Friday, December 31, 2010

Yuzu-Apple Ginger Marmalade

The yuzu ginger marmalade is great. I really love it. But one of the local farmstands also sells apples, and I couldn't resist. Trouble is, I couldn't resist about two weeks ago, and I feared they would decide to leave before I came up with an activity for them. Dreaming of an apple butter using some of the togarashi (hot peppers) from the farm, I went in search of a recipe. I found this tasty sounding one for apple-ancho butter, but I ended up making a version of this one using some neighborhood yuzu (purchased from another local stand not scavenged!), the apples, and some ginger. So far, it's been a hit with my crew of tasters, although I am not sure how objective they are when it comes down to it.

The yuzu flavor dominates, but perhaps the best part is biting into a little chunk of apple and getting a burst of sweet-sour. A bit of ginger also zips by the taste buds occasionally, which is always pleasant. The apples did not break down much at all, which I'm sure is this type's general behavior. I don't know exactly what type of apple I used, and won't be able to find out for at least another day. (The area stands are still closed up at the moment to celebrate the holiday.) We love it as an eating apple - a nice balance of sweet and tart with good texture - and in our oatmeal.

Otoshio Apple Yuzu Ginger Marmalade*
5 cups yuzu, sliced thin and chopped
3 cups water
5 cups apple, chopped
6x1.5 inches ginger, grated
3.5 cups sugar

Wash and dry the yuzu. Cut in half and slice as thinly as possibly. Remove seeds. Pop the yuzu in the pot and pour the 3 cups of water over it. Peel the apples, core, and chop coarsely. Add the apple to the pan as you go and be sure to submerge them. (It keeps them from discoloring.) Bring the apple-yuzu mixture to a boil and then simmer covered for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the sugar until it is dissolved. Bring it to a boil again, and then simmer on medium-high heat uncovered for roughly (see notes below) for 45 minutes. Stir regularly to monitor thickness and prevent burning. When thick enough (see notes below) ladle into hot jars, and process for 10 minutes.

*Otoshio is the Japanese formal way of saying 'year', and it's part of the phrase 'Yoi otoshio!' - 'I hope you have a happy New Year!' - that everyone says until 12:01am on January 1st.

Yuzu chopping - I cut the yuzu in half, sliced it thinly, and then cut those long slices in half. In the yuzu-ginger marmalade I did more vigorous chopping, but on a whim did minimal chopping for this batch. It seems to not present a texture issue, and it cooked up just fine.

Seed Removal - My philosophy is to remove some at the initial cutting stage, but look for the majority as they show up later during the cooking process. I'm loitering by the pot anyway to stir and test thickness and generally fret, so I just spoon them out at that time. Some still make it through, but it doesn't really matter if you ask me. And my tasters haven't complained (to me) yet.

Boiling and Simmering - The original recipe didn't specify covering or uncovering, but I'm including it here. It may depend on the kind of apple and/or citrus you use, of course. Keeping on eye on what's cooking is pivotal here (as mentioned in this great Food in Jars post) as always.

Apple - Often used as a source for homemade pectin, my impression was that this apple made for a more even syrup base than my previous batches of marmalade possessed. I rather like how it turned out - a bit more jam-like than chunky marmaladeish - texture-wise, and am thinking about how to achieve this in subsequent creations.

Timing - The second round of boiling and simmering went slightly untimed. My favorite spouse left on a quick errand with the iPhone in his pocket, and I didn't discover this fact until I went to see how much time was left. Instead, I just checked the thickness and decided based on that when to go for it.

Thickness - My usual technique is one suggested in the Ball Canning Book. Using a chilled spoon, dip it in the mixture and see how it pours off. If it dribbles off, it's not ready. If it starts sliding off in a 'sheet', it's about ready. The other test I used last night was to dribble some on a plate and run my finger through the blob. If the blob separates and then slowly comes back together, it's ready. (And you get another chance to taste test your concoction!)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Yuzu Tree

Much to my delight and surprise, Santa brought a yuzu tree for Christmas this year. At the nursery it held four fruit, but three fell off during the bike ride (I mean, sleigh ride) home. Delivered as a set - one slug and a small white spider - I couldn't be happier. (The bottom photo is the slug trying to escape after I found him on one of the presents.)

