Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Japanese Cooking Lessons

One of the biggest blessings that I have had while living here in England is having a wonderful flatmate.  She has been a great friend and support to me while I have been over here, and I am so lucky to have ended up in her flat!!  Not only is she a great listener, has good advice and is good competition in board games, but she is also a FANTASTIC cook!  It was my brilliant sister who first thought of the idea that I ask my flatmate for cooking lessons, for purely selfish reasons on her part.  My mom served a mission in Tokyo in her early twenties and learned how to cook a few things while over there, so us children were raised thinking eating Japanese food was a normal delight for every family.  Turns out most families don't have the blessed opportunity to partake of some of the Earth's finest cuisine as frequently.  Our family still gets ridiculously over-excited when we see Japanese food, and it usually turns into something like this:

So naturally I too felt my sister has a genius idea, as she is wont to do, and asked my flatmate for some cooking lessons here or there throughout the year.  Starting off with some previous knowledge from my mom of how to make yakisoba, miso soup, ramen, sushi, curry and my all-time favorite inarizushi, this is what I've accomplished this year with Aya:

Takikomi Gohan





Tofu with ginger, pepper and eggplant with yummy sauce, and my all time new favorite...Somen!!

But seriously, the somen is the most divine thing ever
(note resemblance to first pictures above....)

Homemade gyoza

Fried gyoza and gyoza in a soup!


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Life is Like a Blackberry Bush

Over the past few weeks I've done a lot of blackberry picking.  Each time I've been out, I seem to find a great analogy about how blackberry bushes are like life. My flatmate commented on how she was thinking the same thing!!

Perhaps the first thing you notice when you chance upon a blackberry bush is the delightfully ripe black berries.  When you see the berries, you can't help but reach out for them.  Not only are they delightful to eat fresh, but your mind immediately imagines all of the wonderful things that can be created from blackberries, like pies and jams galore.  Life can be the same way.  You can often see the wonderful things of life right in front of you, and imagine future glorious possibilities.

But then as you reach out to grab the berry, you run into a little tangle.  Literally.  Because the second thing you can't help but notice if you've spent any time around blackberry bushes are the very large and very plentiful thorns.  And also a very large amount of medium sized and tiny thorns.  There are even thorns underneath the blackberry leaves.  It's like every single part of the bush is making is difficult for you to reach your most prized possession.  And oh buddy, can life feel the exact same way.  Oh how there are thorns in life.  There are large thorns, there are tiny thorns, there are thorns in places that at first glance would seem nice and innocent.  And they hurt.  They scratch.  They catch hold of you and don't let go.  They leave marks that last for days.

But interestingly enough, despite the pain that you know will be around for a while, the clothes that will get ruined (not just by the thorns, the blackberry juice itself does a good job of putting clothes out of commission...), your hand reaches out anyway.  Because the joy and delight that will come from that berry is worth the pain.

When you go blackberry picking, you have to take risks.  You might be able to get a few blackberries here or there without brushing through thorns, but to really get a good harvest you have to be willing to make some sacrifices.

The bush will also hide the berries from you.  You would be amazed at how many extra berries you find just by shifting a leaf a little bit.  And even more mind boggling is how after you have cleared one spot of all of the ripe berries and are convinced there are no more berries anywhere, you can take a little step or two to one side and all of the sudden there are so many more berries in exactly the same spot you were just picking.  Sometimes with life there are so many good things right in front of you, but they seem hidden by all of the extra bits of life that you are surrounded by.  Sometimes all you need is a little shift in perspective and you can see so many more blessings that were right in front of you the whole time.

Another interesting thing about blackberry bushes is that you have to pick the ripe berries everyday.  The blackberry bush will stop producing berries if it senses the ripe berries still on the branches.  But as long as the ripe berries keep getting picked, more berries will keep on coming.  Life is similar, you need to work at life every day.  For the religious minded, this is a good analogy for reading our scriptures everyday and praying everyday.  If we don't take time to take care of ourselves every single day, we can reach a point in our lives where we are at a standstill and are not bringing forth good fruit.

Blackberries with the best flavor are the bushes that have lots and lots of sunlight.  Too much rain dilutes the flavor.  Our lives are filled with the most flavor when we are positive and grateful.  Obviously some rainy days are going to happen.  And obviously your life, just like blackberry bushes, needs a good amount of rain to be able to grow, but we also need to make sure we are putting ourselves in places where we will get light.  Personally, I have always loved the symbol of Christ as light.   For me, when I put myself in places where I can feel more the presence of God in my life, when I am grateful for the wonderful blessings I have been given, when I am positive and full of hope for the future, I can taste the perfect sweetness that life has to offer.

