Adventures in Japan!

1 Nov

After a year of planning, we finally took off on our trip to Japan a couple of weeks ago.

We left DC midday on October 18th and arrived in Tokyo on the afternoon of the 19th.  Shibuya, the neighborhood in Tokyo we called home base, is about 80 minutes from the airport via the Narita Express train. By the time we checked into our hotel and dropped off our bags, we were pretty exhausted so we spent the evening at the hotel bar talking about what we wanted to do the next day.

The next morning, I got up and walked to a local gym in Shibuya to work out. I was honestly impressed that I found it on the first try. Directions in Japan rarely involve street names. Anytime I consulted Google Maps, it was “cross the crosswalk,” “go up the stairs,” “go over the walkway,”…etc. Nothing super specific, so I ended up using a lot of landmarks like shops or subway stops to find exact locations. But I did find the gym, and had a good workout that definitely helped shake the jet lag. I also happened to find the statue of Hachiko on my way there. This Akita came to Shibuya Station to greet his master, a professor, coming home from work every day. The professor died in 1925, but Hachiko kept coming to the station daily faithfully until his own death 10 years later. The statue was erected in memoriam.

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I headed back to the hotel to meet Joe and we decided to head to Kōrakuen, and wandered through the Koishikawa Kōrakuen gardens before heading to Yasukuni-jinja, which means “For the Peace of the Country Shrine.” It is a Shinto shrine that memorializes Japan’s war dead, around 2.5 million people. It’s unusual and massive torii (gates) are constructed of bronze and steel. Housed in the shrine complex is Yūshū-kan, a fascinating and somewhat controversial war history museum that begins with Japan’s samurai tradition and goes all the way through World War II.

After a full day, we grabbed some karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and sushi from Shibuya Station’s massive food hall called Food Show, and took a quick break at the hotel. We spent the evening walking the neon-lit streets of Shibuya, wandering in and out of shops and arcades before winding up at a place called the Living Room Café, a really relaxed bar with some great live music. A perfect way to close out our first full day there.

On Saturday, we headed to Harajuku to visit Meiji-jingū, Tokyo’s largest shrine, dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken. The sprawling forested grounds contain over 120,000 trees collected from all over Japan. There are several torii as you walk along the path toward the main shrine, the tallest of which stands 12m high and is made from a 1500 year-old Taiwanese cypress tree. Also along the path are rows of decorative sake barrels, gifts to the shrine.

After leaving Meiji-jingū, we made our way to the famous Takeshita-dōri. Even on a rainy day, this street was packed with people filling the unique, funky shops lining it from end to end. We explored, snacked on street food, and even popped into a cat café to grab a coffee and pet some fluffy creatures. In the evening, we went to Shinjuku to explore the nightlife, arcades, and shopping there. A lot like Shibuya with tons of stores, neon lights, and music just pouring into the street.

Sunday I got up and made my way back to Shinjuku for class at Bikram Yoga Shinjuku. Even though I don’t understand more than a few words of Japanese, I know the sequence so well that I was able to follow along just fine. It reaffirmed how special this yoga is, that I have found it so many places and been able to share practice with so many people.

Joe and I spent the rest of the day wandering Akihabara, which is a ton of sensory overload. Arcades, manga shops, giant 8-floor tech stores, media, and book stores are everywhere, and we went to as many as possible before the rain got too heavy and sent us back to Shibuya.

Monday we got up to catch the Nozomi Shinkansen to Kyoto. The train reaches speeds of up to 186 mph. By car, the trip between Tokyo and Kyoto would take approximately 6 hours, but on the Shinkansen, the trip took just under 2 and a half. It was pretty awesome.

After checking in at the New Miyako Hotel, we visited Fushimi Inari-Taisha, a Shinto shrine built into the side of Mt. Inari. The entire path through the shrine goes about 4km up the mountain, and I would say we went about 2/3 of the way up. It is lined with hundreds of orange torii as you walk up and is a really breathtaking place. This shrine was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in the 8th century. There are many stone foxes along the pathways, and foxes are considered the messenger of Inari, the god of the harvest. We spent a full afternoon exploring, and then wandered the surrounding streets and shops into the evening.

The next morning, we walked from our hotel to the Kyoto Aquarium and spent a couple hours exploring the exhibits there and seeing a dolphin show, before hopping back on the Nozomi Shinkansen to make our way to Hiroshima.

