29 July, 2007

The Sunday Market

Yesterday was Sunday. As I often do I went off the the local Farmer's Market on my bicycle with my re-usable cloth bags and a couple of plastic sand pails for tomatoes ( recycled from use in kids' English classes) in the back basket. It's not very far, about a 5-minute drive away. They section off a part of the street near the local Fire House, backed by the tiny town park. There are two rows where local producers set up stands facing the street, most often with awnings overhead to protect from the sun or rain. They get there early. The place is all set-up before 9:00 (the earliest I've ever managed to arrive).

I like this place. The people who bring their goods are usually the farmers themselves, though we have a few re-sellers from the local Farmers' co-operative. I like these people. They are earthy and honest and really quite kind. Often they have a bit of a joke with me, we exchange some smiles, and often over my protests they give me free "service" items. Just because. A service to regular customers, and maybe to people "from away", just to be hospitable.

There's one very kind obasan that I usually go to first. She has the most carefully grown and chosen produce. Her vegetables are always picked at the right time to be delicious; yesterday I got tiny tender eggplants that took only a few moments to grill. She always has all the seasonal things and I can count on her to tell me how to cook something if I need help. She makes black bean pickles to die for -- a little crunchy, sweet with sugar and soy, and often sporting a few sliced hot peppers. Yesterday I spotted them and said "delicious" and she sent me away with a bag that she wouldn't let me pay for. The name for the free present is the English "service". This is one place that truly understands the meaning of that word and what it takes to win customer's hearts.

There is another group with rough manners, missing a few teeth but with open honest faces and big smiles. Yesterday they gave me a discount that I didn't ask for, just for the pleasure of our mutual smiles. They always have good hearty vegetables and fruit, just like themselves. I never miss their table.

Then there is an old Mom and Pop, she bent over and no longer able to stand straight, up front to chat with customers and bag up the purchases, toting up everything on an abacus, but sometimes losing her place and having to start over; he hovering in the background to wait on people shopping from the selection at the back, and to help if need be. She was the first to make me feel welcome at the market when I began as a trepidacious shopper with only 1 or 2 words of Japanese. Though they sell things from the local co-op, I always stop by to buy something from them, mostly for old times' sake, and well-wishing.

From time to time I shop at a flower stand which has a wonderful assortment of colours and shapes in season. I can buy everything from "Bird of Paradise" flowers to New Year's branches laden with red berries and pine boughs so that Christmas seems more real. This time of year I usually don't buy flowers, though, for my rooms are too hot and the flowers die within a single day that I am away from home.

I wish I had a photo. I will try to get one soon, but it seems I always forget my camera in the excitement to go and see what the market holds that week.

I have been there a few times since I started the diet, as a vegetarian, but not trying to buy all my weekly vegetables. This week, inspired by a new favourite site called No Impact Man I have been making efforts to cut down on my impact to the environment. I went yesterday with the goal to get my weekly vegetable supply, rather than at the grocery store where everything is wrapped in plastic. But after a few meals yesterday and today featuring vegetables, I realize that I have fallen far short of the amount I will need to get through the week. I have been eating a lot of grilled vegetables and salads. I am going to run out of tomatoes and eggplants in another day or two. I probably have enough onions and potatoes. Luckily there is a little market in the nearby shopping mall that sells vegetables out of big boxes, so I will be able to fill in there. And I will have a talk with my organic store and ask them to save me vegetables that are not in plastic bags.

Yesterday I got the local coffee store to wrap my coffee beans in recycled newspaper, saving the usual two plastic bags and a twist tie. I intend to make old newspapers my new wrapping paper. And to stop buying newpapers. I have managed to reduce my trash a lot. I only need to put it out once a week and then not a full bag.

The Low Impact lifestyle is addictive. Once you make one change, you start to think of one more you could make. Then suddenly you are thinking about the impact of everything in your life. What's addictive may be that you are thinking and acting for yourself outside of ways that have been automatic since you were a child. It's a great feeling to be doing something, anything, to combat this Global Warming nightmare that worries us all. Getting healthy, aware and unstuck from rote thinking, and unhooked from the Big Business-Consumerist machine are the pay-offs that might just make this way of life more and more attractive to us all.

