30 June, 2007

Cockroach Dumplings (Gokiburi Dango)

This being the rainy season, people here are starting to feel the heat. It's not raining all the time; we even have sunny days but the humidity is high so it feels much hotter. I tell my students that the rainy season is the time that humans hate but cockroaches love. They like humidity, heat and moisture so it's at this time that they are in their heydey, doing what cockroaches, and for that matter people, love to do -- eat, drink and make babies. I understand their enthusiasm but that doesn't mean I want to invite the little guys to my house for dinner. I guess you don't either, which makes the cockroach perhaps the most universally uninvited guest.

To discourage cockroaches at your table, you can do a few things other then get out the big spray can of that nasty poison. One thing to do is lower the humidity in your home, either by installing a dehumidifier or putting your air conditioner on the dry (ドライ)setting. You'll also feel a lot cooler as the room dries out.

Since they also don't like wind or coolness both a fan and the air conditioner will help discourage them.

They are usually found near sources of food and moisture, which makes the kitchen a cockroach Disneyland, so it's great if you can remove sources of these. Personally, living in an old Japanese house surrounded with sources of moisture, it's not so easy. If you live in a new apartment it might be more doable but it means you absolutely can't leave any food around, even bags of flour in the cupboard, a sugar bowl, dirty dishes, a cat or dog bowl, maybe even house plants. And your garbage can't be exposed at all. A cockroach can pass through a crack the width of a credit card. Since roaches can live without food for a month and without water for at least a week, hold their breath for forty minutes, live without a head for seven days, and even survive a thermal nuclear bomb, you can see that they are a little hard to dis-invite and probably will be here long after we have passed the way of the Dinosaurs. Might be a little harder to make a living without us around as chefs, but I'm sure they'll find a way.

So, what to do? You really don't want to be sitting down to a scrumptious meal only to be startled into jumping up and choking on your dinner by a big cockroach thinking you must have put out a plate for him too. One thing about cockroaches, they always assume they're invited.

Well the Ingenious Japanese Housewife (Super JH), superhero extraordinaire, has come up to the rescue with a cutely-named petite little repast known as the Cockroach dumpling or Gokiburi dango. Now dumplings here are usually sweet rice balls most often seen on a skewer in a pretty coloured trio, covered with a sweet sauce and loved by kids and grown-up kids alike. They even have a song about them, that if you live in Japan I can guarantee you have heard.

Back to Super JH and the dango. In this case, the dumpling has a not-so-nice surprise. It contains borax (hosan) which when it is ingested foams up and unfortunately ends the visitor-in-question's period of stay. You understand that this will not affect all the cousins outdoors scratching around for a living like good honest cockroaches should. Only the uninvited guests.

Make up a batch of these and put them around your house in corners of the kitchen, near moisture sources, and say good-bye to those freeloaders forever. You can ask for hosan at any drugstore. If you have pets, however, you might need to rig up a way for the cockroaches to get in so the pets can't eat it. Think something with slits the size of credit cards. Maybe a shoe box?

Mrs. T's Cockroach Dumplings

500g (hosan) boric acid
400 g
onion grated
150 g flour
3 Tablespoons milk
3 Tablespoons sugar

Mix them all to make the dumplings.

My Note: This makes a huge recipe; you can easily halve it and still have enough for a big house. Many people make a little round or oval-shaped dish of aluminum foil and fill it with the mixture rather than making balls. This has the advantage of protecting the floor and maybe lasting longer. These are effective for at least 6 months, enough to get you through this cockroach season.

Genmai -- Brown Rice

These days in Japan there seems to be a prejudice against brown rice. Whenever I've recommended it to students, they usually say things like, "My (old) mother will only eat pure white rice". Or, "Isn't it hard to cook?" "It's too hard to chew." They have lots of reasons but most of them are just like morning mist. Give it a good breeze -- it clears away and you see the light.

