In a grove
(mid march. number 59.)
Lucas Winiarski and I have been friends since we were 11 years old. In those days, we were both overweight sweatpants kids who loved every secret moment with the chip bag. We started cooking together shortly after college, and have been doing this project for 5 years. We understand how the other works, when it comes to food.
Lucas took the lead on the concept/planning stage of this dinner, I worked with him to flesh out all the ideas, and Sofie worked to keep us both in check and make sure the thing actually panned out as planned.
Making Japanese food with Lucas, back in the day, when I hadn't much practice, was very inspirational. He knew the ingredients well and had a graceful way with them– he knew how they talked to each other, so to speak, and I could see that. We did one Japanese themed dinner during our "practice" phase of early 2010, and in the years since it's one of the cuisines I've grown into cooking (Nancy Singleton-Hachisu's Japanese Farm Food really paving the way) often for myself. I think Sofie has just always had a handle on everything in the kitchen, so who knows if she had a learning curve– the point is, on this night, it certainly worked.
The title of this dinner, 'In A Grove,' comes from the short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa which inspired the 1950 Kurosawa film. I was reading it when I made my first successful Japanese style noodle soup.
The sequence of beverages and food was more important in this meal than some, so we'll look at it piece by piece, as they appeared on the menu.
All the lemons in this meal were very special and deserve top billing. They were sent in a box from my not-aunt, Sheila Ryskamp, who lives in California and has a lemon tree. So, as close to home grown as we could possible get.
Once, visiting New York City during college, I ended up at a Japanese bar notorious for serving underage NYU students. The place was packed, so the only spot for my group was outside on the patio. An elderly lady came around with a cart, serving free, warm sake, to encourage people to stay (and order more.) We stayed, and eventually they ran out of the sake they had been serving, and came out instead with some unfiltered, creamy sake. They explained how it usually wasn't served warm, but they had gently heated it for us, because it really was that cold. The memory has stuck forever, and I've always had a taste for unfiltered sake.
fois gras pumpkin seed bite
Lucas's friend Samantha lives in Paris and every time they visit each other, some fois gras is exchanged. As a result, Lucas had more fois gras than he could handle (an absurd situation) and wanted to do a sort of a fusion-thing with it.
He also has this amazing styrian pumpkin seed oil. So he made a paste of pumpkin seeds and fois gras, then put it on a japanese edible leaf of some kind, and drizzled it with the oil. Eaten in one bite, chased by the little cup of warm sake, was amazing, to say the least.
douglas fir toasted rice green tea cocktail
I had gathered and dried some Douglas Fir tips in the spirit of Juniper Ridge's Douglas Fir Tip Tea. It being time to harvest new ones, we decided to infuse this Korean vodka with them, mix it with iced germaicha (green tea, toasted rice, and matcha), and serve it weird-margarita style, with lemon and a toasted rice and sugar rim.
buckwheat noodle and spring root vegetables
Our own buckwheat noodles, harukai turnips, a few kinds of radishes, green garlic (S.G.), sushi ginger, minor's lettuce (Hungry Gardener), delicious dressing, flowers (S.G.).
bitter green salad with kombu ponzu
Our own frisseé (S.G.) that overwintered this year and was featured in dinners 56 and 58, given a classy and simple dressing of kombu ponzu, grape seed oil, and a little rice vinegar, finished with mustard flowers (S.G.)
a soup to nourish
An unctuous duck broth, with a piece of sushi grade yellowtail lightly poached in each bowl, kissed with strips of sorrel (S.G.).
alternative: I made one for the vegetarian/pescetarians in the house. Rehydrated dried shitake mushrooms, kombu, Red River miso, wakame, and wasabi oil, with silken tofu poached in each bowl.
duck breast with nettles
Nettles hand harvested by me and pro-wildcrafter Aria Mikkola-Sears, of Portland Apothecary, a past frequent contributor to Secret Restaurant. Steamed in our 3 story chinese steamer, then blended with seasonings into a heartier version of white sushi rice, to make a delicious sort of japanese/northwest version of a boring spinach pilaf.
Topped with slices of exquisitely prepared duck breast and a sauce made from its dripping + light soy, oyster sauce and mirin, dusted with beautiful japanese micro greens.
"Behind the scenes" story. A few guests were added to this meal at the last minute, so by the time we'd plated and served this main course, there was only one, tiny plate left for the three of us in the kitchen. It was delicious, but a little sad. So, while everyone out front was enjoying their delicate fancy plate, we tore the remaining flesh off the duck used for the soup, tossing it into the drippings from the roasting tin, then piled that onto a bowl of Juanita's tortilla chips, shook over some Trader Giotto's canned parmesan, and ate like wild animals with our greasy fists, while no one was looking.
alternative: I made "thousand layer tofu" triangles (tofu frozen, then shallow fried, the ice crystals popping inside the tofu to create fantastic texture), which were heavily marinated (a gingery-soy) dressing after cooking, then layered into a sort of sandwich with raw silken tofu (from Ota, a Japanese style tofu manufacturer in operation, in Portland, since 1910).
mochi with sesame brittle & decorations
Lucas and I painstakingly made these three flavors of mochi the night before, while the downstairs neighbors had a house show. We took a break to go downstairs, in our aprons, and check out the music.
We made one with black walnut liqueur (made by Sofie's mom, Mary, using black walnuts from their garden) in the dough, one with apricot/almond paste in the center, and another with coconut caramel (we made it, for the ice cream at New Year's, and had saved a small jar in the freezer) in the center.
Lucas had this fantastic idea for sesame brittle made with duck fat. I improvised making it, using insanely good black sesame seeds (we just picked the right bag at Uwajamaya) and toasted tan sesame seeds. People were freaking out over it, devouring every last piece and telling us to start manufacturing it to sell in stores, so we feel pretty good about it.
The decorations ended up being some lovely pieces of starfruit. Lucas has a thing for tropical fruits, because he grew up in (and did some farming in) Hawaii; its juicy weirdness was the perfect compliment to mochi's starchy weirdness and the sesame brittle's in-your-face fatty deliciousness.