August 28, 2011

Made in Japan: On-Line Auction for A Fund for Jennie

On March 11, we all watched with horror as Japan experienced first a devastating earthquake and then an even more destructive tsunami. Amidst the tragedy and uncertainty, what happened next was truly inspiring, as the world gathered to take the Japanese people in its arms and give them comfort, in whatever way it could.

The tsunami was on my mind this week while I was in Tokyo on business. On the surface, Tokyo is the same as ever – an exciting, eclectic city, filled with wonderful people and the weird and wacky things that make Japan so unique. Taxi drivers with their white gloves and immaculate crocheted covered seats. Shops dedicated to making and selling just one thing: crackers, say, or egg omelettes. The tiny restaurants and cafes that serve completely fresh and seasonal food as a matter of course, their popularity measured by the long and patient lines of patrons waiting to be seated.

Sakura (cherry flavoured) tempura-style bun from Agemaju Asakusa Kokonoe, a little stall that sells nothing but five flavours of tempura-style buns

But deeply, fundamentally, something has changed in Japan. As one person described it to me, “Meaningful experiences matter more than ever, especially with our families. And making a difference for others has never been so important.”

Making a difference was on my mind this week, too. The Twittersphere was full of a call to action; a communal gathering to comfort, to offer succour, to try and assuage another deep and fundamental wound. When Jennifer Perillo lost her husband suddenly and cruelly a few weeks ago, friends and strangers alike responded with the deep need to help make a devastating blow bearable in whatever way they could. From making peanut butter pies to launching a donation fund, to creating the most amazing online auctions, we’ve tried to gather Jennie in our arms. I’m sure you’ve read about this and, like me, have marvelled at the generosity of people.

I wanted to do my part to help, and with the perfect opportunity to pick up some wonderful Japanese products, I’m launching my own online auction for Jennie. Made in Japan features items you’ll be able to bid on that have come with me direct from Tokyo this week, and represent a wide variety of Japanese goods to surprise, delight and enjoy.

Included in the Made in Japan auction:

Two knives from Sugimoto, a company that has been making knives since the 1830s. The tiny shop at Tsukji Market is worth seeking out. I bought two knives from Sugimoto last year and am a big fan. The auction features a stainless steel Western style 6” general purpose knife and a 4” single edge honed traditional Japanese carbon blade, wood handled vegetable knife (for right handed cooks). Also from Sugimoto – a pair of fish tweezers for picking out the fine bones from your next salmon fillet.

A set of two beautiful lacquer ware cups from Urusi. The finish is satiny smooth and cups can be used for either hot or cold beverages

Two sizes of suribachi with a surikogi. The suribachi is a Japanese mortar used with a pestle (the surikogi). In Japanese cooking the suribachi is used to crush sesame seed. Smaller versions can be used to grate fresh wasabi or ginger.

Set of eight small appetizer dishes; two shapes, each with four different patterns

Delightful baking supplies.  Two packs (100 each) of whimsical cupcake holders and a stencil for making special personalised cookies

A shichimi togarashi set (pictured right) from Yagenbori, a company that has been in business since 1625. They make the delicious seven spice blend known as shichimi togarashi, which is blended to order with every purchase. This blend is the “medium” version; my favourite way to use it is in sautĂ©ed kale, and the set includes a wooden holder for the spice

Yuzu Sencha tea with Matcha from Jugetsudo.  This tea is delicious hot or cold and makes a particularly refreshing drink with its unique yuzu flavour. Plus matcha powder, with recipes

Sweet treats, including sugar coated soy beans and pretty sugar candies

And my favourite item: coasters in three colours with the following message: Welcome.  Please relax slowly while drinking the drink. Sage advice indeed.
The value of the auction items is $450.  Bidding starts at $100. To bid,
leave a comment below with your bid amount.  Bidding will end on Friday, September 2 at 11:59 pm Eastern time – just before the stroke of midnight. NEW: I will include shipping for anywhere in continental North America.

As the Japanese say, hito wa itawari atte ikite ikanakereba narimasen: people have to live by caring for each other. Bloggers Without Borders is still accepting donations to A Fund For Jennie, with the proceeds going directly to Jennie and her two girls. Click here to give whatever you can; every dollar counts and helps.

Arigatou gozaimasu – thank you very much, and good luck!

August 08, 2011

BSP2 Part Two: Who Made the Quinoa Salad?

For someone who travels as much as I do, you'd think I'd be a light packer.

I consider it a success if I can manage to pack for a week with just five pairs of shoes (I’m counting my running shoes as part of the five, mind). While I do plan ahead, and know exactly what I’ll be wearing when, I like to have options, shall we say. And then there’s the matter of the “shop opp”. Even with the smallest of suitcases, I always bring a fold up bag that expands to duffel size proportions. Because you just never know when a shop opp will present itself.

But when I went to Big Summer Potluck, I was determined to bring just a carry on. Criteria were simple: only three pairs of shoes – max. Room for an optional top (or two). And most importantly: space for my potluck salad ingredients, which included six cups each of cooked red rice and quinoa. I felt practically empty-handed as I wheeled my cute little pink Zuca through the airport.

I’ll spare you the details of the delayed flights, the six-lane freeway closure, the fact that I couldn’t find watercress for the salad. What matters is I finally arrived at the Anderson home –the setting for the first evening gathering and our kick-off potluck dinner – salad in hand.

The fabulous Anderson home

High stakes when you bring food to a food blogger event and it’s being hosted by Pam Anderson. Even higher when’s it’s a gluten-free affair. But people who are obsessed with food are generous souls, and seek nothing more than to gather round the feast. Because we all know that every dish is made with love, spiced with humour and served with pride.

