Tuesday, May 30, 2006

JAPAN, Part II: Ryokan

During our recent trip to Japan, we stayed at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in the countryside near Fukui. The ryokan, famous for its onsen (hot springs), was a new experience for us and we really enjoyed ourselves.

We arrived at Arawaonsen station in the early afternoon after a two-hour express train ride from Osaka. The small town has many onsen ryokans and we took a cab to ours. The minute we walked in, we were greeted warmly by Japanese men in suits and ladies in traditional kimonos. As we were led to our rooms by one of the ladies, I marveled at the gorgeous Japanese gardens visible through the pristine windows. Everything smelled like light Japanese incense and the entire lobby area was decorated beautifully.

During our stay at the ryokan, one "attendant" was assigned to our party to assist us. She was the one who would set up the meal at the time we requested, as well as put our the futons at the time we wanted to go to sleep. At a ryokan, you always eat in your room, so we arranged for the four of us (my parents, husband and I) to eat in my parents' room.

While we waited for dinner to roll around, we put on the yukatas provided for us and went down to the onsen (hot springs). Mom and I went to the outdoor rotenburo and just soaked in the nice, hot water while we watched the rain fall onto the garden. Talk about relaxing. After about 40 minutes we made our way back to the room where our attendant had started laying out all of the different elements of our dinner.

The dinner spread...and this isn't even everything!

We were starving and my eyes were so busy checking out all of the little dishes filled with different kinds of Japanese food. I can't even remember everything we ate, but all of it was very good. We had chilled snow crab legs, several different kinds of sashimi, thin sliced beef in a hot pot which we cooked ourselves, simmered Japanese vegetables, yuba (tofu skin) with bamboo shoots, fish cakes, miso cod, cold soba with dashi and grated daikon, chawanmushi, clear soup with tofu and a few other things I just can't recall. I do, however, have to point out that someone in the area must have been having a sale on amaebi (sweet shrimp) because it showed up in quite a few dishes. Although we all love amaebi, we were pretty tired of it by the end of the meal.

Snow crab
Sashimi assortment
Bite of maguro?

Even after all this food, rice was offered but we declined since we were just completely stuffed. We did, however, thoroughly enjoy the light dessert offering. It was a soy milk pudding with a green tea gelatin topping capped off with just a small spoonful of anko and served with a sesame meringue cookie. It was so good that we asked for the recipe, and found out that the "secret" ingredient was steamed and mashed sastumaimo, which is a Japanese sweet potato. Very interesting. I just bought all of the ingredients for this and plan to try it this weekend.

Three-tiered tray containing various goodies.
Bamboo shoots and yuba
Soy milk pudding w/ green tea gelatin

The next morning, we had breakfast in my parents room again after soaking in the onsen. This time the meal consisted of some lovely ika somen (squid cut into thin strips like noodles), grilled fish, Japanese potato salad, thinly sliced ham, crab ochazuke (soupy rice), sashimi and an onsen tamago which is a very soft boiled egg (my favorite!). Everything was delicious and once again, we were totally full! I don't see how the average Japanese person can eat that much food, but I suppose they must since most of the ryokan's clients are indeed Japanese.

Breakfast, anyone?
Various delights including an onsen tamago
Ika somen and grilled fish

As always, I took tons of photos- mainly to remember the beautiful arrangement and plating of everything. The care that goes into making everything look so gorgeous is really astounding.

Our room

My husband and I behind my parents in our yukatas.

Hope you enjoy these as much as I enjoyed the whole ryokan experience. I highly recommend it!


Friday, May 26, 2006

JAPAN, Part 1- Baked Goods

Finally getting around to posting after a nice, long vacation to Japan. I have to say it was one of the best vacations of my life. We did everything possible in the 10 days that we had and ate our way around Tokyo, Osaka and a one-night stay at at ryokan in Fukui. I took no less than 400 photos (I am half-Japanese, after all, and you know how we love to take photos!) so I plan to break up Japan Eats report into several stages.

Stage 1 is my Ode to Pan. Pan is bread in Japanese (and Spanish, coincidentally) and Japan is filled to the brim with some of the best toast, pastries and sandwiches on the planet. There is a French bakery on almost every corner and no less than three in almost every depa-chika, which, literally translated, means department store basement. Most major department stores boast a basement filled with everything your foodie heart could ever desire. Counters piled high with designer cookies (that actually taste good), glass cases showing off fat Chinese dumplings and sticks of yakitori shiny with sweet soy glaze, salespeople waving numerous samples of the latest juice or wine in your face....it's all so overwhelming....yet you feel like you've died and gone to Food Heaven. So many choices and not enough stomach space to even accommodate 1/100 of all that the store contains. My eyes would dart back and forth between the perfectly fried, panko-coated korokkes and the freshly baked blueberry loaves dripping with still-warm icing. What on earth is a girl to do?

