Thursday, December 31, 2009

Yuzu Marmalade - Tastebud Joy

Yuzu is a citrus fruit unique to Japan and unique in flavor - stronger than a lemon and with a bit of a punch. About the size of the mekon oranges also in season at the moment, the yuzu is sunny yellow rather than orange. It is used both in its green state as well as its fully ripened yellow primarily as a flavoring for various dishes, especially fish.

The Marmalade Experiment

Inspired by my first batch of marmalade earlier this year, it seemed like something worth giving a try. The Takashi's were a bit skeptical, but I decided to go for it anyway especially after reading about this successful attempt. (I'm also quite inspired by the yuzushu recipe, too.) And after stopping at a favorite fruit stand where we've bought kiwi and kaki (a.k.a. persimmon) before, those golden globes just seemed irresistible. Throwing caution almost entirely to the wind I bought two bags.

I cut up the fruit and removed the seeds of probably 14 or so yuzu. I didn't remove the pith out of, well, sheer laziness and the fact that I didn't do it for my previous batch. The original recipe only called for steeping the water and fruit for 24 hours, but my schedule recently has been mad. The mix steeped for about three days. (It didn't seem to do any harm.)

The sugar I used was again what I had on hand, which was not Okinawan sugar but one similar to brown sugar found in the US. I used the minimal amount - 1 cup for every two cups of fruit - as I wanted to maximize the potential flavor of the yuzu. I then boiled the mixture for about 40 minutes or so to get the consistency I wanted. (The mix pre-sugar seemed a bit more watery than I remembered my first batch being.) I tested the consistency by dipping a metal spoon chilled in the refrigerator into the hot mix and watching as it slid off and back into the pan.

Meanwhile, I heated up jars and lids in another pot to sterilize them. Once the marmalade was ready and the jars sterilized, I filled, capped, and popped them back in the pot of water. I kept the marmalade on low simmer while filling the jars to make sure things were hot and fresh. The filled jars boiled a good 15 minutes, and then were set to cool.

The Result

I came away with 14 small jars of tastebud joy. The Takashi's, my ultimate test of success for this experiment, loved it. Our Christmas Eve guests quickly emptied the jar I set out with some local bread, and another friend reported it a success at home. The flavor is definitely yuzu - lemon with a punch - with a nice hint of sweetness. I'm looking forward to sharing this taste of Japan with family and friends at home, too.

Next Time

Since I'm new to the taste and concept of yuzu, I was originally a bit concerned that the flavor would be too strong. If that turned out to be the case, I pondered the idea of making it with mekons, too. The mix of orange and yellow peels would be lovely, and the flavoring would be a bit more subtle.

I've also thought about adding ginger for a little extra spice. And I still would like to try it with Okinawan sugar, too.

More on Yuzu

This mildly dated article about yuzu offers some interesting ideas about how it is used in contemporary quisine, and a series of articles discussing its use and flavors. This page also gives some more scientific as well as historical information about yuzu with the added bonus of some fine photos of the fruit and tree.

Yuzu is also traditionally added to the Japanese bath on Toji, the winter solstice, which the Takashi's also recommended to us. We weren't able to do this, but I imagine they must look like little suns floating there. Add to that their pungent aroma, and it sounds like a perfect winter bath to celebrate the now ever-increasing light.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tokyo Garden Update - Winter Crops Sprouting

One of the best parts about today (other than speaking with friends and family back home celebrating Christmas) was peeking into the row covers and seeing little tiny sprouts looking back!

We planted just under 360 seeds on December 13th in freshly tilled soil. This time of year calls for leafy green vegetables that can withstand the chilly nights (dipping a tad bit below freezing on occasion) and short hours of sunlight. (It's dark dark about 5pm, and doesn't get light until about 7am.) I'd had a few moments of stomach-dropping doubt when I didn't see any sprouts the past few visits. And while the little guys are difficult to see in the photo at left the resulting sigh of relief and shared smile with the Takashi's as we peeked in made it well worth the wait.

Here's what we planted:
  • Pak Choi - one of the many tasty Asian greens that are perfect in stir fry or salad.

  • Komatsuna - A tasty Japanese leafy green named after Tokyo's Kamatsu River it has a nutty spicy flavor, and we can't wait to chomp into it. This article gives a fascinating history of local vegetable varieties, including Komatsuna. My garden is just off the map to the west past Mitaka.

  • Karashina - We put in two kinds of green and one kind of red. Karashina resembles mizuna somewhat in appearance, but has a zippier taste that has made it a favorite in our house salads. Like mizuna, karashina can also be added to nabe, oden, and miso for a nice touch of green.

  • Edible Chrysanthemums - I don't actually know much about these, except that they are edible. I bought some once and we added it to our salad mix, and the taste was a bit bitter but the leaf shape was nice.

  • Spinach - We planted two kinds of spinach to see what we would get. One seed was rounded, and the other seed had little spikes on it that were uncomfortably pokey even for the short time I held them in my hand.

The Takashi's recommend the use of black plastic mulch. Just like any mulch it keeps the soil warm, keeps down weeds, and retains moisture. We didn't use it over the summer, but it seemed like a good choice given the low temps and short sunlight for this time of year. All of this was topped off with perforated plastic to create a long mini hoophouse tunnel. We'll see how it all goes!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Joy of Dirty Hands

When I was a kid I hated gardening. My mother asked me to help her in the garden, and I'm pretty certain I whined and was such a miserable companion that she finally found great relief in letting me just stay indoors to read or watch TV. It was too hot. It was boring. It was dirty. And tomato hornworms were just too gross for words.

Gardening is now something I find I can't live without. Our move to Tokyo in March of this year was only feasible in my mind because I had a chance to have a garden. (That first one fell through, but then another and even better opportunity presented itself.) I didn't even have a garden of my own until we moved into a farmhouse in Michigan more than five years ago. There, along an old fence, I dug out the sod in a strip about two or three feet wide and about ten feet long and planted my first tomatoes, beans, kale, swiss chard, basil, parsley, and beets. It wasn't long before nasturtiums and johnny-jump-ups, and a couple bush squash plants were added. The next year the garden jumped the fence - literally and figuratively - to become about four times larger. Popcorn, cardinal climber, morning glories, potatoes, cosmos, chives, and peas joined the green chorus.