24 July, 2007

Creamy Coconut Tomato Curry (Low-fat)

Loving Indian food and curries as much as I do, but considering that a lot of the food is fried and not so innocent of calories might rule it out while I'm on a diet. But I have been reading a book called The Tortoise Diet and of all the diets I've read about or tried over the years this seems to be the most sensible and have the most chance of working. One of the pieces of advice that the author, Patricia Church, gives is that you should eat foods that you love. Now, how many diets have ever said that? Precious few. Most of them seem to be fixated on manipulating my protein or carbohydrates until I start to feel like I'm aboard the Enterprise eating Ferenghi Food, and maybe starting to morph into one too with all the changes in my body chemistry, hormones, ketones, not to mention comfort zones. And I usually develop strange cravings for things that I can't have. I remember one short bout with the Atkins diet way back when, when anything vegetable, even the cardboard box holding the groceries was starting to look good, maybe with a little mustard? In my book, any diet where you can't eat chocolate or curry or especially vegetables and fruit is a complete flop. I just didn't want to eat a bunch of meat, even when I wasn't a vegetarian. My favourite foods were always rice-based, or something with pasta, tortillas and beans, salads of all kinds and fruits.

So it's important to me that my diet have all the things I love to eat. I just need to teach myself how many calories are in foods, and what are the proper portions. Those are quite small, as it turns out. A half-cup of brown rice has about 140 calories. Healthy, but nutrient dense, so I still eat it but I've cut my portions at least in half. If I'm still hungry, and often I am, then I make a big salad and eat a piece of fruit for desert. I'm not doing perfectly. I still slip and the calorie count for the day shoots up. But I look at this as something I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life. Changing my eating habits to healthier ways. Getting more moderate enjoyable exercise on a regular basis, rather than hours here and hours there but little in between. Adding a regular weight workout to my life, something I've been doing, but sporadically, for years. And stretching myself to make recipes for delicious food that I love to eat in lower-fat, and therefore lower-calorie, versions.

I guess I was feeling a little low on the day that I wrote the post about my knees and asked others to share their recipes. The next day I picked myself up and realized that if I want to succeed with this I need to lead the way, not wait for others. There are a lot of good low-fat vegetarian recipes on the web already, if I want to do the research, but it never hurts to have a few more. So I'll be posting up my experiments here, and I'd be grateful for any comments, additions or tweaks people may have.

I'm starting out with a low-fat version of a curry I posted before as English Teacher's Vegetable Curry. This is a much lower fat version, made creamy by tomato puree and the addition of a moderate amount of coconut milk. You can of course add more if you like but I think this is pretty good-tasting for a low-fat recipe. I enjoyed it over several meals and it was good to the last drop, draped over moderate amounts of nutty genmai (brown rice).

You can vary the vegetables according to what you have on hand; I used the small Japanese eggplants, new potatoes (a gift from my student's garden), and the small thin cucumbers we get in Japan.

Creamy Coconut Tomato Curry (Low-fat)


1 Tb good oil
1/4 tsp whole black peppercorns
3/4 tsp whole cumin seeds
6 green cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
7 whole cloves
1-inch piece of stick cinnamon
1/2 large or 1 medium onion, diced
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, minced
6-7 cloves fresh garlic, minced

3 small eggplants, chunked
2 small cucumbers, sliced
3 small potatoes, cubed
212 grams or 1 and 1/3 cups tomato puree ( you may have to adjust this to your taste)
4 Tb good-quality canned coconut milk ( I use milk from Thailand)
1 and 1/2 tsp salt (I use sea salt)
a few thin slices jaggery (maybe 1-2 Tb brown sugar could substitute)
1/8 to 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp Garam Masala

In a large fying pan or wok, over medium heat, put 1 Tb of a good oil and add:

1/4 tsp whole peppercorns
3/4 tsp cumin seeds
6 whole green cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
7 whole cloves
1-inch piece of stick cinnamon

Saute for a few seconds and then add:

1/2 large or 1 medium diced onion
1-inch sized cube of fresh ginger, minced
6-7 cloves fresh garlic, minced

Stir and fry for a few minutes until the onion becomes a bit brown (brown flecks are okay.)