Well, what my stomach couldn't hold, my camera certainly could so I simply snapped away at anything that looked good, which was....well.....everything. I'm sure some of the salespeople thought it was strange that I was taking multiple photos of a single yakisoba roll, but I had to share with you, faithful readers (if there are any of you left after my long absence!) all of the beauties that lie within the Japanese depa-chika. Well, maybe not all of them in this single post but we will start with what I consider to be one of the stars, if not the star, of the whole depa-chika show....the gorgeous and plentiful bread.

Break me off a piece of that!

Of course, a bakery isn't the only place you'd find fantastic bread in Japan. Just go to any kissaten (coffee shop) for breakfast and most offer several "morning sets," each offering some variation on an egg, coffee and a nice, thick slice of buttered toast. Ah, the thick Japanese toast. For those of you who have been to Japan or have been a the Japanese grocery store, you know the wonder that is The Thick Japanese Toast. Crispy and buttery on the outside and mochi mochi (soft and chewy) on the inside, it's one of my all-time favorite things to eat and the base of the namesake of this blog. I did order tuna toast once, but unfortunately it wasn't the best version of my beloved dish since it had way too much cheese on it. Yes, sometimes there is such a thing as too much cheese.

An extra gooey version of tuna toast

Anyway, please enjoy the photos of the lovely pan and pastries. More Japan reports to come!

Department store baker, busy at work.

Mo-ning seto!

Sugar toast, salmon sandwich and fried egg (with perfectly medium-runny middle!) sandwich

Perfectly organized

Bread w/ cheese and ham inside...mmmmmmm

Sticky sweet goodness

Are you feeling full yet?

So much bread, so little time....


Sunday, May 21, 2006


I am just leaving Japan now but I promise to post soon- I took way too many photos and ate tons of great food. It may actually take me a year to blog about all of my experiences but I will try my best to get it all out. O tanoshimi!

See you on blog very soon!


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Vacation Mode

I haven't blogged in the last few days because, although I don't leave until Friday, my brain is already in complete vacation mode. I have two more days at work before taking off to Tokyo and Osaka for 10 days, and all I can think about is about seeing my Obaachan, hanging out with friends, eating loads of great food and consuming lots of beer and sake.

Needless to say, I haven't really been cooking this week since we have to eat what we have in the refrigerator....which isn't really a lot. The other night, this was dinner:

Chinois Chicken Salad

Chinois Chicken Salad is probably one of my all-time favorite salads on the planet. I first got a taste of it at the Wolfgang Puck Express on 3rd Street Promenade when the artist management company I used to work for had an office there. I probably ate it every other day for a month before finally trying the other stuff on the menu. For "fast food," that place has truly good food- from the wood-fired pizzas to the delicate pastas and, of course, this perfect salad.

Another lets-clean-the-fridge-out meal was this:

Baguette with tuna salad and tomatoes + smoked turkey & pepper jack cheese. Sometimes I just love to eat like this, especially in warm weather.

So yes, I have been kind of lazy in the kitchen department but I'm just preparing myself for the okonomiyaki, doria, katsu donburi, sushi, tuna toast (ah yeah!), kari kari cheezu, kabocha korokke and other goodies (I know, that is A LOT of food!) that I will be consuming over the next 10 days.

I will try my best to post about my Japan eating adventures while I am there, but that probably depends on how much sake I have;). If anyone reading this lives in Tokyo or Osaka and has any "must eats" they'd like to share with me, I'd appreciate it!!

Matta ne! See you from Tokyo!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Chinese Long Beans

These hearty, long beans have been a favorite of mine at Chinese restaurants but I had never purchased them myself. On my maiden voyage to 99 Ranch Market in Monterey Park last weekend, I saw these among the many unfamiliar vegetables and quickly put one bunch into my basket. On a related note: I need to look into getting a very authentic Chinese and Thai cookbooks. The assortment of spices, fermented tofu, fish, vegetables, chilies, snacks and other items at 99 Ranch Market just completely, utterly boggled my mind. I wanted to buy everything but had no clue what 80% of the stuff was so I figure I'd better do more research before buying a bounty of products. Any cookbook recommendations would be appreciated.

Since I had never made the long beans before, I looked up several recipes and basically learned that they can be prepared like green beans. I combined a couple of the recipes that sounded good and ended up with steamed and then sautéed long beans with crushed peanuts and onion. It was seasoned with only a slight amount of soy sauce, garlic and a touch of rice vinegar. It was delicious and I just loved the meatiness of the long beans compared to regular green beans.

Long beans with peanuts

With that I served some teriyaki'd beef tenderloin (another purchase at the market- $5.00 a pound!), a simple salad with goma dressing and some sliced sourdough baguette. I know the last item doesn't sound like it would fit into the bunch but it went quite well with the savory steaks since we didn't serve rice.

Teriyaki tenderloin

If any of you have any great recipes for long beans, please share the wealth!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Biscuits 'N Eggs

The other day, J and I had a total hankering for something carby. We wanted anything in the bread family but alas- there was not one member left in our house. No tortillas, no bread of any sort....not even any crackers. When he jokingly suggested that I make some bread, I just looked at him like he was bonkers and snorted, "Er, yeah...just make some bread right now?" Maybe in an alternate universe where bread could be made in 10 minutes. We wanted bread and we wanted it now!

