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.

Nagaimo with umezu

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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Kabocha soup

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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Matcha eclairs

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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Naked roasted cauliflower

Naked roasted cauliflower with Spanish paprika

Isn't this sexy?

Cauliflower soup may look homely, but the most minimalist preparation of roasted cauliflower can still make heads turn.

Roasted cauliflower became trendy a few years back, and I fell in love with it long ago. In my kitchen, it's become such a common fixture at when I bring home cauliflower that I never give it much thought.

It's certainly fun to play with the basic ingredients. Sometimes I add a few pine nuts in the last few minutes of baking; maybe a splash of wine and a few currants; perhaps some herbs.

But roasted cauliflower is equally satisfying at its simplest. I usually slice the head of cauliflower or break it into florets, then I do little more than add a generous sprinkling of olive oil and salt.

This time, I used some Korean bamboo salt and a little bit of Spanish paprika. The bamboo salt that I used has a small amount of a Korean herb incorporated into the blend, but the flavor is very subtle, if it's recognizable at all. The Spanish paprika adds a pleasingly smoky quality and a sweet aroma.

Roasted at 375F until golden, the cauliflower requires little attention. I usually flip over the florets once or twice, usually after each 15-20 minutes in the oven. I usually bake it somewhere around 40 minutes in total, sometimes a little longer. Most vegetables don't hold up to long periods of cooking, but cauliflower is an exception.

The best thing about roasted cauliflower is that it only takes two or three minutes to prepare, and you can let the oven do the hard work while you're preparing the rest of the night's dinner.

When the cauliflower is finished, it becomes soft and inexplicably sweet. You can serve it naked, like I did, or, if that's not exciting enough for you, it goes nicely with a little tsatziki or aioli.

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Souzai and kurogoma-doufu

We had a leisurely morning one day and decided to stay home for lunch. We took advantage of some food Hiromi's parents had sent us away with, all acquired at a supermarket.

The souzai (side dish) set, ready to eat, included several small portions of simple dishes that are easily prepared in bulk, but rather time consuming to do in small quantities. At home I've made some variation of almost all of these dishes, but rarely all for the same meal.

I don't usually buy a lot of convenience foods in the U.S.

Some sweet-savory beans, tamagoyaki, kabocha no nimono (simmered squash), one aemono, a little hijiki with moyashi, and two other simple nimono. One contained gobo (burdock root), daikon, carrot and ganmodoki. The other is a mildly seasoned satoimo (small taro potato) dish with scallions and a little bit of yuzu peel.

We also had some black sesame, starch-thickened, gomadoufu, which came with a little sauce packet. 

We only needed to prepare a little rice to accompany this to have a fairly decent everyday meal.

 

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Tricolor roasted peppers and cheese curds

Tricolor roasted peppers and Beecher's cheese curds 

Although bell peppers are available year-round, they're really a summertime thing. But bell peppers have been a bit cheaper than typical for this time of year, and I've noticed a few good deals. So I threw seasonality to the wind and brought a few home.

When I have bell peppers around, the first thing that occurs to me is to roast them, which brings out an incomparable sweetness. I can eat them with nothing more than a sprinkle of salt, and I can make them disappear like candy.

With just one or two peppers, I typically roast them on my little tabletop gas konro which I bought to enable nabe-making, but starting at about 3 bell peppers, it's far more efficient to stick them under the broiler in the oven. The only problem is that, when the skin finally blackens under my broiler, the peppers are more than fully cooked, and they become mushy and undesirable by the time I get to eat them.

As a result, when using the oven, I now halve the peppers, and I only roast them until about 1/3 of the skin has turned black. Then I place them in an airtight storage container for 15 or 20 minutes to let the skins loosen up and the flesh cool down enough to handle.

With this method, the peppers get just enough caramelization to have all the desirable flavor, without turning into a near-puree. The downside is that the skin is a bit harder to peel than when the skin is fully blackened.

This time, I picked up one yellow, one orange and one red pepper, so I thought I'd turn them into a simple and colorful salad.

