Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Thanksgiving and the return of Scrabble

We had Canadian Thanksgiving dinner at our house with a bunch of friends. A couple of people were early and I brought out Scrabble to see if they were interested. I was surprised by how in to my Japanese guests were. I remember the first time I played it with Masa he was really in to in too. He was really obsessed with getting as many points as possible. I would have expected him to be more focused on just making words. It was a great evening with tonnes of food.

You can see the 100yen shop maple leaves I found. I was pretty impressed by the quality. I really just wanted something a little festive for the guests who were mostly Japanese.

The spread was pretty good. I cooked a turkey, stuffing, turnip puff (made with daikon) and carrots & celery. Masa made mashed potatoes, Japanese pickles and french onion soup. Tomoko brought a great pumpkin pie and some lovely cornbread (Lori's recipe). I kind of miss the pumpkin pie my mother makes but I will make that at Christmas.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hiking up Tanigawa-dake 谷川岳

On Saturday I had the privilege of hiking with my friend Mariko and a couple of her friends. We went to Gunma prefecture and did one of the hardest hikes of my life. We went down the night before and slept in the lobby of the gondola building. It is apparently open for hikers/climbers all night. We slept basically on sheets on hard concrete covered with thin office carpet. Mariko and I couldn't sleep. It must have been from excitement or something, not from discomfort. We were both really excited about the next day's hike.

We woke up at 5:30 to eat and get ready to board the gondola at 7:00. The first thing I did was to walk out the door to enjoy the crisp morning air. It was the most satisfying breath I had taken in years. There was mist over the mountains and it was beautiful.I went back in only to discover that they were actually going to fire up the camp stove inside to boil water for cup ramen and coffee. I wonder what the staff would have said. I know that is a define safety no-no. You can see the vending machines in the background in the picture.
We boarded the gondola and took the ten minute ride that saved us an hour of hiking. I then decided that I would give the mountain a go in my sandals. I did the whole ascent in my sandals and changed into hiking boots before the chains. I was struck by the beautiful green at the top. The plants are quite different from the Rockies in Canada and I kind of felt that I was in a different world.
Technically the hike wasn't tough but mentally it was excruciating. We went the day after a typhoon which made for a pretty difficult descent. The way up was great and I felt like I could have gone on forever.

We then started our descent backtracking along the narrow top of the ridge between the twin peaks, Tomanomimi (トマノ耳) and Okinomimi (オキノ耳). I am afraid of heights, not so afraid that I can't do things like that but I find myself being overly cautious and slow. This was the first kicking of the ego. You can't tell from the picture but the terrain is quite steep.

The trail also had several sets of chains to help the climb, it really was half rock climbing. Given my fear of heights, dangling over the edge of a little cliff on the the top of a mountain ridge was not appealing. I felt a sense of accomplishment because when I used to hike regularly when I was younger, I would always avoid the chains like the plague. This was my small success for the day.

Once we finished with the ridge I breathed a sigh of relief as we were going to take the trail that branched off into the trees. I have always loved trails through the trees. We got less than a hundred meters before we encountered our first steep rocky, mossy (and still very wet from day before's typhoon) section. I had a bad experience a long time ago with slippery terrain and these rocks brought back bad memories. The trail turned out to be like that for the entire length save the last two hundred meters. I believe this was the first time that I have ever thought "Will this ever end?" while hiking. I am pretty content in the mountains and usually enjoy most trails - even after the stressful ridge I was good to go.

This last descent, which took at least two hours, destroyed my ego (which I don't mind now) and left me feel like I was going to sprain my ankle with every step. I discovered about an hour and a half in to this descent that my sunglasses with brown lenses actually made the rocks look wetter than they were. I had kept them on because the light on the trail was kind of grey from the mist and brown lenses make everything look better. I felt a bit foolish because I had been hiking fairly slowly because I was worried about the rocks. The change is perspective had good timing because I needed more confidence near the end to balance the thoughts of ankle sprains.

We finally got to the parking lot at the end of the trail. We had a twenty minute walk back to our parking lot. That also felt like the longest walk of my life. My feed were killing me because I was too lazy to ditch my hiking boots and go for my lovely Chacos that I had brought for that exact purpose. I have always had a policy of not wearing hiking shoes anywhere but the trail. My feet have never liked shoes and once a hike is done I can think of nothing but freeing my feet. The rest of my body felt great actually. After a tough part of a hike is over I don't usually have residual angst or tension, I go back to enjoying myself.

More photos

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Cinnamon Buns

I was skyping with my sister yesterday and she just happen to be finishing off a cinnamon bun. I couldn't not make some. I had previously found a small batch recipe for Amish White Bread on allrecipes.com and decided to use that. The cinnamon buns caused a problem. I used very little sugar and have thus eaten way too many for breakfast this morning. At least I'm not consuming too much sugar.