Morning found me in dew soaked slippers with a steaming coffee checking the progress of seedlings or just soaking in the thrill of seeing those plants. Before heading into the house after a day at work I'd walk over to the garden to see how the day had gone, and more than once a nice skirt received a swish of dirt from an irresistible urge to weed "just a little bit" before even greeting my husband.

I found in gardening a chance to do something concrete. It put food on our table, in our freezer, on the pantry shelves, and made for some great gifts. Canning tomatoes, drying herbs, and whipping up batches of pesto for winter pasta remains satisfying work. And the task of eating them is work I tackle with relish.

I found great beauty. Thick veined cabbage leaves are one of the most beautiful things I think I've ever seen. Cobs of homegrown popcorn glinting in the sun thrill me to the bone. My own eye for color and composition is still developing, but I confess I don't work too hard at that. I like the increasing madness of my garden as the season progresses.

I made new friends. The praying mantis, the assortment of bees, the birds, and the occasional neighborhood cat are welcome visitors. Not to mention the instant bond that develops with a fellow gardener when we learn of each other's passion. There's nothing better than a good chat about growing vegetables. It's what bonded the Takashi's and I almost instantly despite a language barrier.

It's in my blood. I've written about this before (not for publication), and I think about it alot. I come from long lines of farmers (who doesn't, really?), and the joy I find in planting, weeding, harvesting, monitoring, eating from, composting, and viewing the garden (mine and others) courses through my veins. The rolling landscape of hay, corn, horses, wheat, and cows with woods, rivers, lakes, and kitchen gardens the same square footage as many homes in new developments is a part of my heritage of which I am most proud. As I tend my own small plot or work with the Takashi's to tend their fields, my mother and grandmothers and friends and family (here and gone) who've gardened and farmed before work beside me. The joy in that alone wheels me out to the garden and farm again and again.

Gardening and farming presents a chance to explore my own history, the history of others, to find common ground through food and the growing of it. It presents an intellectual and creative challenge each and every day of the year. And an element of surprise in the volunteer nasturtium, the sneaky fresh potato crop. I could write about this for hours, years, and thousands of words, and still not quite hit it right. But when I see dirt still stuck under my fingernails while at my office (I only have so much patience with a nail brush) it reminds me of who I really am and what I love best.

Inspired by the essay contest over at Gardens of the Wild Wild West. This is probably too long, but it was too much fun to stop.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Daikon Season

Well, I didn't get up quite early enough this morning for the daikon harvest, but I made it in time for the washing! The daikon seeds went into the ground in September - two per spot - and we thinned the seedlings (a process called mabiki) in late September, early October. (The young leaves were great in salad and miso.)

The daikon harvest has been underway for a couple weeks at least. We see them everywhere now - at the supermarket, on the farm stands, in bicycle baskets on their way to dinner - with their cheerful green tops waving. When they are ready for harvest they are about three to six inches in diameter, and often the root measures about twelve to eighteen inches. A good chunk of the white root stands above ground with the tap root going straight down at least that much again.

The washing process is fairly simple. A little preening of the leaves and stems by Shee-chan, and then I inserted the daikon into a washer. The contraption reminds me of a car wash - two spinning brushes the daikon goes between for a good scrubbing - and quickly turns them gleaming white. Takashi-san then dunked the leaves, cut off any unsightly bits, and bundled them up for shipment to the store.

I think I can safely say that before coming to Japan I had never eaten daikon; however, it is a part of nearly every meal here. It's nutritional value isn't enormous, but it is a good source of Vitamin C. Pickled daikon, shredded daikon, and raw daikon slices are all pretty commonplace here. While a member of the radish family, the flavor of daikon only hints at the spiciness usually associated with this group.

The Takashi's suggested making oden for my first cooking experience with daikon. The daikon absorbs all the flavors of this popular winter stew, and turns out to be one of the best ingredients. Following is a the recipe Takashi-san told me, with a variation or two of my own. The measurements are approximations as I just plopped things in until it looked right.

1/2 cup dashi*
1/2 cup soy sauce*
3 cups water*
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup mirin or sake
Half a daikon, chopped into inch size pieces
One carrot, chopped into medium-sized pieces
One medium onion, roughly cut
Three small potatoes, cut into medium-sized pieces
Two medium sweet potatoes, unpeeled, cut into medium-sized pieces**
Tofu, cut into bite size chunks or the inari tofu skins cut into bite size chunks
*I did this by sight. I aimed for a middle brown color - not too light, not too dark - which makes it, well, subjective.
**This is NOT a Japanese recommendation. I just did it and liked it, but when I tell my Japanese friends they look a little...shocked.

Start heating the first five ingredients and give them a stir to make sure the sugar dissolves well. Chop the others and pop them into the pot of simmering brew. I tend to put in the things that take longer to thoroughly cook - carrots, potatoes, daikon, sweet potatoes - sooner rather than later. Bring it to a boil, and then let it simmer. Or, if like me, you then quick run out to the sento for a hot bath on a cold night, just turn it off and let it steam. Reheat when you return, dish it up onto a handful of mizuna and chomp away!

More Links
Here are some other links about oden along with recipes. Please note that some of these do not use the same broth base that I did, but they should be quite tasty.

This short article describing oden and it's ingredients offers a nice overview and some handy links. It's fun to hop around and so some preliminary exploring in preparation for more serious research. This recipe does suggest a soy based broth similar to what the Takashi's recommended.

This recipe from Just Hungry offers, as always, excellent details and information about the ingredients and process of making oden. The broth here is not soy based at all, but relies on the simmering mix of ingredients. (I'm getting hungry...)

If cooking isn't an option or interest, but eating is this page describes oden and offers links describing where to find it in convenience stores. (Yup, convenience stores.) I haven't tried it yet, but one of these chilly days I will!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Researching the Squash

As reported earlier, our pumpkin plants didn't make it this summer. Whether or not it was the extremely hot and humid Tokyo summer or late planting wasn't immediately clear. However, while reading an article from Organic Gardening about Heirloom Pumpkins, the answer seems to be emerging.

