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.

Serving notice

Every time I’ve returned from a long vacation to my job at Microsoft, I’ve struggled with a ton of unpleasant feelings and internal conflicts. Most of the time, I just worked to quiet my impulses to run away and then I’d be able to hold on 6 months or 12 months or more.

Since I was fully prepared for my departure from Microsoft this time, it wasn’t quite as painful to come back, but I did catch myself wincing as I opened the door to my office this morning. I also noticed myself jittering with nervous tension at lunchtime, after I had been at the office a few hours. Some kind of negative energy builds up as the hours pass, but at least I have something to look forward to, so the overall frustration level is low.

My manager asked me to draft my performance review, a request to which I didn’t quite know how to respond… I said I wasn’t terribly concerned about it, but then I thought better of it and said I could take care of it. Toward the end of the day we had our regularly scheduled one-on-one meeting for the first time since I told him I’d be taking some time off.

Of course, I readily told him that I was leaving, and then we talked a little bit about what I had been doing the last few weeks and showed him my business card. I think he was happy that I was choosing something adventurous rather than just taking the first job that came along… He almost sounded a little jealous.

In any event, I agreed to serve out another couple of weeks to finish one of the deliverables in one of my projects, so I have to live with a little more distraction before I can tend to my new life.

Most of the day was rather pleasant, because I was able to talk about my plans with everyone who knows how much I’ve wanted to move on for the last year and a half, and even get a few useful contacts. I’ll try to make the best of the next couple of weeks.

The Big Buddha: Off to Wakayama and Nara

Awakened by about four alarm clocks after a short night’s sleep, I found my way to Haneda airport. My confusion transferring at Shinagawa meant that I only had a minute or so to spare when trying to transfer to the express Keikyu line. I ended up eating far too much for breakfast at the airport, but I managed to sleep a bit on the airplane.

Of course, somehow my brain wasn’t working entirely correctly when I told my friend I’d be leaving at 7:30 and arriving at 9:30. It’s actually only an hour flight to Kansai airport from Haneda, and although I did know this, somehow I confused myself into thinking I was scheduled to arrive at 9:30. Anyway, when I arrived, I called my friend Sachi, who was surprised that I had arrived hour earlier than she expected. I apologized for being confused. She came at the originally planned time; I waited in an airport Starbucks.

Sachi had arranged to have a couple of her 50-something coworkers drive us to Nara in a big van. When stopping at a rest area, she said, “don’t you think they look like yakuza?” Actually their faces are very rough-looking and they speak with thick Kansai accents, and if you looked at them from across the room you would probably not imagine it was a good idea to pick a fight with them. But they are very gentle, pleasant folks.

This was the first time I’ve been to Nara, so I took various pictures of deer at Nara park, parts of the Daibutsu (big Buddha) temple.

This is a group whose priorities I can appreciate. At the rest stop, we ate tai-yaki (fish-shaped waffles with bean paste in the middle), and Sachi picked up a cake to share in the car. We arrived in Nara not terribly long thereafter, and, after walking around a bit, they started plotting lunch. We did manage to feed “kiza-senbe” to various deer at the park, then walk around the Daibutsu, before actually committing to lunch, which was at an udon/soba/donburi-focused place targeting tourists. Sachi even made a second order for herself after a craving for curry rice overcame her. Within minutes after lunch, we were already eating again; from a street vendor, Sachi bought four sticks of dango (rice dumplings) seasoned with a lightly sweetened soy sauce and divided the spoils. It wasn’t 5 minutes after that when she had us buying freshly-made senbe (crispy rice crackers) with various seasonings.

We visited the 5-storied pagoda nearby, and then headed back to the car. Sachi made a destination stop at a shop which apparently has some of the nicest Warabi-mochi (a sticky, soft Japanese sweet rolled in toasted soybean flour) around; her companions bought obscene numbers of boxes of them. I would have bought some myself but they only stay fresh for a couple of days and I won’t be back in Tokyo to share with others until late Tuesday night.

On four hours of sleep I tended to nod off in the car on the way to Wakayama, and I wasn’t the only one. Sachi was driving on this leg, but her colleagues fell asleep in the back seat soon after digging into the warabi-mochi. I was seriously drowsy; I fell asleep before even getting a chance to try them.  Fortunately, I did get a chance to taste them when we arrived in Wakayama; Sachi and her colleagues stopped to give some to some Thai friends of theirs in town. When Sachi’s friend was curious about the contents of a plastic bag in one of the Thai women’s basket, she claimed to have “etchi no video” (dirty videos) and was going out on a date… This opened the door for him to make a dirty joke after the woman reluctantly tried the warabi mochi, as she commented that she doesn’t like to eat soft things. Apparently they already know each other pretty well, or this is just a regional variation on acceptable behavior, as I’ve rarely seen this kind of interaction between men and women I know in the Tokyo area.

