Sunday, October 31, 2010

Before You Even Know It....

Last Thursday was exactly two years from the day I moved to Tokyo. Honestly, when I try to compare now and then, it makes my head spin. So much has changed in that time that it's difficult to put into words. In some ways, my life has become much more complicated than it was in those first few months, when everything was shiny and new. In other ways, it has gotten much simpler in that there's a certain repetition and most weeks end up looking more or less the same.

I'd vaguely been aware that the date was approaching, but it just sort of slipped my mind, something that is happening more frequently as of late. I struggle a bit to keep other things in my head and the days have started to just sort of blend together lately. It all just sort of flies by before I even notice. I feel like I've reached the finish line every time I make it to the weekend, only to realize that I haven't planned a damn thing and am left scrambling to come up with something. Needless to say, a number of them end up feeling wasted. My team leader at work has told me I should take more days off, but the company's vacation policies make it hard to take any meaningful time off, so I just keep grinding it out.

But that's just a bunch of excuses and whining, which I'm sure nobody really wants to hear about. I've got a number of adventures I want to go on in the next twelve months, so I'm just going to focus on making that happen. I need to mix things up a bit and explore. I think it would be good for me.

I'll throw a little food into this post, just so it doesn't end a total rant. The potato wedges were lightly coated with vegetable oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder and cooked in the same try as the chicken legs, allowing them to turn golden brown as they half baked, half fried in the runoff chicken fat and juices. Freakin delicious. The chicken just got a little salt and pepper, then got baked until the skin was super crispy. The corn soup in the back there is Campbell's from a can. Don't judge me; we all get to cheat every now and then. A bottle of chardonnay to accompany it all made for a satisfying Saturday night dinner. Not a bad way to celebrate a second year.

Baked chicken legs and potato wedges

Thursday, October 28, 2010

It's Never Too Late To Learn

Chili isn't something I ate often growing up and I'm not even sure if my mom ever made it (to be fair, back then I probably would have refused to eat it anyway). As such, I really had no idea what was supposed to go into it or how to make it, but Yuki wanted to have it for dinner, so I decided to see what I could do. I looked at a few recipes online and found that there was pretty much no "standard" basic recipe, so I pretty much just winged it. At first I thought I'd measure the spices I was putting in, but I ended up tinkering with it so much that I just gave up on keeping track. For spices, there was a bunch of chili powder, a health dose of cumin, a fair bit of garlic powder and cayenne pepper, plus dashes of salt, black pepper, and oregano. To give it some mass, I included a pound of ground beef, a diced medium-sized onion and carrot, 1/3 each of yellow and red bell peppers, a can of kidney beans, and two cans of diced tomatoes. Hefty stuff. Mixed together, it was allowed to bubble away gently on the stove for a little over an hour.


Obviously that is far too much chili for two people to eat in one sitting, but we were in luck. Peter Traylor and his girlfriend Mari were passing buy and called to ask if we wanted to meet up. As they hadn't had a proper dinner yet, we invited them over to Yuki's for a light dinner and drinks. I grabbed some Coronas, which went really well with the chili, Yuki picked up some tortilla chips (also not easy to find in Japan) and the four of us spent the evening hanging out together.

Before we new it, it was time for them to catch their last train home, a long long ride out to Moriya. I've gotta give props to Peter for making the haul into to Tokyo to hang out with us as often as he does. It's time consuming as hell and certainly not cheap, but he's always a good sport about it and it's always a better time for having him there.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lunch Out - A Nu

Yuki and I like to indulge in a fancy lunch every now and then, as weekend lunch specials offer one of the few bargains to be had in Tokyo. Last weekend, we went to A Nu, a French restaurant in the Hiroo district, to (belatedly) celebrate a year of dating. Their dinner courses start at more than $80/person and go as high as nearly $200, but there lunch course costs less than half of that at $35. Obviously $35 is hardly a cheap lunch and the portions are smaller than at dinner, but the quality is still top notch.

The appetizer (I had a tuna tartar topped with diced apples and celery) was decent enough, but nothing spectacular. I thought the celery overpowered the apple a little and there was a bit too much of both to really let the flavor of the fish come through. Far better was the fact that they provided a constant supply of probably the best baguettes I've tasted in Tokyo. The crust was crackly, the center warm and soft, and there were slices of delicious butter with big flakes of salt on top. I think I ate a loafs worth...

