summertime, and the living’s izu.

i’ll admit it, i loved summer break as a kid.  summer meant making nachos everyday in the microwave, playing video games, and frolicking outside until i got so sunburned my skin started to peel.  ah, memories.

but looking back, i never truly appreciated summer for what it was when i was a kid.  it was just a long period of time without school, which made it inherently good.  i could have spent my summers in a junkyard or on the sub-zero front lawn of a gulag and i probably still would have had a blast.

in other words, summer isn’t for the kids.  it is for the teachers.

here’s a quick list (in no particular order) of what i did this summer vacation.

  • hopped on a plane and went to the good old usa
  • saw my family for the first time in six months
  • spent as much time as i could with my best friend/love of my life
  • drank cheap beer
  • enjoyed top-notch missouri humidity
  • ate a truly appalling amount of meat and starch
  • evened out my heinous farmer’s tan
  • played with my cats
  • fired up the smoker

and so, as summer draws to a close here in japan, i figured i would cook a tremendous (see: over-sized, far to big for one human to finish) meal to celebrate all the good times i had.  and here’s what i came up with.

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love is a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie.

guess what?  i don’t like sweet foods.  sure, that might make me a curmudgeon.  yeah, you might be able to accuse of having lost touch with my inner child.  but in all honesty, right from the get-go, sweet was always one of my least favorite flavors.  i know lots of people are probably chomping at the bit, ready to lace into me for being such a cynic, but hold your horses and let me explain myself for a moment.

in my experience, the vast majority of sweet foods being produced en masse are highly processed.  sweet is one of those flavors that reminds us of “home,” and even if we didn’t have a mommy or a grandma who baked fresh goodies all the time, we like to imagine that we did when we bite into a tollhouse cookie or a little debbie snack.  commercials and marketing do their best to convince us that a tremendous room full of smiling grannies or joyous frolicking elves produce our snacks.  which of course could not be farther from the truth.

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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.

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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brine the bird: smoked chicken on a sunday

when we sat down and started drinking last sunday morning, we did our best to come up with a variety of things to smoke.  we had two giant slabs of pork belly already cured, so that was an obvious choice.  we went out and we got some salmon, too.  and we bought some eggs.  (before you ask, yes, smoked eggs are a big thing here and they are delicious when done right.)

but i also wanted to give chicken breasts a go.  yeah, they are super cheap and i didn’t want to break the bank.  but more than that i wanted to give myself a challenge.  i wanted to see if there was a way to make a notoriously dry and flavorless piece of bird into a juicy and delicious masterpiece using nothing more than time and a few ingredients i had on hand.

and i succeeded.  when we pulled the chicken out of the smoker, it looked and smelled good.  and when we ate it, it tasted so good we all stood around gawking in disbelief.  it easily qualified among the best chicken i have ever cooked.  while chorusing “dang, that is good” over and over again, we decided to make it a staple when firing up the smoker.

what was the secret?  maybe it was the spice rub.  maybe it was the half a head of garlic used in the recipe.  but if you ask me, we owe it all to the brine.

apple-smoked curry chicken breast

you’ll need:

  • chicken breasts (boneless, skinless)
  • apple woodchips
  • half a head of garlic
  • a tall can of malty beer
  • curry powder
  • sea salt
  • black pepper
  • cinnamon
  • sugar
  • chinese hot pepper
  1. rinse off your chicken breasts and dry them.  set them aside.
  2. add salt to a large mixing bowl.  the goal is to make a brine with a 16:1 ratio of liquid to salt, so feel free to go pretty heavy on it.  the salt in a brine allows the meat to become softer and more absorptive of the flavors present in the smoker.  i also highly advise adding an equal amount of sugar to the brine to even out the intense saltiness and provide color to the meat (espeically the exterior).
  3. peel and mince all of your garlic finely.  add it to the mixing bowl.  finish with a tablespoon or so of curry powder.
  4. pour in your beer and stir.  call me an alcoholic if you like, but i didn’t actually add any water to my brine (which is obviously normally the main ingredient).  normally, a brine which includes ingredients that aren’t water soluable needs to be cooked for a while and then chilled before meat is added.  the carbonation of beer allows the flavors of the garlic and curry powder to combine more easily, and it also really does wonders for the softness of the chicken when working in tandem with the salt.
  5. add the chicken.  you can butterfly each breast if you like, but they retain the moisture better when left whole.  make sure all the breasts are completely submerged.  cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it in the fridge for 60 to 90 minutes.
  6. once finished, drain the brine and rinse the chicken.  don’t worry, it should have soaked up most of the flavors you exposed it to.  most people advise patting the chicken dry so it develops a crust in the smoker, but in this situation i kept it a little bit damp from the rinse so that i could apply a spice rub.  sprinkle each breast with a healthy smattering of cinnamon, black pepper, hot chinese pepper, and a little extra curry powder.  use your fingers to massage the spices into the breast, making sure they stick.  if you are worried about the moisture, you can set the meat on a drying rack in front of a fan for five minutes or so, but you don’t need to.
  7. pop it in the smoker.  i won’t go into the detail of how to go about smoking meat here, but rest assured there are all kinds of great blogs that can help you along the way.  i highly recommend patrons of the pit.