The food didn’t stop. We ended up at a popular local family restaurant, a few notches above the Japanese version of Denny’s, less than an hour after this stop, and we had a private room to celebrate Sachi’s coworker’s birthday.

The vegetarian or almost-vegetarian items included some dengaku-nasu (grilled eggplant with a sweetened miso topping), tofu salad, daikon salad, inari-zushi, and some egg white tempura. They also ordered a few things for the pescevorous. We shared half a fancy strawberry birthday cake from a local French-style cake shop. I probably shouldn’t have eaten so much today, but there was always something there…

If Sachi eats like this everyday, it doesn’t show on her waistline. While not rail-thin, she’s reasonably slim. I suppose her secret is that she keeps on sharing a substantial person of whatever she’s eating with whoever else happens to be around.

When I came back to the hotel I had a complication due to unavailability of a usable internet connection in my room; when my friend called last week to ask if I can connect to the internet in the room, they said, oh, yes, you just plug in and you’ll be fine. Apparently that means you can disconnect the phone and dialup to your usual Japanese internet service providers; I’ve gotten spoiled by in-room broadband, and I don’t have access to the convenient Microsoft dialup system on my new company’s laptop. The hotel tried troubleshooting for an hour or so before we mutually realized this was a communication problem rather than a technical problem. I tried mimicking the settings on the lobby computer and taking advantage of the wireless network down there, but apparently nobody knows how to log in. I found the WEP key in the registry but was stumped by the PPPOE password. After a while, I gave up and did what I could do with Hotmail and the horrible web-based email interface that my provider for yuzutrade.com offers.

Building my supplier network and logistics

I had some return contact from some of my favorite potential suppliers today, so that was gratifying. I also sent some inquiries out to some freight and web hosting companies since I’ll need to have some solution for transporting products and I need a better solution than I have now for the web retail presence I’ll be establishing. I have one meeting scheduled for tomorrow with a company that mostly deals in Korean beverage products (yuzu tea, ginger tea, date tea and so on); the representative is someone I encountered at FoodEx.

This weekend I want to go to Osaka and Wakayama, so today I finally bought plane tickets and hotel vouchers. I haven’t dealt with making my own domestic travel reservations without the assistance of Japanese friends before, so I realized how little I remember from the trip reservation conversation drills I had in Japanese classes in 1995. I guess I have to learn sometime…

In Machida, we were lucky enough to get seats at Ume no Hana, a tofu restaurant at the top of the Lumine department store there. They had told us there would be a 30 minute wait, but we were offered seats before we could finish calling another restaurant to find out if we had a prayer of getting in there.

The food was pretty nice… freshly made yuba and tofu nabe, various small nibbles, and all the elegance you’d expect… nice clean, refreshing flavors, very fresh foods, nothing overwhelming, nothing under-seasoned, beautiful presentation. They also made vegetarian substitutions for me where possible (dashijiru and a single piece of shrimp being minor exceptions). Restaurants that make substitutions are somewhat unusual in Japan, unlike the hyper-accommodating US world which will sometimes over-accommodate to the point of disastrous culinary results. So I was pretty happy when I got mostly what I asked for with good food quality. Some of the drinks that they do there are interesting, though some are a little sweet; we tried a few different things and shared tastes.

Tomorrow I need to call Yamato Transport in Seattle and try to set up a meeting or two in Osaka so I feel like I’m getting some business value out of that side trip.

Heyri Gallery, part 2: Artefacts of Korean cuisine

Jars for fermenting the mother sauces

A massive collection of Korean ceramic fermentation vessels

Gochujang, dwaenjang, soy sauce and several other Koreaen base sauces require fermentation, and these jars were the traditional vessels for the fermentation process. Mr. Lee has a collection of these jars from all over Korea from various places.

Jeju Island fermentation vessels

Jeju Island unglazed fermentation jars

Mr. Lee pointed out these pieces from Jeju Island, where such jars are almost always unglazed earthenware. The effect is somewhat similar to the pottery of Bizen, in Okayama, Japan.

Decorative lid

Lid of a Korean fermentation vessel

Many of these jars are rather austere, because these are primarily functional pieces. But they did often have a prominent place in the grounds of older Korean houses, so sometimes they are a little more elaborately decorated.

Brushwork

Brushwork on a Korean mother sauce fermentation jar 

, Part 2, Part 3

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Things to do with eringii

Eringii mushrooms have great visual appeal. It’s possible to compose dramatic looking dishes with them, but I think they taste best with simple preparations.

Eringii-shouyu-butter

I usually serve them as a side dish with two or three other options.

