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.
Sorry for my absence the last couple of weeks. Did you miss me?
I've been a bit distracted.
Certificate of Marriage
Hiromi and I have been quietly planning to marry in September in Japan... most of our friends and family have known about it for a while, though I haven't been shouting it from rooftops...
I guess it's time for that to change.
In the lobby of Seattle Municipal Courthouse
A little over five years ago, I met Hiromi in person for the first time while on business for Microsoft in Japan. We weren't really working together directly on anything at that time, but several people from the MSN Japan team went to lunch at Misato-ya in Chofu with me, and Hiromi may have been the person to suggest that we go to the popular organic vegetable teishoku restaurant whose korokke and unpredictable okazu I still crave. I'm pretty sure I spent all of lunch talking about food, cooking and ceramics, probably exhausting anyone who wasn't interested in my personal obsessions.
On another trip that year, Hiromi wasn't even in the office. She had been surprised by a brain tumor and was unable to work for a while while it was being treated.
Somehow Hiromi remembered me a couple years later when we started working on something together. It's rather embarrassing to admit now, but at first I wasn't entirely sure which Hiromi I was working with. There were two contractors named Hiromi on the team back then.
Anyway, I planned a little vacation to Japan after about a year without any business travel. Hiromi invited me to meet up with her on a trip I made to Japan in 2003. We had dinner together one night, and then went touring around Yokohama on another.
I owe my entire relationship with her to my clumsiness... While we were walking around in Yokohama, I nearly ran into a post in the middle of a shopping center, she grabbed my hand to pull me out of the way, and never let go. The wind and rain that day was furious, and a brief trip outside left us chilly and well-soaked. Our lives would be permanently intertwined that day, though I don't think either one of us really knew it then.
In Chambers with Judge Judith Hightower
I didn't really deserve her... I sent all sorts of mixed messages when we first started dating. I was conflicted about starting up a long distance relationship, as I'm sure she was. It took more than a year of trips back and forth before we removed all the ambiguity. Yet somehow she stuck with me.
Things evolved, and Hiromi decided to come to Seattle to take some classes so that we could get to know each other better. Somehow she didn't become bored of me. I don't know how I managed to keep her interested. I wasn't at my best. I was, as now, juggling a day job and my fledgling internet business, more exhausted than usual, and occasionally a bit depressed that I couldn't devote all my energies to that project. But we stayed together, and it became harder and harder for me to imagine my life without her.
We seriously started thinking about marriage, but neither of us was in great financial shape. She went back to Japan, after a little under a year in Seattle, so that she could start earning some money again. I started saving money while paying down some business debt.
At the time, it seemed like it was best to marry in Japan and arrange for the immigration paperwork there. Perhaps a bit sentimentally, we picked the anniversary of the day that I nearly walked into a pole in Yokohama, which coincidentally turned out to be a taian day this year, an auspicious day for a wedding.
Then immigration policies changed again, and we learned we wouldn't be able to start the process of bring Hiromi back to Seattle until after I would return to Seattle after our September wedding... And at first we were just resigned to a fate of things taking longer.
I had a little conversation with my attorney earlier in July to discuss our plans, and he said it was too bad we didn't just get married when Hiromi was still in town. If we weren't hung up on the date, he said, we might have been able to speed things up by starting the application process a bit earlier. I realized that she'd be in Seattle briefly after attending a dance workshop in California, and we started discussing having a simpler municipal wedding before our bigger family ceremony next month.
Well, that's what we did... perhaps a bit hurried... Hiromi's ring won't even be ready until just before I go to Japan, and we haven't figured out mine yet. The judge kindly provided symbolic rings for the ceremony.
There's still a long way to go before we're really together, but now the end of our long time living apart is finally in view.
Ron Mamiya, the presiding judge of Seattle's Municipal Court, had requested to do our ceremony because he shares Hiromi's family name, but Hiromi's tight schedule meant she'd be gone before he returned from his own vacation. Instead, the Honorable Judith Hightower took care of our ceremony in her chambers. She kindly indulged us taking lots of photos, actively encouraging the two camera-wielding witnesses to move about the room for the best possible angles. She even took a few shots of our group together.
Hiromi's former manager Tsuneo, a couple of layers removed, attended at Hiromi's request as a witness. Our friends Jennifer, Hal and Noriko also attended.
After the ceremony, on the steps of the courthouse
Unfortunately, this was also one of the briefest trips Hiromi's ever made to Seattle, and we didn't really have a lot of time to enjoy each other's company after the wedding. We had a little dinner with Jennifer and we came home early in the evening. We only had one night before I had to take Hiromi to the airport.
This was the most painful trip to the airport I've ever made.
I don't remember us posing for this
Fortunately, I'll be in Japan again in just over a month. There's still a lot of planning to do, and I'm not sure how we'll get everything all done by then, but I'm sure we'll figure things out.
Just before dinner
I was surprised at how much this small ceremony changed the way I look at Hiromi. I was completely inarticulate on our way outside the courthouse afterward, but a thousand thoughts were racing around my head. Even at my worst, most selfish moments, I haven't been able to imagine my life without Hiromi for a long time, but everything became so real to me all at once. I was more than a little overwhelmed... after going to the airport yesterday, I was completely useless for the rest of the day.
Over the weekend Seattle Center hosted its annual spectacle of mediocre food. I almost completely forgot it was set to happen until I spotted a note about it in one of the Seattle weekly papers late in the week.
My left foot is still easily inflamed, so I didn't go, but I'm not sure I would have expended any more effort had circumstances been more favorable.
