Recent Reads: Japanese, Japanese, Not-Japanese

Library books

I never stop reading, even in the midst of cross-country-move prep, but my interests rarely overlap with M’s. Which sucks, because sometimes you just want to talk about what you’ve been reading, you know? So, blog readers, you’re up. Here are some of my recent book choices and thoughts on the same. Agree? Disagree? Have other must-read suggestions? Feel free to comment!

Japanese Farm Food

Japanese Farm Food
Nancy Singleton Hachisu
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4494-1829-8
At a library near you

I was surprised and a little ashamed by my reaction to this book. Reviews were glowing, people were swooning, and I’d been putting off reading it because I wanted to savor the anticipation as long as possible. I believed I would fall completely in love with it. But… I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a beautiful book. I’m a total sucker for pretty pictures of places and food. The typography is good, the color scheme is lovely, and the use of Japanese patterns for page edges and spine works well. I brought it home from the library and immediately sat down to read (I generally read cookbooks like novels first, then note recipes to try after). The reviews I had read were not wrong. Hachisu’s writing draws you into Japanese farm life (with a bit of an expat twist) and immerses you. She talks about how their bicultural life requires its own rules, but also notes how much they insist on maintaining old traditions. It left me feeling a little unsure of her point (of course, maybe she wasn’t trying to make one), and that feeling extended a bit into the recipes.

Sometimes she dismisses haute kaiseki cuisine and assures you that humble ingredients are just fine. But she is also sometimes extremely particular about local (virtually impossible to get elsewhere) and organic ingredients. This tied in well with her anecdotes and essays about local farmers and specialty food artisans, which were delightful and informative. But I was somehow left with the sense that apparently the only way to be authentically Japanese was to be a rural farmer. I own several Japanese-food cookbooks written by Americans and Japanese who didn’t marry farmers and move to the country, and the food is still authentic. I have (or try to have) no illusions about Japan. I know that it’s not all geisha and master craftsmen and high art. But I’d rather not swing the other way and ignore that part, either.

It’s telling that my favorite page in the book included images of traditional ryokan architecture and artisanal charcoal. Long story short: Hachisu’s work is immersive and it is evocative of her lifestyle. It’s just not a lifestyle that appeals to me. And that’s perfectly fine! I’ll check it out again. The recipes were still attractive, and I made note of a couple dozen to try. As an Elizabeth Andoh fan, I’m interested to compare the two approaches, both by American women married to Japanese men and living in the country for decades. I wonder if it will show a clear town-country distinction, or if it will simply be Japanese.

Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook

The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook
Susan Briscoe
KP Books, 2005
ISBN 0-89689-186-0
At a library near you

As previously mentioned, I’ve been dabbling in sewing lately. As with most things, it didn’t take me long to want to move from the basics to something new. My Japanophilia drove me toward sashiko, a traditional Japanese embroidery style generally acknowledge to have begun as decorative mending in rural villages. It’s just so simple and graphic that it immediately drew me in. I started looking for books to learn more (my eternal m.o.) but was generally disappointed. They always seemed to be about machine sewing, and I couldn’t let go of the feeling that sashiko was meant to be done by hand, that the machine was simply approximating the look and not the actual craft.

Reviews on Amazon led me to Briscoe, and I am so glad. Though the book cover looks similar to any number of those machine-based titles, the inside is anything but. The pattern library alone is swoon-worthy. It may be a shallow generalization for me to make, but I believe the Japanese have a word for everything, and it’s so interesting to learn the names of all the patterns. It’s also fascinating how much meaning is (or was traditionally) attached to each pattern. Different patterns were applied in hopes of particular outcomes (good harvest, safety, health of a child, etc.), and their popularity waxed and waned throughout history.

Speaking of history, Briscoe opens the book with possibly my favorite part: eight pages of the history of sashiko, liberally illustrated with objects and photographs from her own collection. She succinctly demonstrates the inspiration of various patterns, talks about how trade may have spread the art, and explains why it evolved the way it did. I love me some strong history to bolster the learning of a craft, so it was a no-brainer to fall for this book.

Interestingly, the only thing I wasn’t slavering over were the projects. Oh, I definitely aim to do some, like the samplers and greeting cards. But a coast-swapping move precludes starting new hobbies that require an outlay for tools and materials, so for now, I’m just getting inspired. Lots of promise but not practical yet. When I’m ready, though, this book (and Briscoe’s follow-up) will be my go-tos.

How to Archive Family Keepsakes

How to Archive Family Keepsakes
Denise S. May Levenick
Family Tree Books, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4403-2223-5
At a library near you

This book surprised me a little. I earned my library science Master’s with a focus in archives management, and I’m used to seeing popular writing on the topic that ranges from incomplete to downright wrong. I was pleasantly thrilled, then, when I flipped open Levenick’s book.

I found it when searching for works that bridged the scholarly-popular divide. I have a family reunion coming up, and lately there has been more discussion of the papers and (especially) photographs we hold that need some care. My training has taught me how to provide that care, but I do it almost exclusively in a library/archives repository setting. I’m unused to helping with the stewardship of private collections (aside from my own). I wanted some guidance on how to discuss the issues without, I hope, coming across as too academic or snobbish. (I also wanted a book I could just hand over for perusal, because let’s be honest: sometimes advice is easier to receive when it’s coming from a neutral party.)

Levenick’s book fit the bill so perfectly that, in a time when my impulse-shopping tendencies are firmly kept in check, I was ordering a copy on Amazon the day after I brought the book home from the library. Why, you ask?

Her chapters are concise and well-organized. She starts at the beginning (the idea of the family archive, the inevitability of someone becoming—not necessarily by choice—its keeper, the many and varied materials that might be involved) and takes the process step by step. There are plenty of checklists, worksheets, and resources to help keep track and take it further. Levenick addresses aspects of both intellectual organization and physical storage (including the dreaded plastic tubs), and she’s realistic in her advice.

