Thursday, January 27, 2011

One door closes or is that a closed door?

Last week four Navy spouses met at 6:30 a.m. for a road trip to Lake Kawaguchiko to visit the Kubota Museum. In June, some of my students had brought me to this museum and I was blown-away by the kimonos that Kubota-san created. They are breathtaking. The exhibition rotates and I couldn’t wait to get back to see more of these amazing kimonos, so when the email went out asking who was “in” I was quick to respond. We made good time and with only one misstep in the directions we arrived right as the museum opened – well, should have opened. Unless you’re visiting December–March and then the museum is closed on Wednesdays, and unfortunately for us, we were visiting on … Wednesday. Big Bummer.

Instead of throwing in the towel and turning around and driving back home to Yokosuka, I mentioned that when I had been here in June I had also visited another museum – “It’s a doll museum, but that word does not do it justice, they’re more than dolls.” Everyone was game, so we arrived at the Yuki Atae Doll Museum, the only visitors at the time. The display changes, so I was able to see a different collection from my previous visit. The dolls are charming, meticulously handcrafted, the details and expressions of these small figures draw you in to the scenes the artist has created. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed, but if you go to you can click through the left menu bar and see some of Atae’s creations. If you visit the museum there is also a video inside the exhibition where you can see how Atae creates the dolls. Well worth watching.

On the way out of the museum there was a display stand with flyers from area attractions. I spied the Jizai Glass Bead Studio flyer, I had picked this flyer up when I was up in June but we had taken a bus to the Lake Kawaguchiko area and had no way of getting to the bead studio. I’m not sure what attracted me to this place, I have no experience in glass beads, but I was curious – maybe the picture of the beautiful glass beads sold me. My fellow traveler’s were game to try and find the studio, so we set off with a map and some pretty vague directions from the staff at the museum – they were very gracious and did try to help us, and I’d bet that being from that area it was all quite obvious to them how to get from A to B but an hour plus later we still had not found the studio. Thank goodness one member of our group speaks Japanese (she spent time in Japan as an exchange student) and was our designated translator as we flagged down an elderly gentleman on the side of the road to try and help us, we also stopped and asked a worker at a factory for directions, then utility workers who had walk-talkies as there was a mad flurry of Japanese back and forth – but they were unfamiliar with the studio. We stopped in at a tiny little office on the side of the road and Cory emerged with a hand drawn map … but still we did not get any closer. We stopped at the information center, and we ended up backtracking … and basically coming full circle with no studio in sight. Driving in Japan is an adventure – even when you have someone who can speak the language! I was ready to bag the idea but Lydia, our trip coordinator, was not willing to give up. We decided to go back to the beginning and start over from square one – finally, we started to pass landmarks on the map and we knew we were getting closer. As we came around a curve, Fuji-san appeared above us like a beacon and there on the side of the road was the elusive Jizai Bead Studio. What a treat! I am so glad that we persevered in our quest. The studio is lovely, eye candy everywhere and the artist welcomed us … in English! Yeah!! It turns out she has studied in the U.S. at the Pilchuck Glass School - As we looked around, picking up various items to tempt us to part with our precious Yen she asked if we would like to see a demonstration. I’ve never seen glass beads being made and it was soooo cool. Even better is that if we decide to come back to this area, the studio offers mini-workshops. We asked, “Would you be willing to teach a group of American women how to make these?” … another road trip was being planned before we’d even left the studio.

It was now way past lunchtime and with a recommendation from the artist we headed off in search of a quick meal. We found the restaurant after a few more driving missteps (how else do you get anywhere in Japan?) and I had a wonderful lunch set … pasta with shrimp and cabbage. Not a combination I would ever put together but it worked and it was delicious.

