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.
As a small child, I already had vegetarian leanings, and generally refused red meat. Then, one night, my parents and I went out to dinner at their favorite nearby "fancy" restaurant, a Black Angus, where, without warning or provocation, I placed my order for prime rib.
The waitress was taken aback, as that was a pricey cut of meat for a 3 or 4 year old in the 7 Especially at a restaurant. She checked with my parents, who said "if that's what he wants, give it to him." My mother was surprised and, apparently, somewhat relieved, and she figured it was best to indulge me on a rare occasion when I was willing to entertain the idea of eating meat. Even if that meant that I was condemned to have expensive taste for the rest of my life.
While I did eschew meat, I still hadn't overcome the typical childhood fear of salads and bitter greens. During the same period that I was refusing red meat, I was equally hostile to eating salad, even though the standard salad in the 70s was a mound of nearly flavorless iceberg lettuce drenched in about a pound of Thousand Island dressing. Reportedly, my reaction to being served salad (quite possibly with that very same steak) was to say, "I can't eat that, it might kill me!"
In retrospect, maybe I was on to something. Although I warmed to that style of salad in my junior high school and high school years, it only took a couple years beyond that before I couldn't imagine a salad with anything less flavorful than romaine, nor any dressing poured heavily enough to resemble a lettuce soup. And I now generally reserve Thousand Island dressing for its divinely intended purpose: as a sauce for french fries.
Artery-clogging quantities of mayonnaise do not belong in something ostensibly healthy; they belong right out in the open, served with something you expect to be bad for you*.
So what does steak and expensive taste have to do with kale? Well, a little bundle of kale in the supermarket runs over $3, which is probably more than a pound of prime rib would have cost in the supermarket during the 1970s. That's about three times the price of spinach. (Or maybe not... spinach has been expensive of late, too).
How interesting that kale, a much feared vegetable by even reasonably adventurous cooks, is nearly a luxury item.
And yet, treated reasonably well, kale is a remarkably flavorful and pleasing green. Most of the hard work of washing the kale is done for you, at least as far as I've seen; I still give the greens a bath in a big bowl of water and let any sediment settle to the bottom. I separate the tender leaves from the sturdiest parts of the ribs by ripping the leaves along either side of the rib.
Then I usually do a quick braise with good, gently heated olive oil, garlic, a little bit of flavorful vinegar or a squeeze of lemon juice, and sometimes some wine. This time, I actually started with quick-sauteed onions, cooked down the kale a bit, and added a heavy splash of red wine and a little lemon juice, along with some sliced, toasted almonds. I added just enough salt to bring out the flavor of the greens, and to let everything cook for a few minutes to let the wine and kale come together.
Kale is certainly more bitter than spinach, but it stands up to longer periods of cooking than spinach tolerates, allowing for more intensely flavored creations. The red wine-olive oil combination creates a beady, tangy sauce, brightened up by the acidity of the lemon. The almonds add a little textural contrast, though they'd be more flavorful if freshly toasted and used as a garnish.
Along with a few other plates of more substantial fare, the kale adds a massive boost of Vitamin A and other nutrients, but my fork keeps wandering back to this plate for the flavor.
And it won't kill me.
* I reserve the right to inconsistency when you later catch me eating copious quantities of my homemade citrusy mayonnaise with theoretically healthy artichokes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over the last 5 months or so, I've been stepping up my exercise routine. The last couple of years working in software during the day have been particularly bad for my waistline, and a broken foot last year kept me away from the gym for several months. My newer office is inches from dozens of cheap, massive-portion quick-service lunch joints, and for most of my return to software I've just not been exercising as much as I used to. It's a dangerous combination.
A long time ago, I had an ugly knee injury from running, and I never quite got back to normal. Every time I tried running more than about 3 miles, the pain would come back.
While Hiromi was staying with me in Seattle, both of my knees started acting up, inflamed by little more than walking. My usual standby of walking long distances, either out and about or on the treadmill, just became too painful to handle.
In November I realized that my avoidance of exercise was unsustainable, and I started hunting around the gym for something that wouldn't be murder on my knees. I found most of the cycling machines boring, and elliptical striding machines were more stressful on my knees than running, so things seemed hopeless. Then I stumbled on the Concept2 rowing machine, and everything started to click.