That’s probably the biggest draw of this book as opposed to the more scholarly/professional books I own and consult for work purposes. The audience is not professional archivists but people who may abruptly find themselves caretakers of dirty objects, warped photographs, and disorganized files. Unlike professionals, who are expected (though not always able) to maintain industry best practices, the people Levenick addresses probably don’t have access to specialized tools and supplies, and she is matter-of-fact about that.

Her advice is remarkably thorough, covering physical objects, digital files, and genealogical recordkeeping in enough detail to be useful but not going so far as to be dizzying. It might help, frankly, that Levenick is not herself a professional. She does not have a library degree but instead pursued an informal education based on her genealogical and research needs. The information she collected formed this book, just as it informed her family archives stewardship. She learned these lessons honestly, and I hope I can share them with my family in the same spirit.

Note: This post was very spur-of-the-moment. I had some thoughts about a book and really wanted to get them out of my head and into a potential discussion. Though this is unlike anything I’ve written here before, I enjoyed it a lot and expect to make it an occasional series. There will be a brief break while we relocate, but my reading list for Portland is already nearing triple digits, so another Recent Reads post is inevitable.

BOS, PDX, and a Rich Chocolate Pudding

Fishing

A long, long time ago, this was a different post. It felt so good to write again with that last post that I immediately started drafting three others. I am a person who writes, and when the need builds too high, it has to be addressed. So I stuck with the spirit of doing things and did a lot of writing, and this post talked about doing that writing and other things. It situated that action in the relentless apprehension of the Layoff Life grind, especially how I was hitting the point of really missing financial security and really wishing for some certainty.

Unexpectedly, that state is no longer in effect. M has been offered a job, one that is right up his alley but far from our current home. So in a month, we will become residents of Oregon.

Lava field

To say that I’m terrified is a bit of an understatement. It is not to say, however, that I’m pessimistic about this change. I love the Pacific Northwest, and a relocation seems refreshing at the moment. The major hurdle for me is going to be the abrupt halt of my current career trajectory. I’ve been enjoying the hell out of my work lately, and I feel a frisson of panic at the thought of not having it to keep my brain occupied. Of course, becoming a sudden (if temporary) stay-at-home mom is going to challenge me. But it will be temporary, and it will be sweet to spend more time with our Little Bear, who is funnier and more articulate every day.

Besides, M and I both felt, upon hearing of the impending layoff, that good things were in store. M has found his, and now I get to seek mine.

Driftwood and mist

And in the meantime, I get to explore all the Portland/Oregon wonders I’ve heard about for years. Ice cream! Wasabi! Swedish food! But not doughnuts. At least not the big V. They just don’t appeal to me at all. I’d rather get a pan (finally) and hit up the farmers’ markets and local groceries and try my own.

Weeping tree

Speaking of cooking, there is pudding in this post. In the original version, there was plenty of context leading up to the recipe, discussing foundations that I feel are missing from my repertoire and the need I feel to distract myself from the rest of our stress. Now, all that has faded from my mind, leaving just chocolate. The pudding was great, so here is how I made it. It might be my last homemade dessert on the East Coast…

Rich Chocolate Pudding

Rich Chocolate Pudding

Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Tenth Anniversary Edition

Until I tasted the final product, this was simply “Chocolate Pudding.” I added the “Rich” for a reason. I used one of the toddler’s little bowls for my serving, and I think I could have been satisfied with a single spoonful.

Ingredients for Rich Chocolate Pudding

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • scant ⅔ cup cane sugar
  • pinch fine sea salt
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

In a 1-quart or similar-sized saucepan, whisk together the heavy cream, sugar, and salt over medium-low heat. Cook, whisking occasionally, until the mixture begins to steam.

In a small bowl, whisk together the whole milk and cornstarch until completely smooth. Add to the cream mixture and whisk until smooth. Cook until the mixture is thickening and just begins to boil, whisking occasionally (paying particular attention to the corners of the pan).

Add the chocolate and stir until homogenous. Reduce heat to low and cook for another 5 minutes or so, stirring. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla bean paste.

Immediately pour the pudding through a fine-mesh sieve into a 1-quart glass dish. Scrape it through gently but don’t push lumps through. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin forming. Refrigerate until chilled. When ready to serve, stir until smooth and spoon into smaller dishes. Feel free to sprinkle with fleur de sel or (as here) finely shredded coconut, or drizzle with raspberry syrup or honey.

Doing Things

Trio

Sometimes life gets in the way of things you intend to do. In this case, I intended to write blog posts a lot more frequently than has happened lately. Happily, life only got in the way in the best ways, so I let it.

Snuggling with Mama's mama

Some of the things have been social. After my sister’s lovely visit a few weeks ago, my mom came to stay for a few days. My family is so geographically scattered that M (let alone Little Bear) hasn’t even met them all yet, so these two occasions were unusual and precious.

We also recently took a quick road trip to Maine for M’s cousin’s graduation. That was eventful, as everything seemed to be scheduled for Bear’s nap times, but it was so nice to see family. (And to hear bagpipes. Oh, Scotland.)

Graduation party

Pond and a wisp of cloud

Some of the things have been experiential. We have, at the ides of May, finally emerged from the dull weight of endless winter to remember that spring still happens. M in particular has taken to outdoor excursions with a vengeance. He walks with LB every day, and I join them on weekends for trips to the beach or the woods. The Japanese term shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) has become a mantra for us, though we do need an equivalent for time spent with sand and salty air.

Moon over dunes

Ham and mushroom quiche

Finally, some of the things have been actions.

I’ve always been more of a dreamer than a doer. I mean, I want to do all the things, but first I want to read all about the history and procedure of each thing, figure out the best tools for doing the thing, and get inspiration on different approaches. It’s unfortunately rare for me to progress to the actual doing of said thing, but it has become easier to follow through the last few years as I’ve settled into a few certain areas of interest.