Perhaps I'm the only one, but Bite of Seattle no longer holds the same appeal to me it once did. Last year, Hiromi and I kept fairly busy attending most of the notable Seattle festivals, from Folklife to the Solstice Parade, from the Pride Parade to Bumbershoot. We even hit the Seattle Cheese Festival, accidentally found ourselves at a Leavenworth, WA parade, and even unexpectedly found ourselves at a hydroplane event on our way to Sol Duc in the Olympic Peninsula.
But I'm fairly sure we skipped what is ostensibly the most food-centric event of the year: The annual Bite of Seattle. Near as I can tell, we stayed home and grilled peaches and made falafel.
It's probably been two or three years since I last attended the Bite. The prospect of braving large crowds of people standing in long lines waiting for almost exactly the same food that appears at ever other summer event in the region no longer holds much appeal for me.
Sure, they have the semi-fancy John Hinterberger/Kathy Casey/Tom Douglas circuit (the featured Seattle food personality changes year-to-year), but I don't think the festival does much to highlight Seattle-area restaurants anymore.
It takes almost $3000 just to rent space for the booth for the weekend, not to mention all of the equipment and staffing costs, so I think most of the interesting restaurants in Seattle have been opting out. It's a shame, because as far as I understand, the event originally had the aim of promoting local restaurants, rather than being a place to get standard greasy fair grub.
When I look at the restaurant list this year, it seems that a fair number of "real" restaurants are on the list, but even most of those are fixtures of the festival event circuit. Aside from those few spots, I think I've seen enough of Biringer Farms semi-frozen hyper-sweet strawberry shortcake, Ziegler's curly fries, Shishkaberrys skewered chocolate dipped fruits and Scotty's seafood sandwiches. It doesn't look like even a handful of the restaurants are the kind of chef-owner-operated places that make eating in Seattle interesting and remarkable.
You can't even get a decent cup of coffee at the event thanks to sponsorship restrictions. In Seattle. Why even bother showing up?
I must be idealizing the event somewhat, because even thinking back to when I first went to Bite of Seattle in 1996 or 1997 or so, I can't think of any remarkable restaurants that I was introduced to via the festival. But I do think it was more exciting for me back then. Have I just become jaded, or did the "Bite" once have more bite?
What else to do?
Fortunately, Seattle is vibrant enough that we have other things going on even during major festivals. Sakenomi bravely opened a small sake retail shop in Pioneer Square, and had their grand opening event all Saturday afternoon. A friend of mine from my Japanese Meetup went with me to chat with the owners and to nibble on champagne grapes and cheese and crackers.
The shop is pleasantly unpretentious, and Johnnie and Taiko are working hard to make sake as accessible as possible. Our brief conversation made it clear just how few degrees of separation there are in Seattle's Japanese community... the store features sake ware from Akiko's Pottery and the staff wears T-shirts designed by Masa of Three Tree Tea.
Considering the location, I'm a bit surprised that they've made the choice to create more of a retail venue than a bar, but the interior is constructed in a way that they can probably evolve in that direction if it turns out to make more sense.
Pioneer Square is a difficult place to operate a retail shop. Even a lot of the galleries have been struggling as Pioneer Square loses its hold on the art buying public. I'm curious if it's possible to make money on a retail project down there that isn't a convenience store.
I wish them well... the space is cute and the environment is much more welcoming and apprachable than the average Asian market sake aisle.
I took home a nice bottle of semi-effervescent sake.
The last few days I've been fairly social, meaning that my kitchen is seeing only minimal use. Except for a Friday night experiment preparing chappati and Indira's green garbanzo and paneer dish with a haphazard, soft, homemade almost-paneer that was more like Ethiopian lab cottage cheese, I've mostly played it safe, seeing as I was heading to parties.
Even my home cooking was rather conservative, including some simple dishes like Roesti for brunch, with a sour cherry shake on Sunday afternoon, an idea stolen from a Matthew Amster-Burton article a month or so ago.
My camera wasn't really handy on the weekend, but since almost everything was a rerun, I'm just going to apologize for recycling some old photos.
Saturday I had to run an errand that made me late for my first party of the weekend, so I thought of two things I can make with about 5 minutes work.
Roasted potatoes just take a little slicing, a little rubbing with olive oil, and a sprinkling with salt, seasoned or otherwise. I could carry all the equipment I needed with me to the party, do the quick preparation, and take over the unoccupied oven for about 25 minutes and out came some magic. The version I actually served involved Volterra/Ritrovo's porcini salt. (Roasted potatoes I last posted about here).
A staple of my summer repertoire, insalata caprese with heirloom tomatoes is always a crowd-pleaser when the tomatoes are at their best. Even though I prepared this before everyone's eyes at the party, people still thought there was some mysterious technique to make the dish taste good... But it was just the buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil that mattered most, along with a sprinkling of salt on the tomato slices and some fresh ground pepper over the whole thing.
Channa gobi masala cups
Channa gobi masala cups, a variation of the channa gobi masala nests I've made before, this time using sheets of filo rather than the shredded kadaifi. For some reason, PFI didn't hae the kadaifi, but the little filo cups are equally appealing. The curry was a simple cauliflower-split chickpea dish with finely chopped vegetables, just like above. The cups were just butter-brushed filo sheets folded so that they would make little cups in my mini-muffin tin. Baked until crispy and golden-brown, they provided a convenient package for party-sized nibbles.
I'd almost call this a rut, but I know better. I don't usually take big risks when heading to someone else's party... Simple, familiar (to the cook, anyway) and temperature-flexible fare is what potlucks are all about. Plus it's an unseasonably warm summer... even I want to get out of the kitchen as quickly as possible.