Cinnamon Buns (Amish White Bread base)
1c warm water
1/3c sugar
2 1/4tsp dry yeast
3/4tsp salt
2tbsp vegetable oil
3c flour
sugar, cinnamon and slivers of butter
  1. In a large bowl, dissolve the sugar in warm water and then add the yeast. Let sit in a warm place until foamy. Mix salt and oil in to yeast. Mix flour in one cup at a time.
  2. Knead dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth. Place in a well oiled bowl and cover with a damp cloth. Let rise until doubled in bulk (about an hour).
  3. Punch dough down and knead for a few minutes. Roll out on a slightly oiled surface until it is a large, thin rectangle. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon and add slivers of butter here and there. Roll up and slice into 3/4" pieces. Put on baking sheet or in a pie pan. Let rise for about thirty minutes. After fifteen minutes, preheat the oven to 175 Celsius. Bake for about 15min or until golden on top and sound hollow when knocked on.
I made two pies pans with this recipe.

Potato Nuke

About a month ago I came across a great idea for baking potatoes on the blog Kalofagas. He sliced the potatoes very thinly and drizzled them with butter, spiced them with steak spice, wrapped them in tin foil and baked them. It looked like a marvelous idea so I tried it using the microwave. I have tried to bake potatoes in my oven and have found that it takes a lot longer than it should so I usually just microwave them.

Potato Nuke

5 small potatoes
1 bunch asparagus (substitute any vegetable you like)
3 tbsp butter, melted
1 clove garlic
salt and pepper to taste

Wash potatoes and slice thinly almost all the way down to the bottom. Place the potatoes in a casserole dish. Crush the garlic into the butter and drizzle over potatoes. Try to get the butter between the slices. Cover and microwave for seven minutes. Baste the potatoes, add asparagus (cut into bite sized pieces) and toss with butter in bottom. Cover and microwave for another three or so minutes.

The leftovers make excellent hash browns the next day - and the potatoes are almost fully sliced already for you.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Costco Spoils

We were quite delighted to find that one of Masa's friends and his wife (who have a car) wanted to go to Costco and Ikea for the first time. I have a membership but not having a car makes it impossible to buy fresh food unless I want to carry it all the way home on the train (approx 1.5hrs). We went two weeks ago and had a great time. We thoroughly enjoyed eating lunch there as well - pizza and hot dogs. I miss how pizza tastes back home. Pizza in Japan is either thin crust (absolutely delightful) or Japanese style thick crust pizza which just doesn't taste the same. Given that this is an entirely different country, it probably shouldn't. That being said, the Costco pizza was the highlight of my day.

We bought a massive package of red seedless grapes - 1kg in fact. They lasted 36hours. I had bought a nice salad/fruit bowl from Ikea and wanted to put the grapes in it making the grapes accessible for over-grazing. It is challenging to find red seedless grapes in my parts of the woods because Japan grows other very delicious varieties.

I also bought a wooden salad bowl from Costco. It is massive and beautiful. It's from the Emeril by Wedgwood. Interestingly enough, the price I bought it for was 1/3 of what the shopping sites from home have it set as.

Sparkling Sake

Japan is famous for sake with many varieties that can be drunk at various temperatures. I am not a fan of sake at all. I find the taste strong and despite it being sweet, cannot drink it. I was a little skeptical when my sister-in-law gave my hubby and I two bottles of sparkling sake. One was pink and the other white. They were absolutely fabulous with the pink being the better of the two. The bottle is also the perfect size for two - 300ml. I think this will be out standby celebratory drink as neither of us really enjoys champagne.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Pickled Carrots and Japanese Cucumbers

For some reason I woke up this morning wanting to make pickled carrots. Luckily a few months ago I spotted pickleing spice in a international supermarket. I took a quick look on the internet and found a recipe on Cooks.com that looked similar to my moms. I followed it to the t.

1 lb. carrots (I used five Japanese-sized carrots)
1 1/2 c. white vinegar
1/2 c. water
1 c. sugar
3 tbsp. mixed pickling spice

Wash and scrape carrots. Cut into thin sticks. Cook carrots in boiling water until almost tender. (Can add salt if wanted.) Drain. In pot combine remaining ingredients with 1/2 cup water and bring to boil. Place carrots into hot sterilized jars. Pour over carrots and seal. Makes about 2 pints.

After making the first pickles I just played around with the Japanese cucumbers. Here is my recipe:
Pickled Japanese Cucumbers

4 japanese cucumbers
1 1/4c vinegar
1tbsp dill seed
1/2c water
1/3c sugar
1tbsp salt

Slice the cucumbers thinly, put them in a bowl, cover with a heavy dish and let sit for 30min.
Add rest of ingredients to a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Rinse cucumbers and put in steralized jar, cover with liquid and seal. Let sit for about a week.