Monday, 31 December 2007

December Vegetables and Salutations

I am so in love with our veggie garden right now (apologies to David Lebovitz readers, otherwise known as those who profess to hating the word veggies. I shall continue to use the word unashamedly). We have harvested multiple batches of lovely zucchinis, which we have grilled on the barbecue, grated into zucchini slice (or 'cake', as Mini Chef wishes it to be known), shaved on a mandolin and drizzled with vinaigrette for a carpaccio, and stuffed with goat's cheese and topped with pepper and fresh mint, wrapped in foil and thrown onto the Webber. I can't wait until the little experimental eggplanty ones are ready to simmer with our green chillies (not yet taken by possums - fingers crossed it stays that way) in a curry.

We've also harvested plenty of cherry tomatoes, however I think our grape tomato plant is one of those high yield, low taste varieties. To overcome the issue, we roasted them with garlic and fresh thyme, then added them to breakfast pizza and pasta dishes (recipes to come at some stage in the not too distant future).

The Rosemary looks extraordinarily healthy... since planting it out last year it has just gone wild, maybe because we eat so much of it that it's constantly being pruned.It has served us well with many stews and roast lamb dishes. My personal favourite involved an entire bottle of rosé - minus the glass I had to have during the preparation, of course. I'd quite like to use this particular variety of rosemary as an edible border in the front garden, as it's bushy enough that it will probably make for quite a good sound barrier (unfortunately we are located down wind of an RSL with an all night liquor licence). It's so hardy that even if you just chop off a bit and plop it in the dirt, it manages to take root.

What I'm most excited about though, is the latest trial plant, the Lebanese cucumbers. Clever Husband made a little teepee for the three plants to climb up, and they seem very pleased with the arrangement. One of the plants has a cucumber that's ripe for the picking, and I plan to do just that this evening. I was thinking I might make a little salsa with the cucumber, vine-ripened tomatoes, red onion, garlic (also from the garden) yellow capsicum and maybe some of the green chillies if I can find any that look big enough to eat.

I've always appreciated the thrill of skimming through a cookbook or food magazine to plan the perfect meal, but the whole experience becomes so much more exhilarating when the ingredients are coming from your own garden. Makes you feel sort of creative and a bit smug... and for some reason, the voice in my head has a British accent when I write (or think) about the veggie garden. I must be channelling Monty Don, or Alan Titchmarsh, or someone. Admittedly, Clever Husband does most of the growing... I weed, prune and pick and, well, cook.

Wishing all the growers, cookers and eaters out there a delicious New Year's celebration meal... let's hope that 2008 is filled with more tasty treats than our food-obsessed minds can conjure.

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Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Cassoulet Revisited

For those of you who were interested in my earlier, Cassoulet inspired post ...

I was doing a bit of browsing in my (clearly copious) spare time, I came across this amazing blog entry (with even more amazing pictures) about the famed dish. Have a look at David Lebovitz's gorgeous food blog. Imagine how cool it would be to be this into food AND live in France. Mmmm.

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Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Letter from Japan – Part 3

The final instalment. Miraculously, I was not put off sushi after this experience. In fact, a few days after returning home I found myself craving the salty goodness of fresh, raw fish. There’s something pure about it, something that is lost as soon as you cook it. Eating raw food is a grounding experience, every mouthful reminding us of where it came from. Perhaps it also reminds us that it simply a matter of luck that we ended up higher up in the food chain, and should be thankful that we are the ones doing the eating.

September 24, 2004

Only four days left here in Ise before heading back to Nagoya on Wednesday for the flight home. Can't believe how much the trip has flown. . . am looking forward to coming home and having a rest before going back to school though :-)

For those who have made enquiries, I still haven't tried out the squirt-up-ya-clack (clearly I'm referring to the toilet), but have it on good authority that it is a rather painful experience. Was taken out for dinner and to a pub on Wednesday night by the two Assistant Language Teachers, Jess (Australian) and Caesar (English). Becky, a Canadian ALT from another school told an hilarious story about how she decided to give it a go, but found it so uncomfortable that she actually cried out involuntarily in pain. She said it was a very long 10 seconds, especially considering that Japanese walls are paper thin, and she was convinced that her host family would think she was some kind of pervert.