For the last few weeks, I've been focusing on strength training, but I'm really glad to have found a cardiovascular exercise that doesn't punish my knees.
My routine since November has kept me in the gym 4 or 5 nights a week, and I get home pretty late on weeknights. I usually manage to eat a reasonable dinner, though I'm not usually finished cooking until around 9:30 pm.
Weekends are more complicated. Somehow I often end up eating irregularly, and my appetite strikes at the most inconvenient moments.
Last Sunday, I got an after-dinner craving, so I went straight for my go-to snack: popcorn. Often I toss a little truffle salt and melted butter on it, but I have another favorite: nori-shio popcorn.
I stole the idea from a microwave popcorn product that comes from Hawaii, and the nori-shio potato chips popular in Japan. That brand of microwave popcorn is crazy expensive in Seattle, so I started making it on my own.
It's easy enough to make popcorn on the stovetop with a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan; I just heat a little oil on medium heat, add a few tablespoons of popcorn to the bottom, and shake occasionally as the kernels heat up. When popping starts to slow down, I turn off the heat and wait for the last few popping sounds.
Most of the time, I use a mortar and pestle to grind up prepared nori furikake, which I buy at Uwajimaya in Seattle. If I don't have that, I sometimes mix up aonori, sesame seeds, salt, and a bit of sugar, and work that into a fine powder with the mortar and pestle or a spice grinder.
I toss the cooked popcorn and the nori blend in a big bowl. Sometimes, there's not quite enough oil to get the furikake mix to stick to the popcorn, so I might spray or drizzle a little more oil onto the popcorn, which usually helps a bit.
Nori, sesame and salt get along with popcorn swimmingly, so this is one of my favorite snacks.
Coming home from the gym tonight, I read an email on my cell phone announcing that my petition for Hiromi to come to the U.S. has finally been approved.
It's a relief. It really only means that we've started round three of the waiting game, as the next layer of bureaucracy enters the picture. But the most grueling, time consuming part of this process is now over.
It's been 208 days since I filed the petition. We spent about 3 weeks after our minimalist wedding gathering documents, filling out forms, correcting forms, mailing them back and forth, reviewing them with my attorney and an immigration paralegal, and accumulating a small fortune in legal bills and government fees.
The approval means that we now wait again... in about a week, we should be assigned a visa number after the National Visa Center receives the petition, which will be forwarded to the consular service at Tokyo embassy. Sometime after that, Hiromi will receive a new stack of paperwork to fill out, and I expect I'll have to assemble a bunch of financial documents as well.
If we're lucky, within a month after the documents are sent off, Hiromi will get an appointment for a medical exam and an interview.
I'm not sure yet, but there's a reasonable chance Hiromi will be able to come to Seattle by late May.
Maybe I'll finally be able to concentrate during the daytime again...
OK, chanterelle season is more than over. What can I say? I've been busy.
I made this back in December, so you'll probably need to make something slightly different. Maybe you can substitute some hedgehogs or skip the mushrooms if something suitably foresty isn't available.
All I can say is that this worked. I blanched thinly-sliced golden beets, followed by the beet greens. Then, I dry-fried chanterelles with a bit of salt and fresh dill, feeding them some butter after most of the liquid had boiled off.
I put these on a pizza dough base brushed with olive-oil and garlic. The cheese included a little orange-fennel soft goat cheese and mozzarella.
When the pizza was finished baking, I hit it generously with more fresh dill.
It's not Italian, but it works. I particularly liked the little hints of orange aroma coming from the cheese, but I think other soft chevre would add a nice brightness that would balance out the earthy foundation.
Briefly reunited for a couple of weeks during the Christmas and New Year's holiday, Hiromi and I spent most of our time in Vancouver quietly. Most of our previous trips to Vancouver had been rather quick and hurried, and we ended up choosing where to eat without any particular research or care. This time, though, we had the opportunity to do a bit more exploration, and we made some pleasant discoveries.
The exchange rates made even the cheaper dining options a bit expensive. Hiromi's whim to eat some sort of Mexican food led us to a place that made many of Seattle's mediocre chain yellow-cheese laden places seem almost gourmet, and we paid almost twice as much for the privilege. But we also had plenty of favorable experiences.