Then add 3 eggplants cut in chunks, cubed potatoes, and diagonally sliced cucumber (equivalent to two small). In North America about 1/3 to 1/2 of an English cucumber sliced down the length in the middle and then diagonally cut would be a good substitute. Leave the peel on. One North American-sized eggplant will be enough, but you will probably need to peel it if the peel is too tough and bitter. If you can find the small egg-shaped ones they are better for this recipe.

Give it a few stirs and add the tomato puree, about 212 grams. In North America that would be about a cup and 1/3 but this is fairly flexible, I think. In Japan I use Hikari puree in the glass bottle ( 2/3 of a bottle). I think the closest substitute would be a variety with Italian plum tomatoes.

Stir and add some water to just cover the vegetables, a few cups should be about right. It will depend on the size of your pan and amount of vegetables. (See the picture.) Add the salt and cayenne pepper to taste. Add the jaggery or brown sugar. Put the curry to simmer (on low heat) and occasionally give it a stir. Cook until the vegetables are tender, about 20-30 minutes. Some time in that period you can add 4 Tablespoons of coconut milk. (I use canned milk.) This adds fewer calories and less fat than the 5 Tb of oil the recipe originally called for!

In the last 10 minutes, shake over it about a tsp of Garam Masala. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. (Add more salt or hot pepper).

Enjoy with brown or other rice.

Health Note: My knee has improved significantly in the only 1 week that I have been following this diet. I was able to go on the treadmill for the first time this past week. The pain is down a lot! Yesterday I was able to manage without my walking stick. This was quite sudden after 5 weeks of not much progress. I attribute it to all the nutrients and vitamins I'm getting with all the added fruits and vegetables, which may be promoting faster healing. Yay!!!

21 July, 2007

Vegan Chocolate Pudding (almost instant)

If there's one thing a diet will do it's get you thinking about sweets. I'm not usually a big sweet eater; even as a little kid I always went for the second-helping of dinner rather than the sticky dessert. I've never enjoyed things so sweet they make your teeth ache. But let's say that since I got out on my own and got perfect control over my own food supply (including not having to cook for children anymore) I've discovered a few things I really do like. I've developed a liking for chocolate, though it wasn't my favourite at first. It might have had something to do with the quality of chocolate available in the countryside where I lived as a child. For the most part it was either those cheap candy bars, cheap chocolate fudgecicles, or even cheaper chocolate Easter bunnies. Most of it was not very delicious. I don't know what the percentage of cocoa was in there, but let's just say I used to call the flavour "Brown" rather than chocolate.

Then I discovered organic chocolate bars. You know, the kind you can find in health food stores these days. Often with good things like nuts, toasted rice crisps or orange in them and using good quality chocolate, they are nothing like the pale carob ones that was all we could get when I was raising my family. Now if you like carob, I'm sorry. There even may be one or two of you in the world who can't live without it. But to me it never tasted anything like chocolate. And I didn't like it either. If I was cutting down on fat I vastly preferred to use a good Dutch process cocoa. Still do.

These days I can get some decent chocolate here, if I want to pay a fortune. And if I could eat wheat. There's a company in Hokkaido called Shirokoibito (White Chocolate Lovers) that ships out chocolate enrobed langue-de-chat sandwich cookies to die for. I tasted them a few times before I realized I was allergic to wheat.

So how do I get my chocolate fix? Well I tried ordering chocolate-chip cookies from America that were gluten-free. Though I ate them, mostly for the nice melty chocolate chips they contained, the texture was something like sand meets dried out meringue. Like something from the Adams' family kitchen. In other words, terrible.