Upon arriving in Hiroshima, the city was buzzing. Everywhere, and I mean everywhere, there were signs that read “We ❤ Carp!” About a 1/3 of the people we saw were in baseball jerseys, and we eventually figured out that the local baseball team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, were the current Central League Champions and had a playoff game that evening vs the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. We even got to see their trophy because we just happened to wander into the store where it was on display. Later, we found a good pub to watch the game, but unfortunately the home team lost.

On Wednesday, we took the streetcar to Genbaku Dome-mae to visit Peace Memorial Park. The first thing was saw was the Atomic Bomb Dome. It was the former Industrial Promotion Hall, but the atomic bomb in 1945 exploded directly above it, and this is all that remains of the structure.

We also visited the Korean Atomic Bombs Victims memorial, the Peace Clock Tower, the Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, and finally the Children’s Peace Memorial where we registered and donated 2 paper cranes to add to the thousands already there.

We then took the streetcar over to a shopping area called Hondori and spent the afternoon shopping and exploring the surrounding area. After heading back to Hiroshima Station, we went to the rooftop of nearby Fukuyu department store for some panoramic views of the city before catching the Nozomi Shinkansen back to Tokyo. The trip took about 4 hours, but would have taken about 9 and a half by car. Pretty cool.

Thursday morning I took an early trip to Tsukiji Market to see all of the vendors, and treated myself to a delicious sashimi breakfast.

Joe and I met up and went to nearby Shinjuku, where we went to VR Zone, a virtual reality park, to try out a few VR experiences on the HTC Vive. I have to say, it was pretty immersive and a lot cooler than I could have expected. Mario Kart in VR was WILD. After a little bit of lunch in Shinjuku, we decided to go back to Akihabara and check out some of the shops and a retro arcade that we’d missed when we went the first time.

Friday, we got up and met up with our tour guide to head for Mt. Fuji. Most of our trip thus far had been a little bit grey and rainy, but we woke up to a perfectly clear day. After a 2 and a half hour bus ride, we stopped in a town nearby Mt. Fuji for lunch before heading to the Fifth Station. The Fifth Station is about halfway up Mt. Fuji at approximately 2,305m above sea level (the mountain is 3,776m tall). Our guide Yoko remarked that there were only about 3-4 days of full visibility this time of year, so we were extremely lucky to have such beautiful views.

After Mt. Fuji, we traveled about an hour and 45 minutes to nearby Hakone, where we took a boat cruise on Lake Ashi before ascending to the summit of Mt. Komagatake via the Hakone Komagatake Ropeway. The summit of Mt. Komagatake had some stunning views, and we even saw Mt. Fuji in the distance.

After a trip back down the ropeway, we grabbed some ice cream before hopping back on the bus to Shinjuku, then caught the subway to home away from home in Shibuya.

Saturday we visited the expansive Ueno Park and spent several hours at the zoo there.

In the late afternoon we headed to Shinjuku for a quick meal before heading to the Robot Restaurant for a show there. Pictures and videos will never, ever do the experience justice. All I can say is if you are ever in Tokyo, treat yourself. It was a whole lot of silly fun.

Our last day in Tokyo, we headed to Ginza, where we visited Café de l’Ambre, a shop where the sign above the door reads “Coffee Only.” It has been in business since 1948 and specializes not just in roasting different varieties of coffee, but also in ageing its beans. After a delicious cup of coffee, we headed back out toward the main street in Ginza.

We spent some time wandering the shops and had a really great lunch at a place called Tsubameya before heading back to Shibuya. Then it was time for one last waltz through the neon lights of Shibuya. Even in the pouring rain, the streets were packed with people (many in Halloween costumes!) and the mood was lively. What a cool, special place.

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We’re already talking about where we want to go when we go back!

Eastern Shore Edition: Seafood Stock *and* Crab Bisque

20 Aug

Joe and I somehow got it into our heads last night that we could eat 2 lbs. of steamed snow crab legs. Several clusters in, we realized that our eyes were bigger than our stomachs. But there was no way I was going to let the remaining meat or the MOUNTAIN of shells go to waste. Seemed like the perfect opportunity to try my hand at making a creamy, delicious crab bisque and build it from the seafood stock on up. Let’s get to work, shall we?

Seafood Stock

Ingredients

  • Shells from 2 lbs snow crab legs
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 5-6 carrots, diced
  • 5-6 celery ribs, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3-4 sprigs thyme
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. black peppercorns

Method

Roast the crab shells in a 400 degree F oven for 10 minutes or until the edges begin to brown.

Place a stock pot over medium heat and add the olive oil. Once the oil starts to shimmer, add the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic and saute until the vegetables start to soften. Take a selfie maybe?

Add the shells, white wine, thyme, peppercorns, and tomato paste. Then add water until the shells are covered by about 1 inch.

