24 May, 2007

I.O.U. Cake

It's my daughter's birthday right about now.

I'm not there to make her a birthday cake. I wish I was.

I wonder if she remembers the Chocolate Mousse Cake decorated with chocolate truffles that I invented one year, not for her birthday but for a school money-raiser? And then, because they messed up the ticket draw, made another exactly the same a few hours later? Or the Fresh Strawberry Shortcakes with billows of cream I often made for family birthdays? Or the Carrot Cakes, Orange Cakes, Sacher Tortes, Fruit cakes, Spice Cakes and Brownies that I whipped up frequently when the "kids" were home? I'm sure she does, because she has a sweet tooth, and nowadays quite a fondness for chocolate.

If I were there I would probably do as I always did, ask her what kind of cake she would like. I usually gave her and every birthday girl or boy the choice of cake and dinner, just about anything they wanted. I was at home in those days so I had enough time to make it, and enough time to teach myself to cook. I would try anything I had a recipe for, and after awhile, I got so that I could change things and invent recipes without too many surprises. I really enjoyed making them something that would turn their eyes wide on their birthdays.

But this year we are half a world apart. I can't make her a cake and send it in the mail. So I'll content myself with inventing something I think she might like, and promise to make it as soon as we are together again. An I. O. U. Cake, it will have to be.

I think I'll start with a good moist chocolate cake, just two layers, and after it's cooked and cooled, I'll drizzle it with fresh orange juice that I've stirred a bit of Grand Marnier into. I'll make a glossy chocolate ganache with fresh cream and put it generously in the middle of the two layers, probably a good inch or two thick. Then I'll give it a good chill to set up the chocolate. After, I'll cover the outside with big swirls of a fresh orange butter cream icing, decorating the perimeter of the top with generous large curled shavings from a dark chocolate bar and drift a bit of finely grated orange peel over the centre. Of course I will sink a few delicate white candles in the middle and light them so she can make a wish.

Whatever she's wishing, I'm wishing for her. Have many more happy moments, sweet birthdays, and good cakes, S...l , this year and always.

And much love.

15 May, 2007

Parsley, Peppermint, Basil and Thyme

Did you know that you can grow herbs in pots? Of course you did. But have you thought of growing them here in Japan where most people have postage stamp sized gardens at the most? Or no ground at all, just balconies that they use to hold those plastic clothes dryers and the spare umbrella. The good news is that balconies are perfect for growing herbs and a lot of herbs take very well to pot growing. If you're in the northern part of Japan, say from Tokyo upwards, probably the late spring-summer-early fall is the growing season. Here in Kagawa I can grow mints and lemon balm and rosemary all year outdoors. Basil's season is from about April (started indoors) to November. Sage doesn't like the summer heat and needs a bit of shade and a lot of water, so it does well in the cooler and rainier months, but it comes in all kinds of varieties and Pineapple Sage, which indeed smells like pineapple, is glorious. Lavender is pretty hardy as long as it doesn't get scorched by the sun. Thyme and winter savoury and oregano grow well during the season. And rosemary is the best, hardiest, and most fragrant of them all and makes wonderful scented bouquets, even if you don't use it for cooking, though focaccia with olive oil and fresh rosemary is a good reason for anyone to want to grow it.

In fact, you don't need to be an avid cook to grow herbs. You just need to love the scent, the beautiful shapes and variations of green that they bring into your life, the whiff of fresh air, even in a big city. For if you grow herbs, you are really growing fresh air, and who knows, with enough balconies sprouting herbs, they may even add a bit to the cooling effect in cities. That would be good, even if they weren't so wonderful.

And there are a lot of herbs available in Japan, either from seeds or your local plant store. Sweet basil is one of the best and easiest to find. Use it in your tomato sauces or make pesto or minestrone soup (recipes coming soon). Italian parsley is easy to grow and flavourful. Thyme does best if neglected and given small feedings.

