Monday, March 30, 2009

A Great Post from Tom Philpott at Grist

I'm offering this Grist blog post about food and class up as it addresses some of my own concerns about the new wave of food mania hitting the US. I can't say enough how great I think it is that people are supporting local farmers, eating more seasonally, and paying attention to what goes in their mouths. But, I worry that it is only for a certain group of people at a certain income level. Good,  healthy organic food should not just be for the elite, but it should be for everyone. (A point well-made in a discussion that followed an article summarizing the Local Food Summit this past winter.) Philpott addresses it again and so eloquently that I thought it worth sharing here. 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Thousand and One Things to Eat with Rice

Last night I was feeling particularly inspired (for me, that is), and so I cooked up a tasty little series of vegetables and tofu. All the vegetables and the tofu were done on our little fish grill, and the greens I did in the wok. Our kitchen comes with a two burner gas stovetop that has a little fish grill in it. It's sort of a rack you pull out and then lay whatever it is you hope to cook down, close the door, and grill away. Influenced by a neighbor who did her asparagus in it, I thought I'd give it a shot with a some of the stuff we picked up recently.

I simply cut everything up somewhat thinly, dredged it in a bit of oil and assorted spices, and then laid it on the rack. For the sweet potatoes, I did some just in oil, but then later added nutmeg or curry powder just to see what would happen. I did the same for the eggplant, but for the tofu I simply flopped it (gently) about in soy sauce and then put it on the rack. (As I finished roasting one thing and started the next I put it in a pan on the stove with a lid to keep warm.)

All of it turned out really well, although the tofu wasn't as firm as I would have liked. Even the firmest we've been able to find here is still quite soft, but we'll adapt. The sweet potatoes could have been a wee bit softer, but they were still quite tasty and the eggplant was perfect. We served it up with a little bit of wasabi on the side and a glass of cheap red wine. Yum!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Informative Set of Materials about Sustainable Agriculture

I came across this great little list in my weekly e-issue of The Scout Report - a compendium of interesting electronic links and information put together by the great folks at the University of Wisconsin (Go Badgers!) - that focuses on sustainable agriculture and food security.

Sustainable-food campaign reaches a critical mass of influence in the United States

With Food Democracy now, Iowan Dave Murphy Is Challenging Corporate Farming

Safeguard Food Supply But Respect Small Farms

Big Island Video News: Sustainable farming with tilapia

Even city folk can make vegetable gardens flower,0,4687726.column

USDA: Sustainable Agriculture [pdf]

University of California: Agriculture and Natural Resources Free Publications [pdf]

Years ago, some might have heard the words "food advocacy" or "sustainable agriculture" and thought of well meaning groups based in large cities on the West or East Coast. As of late both of these ideas have been gaining currency across the country, and they continue to grow dedicated supporters in states where agribusiness had been a dominant feature of the landscape for many decades. One such supporter is Dave Murphy, an Iowa native who returned back to the heartland after working in Washington, D.C. for years. Murphy's organization, Food Democracy Now, recently circulated a petition calling for more sustainable food policies, along with offering a list of six progressive candidates for secretary of agriculture. It could be argued that the Midwest has lacked an authentic voice as regards to agricultural policy reform, which may be due to the high profiles maintained by well-known celebrity chefs and food pundits who hold sway in the major media markets like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Murphy has also made some compelling new suggestions about how to recast the struggle to get young people to eat more fruits and vegetables. He, along with others, has suggested that it might be useful to pitch this argument as one that will work as an economic engine for small farmers and rural America overall. As Murphy recently stated in an interview, "If you want to change the ballgame, you have to address the policies that are responsible for the system we have in place." [KMG]

The first link leads to an article from this Wednesday's Washington Post which talks about Murphy's food advocacy work. The second link will take users to a piece from this Sunday's International Herald Tribune which talks about the growing "critical mass" of influential policymakers and organizations calling for a renewed focus on sustainable agriculture. The third link will take users to a timely editorial from the Tampa Tribune that talks about both protecting the nation's food supply, while still supporting small farmers who might not be able to afford new costs associated with more stringent oversight and regulation. On a related note, the fourth link leads to a video feature featuring Richard Ha, who's working on a sustainable aquaculture project with tilapia on the Big Island. The fifth link leads to an astute column by Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich on how urban dwellers can grow their own vegetable gardens. Moving on, the sixth link leads to the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture homepage. From here, visitors can learn about their efforts to support such endeavors by reading recent reports and briefs. Finally, the last link leads to the free publications section of the University of California's Agriculture and Natural Resources division. There's a great deal to check out here, including helpful gardening publications, suggestions for agritourism, and nutritional fact sheets. [KMG]

Friday, March 27, 2009

Kale Seedlings Revealed

The Russian Kale seeds I put in just over a week ago have sprouted! I went out on the balcony to putter with some of the other pots, and decided to look once again to see if anything was happening in that section. Much to my joy, there they were standing tall (for early sprouts) above the dirt in the pot!