Bring the stock to a boil and then reduce to a simmer and cook for 1 and a half hours. Skim the grease and foam from the surface every so often during the cooking process.

There will be a decent amount of evaporation. The first picture is the beginning of the cooking process, and the second is the end.

Strain the stock through a fine mesh sieve, pressing the solids to extract as much as possible. Yields about 2 ½ quarts

The stock is now ready to use for our delicious…

Crab Bisque

Ingredients

  • 2 ½ qts. seafood stock
  • 2 oz. butter
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 3 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ½ cup cooking sherry
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • 3-4 sprigs thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ½ tsp. paprika
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 6 oz. crab meat (I used snow crab legs)
  • Juice from ½ lemon
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh chives, chopped (for garnish)

Method

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat and then add the celery, carrot, and onion. Saute until the vegetables soften and give up their juices. Add the garlic and saute 2 minutes more.

Deglaze the pan with the sherry, and then add the tomato paste.

Add the seafood stock, paprika, thyme, and bay leaves.

Bring the soup to a gentle boil, and cook for 20 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the cream.

Puree the bisque in batches, and then return to the stove, season with salt, pepper, and the lemon juice.

I prefer to add the crabmeat to the individual bowls when serving, but you can add it to the pot of bisque if you like. Garnish the soup wish fresh chives and enjoy!

So next time you “accidentally” order too much shellfish, toss your shrimp, crab, or lobster shells in a pot and get that stock going. In addition to being a wonderful base for soups and sauces, it is also delicious cooking liquid for rice and other grains.

I might just have to let my eyes get too big more often. 😉

Ciao for now,

Neen

 

Belated Birthday Post: Cinnamon Cupcakes with Toasted Italian Meringue

1 Aug

When I woke up on my birthday last month, I had a strange lack of ingredients in the house. Less than a stick of butter, no powdered sugar, and no milk specifically. Not ideal for someone wanting to make birthday cake with frosting, but certainly by no means an impossible task.

What I came up with was actually pretty delicious and reminded me a lot of a cake I used to make for Joe a lot when we were first dating. As for the icing, normally I’m a buttercream kinda lady, but toasted Italian meringue may have won my heart over. It was light and crisp on the outside, and soft and marshmallow-y inside. A perfect companion for this warm, spicy cinnamon cake.

Cinnamon Cupcakes with Toasted Italian Meringue

Cake Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 3 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 oz. cream cheese
  • 1 whole egg and two egg yolks
  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract
  • 1/2 cup whole milk yogurt

Italian Meringue Ingredients and Recipe Here

Method:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease 12 muffin cups or line with paper liners.

In a small bowl, combine the flour, salt, cinnamon, and baking powder and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or using a hand blender, cream together the butter, cream cheese, and sugar until light and fluffy.

Add the whole egg and egg yolks one at a time, mixing between additions and scraping down the bowl. Then add the almond extract.

With the mixer on low speed, alternate adding the yogurt and the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, scraping the bowl between additions, until everything is just combined.

Divide the batter evenly among the cups.

Bake for 23-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely.

To frost, spoon or pipe the meringue on top of the cupcakes and then place under a broiler for 15-30 seconds or use a blow torch to lightly brown the meringue.

These were a pretty delicious way to celebrate #32, I have to say. I bet they’d be great with other toppings too, like maple buttercream, or a crisp brown sugar and oat crumble. Give them a try soon!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Game Night Snacks: Pepperoni and Cheese Swirl Rolls

17 May

I had some pizza dough in the fridge recently that I needed to use and it got me thinking about creating a savory version of the Cinnamon Rosettes on this blog. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are also going on and the Pens are in the Eastern Conference Finals, so I’ve also got stadium snacks, bar food, and Pittsburgh on the brain. That led me to one natural conclusion. Let’s flip the script for…

Pepperoni and Cheese Swirl Rolls

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. pizza dough, homemade or store-bought. Recipe here!
  • 12-15 slices pepperoni
  • 4 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1 oz. pecorino romano cheese
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • ½ tsp. dried basil
  • ½ tsp. dried oregano
  • ½ tsp. garlic powder
  • Optional: ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper

Method

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin.

Roll out the pizza dough into a rectangle about 12 x 15 in.

Melt the butter with the herbs and spices, and then brush onto the pizza dough, leaving a small seam at the bottom.

Layer on the mozzarella cheese and most of the pecorino romano cheese (reserve some for the tops of the rolls).

Add a layer of pepperoni.

Roll the pizza dough toward you slowly, jellyroll style, and pinch the edges together to seal.