After I finished roasting and peeling the peppers, I sprinkled a little salt and olive oil on them, and mixed in some broken cheese curds I had picked up the same day at Beecher's. Because the roasted peppers are so flavorful, no special seasoning is needed, but some fresh basil or shiso might be a nice addition.

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Gnocchi with tomatoes, kale and mushrooms

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Although I have a weakness for ravioli, tortellini, and other stuffed pastas, the prototype of stuffed pasta, gnocchi, is really the stuff of my dreams.

It's alluring because, without any special equipment, one can quickly pull together a decent result, even on a weeknight, so long as only one or two people are eating. But the perfect gnocchi is often elusive: nearly melt in your mouth, proper gnocchi must still have enough texture to hold together, and should not be dense, uneven, or hard in the center. But circumstances sometimes conspire against us.

While I'm inclined to reserve the most attention for clever variations such as kabocha gnocchi, the simplest and most basic version, built on little more than hot, riced potatoes, an egg yolk or two, and flour, is everything I really could ask for. Sometimes I add a bit of salt to the dough, and sometimes I salt only the water for boiling.

This time, the gnocchi alchemy worked out in my favor, and I got almost exactly the texture I wanted.

In spite of the unavailability of decent tomatoes this time of year, I had an uncontrollable craving for some form of tomato sauce. A decent variety of canned tomatoes came to the rescue. I made a thyme-heavy sauce with onions and garlic. I wanted something a little more substantial, though, so I worked in some nice black kale and ordinary crimini mushrooms.

I made enough to have leftovers for lunch at work the next day, and my lunchbox version also featured the addition of small balls of mozzarella, which I actually meant to be part of this dinner, too, but, you know, I'm occasionally a little forgetful.

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Travel plans: October 24-November 6

My little brother took off the entire semester to save up money so that he could come to Japan to attend the family wedding Hiromi and I had planned... then our plans became complicated.

William was committed to making the trip, wedding or not, so I'm dragging him along on a quite different itinerary.

The schedule that worked best for us turned out to coincide with a weekend trip Hiromi had planned with her parents in Nikko. After discussing things with Hiromi, I slightly adjusted the plan so that we'd all be able to travel together.

We're also planning a trip to Mashiko on November 4, but most of the time we'll be in or near Tokyo. I'll do my best to post photos during the trip... I've been a little sluggish about posting recently, but that's mostly due to work-related exhaustion, and other minor frustrations.

If your path might cross mine, please let me know. Perhaps we can have tea or a little lunch...

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Smoky eggplant in yogurt sauce

Along with our lentil pie we wanted a lighter, refreshing little eggplant side dish to share.

We adapted a Renu Arora recipe that calls for deep-frying eggplant. We didn't really want to break out the deep-fryer on a hot day, so we went with a less oily alternative.

Smoky eggplant yogurt curry

Using our gas konro (basically a single-burner camping stove), I roasted batches of Japanese eggplant on all sides on a moderate flame, letting the eggplant get soft without scorching the skin too much. I put them in a container with a tightly fitting lid for a few minutes while preparing some other things.

Then I toasted some freshly ground fenugreek and mustard seeds in a bit of oil with some fresh chilies. After a minute or two I added turmeric, garam masala, red pepper powder, ground coriander seeds, and salt. I then adding a generous helping of whole milk yogurt, stirred the ingredients, and worked in the eggplant, sliced lengthwise in quarters then halved in the middle. This needs to gently simmer for 5 or 6 minutes on low heat.

At the table, add fresh cilantro to taste. (Hiromi likes cilantro).

Fire roasting creates a pleasantly smoky character while concentrating the eggplant flavor, without adding unnecessary fat.

The dish tastes nice served warm or even at room temperature, and makes a nice addition to a lunchbox the next day, if you have any left.

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Back in Seattle

I returned to Seattle Tuesday morning... still a little jetlagged, but I managed to pop into the swing of things and sleep almost normally again. I still have a ton of photos to dig through, and things to catch up with... more to come.

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