Thursday, May 28, 2009

Another Lawn Mowing Alternative

Currently, of course, I don't have a lawn, but I still don't believe much in mowing a lawn. (I'm not really sure I've even seen a lawn here in Tokyo, now that I think about it. At least I've not seen the kind of lawns we know in America - large expanses of green in front of houses - and tend.) I like gardens and prefer just about any alternative to spending money on gas for a mower or maintenance for one. (If it's a push mower, I might be more down with that.)

Anyway, this nice little Q&A with Umbra Fisk over at Grist offers some nice ideas about mowing with goats! Google does it, why can't we? And our friends over at Ambry Farms make a mean goat cheese, too. The good stuff just keeps coming.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Native Plants Make the News

Ira Flatow had a great episode on Science Friday about native plants that features Douglas Tallamy (author of Bringing Nature Home). The above link also offers a good list of links full of helpful and inspiring information. On your way!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sugoku O-ee-she (Very delicious)

(This article is second in a series that attempts to capture and share all we learned and saw during a recent trip to Nagano Prefecture. For more detail and access to even more photos visit Rich and Joan Around the World.)

I think, that quite possibly, my meals on this trip were some of the most beautiful I have ever eaten and will eat (at least until I visit again) in my lifetime. The inn where we stayed in the shuraku offered a dinner and breakfast the likes of which I have never before experienced. Kevin and Tomoe of One Life Japan offered a bevy of homemade treats made from local ingredients either in-season or preserved from the last year.

From the homemade black soy bean tofu topped with a mountain cherry blossom to the spicy miso Tomoe concocted, everything we ate (with rare exception) had been grown, harvested, processed, and cooked within easy range of the table where I sat. The fish devoured during breakfast and dinner at the inn came from the river tumbling by across the road. The sorghum that served as our grain one evening for dinner one evening was harvested from some grown for a windbreak in a neighbor's field. Our homemade noodles were topped with nanohanna gathered that morning. Granted, some things ventured in from the outside – the occasional spice and the coffee savored at each breakfast – but not much. And nothing went to waste. Kevin made a soft cheese spread for breakfast using milk from a local dairy, and the leftover whey went into the flat bread baked on top of the wood stove next to our table.

The meals were artful affairs where each place setting was as pleasing to the eye as it would prove to be to the tastebuds. A myriad of small dishes of varying size and color rotated around a centerpiece of fish with three boiled peanuts or a bit of salty soy paste. The food matched in some way the shape, texture, and color of the dish itself. As we sampled some from here and there, more dishes emerged from the kitchen and were set in orbit around us.

Tart, sweet, salty, spicy, and soothing flavors joined creamy, crunchy, smooth, and slimy textures as the meal progressed. Occasionally, a dish might even contain a handful of each of those all in one go. Spicy wasabi greens with a slimy yet somehow still tasty mushroom or cubed daikon in black sesame paste. Crunchy pickled vegetables or fiddlehead ferns with a soft touch of mayonnaise. Homemade black soy bean tofu with a mountain cherry blossom on top. Miso with delicate strands of shredded ginger, onion, and chicken. I often didn't know what to eat next, when to stop eating, or what might come out of the kitchen next. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Adventures in Nagano Prefecture - Series Opener

This is the first in a series about a recent trip we took to Nagano Prefecture in Japan to begin exploring life outside Tokyo.

A shinkansen (bullet train) took us literally through the mountains surrounding Tokyo's Edo Plain to Nagano Prefecture to begin an adventure organized by One Life Japan. Primarily offering hiking and biking trips in rural Japan, One Life exposes travelers to another side of Japan than they encounter at major tourist sites. I discovered them shortly before our move here while searching for information on gardening or farming in English. (The top hand in the photo at left points to the valley where we were, and the lower hand points to Tokyo.)

A great conversation ensued, and once we arrived in Tokyo I contacted them again about a possible trip. Our plans for Golden Week were a bit nebulous, and one of their volunteer projects – helping rethatch the roof of a traditional Japanese farmhouse – sounded great to us. They also invited us to spend a few days at their farm preparing the rice fields for planting. I think we had our tickets within seconds of receiving the email.

The shinkansen dropped us off in Echigo-Yazawa where we boarded a bus that wound through mountains still washed with snow, and past villages where tulips bloomed and the plum trees blossomed. (All of these things happened just about a month ago in Tokyo.) The only green in the landscape were the Japanese cedars and a handful of ferns making their way into the light.

The road climbed higher and higher through the mountains, and our ears popped with the change in alltitude. Clearly, the land here has been worked nearly forever. In some cases it looked like the original farmer was out again this spring checking the fields. So many of those we saw working in the fields were old, many bent double with age and time, but bustling about with the energy spring always brings. I wanted to hop out, lend a hand, and hear their story. There must be so much to learn.

One hour later we arrived at a small village where Kevin from One Life Japan picked us up, and we hit the road for a different valley to the hamlet (shuraku) where we would be working. Gradually, the road narrowed as we maneuvered around peaks and passes. We stopped at an overlook where we could see Mount Naeba with its snow covered shoulders, and below us on the valley floor were a handful of homes that made up Oktama, another shuraku.

