It’s Baking Season

In the food industry, where I work, the 4th quarter of every year is the busiest time because of baking season. It is when most home bakers are actively baking their favorites to give as gifts or just to treat their families to fresh baked goods. A quick look at some of the special holidays this month reveals just how important baking gets during the month of December.

National Fritters Day is Dec. 2nd

Apple Fritters are my wife’s favorite thing when we go to a donut shop. She’s very picky about her fritters—they must be crispy and properly bumpy with crevices on the outside, moist with enough apple bits inside. Not too sweet, with a cinnamony taste overall. Fritter fanatics regard this classic as the shining star of the pink donut box.

National Brownie Day is Dec. 3rd

America claims that Brownies are home grown and was invented in Boston during the early 20th Century. Most stories point to a cookbook author named Fannie Farmer who adapted her chocolate cake recipe into a chocolate bar cookie baked in an oblong pan, back in 1905. The Brownie is classified as more a cookie than a cake because it’s a finger food, eaten with your fingers like cookies, instead of with a fork, like cake.

National Pastry Day is Dec. 9th

Like we need a Pastry Day on top of all these other baking days? LOL. Apparently there is a classic definition of what a pastry is, versus what is cake. For me, when I see a display of baked goods in a showcase at a bakery, they’re all pastry to me, but I would be wrong. Pastry is defined as “dough or paste consisting mainly of flour, water and shortening that is baked and often used as a crust for foods like pies and tarts”. Whereas cakes are basically baked desserts and are simply a modified bread.

I have learned one thing from Zojirushi though—making pastry dough is easy with a bread machine, but a hassle enough for most people that they buy ready made pie crusts from the store. Most bread machines have dough settings that knead the dough for you, so you can bake homemade pastries in no time. If you have a machine, check out Zojirushi’s croissant recipe here.

National Oatmeal Muffin Day is Dec 19th

I have to admit, my favorite muffin is blueberry, but like everyone else, I know oatmeal is healthier for me—others must agree, because otherwise why would there be a whole holiday devoted to them? And speaking of muffins, remember that episode on Seinfeld® where Elaine talks about the “best part of a muffin” being only the muffin tops? Did you know that McDonalds® is going to be offering muffin tops as part of their revamped breakfast menu? According to Moneywatch, the fast food giant is trying to revive their weakening breakfast sales by offering new and unique items. It’s always fun when real life copies fiction!

National Pumpkin Pie Day is Dec. 25th

I guess pumpkin pie is as much a traditional Christmas food as anything else, but pies in general are very popular during the holiday season, according to (who else?) Marie Callendar’s. While pumpkin pie is a staple of Thanksgiving dinners, it isn’t the only American pie favorite. Pecan pies are a southern thing that dates back to the 1920s, and the company says they sell more than a million pecan pies during the November & December season. And if you account for all the dessert pies, Americans bought more than 38 million frozen pies for the holidays. How about you, are you a pie person or a cake person?

National Fruitcake Day is Dec. 27th

I wonder how many people even know what a fruitcake is? I believe you have to be of a certain generation to be familiar with this traditional dessert that probably only your grandmother knows. These days I think it’s been replaced by Panettone sweet bread, the kind you see pop up during the holidays at supermarkets. But back in the day, this dessert was one of the most ridiculed dishes ever, because even though people joked in good fun, you’d have to be a real fan to actually like it. The fruitcake is a dense bread made with candied or dried fruit, nuts and spices, and sometimes soaked in rum or spirits.

It’s so heavy that in Manitou Springs, Colorado, a competition is held to see who can throw it the farthest. In Independence, California, fans gather to participate in a Fruitcake Festival bake-off, still going strong in its 14th year. Admission to the event is said to be “fruitcake or egg nog”. The fruitcake is also known to be able to last a notoriously long time. Since most of the ingredients are already preserved foods like dried nuts and candied fruit, the microorganisms have no moisture to reproduce. It’s also soaked in booze, which acts as a preservative and stops mold and yeast from developing on the surface. Diehard fans like their fruitcake old, like fine aged wine, they say. No wonder everyone makes fun of fruitcake!

