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!