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.

Pistachio saffron kulfi, slightly altered for life with an ice cream maker

I can't remember exactly when I first heard of saffron kulfi, but I think it was mentioned in a Bharti Kirchner novel, or perhaps a desi short story collection. The book waxed poetic about the value of slowly simmering saffron and cardamom, which reduces the volume of the milk by about half while thoroughly infusing it with the aromas of the spices. This is a time-consuming, hour-long or more process, only possible to achieve on fairly moderate heat with plenty of patience.

It seems unlikely that you could accomplish the same level of flavor by pulling out a can of condensed milk and stirring the ingredients together, no matter how long you wait for the cold ingredients to meld together. The extra labor is totally justified by the results.

That being said, I'm fairly lazy, as obsessive cooks go... I delight in simplicity. The unusual level of labor means I haven't made this for about 5 years, when it was unceremoniously and completely devoured, along with some sort of sorbet, in less than 15 minutes at a dinner party I hosted. This time I served it to a much smaller crowd, so that I could guarantee I'd have more than a spoonful to taste for myself. I'm jealously guarding what remains.

Kulfi is not truly an ice cream, but simply a frozen dessert made in molds or even ice cube trays. It's rather unlikely to be churned, so the result will typically be quite firm and popsicle-like. However, thanks to my Cuisinart ice cream maker and a generous hand with cream, it develops a remarkably smooth, soft texture, and can fairly be called an ice cream.

Kesar Kulfi with Salted Pistachio

Kesar kulfi with pistachios

Ingredients

  • 8 cups milk
  • 1 cups cream
  • A generous pinch of saffron, about 8-12 strands
  • 1 tsp. ground cardamom (best if freshly ground)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • A few tablespoons shelled pistachio nuts, coarsely ground with a pinch of salt and a heavier pinch of sugar
  • Additional pistachio for garnish, if desired

Bring the milk, saffron and cardamom to a gentle simmer. Stir regularly as the milk simmers until the volume of milk is reduced by half.

Add sugar to dissolve. Add cream, and refrigerate until chilled, generally several hours or overnight.

Pour mixture into an ice cream maker with a 6 cup capacity (if your machine is smaller, the recipe can easily be halved). After 20-25 minutes, stir in most of the seasoned pistachio mixture.

I reserved some of the pistachio mixture for a nifty silicone mold I generally leave, neglected, stowed above my kitchen cupboards. I simply sprinkled the pistachios into the bottom of the mold before pouring in the ice cream mixture. Freeze the molds overnight. Unmold and serve, perhaps with some additional broken pistachios.

If you don't have such a mold, sprinkle the pistachio over scoops of ice cream after it's hardened in the freezer overnight.

In place of pistachios, almonds work quite well.

This kind of kulfi is ordinarily poured straight into a mold and frozen, rather than using the intermediary step of an ice cream maker, but the ice cream maker results in a smoother, softer texture. The extra cream, generally not used in Indian recipes, makes the ice cream extraordinarily rich and indulgent.

Although it's also not typical in Indian recipes for kulfi, the small hint of salt in the pistachio helps bring out all the other flavors in the ice cream. Like the great salted peanut butter ice cream at Seattle's Veil, one of the most remarkable items I've sampled there, it may evoke some strong reactions: At Veil, people either love it or hate it. I don't use as much salt as Veil does in my pistachio blend, so nobody who has tried my version was terribly shocked, but getting the balance might be tricky. Start with just a little pinch.

This is my little entry for YumSugar's For the Love of Ice Cream Challenge.

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Chestnut focaccia

Seattle doesn't really believe in air conditioning.

It's not that it doesn't exist; we only use it as a way of guaranteeing productivity, at offices and schools, or for keeping people restless and uncomfortable so that they'll make their purchases and efficiently move on to some other errand, like in supermarkets and department stores.

So the few times each year when we really would benefit from air conditioning at home, we simply don't have that option, so we tend to go out and drink mediocre syrupy iced cocktails at one of the three restaurants in town that has a deck. Today it was too hot for outdoor dining to be remotely comfortable, at least before 9pm or so.

