Monday, November 30, 2009

Slow Weekend Cooking

Pay for newly graduated employees in Japanese companies is shit. The starting salary is pretty much the same no matter where you go and, quite frankly, it is awful. That is not an opinion, it's just the way it is. Case in point: one of my best friends is a public school teacher back in the States; he makes nearly twice as much as I do. WTF...

But that's not to say there is no justice in the world. To offset our offensively low salaries, companies own dorms which employees can live in for next to nothing. I pay ~$90 a month for my own one bedroom with its own mini kitchen and bathroom. But one of the most crucial parts is that I don't have to pay utilities...

No utilities bill means I have no reservations about running my stove for a loooong time. This past weekend, I was stuck at my place pretty much all day studying for the upcoming Japanese Language Proficiency Test which I'm taking next weekend. Since I wasn't going anywhere, I thought I'd put the stove to work and whip up some slow cooked dinners. Pork loin was on sale, so I picked up a 1.5 lb roast and started scheming.

I had a bunch of vegetables that were in need of eating soon, so the Saturday night I decided to make a ragu.

I have to be honest here. I don't have any Italian in me, I've never been to Italy, I haven't eaten at that many Italian restaurants, and I haven't even ever really tried to cook that much Italian food before. To me, ragu is a brand of tomato sauce that comes in a jar. So I make no claims to be an expert in these things, or even really know what I'm doing. Fortunately I based my recipe off of Mario Batali, a guy who does know a thing or two about Italian food.

I didn't have sage leaves (and am not even sure where I'd find fresh ones in Japan), so those got skipped. Hand crushing a whole tomato sounded messy and unnecessary, so a can of diced tomatoes filled in. Two cloves of garlic seemed boring, so I made it six. And because I'm going through a phase where something bright red and spicy needs to go in just about anything I cook, I through in a red chili for good measure. The rest was more or less the same.

After a lot of chopping, I had all my veggies ready to roll (good practice for your knife skills btw). The recipe called for the meat to be in "chunks", though didn't mention how big those chunks should be, so I just kind of guesstimated. These look like chunks, right?


I set the heat as high as I could (did I mention I don't pay utilities?) and gave the meat a good browning. The hardest thing about browning meat is fighting the urge to move it around, flip it, stir it, do anything but just let it sit. My solution? Walk away. If you aren't looking directly at it, everything gets much easier. Look how well that worked! Next I took the meat out for a bit, dropped the heat a little, and let all those chopped up veggies soften up. Back in went the pork, plus wine and tomatoes, and I left the whole thing to simmer for a little over 2 hours while I studied (again, no utilities bill for me).


The result: a sauce that really could have been a meal on its own. I actually considered skipping the pasta all together at one point and just eating the sauce straight. In the end, it got paired up with some spaghetti and loaded up my belly. The taste was great and the chili left a pleasant little tingle in my mouth afterward.


Sunday night came around I had still had 3/4 lb of pork that needed cooking, so I decided to braise it. I didn't really use a recipe for this one, it was mostly just a combination of common ingredients in Chinese braised dishes assembled in what seemed like reasonable ratios. For liquids, it was largely chicken broth, soy sauce, shao xiang rice wine, and mirin. I tossed in a couple cloves of coarsely chopped garlic, a few quarter-sized slices of ginger, 2 star anise pods, and 3 dried red chilies (I can't help myself, I swear) to give it some character. Whenever the liquid started getting low I added more broth, soy sauce, and mirin top it off again.


The pork braised by itself for a little over an hour before being joined by some large chunks of carrot and potato, half an onion, and a pair of hard boiled eggs for almost an hour more. Once everything was pretty much falling apart, I removed the solids and reduced the braising liquid down to a thick gravy. Eaten with a bowl of white rice, it was such winter comfort food that I almost wished it were colder outside so that I could enjoy its heart-warming goodness that much more.