We met up with some local members of eGullet.org, a food community site that I participate in, at Cru, a Pacific Northwest focused restaurant on West Broadway. We decided to mostly entrust the chef with decisions on the food, and they made one or two dishes just for my benefit (I was the only vegetarian) that weren't on the menu.
I can't recall a single misstep in the menu. Mostly simple, elegant dishes focused on the ingredients, the food was pleasant and carefully prepared. I was particularly happy with a mushroom risotto garnished with some pea sprouts. We had a nice Syrah and some complimentary sparkling wine. The interior had a cozy-but-contemporary feel, and felt very relaxed. It resembles Seattle's Veil in some ways, but has perhaps a bit more comfortable atmosphere.
Eggy pasta with the last possible chanterelles
We stayed in a little Yaletown studio apartment, which gave us the luxury of eating at home reasonably often. We kept most of our meals simple, constrained as we were by a minimalist pantry and a more basic set of kitchen equipment than I have at home, but most everything we produced worked fairly well. I carried some basic magic from my pantry in Seattle: olive oil, Spanish paprika, a little argan oil, soy sauce, mirin, salt and a pepper mill. We had a little salad with macadamia nuts and dried cranberries, along with an improvised version of my yuzu dressing.
One night we had a simple wide noodle egg pasta with some truffled sheep's milk cheese, shallots, cream, and some of the last possible chanterelles of the season.
I had brought a couple of varieties of crackers with me from Seattle, mostly because I wanted to make use of them before they lost their charms. During our stay in Vancouver, we went cheese hunting on Granville Island, and came home with an excellent raw milk Brie de Meaux, a truffled sheep's milk cheese from Italy, and some soft nice chevre from Salt Spring Island. The raw milk Brie was spectacularly flavorful, with an almost grassy, pasture-like aroma... I really haven't ever had a nicer one. I'm not sure who they bribed to make it possible to sell in Canada, but we delighted in knowing we were eating something that's essentially forbidden in the US. Even when I was living in Germany, I don't think I ever managed to find a raw Brie. The truffled cheese was also very nice, and the chevre worked particularly well as a stuffing for sweet dates.
Hiromi had a craving for cookies on Christmas, so I made some thumbprint cookies with a black currant jam.
We had a quiet evening on New Year's Eve, as we had planned a special dinner at West in lieu of attending some sort of New Year's Eve party.
We had some nice pre-dinner cocktails, though thanks to our indecision on the drinks the first course or two passed before we really moved on to the wine. We had sort of imagined we would order a B.C. wine of some sort, but when we asked for something in the Syrah/Shiraz world, the waiter steered us toward the French or Australian options, so we gave up on drinking local in favor of an excellent French Syrah, priced fairly reasonably at around $85.
Hiromi had the West Tasting Menu ($129) and I had the vegetarian ($89). My amuse, a truffled cauliflower pureed soup, served in an espresso-like cup for sipping, was a pleasant way to start things off, and Hiromi had some little seafood treat that she was quite pleased with. We both had a beautifully presented marinated beet dish, in which a soft chevre was sandwiched between slices of beet, brightened by a simple vinaigrette and pine nuts.
Hiromi's next course was seared foie gras and duck confit and pear salad, and I had a shaved truffle-heavy frisee salad sprinkled with some translucent crispy wafers of unspecified origin. The truffles were almost overpowering in my salad, but I still ate every bite.
Hiromi was thrilled by a seared scallop dish with a delightfully rich-yet-refreshing cilantro sauce, which she thought would be enjoyable even by people hostile to cilantro. The vegetarian course also featured a bit of cilantro, adorning a surprisingly endearing ginger and tomato braised artichoke.
The next course, a fillet of sturgeon for Hiromi with fennel jam and artichokes, and a bell pepper confit risotyo for me. Both solid, nicely executed dishes.
The only misstep was in the fifth course, and the same error affected both of us. Hiromi received a lamb dish, and I had an "open raviolo" with butternut squash. Both of these dishes were accompanied by some unspecified savory foam and some sauteed wild mushrooms, and that's where the disappointment hit us: somehow they had been oversalted. When eaten together with another component of the dish, they were tolerable, but they were too salty to be enjoyed on their own merits.
