May 26, 2007

weeks of cooking from cookbooks

Yesterday it was clear and warm, today it was wet and chilly, and tomorrow it is going to be sunny and muggy... and after each rain, we can tell that the summer is definitely drawing closer and closer.

Which I find is rather a pleasant feeling, even if the summer itself is remotely pleasant... it is something that is better to anticipate rather than actually having it, I think.

At any rate, I've been enjoying the increasingly colorful fresh summer produce over the past week or so. Recently I was finally done with a project I had been working on for a prolonged period of time, and it was fantastic... such a huge relief to have been able to let it out of my hands, and no to have to feel constant guilt every time I went out, cooked, or even went to sleep... or otherwise not when working, that is.

With the abundance of fresh ingredients around and a little more time (and attention) to spare combined with new and newly-found ideas and inspirations, I'm now very much in the mood for cooking again.

And I'm talking about cooking from cookbooks, old and new; I've always baked a lot from cookbooks, but when it comes to cooking for everyday meals, I wouldn't often turn to books for recipes. Then over the past couple of months or so, cookbooks that I'd long awaited came out on the trot, and I just couldn't pretend to ignore them... not at least now that I have a little more time to flip through (cook)books, let alone actually cooking from them.

And I love it. I am re-realizing how pleasing, refreshing, and healing it indeed is to be able to cook what I want to cook when I want to cook. As much as I love the process of cooking, I love things that come with cooking: searching for recipes on the net or from books to decide what to cook, going out for grocery shopping and perhaps discovering ingredients that are new to me, and of course, eating the final results - either in solitude or with someone to share it with. Even doing the dishes isn't as much trouble as it is when I'm deeply occupied with work. And yes, shooting pictures can be a fun part, too.

Now I'm not yet jobless (thank god!) and there are new projects coming in, so I can't forever be a full-time home cook. Yet over the next few weeks, I am hoping to briefly run through what I've been cooking, mainly from the books I have recently acquired.

And as reasonably expected, now I find myself back in that familiar, very sticky situation - cookbook-buying habits. I am starting to amass a cookbook collection again; not that big at the moment, but given the number of cookbooks that have left barely opened for ages, I can only hope that I will still have time to read and cook from them when my new order arrives. And a little time to go out and get fresh summer air, as well.

May 18, 2007

early midsummer

It was on a country road just off the highway exit some 30 or 40 miles south of the city that we drove passed a large house, or more like a warehouse. It was a green grocer, and at its store fronts were a troop of handsome watermelons dressed in green-and-blak stripes, all of which were unformly large and shiny.

While watermelon appears (to us at least) to be the taste of mid summer, as she tipped me the sweetest ones actually come around early in its season before the month-long monsoon season hits the crops between May and July (depending on where you are in the country) - which means, it's like, best right now. I'd already seen watermelons in the store in Tokyo, but they were rather expensive, and I had no idea that they would actually taste good as early in the season as this... until this day.

"I'm getting one to take home", I said decidedly, and at first she couldn't believe it. "What!? Are you serious..." she went, "how do you think you are taking such a large one with you, are you stuffing it in your suitcase and check it in? No way... or are you holding it in your arms all the way back to Tokyo? You know just how heavy these are..."

And she was so right. They were slightly larger than basket balls, and I don't know exactly how heavy they were, but one must easily have weighed 10 lb. I know there are a lot bigger and heavier watermelons out there, but these would still be quite some luggage to carry around. Sending one by percel delivery could have been an option, but then shipping would have most certainly costed more than one watermelon itself (1,200 yen or approx $10) given its weight ... ...

So I just dropped it. Instead I settled for a couple of mini-sizers for home. Though I still got a large watermelon, for my friend who was to put me up for that night. Well, I could get a large one as long as I wasn't carrying it with me for 700 miles, right?

Nicely chilled overnight, the watermelon made part of our late breakfast on the balcony the following day. It was another warm, dry day so the juicy fruit was a perfect thirst quencher.

And just as she had said the day before, the watermelon was really very sweet... quite possibly one of the best one we'd had in years, we both agreed. Sure, it was our very first watermelon of the season and there would be good ones to come, but we were still quite happily comvinvced that it was to be the best, and it would be tough to beat it!