I can't remember exactly when I first heard of saffron kulfi, but I think it was mentioned in a Bharti Kirchner novel, or perhaps a desi short story collection. The book waxed poetic about the value of slowly simmering saffron and cardamom, which reduces the volume of the milk by about half while thoroughly infusing it with the aromas of the spices. This is a time-consuming, hour-long or more process, only possible to achieve on fairly moderate heat with plenty of patience.
It seems unlikely that you could accomplish the same level of flavor by pulling out a can of condensed milk and stirring the ingredients together, no matter how long you wait for the cold ingredients to meld together. The extra labor is totally justified by the results.
That being said, I'm fairly lazy, as obsessive cooks go... I delight in simplicity. The unusual level of labor means I haven't made this for about 5 years, when it was unceremoniously and completely devoured, along with some sort of sorbet, in less than 15 minutes at a dinner party I hosted. This time I served it to a much smaller crowd, so that I could guarantee I'd have more than a spoonful to taste for myself. I'm jealously guarding what remains.
Kulfi is not truly an ice cream, but simply a frozen dessert made in molds or even ice cube trays. It's rather unlikely to be churned, so the result will typically be quite firm and popsicle-like. However, thanks to my Cuisinart ice cream maker and a generous hand with cream, it develops a remarkably smooth, soft texture, and can fairly be called an ice cream.
Kesar Kulfi with Salted Pistachio
8 cups milk
1 cups cream
A generous pinch of saffron, about 8-12 strands
1 tsp. ground cardamom (best if freshly ground)
1 cup sugar
A few tablespoons shelled pistachio nuts, coarsely ground with a pinch of salt and a heavier pinch of sugar
Additional pistachio for garnish, if desired
Bring the milk, saffron and cardamom to a gentle simmer. Stir regularly as the milk simmers until the volume of milk is reduced by half.
Add sugar to dissolve. Add cream, and refrigerate until chilled, generally several hours or overnight.
Pour mixture into an ice cream maker with a 6 cup capacity (if your machine is smaller, the recipe can easily be halved). After 20-25 minutes, stir in most of the seasoned pistachio mixture.
I reserved some of the pistachio mixture for a nifty silicone mold I generally leave, neglected, stowed above my kitchen cupboards. I simply sprinkled the pistachios into the bottom of the mold before pouring in the ice cream mixture. Freeze the molds overnight. Unmold and serve, perhaps with some additional broken pistachios.
If you don't have such a mold, sprinkle the pistachio over scoops of ice cream after it's hardened in the freezer overnight.
In place of pistachios, almonds work quite well.
This kind of kulfi is ordinarily poured straight into a mold and frozen, rather than using the intermediary step of an ice cream maker, but the ice cream maker results in a smoother, softer texture. The extra cream, generally not used in Indian recipes, makes the ice cream extraordinarily rich and indulgent.
Although it's also not typical in Indian recipes for kulfi, the small hint of salt in the pistachio helps bring out all the other flavors in the ice cream. Like the great salted peanut butter ice cream at Seattle's Veil, one of the most remarkable items I've sampled there, it may evoke some strong reactions: At Veil, people either love it or hate it. I don't use as much salt as Veil does in my pistachio blend, so nobody who has tried my version was terribly shocked, but getting the balance might be tricky. Start with just a little pinch.
Seattle doesn't really believe in air conditioning.
It's not that it doesn't exist; we only use it as a way of guaranteeing productivity, at offices and schools, or for keeping people restless and uncomfortable so that they'll make their purchases and efficiently move on to some other errand, like in supermarkets and department stores.
So the few times each year when we really would benefit from air conditioning at home, we simply don't have that option, so we tend to go out and drink mediocre syrupy iced cocktails at one of the three restaurants in town that has a deck. Today it was too hot for outdoor dining to be remotely comfortable, at least before 9pm or so.
During that time, I suppose we just sit at home and bake.
No, not like this. Turning on the oven in weather like today's is a truly awful idea. It merely contributes to the dreaded Seattle Warming. Our fragile Seattleite bodies are not able to handle 65°F high temperatures one day and 98°F highs three days later. This is why we have so many activists and scientists working on reversing global climate change.
So it's really a good thing that I made and served this bread over a week ago. It's been a little hot to do any serious blogging, much less baking... I'm sure you've seen a slightly lower productivity among Seattle bloggers in the last week or so, except from those who blog from air conditioned coffee shops.
Aside from a slightly disastrous transfer onto the baking stone (the focaccia was a little too long), and a slightly too crispy texture thanks to a minute or two of overbaking, this was a nice little bread. It was perfect with good butter, as well as with olive oil.
It's an ordinary focaccia dough, except for one distinct feature: It's made with one-third chestnut flour. This gives the bread a surprisingly rich character, and a long fermentation time added a deep complexity. The aroma of chestnut pervades the bread, although the end result is nothing like your average roasted chestnut or mont blanc pastry.
I brushed the dough with olive oil and topped it with a little chopped flat-leaf parsley.
On a day like today, I might be satisfied with little more than some bread and cheese. Or, as Hiromi and I did on a hot day last summer, perhaps it would be nice to serve some sakuranbo sōmen in a bowl of ice water with a cold dipping sauce.
Instead, though, I went out for a cold cocktail and some watermelon carpaccio and panzanella style salad at Oliver's Twist, under the mistaken impression that they might have functioning air conditioning.
Apparently some Seattle restaurants don't believe in air conditioning, either.
But the icy drink, constantly refilled ice water, and cool salads helped... followed by another cold nibble or two at Gaspare outside as the sun started retreating for the night. Gaspare didn't invest in air conditioning either, so in today's sweltering heat, nobody sat down indoors... it would have been too dangerous.