And so my quinoa salad was eaten down to the last bite. And me, the very proud lighter packer, went home with the biggest (and heaviest) prize of all – a glorious candy apple red Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Betty, as she is proudly named (thanks Jenny), now sits on my kitchen counter. A constant reminder of the generosity of spirit that is BSP2. With thanks to Kitchen Aid and eight second hugs all around for the fabulous Andersons and Erika of The Ivory Hut.

Betty, comfortably at home at chez duckandcake

Red Rice and Quinoa Salad with Dried Cherries, Walnuts and Capers
serves 4 as a side dish

I knew the salad was a hit when The Tough Cookie came downstairs during dinner and demanded to know "Who made the quinoa salad?"  This salad is dedicated to Gail, who will make it, and Jackie, who will eat it.

1 cup each cooked red rice and quinoa, rinsed and drained
⅓ c chopped walnuts
⅓ c dried cherries
1-2 tbsp capers, rinsed and drained
Zest of one lemon
¼ chopped mint
½ c chopped watercress (or chopped spinach)
2 tbsp minced chives
Salt (optional)*

*Salting the rice and quinoa while cooking, and the addition of capers to the salad, should make the salad plenty salty.

Combine all of the ingredients together in an attractive bowl and serve. The salad is a great make-ahead dish; refrigerate several hours ahead and bring it to room temperature before serving.

August 03, 2011

Big Summer Potluck 2, Part One: On Becoming a Food Blogger

A breakfast feast at BSP2, featuring fresh peaches, gluten-free muffins and homemade jam from Sugarcrafter

I remember the first time I wondered if I was really a bona fide blogger, even a part-time one, which was all I was aspiring to be. I was having that most perfect of Saturday morning indulgences – a pedicure – and as the aesthetician and I chatted, I mentioned I had a food blog. “I have a blog too!” she said. It was a mommy blog, and she had started it a month earlier. We exchanged URLs, and when I got home I looked up her site. I had written nine posts that month – quite an accomplishment, I thought, for my little hobby. Erika had written 80. Not eight – 80. Whoa.

I had dipped a toe in the water of food blogs barely six months before. Ready-made Blogger template; barely a notion of how to tag, let alone what it would do for my Google ranking. Monetize? I had gingerly put two food-related ads on my blog; the cheque must still be in the mail. Every new follower was a triumph and it didn’t matter that the number hardly changed from week to week (well, it did, but this was a hobby, right?). I thought I took decent photos with my little point and shoot.

I was amazed at the size and diversity of the food blogging community. I threw a stone in the pond and I joined Foodbuzz, Cook Eat Share, The Daring Kitchen, Charcutepalooza. With each ripple, I saw the community was legion, and I couldn’t even make out the distant shore. Relationships mattered, and Twitter provided a way to form immediate connections, even if at arm’s length and more like cousins twice removed than siblings.

The beautifully simple table setting at Linden Hill Gardens

And that’s how I heard about Big Summer Potluck. It hardly mattered what it was; what did matter was that it seemed to be a MUST ATTEND event (and if @thepeche said so, I was smart enough to believe it). It seemed a friendly thing – somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania – and with just the right amount of people; not too big to be overwhelming, not too small to feel out of step with all those who would surely know one another. And so I bought a ticket. With that weird blend of low and massive expectations, I made my way by two planes and an automobile to Ottsville, PA, quinoa and rice salad in tow.

I learned a lot.  Not about SEO, or monetization, or tagging or writing the perfect post.  I learned that a moment can be an idea.  That the hardest part of getting a great photo is getting past yourself.  That you need a point of departure - what, exactly, are you trying to say with those words? That photo? The post?  And that it's okay not to know the answer to those questions when you start.

Chickens at Linden Hill - living in the moment

At BSP2 last weekend I wondered again if I was a bona fide blogger. But for the first time, I finally got permission to be exactly the kind of blogger I can be, with the expectations not formed by some amorphous and invisible host of judges, but by me. That was the life lesson, amongst many, that Shauna James Ahern, the wonderful Gluten-Free Girl, imparted.  Get real and be real, girl (and boy).  Expose your messy self.  It's what matters and what makes a connection count.  Yes, indeed.

The radiant Penny de los Santos.

Perhaps by now you’ve read some of the amazing and moving blog posts written by others who were at BSP2. If you haven’t you should know that Penny de los Santos is a wizard – not just with her camera, but with her ability to spellbind a room and recreate a photograph that all of us could see as clearly as if it were in front of us. [Click here to see the incredible photographs that Penny was describing and the read the beautiful story They Remember Home by Annia Ciezadlo].  I have never been so inspired and felt so connected to a speaker before – but that’s because this was a personal conversation and Penny offering her art (and self) up to us with arms wide open.  And that was her point, really.  As Penny says, photography is a metaphor for life - and that magical moment of making a connection, of drawing people in - is what really matters.

Expectations? Beyond exceeded.  But that's what happens when you think you're going to a food blogger event and you find yourself connected to an instant family of friends.

So am I a bona fide blogger?  If what that means is that I am passionate about what I write, that it matters to me, and that I am being my real self - then I think the answer is yes.  It matters less that I have the requisite photo of ingredients with "easy and delicious recipes that you can make for dinner tonight!" (guilty as charged).  It matters more that I am connected - to myself first of all, and then hopefully to you too.  I hope you stick around to see how it all comes out. 

[With a huge 8 second hug and thanks to Maggy of Three Many Cooks and Erika of The Ivory Hut for an amazing event. Can't wait 'til next year!]