Category Archives: Cooking

Lockdown Diary

Today is the 14th day of the UK’s three-week lockdown.  There’s been no indication of if the measures will really be reversed, or how.

Most people I know think the lockdown will be extended.  A couple think it’ll all be over in a few weeks.  I tend to agree with the majority.

For now, it will take mental, emotional, and physical discipline to get through this time.

Mental, because without outside stimulus the brain quickly becomes disoriented.  What day is it?  Who am I?  What was I going to do?  This is very common among elderly people who are moved to care homes where there is nothing to do.  Now we’re all fighting in it together.

Strategies that have helped me:

Making a to-do list.  I write it on a post-it note, so it’s not a long list.  But if I don’t write things down I forget them.

Talking to at least two friends or family members a day.  Not messaging, talking. There is something about hearing the human voice that makes it more intimate.

Limiting news and social media: I scan the news headlines each morning and limit myself to reading 1-2 articles.  I have to admit; checking the daily “scoreboard” of how many cases and deaths have been recorded in every country is a fascination to me.

I read an article, “What you should know before you need a ventilator.”   I read it because it was in the New York Times and written by a doctor.  I should have known better.  Do Not read it.

I turn off my laptop and switch my cell to silent, then do something mentally absorbing, like crossword puzzles.  I brought this pile with me from home, threw them in the recycling bin when I hadn’t looked at them after a month, then frantically dug them out of the bin when the lockdown was announced.  Whew!

Baking is mentally absorbing, especially for me because the measures are different here.  You measure things by weight in grams and in millilitres, not cups.

My first attempt was tapenade-filled yeast rolls. They didn’t look great but they tasted wonderful.

As a bonus, I use the weights holder, which totals about five pounds, to workout.  Normally I would do shoulder presses with about 15 pound dumbbells.  Now I just do a ton of reps.

The highlight of my day is getting outside for a walk, rain or shine.  Even passing strangers at a two-metre distance somehow helps me to know I still exist and to believe we will all be together again eventually.  This was the last meal I had in a pub, a fish pie at The Head of the River.

This was my dinner a few nights ago.

I do cook fresh, but in times like these, crisps are also called for, especially when watching the Downing Street Daily Briefing.

I am so lucky to be in a British beauty spot.  I live a few blocks from the Thames, which has a wide path along it that—if I only had a bike!—I could follow all the way from London to a place called Kemble.  The water has turned a lovely green.  Is this because there is less effluent being dumped into it, and less boat traffic?

Those are garden allotments on the opposite side.  People who have allotments are allowed to go dig around in them.  Sigh.

In addition to walking and weight training I am taking yoga classes on Zoom twice a week.  It is hilarious to see people’s cats standing on their backs and toddlers imitating their mothers’ downward dogs.

Emotionally, all of the above helps—staying connected and not overdoing the news or social media.  Also, not fighting battles unless I have the strength.  For instance, I have been trying to get through to Expedia for three weeks.  Two days ago I was on hold for two hours and had to give up.  There will be some sort of reckoning for Expedia and other companies that have so massively failed.  I realize the times are “unprecedented” as we hear over and over, but still.

I hope you are well.  I would love to hear what you’re up to.

Now, some photos of beautiful things.  Enjoy!

Torture and Gremlins

Despite the title of this post, it’s been a really good week.  I put in many hours of editing on proposals that will yield a couple million dollars for my former employer to carry out torture rehabilitation.  It’s that time of year where I get to read things like this:

(Skip this if you think it will upset you.)

Clients reported beatings with heavy or heated metal rods and guns, and beating while hands and legs are tied to a pole of while hung upside down. Other abuses included threats, humiliation, or other psychological torture; deprivation of food, water, or other necessities; being forced to watch someone else being tortured; forced labor; forced postures, stretching, or hanging; rape or sexual abuse; wounding or maiming, including being shot; sensory stress, such as exposure to extreme temperatures; asphyxiation; burns ; and electrical shock.

I share this because it’s reality all over the world today.  America did lots of these things to suspects in secret detention facilities overseas and at Guantanamo Bay.  It’s sobering.  It makes me feel even more grateful for my cushy life and more determined to continue “being political,” despite my urge to stick my head in the sand.

Then there were the gremlins.  It is weird how things happen all at once.  In the space of five days, the shower in my house stopped working—abruptly, while I was standing in it.  It’s proving difficult to find an electrician to replace the pump.  For decades now, young people have aspired to master’s degrees in International Studies, not apprenticeships in the trades.

I put a new filter in the water purifier and it worked for one day then quit.  I can buy a new apparatus.  But the water is really hard here, so I’ve got to do it soon.