Amy Goodman, author and an heirloom enthusiast/expert, explains in her article that there are varieties of squash better suited to a tropical environment. Cucurbits moschata (think butternut) specializes in growing in hot tropical areas. (The light bulb is blazing over my head.) A little research on Seed Savers Exchange, Wikipedia, Google, and whatever other resources I can harness while without an English library revealed to me that this could be the answer to my question. The following is a list of Japanese heirlooms (with one exception) that I hope to find this spring and give a shot.

A unique Japanese heirloom squash that I've not yet seen here. I learned about it in a roundabout way after reading the above article in Organic Gardening. It looks and sounds delicious, and I'm quite hopeful to find seeds here for spring planting.

One of the coolest looking vegetables I've not met yet here in Japan. I'm hopeful, again, to find seeds locally rather than ordering from an American seed company.

Another one that I'm dying to find the seeds for locally, and then grow and eat. The description in this seed catalog made my mouth water!

A squash I, again, don't believe I've met yet here, but I can hardly wait. (It seems I may only be growing squash next year...) This lengthy article in Mother Earth News is some of the best information yet that I've found about heirloom varieties of squash for Japan. It also happens to hit on all the things that I LOVE about heirloom varieties, so I fell hook, line and sinker for this one.

Long Island Cheese
Perhaps the squash listed here with the most unfortunate name, this is the one I'll grow if all else fails for some reason or another. Not a Japanese heirloom but still one with a great little history, this squash sounds quite promising for its tasty flesh, charming appearance, and great texture.

A Good Read?
Amy Goldman, author of several books on heirloom vegetables including her most recent one about heirloom tomatoes, wrote one about squash appropriately titled The Compleat Squash: A Passionate Grower's Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes, and Gourds. It sounds like recommended reading for an heirloom grower, and I'm giving it some thought.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sweet Potato Harvest

This Spring I planted sweet potatoes for the first time. I'd certainly eaten them, and given some thought to growing them, but space in my garden often felt like it was at a premium. And past experience taught me that the potato can be a master of disguise resulting in a surprise second year harvest.

The Planting
When the Takashi's mentioned that an adjacent field was to be planted in sweet potatoes, I veritably begged to be able to help. We'd discussed our mutual fondness for them after I'd made some sweet potato stew for Shee-chan when she was feeling under the weather, as well as the differences between the American and Japanese sweet potatoes. (Japanese sweet potatoes have the same purple skin but are yellow on the inside. They also tend to turn brown rather quickly after slicing up, and the consistently is a bit more starchy.)

One fine morning in May found me with gloves, hoe, hat, and Takashi-san at the field. He had already tilled, but the sweet potato beds still needed a bit of preparation. Using stakes and ropes we created straight lines along which I hilled the soil into a long mound where I later planted the slips. Takashi-san worked on another part of the farm returning periodically to check my progress and admonish me to work a bit slower to save my back. Ten rows later I was done and ready for lunch.

The slips came bundled in newspaper, and we moved along the rows sticking them in the ground at intervals of about a foot and a half. Well, not really "sticking" but rather laying the slip (a sweet potato leaf and stem with a tiny root bud at the bottom) on the soil and then simply covering it up. Once the sprinkler system was up and running smoothly the days work was done.

The field was watered in the early mornings and late evenings as needed. (Last year the Takashi's watered by hand, and decided that was the last time for that.) I asked about applying any compost or dung, but the Takashi's said the sweet potato only required regular watering. It made me think what a boon this vegetable must be in some ways. It required some work to get in the ground and some watering, but no additional compost or fertilizer. Just let it grow and a good harvest was nearly assured.

Over the summer I would look over and see the vines stretching about the field soaking up sun and rain. Weeds grew alongside the plants, and in time the vines weren't even visible. I worried occasionally that the sweet potatoes weren't there any more - lost to the weeds or some unknown calamity that the Takashi's were too kind to tell me about - but then I remembered how clever and determined the potato can be and let it go.

The Harvest
Last Saturday we harvested some of the biggest, most beautiful sweet potatoes I've ever seen. Well, I didn't harvest them at all, but rather a group of preschool children and their parents did. Decked out in rubber boots with trowels in gloved hands children ranging in age from a few months (in one case strapped to a father's chest in a baby carrier) to about five with parents lined up along the rows.

The look on the faces of children and adults alike as HUGE purple sweet potatoes emerged from rich black soil was utterly priceless. Pure pleasure reigned supreme as potato after potato was added to piles all over the field. Kids dug for them like buried treasure and ran around holding them aloft. Kids ate dirt (and cried a little when finding it wasn't quite as tasty as anticipated), rolled in dirt, walked in dirt, and generally got dirty. It was great, and our faces hurt from so much smiling.

The Eating
We came away with a bundle of the beauties ourselves, and have been eating and sharing them since. Stew, steamed, baked in a neighbor's oven, and in dessert (bought at the grocery), the sweet potato is on every table and part of nearly every course at the moment. I've included my version of this original recipe I found on Epicurious years ago. It's a sure crowd pleaser, and it tastes good the moment it's made. The orange juice base makes it good for warding off colds, too.

Joan's Sweet Potato Stew
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups (or one whole medium to large onion) chopped a bit coarsely
2 tablespoons fresh minced ginger (without is ok, too, but it is a lovely addition)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
2-3 medium to largeish peeled sweet potatoes, cubed
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
2-3 cups of orange juice
1 15 ounce can of black beans (2 is good, too) rinsed and drained

Heat the oil in the soup pan, throw in the onion, and cook covered until the onion is well-cooked and soft. I find the longer I cook it (without burning it) the better. Throw in the garlic, ginger, and cumin, and cover again. Toss in the cubed sweet potatoes, stir, and add the orange juice. I tend to add orange juice until the mixture is covered and the sweet potato bits are swimming a little. Then I throw in the beans, and let it simmer along until the sweet potatoes are done.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tokyo Garden

Hard as it may be to believe I've been lucky enough to have a garden here in Tokyo. Shortly after starting to work at a local organic farm I was offered gardening space. It's not huge, but it's lovely and I've been so incredibly happy to be able to have it. I've only written a bit about the garden now and again, but now that the winter vegetables are nearly all in I thought I would share some of the photo highlights.

