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.
I love rapini, the bitter Italian turnip green sometimes called broccoli rabe. Hiromi compares it to nanohana, a similarly bitter green of the rapeseed plant that’s easier to find in Japan. Both are members of the big brassica family, and, as the “rap” in each word suggests, they’re closely enough related that one could easily be confused for the other.
But in spite of my affection for this vegetable, I’m the first to admit that, thanks to its bitterness, rapini is a tricky vegetable to work with. A few months ago, I made the mistake of trying to put together a stew-like preparation with lentils and briefly blanched rapini. The combination was so overwhelmingly astringent that nothing could save it, including some biscuits that I thought would provide enough contrast to balance out the greens. I made it for a party, in prodigious quantity, so it was kind of embarrassing. Even though many people did their best to eat a few bites, I knew it took more than a little effort to tolerate.
I know Italians often soften the bitterness by cooking this vegetable with some fatty sausage, but as a vegetarian, I needed to find some other option. I thought some soft cheese might do the trick.
First I cooked some shallots in a serious dose of good Vermont butter.
I chopped the rapini and, near the end of the pasta’s cooking time, tossed it into the pan. Like most mustard relatives, the longer you cook this green, the more pungent it becomes, so it’s important to avoid cooking it too long.
I added the greens to the pan and tossed them around a bit with some Spanish paprika. Over the last year or so, I’ve developed an incredible weakness for Spanish paprika, thanks to its smoky aroma and deep flavor. It adds just the right kind of complexity to stand up to the assertive greens. No salsiccia required.
I worked in a healthy quantity of soft chèvre after the rabe was nicely coated with the butter and slightly wilted.
I didn’t bother to wait until the chèvremelted before tossing the ingredients with the pasta. While I stirred everything together, the cheese and everything else developed into a much more uniform sauce. With just a few seconds to go, I threw in a few halved tomatoes. After a few shakes in the pan and some seasoning adjustments, I called it done.
The result? Just what we were after. The bitter greens still held their own, but the chèvre and the pasta provided enough contrast that it was no struggle to enjoy the dish. The smoked paprika brought everything together, and contributed a really irresistable aroma. The penne itself I could take or leave; I would probably have been happier with a ridged version (penne rigate), but I used what I had in the larder. Some fresh fettuccini might be even better.
I’m convinced that rapini and chèvre belong together. I’m tempted to do a sort of white pizza with a chèvre and garlic base and a scattering of blanched rapini, served with some crushed dried chilies. Maybe a sort of chawanmushi-style savory custard would work. I’m pretty sure a simple omelet or frittata would turn out nicely, too.
As a child I was under the unfortunate impression that rice pilaf was something that came from a box. The first “real” pilafs I tried were usually bland affairs mostly involving overcooked frozen vegetables.
I never developed a great affinity for the pilaf, so I’m not predisposed to the same kind of nostalgia I might have for, say, mac & cheese or lasagna. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say it usually sounds too boring for me to even think of cooking.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. A heavy hand with fresh herbs and a good mix of can work wonders for the humble pilaf.
One recent evening, Hiromi was feeling a bit of bread overload, so she asked for something built on rice. Most of what we had on hand was more suitable for Western rather than Japanese treatment, and I didn’t want to let any ingredients go to waste, so I reached deep into my arsenal of improvisations and decided to break out our casserole dish.
After washing the rice, I sort of toast it in the pan with a little butter before adding liquid. This does wonders to keep the dish reasonably moist, and it certainly adds a nice flavor, too.
I like to parboil the rice in seasoned vegetable stock in my pressure cooker before combining it with the main ingredients. Then I finish the pilaf off by allowing it to “rest” in relatively gently heated oven, usually 350-375F, for about 10-15 minutes. This allows the rice to develop a reasonably fluffy texture without overcooking all the vegetable ingredients.
I precooked the shimeji a bit so that they wouldn’t dry out while in the oven. I just gave them a quick sauté with butter and shallots, letting them brown a tiny bit.
I mixed the partially cooked rice with the cooked mushrooms, plenty of raw dill, raw tomatoes, and a handful of frozen corn. I did zero planning on this dish, so it was all about what we had in the kitchen, so it’s a rather eclectic combination.