The ALTs seem to have a lot of fun over here. They are paid more than first year teachers in Australia (not difficult) but they don't need a teaching qualification. They get set up in an apartment, are given a bike, and basically just have to run a lesson or two a day, do a bit of conversation practice and mark a few essays. Not a bad life. Of course, they seem to spend more time partying with each other than working. Caesar (very funny guy) tells me that he plans to stay for three years, because he has, quote, 'absolutely no prospects at home'. Three years is the maximum you can stay, but most can only handle it for one or two years. The rigidity of the culture apparently gets to you after a while, especially because teachers are supposed to set an example, so have to be really careful about following the 'rules' (see previous e-mail for more details). Jess has been told off by her supervisor a couple of times (he is an uber-anal freak who has no friends and is clearly in need of a shag).

I am still a bit battered. I have a huge bruise on my arm (to match all of the other bruises caused by the poisonous mosquitoes), which I acquired in Nara, whilst climbing through a Buddha's nostril. There was a breathtakingly gorgeous temple with a GIANT Buddha statue, and near the statue was a wooden pole with a hole in it, claiming, 'Hole same size as Buddha nostril. Please climb'.

Of course, we had to do it. I was actually very scared at first. It was a small opening, about 1 metre long and you had to kind of go through with your arms above your head. It took me a few goes to work up the courage. After watching a fat American go through first, I was able to do it. I must have got the bruise as I scrambled out the other side (after staying put for about five minutes for many photos and videoing. These kids always take the opportunity to catch embarrassing moments on camera).

Yesterday was a public holiday, but we all had to come into school for a PR exercise which involved our students making sushi with the students from one of the local junior high schools. The students worked in groups of five to make the 'sushi' (a loose term), which was then judged by a group of highly regarded food connoisseurs (myself included). My concerns began when I was told that the sushi would be judged on taste, looks and 'creativity'. Personally, I prefer my sushi to be less creative, more palatable. A number of the pieces (I was supposed to eat 8 in total - a hard task even when they taste good) were okay, but a couple of kids had creatively combined ingredients such as 'wieners' (frankfurt-esque things which are made out of fish paste with a tempting, spam-like texture) and chocolate sauce. I think the Principal got that one. I managed to avoid the totally disgusting ones. Justin however, who had a rather large night the night before (he was taken out by some of the male teachers to dinner and a bar) was having a lot of difficulty keeping some of them down, and spent a suspicious amount of time in the toilet. Poor 'Big J' (as the students now call him; my nickname alternates between 'Calvin' and 'Skanky Ho'...don't ask) will never be able to look at sushi the same way again.

Must dash - class now. See you all soon xx

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Wednesday, 12 December 2007

4th Annual Menu for Hope

If you love food and also love the idea of helping others, have a look at the Menu for Hope Fundraiser. It's a worldwide event, in which food bloggers work together to raise money for the UN world food program. The Asia-Pacific Organiser's blog Grab your Fork) provides a list of the amazing prizes to be won, including dinners at fabulous Melbourne restaurants Attica and Interlude, magazine subscriptions, weekends away and other foodie prizes. Each entry costs $10 US, which buys you a virtual raffle ticket for the prize that takes your fancy. To enter (or for more info), follow this link:

Foodie Blogroll

Friends with a healthy appetite for reading food stories, recipes and reviews may like to check out the Foodie Blogroll, now to be found in the bottom right hand corner of this blog. Some great links to foodie blogs all over the world. Happy procrastinating!

Letters from Japan – Part 2

Reading this second letter makes me realise that whenever you are travelling, you discover, and describe, your experiences as though you are the first person ever to observe a new culture. On one hand, it comes across as extremely naive, but on the other, it means that even as adults we are capable of child-like wonder as we encounter new things. An exhilarating experience to be cherished.

September 21, 2004

I don't really feel that I did the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture justice the last time I wrote - I was too wrapped up in talking about where I have been and the weather.

I had the ultimate stereotypical experience the other day in observing the school's Sumo club train. A dusty little tin shed, 10 sweaty, heavy-set Japanese teenagers, one coach and 11 loin cloths. Hmm. The coach very generously asked our male students if they would like to join in, but they all declined, no doubt concerned about how their little chicken legs would look sticking out of the turban-like cloths. My fellow chaperon did decide to have a try, some of which I captured on video, but I must admit, I was not to keen to stick around. Nothing you want to see less than a colleague in a nappy.