I'm thrilled given the popularity of the yuzu ginger marmalade, and for how nice it makes the apartment smell. I can just see it out next to my garden or somewhere else at the farm. I'd have to, of course, talk with the farmers first. I'm also suspicious that it's size might belie it's age. The farmers report that yuzu can take about eighteen years to fruit, although some sites suggest grafter trees can fruit in much less time. Meanwhile, I'll continue figuring out how to care for our newest family member and enjoy its happy presence.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Green Tea Seed Research

November found me visiting one of the many Tokyo farmer's markets to see what seasonal offerings were available. While visiting the Ebisu Farmers Market in November I met Noriko and Unikyo Sakyoen of Sakyoen Teas. They, of course, were selling their tea, but what drew me to their booth was the little box of brown balls pictured at left. Thinking with my sweet tooth, I assumed these were some kind of Japanese sweet I'd not met yet. Also thinking they were free samples, I jetted directly over.

These are not something to be nibbled with tea, but they are tea itself. Green tea seedpods, to be exact. Rough to the touch and nearly light as a feather, they rattled a bit as I rolled them about in my hand. Sankyoen-san patiently explained to me in the simplest Japanese he could muster what they were and how to plant them. They have since sat in a small bowl on my bookcase waiting for me to make my move.

While Sankyoen-san's advice is certainly sound (as the twelfth generation of his family to grow tea, I assume his knowledge is near encyclopedic), I also did a bit of research on my own to find more details than my limited language skills and his busy market table would allow. The general consensus seems to be that the seeds need to be kept moist and planted fairly quickly in order to remain viable. (Mine have not had the advantage of either of these things, so I'm a little concerned.) Some sources recommend scarification of the seeds, and other simply recommend soaking until the seeds crack. If the seeds float, they are not viable at all and should be composted. (Mine are floating just now, but I'm hopeful they'll sink. If that means they are still viable, I don't know.)

Despite learning yesterday that my hopes of home tea growing are sunk (the seed pods did not sink or crack or anything), I did manage to find the following links that were incredibly useful for growing from seed or cuttings.

Easily the best resource comes from The Field Alliance (formerly known as the Community IPM Programme), an organization working to keep farming a viable economic alternative in rural communities in Southeast Asia. Their Tea Eco-Guide gives detailed information on growing from seeds or cuttings as well as soil preparation. Arguably, it is more than the home patio grower needs, but it makes good reading and satisfied my desire for solid information.

The University of Florida Extension Service offered good information for the home grower as did Narien Tea Store. (I don't usually reference company sites, but their information about growing was some of the best I found.)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Yacon or Jerusalem Artichoke?

One of the great thrills of a recent hike (other than great views of Mount Fuji and the fun of my companions) was finding a number of vegetable stalls at the end of the trail. (Ok, the monkey's were a highlight, too.) We all came home with yuzu, green tea, umeboshi, a handful of winter greens, and ginger.

Well, so we thought. It turns out that what I thought was ginger for the yuzu-ginger marmalade I was dreaming up was something more potato-like. The distinctive ginger smell was lacking, and when I nibbled on them they were firm and sweetly bland. (Luckily for the marmalade I still had some ginger from a local vegetable stand.) These went back in the drawer for further investigation.

Late last week a friend we'd visited on our first trip to Hokkaido came over for dinner. We shared a typical house meal - salad, miso, and rice - with an assortment of pickled things scattered about the table for variety. The miso contained shitake mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, lots of ginger, komatsuna, and these little potato-like things. They turned rather soft in the miso and had no particular flavor.

Our friend's mother happened to call while he was still here, and so we quickly sent her a photo of the mystery vegetable hoping for identification. Her immediate response was yacon. Even though I'm only a recent grower I was a bit skeptical. The yacon I know are big fatties sweetly flavored with an apple-like texture. These met neither of these criteria. A quick Facebook chat with Rhizowen Radix suggested they might be the yacon stem tubers used for propagation, but further discussion brought up the idea that they might be Jerusalem Artichokes.