During that time, I suppose we just sit at home and bake.

Chestnut focaccia

chestnut foccacia

No, not like this. Turning on the oven in weather like today's is a truly awful idea. It merely contributes to the dreaded Seattle Warming. Our fragile Seattleite bodies are not able to handle 65°F high temperatures one day and 98°F highs three days later. This is why we have so many activists and scientists working on reversing global climate change.

So it's really a good thing that I made and served this bread over a week ago. It's been a little hot to do any serious blogging, much less baking... I'm sure you've seen a slightly lower productivity among Seattle bloggers in the last week or so, except from those who blog from air conditioned coffee shops.

Aside from a slightly disastrous transfer onto the baking stone (the focaccia was a little too long), and a slightly too crispy texture thanks to a minute or two of overbaking, this was a nice little bread. It was perfect with good butter, as well as with olive oil.

It's an ordinary focaccia dough, except for one distinct feature: It's made with one-third chestnut flour. This gives the bread a surprisingly rich character, and a long fermentation time added a deep complexity. The aroma of chestnut pervades the bread, although the end result is nothing like your average roasted chestnut or mont blanc pastry.

I brushed the dough with olive oil and topped it with a little chopped flat-leaf parsley.

On a day like today, I might be satisfied with little more than some bread and cheese.  Or, as Hiromi and I did on a hot day last summer, perhaps it would be nice to serve some sakuranbo sōmen in a bowl of ice water with a cold dipping sauce.

Instead, though, I went out for a cold cocktail and some watermelon carpaccio and panzanella style salad at Oliver's Twist, under the mistaken impression that they might have functioning air conditioning.

Apparently some Seattle restaurants don't believe in air conditioning, either.

But the icy drink, constantly refilled ice water, and cool salads helped... followed by another cold nibble or two at Gaspare outside as the sun started retreating for the night. Gaspare didn't invest in air conditioning either, so in today's sweltering heat, nobody sat down indoors... it would have been too dangerous.

Tagged

Just tabbouleh... but still unforgettable

Tabbouleh. Perhaps unfairly, I somehow associate it with college, wannabe hippies, and 70s-style vegetarianism. Not that there's anything wrong with any of that.

But this marginalization in my mind means tabbouleh (tabouleh, tabouli, take your pick... Arabic is flexible about the rendering of vowels) somehow never seems to find itself on my radar when I plan dinner for a crowd. It just seems so hopelessly quaint and dated, like lentil loaves and cheese-laden casseroles.

That's a shame, of course, because tabbouleh is actually quite wonderful. In fact, it's really hard to get wrong, assuming you start with decent ingredients and make the mint and parsley, rather than the bulgur, the focus.

The most important ingredients, of course, are fresh mint, fresh parsley, bulgur wheat, lemon juice, tomatoes and olive oil. It's seasoned with salt and pepper, and generally includes an aromatic like onion, shallot or scallions.

tabouleh 735

Only two things can ruin this dish: too much bulgur, or attempting to substitute dried herbs. Even sad supermarket tomatoes won't be a tragedy if chopped finely enough, but excellent tomatoes can be featured more prominently.

The dish is probably prettier, and easier to eat, if served on a bed of romaine lettuce leaves. But even a minimalist version is a beautiful way to put some summer in your meal.

It's far better with flat leaf parsley, but you can get away with the stuff that used to be used solely as a pointless garnish at your local diner.

You can play with a hint of additional seasoning such as cinnamon, sumac, allspice, or pomegranate molasses, but if your ingredients start out fantastically fresh, you can get away with just the fundamentals.

Tagged

Mustard greens and manouri cheese ravioli

After a run of Japanese food, I started craving pastas and breads again. Somehow an  urge to do something with mustard greens kicked in. A weekend trip to the supermarket with no particular time pressure put me in a playful mood.