Baby lettuces

One of those is cooking and baking. One is writing, both the intellectual creation of works and the physical act involving paper and ink and pen or brush. One is gardening, or maybe just attempting to keep plants alive. And one is needlework.

Specifically, I like to sew (including embroidery, if we’re getting specific). I love needles, thread, and fabric. I do not love my sewing machine. I bought one an embarrassingly long time ago and remained terrified of and baffled by it until my mom’s visit brought a chance to move past the fear stage. So I hauled out the machine, set it up per the manual (this was more complicated than it should have been; do manual-writers not sit in front of the machines about which they are writing?), and let my mom guide me.

This episode was an important turnabout in our educational relationship. When my mother has a tech problem, she calls me. Trying to get my brain to step back to the point of pure computer basics is difficult and often frustrating. But I had to sympathize when she was trying to teach me how to sew with a machine. I finally had to remind her: “Mom, you know how I sometimes have to explain the difference between a file and folder? Take this back to a similar level.” We got there in the end, and I got a new handmade napkin out of the process.

Trying my hand at machine sewing

After the flush of that first triumph, I set aside the other three napkins to finish on my own. Several weeks later, I finally picked them up again, and it didn’t start all that well. I recognized one issue, called my mom regarding another, and had a minor frustration fit when it still stuttered. In my younger years, I would’ve flown into a full temper at this point, blamed my sewing machine, and left it alone to rot. But I am older now and (somewhat) wiser and recognize that tantrum-ing is not going to accomplish my goal. Also, it will feel so good when I work over the hurdles and achieve what I want through effort.

Though age 32 is kinda late to be learning these lessons, it’s better late than never. And when I eventually finished those napkins? It really did feel great, and I still grin when I see them on the kitchen table.

This one's for you, Mom

The Grumps

Hear no evil

Winter, or something, is wearing me down. I am a little off lately. Despite things going relatively well and being utterly fascinated at work and winter showing (very) tentative signs of abating, I am not the happiest of campers. I catch myself griping and pouting and generally feeling low. In our toddler-based vocabulary, I am definitely “grumping.” I know the reason, even though I was trying mightily to avoid exactly this.

Life with layoff started surprisingly easily, but the severance honeymoon has ended, and it is tough. I feel the shift. We’re still busier than ever and charging ahead full-steam, but an underlying tension has crept in. We are constantly aware of numbers and paperwork and the amorphous deadline driven by money. I expect spring’s arrival to help combat this, but it is sure being lazy about showing up. In the meantime, I’m trying to find other ways to keep my spirits up.

I started a series about my work in rare books and special collections libraries, and I expect the first real post for that to go up soon. At work, I’ve written two recent blog posts (yes, the general theme there will resurface here), and I have another on the way. I love writing, and having more than one outlet for that is really making me happy.

Fifteen down, 2,121 to go

In conjunction with my work and general Japan obsession interest, I’ve been taking tiny steps into learning the language. I hit a definite wall at work in terms of not knowing how to read materials, so I have to step it up. I don’t have time for a full course, so I’m trying TextFugu and other self-study options for now. In general, I have a knack for languages, so hopefully this works for awhile. I’m fighting a tiny when-do-I-use-which-writing-system terror right now, but I love the newness of the characters as opposed to Latin letters.

That being said, I’m also working out my rusty fingers on Western handwriting. I let it drop a bit late last year as things got busy, but I surprised myself by picking up a Zig this past weekend. I only followed along worksheet-style with some pages from Italic Letters and The Italic Way to Beautiful Handwriting, but it served to get the ink flowing. I like changing up my daily handwriting too much to switch permanently to Italic, but it is so nice as a “special occasion” script. Little Bear sees it differently.

Scribbles

Cozy with Aunt Kate

I was able to slow down enough to pick up a pen thanks to my sister, who visited for the weekend. She was on spring break from PT school and had a limited time frame, but even those couple of days were really, really nice. We hardly see each other in person anymore (ours is a FaceTime family), so I treasured this rare visit. She hadn’t seen the kid since he was three months old, and the difference must have been shocking. From total immobility to full sentences is quite a change. She also visited me at work, and I got a kick out of showing off some treasures. Since we’re in such divergent fields, I know that we each glaze over a bit as the other talks shop, but I think she liked the show-and-tell.

Secretary hand

One other distraction is holding my attention. I have not done much in the kitchen the past couple of months. My love of winter cooking went into hibernation shortly after the first storm, and all I’ve wanted to do on weekends is get ahead on the life stuff. Recently, however, an insistent little voice in my head has been prodding me to bake. With matcha all over my favorite boards and blogs lately, I couldn’t resist the urge. I even tempted fate by trying two completely new recipes, and I don’t care at all that the result was homely. It was baking for the sake of it, and thus utterly fulfilling. So I triple my yoga time, pick up a pen, and bust out the baking pans. If the tension persists, I remind myself that we can handle this. It is merely the experience that we are currently having.

Strawberry-Swirl Tartlets on Matcha and Chocolate

Strawberry-swirl tartlets on chocolate or matcha

This is not fancy pastry. I am a green tea fan, but M prefers chocolate. I kept the pastry cream simple. And I wanted another flavor, so I just swirled in some strawberry preserves. No straining, no excess cooking, no fuss. Obviously, I want to make them again with plenty of fuss, but this worked so well for what it was.

For the pastry cream (adapted from Alice Medrich‘s New Vanilla Pastry Cream)

  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon white rice flour (not glutinous)
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • ¾ teaspoon vanilla bean paste

For the crusts (adapted from Sur La Table‘s Easy Chocolate Press-In Dough)

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • ⅓ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1½ tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1¼ tablespoons matcha

To finish

  • ¼ cup strawberry preserves
  • 1 tablespoon water

For the filling: Place a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl near the stove. Whisk together the sugar and rice flour in a small, heavy saucepan. Whisk in a bit of the milk until you have a paste. Whisk in the egg yolks until smooth, then whisk in the rest of the milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, scraping all around the pan (sides, bottom, and corners) frequently.

