Monday, May 31, 2010

Octopus-shaped red wieners

I'd seen them plenty of times in various anime/manga, but I was never inspired to make them myself until I read/watched 深夜食堂 (Shinya Shokudou, i.e. "Midnight Restaurant").

深夜食堂 is a series about a restaurant that is open from 12am-7am. The only things on the menu are 豚汁定食 (tonjiru teishoku, i.e. pork miso soup set), beer and sake, but you can order anything you want to eat, and if he can, the master (a.k.a. chef/owner) will make it.

The very first episode of both the manga and drama is 赤いウインナー (Akai (red) Wiener), a story about a Yakuza named Ryuu, who, surprisingly always orders a plate of tako (octopus)-shaped red wieners. Obviously there's a bit more to the story than that, but the point is, reading the manga and watching the drama made me want to try making them for myself.

I'd never seen red wieners in the hot dog/sausage section of Jusco, though, so it took a little bit of searching on Saturday before I found them. They were about an aisle down from the other hot dogs/sausages in a small section dedicated to various bento (弁当) "toppings" (for lack of a better word).

Since I had an office day today (Monday) I decided that I would get up a little earlier than usual and make the tako wieners for my lunch.

It's really quite simple; all you have to do is cut the wiener lengthwise from about halfway to the bottom. Then turn the wiener 90 degrees and cut it lengthwise into four strips (again, from about halfway to the bottom). This gives you the eight "legs" of the octopus. Then you simply cook the wieners in a fry pan on medium heat until the legs are nice and curled. ^_^ (There are even instructions on the back of the package in case you can't figure it out on your own!)

Objectively speaking, the wieners themselves really aren't anything special, but somehow just having them in the octopus shape makes them extra special/delicious. ^_^ For my chuutairen bento, I am definitely going to have tako-wieners as well as tamagoyaki!! (I plan to purchase the pan sometime this week, and I'll probably spend my free nights next week practicing making tamagoyaki like mad! =P

Speaking of bento lunches, I learned from some female Japanese friends a while ago that a "nice/proper" bento should have red, yellow, and green items. Even if all the food is really tasty, if it's all brown/the same colour, it's perceived as an "obaachan" (old lady) bento. Seeing all the books for making cute/attractive bentos, I'd already figured that appearances were considered important for (homemade) bentos, but I'd never heard about this 3-colour rule before...

Even though today's bento mostly followed the 3-colour rule (the potato salad was more white than yellow) and was considerably "better" than my usual tuna onigiri and raw veggie--mini tomatoes and carrot & cucumber sticks--bento, I know I've still got a long ways to go in my bento-making skills...

In particular, today's top and bottom trays, while individually OK didn't really go together taste-wise. With the more "Western-style" side dishes in the top tray, I probably should have gone with sandwiches and/or pasta for the "main dish" in the bottom...

(Incidentally, the potato salad was also 深夜食堂-inspired. Usually I just put apples and/or hard-boiled eggs into my potato salad, but in the 深夜食堂 drama I saw that the Master used cucumber, carrot and ham, so I decided to try it out...Quite tasty!

Another side note: Even though iI know it's a fictional story, I can't help but wonder where the Master buys his 赤いウインナー. I mean, the bag I bought was 98yen for only 7 wieners, but he serves Ryuu a whole plate of them! I wonder if there's a place that sells them in bulk? =P)

But at any rate, just eating a bento that I put a little more care into than usual  enabled me to really enjoy my lunch today. ^_^ As I said before, the tako-wieners especially made me happy! I guess I'm still a kid in that sense--cute shapes make me excited about even the simplest foods, like rabbit-shaped apples, for example! Now that I've mentioned it, I think I'll also include those in my chuutairen bento!! =P

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hotaru no Hikari 2 drama!!

I am so excited! I just found out that there will be a second season of one my favourite manga/drama series airing this summer! ^_^ (Official Japanese homepage:

Given the way they ended the first series it's a given that the plot is bound to diverge quite a lot from the manga. But to me that's not a bad thing. I actually prefer series that differ significantly from the original over adaptions that simply condense the original stories to make them fit into a movie/series time frame. For example, I really liked the Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events movie (which was based on the first three books of the series), but didn't particularly like the Harry Potter movie series (which was pretty much just a dramatization of the books).