I thought about the Nagano specialty oyaki I sometimes make with mustard greens.

I tried making some beggar's purses on a whim, but realized the wrappers I rolled out were a little too thick. So for the next batch, I chose to make thinner, ravioli-like dumplings.

When I go through the trouble of making stuffed pasta at home, the last thing on my mind is recreating something that I could easily acquire at a supermarket or local Italian specialty shop. So I either go the route of using much better quality ingredients than I'd ever find in the fillings made by one of those fresh pasta making companies, or take the opportunity to play with combinations that I'd be unlikely to find anywhere else.

This was an occasion for the latter.

For the filling, I rub some washed mustard greens with coarse salt and let them sit for five or then minutes, then I come back to rinse them and squeeze out excess moisture. They shrink nicely, and I add some soft manouri cheese, a tangy sheep's milk cream cheese from Greece. I grate a little nutmeg in, then work an egg yolk into the mixture, along with a spoonful of bread crumbs. I might have added a little black pepper.

Soft ravioli filled with mustard greens and manouri cheese

ravioli 707

I chose to make these with regular wheat, rather than hard semolina flour. Durum wheat pasta, or semolina pasta, is more common in the US, thanks in part to the strong southern Italian influence in Italian-American cuisine, not to mention its advantages to pasta manufacturers. But much of northern Italy actually prefers pasta made with ordinary wheat, and both Chinese and Eastern European cooking is full of noodles made with soft or hard all-purpose flour.

Unlike those with the luxury of an extravagant, beautiful exhibition-like kitchen, I have no room for a pasta maker in my home. I'm not really sure I even have room for the things already spilling out of my tiny cupboards. So I relied entirely on manual labor.

I start with a hand-kneaded pasta dough made from flour, egg yolks, a hint of freshly grated nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. The dough rests for an hour or so.

Then I divide the dough into manageable chunks that I can roll out on my limited counter-space, dusting with flour as needed to keep things from getting too sticky. I flip the dough a few times and do whatever I can to achieve a fairly even thickness.

A cookie-cutter comes to the rescue when I want to cut out round pasta shapes. Or rather, it would have, were I able to remember where my one round cookie cutter was stashed. The urgent need for improvisation leads me to a suitably-sized plastic lid from a spice jar, which has just enough sharpness to do the trick.

I top one half of the pasta circles with a small amount of filling, rub each outer edge with some water, and seal the ravioli shut with one of the unused circles.

During the summer I often want lighter sauces than I typically rely on during colder weather. So rather than some heavy cream sauce, or even a big marinara sauce that might compete with the flavor of the filling, I played with a sauce constructed upon an inexpensive, moderately dry Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewurztraminer.

I simmer the wine with a little porcini-kombu soup stock for several minutes, then added some butter and salt. Initially, the flavor is a bit acidic, but the butter goes a long way to mellow out the wine. As the pasta boils, I toss some shimeji mushrooms into the wine sauce.

When the pasta looks ready to go, I strain the ravioli and let them simmer briefly in the sauce.

You may want to add a little shaved parmesan or black pepper. Since dinner had other sources of cheese, I kept it simple.

The sauce is lively with slightly herbal notes, and just rich enough to cut the acidity of the wine without weighing it down.

The Gewurztraminer has enough complexity to mitigate the need for aromatics like garlic or onions, especially with those intense mustard greens. I also had an audience that appreciates light, sappari flavors and I was serving a few other dishes to provide a balance of intense and light flavors.

However, if you wanted this to be the main focal point a meal you might work in some caramelized shallots, either finely minced and worked into the sauce, or simply sliced and presented as a final touch to top the pasta.

Snow peas and aburaage itame ni

Although sautéed and stir-fried dishes do not figure prominently in Japanese cuisine, simple dishes in that category will appear on the tables of most Japanese homes.

The scale, however, is much more diminutive than most Chinese, and certainly most Americans, would expect.