We grew bok choi (pictured above), beets, a number of herbs, edible and non-edible flowers, long beans, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, three kinds of kale, radishes, spicy peppers, what turned out to be ornamental strawberries, swiss chard, American pumpkin, and long onions.

Some worked out better than others, of course. The American Pumpkin (pictured at left) didn't make it. Perhaps the Tokyo summer with its high heat and humidity proved too much or it was a case of powdery mildew. Either way, despite its fantastic good looks - vines that stretched from the bed to the edge of the garden and then over the compost pile nearly to the chestnut grove - it didn't set fruit and died.

Most of the herbs did tremendously well. We've got a ton of pesto in the freezer, and I'm still drying others. The mint and lemon balm are attempting a take over of one of the beds, but so far I've held my own against them. I knew better than to let them loose, but I had spring fever and so in they went. To our delight, the fennel attracted what looked like Monarch caterpillars and we let them munch all they wanted. The farmers said they turned into a large black butterfly, although I don't know which one. Later, the blossoms attracted a bevy of bees and other pollinators. I never knew who I would find buzzing about and bedecked with pollen.

Our tomatoes and eggplants thrived for the most part, and despite a recent typhoon battering the tomatoes are still offering up fruit. (I just ate a couple gold gems tonight while checking on seedlings and trying to spot cabbage worms on the kale.) The Green Zebras don't seem to be thrilled, but they went in a little late. We've gotten a few fruits that we've enjoyed immensely. The farmers are still skeptical of a green tomato, but if any tomato can bring them around it's Green Zebra. And if not, more for us!

The kale (all three varieties) did well, and I believe it will make it through the winter. That's been a taste of home we delight in every day thanks to the help of a good friend. It, too, was not impressed with the high heat and humidity of a Tokyo summer and struggled through July and August a bit. Then the cabbage worms came a-snackin', and so it goes. Now that it's turning cooler, the plants are starting to look a bit more like themselves again.

The great joy of any garden is sharing it, and I've shared this one with a good friend. Turns out it was her first garden, and it was great to be there with her. Luckily for me, she's got a real talent for starting seeds, and so the bounty seemed to never end. (A typical haul is shown below. This was only what was in the front basket of my bike.) We share the garden, too, with the farmers who visit to see how things are going and to see what we're growing. If I'd only had a camera the first time they tasted nasturtiums or nibbled a bit of fennel. Without their generosity there would be no kale on our plates and no pesto in our freezer. (They've come to love pesto.)

Our garden sits in the southwest corner of the farm where a walking street runs. People regularly stop to admire the flowers and vegetables, and are often surprised to see two foreigners working away in the beds. Our Japanese is not so hot, but it doesn't matter. We smile and offer a just-picked tomato or flower, and the smile we get in return is communication enough. It's been a pleasure.

The photo at left shows me picking some beans and the garden in August. Behind me is are fields now filled with carrots, daikon, and broccoli. The edge of the chestnut grove is just visible in the top left corner. Behind me are two beds that have recently been bequeathed to me for growing space. (It's now planted in garlic, daikon, mitsuna, mustard, arugula, beets, onions, cabbage, and broccoli and covered with a tent.) We've also tidied up the space along the wall (third photo down) and prepped it for herbs, flowers, and maybe even strawberries. The toad living there wasn't thrilled at first, but we think he'll like the remodeling.

I can't believe how many crops - in the farm and in the garden - have been planted and harvested and planted again. The sweet potatoes I helped plant this spring are going to be harvested by pre-schoolers this Saturday, and the third round of broccoli is coming along nicely. I can hardly believe I get to plant winter vegetables, and I have no idea what to expect - as usual. But I'm excited to see what will happen and so grateful for this garden.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ramen Village in Asahikawa Delights

Sixth in a series about our adventures in Hokkaido this summer.

Ramen is one of Japan's favorite dishes. A simple concept - noodles in broth - nearly every prefecture and area serves a signature version, and each shop will feature a variation on this theme as well. Within about two blocks of our Tokyo apartment are at least three ramen shops, and each does the dish a little differently. One serves up a steaming bowl of noodles and fatty pork with a hint of green onion in a creamy broth. Another offers noodles with fatty pork in a clear broth with a strip of konbu and a nice selection of condiments - pickled daikon, dried garlic, a shaker of mixed spicy peppers, and a red paste that will warms you up from head to toe. Another, recently discovered noodle shop a couple blocks north of us serves it up with the usual noodles and pork, but throws in some seasonal vegetables, too.

After coming down out of the mountains of Daisetzusan, we spent some time exploring Asahikawa and a recommended spot was Ramen Village. Home to eight different ramen shops offering their own variation on this national favorite, Ramen Village called for careful selection. (Asahikawa is also famed for its ramen, so we felt we were in the right place for tasty exploration. You can take a look at the brochure for it in English, too.)

We finally settled on one that was crowded but didn't have a long line, and that looked cozy. A long list of different types of ramen, we finally settled on the most basic one. What we got was the usual steaming bowl, but this time it included "monogrammed" seaweed (I have no idea how that was done, but it's darn cute.) a soft boiled egg (a first time), the usual pork, and strips of mushroom. We happily slurped up the noodles from the rich creamy broth, while looking at photos of all the famous folk who'd dined there. While I can't say I thought this ramen was better than any other, I can say that it was as delicious and delightful as always. and that we left needing to loosen our belts a bit - as always!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Daisetsuzan National Park - A Brief Note

Fifth in a series about a recent trip to Hokkaido!

There were many reasons to head north this summer to Hokkaido. The heat and humidity of Tokyo drove us out as did the lure of the beauty of this northern island. Our friend, Ryan, had told us of the many wonders to be found there and suggested we come up for a camping trip. It took less than a second to agree to go.