The dill made the dish. I don’t think I would have bothered without a generous helping of fresh herbs… thyme, dill, rosemary, or oregano would have done the trick. Basil or mint could have worked in some circumstances, but mushrooms like earthier herbs.
It’s probably best to serve this with something high in protein, like a lentil soup, but we had overdosed on beans that day thanks to a spicy soup at lunch, so I served the pilaf with a slightly more complicated than necessary vegetable gratin for a late evening dinner.
To prepare the gratin, I took some more shallots, rehydrated sundried tomatoes, basil and pine nuts, and sauteed them together with a little salt. I then mixed this together with romanesco broccoli.
I can’t quite remember if I blanched or roasted the romanesco before finishing it off in the oven. But either way would work, with the caveat that over-roasting would produce an unpleasantly dry result, and blanching would really only need about a minute of boiling before refreshing in ice-cold water, since the dish gets additional cooking when the cheese is melted.
I was getting a little impatient that night, and most of the ingredients were already hot and cooked, so when the cheese didn’t have quite the right golden-brown texture I flipped the oven into broiler mode and slighly charred the vegetable.
Cheap mozzarella works well for this, so I just broke out a big log of mozz we often have on hand from Trader Joe’s. If I repeated this dish, I would rather have used some oil-marinated sundried tomatoes rather than simply rehydrated ones, since they did get a bit dry, but overall, the dish was comforting and rounded out a simple weeknight dinner nicely.
Rogue River Blue only makes the briefest of appearances whenever Beecher’s gets hold of it. Last weekend I was lucky enough to snag some, and the only hurdle to obtaining my treasure was a misbehaving point-of-sale system that was backing up the cashiers as they hand-entered every transaction into a paper ledger.
The cheese is wrapped in grape leaves and washed with a pear brandy. Production is very limited, and it seems to get a bit more expensive every time I find it, but as an occasional splurge it’s completely worth it.
Like most great cheeses, it likes to be served at close to room temperature. Leave the leaves on the cheese when serving, because they contribute a lot to the flavor.
You don’t need to do much to enjoy Rogue River Blue. I usually just dig in, or serve it with some crackers, though I’ve occasionally melted it over some vegetables when the mood struck.
This time, I thought I’d do a more classic combination, and break out some pears I picked up at the Pike Place Market.
US production of the pear variety, called Taylor’s Gold, is mostly concentrated in Washington and Oregon, and right now they’re absolutely fantastic… The aroma is really intense and they’re almost shockingly sweet.
I sliced them thin and fanned them out on slices of seeded baguette, and put little triangles of the cheese on top, finished with some freshly toasted walnut. I finished everything with a little drizzle of chestnut honey over the pear and a bit of freshly ground black pepper.
The Rogue River Blue is magical. It’s powerful but the brandy makes it almost fruity, and the rind has has none of the ammonia you might expect. The pear and honey nicely balance the slight saltiness of the cheese. You could have this as a little pre-dinner snack, or even as a stand-in for dessert.
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 macrobioticfreaks 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
It’s hard to believe that Hiromi and I have already been in Madison Valley over a year.
We moved from a tiny apartment in Fremont that I originally intended as a temporary place while I started up a little business. It was far from luxurious, and had a number of flaws, from bad carpet to an impractical kitchen, but it did the trick when I needed to be especially frugal. But we wanted to be able to have more than 2 people over for dinner again, and finally settled on a recently remodeled midcentury duplex with an open layout in an area that borders Madison Valley and the Central District.
A lot of things have changed since then… I realized I was no longer committed enough to my business to provide decent service, so I shut down my web storefront and decided to focus on enjoying our lives together. It turns out that, a couple of years after returning to the software industry to pay bills, I started enjoying the work again. Outside of work, I’m doing research inside and outside my areas of expertise, and it always seems that the “new” areas I explore prove startlingly relevant not too long after I take them on.
2009 was tumultuous. After Zillow’s major restructuring in October 2008, I immediately went to work for a software vendor at a luxury travel company doing test tools development, but they were constantly in turmoil; my employer replaced the majority of the client’s existing technical staff and made three different employment arrangements with us over the course of about 10 months, and it seemed like every couple of weeks there were some notable staff departures, layoffs, or self-immolations. I got bit by one of the late rounds of restructuring after the client company exercised another cost-cutting clause in the contract. It was about the same magnitude as Zillow’s big cut, and Hiromi and I actually saw it as a bit of a relief after all the insanity we had hitherto been passively observing. Things were not much better for the people who stayed on, who were advised that the company couldn’t predict what would happen with the next round of contract revisions expected three or four months later.