Tabbouleh. Perhaps unfairly, I somehow associate it with college, wannabe hippies, and 70s-style vegetarianism. Not that there's anything wrong with any of that.
But this marginalization in my mind means tabbouleh (tabouleh, tabouli, take your pick... Arabic is flexible about the rendering of vowels) somehow never seems to find itself on my radar when I plan dinner for a crowd. It just seems so hopelessly quaint and dated, like lentil loaves and cheese-laden casseroles.
That's a shame, of course, because tabbouleh is actually quite wonderful. In fact, it's really hard to get wrong, assuming you start with decent ingredients and make the mint and parsley, rather than the bulgur, the focus.
The most important ingredients, of course, are fresh mint, fresh parsley, bulgur wheat, lemon juice, tomatoes and olive oil. It's seasoned with salt and pepper, and generally includes an aromatic like onion, shallot or scallions.
Only two things can ruin this dish: too much bulgur, or attempting to substitute dried herbs. Even sad supermarket tomatoes won't be a tragedy if chopped finely enough, but excellent tomatoes can be featured more prominently.
The dish is probably prettier, and easier to eat, if served on a bed of romaine lettuce leaves. But even a minimalist version is a beautiful way to put some summer in your meal.
It's far better with flat leaf parsley, but you can get away with the stuff that used to be used solely as a pointless garnish at your local diner.
You can play with a hint of additional seasoning such as cinnamon, sumac, allspice, or pomegranate molasses, but if your ingredients start out fantastically fresh, you can get away with just the fundamentals.
After a run of Japanese food, I started craving pastas and breads again. Somehow an urge to do something with mustard greens kicked in. A weekend trip to the supermarket with no particular time pressure put me in a playful mood.
I thought about the Nagano specialty oyaki I sometimes make with mustard greens.
I tried making some beggar's purses on a whim, but realized the wrappers I rolled out were a little too thick. So for the next batch, I chose to make thinner, ravioli-like dumplings.
When I go through the trouble of making stuffed pasta at home, the last thing on my mind is recreating something that I could easily acquire at a supermarket or local Italian specialty shop. So I either go the route of using much better quality ingredients than I'd ever find in the fillings made by one of those fresh pasta making companies, or take the opportunity to play with combinations that I'd be unlikely to find anywhere else.
This was an occasion for the latter.
For the filling, I rub some washed mustard greens with coarse salt and let them sit for five or then minutes, then I come back to rinse them and squeeze out excess moisture. They shrink nicely, and I add some soft manouri cheese, a tangy sheep's milk cream cheese from Greece. I grate a little nutmeg in, then work an egg yolk into the mixture, along with a spoonful of bread crumbs. I might have added a little black pepper.
Soft ravioli filled with mustard greens and manouri cheese
I chose to make these with regular wheat, rather than hard semolina flour. Durum wheat pasta, or semolina pasta, is more common in the US, thanks in part to the strong southern Italian influence in Italian-American cuisine, not to mention its advantages to pasta manufacturers. But much of northern Italy actually prefers pasta made with ordinary wheat, and both Chinese and Eastern European cooking is full of noodles made with soft or hard all-purpose flour.
Unlike those with the luxury of an extravagant, beautiful exhibition-like kitchen, I have no room for a pasta maker in my home. I'm not really sure I even have room for the things already spilling out of my tiny cupboards. So I relied entirely on manual labor.
I start with a hand-kneaded pasta dough made from flour, egg yolks, a hint of freshly grated nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. The dough rests for an hour or so.
Then I divide the dough into manageable chunks that I can roll out on my limited counter-space, dusting with flour as needed to keep things from getting too sticky. I flip the dough a few times and do whatever I can to achieve a fairly even thickness.
A cookie-cutter comes to the rescue when I want to cut out round pasta shapes. Or rather, it would have, were I able to remember where my one round cookie cutter was stashed. The urgent need for improvisation leads me to a suitably-sized plastic lid from a spice jar, which has just enough sharpness to do the trick.
I top one half of the pasta circles with a small amount of filling, rub each outer edge with some water, and seal the ravioli shut with one of the unused circles.
During the summer I often want lighter sauces than I typically rely on during colder weather. So rather than some heavy cream sauce, or even a big marinara sauce that might compete with the flavor of the filling, I played with a sauce constructed upon an inexpensive, moderately dry Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewurztraminer.
I simmer the wine with a little porcini-kombu soup stock for several minutes, then added some butter and salt. Initially, the flavor is a bit acidic, but the butter goes a long way to mellow out the wine. As the pasta boils, I toss some shimeji mushrooms into the wine sauce.
When the pasta looks ready to go, I strain the ravioli and let them simmer briefly in the sauce.
You may want to add a little shaved parmesan or black pepper. Since dinner had other sources of cheese, I kept it simple.
The sauce is lively with slightly herbal notes, and just rich enough to cut the acidity of the wine without weighing it down.
The Gewurztraminer has enough complexity to mitigate the need for aromatics like garlic or onions, especially with those intense mustard greens. I also had an audience that appreciates light, sappari flavors and I was serving a few other dishes to provide a balance of intense and light flavors.
However, if you wanted this to be the main focal point a meal you might work in some caramelized shallots, either finely minced and worked into the sauce, or simply sliced and presented as a final touch to top the pasta.
Although sautéed and stir-fried dishes do not figure prominently in Japanese cuisine, simple dishes in that category will appear on the tables of most Japanese homes.
The scale, however, is much more diminutive than most Chinese, and certainly most Americans, would expect.
