August 29, 2009

summer can be good...or better than ever

Before I say anything about this summer, let me make my stance clear: I hate summer. Period. Well, hot and humid Tokyo summer, that is. Which you might already know, if you know me or you have read any of my past posts written during summer - I've been ranting about it in pretty much all summer and every summer. But I just wanted to make it crystal clear here. I. Hate. Summer.

Now, considering the fact that I usually cannot enjoy these few months, this summer has proved to be fairly bearable - enjoyable, even. The big thing is that I got to see people from near and far, many of whom I haven't seen in a long time or have met for the first time. Having a mild summer has certainly helped, too; it was still hot, but not as bad as it could/should have been. And I haven't had as much work as I normally do, which in the scheme of things may be something I should worry about, but this has certainly given me a little more time to do other things than usual. (And the work is now slowly picking up... but not my motivation is. Oops.)

So my work aside, I can say that I've had a fairly good summer, I think, and I thought I'd sum up this unusually good summer...

The warm and breezy air of late spring to early summer turned almost suddenly into a hot and humid one towards the end of June, and it was one of the first really hot days of the year when I met Sigrid who was visiting Japan from Italy. It was our first time to meet each other, and it took place at odd hour of six o'clock in the morning; we were to go to Tsukiji, which almost is a synonym for Tsukiji Fish Market.

I had been to Tsukiji in the morning a few times, but this was my first time going into jonai, or the inner market, during or right after the auction.

workers busy handling tuna just after the auction, at Tsukiji market

Let's just say I was glad I got out of the place uninjured. It was really hectic - sellers and buyers yelling, carts and trucks running, and tourists and visitors wandering, right and left, everywhere. This is the largest and busiest fish market in the country, and probably the entire world. And if I had actually been injured, I wouldn't have been able to complain much; after all, it is the workplace for licensed professionals and they are only allowing us in on the condition that we behave ourselves and try not to get in their way.

All in all, it was really intense and overwhelming experience. I didn't take too many photos there, but Sigrid has captured it all in her post here; even if you don't read Italian like myself, her dynamic series of pictures will surely be enough for you to get an idea of what was going on.

Then as a muggy June turned into an even muggier July, I headed off to Kyoto.

Well, I took my accommodation in Kyoto, but on my first day I decided to make a little excursion to neighboring prefecture of Shiga, which is the home to Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in the country. It was my first time being in Shiga (although I might have passed there en route to somewhere else), and I had never realized how close it actually is from central Kyoto. A train ride of less than an hour from there will take you some of major towns/sightseeing spots in Shiga, many of which sit by or near the lake.

My first destination of the day was Mangetsu-dera, or 'full-moon temple'. More commonly known as Ukimido, or 'floating temple', it stands (or should I say 'floats'?) in the lake at a quiet residential area in the city of Otsu. I'd seen pictures of the temple several times before and was hoping to go and see it myself, so I was thrilled to find that the temple is easy to get to from Kyoto.

Now, had it been a clear day, the temple would have been breathtaking with the blue sky and water in the background, but it was unfortunately a muggy day with a somewhat dull sky, as you can see in the photo. But it was nonetheless impressive.

Being a quiet residential area, the place had little else to see for tourists and alike (unless I was missing something important), but it was nice to stroll around the streets with good old Japan's townscape. Even the few wrong turns I made on the way back to the train station felt fine.

snaps from Shiga - top (four): town of Katata, Otsu City; middle: view of Lake Biwa from top of Mt. Hachiman; bottom (four): old town of Omi-hachiman

After the short stay in Otsu, I hopped back on the train to my next destination: Omi-hachiman, an old town that has served the now-gone hilltop castle from the 16th century. There I walked around a bit and took the funicular to the top of Mt. Hachiman for a quick view of the lake (again, it would have been spectacular on a clear day). On the way back I walked down the hill - and that was when it started raining (typical!).

