Typhoon Season

Life has been repeating itself.

I’m back in Okinawa.  Holed up in my little concrete house waiting for Typhoon Bolaven to pass.

This time around however, I’ll be in Okinawa a bit longer than a month.  When I left Okinawa last year, I hoped to come back some day for a longer stay.  I just never imagined it would be so soon.  Sometimes life doesn’t move in the way you planned.  A lesson I should have learned a long time ago.

So, I’m back.  Settling in.  Figuring things out.  It’s been fairly smooth sailing so far.  I got a car.  I got my drivers license.  I’ve adjusted, mostly, to driving on the left (hitting the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal not withstanding).  I have a Japanese cell phone (HTC Android, of course, thank you very much).  I have wi-fi in my apartment.  Admittedly, I’m not loving the service provider here on base, but they seem to be universally hated so I’m not alone in my frustration.  I just upgraded to their fastest speed service and it still took over 4 hours to download a movie from iTunes yesterday.  Sigh.

I’m still waiting for the bulk of my stuff to get here, although I was lucky to have my air freight waiting for me when I arrived.  It means I have a few tools to make cooking a little bit easier and a few other comforts from home.  I’ll be much happier when everything else gets here and I’m able to unpack.  I imagine it will feel a bit more like “home” at that point.

My first weekend here there was a big Eisa festival in Naha.  One of my regrets last year was that I wasn’t able to attend any Eisa festivals.  The one time I was able to see Eisa dancing was at a local cultural center but it was a small group and only increased my desire to see a larger group perform.  The festival in Naha was amazing.  Each group had its own unique style and costumes.

The festival took place on the major tourist/shopping street, and worked a little like a parade in that each group would perform on one block then walk down to the next block and perform again.  It was blazing hot and some groups performed barefoot.  You could feel the heat rising off the pavement of the street.  I don’t know how the groups managed to perform for 4 hours!  They had people dumping buckets of water on the street before the groups would arrive at a new location to try to cool the pavement down a little bit.

I took a ton of photos over the course of the afternoon.  Given that I don’t have much else to report, I’m doing a bit of a photo dump for this post.

Of course, for me, the stars of the day were the kids…

And this little boy in particular who was actually just a spectator but put on a show for the crowd between performances by the formal groups.

There is an even bigger Eisa festival in early September that actually takes place at a sports park next to the base.  I’m planning to go with a friend from work.  Looking forward to seeing even more groups perform.  The festival in September is supposed to be groups from all over Okinawa, whereas the one I went to that first weekend was just groups from Naha.

While there are many things that make me excited to be in Okinawa (the beach, scuba diving, sushi, the beach), one thing I’m already missing is being able to watch American sporting events live.  Its a small sacrifice to make, I know, but it bums me out more than a little to know I’m unlikely to see any live football games this season.  Normally I’d be bummed about missing the end of the baseball season but as the Red Sox seem to have forgotten how to play baseball, its probably better for my blood pressure to avoid watching their remaining games this season.

Although I probably won’t watch many games, football has still been on my brain.  In all honesty, I’m not a dedicated football fan.  That being said, I do love a good football party, which might have something to do with the food.  So today I leave you with a tasty treat to bring to your next football party.

Caramel Corn

This is my mom’s recipe.  I think its a fairly common recipe as my sister-in-law makes a very similar version.  However, if you haven’t tried it before, you should.  Its delicious!  One piece of warning however, make sure you remove any unpopped corn kernels before you pour on the caramel sauce.  If you don’t, they get baked and become monstrously hard, which is just a tad dangerous for your teeth.  Its definitely worth the effort to sift them out.

Ingredients:

1 c. butter
2 c. brown sugar, packed
1/2 c. light Karo corn syrup
1 t. salt
1 t. vanilla
1/2 t. baking soda
6 qts. popped corn (two batches from an air popper)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 250° F.

Melt butter; stir in brown sugar, corn syrup and salt. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil without stirring for 5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in soda and vanilla. Gradually pour over popped corn, mixing well.

Turn into 2 large shallow baking pans. Bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely. Break apart and store in a covered container or zip-loc bags.

Pieces Of My Heart

Clearly I still need to work on my level of focus towards this blog.  Thankfully its a new year and its once again on my list of resolutions.  This post is 4 months overdue, but I’m going ahead with it anyway, because while it may be outdated, the subject has been on my mind: Taiwan.

I thought I’d be a blogging fiend the month I was in Taiwan, but as usual, things did not go according to my plans.  I figured I would have lots of things to say about being back in one of my favorite places for the first time in over 10 years.  Instead, it was like I arrived and all my words dried up.  I couldn’t think of what to say, or how to express the strange mix of emotions being back in Taiwan brought to the surface.  Given my dearth of words, I’ve decided to make this a photo-driven post.  Next post, I promise lots in the way of deep thoughts.

Without further ado, a small taste of Taiwan…

You might find yourself amazed at what people can fit on their scooters.  This is just one example.

Again with the dogs.  I saw this guy one evening at Freedom Square in Taipei.  I think he takes the idea of “man’s best friend” to a whole new level.

Occasionally additional instructions are needed in restrooms that have Western-style toilets.

And now for the actual flavors of Taiwan…  I spent an inordinate amount of time prior to my arrival debating what my first meal back in Taiwan would be, and decided that if I could find some fried rice near my hotel, that is what I would go with.  Luckily for me, it turned out there was a wonderful fried rice place right around the corner, and as I realized later, they even make my favorite kind: ketchup fried rice.  It sounds wrong, I know, but its so right.

