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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!

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

Under Pressure: Mushroom and Romano Risotto  

10 Jan

Happy New Year, readers! As it always does, the cold month of January has brought me to my crockpot seeking bean and kielbasa stew, hearty soups, and pot roasts. These one pot meals are lifesavers when I teach in the evening and then don’t want to have to come home and cook.

This year, I’ve been trying to use my pressure cooker a little bit more to save time on recipes and also infuse deep flavors into proteins and grains. I can’t remember what cooking show it was that I was watching, but a chef mentioned making risotto in a pressure cooker and I thought, “What a brilliant idea!” After a little Google-fu, I found that others had tried this and had great success, so I decided to throw my own culinary skills at it.

The pressure cooker I have also has a sauté function, which is even handier because it meant that this meal could be made with nothing but a few delicious ingredients, a cutting board, and one pot. Less dirty dishes, far happier Neen. So without further ado, let’s get to this earthy, creamy and really satisfying mushroom risotto.

Pressure Cooker Mushroom and Romano Risotto

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups Arborio rice or other short grain pearl-shaped rice.
  • 4 cups broth or stock (I used turkey stock I made/froze at Thanksgiving)
  • 8 oz. cremini mushrooms, diced
  • 1 white onion, diced
  • 1 cup pecorino romano cheese, grated
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Optional: splash of red wine

Method

Begin by sautéing the onions in the olive oil until soft and translucent.

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Add the mushrooms and cook until they give up their juices and most of the liquid has evaporated.

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Add the rice to the cooker and stir to combine. Sauté the rice with the vegetables for 1-2 minutes and then add a splash of red wine (or stock/water) to deglaze the pan and get any browned bits off of the bottom of the sauté pan.

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Finally add the stock or broth.

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Put the lid on the pressure cooker and set it to cook at high pressure for 6 minutes.

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After the time has elapsed, you can wait for the pressure cooker to release steam naturally or use the quick release function.

Give the rice a quick stir and then add the romano cheese and mix well.

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And that’s as simple as it is. Risotto in less than 20 minutes. This makes quite a lot, so you may have leftovers. It reheats well on the stove, or can also be used to make arancini straight out of the refrigerator.

I wish you all the best and happy cooking in 2017. Let’s continue to make delicious food together!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Crispy, Chewy Thin Crust Pizza

20 Sep

I love all kinds of pizza. Thick squares covered in crushed tomatoes and romano cheese, thin floppy slices oozing with mozzarella, deep dish pieces, and yes, the slightly charred crispy Neapolitan-style pies.

My better half like his pizzas thin and crispy. I’ve spent YEARS cooking thin crust pizzas in my slightly under-powered oven and for a long time just wasn’t getting the result I wanted. Okay, sure, you can preheat a pizza stone in your oven for a while and probably get a pie that’s crisp and chewy, but let’s be realistic: Who has time to do that?

No, the real secret to a perfect crust, even for bread, is airflow. Yes, I defy all of you pizza stone experts, because unless you’ve got my dad’s fires-from-hell brick oven, there is a better, easier way to get the perfect pizza or bread crust at home.

First let’s deal with the dough itself. This recipe is an amalgamation of at least four other people’s recipes, but it is velvety, easy to work with dough with a beautiful flavor.

Perfect Pizza Dough (for one 16 in. pizza or two smaller pizzas)

  • 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. salt dissolved in 2 tbsp. warm water
  • 2 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (about 110-115 degrees)
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine the water, sugar, and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and let it sit until the mixture is very foamy, about 5 minutes.

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Add the flour to the yeast mixture, and then add the salt water. Finally, gently stream in the olive oil.

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Switch the paddle for a dough hook and knead until the dough is soft, smooth and pliable. I prefer to do this by hand and it takes about 10 minutes. Once you have a smooth dough, roll it into a tight ball.

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Oil a clean bowl and toss the dough ball to coat. Then cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap, leave it in a warm spot, and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about one hour.

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After it has risen, gently punch the dough down and it is ready to use. Or store it in the refrigerator covered for up to a few days.

To bake, preheat an oven to 450 degrees F.

NOW, remember what I said earlier about airflow? You do not need an expensive pizza stone or a bunch of bricks on your oven rack, you need this:

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This is a 16 in. pizza screen, but they come in all sizes. It cost about $10. This is how we achieve a golden brown and crisp bottom with a nice, chewy interior.

