Jeff and Lance, Big in Japan Part IV: 24 (and 9) Hours in Kyoto

If you’re just visiting for the first time, you’re probably experiencing a little bit of cognitive dissonance as to how the two whitest white guys you ever did see ended up in Japan.  You’ll obviously want to review Part I (Chicago!), Part II (Jetlag in Japan!), and Part III (“The Happiest Place on Earth.” How do you say that in Japanese?) to bring yourself up to speed.

The day after our visit to DisneySea, we’d planned on taking the “bullet train” (actually called the shinkansen) from Tokyo to Kyoto, Japan’s former capital and anagram of “Tokyo.”  We were only going to spend about 24 hours in Kyoto, per the original plan, and I wanted to make those hours count, mostly because the shinkansen tickets were hyperventilating-ly expensive: around $250 roundtrip, per person…and that was with a discount through! I fretted for awhile over whether we should spend that kind of money at all for such a short period, but when planning this trip, we were both operating under the understandable assumption that we’d never have the opportunity/resources to come back to Japan, so we figured we might as well do what we wanted.

It was around this point, though, some 60% or so of our vacation over, that I couldn’t ask either Lance or myself to keep pushing ourselves, dragging our luggage all over Japan, sticking to a rigid plan and feeling exhausted from lack of sleep and an overly ambitious itinerary.

See, I originally hoped to be out of the hotel and on the shinkansen to Kyoto by 8:00 or 9:00AM, but Lance took a late check-out opportunity as a sign that maybe we should just spend the morning relaxing and trying to catch up on some sleep.  I begrudgingly agreed–not that I wasn’t agitated about taking things slow, but I knew in my heart of hearts that if we kept pushing ourselves, one of us was going to break.

The view from our room at the Hilton Tokyo Bay.

As part of my membership level with Hilton HHonors, we were comped breakfast, and their buffet spread was enormous: your normal Western dishes, like oatmeal, eggs, bacon, and Japanese fare, and then…spaghetti.  Can somebody tell me which culture eats spaghetti for breakfast so I can thank them?

Around 11:00, we finally left the hotel.  Though I try to keep my tricket-y junk purchasing to a minimum these days, I was feeling a little light on souvenirs from Tokyo Disney, only having purchased the 10th Anniversary DisneySea book, so we stopped by Bon Voyage, the big Disney store near the main rail line in and our of the resort area, to see if I could find anything else:

I eventually purchased a little Chandu, the tiger cub in the bejeweled turban from Sinbad’s Storybook Voyages, and a lenticular postcard which I spent about $4.50 and have subsequently lost track of.  Ah, souvenirs!



Kitchen Catastrophe: Pizza Dough(nuts) Interlude

Okay, okay, so I haven’t really been keeping up with the Kitchen Catastrophe Challenge.  This isn’t so much due to lil’ pup Ripley as it does to all of Rip’s indirect costs: dogwalker and vet visits and the like.  At this point, it seems like the dog is eating better than either of us (my Kitty Boo is exempt from The Fido Finance Effect: she will always be pampered).

So, in terms of food, we’ve had to be creative, foraging the cabinets and refrigerator for items, making do with what we’ve got (not unlike this dude from TLC’s “Extreme Cheapskates”).  Here’s what I’ve been able to make recently:

Homemade Pizza Dough

Mark Bittman’s pizza dough recipe from the New York Times has seen better days:


Kitchen Catastrophe: Week 3 Recap

I’m starting to suffer from “ingredients are expensive”-itis, everyone.

This past weekend, we went to Giant to buy ingredients for the two dishes below and I ended up spending around $40.

$40 for TWO meals.  I might as well have gone to Chili’s and gotten an appetizer AND a margarita instead.

Anyway, that alone may be enough to dissuade me from continuing to make things from scratch, especially when I’m only making for two and Lance hates leftovers.

