Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Autumn Sky

Pond with autumn sky reflection in Meguro Park

Autumn this year came really late, but came it did. I thought we were just going to skip right on into winter, but thank goodness autumn decided to make a peek appearance after all. It is my favorite season, with the crisp air and vibrant colors. I wish we had weather like this year-round.

Monday, November 29, 2004

November: Steal from Lynn Month

I am glad that November is almost over, for it seemed that in November, people were happily stealing from me without my knowledge left and right.

Last Friday, I got my credit card bill, and was shocked to see that the total was almost $4,000. Since moving to Japan, I have adopted the local way of carrying wads of cash in my wallet because a lot of places don’t take credit cards, so it’s extremely unusual for my monthly bill to be over $2,000. Something must be wrong.

Upon further inspection, I realized that out of the twelve transactions, only five were mine, totaling to approximately $700. The rest of the purchases had been made at various jewelry shops and department stores in Ginza, an area I seldom go to. Since the card (an only copy) has been in my wallet the entire time, someone must have gotten the information electronically and made a fake card. I just couldn’t believe it happened to me.

Credit card theft must not be very common in Japan, because when I called to report the incident, the girl on the other end of the line was completely clueless as to what to do. She didn’t understand why I asked her to read me transactions posted after the statement date and said she had to check with someone when I asked her to terminate this card. When that someone, presumably more experienced, called back, he asked whether I want my new card to be issued with the same card number. Duh! Does he even understand the entire reasoning behind having a new card issued?!

All in all, this thief used my card to buy electronic goods, pay for taxi fare, buy clothes, jewelry and who knows what else, and he/she is probably going to get away with it. Japanese sales clerks are so courteous that when this card is declined at the register with big “stolen card” flashing on screen, they will probably politely ask the thief if he/she has any other means of payment, losing the only chance to report the thief to the police. Then again, the police in Japan are equally impotent, so I guess the only outcome I can hope for is to have the charges revoked. I also made a decision to keep every credit card receipt from now on and diligently check every credit card statement. Maybe it’s time to dust off the trusty Quicken software again.

Friday, November 26, 2004

San Francisco Sourdough

Has anyone had a real SF sourdough before? Is it supposed to look like this? It's the second loaf from the yogurt culture. Smelled promisingly sour but still didn't taste quite sour enough. I haven't eaten a real sourdough bread for so long that I am beginning to think that they aren't that sour to start with. But Jason said to trust him on this one: mine are not sour enough. I will keep on trying.

BTW, we ate it with some balsalmic and olive oil marinated plum tomatos, and I imagine this is the kind of things we'd be eating if we ever manage to rent a villa in Tuscany and stay for a month (substitute SF with Tuscany). Of course, there, the tomato would be vine ripe from a neighbor's yard, and the olive oil and balsalmic vinegar would both be home made. I can always dream, can't I?

WHO warns of flu pandemic

It’s supposed to happen anywhere from next week to the next few years. And it will originate in Asia, as a mutant strain of bird flu that has found a way to be transmitted from human to human. Because it will be an entirely new strain, our immune systems won’t know how to fight it. Add to that the unlikely chance of a vaccine being discovered before March 2005, up to seven million people will die as a result, regardless of gender, race and age.

Great! As if it’s not enough that I am sitting on earthquake central, there is now another way for me to die young and childless. Ok, I was going to choose to die childless anyway, but not before I have finished doing everything on my mental “Things that I must do before I die” list. You think I can make it to Angkor Wat before the bird flue breaks out in Cambodia?

Sometimes don’t you just feel so small and helpless in the bigger scheme of things? I am not one to panic in situations where I have absolutely no control. I figure, what’s the use? What will happen, will happen, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop it. I am, however, extremely annoyed at how these things affect our lives. Call me selfish for only focusing on petty things, but I don’t like it when I have to change travel plans to avoid certain areas or modify my lifestyle to cut out the so-called high-risk behavior such as eating out at a restaurant.
I hope WHO overestimated the severity of the situation, or someone made a mistake calculating the casualties. However, deep down I know it’s just my wishful thinking. I guess the only rational thing to do is to enjoy life to its fullest while it lasts, which I should do, by quitting my job first.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Who ate my banana bread?

