Christmas meal with friends

Here are some photographs of a meal I recently hosted for a few of my friends. I normally do a post connected with my Christmas meal or cakes but this year I will be away for the holiday season, so this is serving as a substitute.

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My Xmas bread with tomato

I regularly have a few friends round on a Friday evening for some wine a chat and perhaps a few nibbles. For Christmas I decided to do something a little fancier with a variety of tasty dishes.

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Adding some finishing touches

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Just a few dishes to go!

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Barbecue chicken with Chinese spice marinade

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Sliced steak with asparagus and roast pepper

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Deep-fried chicken balls with apricot, shallot and sesame seeds, served with mushroom and pepper

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Pan-fried lamb with plum stuffing

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The meal also featured smoked salmon with herb cheese bites and Shanghai dumplings

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Ready to start eating!

In addition to the food, wine and chatter, we also spent our time doing some felting.

Sorry about the image quality – just quick pics on a phone!

Japan 6 – Food on a Budget

Alex and I both love Japanese food but eating in fancy restaurants in Japan can be extremely expensive. On our trip there last summer our target was to eat as cheaply as possible but without entirely missing out on the wide variety of culinary experiences Japan can offer. Of course you could stay in Japan’s cities without trying anything beyond McDonalds and KFC (we used to know people who did just that!) but you might as well stay at home. Noodles are the other obvious low cost food option that is available everywhere but is lacking a bit of variety if you choose it every day.
(Click photos to enlarge)

Japanese restaurant chains offer a wide choice of delicious food

Japanese restaurant chains offer a wide choice of delicious food

Our approach was to eat as cheaply as possible for most meals and then splash out a bit more once in a while for something special. Most days we ate convenience food for at least one meal. Fresh ready to eat meals in Japan are very different from Western equivalents. Typically they consist of meat and vegetables over noodles or rice in a plastic tray or bowl but things like dumplings or sushi are also available. We started out using convenience stores such as Seven Eleven. These were good but the food had a mass produced feel and seemed a little pricey for what you got.

Seafood with rice and vegetables. Convenience Store meals are tasty but basic

Seafood with rice and vegetables. Convenience Store meals are tasty but basic

Later we discovered that big supermarkets and department store food halls offered even better choice and value. Japanese supermarkets time-stamp all sushi and start marking it down after about four hours.

Even budget sushi is great quality in Japan

Even budget sushi is great quality in Japan

Simple but delicious snack for lunch. A slice of grilled salmon with grated daikon and soy sauce

Simple but delicious snack for lunch. A slice of grilled salmon with grated daikon and soy sauce

When we stayed in a traditional inn or Minshuku we splashed out on the Japanese breakfast. Fish, rice, pickles and miso soup are not everyone’s favourite start to the day but we love it.

Japanese breakfast in a traditional inn

Japanese breakfast in a traditional inn

We also splashed out on a wonderful evening meal at an inn one night.

The evening meal at an inn

The evening meal at an inn

Not all our meals were traditional Japanese food. One night in Kanazawa we had a very fine Sri-Lankan curry meal. On a rainy afternoon in Matsumoto the only eating place we could find open was a Japanese “Hawaiian” themed burger restaurant which proved to be amazing. The burgers were pure steak and made on the premises – a real surprise!

Sri-Lankan food in Kanazawa

Sri-Lankan food in Kanazawa

A wonderful "Hawaian" burger

A wonderful “Hawaiian” burger

Japan has many different budget restaurant chains serving all types of food. We decided that our favourite was “Yayoi”, a big chain with outlets all over Japan (and a number of other Asian countries).

The Japanese take on the concept of a mixed-grill

Japanese take on the concept of a mixed-grill in a Yayoi restaurant

Finally, you cannot talk about food in Japan without mentioning the ubiquitous plastic food models on display outside almost every budget restaurant. While many of the big city food outlets now make an effort to cater for customers who cannot read Japanese, the food models are still a great help in deciding what you are going to eat.

Plastic models of food are seen everywhere

Plastic models of food are seen everywhere

Mmmmm! yummy plastic food

Mmmmm! yummy plastic food

Xmas Cakes 2014

It is becoming something of a tradition for me to post photographs of my Christmas cakes each year. This time we were away for Xmas and this meant that my approach was simpler – basically just some cut-out flower shapes and colouring. Even so, I was quite pleased with the results.