We spent eight days backcountry camping and hiking in Daisetsuzan National Park. Japan's first and largest national park, Daisetsuzan contains a wide variety of landscapes, flora, and fauna. While we didn't see any bears, we took in many of the other delights of the park. Following is a sampling of our photos along with some interesting links.

Great links about Daisetsuzan National Park
Ryan has been wandering and photographing the park for more than five years now, and his library of images is awe-inspiring. He led us on a series of hikes that showed us some of the many facets of this incredible place.

The Wikitravel guide for the park is informative, of course, and offers some good hints as does the Wikipedia entry. However, we found that Ryan's page and this extensive article were more informative.

This web page offers some useful links for exploring the park, and the series of pdf's listed here was very informative and useful for getting a feel for the park.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Snack Discovery - Nanbu Senbei

Fourth in a series about our recent adventure north to Hokkaido!

Hachinohe proved a veritable gold mine for us. Not only did we find fresh fruits and vegetables and cooler temperatures, but we found a new favorite snack - senbei.

Now, unbeknownst to us we've been eating plenty of senbei all along - rice crackers just made for snacking and sipping tea - in various forms and often with long culinary histories. However, we stopped in a little store while strolling about waiting for our next train, and I grabbed a bag of an unknown looking food.

Warning: This is a risky habit that usually works out well, but not every time. We recently discovered a sweet-and-sour form of dried seaweed that just isn't for us.

This time, though, we hit it right. The senbei we found are specific to the Aomori area and are called nanbu senbei. Traditionally served as part of a dish called senbu jiru - cracker broth - they are made from wheat flour and baked in a round mold. (More commonly, senbei are made from rice flour, dipped in soy sauce, and perhaps wrapped in a small sheet of nori; however, within that realm is another of great variety.) Thin, round and about as big as the palm of your hand we ate nanbu senbei made with black sesame, and later pumpkin seeds.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Peach of a Train Station

Third in a series about our recent trip up noth to visit the island of Hokkaido and our food adventures along the way!

We left Tendo early the next morning to begin the next long string of local trains that would get us to Aomori and the night express train to Sapporo. Pivotal in getting us to our friend, Ryan, in time for our planned departure to Daisetsuzan National Park, we were a little nervous about this train. We happened to be traveling during obon, a period when Japanese people return to their hometowns to visit family and friends, and pray at the graves of their ancestors. It was not possible to reserve a seat on the train so it was a question of being first in line to be sure to get a seat.

One of the tricky parts about travel of any kind is eating healthy. In our case, whatever time we had at assorted stations was used to ensure we found the right train and got on it before it left. Missing a train drastically resets the entire schedule of travel for the day, and could easily result in missing a connection. The majority of our food consisted of prepackaged snacks and convience store sushi and onigiri. (Please note that I was reading In Defense of Food during this trip, and feeling worse and worse about my food choices.) We'd feasted on Masae's healthy treats, but I already had a taste for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Imagine my surprise then when we stopped at Hachinohe and found vendors selling local wares - honey, cookies and mochi, fish, and jam - in the station! Many of these items were being proffered as omiagi - gifts to give to friends and family when visiting their homes or staying with them - and could be purchased in lovely packaging.

But the real gem, as far as I was concerned, was to be found outside the station. We came out for a breath of fresh air, and as I looked about me I spotted some vegetable seedlings outside a shop door. Always irresistable, I walked over to discover a veritable treasure trove of fruits and vegetables.

It turns out the store is run by a cooperative group of farmers, and one of them was one hand to chat with us for a bit about the store, her farm, and the fruits and vegetables on offer. (She graciously agreed to pose for the picture at left.) Granted, "chatting" might be a strong term here. Our Japanese is lackluster at best, but we were able to convey the fact that I work on an organic farm in Tokyo and that we love fruits and vegetables. She quickly began naming off different varieties of peaches - all huge and lovely looking - and describing the merits of each. The same thing happened with the cherry tomatoes. While we only caught an adjective here and there, what came through loud and clear was her love and passion for her work and the products at hand. We bought some cucumbers and a peach, and then she offered up tomatoes and another variety of peaches for us to try.

Antenna shops like this one, also known as chiho bussan kan, are becoming more and popular with farmers and shoppers alike. As I mentioned before, the Japanese like food and will travel to a region or onsen to sample its speciality. Antenna shops in Tokyo are on the rise, and it looks like the concept is spreading steadily in all directions.

The chance for fresh fruits and vegetables seemd out of the realm of possibility on the train, much less an opportunity to meet and talk with the grower, yet the next leg found us with peach juice on our chins and gazing at ever more mountainous scenery while savoring yet another great flavor of Japan.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Pickled in Tendo

Second in a series about our recent trip to Hokkaido and some of the food discoveries along the way!

As I mentioned in a previous post about this first meal, Masae also served an assortment of homemade pickles. Okra, eggplant, and cucumber pickles she'd made the night before graced the table, and were perfect for a summer's evening meal. Also known as tsukemono, these pickles can range from simple overnight varieties to those left in jars for long periods of time. Pickles offer a chance to cleanse the pallette between types of sushi or dishes in a meal.

We ate in what I call "family style" - fishing out this or that directly from the serving bowl - and bringing it back to the rice bowl or small accompanying plate. If the pickle, tofu or tomato made it to my rice bowl (versus flopping onto the table or another serving bowl) it added a nice bit of flavor or worked well in combination withh something else I snagged earlier.

Masae's Pickled Eggplant
1. Slice washed egglant in half and cut in a cross-hatch pattern on the skin side. (If you closely examine the picture at left you can see the cross-hatch pattern in the eggplant slices.)
2. Fry the eggplant briefly to soften it some and to let it absorb a bit of the oil.
3. Plop the eggplant bits in a container of dashi and mentsuyu and marinade them overnight in the refrigerator.
4. Serve in a bowl with a bit of the marinade, and prepare to battle your dining companions for the last piece.

Masae's Pickled Okra
1. Boil the okra briefly, maybe two or three minutes or as long as you would for blanching.
2. Plung the okra in a bow of dashi and mentsuyu, and marinade overnight in the refrigerator.
3. Serve with a bit of the marinade, and again prepare tactics to get the last one to your plate and keep it there.

