Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bento Week in Review - Jun 27 - July 1

This was a bit of a short Bento week, and that week where groceries needed to stretch until the next trip, but I managed to make the most of leftovers, and found two new freeze-ahead staples!

I'm making a special 'contest' Bento for Friday to start my holiday weekend. It's ambitious enough to merit its own post once it's done. It involves grilling, lime-fiesta spice, and learning to make homemade Parisian macarons! Keep your fingers crossed!

MONDAY June 27: Vitamin Bento (lots of colors = good stuff!)

Kimono Long bento box

Cheeseburger Croquettes, Tamagoyaki, beans and rice, strawberry, orange bell pepper, sweet peas, raspberries and blueberries - hearty, colorful, refreshing

The recipe for the Croquettes will be added over the weekend. I took leftover grilled hamburger from a cookout and the reserve box of mashed potatoes (yes, box, not fresh, but time is a factor for me) and froze a second helping for later in the week.

TUESDAY: Using-Up-The-Last-Overs Bento

Bagel Lunch Box, new Shinzi Kato 'Cute Red Hood' single-layer bento box

Onion bagel with cream cheese, two sliced kiwi fruits, blueberries, raspberries, sweet peas, last of the beans and rice

THURSDAY: Super fast, freeze-ahead, Bento-For-One technique

Shinzi Katoh 70's Poodle Onigiri box

I took two Cheeseburger Croquettes out of the freezer, had the peas portioned out in the refrigerator ahead of time and put them in the box in the morning. I added them to the top of the stir-fry when microwaving for 45-1:30 at lunch. They were great - though the texture is a bit more watery than if they had just been prepared, but that's to be expected. Heat them a few seconds more if that's an issue.

Another portion of Stir-Fry Spaghetti inspired by the recipe in Bento Love. This freezes well and was still just as tasty. It will be a new menu item on my Bento rotation!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Atelier jardin: Garden Tea Session - Fruited Whites

My work space for the evening : fresh air, perennials, and two white teas from Boston Tea Co.

First on the agenda : Blueberry Kiwi White Tea

I see two white tea buds, Malva flowers, whole dried blueberry, broken tea leaves that seem to be a bit on the darkish side, almost oolong-like, and twigs. The smell is sweet and earthy.

Gettin' Twiggy Wit' It

I'm not sure how to explain why this is an issue or non-issue for some. There are some tisanes where it's important to include the stalks of the plant or herb being used. But typically, when you're talking camelia sinesis, the leaves are where the flavor's at. Having a lot of twig can mean you're getting less of the tea and more of the add-ins. I was a little worried when I noticed this before I steeped it.

Dry leaf ready to steep - the Malva flowers make for a beautiful presentation

Steepin' away, the purples and whites creating their color magic in the gaiwan

Post-steep : a typical white tea color, and as expected, the tea flavor takes a back seat in this blend to the blueberry and kiwi.

It packs a 1-2 punch. The first punch is sa-weet! The kiwi and blueberry are almost too much in the beginning. I was picking up a familiar "kool aid sweet" vibe, but the second punch made up for it. The acidity of the blueberry begins to balance things out, and the tea, which is an afterthought, comes through slightly.

I enjoyed this one, but it's definitely a "niche" tea for me, as I would pair it with a special meal of savories or grilled fish to balance the sweet. It makes a unique iced tea as well, though I'm saving my iced tea brewing tip for a seperate review (look for it next week!).

Bottom line: it's different, it's sweet, it's got a fruity kick, but the tea itself is more of a backdrop.

Next up on my tea garden session: Tropical Tangerine White Tea

Now, this is what a white tea lover expects to see in a tea marked "premium" - lots of fuzzy white tips and leaves, bits of tangerine, and YES!~ there are sunflowers in this blend as well. Just upon opening the bag, I had a good feeling about this tea.

The dried leaf - those are whole white tea buds.

Post steep: Amazing. The tangerine is certainly tart, but the flavor of the tea isn't hidden away. (See the two-leaves-and-bud above?). Smooth, fresh, and earthy with the addition of the sunflowers, and a slight citrus aftertaste from the tangerine. I could see this accompanying just about any kind of pastry, a cheesy pasta, or just by itself.

I'm becoming a fan of blending teas with sunflower - so different, not sweet like the ubiquitous almond.

This one's another keeper!

Ah, the toils and travails of preparing tea........