I’m incredibly fortunate that the economy didn’t hit me as hard as it has impacted some of my peers. Although the last 15 months have been among the most unpredictable in my career, I’ve had a wonderful network of recruiters and colleagues that have made it almost painless to transition to new work very quickly both times I needed to, and I was lucky enough to be able to choose between several opportunities each time.
My current job is more closely aligned with what I like to do, and it’s within a healthy walking distance (35-40 minutes) of home, so I am getting a decent amount of exercise most days.
Hiromi and I just came back from a short trip that took us to Washington, DC, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. It was kind of a delayed honeymoon, and in fact it was the first time I’ve gotten out of North America in well over a year. Hiromi went to Japan for a friend’s wedding last summer but I couldn’t quite escape work at the time. This was our first post-wedding trip together that wasn’t driven by some sort of external commitment, and was free of immigration-related hassles. We had some hurdles thanks to nasty winter weather, but the overall experience was great, and I’m sure I’ll be making some effort to recreate the gnocchi alla romana we had in an alley of the Trastavere in Rome soon enough.
In completely unrelated news, I realize that 9 months is a long time to take off from blogging… In penance, I promise two food-related posts this week.
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.
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.
So I've been buried in things and mostly devoid of energy for a few months... sorry about that.
Life hasn't been all work... Hiromi and I made a little trip to DC a couple months ago to see a friend of hers, who cheers for the Washington Redskins. I came back just a few days later so that I could avoid taking extended vacation from work, and Hiromi stayed with her friend a few days longer. Unfortunately, at roughly the same time Hiromi was boarding the plane back to Seattle, I learned that my job at Zillow faced foreclosure, along with the jobs of about 35% of my colleagues. (The press release noted a 25% reduction, but that excluded a number of agency temporaries).
The economy is ugly, but apparently people with my background are still in strong demand. Phone calls started coming in the day the layoffs were announced, and I had my first offer about a week and a half later. My ambition was actually to switch to a more web development focused role, instead of remaining a Software Design Engineer in Test. But the manager for most promising lead for that went on vacation just as I started making progress on interviews, and I didn't quite feel comfortable waiting on that.
I ended up choosing between a Microsoft contract at a convenient location, and a contract-to-hire role at a luxury travel company. I chose the travel company because it seemed like a more interesting opportunity, though some of the details made me nervous... On the bright side, one of my ex-Zillow peers made the same decision, after struggling with some of the same things as me, so I was pleased to see a familiar face again.
The financial pain of the transition was pretty substantial, but I should be ok in a few months. Fortunately, Hiromi also found work as of today, so things should be smoother by March or so.
We've had the lofty ambition of moving to a nicer place since, well, before Hiromi even arrived. We've been torn between buying something minimalist with a tiny down payment from my now completely brutalized stock portfolio, and renting something a bit better than what we're in now.
After some disappointing tours of places all over the city, we were about ready to shelve our plans until sometime next year. Last week, Hiromi spotted a rental that looked like a potential fit on Hotpads.com, and we booked a showing Saturday morning. It turned out to be pretty close to what we were looking for, so, after five years in a cramped apartment meant to be a one-year experiment in extreme frugality during the early stages of my business, we're finally getting a little more space...
Our new home is a pretty, well-appointed side-by-side duplex in one of my favorite parts of Seattle, just a few blocks south of a cluster of nifty Madison Park restaurants. The kitchen has a really nice open layout, a nifty gas range, and somewhat luxurious fixtures, and will no longer isolate me from my guests when we're hosting dinner parties... There's also enough space to keep my YuzuMura.com stuff out of the way of the rest of my life.
Of course, the timing of our move isn't exactly the most convenient possible time... we'll be juggling an attempt to visit family in Idaho Falls for the holidays with packing too much stuff, loading and unloading a truck, and, well, work...
I don't think you can say you've truly confronted your own mortality until you've been buried alive in volcanically heated sand.
When Hiromi and I discussed our plans for this trip to Japan, I mentioned I'd like to go to an onsen in Kagoshima, but I am fairly certain I never suggested that we should go to the beach and have some late-middle-aged sadists bury us.
