20 December, 2007

For All the Christmases You Write

I'm feeling a bit more Christmas-y since I decided the only way out of the clutter was to mount a major cleaning-out campaign, and miraculously got the energy to begin. I've been living in this small flat in an old Japanese house for seven years as of this spring, and in that time it was easy to amass a whole lot of things that I thought I needed for living here. Some of them are just ridiculous. Who needs oil powder papers for blotting your face? Or numbers of postcards that would rival a collector's? (They were gifts; I don't even like post cards). Or 79 and 1/2 key chains from various spots around Japan and the world? (Again gifts.) Or an electric shaver to get the lint balls off your sweaters? (Actually, that one has proved useful for re-newing old rather than buying new sweaters.)

When you live with clutter, it's easy to lose things, and when you don't think about it, you end up buying one more, so that you have duplicates or even triplicates of nail files, box cutters, post-it notes (which never to be in sight when you want to post a note) containers of paper clips, stickers, compacts, glue sticks, even too many Japanese-English dictionaries, and way, way too many textbooks for teaching English. Things so totally uneccesary that it's hard not to feel like a loser for having brought them into your life, since you've used them little or not at all.

Yesterday I found a box cutter I didn't know I had, still in the package (when I'm always hunting for box cutters), a full set of extra blades for said box cutter, in case I should ever wear out the blade cutting my trillionth box, an extra paper-cutting board, light bulbs I had forgotten I had, and happily, a bag of vacuum cleaner bags that I had forgotten I bought, so that I have been mentally telling myself to buy them for over a month now, but now can quit doing that for another month.

One or two things, like my computer, I was right about. Before the computer it was easy to feel cut off from home, and get completely out of touch with what is happening in North America and the rest of the world.

Now I can tune into news from home and even read articles in my home town newspaper, but strangely enough after the novelty wore off, I rarely do. I find I'm more interested in reading blogs. I like knowing about how people are thinking about the things that matter to them, their lives and loves and even hates. People from all over the world. I think what's so good about blogging is that we get to see that people everywhere are more alike than not. And we can really empathize with what they are facing in their lives. I love this the most, that people are willing to share a lot of who they really are on the Internet. It takes a little bravery and foolishness to do it, considering how much of ourselves we have to expose to information gathering entities these days. But this, I think is important. If there is anything talked about as one of the most important features of the first part of the 21st century I think it will be the phenomenon of blogging.

Blogging has made it possible for me and millions of others to stop buying magazines that insult our intelligence, are all about selling us things, or have only 2 pages that interest us, as they harp on about the glories of business, war, or mainstream politics. Personally I'm not too interested in those things. You might be, but then with blogs and online magazines, you can choose what to read and quit reading any time. And you don't have a pile of paper magazines that you have to try to find a way to re-cycle. Efficient both in terms of time and allowing me to choose to sample a range of sources rather than just be stuck with one point of view, usually a commercially-oriented one.

I like reading for pleasure, inspiration, and enlightenment. I like to learn something new. This year I and my students discovered and discussed a lot of topics about the environment, living, health, democracy, human rights, culture and more in excerpts from blogs and news articles. Articles collected from a range of countries and continents, from people with different points of view. Writing that I hope helped to broaden our understanding.

And the blogs that I love, that I read regularly, have some of the best writing I've ever read, certainly better than most magazines. And others are interesting to pop in and discover someone's world, or the small corner of it they are publishing. It's great for a teacher to keep in touch with what's current in music and culture for the next generation or two or three.

This week I discovered, through the Blogs of Note list, a guy who I think must be in Switzerland, writing about his sadness about lost love. I know just how he feels, and so do the thousands of people who are sending him messages of support. You can find his story and fantastic photographs at One Pic a Day.

I often drop in to Seattle (in my mind anyway) to read one of my favourite bloggers, Gluten-free Girl . Shauna has a fabulous story that has inspired massive love from her fans. Sick and tired and recovering from a serious accident she discovered that she had celiac disease, and began a diet to eliminate gluten from her life, starting blogging to share recipes as she learned to cook and recovered her health, and ended by falling in love and marrying a chef and getting a book deal. Now that's a story that keeps me coming back to see what will happen next, and it doesn't hurt that she's a very good writer either.

