May 15, 2008

a mostly indoor outdoor life

The first weekend of May, there was definitely summer in the air.

It was a four-day weekend for many of us in Japan, and I managed to have the last three days off. I happened to be up in the mountainous Nagano staying with my mom, and some of my relatives were over on a camping trip and invited me to join in, which I did. For me, it must have been the first time to camp out in many years - definitely first time since I got back from Hawaii about three years ago, and one of the very few in the last ten years or so. My relatives on the other hand are a bunch of well-experienced, frequent camp-goers, and my family would actually go camping with them when my sister and I were kids. A couple of decades later, their son who didn't even exist when we'd camped together now is a freshman at college, might even be up for an occasional few with us... which simply is amazing for me and another one of my cousins, who's the same age as me and was also joining the gang over the weekend.

When I was camping with them as a kid, we'd often end up setting up our camp by a mountain stream, as both of my aunt and uncle as well as my dad loved fishing. Nowadays, my aunt isn't really into fishing as she used to, and they now seem to be just chilling and not doing too much when out camping, although my uncle may still be walking into a stream on his own.

So for the four days we were there (me, three days as I joined them on their second day), we basically just sat around and ate, chatted, and napped, generally taking it easy and lazing away. As I go over the photos I took while there, I'm a little put off myself by the sheer amount of food we seemed to have consumed - but I'm sharing some of them with you anyways. Nothing too fancy or fussy, but just simple and good food that tasted even better when shared together - over hot charcoal, under the sun (or the ceiling of the tent, when some rain poured down).

First we set up a barbecue, and thereafter pretty much everything we ate would have spent some time over it....

For our dinner in my first (and their second) evening, we started with some splendid beef kebabs, or barbecued hamburger on a skewer...

...And went on to Vietnamese-style salad rolls. Also called summer rolls, these are rice paper rolls and uncooked, as opposed to more commonly known spring rolls that are rolled in wheat flour-based wrapper and deep-fried. Rolling up sashimi crabmeat and shiso (a Japanese herb that may be described as a cross between mint and basil with a hint of anise) leaves, and dipped into soy sauce-based sauce spiced up with Chinese hot chili oil, these were not exactly Vietnamese you might guess, but lip-smacking (and a bit tongue-numbing) good, we thought, fresh and light. We liked them so much - or perhaps more like my cousin who took charge of summer roll-rolling was hooked on the job -, we even had them again the next day evening.

As we gobbled down the rolls, our dessert was being cooked...

Pineapple cake; bread cubes and pineapple pieces soaked in a sweetened egg-yogurt-cream mixture, and baked in Dutch oven. This versatile cast iron pot can cook food with the heat from hot coals under the grill as well as on top in its rimmed lid, creating a regular oven-like cooking environment inside the pot. Our cake got a little overcooked and burned on the surface, but nevertheless tasty.

Dessert would be followed by coffee, you reckon?

I wish. Well, actually not. I am proud to confess that we, after all these beers and food and even dessert on top, somehow got craving for more after a while, and turned out we put some more over the grill. This time it was a sweet potato roasting in the pot, and a squad of soy sauce-daubed rice balls sizzling alongside. There is something about these broiled rice balls, something that you just can't say no to. Maybe it is the smell of soy sauce (or miso paste in some cases) slightly burnt, or the crisped up sides (both sides!), I don't know. But I do know we all love these, and while you can get them even at a convenience store in Japan, they can't possibly compare to ones freshly off the grill. As for the roasted potato, it didn't even make it to appearing in front of camera, hence the lack of a photo. But you can bet it was good, oh yes.

So that was it for that evening, we called it a night, our mind and stomach utterly satisfied, off to bed already thinking about what to have for breakfast tomorrow... well maybe it was just me.

The next day brought more clouds and a little chill, with rain forcasted on its way.

Following what I'd say is a simplest form of the most authentic, traditional Japanese breakfast (a bowl of freshly-cooked rice with a bowl of hot miso soup alonside), we had a mid-morning tea break... or coffee in my case.

The first thing that warmed up the grill for the day was a scone that I'd baked and brought over the day before. What you see in the picture may not appear to be a scone, but they were; it was the result of my attempt to make my batch of these mega scones created by Heidi of 101 Cookbooks, looking yummy just like everything else is on her blog site.

I didn't have time to go shopping to get all the ingredients I needed, but I went with it anyways, using homemade marmalade and a homegrown (!) apple as the filling. I also used milk instead of half-and-half and regular flour rather than wholewheat, and omitted graze altogether.