I ran back inside to get the camera, as any dutiful new parent would, and took pictures enthusiastically. The seedlings are a little difficult to see unless you really know what you're looking for, but they are present. Once I got to looking I counted about four or five, and I'm betting that even more have arrived since yesterday. I am simply thrilled!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dessert in Japan

I have a sweet tooth. There. It's out there. My mother has always known, and now the world does, too. Anything sugary and I'm there. Still no cavities, thank heaven, but it may just be a matter of time.

Japan also has a sweet tooth, which is a mixed blessing for me. Food often has a slightly sweet taste to it - from the thin skinned inari rolls to the kim chi we bought from our neighborhood green grocer - that is ever so lovely. It is almost refreshing to eat things that are not sickly sweet, but rather subtle. It seems like the blend of flavors is better, and that the overall texture of what I'm eating comes through somehow.

My newest discovery that I feel little compunction to resist is mochi (pronounced mosh-ee) and it's many versions. Rice is pounded into a paste that is molded into a ball usually around red-bean paste. The outer shell can come in a veritable rainbow of colors, and the inside is often simply the bean paste. (Mochi can also be savory, but I haven't discovered those yet.)

On Saturday on a trip to nearby Kichijoji, we surveyed a veritable sea of Japanese desserts. I chose a sort of traditional round shaped one and one that was seasonal in theme. These are called wagashi, and are often fashioned to suit the time of year in shape and style as well as ingredients. I chose one that had the mochi rice outer shell with bean paste inside, but had the addition of a cherry tree leaf wrapped around the outside. Presumably preserved from last year, the leaf had a slightly salty taste that off-set the sweetness of the dessert. Once the season passes, these won't be available for purchase until next spring when the cherry blossoms come again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Urban Farming and Gardening

As I roam the streets of our little neighborhood, Musashino, I find little treasures tucked away not far off the main roads. My wanderings on the little byways and public footpaths take me past many of the large garden areas mentioned in previous posts, and sometimes these are accompanied by little stalls where surplus of whatever is in season is being sold for an incredibly reasonable price. Sometimes the farmer is present and sometimes it is simply an honor system of plunking the coins in a little bank on the side. 

I found one of these while out on my morning run the other day set up next to a lovely garden and house. Bags of broccoli raab - some just stems and some with the leaf - were on display for 100 yen each. (That's roughly $1.00 per bag, which is an excellent price given that the operation looked organic with it's big pile of compost in the distance, well-tended looking soil, and all the work that makes it a reality.) We had some for lunch with ginger and hot chillis over udon noodles, and I whipped some up to include in a rice-based potluck dish for that same evening. 

I'm hoping to head over again today to pick some up for freezing. If things are as seasonal as folks imply, I am going to try to put some of this by now for future use. My  hunch is that it would still be available, but perhaps not as readily nor as cheaply.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Seedlings in the Window

I started some of our first seedlings this past Friday using old sushi containers from a take-out meal earlier in the week. The containers are plastic with lids that fold or swing back making them nearly perfect for starting seeds. 

One container holds some Green Zebra seeds from Project Grow's awesome heirloom seed collection that I bought at the People's Food Coop. (Just so folks know, I blog for Project Grow and I served on the Board at PFC.) I first ate these tasty tomatoes last summer while working at Frog Holler Farm. I'd never seen a green tomato before, much less tasted one. I don't even remember exactly why I dug into one at long last, but I'm sure glad I did! The lemony taste and cute size of these little gems makes them one of the best tomatoes I've ever had. (It is hard to top a Brandywine, too, but I tend to eat those like my Wisconsin people. I cut it into thick slices with a sprinkle of sugar on top, and then eat it like I would a juicy steak.)

