a merry kitchen town christmas.

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my friends are pretty strange people, which is probably why i get along with them so well.  for christmas last year, they planned a 5k run on christmas day wearing santa hats.  on new years, they climbed a local mountain at the wee hours of the morning to see the first sunrise of the year.

but because i end up going home for christmas most years, i normally miss out on their end of the year shenanigans.  so this year, a few of my friends decided that we should try to do something early.  the plan we came up with was what we lovingly referred to as “kitchen town christmas.”

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sausage party: far more wholesome than it sounds, trust me.

among my close friends here in izu, i think i am probably the most omnivorous of the group.  one guy in our group eats nothing but pan-fried chicken breasts and cheese.  my canadian buddies basically live off of various cuts of pork and eggs.  my buddy up in susono survives off of kimchi, beer, and meat.  you get the picture.

but don’t misunderstand me.  i am far from criticizing these wonderful human beings.  i love meat.  i love cooking it and eating it.  which means when we hang out, the only natural course of action is forego all of those frilly, unnecessary parts of a meal (see: vegetables, starches, fruits) and go straight for the protein.

we built a smoker from scratch just so we could make home-cured bacon and smoked salmon and all kinds of delicious treats.  but lately we’ve decided to kick it up a few notches.  we decided to make sausage from scratch.  a friend gave us a meat grinder, our canadian sausage matron got together the necessary accoutrements (e.g. sausage casings, pork lard, spices), and we all met in susono for a sausage pulling party.  dirty jokes ensued.

despite our abundant innuendos, we ended up making nine kilograms of sausage in the end.

we dedicated three kilograms of meat to each type of sausage that we made.  my sausage was carnitas-inspired, ana’s was cajun seasoned, and brian’s was a sweet italian sausage.  i’m not exactly sure what spices went into the other two, but the recipe for my sausage is as follows.

mexican-style cinnamon sausage

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you’ll need:

  • two kilograms of lean pork
  • about one kilograms of pork lard
  • one white onion
  • six cloves of garlic
  • paprika
  • cumin
  • coriander
  • cinnamon
  • black pepper
  • salt
  • habanero powder
  1. get your meat grinder out of the freezer.  assemble the weapon.  remember, the colder the meat grinder and the colder the meat, the easier the sausage will be to work with.
  2. get out your casings and soak them in water until they thaw.  leave them in the water bath for a little while.
  3. feed the pork and lard through the meat grinder together.  we found that if one person uses a small glass cup to press down on the meat while another person works the grinder crank, this process goes a lot quicker.  once the meat is ground, put it in a big bowl for mixing.
  4. mince the garlic and the onion as fine as possible.  remember, big chunks will cause the skins to break when you are filling them.  try to get the veggies as close to a paste as you possibly can.  once minced, throw them into the meat.
  5. add enough paprika to visibly change the color of the meat.  add a generous amount of coriander.  fresh cilantro also works super well, but if you use it make sure to use only the leaves and chop them into oblivion.  the stalks of fresh cilantro will puncture your casings and it will all be over before you started.
  6. next, add cinnamon and cumin.  be careful with both.  the cumin will offer a lot of flavor to your sausage, but make sure not to overdo it.  the cinnamon is crucial because it provides the delicious aroma, but it can also make your sausage a little too woody tasting if you get excited and add too much.  remember, if you aren’t certain about your spices, you can always take a tiny portion, make a patty, and toss it in a frying pan to get a taste test.
  7. once you finish with the cumin, cinnamon, coriander, garlic, and onion, add salt and pepper to taste.  last, give just a smattering of habanero powder.
  8. get in their with your mitts.  use your hands to work the meat and make sure it is completely mixed.  i like to grab handfuls of meat and make a fist over and over again.  this tends to break up any bubbles of unmixed spices or large chunks of unbroken meat.  it also assures your lard and meat are sufficiently integrated.
  9. change the nozzle on your meat grinder.  we had both a grinding nozzle (which looks like a pasta extruder), and a plastic funnel-like attachment that terminates in a tube.  the funnel-tube attachment is the one you want.  pop it on there.
  10. add a little bit of your spiced meat into the top of the grinder and give it a good two or three cranks.  you don’t have a casing on yet, so it’ll just come out of the tube.  while this might seem pointless, it is getting any air that might be in the grinder out before you put on a casing.  air bubbles in your sausage can cause problems.
  11. it’s time.  get a casing and run your fingers from end to end to get as much water off it as you can.  slide one end onto the nozzle and bunch it up (as if you were putting on tights or long socks).  finally, tie a knot (or a double knot) in the end.  when you are ready, tell your buddy to start a-cranking.
  12. as the meat fills the casing, you are going to want to put your hand under the tube and slowly guide it off the nozzle.  you might need to stop and adjust the casing or use your fingers to massage it if it looks like a bubble coming on.  sometimes, you might need to apply a little water to the outside of the casing if it looks like it is having trouble coming off the end of the nozzle.  any number of things can go wrong.  just keep your eye on it and be gentle.
  13. make the long tube of sausage into a coil on a plate or in a bowl.  as you reach the end of the casing, leave yourself one or an inch or so to tie off the end with another knot.
  14. once your coil is ready, start twisting off some links.  remember, be gentle.
  15. when you have finished twisting the links, hang them somewhere to dry out a little bit.  the fridge is okay, too.
  16. freeze them, pop them in the fridge, or fry them right away.  these particular sausages are amazing at breakfast time.  they lend themselves particularly well to huevos rancheros, but they have all kinds of non-traditional applications as well.

an ode to makoto-chan (and mekemeke).