Historically, oil was fairly expensive in Japan, and a typical farming family might have gotten away with a single modestly-sized bottle of vegetable oil over the course of an entire year, even in the era of cast-iron pots. A tiny bottle of toasted sesame oil, mostly used a few drops at a time, might provide a flavor boost to otherwise simple dishes.
Itamemono, or pan-sautéed dishes, generally have a fairly subtle flavor. Even soy sauce is used with a very light hand. Dishes do not acquire the "red" color of Chinese-style stir-fried dishes.
This type of dish is best with a short list of ingredients, prepared in small batches; I don't think I made this with much more than 1 to 1 1/2 cups of raw ingredients, and it was enough for two or three Japanese servings along with other dishes. My tiniest omelet pan did the trick. For a group of four or five people, you could get away with making a larger quantity in a 10" skillet.
I used some snow peas (sayaendō), carrots prepared with a simple rolling cut, and onions. I dunked some abura-age (tofu puffs, perhaps) in very hot water and squeezed the water out to prepare it for the pan. This helps the aburaage more readily absorb salt and seasonings, and coincidentally slightly reduces the oil content.
This kind of sauté is done with very little oil at a fairly high temperature. I add a small pinch of salt every time I put a new ingredient in the pan, then finish with some soy sauce, sake, and mirin.
Japan doesn't have the French convention of caramelizing onions, but if you bring the onions just past translucent they'll add a great aroma and natural complexity to the flavor of the dish. Add the carrots, cook for a minute or two longer, then add the snow peas and aburaage. Once these are a bit shiny, add a small splash of soy sauce, a good tablespoon of sake, and maybe even a little dashijiru, then perhaps one or two drops sesame oil. In some cases you may want to add a touch of sugar or mirin, but I think the onions and carrots are naturally sweet enough that additional sugar is usually unnecessary to achieve an ama-karai (sweet-salty) taste.
Simmer briefly, taste, adjust seasonings if needed, and serve in small bowls.
Another home-style dish with a Japanese approach to non-Japanese ingredients, this nopal dish, made with a couple of eggs, dashi, soy sauce and mirin, is really basic, but it's a great little side dish for two or three people.
Saboten no tamago toji
The eggs are set firmly enough that this probably doesn't seem much different than scrambled eggs, tamago toji tends to be a little bit more on the liquidy side, but I think mine is soft enough to qualify. Sometimes tamago toji refers to eggs poured into soup, over udon or similar noodles.
This is made with blanched and then briefly sauteed prickly pear cactus paddles. Shaped like a leaf, nopales have sharp, thorn-like spines need to be assiduously pared away with a knife before they are suitable for consumption.
Once I've prepared the nopales, I briefly blanch them in salted water to brings out the slightly tart flavor and okra-like texture of the nopales.
The nopales need only a short cooking time, but they're slightly time-consuming to trim. Even with the extra prep work, I think this would become popular in Japan if the vegetable were more widely available. The flavor and texture are quite compatible with Japanese cuisine, which is full of nebaneba (mucilaginous) foods.
Broccoli isn't particularly common in the Japanese kitchen, but it's gradually become somewhat popular in home cooking. To be honest, I can't think of many times I've actually eaten it when I've traveled to Japan, but I've certainly seen it at supermarkets and department stores.
The few broccoli dishes I've seen in American Japanese restaurants seem oddly unbalanced, overcooked, and out-of-place.
However, the ingredient can be very suitable for aemono or ohitashi. I might even be swayed to blanch it, mince it finely and use it in tamago-yaki.
Broccoli no toufu ae
This side dish, slightly strongly seasoned even for aemono, is made with a blend of soft tofu, toasted, crushed white sesame seeds, sugar, salt, and the tiniest splash of soy sauce.
The broccoli, blanched for about 90 seconds, yields, but still has bite. Once mixed with the ae components, it acquires a savory, juicy character. The flavors play very nicely together.
For a little color and slightly capricious flavor highlight, I also added a little sprinkling of yuzu-shichimi once the aemono was on the plate. Because I used only a tiny touch of this, each bite holds the potential of a little surprise, but the heat from the shichimi doesn't overwhelm the dish.
One of my favorite Japanese dishes, ever since I first started exploring Japanese cooking, was nasu no miso ni, a simple eggplant dish with miso. As I've mentioned before, there are probably as many variations on that dish as there are mothers in Japan.
This is one of mine. Pan-grilled deep-purple mini eggplant, cooked with a little tea seed oil, somehow became magically bright purple after a couple of minutes of heat
Normally I'd just add mirin, sugar, a bit of dashijiru and miso, but this time I also added a bit of mustard and a splash of vinegar. As the dish simmers, the sauce thickens up and some of it is absorbed by the eggplant.
I'd call this variation nasu no karashi miso ni.
I liked this style... It is a bit like serving konnyaku or tofu with sumiso (also a mustard and vinegar seasoned miso), except warm. It's a surprisingly delightful way to bring the flavor out of the eggplant.
Like most versions of nasu no miso ni, it looks best on right after cooking, but the leftovers taste even better after they've rested for a night or so in the refrigerator.
Although I tend to respect the traditions of the cuisines I borrow from, I'm not above mixing cuisines from time to time. I just don't tend to like the excesses of self-conscious fusion cuisine, often created by people who know next to nothing about the food or aesthetics of the countries from which they are borrowing.
I'm no genius in that regard... Although I'm reasonably well-traveled, I tend to rely on classic flavor pairings and a consciousness of the nature and function of my ingredients. While I might do some unconventional things, I don't really do fusion for the sake of shock or drama. Mostly I'm just adapting available ingredients to my situation (dinner tonight), which is pretty much how Italians figured out how to use the tomato or Koreans figured out how to make use of the chili.
