All Photos this Post by Kenji Miura
We were sitting in the breakfast room of our 80-year-old Japanese farmhouse when my brother-in-law reached across the 1900’s oak pedestal table and passed me an ochre yellow book with a wide red cloth binding. The book caught my eye even before I read the title: The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution. By who else...Alice Waters.
It was early November of 2007 and the book was one of the gifts my sister and her husband had brought when they came from California for a visit.
I opened the Simple Food cookbook and leafed through some pages, skimming recipes and checking the overall organization, but almost immediately slammed the book shut. My sister glanced up, startled, as I blurted out, “This is the book that I want to write.”
In 1991, I started teaching cooking to Japanese ladies (and some men) and through those classes, slowly built up a base of recipes in Japanese for a cookbook. The original classes were held on Sundays and included a small glass of wine. It was more of a social event or a chance for the students to try new food, than anything else. As I began to understand this, I changed the focus of the classes. By this time, I had already started the Sunny-Side Up! Kindergarten/Preschool and the mothers were interested in cooking the food that I was cooking for their kids. It had been fun for the ladies to try Wolfgang Puck or Rick Bayless-style food, but the truth is, I wasn’t really cooking that food anymore either. So we stuck to basic recipes likes gratins, pastas, stews and meat patties that could be altered with the seasons and available ingredients.
But I digress.
Alice Waters’ book, The Art of Simple Food, may be the most well thought out comprehensive cookbooks I have ever read. It just makes sense. Also the bolding of ingredients within the narrative recipe format is essential for the busy cook. I know, since I use that style too when writing recipes for the teachers and students in my school.
I’m a bit superstitious of being influenced by other writing, so am careful not to read comments or reviews before I read something and I am very careful not to read anything with a similar style as mine when I’m writing a piece. I dared not open Simple Food because it shared the same flavors and approach as the book I had been formulating for Japanese readers. I did sneak another look around Thanksgiving that year and made the Herbed Almonds and Marinated Chard (both big hits). And needing inspiration for my school lunches and family dinners, I peaked in just a bit more and found the most addicting meatballs with Parmesan cheese. I also made the polenta and fashioned a polenta torta the next day for the SSU! kids. The adults swooned, but the kids weren’t buying the mixture of cornmeal, cheese and tomato sauce. Many Japanese kids (including my own) are not wild about corn-related flavors.
Eventually though, I decided to stop being silly—partly because of a conversation I had with Kelsie Kerr, the ex-Chez Panisse Head Chef who had worked on Simple Food with Alice Waters. Once again, I reviewed the organization and thought behind the planning of Simple Food and the closer I looked, the more genius it seemed.
Last year I became involved in a project to translate Alice’s latest book, Edible Schoolyard and along the way eventually got drawn into unofficially consulting on the Japanese translation of The Art of Simple Food. Some talk surfaced that the Japanese would have a hard time understanding or even duplicating this “simple food” that Alice writes about. I had to shake my head ruefully and mentally roll my eyes. I’ve been cooking this ingredient-driven quasi-Mediterranean California “soul food” for more years than I can count. Ok, about 32—22 years of which have been while in Japan. And hands down, of all the food I make for my guests, this food is the favorite of kids and adults, alike.
In mid July every year we do a big summer party on the brick patio under the chestnut and maple trees in the backyard of Sunny-Side Up! (our first family home, now a dedicated school). This year I was busy with my book proposal and keeping abreast of the field, so despite setting a date on the calendar, never actually sent out invites. I hoped the summer party would slip away unnoticed. Alas, that was not to be the case. Toward the end of August, Christopher suddenly turned to me at dinner and asked, “Aren’t we doing the summer party this year?”
Christopher was home from college in Portland for a month and somehow it was hard to refuse his request to do the party, despite knowing his offer of help would not amount to much actual cooking assistance. Luckily my ex-student-babysitter-mother’s helper-party assistant-globe trotting friend, Yoshie Takahashi, was back from two years working in Burkina Faso, Africa. The day before the party, we slipped into our old rhythm of cooking together and managed to finish 9 out of the 14 dishes planned for the following day. The rest I had already prepared earlier in the week or that morning. But one reason the cooking slid by so effortlessly was that I had decided to use recipes from The Art of Simple Food as they were second nature to me. Also it was a chance to test the theory that, in fact, this food was completely doable in Japan.