I'm hoping to get a small le creuset cast iron pot in the near future which will open up a whole world of slow cooked foods to make the most of my situation. Even if my company refuses to pay me real money, I'll get what I've earned one way or another.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kansai Long Weekend

Last Monday was a national holiday in Japan, giving us a three day weekend. It also happened to be right at the peak of the fall colors in the Kansai region. I had tried to round up all the Michigan kids to take a trip to Kyoto together but pretty much all of them were bums and opted out, so in the end it was just Mike, Yuki, and myself who went.

The goal from the start had been to do the trip on the cheap, so we planned to travel by overnight bus and stay in a youth hostel. However, because it was both the peak of fall and a three day weekend, a TON of people were heading to Kyoto as well. In the end, we only just barely managed to get bus tickets and ended up having to stay at a youth hostel in Osaka, which is about 30 minutes away by train. We'd all been to Kyoto before and, to be honest, the bulk of what you can do there revolves around wandering around temples, which is cool if you don't live in Japan but not the most exciting thing for those of us here full time. It's cool for a day, but you get tired of it pretty quickly, so it was actually kind of nice to have an excuse to head over to Osaka.

The main source of color in the fall here is from the Japanese maples, which turn an absolutely stunning bright red. Like cherry blossom season in the spring, however, the fall colors don't last very long here; a couple of weeks at the most. In that sense, you really have to time your travels right or you'll miss out. We lucked out and really couldn't have asked for a much better time to have been in Kyoto.

One nice thing about traveling by overnight bus to Kyoto is that it arrives early in the morning (7ish in our case). That pretty much forces you to get going about your day early, so you don't waste too much time. We left late Friday night and arrived on Saturday morning, then headed straight for Kiyomizudera and Tofukuji, two of the most popular temples, in hopes of beating the rush. Despite the fact that it was still quite early in the morning, there was a healthy crowd at both, which makes the idea of visiting in the afternoon absolutely frightening.

Along the way, there was a little street vendor selling dorayaki. Dorayaki is essentially two small pancakes with a layer of anko (red bean paste) between them. I love pancakes. I REALLY love anko. Win-win. They had two types, one with maple flavored pancakes and one with matcha (green tea) flavored pancakes, both of which they kept warm in huge steamer boxes. I'm not a huge matcha fan so I went with the maple and was quite pleased with it.


After wandering around all morning we were ready for some lunch. We were in the Gion area at the time, which has a lot to offer in the higher price ranges, but we were doing this trip on the cheap, so our options were kind of limited. We finally found a Thai restaurant that looked good, so we went with that. But once we sat down and looked at the menu, the best looking thing on the menu was beef curry udon. Not at all what we had in mind when we headed in, but it was a pretty cold day and thick chewy udon noodles in hot curry sounded exactly like what we needed. All three of us ordered it and it definitely hit the spot.


We hit up more temples in the afternoon, but made sure to grab some good eats along the way. While we were still in Gion, Mike told us about a place that had what he described as the best choux cream he had ever eaten. I love choux cream and the place was nearby so we hit it up, trying their black sesame choux cream. I'm not gonna lie: it was damn good, probably one of the best I've tried. My only issue with it was that the black sesame flavor was pretty subtle, so it didn't do much for me. But the pastry was fluffy and the cream creamy, so you won't hear any complaints from me. We also grabbed some deep fried satsuma-imo (Japanese sweet potatoe) that had been given a healthy sprinkling of sugar from a street vendor near one of the temples. Deep fried AND sugar coated? Yes please!


We headed over to Osaka that evening and checked into our youth hostel, the Guest Hostel UK Osaka. I have to admit, it was unlike any other hostel I'd ever stayed in, but it was absolutely perfect for us. It really was just a regular three bedroom apartment with a pair of bunk beds in each room, with the living room serving as the lobby. At just $25 per person per night it was perfect for our budget and the three of us had a room all to ourselves, something that pretty much never happens in hostels. Even better, it was just a couple minutes walk from the heart of Osaka's nightlife.

