Friday, January 27, 2012

Japanese Kit Kats

A while back I stumbled upon a story about Japanese Kit Kats on the NPR blog. Kit Kats in Japan go way beyond chocolate. Part of it may be due to the fact that the shelves on the super-popular convenience stores are very precious real estate, and they must entice shoppers with new and original merchandise at all times. Moreover, Japanese seem to love ‘limited edition’ anything, so Nestle Japan has been constantly coming up with surprising flavors. At NPR a panel comprised of Steve Inskeep and Lourdes García-Navarro, among others, tasted some of these Kit Kats. The comments were fairly negative, but my curiosity chain had already been rattled. I am pretty adventurous when it comes to food, and I love trying new things, especially if that new thing is candy. As for the negative comments, it has been my experience that whenever you take certain people out of their food “safe zones”, they feel as comfortable as a hippie at a gun show. So I made it my mission to find Japanese Kit Kats and judge by myself.

I looked for them online. I asked for them at Asian stores. I went to Japantown in San Francisco. It didn't matter: I came out empty handed… Fortunately, I had a plan B: my good friend Mitsy. Her job brings her to California a few times a year, so I asked her if she could get some of those precious Kit Kats on her next trip. She did, and damn be NPR, they were delicious, every single one of them.

From the top, soy sauce, wasabi, citrus and green tea.

The soy sauce Kit Kat tasted more like maple syrup. I wouldn't mind having it every day.
The wasabi was spot on. This was more of a weekend treat.
The citrus was very creamsicle, and perhaps the least remarkable of the lot.
The green tea was vaguely tea-like, yet again, I'd love to eat it daily.

Mitsy has recently sent another care package, and sure enough, there were more Kit Kats.

She had explained previously that some of the Kit Kats are only available in certain geographical areas. For example, on the back of the apple Kit Kat, she wrote “Special Edition: Apple from Shiusyu, Nagano Prefecture”. The green tea comes from Kyoto, the wasabi from a “wasabi producing area”. I am particularly intrigued about the one that looks like banana, only that’s not what it is. Mitsy wrote: “Special Edition – only from the region – Japanese Chili with one kind of spice”.

There were other goodies in her care package, like this trio of green bags. One looks like toasted peas and corn kernels, covered in wasabi. The spongy round ones remind me of marshmallows, only these ones have the picture of a green tea cup. I have no idea what the round balls with the dark center are. Maybe a dried plum covered in green tea flavored candy?

Otsumami is what we would define here as “beer nuts”: any snack that you would pair with a drink. The bag with the white fibrous bits makes me think it’s going to be some sort of desiccated fish. The other bags have a picture of baby silver fish, the size of minnows, along with slivered almonds (I may be wrong). I have had the silver minnows before, and I could eat buckets of them. The little bottle contains some “Gold Medal Winner” wasabi salt. This is the only item we have opened so far, and it is delicious. My concept of wasabi was the green paste they plop next to your sushi. Wasabi and subtlety were two words I could have never put together, till I had the salt. It is elegant and nuanced, and far superior to any wasabi I have had so far. When Mitsy was here last time, she told me that the soy sauce we see in the US is not really all that great. I don’t know why this surprised me, but like with anything, there are categories of soy sauce, and the gourmet types stay in Japan. The same thing must occur with wasabi paste, judging from this incredible salt. It certainly deserved that gold medal.

Finally, we got soba noodles. I’ll venture that soba is Japanese comfort food. You can eat them hot or cold, in a wide variety of styles. I like them in a simple broth. Mitsy is quite the noodle purist, so I am sure these will be wonderful. We will do our best to honor her by not overcooking the soba, a terrible offense. So this little window into Japan makes me want to go there much more. All the flavors and textures I may be missing! Thank you, Mitsy, for this incredible gift.

(Note: since I first searched, a couple years ago, it looks like now you can order Japanese Kit Kats online. In fact, I am very curious about the Chocolate Grilled Sweet Potato)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Big Waste

The Food Network aired a pretty impressive program last Sunday: The Big Waste. Four celebrity chefs were in charge of feeding 100 people using only food products that were discarded or earmarked to go into the garbage.

The Food Network should be renamed ESPNFood, because everything is a damn competition these days, and this was no exception. However, the point was well made: about 40% of our food is wasted. The chefs visited butchers, fishmongers, bakeries, farms and supermarkets, where they were confronted with this sad reality.

My heart really hurt while watching this program. I knew things were bad, but not to this extent. The owner of a peach orchard summarized the problem: “We've trained the American consumers to expect perfection”. This is why he was standing in a field with hundreds of good peaches at his feet. Some had a little blemish, or a tiny scar, so they could not be sent out. They would simply be rejected, like the tomatoes below. No big chain supermarket would allow all that scarring and lack of uniformity.

At a poultry farm, a quick walk through the coop showed that eggs are not uniform. What a surprise... There was one as big as an avocado, most likely a double-yolker. Some eggs were tiny, the size of walnuts. Eggs that are too big or too small get destroyed. They cannot be sold, because they do not fit in the standard egg carton.

One of the chefs hooked up with a Freegan, someone who feeds himself for free (my kind of hero). He explained how he doesn’t do this because of need. He had a good job, made enough money. He was a freegan because he was outraged at the vast amounts of food wasted in front of his eyes. He took the chef to the back of a supermarket. When they rummaged through the trash bags, they were able to find all sorts of goodies. There were tons of deli containers, discarded because the “Best by” date was the next day. This is another huge issue: we see the “Best by” date as an expiration date, when it is nothing of the sort. “Best by” is an indication of quality. After that date, quality may not be 100%. That doesn’t mean the food becomes inedible or spoiled, yet to the eyes of the consumer, that’s exactly what that means. Many believe that if the lid says December 28, at 11:59 pm on the 27th that food will start transforming into poison, like the Cinderella pumpkin. Expiration dates are only required for infant formula and baby food. Everything else gets the “Best by” or “Sell by” qualifiers.

