Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Global cuisine - Japan

[Miso rice balls (front) and teriyaki beef rice balls (back) in Diamond Harbour for lunch]

While life is an ongoing interesting adventure full of new things to experience and people to share with, sometimes it's nice to create an environment where you force yourself to try new things and experiment.

Now I consider myself pretty adventurous in the kitchen, trying new recipes and new foods as much as possible. But it's hard not to fall back onto those familiar foods we know how to make and can throw together with our eyes closed after a long day of work. A couple of weeks ago, I thought maybe we could try something to push our comfort and force ourselves to learn new things. So the idea of cooking global came up. For a week at a time, we would cook all our dinners (and lunches if at home) from a national cuisine. Looking at our cupboard and seeing what was in season, we decided our first week would be Japanese.

Now, I've never been to Japan, though I would one day love to go. Probably with my brother, who I would take as a guide as he has been there several times already and has a deep passion for all things Japanese. Despite this, I do enjoy their food, or rather, what has been presented to me by mass media as their national dishes - sushi, ramen, and okinomiyaki (a fried egg and cabbage omlette with shrimp and tasty sauce). Ok, the okinomiyaki is probably not a mass media thing, it was rather a dish my brother and dad brought back with them from one of their earlier trips to Japan. But this was what I thought of for Japanese foods. I knew there was more out there, so one of the 'rules' for this little experiment would be to cook things we hadn't cooked before - so no sushi.

I started by going to the library and taking out the cook books they had there. And, probably unique to Japan, I found a manga (graphic novel, comic book) devoted to the exploration of Japanese food. In each volume, Oishinbo explores a different aspect of Japanese cuisine. I had seen them floating around my brothers room back home, so I picked up the one they had on "The Joy of Rice". With my literary guides chosen I headed home to see what we could conjure up for our week of Japanese eating.

[Oishinbo, or "The Gourmet", looks into various aspects of Japanese food. I got my ideas for rice balls from here.]

The first night, a Thursday I think, we ate beef and udon noodle soup. It was absolutely delicious. The next night it was a bowl of rice with several toppings arranged artfully around the top (aesthetics is an important part of food preparation in Japan). On the weekend, I made three different types of rice balls some stuffed, some just coated in flavours. These worked perfectly for our lunches on our hike and ski outings. No worries about squishing bread, just an easy to eat, flavourful treat ready to go at lunch. In fact, towards the end of the week it was getting easy to experiment with our new understanding of flavours and ingredients to make up our own recipes. Although, on our last night, we fell back to our recipe book and made a simple (most of the food we made was surprisingly simple and non-fussy) and absolutely divine sweet miso marinated cod with noodles and fennel salad.

During this week, I learned a few things. Firstly, that by cooking from a specific cuisine we spent far less money on groceries as we only needed a few choice ingredients that we used up through the week (1x 500ml bottle of miso paste, 3/4 bottle of sake, 1/2 bottle pickled ginger, 1 packet soba noodles and 4 packets udon noodles, among others). Our fridge remained spacious and nothing went to waste. It was a satisfying feeling. Second, Japanese food (sushi) has always been presented (or perceived by me anyhow) as an exotic, fancy food for celebrities and executives. This has slowly changed over time as it has become more the norm to find sushi places around town (heck, in Whitehorse there are two, at one point even three, sushi places. This for a town of 25,000). However, the home cooking that we were doing was far from the complicated, many stepped ritual of preparing and rolling rice. We have put several of our experiments into our own little recipe collection for later use. Eventually, these once exotic recipes will become the easy fall back onto which we will look for sustenance after a long day at work.

Below are two recipes I particularly enjoyed. First, spinach gomaae. Always a favorite of mine when visiting a Japanese restaurant, this spinach salad with sesame dressing was something I really wanted to try and make. Little did I know just how easy it was to make. A word of warning, it does have a strong flavour. Although I love it, poor Stephen does not, which was good for me I suppose as I got to eat it all up. This recipe has been taken (and slightly altered) from the New York Times website (that source for all things Japanese ;-). Their link follows.

Spinach Gomaae

1 large bunch of spinach (younger leaves are more tender)

4 tablespoons of seasame seeds

1/2 tablespoon sugar (more or less depending on how sweet you like it*)

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon sake

a splash of water

1. First, prepare the spinach by chopping just the very tips of the bottoms off (keeping the leaves joined if they are young and keeping the stems if they are larger) and rinsing off any dirt clinging on. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and have ready a large bowl of ice water along side.

