Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sidecar of Substitutions.

When limitations bind you it is creativity that allows you to overcome.

After learning about Demerara sugar syrup and reading the Pouring Ribbons’ Sidecar recipe in the New York Times I was determined to make it myself so I set out to find the ingredients.  This is where the “limitations” part comes in.  Finding specialty food items is challenging where we are in Japan, close to Tokyo but not close enough to have metropolitan conveniences.

First, the Demerara sugar syrup.  According to Wikipiedia, Demerara sugar is simply a “natural” form of brown sugar, like turbinado.  Surprisingly, the local commissary had Sugar in the Raw, which is turbinado, so I bought that along with some light brown sugar to add a bit more lovely, molasses richness.  I made a batch of the syrup with one cup of water, 1 ½ cups of turbinado sugar, and ½ cup of brown sugar melted together over low heat.  It is a delicious, dark, simple syrup and will keep in the refrigerator for quite a while in an air-tight bottle.

Next, acquiring the alcohols.  Since I know nothing about Cognac and our immediate selection is incredibly limited, I simply bought a tiny bottle of Hennessy, which happens to have two ounces.  I knew Curaçao would be a long shot and forget about orange bitters.  There is a large liquor store about twenty minutes away but I have precious little experience driving here (right-side driver on left-side roads) and was not going to test my skills on a rainy, Sunday afternoon.  I was a bit bummed because I was also looking for rye whisky, sweet Vermouth, and sherry, not today’s priority though.

So what follows is my variation of the original recipe with substitutions, even though I vow to make it according to the original recipe eventually.  (This is for one drink, but I split it in two to share with my husband.)

Sidecar of Substitutions:

Orange slice, for garnish
Granulated sugar, for rim
2 ounces Cognac
3/4 ounce Cointreau
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 dash Campari
½ teaspoon dark simple syrup

1. Rub orange slice around half the outer rim of a coupe glass. Place sugar in a small dish. Holding glass parallel to dish, coat with sugar only the half you’ve rubbed with the orange. Set aside.

2. Combine simple syrup, cognac, Cointreau, lemon juice and Campari in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, then cover, shake and strain into the sugared glass. Garnish with an orange and enjoy.

(This photo was taken with an iPhone and is by no means intended to be a "real" photo, just a snapshot of where I was and what I saw.)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

My New Office Space.

Leaving Texas was easy.  Losing my very first, very own office space was difficult.  I finally had an entire room solely for productivity and creativity, though not always in practice simultaneously.  Other than the door that I could close when needed, my absolute favorite quality of that space was the light, I noticed it upon first walking in.  The window faced west so the afternoon sun kept the room bright and the evening setting sun flooded it with soft, golden light.  Enterprise loved the sun-warmed carpet patches and rolled with them throughout the day.  The window framed beautiful sunsets on the horizon but if you dropped your gaze any lower the ant mounds and weeds quickly reminded you of your location.

Our attached house in Japan is about as large as the one we left in Texas but it is older and laid out completely different.  It has two stories, one bathroom, and lots of walls with oddly placed and strangely spaced closets.  The largest difference though is that instead of three bedrooms (a master and two offices) it has two bedrooms and a formal dining room.  This new configuration led to compromise.

Since we have infrequent need of a dedicated formal dining room my new office shares that space.  Figuring out how to combine the two functionally and aesthetically has been a challenge, including litter box placement, wall outlet locations, and remembering that the heating and cooling unit installed near the ceiling may leak (meaning no computer under it).  I also considered lines of sight from the living room, front door entrance, as well as from outside through the front, double windows.

I’ll show the progression.

First, after assembling my new desk:

Then after the arrival of our household goods:

And the current, mostly final design:

To understand the space, the camera is set up in the back corner, at the kitchen entrance; to the right is the doorway to the living room.  There is an actual door there that I can shut if I want to block out television noise from the living room or contain my noise in my office or kitchen.  It is quite nice.

By choice, we do not have large dining room furniture.  The table you see to the right is from a restaurant booth so it is incredibly durable, cleans up well, and has a simple, central pedestal support.  The surface is a great, medium brown wood grain that fits with most décor, it repositions easily around the room, and also allows for a second work surface.

The desk is from Ikea’s Galant workspace series and, at 80x120 cm, is approximately the same size as the dining table.  The deep top is appropriate for the large monitor I have, the simple legs are fully adjustable, and the series includes many components I can add later.  It is very versatile and can work in many areas of the house if needed, especially because it is in the same black-brown color as most of our Ikea purchases.  Speaking of, the chairs (and chair pads) are also Ikea, the inexpensive Stefan style in the same color, though I see the price has increased since we purchased two in Washington state and two in Texas.  Using one as my desk chair helps unify the room.

