Pristine, scenic Vancouver can be forgiven for thinking that it offers the best of the Northwest—Seattle without the grunge and the caffeine buzz. The cuisine that has evolved there in recent decades is similar to Seattle's, with beautifully fresh fish, mushrooms, and berries as the stars, supported by Asian condiments and techniques.
For example, at his celebrated sushi bar and restaurant Hidekazu Tojo puts into the best sushi I've ever tasted ingredients closely associated with both the Northwest and Japan: say, chilled avocado, zucchini, and mango and a single hot tempura shrimp wrapped in a thin slice of cucumber. His other dishes are just as original.
On a recent visit to Vancouver, I procured a recipe that demonstrates Tojo's ability to transform a few northwestern ingredients into a strikingly Asian-themed dish. It starts with sablefish, also called black cod, which is as richly flavored as (and even oilier than) Pacific salmon (it is unrelated to cod, and is found only in the Pacific). Jews have long known the lush glories of smoked sablefish, the Beluga of the deli counter, whose presence at a buffet denotes a milestone event.
I got the recipe from Nathan Fong, an indefatigable food stylist and cooking teacher who patiently guided me around the markets and various Chinatown neighborhoods (there are four) of Vancouver. "I eat Japanese as often as Chinese," Fong, the third generation of his Cantonese family to be in the food business, told me, reflecting the city's free mixing of Asian influences. "And Tojo's presentations are some of the most brilliant I've ever seen."
The dish is elegant in conception: marinated mushrooms and asparagus along with fresh mango slices are stuffed into smoked fillets and heated just until the flavors meld.
To serve two people generously or four as a first course, you'll need four quarter-pound fillets of smoked sablefish. If your fishmonger carries sablefish, ask for the fillets to be as close to square as possible. You can mail-order smoked sablefish from many sources, including Port Chatham, a highly regarded Seattle fish smoker, at www.portchatham.com. Taste the fillets, and if they seem excessively salty, rinse them carefully in cold water before using.
"Matsutake Fever" (January 10, 2001)
"Mushrooms—specifically, the large creamy-white to bronze-colored mushrooms called matsutakes—are in fact The Zoo's raison d'être." By Lawrence Millman
Few fresh mushrooms have the flavor of the matsutake (also called pine mushroom), a variety so prized in Japan that, like numerous other delicacies there, it has generated a near cult. Its texture is chewy, its flavor delicate, perfumed, and distinctive. Northwestern mushroom hunters swap fish stories about the huge matsutake they have come upon; commercial hunters in the Northwest are said to carry guns.
Dried matsutake are available, but they're not as good for eating and cooking as dried shiitake—the best substitute here for fresh matsutake (the dried ones are closer in flavor and texture to fresh matsutake). Fong points out that for safety it is important to cook dried mushrooms as thoroughly as you would fresh ones; simply soaking and reconstituting them can leave pathogens or larvae intact. Jack Czarnecki, a leading American writer of mushroom guides and cookbooks (A Cook's Book of Mushrooms is the easiest to use), calls overnight soaking "cruel and unusual punishment." He recommends placing dried mushrooms in water to cover, bringing them to a raging boil, and then simmering them over medium heat for about twenty minutes.