August 31, 2006

nectar of the summer

I have noticed that at around this time last year and the year before the last, for two years in a row, I did write-ups about how I ate peaches during the summer. And comes the end of August this year, with me having stuffed myself up with succulent fresh peaches for the whole month. While I'd eat most of them simply as is, I have turned some into some sorts of desserts (and drinks), so here they go.

Just about a month ago, when I was about to make Peach Tiramisu using this recipe, I happened to be meeting some friends the following day. So I thought I'd make it and might as well bring it for them to share. As I started preparing it, it occurred to me that one of the folks can't have coffee; okay, I substituted a mixture of strong black tea, orange juice, and Grand Marnier for the espresso and rum, to turn it into Peach & Tea Tiramisu. When it was done, I suddenly remembered that another one of them doesn't like cheese! Alas my plan just wouldn't work, okay, no, I'm not going to take this with me, I decided. They weren't missing out anything though, as I went with some Pierre Herme desserts instead.

My Peach & Tea Tiramisu, which we just ate at home as had originally been intended, tasted lovely - nice and light, very suitable for summer evenings I would say. Later on another day though, I did try and make the original Peach Tiramisu, using freshly-brewed espresso and rum;

This is on the easier end of tiramisu recipes, calling only for dunking finger biscuits in the espresso mixture, layering them with slices of fresh peaches and a mixture of mascarpone cheese and heavy cream. I had never quite thought of pairing peach with coffee, but this turned out just fine; my personal preference would be the one flavored with tea and orange, but my family gave a better review to the coffee version. Everyone's got their own taste, and it seemed that the both versions were quite good, so all good.

When I found the Peach Tiramisu recipe, I had also found another peach recipe, easy one as well:

Balsamic Blueberries and Peaches, recipe here. The tiramisu recipe was fairly easy, but this one was like nothing - I put some fresh blueberries into a pan with a bit of sugar and balsamic vinegar, boiled up for a minute or so, and threw in some more berries along with fresh peach slices to toss and sit for half an hour or so. It still tasted quite impressive, with the help of balsamic vinegar which now seems to be something of a staple for fruit desserts, and it was even more so eaten with dollops of vanilla ice cream and peach sorbet. Simple as it may be, but good things usually are, just like these:

Peaches and champagne. Peach must be one of the fruits that go the best with champagne, I am tempted to believe - although strawberries may be just as good, I must admit. I fixed a Bellini and a simple peach & champagne with Moet & Chandon Nectar Imperial, an unusually sweet champagne that could even make a dessert wine. Normally, you'd add some syrup to Bellinis, but you won't need it here; both the wine and peaches here were sweet enough to require no added sweetener. The champagne of course tasted lovely as is, specially in lazy early evenings of summer - pleasure!

Another champagne stunt:

Champagne Summer Shortcakes, recipe featured by Heidi over at 101 Cookbooks. The idea of dressing ripe summer fruits with honey-champagne syrup sounded alarmingly good, and so it looked in her eye-catching shot of the dessert.

For the syrup, I omitted the sugar and simply paired champagne (not the sweet one but a regular dry kind) with my favorite Hawaiian white honey (this one goes beautifully well with bubblies). In making shortcakes I attempted to give it the scent of fresh bay leaves, which I also used for the ice cream, which, basically, worked well although I would have liked it better if the scent of bay leaves had been little more pronounced. Other than white and yellow peaches, I used figs and grapes - all really ripe - and the fruits in the syrup alone were addicting.

And now the summer comes to a close, I still have some lovely juicy peaches around, but there are far too many peach recipes I have bookmarked to try while the season lasts; well I'm probably going to have to devour them straight away while saving the recipes for the next summer, and I'll tell you what, I'd most likely to be making some of them and write up at around this time next year. We'll see.

August 23, 2006

pimm's o'clock, GMT +1 and +9

It was a mid July Sunday when the heat waves were just about to hit hard London and the rest of the country for the coming week or so. It happened to be my last day in town - I was set to fly later that evening. The night before I was invited by a friend of mine to a garden dinner at their family house, and they kindly put me up for the night, after what had turned out to be a lovely dinner full of seasonal vegetables and fruits, and booze to boot.

While the temperature was still about 80F (it later climbed up to 90s, which is quite rare for London), it felt dreadfully hot. I was going to spend my last afternoon doing nothing big but just chilling out, and we thought we'd go out and throw ourselves down on the green in the afternoon.

That was a bad idea. Although we did go out to eat lunch and dropped by a nearby park (or a common, as they call), we couldn't even lie flat for ten minutes - it was way too hot, even for my friend who is English (they are known to take in the sun whenever they can, or so it seems). So we quicky gave it up and decided to head home to stay in the shade. With some bevvies, of course.

