Stop me if I say this every year…This has been the best spring

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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My expectations were not particularly high when our friends at Phantom Rabbits Farms asked if I would be interested in some Shimonita negi 10 months ago. The Shimonita, which look like big, fat, juicy leeks, take the better part of a year to grow, but the flavor is otherworldly. I’ve been enamored by them ever since I watched a program on Japanese television about Shimonitas 15 years ago. Families would order their flat of the negi a year in advance and enjoy them with friends when they finally matured. The made it into a communal style Nabe (hot pot) with King Crab. To paraphrase the words of the head of this family: In a Hotpot, the other luxurious ingredients of winter (crab, in this case) become “bit” players in the presence of the shimonita.
After almost a year, we sampled the first shipment of Shimonita negi last week and my expectations were more than exceeded. The flavor, texture, and aroma of them were perfect and filled my thoughts with memories of this television show I had seen and been inspired by so many years before. We have recreated the nabe the family enjoyed in the show with many a twist and turn, but I hope our guests can enjoy the simple shimonita and Dungeness crab nabe without such a lengthy explanation. Once again I would like to thank Phantom Rabbit Farms for their efforts and their willingness to work with the unusual. This makes my job easier and a lot more fun.

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Fun tests with Kamasu. This was a fall special we served for omakase. Barracuda marinated in miso is a common flavor for the season. We intensified the flavors by adding a 24 hour air dry to the process.

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We are deep into the fall now and most of our favorite ingredients from earlier in the season are slowly fading away while making room for the next trove of seasonal flavors. The Oregon Albacore season has sadly ended, but the seasonal shift and the cold bring us monkfish with fat livers. “Ankimo” or Monfish Liver is a staple on the special menu of most every Sushi or Japanese restaurant in the states. In other places it is a truly luxurious ingredient served when the leaves have all changed color and begin to fall from the trees. The liver is also widely available as a frozen pre prepared item. There is even a smoked torchon of Monfish Liver that just hit the market available now from Azuma foods. If its house prepared, it is (almost) exclusively cleaned, rolled into “torchon,” and steamed. It is then sliced and served with green onion, grated daikon with chili, and citrus soy. I haven’t touched much Ankimo in the last few years, but this year I decided I wanted to offer a version that expresses its proper season and shows off the lusciousness of the Monkfish Liver. Ankimo are plagued with quality issues, especially when served out of season, so we prepared our dish from the most pristine liver we could find. It was deveined, cured, and poached in (ginger scented)sake until it was just cooked. The ankimo is moist and unctuous, but sliceable. This texture is hard to achieve from the torchon without the use of sous vide technology. It is served with scorched cippolini, fermented barley, pickled mushrooms, and dashi vinegar. We hope it is enjoyable but a bit unexpected and unusual for our guests.

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Our pickle machine is pickling in high gear. We have an array of other ferments and preserves adding a little swagger to our fall menu, but the Nuka crock (pickle machine) is our most dynamic tool of the fall.
The Nukadoko is made from salt, water, and rice bran for starters. You will also want to get some microbes,kelp, chili, and vegetable trim in there. From here I treat it like my little pickle producing pet. I feed him vegetables everyday and agitate the contents between feedings. The Nukadoko goes to work on the vegetables imprinting a little bit of himself on your food. The flavor is quite unusual and complex due to the microbial action.

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We are serving the first bonito of the season this week. It is yet another ritualistic event in the kitchen that reminds me of the passing of the seasons, the earth spinning at gut wrenching speed, impermanence, and other things of that sort. There are many types of bonito and each has distinct characteristics. My favorites are yaitogatsuo, hagatsuo, and hongatsuo, which is the one pictured above. This time of year the hongatsuo or “true” bonito is referred to as, modorigatsuo. This is because they are thought to return to their point of origin after following natural migration patterns. What is certain is that the are fat in the fall when they return. The hagatsuo and some other types, in my opinion, do not benefit from being seared over an open flame, but the “true” bonito does. It has fat trapped under its skin that only a few passes over a hot flame can unleash. The skin is generously salted, seared, and plunged into ice water in order to stop the cooking at just the right moment. The skin can be seared over any old flame, but at the moment we are playing with hay and oat straw to give it more of a classic feel and kobashii aroma. Our blend is being procured with the help of our friends at Phantom Rabbits Farm. To serve our katsuo no tataki (seared bonito sashimi) we garnish thick slices with japanese citrus, kanzuri, ginger, burdock crisps, and green onion. Old fashioned and delicious.

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