2. Blanche the spinach - In batches, place some spinach in a mesh seive and dip this into the boiling water. Using a large spoon make sure the spinach is submerged in the water and hold it there for about 30 seconds, then remove it from the pot and dump it into the ice water. The spinach can sit in here quite happily for a while.

3. Once you have blanched your spinach, remove it in handfuls, squeezing out any excess water. Chop into 2 inch lengths and throw into a bowl.

4. Now, prepare the dressing. Toss your sesame seeds into a dry frying pan on high heat and toast. Keep the pan moving and shake the seeds around until they begin to turn golden brown and become aromatic. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the seeds into a mortar and pestle and allow to cool.

5. Once cool (or at least mostly), grind the seeds until just crushed. You should have a few still whole, but most will be crushed.

6. Combine the soy sauce and sugar in a bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the sake and sesame seeds, pour in some water to reach the consistency you prefer. I put in about a tablespoon. Pour this over your spinach and mix.


The second recipe is the one we made on our last night, sweet miso marinated cod. You can substitute any white fish you like. This is from one of the cookbooks we got from the library, Japanese Pure and Simple by Kimiko Barber. It is simple and so delicious. And although it might look like a lot of sugar, dessert is not common in Japan, mostly it is just fresh, sliced fruit, so I would recommend following this dinner with just that. We served our fish with some buckwheat soba noodles and a fresh fennel salad (sliced fennel root massaged with 1/2 teaspoon salt and sprinkled with lemon juice from 1/2 lemon).

Sweet Miso Marinated Cod

enough fillets of cod to feed your crew

200ml sake

100g sugar

450g light-coloured miso paste (we only had ~350g but it was still tasty)

1. Make up the marinade by placing the sake into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Allow alcohol to burn off for a few minutes, then remove from heat. Add sugar and stir until dissoved. Add miso paste and whisk together.

2. Place fillets into a flat dish with sides and pour over the marinade. Marinade fish in fridge for a few hours, 2-12 hours (any longer and your fish will start to dry out and become overpoweringly miso flavoured).

3. Heat grill to high and place fish under heat for 3-7 minutes (depending on size of fillets). Turn them over once golden and finish cooking (a little bit of caramelization is not bad, in fact it's pretty tasty).

There you have it. Tasty, miso cod. (Barber, K. 2006. Japanese pure and simple: over 100 health-giving recipes. Kyle Cathie Ltd., London.)

Next week - french. I've always wanted to make cassoulet. . .

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Snow Day - take 2

We woke up the next morning to snow. Lots of snow. More snow than last time. The quiet, softness of it seeming to act like a sedative on the entire city.

After a weekend of throwing myself up mountains and down mountains, it was a pleasure to just slow down and relax in a world forced to slow down by snow. The cat slept on the window sill, we called family in Canada, Stephen baked and shoveled and I sewed. It was a gloriously simple and comfortable day.

In fact, the next two days were the same. The snow continued to fall and clung to the ground for a good three days, closing schools, slowing traffic and making people smile.


After spending so much time in a city, albeit in our own house, we were getting tired of the cars, the noise, the people, and the illusion of rush and worry. We decided that a weekend away in the mountains was just what we needed. And after a well-timed conversation with a friend at uni, we even had someone to share a ride with and maybe shoot something to bring home.

We decided to head up to Lake Sumner and Jolliebrook Hut. Tom, our hunting friend, wanted to go the unconventional route and Stephen, always yearning for a challenge, was keen for this suggested mountain route. I was happy to go along for the ride.

Early Saturday morning, despite the weather warnings for Sunday afternoon, we packed up the car, picked up Tom (and his mountain of things) and headed West towards the mountains and Lake Sumner.

After a lovely, though twisty, drive we arrived at the muddy pull out beside the farm track we were on and parked the car. We were immediately smothered in the rich musical calls of a male Bellbird courting a female. He would puff himself up like a bellows and then expunge the melodic enticement to arouse her attentions. Hopping from branch to branch, this little fellow followed the coy wanderings of the female without pause, like a wee green cotton ball tied to her leg.

I was soon reminded to focus on putting my stuff together so we could hit the trail. So, leaving these two to their indeterminate fate, I pulled on my boots and added some of Toms' food to my bag. Then it was off across the wee stream and around the hill, following the sheep.

