Here in Brooklyn, there’s a popular Australian coffee shop that does a brisk brunch business catering to folks who seem to come more for the fashionable crowd than for the coffee (which is excellent, though perhaps not as good as that at another Australian-owned spot a few blocks east). Now, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call this cafe’s food offerings a proper brunch, as the menu mainly consists of “toasties,” a quaint-sounding (and quaintly sized) open-faced sandwich. For two dollars extra, one can add a dollop of chunky guacamole to the toast; an additional dollar fifty buys a poached egg, which sits jauntily and wobbly atop the avocado. It’s an almost ridiculously simple concept, and in that sense brilliant from a business perspective: a toastie with avocado and an egg plus coffee can run well over $10, plus tip.
Excellent coffee aside, this is an experience that can be easily replicated in the comfort of one’s own home. Aside from provisioning the right ingredients – fresh bread, ripe avocados, and interesting seasonings – there is almost no labor involved in the creation of an avocado toast. But what, exactly, comprises a good avocado toast? Or better yet, what is the ideal?
As anyone who’s worked at a small restaurant can tell you, living in the moment is par for the course. Indeed, it’s often the case that things never quite come together until the last minute. Whether it’s a pre-service dash to the deli to pick up soap or a moment of utter terror in which you realize you’ve forgotten to order extra fish for the Saturday night special, life in a tiny kitchen rarely provides time for introspection. This is simply the nature of the work, which is dependent on one’s ability to completely detach from larger life concerns. Once you’ve been on the other side of the wall (or counter, as the case may be), it can be hard to eat at any restaurant without feeling a profound sense of respect, patience, and appreciation for the unseen effort that goes into every refilled glass of water, gracefully opened bottle of wine, and perfectly executed quenelle of ice cream.
I once found the passing of the holidays a rather melancholy event. After all the parties, baking, and gift wrapping, we’re left with empty bottles, stray crumbs, and crumpled paper. As a student, the unpleasant feeling was heightened by the prospect of facing the long march through the Chicago winter. Living in Japan, however, each new year seemed to hold so much promise. In Tokyo, the January sky is bright, blue, and unmarred by the humidity and clouds that settle over the city in other seasons. Returning from the States, the gentle, late afternoon light and long shadows streaking across the rice fields near Narita airport seemed to be as warm a welcome as any weary traveler could ask for. On the train back to Koshigaya, I’d find myself marveling at the fact that this seemingly strange place could feel so much like home, even in the year’s darkest days.
Nagano prefecture is known throughout Japan for its buckwheat, which finds its way into much of the region’s cuisine, from the famed Shinshū soba (more on which here, here, and here) to soba manju (sweet red bean paste wrapped in a thin buckwheat skin) and soba cha, a mellow, caffeine-free tea made from buckwheat kernels. The buckwheat harvest, which takes place in the late fall after October’s rice harvest, is hard and laborious work. Preparing the buckwheat for cooking is no easier: after harvesting, the buckwheat grains are threshed and sorted. Traditionally, stone mills are used to grind the grains into flour. Freshly milled buckwheat flour has the most delicate flavor, and so soba made immediately after the fall harvest is held in high regard.
In the past, whenever I found myself with a surfeit of parsnips, I’d turn to my standby technique: a giant roast with carrots, red onions, and leeks, liberally coated with olive oil and strewn with slivered garlic and fresh thyme branches. The ghostly pale parsnips, cut into thin batons and roasted into oblivion, transformed into a crisp-edged, caramelized tangle with a deep, earthy sweetness that almost belied their humble origins. This is a perfectly acceptable and delicious way to cook most vegetables, but after years of making the same recipe, I was ready for a change.
Readers, I’ve missed you so! Summer has officially passed, and so far all I’ve managed to write about is frozen sweets. Rest assured, my love of vegetables has not waned in the slightest, but I’ve found myself short on time to cook them in new and interesting ways. This recipe, however, is an exception. The inspiration for this dish came by way of a small restaurant in Matsumoto called Dengaku Kiso-ya. Housed in a traditional wooden building just a few paces from the Metoba river, the shop specializes in a simple dish known as dengaku (田楽). At its most basic, dengaku is tōfu or vegetables (usually eggplant) slathered in a sweet miso sauce and broiled until crisp-edged and caramelized.
Of all the wonderful shops and businesses I frequented while living in Matsumoto, one of the most memorable was a family-owned produce store in Sōza, a quiet residential neighborhood on the city’s northeastern edge. On balmy summer evenings, just as dusk was settling over the rice paddies, I’d take a stroll over to the shop and pick up whatever looked good for dinner: tiny eggplants with shiny, purplish black skin for nasu dengaku, locally made yakidōfu (grilled tofu), or perhaps a bunch of spiky, crunchy mizuna from one of the many neighborhood farms.
Shichimi turned two years old this week. Though I had hoped to have a more special celebratory post prepared, words have been eluding me lately.
Thoughts swirl around endlessly, but my attempts to verbalize them have been halting at best, incoherent at worst, and usually ineloquent. A simple e-mail turns into a ten minute ordeal, to say much less of one written in Japanese. Perhaps it’s the effect of acquiring new words in a second language; somehow one’s native tongue begins to seem convoluted and nonsensical. At times, relativity takes over – why shouldn’t the verb come at the end of the sentence? Do we really need a distinction between the present and future tenses?
Every new year, we promise ourselves new lives, new looks, new selves. Yet by the end of the first week of January, how many of us still feel that motivation, that tug toward self-improvement? Think for a moment now: what if every day were lived with that sort of mindfulness and deliberation, of keeping our promises to others and ourselves? What would that feel like, and who would we become? We might not necessarily become better, or wiser, or more beautiful, but perhaps we would live with a greater appreciation for incremental change, the gradual completion of a project, the assiduous chiseling of an idea, the slow and uncertain progress that underlies day-to-day existence.
Spring makes me antsy – it puts me in the mood for travel, for adventure, for places yet unseen. The promise of summer’s balmy nights lies not far off, just perceptible, like a taste on the tip of the tongue. I always have to be careful, though, to not wish on summer too eagerly. In the end, it always passes far too quickly, leaving me wishing I had savored the moments between the seasons more judiciously.
This year I’m making an effort to do just that. As we begin the inexorable slide toward summer, I find myself cooking less intensively but still craving sustenance with some body. Although warm food still seems appropriate, spring’s delicate, young vegetables – a far cry from the flamboyant, exuberant bounty of summer produce – call for a light hand in seasoning and preparation.
While Western cuisine can certainly do justice to spring produce (as evidenced by this gorgeous spread), the restrained flavors and minimalist preparations of Japanese cooking seem, in some ways, much better suited to these fleeting delicacies. I’m certainly not butter-averse (particularly when it comes to baked goods), but dousing vegetables with the stuff is not exactly an affordable proposition in Japan, where less than half a pound costs upwards of 350 yen (~4 USD). So, I’ve decided to take a different approach this spring and try my hand at some unfamiliar dishes.