Vacations don't always go the way you envisioned them, of course. Yet, it's important not to close your mind to possibilities outside of the realm of your narrow experience. And, I'd say partly thanks to the limitations of my Japanese ability, I barely understood what I was in for, so I only experienced a surmountable bit of trepidation.
We were at Ibusuki, Kagoshima. Sane people take an airplane here, but after years of building my Japan itineraries one to three weeks in roughly the same place, interrupted by one or two short side trips, Hiromi and I elected to get a rail pass and see Japan like we're tourists. We took a 6-7 hour train ride from Tokyo to Fukuoka last Thursday, where we focused primarily on eating and sleeping (Fukuoka has other things to recommend it, but is a fine location for both purposes), before continuing on to our potential demise several hours further south.
We arrived at Hotel Shusuien Friday night at 6:30. This particular ryokan has consistently won awards naming its food the best in Japan (18 years running) from a ryokan-focused magazine, which we only knew a few days after Hiromi chose it. More on that later; I'll I show off what we ate in a subsequent post.
The staff suggested we try out the sand baths, and offered to start our dinner at an unusually late 8 pm. Most ryokan are nearly ready turn in for the night by this time, so we were pleased with the option. Hiromi looked forward to a quick sunamushi bath.
I didn't quite understand what was going on, but I did learn that most people can only stand 10-15 minutes of whatever we were about to do, and that if we couldn't endure it, we should shake our hips a bit. She demonstrated.
If you've never seen a 70 year-old Japanese obaachan demonstrate shaking her hips in a ryokan uniform-style kimono, it's a gesture which implants itself disturbingly deep in your psyche.
So on to the burial.
We had changed into the hotel's yukata, so we were presented with zouri and were shuttled by car a short stretch away.
On arrival, we presented a coupon from our hotel, and were provided with another yukata, into which we were advised to change. We followed signs that led us out to the beach, where we discovered a number of people already in the mummified state.
Staffed by two 60-something interrers bearing wide shovels, the sand baths occupy a long strip of land 30 meters or so from the water. Each bath is wide enough to support about 4 persons abreast, and 2 lengthwise.
The female attendant briefly explained to Hiromi how to position herself. My height and clumsiness presented a few logistical challenges, so the male attendant spent a bit more time guiding me into just the right position. They dig out a spot roughly based on the size of their typical customers, but with a little finesse, it works for everyone.
Once positioned, we are quickly buried. The attendants alternately dig, then drop hot sand over us. Dressed in simple yukata, head partially covered by a small towel, we are fully clothed, but somehow more vulnerable than we would be in a regular onsen or sentou.
After about 60 seconds underneath a pile of hot sand, you feel piercing heat on your naked extremities, the hands and feet. The rest of your body notices little more than the weight of the sand covering you, save for a hint of steam. After two or three minutes, you start to become incredibly conscious of your heartbeat. Every thump of your heart pushes the sand an inch higher, and yet it hasn't moved at all.
Your breathing necessarily slows as some kind of survival mechanism, even though the first impulse is to breathe more heavily. The ribcage actually does move; if you look at the person next to you, you will see that the sand rises and crests rhythmically.
After five minutes or so, your face becomes covered in sweat, and deeply red. Perhaps you feel the urge to shake your hips.
Seven or eight minutes into the burial, you cease to fight the improbability of your circumstances, and you are strangely relaxed.
And yet, after 10-12 minutes, you feel a slight discomfort again, and your toes and fingers want to find their way to the surface. You shake your hips, just as the obaachan instructed.
First, your toes emerge, and the ocean breeze against newly exposed skin makes the heat bearable again. Then, your hands are free, and you gain just a bit more energy.
But, barring some irrational competitive urge, you will last no more than 15 minutes. Any more would be too close to cheating death. You find a way to rise out from the sand, somewhat zombie-like at first, until you realize that you are still a mortal entity and that yes, in spite of your yukata, the sand has indeed made its way into every crevice of your body imaginable.
You retire to the shower, where you spend more effort than customarily needed to wash yourself, and take a brief dip in the onsen bath before returning to the ryokan for dinner.
You feel inexplicably refreshed.
You are still alive, and you have an extravagant dinner awaiting you.
As a 6'3" tall American with a slightly larger than desirable waistline, there's one thing I've never been crazy enough to seriously undertake in Tokyo.