And inspirational. Because of her blogging about her symptoms I thought I would try cutting out gluten and eliminated my biggest health problem, lifelong chronic eczema on my hands that had to be contolled with topical steroids. For about forty-some years, doctors and specialists could offer me nothing to help and my hands were not good even with the strongest of steroid creams.They cracked and bled and the intense itching kept me from sleeping well. Anyone who's ever experienced that kind of chronic itching and scratching knows the relief when it stops. Now I'm eczema and steroid free, and the regular migraine headaches, that were with me for about 10 years, (with nausea) have disappeared. I owe a big thank-you to Shauna for pointing the way to much better health.

In New Zealand, Pohangina Pete walks the still wild-looking country of the Pohangina Valley and takes pictures of birds, animals, water and sometimes people, that take my breath away. His portraits of birds and animals actually are able to show the character, even the soul of each, as much as a great portrait of a human can. He has the talent for making me feel I am just a few steps away from those beings, caught with time suspended in that freeze frame between one breath and the next. And his writing is wonderful, poetic and evocative. He's not afraid to ask the big philosophical questions on his mind as he walks through his world.

Colin Beaven has completed his No Impact Man year, when he went off the grid in a New York city apartment, and now, with his wife and little girl, is trying to find balance between reducing environmental impact and living a joyful life. What he's found, that less stuff and less power use means a more joyful existence, as he connects with family and community around doing rather than consuming, is reflected in my own experience here in Japan. Quite a few months ago I discovered his blog and have been trying to follow his example as much as I can. I have discovered, as he did, more health and sanity as I began to cook at home, cut shopping except for food and essentials, learn to re-use and make things rather than automatically buying them, and spend time thinking about how I could better help rather than hurt this place I live in.

The key to feeling good, I think, is having a sense of control over your life, feeling that you can actually choose some of your path, rather than swirling along with the millions who are confused into thinking that things = happiness. Actually, in my fortunate middle age I have discovered what makes me happy has nothing to do with what I have. It has to do with enjoying life. It has to do with getting up in the morning, seeing the trees and flowers and herbs in the garden, looking at the lights and colours of the seasons, cooking a tasty meal with healthy ingredients, and eating that meal with pleasure. It has to do with feeling I can make a difference, however small, to people. Teaching and sharing discussions, talking about what we care about. Having a family to care about and for, even if it's your friends or a dog or cat. These are the enduring loves. These are the treasures we have all but forgotten in our busy, busy youth.

For friendship and cooking pizazz, I always return to the ebullient and tireless Super Seamaiden of Book of Yum, to remember the early years of marriage and being a student, and then the fun of discovery of learning to cook for a family. Her enthusiasm and youth are contagious; she looks like she enjoys every day. And man, can she produce copy. Her almost daily posts often contain two or even three recipes. Usually she's in California, but right now is in Austria for the holidays with her husband. (I'm not jealous, oh no.) Hi SS, hope you are having the best time!

For news of what's happening in Japan, and updates on the food and consumer front, and the environment I rely on Martin J. Frid of Kurashi News. He knows things I only dream of knowing, if my Japanese were much better than it is now. His blog is a fantastic resource for anyone that needs information in English, updated frequently. Thanks Martin!

For these, and many more blogs, I am thankful. I am thankful that I can learn and enjoy and be surprised and delighted at the creativity, intellect, talent and spunk that is out there for any of us lucky enough to have a computer to read. I am thankful to them for delivering me from stodgy, conservative, violent, and boring journalism that has infected much of the pulp trade. There are still a few good magazines published, and fortunately they usually put something online, otherwise in Japan I could never read them. But for the rest, I can save my money, my shelf space, and my mind for the small amount of "clutter" I want it to hold.

Bloggers, wherever you are this holiday season, "May your days be merry and bright!" And thank you, for all the Christmases you write!

16 December, 2007

All I want for Christmas is Less Clutter and a Muffin

I'm having a bit of a problem thinking about Christmas and gifts this year. It was this year that I became a vegetarian, started becoming more aware of the environment, and trying to wrestle down the impact of living. It's been a bit of a hard haul and though I've triumphed with a few things including much less shopping for clothes and unnecessary things, cutting way back on creams and lotions and cosmetics, there are a few things I haven't got control of yet.

