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Daring Bakers: Quick breads

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Daring Bakers’ February 2012 host was – Lis! Lis stepped in last minute and challenged us to create a quick bread we could call our own. She supplied us with a base recipe and shared some recipes she loves from various websites and encouraged us to build upon them and create new flavour profiles.
Thank you Lis (the co-founder of The Daring Kitchen!) for stepping in and for thinking of quick breads. They are relatively simple to make, but are really a great repertoire of baked goods to have. 
I went with muffins for this challenge. The great thing about muffins is how easily adaptable they are. I used a basic banana muffin recipe and then added ingredients to it.
I got to use up some of the dried fruit I had left over from making a Christmas cake, which included orange peel and candied winter melon (they're not very clear in the picture above, but it's those white chunks; for what the candy looks like, see this blog).
Wonky but the shape doesn't matter
I wanted to use a silicone dariole mould that I had, which produces narrow long cakes. For some reason, one side of the muffins rose (reminds me of Yorkshire puddings) and produced these wonky little breads. I think they are quite cute though.
Not that muffins need creamy toppings like cupcakes, but I was trying for a Yin-Yang look for the lead picture. I cut a muffin in half on the cross-section, and served it with chocolate hazelnut spread on one side and cream cheese icing on the other. 
Another muffin I made using my silicone mould was an egg-free recipe from Dan Lepard for Mocha Fig Muffins (from The Guardian). I used sunflower seeds as a garnish, though any flaked or chopped nut can be used.
Dan Lepard's Mocha Fig Muffins
Now, this muffin, for me, was a study in contrasts. The little fig seeds added a bit of texture, and the dried figs themselves made it sticky. The muffin batter was thick and scoops of it could have probably simply been placed onto baking trays and they would have come out as little buns. They were stodgy, but in a nice way, if that makes sense. Weird, but wonderful. I really liked it. I would add more coffee though, as the taste didn't come through.

The real (Japanese) deal

Sunday, February 19, 2012

One of my sisters just read that if you spit in temperatures well below zero degrees, it will freeze below it hits the ground. I was in a massive fish freezer at minus 60°C (–76°F) recently, but couldn't very well test that theory in such a hygienic location.
The picture above could be of buds on a plum, cherry or apricot tree in Japan. No one in the group could tell me for sure. No matter; it was pretty and brings me comfort after some of the things I saw on my trip to northeastern Japan.
The visit was quite an experience. As expected, the schedule was packed but it was colder than I thought it would be. Thankfully, it didn't snow as had been forecast. I can't give details here or post any pictures of the places I visited until after my report comes out in print (on March 11, the anniversary of the tsunami), but I can talk about the more light-hearted matter of food.
We get in at Narita in the early morning but it's an almost two-hour bus ride to the hotel in downtown Tokyo. Check-in isn't until the afternoon, so we leave out luggage and walk around the nearby shops to look for a place to eat. We come upon a little place, a working man's joint, where you order and pay through a vending machine, pass the ticket to the man behind the counter, tell him whether you want soba or udon and he prepares the bowl of soupy ramen for you.
Ramen soup for breakfast
I made my choice based solely on the picture in the window since everything was in Japanese. I couldn't tell what the garnish on top was but it sure looked good. Turned out it was some sort of omelette, actually more like a puffy pancake, with loads of chopped spring onion (green onion) mixed in. A sprinkling of Japanese chilli flakes on top and I set to it hungrily. It was absolutely delicious. There was no spoon, so I held the bowl in both hands and tipped the last bits of noodles and broth into my mouth.
The mall was already opened by then and I walked around alone while the others shopped. But then I came upon the floor at the Keio Department Store in Shinjuku where they sold all the kitchen stuff and was so amused by all the gadgets and cute kitschy stuff with its ironic appeal that the Japanese are so good at. I got myself a ceramic paring knife and a stove-top sandwich maker, which deserves a blog post all its own!
Yakitori for lunch
I wasn't exactly hungry at lunchtime, but since there was still time to kill and we were too tired to walk around some more, we decided to go into a narrow alley between the big shops where there was a row of little eateries offering grilled skewered chicken (yakitori) along with the kidney, liver, gizzard, skin, wing tips, cartilage and some "spare parts" we couldn't identify. We had the skewers in a sauce (top) and cooked with salt. The sides were grilled green beans (delicious), green peppers, pickled bamboo shoots and strips of lotus root and carrot. I wasn't sold on the offal but the actual flesh of the chicken was excellent.
The next morning, we took the bullet train to Sendai and then to Ichinoseki, and hopped on the organiser's bus to their field office. Since the schedule was so packed, we bought our lunches at a Lawson convenience store (love this chain and wished I had had more time so that I could do a whole story on it for my newspaper!) to eat on the bus, while we were given the briefing for the visit at the Kesennuma Fishery Co-operative (with the aforementioned freezer) 1½ hours away. I got a pork teriyaki bento but didn't remember to take pictures of it. It was very good.
Prawn tempura for dinner
That night, we had dinner the restaurant of Kura Hotel, where we stayed. We knelt before low tables and experienced Japanese-style dining. Rice is grown in this area and people eat a lot of it here. Although I was hungry, I just couldn't finish the huge portion of rice that came with the deep-fried breaded prawn set. Those were three of the biggest prawns I had seen in a while!
The next morning, we were off to Minami Sanriku by the sea. It's a week shy of seaweed harvesting season, but I was one of the few in the group who had the opportunity to go on a boat to where the seaweed is grown to see how the harvesting is done. Very cold, but what an experience! 
Taste-testing salads and a soup made with fresh seaweed; bottom right: the seaweed tips 
While we were gone, some of the ladies who work in the processing plant had been busy preparing fresh wakame dishes for us, and there were a couple of salads and hot soup waiting when we got back to shore. The salads were pretty simple, dressed with salt, sugar, fresh ginger and vinegar, but so, so delicious. The salad made with the tips of the seaweed (the lighter green one in the top picture) was slightly slimy (like okra), but not at all unpleasant.
Chicken katsu for lunch
The last sit-down meal was lunch that day. The meal was pre-ordered for us, but I was not disappointed with the breaded chicken cutlet, served with salad, mayonnaise and tofu soup.
I had my final "meal" in Japan the next morning at the airport – a Green Tea Kit Kat!
Healthy chocolate?