The other container holds some sweet basil seeds that our apartment's former residents left behind for us. I've got my fingers crossed that these sprout and do well. I've had mixed luck with seeds in the past, and so I'm hopeful but a wee bit sceptical, too. Luckily, I've seen basil seedlings at the local nursery as well as at another garden store at Kichijoji. There will be pesto! (Once we give in to the super pricey olive oil prices, that is, and walnuts. Yikes!)

I'm hoping to start some other seeds today or tomorrow of bok choi, peas, and cardinal climber. I The last two I imagine on trellis' climbing around our balcony. I've got a couple moshi containers from yesterday (more on that later) that should be good for those. 

Friday, March 20, 2009

Revolving Sushi Bar

Last night we went out for sushi - again - to a local place that a friend of ours recommended. It was packed with diners - whole families - out celebrating Vernal Equinox Day. (You've got to like a country that sets up a whole holiday dedicated to the change in seasons.)

We took our place at the counter, and began eyeing things going by on the conveyer belt in front of us. Some we recognized - tuna, salmon, and shrimp - and some we thought looked a wee bit alien. The fish intestines, while at first glance looked tasty, were a little less than appetizing. White and stuffed with plankton (at least that's what we imagined), we had a difficult time eating them despite a beautiful presentation. The nah-to rolls, a national delicacy here of beans that we've heard once too often have an unfortunate texture, also looked momentarily appetizing until we realized what they were. Sometimes we do think it would be better if we did not know what it was that we were about to eat.

The surprise of the night and another popular seafood here in Japan were the rolls topped with barbecued eels. A slab of eel with a splash of barbecue sauce on top of rice were super tasty. Top that off with a dash of wasabi, pickled ginger, and a little soy sauce and you think you've just ridden the conveyer belt to heaven. The abalone garnished with cucumber shredded so finely it looked like bits of glass on the white fish was also good.

The whole restaurant is essentially self-serve. Cups are just under the counter to receive two spoons of powdered green tea and the hot water from a dispenser faucet that is installed every other spot. The chopsticks are in a bin also just under the counter in front of you, and the pickled ginger is in a box with some tongs. The wasabi comes around with the plates in a tub, and you take it out using what looks like a butter knife. Small plates of sushi roll by accompanied by signs that say what the roll is and how much it costs. Diners simply grab whatever they want and stack the plates up next to themselves as they eat their fill.

Saki is also available hot or cold from a dispenser that looks remarkably like those bottled water stations one finds in offices. It comes in a pretty little vase-like container with matching cups - all ceramic - and was quite warming. (The weather turned gray, chilly, and windy yesterday.)

As we sipped our green tea amid the debris of our meal, we noticed the crowd accumulated at the front waiting for seats. We stood up and the waitress came over to count our plates and give us our bill. We hobbled our way up front to pay and then head out into the blustery night ready to tell our latest "fish story."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Little Garden Begins

We've still had no word on a community garden space, and while I'm not giving up hope I am beginning to focus on growing things on our balcony in back. (I'm also plotting - pun entirely intended - on growing things on the front balcony, too.) There's  plenty of interest in the building and with some of the other English teachers, so I think we're going to go for it. 

The previous tenants graciously left me some pots, potting soil, and some seeds for dill, basil, and rosemary. Yesterday, I purchased (at least I'm pretty sure this is what I got) seeds for beans, peas, and cardinal climber. (I put in some of the Russian kale seeds I brought, but I did see a big fat mourning dove on the power lines above me this morning and I do have some concerns about raiders. I'm hopeful, but I may start some other seedlings inside, too.) I also picked up some seedlings of flat-leaf parsley, nasturtiums, johnny-jump-ups, and swiss chard. While I really wanted to purchase one of everything (as I do each spring), I decided it would be best to stick with things that we like to eat. (I know I can't eat cardinal climber, but I also want to attract some pollinators.)

The nursery is a nice small one with a good selection, and it's roughly four or five blocks away. (Tokyo is not organized in a grid at all, but that gives an idea of the distance I walk.) Mostly flowers - annuals as well as perennials - with a handful of vegetables, houseplants, and some small flowering and fruiting trees. I recognize most things, but there are others that I have no idea what they are. They might be normal even for the States, but since my focus has always been mostly on growing vegetables and/or native plants I don't recognize some. I'll try to include photos sometime later. 