Only a small family cake this year because we had to carry it by train

Only a small family cake this year because we had to carry it by train

Cake 4

In real life the cake looked much better when dusted with icing sugar but I like the photo I took before that stage

Below are the small cakes I made for friends and relatives. An individual hand-decorated cake is always a great gift. Cake 1Cake 3Cake 6I would like to wish everyone who follows this blog a very happy and fulfilling New Year!

See also: Cake (2012) and Decorating Christmas Cakes for Gifts (2013)

 

Japan 3 – Kanazawa

We included the small city of Kanazawa as a destination on our Japan trip for just one reason, the “Kaga Yuzen” textile dyeing tradition for which the area is famed. We also knew that it had one of Japan’s most famous gardens.

What we found was a delightful city that was full of treasures to explore and had most of its tourist sights within one compact area. From the moment we arrived at Kanazawa’s futuristic train station until we left it provided a succession of “better than expected” experiences and I could happily recommend it to any traveller.

Most visitors first encounter with Kanazawa is through its futuristic train station

Most visitors first encounter Kanazawa through its futuristic train station

The great sculptural arch outside Kanazawa station

The great sculptural arch outside Kanazawa station

Kimono on display at a Kaga Yuzen artist's studio

Kimono on display at a Kaga Yuzen artist’s studio

Getting around Kanazawa is very easy, with many of the sights being within walking distance of each other. All the main visitor spots can also be easily reached by the “Kanazawa Loop Bus” that can be used with a convenient day pass.

The quirky tourist loop buses provide easy access to all the sites

The quirky tourist loop buses provide easy access to all the sites

The city has for centuries been the centre of one of Japan’s richest and most productive agricultural regions. This, plus the fact that it was not bombed during the second world war means that it is rich with historic architecture and artefacts. There are still largely intact samurai and geisha districts to wander around with many houses open for visitors. The city also boasts many museums devoted to various aspects of its cultural heritage, far more than we could take in on a short visit. Modern culture is also very noticeable with interesting sculpture dotted all around and a spectacular new Museum of Twenty-First Century Art.

A street in the historic Geisha district of Kanazawa

A street in the historic Geisha district of Kanazawa

The famous Kutani ware ceramics are one of many local craft products

The famous Kutani ware ceramics are just one of many local craft products

The exciting Museum of Twenty-First Century Art

The exciting Museum of Twenty-First Century Art

The jewel in Kanazawa’s crown is the beautiful “Kenrokuen”, a large stroll garden developed over centuries by the Maeda lords of Kanazawa. For lovers of Japanese gardens this is a must see, for others it is a very nice addition to the itinerary if you are here anyway, though I think Kyoto is still the place to learn all about the richness and variety in this nations garden art.

Just one of many scenic views in the Kenrokuen

Just one of many scenic views in the Kenrokuen

The best and biggest surprise in Kanazawa is just across an old castle moat from Kenrokuen. (The moat is now a main city highway.) Here is the great restoration project of Kanazawa castle. The main castle buildings were destroyed by fire in the nineteenth century but parts are gradually being rebuilt through a remarkably impressive combination of archaeology, craft skills and education project.

The results are both stunning and informative. The ability to compare an original gatehouse with a newly rebuilt one using the exact same techniques is surprisingly rewarding, helped for us by a very enthusiastic guide who expounded at length on traditional Japanese woodworking techniques.

Kanazawa Castle is slowly being rebuilt

Kanazawa Castle is slowly being rebuilt

A newly rebuilt castle gatehouse

A newly rebuilt castle gatehouse

A large and bustling food market is another favourite Kanazawa destination

A large and bustling food market is another favourite Kanazawa destination

Kanazawa was full of surprises. We found excellent Sri Lankan food down a little side street

Kanazawa was full of surprises. We found excellent Sri Lankan food down a little side street

I plan further posts on Kanazawa’s delights including my next one on Kaga Yuzen dyeing. I hope that this introduction has made it clear that Kanazawa is a great place to visit!