I couldn’t get the printer to work. My laptop is on the ground floor and the printer is two stories up.  I would hit “Print,” then stick my head out the door to the hall to listen if I could hear any action upstairs—being careful not to allow cats to slip past.  I heard nothing, so I ran up the two steep flights of stairs to check.  No joy.  I repeated this five times, shutting down and rebooting, blah, blah, blah.  Now today it worked.

I was suddenly unable to access my work email on my phone, after years of no problems.  I fiddled with it until I was ready to throw it across the room, then left it for a couple days, and now it’s working again.

I had a really great yoga class on Friday.  As I was walking home—in front of the Black Swan pub—my right calf suddenly seized up.  I had to hobble home, about 10 blocks, like a wounded bird.  Was it the yoga?  All the stair climbing?  Who knows.  I spent the next 24 hours wondering how I would get by if I couldn’t walk for the next two months.  Oxford is not a city for sissies. But the next day it was better, and now I keep forgetting it even happened.

So many things do work, so it’s hard to get upset about the gremlins.

Brits keep telling me “It’s not spring!” But to this Minnesotan, it sure feels that way.  There are more and more 50F + days (10C).  There are blooming things everywhere.

And it’s green, green, green.

I try to enjoy the moments, like this cat v. chicken stare down in the back garden.  The cat lost, distracted by me.

At the store, I chuckled over this product name that sound like a villainous Star Trek race.

In the US, this box of Ritz crackers would be a single serving.

I must find one of these for my car.

If I am in the locker room, am I a tart?

I made wild mushroom soup.

And had dinner with an Aussie friend at a Palestinian restaurant.

The highlight of the week was when “my” Polish house cleaner gave me an Avon-like beauty catalog.  It’s her side hustle.

The world-famous couturier Valentin Yudashkin has provided me with so much entertainment I feel compelled to buy something, anything.

Cooking with Taro

I had read about Taro’s cooking classes in Fodor’s Easy Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Western Honshu.  These easy guides condense monumental travel planning into one succinct guide.  I had found the Australia version immensely helpful.  For them to include this cooking class said a lot; the guide said it was the highlight of many visitors’ trips.  It was certainly one of mine, if not the only one.

Taro had made it clear in our email communications that he is not a professional chef, but a passionate home cook who loves to share Japanese cooking and culture. He told us a bit about his background.

“My father’s company relocated us to America when I was nine,” he said.  “He could have moved us to Seattle or some other place with lots of Japanese, but he purposely chose Virginia where I was the only Japanese in a school of a thousand kids, so I learned English quickly.  It was a good idea of his.”

He asked about our impressions of Japan so far, and I mentioned how quite it is.  It was Taro who explained this was about harmony and getting along with others.

“So…” I asked, “How do you explain World War II?”

“Ah … that was, that was about colonialism,” Taro said as he got us chopping.  “Japan saw Britain and America invading other countries and didn’t want to face the same fate.”

I have no idea if that’s accurate.

He encouraged us to ask him anything we liked about Japanese culture or food.  Taro had started cooking in high school because he was a picky eater and wanted to control his own food.  This morphed into cooking for his family and friends, and now he eats almost anything.

I told him about the chicken chops.  He explained that chicken is raised so cleanly in Japan that there’s no need to cook it thoroughly, and in fact raw-ish chicken is considered a delicacy.  Hmm.

He gave us a hand out and an overview of our 3-4-hour lesson.  We would learn how to combine kombu (seaweed) and bonito (fish flakes) to make dashi, a base used to many dishes.  We would also make a Japanese omelet, stir-fried root vegetables, and wagu beef.

I told him about my misperception that Japanese eat sushi morning, noon, and night.  He said he makes sushi for his family about once a month.  “It’s just one style of Japanese food.”

Taro walked us through the various seasonings like miso, soy sauce, sake, mirin, and of course, dashi. He pulled out the beef and its certificate of authenticity.  He talked at length about Kobe Beef and Wagu beef, none of which I remember.

He got Lynn up and cooking at the stove.

Taro’s wife and two young daughters came home.  As kids do, the girls immediately turned on cartoons and sat glued to the TV.

Taro had been teaching cooking for 10 years. He had also tried distributing an oil bottle that had a built-in brush in its cap; it sounded like there were 10,000 left over in his spare room.

“I want to focus more on teaching culture,” he said.  “That’s my next venture.”  It seemed to Lynn and me that cooking was an excellent gateway to teaching about culture.  “It’s hard to imagine people paying the same price but not getting a meal,” Lynn commented later.  I agreed but wish him well.

This was our meal.

