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.

Catastrophic failure, just in time

So my laptop hard drive has been complaining about little problems from time to time, and I decided to run a scanning and repair tool that came with my Dell (the Symantec equivalent of Chkdsk) on Sunday.

When I got home from a friend's birthday party across Puget Sound in Kingston, I saw that the appropriate magic had happened and I tried rebooting.

No luck.

Thanks to a late night call with a Dell tech support person I deleted my primary partition, losing a number of nice food photos and a few semi-important documents, along with some pet software projects that I haven't recently backed up. I don't think the losses were tragic, but they are disappointing nonetheless.

Dell sent out a replacement hard drive, but we were cutting it really close... Hiromi and I were leaving for Japan on Tuesday. It was destined to come via overnight service, but we wouldn't know if it would arrive before we had to leave.

I managed to bring my machine up to a semi-usable state, went to bed around 2am, and had a suitably restless night.

I think I had a similar fiasco a few years back just before an international trip, and about 7. I seem to be very hard on my machines.

 

Anyway, just minutes before we absolutely had to call a cab in order to get us to the airport on time, DHL stopped by. I was lucky I was able to get things semi-working without the new drive, because I wasn't looking forward to spending the first day or two of the trip installing software. I decided to chance the hard drive melting down more permanently, and left the replacement equipment behind.

 

We're in Tokyo now, and I rented a cell phone through Docomo. We thought I'd be able to get a local SIM card for my nifty new iPhone 3g, but Softbank's rental counter had a little apologetic sign in Japanese indicating that this wasn't an option right now. Apparently their web site had jumped the gun, or they had some problems, or they just don't want the support headaches yet.

The rental rates seem to have gone up. I had been getting nice 250 yen/day rates from Softbank on recent trips, but their best deal today was 525 yen/day. I caved in and got the cheapest domestic-only phone plan from Softbank at 300 yen/day, since Hiromi has her Japanese cell phone service still and we'll mostly be together on this trip, except when we're not.

I'm a bit tired. It's hot, but not as bad as I had expected, yet. I've always done my best to avoid summer in Japan, except for a brief business trip about 7 or 8 years ago. It's steamy, but it doesn't feel too hot right now. Even so, I think I need a shower.

Mini galettes with chevre and caramelized onions

On a whim, last Friday night I made a savory galette-style cheesecake. I improvised the dough, cutting a bit of clarified butter into flour, adding a bit of mace and salt, then working in a bit of cold water in a well.

I hurriedly caramelized some onions, which is not a process that likes to be rushed, but it worked out reasonably well. I mixed soft chevre, cream cheese and sour cream together, beat in an egg, adjusted salt, and filled a large round of dough; I baked the cheesecakes until the filling set, and served warm.

Tonight I took advantage of a bit of leftover dough and filling, and made a smaller version to go with yesterday’s borscht.

Savory mini galette cheesecakes

Mini Galette

 

Welcome to the world, Tiger

kojiro

When I was younger I never really imagined becoming a father. I was well-trained by my mother, who, having given birth to a nearly 11 pound me at age 19, encouraged her own children, on this one task, to be true procrastinators.

But a few years ago, when Hiromi and I got married, the idea no longer gave me nightmares. I had a rewarding early adulthood, with plenty of opportunity to do crazy and not-so-crazy things.

I went to college, and immersed myself in literature, politics, and examinations of a world beyond the comfortable boundaries of my mostly suburban and rural childhood. I studied in Germany. I traveled to Japan, Korea, England, Ireland, and China. I learned to jog, lost a lot of weight, hurt myself, and gained it back. I ate well. I developed some professional skills, and ran away from that world for a couple of years to try something risky and outside of my comfort zone. Then I came back to software, and was actually better at it the second time around, with less emotional investment in my achievements or professional status. I helped grow a strong, cohesive community of Japanese-speaking people in my little corner of the world. I had developed a relationship with a fantastic woman, who helped me grow in all sorts of ways and made me a far more interesting person. Having a child no longer seemed like some encumbrance on my enjoyment of life… it seemed like a natural step in the evolution of our lives together.

This year, we took that step.

