Thursday, August 29, 2013

Japanese Cooking: The Marvels of Miso

Another Japanese ingredient I can’t live without is wonderfully savory miso! Like soy sauce it is made from fermented soy beans and grains, but miso comes in the form of a paste and has a very different flavor. Bonus: It’s pretty darn good for you too! You can find many varieties of miso in the refrigerated section of an Asian market.

But which kind to get? Miso develops a darker color and flavor the longer it is aged. White miso (shiro) has the lightest flavor, then red (akai) miso is stronger, and there is even black miso, which gives a concentrated punch to soups and stews. There are also variations where the soy beans are mixed with different grains for different tastes, just to make things a little more confusing! I like to just buy Awase miso, which is a combination of white and red, and use it when a recipe calls for either one. (Vegetarians, beware that a lot of miso is mixed with dashi that contains fish, so check the labels)

Miso soup

Miso Soup ~

The most traditional use for miso is in miso soup, which you’ve probably been served if you’ve ever eaten lunch at a Japanese restaurant. This soup is so common in Japan, most people eat it every day, and it is usually eaten along with a bowl of rice for breakfast!

You can throw just about anything in miso soup, other than that bowl of rice. Rice in miso soup is a bit taboo and referred to as “cat food”, so you’ll have to enjoy that delicious dish in the privacy of your own home. In the US I usually see miso soup with cubed tofu, wakame seaweed, and green onion slices. Using the dashi granules I mentioned in this post, you can make a similar bowl of soup with :

1 ½ cups water
½ tsp. dashi granuals
Handful of extra firm cubed miso, squeeze to drain
1 ½ Tbsp. miso (awase, shiro, or akai)
½ green onion, sliced thin
Pinch of dried wakame seaweed (optional)

Heat the water, dashi, and tofu cubes until just boiling, then remove from heat and stir in the remaining ingredients. (Dashi loses some of it’s flavor and health benefits when heated, so you want to avoid boiling it when possible.)

I find it easiest to mix in the thick miso paste by spooning a little of the dashi broth into your soup bowl, stirring in the miso until well combined, then pouring the rest of the soup into your bowl. Miso settles, so you’ll want to give the broth a stir before serving or eating.

Once you have a tub of miso on hand, there are so many ways to use it! Here are a few recipes where I've used it in the past (click on the pics for more info) ~

Miso Salmon, Garlic Scallion Noodles, & Asparagus

Salad Dressings

Miso Ramen, 1

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ambigram in BYOU Magazine

One of my ambigrams was recently featured in BYOU Magazine! The "Sisters" and "Friends" ambigram fits in well with their friendship-themed issue, June/July 2013. The magazine is really cute and has a great message for young girls.

BYOU Magazine, June/July 2013

My ambigram in BYOU Magazine

From the magazine's website ~
"BYOU “Be Your Own You” Magazine, published by Heartlight Girls Publications, LLC, is for girls ages 7-15 and helps build self-esteem in fun and empowering ways with features on positive celebrity role models, stories about real girls making a difference, tips, advice, games, crafts, contests, jokes, and much more. Topics include friendships, bullying, inner beauty, empowerment, community service, and other timely subjects to help today’s girl glow from the inside out."

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Recent Recipe Flops

We've been trying a lot of new recipes lately, and while most have been good, they did not 'wow' me enough to want to make them again. I thought I'd share them here in case you had any of them bookmarked too!

Cheesy Potato Gratin

Cheesy Potato Gratin (from Williams Sonoma) ~
I might be partially to blame for this one. I made some small changes (using onion instead of shallot and cutting the potato into smaller pieces, which the comments actually recommend) but one change might have been too big ~ using mozzarella cheese instead of Gruyère. Later I realized I had accidentally bought 'Mozzarella Style' cheese, a sad imitation with no flavor!

The cheese and sauce did not cover the potatoes well, the potatoes were undercooked (even though I cut them smaller), and the whole thing came out very dry and beige. Nothing like the bubbling, browned, cheesy goodness pictured in the recipe! I kind of don't think the change of cheese could have made that much of a difference, but the reviews for this one were so glowing I'm willing to say I might have messed it up.