I suspect, in hindsight, that they are Jerusalem Artichokes. The flavor, texture (as well as the reminders later of one of their nicknames - 'fartichokes') and appearance (along with this article) have me convinced. Rhiz's suggestion that I plant them and see what I get is also very appealing, and would give a definitive answer, of course. I could perhaps get a second shot at growing a very beautiful edible, and solve this late year mystery in a tasty way. (I still dream of using them as a green curtain alternative.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Yuzu Shu: Another Chapter in the Yuzu Chronicles

While I've already made four batches of yuzu-ginger marmalade (including one for Le Panier de Piu's December Cooking Party), there are still a few yuzu hiding around the apartment. While I'm saving a few for the traditional dunking in the bath on the solstice, I also thought I'd try my hand this year at yuzushu. The umeshu process had been quite straight-forward, and my hunch was yuzushu would be as well.

Solstice Yuzushu*
1.8 liters of shochu
6 yuzu, mostly the fat ones
250 grams of sugar

Pour sugar into the bottom of a clean glass jar (non-reactive containers are best in these situations), and pop the yuzu fruit and peel on top. Pour in the shochu. The recipe I mostly followed suggests removing the peel after one week or so, and the fruit after a month. Let it age in a cool dark place for six months to a year to become a fine liqueur or a tolerably tasty mixer. We'll have to see.

Caveats and More Caveats

Fruit - Yuzu is famous in Japan for many reasons, not the least of which is the tradition of popping it into the bath on the solstice. It smells fantastic and I can't imagine it's bad for you. While we didn't experience it last year, we plan to find ourselves bobbing about with those golden globes at our neighborhood sento. So, while I didn't make this batch on the solstice, it seemed like an appropriate moniker.

Pith - I did not remove the pith. I've not removed it while making yuzu or mikan marmalade, and it hasn't been a problem. A little research also seems to show that orange pith is actually quite healthy and I'm betting yuzu isn't far behind.

Sugar - In hindsight, I do wish I'd used the rock sugar leftover from the umeshu. I think it might dissolve a bit more slowly and evenly than the organic granular sugar used here.

Speaking of leftovers, Kyoto Foodie (KF) - source of the recipe here - turned the leftover peels and bits into marmalade, which I'm going to give a go, too. A neighbor down the hall gave me the dregs from her batch last year, and I used them in various dishes in order to empty the container. If I am the blessed recipient again, I'll add her fixings to mine for what should be something scrumptious. Or at least, a good gift. (KF also candied his peel, which I like the sound of despite having no idea how to do it.)

Meanwhile, I've still got a bag full of yuzu waiting for a purpose. I've considered juicing them, adding chilli pepper to the yuzu-ginger combination, or just making a batch of straight-marmalade. Or adding a bit to some apple jam stewing in the back of my mind for some time now. Suggestions are welcome, and could well warrant a jar of the concoction shipped to your door.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Yuzu Ginger Marmalade

True to my word, I whipped up a batch of marmalade from the yuzu we bought on the trail. Last year, I made yuzu marmalade using the same recipe for my mikan marmalade, but this time I wanted something a little different. The mikan recipe is easy and delicious, but it requires a fair amount of time. I wanted a recipe that could be made and canned in a day, and that would include another seasonal favorite: ginger. (I also needed a good recipe to teach during Le Panier de Piu's cooking class this Saturday.)

A quick search brought me to this recipe at Food in Jars. I'd found a terrific recipe for Rhubarb Butter there, and had seen an assortment of other recipes and solid information for canning and preserving. Marisa's recipe for Mikan-Ginger Marmalade sounded delicious and looked quite straight-forward. Tweaking it for my own kitchen and taste, I gave it a go and here's what I came up with to slather on our toast.