I don’t know whether I should be flattered or alarmed. Since I have been regularly making different kinds of banana bread for breakfast, I found that I have been consistently missing slices. Call me a freak but when I make a loaf that I plan on to last a set number of days, I divide it into the exact number of slices needed. So when a loaf that is supposed to last four days only lasts 3 1/2 (Jason doesn’t get his on day4) I notice. And the slices always go missing on Mondays. After questioning Jason to make sure he didn’t eat it, (I didn’t think he did because he never actively seeks out food in the fridge and the only time he eats is if food is presented to him on a plate.) the only logical deduction is that Sonia, our cleaning lady, did. But why?

She comes on Monday while we are at work so I had to trust her exclusively for her to work alone. And I do, as she has demonstrated her honesty time and again when she carefully collects all the loose change and 1000yen bills that we leave around the house and place them on the sideboard in a neat pile. So why would she forgo money but choose to steal bread? (Maybe she is taking money too but I just don't know because I don't count my money the same way I count my bread slices) Is she hungry? I must admit I never asked when she takes her lunch break. Is my baking so irresistible that she had to have some but was too shy to ask? Am I being a bad person to have never offered my baking to her as a gesture of appreciation? But I already pay her $60 for four hours of work each week. To me that’s appreciation enough, or--- would she rather get paid in bread? Maybe this Christmas, instead of giving her the annual bonus, I will give her a loaf of bread. (Too obvious?)

It is such a tricky situation that I am too embarrassed to even bring it up with her. So I have tried to solve it subtly: by not pre-slicing the bread. But alas, Sonia is no Jason. She, unlike Jason, would not be deterred from eating just because eating requires a little extra effort such as slicing a loaf of bread. (Do not ask how I know she is still eating the bread without slices to count, I am not willing to admit the level to which I have stooped)

As a result, I continue to run out of bread one day before I am supposed to. What can you do?

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Turducken

“The what?” you say? Those are my exact words when Jason announced last weekend that for our Christmas back home with my parents, we should order a turducken: a boneless chicken stuffed in a boneless duck, stuffed in a boneless turkey. My first reaction was, what an absurd idea! But after some internet research and reading accounts from people who’ve actually eaten this curious thing, I have decided that I have to try it too.

My website sources tell me that after deboning all three fowls, they are laid on top of each other, with three kinds of stuffing in between. The turkey is then sewn shut, enveloping all the ingredients, and the whole thing is shoved into the oven for a total of anywhere from five to nine hours of baking. The rationale behind the three different stuffing (smoked sausage stuffing between the turkey and the duck; cornbread stuffing between the duck and the chicken; and the oyster dressing inside the chicken) is so that each can compliment the meat by which it is sandwiched in between.

Turducken is now available in the States in a pre-stuffed, pre-flavored frozen form, shipped to your home overnight in dry-ice packs. All you have to do is to defrost in the fridge for 2-3 days and bake it for a very long time before you have a meal that feeds 15 to 20 people. However, if you know me, you will know I shun from commercially prepared food whenever possible and prefer to do everything from scratch as much as practical. Besides, if we really fall in love with it and are dying to have it again, there is no way for me to lay my hands on one once we come back to Japan. So I thought I’d explore the possibility of making one myself. How hard could it be? I’ve made many successful turkeys before.

Upon further googling, I found no shortage of enthusiastic home-cooks’ wibsites with recipes on the turducken and everyone seemed delirious with praise for the flavor. I am quite confident in getting the flavor of the stuffing right, but the most difficult part seems to be deboning the birds. Many recipes contain extensive descriptions but no pictures or drawings to show the procedure. Since I am a bit rusty on my bird anatomy (read: none), I needed graphics. And graphics I found! While I will do many things to satisfy the epicure in me, I do believe the profession of the butchers is created exactly to shield us from this kind of gore. (I did find the author of the above website to be quite funny though. So if you are ever inspired to debone a chicken/duck/turkey, you might as well refer to his website and do it with a little humor.)

However, after reading up on all this material, I no longer wish to stuff my own turducken. In fact, I am not even sure if I can rid the bloody image from my mind long enough to enjoy the supposedly heavenly flavor.

Meanwhile, Jason enthusiastically wants to order one for his brother in Atlanta too when he goes for New Year’s; until I reminded him that since each feeds fifteen, the one at my parents’ alone will probably last us a week. Does he really want to eat leftover turducken everyday for two weeks? I didn’t think so.