Enjoy the baking season—I hope you plan on doing some baking this year!

 

photos: Brownies by kae71463, Fritter by L.A. Foodie, Pastries by Allison Meier, Chocolate Pastries by Marco Verch, Muffins by Marco Verch, Fruitcake by Bryan Ochalla
Creative Commons

 

Food Memories

Do you have Food Memories? What I mean is, do you have certain foods that you can remember from your past that trigger memories of specific events or times in your life? I do. And they’re not necessarily anything fancy. In fact, most of the dishes on my list are pretty humble and might even be considered weird by some people who could never relate to how I was raised. Others might think, “Yeah, I remember that!” I’ll give you an example of something that only locals from Hawaii may or may not understand. Who knows, it could have been just my family that did this.

Hawaiian Bread & Vienna Sausages

I clearly remember when I was very young, my aunts and uncles would gather at my grandmother’s house for most holidays. My grandmother was a very good cook, so she did most of it. Other aunts would bring their specialty—beef teriyaki or macaroni salad or whatever. One of my aunts would always bring a big platter of Deviled Eggs; every single time. I suspect it was because it was the only thing she did well, and my other aunts didn’t want her attempting anything else, LOL.

What I used to love was when my uncle brought out a big loaf of Hawaiian Sweet Bread. Back then all they had was the round kind, and we would butter up a slice and eat it with canned Vienna Sausage. Yes, that Vienna Sausage. Hawaii people must have a thing for canned meats, because besides Spam, we were into those little cylindrical pieces of mystery meat that comes 7 to a can. I loved that stuff! And yes, the sausages were fried before we ate it. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!

Omurice

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like omurice, which is basically a ketchup flavored fried rice wrapped delicately in a thin skinned omelette, in the shape of a yellow football. Kinda bizarre when I describe it like that, isn’t it? Believe me, most Japanese kids love it, and I was no exception. I was raised partly in Japan when I was little, and my memory of this dish was my Mother bringing me to the Department Store in Tokyo and having lunch on the rooftop floor. The top floor of most hi-rise stores back then had little rides for the kids, and restaurants where the menu featured kid friendly dishes like omurice, hamburger steak and curry rice in kid portions. It always came with a tiny paper flag of Japan planted on the food somewhere.

Aji Sashimi

Years later, when I started working in Tokyo as a fresh college grad, I really learned what amazing food really tasted like. I never even liked fish much, but I discovered that it was because I’d never had good fish before. Japan opened my eyes. As the company rookie and a gullible gaijin (foreigner), my co-workers couldn’t help but to initiate me into their world. One Friday night they took me to a good sashimi place where the fish was the “freshest in Tokyo.” Sure enough, what came out was a platter of Aji (horse mackerel), nicely sliced and accompanied by 3 fish heads with their mouths still snapping open and shut because they were that fresh! Try eating with those eyes staring at you and saying, “Don’t eat me!” (I ate it though, and man, was it good!)

Zaru Soba

That summer, I realized that Tokyo gets really hot and really humid in August. Everyone kind of slows down a bit and spends a lot of time indoors in coffee shops with air conditioning, to get away from the suffocating heat. My co-workers would almost always go to eat zaru soba (buckwheat noodles) for lunch—cold, cheap, quick and refreshing. I started doing the same—and even today I get a craving for plain zaru soba. It’s the simplest, most satisfying meal that you can slurp in 15 minutes, and it’s not heavy when it’s sweltering hot. And don’t forget; it’s not complete unless you get the soba-yu to add to your cup of leftover dipping sauce. Soba-yu is the milky water that they’ve boiled the noodles in. Servers come and pour some in your cup, and you drink it as a diluted warm soup with your sauce. Ask for it next time; any authentic noodle shop probably has it, even here in the States. It’s such a nice finishing touch!
Soba-yu

Saimin

People talk about Spam Musubi all the time, but saimin is just as local as anything else. No offense to any of the restaurants on the Mainland, but you really have to go to Hawaii to get the good stuff. The staple food of 24-hour drive-ins and hungry college students who are pulling all-nighters, saimin is unlike ramen in almost every way. The broth is thinner but no less tasty, and even if the noodles are basically the same curly kind, the ingredients inside are similar but different. The classic saimin has some chopped green onions, slivers of scrambled egg (not boiled), a piece of kamaboko (fish meal), and a few slices of char-siu (pork meat Chinese style, which is drier than ones in ramen). If you can’t tell the difference between ramen and saimin, then you really haven’t had the real thing.