This dish only takes a minute of active preparation, as I can just slice some in half, set them in a skillet with a bit of sizzling butter on medium heat, let cook until slightly browned on one side, flip, and after a minute or so, finish with a splash of soy Japanese sauce.

Butter and soy sauce is a magical combination.

Our pagan Easter Sunday

Last night we visited a friend who had planned a sort of traditional lamb dinner, to be followed by Easter egg decoration. I don’t really remember much about Easter dinners from my childhood, since we focused more on the egg thing, so I brought some gougeres made with Valdeon blue cheese (which I’m sure I’ll make again, but I didn’t take a photo), and pressure-cooked baby artichokes prepared with shallots, Meyer lemons, garlic, butter, olive oil, and a splash of wine, and a broccolini dish.

The one child present fell asleep before we got to the egg decoration, so the adults took over that very important responsibility. We took a few of them home with us for breakfast this morning.Easter eggs, made by adults

Hiromi made Doraemon. Mine is the ugly one in back. It was supposed to be an owl, but turned out to look more like Frank Zappa.

Apple coffee cake

For breakfast, I made an apple coffee cake with a little allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, clove, and grains of paradise. It’s topped with a simple salted butter streusel. I was a little careless, so it turned out slightly underbaked, so it was a bit pudding-like, but still perfectly serviceable. I used very little sugar, so it was more spicy than sweet. Next time, I should let it bake a bit longer.

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It’s spring, so it must be time for warabi

The last couple of weekends we’ve been taking advantage of the fiddlehead fern fronds found at Sosio’s. Go get them before they disappear for the rest of the year!

Fiddlehead fern fronds, aka warabi

We’ve been preparing them using our usual nimono-style treatment… Blanch briefly in a boiling solution of water and baking soda to remove aku, or bitterness, shock in ice water, then gently poach in dashi (or really, any soup stock), soy sauce, sake, a little mirin, and, if needed, additional salt and sugar.

Maybe I’ll do them another way before the season ends, but somehow this simple version pleases me the most.

I’ve written about them before, but the easiest flavor comparison to make is to white asparagus. They’re slightly bitter, as you’d expect from white asparagus, and some of the sweetness and you’d expect from asparagus, but they have a bit more of a foresty aroma.

They usually only have a 4-8 week run, depending on factors that I don’t yet know how to predict. I think they’ve come in a bit early this year, as I’ve gradually been trained to expect them sometime in April. But if morels can be early, so can warabi. In any event, if you want to give them a try, get them while you can.

Orange scones with blood orange jam

For years, I was impressed more by the idea of scones than the reality of scones. It’s mostly because I made the mistake of buying them at coffee shops, where they cost about $3 and generally taste stale and tough and excessively sweet. They typically rather unimpressively attempt to make up for their inadequacies,  especially the fact that they aren’t served with good butter and jam, by replacing all of the textural greatness of a fresh scone with sugar.

Orange scones

Freshly-baked scones are an entirely different animal. They’re aromatic, crisp yet tender, and need very little sugar of their own if served with a little butter and jam. The best thing is that they need so little effort to prepare. The dough comes together in two or three minutes, and they take just 20-25 minutes to bake. It’s easier than pie.

 A closer look, orange scones

This morning, we woke up late and hungry. I was almost tempted to make a trip to a bakery, but then I realized I would have to shower and shave before I was fully awake, and that would make Sunday morning seem far too much like a normal workday for anyone’s good. To arrange for fresh scones, I just needed to stumble into the kitchen, preheat the oven, and pull together a few simple ingredients.

 Orange scones, Harbor Island grapefruit, blood orange jam

I follow a simple ratio to get decent scones no matter what I put into them: 1 stick of butter, 1.5 cups of flour, about a teaspoon of baking powder, 1 egg, and a little bit of milk, yogurt, cream, or sometimes sour cream. I almost always add a bit of salt, and for sweet scones, I add probably no more than 3 tablespoons sugar. Today, I had a nice orange in the refrigerator, so I grated about a teaspoon’s worth of zest to flavor the scones. A little vanilla would be nice, too.

The dry ingredients just need to be sifted together and the butter cut in gently. When I get this far, I make a well in the middle, and I add the egg and a splash of milk. I stir the liquid in the well and gently fold the ingredients until the mass comes together.

One scone, slightly eaten, with blood orange jam

Then I just roll out the scones to an even thickness, cut them into small triangles, and bake them. To make them a little prettier, I brush them with a little egg wash and sprinkle on pearled sugar, but that’s totally optional.

The scones just need to be baked at around 375F until they look nice and gently browned, usually about 20-25 minutes.