We had made plans to meet up with Sarah, a UM friend of ours teaching English in the area, for dinner but the owner of the hostel had told about a place nearby that had what he claimed to be the best takoyaki in Osaka. Takoyaki are a bit tough to explain, but they're basically little balls of dough with octopus in them (it's better than it sounds, I swear) and if there's one food that Osaka is famous for it's takoyaki. We could hardly pass up the opportunity, so we made a pit stop at the shop to grab a pre-dinner snack. I am by no means a takoyaki connoisseur, but these were wonderfully light and fluffy and far too easy to eat. We all agreed that we could probably eat 4 or 5 packs each and not be sick of them. But alas, we had dinner plans, so we called it quits at one pack and headed off to meet Sarah for an okonomiyaki dinner.

Okonomiyaki is right up there with takoyaki as an iconic Osaka dish so it seemed like a good choice. People often try to describe okonomiyaki by comparing it to pizza or a pancake, but the truth is that it is neither of those things; it's simply okonomiyaki. Ours was good, but it wasn't particularly superior to any okonomiyaki that I've had at other places.


After parting ways with Mike in Osaka in the morning, Yuki and I were back in Kyoto on Sunday night to check out some of the temples which lit up the maples after dark before catching the bus back to Tokyo. Our bus didn't leave until nearly midnight so we had some time to kill and decided to grab dessert. Yuki loves matcha, so she got some matcha flavored chiffon cake with some matcha flavored goo (seriously, I have no idea what that stuff was. nama yatsuhashi maybe? I'm just gonna stick with green mystery goo), which she enjoyed. Personally, I'm not that into matcha. It's bitter. Who wants bitter when you could have sweet? Not me, that's for sure. I opted for a parfait which had just a small scoop of matcha ice cream, chestnuts, chiffon cake cubes, whipped cream, and a big generous serving of anko. Much better.


"But Peter, what about the rest of Sunday?" you ask. Indeed what about Sunday. I will tell you. Sunday, my dear friends, was a day of culinary indulgence the likes of which I'm not sure I'd ever experienced before.

It started off with breakfast. The forecast called for rain, so Yuki and I decided to hop over to Kobe instead of going straight back to Kyoto. Temples aren't very fun in the rain and Kobe was just another half hour train ride away. Upon arriving in Kobe, we set off in search of a bakery that Yuki had heard about. She had a rough map, so we followed that and eventually found the Honest Cafe and Boulangerie Comme Chinois. Tucked under an office building, it was a jackpot of baked goodness. I'm pretty sure you could buy anything here and it would be amazing...


When it comes to breakfast, I tend to prefer the sweet to savory, so these babies were a great way to start the day. The first has a super flaky pastry shell and is filled with apples cooked to the point where they melt in your mouth. It was so good that Yuki had one bite of mine and decided she needed to buy one for herself to eat on the road. Next to that is a rusk, which was like boozy french bread baked until the crust is crispy then coated liberally in cinnamon sugar. I had planned to stop there, but they brought out fresh bagels and I'd be a fool to turn down fresh bagels. This one is blueberry lavender and honestly tasted like lavender. What does lavender taste like? Just like it smells. A little mind boggling, but absolutely delicious.

A few years back, I'd tried stopping in Kobe in hopes of eating Kobe beef in Kobe. How cool would that be, right? Unfortunately, things didn't work out that time and I left unsuccessful. But this time I was not to be denied.

Kobe beef is crazy expensive, to the point where having it for dinner is not really in my price range. Lunch is still pricey, but doable. We were scoping out places to eat with mixed success. We were looking at the menu outside one restaurant when a waiter came out and started talking to us, so we asked if the course on the menu with wagyu was kobe beef. He told us that there was nowhere in Kobe where you could get Kobe beef for that price and warned us that recently many restaurants have started calling regular wagyu Kobe beef to attract customers. If we were really interested in getting Kobe beef, he said, we should go to Tor Road Steak Aoyama a few doors down, where the chef displayed the certificate verifying that his beef was honestly Kobe beef.