Did you know you can get saimin at McDonald’s® in Hawaii? It was in fact the first such “ethnic food” to break into the McDonald’s® menu at the time. It’s actually not bad and does the trick if you’re craving. I love Hawaii McDonald’s®—it’s the only place you can get rice with your Big Breakfast, along with spam and Portuguese sausage. Of course soy sauce is always available as a condiment, even at McD’s!

Too many more food memories to talk about in one post. I can’t stop once I get going. What are yours?

 

photo credits: saimin: Eugene Kim, zaru soba on ice: tokopedia, soba-yu: katorisi, all licensed by Creative Commons
Aji: Foods in Japan, Hawaiian Bread & Zaru Soba dinner by Bert Tanimoto

Orange you glad it’s Fall?

Besides the bad puns, Orange is the one color that says Fall more than any other. Autumn brings the changing of the leaves as they carpet front yards with a confetti of Brown, Gold and Orange. Pumpkins suddenly become everyone’s favorite gourd—pumpkin pies, pumpkin bread, pumpkin latte, pumpkin wine…pumpkin this and pumpkin that. And the official colors of Halloween? Orange and Black.

Orange is a happy color, according to color psychologists; radiating warmth and happiness—which comes between the stimulating energy of Red and the cheerfulness of Yellow. Sounds like a great color to love! Orange supposedly relates to our “gut” feelings, whereas Red is more physical and Yellow is more mental. It’s an optimistic color which uplifts our feelings, able to give us emotional strength during difficult times and helps us bounce back from disappointment. Seems like we could all use a little bit of Orange in our lives, yah? What’s your favorite color?

Being a writer, I’m glad I don’t do poetry, because there are no words that rhyme with orange. In fact, in the entire 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, the only perfect rhyming word is sporange—a scientific term for a sac where spores are made. Are we writing a poem or a technical journal here? Then again you can always write romantically about Blorenge, a mountain in Wales, which might be compelling if you live there.


Other things Orange: being a Californian (I qualify now because I’ve lived here for over 30 years), I know there are a couple of Orange state symbols. Our official state salt water fish is the Garibaldi, a brilliantly orange sub-tropical fish that scuba divers often see off of our coast. These guys are so cute and colorful, you wouldn’t think they could harm you, but divers have been known to get bitten if you get too close to their nesting grounds. They were named as our state marine fish as recently as 1995; the state freshwater fish has been the Golden Trout since 1947. (I’m a big fan of tropical fish since I used to keep an aquarium for many years)


The California state flower is the California Poppy, a beautiful orange blossom that grows wild all over the state. Native Americans in California valued the poppy as a food source way back then, and they were also used for the oil extracted from the plant. Here in SoCal, the best place to see them in the wild is the Antelope Valley, a protected area in northern Los Angeles County. If you ever have the chance, get out there to see them—it’s pretty spectacular. And the psychologists are right. The sight of so many orange poppies really does make you feel happy!

And now in no particular order, more things that are Orange to celebrate our favorite October color.


Ooops, did I say these weren’t in order? I lied—this is my favorite. Ha-ha!


One of my favorite snacks. Remember Toy Story 2 and the Cheetos® scene? Classic.


My Dad’s favorite topping on a bowl of rice—not so much mine.


The aptly named Bird of Paradise—native to South Africa, but they sure grow wild all over Hawaii, my other home state.


Absolutely my favorite fruit. But to get the really best kind, you have to have breakfast in Hawaii. I miss it!

Happy Orange October!

