Friday, August 30, 2013

Meals and Outfits.

You learned how to dress yourself, you can learn how to cook.


While researching bookmark organization methods, specifically for my laptop's countless recipe bookmarks, I read one woman's technique that I mentally filed away because, although it was logical, it didn't meet my needs of an ingredient-based system.  She organized her recipes by cooking method.

Since reading her cooking method-based approach it's been simmering on my back burner, if you will, especially while I'm reviewing a recipe in front of the stove realizing that I've made a similar dish with different ingredients.

Usually when I Google for recipe ideas it stems from a flavor I'm craving or curious about, or from various perishable foods in my kitchen that I must use soon.  A few recipes might come close with ingredients or technique but rarely do I find one that I follow step by step.  Now, after eight years of ruling the kitchen cooking meals regularly, I can (for the most part) comfortably make it up as I go along, with wildly varying degrees of success.  More often than not, though, I am working loosely from a couple found recipes.

As I touched on in my last post, I've struggled a little bit lately on coming up with dinner ideas.  Just as I like to mix and match clothing pieces to make new outfits, I also like to mix it up in the kitchen to avoid a weekly rut of predictable meals.  This clothing analogy (I love analogies!) runs parallel to my pondering on cooking methods.

Putting an outfit together is similar to assembling a meal – there are various components you combine until you are satisfied with the outcome.  Clothing combinations can be categorized as easily as tops, bottoms, and shoes; or you can be more specific with a short-sleeved top, long pants, and sneakers.  You can get as specific as you want but it's pretty easy to see the general categories.  Sometimes you assemble an outfit based on a color, the weather, or an event.  I linked this thought with how I search for recipes, by flavor, season, or necessity.  I've often compared flavor combinations with color combinations and this simply broadens that idea.

Recently while cooking I've been trying to find my cooking method categories, such as pasta with sauce or protein fillet with pan reduction, which has piqued my interest in learning more techniques.  I've enjoyed clothing as a creative outlet for as long as I can remember (literally!) and using that same creativity through food seems like a natural extension.

This is as far in the process as I've come at this point.  Hopefully I've strung my thoughts together well enough to convey the idea and my excitement about it.  I'm not sure how deep how I want to delve but with internet access and a library I have plenty of resources at no cost.  Just as you wear clothing out of necessity, you eat out of necessity as well; There is no reason not to have fun while doing so.

(By the way, the boneless chicken breast with skin that I bought at a local grocery store the other day worked out to $1.17 a pound!  I hope I did the math right, 533 grams for ¥202.)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Messy Bucket of Food for Thought.

My Grandma always says that your mind is like a bucket – it only holds so much.  So when you pour in new information something's going to spill out the other side.


About four months ago we began sorting and packing for our overseas move.  These preparations changed our daily routine which, of course, changed the way we ate.  Now life has settled a bit, we are living in our new house, albeit with precious few of our belongings, and I'm waiting for things to get back to normal.  Ha-ha, the joke is on me.  Our new normal has yet to resemble any normal we've experienced before and I'm doubting whether it ever will.

Instead of delving into the mass confusion swarming my mind currently, at this time I will only speak about daily meals.  Breakfast doesn't count because we still eat cold cereal.  Lunch doesn't count either (even though I just read a great article in the Times this morning about it) because I'm not working and, as I've mentioned before, I'll write about that when I'm ready.  That leaves dinner.

I don't remember specifically what I used to make for dinner before we moved here,  hence the bucket reference.  I have a thousand recipes bookmarked on this computer yet when it comes to figuring out what to make for dinner I'm stumped.

Our current meal foundation is generally protein, vegetable and starch (if it's just me I usually forgo the starch, the husband needs it for PT energy though).  Between the commissary and local grocers most meats and vegetables are available here, however the selection is much more dependent on growing season and the prices are significantly higher.  Meat and fish are packaged in much smaller portions than in the US which is convenient when buying for only two people but the cost is nearly double.

I'm still learning how to use the same food budget in a completely different economy.  The dollar/yen exchange rate is fairly easy to understand but when I'm trying to compare dollar-per-pound to yen-per-gram the math gets confusing.  Produce here is often priced per piece rather than per pound/gram, but since the pricing signs are in kanji it's difficult to figure out.  I once saw potatoes for 28.  I thought it was by weight but it was actually per piece, so those delicious mashed potatoes were quite pricey (by US standards) as it turns out.