I haven't managed to stop using more paper than I like, both for students' handouts and printing materials for classes, though I have cut down a bit on the non-essential, and tried to re-use what I have in different ways when I can.

It's funny what stopping shopping will do. You suddenly look around and realize that you already have too many things to be living the simple life that you imagined this whole process would lead to. In fact, you are drowning in gifted knicknacks and gadgets, old papers and books, things that don't work any more (and many of those seem to be electrical appliances with a planned life expectancy). If you're a teacher or have children you might have stockpiles of things like decorations or games that you want to re-use for holidays like Halloween and Christmas, and Valentine's and Easter and Thanksgiving and...you get the idea.

In the kitchen you might be holding on to old bottles and jars for the time when you need them. Maybe for the time when you get inspired to make homemade raspberry jam, if there were ever raspberries available to make it, which there aren't here.

You are dismayed to see bottles from wine that you forgot you ever drank, either because it was in the dim past or because your memory is getting foggier every year. In fact, you might forget why you ever were saving them.

It all adds up to too much clutter in a small space, clutter that doesn't make it easy to find what you need when you need it, or make the best use of the small space you live in.

And that's not counting the separate bags of every kind of recyclable imaginable, that every home in Japan has, awaiting the one or two days a month when the collection is made.

When I think of gift giving and receiving, and that's pretty much always on my mind now, with the deadline for sending gifts to Canada here and maybe passed, I start ruminating about what I can give that won't add to my near and dear's clutter, and maybe even more importantly, forestall getting anything more to add to my own. This year I requested either email certificates for clothes (which by now I really do need) or a donation to Children International, where I sponsor a boy living in Manila.

But I have no idea what I'm going to send the family. Maybe a bit of money, 'cause that certainly is recyclable, and light going through the post. But with my budget, I don't know if the bit of money I can send will be welcome. At least I guess there won't be an orgy of spending on the other end that will damage the environment. Maybe just enough for a nice treat or two for the family table, which is how I hope they'll look at it.

And in the meantime, since I really won't be getting anything much in the post, except from my dear friend in Sweden, M., who has already sent me two most welcome movies on cd, which I easily found a place for amongst the clutter on my desk, I decided to gift myself with what I really want most right now, and won't add much to the general mess around here, a delicious Sunday breakfast, with a taste as much like Christmas to me as most folks' plum pudding.

I'm talking about the taste of pumpkin pie. Or in our family, squash pie, because butternut squash is much tastier and richer in flavour than pumpkin ever thought of being. The moist, sweet spiciness of ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves cozied up to a creamy texture, with brown sugar sweetness melting through it all. My grandfather's favourite, so that in the past, when we all gathered for holidays, we had to have squash pie every time, alongside the mincemeat, or lemon, or raspberry or whatever other seasonal pie was on the menu. So good it was the last food he ever asked for in this life. And it might be the last food I ever ask for too.

Now that I'm gluten-free and living alone in Japan, with a tiny tabletop oven, making a whole pie is a rare event. In fact, since I stopped eating wheat I've only made crustless pies or puddings and quiche, which are still pretty good. I'll probably leave the experimentation with pie crust to the time when I get back into a full-sized kitchen, with a full-sized oven.

Today I decided to try to recreate the squash pie experience in a muffin. Because muffins are small and quick to make, and muffins don't require the same difficult reproduction of regular bread texture that most gluten-free breads do. Gluten-free muffins are good. They may even be better than the usual muffins, because they are very tender without the gluten in the wheat. Meltingly tender.

The muffins were a great success. Spicy and fragrant, pumpkin-y and creamy with soy milk and a streusal topping adding a bit of brown sugar crunch. All that I was longing for and a bit more. I added some soft sultana raisins, and they were a good choice. I ate them warm, for obvious reasons, but later after they cooled, they became denser and more whole-grain in texture, a lot like bran muffins, absolutely wonderful for any gluten-free folks longing for that elusive whole-grain experience.

I can't give you an exact recipe, because I really didn't measure anything, just threw it together. But I will tell you how I did it and if you want to try, please go ahead. All measurements are approximate, but I don't think these muffins are too finicky. I'm sure you'll end up with something good.

Because I used Japanese pumpkin, which is almost identical in flavour to North American squash, I'm calling them Pumpkin Pie Muffins. But you know, if you can't get Japanese pumpkin, then be sure to use squash.