The workhorse piece in the room is the tall Billy bookshelves from, you guessed it, Ikea, in the same color; we actually scored these off Craigslist, brand new, in the box, for half of the original selling price.  They were formerly used as my husband’s bookshelves in our last living room and are the only large shelving we brought with us.  Since our living room here has nice built-in shelves I commandeered them for my space.  Offices collect small supplies and clutter and keeping the shelves neat is a priority because of its highly visible location.  So I gathered my beloved kitchen tins to double as storage and decoration – I love it!  The small, brown boxes are inexpensive purchases from Ikea I used in my former office and the minty green boxes were displays at Nitori that I just scored for 479¥/$4.89 for the set.  The messier looking items are on the lower shelves and I still have to figure out a plan for them but for now it’s acceptable.

Secondary storage is still a work in progress.  The silver, metal Helmer drawer storage (from Ikea) holds my miscellaneous photography gear.  Shoved in the right corner (under the heating/cooling unit) are my old, busted up, plastic Rubbermaid storage drawers for my office supplies that sit atop an old, broken, stack-a-shelf drawer for my tools.  The lacquered wood piece is actually a checker board on one side and usually leans in front of them to hide the ugliness.  Since both sets of drawers are usable I am not replacing them but am hoping to somehow refurbish them, I’m thinking spray paint or Contact paper.

Hidden behind the dining table to the right are some plastic file crates, a few small boxes of unframed photos, and the few framed photos I brought are still sitting on the chair on the opposite side of the table.  Unseen to the left in the overview photo are a few black stack-a-shelves that are waiting for a clear purpose.  I also still have a couple unused white stack-a-shelves upstairs but will probably not use them in this room for aesthetic reasons.

The two black and cream rugs were purchased on super-low clearance at Sears about four years ago and only used lightly in Texas in our entry area.  I love them, they add a layer of texture to the area and also helps define the space as separate from the dining area.

The ceiling lamp is fluorescent and gives off a horrible, cool tone light.  Eventually I plan on replacing the bulbs with a set of warm fluorescent bulbs I saw at a local home store but it’s not a priority because I have the two incandescent floor lamps.  The ugly, gold lamp is a loaner but it gives such soft, warm light that it’s staying.  I am looking for something to wind up the pole and cover the gold but have not found anything yet, hopefully soon.

Lastly, I am considering window treatments.  If I put up anything it will be simple, white sheer panels which are my curtains of choice.  My hesitation is that too much light will be blocked.  The windows face north/northwest and what little light comes in is mostly shaded by the plentiful, mature trees in the neighborhood.  Light is everything so I am weighing my options carefully.

Photo three:
[Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS UD]

Photos four through seven:
[Canon EF 50mm f1.4 USM]

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Creamy Seafood Linguine.

Success two nights in a row.  I’m just going to brag, so close the tab if you don’t want to hear it.

Two packages of seafood and some mushrooms from yesterday’s shopping trip remained in the fridge ready to be delicious.  Since a Spanish Chardonnay was there keeping them company I decided to keep them together because they complement each other splendidly.  Therefore I Googled “shrimp mushrooms butter” and dug into the results, selecting three recipes to work from, saving them in Evernote.

12 medium shrimp at 500Y equals about 43 cents each.

What is Evernote?  It’s an amazing tool.  Briefly I will explain the two reasons I use it, though its applications are much more vast.  First, I began using it to catalog the hopelessly large number of internet bookmarks I have on my computers.  Since it is an outside application that stores my information in a cloud I can access everything from any device that connects to the internet.  My second reason resulted from the first, actually.  I use my laptop for general research purposes and save webpages in Evernote, which I can then access through my cell phone.  This is incredibly convenient when I am at the grocery store looking for a recipe’s ingredients as well as in the kitchen while I’m cooking.  To conserve memory space I frequently save websites in “clearly” (condensed) format which only displays the minimal, pertinent information.  I mention this tonight because it affected how I cooked dinner.

Since Enterprise: The Best Kitty Ever had a routine vet appointment this afternoon, I drove my husband to work so I could use the car.  This meant that I had to pick him up from work in the evening and wouldn't get home to cook dinner until 6pm or later.  The sun now sets here around 5:15pm so 6pm feels very late and dinner preparation is rushed a bit.  I knew what I was making, had the ingredients on hand, and planned about a half hour to prepare it.  Once we got home I jumped right into it, heating up the pan and pealing the shrimp.  When I had the shrimp sautéing in butter I opened the recipe on Evernote and realized the “clearly” version only listed the steps and not the ingredient list.  No problem.

