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.
Perhaps I'm just getting older, but I'm finding that I'm often happier eating starters than I am having a big main dish... Sometimes I don't even get to the main dish. Tonight was one of those nights. I had enough energy to do a little preparation of a few simple things, but nothing required more than three or four ingredients.
Salted roasted ginko nuts
These ginnan, or ginko nuts, were simply soaked in water for a few minutes, doused in salt, and roasted until tender. It's probably better to gently crack these before cooking them, because they'll be easier to peel at the table. Since these were all for me, I cracked and peeled all of them at the table.
The flesh varies from yellow to greenish. As with peanuts, there's an intermediate brownish skin inside the hard outer shell. You'll generally want to discard that thinner skin, as it adds nothing to the flavor and may be unpleasantly bitter com.
Salted, roasted ginnan are one of those snacks that I can't resist ordering when I spot them on a menu in Japan. There's really not much to making them. But the gently yielding texture, the mild bitterness and the touch of salt makes them a remarkable accompaniment to dry beer, sake, or shochu. (I'll have to take the beer thing on faith... I'm more of a sake and shochu guy myself).
I wasn't having anything to drink with dinner tonight, but I'm still a sucker for this salty snack. They also happen to have a fairly plentiful protein content, without the heavy fat burden that most nuts have.
Roasted Tomatoes Stuffed with Cheese and Basil
Small tomatoes, slightly larger than cherry tomatoes, with some Seastack cheese and basil. Any cheese would do, but that was the creamiest cheese I had handy. Roasted for just a bit over 6 minutes at 425°F, the cheese just begins to melt and the tomatoes become a bit sweeter as the roasting process claims some of their water.
The tomatoes are served atop some curly endive. I would normally be inclined to dress the endive with a vinaigrette. Thanks to my urge to keep things simple, and because I already had a nice creamy cheese in the tomatoes to go with the greens, I just mixed them with a little citrus juice and a tiny sprinkling of salt, making something closer to an ancient Roman salad.
I baked these potato wedges with a couple of cloves of garlic and a knob of butter. They've been seasoned with a chili-cumin salt blend, and the garlic cloves gently roast in the butter, adding a subtle hint of garlic flavor without becoming overwhelming.
Grilled porcini with balsamic vinegar
I've taken some thick slices of porcini and pan-seared them in a little olive oil, sprinkled with salt. They're finished with a simple splash of cheap sake and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, which thickens up and coats the mushrooms beautifully. The slightly pine-like aroma still comes through, allowing the sauce to provide just enough complexity to wake up the natural flavors of the porcini.
I thought I might want some pasta or something to fill me up, but I was happy with just the addition of roasted spears of garlic shoots sprinkled with red pepper flakes and parmesan. Perhaps my breakfast and lunch were a bit too heavy today?
Though I've made some cake doughnuts from time to time, and I've made decent cake-based anko donuts, I really haven't spent much time trying to perfect the yeasted donut.
I'm not sure my waistline could handle me getting it right.
Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure my waistline couldn't even handle the number of trials required to approach getting it right.
Peach glazed donuts, not ready for prime time
After being sold on some great peaches at the Pike Place Market (not local, but very flavorful), I had an impulse to make something pastry-like. I thought I might be able to make a passable peach glaze.
A little lemon juice, a good peach, and a heavy hand with powdered sugar, and a little amaretto liqueur cooked into a glaze: It seemed like a good idea at the time. The flavor was nice, but it turned out not to make a very good glaze, most likely due to the excessive moisture in the peaches. The texture was very filling-like, or, if used as a glaze, more suitable for something like a Danish or Brioche-based pastry. Had I the foresight to make Berliner instead of donuts with holes, this might have been the perfect use of some good peaches.
My urge to be as natural as possible while minimizing the sugar content turned out to fight me with the donuts, as well. I relied on a German recipe for yeasted doughnuts that I've eyed for years in the back of a cookbook I bought ages ago, thinking that it would be far more likely to get the sugar balance close to my preference than most of the American recipes I've seen.
Donuts with cinnamon sugar and powdered sugar
I was right on that count, but the texture left something to be desired. The dough was a bit tough and excessively chewy. Even early on, working the dough was a bit of a fight. I should have followed my instinct and habit: normally, I don't precisely follow yeasted dough recipes, because the weather, the temperature of the water and other ingredients affect the moisture content. I always work in the flour until I get the texture I want, then add no more flour, even if the ratios don't quite match my usual recipe.
Next time around, I'm going to wing the dough recipe a bit, and probably create a much moister dough, kneaded a lot more gently. I still want to keep the sugar content low, but I might add another two or three teaspoons to see if it helps the texture. I also think I'm going to need to do a bit more research on glazes.
I've gotten busy the last couple of weeks... I was so tired after my day job on Wednesday that I ended up eating out with a friend downtown just to make my late return home a little more relaxing. Thursday I had my usual Japanese Meetup, and since this week is one of the three weeks of the Seattle International Film Festival, a few of us went to watch a Japanese film afterward.
This week I also learned that what I thought was just a severe foot sprain caused by my own clumsiness a few weeks ago also decidedly involved a couple of small fractures in my foot. That means that I'll be wearing a clunky medical support boot for another few weeks. The initial X-ray a couple weeks back was inconclusive, but it was so obvious even I could see it on the follow-up. Thanks to that, and thanks to some ambiguity on another one of my left foot's bones, I also had a CAT scan on Thursday, and I'll hear back sometime Monday if it's anything more severe or if I can just continue relying on the ugly boot.
Friday night I got home late, too, and tried to keep dinner simple. I wasn't in the mood for complications today, either; I did go to another Japanese film this morning, this time on my own. I was feeling a bit under the weather after doing some vegetable shopping at the Pike Place Market, so I just made a simple pasta dish, along with a side dish of baked egg with porcini mushrooms and vegetables.