Blackberry picking is always best done with friends.  You are going to get stuck in the bushes, and it always helps to have someone close by to call out to for help.  They can come and pick you out.  And in turn, you will be there when they call out when they have gotten stuck as well.

Another interesting thing about blackberries is that the first day they are black, they are tart.  Sometimes you want tart berries, there are some recipes where they are the exact flavor you are looking for.  If you wait one more day, the berries become sweet, and often this is the precise flavor you are looking for.  If you wait too long, however, the berry will lose its flavors.  Sometimes in life you need different flavors, and the trick is knowing how long to wait.  Sometimes you need to act immediately.  Sometimes you need to have patience and wait a bit longer.  But always it's a bad idea to remain in limbo too long, not wanting to make a decision until it's too late and you end up with no flavor at all.

All of this pondering about berries and life made me remember another analogy of fruit and life, found in the Book of Mormon, starting in 1 Nephi Chapter 8.  A few verses in particular seemed quite fitting:

"10 And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.

 11 And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.
 12 And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit."
(continued in chapter 11)
21 And the angel said unto me: ...Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
 22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.
 23 And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.
I'm so grateful for the simple things in life that can teach us such powerful lessons.  Sometimes life is hard and painful, but the fruit that can come from it is sweet above anything before we have tasted and it will fill us with exceedingly great joy. 

Blackberry Festival

Sometimes life gives you lemons, and all you really do with it is make lemonade.  But then sometimes life give you blackberries, and you can have a Blackberry Festival!!

(These come from one of my favorite books as a child, Jamberry by Bruce Degen.  Beeteedubs, we actually did read this book while enjoying our Blackberry Festival!! :D )

When I was between the ages of 8 and 12, I lived in a little town called Sutherlin, Oregon.  In this town, blackberries grew wild and out of control.  We lived next to a big deserted field at one point, and I remember often as a child crawling through the thorny blackberry patches til I found a good spot in the middle where I could just sit and pick wonderfully fresh blackberries all around me.  I had self-crowned myself Princess of the Blackberry Bushes.  This is one of my most fond memories!  And every year in this town in early August, they had a Blackberry Festival.  I remember the big parade most of all, though I think the annual Blackberry Festival coincided with the County Fair, because my memories seem to mesh the town parade and celebrations with fairgrounds and carnival games and roller coaster rides.

Since that time, I haven't lived in a place where blackberries existed like they did there.  People don't seem to understand when you tell them their berries suck, and since you're from Oregon you know what you're talking about.  Unless you've picked fresh berries in Oregon, you really have no idea what a berry should taste like.  Not even you, Northern California.  Not even close.  And don't get me started on Utah....  But one extremely delightful thing about living in England is that the climate is very similar to the valley of Oregon, which means...lots of wild blackberries!!!!!  I've taken my flatmate from Japan out blackberry picking with me several times, and she has fallen in love with blackberries.  We've made pies, scones, jars and jars of jam and some cobbler.  But then we decided it was time for bigger and better things.  We were going to have our very own Blackberry Festival!!!

For our Blackberry Festival, we wanted to have an entire meal where every dish had blackberries in it.  Our menu ended up as such:

Chicken with a Blackberry Sweet & Sour Sauce
Meatballs with a Blackberry BBQ Sauce
Blackberry, Brie and Fennel Pizza
Blackberry Spinach Salad with Feta and Almonds
Rolls with Whipped Blackberry Honey Butter
Blackberry Lemonade
Blackberry, Pineapple and Peach Smoothie
Blackberry Meringue Desserts
Blackberry Macarons
Blackberry Rhubarb Crisp

Needless to say, it was quite a divine spread!  We picnicked out in the park, read Jamberry and played some football.  Balloons were present, people dressed for the occasion, and blackberries were celebrated in the most glorious of ways!

One really neat thing we realized later by accident was that during this time in Japan, they have their annual Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony, where they remember those who were affected by the dropping of the atomic bomb.  My flatmate and I commented on how special it was that on that same day, we were having a picnic in England with an American, a Japanese, a German and a Chinese, all of whom are wonderful friends.  This seemed like the perfect celebration of peace and friendship!