We'd actually noted the restaurant before and put it on our list of potential candidates, but that sealed the deal.


Tor Road Steak Aoyama is a small restaurant that couldn't sit more than 10 people max. The center of the action is a huge metal griddle with counter seating, behind which the chef cooks your meal in front of you. Like Benihana with class. And none of the stupid tricks.

Things start off with a salad accompanied by a few little braised dishes. The salad is light and fresh and goes well with surprisingly clean and bright flavors from the braises. Next comes a simple bowl of potato soup. The flavor is so simple and hearty that it could only be homemade.


The appetizers are good, but that's not why we're here. We're here for the meat and damn is it beautiful...


There are some veggies that get grilled along side it as well. The carrot and asparagus are braised separately.


The beef is seasoned generously with salt and pepper. Part way through the cooking, it gets a quick splash of red wine. That's it. No need to mess around with meat this good, just let it be.


When people talk about food melting in your mouth, this is what they are referring to you. Cooked perfectly medium-rare, the purest beef flavor I have ever tasted.

I'm a bit worried that I'll never be able to eat regular steak again...


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Start the Day Right

Ryan Bouchard's nickname is "Mr. President" for a large number of reasons. He's smart, has leadership and charisma in spades, and is one of the genuinely nicest human beings I've ever met (I don't think there's anyone who has ever met him and NOT liked him). He also happens to be incredibly insightful. If he ever does actually end up running for president, I will vote for him regardless of which party he represents. Because even if I disagree with him, he probably knows better than me anyways.

Just one (albeit trivial) example of this comes from back when we were in high school. Ryan would wake up early before school a couple of times a week and make a real breakfast. Pancakes, waffles, things like that. With classes starting at 7:40am, the rest of us sleep-loving teens thought he was crazy. If only we knew what we were missing...

There are very few self-admitted "morning people" out there. Most people prefer the warmth of their sheets to being up and about. Maybe if they started off the day with a breakfast like these pancakes they would see things differently.
The recipe comes from Baking Bites, one of my favorite sources for dessert and breakfast recipes, and should by no means be mistaken for a healthy breakfast. There's A LOT of sugar in these bad boys. Then there's the maple syrup poured on top... But you know what: indulging yourself like this once or twice a week shouldn't be a big deal. Just think of it as having dessert at the beginning of the day rather than the end.

p.s. Whenever I make pancakes, they come out kind of thin, not thick and fluffy (coincidentally, I am really good at making crepes). My guess is probably just that my batter has too much liquid in it, but I'm not sure. Any suggestions on how to fix this?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Nothing in Moderation

My name is Peter and I am a negligent blogger.

Seriously though, I always mean to put together a post but never seem to get around to it. Honestly, as of late I haven't even been able to find the time to process the pictures I've been taking. Work has been quite busy (I did over 90 hrs of overtime last month) resulting in me often getting home from work after 10pm and I usually spend the weekends wandering about Tokyo with Yuki, so I really have very little free time to sit in front of the computer and manage it all.

A perfect example of my bloggin procrastination is this recipe. The truth is that I made this recipe over a month ago and the pictures have been ready to go ever since, but I simply haven't found the time to get to putting together a post about it.

Simply put, this dish is freakin delicious. In many ways it's all about excess: a ton of garlic, lots of olive oil, a generous dose of lemon, and loads of freshly ground pepper. But I love bold, powerful flavors, so that's totally ok with me. Is it healthy? No, not particularly, but it's not awful and it tastes so damn good that it's not hard to forgive yourself the generous dose of olive oil.