Fortunately, Japanese and Korean ingredients and techniques can often be combined in simple ways without creating a culinary fiasco. It's not surprising to find some form of kimchi on a Japanese dinner table, for example.
I had some nagaimo, a starchy tuber, also called ma in Korean. Although I'm quite happy just to serve nagaimo with a little nori and soy sauce, I thought it might be nice to make use of the artisan gochujang I picked up in Korea recently. This is a fermented sauce made with Korean chilies, rice, salt, and soybeans. It's a really great way to season any number of otherwise simple vegetable dishes.
Nagaimo is very sticky, or nebaneba, and the glutinous rice in gochujang also has a kind of sticky quality. I thought it would contribute some natural glutamates (umami) and a modest heat to the nagaimo, so I simply stirred it together with the nagaimo until the sticks were relatively evenly coated. As the nagaimo is stirred, its nebaneba qualities become increasingly apparent: small strands of starch stretch into longer strands.
Because of this, it's better to serve the nagaimo in a small bowl rather than on a plate. As you eat it, the strands tend to want to stay where they started, and you might find a bit of a trail if you try to pick them up... the edge of the bowl will help head that off, and an individual serving in a little bowl that you can pick up will help minimize any embarrassment that might be caused by spreading your food around the table.
I added a little scallion and toasted sesame seed to provide some simple flavor contrast.
After over four weeks of relative physical inactivity, I haven't been feeling particularly healthy, and I'm starting to feel like what little weight I lost on my vacation to Japan and Korea has come back. I thought it would be a good idea to eat a little less oily food for a while, so I went to buy some oborodoufu at a local tofu manufacturer. Of course I went home with that, but then I saw a beautiful block of deep-fried tofu, and couldn't help but take it home. (Is that weird? I go out and I pick up pretty... groceries. I am not a normal guy).
Of course, that might well have undermined my intention to reduce the fat in my diet this week, but big atsuage aren't all that bad... since they're fairly large, most of the oil is in the outer layer, and there's not nearly as much surface area on a large block of tofu as, say, the smaller cubes more likely for agedashi-doufu.
Contrary to popular belief, tofu doesn't really absorb flavors very much; unless it's freeze-dried or frozen, it's just not that porous, which is why it's important to get very fresh tofu. You really want the tofu to taste good on its own. However, fried tofu does have little nooks and crannies on the surface that make it easier for flavors to attach to the tofu.
Even so, Japanese cuisine is more about tasting the ingredients, not covering them up. Accordingly, this dish really highlights the tofu and the fresh ingredients it's made with.
This dish is pretty simple, but it looks elegant and has some nice fresh ingredients. It just requires a little attention to detail.
I slice the tofu block in half, make a hidden incision parallel to the white tofu near the bottom of the block, and cut a rectangle in the interior. It's important to have a fairly substantial border of flesh to keep the block from collapsing... probably in the 3/8-1/2 inch range (1.5cm) I gently work the inner cube out of the block.
I season some dashijiru with mirin, Japanese soy sauce, salt and sugar to nimono strength, neither very salty nor incredibly bland. I cook shimeji (a kind of mushroom) for a few minutes in the seasoned dashi, and I blanch some matchstick-cut carrots and some snow peas. Once those have been shocked with cold water, I give them a little time with the dashi, as well as the tofu itself. The tofu can only handle a few minutes before it wants to disintegrate, so I pull it out with a slotted spoon and stuff it with the seasoned shimeji, the carrots, and some kaiware-daikon, or radish sprouts.
The snow peas are placed in the serving dish, I plate the atsuage, and I pour enough of the seasoned broth into the bowl.
It's just one of several side dishes, and like most Japanese dishes, it's assari, or just lightly seasoned. It's mostly about having very fresh tofu, very fresh vegetables, and good quality mushrooms. It can be assembled before everything else is plated, because this type of dish can be presented lukewarm.
It could be served with a little fresh ginger, but that kind of intensity isn't really necessary for this kind of dish. The kaiware provide just a hint of sharpness that balances out the relatively muted flavors of the dish. The contrast between this and other dishes in the same meal make having really big, bold flavors here unnecessary: my umeboshi, sunomono, an aemono, and a spicy nagaimo dish I served with it provide balance.
Since it looks a bit like a forest in the middle of the tofu, we could call it atsuage no mori, or tofu forest.
After a heavy breakfast and hearty lunch on a very lazy homebound Saturday, I thought it best to keep dinner lighter, so I had a big salad and a little more bread.
What did I have handy? Some Belgian endive, one bulb white and one red. A lime. Some tea seed oil, mustard, honey... That would work as a dressing. A little more of the robiola due latti from my unhealthy pizza fritti last weekend... not the most natural fit for this kind of salad, but at room temperature, it has a luxurious quality that certainly doesn't hurt.
When I was living in Germany many years ago, I was impressed at how big a full-scale German lunch was in contrast to relatively modest, mostly cold dinners. Granted, that's tradition: contemporary practice is all over the map. But many Germans still say they must eat "warm" for lunch and are perfectly content to have a simple evening meal of bread and cheese and sausage.
Sometimes I think it's better to eat that way... though I'm most in the mood to have a complete meal at dinner. I just don't feel comfortable taking two hours off of work to go make a nice lunch at home... in smaller towns in Germany, that was perfectly feasible.
But sometimes I just want to have something comforting and slightly refreshing.
Since I already had a big protein-rich lunch, some greens and cheese were perfectly in order. I didn't really have dinner until an insanely late 9:30 PM, so anything more elaborate would have probably been terribly overwhelming. This was just what I needed.