That was when a jag of Pimm's came to fit the bill. Unmistakably English, Pimm's is definitely a drink of summer; sweet and light, easy to drink and easy to get you drunk (well depends). Mixed up with lemonade, it is traditionally served with some citrus wedges, cucumber strips and mint sprigs at barbecues, garden parties, sport events, you name it. In fact, during my two-week stay in the UK in July, I saw signs of PIMM'S literally everywhere; when I was at Wimbledon, champagne and Pimms's were two of the drinks that dominated outside tables, as plausibly claimed on the Pimm's website that "[t]oday, during Wimbledon fortnight some 80,000 half-pints of PIMM'S(R) & Lemonade are sold to spectators who should have their eye on the ball".

That Sunday, we didn't have a ball to have our eye on around, and just the fact that it was a sunny and warm weekend afternoon seemed to be enough a reason for us to fix and sip some Pimm's in the garden. They liked to boost up their "Pimm's No.1 Cups" (that's the name of the cocktail) with a pour of Vodka, which I politely did not take. Although I ended up with three glasses over a few hours of chatting. I had such a great time to cap up my two-week stay in the gracefully sunny Great Britain.

So much so, before setting my foot back in Tokyo in the midst of an persisting monsoon season in late July, I had had my mind set on one thing: Pimm's on the green, destination Tokyo. While we don't have a nice garden or whatsoever with a large table and chairs in the shade, we conveniently have a river just down the road, with a large area where it gets busy with people playing sports or doing barbecues in weekends.

It took me about a few weeks to finally get rid of rain clouds and see some clear sky, by which time it was already pretty chilly in London(!). Over here, it was of course scorching hot during the day, but the heat would gradually wear off as the day declined.

To reasonably match the English concoction, I whipped up some food with recipes from the UK; the salad was based on this recipe for Barbecued Vegetable Salad With A Basil Dressing, except I didn't barbecue the vegetables but just cooked them under broiler instead. The dressing should basically be a basil pesto with cashews, but I also didn't paste the ingredients in a food processor (which I don't own), and simply hand-chopped them. It was still very nice - herby and garlicky.

The mini bread quiches were a cheater's version of this Leek and Cheshire Cheese Tart; since I couldn't find Cheshire cheese in my neighborhood, I used some mature cheddar, while substituted Japanese sweet green onions and scallions for leek and chives. In addition, I skipped a tart shell altogether and instead used thin slices of sandwich bread, spread with butter and grainy mustard. Despite this much of omissions and alterations, the quiches tasted great, and disappeared right away.

At home, I am tempted to make my Pimm's cups with ginger ale rather than lemonade - which shouldn't come as a surprise when I'm a kind of person who'd mix ginger ale in pretty much anything, from beer to red wine and Earl Grey to green teas. I steeped lemon and cucumber pieces as well as mint in Pimm's for half an hour or so before pouring it over ice cubes (made of ginger ale!) along with the soda. By the way, am I supposed to eat the cucumber in Pimm's? (I tried one, but it tasted too bitter having been soaked in Pimm's.)

We took our Pimm's and food, towels, some books and magazines, small candles, and some mosquito repellents with us, and treated ourselves to a small luxury of food, drink, and quality time. We enjoyed it so much we did the same again the next day, this time for even little more of luxury with champagne for so-called Pimm's Royale - Pimm's topped with champagne. Brilliant.

Once we had eaten our food and drunk our Pimm's or two, it was time to lie down to read or watch the sky change its color as the sun was setting, until it was too dark to see anything and we would almost fall asleep. Basically, I loathe hot and sticky Tokyo summers, but in such an evening with some nice breeze in the riverside air, I'd have to admit that it actually could be not so bad. Sometimes at least.

Lovely summer evenings aside, my D70 messed up with some image data that day; exact the same thing had happened to my friend's D70 before, and this was my turn. Thank goodness it's not out of the one-year warranty yet, but it is actually about a year since I bought it... making us suspect a Nikon timer, just like the Sony timer. Maybe, maybe not.

Speaking of a suboptimally-functioning camera, I had such a one that I used to shoot some fireworks (and drinks on the green, too!) last summer. In fact, it was almost exactly one year ago, as we just had the same fireworks show the last weekend. This year I had a better camera, and had also been given some extremely practical and easy-to-follow tips for shooting fireworks with a dSLR by a friend of mine who is a professional photographer.
Well, I forgot to follow some of his directions and ended up with literally hundreds of craps. (For your reference, if you are good enough to be a professional specialist fireworks photographer, they should look like this.) Still, the fireworks were impressive as ever, and I managed to produce some acceptable images, which I think I can share with people.

If you have never seen fireworks in Japan, you'd be impressed by just how well they are all made, and my pictures, although clumsy as photography, might hopefully give you some idea about them if you go through this (a new window will open to launch slideshow of some 80 photos) - these were only parts of the one-hour long spectacle, and it's not even the biggest fireworks event in Tokyo. If you have seen one before, well, you'd probably not want to see this to get disappointed; instead, you might want to take a look at a shorter version of slideshow with some 30 selected images, just to remind yourself how good the real thing was.