The cheese course and dessert course took our minds off the imperfect 5th course. We both had a dark molded mousse (or "Marquis") between two rectangles of chocolate, served alongside a vanilla tapioca. For me this triggered a bit of nostalgia, but Hiromi has little to no experience with tapioca puddings, so it was more of a novelty for her.
We had a little grappa, one serving of a local dry, but slightly harsh B.C. product, and a fruity and memorable Alexander Platinum.
Service was not as flawless as our previous experience at Lampreia in Seattle, the only comparable meal we've had at a restaurant. The server was occasionally distracted, perhaps having too many tables to accommodate, so it took several attempts before we could order our drinks; of course, one was due to a bit of indecision after learning one choice wasn't available that night. But I was pleased to have a carefully constructed vegetarian tasting menu, an option that wasn't on the table at Lampreia. For that, we'd need to go somewhere like Rover's.
Hiromi's comment, after trying West, was that Lampreia seemed to delight in simple flavors occasionally constructed from impossible-to-imagine components such as a cracker made almost entirely from tomatoes, ravioli made with skins constructed from pineapple, and other fanciful pieces. On the other hand, in West's cuisine, every ingredient was recognizable; the effort seemed spent mostly on carefully composed, sometimes complex sauces with surprising, but not jarring flavors.
I've done most of my extravagant dining in Japan, in ryokan (Japanese inns), where the food is an elaborate but essentially rustic experience. I've not really done much in the way of true kaiseki, except some scaled-back versions in Kyoto. But I'm actually probably more familiar with the conventions of Japanese style multicourse dining than I am with the French tradition. I lived in Germany as a student with no money, so "fancy" dining meant going to a restaurant serving burgerliche Kuche and getting bland croquettes with overcooked vegetables, or perhaps a very, very buttery omelet.
I'm still excited by the experience of a place like West or Lampreia, but part of me wishes dinner included a Japanese bath and a place to sleep.
We got home early, around 9:30, thanks to our early seating. I think we were up until around midnight, because I recall hearing shouting and fireworks outside, but we weren't part of the revelry.
Hiromi goes snowboarding while I drink lousy coffee
It's probably a good thing we had an early night. Although we were awake enough to hear the revelry at midnight, on New Year's Day we planned to wake up unusually early so that we could take Hiromi on a day trip to her first home in Canada, Whistler, B.C.
We haven't been to Whistler since Christmas 2003, when Hiromi made her first visit to the US to see me. Somehow I convinced myself to take a lesson in snowboarding, and then proceded down the mountain very, very slowly the next day. This time, I had a little cold, and my knees aren't what they once were, so I decided to opt out.
I spent most of my day drinking very mediocre coffee and hacking code on a pet Ruby on Rails project. When Hiromi was done for the day, we stopped at the home of Fusaki Iida, a snowboarder/writer/teacher that she knew when on working holiday in Whistler earlier in the decade.
My cold got particularly nasty at night. It was bad enough that, even though I'm sure Hiromi was completely worn out from snowboarding by the end of the day, she ended up making a run across the street to the pharmacy and took over making dinner while I collapsed on the bed, still in my wool coat
By the next morning, though, I felt much better... I was a bit congested, but not anywhere near the condition I went to bed in. The massive doses of hot, artificially cherry flavored cold medicine did the trick. Or maybe it was only a 24 hour bug.
During the trip, we also met a couple Hiromi's friends, from the days when she was living in Vancouver. We had coffee and desserts at Ganache down the street from us, and chatted for far longer than planned back at our apartment. We met another friend at Caffe Artigiano, which has decent coffee too.
A bit of good news arrived just after Christmas... After 4 months, the United States Customs and Immigration Service finally acknowledged receipt of our petition for Hiromi's permanent residence status. That particular step normally takes about 2 weeks, but things have been unusually sluggish. The attorney sent off the next batch of paperwork for her visa, which was acknowledged about 3 weeks later. We don't know how long it will take until Hiromi's visa is approved, but it's been a long process. The spouse visa is supposed to be done within three months or so, but can only be filed after the first petition is acknowledged. We're now expecting the permanent resident petition to be approved before the actual visa application, which adds some complications to the process.
