Grilled as you like it

Spring spinach quiche June 25, 2009

Filed under: Cooking,Four seasons in Japan,recipes — laurel @ 9:08 pm
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In my last post I showed off some of the great local vegetables that I can get at Shoku-no-Eki, our local fresh-from-the-farm market. I decided to make a quiche with the spinach, gyouja ninniku (as I said before, I think these are ramps or a relative of them), shallots, onions, and garlic, along with some fresh farm eggs. For quiche and carbonara, I especially like the “futago tamago” or double-yolked “twin eggs.”

First I started with a half batch of Martha Stewart’s pate brisee. For some reason, whenever I’ve made pastry dough here in Japan, the flour becomes completely saturated with butter before I add any of the water. I got some advice from my mom when I made my last tart that the water helps keep the crust from shrinking as it bakes, so I reduced the butter in the recipe and made sure to add at least a bit of water to finish the dough. It wasn’t much, and as you can see, the crust still shrunk a little bit from the edges. It’s definitely a recipe that I was happy with, though, so I’ll continue to work on it. Instead of rolling out the crust, I took the lazy approach and just plopped it into the pan and used my fingertips to press it evenly around the pan. Next, it went into the oven to blind bake.

While the crust was baking, I made the filling. First I browned a few tablespoons of finely chopped bacon. Then I sauteed half an onion, a clove of garlic, and a few shallots. After that, I added the chopped gyouja ninniku and spinach to wilt. After that I mixed up some cream and eggs, stirred in the vegetable filling, poured it into the crust and sprinkled some pecorino romano on top before popping it back in the oven to bake. With a salad on the side, what a delicious dinner it was!


Early summer’s bounty June 24, 2009

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Maebashi — laurel @ 10:27 pm
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shoku-no-eki june

June in Japan: spring turns to summer. The winter wheat turns golden and bows under the weight of the plump heads of grain. The harvested fields are replaced by new-grass-green rice seedlings. The glorious pink azaeleas spill their blossoms onto the pavement below shopfront window boxes. Ajisai (hydrangea), possibly my favorite Japanese blossom, unfurls it’s cheerful pom-poms of color. And welcome too to the rainy season. Everywhere there is color along the ground, but the sky is mostly grey.

The bounty of early summer provides a much needed contrast to June’s drizzly grey skies. In June we say goodbye to the last of the spring vegetables and welcome the early fruits of summer. So what’s in season now? Here’s a sampling of what I bought on the first weekend of June. Almost everything was grown in the city of Maebashi or in Gunma prefecture (except for the citrus, which is from Wakayama prefecture, and the biwa (loquats) from Nagasaki).

Spring fruits and vegetables:
kara oranges
ama-natsu oranges
biwa (loquats)
gyouja ninniku (I think these are ramps)

Summer vegetables:
baby corn
green beans

By last weekend, the citrus and strawberries were finished but the cherries, melons, and eggplants have come into season now. I’ve especially been enjoying delicious watermelons from Ota city in Gunma. I also have some onions, carrots, new potatoes, and daikon that I harvested from the Kobayashi’s organic garden at the sweet potato farm that I’m looking forward to.


Kiso Valley street scenes June 11, 2009

Filed under: Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 7:36 am
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Here’s my final post about our trip to the Kiso Valley. One thing that I loved was the decorations outside of the traditional buildings, here are some of my favorites. In Tsumago especially, many of the shops and inns had interesting and creative flower vases hung on their walls.

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tsumago 3

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tsumago 5


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magome cart

magome waterwheel

More from Kiso Valley at Alex’s photoblog


Delicious Kiso June 7, 2009

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a popular Gohei-mochi shop

One of the best things about our spring trip to the Kiso Valley in Nagano was all of the delicious food. Our first taste was Nagano’s famous Shinshu-soba with mountain vegetables and Gohei-mochi. I loved Gohei-mochi, which was a roughly pounded mochi (some of the grains of rice are still whole or in larger bits) that is shaped around a wooden skewer and grilled with a delicious sauce. Everywhere we went the Gohei-mochi had a slightly different flavor, so it was really fun to try a bunch and compare them. My favorites were the one that we had with our lunch set on the first day in Tsumago and the ones served with our dinner at Koushinzuka minshuku. At Koushinzuka they told us that their sauce is made with local walnuts that they collect in the fall, with miso, sugar, soy sauce, and sesame. Most of the others that we tried used peanuts instead of walnuts. The shop above in Magome was cute, but I didn’t like his mochi and sauce as much as the other shops that I mentioned. On our way home we stopped in Narai, where we tried another delicious variation. We had two mochi, one with the familiar nutty sauce, and another with a black sesame and sugar sauce.

Want to try making your own Gohei-mochi? Try the recipe here.

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This adorable snack shop in Magome had a bunch of different traditional-style candies, nuts, and crackers. There were lots of samples to try. Our favorites were the roasted soybeans rolled in ground black sesame and sugar. On the down side, they were quite expensive.

magome irori

The waterwheel building in Magome had a beautiful example of a traditional irori (fireplace). The family can sit around the fire to keep warm, prepare food, and enjoy their meals. The sculptured fish is not just decorative, it is actually and ingenious lever that can be used to raise and lower the level of the kettle over the fire. Behind the irori you can also see a tansu staircase with drawers that are used for storage. This building also had old grinding stones for grinding grains attached to the waterwheel mechanism.

rows of flavored sembei in a shop window

magome lunch 1

In Magome we enjoyed lunch at Daikokuya. At the top is a soy-simmered freshwater char, while the set below featured konbu-wrapped trout. The best part of the set was the delicious chestnut rice, kurikowameshi, in the black-lidded box. The clear soup with yuba at the bottom right was also very good.

magome lunch 2

Our favorite meals on the trip were definitely the ones that we enjoyed at our Koushinzuka, our minshuku in Tsumago. Everything was served around the irori and our hosts happily explained the interesting traditional and wild ingredients used to make them.

tsumago dinner 1
the beginning of dinner (from left to right): A cup of steamed vegetables topped with grated yama-imo and yuzu zest, simered vegetables and tofu dumplings, nokanzou ohitashi, udo (a spring vegetable) with plum sauce, and Gohei-mochi

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Nokanzou ohitashi: the innkeeper’s wife showed me the description of this vegatable in a botanical book. I was surprised to see that they are actually the early spring sprouts of a wild orange-flowered lily. She said that later in the season you can also tempura-fry the flower buds and eat them too.