My first meal back in Taiwan: fried rice and fresh kumquat juice.

I have dreamed of returning to this little place in Taichung for the past decade.  They make the most amazing Grass Jelly.

Just as good as I remembered.

Taiwanese night markets offer an amazing selection of food at incredible value.  Much like the hawker stalls in Singapore, you can guess which stalls have the best food by the lines in front.  My first weekend back in Taiwan I spent a night in Taichung, where I visited the night market outside of Feng Jia University with my good friend Joanne.  We both ordered grilled sausages, but the seafood options also looked quite enticing.

The following day, Joanne took me back to Zhong Xing Xin Qun, which is where she is from and one of the places I lived.  My first stop when we got into town was Greasy Joes, my favorite shaved noodle place.  They also make amazing steamed dumplings and possibly the best hot and sour soup I’ve ever had.  I’ll confess, when I lived in Zhong Xing, I did find a spider in my soup once and a friend found an unsavory critter in his shaved noodles, but the food is so good, none of that has ever stopped me from going back whenever the opportunity presents itself.

That night, Joanne and her sister took me out to dinner and afterwards we enjoyed big bowls of mango shaved ice.  Taiwan still makes the best shaved ice.  Hands down.

This past week, in honor of Chinese New Year, I made Chinese food for the first time in 3 years.  Its hard to believe that much time has passed, but I’m pretty sure the last time I cooked a Chinese dinner was Chinese New Year 2009, right before I left Salt Lake.  It felt good to get back in touch with the original inspiration behind the blog.  Turns out, I’ve missed making Chinese food.  While I made an amazing array of food (if I do say so myself) for a Chinese New Year dinner I hosted on Monday, the recipe I want to share today is actually one I tried on Tuesday with a good friend who specifically requested it.  I think its the perfect recipe for this post because it is one of my favorite things to order in Taiwan: green onion pancakes.  Growing up, I remember ordering these at Chinese restaurants in L.A., but it seems like its been a long time since I’ve seen them on a menu at at State-side Chinese restaurant.  I’m not sure if that is because they’ve gone out of vogue, or if it’s a west coast vs. east coast phenomenon.  Regardless, I ate many of these over the course of my month in Taiwan and was delighted to discover how easy they are to make at home.

葱油饼 Green Onion Pancake

(adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

1 1/2 cups flour, plus extra for dusting work surface

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus a little extra for brushing dough

6 scallions, minced (about 1/2 cup)

Soy Sauce for dipping

Combine the flour and salt in a medium bowl, then add 1/2 c. of water, mixing with a fork until combined.  If you have floury bits that haven’t been incorporated into the dough, add more water, 1 teaspoon at a time, until the dough comes together.  If you have to add more water, go slowly and make sure that you’ve mixed the dough well after each addition to be sure that you aren’t adding too much.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until the dough is soft and smooth, about 5 minutes, adding extra flour to the work surface if the dough is sticking.  Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, brush with a thin layer of vegetable oil, and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Divide the dough into 4 portions and cover with a kitchen towel to keep the dough moist.  Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll it out into a roughly 7-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick on a lightly floured surface.  Brush the dough lightly with vegetable oil, then sprinkle with approximately 2 tablespoons of minced scallions.

Roll the round of dough into a thin cylinder (so it looks like a cigar), then coil the cylinder like a cinnamon roll, tucking the end under.  Now roll the dough out again into a flat disk about 5 inches in diameter, roughly 1/4 inch thick.

Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot.  Swirl the oil to coat the skillet, then add the dough round and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side.  While the pancake is cooking, prepare the next pancake by following the instructions above.  Before cooking each pancake add another tablespoon of oil to the skillet.  As the pancakes finish cooking, transfer them to a cutting board and tent with foil to keep them warm.  Before serving you can cut them into wedges, which is how they are served in Taiwan.  However, my friend and I grabbed them whole, ripping off chunks to dip into soy sauce with our dinner.

Welcome to Singapore. Leave your dirty habits at the door.

They don’t seem to mess around in Singapore.


I spent three very short days here and for all the rules and general over-the-top cleanliness (particularly for a city in Asia) I have to say, I kinda liked it.  A lot.

The food was everything I hoped it would be, which is saying a lot.  My first night I walked to a hawker center (like an outdoor food court) down the street from my hotel and tried popiah (my favorite of all the food I tried in Singapore), grilled swordfish, white carrot cake (not at all like what you are probably imaging… kind of like an omelet with some kind of mild radish), fresh coconut milk and fresh lime juice.  All of it was amazing.


Other food favorites included dinner at the hawker center in Little India, where I got to watch my naan being made, and all of the fresh, ready-to-eat fruit for sale all over the city.  See, I like fruit, love it even, when I don’t have to do anything to it.  No peeling.  No slicing.  No worrying about pits or seeds.  I buy it and I eat it.  I would be such a healthier person if I lived in southeast Asia.  Really, I would.


Saturday morning a friend and I did the 12 km loop through the nature reserve in the center of Singapore.  The whole hike was amazing, but honestly, the monkeys were probably the highlight, at least for me.


Don’t worry.  I was careful to keep my food tucked away in my backpack for the duration of our hike.



Honestly, though, and somewhat surprisingly, the architecture may have made the greatest impression on me.  I loved the look of the city, the towering skyscrapers, the funky modernism of some of the buildings, the sense of history imparted by the occasional relic from decades past.






