September 3, 2014

Dear friends:

I’m back from Japan but I’m so jet lagged I haven’t tried to recreate any of my favorite vacation dishes yet. Some I fear I’ll never clone, chief among them the amazing miso ramen at Mogura restaurant in Sapporo. Tony and I got tired of hunting for the city’s famous ramen alley so we ducked into a miniature ramen alley (Ganso Sapporo Ramen Yokocho) of three or four ramen restaurants in the city’s Susukino entertainment district. Mogura looked the most promising so, despite the 90-degree day, we plopped onto two stools (no tables here) and ordered the steaming bowls of soup.

It was our lucky day. Our tired feet and the sweat trickling into our collars were forgotten with the first spoonsful of the ambrosial ramen. Tony’s face was beatific as he reverently pronounced it the best ramen he had ever eaten. “How could I ever recreate this?” I countered in despair.

Yes, I’ve made darn good ramen at home, with a broth that takes two days to prepare. But this ramen broth was so complex and downright delicious that other ramens will forever pale in comparison. This was the Marcel Proust of ramen noodles.

But I digress. My notebook is filled with notes of meals eaten, supermarkets visited and refrigerators raided. We spent a week in Tony’s hometown of Bibai with his parents, brother, an uncle and two aunts, and a week in nearby Sapporo with forays to the surrounding countryside. We had interesting food wherever we went.

I will write about all of it and also share your memories of vacation food that I solicited before I went. But not today. Since returning home Aug. 18 I’ve slept, tried to tame my overgrown vegetable garden, slept, caught up with friends and relatives and slept. I’ve also cooked a bit with the vegetables and herbs that grew ferociously in my absence. One session yielded a sunny-flavored lemon pesto pasta with Sun Gold tomatoes and slivers of ham. After eating a bowl of it with Tony, we fell back into bed.

My jet lag is almost licked so I’ll start cooking vacation dishes soon. Until then, here’s my recipe for a quick meal from the garden.

MID-SUMMER LEMON PESTO PASTA

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  • 1/2 lb. angel hair pasta
  • 7 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup halved Sun Gold or other cherry tomatoes
  • 1 cup ham in matchstick pieces
  • 3 cloves peeled garlic
  • 2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • Coarse-ground pepper
  • Fresh-grated Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta in salted, boiling water until al dente. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Cook tomatoes cut sides down about 5 minutes, until they start to slump and release their juices but still mostly retain their shapes. Transfer to a large, shallow pasta serving bowl.

Sizzle ham in same skillet until meat is warm and edges begin to brown. Add to pasta bowl.
Drop garlic through the feed tube of a food processor with the motor running. Remove lid and add basil, lemon juice and salt. Replace lid and process until smooth while adding remaining 6 tablespoons olive oil through the feed tube.

Drain pasta and toss with ham, tomatoes and pesto sauce in bowl. Divide among three or four plates. Top with plenty of coarse-ground pepper and Parmesan and serve. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

TIDBITS

Visiting Northern Japan in the summer instead of the winter, as I did last time, was a revelation. Acres of light-green rice paddies and craggy, towering volcanos emitting wisps of steam were exotic counterpoints to the more familiar sweet corn and potato farms, two of the region’s main crops. I reveled in the farm markets, outdoor fish markets and well-stocked grocery stores, where I got a taste of both familiar and unfamiliar summer foods of Japan.

Here are five new things I tasted:

1. Hairy crab: A pinkish crab covered with very fine red hairs, about the size of a Dungeness. It’s sweet but not as sweet as Chesapeake  blue crab.

2. A nameless (to me), weird-looking green with moisture-plumped leaves, like a succulent. It is salty tasting and, according to my brother-in-law the chef, used mostly for tempura.

3. Mountain potato (yamaimo): These long tubers (up to 2 feet) grow wild in the mountains of Japan. The texture is crunchy-slippery. They are grated and mixed with tofu to make atsu age, an appetizer I’m fond of.

4. Baby green melon: No one could tell me the name of this unusual fruit but it was delicious. The petite oval melon is about the size of your hand. It looks like a miniature watermelon with its green-striped rind, but the pale green flesh is reminiscent of cantaloupe.

5. Miniature chocolate custard fish waffles: I wrote about the regular-sized fish waffles after my last trip to Japan, but these were adorable and stuffed with a rich chocolate pudding. They were just 3 inches long, making them the perfect two-bite snack. The only thing fishy about them is their shape. Two fish-shaped waffles are fused together around a filling of pudding or sweet red bean paste. Why the fish shape? Beats me.

THE MAILBAG

From Karen M.:
I was so disappointed to read in the Beacon Journal that the French Coffee Shoppe in  Cuyahoga Falls, has closed.  Loved their chicken crepes!  Anyone know of any place nearby that does great chicken crepe casseroles?

Dear Karen: I don’t know of any place that serves even bad chicken crepes. I think that dish, popular in various permutations in the 1960s and ‘70s, was unique  in current times to the French Coffee Shoppe. Recreating it at home would not be difficult with cooked chicken, crepes and veloute sauce. Consult Julia Child for details, but add way more sauce if you want it to taste like the restaurant’s.

From Joyce of Tallmadge:
I’ve used a potato masher for years to make egg salad. Cannot believe you hadn’t thought of that earlier.

I also found using a salad spinner is a great way to get rid of excess water when making pasta salads.  The spinner is also a great way to rinse pasta or to cool down pasta quicker.  Just put ice water in the bowl, add the pasta to the strainer, cool, and then drain off water, spin, and wallah! — you have cool pasta for a quick salad.

Dear Joyce: Sometimes I’m a slow learner. Thanks for the pasta tip.

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