First, brown rice well-cooked, is not that hard. It's not much harder to chew than white rice, and the bite that it has is pleasant and tells you that you're eating real food, food that can rightly take it's place as the backbone of a good meal. Food that fills the mouth and satisfies the stomach in a way that feels healthy, and very unlike the feeling you get from eating sticky white starch. Brown rice isn't very sticky, though it holds together just fine for eating with chopsticks. It has a nice subtle nutty flavour that you won't find in processed rice. Mostly, Japanese people eat rice without any seasoning. I've always found that about as exciting as eating plain white bread fresh from the plastic bag; in other words, unpalatable. In perhaps true Canadian style, I like a little salt and pepper on my rice, a sprinkling of sesame. But, if I had to, I could eat brown rice plain. I could never do that with white rice.

If you think that brown rice is hard to cook, you'd be wrong. It usually cooks fine in just one regular cycle. Sometimes, in the dead of winter, it doesn't cook well. Perhaps it's too cold in the kitchen and the rice cooker element doesn't heat the water hot enough. So, during the winter months I compromise a little. I add 1/2 cup of white rice (I use basmati) to 1 and 1/2 cups of brown organic genmai. That takes care of the problem most of the time. If it doesn't, then I simply turn on the rice cooker for another cycle. The rice comes out fine and the beauty of the rice cooker is that it will keep your rice hot for a day or two, if that's how long it takes to eat it. Whatever is left after that time makes perfect cha-han, fried rice. I love cha-han for breakfast made with whatever vegetables I have in the kitchen and an organic egg.

But my favourite breakfast these days is stir fried vegetables, served hot and savoury atop a bowl of genmai. Sometimes I add a fried egg, or some fried tofu. This morning I had some of the new cabbage, which is deliciously mild and in the stores right now, asparagus, green and regular onion, fried in a bit of salad oil seasoned with a few cloves of fresh garlic and ginger, topped with black sesame and a touch of toasted sesame oil, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and a sparing amount of tamari soy sauce. The onions and vegetables carmelized just a bit in my wok and were absolutely delicious over the genmai. It was so good I had no reluctance to have the leftovers for lunch, with a few cups of black coffee, and a salad made simply with new cabbage, green onions, and fresh tomato dressed with olive oil, cider vinegar, salt and pepper and just a pinch of basil. The simplest of meals, made lovely by honestly good food. Genmai-- try it. Go ahead, make yourself happy.

20 June, 2007

Beautiful People Chickens

"Sanctuary begins on your plate" is the title of some extraordinately compassionate writing by editor-in-chief Catherine Clyne about two chickens, Ophelia and Constance (L'il Peep), who live at an animal sanctuary in Woodstock. It's published in the magazine, Satya, which I have discovered just as it has published its last issue. Fortunately there are still issues available here.

Thinking back to the original event that put Woodstock on the map, the idealism that underlay much of what happened in the 60's and 70's, and the cynicism that's crept in in the interim with commercialism taking over much of everything, I feel very uplifted that Woodstock is the home of such good people and beautiful chickens.

13 June, 2007

Pan-seared Vegetables

Yesterday, inspired by the great-looking Campfire Salsa over at Feed Your Vegetarian, and with memories of many years of camping with the family when they were young (we actually spent a whole summer camping all across Canada) I decided to see what I could make to satisfy that craving here in my kitchen in Japan.

It was already brunch time and I was too hungry to fool around with complicated recipes. Since the heat and humidity of the rainy season have hit, cooking has become a bit more of a chore and less of a pleasure. I have been craving a lot of salads and vegetables and fruits. And the way I want to eat them is often in the least complicated way. I saute them in olive oil or with herbs, with or without garlic, but always with the fresh sweet white new onions that are so plentiful now, and toss them onto the top of a bowl of genmai, organic brown rice, topped with white or black sesame seeds, or just sea salt and freshly-ground pepper. Sometimes I saute them in toasted sesame oil or splash a bit on top, and add some tamari if I want something Chinese-inspired.