The fish dish was grilled onagadai, a firm white fish, served with an eggplant basil sauce, which looked eerily like baby food but tasted ok, and a really cool foam of basil-infused milk. To be honest, the fish was good enough that I'd been happy to eat it as-is, but the foam made things interesting.

The meat dish, roast duck with a beet sauce was a real winner. The skin was crispy, the meat tender, and the sauce matched it deliciously. Bonus points for presentation, with super thin circles of bright red beets dotting the plate. There was also an onion "sauce" that looked and tasted like they'd just minced up an onion and given it a couple of whirls in a cuisinart: after trying a couple bites, I ignored it and the dish was a billion times better for it.

The desserts were fairly common desserts served in a creative way. In their tiramisu, the mascarpone cheese was solidified like a meringue and floated with little coffee tapioca pearls in a creamy soup that tasted like cream and lady's fingers.

For the Mont Blanc, the cream was also solidified like a meringue and sat on top of a chestnut mousse.

Since we were celebrating (and it was only an extra $5), we decided to get an extra dessert, picking caramel cheesecake with a cognac-orange sorbet. I was surprised by how strong the cognac flavor in the sorbet was, but it balanced the creamy cheese cake, which was excellent on its own as well.

Fancy restaurants rarely serve large portions, but if I just wanted to stuff myself I'd just go grab an $8 bowl of ramen. I go for food made of top quality ingredients combined and prepared in ways I would never have though of myself. In fact, I rarely walk away from one such meal without thinking just how big of a difference good ingredients make. I couldn't care less about eating organic, going local, or whatever other trend is popular at the moment, but knowing how important it is to get the good stuff makes me understand the nuts blowing through half their paycheck at whole foods and farmers markets a little bit more.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Where The Gaijin Roam

In Tokyo, the triangle of Roppongi, Azabu, and Hiroo is home to the vast majority of the Western expat community. Many foreign companies have their offices have their offices in the area and most employees brought in from overseas prefer to live nearby. Most of them speak little to no Japanese at best, but are generally very well paid by their employers, so restaurants and stores are more than willing to accommodate them.

Yuki and I were having lunch in the area this past weekend (more on that in a later post), so we thought we'd walk around and check out the area a bit. There was a mom helping her daughter learn to ride a bike, a cafe with twice as many foreigners as Japanese, and a park full of American and British dads playing sports with their kids.

But the real gaijin jackpot is the National Azabu Supermarket, the single most American place I have ever been in Japan. Many Japanese stores will offer versions of foreign products produced domestically by Japanese brands, but not here. Everything was labeled in English and they had a number of brands you'd find in the US: Tide laundry detergent, SunChips, Tyson chicken. It was a bit nostalgic and I picked up a few things that you rarely see in Japan: hamburger buns (damn do I want a proper burger...), a pie crust (will definitely be making pumpkin pie this fall), and cherry coke (and will probably shell out the ridiculous prices they charge for a pizza around here so I can enjoy the ultimate junk food combination). Honestly, I find myself missing things from back home more and more often these days. It's nice to know that there is a way to get my hands on some of those things.

That night, I cooked up some freakin delicious chili and planned to tie it in with this story. But I got home late tonight after having picked up some beautiful ground Australian beef on the way back from work and I cooked myself a hamburger, using the buns I mentioned earlier.

I won't pretend it was perfect.
It was cooked in a frying pan, not on a grill.
It wasn't medium rare, bordering closer to well done.
It wasn't even that big.

But it tasted like beef should, it was juicy, and it was homemade. I ate it with just ketchup, the way I have for just about every burger I've eaten since I was little. It was magnificent and it made the world seem a little bit more right...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Facing Up

HDR Kameari Sunrise (10.8.10) v2
I woke up 20 minutes ahead of my alarm on Friday, which is a bit weird considering I worked late Thursday and didn't end up getting to bed until 2am. My room faces East and the sun had just risen enough that it sent a gentle golden light bursting into my room. There were just enough clouds out to make for a good skyline, so I took a few quick pictures and went back to sleep.

I'd love to share more pictures, but today was a gross and rainy day, so I'll tell you a story instead.

I have recently finally started facing up to some of my fears that come from living abroad. When you move to a foreign country, that baseline upon which you go through life shifts. Many things you just assumed to be one way are now completely different. Others are stuff you do when you finish college and set out on your own, difficult enough in your own country and even more so in a foreign one. You have to adapt and learn as you go, and it can be a scary and difficult process.