Caramelized Brussels Sprouts

Caramelized Brussels Sprout Salad ~
I guess I was thinking along the lines of caramelized onions when I read this title, not Maple Syrup! I do like sweet sauces though, so I gave it a go. I was not a fan of the flavor myself, mostly the cinnamon, but my husband liked it. I did love the idea of shredding up the sprouts and adding in the pop of color from the red onion though, so I used an extra bag of sprouts to make a savory version with crumbled bacon & liked it a lot more.

And a few I didn't bother taking pics of...

Brown Sugar & Garlic Chicken ~
It sounds simple: sautee a little garlic in olive oil, mix with brown sugar, then spread on chicken breasts & bake. But the oil did little more than slightly dampen the sugar and I was expecting more of a sauce. Many of the comments said it was a little dry & recommended adding some broth or soy sauce, so I stirred in 2 tsp. of soy sauce, which looked much better.

That might have been a mistake though, because the sauce ran straight off the chicken and burned *badly* on the pan. Thank goodness I had used some aluminum foil, which I never do! While fanning smoke out of the house I removed the chicken onto a new pan & finished cooking. The flavor from the sauce was good but much too subtle, and the chicken looked pretty boring.

Octo Wings ~
The name of this recipe intrigued me, as well as the simple method of cooking the wings without sauce and then tossing them with the dressing afterward (Momofuku’s 'Octo Vinaigrette'). Once again the sauce was just a little too thin and added little flavor, and the vinegar was a bit overpowering. I only tossed half of the wings with the dressing, so for the leftover sauce I added in a little honey to cut the vinegar taste and some cornstarch to thicken it, and the wings sat in that sauce for a day or two. The results were much better, and I think basting the sauce on the cooking chicken (like we normally do with wings) would have been even more flavorful. We already have a nice Asian wing recipe though (teriyaki), so I'll pass on this one.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

OPI "Tiffany Case" Liquid Sand Polish

Textured polishes are a big trend currently, and nearly every company has a line of the gritty 'sand' or 'gumdrop' polishes now. I'd been thinking of picking one up but hadn't decided on which color yet... maybe a glittery black?

OPI recently came out with a series of their 'liquid sand' polishes named after Bond girls, and while none of them really caught my eye, I did notice one named "Tiffany Case" and thought it would be fun to pick up a polish with my name in the title. I did a little Googling but didn't fall in love with anything.

OPI Tiffany Case (textured)

(This picture is not doing it justice!)

And then one day I was passing the OPI display at the grocery store and notice a very pretty sparkly blue. I was surprised to see that it was none other than "Tiffany Case"! Prettier in person, I decided to snatch it up for a few dollars cheaper online. I was pretty pleased that I was able to mark of a 'sand' polish and a "Tiffany" polish in one go! (It's extra amusing since my husband's name is Justin, and we often joke about "Just-in time" or "Just-in case".)

Anyway, enough about the name!

I was disappointed when I opened the package and found a very silvery light blue. It was not what I remembered and nothing like the pictures online! I applied the polish, let it dry, and was turned off by the super gritty sandpaper-like texture of the polish. I thought all was lost, but by the next day the texture had calmed down significantly & was fun to run your fingers across. The color looks much better now too, though it's greener & lighter than most of the images I find online. It looks like shimmery crushed crystals in a lovely teal color!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Japanese Cooking: 4 Basic Ingredients

I've always loved Asian food, but mostly ate Chinese growing up. Studying the Japanese language has made me very interested in the cuisine, especially since we would love to visit Japan one day. I’ve learned about so many yummy dishes, and attempted to make a few myself (just recently we tried Yakisoba, Kitsune Udon, and Miso Ramen).

Before I share any more of those, I thought it would be a good idea to step back and talk about a few of the backbones of Japanese cooking. The majority of the recipes I’ve seen use some combination of these 4 ingredients, so they are great to have on hand.

Soy Sauce (Shoyu) ~

This one I’m sure you are familiar with, and you probably already have a bottle at home! Soy sauce is made from fermented soy beans and grains. There are dark versions that are more concentrated, low sodium and other variations, but I think you are pretty safe with any standard bottle found at your grocery store. We like to use La Choy for dipping or sprinkled on rice, and I also have a giant bottle from the Asian market more similar to the brewed Kikkoman brand for Japanese recipes.