One of my go-to pasta dishes when I'm being lazy is whatever pasta is on hand served with a simple tomato-basil cream sauce. It's completely unhealthy, but it's always satisfying: Butter, cream, garlic, concentrated tomato puree, parmesan, and a little salt make a nice sauce, especially when the final dish is served topped with chiffonade of basil and a little pepper.
Since such simple dishes only require a few minutes of attention, I didn't need to struggle much to get dinner on the table.
I'm keeping a low profile tonight... I hope to catch up on some long neglected things on my task list tomorrow.
Umeboshi (pickled Japanese apricots*) are an acquired taste, perhaps, but I grew to love them early on in my encounters with Japanese food.
They are the olives of Japanese cuisine.
They range from very salty and sour, to slightly sweet and sour. Some are tiny and some are huge.
I'm very fond of the flavor of sweeter, generally medium-sized varieties, but one look at the ingredient list of most hachimitsu umeboshi (honey umeboshi) or usu-jio (lightly salted) varieties makes my head spin. I appreciate receiving the better-tasting of those additive-heavy variants as gifts, because I can enjoy them as a gesture of kindness, but when my pocketbook is involved, I prefer to buy all-natural umeboshi with short ingredient lists.
Ume (Japanese apricots*) themselves are greenish, firm and incredibly tart when fresh. Thanks to the magic of red shiso, they transform into something very red as they cure. If you find very red umeboshi made without shiso, they likely have added food coloring. I usually like to umeboshi that come packed with pickled shiso leaves, because I'm as big a fan of shiso as I am of umeboshi.
Umeboshi larger than life
The beautiful umeboshi featured above is made with very good Wakayama ume, salt, and red shiso, along with some additional shiso just used in the brine. Wakayama is one of the most famous locations for ume, and I recall the ume trees all around Wakayama castle when I visited a friend in the capital city several years ago. Further west, I remember standing under blooming ume trees in Dazaifu, eating a candied strawberry, thinking that ume blossoms surely give cherry blossoms some serious competition.
Since this is an all-natural umeboshi, it's fairly salty... you'll generally want to eat one or two with rice and several nice side dishes. The other dishes can be assari (lightly seasoned), as the intense ume flavor will brighten up the whole meal if you nibble a little bit at a time.
* Ume are not plums. I promise. When you see them fresh, you can clearly see the telltale fuzz. Anzu-zake (apricot liqueur) has much of the flavor of umeshu (usually mistranslated as plum wine) with less acidity.
Long abused by the canned food industry, which has perfected the art of turning perfectly good beets into gelatinous salt licks, beets rarely get the attention they deserve. The best you can hope for, on average, is a nicely done borscht.
While I'm as big a borscht fan as anyone, I can only make it so often... I always end up with too much. I end up eating the borscht for days and days on end.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. But sometimes, I just crave a simple, refreshing dish to accompany the rest of my dinner.
I had some nice golden beets with their fresh greens still attached, so I decided to blanch the greens as a base for the beets themselves. My greens were full of mud and required multiple baths in cold water, but once washed, they require just about 15 seconds in boiling, salted water. The water should be about as salty as the ocean, much like you'd season water for perfect pasta.
Drain and shock the greens with ice water.
The beets themselves can be sliced with a mandoline, or with a knife, if your knife skills are more consistent than mine. I put them on a Silpat mat on a baking sheet and baked the slices until tender, but not mushy, at 350˚F (about 175˚C).Without an oven handy, I might carefully boil the beet slices instead.
Taste the beet greens to make sure they have enough salt for your taste. If you like, you might toss them with a little vinegar to counter the slight bitterness of the leaves; I didn't feel the need for that.
Arrange the blanched leaves on a plate with the cooked beets.
Gently simmer slices of garlic on low heat with way too much olive oil for at least 5 minutes... don't let the garlic brown. Pour the olive oil all over the arrangement. Don't worry about the fact that you are using so much oil; it's mostly used to transfer the garlic flavor onto the greens and the beet slices. Certainly you consume some of that, but much of the oil will simply rest on the bottom of the plate.
I topped this with some soft chevre and a drizzling of real balsamic vinegar, and some freshly ground black pepper. This particular chevre is made from delightfully grassy spring goat's milk, and comes from Port Madison Farm on Bainbridge Island.
Yakinasu (grilled eggplant) is one of those incredibly simple but irresistible dishes... I can't help but order it whenever I see it on an izakaya menu. Sometimes we've even bought it at department stores to take home, as when Hiromi and I ate at her parents' home during my last trip to Japan.
Ideally grilled over Japanese charcoal with a shichirin, yakinasu can also be prepared on an ordinary grill or with a small flame on a gas konro. I used to rely on the broiler feature of my stove, but that requires very careful monitoring to pull off successfully.
You can use either the long, skinny 5-6" nasubi (Japanese eggplant) for this, or the 2-3" roundish ones reminiscent of kyō-nasu (Kyoto eggplant), sometimes called Indian eggplant here in the U.S. The larger European-style eggplants common in the U.S. are probably too big for this.
The one important question to ask when preparing this: Skin on or skin off? I tend to prefer the variations which keep the skin, mostly because it looks more appealing, but you can get a slightly smokier flavor if you're willing to sacrifice it. If you do that, you grill or broil the eggplant on all sides until the skin is more or less blackened, then wrap up the eggplant in aluminum foil, or place it in an airtight container to steam the skin until it becomes easy to remove.
When you remove the skin, you might dress the eggplant with some katsuobushi and soy sauce, or some nerimiso (sweetened miso sauce). Since I'm vegetarian, I make the latter.