Once back to the bottom of the hill, I took a break at a cafe, and by the time I was done with my cake and tea, I was quite worn out from all the travelling, so I headed back to Kyoto. My first day in Shiga was filled with a lot of walking, and scenery both new and oddly familiar. I have some of my photos from the day up on flickr here if you would like to see a bit more of it.

My second day in Kyoto was almost just as Kyoto-free as the first one, as I once again hopped on the train in the morning and headed down to Kobe, one of the three largest cities in the region (other two being Kyoto and Osaka), to see my friend Taeko and her family from Italy. They were visiting Taeko's family in Kobe where she's originally from, and it was great to catch up with them, for the first time since last summer when they visited Tokyo.

Last time I was in Kobe a couple of years ago, I was also with them and they showed me around the small but beautiful old port city (and I have some photos here, too). So this time, Taeko suggested that we try and go to Awaji-shima, an island just off Kobe, for a change. I had never been there and knew little about what is there on the little island, but I happily accepted her offer (and a ride) to go there.

at a park and seafront, Awaji Island

Turns out, the little island wasn't that little. I had previously had no idea how large it was, but it proved to be definitely larger than I thought it would be. I've just learned that it is Japan's third biggest island (apart from the four main islands that makes up the country, of course), and a friend of mine recently told me it is about the same size as the country of Singapore (which is, um, how big?).

We didn't go anywhere particular touristy, but instead had a relaxed lunch, took a walk around a bit by the beach which turned out to be a fishing point rather than for swimming. I didn't take many photos that day, for I was too busy chatting away with my friends from Italy. The irony is, unlike the day before, the weather was gorgeous and the sea looked utterly beautiful - even if it was littered with jellyfish.

We spent a lazy afternoon there and then drove back to Kobe, where we ate ice cream by the harbor and then dinner. It was sad to say good-bye to them at the end of the day before catching my train back to Kyoto, knowing that they'd soon be gone back to where I cannot go by train. But I told myself I'd be seeing them sometime soon... and that lifted my spirit a bit.

And when I got back in Kyoto around eleven o'clock, I met up with a friend who was joining me for the next few days in Kyoto, and we ended up drinking at a bar until three o'clock in the morning or so. A really late start in Kyoto!

My Parisian friend T was in the middle of a month and half-long travel around Japan, and we'd decided that we'd meet up in Kyoto. Being able to see a friend after a while is one thing, but any excuse is welcome to go to Kyoto, if you ask me.

Both of us had been to this ancient capital of the country quite a few times, and were done with most of the major sightseeing spots in the central area. So we decided to try less-visited spots on the outskirts of the city.

(And forgive me for putting the photo of this bizarre stuff above…I couldn't resist it. As you can see, it is a mailbox, located by the Uji train station. This apparently resembled an traditional-style clay jar to store tea, for which the city of Uji is nationally famous for. But seriously, this was just so wacky and downright silly...)

snaps from Kyoto in early summer

I just said we'd been up for somewhere 'less-visited', but that didn't mean the places we went to were any less significant or lesser-known, really. Our first destination on our first day together, for instance, was Byodo-in temple in Uji, and the building stood just as magnificent as any other big-name temple in central Kyoto. We then went to Tofuku-ji temple; T had never been to this prestigious Southern Kyoto temple complex, and I had but would like to visit again. The thing was, we started the day rather slowly (wonder why...) and by the time we arrived at the area, it was almost 4:30, which means most, if not all, of the temples there were closing to visitors for the day. We still lingered about a bit and walked around on the temple grounds, and ended up coming back for the following morning. T was then off to Tokyo after lunch, and I spent the afternoon on my own, visiting a couple of old residence-turned-museums in the city.

I took tons of photos in Kyoto, too, but haven't gotten around to sorting them out for posting on the web (I know it's been almost two months since then...ugh). So I don't have pictures to share like those from Shiga, but I do have some from a couple of years ago when I visited Kyoto in almost the same time of the year, here. There are photos from Tofuku-ji, and I even went there with Taeko and her husband! (For more photos from Kyoto and Kansai area, try here.)

