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.

Chayote squash minimalism

I'm a complete sucker for simple preparations of nice ingredients.

It wasn't always that way. When I first had enough of an income to support occasional dining out, I always thought it was better to order food that required equipment or effort I was unlikely to duplicate at home. Why pay a premium for a dish I could throw together myself in just a few minutes?

But after a couple of years, I realized that complex cuisine tended to be disappointing, perhaps because so many variables made it hard to pull off "sophisticated" dishes with any degree of consistency. Now I tend to be happiest with simple, well-executed fare. I still love dining out, but I'm more likely to look for dishes that are simple and playful, or classically basic and seasonally appropriate, rather than elaborate or ostentatiously creative.

At home I've seriously simplified my usual fare, as well, and I just love doing as little as possible to bring out the best in an ingredient.

Chayote squash is one ingredient that benefits from pronounced yet fundamentally uncomplicated seasoning. I like it with little more than fresh citrus juice and salt.

Matchstick-cut chayote squash with lime and pico de gallo

chayote suqsh with lime and pico de gallo seasoning

Except for some brief high-risk mandoline maneuvering, this refreshing side dish is almost effortless. I simply matchstick cut the squash, rub the pieces with some coarse salt, and wait a few minutes for the squash to sweat while preparing something else.

I try to squeeze out excess moisture, but it's ok to be a little lazy about that. Then I squeeze in a generous splash of fresh lime juice and chill for a while to marinate. If the squash starts out cold, it could actually be eaten right away, but I didn't have that much forethought. I just let it rest for a while while I finished the rest of dinner. Besides, it keeps nicely for three or four days refrigerated, and it's nice to have a refreshing side ready to go.

On the plate, I sprinkle just a little pico de gallo seasoning, which is nothing more than salt, ground cumin, and chili. If this dish sounds like a typical preparation of jicama, that's no coincidence. It just works.

Chayote squash has the texture of a crisp pear or raw daikon but has hints of the aroma of cucumbers and melon.  When you add the lime juice, the magic starts.

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Stuffed mushrooms without a hint of grain

stuffed-mushrooms-29

Perhaps it's just force of habit, but I  never really considered making stuffed mushrooms without some sort of starch as a foundation... rice is my usual standby, but I've used buckwheat, breadcrumbs, and a few other alternatives.

But I'd been feeling rather overstuffed lately, so I've been eating less in the way of refined grains than usual. Stuffed mushrooms are a relatively quick, simple side dish unless you're cooking them for an army, so I threw together a dozen or so one Sunday night recently to go along with some more substantial fare.

I took some fleshy tomatoes, gently seeded, and chopped them up, tossed with some chopped, sauteed shallots. I added some grated pungent cheese whose name escapes me at the moment, but almost anything would work. For flavor, I added some capers, and a little salt, pepper and nutmeg. After hollowing out the mushrooms, I stuff them with the filling, placing them in a porcelain baking pan. Then pour some light, minerally Grüner Veltlinger wine, seasoned with more salt, pepper and nutmeg, into the same pan with a little butter.

These bake until the mushrooms look tender and the cheese is melted. at about 425F/200C.

I was worried some disaster would befall me because I left out the usual ingredient binding, but no such misfortune ensued, and the dish avoided the dreary dryness that sometimes ruins otherwise elegant-looking stuffed vegetables. Now I'm inclined to leave out the starch most of the time.

In spite of the stick-to-your ribs look of this variation, it's quite light and flavorful, and you could probably eat the mushrooms by the dozen without weighing yourself down.

Served with a glass of that Austrian Grüner Veltlinger, they make a nice starter or side dish.

Broccoli no toufu ae: Tofu and sesame dressed broccoli

Broccoli isn't particularly common in the Japanese kitchen, but it's gradually become somewhat popular in home cooking. To be honest, I can't think of many times I've actually eaten it when I've traveled to Japan, but I've certainly seen it at supermarkets and department stores.

The few broccoli dishes I've seen in American Japanese restaurants seem oddly unbalanced, overcooked, and out-of-place.

However, the ingredient can be very suitable for aemono or ohitashi. I might even be swayed to blanch it, mince it finely and use it in tamago-yaki.

