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Chayote squash minimalism

jason

I'm a complete sucker for simple preparations of nice ingredients.

It wasn't always that way. When I first had enough of an income to support occasional dining out, I always thought it was better to order food that required equipment or effort I was unlikely to duplicate at home. Why pay a premium for a dish I could throw together myself in just a few minutes?

But after a couple of years, I realized that complex cuisine tended to be disappointing, perhaps because so many variables made it hard to pull off "sophisticated" dishes with any degree of consistency. Now I tend to be happiest with simple, well-executed fare. I still love dining out, but I'm more likely to look for dishes that are simple and playful, or classically basic and seasonally appropriate, rather than elaborate or ostentatiously creative.

At home I've seriously simplified my usual fare, as well, and I just love doing as little as possible to bring out the best in an ingredient.

Chayote squash is one ingredient that benefits from pronounced yet fundamentally uncomplicated seasoning. I like it with little more than fresh citrus juice and salt.

Matchstick-cut chayote squash with lime and pico de gallo

chayote suqsh with lime and pico de gallo seasoning

Except for some brief high-risk mandoline maneuvering, this refreshing side dish is almost effortless. I simply matchstick cut the squash, rub the pieces with some coarse salt, and wait a few minutes for the squash to sweat while preparing something else.

I try to squeeze out excess moisture, but it's ok to be a little lazy about that. Then I squeeze in a generous splash of fresh lime juice and chill for a while to marinate. If the squash starts out cold, it could actually be eaten right away, but I didn't have that much forethought. I just let it rest for a while while I finished the rest of dinner. Besides, it keeps nicely for three or four days refrigerated, and it's nice to have a refreshing side ready to go.

On the plate, I sprinkle just a little pico de gallo seasoning, which is nothing more than salt, ground cumin, and chili. If this dish sounds like a typical preparation of jicama, that's no coincidence. It just works.

Chayote squash has the texture of a crisp pear or raw daikon but has hints of the aroma of cucumbers and melon.  When you add the lime juice, the magic starts.

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Stuffed mushrooms without a hint of grain

jason

stuffed-mushrooms-29

Perhaps it's just force of habit, but I  never really considered making stuffed mushrooms without some sort of starch as a foundation... rice is my usual standby, but I've used buckwheat, breadcrumbs, and a few other alternatives.

But I'd been feeling rather overstuffed lately, so I've been eating less in the way of refined grains than usual. Stuffed mushrooms are a relatively quick, simple side dish unless you're cooking them for an army, so I threw together a dozen or so one Sunday night recently to go along with some more substantial fare.

I took some fleshy tomatoes, gently seeded, and chopped them up, tossed with some chopped, sauteed shallots. I added some grated pungent cheese whose name escapes me at the moment, but almost anything would work. For flavor, I added some capers, and a little salt, pepper and nutmeg. After hollowing out the mushrooms, I stuff them with the filling, placing them in a porcelain baking pan. Then pour some light, minerally Grüner Veltlinger wine, seasoned with more salt, pepper and nutmeg, into the same pan with a little butter.

These bake until the mushrooms look tender and the cheese is melted. at about 425F/200C.

I was worried some disaster would befall me because I left out the usual ingredient binding, but no such misfortune ensued, and the dish avoided the dreary dryness that sometimes ruins otherwise elegant-looking stuffed vegetables. Now I'm inclined to leave out the starch most of the time.

In spite of the stick-to-your ribs look of this variation, it's quite light and flavorful, and you could probably eat the mushrooms by the dozen without weighing yourself down.

Served with a glass of that Austrian Grüner Veltlinger, they make a nice starter or side dish.

Smoky eggplant in yogurt sauce

jason

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

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

Smoky eggplant yogurt curry

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

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

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

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

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

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Collaboration makes better pie

jason

I've previously mentioned that Hiromi's pie crust is far superior to mine. Hers is closer to a rough puff than the standard American pie crust, but she pulls it off rather effortlessly. On the other hand, my attempts at rough puff generally turn out to be slightly inferior to the basic pie crust that I can produce with far less concentration..

During Hiromi's short stay, I wanted to take advantage of Hiromi's crust-making skills for a more savory application.

lentil-pie-10

I worked on a simple thick lentil dish made with garam masala, probably a few potatoes, onions, garlic, and ginger, some fresh tomatoes, and turmeric. As I recall, I only had split urad daal handy. These are black lentils which have lost their shells and become a sort of drywall white.