It will be airing Wednesdays at 10pm on Nippon TV (RAB Aomori) starting on July 7th. =D

Can't wait!!

(This news makes me really glad that I decided to sign on for another year! If I went back to Canada in August as originally planned, I'd only be able to watch about half of the series!)

Cooking up a storm

I had the day off last Monday since I was "working" on the Sunday (May 16). I use the term "working" lightly here since helping out at the Sports Festival is so fun it didn't really feel like work. (Although I admit getting up early to make it to school by 7:45am was a bit of work for me...)

Anyway, since I had the time, I decided to cook a real dinner that night (with the help of my many recipe magazines/books).

Clockwise from top left: chicken cheese "sandwich" saute; tofu "lasagna;" microwave steamed broccoli; potato & bacon saute; (store bought) garlic bread.

Unlike many of the other recipes I've attempted since I made a conscious decision to try to learn how to cook more things, the beauty of these recipes was their simplicity. They required very minimal (and inexpensive) ingredients and had very few steps to follow. It still took me a fair bit of time since I'm inefficient in my food preparation/cooking, but overall the cooking process felt a lot smoother this time around (as compared to my previous cooking experiences).

The tofu "lasagna" was awesome!! It's my new favourite recipe--simple, easy, fast and delicious!! I got the recipe from 母に習えばウマウマごはん by 小栗左多里 ("Mom's a Great Cook" by OGURI Saori, the author of the popular ダーリンは外国人 ("My Darling is a Foreigner") series). This recipe alone was totally worth the price of the book. (I haven't had a chance to try any of the other recipes yet, but after the success of this one, I definitely intend to!)

Here's the recipe to try at home (if you can read Japanese at all, I recommend buying/borrowing a copy of the book to read for yourself):

豆腐のラサ二ア(2人分)Tofu Lasagna (serves 2)

材料 Ingredients
木綿豆腐…一丁 "Momen" tofu (made with cotton cloth) - 1 package (~300g)
なす……2個 Eggplant - 2 (the ones I used were fairly small (~15cm?) and long rather than round)
トマト……1個 Tomato - 1 (*a small one will suffice)
ミートソース缶…1缶(295g) Canned "Meat Sauce" (aka spaghetti sauce w/ meat) - 1 can (295g)
とろけるチーズ…50g Shredded Cheese - 50g
サラダ油……大さじ2 "Salad" oil - 2 tablespoons (30ml) (I used extra virgin olive oil in place of regular vegetable oil)
塩・こしょう……各少々 Salt & Pepper - a little of each

1. Wrap tofu in paper towel and microwave for 2 min* and then cut into 8 slices (*at 500w = ~1.5min at 600w and ~2.5min at 400w )
2. Cut the eggplant into 1cm rounds and the tomato into 5mm rounds, discarding the stems (of course)
3. Heat oil in a pan and lightly fry* both sides of the tofu and eggplant; sprinkle lightly with salt & pepper (*on med-high heat)
4. Lightly grease a gratin (i.e. ceramic & oven-safe) dish* with oil; spoon 1/3 of the meat sauce into the bottom of the dish; place a layer of tofu on top; cover with another 1/3 of the meat sauce; arrange remaining tofu and eggplant on top; cover with remaining meat sauce (*I used two small, individual-size oval dishes measuring approx. 16cm x 11cm x 4.5 cm)
5. Put cheese and tomato on top and bake* until cheese is melted and slightly browned (*again, the recipe was made for a 500w microwave oven w/ baking capacity, but I set my (toaster) oven to 175°C and baked it for about 25-35 minutes)
I really like many of the "Orange Page Books"cooking magazines. They have a lot of pictures and simple/easy but tasty recipes. Also I like that the recipes are designed to serve 2 (and not 4) so I only have to eat leftovers for a couple of days rather than an entire week. =P The other recipes from Monday's "feast" were all from Orange Page magazines. The chicken was only so-so, but both the broccoli and the potato & bacon dishes worked out pretty well.