Overall, we took it easy and took our time, walking around and clicking away here and there, while arguingtalking about important and petty things (won't elaborate here). All the temples and things were as impressive as ever, but we enjoyed ourselves a lot taking a walk by the river and sitting down with a drink we'd bought from a convenience store. It is common knowledge that summer in Tokyo is hot and humid, but it is even more so in Kyoto. And yet, it was still quite breezy and pleasant in the evening back then. And it being a weekend, lots of people, locals and tourists alike, were out there and enjoying themselves - some of them a bit too much, from the look of it (I don't recommend jumping into the river no matter how slow and tame it appears!). Kyoto was good.

Then shortly after I got back to Tokyo, the monsoon season was declared finished for us in Tokyo, and all of a sudden (or so it seemed to me) the temperature climbed up past the point I could really handle, and I was forced into my summer routine: staying holed up in the house, barely alive. At the height of the summer, I rarely go out during the day, and do all the shopping and stuff in the evening when it is slightly cooler and at least no scorching sun.

Except that this summer, I had more occasions than ever to see my friends, many of whom were visiting from abroad or otherwise I hadn't seen in a long while. This often involved dragging myself out of the house during the day, but my enthusiasm about seeing them was easily greater than the little comfort of staying indoors. And let's face it, it was just as hot and humid in the house!

snaps from Tokyo in mid summer

Is it just me, or is everyone suddenly coming to Japan this year? Earlier the year, my friend Joyce was over from Los Angeles in January (although it was for her to see her ill relative, so I couldn't be all that happy about her being here, but still...). In February, Heidi and Wayne came from San Francisco and I was most thrilled to meet them and spend a day walking around old-town Asakusa and stylish Aoyama with them. From March to April, I was away myself and spent a month in a beautiful little village near London (photos here).

May and June came and went in a flash while catching up with Canadian Scott during one of his stints in Tokyo, and then arrived Sigrid and Taeko from Italy, T from Paris, Connie from North California. And most recently, Diane and Todd hit Japan just a few days ago, and I had the honor of meeting the dynamic duo on their first (full) day in Japan, eating ramen and sharing a crepe as we marched through bustling Shibuya and Harajuku. And I've heard a few more friends planning thier visit to Japan later in the year. Some of them were here to visit their families or on business, but it seems as though Japan suddenly became an 'It' travel destination, despite the near-all-time-high Japanese yen.

But my point is, with all these great people coming here and incredibly offering to spend some of their limited time here with me, how can I pass up? And I'm glad I didn't. And it certainly helped that they somehow chose to see me on one of milder days, allowing me to stay in and work or do other stuff (or nothing at all) in the severe heat.

So on those it-is-too-hot-to-go-out-and-I-have-no-friend-to-see-today days, I'd spend my time working, sorting out stuff, and maybe making (and eating) ice cream, a habit I picked up last summer. Between these, I managed to cook a bit. Which may sound a little odd, but in one summer a few years back, it was so hot I lost my appetite almost entirely and barely ate, further weakening my body to fight the heat. So I consider it a good thing that I am actually cooking (sort of) and eating through the summer.

clockwise from top left: soba noodle salad; ultra-thin somen noodles; hiyashi chuka; noodle for hiyashi chuka

And by 'cooking' I meant noodles. Take the chilled noodles away and there would have been nothing left for me to eat, and I'm hardly exaggerating. That was what I ate all summer - and maybe occasional curries, too. At any other time of the year, Italian pasta dishes would be my favorite, but during these few hot months, warm noodle dishes just wouldn't do. Although regular pasta can be a pasta salad and served cold, we tend to eat lots of Japanese-style noodles during summer, from year-round staples such as soba (buckwheat) and udon noodles to summertime favorites of somen and hiyashi chuka, both of which we associate strongly with summer. These noodles saved us on these days and nights of sweltering heat.

