20080914

Comfort Food

One thing I missed this summer was the abundance of a variety of super-fresh produce and specialty grocery items unless I wanted a long commute. I can understand the produce issue, as California's terroir supports a variety of crops almost year-round, while England has a relatively limited growing season. However, being a fairly large port city, Bristol should have ready access to a variety of "exotic" items. Perhaps I didn't explore the right places.  I did find out about a local organic market the week before I left, and I'm disappointed I didn't have the chance to explore it.

I also missed being able to cook in my kitchen on my stove with my cooking paraphernalia, so on my first opportunity after returning home, I decided to make oden, a stew, and chawan mushi, a savory custard.  I made the stock (or dashi) first, a deceptively simple task.  It is easy to make from scratch, but also easily ruined if you don't pay attention.  Good dashi has the faintest tint, a subtly earthy scent and an equally subtle, but rich flavor.  This batch was not my best, but it was good, and worlds better than the instant version that is mixed with water.

I began the prep, enjoying the weight and feel of the well-balanced Wüsthof chef's knife inherited from my grandmother, and the precision of the sashimi knife (also inherited -- carbon steel, a pain to care for, but worth the effort).  I even appreciated my faithful wood cutting board, which is still in pristine condition for the most part, because it's hand washed and oiled regularly.

As I reached for the age (pron. ah' geh), a spongy fried form of tofu, I realized it, and Piglet, were missing.  Arrggghh!!!  I ran to the living room and there on the back porch was the dog, swallowing her prize and attempting to look innocent.  Easy come, easy go, I guess.  I headed back to the kitchen, grabbed two new age sheets chopped them into manageable pieces.

While the stew simmered and the custard steamed, I picked a few lemons from my trees to squeeze on the jicama and little yellow pear tomatoes (it didn't fit with the rest of the meal, but I was in the mood for it).  My grandfather planted Meyer lemons long before they were popular.  Until recently, most of the people taking the fruits were my neighbors, which is okay, because I can't use them all and I live in a working class neighborhood, where sharing is always appreciated.  In the last 10 years, people from "good" neighborhoods who wanted free Meyers began stealing them, so I stripped them of their loot and chased them off, because they could afford them.  Yeah, I'm mean.

Back inside, I pulled the custard from the steamer, plated the stew and salad, and sat down with a bottle of nigori sake to wash it down.  As usual, Steve drank most of the bottle, and I drank enough for moral support.  I savored the warm, soft custard, filled with bits of shiitake, chicken, carrot and shallots - it is one of my favorite comfort foods. 

After we ate, Steve came to my room holding the leftover konyaku, a yam cake with an unusual texture that is an acquired taste for most people.  I had used it in the oden.  He asked "hey, are you missing this?"

"Umm, I don't think so, but I haven't been back in the kitchen."

"Well, Piglet had it in her little corner.  I don't think she liked it though, because it's still intact."

One thing I didn't miss this summer was having to keep constant watch on my food.