I've never gone shopping for clothing.
Sure, I've been in department stores, but usually in the food sections or the dinnerware and lacquerware sections. I've never been brave enough to look for clothing, on the assumption that sizes suitable for my frame would not be easy to find, and that prices would be stratospheric.
In desperation, I once bought a few pairs of socks in a department store in Seoul, but that's as close as I've gotten. (Note: if you have any antipathy toward being heavily branded, don't look for socks in Seoul).
In an attempt to be somewhat frugal for the last 8 months or so, I haven't bought any clothing. By "haven't bought any clothing," I mean precisely that: no socks, no shirts, no shoes, no service. Not once. Even my book-buying impulses had been mostly curtailed. My single pricy indulgence has been dining out for dinner once or twice a week.
The last time I bought any new clothing was when Hiromi was visiting in Vancouver, and I desperately needed a shirt to go with the suit that I had brought in anticipation of dinner at West.
The problem with not buying any clothing is that I had precisely two pairs of shorts suitable for use anywhere more public than the gym, and Tokyo is hot in August. Really hot. In Seattle, I can get buy on two pairs of shorts in the summer, as I tend to use them no more than twice a week.
So we went searching for shorts. I found some that looked decent at Muji, but the largest size available was, shall we say, snug. As soon as I lose 20 lbs or so, I can consider coming back.
Most other department store options we tried were similarly impossible, including outposts of Seattle brands like Columbia Sportswear and Kavu. "Extra-large" corresponded to a 34" waist. I've had a 34" waist, back when I considered myself reasonably skinny. But it's been a few years.
We did find one suitable pair of shorts at the department store, but it was nearly $80. With only about 4-6 weeks of "shorts weather" left when I return to Seattle, I balked a bit.
So finally, I did something else I've never considered. I looked for something at the Gap. For mostly irrational reasons, I've never been motivated to look for anything there.
XL here was actually the same as XL in US shops, so I managed to comfortably fit into three of four pairs of shorts that I tried. Sale pricing reduced the sticker shock considerably, and Japan's lower sales tax made the price roughly equivalent to what I'd expect to pay for similar items at home.
It's rather sad that I've come all this way only to find myself shopping at the Gap, but you do what you've got to do. Plus I did find some plain T-shirts and socks for a reasonable price at Muji, which I've been going through at twice the usual rate thanks to the warm weather, so I've stocked up a bit.
Hiromi planned lunch with a few friends at Yurakucho yesterday, so we went a little early and shopped a bit at the Wakayama specialty shop and an Okinawan store to pick up some umeboshi, awamori, and various snacks and treats.
After browsing shelves full of tofuyo, Hiromi was in the mood to eat something Ryukyuan, so it was a fortunate coincidence that our group stumbled on an Okinawan restaurant in a nearby department store building.
Indulging my vegetarian habit in Japan is essentially impossible, at least with any degree of rigidity. But Okinawan food is even trickier. (More impossible?)
With a heavy reliance on pork wherever an excuse can be made to use it, even a basic noodle dish is served with hefty portions of tender braised pork belly (buta no kaku ni). Hiromi orders Okinawan soba as part of a set meal, and discovers that Okinawan soba is somewhere between ramen and udon in texture, and is made entirely of wheat flour, with poetic license much like "chuuka soba" or "yakisoba."
The buta no kaku ni is lighter in color than the typical Japanese version, thanks largely to eithered reduced quantities or the complete absence of soy sauce.
Normally, making substitutions at lunch is impossible, as it severely messes with the kitchen's mojo during the business lunch hour. But we came a little after 1pm, and the restaurant said they'd be happy to cook something off the dinner menu if I couldn't find something suitable from the lunch menu.
So we ordered the closest things to vegetarian dishes we could find.
First up was nigana no shiro-ae, made with a bitter herb indigenous to Okinawa. Nigana is a somewhat ambiguous term in Japan, but in Okinawa it seems to refer to one local species of plant. I was expecting this to be more of a vegetable dish than a tofu dish, but considering the intensity of the flavor, the proportion of tofu to herb made sense.
I can't quite place the flavor, but it would be somewhat fair to compare it to arugula or maybe dandelion greens.