When the filling begins to simmer, cook and stir for 5 more minutes, turning the heat down if necessary. You want to maintain the simmer.

As soon as 5 minutes are up, pour the filling into the strainer. Gently scrape the custard through, but don’t push through any cooked eggs bits. Once the filling is through, scrape the remainder from the bottom of the strainer. Stir in the vanilla paste. Let the mixture cool for about a half an hour, then press a piece of plastic directly onto the surface and up the sides of the bowl to prevent a skin, and refrigerate until chilled (up to 3 days).

For the crusts: Beat the butter and sugar in a medium mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer) until creamy, smooth, and well-blended. Add the egg yolk and beat until smooth.

Sift ½ cup of the flour and the cocoa into a small mixing bowl. Scrape in half of the butter-sugar-egg mixture. Sift the other ½ cup of the flour and the matcha over the remaining butter mixture. Mix each until moist and uniform in color. Incorporate any patches of flour or lumps of butter, but don’t go beyond that. If you beat it until it becomes batter-like, chill the dough until it firms up.

Lightly butter 4 tartlet pans and place on a rimmed baking pan. Divide the cocoa dough mixture in two and press into two pans. Make sure the thickness is even, with maybe a little more in the corners for structure. Repeat with the matcha dough mixture. Put the baking pan in the fridge and chill the tartlet shells for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the tartlet shells for 10 minutes, then rotate and bake another 5-8 minutes. It can be difficult to tell when they’re done, but a light golden color and slightly drier look are good indicators. Move the tartlet pans to a rack to cool.

To assemble: Stir together the strawberry preserves and the water in a small heatproof bowl. Warm in the microwave until smooth and pourable, about 20 seconds. Fill each tartlet shell with ¼ of the pastry cream. Dollop a spoonful or two of the preserves on top of each and swirl through with a skewer or table knife. Chill until set, about 10 minutes.

You can make the crusts and pastry cream ahead of time. If you’re not going to eat all the tartlets right away, I recommend filling only what you need. Fill the rest when you’re ready to eat them. Alternatively, you can create a barrier to keep the pastry cream from soggying up the crust. Melt a little semisweet or white chocolate and spread on the crust. Chill until set, then fill with pastry cream, etc.

Productivity of Necessity, and a Recipe

IMG_9607

The past month has been a building whirlwind, though obviously not on the blogging front. I like this time of year, but man, it can be exhausting. This year, the buildup to the holidays has seemed coincidental to all the other things going on. That doesn’t make it all less crazy, though.

It also doesn’t negate the impact some recent illness has had on our growing to-do lists. I was just pondering my PTO accumulation, but apparently I tempted fate. An early-season daycare bug quickly swept to Little Bear and home, and I used up sick days in rapid succession.

The unforeseen upside to that, however, was that I suddenly became a productivity machine. I am not one of those people who claims to work best under pressure. The idea of cramming for tests or speed-writing papers still makes me cringe, years after school. But one thing I am good at is buckling down when I simply have no other choice. And so it has been recently (hence the blog-radio silence).

So what have we been up to?

IMG_9629

M carved pumpkins.

His m.o. since we moved to this place (okay, so just the last two Halloweens) has been to carve while handing out the candy. Since he telecommutes, he’s out on the porch promptly as trick-or-treat starts, so he multitasks until I get home with Little Bear. It’s turned into a fun little two-year tradition that I think we might just continue.

This year’s main pumpkin was, as you can see, Minecraft themed. This was a big hit, particularly with the kids dressed in similar style. I was bemused by the mother who suggested that we must have some Minecraft-loving kids. Some people really do feel that games are not for adults, I guess.

Kabuki faces

I went to work.

The last couple weeks have included sick time and holidays but also work events and tons of checked-off tasks. Our director retired last month, but he continues as director emeritus, and we hosted some of his fellow Grolier Club members during the recent antiquarian book fair. It’s always fun to show off collection highlights, and our guests, booklovers all, were appreciative and interesting.

IMG_9595

I’m especially enthusiastic about showing off materials lately, because I’ve been having a blast with our collections myself. I even finally finished a post for our library blog, and I’m planning my next draft. My current fascinations lean heavily toward book history and East Asia, so I’ve been hunting for great examples to support these themes. I took a little detour into Japanese maps, and I’m not sorry.

IMG_9592

I even dragged Little Bear into the fun. My office’s proximity to his doctor means that he gets to accompany me occasionally. Now that he’s toddling, he’ll be reshelving in no time. He’s growing so fast, he will certainly be tall enough!

Training

Embroidery ready

Outside of work, I happily headed home for some domestic bliss.

I have finally, finally reached the end of the hand-stitching the quilt I’m making for Little Bear. I don’t mean that to sound bitter. I actually prefer hand sewing to machine, and it’s been a nice meditative way to end nights. It has simply taken so much longer than I originally intended. Now I’m preparing to add a little decoration in the form of French knots, and I’m looking forward to learning a bit of embroidery.

Cooking shrimp and baby bok choy

Aside from that, and all the housekeeping catch-up, I’ve been in the kitchen. Cookies, pancakes, and chili rolled out as we got over our bugs, and then I finally made soba with shrimp. I’ve been planning a dish made of these two components for weeks, and I made it now because I find soba noodles very comforting. They remain so in this recipe.

Soba with Baby Bok Choy and Shrimp

Shrimp and baby bok choy on soba

I aimed for light but warm, bright and nourishing. I adore baby bok choy, and the shrimp revived my strength after days of on-and-off illness and fatigue. I’m getting more confident at improvising Japanese food, and I considered this meal a success. Note that the sauce measurements are approximated and adjust to your liking. I’m a big fan of the Japanese seasoning blend of shichimi togarashi, but red pepper flakes and toasted sesame seeds would add the spice and crunch, too.