Meal planning is non-existent at this point.  I don't know what I can get, where I can get it, or what it will cost.  I can dig into my thousand recipes but finding the ingredients is a crap shoot.  So lately I've been working off-the-cuff; I find a few flavors to play with, search for some recipes, head to the store, and buy what fits the profile that will fit into my backpack.

Today I was thinking about cherry-balsamic glazed pork chops, an idea originating from the package of three boneless chops I bought on Sunday at the commissary.  Unfortunately, the two local grocery stores I went to did not have cherries, a circumstance I foresaw.  Instead I bought a small package of cherry tomatoes and some eggplant.  How the dinner turned out though is inconsequential to the idea I am attempting to describe, but I can say it was pretty good.

While cooking I was trying to remember the order I have followed in the past when making a reduction sauce; it's not brain surgery but there are certainly techniques that yield better results.  Then it hit me – it's all about technique.

I'm a visual person, so bear with me.  Imagine a giant wrecking ball smashing into a huge building with bricks flying everywhere and mortar remnants and rubble tumbling in all direction.  Well, that's kind of what's happening in my mind right now.  When I sort it all through and make sense of it I'll write it all out.

On a side note, I have a huge knot in my shoulder that has bothered me for many long months and it's really aggravating me today, not helping my focus either.

My receipt from today and what I think I remember everything is:

190 = half loaf fresh baguette (10% off, or -19,  for being close dated, I assume)
202 = 533 grams of what I believe is chicken breast
99, 99 = small package of  small mushrooms, small package of spinach/leafy greens
129,199 = 4 small eggplants, ~15 tiny cherry tomatoes
2 = I put the card in my basket indicating that I didn't need a bag but I think she charged me for the one she gave me to put the chicken in.

The produce is by memory so some of it is likely incorrect.  I promise I will take photos of everything I buy during one of these grocery trips.  Anyway, it cost me approximately $9.21 cents for a bit of produce, two chicken breasts and half a baguette.  Maybe I'm a cheap-o but that seems like a lot to me, especially given the package sizes.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Favorites: A Summary Explained.

Since moving and meeting new people I've been asked, after mentioning photography as an interest, what kind of photos I take.  I can't seem to answer with words (surprisingly) so instead I've compiled a stack of favorites on my photo blog.

Making a “Best of” list is a struggle, after a few obvious choices the decisions come slower and with less confidence.  As an artist some pieces are very personal and sharing them strips away a certain protective shield, leaving you feeling exposed and open.  So I've included ones I'm proud of, ones I've shared and printed and hung on my own walls; ones that received positive critiques from friends or peers in the field; and I included some that simply add a fuller spectrum to the collection.

At some point I will likely have to define myself as an artist and select words to represent my point of view.  For now, I prefer the photos do the talking.


How do you say August in Japan?

Twice Daily Showers.

Living through two 100°F+ summers in Texas did not prepare me for Japan's 34°C+ August days which are literally dripping with excessive humidity.  The sun rises at 5am and the day's heat rises with it.  Any outdoor activity, no matter how strenuous (or not) results in clothing-soaked perspiration.

It is a half mile walk for me to exit our neighborhood and I feel the heat well before I get there.  After the next half mile to the train station I am already dripping down my forehead, arms and back, thanks in part to my back pack.  I stay well-hydrated with a Camelbak bottle always within reach and am even beginning to take two lately when I go out.

Most local businesses practice light air-conditioning, I'm unsure if is for cost-control or simply a cultural preference, and though the temperature may sometimes be a bit warm inside it is nice not to be blasted with the hot air upon leaving.  It does seem that maintaining a moderate temperature indoors greatly helps transitioning to the heat outdoors.  I have discovered, however, that while on a train the open area just inside the doors receives excellent air-conditioning flow, it is worth standing for.

Common practice here when living with such oppressive heat includes women walking with open umbrellas shielding the sun, almost everyone carrying small cloths to wipe brows dry, and many wrap cool towels around their necks as well.  You see everywhere the ubiquitous use of fans among both men and women, especially on the train platforms where the air is still and with every passing train you hope to catch a small breeze.  Every ¥100 store carries a selection of fans and small cloths just in case you happen to be without.

When the afternoon sun begins it's descent, and I'm walking home on the shadier side of the street, my clothes are stuck to my skin, my hands are swollen, and I'm swearing that I'm not leaving the house again until October.  My routine once I step through the front door follows this order: backpack comes off, shoes are removed, a cold glass of water is gulped, perishable foods are thrown in the fridge, walk upstairs, literally peel off clothes and step into the shower.