Historically, oil was fairly expensive in Japan, and a typical farming family might have gotten away with a single modestly-sized bottle of vegetable oil over the course of an entire year, even in the era of cast-iron pots. A tiny bottle of toasted sesame oil, mostly used a few drops at a time, might provide a flavor boost to otherwise simple dishes.

Sayaendo and abura-age with carrots 

Itamemono, or pan-sautéed dishes, generally have a fairly subtle flavor. Even soy sauce is used with a very light hand. Dishes do not acquire the "red" color of Chinese-style stir-fried dishes.

This type of dish is best with a short list of ingredients, prepared in small batches; I don't think I made this with much more than 1 to 1 1/2 cups of raw ingredients, and it was enough for two or three Japanese servings along with other dishes. My tiniest omelet pan did the trick. For a group of four or five people, you could get away with making a larger quantity in a 10" skillet.

I used some snow peas (sayaendō), carrots prepared with a simple rolling cut, and onions. I dunked some abura-age (tofu puffs, perhaps) in very hot water and squeezed the water out to prepare it for the pan. This helps the aburaage more readily absorb salt and seasonings, and coincidentally slightly reduces the oil content.

This kind of sauté is done with very little oil at a fairly high temperature. I add a small pinch of salt every time I put a new ingredient in the pan, then finish with some soy sauce, sake, and mirin.

Japan doesn't have the French convention of caramelizing onions, but if you bring the onions just past translucent they'll add a great aroma and natural complexity to the flavor of the dish. Add the carrots, cook for a minute or two longer, then add the snow peas and aburaage. Once these are a bit shiny, add a small splash of soy sauce, a good tablespoon of sake, and maybe even a little dashijiru, then perhaps one or two drops sesame oil. In some cases you may want to add a touch of sugar or mirin, but I think the onions and carrots are naturally sweet enough that additional sugar is usually unnecessary to achieve an ama-karai (sweet-salty) taste.

Simmer briefly, taste, adjust seasonings if needed, and serve in small bowls.

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Garlic scapes with walnuts and parmesan

Ninniku-me

These asparagus-like treats, sometimes called garlic sprouts, seem pervasive in the summertime in Seattle farmer's markets.

They apparently come from only a small number of varieties of garlic. I really like them, but I've found them slightly temperamental to cook: they seem to transform from slightly-too-hard to hopelessly mushy in mere seconds.

This time I managed to get the texture just about right.

When I'm giving them a more Japanese treatment, I tend to blanch them before using them, which helps keep the texture firm and the color brilliant.

This time, though, I simply sauteed the garlic stems of the scapes in olive oil with a generous pinch of salt, added some walnut pieces, and, toward the end of their time on the stove, I added the upper bulbs to the pan and poured in some vermouth. The bulbs take less time to cook than the rest of the vegetable, and tend to suffer the most from overcooking, so they should be cooked until just tender enough to enjoy.

I've bought garlic scapes in supermarkets in Japan, where they are called ninniku-me, but they are nearly always sold with the bulb cropped off. I think that's probably because the visual appeal has a longer shelf-life; the tips turn brown much earlier than the rest of the scapes.

Garlic scapes require only minimal seasoning: they are both an aromatic and a vegetable in one. If you take advantage of that attribute, you can have an excellent side dish on the table in just about three minutes...

You'd think I'd be more motivated to cook

Actually, I have been cooking, though mostly haphazardly and without particular care... I'm also less patient, and not generally willing to dig out the camera.

I'd like to blame this ennui entirely on the US Customs and Immigration Service, though I'm not quite sure that's entirely fair. It has been rather depressing to observe absolutely no change in status for I-130 applications on the USCIS web site's receipting update page, at least not for the last 8 weeks or so. This week I'm slightly more optimistic, as they've indicated that all the I-130 applications have been forwarded to Chicago. Perhaps next week I'll hear something.

It turns out one of my coworkers is facing the same thing, as he filed for his own wife about a week after me. I imagine a lot of people are similarly frustrated right now.

