August 30, 2010

sandwiched between the summer sun and heat...

The end of August always brings me a hope for the end of summer. Not so fast, as if it heard my inner voice, the heat would linger still longer, usually well into mid September. And yet, though I am all for the summer to be over as soon as possible, there are things that I do miss about it: summer vegetables and fruits.

At my mother's family in Nagano where I have been staying for this summer, they grow a good few vegetables (fruits, too, but that's for some other time) in their vegetable patches, with plants bursting full of cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants and corn in the summer. So I have been lucky to be able to enjoy an abundance of extremely fresh vegetables every day.

While I can say in a heartbeat that they all taste far fresher and better than most vegetables I'd buy from supermarkets in Tokyo, I must admit there are better things. Far better.

My mother and her family know a lot of people who grow vegetables, as most people seem to do so around here in the countryside. And there are this old couple who live on the other side of the mountain from here (don't ask me which mountain - there are too many for me to care to try to identify). They are both really nice people, funny and kind, and they happen to grow the most amazing organic vegetables.

He is originally from here, lived and worked for a long time in or near Tokyo with his wife, who is from there. Then they got a house built over here with some land to grow organic rice and vegetables by themselves, not commercially but to feed themselves, and (perhaps more importantly for them) their children and grandchildren.

For the first few years, they were visiting from Tokyo, then eventually moved here permanently some ten years ago or so.

some of vegetables from their patches, clockwise from top left: thinning carrots; okra; soybeans; and cherry tomatoes. photos from september 2008.

I first met them back in 2008, while I was staying here. They invited us to their place for lunch. They gave me a quick tour to their vegetables patches, picked a heap of them for lunch, then he treated us to soba noodles that he'd make.

It was my first time to have home-made soba noodles, made from scratch in front of me. He would cook only a single serving at a time and serve immediately to ensure the freshest possible platter of noodles for everyone. And they tasted wonderful - so did all their vegetables that had been cooked into salad, tempura, and so on.

(You will find some of the photo from the day. including this one above, here.)

Now back to the summer of 2010; a week or two ago, mom visited them and came home with what appeared to be a truckload of vegetables. Eggplants, tomatoes, zucchini, shiso leaves, and an enormous bunch of basil.

Everything was fantastic as expected - I never knew some zucchini were so much better than others! -, but the tomatoes were outstanding; both large and small, red and orange. We were excitedly talking about what to make with them, but we ended up eating most of them as is, nicely chilled, maybe with a sprinkle of salt but mostly not.

Then a few days later, my mother was out to do some errands, and brought back another case of their tomatoes, this time along with a few slices of homemade tomato bread that they'd baked. The bread was meant to be a small snack for mom to eat on the spot, she explained, but she decided to bring them home so we could all taste it. And I can't thank her enough for that.

"She suggested the bread should taste better toasted. And even better with some slices of a fresh tomato", mother said, which we did, along with a few slices of peppered cheese. Because we only had a few halves of a slice, each of our sandwich was bite-sized.

But it didn't take more than a bite of it for the damage to be done; after the first bite, mom and I looked at each other, wide-eyed. Gosh, this stuff tastes soooo good!

Before even finishing my tiny sandwich, I nagged my mother to ask them for more. My first thought was to ask for the recipe and try and bake it myself, but I was perfectly aware that I am not a great bread baker, and couldn't wait until I become good enough to bake a good bread, if at all. I wanted the bread now! If I could have bought them from the store, I would have.

Perhaps moved my enthusiasm (I actually sang a random tune to plead for the tomato bread, and my mother did relay that to them, laughing), or perhaps they were just really nice people, but they ever so kindly accepted our request. And a mere couple of days later, we found ourselves hurrying to their place to receive a freshly baked, whole loaf of tomato bread that was waiting for me us.

Soft and slightly chewy, this was simple sandwich bread of a reddish brown shade inside and out, with small freckles of herb all over. I had had tomato bread before, but many of them would be made with sun-dried tomatoes; with this one, the flavor of tomatoes was a lot fresher, but just as concentrated as that with dried tomatoes.

At their house, we hanged around a bit for a little chat (and some other home-made treats). We talked about their bread, and the lady said she merely uses a recipe from the booklet that came with her bread machine, substituting tomato puree for the milk and adding some skim milk instead. So there was nothing particularly special about the recipe itself, it seemed.

Then again, the bread was nothing but special. For one thing, she makes her tomato puree (100% tomatoes, no salt added) from their own organic tomatoes, which by themselves taste fantastic. She also adds a bit of dried basil, also home-made.

And there's the flour. Turned out, they grow their own wheat (!), a few different varieties, all organic, and have it milled by a local miller. Now how many of us can bake bread using the flour from your own wheat? Around here, it's not uncommon for folks to grow their own rice, but growing wheat for personal consumption would be a lot less common. Then again, they are the type of folks who grow soybeans and make their own miso, so I wasn't too surprised to hear this, though still deeply impressed all the same.

(By the way, we all said, half-jokingly and half-seriously, that they should build their own watermill so they could mill their own wheat as well as buckwheat, for he makes his own soba noodles. Who knows, maybe in a few years...)