That pretty much sums up my brief visit to Singapore.  Food, nature, architecture.  And one somewhat bittersweet phone call to my favorite place on earth, a little farm in Maidstone, Vermont where my four closest friends were celebrating the 15th anniversary of our friendship.

And I wasn’t there.  As wonderful as Singapore was, I would have much preferred to be in Vermont with my girls and their husbands and babies and corn and BBQing and hiking and cooking and laying about being lazy, and maybe kicking butt (or not, as is often the case) during a game or two of Settlers of Catan.

Every year Lyn invites us to the Farm in August for her annual Corn Roast.  Most years I make it.  Often she is kind enough to rearrange the schedule so that I can come (like last year… when she held it in September, long after the corn is no longer in season).  This year, well, it just wasn’t happening so in honor of the corn roast, I whipped up a batch of corn pancakes during one of my weekends in Okinawa.  Not as good as the real thing, but not a bad substitute given the circumstances.

For my girls… who knew 3 months in Maine would change each of our lives so much for the better.  I love you.


Sweet Corn Pancakes
(adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

2 tablespoons butter, plus additional for pan
3/4 cup corn (use fresh if you have it, but I used frozen sweet baby corn)
dash of salt
1 egg
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup flour
1/4 cup  cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add corn and saute for 4 to 5 minutes, until it begins to brown ever-so-slightly. Sprinkle with salt and set aside to cool. Wipe out skillet.

Lightly beat egg in the bottom of a large bowl, then whisk in buttermilk, corn, vanilla and sugar. In a smaller bowl, whisk flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir dry ingredients into wet, mixing until just combined but still lumpy in appearance.

Reheat your skillet or saute pan to medium. Brush the pan with butter and ladle 1/4 cup batter at a time, 2 inches apart. When the pancakes have bubbles on top and are slightly dry around the edges, flip them over and cook until golden brown underneath.

Adjust heat as needed if the pancakes are cooking too fast.  Repeat with remaining batter, and serve immediately with real maple syrup (very important if you are friends with any native Vermonters).

No Place Like Home

I think a lot about the concept of home.  I’m not entirely sure why.  It’s not a new thing.  I always have.  Maybe it’s because I travel a lot.  Every time I visit a new place I evaluate it in terms of whether or not it feels like home, feels like a place I could live for the long term.  The places I love are the places I respond to in my gut, the places where I could see myself putting down roots, staying for more than just a visit.

Okinawa was one of those places, which may be part of the reason I loved it so much.

I hope life takes me back that way again at some point.  I’d love to spend more lazy days on the beach.


I’d like to explore more of its villages and towns, discover more of the local artisans and their crafts.


I’d like to visit more of the fortresses and castles that dot the island.


I’d like to see more Asa dancing and drumming.  One night I was driving home late and in front of a restaurant I passed there was a huge group of boys dressed in the traditional clothing, drumming and dancing.  Seriously one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the streets were blocked off and it was a little crazy and I couldn’t figure out where to stop or park so I only caught a glimpse and I don’t have any photos to share.  You’ll have to settle for this little snapshot to get a sense of what I am talking about.


In short, I would like to call Okinawa “home”, at least for a little while.

Guacamole

I have a decidedly un-Okinawan recipe to share today.  However, I think it fits because its one of those dishes that says “home” to me.  Total and complete comfort food.

I have two confessions I should probably share right off the bat.  First up, this isn’t a recipe.  Its a method.  Guacamole is one of those things you should probably not use a recipe to make.

Secondly, I come from a family of amazing cooks and we all have certain things we are known for and that we make when we get together.  In my family, I do not make the guacamole.  That right/honor falls to my brother, whose guacamole puts my guacamole to shame.  But when I’m on the road, or anywhere other than Utah, and the craving strikes, this is what I throw together.

Ingredients:

2-3 avocados
fresh lime
onion
salt and pepper
spices (I like to use a Mexican spice mix, but if I don’t have that I go with cumin and whatever chili pepper I have on hand.
vegetable oil
fresh tomatoes

Method:

Chop the onion.  Heat oil in a skillet.  Add the onions.  Saute until soft, adding spices to taste (salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder).

Cut the avocados in half, remove pits (save the pits), and scoop flesh into a bowl.  Chop tomatoes and add to the bowl.  When the onions are soft add to the bowl.  Squeeze the juice from half of a lime into the bowl.

Mash/mix to desired consistency (I like mine with some big chunks left in).  Taste and adjusting seasoning if needed (you might want more lime juice or salt and pepper).  Push the avocado pits down into the guacamole.  This will help prevent your guacamole from turning brown.  (This is also a good tip if you are using only part of an avocado in some other recipe/dish.  Leave the pit in the remaining avocado and it will prevent the flesh from turning brown.)

 

Back in the Kitchen Again

My third week in Okinawa was mostly spent taking a scuba certification course.  We started Sunday afternoon and finished the following Sunday morning, with class every day except Monday.  Between that and work, I was kept pretty busy.  I still managed a visit to a Sushi-Go-Round place with a couple of co-workers for dinner on Monday night.


My pile of plates at the end of the night:


The prettiest seaweed sushi ever:


My favorite views of the ocean from the week:




On Friday some of the girls I work with took me to a little cafe near base for lunch.  They do a bento box style lunch.  I don’t know what half of the stuff on the tray was, but it was all delicious.  I ate every last bite.


This is the view I walked out to following scuba class on Friday night:

Friday night I went to a live music bar with a couple of co-workers.  The place has a house band that performs Western oldies in full costumes.  It was a highly entertaining evening.