In about 10 days I'll be heading off to see Hiromi in Vancouver, BC for a couple of weeks, as we can't be sure Hiromi would be allowed to enter the US even as a tourist, since we've already filed an application for permanent residence. The convoluted logic of US immigration law makes it hard to enter as a tourist to see your spouse, because you might have immigrant intent. If we were both living abroad, and didn't have a pending immigration petition, we could actually enter under the normal visa waiver program that Hiromi has previously used for most of her trips to Seattle.

I'm hoping to eat well in Vancouver... we'd like to make a trip to Vij's and perhaps Lumière or something similarly celebratory... of course, we're probably going to be equally happy just cooking simple meals in our rented Yaletown apartment.

My impatience has gotten considerably worse in the last month, but of course, there's nothing I can do... Shouganai.

Saturday I visited (and co-arranged) a party celebrating nabe, the broad category of winter one-pot dishes that mark the arrival of winter in Japan. We had four varieties of nabe going in four different pots, and 27-30 people. Kimchi nabe (Japanese-styled kimchi jjigae), Ishikari nabe (a Hokkaido salmon and vegetable nabe), tounyuu nabe (fresh soymilk seasoned with miso, with tofu and shungiku, in this case), and a kinoko tofu nabe (mushroom and tofu nabe), for which I prepared a yuzu-meyer lemon-daidai ponzu.

This Friday night a few friends have been kind enough to arrange for a nice dinner at Carmelita, my favorite vegetarian restaurant in Seattle. I haven't been since Hiromi's birthday last year. In 2006, Hiromi and I did some role-reversal reversal: I took her to Carmelita on her birthday, she took me to a football game on mine.

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Tokyo celebrates Halloween

Bee Movie?

Bee Movie?

On the weekend we discovered that Japan has taken a marked interest in Halloween... Harajuku and Omote-sando were filled with costumed children and adults, some carrying plastic pumpkins to various shops that apparently were giving away small treats.

Small superheroes

Small superheroes

Some people even lined up outside department stores, presumably for some sort of treasure.

Mostly costumed lineup

Halloween lineup

Harajuku had clusters of costumed children. We didn't make it out to the annual Kawasaki-area Halloween parade, but I understand that's an even bigger event than what we spotted in Omotesando.

We can perhaps thank global commerce and expert marketing, but Halloween seems to be roughly a week-long event in Japan. Costumes start on the weekend preceding the holiday, as far as I can tell, and continued all the way into bars and restaurants on Halloween night.

Bakeries offer pumpkin filled cookie sandwiches and in the shape of Jack-O-Lanterns, and I even found a Halloween-themed tenugui, or dyed cotton cloth. Halloween is all about commerce, much as it is in the US, without all the visceral impact the symbolism of Halloween has to most Americans, weaned on ghost stories about witches and zombies, during horror movie season.

Ladybug and wizard: Off we go

Ladybug and wizard

Obon and Halloween are really the same holiday, differences in rituals aside. Since I usually avoid coming to Japan during the peak heat of summer, I have only witnessed Nikkei celebrations of obon, and those a month earlier than typical (to fit in to the more important Seafair schedule in Seattle). But both are ways for living people to come to terms with death and the unknown.

In Japan, though, any of Halloween's association with the supernatural is apparently nonexistent. Cuteness rules all costuming decisions; nobody tries to be over-the-top disturbing, and everyone appears to use Halloween as an excuse for consumption.

In contrast, I remember being at a shrine in Kamakura just after dark many years ago, and my Japanese companion was clearly slightly unnerved... I was unable to relate, as I felt none of the same goosebump-raising vibrations that come from a lifetime of association of shrines with death and ghosts. Americans, more influenced by Christian teachings that tried to quash pagan leanings in indigenous European cultures, are more likely to find their hair raised by the shadows and noises of Pan's forests.

Tortured eggplant

Tomato-like eggplant

You think you're looking at fleshy beefsteak tomatoes.