Shrimp and Mushroom Linguine with Creamy Cheese Herb Sauce” is the recipe I worked from.  If you click the link and look at the directions you’ll see exactly what I had to work with.  Obviously I improvised and I’ll attempt to briefly explain my differences.

You figure out the math.

I sautéed the cod fillet and the pealed, raw shrimp in butter with a sprinkling of salt and pepper.  Once done, I removed them from the pan into a covered glass dish, added more butter, and sautéed the maitake mushrooms.  They were quickly done and I added them to the same dish, covered to keep warm.  With more butter (yes!) I threw in three large garlic cloves, coarsely minced, along with the cream cheese.  I stirred it with confusion as it didn't mix very creamy as I assumed it would, but I added a healthy amount of fresh basil (that was in my fridge, a moment away from going bad) and continued stirring.

Maitake mushrooms = Yum.

At this point, I had just added linguine noodles to boiling water and scooped out some of the starchy water to mix with the cream sauce.  Without the ingredient list I had no idea how much to add so I went incrementally, whisking it together.  Once it looked like an appropriate amount of sauce I stopped adding water and stirred in a little corn starch slurry to thicken it up, then I stirred in the cooked seafood and mushrooms.

That’s it.  I drained the linguine noodles for my husband and I scooped mine over fresh baby spinach, with a small amount of noodles to see how they blended with the sauce.  The shrimp were incredibly, meaty and tender at the same time, convincing me that fresh, raw shrimp is the way to go.  I also loved the cod’s texture; I have made it before with similar results and will definitely seek it out regularly, trying new cooking methods.

The Spanish Chardonnay was lighter than the small selection of California Chardonnays I've grown accustomed to since moving here and worked very well with the light cream sauce and simply prepared seafood.  I especially liked it with the spinach because the wine’s lightness resembled that of a Sauvignon Blanc which generally pair well with greens.

I declare success.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Sauce is the Star.

Sesame Crusted Yellowtail: Starring Ginger and Shiitake Mushrooms.

I love the adventure of shopping at local Japanese grocery stores and the resulting creativity it sparks for cooking.  After each successful trip I kick myself for not taking photos and documenting it, promising I’ll do it next time.  But when I walk into a store there is always so much visual stimulation with new and interesting items that require focus and time for investigation, as well as so many people!

No matter which store I go to, neighborhood or city, or what time of day I go there is always a stream of shoppers wandering through the narrow aisles.  I always feel large and intruding and in the way even though I never use a cart, always opting to carry a basket.  I always look carefully at where I’m walking, allowing others to go ahead of head me, communicating with head nods (like a tiny bow, the Japanese equivalent of a wave), lots of friendly smiles, and the occasional “sumimasen” (excuse me) or “gomenna sai” (I’m sorry).

Usually I stick to the outer edge of the grocery store which, like US stores, begins with produce and generally follows into seafood, meats, prepared foods, and other fresh items.  Not only is this path the healthiest but it also contains more easily identifiable foods.  Once you get into the middle aisles the guessing game’s challenge increases dramatically.

The prices here are higher and the portions are smaller, I've mentioned this before, and it’s something I have become mostly accustomed with.  I still get confused in the produce section because most items are priced per piece instead of by weight; I keep forgetting to research the kanji for this in order to read the signs better.  So I simply look for low prices and really delicious and/or interesting items, only sometimes working from a loosely formed list.  Sometimes.

Today I wanted fish and produce.  It had been about two weeks since I went to a Japanese grocery store because I ran out of grocery money before the end of the month.  These two food categories are underwhelming at the commissary and I always try to buy them locally, the quality and prices are much better on the local economy.  I came back with two kinds of fish, two kinds of shrimp, various produce and a small, round loaf of what seems to be a chewy, very good, country bread.

I had no plans for dinner, no list, and no idea what some of my purchases were exactly so I turned to the internet.  One package of fish I bought, containing two small fillets was Yellowtail/Japanese amberjack/Hamachi.  I did not take a photo but it looked just like this.  I also bought three different types of mushrooms because the prices were good, Maitake, Shiitake, and Shimeji.  The Savory Japan website is fantastic for information on basic Japanese foods.

Okay, on to the real subject for this evening, the incredible dinner.

Through some searching I decided on the Sesame Crusted Yellowtail because I had every ingredient on hand.  Once I began gathering them together though I realized that one of the small fillets would never be enough for the husband, so I also used one of the small packages of shrimp which was an extra 20% off (for being close-dated I assume).