Along with the beautiful loaf of tomato bread, they sent us home with another case of fresh tomatoes as well as a bunch of other stuff. And I knew exactly how I wanted to eat the bread; tomato sandwich again, but a bit revved-up version of it.

I wanted to keep things simple so the flavors of the tomatoes - both the fresh tomatoes and the tomato bread - would shine through, but couldn't help but thinking of a jar of basil pesto I had made a few days earlier. In fact, it was made from the bunch of basil from the same people, so it seemed only fitting to use them together.

The only thing I had to buy was a ball of mozzarella cheese, which unfortunately they do not make. (They do not keep cattle or other animals. They do, however, keep bees for honey, which we got to taste a bit and it tasted amazing, too. But that's another story.)

So on the following day for lunch, I toasted a couple of pieces of the bread, sliced up a tomato and cheese, and opened up the jar of pesto for a very simple but gorgeous sandwich...

Err, I went a little too generous with pesto!

But despite that something like this could hardly go wrong. It was easily one of the simplest and tastiest sandwiches I had ever made and ate, not because of my skills or ingenuity but thanks entirely to some of the best possible ingredients I could ever hope for.

The loaf has disappeared all too quickly and I have shamelessly requested them for another, hopefully sometime soon. We still have a few of their fresh tomatoes left, but they said those were their last tomatoes of the season ("this has been a really short season!", they sighed), so we may not get to make this sandwich again - at least not this year.

The end of the tomato season means that the end of the summer (right?), so I can't be happier about it. But if the summer means these gorgeous tomatoes and this phenomenal double-tomato sandwich, it may perhaps be worth looking forward to, even for a summer hater like myself who have always dreaded the summer heat. After all, I know that you can never have good tomatoes without the proper summer sun and heat. They need them. We need them.

Just remind me of it when I moan and groan about it next year.

Thank you so much for the great vegetables Mr. & Mrs. O! x

August 16, 2010

more scones, the better...

Scones for breakfast, for every day of the week...

It all started with a couple of jars of home-made jams that I had around. Not really a jam person, I don't consume jams of any kind too much, and I was pondering over possible ways to use them. Then one of the things that occurred to me was scones; not by smearing the halves of baked scones with jam, but rather filling the dough with it and then bake - kind of like these.

Since I'd flavored the jam (peach and ume, if you wondered) with ginger, I went for a ginger scone recipe, and settled on this one.

I was pleased with my jam-filled ginger scones, but if I tell you the truth, the first ginger scone recipe that came to my mind was another one - by Nancy Silverton, the head baker at La Brea Bakery.

* La Brea Bakery, Los Angeles (image taken in November 2004)

I was first introduced to the breads and pastries of this well-respected bakery back in 2004 when I was in Hawaii, by one of my very good friends who lived (and still lives) in Los Angeles. She is extremely nice to send me care packages every now and then, all filled with delicious goodies, and one of her packages contained selected pastries from La Brea Bakery. First bite (and many more to follow), I fell hard for them - especially their ginger and rosemary scones.

So when I bought her pastries book, Nancy Silverton's Pastries from the La Brea Bakery (Villard, 2000) soon afterward, I was thrilled to find the recipe for ginger scone - and though at that time I was not sure, that for rosemary scones.

Anyhow, while I used another recipe for ginger scones than Nancy Silverton's this time, I was still reminded of how delicious La Brea scones had been, and couldn't help but realize that I had not eaten them for quite a while now. This notion promptly made me crave for - almost obsessed with - their rosemary scones, pretty badly.

So in the following morning, I did myself a favor and baked a batch of rosemary scones. This only came after a bit of confusion about the recipe had been cleared, however; the recipe is called "Rosemary Corncakes" in the book, and when I first saw it (and made the cakes), I thought it was NOT the recipe for the rosemary scones they sold at the bakery. For one thing, it was not called "scones". But more importantly (to me), the recipe seemed to use way more cornmeal than I would taste in the scones from the bakery - or at least so I thought.

But as I was chatting (online) with my long-time blogger pal Santos, she indicated that the "corncake" recipe in the book should be for the "scones" from the bakery. If nothing else, I hadn't eaten these particular scones, either the "real" thing or ones I'd bake at home, for such a long time I could hardly remember exactly how they had tasted like. So it was about time I'd whip some up (and go to Los Angeles - but that's another story).

And while I still couldn't have the real stuff (just yet), baking these little cheerfully yellow morsels must have been the next best thing, and it certainly satisfied my craving with the scones. (The real La Brea Bakery rosemary scones, by the way, are nothing but "little"; they are, in fact, huge. But I happen to use extremely small oven, so I tend to make my baked goods fairly small. Just in case anyone wondered.)

And now that I had my go-to rosemary scones, I just had to have my go-to ginger scones, might as well. Two batches of ginger scones within just a few days were totally fine by me.

If you excuse these flat, un-scone-like scones that may look more like thick cookies, my ginger scones were beyond delicious - soft and crumbly, sweet and spicy. And the good news is, you can find the recipe online and make your own now! I replaced half the flour with whole wheat (pastry) flour, but they should come excellent either way.

