Thursday, January 30, 2014

Washoku: Fun with tofu

Mushrooms about to be roasted
I have completed two recipes: Basic Sea Stock (dashi) and Silken Tofu Topped with Mushrooms (tofu no kinoko an kake). The stock is incredibly simple. Soak kelp in water for 15 minutes, bring it to just under a boil, steep with bonito for four minutes and strain.  The result is a slightly thickened (the glutamates in the kelp do that) pale yellow liquid with a very mild flavor. 

With my nice new stock, I made tofu topped with mushrooms. Again, very simple recipe. Put mushrooms in a pan with oil and cook until they become soft and brown, add stock, soy, mirin, and salt.

The tofu (drained and pressed) is heated in the microwave (the paper towels are to soak up the liquid that comes out).

Pour the mushrooms over the tofu, sprinkle with scallions and serve.

Isn't it pretty?
The result is not bad. I admit my Western tastebuds think sauteing the mushrooms in garlic and butter would improve this a lot, but it's really a nice meal. It's filling but not heavy and you feel so virtuous after eating it. It's not totally vegetarian (fish flakes in the stock) but you could use vegetarian stock instead if you want to be truly vegan about it.

2 down,  132 recipes to go!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Adding to the family

I'm sorry! I know I haven't posted in two weeks, but it's been really busy here. Work has gotten busier, I've been spending extra time on a home improvement project that I will tell you about later, and I've added a member to the family. 

Meet George.

I didn't want to get a second cat, not wanting to become the "crazy cat lady". But my single cat, Bailey, was getting a little squirrely being by herself all day. She needed a friend. So I started searching the shelters and found this little guy.  He's two years old, so he has a lot of play in him, and being younger and smaller than Bailey, he won't challenge her dominance of the house.  

Of course introducing him was full of drama. Bailey was emphatically not happy with a strange cat in her house, but he's won her over. They aren't cuddled up together, but he can sleep on the living room sofa without being attacked.  I think it's going to work.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Washoku: Is this kelp?

I've started on my first creative challenge, cooking every recipe in  Washoku.

I went through the book and counted; there are 134 recipes. So if I do 2-3 recipes every week, I should finish the book by the end of the year.  But first, I had to go grocery shopping. 

I have rarely been so completely confused. Not only could I not read the labels (which I expected), I couldn't recognize anything. The Japanese even have their own kind of leek, which looks like a scallion. I also found that the English translation on the back of the packet is not to be trusted.  I was looking for konbu, which means kelp. I found a package that said "prepared kelp". But, when I got it home, I found that the Japanese name on it, wakame, is not kelp, but a different vegetable entirely: sea tangle. So instead of getting the main ingredient for stock, I purchased a seasoning blend. I wouldn't mind so much, except that going through the book, konbu seems to be in almost every recipe. It's going to be a steep learning curve. 

A few of the things I bought:
bonito flakes - for making stock

iriko - dried sardines. I don't know what you do with these yet.

Uonoya shiso wakame - NOT KELP

the only ingredient I recognized - dried shitake mushrooms

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Joy of Grapefruit

It's cold. The holidays are over, the presents are broken, the food has been eaten, the wine drunk, and all the ornaments are boxed and in the attic. Everything seems dreary and gray and the warmth and sunshine of Spring seems impossibly far away. 

But don't lose heart, for even in the darkest depths of winter, there is hope. A bright spot, a breath of freshness to lift our spirits and keep us going. I am speaking, of course, of grapefruit season. 

I have heard that there are people out there who do not appreciate grapefruit. They think it is too sour, too bitter and hard to eat. Nonsense! Grapefruit lovers know that unalloyed sweetness is like a Care Bears marathon: cloying and dull. The natural sweetness of grapefruit comes with a bracing shot of acid that is tempered with a slight bitterness, creating a mellow and complex flavor appreciated by anyone whose taste buds have matured beyond the fluffernutter.

I will admit that they are not the easiest fruit to eat. But in a world that happily munches on coconuts, durians and jackfruit (which require machetes and hammers to get into) the slight amount of prep grapefruit require is laughably easy.

In fact, all you really need is the right kind of spoon, a grapefruit spoon. In days of yore, when broiled grapefruit was the ne plus ultra of elegant appetizers, grapefruit spoons were commonplace. But fashions have changed and sadly proper grapefruit spoons have become hard to find. If you're lucky, your grandmother may have a set you can borrow. If you aren't fortunate enough to have relatives you can pilfer silverware from, I have found sets on Etsy and ebay. 

Real grapefruit spoons, not the tapering shape, the better to slide into the sections of fruit.
It is ridiculous how happy these make me. There is just something about having a tool that is really fit for  purpose. These are perfect for the job. The fruit comes out, with minimal fuss, and no squirting. If you aren't into investing in seasonal flatware, I recommend the instructions here.

Happy eating! 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Walking through Rice

The docent said the carvings are supposed to be representative of what happens on campus. Here, women and sports tempt a student away from his books. I love the parasol and the old-fashioned football gear.
Last weekend I went on a walking tour of Rice University. I've been there before (I've taken a few continuing education classes) but I'd never really explored the campus.