Luckily I can get great genmai, organic short-grain brown rice, at my local Anew Store.

The other day I had a great bento. I picked up one of those little kits in the 100 yen shop. You know the kind if you live here. There's a small colourful plastic tub, with a clear top that locks down on both sides. You can even find a matching cloth bag and fork, knife and chopstick kit in its own plastic case. The lunch bag is just big enough to hold everything with room for a piece of fruit on top. I resisted them at first as being too cute, but they sure are handy if you need to pack lunches frequently, and the bright colour means they are easy to spot when you're in a hurry to catch the train.

The bento couldn't have been simpler. It was just brown rice, at hand in the rice cooker. I filled up the tub with it, put a smidge of sesame oil and salt on top then I fried/shredded an egg in sesame oil and put it on the rice. All around the edges of the rice I tucked small sections of fresh ripe tomatoes, and I drifted the top with a bit more salt and pepper. It was really, really, delicious when I ate it later at work, with a bit of green tea to wash it down. And I had tucked in two of the small golden kiwis available in the stores now. My bento proves that tasty food needn't always take time.

So when I was deciding on what to have for brunch yesterday, and feeling a bit of nostalgia for that campfire cooking, my mouth still watering from looking at the Campfire Salsa, I decided to make the closest thing I could -- pan-seared vegetables. I have some well-seasoned steel pans that have carbonized over the years and are almost like cast-iron, which is what I would use if I were in a North American kitchen with an electric stove. Here I am lucky enough to have gas, which gives fantastic heat and cooks quick and hot. So it's possible to sear-roast vegetables in the pan without burning them.

I threw a big pinch of sea salt in the pan and then added two small new white onions, cut in chunks (about eighths). I started them cooking while I cut up three Japanese eggplants. The best way I've found is to halve them and then cut across about three times. You can leave the skin on these small eggplants; it will soften right up. Then I added them to the pan along with a small drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, not enough to fry them, just to moisten, maybe about a tablespoon or two. I stirred them around and added one very ripe tomato chopped up in about inch-and-a-half-size chunks. I added a bit more salt and pepper and cooked, stirring now and then until everything was soft and browned. Of course I could have added garlic or some herbs at this point, but I didn't. The flavour depends on the carmelization of exceptionally fresh and tasty vegetables. And it is truly good put on top of some chewy, nutty genmai.

It was even good eaten picnic-style in front of the computer as I caught up on my blog reading. Shhh, don't tell.

11 June, 2007

Feed your Vegetarian

Feed your Vegetarian is a great-looking blog I discovered on the Foodie Blogroll, the widget on the bottom right with links to many food blogs. Happily I discovered quite a few promising ones, some of them wholly vegetarian or vegan. I'll be posting more links later, and some recipes I've been working on, but if you want to see what look like some great recipes and wonderful pictures, take a look at this.

Campfire salsa, anyone?

03 June, 2007

Yesterday I baked, today I boil

Yesterday I took a bike ride into the "country" around here. Though it was a Sunday so traffic was light and I took small lanes away from the most congested roads, I came back with a headache from the pollution from the car exhausts. Japan has too many cars in too little space. Someone has let the technology available since the war become a frankenstein monster. Not only in Japan, of course, but here the roads have almost no shoulders and the lanes are so narrow you are probably often only a few feet or under a metre away from cars' tailpipes. And who, besides non-Japanese, are the everyday users of bicycles and the benefactees of all those noxious gases? Why, school children and the elderly, of course. They are riding every day, breathing every day, absorbing all that junk. In "Beautiful Japan". What've you got to say about that, Mr. Abe?

Today I want to offer a link to the magazine "Good" with a profile of an artist/activist with a creative approach to our environmental woes. "Dr. Natalie" set up a floating lab made of pop bottles to give some prescriptions for environmental problems. I think this is good education, and interesting art. And it makes me feel better.

Scroll down to the bottom of the page for the video.