Some other good sources of recipes can be found here as well as here, and a nice bundle of recipes can be found here along with a book recommendation, too!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dashi (Seven Vegetable Relish)

Recently, we took a series of local (read "slow") trains north to Hokkaido. August is the height of travel season in Japan, and we found most trains, ferries, and planes sold out or out of our price range. Luckily, Japan Rail (JR) offers a rail pass that for a flat fee allows travelers to puzzle together a series of local trains to their desired destination. We broke our trip into three days, and spent our first night in Tendo with a Couchsurfing family. We enjoyed our evening with them immensely, and of course, the food was amazing.

Dinner consisted of cubes of deep-fried tofu (dredged first in rice flour and sesame seeds) with a series of pickled vegetables - eggplant, cucumbers, okra, and tomatoes - along with rice and dashi (seven vegetable relish). We drank glass after glass of mugicha, and finished off the meal with sweet, sweet watermelon long chilled in the refrigerator. It was a quinticessential summer meal similar in tenor to those shared with my mother in the hot summer evenings when I was a kid.

Dashi, it turns out, is a Yamagata Prefecture speciality. A mix of seven vegetables chopped up, mixed together, served cold and eaten with rice, it is wonderfully flavorful and colorful. It is a bit slimy in texture, but don't let that deter you from trying it. I'm not a big fan of slimy texture, but this ended up being my favorite dish from the trip! Masae, mother of the family pictured at left, shared the family recipe via Yohei, her camera-shy son and now the house dashi-maker.

Yamagata Dashi
10 shiso leaves
3 mid-size eggplants (keep in mind that eggplants usually tend to be smaller and thinner in Japan)
20 centimeters long onion/green onion - only the white part
5 cucumbers (keep in mind also that cucumbers commonly seen in Japan are also long and thin)
3 mioga (a member of the ginger family)
2 shakes of dashi powder (made from dried sardines and often used for making miso)
1 pack, natto kombu
Two second pour, dashi sauce (soy sauce could be substituted if necessary)
Ginger root, to taste
Chilli pepper, to taste

1. Pour hot water (about 300cc) over the dried natto kombu. If the water isn't hot it might not make the kombu viscous enough. Add the dashi sauce and chilli pepper to the mix. This mixture decides the taste of the dashi for the most part. The shiso, ginger, and mioga also affect the flavor, of course, but the dashi is the foundation. If it seems a bit too salty at this piont, Yohei and Masae urge patience. The final product will be less so when all of the other ingredients are added. Give the mix a stir periodically to give yourself small breaks during the next step.

2. Cut the vegetables. Yohei, who's taken over the making of dashi from his mother, chops them quite fine and warns that this is the time consuming part.

3. Mix chopped vegetables with natto kombu mixture. Yohei and Masae recommend letting it chill (literally and figuratively) in the refrigerator for awhile before eating. The flavors meld and the cold dashi is quite refreshing.

Masae also suggested adding chopped tofu or konnyacu to make it into the "old-timer" version of dashi. I may give this a go at some point to add a little protein, but then again why mess with what already tastes like perfection?

Interesting Resource for Further Perusal
This post about dashi powder from Just Hungry was quite helpful, as is the entire blog. As a recent subscriber I'm finding plenty of great information to help me sort out various recipes and ingredients while I'm here in Japan.

Friday, August 28, 2009

In Defense of Food - Reaction, Discussion and Off to the Kitchen and Garden!

Welcome to the August Book Club Post! I'm lucky enough to host this month's discussion of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Check out other titles the group has read, see what's coming up next, and join in!

I have to say that I think In Defense of Food is the best book I've read by Michael Pollan. Here he accomplishes what he sets out to do - offer up an eating plan backed up by common sense, history, and science - with great writing. I haven't read Second Nature or A Place of My Own yet, but of the food books, this one is, well, the bomb-diggity.

Thought-provoking, disturbing, depressing, but also inspiring, In Defense of Food made me realize how much I had bought into the concept of nutritionism. It also made me grateful for my little Tokyo garden, canning, and my mother for sharing my grandmother's recipes and family traditions. It also made me hungry for kale, but that's not hard to do.

Pollan also made me think about the Japanese diet I predominantly eat now in a different light. Since coming here in March of this year, R and I have both lost more than 15 pounds. We haven't tried to lose the weight, and to some degree I thought I would gain (The mochi is nearly irresistable, after all). However, I would attribute it to eating a more whole food based diet along with a more active lifestyle.

A traditional food culture is still quite strong here, although the Western Diet is making inroads via McDonald's, other fast food restaurants, and processed foods at groceries and convenience stores. Miso, tofu, seaweed, fish, rice, an assortment of noodles, and more than I could list here are still held in high regard and are a part of daily meals. I also realized during our recent trip to Hokkaido that the Japanese love food, and celebrate foods from different regions of the country with gusto. Travel posters everywhere feature a variety of foods from all across Japan more than just about anything else. The first question asked when we returned was "What did you eat?"

Now, before I head out to the garden to gather up some fresh veggies, here's a list of discussion questions:

- What did you think of Pollan's list of rules to follow? Anything missing or unnecessary?

- Pollan talks about a revolution of food sweeping America. Do you agree?
If yes, how deep do you think it goes?
What role do you think you might play in it?
If not, why not? What's missing?

- Would you recommend this book to someone who someone who is not a "member of the choir"? Why or why not?

- Pollan also mentions that that there are those who cannot afford to do this, but never delves much into what to do about that. He simply says that those who can afford to do it should. What do you think of that? What can we do about it?

- What other books would you recommend with this one to someone just beginning to be interested in this topic?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A New Kind of Container Garden

I spotted the words gorilla gardening in a recent email from, and followed the link to find this most awesome trailer about a truck garden in Brooklyn. What's new about a truck garden? Well, this one struck my fancy as it is, literally, a garden in a truck. It wends its way around Brooklyn to its CSA customers delivering vegetables about as fresh-picked as they can come. One of the best uses yet for one of those big old things.