This recipe was from the 15分でごはん!―パパッと作れてウマッ! ("15min meals! Quick & tasty!") magazine:

ブロッコリーのレンジ蒸し(2人分) Microwave Steamed Broccoli (serves 2)

材料 Ingredients
ブロッコリー…小1株 Broccoli - 1 small head
粉チーズ……大さじ1 Grated (parmesan) cheese - 1 tablespoon
塩・こしょう…各少々 Salt & Pepper - a little of each
オリーブ油…大さじ1 Olive oil - 1 tablespoon

1. Cut broccoli into florets; cut large pieces into half
2. Mix broccoli, olive oil and salt & pepper in a microwave-safe bowl; sprinkle with cheese; cover with plastic wrap and microwave for 2min* (*at 500w = ~1.5min at 600w and ~2.5min at 400w )

This recipe was from the 手間なし、きっぱり「即」ごはん ("No effort, instant meals") magazine.

ポテトとベーコンのソテー(2人分)Potato & Bacon Saute (serves 2)

材料 Ingredients
じゃがいも…大1個(200-230g) Potato - 1 large one (~200-230g)
ベーコン……3枚 Bacon - 3 slices
サラダ油……大さじ1/2 "Salad" oil - 1/2 tablespoon
塩・(粗びき黒)こしょう…各少々 Salt & (if available, coarsely ground black) pepper - a little of each

1. Peel potato and cut into 5mm x 5mm sticks; soak in water for 5min; drain & wipe dry; cut bacon into 5-6mm strips (width-wise)

2. Heat oil in a fry pan on medium-low heat; add bacon; when browned, turn to medium heat and add the potato; when all ingredients are lightly coated in oil, reduce to (medium-)low heat, cover & cook for ~3min; once potatoes are tender, mix in salt & pepper

Next on my list of things to learn how to cook are some basic items of Japanese home cooking:
1. (甘い)卵焼き ("(amai) tamagoyaki" = (sweet) Japanese omelette)
2. きんぴらごぼう ("kinpira gobou" = chopped burdock root cooked in soy sauce and sugar)
3. オムライス ("omurice" = omelette rice)

I've had my eye on a "3min bento" magazine, which has the recipes, so once I've bought that--as well as the tamagoyaki pan, I'm going to start practicing! My goal for the tamagoyaki in particular is to be able to make it reasonably well by June 19-20th, i.e. the Kamikita District Grand Sports Tournament weekend a.k.a. chuutairen (中体連). I'll need to bring a bento for both days, so this year (unlike the previous two) I'd like to actually have something resembling a "proper" bento--i.e. more than just rice balls and raw veggies (mini tomatoes, carrot & cucumber sticks).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lake Towada Maps

[External Link (Japanese): 十和田湖周辺イラストマップ完成しました]

Aomori Chuo Gakuin University students have worked in collaboration with local Lake Towada area residents to create a variety of themed illustrated maps (in Japanese only).

Whoever created the "Sweets Map" is clearly a person after my own heart. ^_~

The map that made me laugh, however, is the "Date Spot" map. I love how the title has little hearts in place of the dakuten (like the ゛in デート), etc. =P

You can check out all of the maps here:

Friday, May 7, 2010

Awesome Golden Week: Wed. May 5

I got up early (despite going to bed late) on the final day of my Golden Week vacation. After a cereal breakfast (two bowls ^^;;), I did some laundry, checked email etc. and called my parents.

(We finally decided that I'm going back to Mississauga for Christmas. Haven't bought the plane tickets yet, but I'm looking for another Dec 23-Jan 3 stay in Canada. So I'll be in Canada for a little over a week, back in Towada for about two and a half weeks, and then back to Canada for three nights for Grace's wedding. @_@ Totally racking up the Aeroplan miles...)

