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Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Halloween!

I'll be spending the next 8+ hours creating a Halloween experience with no fake blood, peeled grapes, cold spaghetti, candy apples, popcorn balls, or anything remotely scary for kids who pay entirely too much money to walk through a cardboard and duct-taped haunted house and collect their three (count 'em, three) pieces of candy while Maleficent gives them nightmares they won't recover from for months. My only consolation will be Hannah by my side, dressed as Toto.

There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home . . .

Seriously . . .

This is just wrong. My poor daughter-whose-mother-can't-sew . . .

. . . I thought the string would make it "wag" when she walks, and it DOES wag when she walks, but . . . well . . . you know.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween Countdown: #2

Michael Jackson: Thriller (sorry, couldn't embed this one!)

One more day! What's everyone being/doing for Halloween?

Kappa Cafe

I spent a lot of my lunch hours this past summer in this cute little cafe near the school in Ota. The decor is kitch and adorable, the food is cheap and delicious (the two meals in the picture below cost 14 bucks total - including a cup of coffee with a plate of sweets!), and the owner is this dear sweet lady who just loves to cook for other people. She goes so above and beyond the call of duty that you almost feel guilty paying so little for the experience and her wonderful food. She's always giving free coffee and snacks, and when Hannah comes she prepares a cute little dish of bananas and oranges for her. I want to put Kappa Cafe in my pocket and take it with me wherever I go.




Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Halloween Countdown: #3

"Grim Grinning Ghosts" from Disney's Haunted Mansion

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween Countdown: #4

Richard O'Brien: Time Warp

Janelle's Cake

Some people go on sabbatical from a favored aspect of their life (video games, dating, alcohol, etc) to gain a fresh perspective on life. A Catholic tradition that I've always kind of liked is giving something up during the season of Lent - the 40 days before Easter. Some give up meat (though they are already fasting from meat on Fridays), and some, like my mother, give up eating out or shopping for leisure. I think one year I tried giving up cleaning my room. That didn't fly so well. And some poor souls give up chocolate. A few months ago, I made a resolve to go without chocolate for as long as it took my skin to clear up - not for Lent, but for me. Why I thought giving up this wonderful treat would be GOOD for me when I'm already starving for contentment, I'll never know. Suffice it to say, I gave up. The experiment did nothing for my complexion, so I'm chalking it all up to stress. Pass the M&M's.

NO ONE was happier about my giving up the giving up of chocolate than Janelle. Janelle and I have a friendship that is part chocolate. We're the kind of friends who call each other in the middle of the day breathless with excitement because OMG THERE'S A NEW FLAVOR OF KIT KAT AT THE CONVENIENCE STORE!!! (Which is not unlike my part-coffee friendship with Courtney, who I'll be writing about soon.) I myself have counted 24 different flavors of Kit Kat in Japan, some of which were seasonal and haven't returned. My favorite so far is green Muscat grape of Alexandria. Humanuh! Yellow peach, cookies and cream and mango were also exceptional. I wasn't a fan of the mixed vegetable, but you gotta hand it to the Japanese - chocolate covered vegetables might be a thing of the future.

It was appropriate - nay necessary, then, that we celebrate Janelle's 21st birthday with a chocolate coma (which, in my opinion is waaaaaay more intense than any alcohol buzz. I literally had a hangover the next day). So, using a recipe from the most beautiful book of chocolate I've ever seen (which Janelle had to half-remember because she forgot to bring the book to my house), we spent 5 heavenly hours making this cake, licking our fingers (and knives) along the way.

Piping stripes of milk and white chocolate for the shavings that will go on top

Birthday girl takes a hit for the team.

Yes, that's butter. 180 grams of it.

OMG, yes.

The best part.

We can die happy now.

Happy birthday Janelle!

A sad moment, but necessary.

Death by chocolate. Not a bad way to go.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Halloween Countdown #5

Oingo Boingo - Dead Man's Party

Swimming with Dolphins

This is soooo after the fact I've almost forgotten the feeling of this unique little experience. I guess I was waiting until I had something profound to say, but looking back, I don't do profound so well. I like the little things. Like dolphins. I guess dolphins are kind of big though.