More on The Truck Farm
Visit Wicked Delicate for more films on the Truck Farm and to learn more about what Curt and Ian (I'm not really on a first name basis with them, of course.) are brewing up. FYI, these are the folks who brought you King Corn.

Check out this post at Inhabitat for a ton of good links to Truck Farm and other nifty notions in the Big Apple.

(Image courtesy of Curt and Ian at Wicked Delicate.)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

One Idea for Next Year's Garden

A friend shared this link about rice paddy art. My little adventure planting rice with One Life Japan resulted in something beautiful, but not quite like this...Check out the link for even more amazing images.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tokyo Farmer's Market in the Sun

Apparently, a little sun can make a world of difference. I ventured down to the Earth Day Market in Yoyogi Park again last weekend to see what the market might be like dry. My first visit occurred in absolutely pouring rain, and I felt like I didn't really get a fair impression of the market. There were a fair number of vendors then, and we still managed to spend a few happy hours eating and shopping.

I again spent a few happy hours eating and shopping, but in a brighter and busier spot. A considerably larger crowd along with at least double the number of vendors made for a bustling time. Totokawa was on hand selling their tasty array of jams and honeys, and this time I also talked with Kitagawaen, an organic tea grower from Shizouka. His blend of green tea and brown rice is a new favorite.

I also met a group of folks from Mashiko, a small rural town quite famous for its pottery, about two and a half hours north of Tokyo by car. This little booth attracted a fair amount of attention. Selling vegetables and breads (the sesame loaf had the tang of sourdough with the hearty flavor of black sesame seeds) the group of two farmers and a baker enjoyed the assistance of the mayor. Their efforts to share information about their town and its nifty sounding activities were compelling, to say the least. Especially if I get to have more of that bread!

More to peruse if you can't make it to the market:

Mashiko, its long tradition of pottery and agriculture is possibly a new favorite topic of mine. Festivals, like the upcoming Earth Art Festa, occur annually to bring people in to enjoy the rural setting as well as shop. This portfolio of historic photographs includes a bundle of a Mashiko potter, his studio, and farm.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Inspiring New Books

Books in English are sometimes in short supply here in Tokyo, or at least a bit difficult to track down, and so I've got a running list of books that sound intriguing, useful, fun, and enlightening. Since I also know that as a booklover my list will only continue to grow (much like the pumpkin, pictured at left and even bigger now, now taking over my Tokyo garden) it's time to jot a few down.

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter, 2009
Carpenter echoed many of my own thoughts and feelings about urban farming during this interview with Grist and this interview over at the kitchn. I loved living in the country, but she's dead-on about it's "dirty little secret" of driving everywhere. I love living in the city, and I absolutely love every moment I get to spend on the Takashi Farm harvesting tomatoes and getting by mosquitoes in the bean patch. This combination of city and country is ideal. And, paraphrasing from Simply Recipes, if you like Will Allen and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle then this would probably be a good choice for you, too.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, 2009
If it wasn't for The New York Times Book Review I would probably miss out on a ton of great books. The same quite possibly holds true for this one. Shell, a corredspondent for The Atlantic, examines the culture of and our addiction to inexpensive goods. For a long time now my shopping credo is to avoid big box stores whenever possible, and shop the smaller and most likely more expensive local place. Sure, I pay more, but the service and quality tend to be better, and I like to think that by keeping my dollars/yen in my local community that I'm doing that community a service. Shell confirms this idea and it looks like she gives me some good information to continue making my case to others. I'm looking forward to this one. (There's a great, albeit rather long, roundtable discussion of Shell's book, too, that is also quite thought-provoking.)

The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan, 2009
Reviewed along with a bundle of other great books, this one made my list because it just sounds like so much fun. It's not exactly new, but it got reviewed because it's out in paperback now. I would still just love to read it, and carry on with my little fantasty farming schemes. Madigan, avid forager as well as homesteader, covers everything from creating the garden space - including container gardens - to puting up preserves. (I'm deeply disapointed to have missed the free give-away, but such is life.) This interview with Madigan, Kleindienst, and Hemenway, offers even more inspiration!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Food Awareness Education in Japan

One morning this past week at the farm we packaged up some nice bundles of tomatoes, eggplants, and beans for a local butcher shop. It turns out that the owner wanted to connect the employees with a local grower of organic vegetables, and offer them a small gift for the season of Ochugen.

It also turns out that this is not such an unusual idea. Another Japanese company is doing something similar and on a larger scale. This time focusing on rice, the company outright purchased the rice for distribution to its employees. The company is also coordinating tours and workdays on the farm for employees. How much fun is that?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sun Tea

During my time at Frog Holler I learned how to make sun tea. For last year's HollerFest, Cathy made experimental batches of the stuff using a variety of herbs from around the farm in varying ratios until she came up with the combination that seemed to please every palette. (If you go this year, I'm betting Holler Tea will be found yet again. This is only one excellent reason to attend this awesome musical festival, of course.)

Watching it brew in big glass carboys, I decided I could do the same thing with herbs in my garden. I tried my own combinations, and found none to be too bad except for maybe the parsley tea. (It seemed logical. It tastes good in everything else.)

Anyway, here in Tokyo the garden is chock full of good herbs. Now that the rainy season is officially over and summer is here in full force (we've changed our farm schedule to start around 6:30am or 7am in an effort to beat the heat) I've got the first batch brewing. The farmers have not tried it before, but I think it will be right up their alley.

My batch uses fennel, mint, and a wee bit of lemon balm. I simply pluck an assortment of stems of each, remove the leaves and jam them into a pitcher, fill said pitcher with water, and set it in the sun. Wait a couple days, strain out the leaves, chill, and serve. Make notes on what seems to work (or not) and start again. This recipe at Organic Gardening has exact measurements and calls for tea bags, neither of which I think are critical for success in this case.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

More on Hydrangeas

As we walk to the nearest train station we usually cut down a small, narrow backstreet that runs roughly parallel to the main road. A wide variety of single family homes, apartments, and condos line both sides. A handful of the single family homes are older, one-story structures built in a traditional style. The accompanying yards are a delight to the eye - hydrangea, hollyhock, fruit trees, and an assortment of unidentified flowers and plants - and presumably fed the household at one time or another. It's remarkable to see how much greenery is packed into a very small growing space.

