After nearly 20 years in big Tokyo I was feeling burned out in my not-so-successful "career" in the service industry, knocking on several after a chance discovery of cheap old farmhouses we set out towards the countryside - but still close enough for my wife to further pursue her working live, commuting by Shinkansen while I would take care of the house and kids and build my own little cafe at home...
Our first bump came when we realized that the bank wasn't willing to give a loan for an old rundown house on some worthless property in the "Hinterland". So, we changed plans and will be building a new house. We already bought the plot last year, with about 400 square meters size, and I have started the vegetable garden beforehand, next project will be the garden house.

25 December, 2011

Christmas Dinner at Home

This year is one of the very few times I actually am not working around Christmas. In Tokyo, December used to be the busiest time of the year where everyone suddenly seems to have money to spent again with year-end-parties big and small plus Special Dinner offerings around Christmas, 95% of them couples. So the 24th is not a public holiday the 23rd is, as it is the Emperor's birthday. And even here in Karuizawa, which is preparing for winter from November onwards and goes into "hybernation" (冬眠中, touminchu. I've actually seen shops putting this sign out to show they are on winter break. And it's a common word among the many part-time workers about what they will do in winter, as many will take an non-voluntary extended holiday from January up to the middle of April. Only few are willing to drive on snowy roads to work at ski-resorts or feel enough financial strain to engage in lower jobs like room cleaning in one of the many hotels around here.), Christmas means mostly work, depending on which day of the week it falls. So I decided to do a very common Christmas dish, roasted chicken and gathered information on the internet during the last days. Luckily I chanced on a helpful food-program last week which had chicken stuffed with rice, roasted in a cast-iron pot. Since I wanted to have Hannah eat the same food too, I decided against their flavouring with raisins and marons, but instead opted for a more gentle basil-flavour, took the idea of using sweet potatoes(amongst the usual ones) for the vegetable bed from another blog, and from "Simply Recipes" I got the idea of a honey glaze since I didn't want to use garlic butter. I later returned again to this blog to also find some tips about using the leftovers and bones to make some chicken stock.
I started by cutting some celery into small slices and sauteed them in olive oil in the cast-iron pot. I thew in some sun flower seeds as well and after they where browned I scraped the mixture into a bowl.
  To this I added cooked, warm rice, parsley, dried basil and seasoned it with salt and pepper.
I had prepared the chicken already a few hours ahead by washing the outside and inside with cold water and patting it dry. It was then left on the counter to gain room temperature and for the skin to dry for a crispier finish (which didn't finalize as much as hoped for). I stuffed it with the rice and tied the opening with tooth picks which I secured with some string that followed to tie the legs together. I than rubbed salt and pepper on the whole of the outside and put it on a bed of vegetables for which I used roughly chopped onion, carrot, turnip, and aforementioned sweet potato. Some recipes suggested sauteeing the vegetables first which I dutifully did, because I only have a rather small sized microwave oven and since the pot would stand on the bottom I worried the vegetables wouldn't get enough heat, which turned out to be far off the mark.

I preheated the oven to 270 degree and put in the pot with the chicken breast downwards. After 40 minutes I lifted the iron pot out and turned the bird breast facing up. At this point I brushed the now up facing breast part generously with honey.
 Around 15 min later I turned down the heat to about 180 degrees and roasted it for another 45 min until the  digital temperature reader showed that the inside of the meat had risen to about 75 degrees.
After lifting the bird onto a dish for cutting I realized that a few of the vegetables had been burned black, but enough was left, also these where extremely soft, with the sweet potato tasting the best. I had worried in the beginning that not giving any soup or liquid into the pot might just burn the vegetables, but the chicken dropped off quite some liquid, which was more than enough. It was rather the sidewalls of the cast-iron that became too hot and burned some of the greens. And the breast skin didn't turn out as crispy as I had hoped for. Next time I will turn the bird earlier and lower the temperature earlier too which might help. I also would brush the skin before roasting with olive oil.

What did turn out very nicely was the soft tenderness of the meat, totally different from the usual fry pan cooking, we hardly needed any knife. And the stuffing of rice was just delicious as well.

The arrangement on the plate might look rather rough, nevertheless the taste was great! Hannah enjoyed the food as well, shoving the rice happily into her mouth with her hand.

For dessert I had prepared a chocolate cake, Sachertorte, but spiced it with cinnamon, clove, cardamon and nutmeg. I sliced it once and filled it with roasted walnuts and rum-raisins (that are always at hand in the fridge in this house) . I also had planned to put in some sliced pears as well but totally forgot about it. And so they made part of the topping, together with some whipped cream.

08 December, 2011

Making Progress- with Detours

Last week our little Hannah, now 1 year two months old, came down with high fever that was finally diagnosed as three-day-fever, roseola.  It is one of those diseases that little kids go through once and than the body becomes immune. Nevertheless it is heartbreaking to see such a lively happy little kid become weak and listless, not having much appetite either. So I stayed at home the whole week, tending to her or holding her while she was sleeping in my arms.

It looks like winter is marching towards us and I still haven't finished the front side of the garden house! I worked on it this week and finished the two brick compartments. It didn't turn out quite the way I had imagined, but it still looks good enough to me, and to the unknowing Japanese it looks even better. I had drawn up some designs beforehand, but when starting I realized that these bricks where not in a 3 to 1 width to height that I had thought them to be, poor measurement and mathematics on my side. It's been more than 20 years that I did masons work, so there are a few things I don't remember or only half.

But for some reasons I still remembered how to make these "mason's corner" to stretch a string across to follow after without having to drive nails into the wood.

On Tuesday, I had a "detour": close to our plot is a piece of land where people can leave cut-off tree trunks for other persons to take home and make into fire wood. This year it had been empty the whole time but driving by it in the morning I saw lot of trunks there. So I emptied our car, fit in a blue-sheet and started hauling of the pieces I could handle. And than my eyes fell onto a beautiful tree stump, nearly square at the bottom, about 1m in height where it was going off into two trunks. It looked perfect for a chop block! Only problem was how to get it into the car, as it was probably above 100 kg in weight. I nearly gave up on it but than had the idea of building a ramp out of the thinner trunks lying around. So I started "rolling" the beast towards it and than slowly up. Real slow, because every push felt like having to fight a Sumo ringer with my feet slipping and me fast running out of breath.

Finally I had it on top, put a heap of logs to the side to stand the stump up on which was another battle in itself, backed the car up against it and pushed it inside, more or less, because the widening bottom was impossible to get in. With the stump looking out of the back I slowly drove it to the far end of the garden and heaved it out again. Using a long trunk as a lever I was able to push it of the road, but there are still another slightly uphill 10 meters until its final place...

And yesterday I had the second "detour" of this week, when my friendly neighbor came over and suggested to cut off the high weed that was still covering most of the garden with his engine-powered weed-cutter. These are a very common sight to see also I personally had never used one before. So he started at the sides (as fire control in his words) and after I had seen it in action, I took over and cut off the whole stuff. In many places it had been about 1.5 meters high, leaving the Garden House nearly unseen from the road, but now that the plot lies barren, the house is easily spotted from afar.

Having finished the brick works I cleaned the inside today and lay some floor boards I had gotten from the near by guest house as it was being demolished. They had been used as a outside wall covering, heavily painted on. So I put the outside on the bottom and had the raw inside facing up, which also worked quite nicely with the bends. They are single grooved, making them stick together very smooth.
And finally I can walk inside the house without worry to crash through the floor!