For the skin-on version, I typically score the skin on either side, first lengthwise, then about 30 degrees off axis. I've chosen to cut the eggplants in half before grilling, and I rubbed the flesh with a little salt. Each side is grilled gently until the flesh slightly softens. After a few minutes of rest, the eggplant becomes a bit more tender thanks to residual heat, so it's better not to overcook it.
This version is ideal with some freshly-grated ginger, chopped scallions and a little splash of Japanese soy sauce.
Beyond their slightly mustardy flavor, mizuna greens share some of the peppery character of arugula. I had a bit more mizuna with perhaps less than a day left in its usable lifespan, so I thought I really needed to find a way to make good use of it.
I still had some pizza dough retarded in the refrigerator from a few days ago, which can only hang on so much longer...
Pretty odd leftovers
Even better, I also had some buffalo mozzarella, already open, which also has only a little time left, and some aged, intense gouda-like cheese whose name I forget.
Oddly enough, I also had an ear of corn that needed attention.
Americans don't put corn on pizza.
Although the carefully constructed menu of an "American" pizza place near my dormitory in Marburg, Germany, whose signature "American pizzas" almost invariably included either corn or canned mandarin oranges, might make certain people think otherwise, Americans do not put corn on pizza.
I've seen corn on pizza menus in Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea, but Americans do not put corn on pizza. The only time I ever ate corn on pizza was when we had lunch delivered from Domino's Pizza when I was on a business trip to Hong Kong about 7 years ago. Because that lunch involved the dual tragedy of eating mediocre chain pizza inches from hundreds of other culinary treasures, pizza with corn did not make a good first impression.
Never again would I ever have pizza topped with corn, I thought.
And then I made a small exception.
Thursday night I was out at one of Seattle's very few izakaya, and our table had at least two butter-shōyu dishes: one with renkon, or lotus root, and one with lightly sauteed potato shreds only slightly different from a dish previously featured. One we didn't order, for whatever reason, was "corn butter"... so I made up for that tonight.
I scraped all the kernels off my corn cob with a knife and sauteed them in butter, later adding a splash of soy sauce.
Originally I was thinking this would just be a nice little side dish. And then I did something that I'm not, by nature, inclined to do.
I put the corn on the pizza.
The mizuna pesto, like most basil or arugula pestos, featured garlic, olive oil, and pine nuts. It served as an excellent base, though I think it would be even better from mizuna a day or two fresher. I still don't know what possessed me to add the corn, but its salty, buttery goodness was not harmed by its appearance on a crisp foundation of pizza... and the herbal notes from the pesto were surprisingly complementary.
Corn on a sweeter base, such as more conventional tomato sauce, still seems bizarre to me, but I'd do this one again.
Contrary to Tony Bourdain's impression of vegetarian cuisine, salads don't necessarily play a prominent role in an adventurous meatless diet. But occasionally, when presented with some respectably fresh greens and impeccably fresh tofu, I get the urge to eat a little bit raw.
I spotted some fresh kabu (Japanese white turnips) and mizuna (potherb mustard, or so I hear... I just call it mizuna) at the Ballard Farmer's Market on Sunday. I couldn't help but to take some home... both just looked impeccably fresh and hard to resist.
The greens on the kabu (kabuna) can also be eaten raw, so I incorporated some of those into my little salad as well. I sliced and blanched the kabu just long enough to yield a little translucency, without destroying the texture.
I also had some orange bell peppers handy, so they provided a splash of color and a touch of natural sweetness.
The miso dressing is simple:
1 tsp. white miso 1 tsp. mustard 1-1/2 teaspoons jabara juice (see below) 3-4 drops toasted sesame oil A little honey to taste 2 tablespoons olive oil (something more neutral is fine)
Mix all ingredients other than the olive oil until combined, then gradually incorporate the olive oil to maintain an emulsion.
You probably don't have jabara juice, a citrus juice much like kabosu, sudachi, or unripe yuzu, handy... I spotted some in the Wakayama specialty shop at Yūrakuchō, and Hiromi bought one bottle for me to take home and play with. It's aromatic, and distinct from other citrus fruits in an indescribable but pleasing way... Its aroma is vaguely reminiscent of candied limes.
Since you aren't likely to make a trip to Yurakucho, or Wakayama for that matter, just for a little bottle of jabara juice, substitute another tart citrus fruit... Meyer lemon or maybe key lime would be particularly nice.
Thanks to my excessive shopping habits, I always end up with a couple of special treats to take home when I travel.
During my recent trip to Korea, I grabbed a trio of artisanal sauces in fairly small jars... gochujang, the fermented chili sauce, dwaenjang, which is Korean miso, and ssamjang, a combination of the two with additional seasonings, including a touch of sugar, usually used for lettuce wraps such as ssambap.
I tasted the dwaenjang and gochujang at the department store in Korea, but I added the ssamjang mostly for completeness, without having a sample first. So when it came time to break the seal on these essential sauces, the ssamjang was first on my priority list.
To make use of ssamjang, I usually make ssambap, which involves wrapping lettuce, herbs like gaennip, or kelp around rice and other ingredients. The ssamjang is used to add flavor. Koreans regularly construct baseball-sized lettuce wraps and eat them in one bite. My jaw, however, doesn't quite have the capacity required for such a challenge.
Since I went tofu shopping at Thanh Son this weekend, I thought it would be nice to have these with tofu instead of rice. I also sautéed some sad-looking enoki mushrooms in butter and soy sauce.
Not wanting to accumulate three or four plates for such a simple dish, I went ahead and assembled the wraps ahead of time. To serve them, I used another treasure from my recent trip: An Aomori-style urushi plate in the shape of ichō, or gingko leaf.
