bit of butter in a tiny skillet until fragrant, and I pour it over the soup and stir it in. I then adjusted the salt and, in this case, added a touch of sugar.

My absolute favorite thing to complete squash is sage brown butter. This requires nothing more than a stick of butter and 10-12 leaves of fresh sage, cooked at medium heat until the leaves get crispy. You extract the leaves as soon as they’re crunchy and let the oil drip away, but you want to keep cooking the butter until it takes on the color of a hazelnut shell. It adds a fantastic aroma to anything it touches, and you can use the fried leaves as a savory garnish if you like.

You can serve the soup with a touch of cream and a few drops of the brown butter. I served mine with a little breadstick made from my potato pizza dough.

(Thanks to Kate Hailey at Spirited Earth for helping us figure out our new camera and making the lighting work!)

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A year in Madison Valley

January 10, 2010, 1:37 PM

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.


Matcha eclairs

March 23, 2009, 12:25 AM

It’s been another busy few months… We’ve been sort of social butterflies on the weekends, and when we’re not being sociable, we’re taking care of something related to our new home in Madison Valley. Most of the time I’m working fairly late, and while I’m still motivated to cook, I haven’t had the energy to set up photographs or write much.

We had to run off to a birthday party today, and I wanted to make a little something to bring along, but needed it to travel reasonably well.

Matcha eclairs

The solution? Matcha eclairs.

It starts with a fairly standard pate a choux recipe (half milk/half water and a little extra egg white being notable adjustments).

I made a little white chocolate ganache with a tiny bit of rum and a little more matcha than I usually use, which I chilled and then whipped up before piping. When that was done, I took a little more white chocolate and matcha and tempered it in a makeshift double boiler for the topping. The temper wasn’t quite right as it didn’t stay shiny, but the chocolate tasted good. The matcha-heavy ganache was bitter enough to balance the sugar in the Callebaut white chocolate but was not too over the top; Hiromi and I liked the ama-nigai taste.

The extra egg white seemed to help the eclairs maintain a slightly crisp texture even after refrigeration and a 40 minute drive.

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Big and little changes

December 8, 2008, 11:36 PM

So I've been buried in things and mostly devoid of energy for a few months... sorry about that.

Life hasn't been all work... Hiromi and I made a little trip to DC a couple months ago to see a friend of hers, who cheers for the Washington Redskins. I came back just a few days later so that I could avoid taking extended vacation from work, and Hiromi stayed with her friend a few days longer. Unfortunately, at roughly the same time Hiromi was boarding the plane back to Seattle, I learned that my job at Zillow faced foreclosure, along with the jobs of about 35% of my colleagues. (The press release noted a 25% reduction, but that excluded a number of agency temporaries).

The economy is ugly, but apparently people with my background are still in strong demand. Phone calls started coming in the day the layoffs were announced, and I had my first offer about a week and a half later. My ambition was actually to switch to a more web development focused role, instead of remaining a Software Design Engineer in Test. But the manager for most promising lead for that went on vacation just as I started making progress on interviews, and I didn't quite feel comfortable waiting on that.

I ended up choosing between a Microsoft contract at a convenient location, and a contract-to-hire role at a luxury travel company. I chose the travel company because it seemed like a more interesting opportunity, though some of the details made me nervous... On the bright side, one of my ex-Zillow peers made the same decision, after struggling with some of the same things as me, so I was pleased to see a familiar face again.

The financial pain of the transition was pretty substantial, but I should be ok in a few months. Fortunately, Hiromi also found work as of today, so things should be smoother by March or so.

We've had the lofty ambition of moving to a nicer place since, well, before Hiromi even arrived. We've been torn between buying something minimalist with a tiny down payment from my now completely brutalized stock portfolio, and renting something a bit better than what we're in now.

After some disappointing tours of places all over the city, we were about ready to shelve our plans until sometime next year. Last week, Hiromi spotted a rental that looked like a potential fit on Hotpads.com, and we booked a showing Saturday morning. It turned out to be pretty close to what we were looking for, so, after five years in a cramped apartment meant to be a one-year experiment in extreme frugality during the early stages of my business, we're finally getting a little more space...

Our new home is a pretty, well-appointed side-by-side duplex in one of my favorite parts of Seattle, just a few blocks south of a cluster of nifty Madison Park restaurants. The kitchen has a really nice open layout, a nifty gas range, and somewhat luxurious fixtures, and will no longer isolate me from my guests when we're hosting dinner parties... There's also enough space to keep my YuzuMura.com stuff out of the way of the rest of my life.

Of course, the timing of our move isn't exactly the most convenient possible time... we'll be juggling an attempt to visit family in Idaho Falls for the holidays with packing too much stuff, loading and unloading a truck, and, well, work...