Kojiro joined us at 1:21 pm on September 8, after Hiromi endured a solid 37 hours of labor. He started out slightly irritated, not pleased with having been summarily evicted from his comfortable home of the last 9 or 10 months.

But he quickly calmed down, and we were pleased that within minutes of life he proved to be an incredibly curious, contemplative, alert newborn. He was fascinated by everyone, unless they put him on the hospital bassinet, or on the scale, which irritated him immensely. He quickly learned that most of the time being in either spot would soon involve a collection of blood or injection of a hepatitis B vaccine or contact with some cold medical instrument. We’re fairly convinced he may never sleep peacefully in a crib again; he certainly hasn’t taken to it in the two months since his birth.

Hiromi’s been unable to sleep more than an hour or so straight since, well, September 5. Hiromi was rooting for our child to be born while her friend, an Ob/Gyn who grew up in the same neighborhood as her, was on a short visit to Seattle during Japan’s Silver Week holidays. Hiromi was convinced going to Bumbershoot together might speed things along.

If that’s true, it’s quite possible that we can credit standing out in the rain listening to Mary J. Blige on the last night of Bumbershoot with Hiromi’s friend with the timely arrival of our child. Not long after we got home that Monday night, Hiromi’s early labor started, and things progressed slowly but steadily thereafter, and she had not a moment’s comfort or rest until the big event.

Hiromi’s friend accompanied us to Swedish’s delivery suite, and my mother arrived just a few hours before Kojiro was born. He’s now a second-generation Swedish baby; I was born in the same hospital, in a different building, almost 37 years ago.

Two months in, we’re starting to settle in to a routine. Our son, however, has not. Maybe in a couple of decades, we’ll start to understand how this parenting thing is supposed to work, but in the meantime, we’re just improvising.

Black trumpets and a whole wheat bruschetta

My weeknight meals have tended to be a bit dreary recently, as I’ve lamented elsewhere. I just haven’t been so inspired.

But sometimes, even the slightest flash of inspiration is enough to motivate me to make something simple and satisfying… Fortunately, I had the good sense to make a last minute trip to the Pike Place Market Sunday evening, and so I didn’t have to think much.

Bruschetta and black trumpet omelette

Surprisingly, there were still some passable heirloom tomatoes at Sosio’s, and some good west coast water buffalo mozzarella. So my day-old whole wheat bread became a sort of bruschetta.

I ate half of a two egg frittata, made with shallots and black trumpet mushrooms. Black trumpets have some of the foresty sensuality of truffles, a hint of the texture of fresh wood ear mushrooms, and some of the flavor of chanterelles. They absolutely love eggs.

A little watercress balanced out the richness of the rest of the food.

Nothing terribly impressive… but ideal for an after-8 dinner.

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Okonomiyaki with gobo, okonomiyaki with pork

As a vegetarian, I don’t eat the most common variations of okonomiyaki, which involve pork or other animal bits.

I’m quite fine with the “modern yaki”, as one Tokyo restaurant called their wackier, contemporary spins on the dish; okonomiyaki is really a modern dish itself, and crazy variations are totally in keeping with the convention. One of the first two versions I ever tasted involved chunks of cheese mixed in the batter, and that suits me just fine. But one aspect I haven’t given serious thought to is a suitable replacement, either visually or in terms of flavor, for the katsuo-bushi, shaved dried skipjack tuna that is nearly always sprinkled on top.

Okonomiyaki with gobo, kizami ginger and cheese

Until now. I made fried shaved burdock root (gobo chips) for an unrelated purpose earlier in the day, and had some left over. Since we had a really heavy lunch at Lunchbox Laboratory earlier in the day, and some snacks for a photography gathering on Sunday, we decided to go with ostensibly lighter fare for dinner. Or rather, as light as a savory pancake covered with mayonnaise can be. Mine had an overdose of kizami-shouga (pickled matchstick cut ginger), because I can, and pieces of aged cheddar and gruyere inside.

I’ve certainly done other versions of this, but the gobo worked very well. Obviously the burdock is a lot earthier than katsuo and doesn’t have the same kind of aroma as the katsuo, but it’s sliced thin and adds a nice crisp texture that works really well. It’s also at least as visually interesting as the katsuobushi.

