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.
You never forget your first quince. I first saw this strange fruit while driving through rice paddies on the western outskirts of Matsumoto, in mountainous central Japan. The trees themselves were small and scraggly, their knotted branches laden with the golden, apple-like fruit. Though tempted to jump out of the car and gather a few, I continued on, only to discover that quinces were practically impossible to find at Japanese markets. Even here in New York, quinces are remarkably difficult to come by, appearing only sporadically in the autumn. Yet as any quince aficionado knows, finding the fruit is only the beginning, for they take as much perseverance to procure as to prepare.
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.
Ohisashiburi desu ne. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It feels good to be back, though in some sense I’m not really back but rather away. Pieces of this post were written some time ago, but as usual I let them languish in some dusty corner of my computer for weeks. Then in October I left Japan and embarked on a month-long trip through Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, and now, France. (Next: Iceland.) Rest assured, though: I expect to resume a more normal posting schedule once I return to the States at the end of this month. Until then, here are some snapshots and musings from a very memorable meal.
It’s been nearly a month since my last post. Truthfully, there hasn’t been much time for contemplation or writing. I’ve been rather busy at work in preparation for an upcoming (i.e.: leaving tomorrow!) trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. Cooking has also taken a backseat, hence the lack of recipe posts lately. Most nights, I resort to simple stir-fries, pastas, and rice bowls. Though delicious, they’re not very blog-worthy. (Nor very photogenic. The fluorescent lighting in my apartment certainly doesn’t help matters.)
But enough excuses. I’m here to write!
Despite the silence, I have been eating well lately. The cooler weather has thankfully brought back my appetite for ramen as well as Korean food. I enjoyed an excellent, extremely garlicky meal of the latter with my friend Saori in Shinokubo (Tokyo’s Koreatown). Matusmoto also has its fair share of Korean shops and eateries, one of which Steven and I tried on a particularly chilly, wet day in October. Two words: soondubu jjigae. With clams. Amazing.