Sunday, November 27, 2011

Tempura-ry Diet Change

Thinking of how we Americans traditionally eat, the wife and I have made a couple of small changes to our already different diet. The average American consumes more meat than any other being on the planet (although Australia is a close second). We generally consume more wheat than most folks in the world, as well as having some of the highest usage of trans fats to cook with.

Now, while I will fully admit that I have loved some butter-fried hamburgers in the past, over the course of the past year or two my tastes have dramatically shifted. My wife has expressed similar thoughts, and we're both concerned about our budget and our waist-lines. It's easy to fall into a comfort food trap, especially around the holidays. We already live in a stressful environment (learning to work on aircraft ain't easy!), we've bills to pay, all the usual complaints. Food has gotten wasted a couple times, sometimes without even being cooked. Our consumption of carbonated beverages and pain relievers has skyrocketed. Top that off with having been feeling too busy to properly cook, a long trip with the expectation that we're to gorge ourselves on roasted fowls and pigs (not to mention all the carbohydrate dense sides), and long hours at work for the wife, and things have begun to get a little ugly feeling.

So it's time for some things to change. I personally am on a quest to limit myself to only one single serving of soda per day, and replace my fluid consumption with water and tea. The wife is taking her lunch with her daily, and seems to prefer vegetarian dishes because of how much longer the vegetable fiber hangs around. When we're able, we'll be consuming more products from the sea, preferably grilled or steamed fish if we can't get decent sushi/sashimi grade.

One of the nicest ways in our experience to change (especially after a day like Thanksgiving Day) is having a day where you don't really eat. I'm not suggesting fasting (which does appear to have its health uses), just merely a change in consumption. We had that yesterday and we both felt immediately better, which to me made the oden I prepared all the more enjoyable. I think through the course of the day I had some leftover turkey, one bowl of rice with some edamame and that was it until dinner time. Granted, after dinner we slipped up a little bit and I procured some gyoza, but all in all we did much better for ourselves yesterday. We also discussed and began planning for having a week of mostly vegetable consumption, followed by (at least) several days of having a vegetarian diet.

I've been taken of late by shojin ryori, because quite literally it is the Zen of cooking. I'm not about to run off and take vows, but I am striving to better myself. The process of improving one's mind and soul is difficult, especially if you aren't feeling well. Meditation and exercise are most helpful, and will soon be the focus of some sort of plan to get and keep myself healthier. Stripping away soda and excess consumption seems to be a great start on the dietary end, but what else can I do to balance these principles with my love for tonkatsu or turkey and cornbread dressing? Perhaps a sort of detoxification on a culinary level might be needed. It makes sense to us in that light.

Tonight I didn't feel like cooking meat at all, although it's still on the menu for this week. I made a huge (by out standards) pot of vegetarian dashi and loaded it with shitake, nameko, and cremini mushrooms, then added a little soy sauce, mirin, and spring onion. It has made the entire house smell absolutely amazing!

Having that with some rice didn't seem like it would ultimately be very healthy, so I committed to making some vegetable tempura. I was too lazy to cut up the kabocha we bought in Austin, but I did slice up some onion and green beans, then skewer them along with some more mushrooms and cruciferous veggies. A quick turn through the batter and the fryer while I boiled some more edamame, and boom! a quick and easy dinner topped off by some takuan.

So here we are with a plate full of deep-fried goodness, ne? No, frying is not the absolute healthiest way to cook one's food. But this meal contains absolutely no animal products. It's got a large dose of fiber, a decent load of vitamins and minerals, and was quite satisfying on such a blustery, wind-swept evening as tonight. Tomorrow night, I will probably go ahead and make tonkatsu, given that I have very clean frying oil sitting in a pot on my stove and I'd hate to waste it by just throwing it away. After that, we're probably back to soup and vegetables for a while, with maybe some canned tuna or salmon thrown in if I'm in a crunch for time.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sons of Oden

With thanks to Manowar for the post title!

Tonight the weather here in Central Texas is a blustery, dry pre-winter cold that causes me to miss the northern climes (and real seasons for that matter) every year. Things are decidedly looking up, however, because I made oden tonight!

Oden is a staple of Japanese cuisine, especially in the cooler climates at the cooler months. The basics of it are that a family puts a bunch of related ingredients in a donabe and simmers them until they've mellowed and combined their flavors. Some of the most stereotypical things to include are easily available in small frozen trays in Japanese convenience stores and grocers. Heck, according to the internet, there are even canned single servings available from vending machines in major cities!

The wife and I purchased our smallish package of basic ingredients for about $3 US. Very straightforward, it has the time-consuming elements already contained within - fried goodies and a concentrated packet of "oden dashi (the soup base it simmers in). Following the instructions, I soaked my sand pot in some water for a bit first, then brought 800 ml of water to a simmer before adding all the ingredients. The package (made by Shirakiku) contained two of each of the major types of surimi based things and some good sized ganmodoki. I added some slivers of young bamboo shoots, several rounds cut from a daikon, two eggs, and a third of a block of sliced konnyaku to the pot.

To round it out, my serving included about a half a teaspoon of karashi, or hot "Chinese" mustard, and both the wife and I enjoyed Asahi "Super Dry" beer with our dinner.

It was immensely enjoyable! My favorite part had to be the gobomaki (burdock root rolled and cooked in fish paste), although the ganmodoki had to be a close second. I think that the next time I make this I'll be adding a lot more ingredients, and soon we'll find a combination that is exclusively our household's!

