Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Homemade Tomato Soup

Back when I was a child, my mother used to buy huge amounts of tomatoes when they were in season and "stew" them for canning. I'm not sure how she did this as the process was of no interest to me, but I only knew the result was vats of smelly, wet, over-cooked tomatoes and jar after jar of them which were put in the cellar for later consumption. When she used those tomatoes, it was always in a manner which pretty much ended up with us simply eating the tomatoes as they were right out of the jar. I think one of her favorite ways was to slop some of them on bread with nothing else.

I love tomatoes and I eat fresh ones with a little salt and pepper several times a week. They're very good for you because they're full of vitamin C. When I was a kid, I'd eat them like apples (and without salt). However, my mother's methods of preparing and serving canned tomatoes put me off of them for decades. Since fresh tomatoes are relatively expensive in Tokyo (about 80-100 yen each unless you get a good deal and buy them in bulk), using fresh ones for cooking can get really pricey. Last week, I saw a can of "Frana" Italian tomatoes imported for Meiji for 100 yen and decided that I'd make a soup recipe I ran across via the Kitchn web site.

As is so often the case though, modifications were necessary because of differences in ingredients in Tokyo, free time, my personal tastes, and expenses. I'm not a fan of celery, and it costs a fortune here anyway, and I can't buy canned chicken soup stock nor get my hands on a whole chicken to make some (or even chicken with bones other than tiny little pigeon-sized drumsticks). I decided to omit the celery and substitute chicken consomme soup for the stock. I think it may actually have turned out more flavorful for using the dehydrated cubes instead of real stock. I used Knorr (the type sold in green and yellow boxes with a white chicken graphic on it), but any type will probably do.

One of my students bought a case of Campbell's tomato soup at Costco awhile back and gave me two cans because it was too sweet for her. I'm not a big fan of Campbell's soup, but at least I have sampled it recently enough to compare this homemade stuff to the usual dreck and this is much, much nicer. We had the soup with grilled sandwiches, but I think it'd be really tasty with bread or toast for breakfast.

Tomato Soup:

1 tbsp. butter
1/3 medium onion (or 1/2 of a small one as the original recipe stated)
1/3 medium carrot
1 can crushed tomatoes
1 tsp. dried parsley
2 cubes chicken consomme
2 cups near boiling water
dash (about 1/4 tsp.) coarse black pepper
salt and cream to taste

Melt the butter in a heavy bottom sauce pan then saute the onion until softened. Add the carrot and cook for about minutes. Add the dried parsley and let it "cook" for about thirty seconds. Stir in the parsley and add the tomatoes. While the tomatoes and vegetables are heating, dissolve the consomme cubes in the water and add it to the pot. Add the black pepper and simmer the soup until the carrots are tender. This should take about a half hour.

Remove the pot from the stove and use a hand mixer or food processor to purée the vegetables to an even consistency. A hand mixer is better because you can directly work in the pot and it's not as messy (and the soup stays hotter). Taste the soup and add salt as you feel is necessary (I added 1/2 tsp.). Depending on how potent you like your soup, add cream. I added two tablespoons of cream, but the original recipe called for up to 1/4 cup.

My husband is not a fan of tomatoes or tomato soup, but he gamely gave this a try because he's caught a cold and I told him it'd be good for him. He said it tasted "sharp" because of the strong tomato flavor. I'm guessing that more cream would have taken the edge off of it, but he declined to have it diluted more. I loved this as it was, and probably could have skipped the cream completely. This was so good that I'm sure to make it again some time. It's also very cheap, even if you're buying the ingredients in Tokyo.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Love Letters

Most people are probably familiar with the movies or stories where a daughter or other relative goes up into the attack or goes through an old dresser and finds a stack of love letters. The stack is usually about 3-5 inches thick and tied with a pretty ribbon. I'm wondering if that image is approaching the status of anachronism. Phones started to kill the idea of love letters, and all the opportunities for instantaneous communication that the Internet provides are in the process of delivering the finishing blow.

Even though I fell in love in the age of the telephone, certain circumstances made it such that it was not really a possibility for my husband (the CH) and I to use one. He was in Japan for a year of our "courtship". During his year alone, he didn't even have a phone because having one required a huge deposit at that time. Even if he had had one, it cost $1 per minute at that time and we couldn't have afforded it. During that year, we exchanged copious numbers of cassette tapes which we talked to each other on. We still have some of those cassettes, but very few relative to how many were exchanged. We had to record over them because we couldn't possibly save them all without going broke. We easily traded eight 90-minute tapes per week (apiece) with each other.

This is the approximately 10-inch stack of written correspondence we have saved from over the years.