Sunday morning rolled around and after two beautiful dives at Maeda Point I received my PADI Open Water certification.


I didn’t expect to do much cooking during my time in Okinawa.  I have a kitchen in the place I’m staying and I knew that coming here.  But for how much I love to cook, I can be a bit fussy about it.  I don’t like to rough it in the kitchen.  I like having good tools. I want the process to be as easy as possible.  I assumed the kitchen would not be very well stocked for actual cooking or baking, and I was right.  For my first week here it was easy to resist the urge to cook. I was jet lagged.  Work was busy.  There were so many restaurants to try.

I managed to resist the call of kitchen for 2 full weeks.  But by my second weekend here the allure of another restaurant meal had dimmed and the urge to buy some of the gorgeous red rhubarb I saw at the Commissary was too strong to resist.

Its amazing to me the items you can buy at the Commissary.  Admittedly, if I lived here I’m sure I would crave a wider variety of spices, a greater selection of fresh herbs.  However, I was surprised to see a number of flours from Bob’s Red Mill, fresh milk (organic and regular), and of course, the rhubarb.

During my two days waiting out the typhoon I inevitably spent some time perusing my favorite food blogs, which lead me to a recipe on Smitten Kitchen for a rhubarb coffee cake.  I decided to give it a try.  I took it into work and it was a big hit with my co-workers.  My Japanese colleagues had never had rhubarb before and I wasn’t sure if this would be the best introduction.  It seems I had nothing to worry about as  I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews.  One of my colleagues confessed to having three pieces!

I suppose rhubarb is now out of season in most places but you could easily substitute another kind of fruit and still give this a try.  Honestly it’s the big crumb topping that makes this one so good and as a result would probably be good with many other kinds of fruit.  If you use a sweeter fruit however, you will probably want to cut some of the sugar.

Rhubarb Coffee Cake (from Smitten Kitchen, originally from the New York Times)

Rhubarb Filling:
1/2 lb. rhubarb, leaves on top and the base trimmed
1/4 c. sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 t. ground ginger

Crumb Topping:
1/3 c. dark brown sugar
1/3 c. sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 c. butter, melted
1 3/4 c. flour

Cake:
1/3 c. sour cream
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons softened butter

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.  Grease an 8″ square baking pan.

Slice the rhubarb into 1/2 inch cubes and toss with sugar, cornstarch, and ginger.  Set aside.

For the crumbs: In a large bowl whisk sugars, spices and salt into melted butter until smooth.  Add flour.  It should look and feel like a solid dough (mine was a little dry and I probably could have added a little more butter).  Press the mix into the bottom of the bowl and set aside.

For the cake: In a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, egg, egg yolk and vanilla.  In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Add butter and a spoonful of the sour cream mixture and mix on low speed until the flour is moistened.  Increase the speed and beat for 30 seconds.  Add remaining sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition.  Scrape down the sides of bowl with a spatula and scoop out about 1/2 cup of batter and set aside.

Pour the remaining batter into the prepared 8″ pan.  Spoon rhubarb over the batter and then dollop the batter you set aside over the rhubarb.  It does not need to be even.

Using your fingers, break the topping mixture into big chunks.  They do not need to be uniform.  Because my mix was dry, I had some big chunks and lots of small crumbs.  Sprinkle the crumbs/chunks over the cake.  Bake the cake for 45-55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean (although it may be moist from the rhubarb).  Cool completely before serving.

Okinawa High

My second weekend in Okinawa finally provided me with time to do a little exploring.  I decided to take a scenic drive up to Cape Hedo, the northernmost point of the island.  I felt like it would be a good way to get a better feel of the island.  It was beautiful.  I can’t begin to describe how many times the scenery took my breath away.  The few photos I’m posting don’t begin to do it justice.

My original plan for the day also included stops at the Aquarium and the Nago Pineapple Park.  However, that turned out to be a little too ambitious so I only managed a stop at the Pinapple Park.  I had planned to grab lunch at a little Peruvian restaurant that is way up north, mostly so I could brag to Chino about how I ate at the only Peruvian restaurant in Okinawa.  And then it was closed.  My best laid plans are often foiled by fate.  So frustrating.

Along the way north:




Pineapple at the Nago Pineapple Park:


Cape Hedo:



A couple of observations from my second week in Okinawa:
– Minis are not mini in Japan.  They have a special class of mini car here which are easily identified by their yellow license plates.  Minis don’t make the cut.
– The U.S. Air Force, or at least the folks who run their pool on base, have not discovered the benefits of mandatory kiddie diapers in public pools.  Based on a few observations over an hour long visit, including a forced evacuation of the pool, seems like that rule might be in order.
– I found a quilt store while out exploring, but it was closed.  I’ve been back again since then and it was still closed.  I fear the proprietor is on vacation.
– I found a baby cockroach on my bed’s headboard before going to sleep one night.  Needless to say, I now have a rather complicated pre-bed ritual.
– The last time I took the trash out through the back door a snail fell on my head.  As a result, I now go out the front door and walk around to the back.  (Are you seeing a pattern of extreme wimpyness when it comes to me and bugs?)

Two weeks of eating out made me crave a good home cooked meal so Sunday night I spent some time in the kitchen and baked up an easy, delicious pasta sauce.

Baked Tomato Sauce (adapted from the Wednesday Chef)
Tomatoes here are on the pricey side so I did half a pound and used an 8×8 baking dish.  I thought the sauce was still good, but would definitely be better if you had more tomatoes.

