The slight but meaningful increase in temperature from last week to this–from 40s to 50s, basically–has made a huge impact outside, not least in the form of turning our last two winter storm warnings into plain old rain. All those tentative early shoots have emboldened, and are pushing forth with enthusiasm. It rained again today, and I’ve been leaving the plastic off the hooped salad bed so it can soak up the water. Today I got some asparagus crowns so I can put in another bed parallel to the existing one but outside the garden fence since the deer ignore it. I grabbed a few herbs to stick in the herb garden, and some lavender to go in a bed outside the front garden fence. Once it’s in, all four sides of the garden will have mulched beds or just plain mulch outside them, which should provide an extra measure of protection against the tenacious and ever-encroaching lawn.
While I picked this stuff up, along with less-sexy things like rock phosphate, lime, and green sand to amend the big-ass truck full of compost that’s coming tomorrow, I also hit the fish counter since the store in question has a decent one. Soft-shell crabs are in season, and Milo loves them, so I got three. I also bought a nice Pacific albacore steak, figuring that some tataki would be a nice complement to crispy fried crab.
Fresh yuzu are hard to find in this country, and many authentic Japanese dishes are impossible to duplicate without that wonderfully sharp tang that the little citruses provide. Thinking about this recently, it occurred to me that Meyer lemons would be a decent substitute, since like yuzu they are a hybrid where one parent is the mandarin; they share a particular resinous intensity to their perfume and are much easier to come by. So this meal became a test of that hypothesis. I’m all about the science.
To begin, I wanted to make something I thought of weeks ago when I brought these plates back from the ceramics studio. The green glaze suggested something bright orange, so I used the peeler to turn a few carrots into long noodly strips. I did the same with one stalk of de-stringed celery, the kneaded them all in a bowl with a fat pinch of salt until they gave up their liquid. I rinsed them off, squeezed them out, added a sliced scallion, and tossed the lot in a meyer lemon vinaigrette (lemon juice, sesame oil, fish sauce, umeboshi paste). It made a nice salad, with that wonderful quick-pickled silky crunch and good flavors in the dressing. A topping of black sesame seeds and togarashi added their own distinct notes.
I seared the fish briefly on all sides, which is the thing to do with non-sushi grade fish when we still want to eat it raw, then sliced it and dressed it with ponzu made from local soy sauce, a little mirin, and meyer lemon juice. Lacking jalapeño, I scattered some scallions around for a litte greenery and bite. The ponzu was pretty respectable, I must say, and while it wouldn’t fool an expert, it did the job handsomely with the fish.
I dredged the crabs in corn flour seasoned with salt, pepper, and a pinch of yellow curry powder and then fried them in safflower oil until all crispy and splendid. For these guys, I whipped up a quick Asian tartar sauce of sorts: sesame oil-flavored mayonnaise with meyer lemon, sriracha, and fermented red cabbage-carrot pickle. I added a fistful of cilantro for greenery and crabular embellishment. It was hard to argue with this plate of food, and once again the lemon did a good job where yuzu would have been the first choice.
Seek out yuzu (and their close relatives sudachi and kabosu) by all means; their hypnotic flavors and aromas are integral to Japanese cuisine and culture. Good Asian markets should have them. But if you’re unable to find them fresh–the bottled juices are definitely not the same–Meyer lemons can make a serviceable substitute. Where Mickey Rooney’s ghastly, cringe-inducing, unwatchably racist buffoonery in Breakfast at Tiffany’s ruined what should be a classic, Meyer lemons are instead a respectful concession to local (-ish; at least they’re domestic) eating that give some real sense of the wonderful subtle complexity of the real thing.