Dashi ~

This broth is used as the base of most soups and noodles, and also used to add flavor in many recipes in the same way we might use chicken broth. It is made from kombu seaweed, which gives it a rich, meaty flavor (umami), and flakes of dried bonito fish. (There are vegetarian versions made with only kombu)

I have the bottle pictured above, which is filled with bouillon granules. From what I’ve read, pouches similar to tea bags are more commonly used in Japan, but they are harder for me to find at the Asian market. Or you can buy the kombu and katsuobushi flakes at an Asian market and brew your own! In a pinch, if your recipe only calls for a small amount, you could substitute with chicken broth.

Sake ~

Sake is a lightly flavored alcohol made from fermented rice and is another ingredient that is easy to find. Although I often have trouble locating it at the Asian market, you can find it at most package stores. I did omit this one while pregnant, but need to pick up a new bottle for the authentic taste it gives our recipes.

Mirin ~

Mirin is a sweet wine made from rice which adds a nice glaze to food along with its sweet flavor. I have the bottle pictured above, which I believe is ‘fake’ mirin (“Aji-mirin” means “mirin taste”), but it is a common and cheaper alternative. If a recipe only calls for a small amount, you can substitute with a little sugar mixed into white wine, sherry, or sake.

I hope Japanese cooking seems a little less daunting now!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Atlanta Zoo Trip

A few weeks ago we visited the Atlanta Zoo with the little ones (free tickets!). Here is Orson posing with his meerkat shirt in front of their exhibit ~

Atlanta Zoo '13, 1

Atlanta Zoo '13, 2

Atlanta Zoo '13, 3

Don't remember what these were, but they were supposedly 'very shy'. Ha!

Atlanta Zoo '13, 4

Orson made a little friend at the lemur house. The boy told him that monkey throw their poo and they laughed and laughed. Orson was dying to go to the playground with him & the boy was pretty mad that we went back for daddy instead.

Atlanta Zoo '13, 5

Atlanta Zoo '13, 6

Atlanta Zoo '13, 7

Our little Panda slept, hidden away from the crowds, much like the real pandas.

Atlanta Zoo '13, 8

Atlanta Zoo '13, 9

Atlanta Zoo '13, 10

Atlanta Zoo '13, 11

One of these birds got spooked and flew into the window of its exhibit, right in front of us. It wasn't phased at all, but was quite scary!

Atlanta Zoo '13, 12

Tanukis ~

Atlanta Zoo '13, 13

Hidden tiger (crouching dragon?) ~

Atlanta Zoo '13, 14

Atlanta Zoo '13, 15

All in all, it wasn't the best zoo we've been to, but we had a fun trip. Orson had a blast and asks to go back all the time, way more than anything we've done before.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hamburger Steak with Mushroom Gravy

We've been trying lots of new recipes around here lately! While most have turned out a little 'meh', we really enjoyed the Hamburger Steak with Onion & Mushroom Gravy from my favorite food blog, Our Best Bites.

Hamburger Steak with Mushroom Gravy

Oddly enough, I don't think we changed anything when cooking this one. Next time I might double the gravy so there is plenty to pour over mashed potatoes. It had such a great flavor!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tumbling Tupperware

The tupperware cabinet is another area I used to fight with years ago, but I feel like we have it pretty well tamed now. (At least until our baby girl starts crawling around & destroying everything in sight!) No more tupperwares tumbling out when you open the door!

Tupperware Cabinet, 1

My main tips would be...

♦ Any size you have an abundance of can be stacked with the bottoms all together and the tops all together, saving room in your cabinet. Any size you only have a few of should be stored with the tops snapped on so you are not searching through a mountain of mismatched bottoms & tops.

♦ My taller stacks are in the back with little blocking them in the front so everything can be easily reached.

♦ Almost all of our tupperware came free with a product, like Chinese take-out or lunchmeat. I kind of hate that they use that much packaging (think about how much of that gets tossed!), but I am happy to get use out of it.