1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. very ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 c. plain dry breadcrumbs
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmigiano
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. penne
1/4 c. loosely packed fresh basil lives, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Grease a 9×13 baking dish with some of the olive oil.  Place the tomatoes cut side up in the dish.

In a small bow, combine the breadcrumbs, Parmigiano, and garlic.  Cover the tomatoes with the breadcrumb mixture, making sure that each tomato is well covered. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Bake until the tomatoes are cooked through and starting to brown on top, 20-25 minutes.

Going into the oven:


Coming out of the oven:


Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the pasta and cook for 8-10 minutes, or until al dente.  Try to time the pasta so it finishes at about the same time as the tomatoes.

When the tomatoes are done, add the basil and stir vigorously to mix everything into a sauce.  Drain the pasta and add to the dish of sauce.  Add the remaining olive oil and mix well.  Serve immediately.

Land of the Rising Sun

I arrived in Okinawa just in time for Typhoon Mufia.  Which meant two days of my first week here were spent indoors, locked down in my little concrete house on base.  I went by the Commissary on Monday night to pick up some breakfast food.  Between payday (1st of the month) and the eminent arrival of the typhoon, it was more than just a little bit crazy.  The checkout line wrapped halfway around the store, and this Commissary is the same size an average grocery store in the States.  Good thing I brought my nook.

We were locked down from Thursday afternoon until Saturday evening.  Rather than indulging in delicious local food, I survived on cold cereal, instant grits, and tuna fish salad.  I can’t quite express how nice it was to go out for dinner on Saturday night.  Wanting a little bit of comfort food I’ll confess that I opted for Mexican and was pleasantly surprised to find that the place made some mean carnitas.

The view of the typhoon from my little concrete house.

View out the back of my house.

Thankfully, I didn’t get too lonely during the typhoon because I had Gecks to keep me company (oh yes, I’m very original when it comes to names.)

Gecks, my buddy during the typhoon.

He’s just a little guy.  I took the following picture so you would have a better sense of his size.  I do wish he would hang out somewhere other than my kitchen, but what can you do.

Littly bitty gecko.

When I finally got out on Saturday I drove around the base and discovered that some buildings did not fare as well as my little house.

The front of the fitness center, post-typhoon.

Plants also seem to have had a rough time of it.

The tree outside the main gate.

Sunday night I walked down to the Sunabe Seawall which is a short walk from the base.  Really wanting and needing some fresh air and a little bit of exercise I walked from there down to a large shopping complex for dinner.  Walking on the seawall was a delight.  Its been far too long since I’ve been able to enjoy the sight and sound of the ocean.

Along the seawall.

Lots of crabs down by the seawall.

Surfing at the seawall, supposedly one of the better places on island.

I hope he had a good day surfing.

As I’m enjoying the opportunity to explore this little corner of Japan, I wanted to share a Japanese inspired recipe.  This is not by any means authentic.  However, that seems somewhat appropriate because I’m discovering that Okinawan cuisine tends to mix many different culinary influences.  This is one of my favorite recipes that I got from my mom.  I love taking it to work lunches.  People always rave about it.

Sumi Salad

My mom’s original recipe called for Accent (AKA MSG) in the salad dressing, which over the years I have felt less and less comfortable using.  I did some research and discovered that fish sauce is a good substitute for MSG.  I sampled the updated recipe with Hillary and we both thought it tasted just as good as the original.

Dressing:

1/4 c. sugar

1/2 c. rice vinegar

2 t. fish sauce

1/2 c. oil

Whisk together all ingredients except for the oil.  Slowly add the oil, whisking continually until fully incorporated.

Salad:

1 pkg. shredded cabbage
2 pkg. Ramen noodles (discard the seasoning packets)
4 green onions, thinly sliced (white to very light green section only)
1/2 c.  slivered almonds
Heat a non-stick pan over medium to medium-high heat.  Brown onions and almonds together in pan (don’t use any oil).  Put the cabbage in a large bowl and add the onions/almonds.  Crumble the ramen noodles and add to the bowl.  Toss with dressing.  Serve.
This is a great salad to take to potlucks.  People love it!  The most important thing is to keep the ramen noodles and the dressing separate until ready to serve.  If you mix the whole thing in advance, the noodles will get soggy and you want them to be crunchy.

Trying This Again…

Third time’s the charm right?  Well, this is officially the third time I’m giving blogging a go, so hopefully I’ll be somewhat more successful this time around.  I have all kinds of excuses for why it didn’t work out the last time.  I was living in Baghdad.  My computer with the Adobe design programs died (sniff sniff).  I didn’t like the “look” of the blog.

That last one was the real sticking point.  When I moved the blog from Chi Bao Le over to here, it was because I wanted more control over the blog design.  Having taken, oh, 8 graphic design classes through the University of Utah continuing education program in the fall of 2008 I thought I had plenty of skills to rock the design world.  Um, yeah, not so much.

After months of procrastination and fumbling about, I can honestly say I finally have the blog looking the way I envisioned way back in January 2009 when I created this site.  Such humble aspirations, I know.  The downside of finally getting the look just right is that I have no more excuses to avoid actually blogging.

I’ve had this post in mind for months.  Earlier this year, there was a period of time where I had three different friends come to me for help with yeast baking.  They were running into various difficulties and asked for some help/advice.  It got me thinking that maybe I should do a yeast baking tutorial on the blog.  There are probably plenty of these tutorials on the web, but sometimes I find it’s easier to follow when it comes from a friend.