Actually, I have been cooking, though mostly haphazardly and without particular care... I'm also less patient, and not generally willing to dig out the camera.
I'd like to blame this ennui entirely on the US Customs and Immigration Service, though I'm not quite sure that's entirely fair. It has been rather depressing to observe absolutely no change in status for I-130 applications on the USCIS web site's receipting update page, at least not for the last 8 weeks or so. This week I'm slightly more optimistic, as they've indicated that all the I-130 applications have been forwarded to Chicago. Perhaps next week I'll hear something.
It turns out one of my coworkers is facing the same thing, as he filed for his own wife about a week after me. I imagine a lot of people are similarly frustrated right now.
In about 10 days I'll be heading off to see Hiromi in Vancouver, BC for a couple of weeks, as we can't be sure Hiromi would be allowed to enter the US even as a tourist, since we've already filed an application for permanent residence. The convoluted logic of US immigration law makes it hard to enter as a tourist to see your spouse, because you might have immigrant intent. If we were both living abroad, and didn't have a pending immigration petition, we could actually enter under the normal visa waiver program that Hiromi has previously used for most of her trips to Seattle.
I'm hoping to eat well in Vancouver... we'd like to make a trip to Vij's and perhaps Lumière or something similarly celebratory... of course, we're probably going to be equally happy just cooking simple meals in our rented Yaletown apartment.
My impatience has gotten considerably worse in the last month, but of course, there's nothing I can do... Shouganai.
Saturday I visited (and co-arranged) a party celebrating nabe, the broad category of winter one-pot dishes that mark the arrival of winter in Japan. We had four varieties of nabe going in four different pots, and 27-30 people. Kimchi nabe (Japanese-styled kimchi jjigae), Ishikari nabe (a Hokkaido salmon and vegetable nabe), tounyuu nabe (fresh soymilk seasoned with miso, with tofu and shungiku, in this case), and a kinoko tofu nabe (mushroom and tofu nabe), for which I prepared a yuzu-meyer lemon-daidai ponzu.
This Friday night a few friends have been kind enough to arrange for a nice dinner at Carmelita, my favorite vegetarian restaurant in Seattle. I haven't been since Hiromi's birthday last year. In 2006, Hiromi and I did some role-reversal reversal: I took her to Carmelita on her birthday, she took me to a football game on mine.
On the weekend we discovered that Japan has taken a marked interest in Halloween... Harajuku and Omote-sando were filled with costumed children and adults, some carrying plastic pumpkins to various shops that apparently were giving away small treats.
Some people even lined up outside department stores, presumably for some sort of treasure.
Mostly costumed lineup
Harajuku had clusters of costumed children. We didn't make it out to the annual Kawasaki-area Halloween parade, but I understand that's an even bigger event than what we spotted in Omotesando.
We can perhaps thank global commerce and expert marketing, but Halloween seems to be roughly a week-long event in Japan. Costumes start on the weekend preceding the holiday, as far as I can tell, and continued all the way into bars and restaurants on Halloween night.
Bakeries offer pumpkin filled cookie sandwiches and in the shape of Jack-O-Lanterns, and I even found a Halloween-themed tenugui, or dyed cotton cloth. Halloween is all about commerce, much as it is in the US, without all the visceral impact the symbolism of Halloween has to most Americans, weaned on ghost stories about witches and zombies, during horror movie season.
Ladybug and wizard: Off we go
Obon and Halloween are really the same holiday, differences in rituals aside. Since I usually avoid coming to Japan during the peak heat of summer, I have only witnessed Nikkei celebrations of obon, and those a month earlier than typical (to fit in to the more important Seafair schedule in Seattle). But both are ways for living people to come to terms with death and the unknown.
In Japan, though, any of Halloween's association with the supernatural is apparently nonexistent. Cuteness rules all costuming decisions; nobody tries to be over-the-top disturbing, and everyone appears to use Halloween as an excuse for consumption.