A road trip in Japan should always be filled with the unexpected. Of course we were all disappointed that the Kubota Museum was closed but if it hadn’t been we may never have ventured to the Jizai Studio. What’s the saying from the Sound of Music “one door closes and another one opens?” … you have to be open here, open to new experiences (like the culinary combination of shrimp and cabbage) and new opportunities, like seeing the glass beads being made. Yes, I parted with my Yen that day, I have a lovely pendant that will remind me whenever I wear it to be open to the adventures life throws your way, and to persevere even when you’ve been driving in circles for over an hour … because a new experience may be just around the bend, and that of course is … inspiring.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


From Wickipedia: Advanced planning and scheduling (also referred to as APS and advanced manufacturing) refers to a manufacturing management process (i.e. dinner production) by which raw materials (a.k.a. fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, dairy products and some seafood) and production capacity are optimally allocated to meet demand (i.e.- twoteensandatween). APS is especially well-suited to environments where simpler planning methods (opening the kitchen cabinets at 5 pm) cannot adequately address complex trade-offs between competing priorities ("I'm hungry" vs. "I'm starving" vs. "What's for dinner" usually all said within 60 seconds of each other as they watch their moms head start to spin).

The family schedules around this house last week were out of control. To say that having the menus already planned out saved us from eating cereal every night is not an exaggeration. Adjustments were made … the Penne Pasta with Vodka Cream Sauce went to our Sunday night guest dinner, now I needed to sub in a different dish for Wednesdays meal. The Black Bean Soup scheduled for Tuesday night shifted to Monday as I realized I was running out of time to execute the Shepherd’s Pie recipe and oh yeah, I wasn’t going to be home for dinner that night anyways (Book Club). The menus are planned, but I am not rigid with them – flip something to another day, sub in something easier for the next. It is a godsend to have clipped to my refrigerator a list with choices, I think I’m realizing that is half my battle to cooking dinners, the figuring out of the what’s for dinner conumdrum. The other half is just getting me in the kitchen and staying there. Well, of course and having to go grocery shopping … upon reflection I’m starting to wonder why Jeff has never really voiced any surprise (or complaint) over how he apparently got “short changed” when he married me. We dated a long time, four years, and in the course of that time he had plenty of opportunity to share meals with my family. My mom is one awesome cook. Growing up it seems like my parents were always entertaining – Gourmet Groups, Progressive Dinner Parties, Bridge Luncheons. As my sister and I moved into our college years and UGA was in it’s glory years with Hershel Walker, they had Sugar Bowl Parties to help cheer on them Dawgs and tailgaters that looked like something out of Southern Living. My mom definitely knows how to put out a spread (with a lot of help from my dad who is very adept at cleaning shrimp as well as setting up round tables for entertaining). Our holiday dinners were fabulous. Mom was always tweaking, trying out new recipes to add to our family favorites, although I’m pretty sure the mashed potatoes remained untouched … sacred ground as my sister and I licked the beaters clean, with enough butter added to put us all on the pathway to future bypass surgery. But Lord those were some good potatoes.

My grandmother, Gran as we all called her, was also a really good cook but different from my mom. Gran was a good downhome cook – many times I’d ask her for a recipe and she’d say “well, I don’t have one, I just make it.” I remember sitting in her unairconditioned kitchen (this was in Richmond, Virginia), the window unit blasting in the next room but barely cooling off the kitchen, and writing down her recipe for Salmon Cakes* as she made them. They were delicious, probably that seasoned iron skillet was the secret ingredient as mine have never tasted as good as hers. Jeff came to visit my grandparents home a few times before we were married, it was on the way to the Naval Academy, and my grandmother never tired of trying to feed him like it was his last supper. The first holiday dinner he spent there was Thanksgiving of his 3rd class year – he did not travel home to Georgia for some reason that year, so my dad (God love him for this one) actually drove us all up to Alexandria from Richmond, up I-95, the Wednesday of Thanksgiving. We picked Jeff up at a Howard Johnsons parking lot and turned around and drove back to Richmond so that he could spend the holiday with my family. For those of you not familiar with I-95, especially during Thanksgiving, it would be like someone sentencing you to driving hell. If you’re lucky enough to even have the traffic moving at all it would be like having everyone driving at maximum speed bumper to bumper. Looking back I can’t believe my dad actually made that drive to pick up my then boyfriend – he must be biding his time waiting for payback. "I don’t know dad, can we just call it even … all those trips I made by myself in the Suburban up and down the East Coast with three little kids?" Oh damn, you helped me with some of those didn’t you? Mmmm, guess my payback is still coming.

In any case, I digress. The point is if Jeff was thinking by the looks of things, her mom’s a good cook, her grandmother’s a good cook … so therefore – well let’s just say he could probably call foul! False advertising! Where were you when your mom and grandmother were giving out the cooking genes (they all went to my sister). If I had my way, I was outside with my dad, raking leaves, cutting the grass, or  helping my grandfather in his shop … anywhere but in the kitchen.