I pretty much followed the recipe exactly so I won’t cut and paste it here, just follow the link.  The only changes I made were to include the shrimp, which I prepared just as the fish, and I added a diced Roma tomato that was a moment away from going bad.  Following a reviewer’s suggestion I doubled the sauce, thank goodness, because it was incredible!

My creative moment of the evening was with the ginger.  Fresh ginger is not always available here or I’m just going to the wrong places on the wrong days.  Fortunately I infuse my own ginger vodka.  How does that help?  Well, alcohol acts a preservative so I save the slices of ginger after I've poured the vodka out and save them for cooking.  They are already peeled and much easier to cut once the alcohol has softened the fibrous root.  I am heavy-handed with this preserved ginger as I am not sure how much flavor leaches out while infusing so I used closer to 4 tablespoons or a quarter cup of it minced, and the taste was uncompromised.  Yum yum.

In summation, the fish was delicious, the shrimp was delicious, and the sauce was delectable.  I made wide noodles for the husband and I had mine over baby spinach, as usual.  I really wish I had better photos but when you make it and love it you’ll understand why it disappears before even thinking about a real photo.

While I researched the kitty napped.

(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.)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

New Tool for Black and White.

Silver Efex Pro, from Nik Software.

I wanted this software so bad but could never justify spending over $100 on plug-ins.  I also wanted a Wacom Tablet as a mouse alternative to avoid overuse of my hands but, again, cost consistently trumped purchase.  Then I found the combination package on Amazon, sold by Adorama, for $130.  Happy birthday to me!

That was in January.  The following months were difficult for me, I had little time and even less focus.  Then came time to prepare and navigate an overseas move and even more time passed waiting for our household goods to arrive.  Now most of the unpacking is done and the time has arrived to play with my gift.

Today I unboxed and installed the Wacom Tablet and all the included processing and editing software.  I saved Silver Efex for last because I was most excited about it and knew I wouldn't get to anything else if I did it first.  I chose a recent photo that I skipped over previously because I didn't think I would get my desired results through Lightroom 3, the processing software I currently use and really like despite the learning curve.

This side-by-side comparison may not impress depending on the monitor/screen you are viewing it on, but on my lovely monitor it is splendid.  I am not able to define every change, mostly because I was just playing around.  I wanted to keep the contrast but in a softer manner, bring out the detail in the writing, and lighten some shadows but retain the black background.  I'm not sure if the final image is print-worthy but it is certainly share-worthy, especially in comparison to the untouched original on the left.

After that experiment I really wanted to play so I went back to photos from my sisters' visit to Texas in March to look for a portrait possibility.  This is where I hit a roadblock.  While we were prepping my desktop computer for shipping priority number one was backing up.  Since my husband built the computer I wanted him to work with it and I generally I trust his tech skills over mine.

My computer has two internal hard drives (238GB and 931GB) and one external (big, but it's not plugged in right now for a size reading).  My workflow and storage system has been acceptable but I've never been extremely satisfied and hence change it around every couple years.  I must find a smart, solid, and consistent method though because apparently mine isn't quite there yet.  Without going into detail (maybe a future post?) my main storage folder was moved from the C drive to the D drive during the back-up process which disconnected all my photo files from Lightroom.  In simple terms, the software could not find my photos because they moved without a forwarding address.  And instead of filling out one change of address form I had to tell Lightroom where each and every folder was.  Once I figured out how to fix it (ugh!) it was simple to make the connections.  I'm happy my photo club is discussing workflow at the next meeting because I need some improvement.

Once I could access my older folders through Lightroom again I just quickly chose one to experiment with.

This isn't a portrait, obviously, but it's a photo from January I thought had great potential but couldn't bring out through Lightroom alone so I dropped it.  I wanted to enhance both the smooth, waxiness of the leaves and their gorgeous, contrast gradation.  With Silver Efex Pro I was able to do that.  The incredible amount of control you have over every detail is exhilarating.  The depth of tools available allow so much room for variations that if there is any slight change you want there is an option to adjust it.  If it wasn't midnight already I would work on another example to share.  Maybe once I work on a portrait I'll save some settings as an example.

I only played with the Wacom Tablet for a small time, not enough to form an opinion, but this software excited me enough to stay up late and share.

*Post Edit*
Viewing this on my laptop screen is completely underwhelming so I understand if you look at the photos with question and doubt.  Come on over to my place, I'll show you what I mean.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My (Mostly) Organized Pantry.