It's a huge campus, 295 acres (not as big as my alma mater, UT, but still, a good walk). Originally, it was out in the suburbs, but the city has grown up around it. Now, it's an easy 10 minute walk from campus to the Texas Medical Center.
Although Rice's mascot is the owl, squirrels are plentiful
Rice was built under the influence of the City Beautiful Movement, and the campus was designed to be a public square, encouraging interaction. The architecture is a mixture of a lot different styles, but that's part of what makes it interesting to visit. There's modernism, and touches of gothic, a little Chinese architecture, and some Northern Italian. Like the city of Houston, it's a multi-national mixture that is uniquely itself.

over the door of the James Baker III Institute
AIA Houston sponsors the tour, which takes about 2 hours. If you go, you have to see the frog wall, which is not photogenic, but a high point of the tour.  I'm still trying to think of a way to install something similar in my house.
The James Turrell Skyspace - not at its best at 11 am, but still striking.
I love the way it makes you focus on the qualities of natural light.
One of our tour members dressed for the occasion

It might be January, but there are still a few flowers left

My mental image of Rice: arches and oaks.
Fun fact: Superbowl VIII was at Rice. 

Not a under a live oak, but still lovely
The campus is covered in and surrounded by live oaks.  From outside the campus, you barely see the University, just avenues of oaks. This is not only beautiful, but practical, as Rice was built before air-conditioning. Houston weather demands as much shade as possible. There are tables and chairs set up under trees all over campus, taking full advantage of the shade and encouraging outdoor living (hard to do in Houston). 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Challenge Year: 2014

I've decided that 2014 is going to be a year of growth. I'm looking for new experiences, ways to stretch and grow.

More specifically, I intend to accomplish 6 challenges:
  • 2 intellectual
  • 2 physical
  • 2 creative
I want to really spend time on them, which is why I've limited it to 6. But I don't have them all yet. I only have three.

Spanish - I've never studied Spanish, and since I live in Texas, Spanish is a language I could really get a lot of use out of. I also have friends who talk to each other in Spanish and I'm tired of missing the conversation. Of course I won't become fluent in a year, but I hope to get to basic conversation. 

Kayaking - I like being on the water, but haven't ever had a boat of my own. I want something small, that I can handle myself, and a kayak seems like a good choice. I also live a 5 minute walk from a lake.  (this one will wait for warmer weather)

Washoku  - Is traditional Japanese cooking. A cuisine I've never tried to cook. UNESCO has also designated it an intangible cultural heritage asset. Intriguing. So I intend to make every recipe in Washoku. It looks both interesting and doable.

I could come up with more, but I wanted these to be things I really wanted to do, and at this point this is all I have.  I also didn't want to set things in stone from the beginning. I wanted to leave it open for more ideas to come to me, though obviously, I have to be able to do them by the end of the year. 

I'm taking suggestions for the next three. But, if you suggest a marathon or similar event, you have to come with me. I'm not doing that alone.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Review: The 2013 To-Do List

I had some plans for last year. I set out a list of 14 things I wanted to do. I overreached myself, but I expected to. I always figure it's better to plan big. I might not manage all of it, but I do get a lot accomplished that I wouldn't have otherwise.

So how did I do?

1. Go to the Blanco Lavender Festival. - I've been thinking about it for years. This year, I want to go.
I not only went, I wrote a blog post about it. I also took one of my favorite photos of the year.

It's the picture postcard of version of Texas, isn't it? 

2. Take a vacation out of the country. - I don't know where yet, but I feel the need to get some stamps on my passport.
I tried, but I had a brain spasm and booked the holiday for the wrong week. When I tried to correct the problem, the plane tickets tripled in price. So now I have a credit with the airline that I must use before November. A trip is definitely in my future.

3. Make a photo-book
About half done. The photos are the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what order to place them in. I will continue working on this one.

4. Read Don Quixote - I've started it about six times, but never finished it.
Make that seven attempts. It's just such a big book. I can't carry it with me and dip into it when I have a free moment. Maybe a use for an e-reader?

5. Buy a new sofa - mine is about to collapse
I get extra credit here: I bought two sofas. (I've got a big living room.) Best part? They're red.

6. Three blog entries a week
If you read this blog, you know that didn't happen. I ran out of ideas in June and didn't get around to starting the blog again until my friend Leslie (gently) kicked me in the butt in November. My apologies.

7. Take my lunch to work instead of buying it 
A complete success! It's become automatic. I haven't been keeping track, but this has probably had a salutary effect on both my health and my bank balance.

8. Refinish the living room shelves and my old bed
I claim partial credit on this one. The shelves have been done. The bed is in the garage. Maybe this year.

9. Lose 100 lbs -I gained 6 lbs over the holiday - ugh.
Total failure. But I didn't gain any weight either. I am at equilibrium. 

10. Write a letter to a friend every other week
This one didn't work either. I did write some, but nowhere close to this level.

11. Max out my Roth IRA
Partial credit. Sofas are expensive.

12. Read one novel by Charles Dickens
I had better luck with Don Quixote, which I at least started. I dusted the books, that was all. 

13. Improve my knowledge of MadCap Flare - I want to get beyond basic competence.
I did this. I wouldn't say I'm a master, but I'm better than I was. It's a complicated program.

14. Learn to use the Bamboo I've had in the closet for the last year
I unpacked it, tried it out, and came to the conclusion that I don't really have a use for it. I'm giving it to my Dad.

Next week, I'll go into my plans for 2014. Prepare to be amazed!