Taro left us to eat while he and his wife busied themselves elsewhere in the house.  Then he emerged to collect our fee.  When I had inquired about the class I had said we would be open to either the vegetarian or beef version.  He chose the beef version for us, which cost $82 vs. $64 for the veggie option.  It was well worth it.

Taro gave us good directions back to the bus stop.  It was pouring and the bus was packed.  Lynn and I clung to the straps.  Sitting below me, a little boy in a Spiderman costume kept saying, “Hah-loh!” to us shyly, as he leaned against his grandma.

That evening we had a modest tempura ramen and sake, then slept well because our neighbors had moved on.

Chicken Chopped!

As we waited for the bus, Lynn and I recalled the noisy neighbors and laughed over our meal experience the evening before.

“Maybe the chicken was an omen about the Chinese,” she said.

We had walked up and down the main drag near our hotel seeking a good restaurant, then any restaurant.

I had arrived in Japan anticipating I’d be able to eat sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I was aware there were other Japanese foods, like tempura and ramen, but that was about it.  I thought all Japanese food was healthy, lean, and fresh.

Every guide will recommend eating kaiseki in Kyoto.  Kaiseki is a type of Japanese haute cuisine that features local, in-season foods.  We never had it because it was too expensive. On the evening in question, we found a basement-level kaiseki restaurant despite its best efforts to hide, but the set meals started at around $70 per person.

“The guides said to eat kaiseki at lunch, when it’s a lot cheaper,” I said as I read the board.  But the lunches on offer here started at $50 per person.  “I’m sure it’s wonderful, but fifty bucks for lunch?”

“And we have to make a reservation,” Lynn read.  “We only have two days left.”

“What if it turned out to be 50 bucks worth of that grey, shredded-tire-like stuff?”

We walked on.  There was an Irish pub and an Italian pizza joint.  Several Japanese places were already closed.  The only Japanese-style restaurant open was a steak place.

“I hadn’t expected the beef here to be so fatty,” Lynn said.  “It makes sense; fatty beef is more tender. But it really is different from British beef.”

“I’m starving.  Okay with you if we just eat at the pizza place?  At least it’ll be familiar and we can order fast.”

We sat at the bar.  Lynn had no trouble ordering but I don’t eat pork, and most of the menu items involved pork.

“I’ll have this,” I told the waiter, jabbing my finger at the “personal pizza with chicken chops.”

“What are chicken chops?” Lynn tried to suppress her laughter.

“I don’t know!” I chuckled.  “For some reason it sounds hilarious, and more ominous than something specific, like chicken feet, or chicken beaks.”

Whatever they were, they were raw.  I looked down at a pizza covered in chicken meat oozing with blood.

“How ghastly!  That can’t be right!” Lynn exclaimed.

With Lynn’s help I managed to flag down the waiter and ask him to cook the chicken more.  He looked at me, puzzled, but took my plate and returned it with the chicken still pink but not bloody.

“I can’t eat this,” I said, “I feel bad because I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater.”

“Well there’s adventurous, and there’s salmonella,” said Lynn.

I removed the chicken chops and tried to eat the pizza, but just the thought of chicken blood oozing into the crust made me gag.

However, for the rest of our lives, whenever Lynn or I want to crack each other up, all we have to say is chicken chops.   It’ll be one of those little inside jokes no one else gets.

We arrived at the bus stop where we were to meet our cooking teacher almost an hour early.  There was nothing around but a little tea shop set in a lovely, wild garden, so we stepped in for another tea break.  We were the only customers and the elderly proprieter talked to us a while about the garden that he and his wife had spent a lifetime developing.  It was serene.

Back at the bus stop, a young man approached and stuck out his hand to introduce himself. We had corresponded over email. “I am Taro,” he said.  Then he spun around and walked briskly through alleys and streets, turning so many times we would have never found our way back to the bus stop if we lost him.

“Here we are,” he said as he invited us into his house.  His was the only Japanese house I would see the inside of.

We washed our hands and then sat at a table, ready to learn and be put to work.

Runny, Slimy Things

The Mielparque Hotel had a breakfast buffet with Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and western-style foods.

Alongside various forms of tofu, pickled vegetables, and fish, there were runny scrambled eggs, British favourites like fried tomatoes and baked beans; and spaghetti—something I saw on breakfast buffets in Australia.

I loaded up and felt like I was in heaven.  This was my first Japanese meal and looking back, it’s pretty sad compared with many that followed.

One of the joys of Japanese eating is that a meal may include 12 small dishes, all served in beautiful porcelain or lacquered wood bowls or plates, on a wooden tray.  So the serving ware above is not typical.