Joan's Yuzu Marmalade*
8 cups yuzu, washed, chopped, and deseeded to the best of your patience
4 cups of sugar
3-6 inches of ginger, peeled and grated
1 cup of water

Chop the yuzu rather fine and attempt to remove the seeds and ugly peel bits as you can. Peel and grate the ginger into the pot, and stir in the sugar and water. Boil the mixture for about ten minutes with the cover on. Stir regularly to keep it from burning, of course, and to fish out the errant seeds. When the peel seems soft, boil it another ten minutes or so with the lid off. When the mixture every so slowly slides off a cold spoon it's ready to be canned. Pop it into sterilized jars, wipe the rims, top with lids, and can for ten minutes.

Usual Round of Caveats

Seeds - They can be elusive. Just when I think I've gotten them all, one or twenty invariably bubble to the surface during the cooking process begging to be spooned out. At least one seems to appear at the side of each jar after canning, too, which means diligence is required. In my case, I'm not particularly diligent as I don't see them as a problem. The seeds (along with the pith and cells) are good natural sources of pectin, so by inadvertently leaving a few in I didn't need to use the store-bought pectin called for in Marisa's recipe. Organic fruit, of course, are best as the peel is center stage here.

Ginger - If you like it zingy, use the whole six inches of ginger. If you like something a bit more subtle, then go for the three inches. It's a lovely combination, either way. Again, organic is best.

Water - Yuzu seem a bit drier than mikan, so I added a bit of water to the pot. Marisa's recipe calls for the juice of two lemons, but yuzu is so strongly flavored that I decided to opt out of this.

Pectin - The original recipe called for liquid pectin, but I wanted to avoid it. I have a limited supply, and for the class didn't want to present anything with overly exotic ingredients. Citrus tend to be full of pectin naturally, so I figured my general laziness about seeds and pith should do me good service here. In the future I may try my hand at making my own pectin from apples, but we'll see. For now, I'm surrounded by citrus.

Measuring - I find that one cup of chopped yuzu bits is roughly equal to one yuzu if they're largeish, and two and a half if they're smallish. I measured the ginger using my thumb, so you may want to do something a bit more official.

Lids on, lids off - The first boil is done with the lid on to put extra fluid to good use softening the peel. On my latest batch, I took the lid off for the last eight or nine minutes to boil off some of that fluid, but did burn a bit on the bottom of the pan. (I'm enjoying it at this moment in a cup of hot water, so all is not lost.) My advice is to monitor carefully, and perhaps not try to can up a full batch just before heading out to meet friends for the evening.

Canning - So, be careful. A dear friend who visited in September sent the canner (see photo at top of this section) I'm using at the moment, and so I feel rather confident about my creations. Previously, I used the pot pictured next to it for both cooking the sauce and canning the jars. I don't recommend this course. It always felt risky, but luckily people eat jam very quickly. It's best to use a canner and follow the recipe to the letter.

*Based on Marisa's Mikan-Ginger Marmalade recipe at Food in Jars.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mountain Vegetable Stands and Monkeys

Last weekend, we took a most amazing hike in the mountains just west of here. A small group of us set out early on a sunny Saturday to explore a new set of trails. It was another glorious fall day - crisp, clear air full of sunlight - with fantastic views of Mount Fuji's snow-covered shoulders all the way out and along the trail to inspire us even more.

Our course took us up to a ridge and around to two peaks well west of Mount Takao - Mount Syoto and Mount Jimba - then looped us back down to the station. The trails were lovely, albeit steep in places, but Mount Fuji and glimpses of the Southern Alps in the far distance proved effective distractions. I hope to write the hike up here for anyone wishing to follow our trompings, and publish a few more photographs. I've got a bevy of projects in the hopper at the moment, though, so in the meantime I'll share what was the highlight for me.

As a yasai otaku (serious vegetable geek), I am drawn to anything that looks remotely like a garden plot. So, I'm afraid I slowed our pace on the way up not just by being mildly out of shape, but because the small village we passed through on the way up to the ridge trail was a dream for me. Tea fields scattered in every direction to catch the sun and show off their neatly trimmed tops. A few flowers were still in evidence as we passed, and more than a handful of seed pods like those I spotted at the Ebisu Farmers Market. Small plots of cabbage, wasabina, and a few other cold weather tolerant greens completely encased in monkey-stopping fencing dotted the places in between, but the real show-stoppers were the yuzu trees.

