Chicken Katsudon

Thirteen years ago, I went to Japan for a month-long visit. For most of that time, I was with my friend Michelle, who is a childhood friend from Canada who was teaching there. Together we traveled by train from Saga in the southwest along the coast to Tokyo over the course of three weeks, stopping many times along the way. One of our stops was to visit a young woman named Ayako Koyama and her family. Ayako had stayed with me back in high school as part of an exchange program; she’d also come to visit me as an adult about a year before. On this trip, I had the opportunity to meet her family and to get to know the home and the region where she had grown up.

Ayako, Mrs. Koyama, Mr. Koyama, Ayako’s grandfather, Ayako’s grandmother, and Michelle. Ayako’s brother must have been at work that night.

One evening, Ayako’s mother brought Michelle and I into her kitchen to teach us how to make katsu for dinner. I honestly can’t remember if it was chicken (torikatsu) or pork (tonkatsu) that we breaded and deep-fried, but I do remember the process! I was rummaging through my old photos yesterday and realized that I actually had a photo of us all eating the dinner we’d made (above). It was a lot of fun, although it’s always awkward to cook in someone else’s kitchen — even when there isn’t a language barrier! It remains one of my fondest memories of visiting with Ayako and her family. My one regret is that I wasn’t really into cooking at the time, so I didn’t take the opportunity to learn more from a Japanese home cook firsthand. Such a valuable resource wasted! I guess I’ll just have to go back to Japan someday and learn more.

These memories resurfaced recently when I saw a show on the Food Network that had a segment on some restaurant that makes a chicken katsu burger. I really had developed a liking for it in Japan (you can see one of the commercial meals that I had that included it in my Noodle Soup entry). It’s a real comfort food. Suddenly, I was craving chicken katsudon again. Although I’d made the meat part before and could pretty much remember how to do it without help, I had to Google for how to make the eggs correctly, since they’re not simply scrambled eggs. I used the Chicken Katsudon recipe from Just One Cookbook, and in an attempt to make it a little bit healthier I made Baked Katsudon instead of fried. I was pretty happy with how it turned out, although I know where I made some mistakes. I was running out of time at the end (I had to get the kids fed and out the door to Guiding), so I skipped cooking the chicken in the egg mixture and instead just put it on top, which made it a little bit dry. I think I cooked the egg a bit too long; when I had it in Japan it was just a little bit runny, more like a sauce than a scrambled egg. I also didn’t have any parsley, which would really have made it pop a bit more visually. Also, although I did manage to make up some miso soup, I ran out of time to make a salad, and a meal like this really needs some kind of veggie, even if it’s just a quick pickle. But given that it’s been thirteen years since I’ve attempted this dish, I don’t think it turned out too badly. It did get positive reviews from the family just how it was, so I am encouraged enough to try it again.

Chicken Wings & Salad

Last night’s dinner was a simple one: baked, precooked frozen chicken wings from Costco, and a simple salad of romaine lettuce and baby spinach. The wings were Sun Chef Fully Cooked — Fire Grilled Roasted Chicken Wings with two sauces.

I’d never tried these specific wings before, and they were… Okay. I mean, they weren’t fantastic, but they weren’t bad either. Passable, I guess the word would be. There are better pre-made chicken wings out there, though, even at Costco. There are seasoned, uncooked ones sold in the refrigerated meat section that have much better flavour. I think next time that’s what I’ll buy if I want to have an easy chicken wing meal.

Cleaning Enameled Cast Iron

I picked up a box of old, used kitchenware a while back, and buried down deep at the bottom was what looked like an enameled cast iron casserole dish. It was in pretty rough shape.

The inside wasn’t too badly off; there seemed to be some staining, but no chips or pits in the coating. The outside, however, was a mess:

My best guess is that the previous owner(s) had regularly cleaned the inside where food would actually touch, but were lackadaisical at best about cleaning the exterior. There was a brand name on the bottom, but it was so covered in gunk that I couldn’t quite make it out. But it seemed like a solid piece, so I decided to give cleaning it up a shot.

(I was also going to write about two vintage Pyrex dishes from the same box that had cleaned up really nicely with a lot of elbow grease, but yesterday I managed to bump into them and send them crashing to the floor. They hit each other on the way down and shattered into teeny tiny little pieces. They were only Cornflower Blue dishes, probably about 30 to 40 years old and not terribly rare, but after all that work I was — and still am — rather pissed off that I made such a stupid mistake. Anyway, that’s why there are Pyrex casseroles in that photo as well.)