Pumpkin Pie Muffins with Streusal

Streusal Topping:

2 Tb Gluten free flour mixture (see below)
2 Tb light brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 Tb mild-flavoured salad oil

Mix in a small bowl and combine with fingers, breaking up into small crumbs with a few small lumps. Distribute over the filled muffin cups before baking.

Muffin batter:

About 2/3 to 3/4 of a cup of baked pumpkin. (Clean the pumpkin and invert on a cooking sheet and bake in a hot oven until tender. Scrape from the skin with a spoon.)

Mix in a bowl, with a whisk until blended:

the baked pumpkin
1 egg
3/4-1 cup soy or rice milk

Add and mix:

1/2 cup or more brown sugar
1/2 cup soft raisins
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tb mild-flavoured salad oil

1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda

Add 1 cup of the following flour blend. You''ll have extra for the next batch of muffins.

1 cup brown rice flour ( in Japan "Rice Blessing" flour is available from the Anew stores*)
1/2 tapioca flour (available from FBC General Store *)
1/2 cup soy flour (available from Tengu Natural Foods)*
1/2 cup Amaranthus flour (available from Tengu natural Foods*)

See the shopping section for links to buy the flours.

Mix all the ingredients except the baking powder, soda and flour. Put them in order in the bowl on top of the liquid mixture and stir just until combined, not too much. Scoop out and distribute into 6 well-oiled muffin cups (non-stick if you have them because they may stick a bit) and bake at 200 degrees C or 375 degrees F for about 20-30 minutes. Watch them closely and take them out when a knife inserted in the center tests just a little sticky but not wet. Don't over-bake for a moist, creamy texture.

You may need to run a bread knife around them while still a bit warm to release them from the muffin cups. They may crumble a bit around the edges but don't worry, it won't affect the taste.

Note: If you can have wheat you can substitute 1 cup of all-purpose or half and half whole wheat and all-purpose flour. This recipe can be doubled for 12 muffins.

15 December, 2007

Painted Poem

Via the wonderful wood s lot blog, an arresting and timely "painted poem" by Kenneth Patchen. A collection of painted and silkscreened poems is here.

03 December, 2007

Minestrone with Fresh Pesto

A few weeks ago I had a cooking night with one of my private students, at an ex-student's house. Since I had never been there before, I was worried that they might not have some tools, pots or spices, so I packed up a big box with everything from extra-virgin olive oil, to knives, even bringing my pretty scarred-up but serviceable cutting board. The kitchen turned out to be modern and well-equipped, but when you're cooking and want things to go right, it's comforting to have your own tools.

I also brought a big stainless soup pot that I had bought awhile back, since I love making homemade soups but hate the idea of cooking in the aluminum pots that seem to be the standard here. Since I had been cooking on a gas flame, it was a little black around the edges, so to make it presentable I had to spend about an hour buffing off the black spots and shining it up. It ended up looking almost new, though, so that was nice. Nothing like a shiny pot to get you in the mood for cooking.

I started off the preparation by teaching them to make pesto with fresh basil. It was a new taste for them. Though Italian influenced food here is probably the most popular and ubiquitous in the country, most people never cook it at home, and they eat a food tailored to "Japanese tastes", which means heavy on the oil and garlic, but light on the vegetables and real cheeses. Out here in the country cheese is a recently new import and the quality has tended more toward the processed (those cardboard shakers of parmesan dandruff) and pre-shredded mozzarella, along with those little triangles of mystery cheese from somewhere in Europe. Cheddar has been difficult to find, if not impossible. Reggiano is not easy to get, but in the last year a local supermarket started to carry it.

Anyway, I brought everything, including my new Cuisinart Smartstick, which turned out to be great for chopping and making the pesto, but because the top had to be removed by hand (there's no feed tube on this little baby) was a little fiddly. But it worked very well and made a beautifully textured sauce. It also grated fresh parmesano reggiano with no trouble at all.

The women got to work chopping and slicing the vegetables while I carmelized the garlic and then the onions in the oil. We used organic carrots, potatoes, and small white turnips for this soup, along with a handful of white beans, a stalk of celery, and some parsley.