I have also been impressed by the myriad rules governing the wearing of shoes in and around Japanese buildings. You take you shoes off at the entrance to the school, and get around in some very attractive, burgundy vinyl slippers. If you want to go into building two, you change your slippers at the door. Slippers off completely for the gym. Pink plastic slippers for the food room and red slippers for the computer room. Slip out of your everyday slippers when you go into the toilet, and put on the comfy green slippers, which are lined up neatly, awaiting your arrival. Oh - and don't forget the brown slippers for the third floor.

Needless to say, it is sometimes hard to keep track.

Speaking of the Gym (was I??). . . saw the funniest PE class ever the other day. Our students were most horrified as I filmed them marching on the spot, walking in circles and performing standing exercise that were straight out of the 1950s. All in time to brass band marching music. I was laughing so hard that I had tears streaming down my face, but of course I couldn't use a tissue because it is very rude to do such things in public. It's okay to fall asleep in a gym full of people while listening to some naff speech (as long as you don't fall over or snore), but don't ever blow your nose in public. Nor is it a good idea to do anything whilst walking. There are little seats located next to vending machines where you may sit and have your drink/ snack/ smoke, but make sure you don't move around - poor form. The only case in which this does not apply is when eating an ice-cream. These, for some reason, are portable fare.

Enough of the funny ha-ha at the expense of Japanese customs. On Thursday night we were taken out to dinner with the staff of our host school for a welcome party. Justin and some of the men were getting stuck into the Sake, playing some hideously dangerous drinking game where you pass the little shot cup to the next person you want to challenge. The Sumo coach was so pissed by 9 o'clock that he fell asleep at the table. Justin can't remember anything from about the second challenge. Luckily, the Vice Principal, Kenji (JFK for short) was getting stuck in too, so no rules of etiquette were broken. The place where we ate was a Yakitori bar, which is like Tapas but Japanese food. Piles of delicious morsels like little chicken and fish skewers, edamame peas, soups, silken tofu, sashimi. . . yum. I even tried - wait for it - raw
chicken! As first I was hesitant, but then I thought, “I can't not taste this because it is way too good a story.” It was cut into quite small pieces, which you dipped in a soy sauce and ginger mix. It actually tasted okay, a bit like raw fish, but in my head I was hearing, "I'm eating raw chicken, I'm eating raw chicken, I'm eating raw chicken, swallow, swallow, swallow," which of course made it very difficult to swallow. I only ate one piece.

Yesterday we went to Nagashima Spa Land, which is a massive Disneyland type amusement park with the biggest roller coaster I have ever seen. It was so big, that the highest parts were in the clouds. (!!!!) Went on heaps of rides with the kids, despite considerable trepidation. Have an hilarious photo of me taken by the camera at the top of one of the big drops on the roller coaster - I look like I am about to scream out a tonsil. Did not feel queasy until right at the end of the day, after going a freaky ride called the 'frisbee'. You can imagine what that looks like (except whatever you are picturing, think 10 times as big and upside down). Hence was not impressed by the chundering lady in the toilet next to me before the bus ride home. Yum.

Must go - the bell has gone. Will write again soon. Hope you are all happy (yay for school holidays!)

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Saturday, 1 December 2007

Letter from Japan - Part One

I love Japan. Although I was only there for three weeks, I was in absolute awe of the temples, the landscape, the people and of course, the food. I can’t wait to go back, but I’m not sure that I’m brave enough to travel overseas while Mini Chef is still in the nappies and tantrums period (so, maybe after he turns 16). Anyway, in the spirit of reminiscence (and a strong desire to win Tattslotto), I thought I’d share some of my observations from that visit with you. Just to clarify, the ‘kiddies’ I refer to are a group of year 10 students I was chaperoning, along with a Japanese-speaking colleague. Reading back, it sounds rather like we abandoned them regularly, but I can assure you that they all got home safely, after only one minor incident with customs and the Federal Police (a story for another day).

September 16, 2004

Have done so much travelling this week I don’t even know where to begin. Perhaps I should start with a whinge, and get it over and done with.

Japan is very hot. Stickily, brain-fryingly hot. We have all taken to carrying fans around with us in an attempt to overcome the sweltering heat (and just in case anyone didn’t realise we were tourists). I also have a heat rash and have discovered that I am allergic to Japanese mosquitoes, whose painful bites cause me to break out in swollen hives which eventually turn into bruises the size of my hand.

Now that’s out of the way...

The fun really started on the plane on the way to Sydney. My learned colleague and I decided to have (one last) drink with dinner, but the flight attendant obviously believed that I was one of the students and asked my age. Much to the amusement of the actual students who were sitting around us. This trend has continued; teachers get in for free at historical sights over here, and there have been a few confused looking employees trying to decide which one of the females looked the oldest. Honestly, I don't really look that young, do I?