Broccoli no toufu ae

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This side dish, slightly strongly seasoned even for aemono, is made with a blend of soft tofu, toasted, crushed white sesame seeds, sugar, salt, and the tiniest splash of soy sauce.

The broccoli, blanched for about 90 seconds, yields, but still has bite. Once mixed with the ae components, it acquires a savory, juicy character. The flavors play very nicely together.

For a little color and slightly capricious flavor highlight, I also added a little sprinkling of yuzu-shichimi once the aemono was on the plate. Because I used only a tiny touch of this, each bite holds the potential of a little surprise, but the heat from the shichimi doesn't overwhelm the dish.

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Nasu no karashi miso ni: Eggplant with mustard miso

One of my favorite Japanese dishes, ever since I first started exploring Japanese cooking, was nasu no miso ni, a simple eggplant dish with miso. As I've mentioned before, there are probably as many variations on that dish as there are mothers in Japan.

Nasu no karashi miso ni 

This is one of mine. Pan-grilled deep-purple mini eggplant, cooked with a little tea seed oil, somehow became magically bright purple after a couple of minutes of heat

Normally I'd just add mirin, sugar, a bit of dashijiru and miso, but this time I also added a bit of mustard and a splash of vinegar. As the dish simmers, the sauce thickens up and some of it is absorbed by the eggplant.

I'd call this variation nasu no karashi miso ni.

I liked this style... It is a bit like serving konnyaku or tofu with sumiso (also a mustard and vinegar seasoned miso), except warm.  It's a surprisingly delightful way to bring the flavor out of the eggplant.

Like most versions of nasu no miso ni, it looks best on right after cooking, but the leftovers taste even better after they've rested for a night or so in the refrigerator.

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Almost here

Hiromi is finally due to arrive in Seattle on Tuesday. It would probably be smart to get the small errands done that I have fallen behind on, but I've only made a small dent. I've got a rather long list.

I have to pick Hiromi up at the airport, which is likely to take longer than usual thanks to the extra time involved in processing her visa. I'm still debating whether to take the whole day off  from my day job on Tuesday or just skip out for the morning.

This week is sure to be busy, as we have a full dance card almost as soon as she arrives. I'm hoping to have a day to relax sometime in the next month.

Our travel plans have firmed up. We'll be in Japan from August 13 to 28th. We have to be in Tokyo from the evening of August 17 to August 20th (though we might be able to make a little day trip on the 19th).

I'm hoping we'll head up north, though I'm not sure how far north, between August 14 and 17th. From the 20th-28th, we have no pressing obligations, so I want to find some way to go as far west as Kagoshima, maybe spend a little time in onsen. If possible, I'd like to stop in Karatsu and Hagi. Hiromi's got her eye on Takamatsu to see a friend, and I think Fukuoka might have been on her list as well.

I usually avoid the JR Pass these days, but this is the first time Hiromi will be eligible to use one, so we're going to be crazy and do the complete opposite of the style of travel I've been accustomed to.

Normally, I prefer to make a couple of small trips and not spend too much time in transit. But every once in a while, the whirlwind tour has its place... And I haven't been further west than the Kansai region in about 6 or 7 years, so it'll be nice to get to the other side.

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Nori furikake popcorn and an exercise routine

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Over the last 5 months or so, I've been stepping up my exercise routine. The last couple of years working in software during the day have been particularly bad for my waistline, and a broken foot last year kept me away from the gym for several months. My newer office is inches from dozens of cheap, massive-portion quick-service lunch joints, and for most of my return to software I've just not been exercising as much as I used to. It's a dangerous combination.

A long time ago, I had an ugly knee injury from running, and I never quite got back to normal. Every time I tried running more than about 3 miles, the pain would come back.

While Hiromi was staying with me in Seattle, both of my knees started acting up, inflamed by little more than walking. My usual standby of walking long distances, either out and about or on the treadmill, just became too painful to handle.

In November I realized that my avoidance of exercise was unsustainable, and I started hunting around the gym for something that wouldn't be murder on my knees. I found most of the cycling machines boring, and elliptical striding machines were more stressful on my knees than running, so things seemed hopeless. Then I stumbled on the Concept2 rowing machine, and everything started to click.

For the last few weeks, I've been focusing on strength training, but I'm really glad to have found a cardiovascular exercise that doesn't punish my knees.