Place the roll seam side down on a cutting board and slice into 12 equal pieces.

Put each roll into a muffin tin cup and then sprinkle additional pecorino romano cheese on top.

Bake 25-27 minutes or until golden brown on top. Move the rolls to a wire cooling rack and serve warm with marinara sauce for dipping.

These are really delicious the day they are made, but they also reheat well. Just put them back in a 350 degree oven for 5-7 minutes.

Ciao for now (and let’s go Pens!),

Neen

Cure for a Cold Snap: Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

13 May

Howdy readers, I’m back. It’s been an interesting few months to say the very least, but needless to say I wasn’t doing as much cooking as I do normally. And when I was cooking, I was feeling stuck in a little bit of a rut. Not as if there aren’t endless sources of inspiration in books and online, I just wasn’t in that head space. It was hard to be out of the groove, but as I’ve started feeling more like myself, getting back into the kitchen and just experimenting has made me really happy again.

I’ve been on a soup and stew kick this week. That might seem like a little bit of a head-scratcher for this time of year, but if you were in Arlington this week, it’s been in the 50s, overcast, and rainy. So my local friends might understand why I’ve wanted nothing but warming foods.

This soup is spicy-sweet, creamy, and really delicious. It can also be made vegan if you swap out the chicken stock for vegetable stock or even water with a stick of kombu in it. Let’s have at it!

Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 lb butternut squash, cubed
  • 1 apple, cored and cubed
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 3-4 cups unsalted chicken stock or broth
  • ½ cup whole or light coconut milk
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. curry powder
  • 1 tsp. salt (less or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper (less or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp. toasted ground coriander
  • Optional: Toasted, salted pistachios

Method

Heat the olive oil in a deep, straight-sided saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft and a bit sweet.

Add the chopped apple, squash, and spices to the pan and cook everything over medium heat for 5-7 minutes or until the squash and apples begin to cook down and release liquid.

Add enough broth to the pan to cover the vegetables and fruit, then turn the heat to high and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat back to medium and allow the soup to simmer, uncovered, until the squash is tender. The liquid will also start to reduce.

Using a traditional or immersion blender, puree the soup. If using a countertop blender, you may need to do so in batches to keep the hot liquid in check. Once the soup is pureed, add the coconut milk and blend it in. Check the seasoning, add salt and pepper as needed, and then blend again.

Serve hot with the toasted pistachio garnish and enjoy!

Hopefully I’ll be back a little more quickly this time. There’s a lot I know I’ll want to make once the farm markets are back in full swing for the summer, so keep your eyes peeled for new recipes. Until then…

Ciao for now,

Neen

Rainbow Layer Cake

5 Feb

I was too busy celebrating my 1000th day of sobriety to publish this yesterday!

I spent the day cooking, teaching, playing a bunch of games with a handful of friends, laughing all night, and made a pretty awesome cake too.

Here today is the brand new version of a rainbow cake I originally made last year, but I re-wrote the recipe yesterday to simplify a cake that still has a lot of steps but is definitely easier now. This was a special cake for a special day, and there’s nothing quite like cutting into it and seeing the rainbow of layers inside.

Rainbow Layer Cake

Cake

  • 2½ cups white granulated sugar
  • 4 oz. butter, softened
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ¼ cups whole milk
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 1 tbsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • Food coloring (I used Americolor Gels) in red, yellow, orange, green, blue, and purple

Frosting

  • 8 oz. butter, softened
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 6 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. almond extract

 

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter and flour (or line with parchment) six 9 in. pans. I only have three pans, so I baked in two batches.

Combine the butter and sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Then beat in the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between additions. Add the vanilla extract.

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In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, salt, lemon zest, and baking powder.

Slowly alternate adding the flour and milk to the wet ingredients and mix until well-combined.

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Weigh the batter and then divide it evenly into 6 bowls (my batter weighed approx. 9.5 oz per layer).

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Mix the food coloring in the bowls so that you have a bowl of each red, yellow, orange, green, blue, and purple.

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Pour the batter into the prepared pans and smooth with an offset spatula. Bake for approximately 13-15 minutes.

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Cool layers completely before frosting.

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To prepare the frosting, whip the butter and cream cheese until smooth, then add powdered sugar slowly and whip until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and mix well.

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Stack the layers and put a thin layer of the frosting between them.

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Then ice and decorate the cake as desired using the remaining frosting.

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Pretty on the outside…

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…but suuuuuper cool inside.

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Thanks for letting me share part of my celebration with you. Maybe I’ll make an even crazier one for 2000 days!

Ciao for now,

Neen