One of the suggestions that I found online was to coat the piece in a paste of baking soda and lemon or lime juice, so I tried that first. If nothing else, it smelled nicer than any other cleaner I tried!

It actually made a pretty good dent in polishing up the interior.

However, it didn’t have the penetrating power to get a the worst of the exterior’s years of caked-on grease. I’m going to keep this technique in my arsenal for future reference, though, since it did do wonders for the areas where the damage wasn’t so bad, like on the outside of the lid.

The next tip I tried was to soak the pot overnight in a solution of two parts water to one part vinegar. This made so little difference that I didn’t even bother taking a picture. It was just a waste of time.

My friend suggested that I fill the sink with water and add two dishwasher pods, which did end up being the technique I was looking for. Even so, I had to soak for 12 hours, give it a scrub, change the water, and then return it to soak. This technique took three days, but just look how it turned out!

While it was soaking, I was finally able to get a good look at the logo. It’s a Nomar braiser, and my research dates it from the late 1960’s to early 1970’s:

At some point Nomar was bought out by Staub, which is a competitor of Le Creuset. Apparently, back when they went by the Nomar name, the brand was an even stronger competitor. And Le Creuset is the be-all and end-all of cast iron ware these days!

My roaster holds about 2.5L, which puts it between Le Creuset’s 1.5L and 3.5L braisers… Which retail for $200 and $340 CAD, respectively. So my piece old Nomar was definitely worth the work I put into it!

And I have to say, it’s awfully pretty.

Na na na na na na na na Bat Pie!

Tonight I’m off to another friend’s birthday celebration, and I think it’s safe for me to write about his gift since so far as I can tell he doesn’t read my blog. At least, he seemed genuinely surprised when I asked him if he’d like a pie for his birthday and, if so, what kind is his favourite. He did say that fruit pies, especially strawberry-raspberry-blueberry or strawberry-rhubarb were his top-ranked. However, rhubarb is almost impossible to get this time of year (although knowing this now, I’ll freeze some in advance next year when it comes in season). And red fruits just didn’t seem dark enough for what I had in mind.

You see, my friend is a huge Batman fan, and I wanted to make him something appropriate to his fandom. After all, as LEGO Batman says, Batman “only works in black, and sometimes very, very dark grey” — although I’d go so far as to say that Adam West’s cowl was a deep purple or blue, depending on the lighting. Since I didn’t want to add food colouring to the filling, so I went with blackberry-blueberry. As usual, I used the Purity Pastry recipe from page 73 of The All-New Purity Cook Book (Elizabeth Driver, 2001). As my father and his mother before him taught me, I made the crust using lard instead of vegetable shortening, which I’ve always been told makes the crust flakier. The filling was 3 1/2 cups of blackberries, 2 1/2 cups of blueberries, 1 cup of sugar, 3 Tbsp corn starch, and 1 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice.

At first I thought I might make the top crust with a large cutout so that it looked like the Bat Signal, but a friend had linked to a recipe for Rustic Cast Iron Skillet Peach Pie on social media, and I really liked how they’d made their top crust. I thought that cookie-cutter cutouts would look a bit like a cloud of bats against a night sky, which is an image used repeatedly in Batman media. Of course, the fruit filling isn’t totally flat and the bats warped a bit during baking, so they look their most bat-like from directly above. It’s a really simple technique and can be achieved using any shape of cookie cutter, although I have a feeling that the simpler the shape, the more recognizable it will be when cooked. I do have a feeling that I’ll be using this technique in the future to customize my pies. If you don’t like making crust from scratch, I see no reason why it wouldn’t work equally well with store-bought dough.

Polly Put the Kettle On

I got a box of old kitchenware to go through recently, and at the bottom of that box was a vintage (1976, if I’m reading the label right) whistling tea kettle. I gave it a scrub and put it on the stove to boil some water to clean the inside, and I was struck by how at home it looked there. I mean, obviously it belongs on a stove, but how much it fit in with my idea of home.

You see, when I was a kid this was exactly the kind of kettle we’d have permanently set on our kitchen stove. My parents are inveterate tea-drinkers (orange pekoe only, thank you very much), and there was always a pot of tea on the stove or a kettle on the boil. The kettle only left the stove on special occasions when Mom was cooking an extremely large or complicated meal. One of the first things I learned how to prepare was tea to my parents’ specifications. To this day, “Put the kettle on!” is slang for, “I’m coming over for a visit and a chat!”

