Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sweet Seasons / April 2008 - Butterfly -

"Butterfly" by Nishigawaya

This wagashi reminded me of a white butterfly flying over a carpet of yellow nanohana (field musterd?) flowers. A charming sight which I really love to see every spring.

I'm not sure what these pink stripes are supposed to be, but without them this wagashi would look rather boring, IMHO.

Nanohana (field mustard) on the riverbank near my place

In a way, this looks like a lovely gift box tied with a ribbon. :)


Monday, April 28, 2008

Potato Sausage Cheese Muffins

Potato Sausage Cheese Muffins

My Monday morning brunch. (On other days I have to eat breakfast very early -- and in a hurry -- to go to work before 7 AM, so recently Mondays are the only days that I can take time to enjoy brunch.) The recipe is here (in Japanese). *Woops, sorry! I forgot to mention that I replaced bacon in the original recipe with sausage.

Diced potatoes were microwaved and then sauteed with onion and sausage before being mixed into the batter. With a good amout of black pepper mixed in, and grated cheese sprinkled on top (which was also my twist -- the original recipe does not call for grated cheese), these muffins tasted so good that I ate 4 of them at once. Mmmmm...


Monday, April 21, 2008

The Supermarket Chronicles - Part 3 -

My hometown used to be a small fishing village, which merged into a city decades ago. When I was a kid, I played on the beach (actually more like a rocky seashore) every day, and at spring tide, the entire family spent a whole day picking shell fish and sea weeds there. When my grandma was young, according to dad, she would go to the local fishing port every morning to buy fresh fish, and serve sashimi (sliced raw fish) at breakfast. Yes, as you might know, Japanese traditional breakfast often includes grilled (dried) fish. But I don’t think eating raw fish first thing in the morning is a very popular custom in this country. Personally I don’t even want to give it a try. :P

So you think that my work in the fish section of the supermarket may make me homesick? Well... yes, sometimes. When we sold some fresh abalones there the other day, I couldn't help saying, "Gosh, I wanna go abalone picking right now!" as I was packing them. But most of the time I'm busy discovering and learning new things about the seafood diet here, which is a little different from what I was used to in my hometown, and that is really interesting.

First of all, I was amazed to see so many elderly people in the neighborhood being the regular visitors of the fish section of this supermarket. They usually come in as soon as the store opens. I mean, I knew that older folks love fish. But this town is quite far from the ocean-- compared to my hometown-- so I didn’t expect the older folks in a place like this to be THAT crazy about eating fresh and nicely fatty fish. The privilege of working at this "interactive" fish section is being able to observe or even be acquainted with such regular customers.

Although more and more fish and shellfish are farmed these days, still the items sold in the fish section are largely affected by the season and the weather here. There are regular items that we have on the shelves almost every day, but they don't always come from the same place, and they taste quite differently depending on where they are from. So I can see those daily visitors come to the store being pretty excited, wondering what goodies they are going to find that day.

A couple of dressed up elderly women usually come in as soon as the store opens... maybe every other day. They seem to be meeting up at the entrance and enjoying strolling around in the fish section together, trying to pick their "sashimi of the day." And there is a grandma who just loves our saba-zushi (mackerel sushi). We usually make and sell saba-zushi on Thursdays and Saturdays around lunch time, and she never misses those days. Every time she comes, she claims that she is a big fan of our saba-zushi. Sometimes we have to tell her that we can't make the sushi because we have no mackerels, then she gets so disappointed.

And in early April, the "bonito bones craze" has started. Every day a bunch of people come in -- as soon as we open -- almost frantically looking for bonito scraps, especially bones. For what? For simmering bamboo shoots. Maybe those who are familiar with traditional Japanese dishes have heard of “takenoko no Tosa-ni (simmered bamboo shoots, Tosa-style)?” The recipe calls for a bunch of bonito flakes, and the dish was named so because Tosa (former name of Kochi prefecture) is famous for bonito flakes. But I tell you what -- The hard-core bamboo shoot lovers in Tosa do not use bonito flakes for that dish; they use bonito bones. I didn’t know that because my mom simmers bamboo shoots a little differently, so I was surprised with their enthusiasm. At the supermarket, we usually put more than 10 packs of bonito scraps on the shelf, and in almost less than one hour, they are gone. And we keep hearing "Don't you have bonito bones today?" from the customers who came too late.

Curiosity made me try using bonito bones for this traditional dish, and yes, now I know why they make such a big deal out of the bones of this particular fish. Some people may find it too fishy, and the chefs of sophisticated kaiseki would frown, but using the bones does give more richness and more flavor to the dish with almost “sweet” aroma (at least while the dish is warm). And -- this may sound barbaric but -- the fish meat left around the bones tastes oh so good! ;P

So now I understand why bonito bones are so popular. But I couldn’t understand why the store sells so many different kinds of fish guts as well. I know some fish scrap is great for making stock and some fish egg taste great if cooked properly. But some fish guts seemed just useless and unprofitable because they were sold so cheap. Then one day an elderly woman asked me, “Oh, you don’t have XXXXX (<-- name of the particular fish organ) today?” and so sadly added, “Ah, nothing for my neko-chan (kitty) today!” Boy, all those fish guts and strings that made me think, “How the hell do they cook and eat this stuff?” were for beloved neko-chans in this community! I wonder how many other supermarkets in Japan pack and label foods for four-legged customers. No, I’m not being cynical. I like it. It makes me feel that this place is really like a good old, community-based store.