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i have this friend.  two of my really close (canadian) friends who, at the time, happened to live right next to the snack bar he owned and operated introduced me to him.  and when i first stopped by his restaurant, we instantly hit it off.

makoto has a little bit of a belly, a shaved head, and a laugh like a clown.  i have never seen him wear any shoes other than sandals, even in winter.  he loves to drink, he loves to sing karaoke after he closes up shop, and he loves to meet new people and ask them all kinds of questions (some of which are far from wholesome).  he has a collection of cell phone photos of himself taken in public places during the wee hours of the morning, in most of which he is super drunk and as naked as a newborn child.  in other words, he epitomizes the word goofy.

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pork and kimchi: beer’s best friends.

i’ll admit it.  there are times when i don’t really feel like spending an hour or two making a spread large enough to feed the russian army.  sometimes i just want to cook something quick and easy, and in this weather, the less i use the stove the better.

yesterday was one of those lazy days, and i found myself with an abundance of kimchi on my hands.  while normally i would default to kimchi hot pot (one of my favorite autumnal foods in japan), the “hot” part of hot pot didn’t sound that appealing in the 34ºc heat.  instead, i decided to go for something with which i could enjoy an ice-cold beer.

and as soon as i thought the words “ice cold beer,” buta-kimchi sprang to mind.

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tanabata: festival of stars (and barbecue, apparently).

for most people in japan, tanabata is a time to go to festivals, eat food that comes on sticks, and drink beer or other refreshing beverages.  for my friends, however, it is a time to go out in the middle of the nature, fire up the shichirins, and cook so much food that we could feed the russian army twice over.

everybody brought a little something to the party, and while we all thought what we brought was humdrum and average, somehow the sum of all of our dishes made for one of the most elegant and refined meals i have had in a long time.  the following is a list, in order, of what we cooked.

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an ode to okazawa-san.

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every once in a while, you meet someone rare.  and when i say rare, i don’t mean a person who stands out in a crowd because they make an effort to stand out.  and i don’t mean the kind of person who stands out in a crowd naturally.  i mean the kind of person who doesn’t stand out in a crowd at all.  which is to say, the kind of person who doesn’t stand out in the crowd because they never even set foot near the crowd.  they don’t even know where the crowd is.  and most likely, they don’t care, because they have their own amazing thing going on.

okazawa-san is that man.  i’ve known him for almost a year now, and i know almost nothing about him.  i don’t know where he lives.  i don’t know if he is married.  i think he might have mentioned that he had a daughter one time, but i’m not sure.   if i asked him about any of that stuff, he would tell me.  but i don’t push, because if he wants to tell me all that stuff, he can.  if he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter to me.

what does matter is that he has potentially the sweetest set-up i could ever imagine.  he spends his days farming on a small plot of land next to a river and a bamboo forest.  between growing some of the greatest vegetables, herbs, and fruits i have ever had the pleasure of eating, he tends to the bamboo forest.  bamboo grows fast, and when it gets too thick, it can actually strangle itself and inhibit the growth of its own root structures.  he therefore takes it upon himself to keep the forest at a healthy thickness.  he keeps the strongest bamboo alive so it can put out shoots, and he culls the weak or inhibited bamboo.

but nothing goes to waste.  the weaker bamboo is carried up the steep incline to his homemade earthen kilns, chopped into segments, and split.  the split pieces are cleaned, and are then roasted in the super hot kilns over a long period of time to create charcoal.  and the charcoal has so many uses it will make your head spin.  i’ll save those for another post.

twice a month on saturday morning, okazawa-san gives me and a small group of like-minded people a bunch of alcohol, whatever local natural produce harvested that day, two grills to cook fresh fish and meats, all the bamboo charcoal we could ever want, and a spacious homemade gazebo to hang out in.  and in exchange, we give him a helping hand with whatever he needs done.  the most lopsided deal of all time?  maybe.  a boat load of fun for free?  you bet your butt it is.

he is a man who does not mince words.  if you don’t say anything and just sit on your butt drinking beer, he won’t bother you.  if you ask him what needs to be done, he’ll tell you and expect you to do it.  if you tell him you don’t know how to do the thing you just promised you’d do, he’ll teach you.  he is diligent and competent.  he is easy-going and mild-mannered.

okazawa-san is my botany teacher, my biology teacher, my local farmer, my drinking buddy, my host, and my friend.  and i can’t ask for any more than that.

here’s to you, good sir.  keep up the good work, and i’ll see you soon for some good eats and back-breaking hard labor.