So here are some photos from our date with the dolphins.

It was cold.

Hannah was there.

. . . so was her dad. We wore wetsuits.
. . . because it was cold.

I touched a dolphin. It was nice. And soft.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Halloween Countdown #6

Bobby "Boris" Pickett - The Monster Mash


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I've done it.

Like many other "starving" Americans in Japan, the food I crave the most is also the most difficult to find - Mexican. I like to think I've successfully produced just about every Mexican dish that can be wistfully pined for . . . but my search for the perfect tortilla recipe has thus left me unsatisfied, angry, and sore (YOU try rolling out that many failed tortillas, and then we can talk). A while back I posted this tortilla recipe, but it is by no means the low-fat, whole wheat concoction I KNEW I was capable of making with my newly-purchased 2-kilo bag of organic whole wheat flour.

So I searched for a whole wheat recipe and came across this monstrosity. Everyone who commented said theirs turned out so nice, and even gave suggestions for making them healthier (using olive oil instead of shortening, using ALL whole wheat flour instead of a mix, adding a teaspoon of baking powder for fluffiness, etc). I tried these suggestions, and after ONE HOUR of just trying to roll these impossibly hard, saw-dust dough balls into something resembling more of a cumulus cloud than a tortilla, I balled up my flour-covered apron, ready to call it quits and either stop making Mexican food (unheard of) or start breaking the bank to buy tortillas again.

And then . . . a miracle. A blog devoted entirely to Tex-Mex cooking and a recipe for the fluffiest, chewiest, healthiest most delectable tortillas I've tasted. Seriously, you could wrap my foot in one of these and I'd eat it. And they're so easy - especially the rolling! The recipe says to let the dough sit for 20 minutes as a big ball, then 10 more minutes after dividing it, but as I was letting the dough rest, Megumi showed up at my door, reminding me that today was Hannah's 18-month check-up. I left the dough to sit for the next four hours before dividing, rolling and cooking and they were AWESOME. I don't know if my way is better, but they turned out so well I'm afraid to try any other way. So, like I've said, get yourself one of these:

. . . and forget about her 18-month check-up until right after you've made the dough! (By the way, she is now 24 lbs and 33 inches tall. And she has 10 teeth - with gaps. I'm so glad we have doctors to tell us these things.)

I am well aware that my blog is quickly turning into a recipe cache, and that people might thinking I'm trying to compensate for something. And I'm ok with this.

And now, without further ado . . .

Las Tortillas Perfectas
(makes 8 tortillas - yes, you should double it.)

Ingredients:
1 cup of all-purpose flour
1 cup of whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vegetable or canola oil (woo hoo!)
3/4 cup warm milk (skim works nicely)

Directions:
1. Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt.

2. Add the oil. "Crumble" with your fingers until the flour is like a coarse meal.

3. Slowly add the warm milk. Stir until a loose, sticky ball is formed.

4. Knead for two minutes on a floured surface. Dough should be firm and soft.

5. Place dough in a bowl and cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap for 20 minutes (or the length of a socialized-medicine 18-month checkup, plus lunch).

6. After the dough has rested, cut into 8 sections, roll them into balls in your hands, place on a plate (make sure they aren't touching) and then cover balls with damp cloth or plastic wrap for 10 minutes. (It's very important to let the dough rest, otherwise it will be like elastic and won't roll out to a proper thickness and shape.)

7. After dough has rested, one at a time place a dough ball on a floured surface, pat it out into a four-inch circle, and then roll with a rolling pin from the center until it's thin and about 8-10 inches in diameter. Don't overwork the dough , or it'll be stiff. Keep rolled-out tortillas covered until ready to cook.

8. In a dry iron skillet or comal heated on high, cook the tortilla about thirty seconds on each side. It should start to puff a bit when it's done.