Some of the regular customers of the supermarket deserve to be called "fish experts," I think. They always ask my boss detailed questions directly over the display case. (As I wrote before, the refrigerating display case is tall enough to hide the filleting process behind it, but to show the boss’s cap to let customers know that he is there to answer questions.) Maybe the experts are ex-owners of fish stores or those who moved into this town from fishing villages or chefs at local eating places and bento shops. Some of them often buy many (or all) packs of certain items at once, so I need to be careful when I see them. I’m supposed to check the display case once in a while and tell boss before certain items are completely sold out. But when such customers come, the part of the shelf which was full a minute ago can be totally empty when I came back from checking on the neighboring frozen seafood section. :O

Among the “expert” customers, there is an elderly woman who loves sayori (Japanese needlefish) so much and always buys a few kilograms of them at once. Inspired by her, I once bought some real fresh ones in late March and made sashimi at home. Yes, it was my PF (preparing fish) 103: filleting Japanese needlefish. But I wasn't taught how to do it at work; I found a how-to website on the net and practiced at home. (These photos were taken before I filleted them, but I must say that the fish looked much, much more beautiful than these photos.) The fresh sayori sashimi was oh so heavenly good! No wonder she buys THAT many of them for herself and her neighbors.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Whey Pancakes

Yes, I tried draining yogurt again. This time I used a little more expensive brand which tastes richer and less sour. Though the drained yogurt still did not taste as good as cream cheese, it was much better than the last time. I mixed it with grated garlic and mentaiko and made a dip. It was pretty nice on Ritz crackers; I enjoyed them with a couple of glasses of very, very affordable wine.

Then I was left with the by-product, whey again. This time I used it for pancakes. A safe idea, isn't it?

Yes, it was a safe idea AND a good idea.

Oh, I almost forgot. Here's a question which almost all(?) Japanese home bakers have in mind or have been asking but not properly answered yet:
How long does whey keep in the fridge? Would the expiration date of whey be the same as that of the original yogurt?
Experts all over the world, please tell us the truth. ;)


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Photogenic, But... (2)

Strawberry Tarts (which turned out rather disappointing...)

Here's another one which looks pretty nice in these photos but didn't taste so great. The biggest mistake was the tart shell. I used my oil crust recipe, but for some reason that I still cannot understand, I thought that the baking time was 10 minutes instead of 15 minutes. And I didn't bother to check my recipe. It was an easy mistake to fix -- if I had noticed it in time -- but when I found out what was wrong, the shells were already filled with the cream and strawberries. :P

So the shells were done but not crunchy and had a little "raw" taste of the whole wheat, the instant pastry cream was too light, and the strawberries were not impressively sweet.

But they do please my eyes in these photos, at least, so I guess I didn't make these for nothing, after all. Haha...


Monday, April 07, 2008

Whey Biscuits

Whey Biscuits

It was more than three years ago and on Jason's site (actually in one of the comments) when I first read about the idea of draining yogurt to come up with a cream-cheese like stuff. Since then, the idea had been on my list of "things to try out someday in the near future."

Then draining yogurt has become popular among young Japanese bakers in the past couple of years, like many other "healthy substitution ideas" invented in Japan or imported from abroad. And when I found a Japanese cheesecake recipe with drained plain yogurt as the main ingredient, I instantly decided to try it out, remembering what I read on Jason's site years ago.

The result? Well... I guess it was no one's fault that I found the healthier version of cheesecake rather disappointing. I found it too light and too sour, despite the numerous applauding comments to the Japanese recipe site. On my second try I added some cottage cheese and I liked it much, much better.

Plain yogurt drained overnight

Now, the question I came up with after draining yogurt was what I should do with the whey. Of course, throwing it away was out of question. Following a recipe I found on the net, I made a healthy, refreshing drink by adding honey and soy milk to the whey, which was really, really good.

Also, I tried out adding some whey when making biscuits, and the result is what you are seeing in the photo on top of this post. Yes. It was another great idea. The biscuits were excellent.

But soon I started asking myself this question: it is really worthwhile to separate yogurt and whey? These biscuits could have tasted just as great even if I used regular plain yogurt instead of whey alone, and using plain yogurt could have been more nutritious. What do you think?

If the drained yogurt tastes more cream-cheese like, I would use it for cheesecakes, cheese tarts or dips and quit using cream cheese. But when I tried those ideas, I ended up adding some cottage cheese to make it richer and less sour. Then maybe it is easier and more nutritious just to start with cottage cheese and plain yogurt in the first place???

BTW, I did try washing hands with whey as recommended on a couple of Japanese websites. It sure made the skin moist and smooth. ;)

I added a couple of cherry blossom photos to my birthday cake post, if you're interested.