While I was taking care of the filling, Hiromi set out making the pie crust. She cut in the butter and prepared the first turn, and finished a second one before the lentils were done.

We wanted some kind of sweet-savory accompaniment, so I planned to make a chutney. Fresh figs looked nice that day, so we used them as the foundation. I prepared the chutney after the lentils were started, using a little fenugreek and fennel as the dominant notes, a little extra sugar, and a few additional spices. I think I added enough chilies to make the chutney more spicy than necessary, but they didn't hurt.

I'm already fuzzy on the details, but I think we had some other afternoon plan that day and we wandered off for a few hours, then came back to assemble everything. I think Hiromi did one more turn before we filled the pastry in small springform pans, baked, and then were treated to this nice pie.

The only thing I'd change is which fruit to use for the chutney. I think apricot, peach or tamarind would be a better compliment to the heavy lentils, especially on a fairly warm day. The chutney itself was very pleasing, but perhaps it would work better with a less rich accompaniment.

The distractions of being a long-distance newlywed

jason

Again I apologize for being so distracted of late... Since Hiromi left, I've been rather unmotivated to write anything. I have barely been keeping up reading blogs I'm subscribed to in Bloglines. I've just been working, cooking, eating, sleeping.

Well, that's not entirely true. I've gone out to eat a little bit, too, though generally fairly lowbrow or even actively disappointing stuff. I'm still arranging weekly Japanese-speaking meetups and spending a little time with friends. I haven't become a complete recluse, but I've just appreciated staying semi-hidden for a while.

Thanks to everyone who sent kind words when I posted about our courtroom ceremony.

It turns out that our plans for a family wedding in Japan became a bit complicated due to my mother's health. We've decided to postpone that ceremony until my mother thinks she can travel... the whole point of having the ceremony in Japan was to have our parents there. If things work out, we've considered having our family ceremony in the winter, but we're more likely to wait until spring, or perhaps arrange the ceremony as a renewal of vows around this time next year.

We had a bunch of documents to assemble in order to apply for Hiromi's visa and permanent resident status. Under current regulations, these documents get filed in a rather curious order: first, a petition for permanent resident status for an immediate relative. Then, when the receipt of this petition is acknowledged, I file a petition for permanent resident status for a fiance (precisely the same immediate relative. Finally, Hiromi makes an application for a non-immigrant spouse visa at the consulate. Then she can come to the US. So we get married, then engaged to marry, and then we get to see each other finally. Then we pay a large fee for an "adjustment of status" when her permanent resident status is finalized.

Had we been a little more prepared, we could have made sure these documents were ready before Hiromi left. Of course, her original purpose for this trip was not at all to get married, but to go to a dance workshop in California and spend few leisurely days with me before going back to Japan. So we only had a small subset of the stack of papers we needed ready to go, and of course, we had plenty of small complications getting the rest of them together.

On Thursday, my attorney sent off the paperwork for the first form, the I-130. It turns out that it's been taking much longer than usual just to acknowledge the receipt of this document. Currently, it's around 3 weeks, from what I can tell.

I'm glad we engaged the services of an attorney to help with the process. Although I've filled out almost all of the forms myself first, the paralegal involved on our case caught numerous small issues that could have complicated the application process, resulting in additional delays.

We were somewhat optimistic in thinking that it should take 3 or 4 months for the visa to be approved. It looks like that's only true for the initial petition itself under optimal conditions. Thanks to a surge of applications this summer related to some fee increases, processing is running far behind schedule, from what I understand. Beyond that, it may take a fair amount of time to get an appointment at the embassy in Japan.

Although we've been in a long-distance relationship for most of the last 4 years, it's even more frustrating to have so much of a wait ahead of us now that we've officially committed to spend our lives together. Most of the ugly paperwork stuff to get Hiromi here is done; now we just have a lot of waiting, and a number of large checks to write.

We've been entertaining the idea of meeting in Vancouver, BC, or somewhere similar for a week or so around the holidays, where I could still conduct my day job remotely without too many complications, and we could have some time together. And I'm still planning to go to Japan for about a week sometime this fall, though it's no longer connected to our wedding ceremony plans.

I promise to get back to food posting shortly, and probably even a few business-related postings... I have a fair backlog of photos to plow through, and I've been taking advantage of the simple cooking that summer ingredients invite, sometimes spending less than 20 minutes to prepare what turn out to be very nice meals.