Sunday, October 12, 2014

Enterprise: The Best Kitty Ever.

Enterprise entered my life fourteen years ago.  He walked right up to me, sat down, and I fell in love.  “If you ever, ever need a home for this cat I will take him.”  A year later, he was mine – The Best Kitty Ever.

This past Wednesday we said goodbye.  Although I am heart-broken, I am thankful that we spent 13 years together.  Even as a cat-person I never imagined such an awesome kitty would come into my life for so long.  He was truly exceptional, a lover of all people, completely unbiased and nondiscriminatory.  

In late August Enterprise was diagnosed with renal disease; his kidney was too far gone to return to health and I knew his time with us was ending.  I returned home, collapsed on the floor and cried.  In the following weeks I gave him all my time, providing loving hospice care and taking him to the vet daily for treatment.  While this was unfolding my husband was gone and I desperately wanted Enterprise to live long enough for them to see each other again; they had a special bond that words cannot describe but that was obvious when they were together.

Being a people-cat, Enterprise sometimes had separation anxiety when we would leave, and especially when my husband was gone repeatedly for so many months.  Throughout these times I promised Enterprise that we would always come home, every time we walked out the door we would always, always come back; I promised.  So when he first got sick and my husband was away I asked Enterprise to hang on until he returned.  At that time his health stabilized and remained so for almost six weeks.  He was a tough cat and hung on so we could fulfill that promise one last time.  

Two weeks after my husband came home Enterprise’s condition began to decline.  On Monday we found out that anemia had set in; he stopped eating on his own and his movements slowed.  On Wednesday afternoon he got worse very, very quickly and I knew it was time to say goodbye because he would have had a miserable and probably painful night.  We knew we would have to make the decision at some point and it was definitely time for him to rest.  

That evening we all sat on the sofa together just as we always do, we wanted him to be comfortable and have a normal night.  Our friend, who took care of Enterprise when we would travel, kindly drove us to the vet's office.  My husband and I were with Enterprise when he died, very peacefully, in a quiet, private room.  He will be cremated (with his favorite string, of course) and returned to us in traditional Japanese style;  I somehow plan to return him to The States for a private burial in my parents’ backyard, alongside our family’s two other beloved cats.

I want to thank all of our family and friends whose thoughts and prayers helped support us during this grievous time. Our little family is forever changed and this support means everything.  I know to some other people a cat is a cat, but you all understand that Enterprise was not just a cat, but a member of the family who will be loved and missed by everyone who had the pleasure and fortune of knowing him.

Rest in peace, our dear, sweet Enterprise, The Best Kitty Ever.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ten on Ten: August.

August 10 fell on a Sunday this year, a day I am usually busy teaching one-on-one conversational English (ESL) with Japanese people keen on learning it.  However, this is the busiest week of Obon travel season and my schedule was very light, giving me time to participate in the project.

I did not set my alarm hourly as a reminder so photo times are not precise.  Also, every photo is from my iPhone which does not perform well in low light.  Next month I am hoping to use my real camera.

Remains of kitty's brunch.

End of class.

Between typhoon rain storms.

Catching up online.



Dinnertime for kitty.

Still reading.  Rainy day.

Dinner - Choose your own adventure night.

A quiet evening; almost finished.

The Ten on Ten project originally began with Rebekah Gough at her blog, a bit of sunshine.  She explains it as, "a fun and interactive way for blogger's from all around the globe to document a snap shot of their lives too, once a month on the tenth taking a photo an hour for ten consecutive hours. Finding life and beauty in the ordinary things of our day to day!" 

Ginger: Simple Syrup.

Simple syrup is sugar and water, in equal parts, heated until the sugar granules are melted. Simple. It is the ideal sweetener for cold foods, especially beverages.

White sugar is default in simple syrup, though you can use brown sugars, raw sugar, and any other sweetened granule you desire. Experiment.

In a previous posting I shared information on making ginger vodka through infusion and mentioned that the ginger can be reused for other purposes. A recent experiment of mine led to a delicious ginger simple syrup using the ginger from a vodka infusion a couple weeks ago.

I had about a cup and half of leftover vodka ginger slices and about 1 inch of fresh ginger root that I peeled, sliced and added to that. In a small sauce pan I combined the ginger, 1 ½ cups of water, and 1 ½ cups of white sugar. On high heat I brought it just to a boil then immediately reduced the heat to simmer for about 5-10 minutes.