This cabinet is an L shape, and so the right side goes really far back, but it's hard to reach anything over there. I made sure to leave the front right section empty so I can pull things out from the depths.

Tupperware Cabinet, 2

♦ To use this space I filled up a few bins. The blue one in the front (paper plates & plastic utensils) can be accessed without moving anything, or I can remove it and easily slide out the yellow or green bin.

Have you been able to tame your tupperware? Click on the top pic if you'd like to see further descriptions of the stacks.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Spotting Your Spices From Above

Whenever a kitchen cabinet gets too cluttered and hard to access, I try to find a new solution. The spice cabinet is one I'm sure we've all battled with before! While ours was pretty organized, I felt like I was always moving the front spices out of the way to try to find something in the back, constantly shuffling everything around.

When I saw a picture of a spice drawer, similar to this, I loved how you could see & reach everything at once. But we didn't have a drawer to spare! So I found a plastic bin that was a good fit and loaded it up. When you open the cabinet you see this...

Spices, 1

Pull out the red bin and you can easily find your spice of choice! It is important to label the top of each one for it to work though. On most I just write the name in Sharpie, but if the top is super textured with a logo I write on blue stickers.

Spices, 2

I was worried that pulling the bin out for every spice would get too annoying, but since it is on a lower shelf I can just slide it out (and tip it down) like a drawer, then slide it right back in place. The upper shelf is better for ingredients you don't need as often since you have to remove the bin fully to see inside (I keep a similar bin of baking supplies up there). It's so much easier to find them this way, and I can really cram a lot in a small area! And it's pretty customizable ~ I can always add another bin if I get too many spices, separating them by name, use, whatever. Do you use any bins in your kitchen?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Miso Ramen, Take 1

The third recipe that we tried from Takashi's Noodles was the Miso Ramen on pg. 19. Now if your only experience with ramen is with those dirt cheap instant noodle packs, let me tell you.. there's a whole other world out there! That's like going through life having only eaten pizza in the elementary school cafeteria, not knowing it also comes in a million varieties, & the difference good ingredients can make. Ramen shops in Japan usually make their own noodles, might spend 20 hours making the broth, can mix up lots of variations, and guard their secret recipes.

One day I'd like to go crazy and spend a few days trying to make everything from scratch, but for now I figured Miso Ramen would be a good choice for a simpler version. Since I'm not making my chicken broth from scratch, adding the miso & other Japanese seasonings would give it plenty of flavor.

Miso Ramen, 1

Once again, I found Takashi's ratios to be a bit off. He has you mix up the Miso Base, but then you only use 2/3 of it for the recipe (he tells you can refrigerate the rest for later). This really could have been re-written to make the 2/3 batch that you need without altering the ingredient ratios much. There was enough Miso Base for 8-9 servings, enough broth for 6, enough noodles for 5, etc. I enjoyed making this as kind of a foundation recipe, but will be making some heavy tweaks next time. We ended up making a 3rd dinner out of this (without touching the extra miso base) and changed up the toppings slightly with some great results.

While this dish turned out *really* good, I did make one bad mistake with this recipe, and I knew it was risky. I looked all over the store & could not find ground pork, so I grabbed some pork sausage and hoped it would not be too seasoned. I've cooked an Asian dish with country sausage before and the seasonings are so wrong for it! I should have just grabbed ground chicken or turkey instead. The ramen was tasty, but I can't wait to try it again with some actual ground pork and see what a difference it makes.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

North Georgia Petting Farm

We pass signs for the North Georgia Zoo & Petting Farm whenever we drive up to see Justin's family and finally visited it this summer. Since we were going to go to the Atlanta Zoo soon after, we decided to pay the smaller fee and just visit the petting farm area that day. We all had a great time!

Petting Zoo, 1

Petting Zoo, 2

Petting Zoo, 3

Petting Zoo, 4

Petting Zoo, 5

Petting Zoo, 6

Petting Zoo, 7

Petting Zoo, 8

Petting Zoo, 9

Petting Zoo, 10

Petting Zoo, 11

Petting Zoo, 12

Petting Zoo, 13

Petting Zoo, 14