Here in Tokyo my attention has been absorbed by the extraordinary beauty of the kaki as they sport their orange fruit in varying shapes and styles. Their flaming leaves have also stolen the show for me, although with a heavy rain late last week the trees mostly just hold the fruit like some kind of strange Christmas tree. Certainly, I've noticed some yuzu, mikan, and even a kinkan bush coming into color, but I hadn't thought much of it. Yet, on these mountainsides the trees were heavy with citrus, particularly yuzu.

Yuzu is popular as a flavor for cooking, and the fruit themselves are plunked into baths to mark the solstice. I imagine those sunny little orbs cheerfully bobbing along as people chat in the tubs and rejoice that the daylight hours will slowly begin to lengthen. The smell of the fruit even without being cut brightens a room, and in the bath one can literally soak it right into your pores. It is yet another reason I am coming to adore the winter season in Japan.

And here's another. Our descent from Mount Jimba to the bus stop took us again through a small village on the side of the mountain. As usual the steep sloping trail through the trees gave way to a thick stand of bamboo and then emerged in the bright sunlight at the top of the village. The narrow path suddenly became roughly paved, but much to our delight we found kiwi, yuzu, and tea fields lining both sides. And to my great pleasure a vegetable stand offering big bags of kiwi, yuzu, and tea for prices beyond reasonable.

Already dreaming of marmalade and kiwi in my morning oatmeal, our little group began filling our knapsacks. As we did so, the farmer arrived with fresh-picked yuzu in hand and started chatting with us as he restocked. The produce is all organic and he pointed to the tree just behind the stall to show where our yuzu got its start. As we finished loading up, he generously offered us more fruit and tea for our journey home. We tried to refuse knowing the amount of work it took to bring it to even that little stand, but he would hear none of it.

A little further on we found a second stand offering homemade umeboshi in addition to the local fruits. Unable to resist, we loaded up on umeboshi and a couple more yuzu for good measure.This stand had sliding glass windows with a note (later translated by a friend) asking visitors to close the panels before the left to stop the monkeys from bothering. And sure enough, as we nibbled our umeboshi and carried on home we heard and saw monkeys in the orchards and forest on either side of the road. Charming for the tourist, but I am certain there is almost no charm for the farmer or gardener when the season's produce is by their romping and snacking.

Just when we thought our bags could hold no more, we encountered a third vegetable hut near to overflowing with the seasons fare. A cooperative effort by local growers we found the days usual produce culprits joined by a variety of potatoes, ginger, togarashi (spicy Japanese peppers), miso, and assorted greens. If it wasn't so late, we would have stopped to warm our toes by the heater and sip cups of fresh green tea. Next time, it will be on the agenda for the day.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hitomi's Rice Cooker Breakfast Bread

I learned recently that a rice cooker is not just for rice. I knew, for example, that one could toss in an assortment of things such as sliced carrots, garlic cloves, raisins, mushrooms, lentils, etc., to jazz things up. I also knew that one could mix rices - brown, white, black, red, etc. - with a handful of other grains to get a nifty concoction that was as tasty as it was beautiful. But, I did not know one could bake with it.

That is, until a friend of mine, served up a thick, lovely slice of what she called breakfast bread. Shot through with flecks of green tea and drizzled with maple syrup (a hot commodity here in Japan if ever there was one) it was a softly sweet bread that had me asking for the recipe while my mouth was still half full.

The cookbook, Rice Cooker Cooking by Misato Hamada, turned out to be even more enticing. Everything in the book - desserts, soups, noodle dishes, vegetables, multiple course meals - is cooked in a rice cooker. The multiple course meals require a bit of wrapping and organizing in glass containers, but once popped in the rice cooker one merely has to wait the required 40 minutes or so for a complete meal. Or cake or soup or cooked whole pumpkin.

All in Japanese, of course, Hamada's book is revelatory for me. While we've veered away from eating much bread while living in Japan, I do like the idea of trying to use the rice cooker to expand my cooking facilities. We went from a full size American range with oven to a two burner gas unit with a small grill underneath. I've not missed baking as much as I thought I would, but there are times when a sweetbread is exactly what we crave.