After another run-through of the pantry, I realized that I had some Trader Joe's (no, I don't work for them!) Buttermilk Pancake and Baking Mix. Score! I also had some buttermilk leftover in the fridge- score #2!! I quickly mixed the two and added a nice handful of green onions, a pat of butter and a generous scoop of grated parmesan. Ten minutes in the toaster oven at 400 degrees and presto- I had my carbs!

Piping hot green onion & parmesan drop-biscuits

The biscuits were extremely light and fluffy and the tang of the parmesan mixed with the freshness of the green onions was absolutely addictive. I cut the biscuits in half lengthwise and topped each with a medium poached egg and a dollop of salsa. Breakfast heaven!

Poached eggs make anything taste better

There is no greater motivator than a major craving!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Trust Your Instincts

More times than not, I find that when the little voice in my head starts talking, I should listen to it. For example, when I get in my car and I think to myself, Did I bring my sunglasses? but I don't check immediately to see if I did, I didn't bring them. By the time I finally look in my purse, I'm half way to work with the sun glaring in my eyes. Should've listened to The Voice.

Why don't I learn from my mistakes? The other day I was looking for a recipe to use the shrimp and Chinese noodles that I bought and came upon one for which I had every single ingredient- YES! Spicy Chinese Noodles With Shrimp sounded fresh, healthy and delicious. I could also add the nira chives that I had to it as well as some leftover cilantro. I was excited to try it and got to work.

Did I say I had everything in my pantry? Well, the recipe called for hot paprika and all I had was regular, Hungarian smoked sweet and Hungarian smoked hot. The hot one sounded good, but then The Voice started murmuring, "You know how strong Hungarian Smoked HOT paprika is...." but then the Other Voice said "Oh, just use it- it's the closest thing you have to regular hot."

After spending 25 minutes beheading and shelling the shrimp, I mixed all of the spices together, chopped the nira chives and onions and got my wok blazing hot. It smelled good and looked fantastic- visually it looked just like Pad Thai, even though it was a completely different dish. I piled up two nice portions on my new, square white plates (you'll be seeing more of them!) and proudly took them out to the table.

Looks good......tastes bad.....

One bite in, I could feel the burn of the paprika but couldn't detect any of the other flavors. What happened to my best friend, Garlic? Where was the freshly grated ginger? They were all sucked up by the Hungarian, that's where. It wasn't Chinese at all- even the usually powerful fish sauce was only faint in its presence. I knew I should have listened to The Voice.

Two isn't better than one....

We picked out the shrimp and left most of the noodles. Sure- it looks great but mentally, you almost want it to taste like Pad Thai since it looks so much like it. The blast of spicy, smokey paprika is not what you expect from a dish like this.

Must listen to The Voice!!!

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Godfather, Guacamole and Margaritas

Sometimes, after a particularly draining week, I just don't feel like cooking or even going out to eat (stop the presses!). I love to just come home on Friday, slip on my sweats, pour a glass of wine and relax. I could tell that last Friday was going to be one of those nights when I was clock-watching from about 3:00 pm onward. I had a date with my sofa and didn't really feel like making dinner at all.

Just as I was about to leave work, my husband pops up on the instant messenger with "I feel like a margarita." Not such an unusual request for most of you, faithful readers, but it was for me since we drink wine about 99.9% of the time. Sure, I have some hard liquor in my pantry but it's usually reserved for cooking or baking. J then chimed in with "ooooh, guacamole sounds good too." I could do that, I thought. In fact, that sounded like the perfect end-of-the-week-stay-at-home idea. I just hoped that there were ripe avocados at the market.

On my way to the store, I phoned J's friend Kid T who is rumored to have the best margarita recipe this side of....well, just the best around, I guess. He gave me the list of ingredients and I picked everything up in one stop. Lucky me- there was a sale on avocados- $10 for 10! And there were plenty of ultra ripe ones which I quickly picked out of the pile.

I arrived home and whipped up the guacamole with the avocados, lime juice, chopped onion, chopped tomato, dried cilantro (drat! the store was out of fresh!), garlic, diced jalapeno peppers and salt/pepper. I followed Kid T's margarita recipe to a T and wow- it was simple, refreshing and packed quite the punch.

In another stroke of luck, the American Movie Classics channel was showing The Godfather and The Godfather II back to back! Although we've both seen them a dozen times, we just couldn't resist the Power of Pachino. We hunkered down with our vat of guacamole, made a toast to Fridays, and had a blast.

Dinner is served........

Who says dinner has to contain the four food groups?

Kid T's Famous Margaritas

1.5 ounces GOOD tequila (I personally love Cazadores- of course Patron Silver is great but expensive).
1 ounces Cointreau or Grand Marnier (I use Cointreau)
2.5 ounces of freshly squeezed lime juice
2 TBS simple syrup

Put all ingredients in a shaker with ice, pour over ice in glasses.

Note: if it is too tart for your taste, add more simple syrup as necessary.