Golden Week

By Gem

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It’s Sunday night of a lovely long weekend here in Nagahama, and we’ve been spending it doing things we like best!

Yesterday, we finished everything that needed finishing (housework, shopping and the final co-op missions of Halo 4) and we’re off to have adventures in the south on Monday and Tuesday, so we’ve spent this Sunday having a lovely, gentle time.

A sleep-in for Kin, while I made a morning visit to friends in Kinomoto, then home to a simple lunch, scavenged from the contents of the fridge (I told you it’s good to keep soup and salad dressing in there!)

Kin then headed out to do some pottery in Kurokabe, while I baked bread, puttered around in my pots and studied for an hour or two. When he got home, we enjoyed afternoon tea together; you may notice we’re eating some of the same banana bread at both lunch and afternoon tea. That banana bread is actually a bit of an accident…

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A few weeks ago, my sister inspired me to make a nice, big batch of dulce de leche and, when I noticed our bananas were beginning to look a little sad in their bowl, I thought that I was being provided with a wonderful opportunity to transform my ingredients into a delicious banoffee pie for us to enjoy over the weekend. A little chocolate, a little cream, a drizzle of toffee sauce…. Subarashii!

What actually happened was that I got home on Friday evening, opened the last container of dulce de leche, tasted it to be sure it was still okay and then grew canines, howled at the moon and devoured the lot with a soup spoon.

(I wasn’t really in a fit state to observe myself, you understand, but I’m pretty certain this version of events is pretty close to being true.)

At any rate, I was left with the situation of having a bunch of sick-looking bananas and no caramel, so banana bread was a fairly obvious choice; cold slices for snacks and hot chunks with custard for desserts. Combined with the bread Oinky and I baked, this treat has made our apartment smell absolutely lovely. Outside, the air still carries a fairly heavy chill, but inside, everything is warm and clean and wonderfully fragrant. Life is good.

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The indoor refugees don’t seem to be phased by the cold; they’re so happy to be outdoors, they’re shooting up like rockets. The cold, gusty wind is giving my poor snow peas some trouble though. Every time they try to get a grip on the balcony railing, they’re blown off! After this photo was taken, I tethered them with a bit of hundred yen crochet cotton (Kin says the balcony looks like a spider web now!) and that seems to be helping them hang on a bit better.

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And now, I’m preparing dinner and listening to Kin sigh while he sketches. I’m so proud of him at the moment, I could explode!

Kin has just completed the Betty Edwards drawing program for the second time, and the results have been phenomenal. You can see his previous “Before” and “After” self portraits here (seriously, go look at them, I want you to see how awesome this is).

Now have a look at this:

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That was his latest “After” portrait. Isn’t he amazing?

It’s lovely when we can combine peacefulness and productivity this way. We’re looking forward to exciting times over the next few days of Golden Week, but we’re both very glad we had a little stretch to work and recuperate first.

However you’re spending your week, we hope you enjoy it! Don’t forget to take some downtime.

(For a calorie count of my caramel orgy, or a look at more of Kin’s photos, please check out our Facebook page!)

Best wishes,

Gem

XX

On the Boil: The Awesomeness of Soup

 

By Gem
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Now Australia is beginning to settle into autumn, and the spring days here in Japan maintain their chill… Now, it is time to sing the song of soup.

O Soup, the nourishing
Soup, the tasty
O, Soup, ye friend of the poor and saviour of the lazy…

… not to mention, Soup, the best way I know of getting rid of whatever’s going leggy in the garden, or leaky in the fridge. Or, Soup, how you can get five serves of vegetables into one meal, let alone one day. Or even Soup, a really good way of impressing lunch guests without really doing anything. 

But none of those really rhyme so well, do they?

Soup and Scheduling

I’ve spoken before about the importance of planning when you’re trying to keep your diet properly balanced. If you’re generally lazy (I am!), busy (I am!), or just someone who can’t always be trusted to make decisions like a grownup (I am!), but you still want to keep everyone properly fed during the week, then you need to organise your kitchen ahead of time.

Soup is central to my day-to-day organisation. If you always keep a jug of soup and a bottle of salad dressing in the fridge, you will always have a lovely, vege-ful meal half organised before you even get home from work.

This is great for those days when you just plain don’t feel like cooking or discover you have unexpected guests on a night you were planning to make scrambled eggs on toast. With about three minutes extra work, your scrambled eggs become an omelette, and you have soup, salad and toast ready to go with it! Salads and soups travel quite happily to work with you and will turn your lunchtime sandwich into a real meal. It also helps you feel better about those days when you haven’t prepared, but you’re already exhausted and just buy a barbequed chicken and some bread rolls on your way home from work. You’re still giving everyone a decent, balanced meal, you’re just not killing yourself to do it at a time when you just don’t have the energy.