While giving it a gentle stir periodically I smelled and tasted until it reached my desired gingery-ness. I can't describe it exactly but you should know it when you taste it – a combination of “Yum!” and “Bam!”  Once you hit that point remove the pot from the heat and let it cool enough to where you can pour it through a strainer and funnel it into a bottle or jar. I prefer glass to keep the taste as pure as possible.

Ginger syrup in green sun tea - yum!

Simple syrup should be stored in the refrigerator and will keep as-is for a week, maybe two. However, an easy trick will preserve it for much longer: simply add a small splash of plain vodka to the mixture. I add about 2 teaspoons to a 10-14 ounce bottle. I just eye-ball it; add enough that it mixes thoroughly but not enough to make it alcoholic.  You don't need much and you cannot taste it unless you've added too much. Using this trick most of my simple syrups last almost indefinitely, or at least until they are gone.

Ginger: Gin-Gin Martini.

My earliest memories of ginger include the nose-tingling sensation of Vernor's Ginger Ale and my Mother's dinnertime warning to not eat any ginger slices hidden in the stir-fry.

My love of ginger grows each time I taste it used in a different way. If it's on a menu in any manner I will try it. Four or five years ago I went to a Seattle restaurant with a friend before attending the ballet and with a little hesitancy ordered their Gin-Gin Martini. It has been my favorite cocktail ever since.

I began making it at home using store-bought ginger vodka, first with a Polish rye version, Alchemia Imbirowa, and when I could not find that, Skyy Ginger Vodka. The Alchmia was decent but eventually it became unavailable; Skyy was better than nothing but certainly lacked a true ginger root essence, tasting more of ginger ale syrup than the real thing.

Dissatisfied with the ready-made options I decided to make the ginger vodka myself, not actually distilling it of course, but by simple infusion. It was insanely easy and I could not believe I wasn't making it all along.

Three simple steps to make ginger vodka:
1. Peel and slice a ginger root
2. Soak cut ginger in plain vodka
3. Strain

Three detailed steps to make ginger vodka (using a 1 liter bottle):

1. Find a piece of ginger root with maybe 6 or 7 inches of usable pieces; it is better to infuse too much than too little because you can always dilute it down to your preference. You don't have to remove the outer skin but it makes a more clear final product so I always do; use a peeler or a small knife (very carefully). Slice the root across the grain into discs about 1/8 to ¼ inches thick. This isn't science, you don't have to measure, but you want to take full advantage of all the glorious ginger flavor. Once cut you should have a hefty handful of sliced ginger, maybe 1 ½ to 2 cups.

2. Put the sliced ginger into a pitcher and pour the vodka in. Place the pitcher into a refrigerator for at least 2 days, I've left it in for up to a week. Soaking ginger in alcohol is actually one way of preserving it so I wouldn't worry about the time on the long end.

3. Using a mesh strainer and a funnel pour the infused vodka back into the original bottle. I store the finished product in the refrigerator, it just seems better. If you are infusing less than a bottle it is very convenient to use a coffee press because then you can skip the strainer and funnel and simply pour directly from the pitcher.

4. (Optional, but highly recommended) Save the ginger from your infusion and store it in the refrigerator, I use a glass bowl covered with plastic wrap. As I mentioned earlier, it is actually preserved and can be re-used. Most often I use it in strir-frys but it is certainly not limited to that.

Finally, you now have ginger vodka and can make your own Gin-Gin Martini. Yes, I know it is not technically a martini, but since it contains only spirits I let the term slide on this one.

Gin-Gin Martini

1 oz. Gin (Bombay Sapphire pref.)
1 oz. Ginger vodka (home-infused pref.)
1 slice of cucumber

In a cocktail shaker add ice and spirits. Shake or stir (pref.) until well-chilled, the colder the better. Strain into small cocktail glass. Place cucumber slice on the rim. Enjoy.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Reverse Grilled Cheese, Toasted.

On this rainy, Saturday afternoon I was looking for something different, yet easy, to make for lunch.  A two-inch slice of ciabatta bread remained from a ham and lentil stew earlier in the week, perfect for some sort of sandwich.  Without a panini press (no need for another single-use, small appliance) I decided to make something that felt like a panini but wasn't.