Monday, June 27, 2011

Blook Review: Bento Love

I recently received a nice gift from the team at Lunch-A-Porter in Montreal, Canada as part of a small Twitter contest, and wanted to re-iterate my thanks and to share this excellent find with other Bento-for-One or Non-Kawaii Bento enthusiasts.

Bento Love by Kentaro Kobayashi, part of his Easy Japanese Cooking series. Translated into English and published by Vertical, Inc., New York, 2009 edition.

I like Kobayashi's approach - there's much to love here for the carnivore and veggiesaurus alike. The portions and recipes are geared for adult eaters, and while each of the bentos is appetizingly photographed and will have your mouth watering as you turn the page, the emphasis is on flavor and ease over appearance. From manly steak-focused main dishes, to disguising vegetables as entrees, and a section on incorporating leftovers as new lunches - he covers the usual gamut, making this a nice comprehensive idea guide for the new Bentoist.

The bentos are presented on a two-page spread with their three-or-four dish components. Recipes for each component follow the spread, with ingredients the average person would be likely to find. He doesn't have you hunting through the aisles of your local Asian market for nagaimo (Japanese yam), for example, which makes this collection seem all the more approachable for the rest of us. He does include a list of substitutions on the back index if you don't have access to the more commonly-found ingredients.

Also included in the index are single-component side dishes listed by color and genre, to help in planning your own menus. (example shown below).

Bento Love is a must-have resource for people like myself who enjoy Bento, but aren't necessarily trying to dress things up for picky eaters or don't always have time in their day to throw in a Panda pick. Simple, flavorful, easy food to enjoy at work or elsewhere, with ideas on how to put them together.

It served as the inspiration for last week's Spaghetti Stir Fry bentos (chicken, cabbage, stir-fried spaghetti instead of udon or soba noodles).

Thanks again, Lunch-A-Porter!


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tea is For Sharing

It was a day of clearing through things and looking ahead to the busy summer schedule. Madison Crazyquilter and her husband were in town and we met at our favorite tea shoppe to catch up on news and sip our favorite teas (and maybe convert her husband from Mr. Coffee into Mr. Tea).

I have built quite a collection of nice teas since the beginning of the year, and can't possibly finish everything I've purchased, so I put together a small care package with an elephantino tea pot from Two Leaves & a Bud for them to take home. As nice as my favorite tea shoppe is, it's still a little bit of a drive from home, and Madison seems to have even fewer places devoted simply to tea, so I figure I'm helping the tea-challenged and at the same time some good teas find a good home.

But more importantly, the planning for this little get-together helped me realize that tea is truly meant to be shared. It can be a calming, zen, solitary experience when you make your favorite on your own in the middle of a busy day, but there's still something very social about the experience of tea.

1. It takes time to prepare, and I dare say a bit more know-how in preparing it well than the average coffee-based drink. That's not to say that pulling espresso isn't a complicated art, but to know the exact requirements of dozens of different kinds of leaves, water temperature, timing, and serving dish just as a baseline for being a tea purveyor - it takes the same kind of dedication.

When a friend offers you tea, it's usually done with care and attention, whether or not the conversation is lively. It's usually someone's favorite brand or leaf and they've spent a bit of time finding out how best to serve it. Maybe they even have a story to share about where it's from, or what the flavor reminds them of, or what they were doing when they picked it out. You may not be as enthusiastic about their choice, but there's something inherently more involved in being offered tea than being handed a can of soda.

2. It takes time to drink. Unless you're coming in from a long day in sweltering heat and gulping down copious amounts of the iced variety before you catch fire, tea is usually savored over a bit of time. This is conducive to conversation. The first few sips are usually the longest, as the mouth is moving in order to refrain from screaming "Hot! Hot! Scorching! Help!" when you realize the mug still needs to cool down.

This is where you get to know people. The tea will drink itself as the minutes pass.

3. We can't all be masters of the art of tea, therefore it makes life easier to find a place that tries to do the work for us, making it easier to concentrate on the people we're with. There's something about being able to hand the dirty dishes back to the tea shoppe owner on a tray that makes it easier to relax and focus on the task at hand, whether it be a chat with friends, sitting next to friends while having electronic devices plugged into different orifices, what-have-you.

But what about the tea in your own cupboard at home? What to do when you realize you've overstocked? There are a few things to keep in mind when sharing leaf teas.