August 17, 2006

just a bit of relief

from the heat and humidity. P-lea-se.

August 10, 2006

the meals to remember

I've had several memorable meals for various memorable reasons, and the dinner we had in one Thursday evening of April 2004 is definitely one of them. It was a chilly early spring day in London, and there were six of us at table in a nice and cozy atmosphere, celebrating the wedding of the newlyweds, who happen to be two of the most important persons for us: my sister and her husband. The fact that it was a very intimate, family-only small wedding dinner was special enough to make the dinner memorable, but the surrounding factors - the restaurant, the food, the drink, the view, the service and everything - were just as impressive, and we still talk about it all very fondly.

And that was at a restaurant at The Petersham, a relatively small, some 130-year old hotel up on Richmond Hill, the Southwest suburb of London, looking over the River Thames. Two years ago we took a short taxi ride from Richmond station, but this past July, I went back there in a red Mini that my friend drove across the huge Richmond Park.

We hadn't booked a table, but that was no problem, as it was a very quiet day for them, with the British Tennis Championships just over in Wimbledon, which is just down the road. We were the first lunch guests of the day, and the staff seemed quite relaxed, enjoying their first slow day after some hectic weeks.

At the family wedding dinner two years back, we were offered a quite extensive wine list and shared a bottle of Krug (the best champagne around, in my book) and another of a very impressive Bourgogne white. But today, since it was at lunchtime and wasn't that special an occasion, I just settled with a nice, light glass of Rose while my friend stayed absolutely clear-headed, as she was the driver. How fair was that?

As we tried hard not to stuff ourselves up with the nice and crisp bread (served still warm), our starters arrived, without failing to dazzle the hungry girls (we hadn't had breakfast!).

Hers was English Asparagus - Leek and cucumber butter, deep fried poached egg. The asparagus was perfectly done (no soggy stuff please), and the sides were good, too - neither of us had ever had or heard of fried poached egg!

Mine: Duck Salad - Ceps and apple. Whenever I see a duck dish on the menu, I tend to go for it - how could I not have, especially when it had porcini mushrooms and apple, too! Sweet and meaty chunks of grazed duck were hidden beneath the fresh and crisp greens, accompanied by also sweet, cooked apple and porcini pieces.

We thought the portions were generous, and to be frank, I would have been quite happy with the salad along with the bread and call it a lunch.

Yet our main dishes came nevertheless, grandly, dignifiedly.

Hers: Baked Seabass with Seaweed - Fried oyster, crushed celeriac with saffron. The presentation was impressive, the fish was lovely. The seaweed condiment gave it a bit of Japanese edge we thought, but the taste was very well balanced overall except, to us at least, the portion was a bit too large.

My main dish came even larger and heavier: Pork en Crepinette - Fois gras mousseline, beetroot puree & puy lentils. Here the pork was wrapped in what seemed like a fluffy, almost omlette-like thing, which I fount later was actually meat fat. I liked the way how pork was done, and the beetroot puree and lentils were both very nice, but oh boy, what a size!

Then again, it somehow didn't occur to our mind to skip dessert. My friend ordered a staff recommendation: Chocolate Moelleux - Caramelised banana and ice cream. Again it was totally picture-perfect, and the combination of warm chocolate cake and cold ice cream was too good to miss out anyway, yes even to our already near-exploding stomachs.

I had Mille Feuille of Citrus Cream - Fresh berries. A thinner, crispier, browner puff pastry would have been to my taste, but the citrus cream and berries were nice, and those tiny scoops of raspberry sorbet on paper-thin cookies were very palatable and refreshing.

We capped the grand lunch with coffee and tea, respectively, totally satisfied - may be too much so. While struggling with our large dishes, I was trying to remember how it had been like two years before, and sure we had been stuffed back then, too. As far as I am concerned, London meals are all quite overpriced for what they serve (don't get me too wrong, I think this way maybe because the UK is an expensive country in every aspect whereas we get decently good meals at smaller costs here in Japan), but this place seems to be doing an excellent job; really good food served in a nice, relaxed atmosphere. If I lived in the neighborhood, I would still not come to eat here every weekend, but would definitely consider this place for any special occasion; and it shouldn't even have to be as special as a wedding dinner, really.

As we paid and got to our feet, they gave us small boxes of nougat, probably home-made. Both of us were too full to take a bite of it right away - in fact, we couldn't really eat anything the rest of the day - but we thought it nice of them, nevertheless. Last time, my family and I had left the restaurant with a totally pleasant memory. And now, I went back to the place with an ever-growing expectation, and they didn't fail me. As we left the hotel, the only thing that crossed my mind was, well, oh my goodness, when my sister finds out that only I have eaten here again, she'll be so jealous! Which she was, naturally, so rightly. Oh well, another perfect excuse for me to come back! We'd just have to make sure we'd arrive there super-hungry.