My biggest step thus far was my trip to the dentist's office today. Despite having lived here for just short of two years, up to this point I had avoided medical services all together. There's just so many things I don't know about. Not understanding what is typical and what to expect is incredibly intimidating for me. But even scarier, especially in regards to health care, is the language gap. My health related vocabulary is so incredibly basic that I'm fairly certain that I wouldn't understand half of what I was told, even more so if anything was out of the ordinary. I've been fortunate enough to have been in at least fair health since moving over and thus not needed to see a doctor. Until today, I had put off visiting a dentist as long as I could, but one of my wisdom teeth starting coming in and, though not at all painful, I figured I should probably have someone take a look at it just in case.

In the end, I went with Nishieifuku Dental Clinic, a dentist on the complete opposite side of Tokyo that is well regard in the expat community. It took me nearly an hour and a half to get there, but it was worth it. The bulk of the communication was done in Japanese (mostly because I kept speaking to them in Japanese), but the peace of mind from knowing that English was always option made life so much easier for me.

I was advised to let the wisdom tooth come in a little more to make it easier to take out, which seems sensible enough to me. I would also like to note that I was complimented by the assistant on the condition of my teeth and that she was surprised to hear that I hadn't been to the dentist for a cleaning in more than two years. It cost me about $35, which doesn't seem unreasonable, though I have absolutely no clue as to how that number was calculated.

Little by little, I'm trying to get past the fear of not knowing. What I'm beginning to realize is that there will always be things I won't fully comprehend, little black boxes that produce results I don't really understand. All I can do is prepare responsibly, give it my best go, and hope for the best. There will probably be times I get burned, but I'm confident that I will be able to get it right most of the time.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Little Change of Direction

When I started this blog, I intended for it to purely be a food blog. I was cooking every day, trying new things and putting out some really good stuff, and I just wanted to share it. It also coincided with my growing interest in photography, so it gave me a great way to practice that as well. I enjoyed it a lot and was putting up a post nearly every week.

Fast-foward fifteen months and a lot has changed. At the beginning of April, I moved to a new department and am now work a lot more than before, to the point where I've recently been doing nearly twice as many hours of overtime every month. I'm still stubborn about cooking pretty much every day, but you really don't put too much time and effort into it when you're throwing together dinner at 11pm. As such, you could probably count on one hand the number of meals I cook in a month that I feel are even worth sharing. Late work hours also means I don't have much time to write posts or process pictures to put up, so what few meals I think are blog-worthy rarely actually get written about.

At the same time, I have often let myself get sidetracked away from food and written about trips I've taken. In fact, I would say they are usually some of my better posts. I don't travel often enough to have a travel blog, but I think it makes for good reading and interesting pictures all the same.

I don't want to try to force this blog to be something it's not, so what I've decided is this: I'm not going to limit this blog to food related content. I'm not even going to try to define a theme for this blog. I'm just going to write about interesting things I've seen or done. Sometimes I'm not even going to write at all and just share pictures I've taken that I think are interesting. I won't be trying to chronicle my life, just share a glimpse of the things I enjoy.

So here is a post that has absolutely no food in it all. In fact, the only thing that is only even kind of food related is that one of the pictures was taken at a barbecue (which I don't intend to write about). They're just a few pictures of skylines that I like, plus a first attempt at using a new processing technique.

Beautiful blue skies for a barbecue with the Michigan kids this past weekend

NTT DOCOMO Tower, viewed at sunset from Shinjuku Gyoen

Colorful clouds at sunset, looking East from my room

Ginza at dusk

The new technique I mentioned earlier that I'm trying for the first time is HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing. The idea is that you take the same picture multiple times but at different exposures each time. Shots taken at high exposure will pick up details that would normally get lost in shadows, while low exposure shots will catch details in highlights that would get blown out in a normally picture. You then use some crazy voodoo magic software that takes the best parts from each picture and then combines them into one awesome picture. This time, I only combined two pictures (which aren't even perfectly aligned, but worked out anyways) of the sunrise taken from my room.

The first shot, overexposed sky means the clouds are pretty badly blown out

The second shot, underexposed, gets good detail in the sky, but loses most of the city below in shadows

The combined picture, which has eliminated a lot of the shortcomings from the original shots.
1st HDR Attempt

I've only just dipped my toes into the world of HDR, but I'll write about it again once I've tried my hand at it little more and have a few shots worth showing.