See also:
Japan 1 – Nishijin Textile Centre
Japan 2 – Matsumoto Castle

Decorating Christmas Cakes For Gifts

This year I made and decorated small Xmas cakes to give as gifts. Rather than the marzipan and fruit decoration I used last year, I went back to using icing to make the flowers and leaves for this year.

Here are a few photographs showing how I did the decoration.

A finished cake

A finished cake

Levelling the top of a cake using marzipan

Levelling the top of a cake using marzipan

My first step was to level the uneven tops of my cakes using a little apricot jam and small pieces of marzipan.

Cake coated with marzipan

Cake coated with marzipan

Next, a layer of marzipan was added over the whole cake.

Cake after icing

Cake after icing

The marzipan was followed by a nice smooth coat of icing.

Basic flower shape cut out of icing

Basic flower shape cut out of icing

Using a suitable cutter I cut basic flower shapes from thinly rolled icing. To prevent sticking I make liberal use of cornflower.

Re-shaping flower

Re-shaping flower

I added some 3-dimensional form with the aid of a toothpick.

Adding colour to the flower

Adding colour to the flower

I have both liquid and powder forms of cake decorator’s colours. Here I used a little of the powder type to colour the flowers.

Creating the final flower shape using foil

Creating the final flower form using foil

The final form of the flowers was set by placing the soft icing shapes into a pre-shaped bed of kitchen foil. The flowers were then allowed to stiffen before adding them to the cake.

Making flat leaf shapes

Making flat leaf shapes

Flat shapes such as leaves are much quicker and simpler to make.

Adding all the individual parts

Adding all the individual parts to the cake

When all the pieces are ready they are attached to the cake using drops of icing.

Another finished example!

Another finished example!

With a little dusting of icing sugar to provide a “snow effect”, the cake is complete.

This may seem like a lot of work but I found that it did not take too long provided I stuck to variations on a simple theme and did not get sucked in to exploring design possibilities!

Technical note: I made my own gelatin icing for decorating these cakes. This is probably a little easier to form 3-D shapes with but regular fondant icing could also be used.

Chinese-style Stuffed Peppers

This summer was a bit of a disaster for our vegetable garden including for our crop of peppers. Alex usually grows a selection of different types but only the chillies did well this year, with the the others barely providing a couple of meals. Still, we had enough from our “Hungarian Wax” variety to be worth making a batch of our favourite Chinese-style stuffed peppers, even though they were all very small.

Chinese-style stuffed peppers

Chinese-style stuffed peppers

Stuffing Ingredients

200gms minced pork or chicken
3 pieces cloud ear fungus (bought dried from a Chinese supermarket)
4 spring onions (finely chopped)
Small piece of chopped preserved vegetable (mustard green or Mu choi) – optional
Small bunch of  chopped watercress (save sprig for garnish) – optional
2 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs sherry
2 tsp sesame oil
0.5 tsp sugar
2 tsp cornflour
white pepper for seasoning

The dried cloud-ear fungus must be soaked overnight

The dried cloud-ear fungus must be soaked overnight

Soaked cloud-ear with watercress

Soaked cloud-ear with watercress

Cloud-ear and cress after chopping

Cloud-ear and cress after chopping

The stuffing ingredients with an unchopped piece of preserved vegetable

The stuffing ingredients including an unchopped piece of preserved vegetable

Chop the soaked cloud-ear and preserved vegetable, then mix all the stuffing ingredients together.
At this point it is a good idea to cook a teaspoon of the mixture in the microwave for 30 seconds or so and check the flavour. Adjust if necessary.

The prepared stuffing and the (very small) peppers I am using

The prepared stuffing and the (very small) peppers I am using

Deseed the peppers as shown in the photographs. If you have large peppers, e.g. bell peppers, then these are best cut in half.

Deseeding a pepper

Deseeding a pepper

The peppers ready for stuffing

The peppers ready for stuffing

With very small peppers such as those shown, stuffing can be a fiddly business. I use a blunt ended wooden chopstick to push the filling in but I am sure you could come up with many other suitable alternatives.