Soup is also another arrow in my quiver against the Healthy-Food-Costs-More brigade.

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Getting Organised

Soup and salad dressing are both very simple to make. I shake up my salad dressing in an old squeezy-top mustard bottle that Kin washes out each time we empty it (about every month or so) and store it in the fridge. Just find an old jar, dump in a couple of tablespoons of a nice vinegar (we like a very acidic red wine vinegar), about double that of oil, salt, pepper and any additives that take your fancy (I often add about a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, crushed garlic or some parmesan shavings), shake it up and boom; vinaigrette dressing ready whenever you want it. Just give it another shake when it’s time to squoodge some out.

(Here are some rather more precise recipes if you’re nervous about that sort of thing. Or you can simply buy a nice, low kilojoule salad dressing to keep on hand).

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On the whole, though, it’s even easier to construct a soup than it is to make a salad dressing, and it’s a lot more impressive to visitors.

Basic Soup No 1: Green Velvet

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This soup is Kin’s favourite; it’s also the easiest soup I know! A basic soup like this just needs vegetables and stock. I usually use a liquid chicken stock for my soups, but there are no real rules when it comes to soup. If you are vegetarian, use vegetable stock. If you can’t make liquid stock (I’m not very good at it, either) or afford to buy it, use cubes from the supermarket. Don’t fret too much about getting things right; it’s soup. Soup will forgive you for just about anything.

Ingredients:

1 head of broccoli, divided into small florets, stem chopped
1 bunch of spinach, washed
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed or finely chopped
2 largeish potatoes, peeled and chopped into cubes
1.2 litres of stock (or whatever. If you like a thicker soup, use less. If thinner, use more)
Splash of olive oil
Herbs or seasonings (see variation). Today’s herbs for us are oregano, thyme and rosemary.

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Method:

Heat the oil in a saucepan and brown the onion and garlic over a low-medium heat until softened (probably more than five minutes, probably less than ten. Again, it’s soup; don’t worry so much). Add the potato and stir fry for 2-3 minutes (if adding dried herbs, this is a good time. This is also when I add hard herbs like rosemary), then pour in the stock. Bring to the boil, and then simmer for about fifteen minutes, or until the potato is tender. Add the broccoli (and any other fresh herbs), simmer for about four minutes or until broccoli is tender, then add spinach. Stir through and turn off heat.

Liquify soup using a stick blender, food processor, or whatever you have on hand. If you don’t have any of those things, go to an op shop or a pawn shop and buy one. I don’t care how broke you are. Being able to make soup is going to save you more money than a second-hand stick blender could possibly cost you.

Pour soup into bowls and serve, or into containers to store in the fridge. I sometimes pop a swirl of cream in each bowl, but it isn’t necessary. This soup reheats quite happily in the microwave and keeps for over a week in the fridge.

Variation: Leave out the herbs and instead add half a teaspoon of cumin at the end of cooking. Serve each bowl with a blob of natural yoghurtIMG_8409

This soup can also be made with any sort of vegies you have lying around, like carrot, beans, zucchini and any sort of leafy greens. Just simmer hard veg for longer and add leafy veg toward the end of cooking time. If you like a thick soup, add more potato. If you like a thin soup, add more stock. However you make it, it will always be delicious. It will also be cheap and give you a hefty serve of vitamins and fibre with every verdant bowlful.

What other sort of soup recipes would you like to see? Or does anyone have a good recipe of their own? I’ll be back in my garden soon and I’ll be on the lookout for nice ones.

Happy souping!

Gem

XX

January was…

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New Year pilgrimages

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And New Year’s cakes!

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Scary festivals

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A disappointing lack of snow (when it’s still so cold!)

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Comfort food

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And comfort food

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And comfort food

(it’s a good thing there are all of these scary festivals going on to keep us walking around)

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Fresh meals from our indoor refugees.

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And comfy times indoors (with Gem’s new favourite reading material).

January was frosty times outdoors and winter comforts at home. It was soggy footprints, creepy snowmen and blue-faced six-year olds at work, with wooly scarves to seal ourselves away from the artic winds that whistle through our classrooms. We have had small adventures and happy experiences without straying far from home, staying snug, merry and cheerful (with a bit of excitement sprinkled here and there).

2014 is well and truly underway!

Gem and Kin

XX 

P.S. Our Facebook page is playing up again at the moment, but links are still getting through okay. Gem will give it a kicking during the week to try and sort it out.

Sumo Food: Chanko Nabe

I know! I’m late! I promised Beans this recipe ages ago, though, so I really wanted to wait for nabe night!

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Vegetarian readers are also safe to stay this time! I’ll offer a few options for de-meating the dish as we go. 