So do yourself a favour, if you intend to be here 1 year or 20, take a day and visit the plant store or a greenhouse and bring yourself home something live. You'll make your life a little better and your home a little more welcoming. Just watering your plants and tending them reduces stress. And any of the mints, especially Peppermint or Apple Mint are great for tea. Couldn't be easier. Pick a good sprig or two and wash. Put it in your small teapot or large cup. Pour hot water over and wait a minute or two ( you don't want it too strong). Add honey or not and drink.

Put 500 yen in your pocket from not going to the specialty tea shop or cafe.


10 May, 2007

Japanese Pickles

Pickles were always one of my favourite foods. My grandmother made good pickles. She made sun-yellow sweet and sour mustard pickles we used to eat with fish, green green"hot dog" relish, mild "Bread and Butter" pickles, and pickled mixed vegetables like beets, cauliflower, and onions. She made them with vegetables she grew in her garden, following family recipes or recipes she cut from newspapers or magazines. We have Germanic roots, our family Palatines who left during the French purges of Protestants in the 18th Century for life on a new continent. One of the ways the settlers preserved the summer harvest was canning and bottling, and my grandmother was adept at both. This was before the modern supermarket even existed. Cooks had to make their own or do without, unless they could trade with neighbors. Food preservation was a matter of survival as well as a source of sustenance. Of course my grandmother was not one of the first wave of settlers but she kept the character and skills of her ancestors. Strong-minded, religious, energetic and helping her family all her life, she was and still is an inspiration to me as a person who survived much and made the best of it. And one of her talents was cooking. She was an excellent traditional cook, but not afraid to experiment. She loved trying new recipes and sharing them with her family.

In my 20's and 30's I came to like kosher dill pickles. I was away from home and those family pickle supplies. Baby dills were what was available in the supermarket and they were allowed on my diet, so I often ate them at night to give some flavour to other "allowed" veggies like plain carrots, celery and lettuce. The saltiness and tang picked up the bland veggies eaten without dip. I didn't have much imagination in those days I guess, because now that I know about balsamic vinegar, herbs, and spices I can make a nice little dressing with not much fat.

Those pickles were a lifesaver when I wanted something with crunch (that wasn't a potato chip). But they sure weren't my grandmother's pickles. There was something so much of fresh vegetable sunshine in Nannie's that no store pickle could match. They just weren't that satisfying, no matter how many I ate.

When I came to Japan one of the first things I noticed was the tastiness of the pickles. They usually came in tiny amounts, just a few small slices arranged artistically on their own small ceramic dish as part of a set meal including miso soup, rice, and maybe tempura or another main dish. They didn't have much of a crunch. What they did have was a delicate fermented, salty flavour that I loved. Of course some of the pickles were a bit stronger, with a bit of the aroma of old socks. But the ones I loved most were fresh, and light with a wonderful essence of fresh vegetable flavour that the dills I was used to couldn't deliver. What they had was that same quality of all good homemade pickles -- life.

Luckily one of my students has given me her recipe. This is a Japanese "housewife's" authentic recipe, and so it's precious as recipes go. Nothing is better in my opinion than the recipe of an expert who has spent most of her adult life perfecting her craft and pleasing her family. Think of the French peasant recipes that the great chefs collect and present in some of the best restaurants in the world. Think of great North American cooks collecting and showcasing great country classics. Think of Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver.

And I tested these pickles. They were hard to stop eating. I told myself to watch my sodium, but it didn't matter. They were great, with the satisfying hint of sesame and plum sake and the honest vegetable flavour of daikon, celery, cucumber and carrot. I used organic carrots, which made for great taste.

I made the pickles in only 1 hour, using a small pickle "machine" I bought at the supermarket. It's a clear hard plastic jar with a presser/plunger that acts as a weight on the pickles. I think they are widely available in Japan but if you don't have one you can use a non-metal bowl and a plate with a weight of some kind on top, maybe a can of something.

Here, with a flourish, and her own picture, is Mrs. M's wonderful and authentic recipe for Fresh Japanese Pickles. I hope you will try them. After all, since they are so easy and quick, once you get the ingredients in, you can make them and eat them for supper 1 hour later.