In contrast, I remember being at a shrine in Kamakura just after dark many years ago, and my Japanese companion was clearly slightly unnerved... I was unable to relate, as I felt none of the same goosebump-raising vibrations that come from a lifetime of association of shrines with death and ghosts. Americans, more influenced by Christian teachings that tried to quash pagan leanings in indigenous European cultures, are more likely to find their hair raised by the shadows and noises of Pan's forests.
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...
You think you're looking at fleshy beefsteak tomatoes.
But you are deceived. You're actually looking at an uncommon variety of eggplant. I picked it up from the Alvarez farms stand at the Pike Place Market a little while back.
They were surprisingly firm, which I thought would be an advantage over the occasionally quite mushy ancient eggplants I sometimes run into at supermarkets. In fact, these were firm enough you could probably hurt someone if you threw them hard enough.
Had I followed my usual impulses when playing with a new food, I'd have done my best to highlight the remarkable qualities it has and not fuss with it terribly much. I would have wanted to emphasize the remarkable color and the bold shape.
But that was not to pass. That week I had an absolutely relentless craving for comfort food, and my usual impulses were undermined by cravings for things roasted, baked, and cheese-laden.
So I chose instead to obscure my treasure by turning it into something fairly pedestrian, but certainly comforting... After slicing, salting, and removing aku from the eggplant, I pan-fried the slices with a dusting of flour, egg and breadcrumbs. While I was waiting for them to cook, I prepared a quick tomato sauce from some nice fresh tomatoes, using a heavy hand with red wine. I placed some buffalo mozzarella and parmesan on each slice, spooned over some sauce, and baked until everything was melted.
As you can see, I managed to completely obscure any of the charms of the eggplant, but it did the trick appealing to my need for self-indulgence.
Surprisingly, the eggplant had a sharp edge*. The bitterness was more intense than most varieties of eggplant I've worked with, even though I did the standard salting and rinsing trick. The sweetness of the tomato sauce and the mozzarella helped counter some of the harshness, so perhaps my choice was clever after all.
I'm now tempted to see if I could tame the bitterness by pickling the eggplant, Japanese style. I haven't been at the Pike Place Market for a few weeks, though, so I'm afraid I've probably lost my chance for the season... but perhaps we'll meet again next season.
* I've since learned that this variety of eggplant, called Turkish eggplant, is generally consumed underripe; it becomes bitter as it transforms from green to orange.
It's hard to imagine now that Seattle's wind and rain have started to kick in, but only a month ago, local apricots were still in season.
Just around that time I had stumbled upon a beautiful bunch of apricots at the U-District farmer's market, and thought it would be nice to make anzu-zake, an apricot-infused liqueur similar to umeshu. Unfortunately, a few of the apricots I used were so ripe that a couple of them had hidden bruises. I spotted them just before they lost their color and reclaimed them from the vodka solution, and chopped up a couple more fresh ones from another source. Simmered with a little sugar, a bit of yuzu juice, a tiny knob of fresh ginger, and a pinch of salt, this makes a spirited accompaniment to cheese.
Bad puns are cruel. Sorry about that.
I happen to be a fan of the occasional grilled halloumi... that's a a cheese which comes from Cypress, most notable for holding its shape when cooked. It's best when quickly grilled and gently caramelized. Because it's somewhat salty, I tend to prefer serving it with a sweet accompaniment like quince paste, but this boozy apricot sauce was even better.
I wanted to have something more than just a big pile of cheese, so I boiled some polenta seasoned with salt and butter, then let it rest at the bottom of a small baking pan. After it cools for 10 minutes or so, it's easy to cut into rectangles suitable to rest the cheese on.
Dressed with the apricot sauce and some fresh black pepper, the strength of this dish is the relatively gentle interplay of flavors. To provide some flavor contrast as needed, I served it with some fruity olives and some pickled pepadew peppers.
When I made this, I was only in the mood for a light meal, so I had a little salad and not much else, but it would be even better to serve one per person as a nice appetizer. It looks fancier than it is; I had it on the table in about 15 minutes after the polenta was cooked, and I wasn't in a rush. You could easily substitute ready-made quince paste or probably some types of chutney...
For a little while I couldn't get enough halloumi, and I tended to serve it on a bed of Bibb lettuce instead of polenta. That's even easier... but I think this version is prettier.