I would just make them home-made if chocolate chips were easier to get, and IF I weren't now on a diet. Think I better put that off for a few months, until I feel stronger. But there's one dessert I can justify eating a little of. It's a creamy chocolate pudding made with soy milk, real vanilla and good cocoa and thickened with cornstarch. It's a simple recipe adapted from my cooking bible, "The Joy of Cooking". The only trick to this one is to get the consistency right. Sometimes it doesn't thicken as well and you need to mix a bit more cornstarch into soy milk and add it. I'm thinking this would work with rice milk too, though it might be a bit thinner. I've been known to add a shot of Kahlua near the end if I'm in the mood for something a bit mocha-y. You can also replace some of the liquid, maybe a half-cup or so, with coffee if you have extra around. And, of course, replace the cocoa mixture with some melted real chocolate.

Oh yeah, it takes about 15 minutes to make. Almost instant. And far better than any package could be. It's not too sweet, so if you want to add a bit more sugar, go for it.

Vegan Chocolate Pudding

1-2 Tb pure olive oil or other neutral-flavoured oil
3 or 6 Tb of good cocoa
1/2 cup sugar
6 Tb. corn starch
1/4 tsp salt
4 cups soy or other milk
1 tsp vanilla
kinako powder -- (きなこ)

Soy milk is tonyu (とんゆ) and comes in rectangular cardboard packages usually with a picture of soy beans on them.

To make a good chocolate substitute :

Use 1 Tb good quality oil and 3 Tb cocoa for every oz. of chocolate you want. Put the oil in the pan, and mix in the cocoa with a fork or a whisk. Then add the liquids and stir and cook until all the chocolate moves through the liquid. For this recipe use equivalent to 1 oz of cocoa for a really light chocolate flavour and 2 oz for the more decadent version. Dessicated coconut is also a good addition or topping. You can get it from cake shops or the cake section of the supermarket.

Mix up the chocolate in a medium-sized saucepan and then add the soy or other milk and turn on the heat. You can also add the sugar. Stir with a wooden spoon or whisk and keep it moving around just so it doesn't stick. When the chocolate mixture resembles chocolate milk and looks pretty uniform in colour, add the cornstarch which you have mixed into 1/2 cup of cold soy milk. Be careful of lumps. You need to whisk this pretty well and if you think it might be lumpy pour it through a tea strainer into the pot.

At this point you want to cook over a medium heat, whisking all the time as it will cook and thicken quickly, within a minute or two (on a gas flame). When it is thick, remove from the heat and add the vanilla or other flavouring. Stir.

I like to pour it into coffee mugs and top with a little kinako (roasted soy powder that tastes a bit like peanuts.)

Edit: Good grief! I forgot to put the sugar in the recipe-- won't do at all. Yes there is a bit of sugar; don't make it without it. It's now added to the recipe.

20 July, 2007


It had to happen, it was just a matter of when. My family have bad knees. My mother has had two knee replacements and an aunt has a new hip. My grandmother, who had no operation, had to use a walker in her last years, though there's no doubt that her stubborn fortitude kept her out of it until she was about 90 or so. Looks like I'll never make that. I think I'm the youngest in my family to have bad knees, but then I might have been the most active. In my thirties I did kenpo karate, weight training, aerobic dance, walking and running, quite a lot of it. I blamed the kenpo for the first painful twinges; all that repetitive kicking at the air couldn't have been good, I thought, but now I realize it may have been as much about getting out of the magic twenties when everything just effortlessly works right, and you can do incredibly stupid things with seemingly no payback.

In my mid-thirties I traded in running for walking and stopped the Kenpo. Aerobic dancing was slowly eased out as I noticed that all the bouncing and quick footwork seemed to be leading to injuries and knee pain. It was nothing much at that point, just discomfort that I could control by not overdoing any one movement or making the session too long. And I did love dancing. Even when the aerobics went by the wayside I sometimes went out for nights of dancing at the clubs with a friend. I could dance for hours, even in moderate high heels, and that after a long day of working on my feet. In retrospect I think flat shoes may have been more sensible, but sense wasn't a strong suit of mine then.

In my forties, coming to Japan I discovered a more active lifestyle than I had in Canada. Here people sat on the floor, slept on the floor (on futons) and without a car or easy access to buses there was a lot more movement involved in daily life. I took up bicycle riding after about 30 years of not being near a bicycle. It had been my childhood joy, but left behind when I moved to the far very snowy North and ruled out in the city as being too scary and dangerous with all the cars around. Here in Japan it became a necessity for shopping, walking being too slow and the range of places you could go being too small. I got over the fear of traffic. I have been riding a Japanese-style 3-speed, sturdy "Mama-chari" for over 6 years. It's my principal mode of transportation, the only one I regularly use, except for the train which gets me to work and home twice a week.