  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons mirin
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 1½ tablespoons minced ginger (I used ginger paste)
  • 1½ tablespoons crushed garlic
  • pinch of sugar
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch
  • 3 bundles of soba noodles
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil, or more as needed
  • 2 pounds baby bok choy, trimmed, halved, washed, and dried
  • 1 pound shelled shrimp, tails removed (I used thawed precooked shrimp because it was on hand but prefer raw)
  • shichimi togarashi

Whisk together the rice vinegar, mirin, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sugar, and sesame oil. Taste and adjust as necessary, then whisk in the cornstarch until smooth. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the soba noodles and cook until al dente, just a few minutes. Pour into a colander to drain, rinsing a bit to separate if necessary.

Place a wok over medium heat. When hot, add the canola oil and the baby bok choy and toss. Cook, stirring frequently, until stems soften a little and leaves wilt. Add the shrimp and cook until barely opaque, stirring frequently. Add the sauce, stir, and cook until bok choy retain just a bit of crunch and sauce has thickened, stirring regularly.

Divide the noodles among four bowls and top evenly with the shrimp and bok choy (and plenty of sauce). Sprinkle with shichimi togarashi to taste. Pick up your chopsticks and enjoy.

Autumn, Suddenly

Fall flowers

Just like that, it’s cooler and crisper and obviously the season has changed. I love this time of year. The transitional times in general are my favorite. Typically, it’s right about now that the long, endless slog of hot summer days has me down, and cooler weather sweeps in to relieve me. This year, however, summer was surprisingly mild, and I actually enjoyed it. That means that not only am I excited by autumn, I’m still energized instead of drained by constant humidity.

Stacking is a pretty big deal these days

Perhaps that’s why I feel a bit restless and eager to tackle some work. I would love to say that means I’m throwing myself into big projects. But I am finding it more satisfying to chip away, little by little, at countless small tasks that have been nagging at me. And, in the midst of the fresh fall housekeeping, I’m swinging back into cooking.

Pizza with blue cheese, arugula, and pear raw

Pizza with arugula, pear, salami, and Brie raw

I have a difficult time with cooking in summer. It’s often too hot, and by the time I get home from work, I am not in the mood to stand and chop things for salads or other cool foods. Fall food is a different story. Fall food seduces me. I make long, lovely lists of produce I want to use and recipes I want to try.

Pizza with blue cheese, arugula, and pear baked

This one is an interpretation of a salad recipe I have stashed in my MacGourmet database. Don’t ask me why I utterly refused to consider making the actual salad. No, it had to be pizza, and boy, am I glad I stuck to that instinct. I kept the main flavor profile for the first pizza, then, why not, we traded in some leftover Brie and salami for the other. Both variations were something of an experiment, and both were good, but we preferred the first. It was a little less salty and a little more nuanced. Even the baby found it to be just the thing to fuel his rapidly-wrinkling brain.

Now if only Little Bear and I weren’t overcome with sniffles. My sinuses started creeping into cold-weather mode a week ago. I’ve had a constant grumpy headache ever since, and it is getting old. I’m so preoccupied with the expectation that a major cold is about to kick in that I cannot enjoy the fact that a major cold has not kicked in. Oh well. At least I can enjoy food like this pizza, or porridge, or chili, or any number of sweet things

Pizza with Blue Cheese, Arugula, and Pear

Inspired by Williams-Sonoma’s Harvest Salad with Blue Cheese and Roasted Pears

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons golden balsamic vinegar
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • all-purpose flour, for rolling
  • 2 balls of pizza dough, store-bought or homemade
  • honey, any varietal, to taste
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
  • 4 cups baby arugula leaves, washed and spun dry
  • ½ pound whole-milk mozzarella, grated
  • 1 firm Bosc pear, cored and thinly sliced
  • ½ crumbled blue cheese

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Use a baking stone, or prepare a pizza pan the way you like it.

In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Roll out one ball of dough on a floured work surface. Brush with half the vinaigrette. Drizzle lightly with honey. Sprinkle with half the shallot and tarragon.

Scatter half the arugula over the dough evenly. Sprinkle with half the mozzarella. Spread half the pear slices on top. Sprinkle evenly with half the blue cheese. Bake on the stone or prepared pan for 12-15 minutes, until arugula is wilted and cheese and crust are golden brown. Repeat with the other half of ingredients. Serve immediately.

Brie, Salami, and Thyme Variation
Replace the golden balsamic with red wine vinegar. Replace the tarragon with thyme. Replace the blue cheese with Brie. Sprinkle with ¼ cup chopped salami or pancetta.

Pizza with arugula, pear, salami, and Brie baked

Des couleurs culinaires

The past week or so has been a riot of colorful food at home. The pictures never do it justice, but I tried anyway.

Radishes on marble rye with salted butter

I am a huge fan of radishes and salted butter on toast for breakfast/snack/lunch. Celery salt adds a particular zing.

Baby zucchini

Veggie pizza with smoked sausage and rosemary

These baby zucchini begged to be sliced lengthwise for visual impact, though I blunted it by then covering them with the rest of the toppings. Still tasted delicious.

Frying blue potatoes

I couldn’t believe it when I found blue potatoes at a local farmstand. Home-grown and a gorgeous color, I pan-fried them with sage. We ate them on the side of cumin-spiced burgers topped with yellow tomato (which we devoured before I could take a picture).

Iced matcha latte

My Saturday morning drink of choice this weekend was a matcha latte. I always forget how much I love them, even the ones made with the Trader Joe’s mix. Having a green tea latte tends to spark a run of matcha endeavors, and this weekend was no exception.