1. Consider your audience. If you know your friend doesn't appreciate the nuance of Coconut Banana Mojito Pu-ehr, don't offer your second as-yet-unopened packet to them. It will just get tossed, and your stock as a friend will likely drop a few points. Just as you probably wouldn't enjoy receiving a neon orange macrame potholder as a birthday gift, your tea recipient may not know what to do with two pounds of loose Bai Mu Dan if they do not currently own a mesh tea infuser. Make sure they have the proper equipment or throw in a strainer so they can enjoy it.

2. Don't pass along old tea. If it's been stored too long, just toss it. Even if it's a good mark like Mariage Freres and the canister still smells nice - it should be fresh, or it doesn't leave your doorstep.

Rule of thumb:
Greens, whites, delicate teas: 3-4 months tops and it starts reaching Tossville
Blacks, oolongs, blends: 6-9 months, start evaluating for freshness when you use them
Pu-erhs and other aged teas or tisanes (like Rooibos): varies according to type, but when stored properly, a year or more

I've had to toss two exquisite Earl Grey blends over the past year, just because the bergamot and black tea had faded. Even when steeped at double strengh. Just not worth the energy to salvage.

3. Last but not least, put some thought into presentation and storage. Try to send it in its original, preferably resealable packaging. Don't assume they'll have what they need to keep dry tea covered and air-tight. The less trouble they have to go to in order to make and store the tea, the more likely they'll be to prepare and drink it.

Don't let good tea and conversation go to waste! Happy Beginning of Summer!


Friday, June 24, 2011

Bento Week in Review #2 Jun 20 - 24

Had a full week of bento lunches and breakfasts. The pandas were excited!

Discovery of the week: Uncrusted PBPB sandos (PB2 as I call them):

Dickinson's Country Pumpkin Butter (consistency of apple butter and spiced perfectly) and crunchy peanut butter on wheat bread shaped with a Sando de Pando. Yum!

Monday: Shinzi Katoh "Picnic Day" Onigiri case

Green/red bell pepper pieces, black-eyed peas, Rainier cherries, baby carrots, tamagoyaki rolls, 3 deli slices of swiss cheese, and two plum tomatoes.

Don't let those small kawaii onigiri cases fool you - they can hold plenty-o-bento!

Tuesday: Black flower onigiri case

Baby carrots, leaf balan (silicone and chic!), Rainier cherries, sauteed snap peas

Stir fried spaghetti and chicken with cabbage, onion, and carrot

Wednesday: Kimono Long bento case

Rainier cherries, cucumber logs, 2 slices Muenster cheese, stir-fried chicken spaghetti, baby carrots.

Thursday: Shinzi Katoh "70's Poodle Club" case

Rainier cherries, ham & American cheese rolls, black-eyed peas, kiwi fruit, strawberry, baby carrots, cucumber spears


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

White Peony - Delicate and Organic

The third sample in my series of teas from Boston Tea Company was a new one for me. Sometimes called Bai Mu Dan, White Peony tea is a prized grade of white tea named more typically for its delicate features than for actually being derived from the Peony flower. It just so happens that I have three beautiful peony plants in my backyard, so I was curious to see if a true comparison could be made.

I called upon my prized Blue Peony gaiwan to steep my first cup as the gaiwan brewing style tends to bring out the truest flavors for a short steep.

The dried leaves smelled slightly vegetal like a fresh green, and I was a surprised to see a few more twigs mixed in among the leaves than I typically see in the senchas and other whites I've tried. Not sure if that's a good sign, but as this isn't intended to be steeped into oblivion, it may be moot. In fairness, Boston Tea Co's website describes the tea as being blended with actual peony, which may also explain this twiggyness, though I didn't personally detect floral in my steeping.

The first steep for just slightly over one minute with cooled-off-the-boil water. Looked a lot stronger in the cup than a typical white, but the flavor came through.

Impressions: fresh, slightly vegetal, almost sweet but doesn't quite get there (maybe that's the peony?), with a secondary nuttiness almost like pistachio. Nice.

I decided to do a shorter steep, via my regular trusty 'ol Stumpy, with same temperature of water, for 45 seconds, a 2-cup amount of leaf and water. The color looks more typical, but the flavor was blah. I prefer the flavors that came through in the gaiwan cup. Lesson learned.