I so jealously guard the crispness of my pajeon (Korean-style scallion pancakes) that I generally don't sacrifice valuable seconds to shoot a photograph, lest the ephemeral textural ideal be lost before I have a chance to take the first bite.
This time I made a smaller one than usual... somehow I figured, with some rice, kimchi and the tofu dish, I would have enough. It was just right... maybe even a little too much.
As I sometimes do, I followed the technique recommended by a Korean friend, who rather unconventionally replaces water in her pajeon with milk. It makes for a fluffier, more flavorful variation.
A little kimchi
Dinner wouldn't be complete without a little kimchi and rice... I cheated and used a passable imported gimchi bought at Uwajimaya, though I usually try to get kimchi made at one of a number of Seattle-area Korean markets. No time for that this time... and this did the trick, anyway...
Tamago-don is a homely thing. It's the stuff of busy, frugal mothers trying to throw something together for lunch on a Sunday afternoon. It's the kind of thing a salaryman trying to save a couple hundred yen on lunch might choose during a particularly rough month. It's comfort food.
Little more than sautéed onions with eggs, seasoned with a heavily mirin-sweetened, soy-sauce based dashi base, cooked to a soft curd, the prospect of tamago-don won't trigger a lot of enthusiasm in most Japanese, but perhaps you'll catch a hint of wistful nostalgia.
On the other hand, if you offered to cook such a thing when the weather is bad and spirits are low, your efforts would probably be appreciated.
And if, for example, you happened to have a huge supply of local morels that you really needed to make use of, and some just-picked mizuna greens, and perhaps a little chopped negi, you might be able to enliven this dish just enough to make it interesting.
If you happened to use a heavy hand with said morels, and sauteed them until almost, but not quite charred, along with the softened onions, then added a little seasoned dashi, folded this into an omelet pan full of your seasoned egg mixture, stirred the curds, and poured the just-barely-set eggs over rice, you might have something else entirely.
You might consider how much the shape of morels, more properly translated as amigasatake, resembles the tops of tsukushinbo, or horsetail shoots.
In that case, you might call this variation of tamago-dontsukushinbo-don.
Up way too close
Well, it's still tamago-don. It's not life a life-altering transformation, but it's certainly a worthy use of an excess of morels. I'll probably continue to cook my morels with lots of butter or olive oil, but when I'm looking for a more assari taste, this is a good alternative.
Slightly incapacitated by a clumsy foot injury about a week ago, I was doing all I could to avoid going out of the house on Saturday... Leaving would have required me to don a clunky medical foot support boot in order to minimize aggravation of my sprain. It's a 5 minute job just to put that thing on.
So, how could I stay home and be lazy without resorting to ordering something up for delivery?
The answer was pizza.
I bake pizza at home with some regularity... it's easy enough to throw together a simple yeast dough with about 5 minutes of effort. Though it's always best to let the dough rest for a fairly long time, even in an impatient mood I can get decent enough results with just an hour or so of proofing.
I realized I had a pretty substantial stash of cheese from Seattle's cheese festival last weekend... I also had some bell peppers, and a larger-than-practical stash of morels. I noticed some sad, neglected sundried tomatoes hiding in the refrigerator as well...
Somehow I make pizza often enough that I rarely think to take photographs... I always think, "I'm hungry now... I'll take pictures another time." But this hurried, slightly tense pizza dough got special attention. I suppose I didn't have much else competing for attention when I made it, even if it does come across as a little stiff...
With some chopped garlic and a splash of olive oil, I could skip any elaborate saucemaking... I did saute the morels briefly to prevent them from drying out. My stash was full of surprisingly tiny morels, which saved me the hassle of chopping them.
But umeboshi and cheese were always meant for each other. Grilled is even better.
Camembert is probably a more natural fit, but I had some very respectable raw milk farmhouse-style cheddar from a Washington dairy farm snagged at last weekend's cheese festival. I was eating some pieces of the cheddar when a craving for umeboshi struck, and ate at least one pitted umeboshi on top of a cube of cheese, and it occurred to me: this needs to be grilled.
Where do such crazy ideas come from? Perhaps I owe the initial thought to some "yaki ume" I tasted at the Wakayama specialty shop in to Yūrakuchō... As far as I understood it, those premium umeboshi were at some point briefly cooked over charcoal, though the taste was barely noticeable, if present at all. I settled for some nice $16 umeboshi instead of the more than twice as extravagant "grilled" ones.
How do you make them?
Start by carefully pitting the umeboshi, taking care to pierce only one side; I suppose an olive or cherry pitter might work on some types of umeboshi. Medium-firm umeboshi probably work best; mine were already incredibly soft and I ruined a few while stuffing them.
I did the pitting by hand; I could feel the sharp side of the pit through the skin of the umeboshi, and squeezed the pit out through that pointy side.
Gently insert a small cube of cheese into the umeboshi. Carefully thread the stuffed umeboshi one-by-one onto the skewer.
Ideally, you should grill them over a shichirin grill, but I cheated and used my little gas konro, which I usually use for nabe; I fitted it with a little protective grating to keep the umeboshi from falling into the flame and disintegrating.
No need to use your best umeboshi on this, but please use umeboshi with a short ingredient list: Ideally, ume, salt, shiso, maybe shochu for initial curing. Use a creamy, rather than salty cheese.
Plate, then gently brush with a little olive oil.
Like umeboshi, they're tart. Like cheese, they're creamy. Like anything salty, they would go great with a little shochu, though on this occasion, they served as a little afternoon snack and I remained a teetotaler.
They're a little tricky to pull off, but worth it.
