Thursday, February 25, 2010

Japan Blossoms in Spring!

Spring is just around the corner, and in Japan, that means it’s time for hanami festivals! Hanami means “flower blossom viewing” and the parties, picnics and parades take place when the sakura (cherry blossoms) are in bloom (January through May in different parts of the country). Sakura are admired and celebrated by visitors from all over the world. With more than 150 varieties of cherry trees in Japan, it’s no wonder their delicate beauty is imitated in Japanese art, clothing, decorations and more.

My friend, Teruko, was raised in Japan and is now a college Japanese Language Instructor. She said “Just imagine that there are pretty, sweet, pink-colored sakura everywhere when you look up. It is a breathtaking, beautiful scene!” Even though she has lived in the U.S. for 16 years, Teruko’s memories of the hanami festivals are crystal clear. “I felt a breath of spring in the air under the cherry blossoms. It was also joy to watch people’s peaceful and happy faces, and I felt happy too.”

The Japanese celebrate with special hanami foods which they share at picnics under a canopy of blossoms. Some areas are so popular that people have to mark their spot early in the morning. Most of the party and picnic fare are “finger foods” that can be easily transported. Some of the most popular are Kushidango, Japanese sweet dumplings with a sweet and salty sauce; and Yakitori, kabobs are made with chunks of chicken and sometimes negi (green onion).

Yakitori (Chicken Skewers)

2 to 2 1/2 lbs. chicken breasts or thighs
1/4 cup mirin or sweet white wine
1/2 cup light soy sauce
3/4 Tbs. fresh ginger, grated finely
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1 Tbs. sugar

Cut chicken into bite-sized chunks. Using a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients and let stand for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the chicken and reserve the marinade. Thread the chicken pieces onto 12 bamboo skewers. Cook the chicken skewers on a grill. Turn them during cooking and brush with the reserved marinade (Only brush with marinade during the first half of the cooking time). Cook until browned all over and cooked through.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sensational Sicily

Buongiorno! Come and spend a moment in beautiful Sicily, land of volcanoes and beaches, age-old ruins, elaborate churches, amazing food and….my ancestors! I think part of what makes Sicily so fascinating is all the people who conquered it through the years. The Greeks, French, Spaniards, Austrians…did I miss anyone? In the end, all those cultures wove their way into Sicily’s art, food and architecture. There is sooo much to see in Sicily, so I’ll just have to stick with a couple of hot spots.

My Sicily obsession: I’m dying to see Gole Dell’Alcantara (“the throat of Alcantara), a gorge on the Alcantara river formed by lava in ancient times. It looks eerily beautiful and dramatic. Obsession number 2 is the Blue Grotto (pictured), which is actually in Capri, but you can take a boat from Sicily. It’s a sea cave illuminated by sunlight passing through an underwater cavity.

Interesting Sites: Teatro Massimo (Palermo), an architectural masterpieces and one of the larges opera houses in Europe. The Sanctuary of Santa Rosalina (Palermo) is a church built into a cave! There are many Greek ruins in Trapani, but if you’re into ruins, you’ve got to see Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples.
Beaches! Sicily is a beach lover’s paradise! Some of the best are Mondello Lido (close to Palermo) and at the Resort of Montelle (near Messina). Spiaggia Sabie Nere in the Aeolian islands actually has black sand beaches. Another don’t miss is Lido Mazzaro, where you take a 15-minute cable car ride down from the medieval town of Taormina to reach the beach.

Food! If you love seafood, Sicily is the place for you. Surrounded by the Mediterranean and Ionian seas, Sicily turns to the water for many of its famous dishes. Shellfish and squid are particularly prevalent. Other popular ingredients are lemons, artichokes, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, peppers, olives, rice and of course, pasta. Sicilians love their foods to be as colorful as they are rich in spices and textures. Here’s one of my favorite recipes:

Sicilian Amaretti Cookies
(Note: Many Italian regions have Amaretti cookie recipes. Some are hard and crunchy, but the Sicilian version is crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.)