Those of you who are familiar with Kyuushockers will already know that our school lunches tend to be a bit light on the vegie side of things. Nabe is one of my favourite ways of making up for this; it’s an easy way to get HEAPS of vegies into yourself, without having to work very hard. Kin also approves of nabe because it doesn’t make a lot of dishes; all of the ingredients are popped into the communal stockpot, and you haul out whatever you fancy to eat, replacing ingredients as the pot empties.

Nabe ingredients differ with the season (which is a nice way of saying “with what’s on special at the supermarket/going leggy in the garden”). If you don’t have all of the ingredients in this recipe, leave them out or replace them with something else. Greens are greens, roots are roots; I would only recommend that if you’re having trouble sourcing/affording asian mushrooms, buy them dried or leave them out.

 Dashi (Stock)

This is my weeknight dashi; I get a little more elaborate on the weekend. Take a piece of kombu, (dried kelp) around 20 cm by 10 cm and wipe off any white residue with a damp cloth. Soak the kombu in a litre of water for at least half an hour. Hell, leave it in there and go to work; it’ll be fine when you get home. Gently heat the water (skimming occasionally if you can be bothered; I can’t) until it is almost boiling, then whip out your kombu and discard it. IMG_0252

Next comes katsuo. Since it’s a weeknight, I’m using dashi granules, which are available at any asian grocery and, these days, probably at supermarkets as well. They tend to come in a blue packet and will have instructions on the side (even if the instructions are in Japanese, just look at the numbers; you’ll work it out). Mine comes in sachets to be used with 600ml of water; I’m using two and a half and adding 500ml to my kombu stock, so now I have 1500ml all up. Since I’m using dashi granules, the stock will be a little scummy on top; if that bothers you, give it a skim before you go any further.

If you are vegetarian, dried shiitakes make a gorgeous alternative to fish-based dashi; just pour boiling water over about eight of them in a saucepan and leave them to soak. You get mushrooms AND dashi! Kin and I aren’t vegetarian, but shiitake dashi is one of our favourites.

Now that your stock is prepped, you just need to pop it into your nabe pot (a big saucepan will do) and stick it on the hotplate.  I then add a shake (probably about 50ml) of soy sauce and about the same of mirin. Tonight, we’re also having a dash of ponzu in there as well, just because we like it. Once it’s boiling, you’re ready to start adding ingredients!

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Ingredients

Vary as desired; the dashi is the important bit.

  • Chicken and/or fish (or extra mushrooms and cottony tofu for the vegos!)
  • Tofu
  • Udon noodles (fresh or dried). We’re also having konnyaku noodles!
  • Flavourings (chopped green onion, grated ginger and garlic chives)
  • Sliced root vegetables (One medium carrot and about 15cm of lotus root)
  • Leafy greens (Pak choy, bok choy, chrysanthemum greens and about a quarter of a wombok)
  • Mushrooms (shiitake and enokitake)

The quantities are up to you. The first time you make it, try a bunch of each thing and see if you need more or less. The best order to pop things into your stock is:

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Then flavourings…
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Then root vegies… IMG_2912

Then go mad and throw in whatever you’d like!
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On nabe nights, cooking and eating happen simultaneously, so you’ll only need a very small bowl each, with a soup spoon and chopsticks. You’ll also need at least one slotted spoon and a ladle for scooping out your dinner! When the ingredients you fancy are ready, ladle them into your bowl, devour them, then ladle out some more. Keep topping up the pot until everyone is full. (Needless to say, meat is the ONE ingredient that absolutely cannot be added later, unless you’re going to let the soup boil by itself for a little while). If you don’t have a portable hotplate, you can also prepare your nabe on the stove.

Traditionally, rice or noodles were added at the very end of the meal and then enjoyed in the soup, but Kin and I enjoy our noodles with the rest of the ingredients, so we stick them in a few at a time and haul them back out as we fancy them.

Chanko nabe is warming, hearty winter comfort food that still manages to be extremely high in fibre and nutrients. I love it after workouts and Kin loves it any time at all, especially since he gets the leftovers for breakfast. Nabe is also cheap (because you toss in whatever you can get) and super-fun to serve to guests!

What are your go-to dishes in winter?

Gem

XX

Cheep Cheep: Budget Roast Chicken

This week’s recipe: Roast chicken and stuffing, roast vegetables (with super-crunchy potatoes) and steamed greens with basil and parsley.

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Hopefully any vegetarian readers have already fled; if not, please be warned: Today’s post is not for you! If that first shot wasn’t enough to put you off, the ones below definitely will! Why don’t you try this blog or this one today instead?