Last weekend, I made the medically unfortunate mistake of going to the Fremont Solstice Parade last Saturday with a not-quite-healed metatarsal. Even though I was mostly standing, wearing a supportive medical boot, and generally resting on my unbroken right foot, this wasn't so clever. I mostly succeeded in irritating my right knee, exacerbating the dull pain in my left foot into acute agony.
So I decided not to repeat that mistake by being all in-denial and active... I stayed domestic most of the weekend. I didn't even shave until 3pm on Sunday, though I owe that mostly to the fact that I ran out of shaving cream.
As a completely irrelevant aside, don't ever bother to use the shaving cream supplied in a little 5ml packet that comes from the shaving kits in hotels and ryokan in Japan. You only have this at all because you stash it in your luggage in case your tiny sample-size shaving cream suddenly runs out on your trip, and you completely forget about it until returning to the US, when it gets unceremoniously stashed somewhere in your medicine cabinet until, one day, you run out of shaving cream. Then, you discover that it's not really enough cream to do much good, and that, in terms of quality, it's just a slight step up from a moisturizing soap. Second, it smells almost exactly like a Band Aid.
So I was really craving something along the lines of a dinner roll, but I wanted something a bit more protein-dense than the average bread, I also thought it would be nice to have a nice stew, so I made a variation of the channa masala that I previously served with the besan roti.
I wanted just a hint of spice and I wanted something moist and reasonably soft, so I chose to use a little garam masala and some butter and milk in service of that ambiguously dinner-roll like quality that is easier experienced than described.
This is prepared like most yeast doughs: mix dry ingredients together except for the yeast, create a well, add the melted butter and milk with the yeast. Gradually incorporate the flour into the sponge by stirring along the outer edge of the well, until the dough comes together.
Kneaded until smooth but fairly sticky, the dough rises for a couple of hours before I divide it into into 12 rolls. I let the rolls have a second proof while the oven preheats to 425F on a cookie sheet, then I bake them until golden-brown, about 15 minutes. I test for doneness by tapping on the bottom of one of the rolls, making sure it sounds hollow.
They need to cool down and rest a few minutes, but can be served warm with butter and a nice stew or curry.
The outer exterior is still crisp, but the interior is moist and aromatic with hints of cumin, coriander, cloves and cinnamon. With a little bit of butter they're just rich enough to be eaten on their own, but they're also a perfect foil for a stew or daal.
Baby carrots, as we know them, are a clever innovation of industrial agriculture: Carefully milled down into unnaturally smooth specimens from big torpedo carrots, baby carrots might as well be kokeshi dolls.
So I wasn't sure what to think when I spotted some miniature zucchini at the supermarket last week.
Baby zucchini could be some sort of bizarre genetically manipulated factory agriculture monstrosity, for all I know. Since I found them at Whole Foods, though, I made the assumption that they are at least arguably natural, even if they did come in a sealed plastic bag. Every time I've seen home-gardened zucchini, though, they've been unnaturally large... I'm not sure what kinds of tricks make them stay small.
I took the zucchini home, not quite sure what I had in mind, but when I got home, I just wanted a simple side dish to accompany a couple of other things.
This dish required the least bit of attention, but it was the star of the show. It's made with some sauteed onions splashed with vermouth, and maybe a little garlic.
Sliced lengthwise, the zucchini were gently caramelized, flesh-side-down, in a little olive oil. I added the onions, fresh tomatoes, and a little additional tomato paste, the tomato paste would have been unnecessary with good tomatoes, but the fresh ones I had on hand weren't really that aromatic. A little fresh oregano wakes up the rest of the flavors.
I served this with a flavorful but very ugly savory custard. If I hadn't been eating something so rich along with it, I might have added a little shaved parmesan or some nice feta. I wanted something a bit lighter this time. Keeping things simple has its own charms...
These asparagus-like treats, sometimes called garlic sprouts, seem pervasive in the summertime in Seattle farmer's markets.
They apparently come from only a small number of varieties of garlic. I really like them, but I've found them slightly temperamental to cook: they seem to transform from slightly-too-hard to hopelessly mushy in mere seconds.
This time I managed to get the texture just about right.
When I'm giving them a more Japanese treatment, I tend to blanch them before using them, which helps keep the texture firm and the color brilliant.
This time, though, I simply sauteed the garlic stems of the scapes in olive oil with a generous pinch of salt, added some walnut pieces, and, toward the end of their time on the stove, I added the upper bulbs to the pan and poured in some vermouth. The bulbs take less time to cook than the rest of the vegetable, and tend to suffer the most from overcooking, so they should be cooked until just tender enough to enjoy.
I've bought garlic scapes in supermarkets in Japan, where they are called ninniku-me, but they are nearly always sold with the bulb cropped off. I think that's probably because the visual appeal has a longer shelf-life; the tips turn brown much earlier than the rest of the scapes.
Garlic scapes require only minimal seasoning: they are both an aromatic and a vegetable in one. If you take advantage of that attribute, you can have an excellent side dish on the table in just about three minutes...
One of the best things about the Seattle is the remarkably quirky character of its neighborhoods... Fremont is perhaps the quirkiest of all of them, and happens to be home for me. I'm increasingly partial to Ballard, but Fremont is the historic heart of Seattle's expressive streak.
The Fremont Solstice Parade is probably the only event in the entire country where political statements, ambiguously nature-worshipping themes, unashamedly contemporary art, well-decorated public nudity, unstructured individual expression, and family entertainment come together all in one place, while remaining mostly devoid of overbearing corporate sponsorship messaging.
If you ever find yourself in Seattle during the summer, you really owe it to yourself to come to the parade. There's nothing quite like it.