I had a craving for さつまスティック ("satsuma sticks" aka sweet potato fries) so I headed out once again to Chuo Park. This time, though, I decided to just walk (instead of driving and parking at City Hall). So on the way I stopped by the Taisozuka to check out the Taisosai. Unfortunately I arrived right when there was a (fairly lengthy) break between the various performances and I didn't feel like waiting, so there wasn't much to see. The minor detour wasn't wasted, however: I bought a 肉巻きおにぎり ("nikumaki onigiri" aka meat-wrapped riceballs!) to eat! (I bought "teri-mayo", i.e. teriyaki mayonnaise sauce, but they also had toppings/flavours like cheese, or kimchi. Inside is pretty much just rice.)

The sakura along Kanchogai Dori were already falling from the trees. Since it was slightly wind, at times it was like a gentle rain of cherry blossoms--sooooo pretty! I'm sure cleaning them up is a pain, but the streets really look pretty covered in sakura petals. It was a lot less crowded than previous days, too, so I was better able to enjoy the sight. Taking pictures was also a lot easier. =P

One of the nicest things for me was seeing people picking up a handful of petals and then throwing them up in the air. Seeing their delight/exuberance made me appreciate the beauty of the sakura all the more.

After eating my さつまスティック in Chuo Park, I headed across the street to City Hall where I could go up to the 5th floor for a nice view of the city/Kanchogai Dori. My timing was pretty good since right when I left there was a fairly lengthy line up for the elevator up.

Since it was still early when I got home, I decided to head back out to one of Towada's "secret" hanami spots. As I've said before, Kanchogai Dori is great, but it's a tourist spot so it's quite busy/crowded with people and cars.

The place I went to was, in my opinion, equally pretty. But since it's more a local spot, it was much quieter. (The lack of 屋台 (vendor stalls/booths) probably also helped.) I think it's a good place to go on a picnic with family/a small group of friends/a significant other.

After that I relaxed at home for a bit before getting picked up by Mi-san, a former co-worker from Shidoka. I had helped her to translate a message about her daughter's wedding to be sent to the Canadian family her daughter had stayed with on a homestay several years before. So she invited me for dinner at her place as thanks.

As it turned out, her husband is an amazing cook, so I was really treated to a feast!! (Chicken, fried stuffed mushrooms, pasta salad, paella, pizza (not pictured) and even cake for dessert!) I probably ate three times as much as I normally eat for dinner! @_@ (Again, it's a good thing I spent most of this Golden Week walking...) I even had a little bit of beer!

Apart from the delicious food, I also enjoyed talking with Mi-san, her husband, and her son and daughter-in-law. They're all very friendly so as awkward as I am with making small talk, etc., it was quite natural/easy making conversation with them. ^_^ I hope I can meet with them again sometime...

This Golden Week I was really reminded of how important it is to slow down every once in a while to enjoy such simple pleasures  as taking a walk, cooking & eating a good meal and talking with friends. I realized that I spend far too much time rushing from place to place (by car, of course) and sitting in front of my computer alone in my apartment.

Some of that can't be helped, but when I get the chance, I particularly want to make more of an effort to go outside to enjoy nature! And I think walking places (even more than biking) is really important because it enables you to notice little things--like the flowers blooming through the wire fence on the side of the road--that you would otherwise just zip by.

So all in all it was a totally awesome Golden Week! If I can, I think I'm going to plan to stick around Towada for Golden Week next year, too. ^_^

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Awesome Golden Week: Tue. May 4

Tuesday for lunch I finally managed to finish off the soup and broccoli leftover from the weekend. After lunch I went to Miyakin (bakery/cafe next to Tsutaya) to meet up with Yu-san and another friend who used to go to nihonbuyo okeiko with me. We spent close to two hours there chatting and enjoying tea/cake.

Even though I'd eaten not too long before going to the cafe, I couldn't decide between getting a strawberry cake or chocolate cake, so I ended up ordering the set that came with both. @_@ It was a little greedy of me, I admit, but I figured I'd been walking a lot over the past few days, so... ^^;;

At 5pm I met up with another friend and we went to Hirosaki Castle to see the cherry blossoms at night. We took the mountain road there, so we were still able to see quite a lot of snow in some places! It took us about 2 hours to get to Hirosaki from Towada.

I have been to Hirosaki Castle during hanami once before--two years ago when my parents, Bren & Ceci came to visit--but seeing it at night is really a completely different experience.