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Tsukemono are a huge part of the average Japanese meal. They're one of the reasons you'll see a very pretty set meal that screams variety. All sorts are available for purchase in lots of grocery stores, and there are so many different recipes that it's most likely impossible to catalog them all.

Highly popular at all times, tsukemono are both a wonder and a potential health risk. Such things as the "seaweed salad" available at most sushi stands in the U.S. are relatively healthy and nutritive dense, but often loaded with calories as well. Then there's the fact that Japanese pickles use lots of vinegar, salt, and (sometimes) some carcinogenic elements. If you're eating takuan or fukujinzuke three or more times a day, you might have some health problems when you're older - Japan has the highest rate of digestive tract cancers in the world! 

Often, tsukemono is taken to mean pickle. In the traditional European sense that's not always the most correct word. Many are simple flavor combinations or treatments (like seaweed salads or nukadoko) meant to be consumed right away while others (like takuan or umeboshi) are truly preserved vegetables. Seeing as nukadoko ingredients can be hard to come by at times, I haven't taken that leap yet, though I plan to in the future.

Often used to stretch a meal, and just as often used as a "chopstick rest" much like sorbet or a cheese course between courses in a finer European style, there are plenty of reasons to keep a few simple ones around that can be used as okazu. I have a few standard ones that I keep in supply here in the house, and sometimes they're all one needs to have with a bowl of rice and some miso.

My favorite one is a simple fridge pickle of small kyuuri (small seedless cucumbers similar to those you'd make dill pickles with) and wakame in a vinegar dressing.

Recipe: Kyuuri to wakame aemono
Serves: 4 +

3-6 seedless cucumbers
3-6 tablespoons fueru wakame
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar

Slice the cucumbers as thinly as possible - I usually use a Benriner branded mandolin on a 1mm setting. Place in a bowl and sprinkle them with the salt, then rub the salt in and let them sit for a few moments to draw some of their moisture off.

Reconstitute the wakame and discard the water. Squeeze the excess water from the seaweed, and place in the bowl with the cucumbers. Add in the remaining ingredients, and stir to combine them. They're ready to consume in about an hour, but are best the next day.

Adjust the vinegar content as you like, depended on how pungent or sour you want your pickles to be. This usually lasts about a week in the fridge.

How To Enjoy: Curry

As I mentioned earlier, I've made a pot of curry today. While I posted the gluten-free recipe here, today I made it a little differently. There are a few minor differences like using all purpose wheat flour and a larger amount of solid ingredients, but things did change a little in the process. Probably the biggest difference in this pot versus the last I made has to be the curry powder I used. Previously, I've used S&B Oriental Curry Powder and a random Thai brand depended on what was available. This time I used a new container of cheap powder that's made for Chinese tastes instead.

There's more star anise and less cumin in this one than I'm used to, so the kitchen smells vaguely of five spice powder. This is absolutely not a problem, and it still tastes like liquid gold. Things came out a little runnier than I would've expected, but otherwise I can't complain about it.

There is a minor difference when talking about Japanese-style curry that most Americans don't pick up on. "Kare" simply is the spicy sauce, with or without vegetables. Most people think of "kare raisu" when they think of curry - sauce with extra ingredients ladled over rice. While if you just go to a place and order a plate of curry, you'll most likely get curry rice, there's plenty of extra ways to do this as a meal.

One of the oldest methods comes with curry itself from the British. You simply pour the sauce over a slice or two of bread and eat it like an open-faced sandwich, with or without anything other than the usual carrots, potato, and maybe meat. There's a drier form of curry which I have not made yet (simple called "dry curry;" Hiroyuki wrote about it in his blog last year), and of course serving curry stirred with udon or ladled out beside a fried meat cutlet (katsu curry).

My personal favorite has to be curry rice, but katsu curry comes in as a close second!


The past few weeks have been a mind-numbing, nerve wracking blur. I'm very busy with my studies in the Avionics department at TSTC - Waco. Prior to starting this course of study, I'd only dabbled in online classes since before I moved to Texas a few years ago. Probably the hardest part of it all has been keeping the various operating and maintenance frequencies and regulations straight between the installation class, systems class, and the electronics coursework.

Even though at the time I was very upset about not getting to transfer my job from down south (and thus becoming a member of the voluntarily unemployed), the fact that I've not been working has been a blessing in disguise. Yes, money has been tight the past month (and the only creatures who have been guaranteed a meal here are the cats). Yes, the wife now has a job, and is looking for better employment for herself that will use her skills. No, I'm not unhappy with things here, but I am consistently bothered by the fact that things in general could be better.

That has proven to be a source of internal strife. Social harmony is extremely important to me. I want things to go well and I want people to be happy, because that in turn makes me happy. The social cycle of passing on a courtesy done by someone else comes to mind; if someone does something nice for you (say, holding a door or excusing themselves if they need past you in an aisle), and you do something equally courteous when the situation arises, perhaps it will continue on.

I've felt like nothing but a resource whore the past two months. Even being polite to random strangers, helping people in need when it's within my means, keeping the food coming from the kitchen when the pantry gets low... somehow, it was failing to click. I felt awful, and was sure I was being awful.

Today is a day where I feel like I've accomplished a lot: I've made a huge pot of beef curry and a loaf of bread, I managed to send my wife to work with a packed lunch (though she had to heat it up herself before packing it in her thermal bento), and the laundry is halfway caught up. Between that and some time spent meditating, things are looking better. Hopefully after I finish my homework and do some studying tonight, I'll still feel this way about it!