You'd think that would have been enough correspondence, but it wasn't. What is more, the correspondence didn't stop after we were living together then married. When I was going through the letters, I found that there was a large number of Valentine's Day, birthday, and holiday cards. We also used to write each other letters from work early in our days in Japan when we had down time. That means we were writing to each other even when we saw each other every morning before work and every evening afterward. There are also some letters which each of us wrote late at night when we couldn't sleep and our partner was slumbering mere feet away in the next room.

31 cards in 18 days

There is a wide variety of correspondence in the stack pictured above, but there was a sequence that I wrote which I completely forgot about. The CH and I were married on April 1, 1989 and had a short honeymoon. Shortly after that, he flew to Japan to look for a job in Tokyo with the plan that I'd follow after he'd secured a job and an apartment. While he was in Tokyo from April 11 to April 29, I sent him 31 postcards from California. There were obvious days when I sent more than one card. For some reason, on April 14, I sent 4 cards. Note that we had lived together for a year before marrying, but being apart even for almost 3 weeks was nearly unbearable.

These days, we don't do this anymore. That is, we don't write each other late night letters, letters from work or give each other holiday cards. Somewhere along the line, we stopped writing it and just said things to each other. It wasn't that our passion was any less (far from it), but the ease with which we expressed it increased and we didn't feel compelled to write it as often. Still, looking through that stack of correspondence makes me consider the value of having such a romantic and nostalgic record of our relationship.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Lesson Therapy

Let me start off this post by saying that I am not a monkey. That's right. I'm not a gaijin monkey who performs for the student during lessons to entertain them. It's not that the students and I don't have a laugh from time to time, but it's not because I'm slapping fins together and balancing balls on my nose. My demeanor with students is very casual and relaxed. I ask them questions or have them do textbook material and I allow them the time to answer and speak. Occasionally, they volunteer a question and I answer. That all sounds pretty natural for lessons in language practice, but you'd be surprised how many people treat it like monkey hour.

I feel it was necessary to get that out of the way before I say that one of my students told me at the end of a lesson today his English lesson was the happiest time of his week for him. If you think this is my way of boasting, then I will also add that this fellow currently has a very difficult life situation. His mother is ill and he has to take care of her and his sister is in the hospital dying from the big "C". It's not like I've got a lot of competition in the happiness department.

That being said, I do believe that, for several of my students, having lessons with me serves a meaningful purpose in their lives which has little to do with language skill improvement. Since returning to private teaching after a little over a decade of office work, I've come to realize that there are some people for whom their English lessons are a psychological lifeline. They offer a type of interaction and mental stimulation which they cannot find elsewhere in their lives. In particular, students who are opinionated and outspoken have a chance to speak out to someone who isn't going to judge them or ostracize them for their ideas.

Like many people around the world, a lot of my students spend their time working and operating in relatively small circles. They have friends, but they can't always have the types of conversations with friends that they need or want because they have to keep certain things to themselves in order to not be considered strange or risk being ostracized. One thing I've had to adjust to is the idea that having a conversation lesson which is just me sitting down with a person with an emotional need, having a cup of tea or coffee and "having a chat" isn't shirking my responsibility as a teacher. The fact of the matter is that I'm accepting that some of my students need more of a therapeutic encounter than a boost to their English skills. This is particularly so for some of the older, unmarried ones.

The truth is that these types of lessons, depending on the student can be much harder or much easier than doing a real lesson plan with a textbook there to provide structure, direction and momentum. When you're responsible week in and week out for carrying on a "chat" with the same person who has no obligation whatsoever to initiate anything, you have to work hard to make sure there's something to talk about. For the aforementioned student who said his English lessons were the happiest time of his week, I often have to do 20 minutes or more of preparation to make sure I have enough current event and topical information on hand to keep the "chat" alive. After 75 conversations with the same person, it's not so easy to avoid retreading the same talking points territory.

Right now, the student I am focusing on in this post is incredibly lonely because both his mother and sister are in the hospital, though he isn't the only one who I believe comes to me for social interaction more so than skill building. He spends his days at home or visiting his relatives or hanging around his house with nothing to do. He says his other friends are still working either part-time jobs or full-time, but he's not able to pursue such things because of his age and familial responsibilities. I have a sense right now that I'm pretty much all he's got to perk him up these days and that makes me sad for him.