A simplification of a dish I sometimes make with mushrooms, this dum ki khom-inspired cauliflower dish features a cashew-based sauce with a hint of clove and cardamom. Seasoned with a fair amount of freshly grated ginger and a little garlic, It's dressed with a lot of cilantro, which provides a nice cooling effect. I added a tiny bit of palm sugar for this just to enrich the sauce. Instead of yogurt, I used a splash of coconut milk. Tomato paste helps provide color to the cashew sauce as well as a nice acidic counterbalance.
The dum ki khom dish comes from a Japanese-language cookbook by Renu Arora, whose instructions involve preparing the sauce separately from the mushrooms. However, cauliflower takes long enough to cook that I prepared the sauce right in the pan after briefly sauteeing the gobi in ghee, seasoned with garam masala, cumin, and a bit of turmeric.
Asparagus jalfrezi, perhaps
I wanted to use up some asparagus and take advantage of some cheap bell peppers, so I made a sauteed dish with a mustard seed-heavy sauce. To enrich the food with a bit of protein and to make the sauce a bit thicker, I ground some white urad daal up in a spice grinder and cooked it into a sauce with a bit more tomato paste. I used some whole mustard seeds, garlic, and onions as the dominant notes, and I think I used a bit of fenugreek and cumin as well.
This week I was a little heavy-handed with tomato puree, but both of these dishes like their tomatoes.
Rapini, a bitter green, has a hint of broccoli's aroma with a suggestion of mustard's pungency. Somewhat similar to turnip greens, it's also known as broccoli rabe or raab, even though rapini isn't related to broccoli.
I usually blanch it briefly, much like spinach, before using it in anything I cook. The blanching process allows the color to stay reasonably intense, and also mellows the bitterness. Even sautéed rapini benefits from this, although I've been known to take a shortcut from time to time.
I sautéed some onions with garam masala and some garlic, ginger, coriander and cumin. I added paneer, which cooked for a minute or so, before adding the finely chopped rapini, and a touch of tomato puree (not essential, but I had a little too much... a fresh tomato might be nice), and then I covered and simmered the dish for just a few more minutes.
While it's fairly common to puree spinach in palak paneer, I chose to skip that step with my rapini version. The result might be a bit more creamy with the pureed version, but I like the texture of chopped rapini. Besides, not all versions of palak paneer involve making the greens unrecognizable...
With blanched rapini, the dish cooks quickly. Serve with daal for a complete meal...
May 8... I had a relatively quiet last day in Japan, and met a friend for a quick lunch while Hiromi started the first day of work after Golden Week. After lunch, I made my way to Yūrakuchō to look for some additional self-indulgent snacks and treats to bring back to Seattle. I made my way back to my usual favorite spots (Hokkaidō Dosanko Plaza, Mura-Kara-Machi-Kara-Kan) and discovered, downstairs in the same building, a shop selling Wakayama specialties and another focused on Toyama products. I ended up taking home some umeboshi, some yuzu yubeshi, and some high-powered umeshu, and a few other treasures.
I met up with Hiromi mid-afternoon, because she had a medical appointment and had to leave the office a bit early anyway. After she finished with that, we met in Ginza and went to Printemps, where we both ordered a really nice, this-month-only, Matcha Mont Blanc. We then slowly headed back home, rested for a few minutes, and made our way to a restaurant we'd been planning to try all week.
Wai Wai, or 和伊・和伊, is a Japanese-Italian Izakaya that cutely uses country-appropriate Kanji (Japan and Italy) as ateji for a word that usually means something like "noisy" or "noisily".
The space looks tiny if you peek inside... There's only a U-shaped bar adjacent the kitchen, and maybe a small table or two. But it turns out that they have a half dozen or so tables upstairs, and that's where we were seated. The booths have small noren hanging to create some semblence of privacy.
This was fascinating. In fact, seeing this dish on the menuboard outside Wai Wai may have been what triggered us to try this restaurant.
They transformed a typical izakaya dish of fried tofu in a seasoned dashijiru into a clever, but not over-the-top, fusion dish. Deep-fried basil, mozzarella, and tomato make an appearance, along with the typical agedashi accompaniments of ginger, oroshi-daikon (grated daikon), and negi.
While the flavor isn't much a surprise, and any crispness quickly faded as the dish made its way to our table, the combination was quite successful. It's hard to go wrong with basil-tomato-mozzarella, and the mild broth added the same kind of complexity you'd get from parmesan or a more Italian style soup stock.
This was the most Japanese of the things we ordered. It's an elegant presentation of a simple dish: fresh yuba, made from skimming the surface of slowly simmering heavy soymilk, served with soy sauce, ginger, wasabi, and chopped scallions, which you add to the yuba to your own taste.
I ate most of this, as Hiromi ordered for herself some chicken thighs, grilled with something like sansho.
Caeser Salad and Crepe
This salad replaces the typical crouton with a sculptural crispy crepe, which you're encouraged to break up and scatter over the salad.
Marinated vegetables, or short-term pickles, featuring Western vegetables, including red bell peppers.
Quattro Formaggi to Hachimitsu
Four cheese pizza drizzled with honey. Like most pizza in Japan, it has an impossibly-thin, cracker-like crust. With the honey it would have served as a great final cheese course, but we weren't quite done yet...
Yakionigiri no ochazuke with an Italian accent
Ochazuke is a popular way of finishing a meal at an izakaya... there are two main tracks of ochazuke, one of which is the near-literal interpretation of tea poured over rice, with some pickles and furikake as accompaniments. Another is with a soup broth, and this version clearly is in the latter school.
As accompaniments, some chopped basil, parmesan, and anchovies are provided; they've been served separately to accommodate my vegetarian habit.