I'm also curious to learn more of Hamada's story. Born in Hiromshima and a student of Sophia University, she's also traveled and experienced illness. Perhaps inspired by both (the biographical snippets I've seen are not clear on this point) she decided to create easy, whole food dishes to "bring people back to the kitchen." Sounds like she was on the whole food road before the rest of us even knew we weren't.

I hesitate to publish the recipe here as I don't have permission, and it feels a bit reprehensible to do so without it. My sincerest hope is to serve up some photos while I try to find Hamada-san for more of the story. Meanwhile, here's her website to further whet your appetite!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Kimchi Back in the Bathtub

Last year a friend taught us how to make kimchi for the first time. The haksai (Chinese cabbage) was finishing up in the farmer's field, and as usual we were pressed for time. We spent a late night chopping cabbage, carrots, komatsuna, and daikon only to massage them by hand with salt, garlic, ginger, and crushed red peppers until the skin on our arms tingled. Then it fermented (and overflowed a bit, hence the time in the bathtub) for about a week before our munching commenced.

Seeing haksai available again at a nearby vegetable stand, I decided to give it a go on my own this year. There's plenty of komatsuna rolling in these days, along with carrots, daikon, and other assorted vegetables that usually end up in our salad. Inspired as well by the large amounts of fresh ginger available at stalls and farmer's markets of late as well as my own balcony and garden harvest of hot peppers, it seemed like the time was ripe.

Late November Friday Night Kimchi
2 heads of haksai (Chinese cabbage) chopped into bite size pieces
Hot peppers, a goodly handful depending on your heat tolerance.
6 large cloves of garlic, minced
3 medium pieces of ginger, grated
6-8 inch daikon, cubed
3 bunches of komatsuna, roughly chopped

Chop the cabbage and sprinkle it with a goodly amount of salt.* Massage the salt around on the cabbage to encourage wilting. The salt is drawing fluid out of the cabbage, so the bowl should begin to fill with fluid or brine. Keep adding cabbage and salt* and massaging. When the leaves are fairly soft and a firm press puts them under about a half inch to an inch of brine let them rest while working on the rest.

Mix the daikon, carrots, and komatsuna together with salt and start the same wilting and massaging process. Meanwhile, mince the garlic, grate the ginger, and chop the peppers all into the same bowl. Throw everything in with the cabbage and start mixing and massaging again for a good 20 minutes. This ensures solid mixing of all the ingredients, and encourages further brining.

Press the mixture down firmly until a couple inches of brine stand above it. The kimchi needs to stay below the brine, so I used the old plastic-bag-with-water-inside technique from the umeboshi days. It creates a firm seal all the way around, but still lets any fluid that needs to sneak up above it. Loosely cap and set in the bathtub for at least five days.

The Usual Caveats
I love spicy food, and will say that I used a boatload of my hot peppers. Japanese peppers - togarashi - aren't super spicy, so I went ahead and used a bundle of them. I do wish I'd taken the time to crush them, though, for better mixing.

I do wish I'd used more komatsuna. I'd like it to have a little more green mixed in, but I think it's going to be fine. My advice would be to not chop it too fine as kimchi always has big chunks of things sort of straggling off chopsticks as you eat it. I think other greens - spinach, kale, pak choi, whatever - would be good to try as well. I also think the yacon might be a fun addition, too. I didn't have any carrots in the drawer, but I be the purple ones would have been cool. Maybe next time sliced in narrow one inch long strips.

*This caveat gets a star because salt can be dangerous. Not just for bloodpressure and bloating, but because too much can ruin the taste. Start with some and remember more can always get added later if necessary. The trick here is to use enough to start the wilting process, encourage fermentation, and preserve the kimchi without overwhelming the flavor of everything else with salt. My solution is to keep sampling as I go to monitor the taste, and take notes of what I do. I don't measure the salt, which I would actually recommend, too.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tokyo Garden Update: Late Fall

It's hard to believe December is already here. Not only are the winter crops all in at the farm, but harvest is going in earnest. Two crops of greens - shungiku and santosai - are already finished. The arugula is just about done, and we harvested the first of the wasabina this past Tuesday. The broccoli and cabbage are taking their own sweet time to fill out as needed, but I'm happy to wait. Komatsuna rolls in daily to fill our cart twice over and my salad bowl multiple times thereafter. Kabu and daikon are jumping on the bandwagon, too, so I've got no complaints. I should turn green with all the leaves I'm eating these days.

