Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Not The Way I Like To Roll


If you don’t include the countless boxes of Duncan Hines brownies I pumped out, I spent very little time in the kitchen when I lived at home. To be honest, there was no reason to. My mom is an awesome cook (I know everyone with a food blog says that, but it really is true) and it was much easier to just leave things up to her.

Having been cooking for myself for roughly 5 years now, I’m well aware of how long it can take to get food on the table and how dishes that seem simple can actually be fairly difficult. But it’s easy to forget, as illustrated by my latest cooking adventure this past weekend.

During my last couple of years in Michigan, my mom got a pasta roller and would occasionally make fresh pasta. Let me tell you, fresh pasta is freaking amazing. So good, in fact, that it makes it hard to go back to the dried stuff. Rolling pasta is much easier when done as a pair, so I would help her from time to time. In the grand scheme of pasta making, rolling it out is the simplest part (assuming you’re using a machine, not a rolling pin) and I was never really exposed to the rest of the process.

I recently found a store in Tokyo that carried pasta rollers exactly like my moms and picked one up, thinking it would be easy-peasy to make my own super delicious pasta. It’s not. For sure, there are much more difficult things to make, but pasta isn’t something you can just throw together.

The ingredients are dead simple: all you need is flour and eggs. And yet it’s getting those two ingredients together that is the tough part. The general concept is to make volcano of flour with the eggs in the middle and slowly mix the flour into the eggs. Once it’s kind of turned into a ball you knead in the rest of the flour and leave it to rest for a while.

Unfortunately, having never watched my mom put it together, I didn’t really have a sense of what the dough should feel like when it’s done. Recipes use silly and useless adjectives like “silky” and “elastic”, which are pretty much no help at all. So I kneaded for a bit, decided that was good enough, and got ready to give it a spin through the roller. Epic mistake. The dough was still far too sticky and refused to play nice.

Not really knowing how to fix it, we decided to dust it with enough flour to get it through the roller and settled for super fatty noodles (having done some reading, the solution – kneading in extra flour – is embarrassingly simple). As a result, they took longer to boil (fresh pasta normally only takes 2-3 minutes), causing the second batch to start to stick together and dry out a bit. In the end, it still tasted quite good (way better than dried pasta), but certainly not as good as it should have been.

Obviously it’s way cooler to write about smashing successes, talk about how awesome it was, and have everyone go oooh and aaah, but I think it’s good to occasionally include the failures (of which I have plenty) as well. It helps remind me that there is still much to learn.

So what’s the game plan going forward? Clearly step one is talk to mom and learn all her clever little secrets. From there, it’s just a matter of getting in enough practice and becoming comfortable with making the basic dough. Once you you’re able to make dough well, there are a billion options for dishes to make. Personally, I’m most excited to have a shot at making some stuffed pastas and getting creative with the filling. It might take a while before I’m satisfied with the quality of what I’m producing, but I’m sure that, with time, the deliciousness will come!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fireworks and Fancy Toys

I'd hoped to this post done much much sooner, but had a crazy week at work and couldn't make it happen. Only once this week did I get out of work early enough to take a train home and got home after 2am on the other four days, which meant I only got to work on this in 15-20min chunks before heading to work each morning. Understandably, it took a while to finish...

Though not necessarily to the same extent as last week, I do spend quite a lot of time at work these days. While this means that I pretty much have to write off the idea of having a social life Monday through Friday, it is not completely without benefits. In Japan, the standard pay system for full time employment is a (rather small) base salary plus overtime. As such, the busier I am at work the bigger my paycheck at the end of the month. Not a bad deal. Anybody who knows me knows that I am careful with my money. Some would call me stingy, I would just say that I'm really good at saving. And here's the proof:


Back in November, I officially became a millionaire (albeit in yen) and have since tripled that amount, not even including the million or so I took back to deposit in the US in the form of traveller's cheques last Christmas. I won't say what that works out to in US dollars, but if you do the math I think you'll agree it's an impressive amount. It will probably be a long long time until I make four million, but only because the dollar has tanked again and I'm switching my yen to dollars at the moment, but you get my point.

Since moving to Japan, I've made it one of my goals to not let the cost of things keep me from doing anything that I would otherwise enjoy, and I can honestly say I think I've done a good job of sticking to that. For the past two years, I've been shooting with a Sony a200 DSLR camera that my dad gave me as an early birthday present before I moved to Japan. Along the way, I'd upgraded my lens to a super fast 50m f/1.4 and generally enjoyed using the camera. But 50mm is a bit of an awkward length on a cropped body camera and I started looking for other lenses that would give me a little more versatility.

I read tons of reviews for a number of lenses and they all pointed to one conclusion: if you want a good lens for a Sony camera, it's gonna cost you a ton. In fact, unless you drop ~$2,000 on a pro-level lens, there just aren't many good options. Personally, I'm not willing to shell out $500 on a lens that is just alright. If you're gonna spend stupid money, you should get a product that is at least worth it.

Before switching over to DSLR, I'd been using a Canon point-and-shoot, which was a great little camera that could kick out some really good pictures. Mike has also been using Canon's and always raves about them, so I thought I'd take a look in that direction. The thought process was that if I were going to invest in a whole new camera body (you can't mix and match camera bodies and lenses), it would have to be a significant step up from my Sony and something that would be good enough to hold on to for many years to come. I did a lot of reading up on a couple different Canon bodies and, to keep things simple, reached the following conclusion:
New toy

The Sony EOS 7D and the 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 lens kit. It cost me close to a month's base salary, but it really is awesome. I'm still getting used to it and it's a bit awkward being on a slower lens again, but I can already tell that there will be some great pictures coming out of this bad boy.

Since I worked so late this week, I only actually cooked dinner once, and that was pasta throw together at midnight, so I haven't had much of a chance to shoot any food with the new camera yet, but I did whip together some banana bread last weekend at Yuki's. I find that I almost always put in too much banana when making banana bread it ends up being very dense. It keeps the bread from rising much when you bake it and you end up with a squat, but moist, loaf like this little bastard. Ugly, I know, but it tastes so good that I can forgive it. I at half the loaf the same day I baked it. Delicious.

For more visually pleasing pictures, I've got a few shots of fireworks from last weekend. There was a big fireworks show being held in Yokohama, where Mike lives, so he set up plans to get all the Michigan kids together to check it out. In Japan, it is common for people to wear yukata, a lightweight cotton version of the kimono and my mom's favorite discovery from her visit to Japan, when they go to see fireworks and festivals in the summer, so decided that everyone who owned a yukata should wear theirs. It's kind of like decided to get dressed up in fancy clothes and go out for a nice dinner, only old school Japanese style. Mine was a gift from my host family when I studied abroad in Fukuoka back in '07 that I think is particularly awesome. Most guys stick to monochromatic designs, which I think are a bit boring. I didn't have a tripod to work with when shooting the fireworks, so it was a little tough, but I managed to get a few decent shots. Enjoy!