Another dish, recommended by one of Hiromi's friends, was a soft tofu dish called yuri-doufu, somewhere between oborodoufu and kinugoshi-doufu in texture. It's quite similar to Korean-style soon-dubu. The soup it's served with is far from vegetarian, but was mild in flavor.
I had another dish called hirayachi, an Okinawan-style pancake comparable to a the simplest Korean pajeon, but described in Japanese as "Okinawan okonomiyaki."
Unlike pajeon, the hirayachi I had did not contain scallions. The Okinawan dish is often made with nira, usually translated as garlic chives, an essential ingredient for making gyoza. I think there may have been a few pieces of tiny dried shrimp in the batter or maybe finely chopped kamaboko, and it's topped with katsuobushi, but I retain a sense of humor when dining out, especially in Japan.
The pancake is served with substantial portion of a mild soy-based dipping sauce, much less salty than the typical Korean equivalent. It's very simple, and since it's so thin, it probably just takes a few minutes to cook, but I like it.
We lingered long enough that it was already coffee hour when we finished, so we stopped and had some espresso-based drinks at some concept chain from the Illy brand. I ordered some odd (but actually nice) stuffed marshmallow concoctions, one made with tomato jam and the other flavored with coffee, as a little sweet thing.
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.
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.
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
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
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...
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.
Yes, I know I'm a slacker and all that. I promise I'll be somewhat motivated to write more in the near future. I might even cover something more interesting than the frustrations of navigating the US immigration system, like food.
I do have some good news, though it throws a wrinkle in my budget for the next several months. Hiromi got an interview date for her permanent resident visa at the Tokyo embassy.
It turns out that it's on her birthday, August 18.
She didn't want to be separated on either our anniversary or her birthday, so it looks like I'll be making a short trip to Japan in mid-August.
Ouch. Mid-August. That's going to hurt in at least two ways.
The average daily high temperature in Tokyo during the month of August is 87F (courtesy Weather.com), and it generally doesn't cool down below 75F at night. It's also incredibly humid.
The last time I visited Japan during the summer, it was late July, and my very light summer shirts soaked all the way through with sweat just minutes after going outdoors. You should have seen me walking through Kamakura...
Needless to say, for the last 7 years, I've avoided revisiting Tokyo in summer.
The other source of pain is this: mid-August is Obon season. Flights will likely be quite expensive, as will almost all over our lodging and travel. That's not even considering the impact of massive fuel surcharges and fee increases on airfare that have hit hard this year.
Hiromi has been tentatively planning to come to Seattle mid-July, as she does have a perfectly adequate spouse visa, and she also has some plans in Dallas for late July. As I've mentioned before, we wanted the most expeditious way of getting permanent resident status. Barring any disastrous complications, we should be able to quickly move on to the next steps, like finding Hiromi a job (anyone in Seattle need an experienced localization/globalization tester or PHP/Rails hacker starting in late August?), and moving out of my very confining Fremont apartment.
As of last night, Hiromi tells me she got her passport back from the embassy with her K-3 visa, which allows her to enter the US painlessly.
Of course, as usual, there are some complications. Hiromi's work obligations, a friend's wedding, and incredibly high airfare mean that she'll not actually depart for Seattle until sometime in July... While her visa allows her to go back and forth, coming in June, then making a special trip back to Japan in early July seemed financially not so prudent. Right now, all the "cheap" tickets cost around $1200.
I miss being able to find $515 round trip tickets, taxes included, from Seattle to Tokyo.
We've elected to have the interview for the actual immigrant visa in Tokyo, so, unless the National Visa Center moves at light speed, there's a good chance she'll have to make a trip back to Japan sometime after July. The other option would be to do an "adjustment of status" in the US, which is somewhat more expensive and arguably more convenient, but we won't be able to start that process until she arrives in Seattle. That means it would be at least October before she'd have work permission. It also assumes that US Customs and Immigration Service moves at something approximating reasonable speed.
After almost 5 years together, it's hard to imagine that we were once just coworkers in different offices, 4800 miles apart, and knew each other mostly from email, bug reports, and one or two lunches during business trips.
In a few months, we'll be hunting for a new place to live, finally. After 4.5 years in the tiny apartment I choose only because it was "good enough" and cheap enough in anticipation of starting a new business, I'm looking forward to finding a place where we can comfortably entertain dinner guests more often. I thought I'd be in that place for a year or two. So much for temporary.