 

photo credits: Orange tabby by Dan Zen Fall forest by Anton Vakulenko Garibaldi by mark6mauno Poppy field by Juuyoh Tanaka Poppy valley by Gregory Smith Cheetos by Mike Mozart Ikura by City Foodsters Bird of Paradise by Jeff Kramer Papaya by Jar
Used by Creative Commons license

 

National Bento Month

Wasn’t September National Bento Month? Yeah, I think it is—and to celebrate, I’m urging you to bring at least one bento a week this month! Easy for me to say…I bring my lunches to work every day anyway, even though they’re not all bentos. Sorry, but even bringing leftovers to me is better than the food choices where I work—nothing but fast food and sandwich joints. No plate lunches ‘round here! My rule of thumb: if you can’t eat it with chopsticks, it doesn’t belong in my lunch! Of course in my case, I eat everything with chopsticks—even my salads. It’s just easier that way to me, and it’s a habit I picked up in Japan.

The important thing is not to sweat what you bring in your bento—as long as you like it, who cares? No one says you have to get elaborate like those “Kyara-ben” (character bentos) that the Japanese moms spend so much time crafting. There’s no need to get intimidated—if I can make a bento, anyone can. Some days I’m literally frying up spam and eggs and packing it with some rice, I swear! (But at least have some furikake handy to sprinkle on your rice tho—makes it look better.) And it helps to get a bento box at your local Asian market if you have one. I didn’t realize there were so many kinds of bento boxes until I started thinking about it. Here’s a few of the most popular types:


Plastic
These are the most common ones you see at the Asian markets, and they come in all shapes, sizes and colors. The best thing about these is they come with sectioned compartments that keep your side dishes separate from each other. The lids are usually sealed pretty good with rubberized gaskets, almost to the point of being airtight. This helps when you have juicy food—it’s not going to leak out if you accidentally flip it over, at least not immediately. And many of them come with their own chopsticks, or are designed to stack double-deck style to keep the rice completely apart from the entree, in its own box, in case you have juicy food.


A more mainstream type of food container is the translucent plastic, with the flexible snap on lids. These are getting more sophisticated too, because of the popularity of bento. A lot of them come with their own utensils, they also have compartments, and many are microwavable. They’re usually lighter in weight which some people may appreciate, and they’re probably cheaper.


Wood
This very elegant box is classic and very traditional, made of curved or straightened cedar and cypress by a very long, handcrafting process. It’s very expensive, but it’s no doubt the most stylish—and the wood helps keep the food cool and tasty, while keeping the rice at the perfect moisture. The faint whiff of natural wood when you open these boxes enhances the experience. These are definitely not airtight, so you wouldn’t want to pack anything liquid in them because they are not leakproof. But it really makes the food inside look delicious, doesn’t it? Don’t be packing spam and eggs in one of these! A word of caution—don’t stick these boxes in a dishwasher, and you’ll need to thoroughly air-dry them so the wood doesn’t deteriorate. If you want to go completely authentic with this kind of bento box, bring it to work wrapped in a furoshiki, a traditional square of patterned cloth that is meant to carry small packages and can also be used as a placemat.


A bento box wrapped in a furoshiki cloth.


A faux wooden container ekiben (train station bento).


Metal
Metal bento boxes are either aluminum or stainless steel. Being non-porous, their greatest advantage is that they won’t absorb stains or odors so they clean up extremely well. The aluminum ones are coated, so like the stainless steel ones, they’re made to resist corrosion. Of course you can’t microwave them, but metal is pretty durable and lightweight. Stainless steel is especially popular because it’s so easy to care for and they’re very attractive and stylish. I feel like they’re almost fashionably retro in a way, and they’re definitely kid friendly because of their durability and easy to open lids.


Thermal Insulated
And finally, probably the most high-tech bento box you can buy, the lunch jar cannisters that are partially thermal insulated to keep the food inside warm or chilled, depending on what you’re bringing. They are only partially insulated so that you can keep certain foods away from the hot foods, thus ensuring that nothing spoils. These are cleverly designed to house stackable containers, some that get secured in the thermal section, while others are kept at room temperature. Of course, the big plus with these lunch jars is that you can have hot or chilled food anytime, so they’re great for outdoor work or even picnics. They have multiple parts, but in general they’re easy to clean—I have to warn you that they could be bulky and heavy for kids to bring to school. You can read more about these Zojirushi Lunch Jars here.