When I decided that it was done, my scone was still slightly underbaked and somehow lacking that jiggy, rustic touch, possibly because of the dough overworking and/or underbaking, or the omission of wholewheat flour and/or lemon zest-flecked graze, or all of the above... but despite all that, having warmed up on the grill it still tasted fairly good and went down well, to my great relief. Next time I make these, I'll definitely use wholewheat flour and do the lemon graze, and perhaps try something else for the filling. I also baked some choc-chip cookies by the way, but let's just say they weren't really worth a mention or a photo.

Then I took a little walk around the campsite, only to get caught in a rain shortly after. As the light drizzle gradually turned into downpours, we dropped any idea at all of going out and doing something, and instead decided to be even less active and be slackers, with beers and snacks on the table. After all, this is what a holiday is all about, I said to myself... I'm sure we were all united in the same spirit.

Once we had all resolved to stay in for the remainder of the day, the entire afternoon was spent cooking, eating, drinking, chatting, snoozing, and then more eating and drinking. We didn't even play cards; we did have some video games on the cell phone, but we mostly spent our time talking, sometimes serious stuff and other times all nonsense and silly.

Throughout the time, we kept the campfire going, both to crematecook food and warm the room inside the tent.

We must have been eating like bears getting ready to go into hibernation, but we actually felt like we could almost go hibernating; it was really cold. The rain that was supposed to be stopping by 9pm was still going on at midnight, and as we hit the rack we just crossed our fingers so we wouldn't wake up in the next morning to find the tent washed away. (Thankfully, I was one of the lucky ones who got to sleep in the campervan, so no need to worry about potential rain water leaks or bear attacks. Extremely thankful, yes I am.)

And the next morning, the tent was still there (phew).

And so was the blue sky and sunshine once again. It was the last day of the long weekend, and the day for us to pack up.

Our last breakfast of the camping holiday was cooked rice with peas, tomato omelet, and tomato-mozzarella salad. Topping it off was yogurt with homemade strawberry sauce, which was as sweet and fresh as the mountain air on that day.

After breakfast, we all cleared up the site, packing everything away, and started homeward. For the folks it was the first camp round of the year, and there are more to come I am sure. For me, well, I don't know if or how may more times I will get to join them, yet it was like stumbling upon forgotten childhood fun... I only hope I won't have to forget it again.

By the way, what do you think the best part of this grown-ups' camping weekend was?

Well, as I was (and still am) staying at my mom's in Nagano quite close to the campsite, getting there and coming back was both in a matter of half an hour or so. What a bliss!! As a kid, as much as I would look forward to our camping trip of the summer, I would feel blue just by thinking about the drive to and from the mountains; I used to always get terrible carsick, and those typically winding, rough mountain paths didn't help at all. Heavy traffic jam would be another issue, since many people, especially families with young kids, would hit the road more or less the same time, making a massive amount of traffic both ways. None this time. As I grew older I came to mostly outgrow the carsick, and this time around I didn't even have a slow traffic. What could I possible ask for?

Well maybe a little less (or no) rain, and more exercising next time, perhaps. For now, I have my photos from the camping tip up on my flickr album, which you can find here (in slideshow), for some more photos of food and a bit of campsite views.


Anonymous said...

What a great way to spend a long weekend, you're lucky. Eating, chatting and taking your time, brilliant!

Anonymous said...

your blog is so nice.. great articles

Kristi said...

Hi Chika, great post! And what a feast!! It makes me even more excited about my upcoming camping trip this weekend. I’m guessing you had access to a mini refrigerator to store all the food over 4 days? The place we’re going is quite dry, sorta desert-y, so those Vietnamese rolls would be perfect! Anticipating it’ll get cold at night, I’m planning to make a big pot of chili and freeze them overnight. First night meal shouldn’t be a problem, it’s the 2nd night that I’m not quite sure since all we have as food storage is a cooler – I suppose there’s always Chunky Soup.... >.< Any other idea on no-fuss camping meal?

obachan said...

Wow! Dream life!
I had almost no "Golden Week" this year, but thanks to your wonderful photos, I just had a virtual camping experience. Thanks for sharing. :)

nic said...

great pix!! I'm a fan of this website!

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Pete said...

Wow your blog is amazing! I also run a cooking blog site too at blogger.

desert rat said...

Your photographs are absolutely stunning! What a lovely trip - I feel like I was there.

Anonymous said...

hello all, thank you as always for your comments!

mochicheek - yes we did have a small fridge/cooler box, and a supermarket nearby that sctocks quite well. hope you had a great time over your camping weekend...

obachan - oh sorry to hear you didn't get much time off. I, too, normally don7t, but I was in luck this year.