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?
Having previously waxed poetic about turnips – specifically the petite variety known as Hakurei – it may seem repetitive to sing their praises again. Yet as winter’s darkest days dissipate and spring creeps ever closer, I can think of no better way to celebrate the season than with a feast of these knobby roots. Their mild, crisp bite is enough to appease even the crankiest cold weather haters, while their humble appearance appeals to those of us with an unexplained penchant for the unloved castaways of the vegetable bin.
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.
Turnips — those pale, waxy orbs usually found sitting forlornly in bins at the supermarket — may win the title for the world’s most unloved vegetable. It’s no wonder: here in the States, the turnips one most often encounters are bulbous, fibrous behemoths utterly lacking in color, texture, and flavor. Even when roasted into oblivion and doused with butter, they’re a hard sell. Thankfully, learning to love turnips is not difficult if you can track down a bunch of the tender hakurei variety. This Japanese breed, with its smooth, snow-white roots and deep green leaves, is equally wonderful raw, roasted, simmered, or even lightly pickled.
In Japan, turnips (kabu / 蕪) are usually sold with their tender green tops still attached. In one common preparation, the roots are first simmered in a mixture of dashi, mirin, sake, shōyu, and sugar, then served alongside the blanched greens. This simple technique utterly transforms these otherwise unremarkable vegetables: upon emerging from their bath in the salty-sweet cooking liquid, the turnips have a remarkably silky texture and the unmistakable savory depth imparted by dashi.
Ohitashi – a method of infusing lightly cooked vegetables with seasoned dashi – is one of the best-kept secrets of Japanese cuisine. Unlike Western techniques like roasting or sautéing, ohitashi gently draws out a vegetable’s inherent sweetness without sacrificing flavor or texture. Beautiful in presentation and subtle in flavor, it is perhaps the platonic ideal of a salad. Neither raw nor cooked, ohitashi inhabits a liminal space in the culinary spectrum. Both elemental and refined, it is a testament Japanese cuisine’s respect for vegetables and the land that grows them.
Fundamentally Japanese in its reliance on impeccably fresh ingredients, ohitashi uses a combination of dashi, shōyu, and mirin to permeate vegetables with notes of smoke, salt, and sweetness. (The “hitashi” in ohitashi derives from the verb hitasu (浸す), meaning “to dip” or “to soak,”, while the “o” is simply an honorific prefix.) Although the ingredients in ohitashi are generally cooked as lightly as possible, the technique is somewhat similar to nimono (煮物), in which ingredients are gently simmered with dashi and seasonings to amplify their sweetness, color, and texture.
Several years ago, I spent a summer working at a small garden in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. The work was sweaty and strenuous but also remarkably satisfying. My days were mostly occupied with transporting and turning compost, starting seedlings, mixing soil, watering, harvesting and drying herbs, and tending to vermicompost bins. One task that didn’t figure prominently into my daily routine, however, was weeding. Rather than spending hours uprooting every last foreign shoot from the beds and mulched paths, I took some advice from my supervisor, Martha, and let them take root. She taught me which varieties were edible and suggested ways to cook them. Lambs quarters, she warned, should be blanched first to remove any traces of toxic oxalic acid; amaranth leaves were better when young and tender. Armed with this knowledge, I returned home every week with armfuls of greens: peppery wild arugula and delicate lamb’s quarters were sautéed with garlic and plenty of olive oil before being incorporated into frittatas, blanched amaranths got tossed with spaghetti and salty cheese, and juicy purslane found its way into countless tomato and herb salads.
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.