We spent the first day wandering around Tokyo in a somewhat bewildered state, and from there moved on to Miajima, a little island that was hit by a massive Typhoon just a week before we arrived. Some of you may have seen it (or seen pictures of it); it’s the shrine that sits right out over the water with a huge golden gate a little further out into the bay. An amazing sight - took a whole roll of film there. The island is also home to hundreds of wild deer (mmm - venison), who, a little like the emus at Healesville Sanctuary, try to snatch things out of your hands.

We also visited Hiroshima and the Atomic Bomb monument and museum. This place has the same kind of effect on visitors as a concentration camp in Europe. Horrific images and artefacts - I won’t go into too may details but let’s just say that some of the kids thought they may have taken it a step too far with the life-size models of the melting people running through the flames.

We then went on to a little town on the west coast of Japan called Hagi. It’s surrounded by mountains, and is well known for it's beautiful pottery and pretty little streets. We hired bikes and rode around all day, and Justin and I happened upon this funky little bar right on the beach with a delightful view. Obviously we decided that the kids needed a bit of free time, so we let them loose one the locals for an hour (this is an understatement - they have taken to saying Konichiwa to everyone who walks past, and often follow that up with an invitation to go swimming. Not sure why. Think that’s all they can say in Japanese).

Later that night we went out to a Karaoke box - quite a bizarre little place. It is literally a boxy room with a table and a huge TV screen and a microphone. Much like that scene in 'Lost in Translation', you program the songs you want into the TV and sing along as it blasts out through the speakers, while hilarious images are displayed on the screen (think early George Michael or Rick Astley video clips). As you can imagine, I was totally in my element. We played a game to get everyone to join in, where if they sing they get to choose a song for the next person. Fortuitously, ‘You’re the one that I want’ from Grease was chosen for me by some of the girls, which I performed in a very entertaining manner (don’t worry, there’s video evidence). The girls also chose a Justin Timberlake song for Justin - heh heh.

Kyoto was next on the itinerary. Having spent just two days there, I have decided that that’s where Adrian and I are going for our next holiday (okay, honey?). There are over 2000 temples, little cobble-stoned streets, markets, leafy parks, streams, bars with views of the river... it was just amazing. And the FOOD! (Can you believe that I'm this far into the e-mail and only now mentioning food??) Yesterday, Justin and I got rid of the kiddies (here's a map, go shopping, be back by 7) and went to a little restaurant near the Ginkoku-ji temple and had Sashimi and Kirin with a view over the whole city. The fish was incredible - mackerel, swordfish and salmon. Who would have thought that raw flesh could taste so good?

And while we’re on the food topic, had the best tempura I have ever tasted in Tokyo at this little lunch bar thingy. Prawns, squid, okra, pumpkin, served with rice and miso (are your mouths watering??)… Mmm.

Have had a couple of funny experiences so far - not digging the Japanese style toilets, for one. As I have mentioned to the girls, it's just weird being that close to the business. Now the host family I'm staying with have a very snazzy electronic toilet that plays music (!!!), can give you a bit of a watering (bidet) and flushes itself. There's a seat heater too, but I don't really need to use that at the moment.

The girls have been really good with the showing together in communal bathrooms thing, but the boys have been totally wussy about it, and have been going in one by one. Speaking of the boys, two of them arrived back at the hostel in Kyoto the other night (punctually, after finding their way back with the map we gave them) wearing matching pumpkin outfits. They had little orange berets with a little green stem on top and these orange suits made out of felt, with arm and leg holes and a Halloween pumpkin face. Most hilarious. Apparently they had been walking around Kyoto like this for an hour or so, saying ‘Konichiwa’ and asking people for high fives. Of course, we had to try them on - I believe there is photographic evidence of that too.

So now we’re at our sister school in the South East part of Honshu. My host family here in Ise is very nice (three kids - 18, 17 and 15) and Taka's wife is an excellent cook. She kind of runs around them all the time, serving, cooking, cleaning, etc. She was most impressed when I explained to her that my husband did all the washing and cleaning; Adrian - I think she wants you to come over and teach Taka a thing or two (he looked amused but also slightly nervous when this was suggested).

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Mini Chef gets a stove and some utensils

Clearly a present I would have cherished as a child. Probably second only to the Hansa Supermarket I so coveted.