They’re buttery enough when fresh out of the oven that we usually don’t do more than eat them with some nice jam unless we’ve got some truly spectacular butter or some Devon cream around. Today, we cracked open a blood orange gelée-style jam that we found in a little tea shop in Hannover, Germany over the New Year holiday. This jam, which is flavored with a little Cointreau, had a nice complexity and I may steal the idea if I ever take up canning.

The moral of the story: Don’t settle for bad scones. Just make them yourself, and they’ll be miles above the quality of nearly anything you can buy.

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Almost Irish

OK, I’m a little late getting around to posting St. Patrick’s Day food, but let’s just say we were busy eating.

While my family tends to identify mostly with the small ostensibly Italian fragment of our ethnicity, mostly thanks to the way most of us look, and our attachment to Italian foods, we’re actually far more Irish than we are Italian. So it’s probably unfair to ignore that part of our background entirely.

I’m not a beer guy, so there was no green beer for us, and for various reasons which I’ll explain at some other point, Hiromi’s not drinking. So, just for me, I went with a traditional recipe of Irish whiskey (on ice since it was just Bushmill’s), much like this guy.

I’m also not a meat eater, so the conventional Irish American corned beef and cabbage was out.

But there are a few semi-Irish things I can eat.

DSC_0497

I had a lentil soup leftover from a previous dinner, so I figured I’d just use that as a protein and make an Irish soda bread and something resembling colcannon.

Mizuna greens, bok choy, garlic, and scallions

We didn’t have much in the way of kale or cabbage, and I’m not much of a purist when it comes to unplanned attempts at ambiguously Irish themed meals, so I took advantage of what I did have on hand: mizuna greens, scallions, and bok choy. Mizuna doesn’t love being cooked to death, so I chose to break with tradition and just work the greens into the hot mashed potatoes, rather than precooking the greens. I also threw in a bit of garlic because I didn’t have quite enough scallions around to fully flavor the dish.

Mixing the improvised colcannon together

I did want to give the greens some heat, though, so I let the mixture bake, covered, in a hot oven for about 15 minutes, after adding suitably heart-challenging amounts of butter and cream.

Finished mizuna bok choy "colcannon" 

The greens maintained a bit of crunch, which is certainly very different than the standard versions of this dish, but provided a nicely refreshing contrast

The Irish soda bread was more conventional: butter, buttermilk, flour, baking soda, salt, maybe a touch of sugar.

Irish soda bread on baking sheet

I may have baked it just a tad too long, but it still had a great aroma and it looked quite nice upon slicing.

Irish Soda Bread, sliced

We served the bread with a nice Tickler cheddar and some good Vermont Butter, the soda bread was crusty with a pleasingly tender crumb.

A nice Tickler cheddar

The lentil soup could perhaps pass for Irish, but it’s probably a bit of a stretch since it involved fair amounts of an orange peel and tarragon blend and a bit of smoky chilies.

The downside is that this was a fairly heavy meal for a weeknight, and fairly heavy on the carbohydrates. But I guess that’s authentic enough: When I visited Ireland on a business trip many years ago, I overheard the staff at the company cafeteria asking people if they wanted “chips with that” no matter what they ordered. Including pasta. And in one case, a baked potato. So yeah, we were Irish like that.

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Improvised pumpkin seed tuiles

We had a nice dinner tonight, but it wasn’t terribly heavy, and I was craving something sweet to finish the evening.

Kabocha no mi no tuiles (pumpkin seed tuiles)

I was thinking a thin cookie would do the trick, so I remembered the basic tuile ratio, which is roughly 2 fat : 2 flour : 1 sugar : 1 egg white. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any skinny almonds around, but I did have some almond butter handy, and I had a surplus of egg whites left over after making hollandaise sauce a few nights ago. I decided to use a blend of butter and almond butter so that I’d have a touch more flavor than if I skipped using nuts entirely. I also added a touch of vanilla and a bit of salt.

tuile dough

The best thing about these is how quickly they come together. They just need to be spread out as evenly as possible on a non-stick, flexible surface… A Silpat-style mat or baking paper would do the trick.

spreading out tuiles on Silpat mat

At the last possible second before baking, I realized I had some hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas) in the freezer, so I sprinkled a few on top before baking in the oven at 425F (400F in convection mode) for somewhere around 8-10 minutes, basically stopping when the edges were nicely browned.

For a little drama, I bent them around a rolling pin just after pulling them off the baking sheet.

They made a nice little treat. Give them a try! There’s a lot of room for variation. One of my favorites incorporates black sesame seeds, somewhat in the same vein as these financiers. I’ve also made an aniseed version that works great as an ice cream cup; just spread them out as rounds and pinch over a small teacup. They’re great with tea or coffee, too.

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