But you are deceived. You're actually looking at an uncommon variety of eggplant. I picked it up from the Alvarez farms stand at the Pike Place Market a little while back.

They were surprisingly firm, which I thought would be an advantage over the occasionally quite mushy ancient eggplants I sometimes run into at supermarkets. In fact, these were firm enough you could probably hurt someone if you threw them hard enough.

Had I followed my usual impulses when playing with a new food, I'd have done my best to highlight the remarkable qualities it has and not fuss with it terribly much. I would have wanted to emphasize the remarkable color and the bold shape.

But that was not to pass. That week I had an absolutely relentless craving for comfort food, and my usual impulses were undermined by cravings for things roasted, baked, and cheese-laden.

So I chose instead to obscure my treasure by turning it into something fairly pedestrian, but certainly comforting... After slicing, salting, and removing aku from the eggplant, I pan-fried the slices with a dusting of flour, egg and breadcrumbs. While I was waiting for them to cook, I prepared a quick tomato sauce from some nice fresh tomatoes, using a heavy hand with red wine. I placed some buffalo mozzarella and parmesan on each slice, spooned over some sauce, and baked until everything was melted.

Eggplant Parmesan

food 297

As you can see, I managed to completely obscure any of the charms of the eggplant, but it did the trick appealing to my need for self-indulgence.

Surprisingly, the eggplant had a sharp edge*. The bitterness was more intense than most varieties of eggplant I've worked with, even though I did the standard salting and rinsing trick. The sweetness of the tomato sauce and the mozzarella helped counter some of the harshness, so perhaps my choice was clever after all.

I'm now tempted to see if I could tame the bitterness by pickling the eggplant, Japanese style. I haven't been at the Pike Place Market for a few weeks, though, so I'm afraid I've probably lost my chance for the season... but perhaps we'll meet again next season.

* I've since learned that this variety of eggplant, called Turkish eggplant, is generally consumed underripe; it becomes bitter as it transforms from green to orange.

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Polenta with grilled halloumi cheese and apricot sauce

Polenta, grilled halloumi cheese, apricot sauce

It's hard to imagine now that Seattle's wind and rain have started to kick in, but only a month ago, local apricots were still in season.

Just around that time I had stumbled upon a beautiful bunch of apricots at the U-District farmer's market, and thought it would be nice to make anzu-zake, an apricot-infused liqueur similar to umeshu. Unfortunately, a few of the apricots I used were so ripe that a couple of them had hidden bruises. I spotted them just before they lost their color and reclaimed them from the vodka solution, and chopped up a couple more fresh ones from another source. Simmered with a little sugar, a bit of yuzu juice, a tiny knob of fresh ginger, and a pinch of salt, this makes a spirited accompaniment to cheese.

Bad puns are cruel. Sorry about that.

I happen to be a fan of the occasional grilled halloumi... that's a a cheese which comes from Cypress, most notable for holding its shape when cooked. It's best when quickly grilled and gently caramelized. Because it's somewhat salty, I tend to prefer serving it with a sweet accompaniment like quince paste, but this boozy apricot sauce was even better.

I wanted to have something more than just a big pile of cheese, so I boiled some polenta seasoned with salt and butter, then let it rest at the bottom of a small baking pan. After it cools for 10 minutes or so, it's easy to cut into rectangles suitable to rest the cheese on.

Dressed with the apricot sauce and some fresh black pepper, the strength of this dish is the relatively gentle interplay of flavors. To provide some flavor contrast as needed, I served it with some fruity olives and some pickled pepadew peppers.

When I made this, I was only in the mood for a light meal, so I had a little salad and not much else, but it would be even better to serve one per person as a nice appetizer. It looks fancier than it is; I had it on the table in about 15 minutes after the polenta was cooked, and I wasn't in a rush. You could easily substitute ready-made quince paste or probably some types of chutney...

For a little while I couldn't get enough halloumi, and I tended to serve it on a bed of Bibb lettuce instead of polenta. That's even easier... but I think this version is prettier.

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