Recommended if: you're looking for something more subtle. I could see this being a good companion to a whole-grain bread, sauteed greens, softer cheeses - savories.

Also of note: it isn't often you run into a true organic tea. I'd like to know a bit more about how Boston Tea Co sources their organics, but if organic is important to you, this is a white tea to check out. Nothing too complicated, very sippable.

While it may not evoke floral notes like my prized Sarah Bernhardt peony blooms, it did indeed bring a calming moment to my day.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bento Week in Review #1: Jun 13 - 17

Had a busy week of dog-sitting in late evening and early wake-ups for work, so I only managed to get one semi-official bento packed, though this leftover spaghetti won't win any Kawaii awards. I love the versatility of my MonMode bento bowl - available at Lunchaporter. It was a big enough portion I couldn't finish it all, yet it still kept well enough to enjoy later.

The leftover spaghetti lunch in all it's glory - carrots and apricot included. And plenty of parmesan.

I did manage to put my cheap WonderBread plastic sando maker to use this week. Peanut Butter and Nutella pocket sandwiches. Really hit the spot, and easy to put in the freezer and make-ahead.

My latest Bento gear arrived this week as well, including the Sando de Panda box for transporting one of the above pocket sandwiches without worry of it being crushed or mixed with other lunch items.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Apt Apricot

This was the second selection I sampled from Boston Tea Company, and while I enjoyed it, it wasn't a stand-out-from-the-crowd peach/ginger blended black tea. That being said, the apricot flavoring was fantastic, and I believe I'll be ordering their Apricot green tea soon, as I have a hunch it may be right up my alley.

What I like about this one: the fruit is balanced. It's not overwhelming or chemical, and doesn't leave a strong aftertaste, so the black tea flavor is given half a chance to come through. This isn't such an issue with greens and pu-erhs, but there are many black tea fruit blends where you're left feeling like you're drinking kool-aid rather than tea once the steeping is done.

The name of the blend might have you scratching your head. Peach AND apricot? Isn't that like building a Wal-Mart next to a Super Target? Peaches and apricots both being milder neighbors on the flavor continuum, it may seem redundant, but they don't compete with each other in this offering. In the cup, you can taste the apricot and you know when you've encountered the peach.

What didn't meet my expectation: the ginger flavoring is a little on the side of ho-hum. Ginger isn't usually an add-in that sits in the background. I'm accustomed to it having more of a piquant "boom" as it travels over the palate, but I didn't get the impression that ginger was meant to be the stronger of the three musketeers in this offering.

For the tea drinker who is looking for a ginger blend that's milder - this would be a perfect choice.


To put it another way - there are sipping teas, and there are drinking teas. On my personal list, this would be filed under a drinking tea as it got me through a long work day, 4 cups and 2 seperate steeps. Other selections, like Boston's Peach Passion Oolong, are on my 'sipping list.'

You will like it if: you enjoy a decent black tea with punchy apricot and a hint, just a hint, of spice


Monday, June 13, 2011

New England Meets Old South

I could hardly wait to get this one steeping when my box of Boston Tea Company goodness arrived last week! I haven't ventured much into oolong blends per se, prefering the slightly sweet Iron Goddess/Tie Guan Yin leaf straight up. I've had great peach teas, and I've had bad peach teas as well - all black teas up to this point.

This isn't a typical oolong. It's got a rich color and cup, medium-to-almost-dark oxidation. The peach isn't overpowering, and is more present in the dry leaf aroma than in the cup itself.

What made me a fan, however, is that there are SUNFLOWERS in this blend! Who would have thought of adding sunflower? It goes so well with the richness of the oolong and adds a nutty kick to the peach. It had me craving my grandmother's famous flaky-soft biscuits - would be perfect on a breezy southern spring afternoon on Dalton Pike.

While I can't re-create my dear grandmother's specialty from scratch, I did create a new twist on this Southern staple by incorporating Peach Passion Oolong into the recipe (to follow).

The dry leaf - uniform oolong tea leaves, peach petals, and sunflower bits

The steeped cup - a rich amber

The finished treats: oolong-infused tea biscuits iced with sweet peach oolong syrup

A closer view - when cooled down, the oolong syrup caramelizes the crust

A special thank you to the folks at Boston Tea Company for thinking a tiny bit 'outside of the box' on this one, and inspiring a new culinary adventure. Iced oolong, these tea biscuits, and flowers from my garden - now I just need a wrap-around front porch, a rocking chair, and a lacy fan to pass the afternoon y'all :).