Beauty-shot when she was new.

I have been enjoying riding my bike. It's fun to hop on and feel the air and sunshine as you get somewhere under your own power. I love the freedom of not worrying about parking spaces or traffic jams, ever. I love how my rear carrier basket seems to hold just the right amount of groceries and how larger things can be easily bungeed on. I love how I can refuse plastic bags and just drive the cart out to my basket and load it up, fix the bungee net over the top and immediately take off without worrying about jostling bags into the trunk of a car. Without the bags I've discovered you can fit a lot more into a smaller space.

So, except for the occasional drenching on the way to work on an impossibly rainy day and the fumes from too many cars, I love riding my bike. It's the feeling of being a kid again, with all the freedom in the world and everything exciting before you when you hop on a bike to go somewhere. There's little enough of that when you get older that's it's precious and wonderful.

But, it had to happen. I've been noticing that my knees have been protesting a bit in the last few months, mostly on the steep up and down stairs over the top of train tracks that are so common here in the stations. There are still a lot of stations out in the country with no escalators or elevators. Heaven knows what disabled people are supposed to do.

Well, I decided one fine day to take a nice ride into the countryside and foolishly set off on my Mama-chari. I do have a road bike, that mainly is gathering dust. It never seems to be as stable or comfortable or as road-ready as my dependable yellow Peugeot. But one thing it has is a lot of gears, and I made a big mistake to leave it home that day.

I mostly enjoyed my 2-hour drive. It was no problem for my fitness level. But it was all a gentle uphill for the first hour and in that hour, pushing a low gear I did something to my left knee. I was okay the next morning, so I went for a walk around the castle, twice. Soon after that my knee started to unlock and move sideways in a way that I know is not natural, accompanied by more than a twinge. I figure I tore the tendon. And there is more pain under the inside of the kneecap, which means I probably wore through the cartilage too. I tried ice, aspirin, and rested it for a few weeks. I picked up a Leki walking stick (which I use regularly now to take off the pressure) but it's 5 weeks later and it's only a bit better. I foresee Doctors in my future. The family heritage has caught up with me at last.

So I have had to make a decision. I want my knee to carry me for a few thousand more miles before I have to trade it in for a plastic one. I have started a serious diet; I want to lose enough to take the pressure off my knee and make walking comfortable again. It might take awhile. I am counting calories. I am now vegetarian and low-fat (gluten and dairy-free). I will have to re-adjust my diet and cooking to allow for that. So if I put up fewer recipes for awhile while I get my head around this, you'll know why. I'm sure there are others like me out there. If any of you have any delicious low-fat recipes please post them and let me know, or leave them here.

I could use the help!

17 July, 2007

Bumble Bars (Organic and Vegan)

I don't often speak about food allergies here because, although I have them, I want to focus on the positive aspects of eating and food, but sometimes I come across a nice product which happens to fit the bill for me, non-gluten (that's no wheat, rye or oats), non-dairy (no cheese, milk or butter) yet tasty enough to be something I want to eat. Most fresh foods like rice, fruits, vegetables and tofu fall into this category, but just like everyone else I'm often in a hurry and don't feel like cooking or organizing a snack. So I was happy to discover that I could get Bumble Bars from the Foreign Buyers' Club (by the case). I had seen these described as good on several blogs from America, most notably at Gluten-free Girl. So I decided to take a chance and order them. One of the things about Japan is there is really no instant gratification for things from North America. I put in my order and duly waited a month for the shipment to come in.

It was worth the wait. I got the Original Mixed Nuts variety and found them chewy with sesame and nuts, sweet without (white) sugar or honey (they appear to be vegan) and just the right size for a between-meal snack. With 210 calories each, they won't break the calorie bank. So for those of you looking for a good snack for yourself or the kids, try these. And they ARE available in Japan* (with a little advance planning.)