Ohayou gozaimasu

Monday, February 13, 2012

As this post is published, I will be in Japan. I have timed this to appear, hopefully, as I am slurping down a steaming hot bowl of ramen in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo – the fresh kind, not instant as above – and trying as much as possible to keep warm (the day temperature is expected to be around 10° Celcius (a walk in the park for some but much too cold for an Equator-ian. Equator-ese? Someone who lives along the Equator).
I will spend the night in Tokyo before heading to Sendai (temperature: 3°C, below zero at night; chance of snow) the next morning. It's in the northeast of the country, and was the city closest to the epicentre of the terrible tsunami on March 11 last year. I'll be there with journalists from Malaysia, South Korea and Hong Kong on the invitation of World Vision International to report on the developments one year on.
From some of the recent international news agency photos, it looks like a lot of clean-up has been carried out. But thousands of people are still in temporary housing and there's a lot more to do before the victims will see even a semblance of their old life.
Of course, I hope to come back with a few food-related stories for this blog as well, but I certainly am not taking this visit lightly, or consider it just another reporting job. Sure, I'm had some cushy assignments, but I am truly looking forward to this one. It will be hectic and tiring, and the story will not be easy to write. I can be a bit of a cynic sometimes, but I know this is going to be one of those life-affirming experiences.

Leftovers become herbed sushi rice patties

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The kitchen is not pretty.
In fact, it looks like a bottle factory exploded in there.
There isn't broken glass everywhere, just glass bottles and other containers occupying every inch of the kitchen counter and some are even on the stove burners.
Everything has to come out of the kitchen cabinets. And finally I can see what rubbish I have been storing all this time! Among other things, three barely filled bottles of apple cider vinegar, a bag of sugar in which ants are having a jolly time, and… oh, that’s where those mango pickles have been.
Everything is out because the cabinets will be ripped out. I have lived with this kitchen for almost 14 years. I didn’t plan it properly and simply went with a look I liked in a magazine without considering the way I worked in the kitchen. And as my interest in bread making has developed (and I’d like to think my skills have improved a little too), I have found that my workspace is no longer efficient. Also, I think the carpenter did a hack job of it and pieces of the kitchen are falling off.
So I haven’t been very enthusiastic about being in there, and have only been cooking simple meals.
But there's something to be said for simple too. I liked the lunch I made to take to work yesterday. A few days earlier, I pulsed up (I know, not a real expression; I used the “pulse” button on the food processor is what I mean) some English parsley, nuts and oil into a paste and mixed it through vermicelli together with some leftover slices of fried eggplant. A day later I cooked some Japanese sushi rice and made sushi rolls with cucumber and surimi. Yesterday, the leftover rice and leftover parsley pesto were mixed together with some canned tuna and hey presto, sushi rice patties.
I shaped them into disks by pressing a heaped tablespoon into a small cookie cutter and then seared their tops and bottoms in a hot pan. The result was patties that I could just pop into my mouth with pickled ginger and the usual shoyu and wasabi. I put a collar made from a strip of nori around two patties but gave up because it was too much trouble, didn't really add much and cut into my eating time.
Aren’t leftovers great?
Some dishes to make when the kitchen is fixed:
Noodle Soup with Spicy Minced Meat
Spiced Arabian Rice
Baked Crabs Sri Lankan Style