What I realize is that both my mom and my grandmother are/were planners. They did not wait until 5 pm to figure out what they were having for dinner that night. Something was already thawing for that night’s dinner. As you’re eating breakfast you’d be getting quizzed about what you‘d like to have with “x” for dinner. Maybe I missed that lesson (probably I was out raking leaves), and perhaps I’m a bit slow on the uptake here. I don’t think it matters if you work outside the home or are down in the trenches inside, advanced planning works. Winging it doesn’t. This planning thing is working, even if it calls for flexibility (Wrenn this week: “Why are we having Black Bean Soup on Monday? Your menu plan says we’re having it Tuesday?” They’re guidelines honey, not rules), and it’s keeping me motivated to stay in the kitchen and be … inspired.

Monday – Black Bean Soup – always a hit – three thumbs up
Tuesday – Tuna Salad – made the Med. Tuna Salad from Whole Foods, added Orzo and it was a huge hit. Three big thumbs up.
Wednesday – Pizza with Spinach and Red Onion (used Betty Crocker Pizza Crust Mix, definitely need to double if I was going to use again … but will most likely stick with my tried and true pizza crust recipe in the future). Three thumbs up, but not enough for the twoteensandatween.
Thursday – Roasted Vegetable Curry, Moosewood Cookbook – just o.k. – Wrenn picked out the sweet potatoes declaring “I don’t like sweet potatoes” (really honey, if you’re going vegetarian you just can’t be that picky on the veggies) and Walker, while he did eat everything commented that he likes my Shrimp Curry a whole lot more. Not a repeat.
Friday – Jeff and I had a party to attend and left money for the kids to walk to the restaurant of their choice – Subway, Sbarro. Came home hours later to find out they had popcorn for dinner. No one wanted to walk the five minutes to the fast food alley here on base. There were leftovers in the fridg, they could have picked up the phone and ordered a pizza – none of this apparently occurred to our three children. Popcorn. Mmmmm. What food group does that fall into Dr. Dad? 

This coming weeks menu:
Salmon Cakes with Baby Limas (I’m southern people, I may be the only person at the commissary in Yokosuka who buys them, but I thank my lucky stars they stock them here) and roasted carrots; Split Pea and Rice Soup; Garlic Broccoli with yellow noodles; Spinach artichoke risotto; Med. Veggie Wrap. Tune in next week to see how it goes.

Grans Salmon Cakes
1 can of Alaska Salmon, cleaned – bones and skinned removed
1 small onion chopped
1 small potato, chopped and cooked until tender in water ahead of time
1 egg
chopped parsley
Old Bay Seasoning
Cocktail Sauce

In a bowl, mash the potato and add the egg, chopped onion, about 1 Tablespoon of chopped parsley, 1 tsp of Old Bay, 1/8 cup Cocktail Sauce. Mix together well and add the salmon. Mix and when mixture is evenly moist form into small patties. Best if made ahead and put in refrigerator to set at least an hour before cooking. Heat oil in a skillet and cook patties on medium heat until browned on both sides.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

It's Working!

Kale waiting for the freezer

“That was fantastic!” 
Wrenn, referring to the Yakisoba dinner on Thursday night.

I looked at my daughter with a sideways glance … was she being sincere or a smart ass? I’m not sure if my kids are trying to stroke me or are somehow worried that this new world order in the kitchen is the prequel to mom walking away from cooking duty – but with every tiny little bit of positive reinforcement I receive there comes the very smallest amount of satisfaction in having just spent time in the kitchen. Ssshhhhh, do not tell my 2teensandatween I just said that!

M/Mexican Lasagna; T/Kale Bean Soup; W/Baked Tofu with Broc; Th/Yakisoba; F/Med. Tuna Salad

This week we had hits all the way around four 3-thumbs-up and only one 2-thumbs, on the 12-week plan In the Kitchen and Lovin’ It – o.k. now, I’m being the smart ass. What I am loving is that at 4pm each day, I have all the ingredients and a plan. 