Have I inspired you yet to make your own bento this month? If you’re stuck on what kind of lunch to bring, read more about the different types of bento here, or elsewhere online for ideas. Really though, the point is to make your lunch more fun!

 

photo sources:
Bentology, wooden box (Joi Ito), double deck box (Patricia Harold), curved wooden box & metal box (Gamene), furoshiki (Saotin), thermal (Zojirushi)

Used with permission or by Creative Commons license

 

 

Let’s Get Green This Summer


Other than their mermaid logo on every cup, what’s the other symbol that sticks out everytime you buy a drink from Starbucks®? How about the green plastic straw? You may have heard how the coffee giant is planning to phase out single-use straws from all of their 28,000 stores worldwide by 2020, joining the ongoing effort to reduce global plastic pollution. That alone cuts out an estimated 1 billion plastic straws a year!

Other major corporations have jumped on the bandwagon of course—Disney, SeaWorld, Marriott and Hyatt hotels, American and Alaska airlines, etc.. All have pledged to stop the use of plastic straws to support the latest environmental cause. Manufacturers will soon stop producing them too, to keep up with the times, and begin to replace them with thicker quality paper straws or reusabe plastic, glass or metal ones. Hopefully these will be better than the flimsy wax paper ones I grew up on!

This is a good thing, of course; we live near the beach and my daughter goes there a lot during summer vacation. I don’t want to see any more pictures of tortoises with straws stuck in their nostrils, or seals choking on soda can rings or plastic grocery bags floating like jellyfish in the water.

Ever since California and numerous other states got rid of the thin, one-time use plastic bags and started charging 10 cents for the thicker, reusable ones, more and more people are beginning to remember to bring the bags to the store or not even buy one. I keep a canvas one in my trunk and try to remember to use it—but when I forget, I shell out the dime for another bag if I really need it. The difference is that I’ll make the effort to stuff everything in that one bag, instead of getting multiple bags from the grocer or double bagging for heavier items like I used to. The Surfrider Foundation, an organization devoted to saving our oceans, reports that they aren’t seeing the thicker bags during their beach cleanups, so it’s possible everyone’s behavior is slowly changing.

At our house we’ve stopped buying water from disposable bottles—it’s a small thing, but every little bit helps, right? In spite of the vast amount of water bottles that are recycled in the U.S. every year, only 23 percent of the 50 billion bottles that we consumed were recycled. That means over 38 billion found their way into our landfills, and yeah—onto our beaches.

Personally, I don’t think enough is said about the environmental benefits of the Zojirushi drink bottles, and I’m not just saying that because I write for the company. Most of the members at the gym that I go to are younger, and they care about waste. I don’t see many (if any) plastic water bottles anymore. Everyone carries a reusable drink bottle—and if you think about it, Zojirushi has been making their insulated mugs and bottles way long before it became Green and fashionable to carry around. They were definitely ahead of their time! My daughter brings hers to the beach all the time. I think she likes how some of them are smaller and lighter and easy to take along.

Not surprisingly though, not everyone is happy with the plastic straw ban. What are the folks who run the Bubble Tea shops supposed to do? Someone is going to have to come up with an ingenious solution to be able to slurp the boba from the cup without a trusty boba straw! Starbucks® has revealed that their cold drink lids will have larger openings like sippy cups, in order to drink without straws. But you cannot do that with boba! And without that pointy end, how can we pierce the lid seal on our cups? Paper straws can’t do the job! My guess is that as long as these drinks are still popular, we’ll all adapt.

(If you don’t know what boba is, Google it, or step into a tea shop and try one. You don’t know what you’re missing.)

 

photos by: Sabrina Tanimoto, @ironchefmom
floating bag by MichaelisScientists under Creative Commons license