One of these older homes always has something in bloom or fruit that catches my eye. In the spring it was an orange tree, hydrangea during the rainy season, with the last and most interesting of those finishing its blooms just now. (See pictures below.) Tiers of potted plants line the walk to the door, and a small porch holds pot after pot of succulents and cactus. I occasionally see an older woman out watering, but I haven't gotten up the gumption to say more than hello.

Hydrangea, as I mentioned earlier, are a new love of mine. A woodland shrub native to Japan, hydrangea here are some of the most amazing and spectacular flowers I've ever seen. (And let me just say there are no shortage of amazing and spectacular flowers in Japan!) Even as they fade, the blooms remain beautiful. May I age so gracefully.

This recent article from Fine Gardening offered some enlightening information about hydrangeas, although I DO NOT advocate use of artificial fertlizers. Please ignore that section of the article. The rest, though, offers an outline of the types, bloom color, pruning, and winter protection.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Beauty in Labor

Work at the farm these days is a hot and sweaty endeavor that often includes mosquitoes. The rain brings some temporary relief, but it requires rubber boots and makes it tricky to move the cart of vegetables down the rows. We harvest from fields prepared and planted this spring, and already the cabbage and broccoli I helped put in the ground are gone and the space cleared for the next round.

Hence, this episode of Speaking of Faith, featuring Vigen Guroian resonated with me because it captured the particular joy (and melancholy) of watching living things grow, come and go. There is a joy and pleasure in such labor that makes even the cabbage worm's lacey handiwork something awe-inspiring.

"In spring, I cultivate the perennial bed with the magenta petals and sweet citrus fragrance of the rugosa rose in mind. In excitement, I wait also for the green bouquet of the broccoli plant and the calm, clean scent of the cucumber.

"This was not always so. In the beginning, in my first garden in Richmond, Virginia, I farmed for food on the table. But in Charlottesville, Virginia, in Eldersburg and Reisterstown, Maryland, and last, here in Culpeper, the garden has finally reformed my disposition toward it. It has entirely transfigured my vision of life. …

" … For the sake of beauty, I gladly leave the ruffled red cabbage to grow long beyond its time for harvest. I let the mustard reach high with bright yellow bouquets. I cultivate carefully the asparagus row not just for the taste of its buttery spears but also for the verdant fern foliage that shoots up after the spring cutting. I let volunteer sunflower, cosmos, and cleome seedlings grow where they choose. And I sneak orange nasturtiums into the hills of sweet-potato vines. … "
- V. Guroian, Speaking of Faith

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Imports and Exports

When I was a kid my mom would slice up some Spam, fry it up, and serve it piping hot to the table. My brothers and I did hot hesitate to gobble it up, nor chomp it down at family reunions in cold salads with egg and mayonnaise. (I'm from Wisconsin - home of the deep friend cheese curd and other classic high-fat dishes - where dishes like this are commonplace.)

Imagine my surprise when I found Spam in Korea, and then I read this post on The Atlantic Food Channel about Okinawaan food. To be clear, Spam is not the primary ingredient in Okinawaan food, and not in Japanese food. It is certainly not as ubiquitous as it was in the Midwestern food of my childhood, but it's presence is still somewhat shocking. Peanut-flavored tofu, sure. Bitter melon, you bet. Spam...what?

The massive American base on Okinawa along with a bevy of foreigners from everywhere else means that a variety of foods and food bits have made their way into pots and onto tables across the country with a Japanese twist. Bread - originally brought to Japan by the Portugese - and pastries are dreamy here, and often also feature red beans, fish, or green tea in some form or another. Pizza showcases corn, seafood, and mayonnaise. Curries can be found almost anywhere, and have just the right amount of zip and flavor to satisfy even the most sensitive taste bud. High-priced bags of arugula can be bought at fancy groceries alongside similarly expensive brilliant green shiso leaves and sushi.

So, maybe Spam isn't such a shocker. And I confess, I found it as tasty in Korea as I did when my Mom made it for dinner or I ate those salads. Ok, and I still like those salads. I'm from a long-line of church-potluck ladies and hearty farm folk that drink bad coffee with every meal. I'm genetically predisposed.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Growing Power

Our cousin, Tim, sent along a link to the New York Times article about Will Allen of Milwaukee's Growing Power Farm, one of the coolest things I've heard about yet. It almost (almost, only!) makes me want to come back home and move to Milwaukee to work with him. (It sounds like I would have to take a place in line, but it also sounds like it would be well worth the wait.)

Tom Philpott at Grist gives a nice summary of the article, and suggests quite rightly that we all get out and garden. (Which I will do once today's rain lets up...if ever.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

TheSeason's First Pesto

In our little Tokyo garden, we've planted a bundle of basil. It surrounds the tomato plants as well as the eggplants in an effort to deter those that want to snack on those vegetables before I get to them.

Needless to say, all this basil is growing like mad, so I used this recipe to make the first round. I add some lemon juice and use walnuts instead of pine nuts. And, my confession is that I haven't used cheese in my pesto for years. It does taste wonderful, but it's expensive. Plus, I freeze the pesto, (in ice cube trays for nice dollops of summer flavor for rice or pasta in the winter months) and it seems better without the cheese.

Gardens Everywhere

A striking thing about both Japan and Korea is that almost no patch of ground is left untilled or untouched. Every nook and cranny contains a plant or flower or herb tended by some hand in hopes of enjoying a harvest or bloom.

We saw the same terraced beds in Korea that we see everywhere in Japan, along with small farms and even the occasional guardrail bed of peppers or sweet potatoes. A number of the plots contained little huts with low tables and tools. I imagined they serve as storage as well as a place to retreat from the laserlike sun of the Korean summer.

I'm still surprised at my own sense of surprise at these things. Using land for food (or even flowers, to some degree) is more sensible than using it for inedible and water-hogging grass.

Here's a simple and concise history of agriculture in Korea, a nice little piece on farming and early childhood education, an older but interesting piece on organic farming in Korea, and the next book I'd like to add to my bedside table!