1 can (8 ounces) almond paste, see note
1 cup superfine sugar
2 large egg whites

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. If you don’t have parchment, grease cookie sheets with butter. Break the almond paste into small pieces and place in mixing bowl with sugar. Work it into small pieces with your fingertips for a few minutes before mixing to achieve the proper texture. Mix on low speed until very fine.
Add egg whites in two additions, mixing well between. Continue mixing the dough until smooth; about 3 to 4 minutes. With a teaspoon mold dough into 1 1/2-inch mounds on baking sheets, 1 inch apart. Dampen paper towel and lightly press the top of each cookie to smooth the surface. Bake 15 minutes or until cookies have risen and are a deep golden color with tiny cracks.
Remove from oven and place baking pan on rack to cool. When cool, gently peel cookies from parchment. If they stick, turn the paper over and wipe the bottom of the parchment with a damp paper towel. If using greased cookie sheets, remove while still warm. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.
Cook's note: Do not use almond filling, almond paste provides the wonderful, chewy texture.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Land of Niagara Falls, grizzly bears and more lakes than anywhere else on the planet (though I haven’t actually conducted a planet-wide study). More importantly, this month at least, home of the 2010 Winter Olympics! Here are a few great sites other than the famous falls.
Rocky Mountain High -- These are some of the most beautiful mountains on earth. The Canadian Rockies have sharper, more jagged peaks than the American side and offer breathtaking scenery. You can get there by car through the national parks of Banff and Jasper. Start in Calgary or Edmonton. While you’re in the area, don’t miss the serene beauty of Lake Louise and Morraine Lake.

Surf’s up! What? Surfing in Canada? Check out Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island’s rugged west coast. The park includes Long Beach, a stretch of wide, sandy beaches. In addition to its dramatic scenery, this beach is considered a surfer’s paradise! You can get there by car from Nanaimo or Victoria through Port Alberni. Kayaking and whale watching are also popular activities at this location. Here’s a link:
Prefer cities? Canada has two of the cleanest and prettiest. Visit metropolitan Vancouver in the southwest corner of British Columbia, on Canada’s west coast. Of course, it might be a little crowded this week and chock full of Olympians. Or…try Victoria, a smaller city at the south end of Vancouver Island.
Do you speak Canadian? Canada is the only place I can think of that has two distinct languages -- English and French, the latter spoken primarily in Quebec. Of course, here in the U.S we have New Orleans, which sort of has its own language. If I were young and single and some New Orleanian guy called me “cher,” in that fancy accent, I’d probably melt into a puddle.
My favorite Canadian food is…Okay, what DO they eat in Canada? With all those lakes and coasts on three oceans, fish must be a regular menu item, but how does one describe Canadian cuisine? No one ever says, “I have SUCH a craving for Canadian food” or “Honey, let’s go out for Canadian tonight.” I had to turn to the Internet for a true Canadian recipe. This one sounded much better than the Canadian Bacon with Maple Glaze.

Maple Syrup Upside-Down Cake

1 cup maple syrup
1 Tbs. butter, softened
3 Tbs. sugar
1 egg
1 cup flour
2 tsp. baking powder
Pinch of salt
¼ tsp. cinnamon or nutmeg
½ cup milk
¼ cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream

Preheat oven to 350° degrees. Measure butter, sugar and egg into bowl. Beat with wooden spoon or electric mixer until creamy. Mix flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon (or nutmeg) together. Add dry ingredients and milk, a little at a time, alternating between the two, to the creamed butter mixture. Stir until well blended.
Measure syrup into a small saucepan. Heat syrup until it boils and pour into a generously buttered 8-inch square baking pan. If using chopped walnuts, add them to the hot syrup.
Scoop up the dough in four large balls and drop them into the hot maple syrup. Using two forks, stretch dough by the edges of the balls until the dough forms one large mass. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes.
Serve warm, with ice cream or whipped cream. Serves 16.