My Kind of Bag

A bunch of very smart people at MIT designed a bag that reminds you when you forgot to pack your keys, mobile phone, wallet, etc. It also lights up in the dark so you can see the content, and very soon, it will be able to check weather forecast and tell you when you need to bring an umbrella. Ok, they need to redesign the bag so it doesn’t look like a grocery tote, but otherwise, this bag is perfect for a scatter-brain like me! Throw in a GPS and the nerd in me will happily give up my Gucci’s and Prada’s. Ahem, until they come up with their own versions of the smart bag.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

'Tis the Season to Eat Nabe

My local supermarket started hawking nabe paraphernalia as early as August: clay pots, heavy metal pots, little slotted scoops made out of metal and plastic, table-top burners, gas canisters, you name it. Nabe, or hotpot, is one of my favorite winter foods. It’s the ultimate one-pot meal. With all kinds of pre-mixed soup stock available, all you have to do is to add vegetables, meat, tofu, and throw in some cooked rice at the end to make a nutritious and delicious meal in under 30 minutes. It is a lifesaver when you want a hot meal but are short on time.

Although I love nabe for the obvious reasons, Jason is not a huge fan. I don’t understand what the man has against nabe. After all, this is the same person who asks me to make chicken soup almost every week in the winter. Soup, nabe, what is the difference? So serving nabe for dinner is like planning a sneak attack, and it goes like this:
Jason, “What are we having for dinner tonight?”
Me, “Oh, I don’t know. I’ll think of something when I go to the grocery store.”
Come dinnertime: burner and clay pot all set to go.
Me, “Ta-da! I saw a new kimchi-flavored nabe stock at the supermarket and thought we’d give it a try.”
Jason, “Not nabe agaaaaaaaaaain!”

Mind you, I have put in a lot of thoughts in the nabe I make over the years. Every time I order nabe in a restaurant, I am always careful to take note of any unique ingredients, or the technique employed in making the zousui at the end. Ah, the zousui is another reason I love nabe. It means “everything cooked together” and is like a rice porridge. At the end of a nabe meal, when most of the goodies have been scooped up, the soup is brought to a boil, and then the burner is turned off. Immediately, some cooked rice is added to the soup, and a beaten raw egg is poured in egg-drop-soup-style. The lid is then replaced on the heavy clay pot. The residual heat cooks the egg and makes the rice absorb the soup. Ten minutes later, you lift the lid off to find – zousui! Udon noodles or, my favorite, rice cakes can be used in place of rice. When using rice cakes, they need to be placed inside the nabe a little bit before the heat is turned off so that they can turn all gooey. Mmmmmm, nothing beats piping hot rice cake melting inside your mouth. BUT, not even zousui can sway Jason in favor of the nabe. He finds it too starchy.

That is why it is imperative that the season’s first nabe makes a good impression on Jason so we can have more later. This year, I found the perfect solution: crabs. Who does not love crabs? So for our first nabe of the season, I chose zuwaigani (a long-legged Japanese variety with not-too-hard shells) as the main ingredient, and for stock I used a non-overpowering kelp base as I trust the crab to do enough flavoring on its own. To give it a gourmet touch, I even pre-cracked the legs so someone wouldn’t complain about how hard it is to eat crabs (although I obviously need more practice in this area since some of the legs were almost severed in half, oops).

As predicted, nothing could possibly go wrong when you throw crab in the nabe. Jason even went so far as to say he enjoyed it, but was quick to add, “It doesn’t mean I want to have nabe every week though!” Darn, I was so close!

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

My Picky Dog

Do other dogs get pickier as they age? Mine certainly does. She used to gulp down her food so fast I was afraid she would choke. Ok, maybe having Jack constantly eyeing her food was the main factor. But now, it takes her forever to finish a meal, and she always insists on company while she eats. Don’t even think about setting the food dish down in the kitchen and go back to watching TV. If I want to watch TV while Princess Libby eats, I’d have to move her to the living room with me. However, this only applies to dry dog food, which leads me to think that it just may be that she’s too lazy to chew?