But the squash soup was to die for.  So rich!  I never tasted its equivalent again.

Miso was served with every meal I had all month.  Rice was standard unless it was a noodle meal. Pickled plums (lower right) are sweet, sour, and salty all at once and absolutely sensational. Smoked salmon was central to breakfast. One standard breakfast thing not shown above was the sheets of nori (dried seaweed) in a plastic wrapper.  Several times in the days to come, waiters would point it out on my breakfast tray and explain that I should unwrap it and soak it in soy sauce before eating it with rice.  You can imagine how many tourists must have tried to eat the wrapper, or dry.  Kind of like people trying to eat the corn husks in which tamales come wrapped.

Another item not shown above is the aduki, or adzuki, beans.  On the buffet, they came in a little paper cup with a cellophane lid.  I was intrigued.  At my table, I peeled back the lid to reveal strings of slime.  I tried a few, gagged, and set them to one side.

The Mielparque was one of only two places I stayed that made coffee available.  Typically, only green tea was provided in accommodations.  I would be grateful I had brought a small jar of instant coffee and a box of creamer cups in my suitcase.

Most meals in Japan start with the cleaning of one’s hands at the table.  This might be as lovely as being handed a warmed, jasmine-scented white wash cloth artfully rolled up and presented on a small tray, but usually it involved a wet wipe in a plastic wrap.

I had used the wipe and it had been whisked away by a waiter.  My nose started to run.  It unhelpfully does this when I eat something spicy.  I searched for a paper napkin but there were none.  Could I get away with rubbing my nose with the back of my hand?  I was the only westerner in the dining room and I had chosen a seat facing the center of the room so I could people watch.  This meant they all faced me. Would my fellow diners be disgusted if I wiped?

Over and over, I had read that Japanese expected westerners to get their etiquette wrong.

I wiped, trying to act nonchalant.  No one looked in my direction, but somehow I felt they all saw what I did and condemned all Americans for being nose wipers.  But hey—there were toothpicks on the table.  Was it acceptable to pick my teeth—if not my nose—at the table?

The dining room was silent except for a small boy playing with his Anpanman action toy.  This was my introduction to how quiet Japan is.  No one in the dining room—or anywhere, ever—was blabbing loudly on his phone.  I never heard a text alert tone or cell phone ring. I never heard a jack hammer, although there must have been construction going on.  I only heard one power tool in the many gardens I visited, and the user switched it off as soon as he saw me coming.  I heard only a handful of sirens or cars honking.

This all goes to the Japanese value of harmony of the group, which Lynn and I would learn more about when we took a cooking class in Kyoto from a guy who had lived in the US.

I forgot to ask him about nose wiping.

Cookies and Contracts and Chasms … and Poop

Winter Solstice, in real time.  The cookie baking party was a success, if you measure success by the amount of cookie dough and sprinkles and silver balls ground into the carpet.

One child took it all very seriously and worked steadily, ignoring all the others’ silliness, to meet some quota she had set for herself.  The rest of them were very silly.

None of them are destined to compete on the Great British Baking show, but that wasn’t the point.

And there was poop.  In the middle of the chaos the three-year-old exclaimed proudly from the bathroom, “I pooped!”  That did not mean she had done it in the toilet.

I hadn’t cleaned up human poop for a long time.  It’s really, really gross.

Later, the three-year-old exclaimed from the kitchen, in a distressed tone, “There’s poop!”  In an act of karmic justice, the cat had crapped on her coat, which she’d thrown on the floor instead of on the bed as the other, older, children had done per my instructions.  Someone had closed the door to the closet where the litter box was placed, also in contradiction to my instructions.

Then everybody was pooped out. The children cuddled up on the couch and read books, and the naughty poopers fell asleep.

My son’s step daughters stayed overnight.  The next day, we went for a long walk in the woods and across Beaver Lake.

That night, without cleaning up at all, I collapsed onto the new mattress that had arrived in the middle of all this and I slept through the night for the first time in years.

Still in real time.  Yesterday was my last day at my job.  It happened to coincide with a planned team retreat to a puzzle room.  Now, I can’t stand board games or “brain teasers” or Sudoku.  I am a crossword aficionado, but I was very leery about a puzzle room.

Well it was a lot of fun.  Ten of my coworkers and I entered a room and worked to solve a mystery by the end of one hour.  If it had been just me, I would still be in the room.  But we all contributed something, even me.  Then we went for drinks at a nearby pub, and that was my last day at work.

I also finished the day with a signed agreement for six months of contract work at this same organization, and an offer letter for a part-time job at my local YMCA.

It’s been dreary and cold for months.  As I write this, it’s the shortest day of the year and I am dreaming of winter travel but not getting anything done about it.