Mrs. M's Japanese-Style Fresh Pickles


About 7 thin cucumbers
20 g salt
200g Daikon radish
½ c vinegar
1 stalk of celery
¼ cup plum sake
1 medium carrot
1 Tb sesame oil

1. Cut all the vegetables to about the diameter of your little finger and about 4-5 cm in length.

2. Mix together well 20 g of salt and 1 cup of sugar.

3. Put the sliced vegetables in a pickle bucket (about 2-3 litres in size) and add all the seasonings, mixing well.

4. Cover the bucket with a lid that fits inside it and weight with a 2 kg weight. Pickle for about 1 hour.

5. Serve the pickles without rinsing. They will keep for about 3-4 days in the refrigerator. If you don't have a ceramic pickle jar, a glass jar will work.

This makes at least a couple of cups of pickles, so if you don't want that many you could try halving the recipe. They will be okay for the next day or two but are better right away.

01 May, 2007

Stir Fry

Probably the first time I tasted stir-fry was in a Chinese restaurant. When I was at Art school and living on a student loan in a rented room, on the short end of the dietary stick, we had a few standby places that we could almost afford to eat out at. I say almost because that nice full feeling of a restaurant meal might be followed by a week of single processed cheese slices between white bread, or fruit and vegetable"curry"made with cucumber, tinned pineapple, onions, generic curry powder and lots of water with chapati made from whole wheat flour, water and margarine. I couldn't afford oil.

So the big treat was Chinese food and we had a nice cheap place known affectionately as the "gag and spew"(Garden View), though the food was far from awful. In those days I always ordered Beef and Broccoli. What can I say? I really wanted broccoli and that was almost the only dish that had it. Broccoli has always been one of my favourites, just as long as it's still almost crunchy. When it's overcooked and gets that strong cabbage flavour and starts to turn yellow, forget it.

Through the years when I was cooking for a family in the frozen isolation of Labrador, one thing that always made sense for dinner was a stir fry. Nobody protested, and even with all the cutting and slicing, it could be served inside of 30 minutes. The longest thing in those days was cooking the rice. With no rice cooker, I had to make boiled rice. I got to be good at it, except when I forgot it and burned it, but with my National rice pot those days are no more.

Now it's a snap to make stir fry. The vegetables here are good, fresh, and there are always seasonal ones in the stores that are wonderful. Yesterday night I picked a likely head of young broccoli at the supermarket. It wasn't too big, or too woody, perfect to slice up with the stem, which I didn't even have to peel. I had a small red pepper, some onions, green onions, garlic, and fresh ginger already in my kitchen. And I had the second half of a four-pack of the triangle-shaped agedofu (fried tofu). Lately I've discovered that fried tofu comes in many shapes and sizes and it's just great to cut up and throw in dishes for protein. A vegetarian convenience food par excellence.

Soak the tofu in hot water for a minute; it makes it easier to cut up.

So as a late breakfast, I had a bowl of my ever-faithful gen-mai (brown rice) with the stir fry on top. A nice cup of black coffee, and fresh pineapple rounded off the meal. Sometimes happiness is just good home cooked food -- with real oil.

Young Broccoli and Agedofu Stir-fry

2 triangles ( or more) agedofu -- fried tofu, diced
1 small or medium onion sliced
1 or 2 very small sweet red peppers ( Or about 1/2 the North American size) chunked
1 small head broccoli, sliced
1 -2 Tb tamari sauce, to taste (or soy sauce if you prefer)
3 cloves garlic sliced thinly
a nice salad oil for frying ( I use organic)
sesame seeds, a Tb or two
ginger, about 4-5 cm finger ( 2-3 inches, or to taste ) match-sticked
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Cut up all the vegetables and then put the oil in a wok or large heavy frying pan and when heated, slide in the ginger, garlic and sesame seeds and toast a little, but not too much; light brown should do it. Add the onions and stir fry a bit, as well as the red pepper. Add the broccoli and stir fry a bit, then the agedofu. Toss and fry a minute or two, then add the tamari, and a bit of water and cover the pan briefly to steam the vegetables. Have a look after barely a minute and only cook them until they are tender-crisp. Taste the stir-fry and add salt and pepper to your liking. Serve hot and juicy over brown, or other, rice.