Mexican Lasagna - three thumbs up. This is a standard around here and always goes over well. It’s quick, it’s easy and served with a salad it hits the spot. 
Kale Bean Soup – three thumbs up. Served on Tuesday night this is a Cleary Classic only here’s something I can’t believe I’m going to admit – it actually got better once we moved to Japan. Why? Well, as I’m usually looking for the easy way out in the kitchen, back in the states I could find in the frozen food section chopped kale – having this on hand in the freezer with a two cans of beans in the cupboard always meant I was 30 minutes away from an easy dinner. Here in Japan however, the commissary only stocks frozen chopped collards, not kale – there is a difference here people and you cannot sub one for the other … and while my accent faded long ago and only occasionally will I drop a y’all (this will stop my kids dead in their tracks and will look at me like I just sprouted 3 heads), there are a few clues to the astute that I am a southerner through and through. I will drink iced-sweet tea in the middle of winter with 6-inches of snow on the ground, and I know my greens. In the south a girl’s got to know her greens (along with her silver pattern by age 12 but more on that another time). Kale, collards, mustard greens, turnip greens – no, they are not all the same thing. For the first six months of living here I tried subbing collards in my soup recipe but it just wasn’t the same. Then one day I was looking for chives in the “fresh produce” section – which is an oxymoron at the commissary here, but that’s a whole ‘nother story – when I glanced down and paused, they actually had fresh kale in stock. I snatched up a bunch and headed home. Thinking this was going to be more labor intensive than going with the frozen variety I put the kale in the refrig and promptly procrastinated. The concept of having fresh kale in my soup was a good one, the reality of having to clean and chop it I thought meant more time in the kitchen – which is not what I’m all about. However, several days later I decided I was either going to have to use them or lose them, I pulled the bunch out, quickly stripped the leaves off the stalk, threw it in my salad spinner and roughly chopped up the cleaned off leaves. Voila! In the soup pot in much less time than it takes me to sort through the frozen variety – because they chop up the entire kale, huge honkin’ stalks and all, eww who wants to see a stalk of kale floating in their soup the size of a thumb? And the difference? OMG, there is no comparison – fresh wins out in a very big way. So now, knowing that kale is a cool weather crop, I am stocking up. Every time I go to the commissary I’m buying a bunch, cleaning it off and throwing it in the freezer – a little bit of advance work now for a delicious soup later. I can do that. Really. I can. See below for my version of Kale Bean Soup.*

Baked Tofu with stir fry broc was a 2-thumbs up. I have one tofu holdout in the house, he cannot be swayed, his siblings however more than make up for him. I cooked 3 blocks of tofu, thinking to myself “great, I’ll be able to have some leftovers to toss on salads for the next few days.” Wishful thinking. Mitchell and Wrenn devoured the tofu, and when I whinned and said “where are my leftovers?” Wrenn piped up and declared “I think next time you had better cook 4 blocks mom.” Wow, really?

Yakisoba on Thursday was a big hit, three-thumbs – I made what I thought was a ginormous amount to realize not only were there no leftovers, I had to whisk away a serving for Jeff (who of course was still at work) before it was all gone. Up the amount on that one next time around.

Friday was supposed to be Med Tuna Salad from the Whole Foods cookbook but I’d hosted my once a month Ikebana flower arranging class and had made wraps as my contribution. There were leftovers and so I pulled together a salad and dinner was “serve yourself.” All in all, a great week in the kitchen – did I really just say that?

This week the nightly schedule for our family is a crazed one and already having the menu mapped out is a big help. Monday – subbing in the Med Tuna Salad from last week (I’m not home for dinner and I’d like something quick and easy); Tuesday – Black Bean Soup; Wed – Penne Pasta with Vodka Cream sauce (already know I will have to find another recipe since Jeff “stole” that one for Sunday nights dinner – we had a dinner guest last night and he threatened to make hamburgers on the grill so I coughed up this meal instead); Thursday – Roasted Veg Curry; Friday – Pizza, Red Onion w/feta and White Pizza w/shrimp (may work a “let’s make a deal” with the kids on this night – Jeff and I will not be home for dinner, it might just have to be kids night in the kitchen).