I'm wasn't quite sure which herb was used, but I think the rice has been mixed with a chiffonade of parsley along with some toasted sesame. Because the ball of rice is grilled before being incorporated into the ochazuke, the rice ball is called yaki-onigiri. Topping the yaki-onigiri is an earlobe of wasabi.
Any number of variations of ochazuke exist. I've made a yaki-onigiri ochazuke before, myself, though with a decidedly more Japanese flavor profile.
This dish was really smart. Well balanced and comforting, it avoids most of the cliches found in American "fusion" cuisine while still playing with foreign (to Japanese) flavors. I think it's successful because it's firmly grounded in one culinary tradition, while judiciously adapting ingredients found in another... So many fusion dishes in the US seem to have a poor understanding of all of the source cuisines they are borrowing from.
I think I haven't had a chance to have kuriimu anmitsu for quite a while. We had a small dish of anmitsu served with a quick set meal at a kissaten in Mashiko, but for some reason, Hiromi and I haven't found our way to any place featuring anmitsu for quite a while.
The ice cream version of anmitsu, called cream anmitsu, can be found at old-school kissaten around Japan, but it seems not as easy to find as it was even six or seven years ago.
Not your obaachan's anmitsu
Usually anmitsu comes with fruit, anko (sweet red been paste), and wasanbon (blonde cane sugar syrup), kuromitsu (black sugar syrup) or occasionally a simple sugar syrup. Occasionally the concept is combined with kakigouri, the shaved ice dessert; a few years back I ate that in a little shop in Takayama in Gifu prefecture.
Since we were in a slightly quirkier restaurant, the dish had been altered a bit further... in place of a more common syrup, it was served with tapioca that had been simmered in sweetened coconut milk. That transformed this treat into a Japanese-by-way-of-Southeast-Asia treat, and it worked suprisingly well. Since cream anmitsu is sometimes made with green tea ice cream, perhaps Chockylit's coconut matcha tapioca topping would be equally suitable...
We meandered the few dozen meters to our weekly apartment and started halfheartedly attacking our luggage.
You'd think that we couldn't possibly have room to eat more.
However, to think so, you must be oblivious to the concept of betsubara... literally, separate stomach, the idea is expressed rather verbosely in English as "there's always room for dessert."
Toraya Cafe is a contemporary-style wagashi shop... Much like Tsujiri Cafe, from Uji, they reference traditional wagashi (Japanese confectionary) but playfully reimagine flavors and presentations. Toraya, though, is a very old confectionary company, and their parent company is equally adept at old-school and contemporary wagashi.
Most of us ordered some sort of beverage, generally some kind of tea. Kristin ordered a "matcha glacé", a sort of sweet matcha drink that doubles as a dessert.
Tōnyū Pudding with Matcha Sauce
I ordered some azuki-cha (roasted azuki mean tea) served cold, with optional wasanbon syrup, a lightly processed sugar cane syrup, as a sweetener.
One of the things I love about soy-based foods in Japan, including desserts, is that, for the most part, little effort is made to conceal the soy flavor. In fact, the aroma of the soybean is often intentionally highlighted. Soy is not some sort health food or a second-class milk or meat substitute, but, when suitably fresh, a remarkable flavor all its own.
This tounyuu purin, or soy milk pudding, has a pronounced soy flavor and is pleasingly creamy.
A thick matcha-based crème anglaise adds a bittersweet touch and contrasts nicely with the soy pudding.
Dark azuki beans, slightly sweet, garnish the dessert in the same way you might expect to see in a coffee-based dessert.
Oshiruko With Pu-erh infusion
This remarkable variation of oshiruko, sweet azuki soup, is relatively traditional except for one subtle base note: The azuki are simmered with earthy Chinese pu-erh tea. Since azuki already has a somewhat earthy flavor, the flavor doesn't dominate, but provides a pleasant underlying accent that adds a subtle complexity to a dish that normally has a very straightforward, sweet flavor.
A few shiratama, also slightly tweaked for this dish, had, I believe, a little accent from white sesame seeds.
Although Toraya is a fairly large company, their cafe is, for me, one of the pleasant things that can happen when someone with vision and firm roots in a culinary tradition smartly reinterprets their palette of flavors and techniques with a creative eye. It's not hit-you-over-the-head culinary drama, but it's pleasingly innovative, and worth seeking out.
If you're a suitably fortunate madamu, you wouldn't be caught dead in your husband's favorite, smelly neighborhood robata-ya restaurant. However, that doesn't mean you would completely eschew the idea of charcoal-grilled altogether. You just want it to be a little more elegant... and perhaps a little less heavy on the smoke.
For those well-heeled women, there is Yasaiya Mei, a high-drama robata-ya in the sparkly, mine-like structure known as Omotesandō Hills.
Hiromi and I had eyed this spot after our previous outing to Omotesandō, and put it on our list of places to come back to. The dinner menu was out when we first walked by in the late afternoon, and it was fairly tempting, so we tried to find an excuse to come back.
We made plans for lunch with Kristin of eGullet and some of Hiromi's friends for a weekend lunch, and ended up choosing this spot since absolutely none of us would be able to make it there for lunch on a normal workday. For most of us it was a bit of a splurge, certainly for lunch, though some people got away with a slightly less expensive set. Lunch goes for JPY 2400-4000 ($22~40).
Two people, including me, ordered a spring vegetable set meal with some partial vegetarian accommodations. A British software developer in our group also prefers to eat vegetarian, so we ordered the same menu option. However, in just a couple months in Japan he's resigned himself to eating fish, preferring just to avoid chunks of pork and chicken and the like because it adds so much complexity to dining out, so he
On this trip I've found that restaurants we've visited have been surprisingly accommodating for my vegetarian quirk. It's not customary in Japan to accept special requests (or, more importantly, to make them) at restaurants, so that hasn't always been the case. I don't know if it's because we tended to eat in fairly high-end spots, if we just happened to stumble on places with excellent service standards, or if things are gradually changing.