I think a lot of people who take English lessons are fulfilling a range of emotional needs that can't be fulfilled in their lives otherwise, but the fact that they are doing so isn't nearly as obvious as a few of my students. I wonder if the structure English language learning in Japan has been built around this need just as much or more than the need to improve language skills which are so poorly taught here. In a country where people are always saying "do your best" (gambatte), going to a psychiatrist is uncommon, and putting on a false happy face is common, and where there is a fair bit of conformity and homogeneity, English teachers may be performing a variety of therapeutic services including exposure to cultural diversity, companionship, intellectual stimulation and cathartic expression.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Proof of "God"

Recently, I was reading a very reasonable and well thought out debate on proof that God exists and whether or not there is such proof or if it is even possible to prove that God exists. For me, the main problem with questions of "proof" of any concept is that there is an assumption that humans are equipped to experience any given entity or material and their inability to experience it means it does not exist. In particular, if we can't see, smell, feel, hear, or taste it or invent a mechanism that can translate a phenomenon into data which we can apply one of those senses to, we say it cannot be proven. This is the unavoidable flaw when science tries to "prove" metaphysical concepts. It is limited to what our meat sacks can comprehend, and we're hardly the best instruments. If "God" is out there, we may be no more capable of comprehending it than a tree is capable of having a conversation with us.

The other problem is that people are constantly framing "God" concepts in their own image, and I don't just mean the psychological concepts like judging people or issuing rules to run their lives. There may indeed be some sort of greater entity that set the universe in motion and is monitoring every action that goes on, but that doesn't mean it is paternalistic or concerns itself with what goes on in our lives beyond some sort of perception that changes of some sort are occurring. Whatever "God" is does not have to be some single entity looking after our welfare. It could simply be something that spawns energy or reorganizes it or has some sort of imperative to see matter and energy manipulated into different patterns or frequencies. If that is so, it doesn't mean that that entity has no interest in our improving ourselves or our world, but rather that our achievements mentally, emotionally, or spiritually bring about that entity's desired changes to energy or matter.

We can't prove it, but I think there is far less value in proof than in thinking more expansively about the concepts and what they mean to our lives than in seeking proof. If there is any "proof" to be had, it won't come as a result of prognostication and fulfillment of a prediction, scientific research, or personal experience. It'll come from an analysis of trends and looking for a certain pattern of interaction both in the way civilizations and people change across thousands of years and by studying the interaction of matter and energy on an atomic level.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Microwave Brownie in a Cup

When I'm perusing recipes on the Internet, I often see things which I can't make for one reason or another. Mainly, I run into ingredients which can't be had in Japan. Simpler recipes which require few exotic foods to perform their delicious alchemy are always more attractive, but most of them let me down. I've mentioned this before, but it bears saying again, most people lie about the results of their cooking when they post recipes. Often they leave out where the recipe falls short so they can just display their gorgeous food porn pictures (always taken about a millimeter away from the food at an angle no human would view the food from). I'm as much a fan of food porn as anyone, but I get annoyed at the accompanying recipes which more often than not let me down.

I ran across a recipe on Chow for a homemade microwave brownie in a cup and I was skeptical. I've seen cake mixes in Japan which you can whip up in a paper cup and zap in the microwave so the concept is not new. Unfortunately, the resulting cake is usually weird. There's a reason baked goods are usually baked rather than irradiated.

The recipe is super simple:
  • 2 Tbs vegetable oil

  • 2 Tbs water

  • 1/4 tsp vanilla extract

  • dash salt

  • 4 Tbs granulated sugar

  • 2 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder

  • 4 Tbs all purpose flour

You whip up the wet ingredients (I used a fork) then add in the dry and mix them until mixed then stick it in the microwave for 60-90 seconds. I tried this for 60 (on high) to get the "molten" version which is still fudgie in the middle. Then I let it cool for a bit and ate it with a spoon while it was still warm.

And the result was delicious. It was surprisingly good for such little work and so few ingredients. I don't know how it'd fare later after cooling off, but it was very satisfying while warm. I'm guessing it'd be even more interesting with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or creme fraiche, but those aren't things I have around.

Ultimately, I'd wager that the kind of cocoa you use factors into how well this turns out because there are so few ingredients. I used Van Houten cocoa, but I'm guessing any cocoa which one favors would do just fine. The only potential "bad" in this will be the clean up after baking a brownie in an ungreased cup.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Big Shoes to Fill

During the winter, I keep the CH's and my Birkenstock sandals in (never used for trash) trash pail by the entrance. I do this so our shoe box area (the genkan) isn't full of shoes and the students who come to my apartment have room to park their footwear. Occasionally in winter time, I'll fish out my sandals and put them on for a quick run outside because putting on other shoes takes more time. Last time I did this, I tossed them haphazardly back into the pail such that one of them was laying on top face up.