Keep cooked tortillas covered wrapped in a napkin until ready to eat. Can be reheated in a dry iron skillet, over your gas-burner flame or in the oven wrapped in foil. While you probably won't have any leftovers, you can store in the fridge tightly wrapped in foil or plastic for a day or so.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Eggplant-o-rama

Courtney, whose husband is allergic to all purple foods, came to Takamatsu bearing NINE gorgeous eggplants from a student's garden - a veritable treasure bag of juicy, purpley antioxidants begging for Italian cooking. Lacy (another teacher) took three of these beastly fruits, leaving Janelle and me with the remaining SIX to deal with. And deal with them we did . . .

Let me just say that Janelle in a shirt that says "Garlic Beams" plus six juicy eggplants, tomatoes and an entire bulb of garlic equal the most fun I've had cooking in a long time. I can't believe we still had two left after all of this (they went into this week's fajitas). These recipes are completely flexible, and I highly recommend you be creative with them. Janelle is learning quickly that I'm not very good at following the recipe, even the first time we try it (sorry, Janelle). I can't help it. When you buy a kilogram of garlic for three bucks, you inevitably want to add as much as possible to your cooking! Also, if you have the time, homemade tomato sauce would make a WORLD of difference - a corner we were willing to cut given our hunger and time constraint. This eggplant Parmesan is adapted from a recipe I found on allrecipes.com (I wanted one that didn't involve frying), and the stuffed mushrooms were our own creation. Feast your eyes . . .

Eggplant Parmesan

Ingredients:
3 eggplants, peeled and thinly sliced (about 1/4 inch)
2 eggs, beaten (more if you run out - use just the whites to lower the fat)
4 cups Italian seasoned bread crumbs*
1 cup flour
6 cups spaghetti sauce, divided
1 (16 oz) package mozzarella cheese, shredded and divided
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, divided
1/2 teaspoon dried basil

*We used paprika, dried oregano, garlic powder and a pinch of salt to season our bread crumbs

Directions:
1. Salt the eggplant slices in a colander and let them "sweat" for 30 min. to an hour. Rinse them well with cold water and pat dry with a clean dish cloth or paper towel.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175-180 degrees C).

3. Dip eggplant slices in flour, egg, then in bread crumbs. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes on each side*.

4. In a 9x13 inch baking dish spread spaghetti sauce to cover the bottom. Place a layer of baked eggplant slices in the sauce. Sprinkle with mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. Repeat with remaining ingredients, ending with the cheeses. Sprinkle basil on top.

5. Bake in preheated oven for 35 minutes, or until golden brown.

*We ended up with quite a bit of eggplant slices left over. If this happens, dip them and bake them, then store them in a freezer bag in your freezer for an easy meal another day!

Eggplant-Stuffed Mushrooms

Ingredients:
1 teaspoon olive oil
24 Shiitake mushrooms, stems cut off (other types will work too, but the bigger the cap the better!)
1 eggplant, finely diced
1 can of diced tomatoes
1/4 cup pine nuts
3-4 cloves garlic, minced (more if you can handle it!)
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
Parmesan cheese

Directions:

1. Heat olive oil in a skillet on medium high. Add diced eggplant, garlic, oregano and salt. Sautee until eggplant becomes soft. You may need to cover your skillet for a minute or two to let the juices cook out of the eggplant. Add the tomatoes and pine nuts and simmer on low heat for 10-15 minutes or until most of the juice cooks off (this is important for flavor). Add fresh basil in the last 3 minutes of cooking. Remove from heat.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).

3. Spread a little olive oil on a baking pan (make sure it has a lip to catch juices - and oh, will there be juices!) and arrange mushroom caps on the pan.

3. Spoon a small heap of eggplant mixture on each mushroom cap and top with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

4. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes.

Food nerds - I love it!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Halloween Countdown: #9

Blue Oyster Cult: Don't fear the Reaper

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Breakfast burritos

Makes enough for 2.5 people

Ingredients:
olive oil - 1 tsp
Egg whites - 4
1 medium tomato, diced
firm tofu - 1/2 cup, cubed (optional)
fresh spinach - 2 cups, chopped
chili powder - 1 tsp
salt - 1/2 tsp
garlic or onion powder - 1 tsp
black pepper - a couple shakes

white or whole wheat tortillas
low-fat shredded cheese or ricotta (optional)
sliced avocado (not optional)

Directions:

1. Mix egg whites, spices and tomatoes in a bowl.

2. Heat olive oil in a skillet on medium high. Pour egg and tomato mixture into the pan and scramble (don't overcook!).

3. A little bit before the eggs are fully cooked, add the spinach and cover the pan to let it "sweat" some juices out. Once the spinach is cooked, remove from heat and toss in the tofu cubes.

