Monday, February 27, 2012

Begin Again

I’ve tried a 5-star Fettuccine Pie recipe – a big NO.
A “Crowd-Pleasing Casserole” from Woman’s Day – thumbs down all around.
A prize tested $400 winning recipe from BH&G – it did not win any rave reviews in our house.

These three teenager’s of mine have apparently tough palates to please or at least they’re tough to please all at once. One will at least eat eggplant, the other two push it to the side. Two love tofu, one does not. One’s tired of eating salmon. Two love curry, one only likes it in restaurants. The same two will at least eat my attempts at Indian food, the other goes in search of the cereal.

I am still on my quest – the quest I began a year ago with the idea that surely after more than 25 years of reluctantly being stuck in the kitchen I must have enough recipes that are hits with this crew of mine. Enough to flush out 12 weeks of no-brainer cooking – that’s my dream, when 5 o’clock rolls around every weekday afternoon that I have a plan, I’m not standing in the kitchen with all the cabinet doors open willing something to fall out and hit me that declares “cook me!” That I don’t have to think about meal prep. A mom can dream …

Three active, sports involved teenagers makes for something akin to vulture’s circling for prey come 5 pm. Two 16-year old twins consume volumes of food I could never have envisioned. The produce guy at the commissary knows me. The id checker comments when I’m there more that once a day.

“Weren’t you just here this morning?” she asks
“16-year old twin sons” I sigh. “You cannot begin to imagine.”

I never have enough: milk, apples, bananas, grapes, orange juice, bread, pretzels, gingersnaps – oh hell, basically any kind of carbs. I have reviewed portion control, pointed out that 9 apples should last at minimum three days – an apple a day for each resident teenager. Important to know since apples here in Japan cost a fortune. I even have our grocery list itemized with most used items, organized by aisle. I know, I know … it does seem a bit over the top but believe me it saves tons of time. Sadly, my kids apparently can metabolize food faster than I can shop. I don’t care for grocery shopping – the faster the cart moves down the aisle the quicker I am in and out. This list making, the menu planning it’s all an effort to spend less time doing what I dislike (food shopping and cooking) and more time doing things I do like (anything besides being in a grocery store or cooking … well you could add anything to do with housekeeping too but that’s another story). I am not domestic and yet, here I find myself on a forced march through domesticity. So the goal is less time spent doing what I dislike – which leads me back to the 12-week menu plan.

At the beginning of 2011 I had the idea of 12 weeks, 60 meals (I’m allegedly off Saturday and Sunday) and almost but not quite made it to the end before we had the interruption of the triple disaster of March 11th here in Japan. When the kids and I returned and began the new school year, I tried to strike out the no-hitters and replace them with the hopefuls. All too soon schedules became crazed and I was back to survival cooking. The new year brought new hope and I was determined to try once more – maybe the third time would be the charm. We are now on week eight, more than three-quarters of the way through this extended experiment. I’m still having some bombs (see above) but I do seem to be having more hits and I’m not hearing “I’m tired of eating xyz, we just had that.” I spent 2 days over the Christmas break cooking and freezing some pasta sauces, chili and pizza dough. I loaded up my iTouch with podcasts and playlists and cranked in the kitchen. Strangely, when I now open the freezer I feel a sense of peace with the knowledge that if it comes down to it and I’m desperate for a dinner – I’ve got choices already prepared.

One of my favorite pasta sauces to make and freeze is the Tomato Artichoke Heart Sauce. Last Wednesday things got a bit wiggy in the afternoon – five o’clock rolled around and I still had not started dinner prep. Resident teenagers were beginning to deplete all carb containers in the pantry. Thankfully I was able to reach into the freezer and grab dinner. A no-brainer dinner was at the ready.

The date I have noted on the recipe is April 1995 with “very good” written down. A momentous month for our household – when a working couple became a family, two times over. When those twin eating machines of ours were born 16 years ago my mom came and stayed with us and aside from the unnamed hundreds of daily tasks she helped me with, the care and survival of a mom of newborn twins, the one I remember most clearly was that she left me with a freezer full of home cooked meals. A precious gift – the gift of a mothers cooking. And so while my kids, continue to give me some thumbs downs on my efforts in the kitchen, I am not deterred. My mom is one fabulous cook. She was an Entreprenuer when I was a teenager and yet I recall her somehow finding the time to make us a home cooked meal each night. I don’t know how she managed.