Last week I was in Fukuoka on the southwest Japanese island of Kyushu. The watermelons were from neighboring Kumamoto prefecture, one of the largest watermelon producers of the country. Come to think about it, as someone who was born and raised in Tokyo and its suburbs pretty much for the entire life, I had never wondered where all the watermelons were from as I ate them in Tokyo. Maybe from Kumamoto, maybe not.

At any rate, a big, vividly striped watermelon was always a symbol of summer, for me as a kid, representing the scorching sun light and heat during the month-long schoold holiday, as much as those bright-yellow sunflowers, headache-giving ice shaves, hours-lasting sessions of gorgeous fireworks... all of which I'd adore. And I don't even like summer!

Back in Tokyo (with a couple of mini watermelons as well as a fleshy melon,) we are having yet another series of weird weather at the moment, but soon the gray and wet monsoon season will come before summer is finally everywhere. I've never looked forward to summer as a season, but I can still enjoy the early-summerly air with everyone feeling uplifted in anticipation of event-packed summer holiday to come. And I can surely look forward to watermelons at their peak - some for chilled slices out of the fridge, some for one of those boozy watermelons!

May 3, 2007

tea 4 2 on day 88

Over here in Japan we are officially in the middle of Golden Week holiday time which is a series of National holidays, and May 2 was National Pick-and-drink-your-own-tea Day. Or not. (Ah, it isn't. Sorry.)

National holiday aside, it really was the day for people to celebrate tea, and tea being green tea in this case. Hachiju-hachiya, literary meaning "88th night", is historically recognized as a good day for harvesting, as well as drinking, tea; I'm not going in details as for the background behind this custom, nor what this 88th day is based on anyway, but this should give you a rough idea about it if you are curious, even if you are not a kid.

Instead, here I have scraped together a bit of green tea-related food - some were had in connection with Hachiju-hachiya, while others completely coincidental....

Tea Rice with Banboo Shoots and Peas. Here rice was cooked in roasted brown rice tea or genmai-cha with green tea (confusing...) along with boiled and sliced banboo shoots, fresh pea, and abura-age (deep-fried tofu slices). Freshly boiled banboo shoots and fresh peas are both tastes of the season, and the hint of light scent of roasted tea made a nice background to highlight the delicate flavors of the vegetable.

Green Tea Rice with Seared Sea Bream and Watercress. Lightly seared chunks of sea bream was cooked with rice in green tea and served with watercress leaves. Tai-meshi, or rice cooked with sea bream, is one of my (many) favorite rice dishes, and using green tea instead of stock added another dimension to this elegant classic; the dish that was already light and fragrant is now tasting even lighter and fresher thanks to the clean, palate-clensing green tea.

Speaking of palate-clensing, these little leafies definitely do their job. Green Tea Mints by Sencha Naturals come in three flavors including these two: Lively Lemongrass and Delicate Pear (the other is Original, which I haven't had). I picked up them while in Los Angeles last November, and somehow buried somewhere deep in my luggage... can't believe they ended up popping up on this particular day out of nowhere! (Well, out of my bag, to be specific.)

The last bit is a tray of tea-time treat we had for Hachiju-hachiya: Matcha Panna Cotta and bite-size slices of Green Tea Loaf with Brandy Syrup, complete with a cup of green tea (for those of you who might be wondering how we differentiate matcha from regular green tea, I have given a brief description of one version here). I used agar rather than gelatin to gell the panna cotta, which I thought worked just fine. The cake was a gift that came from one of Japan's biggest tea producing regions, and it didn't fail to measure up to our expectations.

Now seemingly, the month of February swiftly ran away from me, March vanished like a puff of smoke, and April was like it had never come... and is it already May? When I haven't even organized all the photos I took while taravelling last year (ugh)? Well given how things have been over the past months, I am not highly likely to be able to do posts about my travels anytime soon, but at least I have some pics up on my flickr site... at the moment I have some shots of spectacular early-winter (!) Colorado nature from last October; click here to view as slideshow. More to follow shortly.