A small carrot, the celery stalk including the leaves and a small bunch of parsley, were chopped to make a mirepoix and added to the pot with the onions and garlic to sweat. Next the chopped fresh tomatoes went in under cover so they could cook down a bit and release their juices. After adding the other vegetables, and a few stirs, we covered them with water, added a bayleaf, salt, and pepper and covered the pot, bringing it just to a simmer. Then we removed the cover and let it cook until the vegetables and beans were almost tender.

At this point I boosted the flavour with a vegan German vegetable stock cube, a completely optional choice, but I happened to have part of a package on hand. You could use any bouillon you like, or none if you prefer a lighter taste. At the end we added several spoons of the fresh pesto and allowed the soup to finish cooking, then tasted for and added more salt and pepper until it bounced on the tongue.

While this was happening, I showed the women how to make simple bruschetta with fresh garlic and a good olive oil, and I made myself some toasted brown rice mochi as a gluten-free choice. (How-tos in the recipe section.)

I tried out a white bean topping with lemon for the bruscetta from Epicurious but with the beans we had available, cooked soybeans, it was pretty bland. We improved it a bit by topping it with more fresh pesto.

Relaxing in C.'s huge white living room around her small table, sitting on the floor, as is the custom here, with one eye on a huge flat-screen high definition TV, we enjoyed the hot food and an early Christmas, as the TV competed with blinking Christmas lights.

Try this soup for warming up as the cold weather rushes in. It makes a big pot to share with friends or family, or if you're cooking for yourself, it will easily keep and improve in flavour for a few days. It's not too easy to get tired of this even if you eat it for a few meals, and all the vegetables will give you a bit of inoculation against 'flus making the rounds. But the best reason to cook this soup is that you can vary it a lot with almost any vegetables you have on hand, it doesn't take long to make, and it's a meal I would serve to a Queen without apology. One of the classics of Italian country cooking, and a great gift to give yourself (Queen of your own kitchen).

Minestrone with Fresh Pesto

Enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot generously
3-5 cloves of fresh garlic
1 medium onion, chopped small

For the mirepoix:

Combine and chop finely, or food process finely:
1/2 medium carrot in chunks
1 stalk celery, in chunks
handful parsley


5 fresh tomatoes, chopped (or 1 can Italian tomatoes, chopped)
3-5 very small potatoes or 2 larger ones
1 carrot sliced in half or quarter rounds
1-2 small white turnips, peeled and sliced, cut in half or quarters
the tops of the turnips if available, chopped
1 handful white beans or lentils, any kind

1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
1 cube German vegan bouillon or other bouillon (optional)

Fresh Basil Pesto:

1/2 small white onion
5 cloves fresh garlic
a cup or so of fresh basil leaves, washed and dried (not too wet)
The best quality extra virgin olive oil you can get, about 1/2 cup
1/4-1/2 cup parmesano reggiano, fresh
handful of toasted pine nuts (I have substituted freshly-shelled pistachio nuts with good results)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
dash of tobasco sauce (optional)

Chop the garlic, parsley, and onion in a food processor. Add the pine nuts and chop. Add the fresh basil in batches, depending on the size of your food processor and pulse until chopped, adding a small splash of the oil if necessary to get it moving. Drizzle in the rest of the oil and combine. Add enough oil so it is the consistency of a thick soup. Don't overprocess it; you want it to keep some texture. Add the cheese which you have previously processed or grated and combine briefly. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add a dash of tobasco if you want a bit of heat.

Winter Pesto (when you can't get fresh basil)

1/2 white onion
5 cloves fresh garlic
1 bunch of fresh parsley
1/4 cup or more of dried basil (to your taste)
1/4 cup or more extra virgin olive oil ( adjust to get consistency right--see picture)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
handful of toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup or more fresh parmesano reggiano cheese
dash of tobasco ( optional)

Chop the garlic, parsley, and onion in a food processor. Add the dried basil and pulse a few times. Add the nuts and chop, then drizzle in the oil and combine. Don't overprocess it; you want it to keep some texture. Add the cheese which you have previously processed or grated and combine briefly. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add a dash of tobasco if you wish.

If you cover these sauces they will keep for at least a week in the refrigerator (longer if your freeze them) but please be careful with cleanliness and if in doubt, throw it out.

Although this recipe contains a small amount of dairy, you can make the pestos without the cheese. They are still good!