I'd say they were probably the most beautiful sakura I've seen in Japan so far. The only rather unfortunate thing was that it was a little crowded/noisy, but that really couldn't be helped since Hirosaki is pretty much the place for hanami in Aomori.

Again, with my camera I couldn't take the best photos (night shots without flash are difficult), but luckily my friend had a much better camera than mine. This is my hands-down favourite hanami picture:

For dinner we had ジャンボおでん(コンニャク)-- jumbo oden (konnyaku). It was black(!) on the outside but didn't really taste all that different from regular konnyaku (although it's been a while since I've had it, so maybe I just couldn't discern any differences). We also had yakisoba--another thing I hadn't had in a while.

Going back to Towada we took the toll roads, so the return trip only took about 1.5 hr!! I was really really happy we went to Hirosaki when we did (we had made plans to go on Friday night, but if we'd waited until then the sakura would've been well past their peak). It was probably the highlight of an already excellent Golden Week of hanami!

Awesome Golden Week: Mon. May 3

(Random note: This is my 200th post!!)

Monday I did a quick pan fry of shiitake mushrooms and beef (the unused portion from what I purchased for the "soup") and added some colour with mini tomatoes for lunch.

Then I went shoe shopping at Shimamura. Since I've been buying a fair bit of white/beige/light coloured clothes recently, I wanted to get some flat white shoes that I could walk comfortably in for long periods of time. I didn't find any shoes that I liked, but I did get a white shoulder bag for only 580 yen. ^_^

After Shimamura, I took a bit of a walk along the Oirase River to admire the cherry blossoms. As lovely as Kanchogai Dori is, I'd have to say that I prefer the peace and quiet of hanami along the river. Kanchogai Dori is quite congested with traffic and tourists, but along the river I barely saw any cars or people and I could hear birds tweeting and even a (confused, perhaps) rooster cock-a-doodling! It was also a nice sunny day with a warm (if strong) wind, so I felt totally energized by the walk.

As I walked back to my car, I thought: "Days like this, I feel like I could live in Towada forever."

And then it was back to shoe shopping! I went to Chambre/Avail next and found not only the comfortable walking shoes I was looking for, but also a pair of white wedge sandals. Since I still had time before my nihonbuyo practice (okeiko お稽古), I decided to head down to Uniqlo to take advantage of the new Golden Week specials I'd seen advertised in the morning fliers.

I thought that since I'd just been there on Saturday I'd be quick, but I still ended up spending about an hour there. Seeing that some things I'd purchased only a week or two ago at regular price were then on sale for 500-1000yen less, I resolved that I would stop buying things at Uniqlo at full price--unless I was going to wear what I bought the same or next day. (And when there are new sales every weekend, there really is no need to buy anything at full price.)

After Uniqlo I had just enough time to go home and drop my purchases off before going to okeiko.My friend Yu-san also came to okeiko so it was pretty fun. Then the two of us (Yu-san and I) went to Sheep's Bakery and Cafe for dinner.

The menu isn't all that varied, and the food--while tasty--isn't particularly spectacular, but the atmosphere is really great. It's a very stylish, "grown-up" kind of place. I quite liked it and wouldn't mind going again in the near future.

Both of us chose the "Beer Plate" for dinner. It comes with a beer (can be substituted for any beverage of equal or lesser cost--I had a Shirley Temple), "Canadian" burger, onion rings, salad, and mixed nuts. That night they had apparently run out of beef, but they told us we could still order it if we didn't mind getting "bacon" instead of a beef patty. When they said bacon I was expecting something like a BLT, but it was more like peameal bacon, so it was heartier than I expected.

We also both had the berry sauce "Sheep's Parfait"--bread with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sorbet topped with frozen raspberries--for dessert. It was yummy! 

Speaking of the parfait, when I was looking through the menu to decide what I wanted for dessert, I noticed some small errors in the English translations: 1)ジンジャーエール →EspressoGingerale; and 2) 生ハムとモツァレラフライ→Raw Ham & Fly Mozzarella. When I pointed out the mistakes to Yu-san, she suggested that maybe we should point it out to the staff. But we didn't want to seem officious/meddlesome (お節介) so we debated for a while about whether or not we should say anything.