I may not enjoy being stuck in the kitchen but my mom through her actions to take the time and effort to create a meal for the ones you love is a lesson learned from my childhood and leaves me … inspired.

Linguine with Tomatoes and Artichoke Hearts
(4 servings)

2 Tbsp olive Oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 16-oz can Italian plum tomatoes, chopped, juices reserved
2 tsp dried basil
2 tsp dried oregano
1 14+ oz jar marinated artichoke hearts
12-oz linguine, cooked and drained
1 1/2 cups Parmesan cheese

Heat olive oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté  until tender, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, reserved juices, basil and oregano and simmer until sauce thickens slightly, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Add artichokes with marinade to sauce and cook 2 minutes. Add pasta and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese to sauce. Toss until sauce coats pasta and mixture is heated through, about 2 minutes. Season pasta to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer pasta to large bowl and serve with remaining parmesan.

(The date I have noted on this recipe is 4/1995 – it’s a copy, I am not entirely sure if my memory serves me well but I believe it came from an issue of Gourmet Magazine)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Setsubun at Hachimangu

“Oni wa so to (Out with the devil).
Fu ku wa uchi (Come in happiness)!”
On February third, the Japanese celebrate Setsubun, a festival celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of warm spring. Roasted soybeans, called fuku mame (fortune beans) are thrown at Mame make (bean throwing) ceremonies held in shrines and temples as people try to ward off devils and wish for good fortune. It is believed that if you eat the same number of fuku mame, equal to your age this will bring you health and happiness in the coming year. Setsubun is unique in that it is honored both at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. 

I joined 20 Americans and one very generous and lovely Japanese lady, Reiko-san, for the bean throwing celebration at the Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura yesterday. Reiko-san, when asked if she could arrange for a group of Americans to view the Setsubun activities did not miss a beat and responded by replying "Sure, how many tickets?" 

20 was the answer. 

She's a brave soul to take on so many of us single handedly but more than managed (we introduced her to the saying of "herding cats"). She was not only able to procure us tickets to the roped off area of the event but also tickets to the Winter Peony exhibition (my good fortune to see it twice within a week) as well as having us meet one of the head priests after the ceremony. He then presented all of us with gift bags. Seriously. The tickets were free and we get gifts too? 

I had no idea what exactly to expect but the celebration was so much fun. The throwers are apparently dignitaries and local celebrities who line the pavilion holding boxes filled with little packets of soy beans. At the sound of a gong they proceed to throw them out to the crowd, while over a speaker you hear "Oni wa so to. Fu ku wa uchi! Oni wa so to. Fu ku wa uchi!" After less than a minute you hear whistles and everything stops. This happened several times until I finally turned to one of my friends and said "what are the whistles for?" and a Japanese bystander piped up and told us that they are for crowd control. Only in Japan! Not only do they have people watching and decide when things are getting a little rowdy to blow a whistle – everyone listens and stops. I can see why they do this though, I was too busy trying to snap photos while getting knocked about and left the bean catching to my daughter. She did quite well, not only did she get a packet with a symbol for a prize (what we discovered the bags were all for that I took a photo of walking in) she also scored enough packets for everyone in the family to eat roasted soy beans to bring us health and happiness in the coming year. Now that's something to not only celebrate but also give me some ... inspiration

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Kamakura Winter Peonies at Hachimangu

on all sides,
the peony wards off
rain clouds

– Yosa Buson (1716–1783)

I’ve entered into the phase we military spouses refer to as short-timers. We have six months left of our tour here in Japan and with the flip of the calendar into a new year I seem to have been hit head on with the meaning … I’ve begun the season of “lasts.” As in … this will be the last time I go to the Tokyo International Quilt Show – ever. As in … I will not get to see the Yamate Western style homes decorated again.

It also begins a phase of firsts – making the time to experience those things I’ve wanted to see but somehow never made the time to. This is how I found myself last week, standing in the Winter Peony exhibition on the grounds of the Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura, crossing off one of those items on my short-list. The past two winters I had seen the posters for these winter beauties in the train station and had made mental notes to myself to go see them but other priorities apparently got in the way. Now, without another winter season ahead of me here in Japan, I had to make time or the opportunity would be lost.

Among the many things the Japanese Way has led me to appreciate, is the way they take time out to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of nature. There were eight of us who took the train ride over from Yokosuka to Kamkaura last week. It was a cold windy day with clouds moving in and out of some desperately needed sunshine. As Buson said in his haiku “on all sides, the peony wards off, rain clouds” – the peonies were beautiful and of course left me … inspired.