Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Oregon Wasabi

Over the course of this summer, I was introduced to the farmers of Oregon's only wasabi farm, Frog Eyes Wasabi. In fact, there are only four such farms in North America, all of them located on the Pacific coastline. This remarkable plant grows very slowly, taking over a year to mature. It requires the cool and steady maritime climate to stay healthy. This long growth cycle is part of the high cost of fresh wasabi, but as with so many great foods imported from other cultures, Americans have little understanding of wasabi.

The most widely used part of the plant is the rhizome, which we call wasabi root, and which few Americans have ever tasted. Sadly, most Americans have been to sushi bars serving blobs of green paste alongside their nigiri and maki rolls. This is powdered horseradish and green food coloring. It has a simple one dimensional nasal heat and no flavor or aroma. It is very cheap, but it is no substitute for wasabi. Real wasabi does have a spiciness like horseradish, but it also has a very complex vegetal flavor and floral aroma. These compounds are very volatile, and they dissipate within a few minutes of grinding them into paste. This is why wasabi is traditionally ground to order.

Although the cost of fresh wasabi is high, that is partly because supply is low, and supply is low because awareness is low. My friends at Frog Eyes are in their first year of production, and they are already having a difficult time meeting demand. We thought it would be fun for them to come to Park Kitchen and have a tasting menu with wasabi applied in different ways. I wanted to show them the potential of wasabi in cooking, so they could open up new ideas for their marketing.

The meal started with something familiar, oysters on the half shell, trout roe, and a granita of wasabi root. I hoped that the sight of the wasabi leaf, rocks and seaweed would invoke the feeling of being at the farm. From here, they tasted dishes using different parts of the plant, and pairing them with tomatoes, cucumber, tuna salad, beef and mushrooms. The main course was grilled ribeye with wasabi root butter, sauteed chanterelles, padron peppers, potcha beans, and a puree of wasabi leaves, which is a vivid emerald green with a bright spicy herbal flavor.

You may begin to see fresh wasabi on the shelves of Portland grocery stores like Whole Foods, New Seasons, or Uwajimaya. The rhizome is particularly hardy. You can store it in the refrigerator for several weeks and it will not deteriorate. However, once grated, the nuances fade rather quickly, so use it as soon as possible.

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