That being said, I begrudgingly poured my $40 worth of confectioner’s sugar and Yukon gold potatoes into giant bowls and stirred. Let’s see what I came up with:

First dish: Spanish Chicken and Potato Roast

This plating would receive 10 points from celebrity guest Kathy Griffin on "Iron Chef America"!

Friends, a word of advice: whenever you’re making a dish with chicken in it, make sure to actually thaw the chicken first! I didn’t, and for whatever reason, the “cold water immersion bath” tactic just wasn’t working.  I ended up nuking the breasts (tee hee!) for a few minutes just to get them to be pliable.

Otherwise, this turned out pretty good.  Lance thought it lacked a little flavor, but that was probably due to an uneven distribution of the paprika-based seasoning.  I had a breast (hee hee!) that was covered in it which I really enjoyed.

Recipe archived for future use!

Second dish: Bacony Breakfast Cupcake

Rest assured, there is real, actual bacon in this dish, and not something faux.

Unfortunately, given that my nearly 2-year-old phone now refuses to keep a charge through the entire day, I wasn’t able to take a bunch of pictures.  Suffice to say, these came out okay, though I used a tray for mega-cupcakes as opposed to a regular cupcakes, so there ended up being too much cake in proportion to the frosting.

Also, this is definitely a pancake in cupcake form, so what I originally thought was going to be a sweet dessert ended up being more of a savory dish, especially with the chives and the bacon.  I might try a different approach next term and make pancake muffins with pecans in them instead.

And, frosting?  It actually IS better to wait for the cupcake to cool down so that your frosting doesn’t melt down the sizes of your panmuffcake.  I was able to take this one photo before it all went to hell:

What this recipe also doesn’t tell you is that, if you’re being all fancy and trying to make a frosting swirl, you should start on the outside and work your way in.  Why this never occurred to me is a mystery, and led to some janky-looking cupcakes.

[Sidebar: “Janky,” after being made fun of for years due to using this “made-up” word, is actually a real thing. So there!]

So this week was a bit of a setback. What’s the most frustrating about this is that, even though I am developing a comfortability in the kitchen which I was previously lacking, I don’t have this innate confidence that I see in many other people.  I have an inferiority complex, dammit!  I know a lot of that confidence others express is a result of decades of practice, which I don’t have.  Throwing myself into this crash course and forcing myself into the kitchen is the only way I’m gonna learn.

Kitchen Catastrophe: Week 2 Recap

…Or as I’ve started to call it, my Home Ec homework.

Okay, so Week 2 was a much more resounding-ier success than Week 1, mostly to do with the fact that all of my food actually maintained the shape it was supposed to.  Let’s take a look at the results:

I was originally going to make a Bacony Breakfast Cupcake, but considering I had  ~5% of the required ingredients on hand, I instead substituted out for Barefoot Contessa’s Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp.  This was surprisingly simple to make, so much easier than last week’s Flat Apple Pie that I kinda feel like I cheated.

I had an excess of strawberries in the fridge that were on the verge of going bad, which is why I began looking for strawberry recipes. Strawberry aficionados out there: when fresh strawberries become frozen on the inside and slushy on the outside, is that a bad sign? A handful of my S-Bs (“strawberries,” duh, but can also stand for “Starbucks”…don’t get the two confused!) were like this and I just threw them out since they made me nervous.

I have definitely never used rhubarb before in my life, and even had to Google Image search it to make sure I didn’t make a fool of myself in the produce section trying to figure out where it was.  To my rhubarb fans out there (can I get a “Heeeeeey!”), are you supposed to “skin” the rhubarb or just leave it on?  I did a mix of both since I didn’t want to add in too much flavor that wasn’t supposed to be there, or take away flavor that was.

The “crumble” part of the crisp.  Obviously, I need to find healthier recipes for this challenge or people will wonder why two fat gelatinous monsters didn’t have the shame to stay off the beach this summer.

