Sunday, August 31, 2008

Return of the Kitchen Nazi

"See?" Big Dog tells our guests when I don't take them up on their offer to help in the kitchen. He'll raise his right hand in a "Heil!" salute just to irritate me further.

He and his family have been calling me the Kitchen Nazi for some time now. Guess that's what you become when you were raised in a Food Fascist household.

I didn't realize it while I was growing up. I thought all families were pretty much the same -- moms made everything from scratch, you ate together, talked about the food (alot!) I remember begging my mother to buy some TV dinners. As a child, the mass-produced flavors of these packaged meals were so exotic and exciting!

My brother is a Complete Fascist when it comes to dinner, too. Absolutely no TV! Sit up straight! Elbows off the table! Chew with your mouth closed! Are you going to talk or eat? You can't do both at once.
"It's important to instill proper table manners when they're young," he says of the Pupster, who at five can handle his chopsticks with more grace and dexterity than his aunt. But it's not just table manners. He's expected to have opinions of what he's eating, what he'd like as his entree or side for his next meal.

Instead of plonking down a bowl of cereal in front of him for breakfast, he usually gets a choice of Western or Japanese breakfast. On weekends, he can make individual requests. They rarely just put a heap of something in front of him and tell him to eat it, or else. My family has managed to make the Pupster interested and involved in his eating and because of this he'll eat nearly everything, and will eagerly try new flavors.

What a surprise when I found out other families were not like this! For the longest time, Big Dog made me insecure about my cooking because he would eat without comment.

"My eating IS the comment. If it were bad, I wouldn't eat it," he told me when I asked about this and kept eating without so much as a grunt of acknowledgment about the food. It cracks him up to eat with my family because we talk non-stop about the food.

I should be grateful for Big Dog's "training" because I've found that many people don't comment about the food they are eating. And it seems to be more so here in the U.S.

For as much food as the average American shovels into his mouth, he doesn't think much about what he's eating. And maybe that's it. Maybe America has so much food (and so much terrible food, too!) that it's no big deal. In cultures with a developed civilization but less than an over-abundance of food, we see more thought put into the food. People learn to use an incredible variety of ingredients, stretch what they have, make the most out of little. Kaiseki is all about making a Big Deal out of something as ordinary as a chunk of carrot.

I remember a conversation I had with a former colleague in Tokyo. He's from New Mexico and he was telling me how silly he thought the Japanese were with their obsession with food.

"A girl I used to date was always going on about 'let's go eat something oishii (yummy)' but we should eat to live, not live to eat," he told me quite earnestly, stuffing his face with a sad-looking salad at a franchise American restaurant in Tokyo.

"Why don't you just put steaks and tuds on the barbie?" Big Dog would suggest, watching me whirling around the kitchen in a dervish frenzy trying to concoct something interesting for our tidal wave of guests.

"Boooooring!" I'd say and continue rolling the 20th fresh-off-the-vine grape leaf dolma.
But after this summer, I am finally getting it. The guests really would rather have a nice steak than ten mysterious/exotic/scary new dishes, all completely labor intensive and exquisite. This is not a country brimming with gastronomic curiosity.

Undeterred, though, I continue to experiment in the kitchen. Walnut-sauce-covered-meat-stuffed-roasted-pasilla chiles, spicy poached peaches, strange new pickles, a different kind of bread each week, all kinds of chilled soups, fresh and aromatic herbs for salads, exotic meat rubs and marinades... I'm ready to buy a goat and make my own goat cheese! Or raise a pig for my own sausages!

"No wonder I'm so skinny," Big Dog sighed. "It's all this artsy fartsy food you're making."

If I were a real Kitchen Nazi, I would stop serving people like Big Dog. My diners would only be people like this.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Right Here, Right Now

I have to remember to say it. Over and over, in my mind, like some kind of mantra. Not "some kind of." It IS a mantra. I need to remind myself that I cannot control everything and what I have no control over, I need to learn to accept.

Being away from the Ranch is hard for me, psychologically. I'll stress over everything and stay up at night wondering "what if...," working up countless idiotic scenarios.

"Maybe the motion sensor light that we haphazardly rigged to battle the bats (again! on a different side of the house!) got wet, shorted and burned down our house?"
"What if the gophers got the better of the ranch and stripped it of its vegetation?"
I worried a lot about the ranch. But, I worried a lot about our aging parents, too, and all the medical disasters waiting to strike. And when I wasn't thinking of the ranch or the old folks, I was phobing over all the little, loose "to dos" that have yet to become "dids."

I got back to The Ranch last Friday, literally steps before the next giant wave of visitors, but there is something strangely calming about this place. I don't need to keep chanting "right here, right now." Is it because the "right now" of "right here" is so perfect and my mind has no desire to wander? I don't know. It just feels right. Here.