I'm a complete sucker for simple preparations of nice ingredients.
It wasn't always that way. When I first had enough of an income to support occasional dining out, I always thought it was better to order food that required equipment or effort I was unlikely to duplicate at home. Why pay a premium for a dish I could throw together myself in just a few minutes?
But after a couple of years, I realized that complex cuisine tended to be disappointing, perhaps because so many variables made it hard to pull off "sophisticated" dishes with any degree of consistency. Now I tend to be happiest with simple, well-executed fare. I still love dining out, but I'm more likely to look for dishes that are simple and playful, or classically basic and seasonally appropriate, rather than elaborate or ostentatiously creative.
At home I've seriously simplified my usual fare, as well, and I just love doing as little as possible to bring out the best in an ingredient.
Chayote squash is one ingredient that benefits from pronounced yet fundamentally uncomplicated seasoning. I like it with little more than fresh citrus juice and salt.
Matchstick-cut chayote squash with lime and pico de gallo
Except for some brief high-risk mandoline maneuvering, this refreshing side dish is almost effortless. I simply matchstick cut the squash, rub the pieces with some coarse salt, and wait a few minutes for the squash to sweat while preparing something else.
I try to squeeze out excess moisture, but it's ok to be a little lazy about that. Then I squeeze in a generous splash of fresh lime juice and chill for a while to marinate. If the squash starts out cold, it could actually be eaten right away, but I didn't have that much forethought. I just let it rest for a while while I finished the rest of dinner. Besides, it keeps nicely for three or four days refrigerated, and it's nice to have a refreshing side ready to go.
On the plate, I sprinkle just a little pico de gallo seasoning, which is nothing more than salt, ground cumin, and chili. If this dish sounds like a typical preparation of jicama, that's no coincidence. It just works.
Chayote squash has the texture of a crisp pear or raw daikon but has hints of the aroma of cucumbers and melon. When you add the lime juice, the magic starts.
Perhaps it's just force of habit, but I never really considered making stuffed mushrooms without some sort of starch as a foundation... rice is my usual standby, but I've used buckwheat, breadcrumbs, and a few other alternatives.
But I'd been feeling rather overstuffed lately, so I've been eating less in the way of refined grains than usual. Stuffed mushrooms are a relatively quick, simple side dish unless you're cooking them for an army, so I threw together a dozen or so one Sunday night recently to go along with some more substantial fare.
I took some fleshy tomatoes, gently seeded, and chopped them up, tossed with some chopped, sauteed shallots. I added some grated pungent cheese whose name escapes me at the moment, but almost anything would work. For flavor, I added some capers, and a little salt, pepper and nutmeg. After hollowing out the mushrooms, I stuff them with the filling, placing them in a porcelain baking pan. Then pour some light, minerally Grüner Veltlinger wine, seasoned with more salt, pepper and nutmeg, into the same pan with a little butter.
These bake until the mushrooms look tender and the cheese is melted. at about 425F/200C.
I was worried some disaster would befall me because I left out the usual ingredient binding, but no such misfortune ensued, and the dish avoided the dreary dryness that sometimes ruins otherwise elegant-looking stuffed vegetables. Now I'm inclined to leave out the starch most of the time.
In spite of the stick-to-your ribs look of this variation, it's quite light and flavorful, and you could probably eat the mushrooms by the dozen without weighing yourself down.
Served with a glass of that Austrian Grüner Veltlinger, they make a nice starter or side dish.
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.
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.
I've previously mentioned that Hiromi's pie crust is far superior to mine. Hers is closer to a rough puff than the standard American pie crust, but she pulls it off rather effortlessly. On the other hand, my attempts at rough puff generally turn out to be slightly inferior to the basic pie crust that I can produce with far less concentration..
During Hiromi's short stay, I wanted to take advantage of Hiromi's crust-making skills for a more savory application.
I worked on a simple thick lentil dish made with garam masala, probably a few potatoes, onions, garlic, and ginger, some fresh tomatoes, and turmeric. As I recall, I only had split urad daal handy. These are black lentils which have lost their shells and become a sort of drywall white.
While I was taking care of the filling, Hiromi set out making the pie crust. She cut in the butter and prepared the first turn, and finished a second one before the lentils were done.