Matcha- and cocoa-white chocolate chip yogurt cookies

I have plain matcha at home, though it was a new brand for me, and I didn’t care for it for drinking. It is fine for baking, though, so I was inspired to do exactly that. I took my go-to yogurt-chocolate chip recipe and modified it. Using that recipe as a base just never gets old, and the bonus of it not containing eggs is that I can taste as I go. Experimenting becomes a bit less of a disappointment risk. I made a half recipe with matcha and a half with cocoa, because M is not a fan of green tea.

One note: I stirred in the matcha and cocoa at the wrong point, but I am still mulling over what the right time is. Basically, I’m trying to find the latest possible moment to divide the measurements. To do it properly, split the dough after incorporating the yogurt and extracts. Sift in the matcha with half the flour/baking soda/salt, and the cocoa with the other half. Divide the chips and nuts. Or follow my lazy lead. Luckily, the yogurt dough is moist and forgiving, so a little extra stirring blended in the powders well.

As usual, I made some other modifications from the original recipe. I swapped in a little white rice flour (not sweet/glutinous) for a change of texture and added chopped hazelnuts for crunch. I made the cookies more bite-size than usual. If I had had more time, I think I would have used finely chopped white chocolate instead of chips. Full-size chocolate chips can take over small cookies.

Atypically, I actually baked all of these. I just didn’t think I would like the green tea dough plain, plus I knew that the flavor would muddy the longer it sat. The flavor on both baked versions was great. M even tried a green tea one.

Matcha- and cocoa-white chocolate chip cookies on rack

Matcha- (and Cocoa-) White Chocolate Chip Yogurt Cookies


Adapted from Pillsbury’s Cookies Galore!

Makes about 36 cookies

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ½ cup cane sugar
  • ½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon hazelnut extract
  • ½ cup plain whole-milk yogurt
  • 1⅜ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup white rice flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 cup finely chopped white chocolate
  • ¾ cup chopped toasted hazelnuts
  • ¾ tablespoon matcha
  • 1 tablespoon Dutch-process cocoa

Heat the oven to 375°F. Line two cookies sheets with parchment paper or baking mats.

In a medium bowl, cream together butter and sugars until smooth. Stir in yogurt, vanilla, and hazelnut extract until blended. Sift in flours, baking soda, and salt and combine well. Mix in chocolate chips and nuts.

Move half of the dough to a small bowl. Stir the matcha into one bowl and the cocoa into the other. Blend well so there aren’t any streaks of powder left.

Drop small teaspoonfuls of dough onto the cookie sheets, about 2 inches apart. Bake for 6 to 10 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway, until lightly golden (the matcha ones) or set (the cocoa ones). They will be softer than some chocolate chip cookies, but don’t be tempted to bake them too long.

Let sit on the cookies sheets for a minute. Transfer, parchment paper and all, to a wire rack and cool. Store in an airtight container. Enjoy.

Chaos Theory

Day 342

We have a near-toddler in the house, and I cannot understand why everyone says the newborn phase is the tiring part.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t out of the blue. Things began ramping up the moment Little Bear started to crawl. Once he learned how to pull himself up, sitting down for a moment became a luxury. He’s just so tall and apparently fearless. But this? He has leveled up, and our response has had to scale accordingly.

Day 327

I mentioned before that I was surprised by how well I adjusted to the dirtier aspects of parenting. I really am. In fact, I have to say that the hardest part for me turned out to be the chaos. Children have a rationality all their own, and we adults are not a part of it. That is unfortunate for me, as I have never, ever liked not knowing.

Parenting advice columns and blogs will tell you to give in and embrace the chaos. While I have considered that, even as an exercise in mindfulness, I know that I cannot go further than halfway. I am not a person who thrives on entropy. Giving in to the crazy throws me off balance.

When I was pregnant with LB, I used to lament the need to return to work. My mother stayed at home to raise my sister and me, leaving a career in kitchen and bath design and, I now suspect, some independence behind. She was always there when we got home from school. She shuttled us to our dance classes and piano lessons and tennis camps. She kept house and baked and balanced the checkbook, and I dreamed of having what I believed she had. How could I just ship my tiny baby off to daycare? How would I have the time to cook fresh, nutritious meals if I was working full time? How could I ensure clean, neatly folded laundry and dishes always washed?

In the end, the decision was made for me. Daycare, incredibly expensive in Massachusetts and a big reason women leave work, turned out to cost barely less money than I would earn working. So I returned, and boy, am I glad I did. Even a few recent days home sick with Little Bear had me climbing the walls, especially now that he is so mobile. He doesn’t even walk unaided yet! But he crawls and cruises and climbs, and we’d have to baby-proof down to no furniture to completely keep up. We spend a lot of time having to say no. I think even he finds daycare to be a welcome place of permission.

Undergrowth

The point of this story, finally, is that despite the chaos, we had a practically perfect summer weekend. The sort of weekend that reminds you of the carefree summers of childhood. There was a balance achieved between Little Bear’s “jerk” moments (did I mention that he’s discovered hitting?) and the bright, sweet curiosity that shines when he encounters new things. The balance was as close to absolute equilibrium as I think is possible for us right now.

We ran errands in New Hampshire, then, on a whim, took lunch to a wildlife refuge that had a lovely little half-mile trail to a pond. We saw no wildlife but the two-legged kind, but the woods were beautiful and reminded me sharply of my desire to visit the Pacific Northwest again.

Out of the woods

After our picnic, we spent a few lazy hours at home. Then we went out for sushi. I must say, I am really starting to see the point of raw fish. Fresh salmon has such a luxurious texture. Bear actually woke up to partake this time, enjoying miso soup (though confounded by the spoon) and even a miniscule taste of wasabi. To work off the abundance of seafood, we headed to the beach. Our usual beach is in New Hampshire, but this time we decided to try Plum Island.