Pork loin okonomiyaki with katsuo-bushi

Hiromi had a pork craving, so we made a more conventional version for her. This one was basically chopped pieces of pork loin cooked with salt and pepper in the frying pan briefly before the cabbage mixture is added. It’s also made with the usual pickled ginger, but more importantly, this version has the standard katsuo-bushi topping (but Hiromi wanted some of the burdock too, because there’s nothing quite as dangerous as fried gobo).

Katsuobushi placed on top of hot okonomiyaki has one visual advantage, only recognizable with full-motion video or by sitting right there at the table when it’s served. The extreme thinness and large surface area plays with the heat from the pancake, and the dried fish writhes and dances around as the okonomiyaki cools.

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Nashi no hiyayakko

It sounded like a very odd idea to Hiromi at the time, but both of us were converts after we tasted the results of this variation of hiya-yakko.

A few weeks ago, after a rushed trip to Leavenworth, we went nashi picking near Everett, at an orchard owned by the family of a friend.

We ended up with such a bounty that we needed to exercise an unusual level of creativity to find uses for our treasure.

I suggested we try grating the nashi in the style of daikon-oroshi, to which we added some grated fresh ginger. We placed this atop of kinugoshi (soft) tofu, added a bit of chopped scallion, and splashed on a small amount of Japanese soy sauce.

Nashi-hiyayakko

It’s a surprisingly refreshing seasonal twist on a classic side dish.

Hiromi used to ask me what we needed to buy when she made a grocery shopping trip, but I usually suggest just buying whatever vegetables look tempting, and I promise to figure out something to do with them. For this meal, that was a running theme… I worked out a Japanese-ish treatment of the day’s purchases.

We ate a nice tempura of mataike and arugula.

Maitake-rukora-tempura

Hiromi had picked up some patty pan squash and shiitake, so I made a simple itamemono from that.

Pattypan-shiitake-negi-itami-ni

I also made daigaku-imo, which is usually a snack rather than a side dish, but that didn’t stop me.

Daigaku-imo-redux

Nasu pizza

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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First dinner in Seattle (again)

Hiromi made it safely to Seattle last Tuesday. I managed to stay away from the office all day, though I did a little bit of work during Hiromi's inevitable afternoon crash.

Though I arguably had time to do something more elaborate, we kept it simple, mostly due to the warm weather Seattle's had the good fortune to encounter for the last few weeks.

Grapefruit segments, red onion, soft chevre

Grapefruit salad with red onion and soft chevre

We wanted something refreshing, so I segmented some nice ruby red grapefruit, sliced a little red onion, and sprinkled on a touch of salt. With a little drizzle of good olive oil, some freshly ground pepper, and a few dabs of soft chevre, this is perfect for a warm summer night. If it weren't so much work to segment a grapefruit, it would be almost no effort at all.

Stuffed eggplant with farro

Stuffed eggplant with farro

In spite of the warm weather, I did turn on the oven. Both Hiromi and I have a weakness for stuffed eggplant, so I make variations on the theme on a regular basis when eggplant is in season.

When I make stuffed eggplant as a main dish, I typically use rice, but this time I elected to make it with farro, a nutty variant of spelt. It was gently seasoned with fresh rosemary, but works well even when the rosemary is more assertive.

This version is made with that same soft chevre along with some mozzarella, but I like almost any kind of goat cheese along with a mellow cheese that readily melts.

I've managed to keep us incredibly busy most of Hiromi's first week, but we actually have part of the upcoming weekend free, which is absolutely shocking. Somehow, I doubt the nice holes in our schedules will last...

 

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Baked chevre and fresh fava beans

Baked chevre and fresh fava beans

Variations of baked chevre always haunt me. Deceptively basic, this dish really only needs a little chevre and some tomato sauce, and some fresh bread or maybe toast. And yet, I continue to succeed in finding new ways of botching a good thing.