My routine since November has kept me in the gym 4 or 5 nights a week, and I get home pretty late on weeknights. I usually manage to eat a reasonable dinner, though I'm not usually finished cooking until around 9:30 pm.

Weekends are more complicated. Somehow I often end up eating irregularly, and my appetite strikes at the most inconvenient moments.

Last Sunday, I got an after-dinner craving, so I went straight for my go-to snack: popcorn. Often I toss a little truffle salt and melted butter on it, but I have another favorite: nori-shio popcorn.

I stole the idea from a microwave popcorn product that comes from Hawaii, and the nori-shio potato chips popular in Japan. That brand of microwave popcorn is crazy expensive in Seattle, so I started making it on my own.

It's easy enough to make popcorn on the stovetop with a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan; I just heat a little oil on medium heat, add a few tablespoons of popcorn to the bottom, and shake occasionally as the kernels heat up. When popping starts to slow down, I turn off the heat and wait for the last few popping sounds.

Most of the time, I use a mortar and pestle to grind up prepared nori furikake, which I buy at Uwajimaya in Seattle. If I don't have that, I sometimes mix up aonori, sesame seeds, salt, and a bit of sugar, and work that into a fine powder with the mortar and pestle or a spice grinder.

I toss the cooked popcorn and the nori blend in a big bowl. Sometimes, there's not quite enough oil to get the furikake mix to stick to the popcorn, so I might spray or drizzle a little more oil onto the popcorn, which usually helps a bit.

Nori, sesame and salt get along with popcorn swimmingly, so this is one of my favorite snacks.

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208 days

Coming home from the gym tonight, I read an email on my cell phone announcing that my petition for Hiromi to come to the U.S. has finally been approved.

It's a relief. It really only means that we've started round three of the waiting game, as the next layer of bureaucracy enters the picture. But the most grueling, time consuming part of this process is now over.

It's been 208 days since I filed the petition. We spent about 3 weeks after our minimalist wedding gathering documents, filling out forms, correcting forms, mailing them back and forth, reviewing them with my attorney and an immigration paralegal, and accumulating a small fortune in legal bills and government fees.

The approval means that we now wait again... in about a week, we should be assigned a visa number after the National Visa Center receives the petition, which will be forwarded to the consular service at Tokyo embassy. Sometime after that, Hiromi will receive a new stack of paperwork to fill out, and I expect I'll have to assemble a bunch of financial documents as well.

If we're lucky, within a month after the documents are sent off, Hiromi will get an appointment for a medical exam and an interview.

I'm not sure yet, but there's a reasonable chance Hiromi will be able to come to Seattle by late May.

Maybe I'll finally be able to concentrate during the daytime again...

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Golden beet and chanterelle pizza

Beet greens, golden beet and chanterelle pizza

OK, chanterelle season is more than over. What can I say? I've been busy.

I made this back in December, so you'll probably need to make something slightly different. Maybe you can substitute some hedgehogs or skip the mushrooms if something suitably foresty isn't available.

All I can say is that this worked. I blanched thinly-sliced golden beets, followed by the beet greens. Then, I dry-fried chanterelles with a bit of salt and fresh dill, feeding them some butter after most of the liquid had boiled off.

I put these on a pizza dough base brushed with olive-oil and garlic. The cheese included a little orange-fennel soft goat cheese and mozzarella.

When the pizza was finished baking, I hit it generously with more fresh dill.

It's not Italian, but it works. I particularly liked the little hints of orange aroma coming from the cheese, but I think other soft chevre would add a nice brightness that would balance out the earthy foundation.

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Easter brunch

This year Easter is solo... and, while I don't practice any particular religion, I'm willing to adopt a pagan custom or two in service of good food.

I'm too lazy to dye eggs, and probably will remain so as long as I have no children to entertain, but I'm sure willing to crack a couple of eggs.

The other thing about dying eggs is that the presentation contributes nothing to the taste of hard boiled eggs. I'm all for pretty presentations, but I'm much more motivated to create functional presentations. Whatever I decorate with should make the dish taste better. Otherwise, I'm content to just let the plate decorate the food.