Toasted Reverse Grilled Cheese

Ciabatta bread, sliced horizontally
Olive Oil
Red onion, sliced thin
Tomato, sliced thick
2 pieces of cheese (Swiss and provolone)
3 pieces of lunch meat (ham)
Honey mustard spread*

Heat a fry pan to medium and drizzle a little olive oil to lightly cover the pan's surface.  When the oil shimmers add onions and swirl around the pan to coat with oil.  Then move the onions toward the outer edges of the pan and place the bread slices in the center, cut side down.  Remove the onions when they are done to your liking, and remove the bread when it is sufficiently crispy.  Then put the lunch meat in the pan to heat, it will cook fast so pay attention, then remove once it's hot.

To assemble the sandwich, add the cooked onions to the top slice, then the cheese.  On the bottom bread slice, spread a thin layer of honey mustard, fold the lunch meat down, and lay the tomatoes on top.  Put the top and bottom together and carefully put in a toaster oven, on a piece of aluminum foil to catch any cheese drips, for about 5 minutes or until the cheese is melted.

*Homemade Honey Mustard:
Dijon mustard, yellow mustard, mayonnaise, and honey mixed together.  Use stone ground mustard and add black pepper for a kickier version, or add some dried herbs (thyme, dill, oregano) for a more savory version.  Great on any type of sandwich and can also be used as a dip.  Keeps in the refrigerator practically indefinitely (you'll use it long before it goes bad).

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Thyme for Ham, Mushrooms, and Macaroni & Cheese.

Every home cook constantly concocts various add-in combinations for boxed macaroni and cheese.  The options are endless, thankfully, because when it’s after 5 pm and dinner plans are nonexistent you need a shortcut.

Today’s rain ended with a beautiful sunset and a chill in the air, perfect for comfort food.  Included in “comfort food” is wine, of course.  A bottle of simple Pinot Noir sat unopened and lonely in my cupboard so I decided to invite Annie and her Shells and WhiteCheddar boxed macaroni and cheese.  To make it a party I also gathered maitake mushrooms, cooked ham, swiss cheese, and fresh thyme; all are very friendly with Pinot Noir.

Mushrooms in Japan are delicious and very affordable; I always have a variety on hand.  I selected the maitake this evening, instead of the shiitake I also have, because they only had a few usable days left.  The ham is leftover from a six-pound, bone-in pork butt I baked recently specifically for the leftovers which are so incredibly delicious and versatile.  The swiss cheese is self-explanatory, I always have sliced cheese, if I ever don’t I might as well be dead.  Thyme is one of my very favorite herbs and I am so happy that my little plant is producing a fantastic harvest of tiny thyme leaves!  Every time I step out on to my front porch and snip some sprigs off I want to run joyously up and down the sidewalk proclaiming my love for fresh thyme. 

I could stop here because if you can make boxed macaroni and cheese you can probably figure out the rest but I will add my “recipe” and cooking method because this is my blog and I choose to.

Thyme for Ham, Mushrooms, and Macaroni & Cheese

1 box of white cheddar macaroni and cheese
1 cup mushrooms, chopped
1 cup cooked ham, chopped or cubed
2 slices of swiss cheese, torn into smaller pieces
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves (give or take to taste)
1-2 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. half-and-half (or milk)

1. Begin to boil water for the macaroni noodles; while the water heats and the noodles cook you will prepare the rest of the ingredients.
2. Melt butter in a skillet on medium heat; add mushrooms and sauté until soft, 5 minutes or so.  Remove mushrooms and all the buttery liquid into a small bowl, set aside.
3. Lower heat for skillet as low as it will go, add the ham and cover the pan.  The ham is already cooked and just needs to be warmed but must retain its moisture.
4. Drain the noodles when they are cooked.  While they are draining pour the reserved buttery mushroom liquid into the warm sauce pan (on low heat) and swirl it around; then add the cooked noodles and stir them so they are covered in the butter. 
5. Add the powdered cheese packet; stir.  Pour about 1 tbsp. of half-and-half into the packet, swish it around to capture the hidden cheese powder and add it to the pot; stir until the powder is dissolved.
6. Add the swiss cheese pieces; stir.  Add the ham; stir.  Add the mushrooms; stir.  Add the thyme; stir.  When all the ingredients look combined it is done.

Don’t forget about the Pinot Noir.  Hopefully you opened the bottle while you were cooking and tasted the various ingredients alone and in combination with each other between sips, paying attention to how the flavors played with each other.  Really, that is the best practice of learning how to match and complement wine with food.  And it’s fun.