The engraving on the bottom reads “Product of West Bend Company, West Bend, Wisconsin, Made in U.S.A., SINGING TEA KETTLE, Stainless steel with solid copper bottom, 2 1/2 quart, 7 76”

When I was really little, we had a kettle similar to this one but without the whistle. Apparently at one point my father forgot that it was on the stove and left the room, and the kettle boiled dry and then melted. So my mom bought a kettle with a whistle as a replacement. This kettle (or ones like it, since they do sometimes develop leaks) lasted for some years until my father filled the kettle, put it on the stove, and then went out to the garage for some reason. The kettle screamed away until it was boiled dry, and then it too melted down. Exasperated, my mother went out to the store and bought an electric kettle with an automatic shut-off. Dad, being a creature of habit, soon filled the brand new plastic kettle and put it on the stove, then turned the burner on. He didn’t leave the room this time, but he didn’t notice the mistake he’d made until the plastic melted. Don’t ask me how he didn’t smell it.

Since then, my parents have bought other kettles, all of which live on a counter that’s not near the stove and all of which are totally different shapes than the whistling kettles that I remember them having as a child. Dad learned his lesson, we hope, and has not melted a kettle since, and never will again, knock on wood. Despite the kettle saga, to me the “proper” kind is a stainless-steel whistling kettle that just covers the larger burner rings. The kettle singing is a cue that I am home, and Mom and Dad are home, and things can’t be all that bad because someone is making tea.

Wonton Soup

Last night the girls were off to Guiding, so I needed to make a quick and easy dinner. It was still wet and rainy, so I thought that it would be a nice idea to have some soup. I’ve been making a point of turning my frozen stockpile of bones (left over from roasts and rotisserie meals) into broth, so I used some of my recently-made chicken broth to make up some wonton soup.

There wasn’t really a recipe as such. I threw some of the leftover chicken from Family Day, some baby bok choy, and a generous sprinkle of salt into the broth while I brought it to a boil. Then I added a couple of handfuls of fully-cooked chicken & cilantro mini wontons (bought at Costco) and cooked them for about two minutes. The broth didn’t need much seasoning because the wontons themselves are bursting with flavour — a very cilantro-based flavour, so I’m really lucky that none of us have that gene that makes cilantro taste like soap. And that was that!

Family Day Chicken Dinner

Yesterday was Family Day, which is neither a religious nor a festival holiday. Rather, it is mostly an excuse to have a day off in February (a month with no other statutory holidays in Ontario) when you are nominally supposed to spend doing fun things with your family. This year I didn’t even get to spend it with my entire household, since my husband was off to Sweden on business, the lucky duck. I’ve never had a job where they flew me halfway around the world to attend meetings, I’ll tell you that right now. So while he was visiting the Arctic Circle…

And driving on ice roads…

And eating smoked moose and visiting fortresses, I am here at home with the kids. I might just be a little bit jealous.

(From his photos, Sweden during the winter looks a heck of a lot like it does here in Canada, so I’m not as jealous as I might be if he were in the Bahamas or something. And to be fair, the only time he had to go explore was the weekend, since he is working. I’m trying to talk my way out of jealousy here, and it’s not working very well.)

I’d hoped to take the kids to Winterlude and possibly skating on the canal, but it’s been unseasonably warm since Sunday and it started pissing down rain about halfway through Monday. So instead we went to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum for the afternoon. The highlight was all of the baby animals — most of whom, like the calf above, didn’t want to stay still long enough for a good picture. But the kids were thrilled to be able to pet the sheep and the goats and the calves, so it was a win. The calves were big favourites, since they were very sociable and leaned right into a good scratch. A few of them made my kids laugh by licking their hands and arms; I’m not sure whether they were looking for food, or tasting salt, or just investigating, but by the time we were out of the cow barn all of our winter coats needed a wash. After raising children and small animals, cow slobber doesn’t bother me that much, but that doesn’t mean I want to be wearing it any longer than I have to!

Given that we were out and about well after I’d usually be starting dinner, I needed something easy to feed the family when we got home. In the oven, I reheated the Costco rotisserie chicken that I’d bought the day before. I pricked a few potatoes with a fork and microwaved them until they were soft for easy “baked” potatoes. And then I steamed some spinach. Not the fanciest meal in my repertoire, but we had all worked up an appetite from our adventures, so it went down well.