What do I do wrong? Well, I occasionally get wistful for a dish of baked eggs, which I enjoyed once at brunch on a trip to Orcas Island. Some self-defeating part of me wants it to be possible to combine baked eggs with baked chevre. Every time I attempt that, the eggs end up being a gelatinous monstrosity. I do like the slightly gelatinous hanjuku tamago, or not-quite-hard, not-quite soft boiled eggs, but that's not at all what I end up with, in spite of valiant attempts. As soon as the egg white turns opaque and reasonably solid in the tomato sauce, the yolks are nearly inedible.

I've decided that trying to do both at the same time is a losing proposition.

So this time, I reverted to the basics. The only particularly creative touch I took this time around was adding some freshly peeled fava beans to the tomato sauce.

Did this result in disaster?

Thankfully, no. Fava beans are almost as frighteningly easy to overcook as eggs, but somehow they survived a bit more than ten minutes in the oven. Their texture remained firm, as the oven's radiant heat concentrated their signature spring flavor.

I served the baked chevre with slices of some excellent pumpernickel bread from Tall Grass Bakery.

Maybe my dreams of baked eggs and chevre will never be realized, but now I have something else to tempt me.

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Cheddar and cauliflower soup with cannellini puree

Cheddar and cauliflower soup with cannellini puree

Soups aren't the sexiest food in the world.

But they can be seriously comforting.

This spring, Seattle has frequently been visited by unwelcome blustery, unpredictable spring weather, punctuated by misleadingly clear and balmy days that invite unfortunate delusions... During such moments, Seattlelites indulge vivid fantasies of leisurely walks around Greenlake that won't be interrupted by a sudden downpour, only to be disappointed by the harsh reality of rapidly encroaching storm-clouds after hours of deceptive partly sunny skies.

And those of us who are fooled, as all Northwesterners want to be, find ourselves shivering and craving the comforts of winter.

Even if it is April.

I gently roasted golden cauliflower in the oven, knowing that the next unseasonably cold day could strike as soon as tomorrow. I prepared a dark blonde roux of butter and flour, stirred in minced onions and garlic, then worked  in some milk and soup stock. I realized that I needed a bit more liquid, so I called to duty a bottle of stale beer left since I last entertained people who, unlike myself, like to drink hoppy fermented beverages. I added some ground mustard and celery seeds.

I took some cannellini beans cooked overnight in a slow cooker and pureed them in a blender, added them to the stockpot. After things simmered for a while, I incorporated the roasted cauliflower, and ultimately added plenty of sharp white cheddar.

White cheddar. Yes. Like the partly sunny skies of spring in Seattle, the yellow color of this soup is, in fact, a deception.

I was not pleased when my lovely smelling soup took on an unpleasantly beige color, likely thanks to the perhaps-too-dark roux and the white beans.

So I improvised, as one does.

I have a plentiful supply of annatto seeds, which are, in fact, the same source of coloring used in the aggressively orange cheddar sold in massive loaves at most supermarkets.

I cooked a fair tablespoon in a heavy dose of oil on medium-low heat, until the sizzling annatto seeds produced a pleasing aroma and colored the oil.I strained the oil and incorporated it into the pot of soup, and the color became... well... eerily orange. But I suppose that's better than beige.

On this first serving of the soup, I drizzled a bit of argan oil onto the surface of the soup. This proved to be wholely unnecessary, as the soup had sufficient depth of flavor that the nutty aroma was merely a slightly expensive distraction. When I brought the leftover soup to work for lunch, I didn't even consider such pointless additions.  The freshly ground pepper, on the other hand, was far more well-considered.

The cheddar and beer provided a well-balanced complexity, and the white beans contributed plenty of protein and fiber. The soup had just a hint of the onions and garlic, which added body and aroma without dominating the flavor.

I served the soup with a whole-wheat breadstick, whose dough I prepared the night before serving the soup. I retarded the yeast dough overnight in the refrigerator, and let it rise in a cool kitchen while I was at work. When I got home, I turned on the oven, formed several long cylinders from the dough, and brushed each with a bit of milk. (An egg wash would have worked equally well). I rolled each breadstick in plenty of poppy seeds, and baked them at 425°F about 15-20 minutes, until they were crisp and golden outside and reasonably moist inside.

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