Using a chopstick to help fill the pepper

Using a chopstick to help fill the pepper

The filled peppers ready for frying

The filled peppers ready for frying

Heat two tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan or wok with a lid. Fry the peppers on a medium heat for around 10 minutes, keeping them covered with a lid except when stirring. If you are unsure about the cooking time then you can cut one pepper open to check that the meat is cooked through.

Frying the peppers

Frying the peppers in a wok

Finally make a sauce to serve with the peppers by frying 3 or 4 crushed garlic cloves and 2 or 3 finely chopped chillies in a little oil. Add to this:
0.5 tbs dark soy sauce
1 tbs light soy sauce
2 tbs sherry
and thicken with a little cornflour mixed with water. Pour sauce over the peppers and serve.

Frying garlic and chillies to make the sauce

Frying garlic and chillies to make the sauce

Chinese-style stuffed peppers

Chinese-style stuffed peppers. The finished dish

Deep-fried Wonton

It has been far too long since I last posted on my other passion in life, which is food.
This is a special post because it covers my family’s all time favourite snack
food – deep-fried wonton.
Deep-fried wonton are seriously tasty, and, while you have to source a few
special Chinese ingredients, making them is well worth the effort.
Learn to make these well and anyone (e.g. boyfriend, girlfriend,
unruly child, etc.) could become your willing slave!

Deep-fried wonton

Deep-fried wonton are seriously tasty!

Recipe
1 packet of wonton pastry wrappers – makes about 40 wonton – (Buy these frozen from your local Chinese supermarket)
Oil for deep frying
1 egg white for sealing wonton together (add the yolk to the filling mix)

For the filling:
300g pork or chicken(thigh, boned and skinned), coarsely minced
150g raw prawns, chopped
3-4 spring onions, chopped
2cm ginger root, grated
1/3 tin bamboo shoots, with the water squeezed out then chopped
½ tin of water chestnuts, finely chopped
6 dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked overnight then finely chopped
1 tablespoon rice wine or sherry
1 ½ tablespoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons cornflour

For the sweet and sour sauce:
4 tablespoons tomato ketchup
1 tablespoon Chinese rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
white pepper
dash of chilli oil (optional)
Clove of galic, crushed

Making the sauce:
Fry the garlic for a minute or two, then add the ketchup and the other ingredients and stir well. Check the taste and add a little pinch of sugar if required.

Making the filling:

Chopping Chinese mushroom

Chopping Chinese mushroom after soaking overnight

Prepare the ingredients for the filling but do not chop the ingredients too finely for a better texture.

Prepared wonton filling mixture

Prepared wonton filling mixture

Mix all the filling ingredients together in a bowl.

Painting egg-white on wrapper

Painting egg-white around one half of the wrapper

To prepare a wonton, place a single wrapper on a chopping board or similar surface. Place a heaped teaspoonful of filling in the middle of the wrapper. Do not overfill or it will burst while frying.
Brush some egg white around half of the wrapper edge, then fold over the filling.

Folding wrapper in half

Folding wonton wrapper in half

Press around the edges to seal them together. There should be no gaps.
Next apply a dab of egg white in one corner on the side with the folded edge.

Applying a dab of egg-white to the corner

Applying a dab of egg-white to the corner

Now pull the two corners of the folded edge over one another and press them so that the egg white sticks them together. The shape should twist into a sort of “boat” shape.

Pulling two corners together to form a boat shape

Pulling two corners together to form a boat shape

This “boat”  (or hat) shape is a traditional lucky shape for Chinese. It resembles the shape traditionally used for precious metal ingots.

Forming the finished boat shape

Forming the finished boat shape

Continue filling wonton until you have run out of filling or wrappers. You are then ready to fry them but first you should mix the sauce ingredients if they are going to be served hot.

A batch of wonton ready to fry

A batch of wonton ready to fry

Deep fry in small batches in moderately hot oil. The filling should be cooked by the time the wrapper is golden and just darkening on the edges.

Deep fry in small batches

Deep fry in small batches

Using bamboo chopsticks to remove the cooked wonton

I find bamboo chopsticks the best tools to remove the cooked wonton

Wonton are best eaten hot but are also an excellent cold snack.

Wonton packed ready for a picnic

Wonton packed to be eaten cold on a picnic