Beach study

It was not what I expected. I knew that it was inhabited (houses are routinely reported to have fallen into the ocean during hurricanes), but I didn’t realize how many people must at least summer there. We did a circuit of the peninsula before finding parking, but what we found was amazing. It is relatively rare to get a good beach sunset view on the East Coast, for obvious geographical reasons. To our surprise, there was a near-deserted beach facing west, with a gorgeous red-orange sun descending over the opposite shore. For whatever baby reason, LB took an immediate aversion to the sand and had to be coaxed to keeping his toes in it. We’ll keep working on that.

Outrage

After a gorgeously lazy Saturday, we got a surprising amount done on Sunday. I attacked my fledgling garden with a ferocity borne of too many recent sick days. Though we actually have a small patio at our current place, it’s still difficult to maintain outdoor harmony when renting in a multi-unit building. We’ve had enough rain to make the weeds go crazy, and I finally got fed up. I swept away old leaves, repotted some herbs, moved some plants into the ground, and harvested some successful vegetables.

Cherry tomato

After a couple hours outside, I even managed an experiment. Little Bear is increasingly ambivalent about jarred baby food, and I decided to try a possible way to use up the surplus. I love banana and pumpkin breads and I figured that baby purées of fruit could be swapped in easily. I was too cautious about proportions and my product was a bit dry and dense. I’m not sure I’m willing to buy more baby food just to refine the recipe, but never say never. No matter the result, baking was a nice way to end the weekend.

Baby food bread

Sick again

The weekend’s lovely glow didn’t last long, I’m afraid. In a callback to the terrible long sicknesses of late winter, the Bear succumbed to a virus just a week after finishing a round of antibiotics for his ears. He’s on the mend, but not 100%, so I am really exercising my chaos tolerance muscles. This is much easier, unfortunately, because the baby is so clearly miserable. Poor little guy. If anyone has any tips on forcing a willful one-year-old to take in liquids even though his throat hurts, I welcome them!

Travels and Firsts

Crossing the Hudson 20140627

Blogging has taken a backseat during this busy month. July started off with a flurry of travel.

My uncle, a distinguished professor of botany, retired after a long career, and we traveled to upstate New York to wish him well. This was Little Bear’s first big road trip. From the North Shore, it’s a seven-hour drive at best. With a baby in tow, I expected to add at least an hour. That expectation ended up being quite close to the reality, but for the trip out, at least, we were in no rush. Western Massachusetts and upstate New York are both beautiful areas, so we just enjoyed ourselves.

LB naps en route to New York

The visit itself was quite a whirlwind. We arrived too late on Friday evening to do more than check into the hotel. LB’s relief at being out of the carseat was palpable. He spent a good twenty minutes just tumbling around on the bed, burning off energy. The retirement party was midday Saturday. It was wonderful to see my family. M’s is mostly close to our home in Massachusetts, so we see them frequently. Mine, however, is scattered, and Bear had only met three of my family members to date. In one fell swoop, he was introduced to my uncle, aunt, two cousins, and their families. M and I met new additions, too. Since the last time we were all together, five babies have arrived. For a little guy with no first cousins, LB suddenly encountered a bunch of related children. It was fun to see them all try to figure each other out.

After the party, and a brief stop at my uncle’s former classroom and laboratory, we went our separate ways, which was sad. My cousins are several years older than me, which was a bit of an obstacle when I was a kid. Now that we’re all grown, we’re discovering new connections through parenting and life, and I wish we had more time together. Now that we know Little Bear can handle the trip, we’re going to have to drive over more often.

Shotgun 20140627

Two good college friends of mine also live in the area, as one of them coincidentally joined my uncle’s department awhile ago. We spent the evening with them, and it was so nice. I’ve made great friends and have wonderful colleagues in New England. But sometimes, I really miss my friends and family from the Midwest. There is no good way to reunite with them all, as very few of us remained in the same place. All I can do is occasionally visit and make a better effort to stay in touch. Thank goodness for video chatting.

We made our way home on Sunday in time to do a quick load of laundry, repack our bags, and get some sleep. We had a normal work/daycare day on Monday. On Tuesday, we drove to Logan and whisked Little Bear off on his first airplane flight. We held our breath, but it was as close to a flawless trip as we’ve ever had. Security that early was empty, TSA and airline staffers were helpful and friendly, and Bear just took it all in with wide blue eyes. He was completely unfazed by the flight itself, napping for the first half and climbing all over his seat for the second.

Little Bear naps 20140701

One of my earliest memories (the first being knocking out my front teeth on a playground slide at the age of 2) was a flight to visit my grandparents. What I mostly remember is crying outside the gate because my dad wasn’t coming with us, not the actual flight itself, but watching LB reminded me of my much-younger self. I am so glad that he had a good time with it all. And I am very glad the women in the row behind us were charmed by his reaching through to them, rather than annoyed.

Hide and seek 20140707

To avoid having to change planes during our first trip with a baby, we opted to fly direct to Minneapolis, then drive south. It made for a long trip, but it was an easy drive through beautiful country. Sometimes I forget how big the sky is in the Midwest.

Big sky 20140701

Peeking 20140705

What can I say about the week at my mom’s house? It was relaxing, rejuvenating, and filled with just enough activities. We went to the zoo, went out to eat a few times, watched fireworks, and visited with old friends. One afternoon, we sat down with family photos and my Ancestry app, and my mom filled in some gaps.

Family history 20140704

I’ve been working steadily, if less frequently than I’d like, on genealogy the last few years. Most of my facts are in order, but my mom’s details fleshed out the stories. I only wish we’d had more time, and that I hadn’t now truly hit a wall. I need to find a way to take the next steps to confirm shaky details and forge a more solid connection to the older names. My dad’s family arrived only about a hundred years ago, but my mom’s earliest North American ancestor landed in the early 1600s. That far back, “facts” take on a hazier quality, and it can be frustrating for a librarian like me.