Once around the hill, we came to the swing bridge that would take us across the river and to the base of our mountain.

Once we were across, we left the trail and headed up onto the snake-like ridge that came down the mountain to meet the river where we had crossed. After a short bush-bash we emerged onto a bald patch of the ridge and decided on a route for our ascent up the hill.

Of course, once in the dense tangle of beech forest it was difficult to determine which way we should head. Led more by the open spaces between the trees than an overall direction, we attempted to keep a course up slope. But this was periodically challenged by a thicket of tangled branches and clinging vines (appropriately named bush lawyer).

After a rough struggle through this maze of scratchy branches and clingy climbers, we emerged at the base of a steep, but open slope. We decided to follow it up along the edge of the forest, hoping for some easing in making our way up. Unfortunately, this open slope was covered in our friend the Wild Spaniard/Taramea, also known in our family as 'spikey death grass'. I was glad to be wearing long pants to provide some protection to my legs, but could definitely feel they didn't do much.

Despite having to avoid these sharp, pointy plants, the way was easier - I think. With my head down, I put one foot in front of the other, singing whatever song floated through my head to keep my mind focused on moving and not on how much my calves and thighs burned from the climb.

We stopped for a quick lunch (and nap) part way up the hill. Stephen was happily leading the march, while Tom and I straggled at the back (him with a sore head from a celebratory night before and me from simply being slow). The two of us were happy to simply follow where Stephen led, which when it came to the snowy bits made for easier climbing.

Eventually, we made it to the top of the ridge. Exhausted from the intense climb, we looked around and enjoyed the glorious view towards Lake Sumner and the Sisters range to our East and South. Unfortunately, this was not the summit of the mountain and we still had a ways to go to get there, along the ridge and down the other side where our hut was waiting for us. But with the sun still shining over us, we were not worried about getting there.

Rather than climb up and over the rest of the mountain, we decided to side slope around. Figuring that this would be an easier and hopefully faster way of getting round to where we wanted to go. So, clinging to the rocky, scree slopes we carefully made our way around the side of the mountain. Although the spikey death grass was much rarer here, there were other things to try and avoid - like slipping down the scree and off the side of the mountain itself.

Fortunately, we were all sure-footed enough and successfully reached the far side of the ridge. It was getting noticeably late in the afternoon by this point and we were still not all that close. Although we were on the right side of the summit now, we still had a ways to go along the top before getting to the right ridge that would drop us down gently enough and on the right side of the mountain. Our pace increased and we marched along the summit ridge with renewed purpose and energy. Although my legs were like jelly from the climb and the careful side sloping, I forced them on wards - thinking about the cosy hut we would be sleeping in tonight.

By the time we got to the ridge the moon was up and the sky was quickly turning to dusk. As we dropped down towards the river (and our hut), the grassy open slope turned to beech brush and soon we were submerged in the thick branches of the scraggy trees again. This time in the dark.

It is an interesting endeavor trying to find ones way in thick brush in the dark with a head lamp on. I couldn't tell you which is easier, with it on or off. With the light you can see only the immediate branches around your face, which I suppose allows you to avoid getting hit in the face. But you tend to feel trapped and almost claustrophobic as everything beyond is utter blackness. We worked our way down the hill in a random sort of way, meeting up every once in a while using Marco Polo to find each other. Finally, the sound of rushing water arrived in our ears, the brush opened up and we found the whisperings of a trail that would take us to our hut.

After 5 or so river crossings and what seemed miles (in fact was about 700 metres) we made it to a clearing and our wee hut. Tom cooked a magnificent meal of five-spice pork with udon noodles and chinese cabbage and we fell, utterly spent, into bed.

The next morning we awoke to an uncanny silence. The kind of silence I had not heard for so long. The silence of freshly fallen snow.

The world outside had been transformed overnight from a dark, sharp unknown to a bright, soft whiteness. The snow was heavy and wet and blanketed the forest around us with it's thickness. It was glorious. We decided that perhaps we should make a good start to see if we were going to be able to get home.

The hike back to the car was fairly uneventful. We followed the trail this time, shaving a good 4 hours off our trip time. Enjoying the beauty of the snow while it lasted, then resigning ourselves to soaking wet feet from the puddles and mud it created.