I'm glad the wait is almost over. Just a few more hurdles...
Trying to be clever sometimes gets me into trouble.
I was planning to make a soup this week. I thought it would be a good idea to cook some black-eyed peas one night ahead of time, so that I'd be able to eat dinner at a reasonable hour when I went to prepare the soup the next evening.
I didn't soak the beans earlier in the day, so I pulled out my 70s-era slow cooker after dinner, and let it do its thing. Clever, yes?
Just before bedtime, I went to check on the peas. Disaster had struck.
The peas were way overcooked. The soup I had in mind was not based on a puree. Of course, I didn't want to let the effort, or the food, go to waste.
A small disaster, yes, but I was disappointed. I lose interest in hearty soups the moment warm weather takes hold in Seattle, and there's not much time left before that happens (he says hopefully).
A rescue operation was in order.
I remembered having a sort of black-eyed pea hoppin' john (or is that johnnycake?) at Seattle's Kingfish Cafe several years ago, and then I thought that these overcooked beans might have a second chance at life. Not being a Southerner, in spite of a couple of years living in Knoxville, TN as a teenager, I'm not the right person to ask how to make the "real" thing, but I ground up a bunch of cumin, a little coriander seed, and even a touch of dried gobo (burdock root), only the first of which is terribly likely in any Southern version of this dish.
Although the beans were already pretty well mashed on their own, I used a fork on a little over half of the beans to make them a little more likely to hold together, and then worked in a couple of eggs, some panko, the spices, and salt.
The only kind of cornmeal I have around is instant masa, so I went ahead and used regular flour (an early experiment with the masa wasn't promising). I formed the bean mixture into patties, dusted each patty with the flour, and placed them one-by-one in an hot cast-iron pan. I used plenty of oil, more than coating the bottom of the pan, but not so much that the patties would be floating in it.
The patties are cooked until just a bit beyond golden brown.
To serve, I mixed up some harissa, a chili and garlic mixture with cumin, coriander, and a bit of olive oil, with some prepared mayonnaise. This went on each patty rather artlessly, as my squeeze bottle's tip fractured, leaving me to resort to a spoon. A little parsley made it almost look pretty.
From a near fiasco, I had a very high protein, fairly flavorful dish, built from the humblest of ingredients. Sometimes failure is rewarding.
I thought it would be nice to do breakfast at home this morning, so I decided to give them a try. All I did was put out a couple on a sandwiched aluminum cookie sheet last night, then I woke up, preheated the oven, and baked them for a little under 20 minutes. They reminded me of the quality of croissants I found at average chain bakeries in Tokyo, which is pretty good. If I walked down the street to one of the coffee shops in my neighborhood, I'd have croissants with no crunch, a victim of transport... they resemble dinner rolls more than croissants, even though they come from a reasonably decent bakery.
The Trader Joe's version were also just the right size... I usually want two pastries just for variety's sake, but in the typical portion sizes in the U.S. that's a prescription for a heart attack, or at least some substantial weight gain. These ones work out to be 150 kCal a piece, assuming you don't slather too much in the way of toppings on them. I ate two with some kaya custard, so it wasn't exactly diet food, but I should live to see tomorrow.
Cafe Besalu is an occasional (frequent?) weekend indulgence for me, and their laminated pastries are hard to beat, but there's something to be said for being able to eat freshly baked croissants in your bathrobe.
Even though I like eating well on my own, I tend to keep breakfast and brunch rather basic, so I thought it would be good to have some more good stuff that required little work.
I had half a grapefruit from Harbor Island Citrus in Florida, which I picked up at Sosio's. These grapefruits were labeled in Japanese with the phrase 「糖度センサー使用」, which means that they are sugar-tested with a brix sensor (yours for just $3000, or $9000 if you want the melon-testing model). They're sweet, but also incredibly full-flavored. Thanks to the label, I discovered that this grapefruit is exported to and sold in Japan (at least online), and are actually fairly reasonably priced... not much different than I paid, and slightly cheaper in quantity.
The season's pretty short, so I bought a couple more this weekend, just in case it's my last chance. They might have them for another week at Sosio's downtown; I was told that there are only about 40-50 cases left in the country.
I also had a sunny-side up egg with truffle salt, making a simple but luxurious breakfast. Sometimes it's good to stay home.
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.