P.S.  Remember to check the damaged food section of your grocery store, that is where I found this macaroni and cheese for 79¢ a box.  There was a tiny bend with no perforation or tear and a sell-by date far in the future.  Score!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Happy Fun Time with Small Ikea Projects.

Even though our closest Ikea is only about 14 miles away it takes an hour to drive there if traffic is moving well.  Our first visit was on a Friday afternoon late last summer shortly after we moved here and it was packed.  When I decided return this past Wednesday I chose to go by myself and arrived just after their 10 am opening, carefully backing in to my parking space.

Previously we had parked front end first as we are used to in the US.  We were the only vehicle there parked like that.  Most drivers in Japan seem to back-in park.  I assume it is due to the population density and the number of people always walking and riding bikes.  It is safer to back in to a parking space where people are unlikely to be than to back out of that space where people are guaranteed to be.  Then when you leave, facing outward, you can easily see anyone moving.  I am grateful for our small car because backing in a right-side drive vehicle takes some a lot of practice after operating as a left-side driver for twenty years.

The number of shoppers this time seemed similar to what I am familiar with in the States so I was able to take my time following the path around the store.  I worked comfortably off my prepared list and found most of what I was looking for.  

Top priority on my list was the Bekvam step stool for our bathroom; I looked for it on our previous trip but it was sold out.  Various hygiene tasks are simpler to perform while sitting, such as clipping your nails.  The toilet lid is generally the default location to sit in a bathroom.  The plastic lid on our industrial/commercial commode, however, is too flexible and bends inward with any weight.  This leaves the bathtub edge to sit on which is not comfortable in the least.

Hence, the step stool.  Not only is it versatile enough for use an almost any room, at ¥1533 (~$15) it was one of the most inexpensive options.  

I chose the natural wood and stained the pieces outside a couple days ago with two coats of the Behandla glazing paint.  I put it together yesterday and am impressed with its solidity, not a creak or wobble at all, and it fits perfectly under the sink.

The shelves pictured here on the left are a future project.  I picked up the set for $5 but one of them must be cured of it's unfortunate white sponge paint.  I am considering whether to paint both or just the one, and what type of paint to use over the laminate surface.

The black Kassett magazine files are new also.  I have other pieces in the series and these were on my list.

Using the same Ikea glaze I stained these two small unfinished cigar boxes I picked up at our local thrift store for 75¢ each.  They had some cutesy decoration things glued on the tops that I gently, but easily, pried off.  Then I sanded off the glue residue.

You can also see here some of the Kassett series boxes bought previously that are no longer available.  I use them for storing medium sized photo prints and albums.

The remaining Ikea items I bought are photo frames.  I carefully measured the sizes I needed and researched the metric equivalent to find the appropriate sizes for my needs.  

We have a window at the top of our stairs with blank walls on either side demanding art.  Because the light is usually dim in this hallway I wanted some large but simple photographs to hang there.  I waited (and waited) until Mpix ran a sale and ordered 20 inch square prints of two macro photos I took this past spring.  The Nyttja frames are 50 cm square, about half an inch off, but since they are upstairs I can alter the framing just a bit and it won't be as noticeable.  We shall see how it works out when the prints arrive.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Ten on Ten: May.

The Ten on Ten Project was first introduced to me through the blog of an awesome person whose life intersected with mine at a pivotal point, Bleu Dress Jes.  The concept originally began with Rebekah Gough at her blog, a bit of sunshine.  She explains it as, "a fun and interactive way for blogger's from all around the globe to document a snap shot of their lives too, once a month on the tenth taking a photo an hour for ten consecutive hours. Finding life and beauty in the ordinary things of our day to day!"

My first month of participation was this past April.  I used Instagram, shared on Facebook, to track my day.  It was a bit much, I admit, and very time consuming to photograph, notate, and post hourly photos in real time.  I approached this 10th of May differently.

First, I completely forgot about the Ten on Ten until I checked the time on my phone when arriving at the train station; it was 8:00 am precisely and the Date read, May 10.  I immediately took two photos.  I was heading out of the train station to meet up with a group of other photo club members who were going up to Tokyo for the day to get their camera sensors cleaned and to photograph the city, of course.  Since my sensor was cleaned recently I went for the experience, I love photowalk meetups.