So I might have already been baking a lot of scones in a rather short period of time at this point, there was something else that I had set my mind on for a while - which happened to be, alas, scones; nectarine scones to be precise.

Well, strictly speaking, these are called "shortcakes" in the recipe, but to my eyes they are perfectly scones. Whatever you like to call them, these were very simple-to-make, just like any good scones should be... and sweet with chunks of fresh fruits. I subbed half of the flour with (wholewheat) rye flour, and it seemed to give the scones a bit of tang, as well as a touch darker shade.

Now I normally make pastries in small batches (usually half, or even one third, of a recipe), and I halved the recipe for all of these scones. Still, I'd bake only half my (already halved) batch at a time, and kept the remaining half in the fridge to treat myself on the following day or so to a morning with freshly-baked scones without having to make the dough from scratch, which is excellent.

On one particularly good day, we managed to have three different types of scones, all at once - two of which came from the fridge and went straight to the oven. Bliss.

And before I sign off, I'm throwing another thing into this post - another batch of scones, that is. We went for blueberry picking over the weekend (for the second time in this summer!), and our fridge and freezer were on the verge of exploding with blueberries.

So there came these berry-dotted, oat-flecked blueberry oat scones (recipe here). These were slightly lighter than many others and barely sweet - even I thought that I might have liked them a little sweeter at first bite, but I came to like them better with subsequent bites, and I now think they are just fine without any more sugar added. But that's up to you.

So these five recipes of scones were made (and eaten) within the period of a week or so, and you might think I seem to have been acting as if I had known nothing else to make than scones, but too many scones isn't necessarily a bad thing - except maybe for your waistline.
Ah yes, I am going to have a scone-free week now... or am I?

August 9, 2010

from the family orchards

the king of summer fruits, getting ready to be ready (for us to eat)...

one of the perks of living/staying in the mountainous countryside is an easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables in abundance at small cost, if any. this time of the year, shelves of local produce shops would be loaded with fresh crops shipped and tagged by their respective growers themselves.

my mother and her family have a few apple orchards as they are family-run, small-scale, part-time apple growers like many others in the area here in nagano, but they also grow other fruits and vegetables, mostly to feed themselves.

- a peach tree, (then) loaded with the fruits that have now been all picked and have been, or are soon, turned into all sorts of sweet goodies in our kitchen, if they are not eaten straight off over the sink;

- a grapevine, with clusters of grapes still young and growing under the trellis;

- a prune plum tree, whose fruits are also still very small and green, expected to be plump and purple in less than a month or so;

- apple trees, loads of them, heavy with the fruits that are slowly growing, reddening, and ripening - still more than three months to go for these fujis to be ready to harvest;

- plums. well, i was told they have a plum tree here, but couldn't find where (!). but i managed to eat a few of them, and all those picked are now safe in the freezer...;

- now on the ground is a small melon patch...;

- and one of watermelons. perhaps not the best summer fruit (that would be peaches for me), but certainly the one that sings of summer the most, isn't it?

and the funny thing is, even though they have all these fruits growing in their family yards/orchards, they still receive bags or baskets of the same fruits (and vegetables, for that matter) from their friends and neighbors who, obviously, are overloaded with their own summer crops. This keeps us busy trying to eat the fruits and vegetables as much as we can while preserving the rest for later consumptions (or else giving theirs away to their own friends).

over the past week or so, we've received a large bag of plums, a box of peaches (though not local), four handsome melons, and one large watermelon - in addition to a basket of blueberries we picked by ourselves at mother's friend's (and right after we were done with a good amount of apricots from another friend of my mom's). i've always been a big fruit eater and i busy myself eating as much fruits as i can in any given summer, but on all accounts this summer has been exceptional, brilliantly so. i feel really, really grateful. (and full.)

now off to pick more peach recipes...

August 3, 2010

first days of august

when i was a kid, our summer vacation would normally be from late july (sometime around 23ht, 25th) to the end of august. i'd always thought of august the month of summer. although i have now long left school and the summery weather in fact starts in the middle of july and the heat linger until late september, the first days of august still make me feel that the summer really has arrived, in full wing. Here's a quick look back at my first few days of this august, filled with summer's little treasures...

... a drive on the country roads, through a forest path in the rays of sun through the trees...

... for a quick blueberry picking trip under the scorching sun...

... to come home with a large heap of sun-kissed berries, which i snacked on for the rest of the day;

... another day, waking up, with much delight, to a basket full of white peaches, just picked off the tree in the family garden;

... and the seemingly endless supplies of summer vegetables from the veggie patch: cucumber after cucumber, eggplant after eggplant...;

... and after another typically blazing hot day, a quick sight of local fireworks.

quite honestly, i'm pretty much over the summer and the heat and all that. but i know it isn't going to give me a break so quick. so here i am, hoping to weather it and while i'm doing so, might as well enjoy, or try to enjoy, the summer - or summer's bounty, at least.

have a good summer to all! -cx