notes:

traditionally, the goal is to get chicken to an internal temperature of around 140ºf.  to do this, it is generally recommended to get the smoker to around 230º.  our smoker, at this moment, doesn’t even get close to that temperature.  so we smoked it at a very low temperature for a very long period of time (not to mention with all the other meats and fishes we decided to smoke that day in the same smoker).  although we were skeptical of how it would turn out, when opened the smoker and took out the chicken, it had a beautiful golden crust and was done almost all the way through.

we sliced the chicken and fried it in a pan with just a little bit of olive oil over medium heat (just to be safe).  and honestly, i think it turned out better than any chicken breasts i have had that were completely cooked straight out of the smoker.  the outside was crisp and slightly chewy (as the smoker tends to do) and the interior was super succulent.

summer, shirtlessness, and smoked meats.

it gets hot in japan.  and when i say hot, i don’t mean pleasant, dry, “hydrate and wear sunscreen and you will be ok” hot.  i mean the sticky and brutally humid kind of hot.  actually, when summer gets into full swing, it is a lot like my home-state of missouri.  which, as most people from missouri can tell you, is terrible.

but thankfully, it isn’t that hot yet.  monsoon season still has the spotlight.  but after three soid days of rain and dreary grey skies, the heaveans finally saw fit to give izu two beautiful days of happy (see: not brutal) sunshine, very few clouds, and comfortable 24°c heat.

so in an effort not to waste such excellent weather, i spent most of my waking hours this weekend outdoors.  on saturday morning, i went out to the bamboo forest and spend the whole day making plum jam and jambalaya.  in between beers, i probably split enough bamboo to build a small house.  and while i was at it, i even took a little bit of time to even out my heinously unbalanced tan.

i got home around six, took a shower, and then ran out the door to meet up with my buddies brian and marc for ramen.  when we finished, we got some supplies together and made our way down to izunagaoka (where marc lives).

then we drank beer, grilled chicken and avocadoes, and chatted it up outside until we were too tired to keep drinking.

on sunday morning, we woke up nice and early, had some coffee and conversation, and picked up some supplies.  at around ten o’clock, we cracked open some beers, prepared about 5 kilograms of meat and fish with a variety of seasonings, and filled the smoker to the gills.  once we got the fire going and the door sealed tight, all we had to do was wait.

we drank, worked out, and napped until around five o’clock.  and when we finally opened the smoker, we partook in one of the most epic bounties i have yet to eat so far this summer.

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the flavor of summer.

when june rolls around in japan, the weather takes a turn for the worst.  these few weeks between spring and full-fledged summer are characterized on this side of the world by rain almost every day, intense heat, and truly ridiculous humidity.  the japanese call this weather tsuyu, which is of course their word meaning “to die of asphyxiation because the air is so laden with moisture you could drown whilst walking to the grocery store.”

that being said, atrocious weather isn’t the only herald of summer.  because of the amazing raw food culture that japan has, all kinds of tasty and extremely fresh foods start appearing in the mom and pop small restaurants all over the country the moment june swings into full-force.  while it may seem strange to most of us in the west (with the exclusion of pasta salad, which i was never really that big on anyway), cold noodle dishes like zarusoba and hiyashi chuka become very easy to consume in quantity when the mercury goes through the roof.

and in my mind, there is no cold noodle dish that can hold a candle to sōmen.  these japane

se noodles are made from wheat flour and have a milky white color to them, much like udon.  but sōmen stand alone in that their diameter is extremely thin (less than 1.3 mm by definition), which makes them super delicate and incredibly fast cooking.  once cooked and flash chilled, the noodles are generally added to a deliciously salty broth and topped with all manner of awesome fresh produce.

yesterday, i got to hankering, and decided to give it a go.

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