My friend Brian, he of raw milk and smuggled French cheeses, lives in a Japanese-influenced mid-century modern home in Pasadena. Approaching the house from the street, you come up a few steps to a large door framed by stained glass windows. Inside the door is not the interior of the house, but a raised, covered wooden deck bridge through a Japanese garden that connects front entrance and front doors.
A couple years back, upon our first visit to his house, I commented that I wanted to do a winter kaiseki dinner on the bridge during a rainstorm.
I often present friends with interesting home situations with my wild ideas about dinners I want to do there (such as the winter storm seafood dinner I wanted to do at our friends’ Steve McQueen Malibu beach house), but rarely receive more than a polite nod. But Brian seemed enthusiastic. Then — now! — a couple years later, I receive a text from Brian. “We missed the storm! But there’s rain in the forecast for next weekend. Shall we do our dinner?” He didn’t have to ask me twice.
It was pouring in Topanga, as if someone had taken a knife and split open the swollen belly of the black cloud above, when we left for Pasadena. But sometimes the rainclouds get stuck on our coastal mountains, and the sky was blue by the time we reached Pasadena. Nonetheless, Brian had set out his traditional kotatsu table onto the bridge surrounded by paper lanterns and plum blossoms, I had brought a bag full of ama ebi, striped bass, wagyu beef, simmered duck and other delights, and we would eat well.
The kotatsu on the bridge
The front door was opened not by Brian, but by his new friend Makkie, a very giggly and beautiful Japanese woman. This was a trap, I immediately concluded — like some domestic version of “Iron Chef,” a test of my meddle. You think you’re a Japanese chef, hot shot? I imagined Brian thinking to himself. Try cooking for a REAL Japanese person! But I didn’t shrink from the challenge — it was ON! I’d cooked French food for French people, Italian for Italians, Mexican for Mexicans… I’d even done chicken Kiev for our Ukrainian friends. I wasn’t easily intimidated.
We drank Japanese beer in the kitchen and then moved to the kotatsu. The blue skies had clouded over, and it was drizzling. The first course was raw ama ebi sweet shrimp and striped bass sashimi with herb flowers and a salad of greens — miner’s lettuce, sour grass and mustard greens — I had foraged that morning in Topanga.
“Oishi!” Makkie giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. Delicious, Brian translated. One point for the challenger!
Next we moved on to duck legs and thighs that had been long-braised in apple cider, sake and dashi broth, cubes of kabocha pumpkin lightly cooked in the finished broth. More “oishi,” more points for the chef.
Simmered duck and pumpkin
Leslie, Brian and Makkie
From our beer, we had also moved on to sake. Makkie had brought a good bottle, and Brian had several to contribute as well. I once did a post on the evocative names the Japanese give their sakes — “Wandering Poet” or “Mansion of Dreams” — and while I didn’t catch the names of these particular sakes, each was more delicious than the last.
The kaiseki dinner, for those not in the know, is a formal and highly ritualized occasion in Japan. It is sort of the Japanese version of — and, I would hazard, the precursor to — the popular Western “chef’s tasting menu”: a series of small, seasonal dishes exquisitely prepared and presented. Some of the formality less typical of a Western meal comes from the prescribed ordering of the dishes. I’ve never been able to quite unravel precisely the rules and regulations, but it goes something like this: you begin with sashimi, followed by a simmered dish, followed by a grilled dish, followed by a steamed dish, followed by…
Tempura — sorrel leaves, wild mushrooms, shiso leaf with sea urchin
Fried ama ebi with sea urchin noodles and Chinese fermented bamboo shoot
By nature, I like to break with tradition. So I took the spirit of kaiseki, with its attention to detail and season, and abandoned the formality. My tempura course — sorrel leaves, wild mushrooms, shiso leaf with sea urchin — might’ve jumped ahead of my grilled course. And where in the instructions does it say anything about a noodle course!??
“Oishi” was my guiding principle for the night.
During my preparation of one of the courses, Makkie came into the kitchen carrying plates. She wanted to know how I learned Japanese cooking, where I got my ingredients. She wanted to watch and learn. Yes, I believed, the challenger had won the competition.
Wagyu steak — the “grilled” course
The promised rain still hadn’t come. We’d had a beautiful dinner, and after the final course of wagyu zabuton steak with broiled eggplant and fresh wasabi raw butter, we sat luxuriating under the heated blanket that covered our legs. The roar of rain pouring down all around us while we ate was not to be.
“It was a test run,” Brian said.
The kids were tired, it was time to go home.
Imogen under the kotatsu
It was, of course, still raining when we got home to Topanga. The clouds had gotten stuck. But then I received a text from Brian:
“Began raining just after you left. Makkie and I just chilled out on the deck and enjoyed the rain.”
I was glad someone got to.
* * *
Braised duck with kabocha pumpkin
2 legs & thighs duck
1 tsp. vegetable oil
salt & pepper
1/2 cup dashi broth
1/2 cup apple juice
1/2 cup sake
1 cup cubed kabocha pumpkin
With a cleaver, remove the knobby bone from the end of the duck leg (chop it off) about 1/2 inch from the end. Chop the leg/thigh into 2 or 3 sections, depending on preference. Season liberally with salt and pepper.
In a small saucepan, heat the tsp. oil over medium high until it begins to smoke. Sear the duck, skin side down as applicable, until brown, about one minute. Turn over and sear the other side.
Reduce heat to medium and add three liquids. Bring to a simmering boil, lower heat to low, cover and cook for 90 minutes.
Remove from heat. Let cool, then remove duck and strain stock. (This can be done the day before serving.)
Place duck pieces under a broiler and broil until golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes depending on heat and proximity to heating source. While duck is broiling, place stock in a small saucepan over medium heat. When it begins to simmer, add pumpkin cubes and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
Scoop some stock and pumpkin cubes into each of 4 shallow bowls. Top with 1-2 pieces of duck and serve.