We wanted some kind of sweet-savory accompaniment, so I planned to make a chutney. Fresh figs looked nice that day, so we used them as the foundation. I prepared the chutney after the lentils were started, using a little fenugreek and fennel as the dominant notes, a little extra sugar, and a few additional spices. I think I added enough chilies to make the chutney more spicy than necessary, but they didn't hurt.
I'm already fuzzy on the details, but I think we had some other afternoon plan that day and we wandered off for a few hours, then came back to assemble everything. I think Hiromi did one more turn before we filled the pastry in small springform pans, baked, and then were treated to this nice pie.
The only thing I'd change is which fruit to use for the chutney. I think apricot, peach or tamarind would be a better compliment to the heavy lentils, especially on a fairly warm day. The chutney itself was very pleasing, but perhaps it would work better with a less rich accompaniment.
Again I apologize for being so distracted of late... Since Hiromi left, I've been rather unmotivated to write anything. I have barely been keeping up reading blogs I'm subscribed to in Bloglines. I've just been working, cooking, eating, sleeping.
Well, that's not entirely true. I've gone out to eat a little bit, too, though generally fairly lowbrow or even actively disappointing stuff. I'm still arranging weekly Japanese-speaking meetups and spending a little time with friends. I haven't become a complete recluse, but I've just appreciated staying semi-hidden for a while.
It turns out that our plans for a family wedding in Japan became a bit complicated due to my mother's health. We've decided to postpone that ceremony until my mother thinks she can travel... the whole point of having the ceremony in Japan was to have our parents there. If things work out, we've considered having our family ceremony in the winter, but we're more likely to wait until spring, or perhaps arrange the ceremony as a renewal of vows around this time next year.
We had a bunch of documents to assemble in order to apply for Hiromi's visa and permanent resident status. Under current regulations, these documents get filed in a rather curious order: first, a petition for permanent resident status for an immediate relative. Then, when the receipt of this petition is acknowledged, I file a petition for permanent resident status for a fiance (precisely the same immediate relative. Finally, Hiromi makes an application for a non-immigrant spouse visa at the consulate. Then she can come to the US. So we get married, then engaged to marry, and then we get to see each other finally. Then we pay a large fee for an "adjustment of status" when her permanent resident status is finalized.
Had we been a little more prepared, we could have made sure these documents were ready before Hiromi left. Of course, her original purpose for this trip was not at all to get married, but to go to a dance workshop in California and spend few leisurely days with me before going back to Japan. So we only had a small subset of the stack of papers we needed ready to go, and of course, we had plenty of small complications getting the rest of them together.
On Thursday, my attorney sent off the paperwork for the first form, the I-130. It turns out that it's been taking much longer than usual just to acknowledge the receipt of this document. Currently, it's around 3 weeks, from what I can tell.
I'm glad we engaged the services of an attorney to help with the process. Although I've filled out almost all of the forms myself first, the paralegal involved on our case caught numerous small issues that could have complicated the application process, resulting in additional delays.
We were somewhat optimistic in thinking that it should take 3 or 4 months for the visa to be approved. It looks like that's only true for the initial petition itself under optimal conditions. Thanks to a surge of applications this summer related to some fee increases, processing is running far behind schedule, from what I understand. Beyond that, it may take a fair amount of time to get an appointment at the embassy in Japan.
Although we've been in a long-distance relationship for most of the last 4 years, it's even more frustrating to have so much of a wait ahead of us now that we've officially committed to spend our lives together. Most of the ugly paperwork stuff to get Hiromi here is done; now we just have a lot of waiting, and a number of large checks to write.
We've been entertaining the idea of meeting in Vancouver, BC, or somewhere similar for a week or so around the holidays, where I could still conduct my day job remotely without too many complications, and we could have some time together. And I'm still planning to go to Japan for about a week sometime this fall, though it's no longer connected to our wedding ceremony plans.
I promise to get back to food posting shortly, and probably even a few business-related postings... I have a fair backlog of photos to plow through, and I've been taking advantage of the simple cooking that summer ingredients invite, sometimes spending less than 20 minutes to prepare what turn out to be very nice meals.