Anyway. That’s another post entirely.

Storms at sunset 20140706

One major relief of the trip was the beautiful weather. Having lived in Iowa most of my life, I was apprehensive about that horrible summer visitor, the tornado. We missed all the terrible weather but some very strong rain. Shortly before we left, big storms hit to the southeast, providing us dramatic sunset skies. M got a chance to test his camera with lightning, and I got a reminder of how beautiful the Midwest (and nature) can be.

Mom and me 20140707

Sadly, the visit came to an end, and we headed back north to fly east. We took a last couple of selfies and hit the road. The trip back was uneventful, Little Bear had a ball on the plane again, and we made good time.

No NIMBY here 20140707

Nearly home 20140707

And then we headed out of Boston under a tornado warning. Figures. But hey, the rest of the trip was a breeze!

Après Iowa les tornades 20140707

Good Mornings

Hurricane Little Bear

I haven’t slept in in months. As tired as I can get, however, this doesn’t really bother me. First, I like mornings. Second, I realized a couple of months ago that Little Bear’s consistent rising time is a blessing in disguise. Not only does it mean that he wakes up in a timely, chipper fashion for daycare during the week, but it gives me a little quiet time of my own.

M has been casting pretty regularly on Twitch the past few months. The dichotomous effect of this is that it makes me want to play video games while using up all the weeknight time for such an activity. Light bulb realization: wait, I have mornings! I figured out very quickly that, now that LB is very mobile, intensive games are off the table. Pausing mid-dungeon crawl in Skyrim to extricate the baby from a mess is frustrating at best (i.e., when I remember to pause). If I play the Sims, however, the worst that usually happens is that my Sims sleep through work and cook three dinners in an hour instead of eating leftovers. I can deal with that.

cheeky Little Bear

So the little man and I have quietly spent our weekend mornings the last few months. He crawls and, as of the past weekend, steps carefully while holding the coffee table, throwing all our DVDs to the ground and laughing when I sternly order him to leave the power cables alone. I start up Sims or SimCity 4 and let things play out, intervening when LB allows. And sometimes, I can snag enough time to make breakfast.

I love breakfast. The Frenchman in M gets by with a single muffin. I prefer savory breakfasts, with at least two food groups, though I am not opposed to baking something sweet. Lately, I’ve had the opportunities for both, and I took advantage. Here are a couple of recent favorites…

Herby Bacon Ricotta Quiche ingredients

Feel free to alter the herbs and other seasonings. I know the celery salt seems like a strange addition. M is obsessed with the seasoning Camp Mix, and so we’ve been trying it on everything. It is surprisingly good on eggs, so I couldn’t help but add some here. If you’d rather not, I like this quiche fine without. But it definitely adds something.

Dropping in bits of ricotta makes the resulting texture incredibly creamy. I love eggs in all forms, but this is especially luxurious.

baked quiche

Herby Bacon Ricotta Quiche

forkful of quiche

  • 1 pie crust, thawed if frozen, rolled out if homemade
  • 6 thick-cut bacon slices
  • ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese, divided
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh lemon thyme
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • celery salt

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly press the crust into a deep 9-inch pie dish. Fit a piece of foil into the crust and fill with pie weights or uncooked dried beans. Bake for 8 minutes, or until the foil pulls away without sticking. Remove the weights, and set the crust aside for now.

Cook the bacon in a nonstick frying pan until crisp and set aside on paper towels to drain. Pour off almost all of the fat and add the butter to the pan. Add the shallot and cook gently until translucent.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the cream, eggs, and ½ cup of the ricotta until smooth. (I tend to take pains to keep my dirty dishes to a minimum, so I usually measure the cream in my 4-cup glass measuring cup, then add the eggs and cheese and whisk right in the cup. It makes filling the crust later easier, too.) Whisk in the herbs, pepper, and celery salt until evenly mixed. Pour the mixture into the prebaked pie crust. Dollop the rest of the ricotta over the top in little spoonfuls.

Bake until set, about 30 minutes. If the crust browns too early, cover with foil, but don’t let it touch the filling, or it will stick. Let cool and finish setting for a few minutes, then slice and serve with a morning beverage of choice.

zucchini bread slices

Lemon Thyme-Zucchini Bread with Sweet-Salty Crust

Can you tell that I have a thriving lemon thyme plant in the garden? M suggested zucchini bread awhile back. I added the herb on a sudden inspiration, and likewise the salt in the crust. I wasn’t feeling a super-sweet breakfast, so that was a small concession. It worked perfectly.

zucchini bread ingredients

Adapted from The Williams-Sonoma Baking Book

Makes one 8½-by-4½-inch loaf

  • 1 medium zucchini, trimmed (about 8 ounces)
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  •  cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  •  teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon minced fresh lemon thyme
  • ¾ cup chopped pecans
  • For the crust:
    • 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
    • 2 pinches fleur de sel
    • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon, or more to taste

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease (I used salted butter, because I currently have a delicious tub of Plugra in my fridge) and lightly flour one 8½-by-4½-inch loaf pan. Mix the crust ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Using the large holes of a box grater, shred the zucchini. You should have about 1 cup. Set aside.

In a bowl, combine the oil, sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Beat vigorously with a whisk or with an electric mixer on medium speed until pale and creamy, about 1 minute. Stir in the shredded zucchini until blended.

In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, lemon thyme, and pecans. Add the flour mixture to the zucchini mixture and stir just until combined. The batter will be stiff. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the crust mix evenly over the top.

Bake until the top is firm to the touch and the edges pull away from the pan sides, 50-60 minutes. A cake tester inserted into the center of a loaf should come out clean. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Turn the bread out, place upright on the rack, and let cool completely. Serve with salted butter or a drizzle of a favorite honey.

Bon matin!

baked zucchini bread