The kitchen cabinet saga continues.  Since my last update the kitchen organization has ebbed and flowed, which is how most kitchens evolve I imagine, with items coming and going throughout the day, every day.

The pantry is in decent shape, I don’t think I shared a photo.  First let’s reminisce about the earlier “before” and “before-after” then I shall reveal the current “after”.  The “before”-s were soon after we moved in with only minimal food on-hand, but it set the foundation for the advanced organization.  Beginning with the top shelf we have: storage and plastic bags to reuse, dry goods, canned goods, cereals, and recycling and laundry detergents at floor level.


Bonus: After searching a number of local stores I finally found a bright, battery-powered light that my husband installed in one minute with one little screw in the wall.  Now we don't need to turn on a large light to see inside.  This photo was taken while items were still being shifted around.  (No, I didn't paint the trim green, its a bad cell phone photo).


The current “after” follows in a similar fashion.


Top shelf:  Plastic bags to reuse, organized by size in the sturdy cardboard boxes that we buy our milk in, I use them all over the house (you’ll see).  The back of the shelf holds less used items and the original boxes for a couple small, kitchen appliances including my beloved espresso machine.  In the front are excess items we purchase in larger quantity, such as cat food and rice.

Second shelf: Pastas, rice, grains, and dry beans.  I've been slowly acquiring plastic Snap-Ware containers for opened dry goods.  Japan is made up of islands at the edge of an ocean and therefore is very humid.  Add some heat and the possibility of mildew, mold, and insects increase.  One of my sisters has been using the same Snap-Ware containers for years and likes them very much.  They are air-tight, very stackable, and lightweight, which is important when you relocate frequently with a weight allowance.  The under-shelf, wire bins are from IKEA, about $3.00 each.  You’ll also see many white, wire shelves and organizers around our house, they are versatile beyond belief; I purchased most at thrift stores in the States for a dollar or two.

Third shelf: Canned goods.  This is a challenging category.  I love playing Tetris and have a pocket Game Boy dedicated to it; this shelf requires the same skills of stacking and rearranging to create the best use of space.  They are roughly grouped and organized: various tomatoes, beans, ethnic, vegetables, soups, fruits, meat/seafood, cat food.  On the right is more wire shelving; on the left is a different kind of metal shelving.  It’s the common, chrome, wire shelving used commercially composed of various legs and shelves you can assemble to suit your needs.  Daiso, a ¥100 store, carries small versions of them.  The legs and shelf supports are ¥100 each but the shelves themselves are ¥300 each, making the unit I assembled about ¥800, or $8.00.  They are more expensive than the plastic-coated wire shelves but are much more sturdy and can handle the weight of the cans better.  You can see an example on Amazon here.

Fourth/Bottom shelf: Dry baking goods and cereals.  This is self-explanatory.  You’ll see more Snap-Ware.  With the deep shelves we are able to keep the open cereal boxes in the front and the unopened behind.  The roll of toilet paper is used for Kleenex.

Floor: Bigger, heavier items and laundry supplies.  This area is still a bit messy because I’m still figuring out how to use it efficiently.  On the right you’ll see our laundry supplies which must be kept there because the washer/dryer is directly next to the pantry and has no storage space of its own.  The blue metal shelves are actually locker shelves (like this) I got on clearance for about $2.00 each – score!  At a foot high, they are an awkward height to use in most places but are perfect for storing the large jugs in this tall space.  There is another one directly behind it that fits perfectly over a box containing a large water jug and some MRE’s for an emergency food supply.  On the left you’ll see kitty litter, cat food, paper towels, and other miscellaneous items.  The cereal box is where we put out mixed paper recycling; it isn't picked up curbside so I drop it off at the recycling area when I’m out walking somewhere.

The finished pantry is not picture-perfect or magazine-worthy – the shelving doesn't match, everything isn't lined up symmetrically in baskets with pretty jars and cute labels, and there’s an open roll of toilet paper, for goodness’ sake – but it’s a real, working area that changes and conforms to current needs.  And it’s mine, so put things back where you found them.

If you’re still reading, thank you.  I can’t imagine my pantry is very exciting and I applaud your dedication.  “Now what is that thing hanging off the door handle?”  Since you asked, it’s a door stop.  Well, my creative version of a door stop.  We actually have screen doors at both the front and back of the house.  I love them and like having them both open to encourage the lovely cross-breeze they create.  However, the wind can blow the entry doors closed and, since Enterprise: The Best Kitty Ever is frequently there enjoying the view, it is very unsafe.  Using the bungee on the door handles is the most secure idea I came up with and it was free.

(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.)