Remembering to take hourly snapshots throughout the day while also out with a group and taking "real" photographs was challenging.  All of the Ten on Ten shots were taken within about a ten minute time frame around the top of the hour.  Since we were on the move the whole day I didn't take the time to set up or compose an artful shot, instead I snapped a few quick photos and later combined them in little collages made through Moldiv, a collage photo app available through iTunes and Google Play for Android.

Instead of blowing up my Instagram and Facebook feeds I am sharing my May Ten on Ten here, and in the future if I remember.

Odakyu-Sagamihara Train Station.

On the train in suburban Tokyo.

Shinjuku Station.

Harajuku Station.

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo.

Yoyogi Park, Tokyo.

Lunch at Mekan, Harajuku.

Takeshita Street, Harajuku.

Returning to Shinjiku Station.

Transferring from express to local, Sagami-Ono Station.

All photos taken with iPhone 5.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Photo Assignment: Scavenger Hunt.

The most recent assignment from the Photography Club I belong to was a scavenger hunt.  I decided to go out during a quiet, Sunday late afternoon and complete the search from start to finish, and accept the challenge to "use the first photo you take of each item."  With my trusty 50mm f/1.4 I returned in a little over an hour with twelve consecutive photos.

Disclaimer: Some artistic license was used for some subjects.




Water: (Top row)


Bird: ("Like a bird, on a wire...")


Food: (A Japanese grocery store)





The "Rules":

* No prior photos can be used

* One photo of each item to be presented at the next meeting

* Suggestion: Keep your camera nearby

For a real challenge, use the first photo you take of each item. Personal integrity is at stake = your conscience may haunt you!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

DIY: Hanging Produce Baskets.

No matter how much kitchen counter space you have it is never enough.  You begin with beautiful, clean, flat surfaces and before you know it you are shuffling and shoving objects around for more work space.  This is how our kitchen began:

And this is what it looks like now, for real.  I just walked in and took this photo without touching anything.  It's on the cleaner side but I can guarantee that whenever you see a photo of mine taken in the kitchen I have most certainly moved things around for a less cluttered frame.  Notice how you do not see the top of the cupboards.

I have wanted hanging produce baskets for a while now and keep my eyes open for them at second hand stores.  Yes, I know they are not expensive, Amazon sells them for about $10.  But I love projects, especially ones that are easy and save a little money, and my do-it-yourself hanging basket is exactly that.

Daiso is a large Japanese chain of ¥100 stores (they even have a few along the west coast of the United States) that I have mentioned in previous posts.  It's equivalent to the Dollar Tree stores but with a much better selection in my opinion.  I bought the 4 items needed for this project there, hence costing approximately $4.25 and an hour of my ample spare time.

I purchased three wire mesh baskets and a chain designed to hang a flower pot, the latter of which I already have but it's in storage somewhere in Texas.  To keep the integrity of the chain I used links from a jack chain to form small hooks to attach the baskets, thus making them easily adjustable as well.  I found them in my miscellaneous hardware boxes that I proudly love and care for meticulously; I've had them, and some of the contents, for over ten years.

With a pair of needle-nose pliers I attached three hooks around the outer rim of each wire basket approximately equal distance apart but didn't bend them closed in case adjustments were needed.  I began with the smallest basket, looping the hooks through the chain as high as I could while still being able to put my hand in to retrieve an item, which ended up between links 6 and 7.  Then I found the middle of the remaining chain length and looped the second basket at that location, between links 14 and 15.  The last and largest basket was then hooked on the last links, obviously.

However, when I lifted the entire unit it was a bit uneven, for two reasons I discovered.  First, there was one less link on one of the three hanging chains, 20 instead of 21.  To solve this I simply added an extra link from the jack chain I was re-purposing.  Secondly, my spacing of the three hooks around the baskets' perimeters was a bit skewed.  Since they had not been tightened closed it was easy to re-position them and level the baskets.  Once I was satisfied with the positioning I tightened the hooks.  Done.

To hang it from the ceiling I drilled a hole, screwed in an eye hook, and used some extra chain and a clip to hook it up (all from my hardware stash).  This makes it fully adjustable if I change its location around our current house and where ever we move in the future.

Here are some detail photos of how I hooked the baskets on.  Some of the "S" hooks are scratched up a little but they sort of nest in the other links and I don't notice it much.

The photo above shows the extra link I attached to make up for the chain that was one link short.  In all I am very happy with the results and imagine that similar baskets would make corners useful in multiple areas like the office or bathroom.  

While typing this out I had company with me, making sure I stay near and remember his dinner.