Wednesday, July 21, 2010

summer at home

herbs (from left): cilantro, oregano, thyme, basil

I'm taking a needed break from Japan posts to revel in being at home. After a very busy first half of the summer, I've greatly enjoyed the past couple of weeks--shopping at our town's farmer's market, cooking with herbs from our backyard, reading on the back steps.

our "new" table & buffet: Matt's great-grandparents' set & his grandmother's tablecloth

Summer Bean and Tomatoes Bruschetta
from Simply Organic by Jesse Ziff Cool
Makes 12 servings

I halved everything and this made a nice light dinner for two along with a kale salad. I used a very nice Italian loaf from a Milwaukee-based bakery and a box of incredibly sweet mixed cherry tomatoes from the farmer's market. This really tastes like summer.

1 c miniature or cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 c sliced fresh basil
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
2 oz small green or wax beans (I used some of each), cut diagonally into 1/2-in pieces
12 thick diagonal slices whole grain or hearty Italian bread
6 oz fresh goat cheese, such as chevre
freshly ground black pepper (addicted to Penzey's four-peppercorn blend!)

Preheat the broiler. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over high heat. (Note: If you're making this as an appetizer with a pasta dish, consider blanching the beans along with the pasta to conserve energy and water. Or if you're a real planner, blanch the veggies you'll need cooked for the week all at once and store in the fridge.)

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, onion, garlic, basil, oil, vinegar, and salt. Toss to coat well. Let stand for at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, add the beans to the boiling water and cook for 3 minutes or until tender-crisp (I preferred them pretty soft so they were easier to eat in the bruschetta topping.) Drain and rinse with cold water. Add to the tomato mixture.

Place the bread slices on a broiler pan. Broil for 2 minutes, or until lightly browned on one side. Turn the slices and brush each with some of the juices from the marinated tomatoes. Broil for 2 minutes longer, or until browned. Remove the bread and place on a large serving platter, moistened side up. Divide the cheese evenly among the bread slices and spread over each.

Scatter the tomato mixture over the cheese and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, July 19, 2010

japanese food: izakaya

One of the greatest opportunities we were given in Japan was to attend an enkai (office party) of our host's fellow teachers, unwinding on a Friday evening. Not only did we get to try many new foods, we had a blast at the noisy festivities. We met up with them in progress at an izakaya, which is basically a Japanese pub. There was already food on the table and much more to come.

We started with yakitori, a common type of Japanese bar food involving chicken or some other meat and veggies grilled on skewers, and sashimi, or raw seafood.

yakitori (clockwise from left): fish cake, chicken tendon, chicken & green onion, tiny green peppers, chicken hearts, chicken wings

sashimi: hamachi, scallop, squid, shrimp, tuna

Drinking is also a huge part of the enkai, so an overflowing glass of sake was a necessity.


The sake was followed by what seemed like an unending barrage of delicious foods.

"Have you ever tried (insert food name here)?"


"Let's get some."

korokke: breaded & fried potato pancake

nigiri sushi (from left): tuna, hamachi, salmon, squid, tamago (egg)

breaded & fried baby octopus


Shabu-shabu was a revelation. Very thinly sliced & perfectly marbled beef, cabbage, and mushrooms are quickly dipped in hot broth until gently cooked. Grab some beef, swish for 3-5 seconds, then remove and drag through ponzu (we think) for the most tender and flavorful piece of meat.
dunking the shabu-shabu

Perhaps the most surprising offering at the izakaya was horse-meat sashimi, a specialty of Yamanashi. Matt partook in the chewy raw horse-meat and was glad he tried it, though he says he would not go out of his way to eat it again. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not try it at all.
horse-meat sashimi with wasabi, ginger, & green onion

We felt fortunate to be a part of the enkai, to commiserate with other teachers, and to experience an important event in Japanese work culture. That evening left us with some lovely memories.

the aftermath

Friday, July 16, 2010

japanese food: donuts

We headed to Japan with many things that we wanted to eat. Among our culinary priorities loomed Japan's gourmet donuts. Donuts were everywhere in Tokyo; it seemed as though a Mister Donut chain was on every corner. We never did get around to eating at Mister Donut, but we were not disappointed by the smaller donut shops that we patronized.