And as it turned out, this year’s Summer Party was the most effortless of all (though it might have not looked that way to the guests, since just serving up for 40 people takes a bit of time). I also loved the feel of the afternoon. As usual, we had a mixture of old friends, new friends, and even some little SSU! kids zooming around on tricycles and pulling wagons in the backyard. It had been a hot summer, but under the trees we stayed moderately cool and the rosé and beer didn’t hurt.
The food brought our guests together around the table, ebbing and flowing in and out as the afternoon wore on and the dishes appeared. I separated the food in groups: immediate nibbles easily served as soon as people arrive; a bunch of vegetable dishes eaten with toasted bread in the middle of the afternoon; and then some barbecued meat and vegetable accompaniments towards the end. And finally cold coffee and ice cream to send them along their way. I loved how the small kids, teenagers and adults all melded together in a homogenous group, sharing food and swapping stories. And was glad Christopher had pushed me to make the effort.
And I loved that Harigaya-san’s mountain group came to dance their wild lion dance to express their appreciation for the food. They set up their “stage” in the back portion of the yard under the chestnut trees and we gathered around as the drummers began beating a deep reverberating cadence and Harigaya-san joined in with the sweet strands of haunting flute notes. The shishimai dancers ducked behind trees and coyly feinted a grappling sort of “fight,” sometimes lunging into the crowd, “biting” at the heads of the watchers. The more intrepid kids held their ground, while some hid behind their mothers. We don’t censor here, Japanese love the phantasmagoric type of spirits that abound in their old stories and customs. With some matter of fact reassuring words, the kids accept that they know the guy under the outlandish wooden headgear and billowing antique green-swirled cloth garb. “It’s just Adam,” I say, for one of the dancers is an ex-teacher who now lives in the mountains with his wife and baby.
And as the dance ends and the musicians and dancers make their way back to the patio, guests once again, they leave the drums and cymbals for the kids to try. Four-year-old Minami jumps behind the biggest drum and throws herself into beating with joyous abandon. Kyo and Eric join on the smaller drums. Knowing the kids, my instinct is to worry about the drums, but I love the naïve trust the musicians have and let it go. And it is a beautiful thing to see the kids letting themselves get carried away by the beat.
Dusk approaches and the guests start to drift away, though some stay to help pack up the food and wash the plates. And as we finish our last glass of wine, two of the drummers perform a special fire dance as thanks to Tadaaki and I. With the insistent pound of the drums punctuating his moves, the first dancer, bare chest glistening in the firelight swings two chains attached with round balls of fire. He spins his chains round and round, painting circles of fire. I am mesmerized by the fire and wish for my camera, but do not want to break the mood. The next dancer emerges from behind a tree and joins the other dancer who smoothly yields the “floor.” This second dancer twirls his long baton-like pole with two burning cloth ends, sometimes tossing and catching the pole in mid air. And the drum beats on. Powerful and elemental. Under the trees. In the dark. A moment in time never to be repeated and impossible to capture on film or paper.
Okra Pickles: Of all the dishes I served that day, the one that every person commented on was the okra pickles. Granted, the okra was from our field and a special variety that doesn’t get tough, even when it gets a little oversized, but this is just a great pickle recipe. Earlier in the year I made pickled carrot coins for a party and enjoyed munching on the leftovers before dinner for the weeks following. An important point is to keep the okra whole so the seeds don’t escape. Also whole okra are easy to eat and look so fantastic. I hope you still have okra in your area to make these, though you could alternatively use little cauliflower florets, turnip wedges, onion quarters or whole green beans. Alice Waters suggests substituting red wine for the white, or adding some saffron, other kinds of dried chiles, or sliced jalapeños. I tend to make the recipe as is, but use organic rice vinegar and throw in more of the called for herbs and spices.
Fresh-Pickled Vegetables (The Art of Simple Food): Prepare brine (about 3½ cups) and bring to a boil: 1½ cups white wine vinegar, 1¾ cup water, 2½ Tbsp sugar, ½ bay leaf, 4 thyme sprigs, ½ a small dried red chile pepper (cayenne or árbol) or a pinch dried chile flakes, ½ tsp coriander seeds, 2 cloves, 1 peeled, halved garlic clove, and a large pinch of salt. Simmer vegetable pieces in brine (only one type at a time) until no longer raw, but still crunchy. Scoop vegetable pieces out of brine and let cool. If you have cooked more than one type of vegetable wait until they are all cooled before combining with cooled brine and refrigerating. The pickles keep well.