These cold noodle dishes may be what we consider as the taste of the season, but speaking of seasonality, there is another thing we can't forget: summer fruits.

fruits of the summer - clockwise from top left: white (and yellow) nectarines; melon; mishokan summer orange; and kiwi fruit (not really a summer fruit, but works good in summery treats)

I may probably have said this in the past, but I repeat: I hate summer. But I cannot but love summer fruits. Even when I'm not feeling like eating anything in a sweltering summer morning, I'd have some chilled sweet fruits. My favorites are lychee, cherries, peaches, and figs. This year, watermelon has been good, too.

But for this summer, I think I had more fruits in the form of ice cream and sorbet, rather than them as is. Like these:

fruits of the summer turned into frozen dessert - clockwise from top left: mishokan summer orange ice cream and sorbet; kiwi fruit ice cream; white nectarine ice cream; and melon ice cream and sorbet

This summer I have been experimenting on making simple fruit ice creams and sorbets, using just a few ingredients that exclude eggs and sugar, with basically no cooking involved. What I used were fresh fruits, heavy cream, and honey (occasionally agave nectar), a bit of liquor or spirit (I liked using gin), and sometimes a bit of juice of lemon to balance sweetness and tartness. I have also tried making them with pineapple, peaches, watermelon, and orange, and have achieved mostly consistent results with more of this or less of that, although some fruits seemed to work better than others.

I was hoping to do a detailed write-up about my experiments, but I'm afraid I don't seem to be able to do it before the summer is completely over, so here is just a brief one: 1-2 cups (240-480 ml) pureed fresh fruits (I usually go halfway between and do with 1.5 cup/360 ml); 1 cup (240 ml) heavy cream; 4-5 Tbs. (60-75 ml) honey; and 2 tsp. (10 ml) liquor/spirit.

Puree the flesh of fruits and add the honey and liquor. Freeze the fruit puree mixture until set, then break it into pieces and process in a blender until smooth. Lightly whip the cream and add to the frozen puree mixture, and mix thoroughly. Taste and check the sweetness, and add honey if needed. Once again freeze until set, break into pieces and process in the blender. Freeze another few hours or until ready to serve. If the ice cream becomes too hard to scoop, move it to the fridge or room temperature a little before serving. If you omit the cream (and maybe use a bit less honey) and continue freezing after the first round of blender-processing, you'll have sorbet.

So in the name of 'experiment' I seem to have eaten my way through more ice cream than I would like to admit over the summer. But my first choice of refreshments to cool me down wasn't ice cream but teas of all sorts, usually not iced but just at room temperature, and almost never sweetened.

I drink tea a lot throughout the year, more often hot than chilled. Even in the summer, I don't drink ice-cold teas too much but instead have them at room temperature. Lots of people make tea in a large quantity at a time (or maybe just buy large bottles of tea from the store) and keep it in the fridge, but our fridge here is tiny and hardly has room for a large jug, so I make my tea a cup at a time. On a typical day, before I go to sleep in the evening (or in the morning as the case may be) I'd throw a teabag in a mug and pour filtered water that has been boiled and then cooled, and leave it to 'brew' overnight. When I wake up in the morning, I have a fresh(ish) mug of tea ready to drink.

teas - clockwise from top left: lemon-grapefruit herbal tea; a set of green tea and cookies, served at cafe lounge Iyemon Salon, Kyoto; fresh mint tea; and a complimentary glass of green tea served at tableware shop Chidori, Tokyo

My go-to first-thing-in-the-morning tea of late is a lemon & grapefruit-flavored herbal tea (like this) from British supermarket Sainsbury's. This refreshing pink infusion was a favorite of a friend of mine in London, and I've been copying her ever since I tried it first at her house a few years ago.