First we searched for (and found) Hara Donuts in Shimokitazawa. Like most shops in this area, it was tiny and super cute.

We opted for three varieties: plain, tomato, and grapefruit. None of them were overly oily or too dense. Similar to a cake donut but lighter, Hara's donuts were subtly sweet and a bit chewy. The grapefruit, with its citrus-y glaze, was my favorite by far. The tomato was not as weird or as interesting as we had hoped as it was somewhat bland and also tougher than the other two.

hara donuts: grapefruit, plain, and tomato

When visiting Yamanashi Prefecture, we had hoped to visit Sendaiya Donuts, whose claim to fame is making treats out of ground natto flour. Using natto, a fermented soybean product, is apparently an attempt to make the sweets more healthy.

When our hosts took us to their friends' house, we were offered two unexpected items to sample: Sendaiya's donuts and natto.


Natto smells like a strong cheese and tastes (to our American palates) somewhat like coffee. The texture is unlike anything I'd ever had before: think baked beans suspended in phlegm. Matt was not a fan to say the least, while I thought it paired nicely with some kimchi or spicy mustard. I've also seen it served with rice, which I would definitely try.

I will not be eating natto every morning for breakfast as does one person we met, but I will certainly gobble up some natto donuts from Sendaiya at any chance I get.

sendaiya donuts: sesame, plain

These donuts were dense and moist, much like a pound cake (which we saw on many menus). Like Hara donuts, Sendaiya's are also lightly sweetened and fried compared to American donuts.

We saved the best for last...drumroll, please!

In the last few days of our trip, we headed to Yoyogi-Uehara in the rain, specifically to try Harrits Donuts.

harrit's donuts: milk tea & precious little packages

Staying with the trend of the donuts we tried, these were subtle, light, and tended toward being a healthier breakfast treat. The texture was somewhere between a cake and raised donut and even resembled a pastry somewhat.

cinnamon cranberry donut

kinako (soybean flour) donut

cream-cheese-filled donut...ichiban!

Along with the flavors we tasted in the store, we also took some home in our carry-on to share with family. Those included carrot-honey, kiwi, green tea with Azuki bean paste, and more of our favorites, kinako and cream cheese.

I would recommend any of these donut shops without reservation. If you're ever in the area, it's worth seeking them out!

If you have tried Mister Donut, I'm curious: did we miss out?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

japanese food: osaka specialties

I won't attempt to deny that there were a lot of Japanese foods that I did not expect to try. I never, ever thought that I could handle a ball of fried dough with a piece of octopus tentacle inside. I mean, the fried dough part sounds great, right? I just didn't know what I'd do once I got an octopus arm in my mouth. Turns out I'd chew it (for awhile) and love it.


Takoyaki are little lava-hot spheres (think half-cooked pancake balls) that burst open when you bite them, revealing a mildly fishy, quite chewy bit of octopus. They are topped with a barbecue-like sauce, then mayo, and typically katsuobushi (fish flake) and aonori (seaweed flake).

Takoyaki hail from Osaka, as do the gentlemen who prepared them inside this pink VW bus. Matt spotted this stand in Shimokitazawa and decided it should be the place for us to lose our takoyaki virginity. They were proud to have a couple of gaijin (foreigners) eating behind their stand.

And I do mean behind...

I think they had a great little set-up.

Possibly my very favorite food that I tried in Japan turned out to be a dish from Osaka. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese pancake that is similar to takoyaki in that it is topped with the same sauces and sprinkles, but is much easier to eat due to the absence of molten dough. Our friends in Tokyo took us to a great little place for our first experience with okonomiyaki.

First, mix your ingredients that include egg, cabbage, meat, and veggies...

Then fry it on the griddle in the center of your table...

"Sakura-yaki": shrimp, squid, pork, white onion, green onion, and mushrooms topped with a fried egg and bacon strips

And top with okonomiyaki sauce, mayo, katsuobushi, and aonori. Share with your friends!

pork & kimuchi okonomiyaki

I was such a fan of okonomiyaki, I may get brave enough to try it at home! I'll let you know how that turns out...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

japanese food: noodles

I think that since sushi is Japan's most popular export to the U.S., some Americans assume that people in Japan eat sushi constantly. On the contrary, much of what we ate on a day-to-day basis was noodle-based. Our first bowl of noodles on our first full day turned out to be one of my favorites.

kimchi ramen in Taito

The ramen is widely available in narrow little bars like the one we visited near our hotel. This bowl of ramen is fairly standard in our short experience, with a thin slice of pork, greens (spinach in this one), and large sheets of nori (seaweed). We enjoyed the addition of some kimchi for spice and crunch.