*The only downside is that they are shipped all the way from America so they don't fall into the buy local category, so for me they will be an occasional treat.

13 July, 2007

Not about Food (mostly)

Now don't get me wrong, I love food and enjoy cooking but sometimes I do spare a thought for something else. Today I was browsing over at Soul Food Cafe, a nice site about creativity, art, and writing when I spotted the wonderful hooked rugs of Deanne Fitzpatrick, a Newfoundland artist living in Nova Scotia.

I was stopped by the memory of an old hook passed to me by my grandmother, which is probably the only tangible thing I have of hers. There are many intangibles, like my love of cooking, teaching, eye for design and innate sense of the quality of things (I always did great guessing on The Antiques Roadshow). I think I absorbed that from her love of sewing and attention to fabric selection, design, and taste. I remember her talking about those things to me from the time I was a tot and she always carefully showed me everything she was working on.

That old hook I never used, but looking at the great folk art in the rugs and the "stories" of Atlantic Canada they tell, the stories of the villages, the fishers and the women, I can feel my fingers itching to get on the hook and wool. I even know what the first rug will be; I made a small sketch this morning. Actually, it does involve food and Sunday Church. Pies and Church. If you're a member of my family you know what I'm talking about. For the rest of you, I apologize. But take a look at the wonderful gallery of stories. Maybe you'll recognize one of your own.

06 July, 2007

Veggie Friendly

Skipping around through the foodiesphere I happened on Veggie Friendly with great grilling style and an amusing story about the politics of "grillers" in Norway. Written by Kate, the female half of a travelling Australian couple, I think it's tops for entertaining writing, and with its twin Poundster.com by the guy of the two, good for travel fans, veggie eaters and people who love a fresh point of view. I'm awarding it the first ever Vegetable Japan Award; first prize is a spot on my blogroll and this little pointer.

01 July, 2007

Pure Gold

The Genmai post actually was written in March, but not put up because I didn't have a suitable photo. My taste now, during the rainy season, has turned to grilled vegetables. This morning I made a superb dish of grilled pumpkin that I had bought a week or so before at the Sunday (Farmer's) market. I went a bit late and was actually presented with two free cabbages with the purchase of one pumpkin! The cabbages are long gone, but the pumpkin has held beautifully, unrefrigerated on a shelf in my kitchen. When I cut into it this morning I was rewarded with the most beautiful pure gold colour. Shining in the darkish morning light I was reminded of Egyptian bracelets, perhaps even more beautiful for being alive and good to eat.

Pumpkin in Japan, which is called kabocha, resembles a meaty and mild North American squash. It stars at summer barbeques here and is loved by people of all ages. Children often say it is their favourite vegetable, so you know it must be good.

I happened to pick up a little electric grill last year when I was still eating chicken. I figured it was a healthier way to cook, but the surprise is this year, as a vegetarian, I am liking it more and more. Grilled vegetables are superb; no other word is good enough.

Yesterday I took a closer look at the sweet basil plants growing on my veranda. They were looking a little peaked, slightly exhausted for the heat and what appears to be the attack of insects bent on adding some tasty herbs to their diet. I did a bit of radical pruning, removing all the leaves with holes and bringing the plants indoors so they could recover from the onslaught. I will nurse them back to health with the tenderness they deserve. Basil is one of the most beautiful, fragrant and delicious of herbs, a culinary treasure.

So what could I do with all those leaves? Certainly they weren't going in the garbage. I gave them a good wash and fried them. Not the most usual of preparations but basil leaves fried slowly, until crisp, are pretty good to add to a dish. I crumbled them over a gluten-free pizza. I also wanted to give my pizza garlic flavour without big chunks of raw garlic. So I first slowly fried the cloves of a small head of garlic in the same pure olive oil. I got golden crispy garlic bits to scatter on the pizza. Then I fried the basil in the same oil. Presto, instant garlic-basil oil. I cooled it down and put it in an old pretty olive oil bottle, and stored it in the fridge. This morning it added a bit of spark to the grilled pumpkin on brown rice.

Grilled pumpkin with organic genmai, sea salt, basil and garlic oil