Day 8 in Australia: The West MacDonnell Ranges.

A new tour bus pulled up in front of our motel, a nice comfy one.  Lachlan introduced himself as our guide and we were off.  We were a group of about a dozen, including a family with four children, one of whom was disabled and used a wheelchair.  I give them a lot of credit for getting out there and seeing the world when it clearly took a lot of extra effort.

Lachlan was passionate about the area, so while there were only four or five stops on the official tour, he kept saying, “We’re going to stop here; it’s not on the tour but it’s one of my favorite views.” And it would be worth it.

There was a couple sitting in front of us and the wife was a loud talker.  She started every sentence with the standard Australian “Awww,” but much louder and more nasally drawn out than normal.  I could see through the seats, her husband gazing at her adoringly.

Heidi and I looked at each other silently cracked up.  It would have been annoying if we were on a five-hour drive but we were stopping every half hour.

I will never remember all the stops but I will never forget Standley Chasm.  We walked through a glade to said chasm and back, and Heidi and I agreed there was something about the place … we both felt a sensation of peacefulness descend on us.

Aussie Rules

The bunkhouse was the best place we could have stayed because it motivated us to get out and explore.

“Let’s get a beer,” I suggested, and we wandered until we found a large open-sided, tin-roofed beer hall from whence a lot of whooping was emanating.  I stopped to read the alcohol limits.

A six pack of beer and a bottle of wine, or two bottles of wine?  I would be flat out on the floor before I ever reached those limits.  There were multiple bartenders and the place was crowded and rowdy.  How could they track who-had-how-much?

“I wonder why you have to show your room key?” I asked the guy next to me at the bar as I looked it over.  “It doesn’t have a tracking chip in it to count drinks or anything.”

“It’s for the aboriginals,” he said.  “To keep them coming in here and getting pissed.  I have no idea if this was true or not.  I do believe I finally found my sport that day: Australia Rules Football. That was the draw today—the AFL Championship game between the West Coast Eagles, based in Perth, and Collingwood, based in Melbourne.

I didn’t know what was going on, just that very fit men in what look like wrestling uniforms were running around a round field and kicking, throwing, and bouncing an American-football-like ball and tackling each other.  The clock never stopped.

The men in the crowd weren’t bad either, if you like tall, rugged men with tattoos.

Heidi was ecstatic.  She’s a sporty person and she explained the game as we stood in the crowd and watched.  “Collingwood is Dean’s team,” she said, as she texted him a message of support.  Our friend Dean, who we would stay with in Melbourne in a few weeks.

Alas, Dean was destined for heartbreak this day, as the Eagles prevailed over Collingwood in what everyone seemed to agree was a great game.  I enjoyed it, to be sure, but I just have no patience for sports.  When people start talking about plays and stats and lineups my eyes go dim.

At the end the crowd became subdued.  The men in the background, behind Heidi below, were dejected at Collingwood’s loss.  More than one man and boy passed me on his way out with tears in his eyes.  The winners were also subdued—I didn’t notice any fist pumping or victorious howling.  Very civilized.

We walked to the “Town Hall” area, which had an IGA (a grocery), a few restaurants, and some stores that sold souvenirs and outdoor gear.

“I’d better get my souvenirs here, since we’ll be camping the rest of the time,” I said to Heidi as I stuffed my shopping basket with aboriginal-art-themed notepads, wacky Australian animal stickers, and a tea towel with kangaroos on it.

“Oh yes,” Heidi replied drily, “This will probably be your only chance to buy souvenirs.”

I bought a hat with a built-in fly net, a decision that would save me from bug-induced insanity while hiking.

We took a spin through the IGA and as is my habit when traveling I documented another culture through foods and household goods.  I was not disappointed; there were lots of items with Australian themes.

I’m not sure “furry” is an adjective I want applied to candy, but they sure were cute.

The one box of Emu oil moisturizer looked like it had been there for a decade and had been stepped on by a big dusty boot.

This soap was made in “Country” Australia.  Country means rural.

I wanted to buy some Strong and Bitey cheese, especially Bega brand, but we had no refrigeration in the bunk house.

There were lots of Asian imports, like this ramen spaghetti with roasted black bean sauce from Korea.

Adorable diapers with koalas.

Infant wind drops “provide relief from infant wind.”  What a relief.

As I would learn, Jatz are the national crackers and people had strong opinions about them.

Lamingtons, which are rectangles of day-old chocolate cake with chocolate frosting sprinkled with coconut, are the national—and delicious—cake.

Various mites.  And no, I never did have a vegemite sandwich.