Ultimately, when we were ordering dessert, Yu-san decided to ask first about the "EspressoGingerale"--"Is this an original drink?" The waiter seemed to take our inquiry pretty well (right away he was like "Sorry, it's a misprint"), so she (Yu-san) went ahead and mentioned that we had actually noticed another misprint and explained that difference between "fly" and "fry."

After hearing the explanation, the waiter was like "Oh, that's kind of bad, isn't it" (それはまずいですね) and shortly after we could hear him tell someone else back in the kitchen that F-L-Y was the word for an insect in English. I expect that I'll see the corrections on the menu when I go back next. ^_^  

Following dinner we met up with a friend of Yu-san and took a walk along Kanchogai Dori to see the cherry blossoms at night. They were pretty, but unfortunately with my camera it was hard to take good pictures. At any rate, it was another great day of hanami for me!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Awesome Golden Week: Sat. May 1 & Sun. May 2

Deciding to stay in Towada for Golden Week this year turned out to an excellent decision. It was probably the first true 休み ("yasumi" literally meaning "a rest" but also used to refer to breaks, vacations and holidays) I've had in a long time.

On Saturday I went to Uniqlo--again. @_@ This time, however, I had a new money saving plan set before going.

See, I never really save to go traveling, I usually just divert a month or two worth of savings to paying for plane/train tickets, hotel accommodations, etc.. (Hence my savings haven't really grown in the nearly 3 years I've been in Japan.) So I decided that I would try to actually start saving money for trips the way I saved for the 2007 Eurotrip:

1) all money spent on clothing/shoes/bags/accessories & the like will be matched with a 50% contribution to my "travel fund" (i.e. if I spend 1000yen on something, I have to put 500yen into savings);

2) all 500yen coins go into savings;

3) any funds I receive apart from my salary/gifts (for example, mileage reimbursement money) will go directly into the "travel fund"(rounded up to the nearest thousand yen).

In five days using only strategies 1 & 2 I've already managed to put almost 15,000yen into my travel fund--which should tell you something about just how much I've been spending recently on clothing. @_@ I guess it's a kind of spring fever?


Following Uniqlo was grocery shopping. After I came home, I did some housekeeping and then cooked a real dinner for the first time in months! It was a very passable 牛肉と野菜クリーム煮, a.k.a. beef and "vegetable" (really just eringi mushrooms and onions) cream "soup."

After dinner I spent a bit of time online, but then in a very rare move, I actually went to bed super early--10pm!!

Sunday I had lunch with my friend Yu-san at Kaze no Hiroba, an "organic & natural" shop with a cafe that serves homemade fresh/natural/organic foods. It's a great place for a leisurely, relaxing lunch! I also love that starting from April the cafe only opens on weekends because they have farm work to do on weekdays! I was a little greedy and had the "plate" lunch, plus the sweets selection plate ("プチスィーッ盛り合わせ) , as well as a homemade lemon soda. =P

Next we went for a walk along Kanchogai Dori/around Chuo Koen. The cherry blossoms were beautiful (although they were not in full bloom yet--only at about 80%) and it was warm and sunny! After we had walked up and down Kanchogai Dori, we stopped at Primero Bakery (next to the JTB) for melon pan (I had chocolate chip, Yu-san had maple flavour). Then since it was nearby, we went to check out Sheep's Bakery & Cafe. Yu-san treated me to a cinnamon roll and then we went back up Kanchogai Street and headed for City Hall (where I had parked my car).

I got back home sometime between maybe 5pm and 6pm. I had (plenty of) leftover soup, but I still had groceries to use up, so I made 油揚げとなすの甘辛煮 (simmered salty-sweet abura-age (deep fried beancurd) and eggplant). It's a dish I've made numerous times but I still need to refer to the recipe every time... ^^;; I also made a super simple ブロッコリーのツナマヨ焼き (broccoli baked with tuna & mayo). It wasn't the type of dish I'd serve company, but it was super fast and easy and required few ingredients so I'll probably make it again sometime...