The recipe is based off of The Angry Chef's Garlicky Lemon-Pepper Chicken recipe by The Hungry Mouse, who always does a great job of not only verbally explaining how to make a dish, but also providing a photographic explanation (super helpful for visual learners like myself). I didn't have any of the herbs (that stuff is expensive here in Japan), so I just stuck with the core ingredients of garlic, lemon, olive oil, and pepper (which I was particularly generous with). I also stuffed the gaps between the chicken breasts with potatoes and onions to both minimize the amount of olive oil I needed and turn it into a one dish meal all in one go. It still used a generous amount of olive oil, something like 8 cloves of garlic, the juice and zest of half a lemon, and more cranks of the pepper mill than even a Food Network chef uses. No point in holding back: the flavors just won't be as interesting, so indulge a little bit and go all. This recipe was absolutely awesome and I'll definitely be busting it out again when cooking for others in the near future.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Nikko in the Fall

Fall is my favorite season of the year, with the summer’s sticky humidity giving way to cool breezes, Michigan football taking over Ann Arbor, and the leaves starting to change colors. While Tokyo benefits from the change in the weather, it is distinctly lacking in terms of both football teams and trees.

Yuki and I headed to Nikko last weekend to get away from the city for a while (I always wanted to be able to say something like that) and see the fall colors. With the scarcity of nature in Tokyo, heading out of town is the only real option for properly enjoying the season. Nikko, about a two hour train ride north, is one of the more popular destinations as it offers both World Heritage sites and a healthy dose of forestry.

The second half of October is generally thought to be peak season for fall colors in that part of the country and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Though I’m partial to the bright red color that the maple leaves turn in Michigan, the variety of shades of red, orange, and yellow leaves was quite impressive too. Unfortunately, Sunday was cold (down in the low 50s), windy, and rainy. We had set out for a walk along the coast of Lake Chuzenji, the largest lake in the area, before the rain started and, having expected the weather to be more towards the mid- to high-60s, only had a single sweater each. The rain was quite light, but combined with the air temperature and the breeze made things rather chilly.

After a couple of hours, we were getting hungry, but more than anything just wanted to get out of the cold. Looking around for a restaurant, the pickings were pretty slim and we were starting to look desperate. Then we stumbled on a little European restaurant called Cafe de Savoie that had the following sign out front:

Is roughly says: “Because each dish is made by hand, it will take time for your food to arrive. Please do not come if you are in a hurry“. Eating a slow, leisurely lunch of quality homemade food was pretty much exactly what we were looking for and, looking at the menu, the lunch prices were perfectly reasonable.

Inside, it had exactly the kind of atmosphere I would want if I were to open a restaurant. It felt very much like someone’s home, with all of the items along the walls looking like something collected rather than something bought. The restaurant had just 5 tables plus a small counter in front of the open kitchen and a staff of two: the chef and a waitress.

We arrived around 11:30ish, a little before the lunch rush, so we had the whole place to ourselves. There was a little space heater, so we stood near that after ordering in hopes of getting some feeling back in our hands and feet.

There were a couple of options for lunch, but for me there was only ever going to be one choice: oyako-don francais. Oyako-don is a standard Japanese dish made up of a layer of chicken and egg on top of rice. My mom calls it Japanese soul food. Oyako-don francais, the chef’s own creation, was a bowl of rice covered with a layer of chicken in tomato sauce, a layer of egg, and a layer of demi-glace sauce. Freakin good stuff. Warm, comforting and delicious, it captured all the traits that make oyako-don so good and put a European twist on it.

Yuki opted for the Hayashi Rice, a demi-glace like stew with beef and mushrooms. It was good too, heart warming and a little sweet, but nowhere near as good as mine.

Lunch was so good that we thought it would be a shame not to get dessert as well, especially as nothing on the dessert menu cost more than 600 yen (about $6). Yuki got a slice of chocolate cake with cassis (black currant) sauce that was absolutely incredible, practically melting in your mouth without being to rich or overly sweet. I got a slice of an apple tarte tatin with apples cooked so soft that they put up pretty much no resistance to my fork. It was gently sweet and had visible flecks of vanilla all over it. It tasted like fall.


We eventually headed back out into the cold, but the cozy restaurant and hot food helped take a lot of the edge off of it.