Another herbal infusion that is equally refreshing and perfect for summer is fresh mint tea. Now I'm not a big fan of mint tea, the kind that is dried. I occasionally find it soothing and calming especially when I have a full stomach, but otherwise it's never my first choice of tea. But when made with fresh mint sprigs, it makes about the cleanest infusion around, free of the taste that you get from dried leaves that tends to put me off. And this must be a perfect way to get rid of mint growing wild in your frontward or in your planter. All you need is to grab a handful of sprigs, rinse them, and add boiling water. I've been enjoying this tea a lot over the summer, but in the beginning it was mere a byproduct; I was to blanch mint leaves for other uses, and thought about adding water to a cup of mint, instead of adding mint to a pot of water. This worked, and I've never looked back since.

Apart from these or other teas on a regular basis, I've been enjoying home-made (honeyed) ginger ale a lot these days. But I haven't been drinking alcohol much, and when I had some the other day for the first time in a while, oh I really felt it...

The other day my sister and I went on a picnic by the river close to us, something we have been doing at least once every summer for the past few years.

That day both of us made a slow start, and by the time she was done with her stuff and I was dome with prepping food, it was beginning to become dark outside, and soon it was too dark for me to take a serious photo.

picnic in the moonlight

But it was a hot one during the day and it cooled down a lot in the evening, so it worked out good for us to eat and drink outdoors.

We took a bottle of sparkling wine with us, and my honey-ginger syrup and one of the lychee liquor that I'd made two months ago, along with a bottle of store-bought ginger ale. I wanted to try my honey-ginger syrup with sparkling wine, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the syrup actually made ginger ale that is a lot closer to the 'real' stuff when topped with sparkling wine instead of sparkling water (woo-hoo!). We tried the lychee liquor first with the wine and then with store-bought ginger ale, and both tasted good, though we should probably have used a little more liquor to taste the lychee flavor. Then again, it might have been just that we were both too drunk to taste anything.

On the food front, I hadn't been very inspired about the menu for the day apart from dessert - I made tiramisu the night before. Then it suddenly occurred to me in the afternoon of the day, and I whipped up pasta with dried tomato pesto and a green bean salad, both of which came from the ever so inspiring Heidi's site. I'd had some bread rolls with which I meant to make sandwiches. It never happened, but I took them along, all the same.

We were both hungry and food went down quite well. But I thought I'd try and take a decent photo of the dishes I'd made, for both the salad and pasta looked pretty, too. So that was what I did on the following day:

The salad was good with herby and creamy dressing, but the pasta was outstanding. The recipe calls for "slightly plump, pliable, chewy" sun-dried tomatoes, and I had ones exactly like that, brought to me from Italy kindly by Sigrid. I used pine nuts because I was out of walnuts, but it made one really toothsome pesto, full of flavor with almost a hint of meatiness.

I used asparagus instead of spinach and skipped cheese altogether, but it made a really satisfying dish. You top it with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, for which I did what my friend Eric did with semi-dried tomatoes a while ago: dusting the tomato halves with pulverized dried mushrooms. He used shiitake mushrooms, but it happens to be something I cannot stand, so I used dried porcini instead, grinding them in the blender. The roasted tomatoes didn't taste much of mushroom, really, but they were extra flavorful and incredibly sweet.

As for the dessert, despite its misleading appearance topped with frozen raspberries and shaved white chocolate in the photo, it was cherry and fig tiramisu. It was more or less the same as the one I'd made before, but I folded (rather than blending thoroughly) some mashed figs into the mascarpone cheese mixture, and added shaved white chocolate between the layers of the cheese mixture, ladyfingers dipped in citrus-scented tea, and slices of fresh peaches. I kept the finished tiramisu frozen until leaving the house, and by the time we were ready for dessert it was partially thawed, making it a nice mixture of frozen and chilled fillings. It was good.

The picnic I think may have been the last event of my summer this year, chronologically, but there was another thing that had taken place a week before, which might as well have been the de facto end-of-summer event: fireworks.