4. Serve on a tortilla (I just made whole wheat ones last night - looked horrible, tasted great) with a little cheese and sliced avocado.

These are amazingly easy and good! And if you're like me, you might wonder, "but the yolks! What do I do with the yolks folks?! I can't just throw them away!" That's why you get yourself one of these:

. . . and you scramble those yolks with a little chili powder and grate some parmesan cheese on top and voila! Chili-cheese eggs! I discovered, much to my dismay, that Hannah does NOT like much garlic in her food (whose child IS she??), but she does like a dash of chili powder. I can work with this . . .

Because you must

Please, do yourself a BIG favor, and listen to this song on Fraggle Rock. It's been stuck in my head ALL WEEK. Now, when you've listened to it once, listen again. This time, when Cantus starts singing, try singing the chorus to "Cat's in the Cradle" at the same time.

I'm such a nerd!

I love it!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Off I go

Hans is nice enough to take Hannah with him to classes on Friday afternoons so I can have some much needed "me" time. I usually (sadly) spend the afternoon in the house - reading, napping, writing, talking to friends and family online. Not today. I'm unplugging myself and taking a hike. Packing my water, apples, books and notebook to crunch through the leaves and find a place where I can cry for my losses and remember my blessings. See you later.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Halloween Countdown: #10

Because Alice Cooper + Muppets = happy.




Monday, October 12, 2009

Curried Split Pea Soup

This started off as a pretty boring split pea soup recipe that I couldn't help but experiment with. Only problem (IS it a problem?) is that everything I experiment with somehow turns into curry. I'm also aware that this bowl of brown goop with carrots is beginning to look awfully familiar. Oops. :) So in case you like brown goop with carrots, here's what I came up with:

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion (1 small)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 medium carrots, sliced (about 2 cups)
4-5 cups of water (use 4 at first, add more if it's evaporating too fast for the peas to cook)
1 cup dried green split peas
2 chipotle chiles, chopped (dried red chilies work well too)
2 medium potatoes, cubed (about 2 1/2 cups)
1 cube bouillon
1-2 tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger or ginger powder
salt to taste

toppings:
raisins
sliced almonds

1. Heat the oil in a 3-4 quart saucepan, saute the onion and garlic on medium heat until the onion is tender, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the carrots and continue cooking and stirring occasionally for another 3-5 minutes. Add the water, peas, and chipotles (if desired).

2. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, until the peas are tender (about 30-40 minutes), stirring occasionally.

3. When the peas are tender, add the potatoes, bouillon cube, curry powder and ginger and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. By now the split peas should be pretty mushy. Taste for seasoning and add salt if needed. Garnish with raisins and sliced almonds and serve with slices of crusty multigrain bread and fresh pineapple.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Miyajima Day 3: Rained Out

The next morning we were greeted by this:

. . . and a giant, ominous raincloud that thwarted our plans to bike home, so we took the train. I was crushed, as you can plainly see.

So, after parting ways with Courtney, Chris, Peter and Lacy (who were spending the day in Hiroshima), Hans and I spent the morning sipping bowls of coffee and saying good bye to this quirky little island. The dusty walkway had transformed into a sea of plastic umbrellas, and there was a kind of weary hush over the crowds that hadn't been there the day before. I found myself a little sad to not only have parted with my friends, but to see this once obnoxious and flamboyant mob reduced to a slow stream of dreary window shoppers. A lady at one of the souvenir shops lent us two umbrellas, and as we wandered the sights one last time, I thought to myself, you know Suz, the people are half the fun of traveling, and all the fun of life. Stuff your lofty ideals and spiritual experiences, and let the carnival sweep you away . . .