Look at these delicious homemade dog cookies. They are made of 100% whole-wheat flour, with a healthy dose of beef and carrots added. When they were baking in the oven, Jason mistook the wonderful aroma for a meat dish and asked what we were having for dinner. Libby used to love them when I last made them for her when she was about 3 years old. Now, three years later (I know, I am ashamed to admit that I hadn’t baked her anything for three years) she has completely lost interest. When I gave one to her, she dropped it on the floor, looked at it, and then looked back up at me to see if I had anything better to offer. Only after making sure that there wasn’t any steak coming her way did she turn her attention back to the cookie. And she ate it reluctantly, like she was only doing it to please me. What really bothered me was that she didn’t even chew it, like a dog is supposed to. After breaking it into two pieces, she swallowed each half whole! Why can’t my own dog appreciate my cooking? Could it be because she just didn't want to chew it?Maybe next time I should try making doggie cakes and see what her reaction would be.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Tomato Sourdough

Made this sourdough bread last Friday. Since the starter is still new, it wasn’t as sour as I would’ve liked it to be, but the crust on this bread was awesome! Had it for dinner hot out of the oven, and used the leftover for a sandwich on a Saturday picnic. Maybe it was the sun and the grass; maybe it was the $4/slice super expensive ham; or maybe it was just my yummy bread, but it was the definitely the best sandwich I’ve ever had. I wish I could go on picnics everyday. Everything tastes ten times better when eaten outdoors sitting on a blanket.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Anti-Atkin’s Diet

Due to my recent rekindled interest in bread making (brought on by the cold weather, maybe) I find myself in a dilemma. There are simply too many recipes to try and too little stomach space to accommodate the product, unless I eat nothing but bread.

Could someone please invent an all-bread, anti-Atkin’s diet? That would really be the perfect solution. I can bake to my heart’s content, and eat all different varieties of bread without having to worry about bloating up like a loaf on its first rising.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Fun in the Sun

Our company had an earthquake/fire drill today. The way the drills are conducted is very different from in the States. For one, we were notified two days in advance. And the day before the drill, people were assigned to all sorts of tasks: one guy went around and made sure everyone had a helmet; another tallied up the people who will be in the office on that day (not taking into consideration emergency sickness, but then again, in Japan you are not allowed to get sick); clipboards were distributed to group leaders with action plans for the drill, etc. etc.

9am this morning, the loudspeaker cackled into life. A man announced that a drill would be conducted in 30 minutes. How nice of them to give us yet another notice.

9:30am, the real drill began. We were told that an earthquake had just occurred, and then were instructed to put on our helmets and hide under the desk for one minute. Then our floor leader informed us that a fire has broken out on our floor, but everyone should stay calm while they contact the fire department. We were told to wait until further instruction (despite the burning FIRE??!) After enough time that would’ve allowed the fire to engulf the whole building, we were instructed to evacuate the building via the emergency exit. Then we had to cross the street in an orderly fashion (and wait for the traffic light) and assemble in the parking lot.

After confirming all 546 people who are supposed to be in office today are all present, the drill was declared a success. (Is it a coincidence or extremely well planning? Because every time we have a drill, we always have gorgeous sunny weather.) This would’ve been a total waste of time, despite the weather, had it not been for the “Smoke House” experience.

The local fire department set up a smoke-filled room (about 3ft wide and 15ft long) in the parking lot. We had to find our way through it without bumping into the partitions inside.

I thought I could just follow the person in front of me and be out of there in no time. Boy was I wrong! I now know why smoke is more dangerous than an actual fire. The smoke used was of course harmless but nonetheless gave out a strange sweet smell. I crouched low like I was told because smoke rises up so visibility is supposed to be better closer to the ground. At first, it was fairly easy to see the person’s shoe in front of me, but after two steps all I could see was white smoke. No sign of the person in front, not even the ground. I felt like a blind person and had to rely on my hands to guide me. For a brief moment of not knowing which way to go, I actually (am not proud to admit it either, but it's the truth) felt the onset of a panic attack. But luckily, fresh air gushed in from the exit and guided me out of the smoke house before my imminent breakdown.

Moral of the story: if you are trapped in a smoke-filled room, you are as good as dead!

Friday, November 05, 2004

Libby II

I read about this company (Genetics Savings and Clone) that clones cats commercially. It’s the company that cloned Cc, but only 9 cats were cloned in 2004, due to capacity limits. They hope to perfect the technology to clone dogs in 2005. Right now, the going price for a cat is $50,000. I wonder how much they’ll charge for a dog.