My own garden, is a slightly different story. Most of my own seeds and seedlings went in a bit late or sporadically. Our vacations and traveling with multiple rounds of guests meant that I devoted any free time at the farm to the farmers and their crops. My theory is that I don't attempt to make a living from my garden, so their fields are a higher priority.

The benefit of late planting though, is a later harvest. My arugula, shungiku, and first plantings of komatsuna are just coming into their own. (Later plantings are also coming up nicely, too.) All of my daikon are plumping up nicely, and daily removal of cabbage worms means my kole crops have minimal leaf damage. Both my green and purple karashina (I've mentioned my penchant for purple?) are doing beautifully, and their nutty leaves (flavor not character) make a pretty and delicious addition to our salads.

My kale plants - started late and set out late - appear to be happy for the most part. The Red Russian seems particularly pleased with my fall experiment with its big leaves and fairly robust growth given the short hours of daylight and the cold nights. The curly, though, does not seem as thrilled. Most of those plants remain small and even sport a yellow leaf or two. This may mean they would prefer to be set out earlier for a bit more growing time or perhaps covered against the cold. I'm not quite sure yet. (The photo here was actually taken a couple weeks ago. They're even bigger yet, I just realized, but this gives an idea of what's happening.)

The yacon, as discussed, seems to be preparing for harvest, and the nira have gone to seed. The bergamont on the southern side of the rhubarb (all lined up in the westernmost bed) have turned a ruddy red color. The flavor is even stronger than regular bergamont, but I adore the shade they've chosen for the season. Interestingly, the bergamont on the north side of the rhubarb is still green. (I chose the photo up top as it shows all three shades: green, red, and heading red. As of today, it's all red.)

The rhubarb looks, like the yacon, happy as a lark. The leaves are lush and plenty. Giving in to a desire to make jam, I cut a few stems. The plant seems none the worse for wear, and so we'll see what happens. I've not made the jam yet, but I've got a new canner on my top shelf just crying out for a first go-round.

The lemon balm, mint, sage, and oregano all responded extremely well to a good pruning last month, and are full of new growth. Inspired by The Alternative Kitchen Garden, I planted some borage, too. I've known for a long time that it's blooms are beloved by many a pollinator, and reading Emma Cooper's entry about it was the last straw. It also seemed a good idea given the assorted challenges of this past summer. I'm hoping to create a welcome zone for pollinators and predators alike, and borage will undoubtedly help.

The lantanna, I noticed the other day, are also going great guns. Planted maybe only this spring, they are still blooming these days and have woody stems about as thick as my pointer finger. They look quite nice with the silvery-grey leaves of the neighboring lavender plant, and both are popular with passing pedestrians of the human and bug type.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Yacon Update: Closing in on a Harvest Date

Ever since receiving the yacon seedlings earlier this spring, I really haven't known what to expect. I've had some good guidance from Rhizowen Radix on what to do and what to expect, but mostly I've been along for the ride. I mulched them during summer's ever-increasing heat, and gave them regular sips of water and hoped for their survival. Some shriveling of their soft, velvety leaves did occur, but they hung on through the worst of it.

As the weather turned cooler and the days shorter, the yacon seemed to embrace the change as much as me. We both seem to drink in the cold breezes and glowing days with gusto, and we both stand taller than ever now that the burden of summer's heat is lifted. Truly, I'm not being overly dramatic. My farmers compare the heat of this past summer with India. Records highs were set, and crops all across the country were lost because of it and the simultaneous drought. On our own farm, we lost carrots, sweet potatoes, and a late planting of beans.