The jury is out on how I fared on this adventure. Despite my disappointment in the things I should have anticipated after 3 years in Japan, I had a great time and felt thoroughly invigorated to be traveling again. I kept my complaints to a minimum - the tough bike ride, lack of food, lodging and showers didn't really phase me - in fact, I thrilled at the unpredictability of it all. You can't do this kind of haphazard traveling with a child in tow, so I rather enjoyed being a child myself. What bothers me, what I can't seem to shake, is the awkward social retardedness I felt with everyone around me. I know I haven't been myself lately - that is to say, I haven't been the easiest person to hang around or get along with. I find myself shaken and disoriented because of my personal trials, and at times I feel crippled - to move, speak, or even smile. It's not the first time I've felt distant and reticent despite my colorful surroundings, but I think I passed whatever test I was giving myself. This was a chance for me to prove that I'm not broken - that I'm still kicking. I don't know how successful I was, but I tried. And dammit, I had fun trying.

...but I sure missed this little girl.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Miyajima Day 2: finding something sacred

After about 4 hours of sleep we woke to the sounds of fishermen collecting their morning catch of oysters by the dock. With their scooter engines at a roaring idle and their headlights beaming directly at our tents while they pulled in their kelpy nets, we got the impression that we weren't welcome on their dock any more. Then we saw this, and didn't care:

With no more sleep to be had, we packed our tents and brushed our teeth with bottled water, seeing who could hawk their spit the furthest out to sea. I got a little on my shoe. After grabbing sandwiches and coffee at the Seven Eleven we took the first ferry across to the lovely island of Miyajima, home of the Itsukushima Shrine and its famous floating Torii gate.

During high tide the shrine is completely surrounded by water, a feature that's earned it a spot on Japan's long list of World Heritage sites. Consequently it's also crowded as hell so we did NOT venture inside. This was about as close as we got. For a mere 800 yen you could ride one of these cool boats around the Torii gate wearing your very own conical Asian hat. We chose the cheaper route and hoofed it when the tide went out. The immensity of this structure was humbling.

Miyajima had some of the best souvenir shops I've seen in Japan - including Kyoto. Every Japanese tourist spot has to have its specialties, and for Miyajima these specialties were momiji manju - little maple-leaf shaped cakes filled with custard or sweet beans, oysters - usually grilled, and rice paddles . . . yup. Whatever gets the tourists, I guess.

The food options were by no means limited to these specialties, however. Go to any carnival and there's not a chance you'll find as many snack-on-a-stick options as in Miyajima. Octopus, corn on the cob, fried fish sausage wrapped in bacon and seaweed and dipped in cheese or mayonnaise (aka "puke on a stick"), and just to gild the lily, momiji manju dipped in batter and deep fried . . . served on a stick, of course. The deer who range freely on Miyajima live on a steady diet of paper wrappers and wooden sticks with greasy remnants of fish guts and cakey trans fats. These deer are sacred . . .

The dusty paths were crowded to the brim with tourists - eating maple cakes, slurping oysters, snapping pictures of the floating Torii, taking boat rides and wearing straw hats, giddy photo ops with the garbage-eating dear, buying miniature Torii gates, having their caricatures drawn on wooden rice paddles, laughing and throwing money at the tightly-leashed dancing monkey, standing hours in line for their photo at the shrine, paying for fortunes they couldn't read, bowing to gods they don't believe in . . . I felt rather disgusted with myself for becoming a part of all this. I think back now with Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums in mind - especially the character Jaffy, who at the end of the book is embarking on a spiritual journey through Japan's most famous temples in Kyoto. He speaks with wonder of Kiyomizudera - one of Kyoto's most popular tourist attractions - as though it will be one of the most uplifting and enlightening experiences of his life. I wonder, does he know about all the other people there?

By far one of the best things we did for our sanity and well-being this day was take a break from the sun and the crowds in the cool inviting shade of Senjokaku hall, a temple built in honor of fallen soldiers. Because the architect died before finishing the temple, this beautiful structure remains open and cavernous - a perfect respite from the claustrophobia I was feeling. I paid the priestess 100 yen, took off my shoes and stepped barefoot onto the cool smooth wood, breathing in that aged woody smell that will forever remind me of Japan. This was a sacred place to me.