Spring frittata

Spring frittata with ramps, early morels and blanched rapini

Sosio's was selling fresh wild ramps yesterday, which are a wild onion family member, sometimes called wild leeks. They're generally skinnier than the skinniest scallions, and the greens are almost leaf-like. The flavor is sharp, complex, and slightly earthy; they're more aromatic than scallions, distinct from but reminiscent of shallots, and have a sort of leek-like base notes. They're also very fragile and tend to have an incredibly short shelf-life.

They were also offering some "early morels", which are actually members of the verpa family. When sliced lengthwise an inner fleshy stem is revealed, distinguishing them from true morchella, which have a stem that doesn't come apart from the rest of the body. Apparently some people have allergies to the verpa, and there are some varieties, not common in the Pacific Northwest, which are slightly toxic when eaten raw. Cooked, they're quite nice, and they greedily absorb all the aromatics they're cooked with.

I still had a small bit of blanched rapini left in the freezer, so I had a nice trio of ingredients for a spring frittata. Gently sautéed in some nice olive oil with a pinch or two of salt, the trio of spring treats contribute a lot of flavor to a simple egg dish.

For the eggs, I just whisked a couple of room temperature eggs together and added a bit of seasoned soup broth, mixed them together and added them to my nice nonstick pan right over the vegetables. I stir the eggs with saibashi (long chopsticks for cooking) to help create nice curds and to keep the eggs from browning prematurely. Before the eggs are set, I briefly place them under a broiler, and the eggs puff up dramatically.

In my experience, when the eggs are browned in the broiler, the eggs become unpleasantly hard—almost tough—so now I just let them puff up a bit and flip them over onto the serving plate, revealing the golden-brown bottom while retaining an almost-fluffy texture.

Topped with some citrusy ash-covered Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog cheese and chopped ramp greens, this simple frittata features wild, citrusy, creamy, earthy, bitter, and gently sweet flavors all at once, somehow without any one of those flavors conflicting with the others. It's just the right thing for a lazy Sunday.

 

Matchstick cut nagaimo with wasabi-nori

Yamaimo to wasabi-nori

Raw nagaimo, or "long potato," is a starchy tuber similar to African yams, and is appreciated in Japan for its neba-neba qualities. There's no fair translation for this onomatopoeia, but it refers to a magical kind of slippery stickiness... if there were a nice-sounding word for slimy, it would be neba-neba.

In the US, such foods are often treated with suspicion, but it wouldn't be fair to dismiss this texture outright; Japanese cuisine is more about experiencing contrasting textural experiences than, say, complex seasoning or elaborate technique.

Other neba-neba foods include cooked okra and nattō, and, to a lesser extent, the sea vegetable mozuku. I will never be as big a fan of nattō as Hiromi is, but that's thanks more to the aroma than the texture. I love okra, especially cooked with onions and tomatoes. And mozuku is a favorite treat of mine, served as a simple side dish with a chilled, almost soupy, lightly acidic dressing.

Nagaimo is a kind of mountain potato, or yamaimo. If you grate it with a daikon-oroshi grater, you'll get a madly viscous mass called tororo-imo which can be mixed with a raw quail egg, simply seasoned with soy sauce and chopped scallions, and poured over rice at breakfast. Tororo-imo is also indispensible for making good okonomiyaki.

Fresh nagaimo also makes a nice side dish when cut into matchstick slivers (sengiri), as seen above. This brings out the neba-neba qualities while retaining a pleasantly crisp texture. I now typically use a mandoline to make this task easier; however, in a pinch, a good chef's knife will do. Just expect the cutting board—and your hands—to get slippery. You can avoid that by wearing latex gloves while preparing the dish. You may want to wear gloves while peeling the skin anyway, since some people suffer from a mild itchiness on skin contact with yamaimo skin... I'm lucky enough not to have that problem.

Once cut, place the nagaimo in small serving bowls and splash on a little soy sauce. For the flavor garnish, sometimes I add some chopped umeboshi and kizami-nori, or thin strips of nori. This time I used chopped scallions and a wasabi-seasoned nori, cut into strips with kitchen shears. The goal is to have a little saltiness, a little crunchiness, and some clean but sharp contrasting flavor. This version would be called sengiri nagaimo to wasabi-nori.

For an even more sticky experience, the nagaimo could be mixed with mekabu (wakame sprouts)... but that would be a lot of neba-neba for one night...

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