Every summer on the river bank near us, there is a large fireworks show - or two shows, really, that are held concurrently on each side of a bridge, organized by two neighboring cities. They (especially the one on our side) take place so close to our place it feels almost scary to hear the noise of the fireworks going, even in the house. We can see some of them by the window, but this year I decided to go to the site and watch them right in front of me. And by that, I meant, really right in front.

I brought a drink and some snacks from home, but ended up buying an expensive pack of less-than-decent takoyaki...that is part of fireworks viewing experience in Japan, you know. And I walked around the site a bit and spotted a group of organizers, official-looking photographers, and an area reserved for 'invited' guests, so figured it was the prime viewing spot. I secured a small spot right by the off-limits area, where I saw a few platforms, less than hundred of yards or so away from me. I was excited.

With the excitement building up among the crowd, on the count of ten massive fireworks were shot off at seven o'clock sharp, lighting up the now dark sky right in front of me...

The spectacle lasted for an hour, and it went by in a flash as I was immersed in watching the strings of fireworks going up while clicking away my camera, barely looking into the viewfinder. I didn't want to miss it all while it is all happening in front of me, and just hoped some of my photos would turn out decent. Well, there weren't many such shots (no surprise...), but I have put together a sideshow here if you would like to get a tiny glimpse of the massive shows. Somehow all the photos that turned out alright were more or less peculiar-looking, and if you are up for something a little more typical-looking fireworks, try these, from the same fireworks show a few years ago when I made a little more effort trying to take photos of them.

As the shows take place in mid or late August every year, when it is over it feels like the summer is finally nearing its end. I used to savor that end-of-summer feeling in a mixture of sadness and relief, but for the past few years there has been only relief.

And yet, this year, as I look back the past months like this, I don't feel sad but do feel that I actually had a good summer. Well, the summer itself wasn't that good, but what I had over the course of these summer months was great.

To tell you the truth, I have been meaning to go to Nagano to spend some time there, and I should have been there in late June, according to my original plan. Now it is already the end of August and I am still here in Tokyo, missed the chance to have a cooler summer in the mountainous countryside, where it is already beginning to be chilly, no doubt. I'm still going to go to Nagano all the same, but I am glad that I ended up remaining here, for all these opportunities to see my friends when they were around in Tokyo.

Ice creams and teas and noodles did help me survive the heat, but it was more because of you that I have been able to enjoy the summer. So THANK YOU. And for all of you whom I didn't get to see this summer, or whom I have never even met, I would still like to thank you for dropping by, and I hope you all have had a great summer (or winter, if you are in the other hemisphere).

August 16, 2009

i like it sweet and spicy (and sparkly, too)

I think it's fair to say that I'm not a big soda drinker. Admitted, I love bubbly when it comes to choosing alcoholic beverage, and when ordering water at a restaurant, I usually go for a sparkling rather than a still. I definitely love some fizz in my drinks, but sodas are not a staple in my household, and it's rarely an option when I'm shopping for something nice and cold to drink. (Except maybe when I'm tempted, just out of pure curiosity, to try some new, unusual - or wacky, even - limited-edition soda flavors, such as shiso [Pepsi], green tea [Coke], wasabi, curry, and gari ginger, some of which I wish I hadn't touched in the first place.)

Then, on one of those rare occasions when I do crave a (good) fizzy soft drink, my choice is usually highly predictable: ginger ale. For a starter, I love ginger in everything - food or drink, sweet or savory. As a carbonated drink, the fizz nicely complements the spiciness, which balances out the overall sweetness. I'm not going to argue that ginger ale is any 'healthier' or 'better' than other sodas, but I do like it better in a way that it's not just sugary sweet and overloaded with artificial flavors like some others. Added to other drinks, it can make a light and spicy mix; I've long been known to mix ginger ale with tea and fruit juice. Even cocktails that I like involve ginger ale - with beer (Shandygaff) and red wine (Kitty), among others.