Because of this treacherous, humidity-bearing heat I regulate my outings carefully, watching the weather while planning and condensing my errands.  The struggle with this lies in the fact that I am living in this incredible country for only three short years and the with guilt of not taking advantage of it every single day.  Now is the perfect time, while I'm not working and with very little household items to take care of, to spend my time exploring.  As a side note, however, while I'm not working I'm also not generating income – I'm broke, I have no money in my accounts.  My past freedoms and activities were generally self-funded and living without that is more difficult than I can currently write about.

But this is August in Japan, my first August in Japan, and I have two more.  In a couple weeks the temperatures will begin to incrementally decrease making the outdoors much more inviting.  I'll be able to use my camera without sweaty fingers slipping over buttons and walk many more miles without feeling as if every step was leading me closer to the infernal depths of hell.  But wouldn't hell be a dry heat...?

(Atsui-desu-ne. - It's hot.)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Miscellaneous Monday and Pantry Planning.

What is 37°C?  It's time to plan a day indoors.

Actually, it's 98.6°F.  Still time to plan a day indoors, especially with humidity levels causing a heat index in excess of 100°F.  When looking at today's forecast last night I knew any outdoor activity would lead to dripping sweat regret, so I stacked up household chores and got a good night's sleep.

A couple weeks ago I accidentally deleted my favorite playlist and subsequently spent a couple hours putting an updated version back together.  Today, while working around the house I rocked out to that 75 track mix for the first time and when each song started I thought, “Oh, I love this song!”  Job well done, Marlene.

The most tedious and time consuming chore in this house is sweeping the floors.  We have 1242 sq. ft. of white, vinyl composition tile.  Until moving in here I had no idea how much hair the human body sheds in a week.  Be thankful I don't have a macro lens and my tripod otherwise you, too, would know.

Each Monday I place my awesome iPod dock at the bottom of the stairs and crank it up.  This position, aided by the tile floors, allows the music to carry throughout the entire house.  (I always check the neighbor's parking spot before rocking out).  I keep the small, thin remote in one back pocket and my phone in the other.

iPod dock in my former office.

With a regular broom I sweep the dirt/lint/hair into one corner in each zone: upstairs rooms and hallway, bathroom, stairs and living room, and dining room.  Then I use my vacuum cleaner hose extension to suck it up; no dust pan in existence works well enough to get everything.  I have three known organic pest control traps (spiders) and am very, very careful not to disturb them.

Not to bore you with my tedious chores, including dishes, laundry and making more organizers out of food boxes, I'll just touch on two projects.

The first was a simple 15 minute, cost-free solution to a common problem.  We have temporary dining chairs creating marks on my lovely, white, tile floor.  Instead of buying felt pads or knit footies for them (yes, they are common here) I took a couple yellow flannel cloths from our stack, cut them into sixteen squares, and taped them around the chairs' feet.  Pretty, no.  Practical, you betcha.  Since the tape doesn't touch the wood they will easily remove when the furniture is picked up.  The dining chairs we own already have good felt pads on them but I will definitely check their condition when they arrive and replace if necessary.

Notice the school-tile floor.

The second project is larger – pantry organization.  I have no grand idea for an amazingly beautiful, artfully and sparsely stocked pantry.  I just want to find the best use of space in order to cram everything in but still be able to find things.  Also, the humidity here requires dry good be kept in real airtight containers, not just ziplock bags.

After sifting through many useless websites simply there to sell expensive organizers, I found one that actually laid out an easy to follow, basic plan for pantry organization.  Her ideas are practical and seemingly achievable, and her container suggestions are pretty much visual aids to help you figure out what is best for your needs and your space.

My pantry budget is not up to me so frugality is my plan.  ¥100 stores carry a surprising variety of wire shelving and storage solutions, it won't take many additions to increase the storage of the four-shelf closet.  It's the air-tight containers that require a little more investment, and by “a little more” I mean IKEA not Crate & Barrel.

Using my handy Listomni app, I took stock of all the dry goods I have and the ones I keep on hand, including the common package sizes.  I will perform a little online research for container sizes and prices to give me a better idea and what I'm looking for and how much it may cost.  With our many weight-restricted relocations I must rule out glass and stick to plastic, and I prefer right angles rather than cylinders, both preferences will make the search easier.