Hiromi and Kristen ordered a special-of-the-day lunch, and one person ordered a simple curry set meal. Grilled items weren't terribly prominent, but were featured in most of our meals.
First course, vegetable set
Five little vegetable-highlighting dishes... as usual, practicing a vegetarian diet in Japan requires a sense of humor and a tolerance for fish-as-garnish, as in the case of the typical katsuo-bushi (shaved bonito) dressed ohitashi (blanched vegetable dish, center) and the sakura-ebi (tiny shrimp) garnished sunomono (sweet vinegar dressed dish, left).
Our server noticed that one of the dishes in this starter course was made with crab, and without me asking, quickly swapped that dish out for an elegant and refreshing aloe ohitashi, which was meant for today's special lunchbox. A few years ago, aloe as a vegetable became all the rage throughout Asia, and this simple dish is reflective of that. It's reminiscent of mozuku, thanks to the neba-neba (sticky) qualities of the aloe and the slightly acidic sauce.
Ume gelee-dressed vegetables
This ume-gelee dressed vegetable dish was surprisingly sappari. I guess I'm a sucker for Japanese apricot, but I was almost expecting this to be either strangely sweet or intensely sour; instead, it was well-balanced and full of pleasing contrasts.
Potato and green bean salad in bamboo "bark"
This simple bamboo shoot and green bean aemono gets a dramatic treatment with a garnish from the outer layer of a bamboo shoot.
Vegetable curry rice set
One of Hiromi's friends ordered an elegant Japanese-style curry rice with an unusual presentation... the rice comes adorned with goya (bitter melon), takenoko (bamboo shoot) and other vegetables, and the curry itself is served in a gravy boat, which the guest uses to pours the hot curry over the rice herself... some pickles and another small side dish accompany this.
I was too distracted to remember all of the things that come in the day's special two-tiered lunchbox, but the list was so long on the menu that I stopped reading carefully. It includes some agemono (fried foods), a rice dish with ikura (seasoned salmon roe) and bamboo shoots, a few yakimono (grilled fish, vegetables and meat). I think the confetti-puff-rice covered ball is a kind of meatball.
The starter tier
The upper tier includes an aloe dish (as above), a kind of nagaimo pudding (I think), renkon (lotus root) chips, and a little maguro.
Vegetable set second course
My order comes in two stages, and this second course features a rice dish, a grilled dish, a poached glutinous rice ball, and miso soup.
Steamed rice with fava beans
Soramame (fava beens), maybe some nanohana (rapeseed greens), and some kind of ingen (green beans), along with some mushrooms and an herb garnish top my steamed rice.
Nimono, perhaps, with glutinous rice
This glutinous rice ball is poached a bit in seasoned soup stock and served with shiitake slices. It was hard to resist.
This was my set of robata-grilled dishes... the always-tempting spring takenoko, grilled bamboo shoots; grilled asparagus, shiitake, a cherry tomato, and a little nut that I'm forgetting the name of.
The bowl makes the miso soup
Spring greens in a strong miso soup.
Most of us got this surprisingly tasty pickled hyōtan, or gourd. I can't recall actually eating hyoutan anywhere else before. I wouldn't hesitate to eat it again... I was surprised. It was fairly ordinary, as pickles go, but I just haven't seen it before.
To finish the meal, everyone received a little tea (low-end matcha), and two kinds of wagashi. One is similar to warabi-mochi (right), and the other is a flavored rice cake.
We weren't quite finished... After our big lunch, we wandered off to chat more and to have some contemporary, reimagined wagashi at Toraya just a few floors below...
You wouldn't know it yet considering how much I'm still focusing on my Japan trip (just a few more things to write about...), but I've actually been back home for a couple of weeks already. I've been eating fairly simply most of the time, but perhaps a bit unhealthy.
A simple dinner
After a week full of bread, cheese and asparagus, I was craving something hearty and dense.
I thought it might be fun to try my hand at some crispy flatbread. I'm a fond of roti canai, the flatbread served with a simple channa masala or even a "gravy" made with chickpeas. But I thought it would be nice to give the dough itself a bit of a protein boost, so I used half all-purpose flour and half besan, or chickpea flour. I add a fair amount of ghee and a generous pinch of salt, combine the flours, and add just enough warm water to create a smooth, pliable dough. The dough needs to be rested for a half hour or so.
I cooked them on a big, hot, cast-iron skillet until they were puffy, lightly brushed each side with oil and cooked each side a bit longer. Then I folded each roti over twice so that they become pie-shaped wedges.
They weren't quite flawless, as the edges are a bit rough, but they came out just slightly crispy and the chickpea flour added a nice flavor.
I didn't really know this until looking up other roti recipes after I was all done with this dish, but some versions of besan roti add spices right in the dough. However, I was mostly looking for a structure to serve with dal, rather than something with its own complex flavor.
I made a simple chickpea dish seasoned with an onion jam (caramelized onions with added liquid), tomato paste, fresh ginger and garlic, turmeric and chilies, along with an explosion of ghee-cooked spices including cumin seeds, mustard seeds, coriander, and a garam masala blend. I take this ghee-cooked spice blend and pour it over the soup when both are very hot, causing furious frothing and bubbling, and allowing the aromas of the spices to spread throughout the dish.
The chickpeas come split, and don't take terribly long to cook. I also added a few potatoes about 25 minutes before I expected the dish to be done.
Upon serving, added some cilantro to add a fresh, cooling flavor.
The mango pickle is nothing special... just a store bought thing, used to provide a little tangy contrast... It goes well with the besan roti as well, but I later discovered that the local-to-Seattle Taaza's tomato garlic chutney, by Sunita Shastri, is particularly good with the roti.