I started baking with yeast when I was 11 years old.  I took a one day baking class from a lady at church and she taught me how to make a recipe for dinner rolls.  It was a bit of a tricky recipe.  Depending on the local climate, you had to vary the amount of flour.  When it was time for the dough to rise, you had to set the bowl in a sink filled with warm water and then, every 15 minutes for 2-3 hours you had to punch the dough down.  It made a sticky dough, which in turn made it difficult to shape into rolls.  I’m not sure why, but I was determined to master this recipe.  And I did.  For a period of time, I made them almost every week for Sunday dinner.  I even made them when we lived in the Marshall Islands.

That right there is why its worthwhile to master, or at least feel confident with, yeast baking.  Once you understand the process, you can bake anything anywhere in the world.  Which is good, because believe me, plenty of places in the world lack good American style yeast-raised bread.  In Baghdad, I made bagels, bread, cinnamon rolls… whatever baked good I craved, I could make, and that made the experience of living there far more bearable.

Couple things to remember when working with yeast:

  • Yeast is a living thing.  Which means you can kill it.  Which means it won’t work.  Yeast is happiest in a cozy, warm environment.  Just like Goldilocks and the porridge, not too hot, not too cold.  The best temperature for yeast (or at least the guide I go by) is wrist temperature.  Test whatever liquid you are using on your wrist, like you would a baby bottle.
  • Proofing your yeast will lead to a higher chance of baking success.  What is proofing?  Its the step in baking recipes when you add the yeast and a little bit of sugar to your warm liquid, usually water.  You let it sit for maybe 5-10 minutes to let the yeast get activated.  This is a good step for baking novices because it lets you see that your yeast is working.  The liquid will get all bubbly on the top.  If that doesn’t happen, then your yeast is probably dead and you don’t want to waste hours of your life finishing the recipe only to end up with a hard brick at the end.
  • If a recipe doesn’t ask you to proof the yeast, you can still do it.  Like I said, its a good step for beginning bakers.  Just add the yeast to the liquid, add a couple pinches of sugar, and let it go for 10 minutes.  Then add the yeast mixture to the rest of your ingredients.
  • Kneading is fun.  These days, most people have machines that do the kneading for them.  This is a good thing as kneading can also be hard work.  However, its a good way to work out a small amount of aggression and I personally think its always a good idea to have a tactile connection with your dough.  You want to feel your dough because it will give you a better sense of when the dough has been kneaded long enough, when you have the  right amount of softness or smoothness.  This is probably sounding all very new agey.  Just go with it.  I let the machine do the hard work, but when its just about “there”, I put the dough on the counter and give it a couple good kneads.
  • How do you knead?  Good question.  Fold the back half of the dough towards you, then using the heels of your hands, push down and away from you on the fold.  Give the dough a quarter turn, repeat the fold/push.  Then repeat the whole process again and again until the dough feels smooth and elastic.
  • Dough likes a warm, moist place to rise.  I have never had any problems finding a warmish spot in my apartment to let dough rise.  I take a kitchen towel and soak it under hot water.  I wring it out, then place it over the top of the bowl with the dough.  I put the bowl in a warm place and let it do its thing.  You can also warm your oven up a tad (just a tad… not too hot… then turn OFF the oven), place a bowl of boiling hot water in the oven and then put your bowl with the dough in there to rise.  You can do the same thing with the bowl of boiling water in the microwave.  Unless your place is really cold, I would just find a warmish spot and use the hot kitchen towel.  Its just easier, less fussy that way.  Plus, it has always worked for me.
  • Once your dough is shaped and ready for the final rise, cover it again with a hot towel and return it to the same warm spot to rise.

Sarah’s Bread

I think this is a very good recipe to learn on because it is an easy dough to work with.  I got this recipe last June when I met Sarah down in Georgia.  She made this bread for dinner and it was so good I asked for the recipe, which she kindly shared. (You never know if people are going to be possessive with their recipes.  Thankfully, Sarah is not one of those people.)

Part of the reason this is a good beginner recipe is because it is not a whole wheat bread.  Instead, it is a mix of white and wheat flour.  Personally, I’m not a huge fan of whole wheat bread.  I find most whole wheat breads are dry and lack flavor.    Also, for anyone starting out in yeast baking, its significantly harder to learn with whole wheat recipes.  Whole wheat flour is heavier than white flour, which means the yeast has to work a lot harder to get the bread to rise.  Therefore, you have to be that much more careful about how you treat the yeast.  You have to knead the dough longer, and give it a longer rising time, etc etc.  I recommend learning on a recipe like this one, which is easier and more forgiving.  Once you feel comfortable working with yeast, branch out and try a whole wheat bread recipe or two.

2 pkgs yeast (4½ t) – Sarah uses rapid rise

⅔ c. sugar

1-2 T. molasses (depends on how much molasses taste you want, I always use the higher amount)

2 c. warm water (i.e. wrist temperature)

1 T. fine sea salt

¼ c. vegetable oil

1½ c. 100% whole wheat flour

4½ c. unbleached white bread flour

In a large mixing bowl add yeast, sugar, molasses, and warm water. Let sit for 5-10 minutes.

Starting to proof. Just a few bubbles on top.

After 10 minutes, lots of bubbles.

Add salt and vegetable oil. Mix well.

Then add both flours. Mix well, then knead for 5-7 minutes until dough is smooth and elastic. You can do this by hand or by machine, although it will be much easier by machine.