Container gardening is something I haven't had to do for quite some time, and I've never tried to do it in earnest, either. I won't be able to provide all of our vegetables, but I'll put a dent in things, I think. Since we live in an apartment I can't compost like I did at home, so I'm going to have to think about this a bit. I don't want to use conventional fertilizer so I've been stirring our coffee grounds and tea leaves into the pots on a daily basis. Other things - orange peel, cabbage leaves and cores, stubs of assorted unknown greens, etc. - go either in the burnables bin or a little bowl of items I'll cook up to make broth later. At the moment, my idea is to cook them up and then bury them in a big pot of dirt and see what happens. Without worms and other critters though, I'm not sure how far I'll really get. Any advice from folks out there? 

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Photos of Gardens and Our First Market

I had a little trouble with the internet connection yesterday, but today I'm in a much better spot. The following photos go with yesterday's post, for the most part. They include the impromptu market stall we shopped at as well as some of the gardening spaces in our area. Apparently, much of Mushashino used to be farmland, and so the area retains a great deal of that feel and space.

First Veggies on the Street Purchase!

Jet lag is sending us to bed early and waking us up early, too. This morning we woke up around 5:30am, and kept trying to go back to sleep until about 6am. Then it was up to make coffee, and plan our day.

I think part of what got us up was my stomach growling. Yesterday we ate little, and I felt sleepy and a bit nautious for part of the day. Well, I should say I felt a little dodgey, but then easily wolfed down a lovely little pastry at a coffee shop later in the afternoon. And then I did the same to some sushi that same evening. So yummy, but apparently not quite enough for my tummy to make it quietly through the night.

Finding good veggies and some rice were today's objectives. It seems like it shouldn't really be that difficult, but things are a bit pricey. A head of broccoli runs about $2, and 4 kilos of brown rice run about $15. Brown rice itself is hard to come by, too. The majority of rice is white, and since we can't read the packages we don't know if it's sticky rice, soft rice, short or long grain. Most vegetables at the store come wrapped in plastic, which is a pain in the neck to deal with stateside much less here where the sorting of trash is taken to an art form. (More on that later.)

Imagine the thrill when I spotted a little truck pulled up in front of a bank with fresh vegetables displayed all around. We checked out the prices, grabbed a basket, and went to work. Some things we don't recognize at all, but we will give them a try next time. We did find broccoli, unidentified but tasty greens, eggplants, sweet potatoes, huge green onions that we thought were leeks, and apples. The farmer helped us identify things as we went along with our trusty dictionary, and we hope to see the truck there again. I am not entirely sure what is currently in season, but based on all the gardens I see (seriously, I see a ton) with row covers and hoop houses and the mostly mild weather I'm betting seasons can be easily extended.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Japan Years Begin

We have landed in Japan, specifically Tokyo, and are settling in nicely. I haven't seen chickens yet, but I have seen a ton of flowers (pansies, johnny-jump-ups, etc.) and ornamental kale. And I've seen seed packets and plants for sale! I see clearly now where my yen will be going. And word has it that little markets are everywhere! And I see tons of growing plots wherever it is possible to grow something.

And the security guards had one of the prettiest blooming orchids in the corner of their little booth at Richard's university! And there's mint growing in one of the pots the former occupants left behind at our apartment! Ok, that's enough of small glimpses and exclamation marks!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I See Chickens

I look out the window over our sink and see the chickens pecking under the bird feeder, wandering through the yard, or hopping about in the compost bin. In reality, though, I just see where our barn used to be, chickadees and nuthatches under and on the feeder, and no action in the compost bin. The girls don't come running across the road from our neighbors or stroll casually up the driveway. Even though I fully expect to witness these events as I go through the course of my day, they don't happen. Each time it is jarring.

Saturday evening the girls moved into their new digs at Dragonwood Farm. They moved from their small rural convent to a larger commune that includes roosters and a variety of other ladies from different backgrounds. Dragonwood bustles with chickens and chicken action. Chatty, hopping birds and roosters eyeballing everyone in the vicinity. It's a big change. Sort of like us moving from the country to Tokyo, I guess.

I stopped in to say hello on Sunday evening, and the girls looked good. I like to imagine they recognized my clucking (they did seem to perk up a bit and look about), but I don't know. I think they're making friends, learning the lay of the land, and holding their own with the roosters. I know they'll be happy at Dragonwood - free-ranging for bugs and greens and digging in the compost as usual - which is why we chose that for their new home. It makes it no less easy though, and I still find myself at sunset thinking I'd better go out and close up the coop.