Tuesday, January 13

Catching up

I knew it had been awhile since I'd been on, but a month and a half?? Good grief. Post-holiday life, as best I can tell, is back to normal and resuming it's regular (all be it freelance) schedule. Sitting next to my mouse is my first (and very untrained) watercolor painting, a crochet baby dress upstairs in the works, and an impromptu Filipino (can you believe that's spelled right?) dish in my tummy. (Got the noodles from the local asian market - they're called Pancit Canton noodles.) It was delicious. Needless to say, new things have been happening around here.
But for starters, what about this Japan trip? Oh my goodness, it was absolutely amazing. That sounds too light and empty - it was, where are the words? It was truly a trip to be remembered. Victor and I didn't sleep in the same bed once on the
 trip since all the rooms we were in only had two twin beds... it was funny. We felt like Lucy and Ricky for sure. Tourist-wise, the trip kept us on our feet. By the end of the first week, I'm almost certain 30% of our time was spent traveling by train to different cities. Mitaka, Takamatsu and several others - and we only stayed two days at most in any location! I feel like we really got to see a lot. Just like any modern country, in the big cities everyone dressed to perfection each day, had just the right hair and shoes, and always had a shopping bag or two in each hand. And the subways? Don't even try to imagine crowded until you've been in Tokyo's sub system right after work on a Friday. :) Once you travel outside of Tokyo (and this takes a couple hours since it's so vast), the people are waaay more toned-down. More basic clothes, less flashy accessories, etc. Needless to say I felt more comfortable outside of Tokyo, but still had a blast while we were there. I just wanted to SHOP all the tim
e! And Mt. Fuji - it's even more beautiful through train glass than I could have ever imagined.
On a deeper level, I discovered that the divides between Japanese and oh, I don't know, THE REST OF THE WORLD, are innumerable. I mean it. You think because it's a modern country the people are like us - my goodness there's little comparison. Mannerisms, philosophies, world views and even basic thought processes are vastly different. No doubt you've heard about the history of Japan and it's shame-based origins - apparently no amount of money or technical developments will ever remove this. The Japanese struggle very much with outside opinion, to the point that approximately three times a week the train systems are halted by a man or woman jumping in front of them. The Japanese are not quick to trust, but are the most polite people I have ever known. They are ritualistic to a fault, but loyal as anything you could ever imagine. And this: not even ONE percent of them claim to be Christia
n. I had no clue! There is so much going on in Japan, and I want to be a part of it. So does Victor. We have no idea where we'll be in the next few years, but maybe it will be there! The children there are precious, and the churches there are so rich, though they struggle. It has to be the most complex experience of my entire life. I have some of the pictures up on my Myspace and Facebook if you care to look.
Now, about that watercolor...
What do you think? I sketched out the picture before painting it for two reasons. One, I like the look of pencil with watercolor. And two, I have ZERO confidence in my freehand painting skills. Pencil erases, paint doesn't. :) As for materials, a little Crayola watercolor pack from the kids section at WalMart and some cardstock did the trick! I really enjoyed painting again, and the watercolor in particular was fun.
Oh, oh, oh!! I totally forgot! I am IN LOVE with hot and sour soup (you know, that brown funny-looking soup at Chinese buffets) but have not been able to replicate it at home to save my life. And then I found it: the perfect hot and sour soup recipe, and my heart (and tummy!) is so happy. I'm going to write it out anyone else can reading can try it out. It's really easy, and pretty cheap. Here we go:

Chicken broth (two cans will feed 4 easy)
Soy Sauce
Rice Vinegar (the secret lies here - don't use regular white vinegar. You thank yourself later.)
Tofu (I used silken tofu, but it turned out to be borderline too soft. It worked fine, but I think something firmer would be better.)
Pork (the thinnest chops you can fine work best)
Black fungus strips (I haven't used these before since I don't really know where to find them, but I LOVE them in the soups at restaurants. If you really want mushrooms in your soup and can't find these, just use shiitake or any other variety you like.)
Bamboo shoots (don't worry about these little guys, they are virtually flavorless once cooked but add a nice *crunch* to the soup. You can find them canned in the asian foods section of your grocery. The water they soak in smells VERY green - I hate it to be honest - so I rinse them before adding them to the soup.)
Water Chestnuts (my own addition - another flavorless food that adds great crunch. Optional.)
Crushed red pepper (the seeds and flakes, not the powder)
Corn starch
Spring onions for garnish

Now for the fun part:
Bring your broth to a boil. While it's heating, add soy sauce to taste. "To taste" may sound too vague for more exact cooks, but hey, it's how I roll. :) Just remember that hot and sour soup is full of flavor but not too salty. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter cup sounds about right. Surely not more than that. I would start with less and add more.
While that's heating to a boil, start cutting your pork into tiny little strips. We're talking like 1/4" wide and 1" long. This is where having those thin chops come in handy. The goal here is to allow you to get a little bit of everything in each bite, so smaller pieces are ideal.
Start browning them, cooking them through on medium heat with just a little salt and black pepper.
Once your broth gets boiling, mix up some corn starch and cold water to add to the mix to thicken it up. Some people prefer and thick hot and sour soup, others like it thin. I personally like it right in the middle of the two extremes, and use three or four heaping tablespoons of cornstarch.
Once it has thickened to your liking, turn it down to med lo heat and add your crushed red pepper.
Check on your pork - if it's cooked through, add it to your soup.
Take your bamboo shoots and chestnuts (if you used them) and cut them into small pieces. My best advice for the bamboo is to cut it lengthwise into thirds or even quarters. It takes a little extra effort since you can only cut those little boogers one at a time, but again, it's well worth it. :) Toss 'em in the pot to cook, still on med lo heat.
Cube your tofu, as much as you'd like in your soup, and add to the mix.
Add your mushrooms.
Wisk together two or three eggs (depending on how much you like this part - I love it, so three for me). Slowly guide the egg down the end of a fork or a pair of chopsticks into the soup, working around in a circular motion so that the egg doesn't pile up in one spot. Let it sit for about 30 seconds to firm up and make those lovely pieces we all associate with hot and sour soup, and gently stir.
I've read that you're not supposed to boil the vinegar and that it's best to add it last. So I do. You can either add it to the whole batch to taste, or pour a little in each serving bowl. Add the soup, top with your cut spring onions, and voila! Some might good hot and sour soup that very closely resembles the yummy stuff from buffets. The only difference is YOU made it, you know exactly what's in it, :P and it's fresh. Oh so good.