I have been craving spicier food the last few days, so I think this won't be the only South Asian food on my table this week.
We made a little trip to Mashiko on the weekend before coming back to Seattle.
We went, in part, so that I could replenish my ever-shrinking ceramics collection on YuzuMura.com. I was also looking for some new artists to consider for later in the year.
Minowa Yasuo passed away a couple years ago, so I haven't been able to buy anything he made for a long time. Besides, my original plan to sell my ceramics to galleries morphed into a mostly web-based sales model. My previous habit of buying a few remarkable pieces per artist doesn't work very well on the web, since the burden of photographing something I only have one or two examples of becomes rather exhausting. By next year, I expect I'll have fewer choices but a better ability to handle larger orders for them.
Large bowl by Akutsu Masato
During Golden Week, Mashiko has one of two annual pottery festivals, so many artists and production kilns were out showing off their wares. We made our way to my favorite galleries first, and we were pleased to stumble upon a show by Akutsu Masato and the rest of his family at Moegi. I hadn't done much advance planning on this trip, so it was a good coincidence... I discovered that I brought the wrong contact information for him anyway, so if it hadn't been for the show at Moegi I might not have been able to get hold of him.
Masato's father, who is incredibly charming, also had some very nice pieces at the family show, and Masato's mother's work is very compelling as well, so now I'm considering importing work from the whole family... While all three seem to work from a related palette, they each have very distinctive styles.
I also discovered some Minowa Yasuo pieces at one gallery, and I was so surprised by that that I ended up buying a number of pieces. It will become increasingly difficult to find anything else he made, so I took advantage of the opportunity.
Fortunately, the gallery was kind enough to extend me a reseller price, which means I'll be able to offer the new pieces at roughly the same price as similar items I still have in stock. I was expecting I'd have to dramatically raise prices on the new pieces, but it doesn't look like I'll have to.
One unfortunate side effect of my good fortune on this trip was that I didn't have time to meet up with Senda Yoshiaki, and I couldn't buy any of his pieces on this trip. I am almost completely out, so I really need to do something about that. I think I'll send Hiromi to Mashiko once before fall to remedy that.
I didn't buy a huge amount of ceramic pieces on this trip, but enough that it wasn't possible to transport things on my back... so I have to wait a few weeks before things arrive. I'm looking forward to it...
Working in a minimally-stocked kitchen that's completely different than your own is pretty tricky.
Our weekly apartment was equipped with a rice cooker, a saucepan and a frying pan. We had a few plates and bowls, but nothing close to what I'm used to at home.
But after a bunch of elaborate, not to mention expensive, restaurant meals, we wanted to make something on our own.
Haru kyabetsu to nerimiso
We have spring cabbage made with a quick homemade sweetened miso... this is sort of a typical izakaya dish nowadays. We soon discovered that the lighter colored leaves from inside the cabbage were much more tender, and decided to reserve the dark outer leaves for an itamemono on another day.
Three nice side dishes made ugly
We didn't really have all the fundamentals... just mirin, soy sauce, salt, pepper and instant dashi. We had no vinegar, and we had only a small amount of miso. We didn't actually have any cooking oil; just some butter, meant for toast for breakfast.
I normally don't use instant dashi since it's not vegetarian, but when I'm on the road and only cooking a few meals on my own, it's a bit harder to stock a bunch of konbu and dried mushrooms, so we relied a bit on a few granules of that dashi for a few things. Although I'm not really a fan of the flavor of instant dashi, some dishes just don't taste right if you only use water. Since I already have to relax my vegetarian habits when eating out in Japan, I elected to make another small concession to reality, and I used small amounts of it in one or two dishes.
Since we only had a few plates, elegant platings had to be sacrificed, but we found some sort of solution.
Our side dishes included, from left to right: An egg scramble with some cheap maitake mushrooms and leeks, an ohitashi made with sakura no shiozuke,or salted cherry blossoms, and grilled bamboo shoots with butter and soy sauce. They may not look like much, but everything turned out slightly better than I expected.
Yuba and myouga
We love myouga, sometimes explained as ginger shoots in English, and it's hard to get in the US. Myōga looks a bit like the bulb of a shallot but has a gently spicy mild ginger flavor. I sliced some with the scary, flimsy knife supplied by our weekly apartment and scattered the slices inelegantly atop pieces of cut yuba, and carelessly drizzled some soy sauce over the yuba.
I miss fresh yuba when I'm in the US. The best I can do is dried or, on rare occasions, previously-frozen... unless I'm willing to commit to sitting in front of a nabe for an hour or two as I slowly peel off pieces of yuba from simmering soymilk. I don't do that so often.
Hiromi prepared a miso soup, which I nearly ruined by adding too much instant dashi. Since I never have any instant dashi at home, I didn't know how much is "normal" for soup. It turns out that the answer is very little.
She also blended some more salted cherry blossoms into the rice to make sakura-gohan, and whipped out the kuromame nattou (black bean nattō) before I could blink.
After a really fancy lunch in Omotesandō, this more humble dinner helped us balance our extravagance without feeling like much of a sacrifice.
I had bought an "expensive" bottle of soju while in Korea at about KRW 11,000, or $11-12. The mass-produced stuff like Jinro and Chamiseul goes for less than $2 a bottle at your average convenience store, so this would be considered a bit extravagant. Anyway, tonight we cracked open this bottle and each had a glass of Korean shochu on the rocks with our dinner.
It's smoother and cleaner-tasting than the mass-produced brands, but not quite as nice as the better Japanese varieties of shochu. The flavor is relatively neutral but still has a hint of complexity. I'd buy it again if I were in Korea.