Buried alive

August 24, 2008, 7:14 AM

I don't think you can say you've truly confronted your own mortality until you've been buried alive in volcanically heated sand.

When Hiromi and I discussed our plans for this trip to Japan, I mentioned I'd like to go to an onsen in Kagoshima, but I am fairly certain I never suggested that we should go to the beach and have some late-middle-aged sadists bury us.

Vacations don't always go the way you envisioned them, of course. Yet, it's important not to close your mind to possibilities outside of the realm of your narrow experience. And, I'd say partly thanks to the limitations of my Japanese ability, I barely understood what I was in for, so I only experienced a surmountable bit of trepidation.

We were at Ibusuki, Kagoshima. Sane people take an airplane here, but after years of building my Japan itineraries one to three weeks in roughly the same place, interrupted by one or two short side trips, Hiromi and I elected to get a rail pass and see Japan like we're tourists. We took a 6-7 hour train ride from Tokyo to Fukuoka last Thursday, where we focused primarily on eating and sleeping (Fukuoka has other things to recommend it, but is a fine location for both purposes), before continuing on to our potential demise several hours further south.

We arrived at Hotel Shusuien Friday night at 6:30. This particular ryokan has consistently won awards naming its food the best in Japan (18 years running) from a ryokan-focused magazine, which we only knew a few days after Hiromi chose it. More on that later; I'll I show off what we ate in a subsequent post.

The staff suggested we try out the sand baths, and offered to start our dinner at an unusually late 8 pm. Most ryokan are nearly ready turn in for the night by this time, so we were pleased with the option. Hiromi looked forward to a quick sunamushi bath.

I didn't quite understand what was going on, but I did learn that most people can only stand 10-15 minutes of whatever we were about to do, and that if we couldn't endure it, we should shake our hips a bit. She demonstrated.

If you've never seen a 70 year-old Japanese obaachan demonstrate shaking her hips in a ryokan uniform-style kimono, it's a gesture which implants itself disturbingly deep in your psyche.

So on to the burial.

We had changed into the hotel's yukata, so we were presented with zouri and were shuttled by car a short stretch away.

On arrival, we presented a coupon from our hotel, and were provided with another yukata, into which we were advised to change. We followed signs that led us out to the beach, where we discovered a number of people already in the mummified state.

Staffed by two 60-something interrers bearing wide shovels, the sand baths occupy a long strip of land 30 meters or so from the water. Each bath is wide enough to support about 4 persons abreast, and 2 lengthwise.

The female attendant briefly explained to Hiromi how to position herself. My height and clumsiness presented a few logistical challenges, so the male attendant spent a bit more time guiding me into just the right position. They dig out a spot roughly based on the size of their typical customers, but with a little finesse, it works for everyone.

Once positioned, we are quickly buried. The attendants alternately dig, then drop hot sand over us. Dressed in simple yukata, head partially covered by a small towel, we are fully clothed, but somehow more vulnerable than we would be in a regular onsen or sentou.

After about 60 seconds underneath a pile of hot sand, you feel piercing heat on your naked extremities, the hands and feet. The rest of your body notices little more than the weight of the sand covering you, save for a hint of steam. After two or three minutes, you start to become incredibly conscious of your heartbeat. Every thump of your heart pushes the sand an inch higher, and yet it hasn't moved at all.

Your breathing necessarily slows as some kind of survival mechanism, even though the first impulse is to breathe more heavily. The ribcage actually does move; if you look at the person next to you, you will see that the sand rises and crests rhythmically.

After five minutes or so, your face becomes covered in sweat, and deeply red. Perhaps you feel the urge to shake your hips.

Seven or eight minutes into the burial, you cease to fight the improbability of your circumstances, and you are strangely relaxed.

And yet, after 10-12 minutes, you feel a slight discomfort again, and your toes and fingers want to find their way to the surface. You shake your hips, just as the obaachan instructed.

First, your toes emerge, and the ocean breeze against newly exposed skin makes the heat bearable again. Then, your hands are free, and you gain just a bit more energy.

But, barring some irrational competitive urge, you will last no more than 15 minutes. Any more would be too close to cheating death. You find a way to rise out from the sand, somewhat zombie-like at first, until you realize that you are still a mortal entity and that yes, in spite of your yukata, the sand has indeed made its way into every crevice of your body imaginable.

You retire to the shower, where you spend more effort than customarily needed to wash yourself, and take a brief dip in the onsen bath before returning to the ryokan for dinner.

You feel inexplicably refreshed.

You are still alive, and you have an extravagant dinner awaiting you.

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