Am a little fuzzy on the details of exactly how they clone an animal, but according to the CEO, Lou Hawthorne, it involves lots of donor eggs. He says that his company is the largest underwriter of spaying clinics in the US, and they buy the eggs, which would’ve been thrown out as waste anyway. The clinics use the money to spay more strays. Sounds good to me! Or is it just that I am willing to believe anything so I can harbor even a glimpse of hope that when my sweet Libby goes to doggie heaven, I can replace her with a clone? And the image of Sigouney Weaver seeing all the failed clones of herself in Alien 3 haunts me too. I am not so naïve in thinking that they’ll have 100% success rate so they only start with one egg. So what about the ones that don’t work out? Funny thing is, I am pro-choice, but I just can’t stand the thoughts of half-developed Libby embryos or fetuses being thrown out as trash. I guess it really is different when it comes to your own baby.

Jason, on the other hand, is curious as to what Libby’s reaction will be if she were to see her own clone. I wonder if the clone will have the same scent signature as the original. That’ll probably confuse the heck out of Libby.

Minty Sourdough

In all of Tokyo, I have never seen a single loaf of sourdough bread. Though it's Jason's favorite, I just couldn't commit myself to the maintenance of a sourdough culture. That all changed when I had to buy a Qt-sized container of yogurt, even though I only needed 1/2 cup for the blueberry banana loaf I was making last weekend because that's the only sugar-free yogurt I could find! (grunt) I have an aversion to yogurt, maybe because I ate too much of it in college, so I was trying to figure out what to do with this almost full container, when I remembered the recipe for sourdough culture, which calls for yogurt.

I rinsed out a big glass jar with hot water and mixed in the milk and yogurt. After leaving it out for a day, the mixture settled in a curd. This is the sign for the next step - mixing in the flour. Anxiously, I opened up the jar to take a sniff. Wait ---- this smells minty!

The only big glass jar I had was used to store mint tea that I bought on our recent trip to Marrakech, so I moved the tea into a ziploc and washed out the jar. But I guess minty smells are hard to get rid of.

My jar of minty sourdough culture is sitting next to the window now, taking in all the sun, hopefully bubbling. In two days, I can use it to make my very first sourdough bread. I can't wait to see what a minty sourdough loaf will taste like. Maybe this is what I could do after I quit my job, selling one of a kind "Sourmint" bread. Heck Japanese people love anything exotic. With a bit of marketing savy, I am sure it'll be a huge hit. Anyone want in?

ps. as for the yogurt, turned out I only needed two tablespoons for the culture. On to making more blueberry loaves to use up the yogurt.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

My Funny Brain

I was sitting at my desk minding my own business when, all of a sudden, the image and taste of chocolate covered marshmellow popped into my head. It's this candy that I used to eat when I was little, in China. The marshmellow filling is considerably fluffier than the kind we get in the US, and not as sweet. The chocolate, well, is just some generic milk chocolate that's got so much impurities that it probably doesn't even melt if you heat it up. But combined, the taste is heavenly, or maybe just in my mind.

I didn't even know I still remembered it. Now I can't get this image out of my head. Must find chocolate covered marshmellow, must find chocolate covered marshmellow. Darn it, I'll make it myself if I have to!

Monday, November 01, 2004

The Nikko Curse

Path next to Chuzenji Lake

Sometimes some places just refuse to cooperate. Be it Mt. Fuji who refuses to show itself from behind the clouds, or a specific restaurant that stubbornly remains fully booked every single time you try to go. We have the Nikko curse. Never had much luck with it: cancelled trip due to typhoon; freezing weather; crazy bus driver; buses running late; being stuck in a smoking cart on a train for two hours, etc. But when our trip to Niigata had to be cancelled due to the recent earthquake, Nikko came up as an alternative. Since we’ll be going with a bunch of other people, I thought, maybe the curse will be diluted by the luck of other people, if not completely lifted.

First thing to go wrong was the navigator on our rent-a-van. It flat-out refused to work. Then in the middle of hiking on Saturday, it started to rain. But that was the extent of things that went wrong, we even made the 7:15pm deadline to return our rental car. Not too bad at all. Maybe I can even consider the curse lifted?

More photos

Autumn Collors

Torte Florentine

A torte with white bread crust, filled with a stuffing of spinach, artichoke hearts, red bell peppers, cheese, and eggs. The leafy design on top swelled up and is all but unrecognizable, but perfect comfort food for a cold rainy day nonetheless.