Maybe one of the best parts of this 12-week experiment is that with the menus planned, when I get the “what’s for dinner” at 4 p.m. I do not feel an overwhelming sense of panic as I realize I have to cook dinner and I’ve not a clue what I’m going to make. Jeff commented yesterday when we were mulling over what to have for dinner with our guest – “how could you have possibly come up with 60 meals for 12 weeks and yet you can’t figure out what to have for dinner tonight with a guest?” It’s not so much that I can’t figure it out as I don’t want to have to think about it. We are two weeks into this experiment and all I can say so far is that it’s been great. Last week I only went to the commissary three times … still 2 more times than I would have like but way better than the daily trips I was making. That has left me with more time, more time to work on some other ideas I have for making 2011 my best year yet, more time to be … inspired.

This entry was supposed to be posted on 1/16 but with a crazy schedule last week for all family members and me fighting for computer time with my kids (school work take priority) I never could find a moment to post this. The goal this week is to get the post up in a more timely fashion, and thank you to all my friends who have given me such a great response to this family experiment. It helps to keep me going.

Kale Bean Soup

There are many versions of this soup out there on the web or in cookbooks. This one originated from a clipping from the Washington Post but I’ve put our own spin on it.

2 cans Cannellini Beans (or Northern White Beans) rinsed and drained
6 cups vegetable broth
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 large onions chopped
1 bunch of kale, cleaned, stripped, and chopped (or ½ bag of frozen)
4 cloves of garlic chopped
1 bay leaf

Sauté the chopped onions and garlic for 5 minutes. Add one can of the drained and rinsed beans, and the 6 cups of vegetable broth. Blend with immersion blender. Add the second can of beans, chopped kale and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer for about 30 minutes or until the kale is tender. Remove bayleaf and serve with freshly grated parmesan. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Hike away the day!

Last week the Explorer's had another outing ... hard to top the last one to the Yamate area in Yokohama but we were going to try. This time we were keeping it a bit closer to home, traveling to the Kamakura area for a 3 hour hike over the hills of Kamakura. We started the hike at the Zen temple of Meigetsu-in in Kita-Kamakura, following Walk no. 35 from A Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo. The weather was with us – crisp January morning, clear blue skys. A perfect day to walk off some holiday fare.

Meigetsu-in is known for their beautiful hydrangea's, but with six months ahead of us before we'd be able to enjoy them we still managed to find beauty in a winter zen garden, and a bit of humor as well. One of my favorite photos I've taken in Japan so far has to be the one with the pink ear muffs on the Buddha. This image to me captures in a moment how very different two cultures can be. I cannot begin to imagine what someone would think back in the U.S. if someone decided to put ear muffs on a statue of Jesus, and heaven forbid if they did that they would choose pink! And while this did amuse me a bit at first - mostly the color pink because of American's total hang up on that color for a guy - it also made me stop and think "why not put on ear muffs?" If you believe that it's a representation then I suppose you'd want to take care of them and keep them warm. Maybe we Westerner's make things just a little too precious, maybe putting the ear muffs on Buddha makes him seem more real ...

After enjoying the grounds we headed off in search of the Ten-en Hiking Course. Thank goodness Bossy Explorer invited one of her Japanese friends Reiko-san along, because I seriously doubt we would have found the correct entrance without her. The trail head we were looking for was not exactly obvious to a bunch of Americans who cannot read Kanji. Note the photo in the slideshow ... this was to be the Kanji we were searching for for the next 3 hours, making sure we stayed on the correct path as we worked our way to the end destination point - Zuisen-ji, a wabi-sabi zen temple on the Kamakura side of the hills. The walk from the guidebook is billed as a Narcissus walk, but we were hard pressed to find any along the way. Instead, we had a nice walk in the woods that day, periodically passing by Japanese Nationals calling out the greeting of "konnichiwa!"

At the end of the hike we went to Zuisen-ji, known for it philosophical garden designed by Soseki around 1327. There's a large cave at the back with two bridges and a waterfall, but truthfully I was much more taken with the Japanese maples that still had their foliage. I mean it's January! How is that possible? With the afternoon light filtering down through the trees it was like hitting a photographers jackpot. Another place I made a note to self, that I must come back to, when I had more time to just sit and be. It is far away from the hustle and bustle of Kamakura – a respite from everyday life, very Zen and of course ... inspiring.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Desperation Dinners - it's working!

