Some highlights from the Nodoguro Firefly series of dinners.
Our July Tanabata themed dinners are now underway. We have been transitioning into midsummer quite smoothly with the help of Phantom Rabbit Farms. We have enjoyed the first baby japanese cucumbers and summer burdock, which were the stars of our sunomono course. We served the first oregon mackerel and sardines of the season, offered our first meat course, and saw the first mature mustard greens and mizuna from the farm. We have been having lots of fun creating dishes from what is at its best. We are very much looking forward to what August brings.
We had a great day out in the field picking Japanese apricots. Most of the haul will be salt preserved and slightly dried to make Umeboshi. I plan to make these available on the Nodoguro menu next winter/spring. There will be updates on the blog as the umeboshi project progresses. Thanks to Gary Okazaki and Jane Hashimawari for a great summer afternoon.
Our next set of dinners at Nodoguro are underway. We have had a lot of fun putting these dinners together. The sourcing has been the greatest adventure and taught me (more than ever before) to expect surprises. We work with Phantom Rabbit Farm to source our produce for Nodoguro. Mark and Melissa run the farm and have planted lots of beautiful ingredients we want to serve. It has been amazing to have input about what vegetables we will be serving before they are planted and using ingredients at different stages of development to capture a specific seasonality with our menu. The availability of local seafood is the other driving force of the menu at Nodoguro. Initially, I hoped to forecast what would be on our menu about a week in advance, but two days has been more realistic for local seafood. Our menu is at the mercy of the weather until the ingredients are actually off the boat and headed to us and we have dealt with a couple “day of” surprises. For this set of dinners, we are focused on the contrast of fresh bright flavors against more big, smoky, and fulfilling flavors. We have created some fun dishes and more big menu changes are coming up.
For our end of spring dinners, we let the available ingredients dictate the look of the menu we offered. We hoped for a single element or idea to shape the dishes into an expression of the our style of cooking, season, and location. My favorite dish that we created on this menu was born from last year’s Shimonita leeks flowering and starting to go to seed. Our obsessive reverence for the Shimonita can be referenced in earlier blog posts if you would like to know more about them. We are collaborating with Mark and Melissa from Phantom Rabbit Farm to use ingredients that work thematically, but suggest real time seasonality. These Shimonitas were little more than sprouts 15 months ago, but some of them remained in the ground all the way through the winter and spring to produce this compact and intense delivery system for the flavor and aroma of the vegetable. From this sprang the idea to create a unique version of Miso simmered Mackerel, which was the staff meal obsession of my early days in the kitchen. We combined a deep dark hatcho miso with ginger crisps, Shimonita flowers and shoots, and boneless Mackerel steaks. No one commented on the Mackerel’s lack of bones, but it was worth every bit of effort to remove them.
Stop me if I say this every year…This has been the best spring
Thanks to a certain Japanese celebrity chef, Miso Black Cod has become a symbol. The black cod has become the yard stick used by some guests to measure the quality of a japanese or “fusion” menu and often a go to for the uninspired kitchen. Due to the stigma I attach to this dish, we had avoided preparing it altogether. However we are in the northwest. Not utilizing black cod, gindara, sablefish, or whatever you want to call it, is missing an opportunity to make the most of our local bounty. Our black cod comes fresh, glistening, and vibrant from the coast, not a grey/yellow, freezer-burnt mess. The trials began to create a dish that is unique and reflective of my style and philosophy, but is not too unfamiliar to those guests holding rulers. After much work and constant tweaking we came up with a signature preparation for our local jewel. The cod is cured in sake lees, salt, and sugar. Then it is smoked, broiled, and finished. In the end, this dish has captured my love of our local ingredients and japanese cooking technique and aesthetic.
There has been lots going on in the kitchen this week. We had an early meeting with Phantom Rabbit Farms to plan for planting and decide what types of crops will be in the ground this season. Mark and Melissa will be growing all of what worked best for us last year and bringing in some new vegetables, as well. Really excited about the introduction of kamonasu and icicle daikon this year. We have also made time to work on improving dishes, which had been in development fir a while. We have focused on deep and comforting flavors this winter, but hope to add some subtly and sophistication in the end. In the spirit of utilizing every scrap of our best ingredients, we have begun to utilize roasted Sea Bream consommé as a component in our improved version of Black Trumpet mushroom tofu. The tofu’s texture is developed using kuzu starch. Our Ojiya, or stewed rice has also been further developed, using sasanishiki rice, seasoned dashi, cultured sea urchin butter, crab, and mitsuba. Lots more planned for next week.
We have been finishing our cold months with a challenge. Pushing ourselves to make the most out of the products we have, in order to create memorable dishes from what we have left in the “pantry”. As we begin planning for next year with Phantom Rabbits Farm, I am reminded of the brilliant ingredients that came from their farm every week and begin to long for the spring. We plan to do it just a little better this year, but have learned in the meanwhile that our guest like Sea Bream heads, aged pickles, fish bone senbei, skin salads, and aromatized tofus!
We have had the pleasure of working with lots of great mackerel over the past year. Saba, in my humble opinion, is the most flavorful and versatile fish we work with. The preparation options are nearly endless, but the one that seems to showcase the quality of the fish and craft of the chef is “Shimesaba”. This is made by salt curing mackerel and finishing it with vinegar. It is the most simple of any process. I believe this simplicity is what makes it impossibly complex.
The chef I worked under, whom I most admired, would come in hours before the rest of our crew and do all the most important skill work and leave as prep began. I learned the most about curing the hikarimono from him. I started arriving to work when he did because I realized I was missing the most important part of working with him. At first he was annoyed by my presence, but soon I began learning what I hoped I might. Many or perhaps most chefs create a recipe for Shimesaba for his cooks to follow. The recipe will dictate times for the salt and the vinegar phases. What I learned from my chef was that the mackerel is always different. This is still true if you always use the same type of saba, but especially true if you are always using different varieties. We have used Seki Saba, Japanese masaba, Korean masaba, Norwegian, Scottish, and Oregon masaba in the last year. When I work with such beautiful fish, my approach is to avoid screwing them up and let them express their best qualities. Each variety is unique in regard to size, fat content, density, and flavor. In order to do your best work, you must start each cure accordingly. I’m still practicing. Someday I will get it right.