As a kid, I wasn't allowed to drink soda (or any store-bought soft drink, for that matter) too much at home. So when I did get to have some, I'd be ecstatic. And even back then when I'd be happy with any soda drink that I could get my hand on, ginger ale had a special place in my heart. To a young and cheeky girl that I was, the thing tasted so grown-up - perhaps due to its spiciness - and even the name 'ale' sounded as if it was an alcoholic drink.

Notwithstanding my longstanding soft spot for ginger ale, it didn't occur to me until quite recently to make my own ginger ale at home. And when it did, I was thrilled; home-made ginger ale, wow, how cool is that? I cannot remember where I first saw it, but all you need is, basically, cooking up a lot of ginger with sugar and some other spices (usually chili pepper and cinnamon) and maybe lemon, and diluting the syrup with sparkling water. It can't get any simpler, right?

And yet it has taken me another few years to finally get around doing it, only not in a regular way. As it happens, this summer I've been making a whole lot of ice cream and sorbet using honey instead of sugar (about which I hope to write here, too... well sometime, hopefully), and it seemed only natural for me to try and make ginger syrup with honey, too.

A quick Internet search showed me that I was hardly the first person to come up with this idea, and a host of people seemed to have been making honeyed ginger and enjoying it in home-made honeyed ginger ale. How much ginger and honey you need or what you add to the syrup vary from one recipe to another, so I did an improvisation using what I had at hand (except I did go out and bought some organic ginger root).

I started with only a small amount of everything, just to see how it'd turn out. Here I had: 1/4 cup (4 tbs / 60 ml) or so of honey; a small knob of fresh ginger root, skin scrubbed off, thinly sliced, blanched and pat-dried; half a stick of cinnamon; a chili pepper, seeded; a few cardamom pods, half crushed; a few cloves; a dozen black peppercorns; and a few slices of lemon.

Once you have sliced up your ginger, you basically put everything together in a clean jar or a whatever container that holds everything comfortably, cover and let it sit in the fridge for a few days to infuse all the flavor into honey.

As for the preparation of ginger, some recipes tell you to leave the skin on, others off; and some say you should cook it first in boiling water (to remove excess bitterness, I think), others, well, don't bother. I chose to remove the skin, and quickly blanch the slices in boiling water - an easier (and/or lazier) alternative to cooking them for 15-20 minutes. But whatever you do, you'll want to slice the root as thin as possible to maximize the flavor of your syrup.

Among different recipes I've seen, common 'add-ons' for home-made ginger ale include chili pepper and lemon - and sometimes cinnamon and cloves, too. I used them all, and added cardamom and black peppercorns, too - well, because I like them. I crushed the cardamom pods to let them yield more flavor, but I should probably have done the same to the chili pepper and peppercorns.

Whatever you use, I think you can use little more of this or less of that, but everything should be immersed completely in honey; I had to push everything deeper into the jar.

Now, with a regular ginger ale syrup, you'll probably cook the sliced or chopped (or maybe even grated) ginger root in water and sugar, and the syrup will be ready to use as soon as it is chilled. When you steep the spices in honey, however, it takes a little longer to extract flavors (especially those of dried whole spices), so you'll need to wait for at least a day or two before you can finally drink your own ginger ale. A few recipes I saw actually said you cook ginger in honey, and that way you can probably use the syrup right away, I imagine - but can't tell for sure as I haven't tried it that way myself.

Anyhow, once your syrup is ready, you are only a pour of chilled sparkling water away from a most refreshing glass of cooler you'll have on a hot summer's day.

Ice cubes are not a must, but a few extra slices of lemon and maybe a mint leave or two will make things look and taste nicer. Although not visible from the pictures, I also added a little squeeze of juice of ginger to boost the potency of the spice. Oh that was good!