Inspired by a post from FXCuisine.com, I thought it would be fun to try making something approximating Napoli-style pizza fritta at home. It turns out to be delightfully simple, though, like most deep-fried foods, the logistics of making it at home are slightly awkward.
I usually reserve deep-frying for parties, since I don't really like committing to filling up my deep fryer unless a lot of people are going to enjoy the results. However, I also tend to stick to familiar, safe things when deep frying for a crowd... With a large group, I just don't want a fiasco.
Trying something completely unfamiliar creates a small dilemma... commit to using lots of oil, or risk a culinary disaster in front of a bunch of hungry friends and acquaintances.
Fortunately, the fryer I bought last year has a surprisingly decent filter, so I can reuse the oil a few times before it starts to take on any unpleasant flavors. This gives me a little more freedom to experiment, without leaving me with the un-frugal feeling that I'm wasting perfectly good cooking oil. On the other hand, it still means I'm consuming a high dose of fat all at once, which certainly can't be healthy.
Well, I can only live once. I got over the health thing... at least as far as this weekend is concerned.
Pizza fritta with onions
I made this twice, but I couldn't imagine eating more than one of these in a single day, especially after eating really heavily during the Fremont Fair on Saturday. The first version was made with little more than onions and cheese. I used a medium-firm cheese and coarsely chopped onions. I didn't want to have very wet ingredients in the pizza on the first attempt, since an explosion could get ugly.
The dough, a fairly moist yeast dough, needs to be rolled out into two thin, fairly identically-sized circles. I dust the dough and the counter with a fair amount of flour, and carefully put the filling atop one of the discs, leaving enough room on the outer edge to seal the dough shut. I slightly moisten the outer edge, place the second disc on top, and try to massage the edges together to form a good seal.
One critical detail that I overlooked: I didn't measure the diameter that my fryer could accommodate. I certainly had the presence of mind to realize I couldn't do the big 13" crusts I usually bake in the oven, but even with an eyeball approximation, my first attempt was still just a little too big for my equipment, so the edges folded over a bit.
Robiola due latti
My second variation, a more precise 6" pizza, featured robiola due latti, a very soft cheese made from a blend of sheep's and cow's milk cheese. This cheese is reminiscent of reblochon cheese... soft, creamy, and grassy, it was moderately ripe and had a slight pungency. I added finely chopped tomatoes, basil and garlic. I was a little more brave with the moisture content of the filling this time, since I knew I could do a reasonable job sealing even a fairly thin dough. This second version tasted much more interesting, thanks to the tomatoes, but the steam pressure was much higher, so the dough puffed up very dramatically. I was nervous that the dough might explode if there were any weak spots.
A heavier tomato sauce would probably reduce the water content a bit, and slightly reduce the steam pressure. But I really enjoyed this with fresh tomatoes, even though these are still early, not very flavorful hothouse tomatoes.
After frying I let the oil drain off the pizza and let it rest for a minute before cutting into quarters. The cheese would love to ooze out all over the place, so the short rest actually makes the pizza easier to serve intact.
Serve hot, but eat carefully... the cheese could give the heat of a volcano some competition.
Stuffed chilies, or chile relleno, are one of my favorite things in the world. They're typically cheese-laden and deep-fried in an egg meringue, and often drenched with a heavy sauce. All that fat is certainly part of the charm, but even a small serving is a serious caloric commitment.
It's not that I want to completely avoid the cheese, or even the pleasure of a creamy, spicy sauce. Sometimes I just want a less over-the-top indulgence.
So how does one apply a bit of restraint to a classic dish like chile relleno?
Chile Relleno reinterpreted
I originally thought I'd stuff these chilies with rice and cheese, but a slight change in plans required me to make a last-minute adjustment. I took advantage of some much faster-cooking couscous, which I splashed with some lime juice, tossed with some chopped mint and a little tomato puree, and mixed in a little soft chevre and a few pine nuts.
The chilies I flame-roasted until the skins turned black, and let them steam in a closed container to make the skin easier to peel. Finally, I carefully cut out the stem and seed the pepper. If I were frying these, I'd probably cut the chilies lengthwise and fold the walls so that they overlap, but in this case, I figured it would work better to fill the chilies from the top. They can be stuffed a little more aggressively than if I had to worry about things falling out in the fryer.
Once stuffed, I stuck the chilies in the oven to warm up for 10 or 15 minutes. While they were in the oven, I wanted to throw together a simple sauce that would provide some complexity and richness.
Since I was using a fairly mild chili, a pasilla, I wanted to bring up the heat a little bit, so I thought I'd do that with the help of the sauce. I soaked some dried chipotle, the slightly smoky, medium-spicy Mexican chilies, in hot water to soften up. When they were reasonably hydrated, I put them in a blender with some cream, a couple of sun-dried tomatoes, and a little garlic.
The sauce then just needs to be brought to a boil and simmered for a minute or two to thicken up.
Certainly not a low-fat creation, this variation just scales back the over-the-top excesses of the typical relleno, but it's creamy and flavorful and exciting.
There was one slight problem, however.
A little porcini
I had one last porcini mushroom left from my weekend shopping at the Pike Place Market, and I really needed to use it before it could get too dry. So I grilled it up and served the slices with the relleno... It certainly looks tasty, and it was, but it's a bit unfair to the porcini: The otherwise remarkable flavor of these pricy mushrooms was somewhat masked by the intense chipotle flavor of the cream sauce. In retrospect, I might have been better off just eating the porcini as a small plate with a mild salad. I suppose that some kind of spicier creations must be possible with porcini, but I think I'd be happier just having them on their own.