At the start of kneading. Clearly, the dough is a bit of a mess. It will take a good 5-10 minutes to get it smooth and elastic.

At the end of kneading. As usual, I finished it off by hand. You can see how the dough is nice and smooth at this point.

Place dough in a large, oiled bowl, cover with a hot, damp cloth and place in a warm spot to rise. Let rise until doubled, about an hour to an hour and a half.

I like to let my dough raise in this nifty bucket I picked up from King Arthur Flour. It makes it very easy to see when the dough has doubled. Also, you can see the damp kitchen towel I've draped over the top to help add moisture to the raising environment.

And here we are an hour or so later. I love how the bucket makes it so easy to see how much the dough has risen

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, divide in half, smooth the dough and shape into loaves (roll out the dough into a rectangle, roll it up lengthwise, tuck the ends under and place in the loaf pan). Cover again with a hot, damp towel and set in a warm place to rise. Let rise until doubled, about an hour.

Dough in the bread pans, ready for a second rise. Again, I'm going to cover these with the damp kitchen towel.

End of the second rise. You can again see how much the dough has expanded in about an hour's time.

Bake at 350°F for about 29-35 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes in the pans, then remove the bread from the pans and let cool on wire racks.

Voila! Beautiful homemade bread.

This bread freezes beautifully, as does most bread.  I usually cut the loaves in half and freeze all but one half.  Then, as I am about to finish one, I take one out of the freezer to defrost.

If you have comments, suggestions, questions, please comment below.  I love getting tips from other bakers, and if you run into problems when trying this or any of my other recipes, I’m happy to help troubleshoot.

Turns out I find surly Frenchmen endearing.

I’m a little bit bitter about this post.  I worked up a draft the other night and saved it in WordPress but it has somehow managed to disappear completely.  Grrrr.  And of course I didn’t think to save a version in Word, so I’m starting from scratch.  Maybe it will be better the second time around.  One can hope….

Bonjour

We left Frankfurt on Sunday morning and drove down to Strasbourg, France.  Pops speaks fairly fluent and quite flawless French so its always entertaining when I try to say a French word and he invariably corrects me (usually with a sigh of disbelief that my 3 1/2 years of high school French have served me so poorly).  On the drive down I was quite entertained by the many times he had to correct my butchered pronunciations of French car companies.

View 2

When we arrived in Strasbourg I was somewhat surprised to learn that Strasbourg is home to the European Parliament.  Mostly I was surprised because with all the Economist reading I’ve done over the last 6 years this is a piece of information I feel I should have already acquired.  Regardless, I immediately fell in love with the town and began plotting an eventual career transition that will allow me to work for some member of the European Parliament.  I think the key element of this plan will be obtaining British citizenship (which actually, due to my ancestry, I think I’m entitled to).

Upon arriving in town we checked into our hotel and immediately set out for the center of town.  We were waylaid on our way there by my inability to ever feel satiated on this trip (i.e. I needed lunch).  We found a little kebab place that looked good and decided to give it a try.  I thought I’d win over the guy at the counter if I attempted to order my meal in French.  Ha!  He was not impressed and I think it is safe to say that he did not like me at all.  Unsurprisingly, I ordered wrong and was confused/disappointed when I ended up with only a sandwich and no fries.  Thankfully Pops smoothed things over and seemed to make some sort of peace with Mr. Surly.  I never did get an order of fries, but Hill and Pops were gracious enough to share (Hill, quite wisely, let Pops do the ordering for her).  Regardless, the sandwich was delicious and I’ll admit that I’m pretty easily appeased when you put some tasty food in front of me.

Lunch

To make our initial introduction to Strasbourg even better we then found a patisserie nearby.  Hillary and I stuck with the tried and true – an eclair for me and a cream puff for her.  Pops, who (again) speaks the language, ordered something that looked good without asking the sales lady what it was and was subsequently disappointed. (In case you haven’t yet come to this realization it seems only fair to note that today’s post is overly focused on the food we ate in Strasbourg, as for me, that was the highlight of our time there.)

Eclair

We did eventually make our way to the Cathedral which was a truly beautiful and impressive site.

Cathedral Facade

Cathedral Facade 2

Saints

Mary

American Soldiers

We decided to take a river cruise following our visit to the cathedral as we figured it would be a nice way to experience the town.  Walking along the river before the cruise Pops, in the interest of making sure I was fully informed, asked, “Schpan, do you know this is a river?”  Uh, yeah, thanks Pops.  In his defense (and I promised to include the following explanation if I mentioned this on the blog), he initially thought it was a canal that the French had built to connect the center of town to the Rhine, but in fact is a river all its own.  The river cruise was delightful, especially the nice 30 minute nap I took towards the end.  Have I mentioned that Pops and I occasionally (read: always) fall asleep at inopportune moments?  Yeah, this was another one of those.  I’m chalking it up to jet lag.  I think that’s fair when you’ve traveled between 4 time zones in just over a week.  Unsurprisingly Pops also fell asleep on the cruise which had Hill rolling her eyes at both of us.  However, we both managed to stay awake long enough to experience the boat’s trip through the locks, which I think might just be the highlight of Pops’ entire vacation.