I should now note that this, as nice and ginger-y as it is, is NOT exactly like a ginger ale that you may be used to drinking from bought bottles or cans. There is no denying that it has a prominent taste of honey - after all, you are drinking water blended with honey, though heavily spiced. So if you don't fancy honey much, you might probably not enjoy this very much. (But you can always give it a try, just to be sure!)

I think you can use any type of honey you happen to have around to make the honey-ginger syrup, though a light, mild-tasting honey should showcase the flavors of spices better. But a darker honey with a strong taste would give your drink an interesting tone, which could be fun to experiment with.

For the jar of syrup pictured above, I used a mild and fruity apple honey, while what you see in other images, shown in the glasses along with a green bottle of S. Pellegrino, came from another batch that I'd made with a dark amber leatherwood honey that has unique woody overtones. Both turned out good in their own ways.

Now if you plan to serve a group of people your home-made ginger ale, you'll need a lot more of ginger and honey to start with than what I used here; mine made only a couple of glasses of ginger ale, which I finished in no time. And in fact, you might as well make a lot - the idea of steeping slices of ginger root in honey (with or without a few other things) isn't solely for making ginger ale, but more as a way to preserve fresh ginger when you have large pieces of it. But even when you tripled or quadruplicate honey and ginger, you probably won't need to do exact the same with other ingredients; a small amount of whole spices like cinnamon sticks and peppercorns can go a long way, so you'll want to go easy on them.

Other than (honeyed) ginger ale, there are a number of ways you can use the honey-ginger syrup. You can use it to sweeten your tea, iced or hot, or simply dissolve it in still water along with juice of lemon, which will also make a soothing ginger-honey lemonade, either chilled or hot. Or use it as a syrup over your plate of waffles, pancakes, or even toast - now that will help wake you up in the morning! It should also be great to be drizzled over a good scoop of vanilla ice cream. And this just occurred to me, but wouldn't it make a super refreshing drink, topped with sparkling wine instead of sparkling water? I must try it.

I cannot tell exactly how long the syrup keeps, but it should be fine for at least a couple of weeks, tightly covered and stored in the refrigerator. I've heard that cooking the ginger slices first helps the whole thing last a little longer, but I haven't tried it.

And when you have used up all the syrup, don't toss away what you have left in the jar. The ginger slices have still got a lot of flavor in them, and it will be such a waste not to put them in another use. Bring some water to boil in a saucepan along with some of the leftover spices, and simmer for a few minutes and add tea (such as black or rooibos, either loose tea leaves or teabags) to brew for another few minutes. Add some milk and you have spiced chai, which is lovely either hot or iced. (And for this, I suggest you sweeten you tea with honey - why spoil it with sugar?)

I've also seen people chop up the ginger (but not other spices and lemon) and use it in baking cakes - lemon or orange pound cake, banana bread, chocolate cake, fruit cake, and oh, gingerbread, perhaps? That's something I think I'll try next time I make the syrup...or maybe once it's cool enough for me to turn the oven on. Oh I CANNOT wait!

We've been told that we are having a summer that's cooler than it should be this year, but it still is hotter than I'll ever want it to be, if you ask me. I've got a lot of work to do, a room full of stuff to clean up, and a trip or two to plan...none of which is getting very far, thanks to the heat that is effectively battering me. It seems as if the summer is drawing near to an end, very slowly, yet I reckon a few more larger batches of honeyed ginger ale (and iced chai) will perfectly fit in before it's finally over.

Hope you are all well and surviving the heat (or the chill, if that is the case with you)!

August 6, 2009

a watermelon can go a long way...

Starting with a handsome, sweet watermelon, you can:

Cut and simply eat it;

... Then juice it and drink it chilled;

... Then sweeten it with a bit of honey and freeze it into granita;

... Then churn it into smooth sorbet; and

... Then add some cream and churn it again into ice cream.

... Or you can always go for some vodka or bubbly to (literally) wash down large pieces of watermelon. Watermelon, bring it on!