This is my at-the-very-beginning "before" shot.  First, and foremost, there is no light inside the pantry.  This will change soon, very soon, maybe even tomorrow soon.  Second, squeezed immediately to the right of the pantry is our efficiency-sized, stackable washer/dryer unit (another post entirely) with virtually no storage space of its own, leaving detergents to live with the food.  We also have no indoor space designated for recyclables; Since I am an avid recycler, this will change too.


I did a quick empty, organize, and refill resulting in the following "after-before" shot.  Biggest differences: recyclables went into a white crate, paper recycling was taken out, and plastic shopping bags were organized into re-purposed milk boxes labelled small, medium and large (on the top shelf).  This made it easier to take inventory of dry goods, and to take thorough and accurate measurements.

After "before."

I am hoping to finish in two weeks.  Since my mobility is pedestrian- and public transit-limited, and weather-permitting, I need time.  Only after exhausting all local options will I pester for suggest an IKEA trip to my husband.  And I better have a good list.

(These photos, except the first one, were taken with an iPhone and are by no means intended to be "real" photos, just snapshots of where I was and what I saw.)

Friday, August 2, 2013

Fish with Black Bean Veggies.

Since moving into our house I've been cooking frequently, remembering how much I enjoy it. Quite a few dishes, many involving Mystery Fish (with labels in kanji), have been delicious! I thought I had written about these meals but apparently I have not, a fact I realized when trying to look them up. Oops. So I may share some of them in retrospect, but not tonight. Tonight I write about the present.

As with most meals, I began with a basic Google search using a concept based on ingredients on hand. I typed “fish with quinoa/couscous” this morning because, besides some miscellaneous vegetables, that's what I found in the kitchen. In the fridge were two packs of Mystery Fish I recently purchased. Aeon, a local grocery store, has great prices and I took advantage of their ¥98 per 100 gram fish sale. Well, it was ¥98 a-something and the math equaled about per 100 grams. Don't ask what the math is dollar per pound; if you can figure it out let me know. 

I tabbed four recipes with ingredients I either have or can find/substitute easily, and that will work with most kinds of fish. What I have discovered recently about cooking with recipes is that they really only represent a framework, or an inspiration of flavors, of what I cook. This fact surely is representative of many seasoned home cooks but it's something I've noticed in the past few years that has progressed incrementally. And if it means that I have graduated to “seasoned home cook” than I am proud.

Tilapia with Quinoa & Black Beans is the basis for tonight's dinner. I had everything except the zucchini and green onion, which I could have substituted with some bell pepper ends and my choice of either white, yellow, or red onion, but I needed to get out of the house so I walked the scant half mile to get those along with a can of black beans. Normally I would have a multitude of canned beans in the pantry but I have yet to go on the big restock-the-pantry shopping trip. Hint to the husband.

Of course, I altered the recipe. Speaking of modifying recipes, I have a conundrum. I regularly read comments on recipes from readers and am annoyed when people rate a recipe after they radically changed it's entire essence. Don't get me wrong, I love reading how others played with flavors, but please don't rate a recipe poorly when you substituted almost every ingredient along with the cooking method. Chalk it up to a learning experience and keep your keyboard silent. But also, please continue sharing your methods. See the problem?

I will try to share what I did tonight because the results were worthy of a repeat, not a home run but a solid double with an RBI. I served this over quinoa (for my husband) and fresh spinach (for me) but feel free to use any starch, filler or base you want. Remember, most measurements are estimates.

Fish with Black Bean Veggies

  • 4 fish fillets (about 1 lb. total)
  • ½ can canned black beans (rinsed)
  • 1 cup chopped tomatoes
  • 1 sliced medium zucchini
  • 1/2 cup sliced green onions, divided
  • 1/2 fresh lemon
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 2 tablespoons butter, divided
  • salt and pepper
(Begin cooking quinoa/grain/starch, if using)

Salt and pepper the fish.

Melt 1 tbsp each of olive oil and butter over med-high heat. When hot, stir in ¼ cup of the green onions then add the fish. Flip fish once then squeeze a bit of the lemon half on top. Remove just about when you think it's done. Keep warm (wrapped in foil or something).

In same pan, melt the other tbsp each of olive and butter and add black beans, tomatoes, zucchini and green onions and stir in spice. (Option: splash in a touch of white wine/vermouth and let reduce. Then add a splash of chicken broth or water and let reduce until desired consistency).

When the vegetable mix is cooked to your liking it's done. Serve over anything you like and top with the fish.

It's that easy.

(These photos were taken with an iPhone and are by no means intended to be "real" photos, just snapshots of where I was and what I saw.)