Lightly oil the pan and then oil your hands. Stretch the pizza dough across the screen until it is even, then brush the surface with olive oil and top as desired. This is a classic marinara and whole milk mozzarella pie.

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Place the screen on the bottom rack of your oven and bake for about 12-13 minutes. Check it at 12, because the bottom can start to char quickly!

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Give the pizza a minute or two to cool, and then easily slide it off of the screen and on to your cutting board for slicing.


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Give this method a try on your next pie. You won’t be disappointed!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Weeknight Wonder: Baked Macaroni and Cheese

31 Aug

My teaching schedule can sometimes mean being gone at an awkward hour for trying to coordinate dinner, so I’ve learned a lot of crock pot, sous-vide, and make-ahead meals to keep Joe and myself from paying for take-out.

This baked macaroni and cheese recipe is one of my personal favorites, because it skips some of the fussier steps like making a roux and a cheese sauce. Nope, this one is for the evening you’d rather skip all of that and still have something hot, gooey, cheesy and delicious. Plus, it can be prepared well in advance. You can also double this recipe for a bigger crowd or even add vegetables or chopped meats to it.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

  • 8 oz. dried pasta (I usually go with penne or elbows)
  • 1 cup half-and-half cream
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese (or a mixture of cheeses! Great way to clean out the cheese drawer.)
  • 2 oz. cream cheese
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp. flour
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs or crushed crackers
  • 1 tbsp. butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cook the pasta al dente, drain the water, and return the pasta to the pot. Add the cream cheese and stir until the pasta is lightly coated with cream cheese.

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Combine the cream and spices in a measuring cup and then stir that into the pasta. Add the flour and Dijon mustard as well.

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Finally, add the cheese, stirring to distribute as easily as possible. Move this mixture to a greased 8×8 in. baking dish. At this point, you can prepare it for the oven, or cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.

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Melt the butter and stir it into the bread crumbs. Spread the bread crumbs evenly over the macaroni and cheese and then bake for 25 minutes.

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I also like to turn the broiler on for the last minute or two to brown the top. We get four servings out of this, and it reheats really well in the oven or toaster oven. Yum!

My Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies

27 Jan

What sort of red-blooded American woman has a recipe blog without a chocolate chip cookie recipe??

Oh, oh…

Oh dear.

How did this happen? Once again I fell into that trap of thinking, “Oh that’s too simple. People know how to make that.” And that’s true, but hey, who knows? Every method has its own little tricks and quirks to it. In fact, what started this was my husband showing me this image from Handle the Heat that’s been floating around social media:

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Now there’s science I can get behind! Why didn’t I do this as my science experiment for PJAS in grade school?

Joe asked about the chocolate chip cookies I make, and I told him that my recipe was a combination of several of those variables, except that I rarely chilled the dough for a whole day. Maybe he was just trying to get a batch of chocolate chip cookies, but he asked me to try it out of curiosity.

I did, and the flavor was amazing, but found that the first batch didn’t spread out as much as I’d prefer. So for the next go-round, I rolled the soft dough into a log, wrapped it in parchment, and then chilled it. Instead of rolling or dropping/flattening the cookies, I cut half-inch slices off of the dough log, ensuring even thickness and less spreading.

And lo, it was the perfect chocolate chip cookie. I doubt the ingredients are much different than yours, but I think the method here makes all the difference.

CCL’s Most Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 6 oz. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup milk chocolate chips

Sift the flour, salt, and baking soda together in a bowl and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl or a stand mixer, combine the sugars and melted butter and beat until well mixed and slightly thickened. Add the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla to this mixture and beat until thick (2-3 minutes).

Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix just until combined.

Mix in the chocolate chips.

Scoop the soft dough onto a large piece of parchment paper and form it into a 12-13 in. log. Roll the dough up in the parchment and refrigerate for 24 hours.

To bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and then use a sharp knife (those chocolate chips are chilled and hard now) to cut the dough log into 1/2 in. slices. Place the cookies on a parchment-lined sheet pan about 2 in. apart and bake for 16 minutes or until golden around the edges.

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They’ll bake more evenly, no spreading, no fuss. Just delicious chocolate chip cookies. Now stop reading and get baking!

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