…Aaaand here is the crisp upon completion.  Thankfully, it was pretty edible, nice and tart with the crumble adding a good texture and a baser taste for balance. I can really only see this being served accompanying ice cream (which Barefoot’s recipe calls for), since it’s a little messy and unattractive once on a plate or in a bowl.  And as you can see below, it’s super runny; I panicked at first and thought I’d done something wrong, but the commenters on have the same criticism.

Barefoot, time to revisit this recipe! Maybe not so much OJ next time? I’d also recommend either cutting the S-B/rhubarb requirements by a 1/2-cup each, or increasing the amount of crumble you’re making, since the proportions seemed a little off.

So while that was in the oven, I began Sandra Lee’s Crouton Crusted Chicken Tenders with Orange Barbeque Sauce. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize there was no thawed chicken in the refrigerator, and after an unsuccessful bath under some water for about a half-hour (as recommended by Yahoo! Answers, the Magic 8 Ball of our times), I had to nuke them just to get the process along. Thankfully that didn’t sap the chicken of too much of its moisture.

My breading stations. Yes, Lance's "The Book of Mormon" keychain was integral in the preparation of this meal.

This dish could end up wildly different depending not only on the croutons used (this one called for Cheese & Garlic flavored) but also the type of barbeque sauce used.  I used Bull’s-Eye Kansas City, which is fairly sweet, though I wonder was a smokier BBQ sauce would produce.

Note: I subbed out regular bread crumbs for panko. Interestingly enough, panko tends to make your recipes healthier because their shape actually keeps out a lot of grease and oil.  The more you knooooow…!

[Also, as an aside, did you know that Bull’s-Eye (one of the cheapest brands you can buy) and Stubb’s (one of the most expensive) are some of the few BBQ sauces available in large supermarkets that don’t have high-fructose corn syrup in them?]

Uncredited cameo appearance by Kitty.

Ta-da!  I think these came out pretty well, and I would recommend them if you’re an easy and quick meal to throw together after work and don’t care about the fact that you’re consuming a lot of carbs, buttermilk, flour, so on and so forth.

All right, Week 2 is DONE! Feelin’ pretty good, but as with every Hero’s Journey, I need to remind myself of these sage words:

"Don't get cocky, kid."

Kitchen Catastrophe: Week 1 Recap

After a weekend bumbling my way through the kitchen, many lessons have been learned.

  • The “prep time” given in any recipe is probably a fifth of the amount of time you’ll actually spend preparing your dish.
  • Make sure to have a rolling pin when making pies; substituting a can of Pam takes away some of the magic.
  • Always read the entire recipe before beginning (see below for reason why).

Flat Apple Pie

I attempted the pie first, though I’ve never made a pie before and any rationale person in my position would’ve worked up from, say, cookies to cake to pie.  But, it was Saturday night, and with nothing better to do in the suburbs than listen to our downstairs neighbors moaning about their aches and pains (remember, they’re old curmudgeons), I moved ahead.  The recipe yields two pies, just in case you ever decide for yourself that one pie is just not enough, you fat pig.

Like any baked good worth its…sweet?, pie crush has a buttload of butter. And vegetable shortening (whatever that is. I just know that it’s like the Venom symbiote if it attaches itself to you–it is not gonna let go and you will inevitably lose your mind as it consumes your soul).

For the apples, I used dark brown sugar instead of regular. I didn’t notice any stronger of a taste (I’m assuming dark brown sugar has a more caramel-y taste? Help me out here, bakers).

The recipe calls for rolling out your pie crust with this mythical object called a “rolling pin.”  Since I don’t have one, this is merely a fantastical invention on the part of the recipe author. I did, yes, wrap a can of Crisco cooking spray with plastic wrap for lack of any other reasonable alternative.

Now, at 11:30pm, into the oven with ya! I took this opportunity to assess the damage:

Flour, you evil bastard!

40 minutes and an episode of “Justified” later (Boyd Crowder, you crazy sonofagun!), I pulled my pies out of the oven.