LatteTeaDah's Easy-Breezy Southern-Style Oolong Tea Biscuits

Note: I use low-fat Bisquik. It may be blasphemy, but I'm an impatient baker. The basic idea is to create your biscuit dough first, the normal way, whatever method or ingredient ratio you prefer. You want a dough that's sticky but still pliable. From there, the recipe gets tweaked and the tea works its magic.

Preheat oven to 450, prepare a baking pan or cookie sheet


1 1/2 cups + 1/2 cup Bisquik flour/mix

1/2 cup of milk (soy milk can be a substitute, but you'll end up with a vanilla-sweet dough)

3 heaping tablespoons Boston Tea Company Peach Passion Oolong

Water to boil

Tea filter or tea pot

Granulated sugar or sugar substitute (approximately 1/2 cup or to taste)

1. Stir together the first 1 1/2 cups Bisquik and the milk in a large bowl until you have a sticky, pliable consistency and the flour is largely incorporated into the dough.

2. Heat approximately one cup of water to boil. You will be creating a 'Super Steep' - a highly concentrated cup of oolong tea, with a ratio of more leaves and less water. In your preferred container, add the tea leaves and water and steep for 3-5 minutes, removing the leaves. You should have a nice, dark cup of tea.

3. Allow the tea to cool slightly and add 1/2 cup of the concentrated tea to your biscuit dough. Stir in the other 1/2 cup of Bisquik mix until you reach the original consistency - sticky, yet pliable. It shouldn't be watery or runny. You can always add more flour mix until you get it right.

4. With a large serving spoon, drop biscuit-sized dollops of dough onto your baking sheet (my recipe created 8 regular-sized biscuits). Place in 450-degree oven for 7 to 9 minutes until they've risen just slightly and the tops are only just starting to turn a golden brown.

5. With the remaining 1/2 cup of tea, add an equal amount of granulated sugar or sugar substitute and stir - the idea is to create a simple syrup. You can heat this again on the stove or microwave it for a few seconds if you'd like a true thick 'syrup', but drizzling the liquid over the biscuits right out of the oven also helps caramelize the tea topping.

6. Remove the biscuits from the oven when slightly golden, drizzle the oolong sugar syrup topping over the warm biscuits right away and allow to cool.

Serve with a warm mug or a tall glass of Oolong and wipe the red clay off your shoes!


Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Kawaii Sunday Breakfast

I treated myself to a bigger Sunday breakfast than my usual routine yesterday, after my Tamagoyaki stencil set arrived this week from BentoandCo, and in preparation for the annual planting of my backyard veggie garden.

I had seen a great how-to video on the site "A Vos Baguettes" (in French) and it looked so easy to create the fun shapes, I thought I'd give it a go. Here's how it turned out:

The stencil set comes with 3 stencils (star, heart, and a rectangle, not pictured, for traditional bento tamagoyaki rolls) and a spatula. They're silicone, so there's no worry about them sticking to the pan, but still a good idea to coat the bottom of the pan with what you'd normally use. I go with a fat-free spray.

Heart pancake: make your usual pancake batter and fill the stencil. When the batter bubbles and turns "matte" instead of "glossy", it's ready to turn over, stencil and all. BUT:

You may want to avoid filling it up to the top with your batter like I did at first - as the pancake cooks, it will expand a little, and you'll end up with batter spilling over the sides.

You can trim the overflow with your spatula when you flip it, no worries :).

When done, you simply let the pancake cool for a few seconds and remove the stencil.

How to make a fun egg (with credit due to Amelie via BentoandCo's youtube demonstration, the video that inspired me to try the same thing - just music and picture, no need for translation):

You begin by seperating the yolk from the egg white. Add the egg white to the stencil in your pan. Let it cook a few seconds, then GENTLY slide the yolk into the center of the stencil and continue to your level of preferred doneness.

One thing I would recommend doing is weighing down the stencil by pressing on it with your spatula as you add the egg white. If the stencil isn't 100% grounded in the bottom of the pan, the egg white will spill out from under it and you'll get a ragged edge to things.

How cute is that??????

The finished plate, from the top: egg sunny-side-up, two hearty heart pancakes, a strawberry, and 1/2 a banana. Quite a feast!