Kin is very eager to practice his food photography and a couple of other people have suggested we include a regular recipe section. I’m not sure how well I’ll manage it; I’m not a trained chef or dietician and I don’t really intend to become a food blogger. That being said, I can boast of one skill that I’m not convinced all food bloggers possess: I am capable of producing decent mails on a daily basis. You probably won’t see perfectly swirled berry tarts or bowls of glossy pasta with one salmon egg and a single piece of cress balanced on top, but you will know that the dishes you see here can be cheaply reproduced and are usually manageable on a weeknight timetable. Also, unlike most food photographers, Kin actually has to EAT the dish once he’s finished photographing it, so he has a vested interest in maintaining flavour, rather than appearance.  

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Roast chicken is one of my favourite weapons in my personal war against the “real food is expensive” brigade. One small chook with stuffing will give two people a massive dinner, a couple of decently hefty lunches (think sandwiches or chicken salads), wings for snacking and a carcass to make into soup. I defy you to get that out of KFC. Roasting a chicken is also super easy! The only slightly tricky bit is the stuffing, but if you make it the day before, there’s no hassle involved.

Today’s stuffing is a fairly basic one; the main flavours come from onion, bacon and this little champion here:

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That’s sage, one of the nicest herbs I know for flavouring meat. With care, it will grow into an attractive silvery-leafed shrub. With abuse, it will grow into stunted, silvery-leafed sticks, but will still survive to flavour your food, no matter how badly you treat it. I like that in a plant. Dried sage is also easy to find in shops and the flavour is decent.

Breadcrumbs provide the bulk of your stuffing; you’ll need about four slices with the crusts cut off (we use wholemeal, but it isn’t important). If you have a food processor, toss your bread in and blitz it to crumbs. If not, cut it bread into the smallest cubes you can. Place it in a bowl, and season with pepper and salt. Add any herbs you fancy finely chopped or processed; tonight our pots have provided parsley, thyme and a little rosemary, but if you don’t have fresh herbs, don’t go out and buy them. A shake from a jar of dried herbs will do nicely.

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Heat a tablespoon of oil in a frying pan (med-high) and drop in about three leaves of sage. Let them frizzle and crisp for a moment, then reduce the heat to medium and toss in one finely chopped brown onion and two – three rashers of bacon, also trimmed and finely chopped. Cook, stirring for three minutes, or until onion is soft and translucent. Dump this into your breadcrumbs and mix it around with a wooden spoon. See if, when you squeeze the mixture in your fist, it keeps its shape. If not, try adding an egg, a little milk or some melted butter to bind it together. Once the mess is moist enough to hold a shape without being sticky, it’s ready to go.

Get your oven preheating to about 190°celsius (a little up or down won’t matter). Give your (thawed) chook a good wash with cold water, including inside the cavity. Dry it off with paper towels or tea towels if you plan to wash them right away. Then, trim off any fat you don’t fancy, shove in your stuffing and secure the cavity with toothpicks. Lightly oil and salt the outside (if you want to) and put it in the oven, breast side down for thirty minutes.

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I also include a head of garlic during this first part of the cooking time (garlic needs very little time to roast) for use in soups and sauces through the week. Just stick it in the fridge and it will keep almost forever.

For a weeknight dinner, I don’t do anything very elaborate with the veg; I usually toss them in a small amount of olive oil and season them with garlic powder and chopped rosemary. Ditto the greens; today’s are a combination of broccoli and beans, steamed for two minutes. After two minutes, I add spinach, flat leafed parsley, basil and a tiny wodge of butter and steam the lot for one more minute.

Potatoes, however are a serious matter. For super crunchy spuds without a lot of oil, peel, chop and then par boil them (starting from cold) for ten minutes until the outside is soft. Drain your potatoes, then toss them in their sieve to break up their outsides. Then tumble them in your oil and seasonings. 

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Put your potatoes and other baking veg on a tray together (tonight we’re having pumpkin, onion, carrot and finger eggplant). Once your chicken has been in the oven for thirty minutes, turn it breast side up and put it on the lower oven shelf, with your tray of vegies on the top shelf. Also take this time to pour off and store and juices collected on the tray; you’ll want them for gravy or soups.

After half an hour, add your soft vegies (this is when I actually add the eggplant), like tomatoes, zucchini or capsicum. Wait another half hour and your dinner is done!

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Once you’ve done your prep, this meal will cook quite happily without your supervision. You can have a bath, do some cleaning, entertain guests, whatever you’d like. If you’re the forgetful type, though, make sure you set a timer. You can also be really lazy if you want and just throw in all of your vegies at the one hour mark soft ones included; just don’t blame me if you end up with salsa!

Gem

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P.S. I tried to keep the word count down, so I might have left something out. If you have any questions, just send me a message and I’ll clear it up.