However, it's the broth that makes the bowl and totally blows any cup ramen out of the water. The broth was salty and complex, giving off smells and tastes of fish, pork, and soy. I would have loved to drink it down completely, but I wasn't sure I could handle the sodium. Anyway, this was an amazing bowl of soup.

ramen with wonton in Naka-meguro

Ramen itself is an import from China and both times we ate ramen it was topped with something foreign (kimchi from Korea and wonton from China). I was surprised by how much sort of "Asian fusion" we ate in Japan.

Another ubiquitous noodle dish is soba. Usually served cold with fried sides, soba are buckwheat noodles that you dip in a self-mixed concoction of soy sauce, ginger, green onions, and wasabi.

soba with tempura shrimp in Shintomi

When we visited friends in the country, we ate at a charming soba place where we watched the noodles being prepared. The noodles were paired with delicious tempura...everything.

cutting the dough

dusting off the freshly-cut noodles

basket of soba in Katsunuma

grating my own fresh wasabi

tempura soba, carrot, sweet potato, mushroom, eggplant, leaves

Last but certainly not least we have udon. These are thick, chewy noodles served either in a soup or warm topped with vegetables or a soft-boiled egg. Our friend took us to a Tokyo chain where you order your bowl of ramen, then pick your fried sides from trays cafeteria-style. One of the best parts of udon is being able to top your noodles with tiny tempura crumbles, ginger, spicy red pepper seasoning, sesame seeds, and soy sauce. Why can't fast food in the States be more like this?

in Kichijoji (left to right): kakiage (vegetable tempura fritter), korokke (breaded fried potato cake), udon with egg

udon with pork, tempura fish cake, tofu skin, and soft-boiled egg

I've saved the best for last. This bowl of udon was eaten in a little restaurant in the woods near Mt. Fuji and was the granddaddy of all noodle dishes we ate on our trip. The noodles were especially thick and chewy, apparently a specialty of that area. The tender sweet pork, rich egg, and flavorful broth topped everything off, but those noodles with their ample bite made them one of the more memorable dishes we had in Japan.

udon shop--the line out the door is a good sign!

Monday, July 5, 2010

japanese food: fried food

As we were planning our trip to Japan, I wasn't quite sure what to expect of the food. I mean, I had eaten at the (very American) hibachi place and had tried (with little success) a few sushi rolls. The only Japanese foods I knew for certain that I liked were inari and rice crackers, and I didn't think I could live off of those for 2 weeks. I was a tad bit nervous.

All that changed when we ate our first Japanese lunch and I discovered the wonderful world of fried food in Japan.

tonkatsu, rice, miso, and pickled vegetables

Enter tonkatsu. Matt might deny it, but it seems to me that this could be his favorite Japanese dish. A panko-breaded, fried pork cutlet is dipped in either tonkatsu sauce (a sweet soy sauce) or ponzu. At this particular restaurant we were given a mortar and pestle to grind soy sauce, to which we then added a sauce for dipping.

Very quickly into our trip I knew I loved Japanese fried foods. Towards the end I found something that I think most Midwesterners could enjoy: kushiage. Our friend in Tokyo took us to a great little place in Shinjuku where you could order practically anything breaded and fried. The breading didn't seem to be panko, but it was lighter and crispier than most breading. We carefully dipped each skewer into the communal soy sauce vat (but only once!) and enjoyed the fried goodness.

kushiage (clockwise from top right):
beef, ham, sausages, bacon-wrapped tomato wedge, squid, green onions, garlic cloves, eggplant, lotus root, cheese!

fried banana, ice cream, and apple

Our trip was bookended by tonkatsu lunches (the first one was best though). Our last lunch in Tokyo was in a little mom and pop restaurant between our hotel and the station. We had a huge lunch and more of the sweet Japanese hospitality we enjoyed so much.


fried ebi (shrimp)

Japan even managed to get me--a self-proclaimed seafood-hater--eating and loving shrimp!