Last Saturday as one of my students was leaving, she was zipping up her boots and noticed my displayed sandal. She said, "oooo, big!" I told her that that was my sandal and she said, "very big!" My feet are size 8.5 in U.S. sizes, and about a half size too big for the biggest size of shoe for women in Japan. I either have to get shoes from back home, or buy men's shoes (this only works for tennis shoes). My feet are also quite wide because I haven't tended to wear shoes much my entire life and that has resulted in rather splayed bones.

I wasn't offended in the least by what my student said, but I did wonder if that was the sort of thing that generally would be considered offensive back home. I guess a lot depends on how self-conscious someone is about their foot size. This did remind me of the fact that Japanese people are generally more liberal about commenting on body sizes and imperfections than Western people are and that it isn't considered offensive in their culture. They say the same sorts of things to each other, perhaps more often than they say it to us. It's one of those cultural differences that can be a bit hard to adjust to at first because Western culture generally frowns on talking about anything related to bodies which is outside the norm, particularly in terms of something being too big.

In the end, I take what the student said as an indication of her increased comfort level with me as a person after being my student for over a year now. Perhaps I can mention her teeny tiny feet at some point in the future to return the favor.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Three Blogs Full

As I'm sure regular readers have noticed, I haven't been posting nearly as much lately. The reason for this is that I'm currently running three blogs and I'm finding it hard to work up the energy to attend as much to this one. One of those blogs is known to readers of this one, but the other is a protected blog which can only be accessed with a password. That blog is for my students and includes photos which I don't want to put out in the wild where just anyone can see them both to protect my privacy and the privacy of those who are in the pictures (particularly family).

The private blog for my students is only dealt with once a week and the snack review blog is "only" every other day, but both seem to be draining my creative battery disproportionately. Mainly what I find being the case is that all of the thoughts that I used to blog about still occur to me and I think I'm going to write about them, but I end up just brushing them aside and forgetting about them because I'm tired.

I'm hoping to get back on track, or at least find a way to more regularly update this blog by devoted scheduled time to it. Watch this space.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Rage of Our Age

As the sub-prime meltdown was unfolding and as the current sinking of economies worldwide is dragging more and more people down with it, I've noticed that there are a lot of angry young people who feel that the boomers have gobbled everything up and left nothing but a big economic mess for young people. Most of us who are younger than 50 are unlikely to enjoy the same level of lifestyle as our parents. In particular, we seem to be in a situation where we will not be able to buy property and expect it to help smoothly pave the way to retirement. In fact, most people feel they will be lucky to stumble down a dirt road considering the collapse of the housing market.

I can't say that I know what is ahead. I tend to think it'll get better and that it'll happen sooner than most people expect. That being said, I must say that sometimes I also get angry about some of the things which I view as disparities between economic conditions and opportunities for our parents and those for ourselves. This anger is completely wasted of course, but it is not irrationally rooted.

Sometimes it makes me mad that people who have retired complain about younger generations not doing better and blaming it on their inability to control their spending. While I have no doubt that this is true for a lot of people, not everyone who is finding it hard to prosper is failing to live modestly or work hard. The truth is that a lot of older people have built their prosperity on real estate. That is, they bought houses which appreciated in value greatly and have been able to cash in for retirement. The amount of appreciation on more recent purchases, with a few exceptional areas, is less than that on homes bought 40-50 years ago.

My point is that a lot of people who cite hard work as the reason for their comfort at retirement actually just got lucky that they were buying in their era and not ours. They didn't necessarily prosper because of hard work and scrimping and saving. That was actually what our grandparents did, not our parents. Some of them just bought homes, others became landlords of one sort or another. Some simply checked out at the right time before the stock market bubble burst. In fact, a lot of the, supposedly inspirational, stories about people who became millionaires despite never working at very high wage or professional jobs emphasize frugal and simple living rather strongly and whisper and vaguely mention in a footnote at the end of the article that there were also real estate purchases. Such people can't stand as an example for us since our era is unlikely to yield such opportunities to increase investments ten fold (or more).

I'm not whining because I won't end up rich when I retire, because I've never been in a position to consider much investing anyway. That's not because I don't have a little bit of money to play with, but rather that I have been living in a foreign country on a mental lease that I renew three years at a time rather than staying in a place I expect to remain in. Rather, I am complaining because of the amount of blame that gets tossed around and the arrogant presumption that anyone who hasn't set themselves up for a comfy retirement has not lived in a manner that suits their income level. What is more, I'm probably more than a little jealous and resentful to see people who get to coast on their buying-based luck later in life, while I will be working until I no longer am capable of doing so. Going by a lot of the comments I see on various articles, I'm certain I'm not alone.