Pops by river

Buildings on River

For dinner we found a little restaurant not far from the center of town that was truly fantastic.  Highlights of the meal included Hill’s first bowl of French Onion Soup (I also ordered a bowl) and a super thin crust pizza we all shared that I’ve been calling a Flaming Tart because that is what the French looks like to me (Tarte Flammbe).  Hill’s entree was one of the more entertaining aspects of the meal.  Basically she ended up with a big bowl of sour cream (actually quark cheese) and pan-fried potatoes.  Its apparently a regional specialty, and she loved it, but it wasn’t quite what any of us were expecting.  As for me, I was overwhelmingly happy with my big bowl of mussels in a spicy tomato broth.  Delightful.  The other highly entertaining aspect of our meal was the woman who sat across from us and had a reserved table for herself and her dog.  But you know, it just wouldn’t feel like we had visited France if we didn’t have at least one experience involving a French person’s devotion to their dog.  And really, I can’t mock because if I realize my current career ambition to secure eventual employment at the European Parliament that might one day be me.

Restaurant

Flamin Tart

Hills Onion Soup

Sour Cream and Potatoes

Mussels

Monday morning we woke up early (at least for us, which really, isn’t very early at all) and did a little more exploring.  Hillary was determined to find a Christmas store we saw advertised during the boat ride and I was hoping to locate a little gingerbread store recommended in our tour book (gingerbread being another regional specialty).  Success was ours as we found both shops in addition to a sable (French butter cookie) shop and a bakery where I was able to buy a pain au chocolat for breakfast and a baguette for the road.  The baguette incited a somewhat heated argument between Pops and I over whether to buy salted (him) or unsalted (me) butter to go with the bread.  My position was that in France, you should always buy unsalted butter for your baguette.  Really, he has more experience in this realm than I do, but as I was the one with the Euros, I bought the unsalted variety and was very, very happy with my choice.  After breakfast Hillary and I burned a few calories climbing to the top of the Cathedral to admire the view, and we then hit the road for Munich.

Pops and Schpan 2

Cookies

Breakfast

Surprisingly, I do actually have a recipe for you today.  Its even somewhat French.  Amazing, I know.  This has been one of my favorite recipes for about a year and a half now and has been making a regular appearance on my family’s table at holiday meals.  Its incredibly easy and super delicious.  It comes from my favorite food blogger, Molly, over at Orangette.  If you try this recipe I think you’ll see why I love her blog.  Her recipes generally focus on simple, fresh ingredients with incredible results.

Broiled Asparagus with Vinaigrette

1 bunch of asparagus

Salt

2 T. fresh lemon juice

1 T. white wine or champagne vinegar

1 T. Dijon mustard

½ t. fine sea salt

5 T. extra-virgin olive oil

scant 1/8 t. pressed garlic (I like using a garlic-flavored olive oil instead of fresh garlic in this recipe)

1 hard-boiled egg, finely chopped

Zest of half a lemon

Preheat oven to 475 degrees F.  Spread asparagus out on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil (again, I like the garlic-flavored oil here), and toss to coat.  Roast for 10-12 minutes and then transfer asparagus to a serving platter.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, and salt.  Add the oil, and whisk well to emulsify.  Taste, and if necessary add a bit more oil.  Add the garlic and whisk to combine.

To serve, drizzle the vinaigrette over the asparagus and top with the hard-boiled egg and lemon zest.

Asparagus

Starting our Christmas shopping early this year.

On Saturday we took our third, and sadly, final day trip with our cousin to the fantastic town of Rudesheim.  On our way there we stopped off in Wiesbaden to make a pilgrimage to a gummy bear store our cousin recently discovered.   It was definitely worth the detour.  Their gummies are delicious!  In addition, they’ve been helpful on our recent long drives.  They’ve come to my rescue more than once when Pops and Hillary have been asleep and I’ve needed a little something to help me stay alert.

As we were walking to the gummy bear store we passed the Wiesbaden farmers market.  I made everyone walk with me through the market, and then when I realized I had forgotten to take pictures, I made them wait so I could run back and snap a few shots.  I was feeling a little pressed for time, so the shots below don’t really do justice to the market.  It was amazing.  I could easily have blown all my spending money for the trip sampling meats and cheeses there.  Good thing I knew we were hitting the road on Sunday and there would be no time to sample purchases before our departure.

Wiesbaden2

Wreaths

Veggies

After our little excursion into Wiesbaden we drove to Rudesheim.  Hill and I didn’t realize we were running low on cash until we arrived in Rudesheim.  Being a tourist town one might expect to come across an occasional ATM.  Unfortunately, ATM machines were somewhat elusive in Germany, so our quick trip to find an ATM turned into something of an excursion.  Happily, we did find a crepe stand on our journey, and yes, an ATM machine.  Cash was a key element of our trip to Rudesheim because there is a Kathe Wohlfarht store there and our cousin suspected (rightly) that Hill and I would appreciate the opportunity to pick up some Christmas-themed souvenirs.  I had the hardest time deciding what to buy.  I finally settled on a nativity and a little Santa Claus smoker.  Can’t wait to break them out this holiday season.

Rudesheim 1

Rudesheim 2

After we concluded our shopping we sent our cousin home with our purchases and sampled a little bratwurst.  So good!

Bratwurst

Rudesheim is a wine-making town, which yes, is completely wasted on me and my family.  However, we can definitely appreciate the beauty of the surrounding countryside.  After filling up on bratwurst we hopped on a cable car that ran from the center of town to the top of a nearby hill.  We were treated to amazing views of the area, which we all felt were magnified by the fall colors.  One more reason to love traveling at this time of year.

View From Lift 1

On the Lift

Vineyards

Final View

As though the day were not already perfect enough, we got to come “home” to the two cutest pirates to ever make a girl walk the plank.

Little Pirate 2

Big Pirate