Sweet baby Luke Skywalker, the horror! I rolled the crust on this pie a little thin, a fact supported by the transfer from baking sheet to plate:


Thankfully, Pie #2 turned out much better:

The crust was flake-y and buttery, though not sweet enough for my taste. The one thing I did like about this “flat apple pie” is that you can eat a slice of it like a pizza. Since that’s exactly what America needs: pies you can eat like pizza.

Kitty, as you can see, was really thrilled about my first pie success:

Sunday, I took on the Meatloaf Muffins.  If you don’t factor in the cost of things most people probably already have in their cabinets, like Worcestershire sauce or bread crumbs, this recipe will still cost you $15 just in meat and barbecue sauce! This cooking nonsense is expensive.

Unfortunately, this cooking attempt resulted in a big fat DUD. This may be due to the fact that I didn’t read the directions carefully enough when actually mixing the ingredients together.  See, I’m goin’ along, mixing the meat, the egg, the onion, the bread crumbs, etcetera and so on.  Then the next step is to “mix together the smoky barbecue sauce,” so I dump the whole cup of Stubb’s in there before I read the rest of the sentence: “…the salsa and the Worcestershire sauce. Pour half of the mixture into the bowl with the meatloaf mix…” GAH!  So there I am, trying in vain to scoop out the extra half-cup of barbecue sauce. After a while, I just gave up and then divided the mixture up into the muffin tray.

As you can see, the meatloaf was not all that easy to get out of the tray, even though I coated the muffin cups with olive oil as required in the recipe.  Granted, this may also have something to do with the fact that my meatloaf had about twice as much liquid as it should have.

Anyway, the meatloaf muffins were…messy, and ended up being more of a meat scramble than loaves or muffins.  Enough meat was left over from the original batch that I was able to cook a second round for a little longer (40 minutes instead of the original 30 for these larger muffins), and they turned out a little better.

So, in sum, Week 1 was a mixed bag. It was all edible, though I obvs need to work on my presentation…and reading comprehension skills.

The Kitchen Catastrophe 10-Week Challenge

You know those obnoxious people who shy away from things they aren’t good at in order to avoid embarrassing themselves? Yeah, I’m one of them. On the long list of things I don’t do for this reason (which also includes participating in any sort of competitive sport or wearing skinny jeans) is basically anything kitchen-related.

Sit me down in front of a shrink and I’m sure a dozen different phobias and psychological disorders could be identified in my aversion to cooking and baking.  Essentially, though, it boils down to a lack of faith in my ability to produce something that is actually consumable for sustenance; that’s a tall order! Unfortunately, my ways have gots ta change.

In an effort to better myself and develop an appreciation of the food I so love to consume (as well as to earn deferrals on my student loans), I’m currently taking a food writing course taught by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s food critic, Craig LaBan.  The catch here, of course, is that I know diddily about the process of preparing food, the flavor and textures of separate ingredients, and so on.  So how am I going to effectively dissect a dish to write about it if I don’t know about food with any sort of depth?

To address this problem, I have developed a 10-week cooking and baking challenge to run concurrently with my class with Prof. LaBan.  The task is to make two new dishes a week (one meal, one dessert), trying progressively more difficult recipes as I work through the 10 weeks.  For the sake of simplicity and some semblance of standardization, the recipes come from, and will be divided up as follows:

Weeks 1-4: Easy Recipes

Week 1:

Week 2:

Week 3:

Week 4:

Weeks 5-8: Intermediate Recipes

Week 5:

Week 6:

Week 7:

Week 8:

Weeks 9-10: Difficult Recipes

Week 9:

Week 10:

One could argue over the culinary merits of the above recipes and the chefs/cooks from which they spawned, but my aim is a self-prescribed crash course, not the Culinary Institute of America.  I preemptively command you off my back, food snobs!

To quote Benedict Cumberbatch, “The game is on.”