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udo with plum sauce

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wild spring vegetable tempura: seri, nanohana, wild red sorrel, nokanzou, and yomogi (I think)

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grilled iwana (char): this river fish is a local specialty that made an appearance in many of our meals. The innkeeper showed us an easy way to pull the bones from the fish all at once to make it easy to eat.

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homemade tsukemono

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Gohei-mochi; the sauce is made from small wild walnuts, sesame seeds, soy sauce, sugar, and miso. While we enjoyed our dinner, the innkeeper showed us the shells of the walnuts as he told his stories about gathering the nuts in the fall. Then he tossed the shells into the irori fire. The oil-rich shells caught fire and sounded like tiny jets as they hissed and made the flames much larger.

tsumago irori
the irori at Koushinzuka; the fish on the kettle-hanger is covered in soot from years of daily use

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breakfast at Koushinzuka (from left to right): rice, shoyu-zuke tamago and sliced yama-imo, umeboshi, mountain vegetables, and simmered vegetables and dumplings in a thick sauce were served with simmered iwana (below)

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sweet soy-simmered iwana (char): this fish was so small that we could eat the whole thing–head, bones, tail and all

tsumago breakfast 2
shoyu-zuke tamago and sliced yama-imo: The soy-sauce pickled egg yolk was very tasty, but the yama-imo was a bit too slimy for my taste.

See more photos from our Kiso Valley trip at Alex’s photoblog


Kiso Valley – Hiking the Nakasendo June 1, 2009

Filed under: Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 10:32 pm
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valley viewed from Magome-juku post town

In March we had a three day weekend for the Vernal Equinox, so Alex and I went to Nagano to hike along the Nakasendo. The Nakasendo is an old post road that connected the old capital of Edo and Kyoto. Peasants were not permitted to ride horses, so travelers walked along the route. This meant that many towns had to be built along the way so that weary travelers could stop for a meal or a night’s rest. Interestingly, the name of each post town ends with the character “juku” as in Tokyo’s “Shinjuku,” which is natural since the character means lodging. In the Kiso Valley in Nagano, some of the old post towns maintain their traditional architecture and sections of the road are preserved in its original fashion making the area popular with trekkers and other tourists.

Read more about the Nakasendo here

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water-wheels, now purely decorative, could have harnessed the river’s power to do tasks like grinding soba flour in the past

To get there, we took the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano city, then rode limited a limited express train to Kiso-Fukushima and finally the local train to Nagiso. The limited express train was quite fun, and the scenery was nice as it climbed out of the valley and up into the mountains. Find more about getting to Kiso Valley at Japan-guide.com. From Nagiso Station it was just a short hike uphill to reach the Nakasendo trail.

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After a short hike we arrived in Tsumago, and we were feeling ready for lunch. We stopped at one of the many restaurants along the main street for some Shinshu soba, Nagano’s famous buckwheat noodles. Our lunch set also came with Gohei-mochi, which we learned is the delicious nutty-sauced grilled mochi that is a specialty in the region. Every shop has a unique recipe, so if you can, try a bunch to find your favorite. After lunch we walked around town to enjoy the scenery and traditional architecture. This time of the year, the plum blossoms along the street made a lovely sight. Of course, like any town in Japan that attracts a lot of tourists, there were plenty of souvenir shops to stop in at too. Around 4:00 pm, all of the shops closed up and the day-trippers headed home, leaving the bustling streets almost deserted.

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another quiet street in Tsumago-juku

After that, we walked for about an hour to get to our night’s lodging, a cozy minshuku called Koushinzuka which was actually located in just outside the secondary town Otsumago (greater Tsumago). Koushinzuka served breakfast and dinner around the irori, a traditional style fireplace used for cooking and warmth. After dinner the inkeeper told stories and sang old folk songs while sharing photos with us. In the morning we were treated to another fabulous meal before setting out on the day’s hike. The food at Koushinzuka was fabulous. The building and rooms showed some of the wear and tear that comes with age, but I suppose that’s part of the charm of a place like that. I would highly recommend a stay there.

After breakfast we headed out for Magome. Magome has been spruced up a bit more than Tsumago. The main street has been paved with very nice stones and the buildings seem to have a bit more polish. It seems like there are more souvenir shops and restaurants, and the crowds were a bit denser here too. We spent the night at Shinchaya minshuku. Although the location was great, it didn’t measure up compared to the previous night’s stay.

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looking down the street in Magome-juku

Although the weekend’s weather was fantastic, by Monday the weather had turned quite rainy. We travelled by bus to Nakatsugawa, where we caught the train. We took a brief stop in Narai to see the Kiso Ohashi, one of the longest wooden bridges in Japan, and to have one last meal of soba and Gohei-mochi before heading home. Finally we ran for the train in the pounding rain and relaxed for the long train ride back to Gunma.

traditional meets modern

To plan your own trip to the Kiso Valley, I recommend Japan-guide and the towns’ own websites (Japanese only)
Magome official website (Japanese)

Tsumago official website (Japanese)

More pictures from our Kiso trip at Alex’s photoblog

Delicious food in Kiso Valley