After crossing one of the prettiest raging rivers I've ever seen, we pulled into a rest stop that felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. Snuggled in a bend in the road just across the bridge, and against the mountain side it was a two story structure with plenty of regional snacks and souvenir foods on offer as well as simple travelers fare. Fish roasted on tall sticks around a fire pit, tended by an old man who kept an eye on their progress to be had with tea or another brew.

We sampled a green paste meant to be mixed with miso. Made from fukinoto, the first wild edible to emerge in spring and purported to be Japan's taste of spring, fukinoto has a fresh but slightly bitter taste.

Foraged in the wild, it is best just before it buds. Canned bear meat, which we photographed but did not buy or sample, was also available. Bears are still hunted here, but their population like that of the shuraku's, is in decline. An assortment of mushrooms, locally grown, harvested, and dried, were also on display and available for tasting. Mochi with chestnut filling – a very popular item here in the area known for this particular tree – appeared in packages for sale.

And our favorite – the sasa basa. Wrapped in a sasa leaf, this is a green mochi stuffed with a slightly sweet red bean paste. Homemade mochi, handwrapped, and quite easily the best I've had yet, it was difficult to share. (It was hard enough to get R. to stop eating it long enough to take a photo or two.)

Much of what we saw to eat and ate on this trip was foraged locally or grown from plants that had been foraged from the wild. It was not unusual to see cars pulled over on the side of the road and people crouched a few meters away in the grass or woods with bags in hand. (Reminiscent of those seen along American roadsides hunting the wild asparagus or rummaging in the woods – their own or someone else's – for the somewhat elusive morel.) Foraging for wild foods is common practice, and many of these wild plants are considered delicacies by everyone. Fukinoto, the plant which the tangy green paste was made from that we sampled at the rest stop, and fiddlehead ferns are spring delicacies here along with takenoko from both varieties of bamboo. Served up in a variety of ways – soups to tempura to pickles or dried to be preserved for inclusion in a later meal – we ate at least one of these at every meal on our trip.

The seasonality of these foods make them even more of a delicacy it seems here in Japan. The sensitivity and awareness of the changing seasons as evidenced by blooms, available foods, or the timing of the picking of those foods seems an integral part of the food culture here. As much as the cherry blossoms are relished and celebrated, so is the fiddlehead fern, the first green sprouts of the Japanese chive, and the tender early wasabi leaves.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Meal

It seems that many a farmer is a good cook, and T-san is no exception. The next day (after the fish lesson) we went back to our friends home to sample the assorted fish. We sat down to salad, a bowl of small squid, and potato salad. T-san remained in the kitchen cooking and bringing out each item in a beautiful presentation.

The small squid were easily the most exotic thing on the table as our starter. Literally, smaller than my thumb these little guys were jumbled together with a bit of greenery – either parsley or sisho – and soy sauce. I can't say this was my favorite dish of the day, but I gave it a go. Crunchy when you least expect it with a cool (temperature not niftiness) texture.

A plate full of sardines and grunt fish surrounded by sisho leaves came next accompanied by sheets of dried seaweed and a bowl of rice. We placed a bit of rice on the seaweed, topped it with a sisho leaf, and then the fish of our choice. After gently rolling this it could be dipped in the wasabi we grated fresh at the table mixed with soy sauce. This was easily one of my favorites of the day.

Meanwhile, the keenkay (red fish) had simmered since yesterday in its pan of equal parts mirin, soy sauce, and sake, and now came to us in small bowls. Sceptical at first, we found that A-san had been quite correct. The fish melted in our mouths and the flavors were tremendous. I think we were all sad to see the bottom of our bowls.

Next came the turban shell (sa-zaa). Baked in their shells with soy sauce, the meat came away with a bit of twisting and gently tugging. An end bit (slightly green) was cut off, and then we popped the rest into our mouths. With a slightly smoky taste, this little fellow was quite nice albeit a bit chewy.

Finally, out came what is now my favorite dish in Japan. Usually only made for holidays or special occasions, baked squid stuffed with rice, is perhaps the most delicious thing I've eaten yet. (I'm sure I'm going to say that soon about something else, but suffice it to say that I loved this dish.) The squid (ika) had been stuffed with sticky rice, then boiled with sugar, soy sauce, mirin, and water, and then baked for about 30 minutes. (At least, I think this is how the recipe goes.) A little bit sweet and a little bit savory, I couldn't even get a picture of this plate completely full. So yummy!

A plate of fresh strawberries rounded out the meal. I couldn't have asked for a better lesson or more fun with new friends. I learned a great deal, although I still feel quite hesitant to do unsupervised filleting. (Richard reports that the sushi-master near our house has invited me to come practice, but I'm suspicious. Suspicious of Richard's language skills msotly, not the sushi-master. He feeds the three cats that hang out near his stand so he must be a good soul.) But I have since had squid, and T-san's still ranks as the best!

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Fish Story

I swear I was just making conversation.