We eventually emerged from the narrow valley and into the farmed land beyond. We wandered amongst the cows and grasses and rejoiced in the easiness of the trail over our previous days trek. We were in high spirits as we rounded the mountain in the sun and were startled when seemingly out of nowhere, we were pounded by hail and snow and slush all at once. The last hour of the hike we trudged on with our heads down, set only on arriving at the car.

Finally, cold, wet and exhilarated, we crossed the swing bridge and walked the last 500 metres to the car, no sign of our romantic pair here today. We changed into dry warm clothes and drove carefully back along the farm track to the highway and onto Christchurch, where the sun was shining - though there were the threatening clouds of a Southerly on the horizon. Tomorrow would be interesting, but we were home. Exhausted from our weekend way, I curled up in front of the pellet fire like a cat and slept, dreaming of the snow I might wake up to in the morning.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Snow Day!

[A snowman beside the Heathcote River in front of some Cabbage Trees]

A couple weeks ago, while Stephen was still on school holiday it snowed. In Christchurch. Great, big, fat flakes of soft, wet snow. The last time it did this was 1992.

On Sunday night, after a rather nice, but cool day, it started to rain. And then the temperature started to drop. Stephen lit the burner under the bathtub outside and we sat in the steaming hot water while clumsy, wet drops of slushie snow fell on our heads. We watched as the garden slowly became white with the stuff. Once the water had cooled to a tepid body temperature we slip, slided our way across the yard and into our warm beds.

[Smaug preferred looking out at the snow from inside the house - though she did venture out more than once]

At 5am Stephen couldn't handle it any longer, he crawled out of bed and ran to the window to peak outside. The world had become a winter wonderland and the snow was still falling. The thing that got me most was the silence, with no one out driving the night was as quiet as I remember growing up in the Yukon forest. When I eventually emerged from bed at 7am (practically unheard of in this household) there was a fire roaring in the stove and a gorgeous world awaiting outside - just what winter should be for this Canadian. We made up some tasty cinnamon buns and ran outside to play in the snow.

[The backyard filled with snow]

Snowmen, snowballs, and simply walking in the stuff was enough to keep us smiling from ear to ear. We wandered up the quiet road to visit friends and invite them for cinnamon buns. As we wandered back we ran into families sledding down driveways on anything they could get their hands on, boogie boards, plastic bags, and snow boards. Everyone was happy and smiling. It was wonderful.

[Waiting for the bus - which never came]

[Japonica covered in snow]

The snow lasted for another day and a half. In fact, in the dark depths of shaded nooks you can still find clusters of dirty snow hanging on for dear life. But now we are left with only the photos and memories - another "Great Snowfall" for the history books [].

[Big Snow - 1945 - Mr Bettle outside his shop in Heathcote Valley. Image take from]

Friday, August 5, 2011


[Walking back down into the beech forest at Woolshed Creek]

On our way back from Hakatere, we stopped for a hike up Woolshed creek. Much of the trail meandered through beech forest, some of what's left of New Zealand's native forest. One thing that has always puzzled me on my various excursions into the beech forest were the seemingly random trees that were entirely covered in a black powdery substance with little white tendrils sticking out. This time, on the vague memory of something our honey seller at the Farmer's Market had told me, I bent to a blackened beech and tasted the tiny droplet of liquid hanging on the end of the white tendril. It was delicious! And it's called honeydew.

[Harvesting Honeydew the slow way]

Now honeydew is tasty, but you certainly have to wrap your mind around it's source in order to fully enjoy this tasty forest treat. Honeydew is the excretion of a tiny scale insect that lives under the bark of the tree. The white tubules that extends out of the trunk are posterior extensions of the tiny Ultracoelostoma brittini, which when they bite into the phloem of the tree (where the sap runs) exudes the sap that is pushed through the insects body due to the high pressure. Not all that appetizing to think about, but the flavour you get from the tiny droplet is amazing. Honeydew is collected by bees, though not in the same way I did with my tongue. Instead, the bees forage under the bark to where the insects are tucked away.

Also of interest, is why the trees turn the fuzzy black colour. When the insects bite into the phloem, sap invariably runs outside the insect and down the trees' trunk. It is on this sticky substrate that a black sooty mould grows (Capnodium). Often the mould extends quite a ways around the base of the tree, making it look like a fire burn.

I love learning about the wonders of the forest here, especially when there's delicious food involved. The world is a pretty special place and finding these treasures makes it that much more fun.