I just have to say – this whole 12-week menu planning thing is awesome! Yes, it was a pain in the ass to actually sit down and come up with that many meals – plus I added in a few parameters* that made it a bit more challenging – but if all I have to do is look at the menus for the week to do my commissary shopping, life is really good!

Last week was the first in our 12-week experiment and overall it was a success. The rating system I'm looking for is a three-thumbs-up – that means anyone under the age of 18 in this house actually ate the entire meal and said they would have it again. Miracles never cease.

And for the record: I am not a nutritionist, nor am I a chef. I am a mom, trying to feed 2teensandatween, day in and day out. This all came about because I was frustrated – not because as some have accused me, of being uber-organized. I'm definitely not. I'm also not super mom - believe me, my kids will vouch for that one. I'm just a desperate mom, trying to cook dinners that the majority in this house would eat and that wouldn't keep me in the kitchen all afternoon. If you can use any of this to help you, feel free.

*Parameters: I realized I needed guidelines to help me fill in the blanks on our menus. So loosely, per week I selected; one pasta dish, one bean dish, because of various schedules Tuesday nights are soup night so family members can come and go as needed (yes, all our soups are homemade - but sooooo easy once you get into it), Friday nights are sandwich/wrap or dinner salad night, and then a night with some type of fish. If I am using a recipe from a particular cookbook I have made a note, otherwise they are from all the various clippings I collected over the years (magazines and food columns).

Week 1 - Menus
Monday - Cheese, Bean and Rice Enchiladas (note to self - next time I need to double this recipe, with 2 teenaged boys there was definitely not enough food for them). 3ThumbsUp
Tuesday - Minestrone Soup and salad; I rarely make this soup since it takes me a long time and it makes a lot, but I wanted to make a dinner for a friend who'd recently had a baby and it was a cold day here, oh and Wrenn had also put in a request (it's my favorite soup you make)3ThumbsUp
Wednesday - Orzo with feta, zucchini and red onions. 3ThumbsUp
Thursday - Mushrooms with Creamy Polenta and spinach saute.
Friday - Garlic Pizza, Greek Salad and Tomato Cheese Soup 3ThumbsUp

The only dinner that did not go over well was the Mushrooms with Creamy Polenta - they all ate it but with a definite lack of gusto. It was a new recipe, one of my many clippings, that wasn't a smash and so is now in the trash.

Week 2 - Menus
Monday - Mexican Lasagna and a salad
Tuesday - Kale Bean Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Wednesday - Baked Tofu with stir fry Broccoli and rice (Moosewood Simple Suppers)
Thursday - Yakisoba
Friday - Mediterranean Tuna Salad (Whole Foods p.125)

Bonus Recipe (this one's mine, one Jeff and I tried to perfect after having it served to us years ago in a little restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island. I kept ordering it and then going home and trying to recreate it until we got it just right. It's super easy and the kids love it).

Tomato Cheese Soup (you'll never have Campbells again)

1 onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1 can evaporated milk
4 cups of vegetable broth
2 (1 lb 12 oz) cans of chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup parmesan (green can)
chopped parsley for garnish

Saute onion, add broth, tomatoes, basil, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf; add parmesan and evaporated milk and with immersion blender, blend until smooth. Add chopped parsley and serve. Enjoy and I hope you too will be ... inspired.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

What's for dinner?

Ugh! As I’ve clearly stated in past posts, day in and day out … I no longer (if ever) enjoy being in the kitchen. I daydream about what it would be like to have someone else cook me dinner (um, I believe that was supposed to be my husband when we hit year 25, still waiting ...). I’m burnt out. Not inspired. Don’t care. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true, I do care enough that I still make dinner and we haven’t become part of the fast-food nation.

The question of “what’s for dinner?” I’m sure is an innocent one, coming from my 2teensandatween, they’re home from a sports practice, needing to desperately refuel. For me however, it’s like an immediate trigger for resentment. “Why do I have to always be the one to cook dinner?” I’m thinking in my most whiny mom-victim voice. And for a brief, glorious time this past summer I didn’t have to cook dinner – I informed our children that with no school, no sports, no excuses that they were on cooking duty. Surprisingly, there was no eye rolling, no heavy sighs – I got instead “o.k. – how’s this going to work?” So each child took a week, rotating through twice and for 6 weeks all I had to do was help them menu plan, purchase the groceries, and answer the occasional culinary question. It was a slice of heaven.