A week or so ago while working on the farm I asked about fish. Seafood is everywhere in Japan - dried, fresh, still alive in the tank, large, small, sliced, and whole. However, I have no idea how to prepare it. Sure, in the Midwest we have our fish frys, but the most exotic thing there might be lake perch not octopus or squid. My friend responded that she rarely made fish since no one in her family liked it. Occasionally, she prepared a simple dish using dried fish. The smell isn't so great, but the taste is good.

Then her face lit up. "You will come to my house for lunch, and we will make fish." She turned to her husband, and said (I assume) the same thing in Japanese. He then turned to me and said, "Please come to my house for lunch and to learn to cook fish."

I accepted and was absolutely thrilled and very touched. We work together regularly, and I like to think we make a good team. I enjoy their way of working quietly together on a task, chatting mostly during a break or at the end. It suits me well, and the three of us settle into a nice rhythm. And I like them a great deal. It felt like a great compliment to be asked to their home.

We settled on a Saturday for the lesson. That Friday we planted the cherry tomatoes - red and yellow - with a friend of theirs. A-san makes his own miso (so delicious) and crafts in ceramics. He and I planted the tomatoes while the farmers came behind and set tunnels up over the rows. Our progress was good and since the day was hot we took a short break for some cool wheat tea.

The conversation wound its way between English and Japanese and around a variety of topics. Then it came up that our fish cooking lesson was the next day. They became very animated, and asked if I liked sushi. When I said yes, the three of them spoke quickly in Japanese, and A-san said he would teach me to make sushi that afternoon. (I think I said something pithy in response like "Wow.")

"We will go get the fish and then go to our house for the lesson. Are you free?"

Am I free? Are you kidding? Of course, I'm free!

I've never seen anything like the fish section at the supermarket. So many fish everywhere, most of which I did not recognize. Squid large and small, eels, tuna, red fish, silver fish, dried fish, big fish, small fish. Fish in shells, and some still alive. Fish with large eyes, fish with smooth skin, fish with whiskers.

Our friends moved easily among the fish, talking about the merits of one versus another. There seemed to be a lack of whole fish, but a brief conversation with a staff person brought a whole grunt fish from the back room where a big tuna had just gone on the chopping block.

We also picked up a few things to go with the fish - shisho (a green leafy herb with a fresh, green taste), sushi vinegar, soy sauce, mirin (cooking sake), sake, and wasabi. These would either be used to make dashi (fish broth that is in just about everything here with the possible exception of a cup of tea), or a separate fish dish that was a favorite of A-san's.

Back at the house the kitchen burst into activity. Knives, cutting boards, pots, bowls, and plates came out. A pot of water started

heating on the stove, and A-san rolled up his sleeves. (It is clear to me that A-san is a Japanese version of my friend Maan.) The grunt fish came out of its bag. First, we scaled it using quick, brisk motions against the "grain" of the scales that sent them flying everywhere. Then we cut off the head. (I can't remember if we threw it in the dashi or not.) We slit the fish down the center, but not deep enough to rupture any of the organs so we could remove the not so tasty organs. We then made the center cut a little deeper and longer - stem to stern, so to speak - to lay the fish out flat.

This is where it got quite tricky for me. At this point, the idea is to sever the bones where they join the spine. A-san did it quickly and neatly, and proceeded to lift away a nearly bone free piece of meat. The other side the same thing is done, but with the meaty side of the fish facing down. Once again, A-san made it seem so simple. I couldn't quite get the feel for this half of the fish and could not do it very well or fast. Let's just say the simmering pot of dashi got an extra boost because of me.

We carried on with each of the fish in this way, except for the squid (ika), the keen-kay (the red fish), and the sardines (niwashi). Essentially, the squid just pulled apart, the bone (yup, just one long thin glasslike bone) and guts again removed. (The photo here is reconstituted squid. T-san put it back together so I could take a picture, but the other photo shows the bones from the two squid.) The two large squid would be stuffed with sticky rice and baked for our meal the next day. The red fish was chopped up a bit and put in a pan with a bit of sake, mirin, and soy sauce to simmer for some time. The sardines we filleted, but since they are so small and thin the bones easily lifted out and the skin peeled off.

We sampled as we went. A bit of sisho sprinkled in the fresh dashi made for one of the tastiest cups of soup I've had yet. A bite of one of the fish with a splash of soy sauce was delightful - so fresh it didn't taste fishy, literally or figuratively. Each bit was wrapped up and tucked into the fridge for our meal the next day. I finished my coffee, pulled a stray scale out of my hair, and said a farewell until tomorrow.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Maramalade Update!

Quick update: I took a jar along on our recent trip to Nagano Prefecture with One Life Japan. They invited us to stay at their house and help on the farm, so I thought it would be a good little gift. We ate it at breakfast our first morning there, and it was a wee bit nerve-wracking. Their homemade bread was hot from the stove, and two other guests were dying to get rolling. Everyone oohed and aahhed over the idea of the marmalade, and took an obligatory spoonful. 

As they munched, they mumbled nice things around the mouthfuls. It seemed good, but Japanese or English it was a little hard to understand. Then came the  moment of truth. The woman across from me, a total stranger, took a huge helping of SECONDS!!

The marmalade was good. And the jar was mostly empty by the time we left. Another good sign!