And now that all the guests are gone and the ranch is back to its perfectly quiet self, it's only natural that nature itself also relaxes, yawns, lets its hair down, takes a big stretch. A bushy tailed fox appeared this morning in front of the old barn (walking away from the chicken coop -- the chickens were okay) and then, a baby bobcat by the creek this afternoon. Perfect parts of a perfect picture.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Vacation Mode

I am taking a brief break from blogging. 1) There has been an endless flow of guests at The Ranch and I am busy playing Innkeeper, 2) it's mid-summer and there is so much to take care of, 3) but a family matter has taken us off The Ranch briefly. So, I am too busy right now with other lives to be too concerned about mine. At least, not concerned enough to write about it.

Plus, 4) it's the beginning of O-Bon, which is like All Souls Week for the Japanese and one of two weeks during the year when we workaholics traditionally stop working.

I won't be away long. Check back in another week. Thanks!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A Lighter Shade of Panic

Alright already.
At first, it's exciting. "Oh, they're finally here!!"

In fact, I get nervous when I see the other residents starting to pick bucketfuls.
"Hey! Who's fruit do they think it is?" I frown when I see their friends taking home bagfuls.

But then, the peaches are riper than ripe and dropping out of the trees. Heaps of big, juicy, wonderful peaches lying on the ground.

"Stop feeding me rotting fruit," Big Dog kept telling me last summer when I'd pick the fruit off the ground. I can't help it. I spent too much time in a country where we bought peaches for a buck or two a pop. At a gourmet fruit shop, the kind that sells 200 dollar melons in velvet lined boxes, a perfect white peach might set you back 10 dollars! Yes! A single peach. Oh, but what a peach!

So ours aren't the perfect giant peaches of Senbikiya, but they are juicy and sweet and as peachy a peach as a peach can be. And there is a tidal wave of them now.

"I wish they weren't so unabashed about picking our fruit," I told Big Dog only a week or two ago. New Family in Oak House is so excited about having moved here that they have had a non-stop stream of visitors who all seemed to leave with big bags of fruit. "Or if they'd just go with plums and apples..." I mumbled. Just don't mess with my peaches and nectarines!

But that was a week or two ago. Now I can hardly use them up fast enough.

Peach cobbler, peach crisp, peach cake, peach torte, peach ice cream, peach sauce, baked peaches, stuffed peaches, peach crepes...

"Are you sick of peach desserts?" I asked Big Dog last night. His grin gave it away, so last night's dessert became Dream Bars, but this morning, I was out there in the orchard, picking up another bucket of fruit. Again.

There's also more summer squash than we can handle. Although the gophers got several plants, Glass Guy and R's garden is loaded with summer squash and there are two more plants growing out of the compost. (The compost squash is green and ball-shaped but tastes like crookneck.) And even though in Japan zucchinis can cost 2 dollars for one the size of a carrot, the squash don't send me into a state of panic. I can let them grow into inedible monsters and just throw it back into the compost.

But the peaches.....they're a whole separate deal. Yes, Big Dog, I HAVE to use every single one. And, yes, there WILL be more peach stuff coming your way.

Peach relish, peach chutney, peach jam.
Peach pie, peach souffle, peach sorbet.
Peach daiquiris, peach fizzes, peach cider, peach beer...

All the way to nectarine season. Which is only a week away. Help.

Labels from a few of last year's jams and sauces.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Earth Mama

It's starting again. I remember last year around this time, inspired by the spontaneous creativity of nature and all the growing things around me, I went into a Country Mama mode. I'd puree fruit and dry it in the sun, making "fruit leather." ("Don't call it 'leather'!" people used to tell me. "Call them Fruit Roll-ups or something.") I made a little rack to dry prunes. I pickled peppers that eventually became the key ingredient to our Bloody Mamas.

This year's Country Mama Season started with my homebrewing experiment. Glass Guy's already been brewing some excellent quaffs for a while now, so I finally opened my Homebrewing Kit (bought on impulse during a post-Christmas sale) to make my first batch.

Big Dog was also excited. "If it's good, we can start full production. It'll really save us on our beer expenses."

I drank the first sip of the first bottle of the first batch 2 weeks ago. And it was absolutely.....horrible.
"Ugh. Worse than Coors," I grimaced. To myself. I made sure no one was around to witness my disappointment. (Or glee, as it might have been.)

But if success is a good motivator, failure is an even more powerful one. Since then, I've created 2 more batches of beer (although I suspect the yeast in the kit was a bit too old) and a bottle of peach liqueur has been ripening for a couple of weeks now. Last Sunday, I pressed a gallon of apple juice to start some apple cider. Our pantry smells so much like booze, I can't let anyone else walk in. I don't have any of the proper equipment but I remember making some pretty good rose petal wine when I was a teenager and I had nothing then. Of course, it might have only tasted palatable because I was a teenager! (I think I used regular baking yeast, too!)

There's also some sourdough starter and bread rising on the kitchen counter, a jar of yogurt fermenting on a windowsill and two new jars of preserved grape leaves waiting their day as wrappers for dolmas.

I had to find some new things to keep me obsessed. How many times can you go look at your vegetable garden only to be disappointed that there's nothing to pick yet?

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