Once upon a time, when the boys were little, I was working full time and Jeff was in med school (yes, it was crazy; no, it’s not impossible – we managed somehow) I feel like I was more organized with our dinners. I voiced this observation with my mom once and she pointed out that I probably was – I had to be. You can’t pick up twin boys from daycare at 5:30, come home and then wonder what you have in the cabinet to make for dinner. I spent Sunday afternoons in the kitchen, the boys played, I listened to Prairie Home Companion (and Jeff was sure to be no where around since he can’t stand listening to this show), and I made dinners in advance. I was organized (or at least with time and distance that’s how I remember it) and it was nice – there was a rhythm to family life.

Fast forward, 12 years and I’m still in the kitchen – but definitely not organized, every night. I used to have a grocery list clipped to our refrigerator, most frequent items organized by aisle (I reordered the list every time we moved as I had to become familiar with yet another commissary). Yes, yes, I know … so I can be at times a bit well, a-r and yes that’s with a hyphen (Dear Japanese students, please do not ask me to explain this one … here is a link that will give you a good sense of this common slang term Over the past month or two I’ve noticed hfv (high-frequency visits) to the commissary – at least once a day, M-F. And inevitably, as soon as I’d walk through the door someone would say … “did you know we were out of …” – sigh. Aside from the kitchen, the commissary is probably the next least favorite place for me to be. Domestic Diva, I am not. Clearly a re-evaluation was in order.

I spent the better part of the day last week, combing through my cookbooks (I brought only a few) and recipe clippings (I brought them all – the idea that while in Japan I would use them or lose them). I came up with a 12-week menu plan.* No repeat recipes, because I am so tired of the peanut gallery voicing “but we just had x” or “I’m tired of eating y.” That is about the extent of complaints I will get though, because with one very steely look they know the retort “you don’t like it, you know where the cereal is – I am not a short-order cook.” I do have some family food challenges to consider – 2 have nut allergies (all tree nuts, peanuts and coconut) and now 3 out of 5 of us are pesco-vegetarians. It’s hard to make everyone happy. But darn it, with planning, a revamped grocery list (yes, of course by aisle – no circling back for forgotten items), and advance preparation on Sunday’s, 2011 is going to be a different year! The ultimate goal is less time in the kitchen, less time at the commissary – more time for things Japanese. I’m motivated and for the first time in years I’m actually inspired … in the kitchen.

* I had some friends here voice their astonishment that I could come up with that many menus and I offered to post the weekly menus with reviews. Check in on Sunday evenings for the reviews of the previous week and the upcoming weeks menu.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Yamate Western Homes; Holiday Decorations Japanese-style

In the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, a group of us decided to take a break from the base and head to Yokohama to see the Yamate homes that were decorated for Christmas. This section of western-style homes sit up on a bluff overlooking Yokohama, where the foreigners were granted permission to build homes and reside shortly after Japan opened up their ports to the west over 150 years ago. Most of the homes that we visited are post-Kanto earthquake era – many of the residences did not survive this massive earthquake in 1923. The homes are now property of the city of Yokohama and during the holiday season they are decorated, with varying degrees of exuberance, by different countries like Norway, Britain and Portugal.

We visited seven former residences of foreign business tycoons or consulates, and if you go to you can download a pdf with a map of the area and a suggested walking route. Our group decided to visit the homes reverse-route, starting with no. 7 the Former Uchida House with the ultimate goal of walking down from the bluff to land at the end of Motomachi Street – well-known in the area for great shopping and restaurants (another great link is to an article of the history behind Motomachi from the Japan Times This decision proved to be a good one, no.7 has a small information desk and we were provided with English descriptions of the homes on the tour – that's like hitting pay dirt for us gaijins.

The weather was great, a crystal clear day, Mt. Fuji in view from the Yamate Italian Garden between nos. 6 and 7, and the with Ginkos in their full autumn glory along with some stunning Japanese maples their was beauty to behold both inside the homes and out. I went a bit photo happy with so many great holiday decorations, the slide show is the "best of." Even though this entry is post-holiday, I did it for purely selfish reasons – next year, whether we are stateside or still here in Japan, I wanted to be sure to have these photos very handy ... because the artists who created these decorations left me ... inspired.