I am a thrifty person, so I love shopping at the Grocery Outlet. I can find fancy yogurts, like Stonyfield, Brown Cow, Athenos or Liberté, at 25 or 50 cents a container, because they are very close to the “Best By” date. It never fails that by the time I eat one of them, like the one above, the “Best By” date happened to be two weeks ago. Maybe if I tasted a fresh-off-the-dairy yogurt next to this two-week discard I could tell the difference in quality, but my taste buds are not that well trained. I am getting the same amount of protein and calcium, I spent a fraction of the money, and I helped reduce a little bit of waste. And I didn’t get food poisoning.

I am very familiar with the expectations of the American consumer. Once upon a time I studied Plant Science in college, and I quickly realized that there is a whole bunch of pests and diseases that get treated not because they have a yield impact on the crop, not because they change the nutritional or flavor aspects of it, but because of AESTHETICS. When we walk into the grocery store to buy apples, peaches, potatoes, we inspect every single one before we put it in the bag. They have to be picture perfect. Growers cannot afford not being able to sell their crops due to looks. Nature doesn’t work that way. Anyone who has ever had a fruit tree in the backyard or has grown a vegetable garden should know that. Nature is a constant battleground. Bugs, molds and anything alive have the biological mandate to reproduce, and in order to do that they need to feed. They are going to be on the lookout for tender leaves, sweet fruits and yummy roots, like the raccoon I suspect was in the yard last night, judging from the number of half-eaten persimmons all over the ground. We consumers place an incredible burden on the grower, who in many cases may be forced to treat crops solely to preserve their appearance.

A few nights ago The Food Network aired an episode of Chopped, another food sport competition, where they featured four lunch ladies. One of them explained that she always serves pasta on Mondays, because there are many kids who go through the weekend without a meal. She wants to fill them up when they come back to school. She tries to send those kids off into the weekend with packed lunches, but obviously she can’t help them all. I was thinking of her while watching The Big Waste. I am sure that if she were watching the program, her heart would have been aching, just like mine. I could only think of all the schools, soup kitchens and nursing homes that could benefit from all this food waste. We need to change our ways, urgently. There are people in this country that go to bed hungry, yet 40% of food ends up in the trash. This is immoral.

The Big Waste will air again on January 14. Check your local listings and spread the word!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Recycled Christmas Cards

The whirl of the holidays enveloped me something fierce, and I have been scattered in many different directions. However, I was able to find some time to mentally jot down a few resolutions. My first one was to declutter. My second one was to finish all the craft projects that are languishing in the garage before starting new ones. It took me less than a week to break #2, but I am not ashamed, because by doing so, I upheld #1.

If you are a green hoarder like me, you amass vast quantities of materials on the grounds that you may be able to use them for a project "one day". You feel virtuous because you are keeping stuff from the landfill. In the meantime, dust and cobwebs accumulate on your loot. This is not very practical. It drives me crazy to hate clutter yet generate it.

Here's another piece of dirt on me: I am very frugal. I dislike spending money as a general rule, but I especially hate retail prices. So I have been watching the post-Christmas sales, because I was out of Christmas cards. Every time I was in a store I would look over in the Xmas direction. I never buy at 50% off, because you know they will eventually go to 75%. But this year that 50% sign seemed to be stuck.

The time came to take down the tree and the cards strung across the mantle. I throw a ribbon from corner to corner, and hang the cards with teeny tiny clothespins, like fresh laundry. This year we only got a few. I am very bummed, because I love mail, sending and receiving it (yes, it's not green, I know, but #1: not everybody is online and #2: it's one of my few non-green indulgences). Like a good hoarder, I put these cards in a box, with those from 2010, 2009, 2008... And then Resolution #1 stared at me in the face. I had to go into action

I went to the Dollar store and bought a few sheets of poster board. My husband always loves to ask me how much I paid for Dollar store items. HA! This time he would have been stumped, because each board was 50 cents! I also went to Michaels and found blank cards on the clearance bins. I am not exactly sure what the discount was, but I am very pleased that each package of 24 ended up being 99 cents. I bought enough cards for the rest of the decade.

So after putting all my materials together, I got something that looks like this

These cards could be as easy as you wish. In some cases, I simply cut the front using normal scissors and glued it to the blank card. Other times, though, I used fancy pinking-style scissors.

As the Christmas cards arrived this year, I also saved the envelopes that were colored or had shiny lining, because you never know... Once again I was hoarding for the sake of green crafting. They came in handy for this idea. I punched out some shapes, and created tiny presents

On Christmas Eve, after dinner, we opened presents with our friends. The living room looked like this

Santa was very generous. I looked at all that beautiful, glittery, expensive wrapping paper. It seemed like a shame to just make a huge ball with it. I pulled whatever pieces of tape I could, smoothed the wrinkles and set it aside. But in my recycled Christmas card mode, I had an idea. While watching Knight and Day (horrible movie! But it was filmed in part in my hometown, so I HAD to sacrifice), I cut ornament shapes from one of the wrapping papers. Then I glued them on a card made from an old folder, from the part where the pocket is. I used the rest of the folder to make more cards.

I also saved the gift tags. This card could not be any simpler

By the way, the string from that star is what I used for the bows on the little presents on the card above.

These cards are all so simple that they can be a fun project for kids. I am not a parent, but if I were, I would probably try to find a life lesson out of every situation. By making these, children could learn how you can create something useful (and dare I say, pretty), out of what lots of people throw away.

I am by no means done with this project, and I will add a few more photos soon.

And by the way, HAPPY NEW YEAR!