{Most of the information was taken from the Airborne's New Zealand Honey Collections Website at}


A couple of weeks ago now, we found the most beautiful valley in New Zealand. It was Stephen's school break and we decided we wanted to get out of town for a bit. So we looked at a map and picked some huts to hike to. With our bags packed full of sleeping bags, stove, warm clothes (it is winter here after all) and some tasty food, we headed out of town and into the mountains. We were going to Mt. Potts.

[Heading towards the trail head]

The drive through Canterbury was much the same as it always is - flat, broken up with the high windbreak treelines, dotted (often crammed) with sheep and cows. We were momentarily held up behind a herd of cattle being moved from one pen to the next, but the farmer was kind enough to break a path for us through the throng. Eventually we made it to the mountains and the gravel road that would take us to our trail head. Driving through a wide, glacial valley, we searched for the gorge we were to hike up. Past a lovely lake overrun with baches, around the side of the hill and suddenly the ground dropped away to the Potts River gorge and into the huge, wide, glorious Hakatere Conservation area.

[The Potts River gorge]

We parked our car just on the other side of the bridge and headed up the river. The first part of the hike was easy, on a farming road along the fence line. But we eyed the steep valley walls with trepidation, knowing that eventually we would have to climb up somewhere. Of course, by waiting until the last possible moment to climb, we were left with a less than suitable gully to ascend. We scrabbled up the steep gravel incline, sliding down almost as much as we gained. After struggling over a rather sharp hoodoo, we finally made it to the top of the gully and looked down on our progress. Whew! Then we turned around to face the sea of huge tussocks we would have to wade through on the plateau we had reached. Nothing for it, we headed off.

[Tikumu - a type of daisy up on the plateau]

Soon there was skiff of snow, then there was a good layer, and before we knew it we were struggling through thigh deep wet, heavy snow. The sweat on my face and back were making me as damp as the random ponds we were stumbling across due to the snow cover. We eventually reached the far edge of the plateau and took a small break to look at the map. It had begun to snow more and more heavily and we were exhausted from our hike so far, we needed to see that we were close. Unfortunately, we were still less than half way. Checking my camera's memory we figured we'd been going for just over 3 hours and there was quite a ways to go - mostly through the deep snow. It was getting darker and colder the longer we stood there. A decision had to be made.

[Getting into the deep snow]

[It was easier to find moments of beauty on the way back than the way up]

With our heads hung low (though, not too much, there was a certain amount of relief there as well), we turned around and headed back towards the car. Facing this direction we became aware of the sharp contrast between the way we had been going and the valley behind us. While our planned route was filled with dark clouds dumping snow by the bucketful, the valley we were now returning to was filling with the golden light of the dipping sun and blue sky. It was remarkable and it certainly made our decision that much more bearable.

[Catching the last rays of sunshine]

[Basking in the glow of the sun - once we found it again]

Two hours later, as the sun was just disappearing behind the mountains, we reached the car and pulled out our stove. We had decided to cook up some dinner and then sort out the back of the car for sleeping in. As we waited for the sausages to finish cooking, a farmer pulled up in his work truck along side us. We chatted for a bit and he kindly offered us a bed at his house just up the road. So, after he left, we scoffed our dinner, threw our stuff in the car and headed down the road.

Matt welcomed us on the porch, told us to drop our bags in the deliciously warm room and join him for a beer. We talked with him and his wife and 2 year old son until we were all tired. Collapsing into our bed we noticed we had a wee guest with us - their kitten liked our room as it had heated floors. So the three of us curled up for a lovely nights sleep.

[Sunset behind Mount D'Artango]

[Mount Potts Station - our view in the morning]

The next morning, after breakfast, we joined Matt in his farm duties of feeding the cattle and deer and goats. Then thanked our hosts profusely before heading further up the valley to Mount Sunday, the Roche Montaine used in the Lord of the Rings for the home of the riders of Rohan - Edoras. Unfortunately, our only company on the hike were the cattle that grazed there. But they were kind enough to let us pass and we admired the view of the expansive valley to the surrounding mountains. After returning to the car, we had a leisurely lunch and headed home. Although we hadn't achieved what we set out to do, we had enjoyed a thoroughly lovely weekend. This was definitely a place we would have to return to.

[Mount Potts in the middle]

[The view from Mount Sunday looking West]