And now, my tall green lovelies are setting flowers. (I'm afraid I am not following suit on this one.) The flowers are not impossibly tiny, but for such gargantuan beasts one might think their flower would be a little bit larger. To give you some idea, it would be comparable to me wearing a bottle cap on my head. And their leaves, so lush and soft only two weeks ago are slowly turning brownish red and becoming brittle. All sure signs that the harvest is near, although I will miss them. I plan to save some back for planting next year. The yacon's apple-like flavor and texture is wonderful in salads as well as quickly sauteed with other vegetables, tofu, or meat. I do toy with the idea of making it into a jam, but we'll have to see about that one. For the time being, I'll simply enjoy the time we still have together.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Our House Salad

All this talk about salads, eating greens and fresh vegetables, farmers markets, as well as the inspiration my front balcony garden gave me this past Sunday to tidy the back one, made me realize I ought to post a photo of one of our typical house salads. Granted, I made this particular one to celebrate Thanksgiving at a friends house, but this is truly what we eat at least two meals a day.

The purple carrots aren't in there, but a variety of purple daikon is along with some purple karashina that isn't visible. Kabu, arugula, red radish, komatsuna, and a few chrysanthemum greens that didn't get turned into our favorite dish are jumbled together with the very last basil, some parsley, and bergamont. Calendula and violas add some more color, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds give it a little extra crunch. (I don't believe in lettuce, so it's never included in these creations of ours. Well, unless the farmers give me some of their's, but that's different.) Carrot is often grated in as well, but surprisingly there was none in the drawer that day. Our dressing is olive oil, rice vinegar, and soy sauce all poured over the top in unmeasured amounts. Every day it's a little different, but it's always tasty.

It's easy, fresh, and always a hit with guests or at parties. Somewhat to our shame, we go a bit mad if we can't eat like this for more than two days running. I've been known to force a scaled-back version on hosts when traveling, although we disguise it as the old "Oh, let us cook tonight" ruse. Works every time.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Serving Up Purple Carrot Greens

A friend once observed that I have an almost absurd penchant for purple vegetables. Purple cabbage is (or at least was in America) a regular ingredient in our salads. Beets are a favorite in any way, shape, or form, although beet caviar remains my favorite version. Purple basil - also known as Opal - has wound it's way into my garden or flowerpots regularly, and the purple bloom of bergamont is rather tasty, too.

So, it's no surprise that on a visit to the Ebisu Farmer's Market last weekend that when I spotted a display of purple carrots I veritably dashed over for a closer look. So dark they almost looked black, they stood in stark contrast to their lush green tops. Their orange neighbor carrots seemed rather dull in comparison. A more earthy taste than their orange counterparts, it was their appearance upon slicing that really took my breath away: a center burst of white surrounded by deep purple.

According to The Carrot Museum website, the first known cultivated carrots came from Afghanistan and were purple. Orange didn't come on the scene until sometime in the 1500's, and by then yellow and red carrots were also available. This particular cultivar may not be quite that old, but I like to imagine it's forebears made their way here on assorted trade vessels long ago. As a root vegetable, I presume it traveled well, and would been one of the few "fresh" things sailors might have eaten.

The Leaves
As the title suggests, though, the greens also got my attention. Usually, I simply cut them off and send them off to the compost bin. But these seemed so verdant and I noticed as I moved them about the gave off a scent reminiscent of shungiku. Could it be?

Any other deep green green is deemed incredibly edible, good for you, and profoundly delicious. Our garden and menu often includes kale, komatsuna, shungiku, spinach, broccoli (even the leaves), and others of that ilk. More and more studies show that leafy green vegetables are beneficial in a variety of ways (fending off diabetes and assorted cancers, maintain vision, staving off heart disease and high blood pressure, great sources of calcium, etc., etc.) and that anywhere from five to 25 cups of them (as well as other fruits and vegetables) need to be eaten in a day. (Check out this great alternative food pyramid from the University of Michigan. More attractive than it's government counterpart, it's also more sensible.) For me, these are all side benefits of the fact that they are incredibly tasty.

I liked the idea, too, of using all of a plant and leaving nothing to waste. (I'm channeling Emma Cooper here, perhaps, whose book The Alternative Kitchen Garden I'm currently reading to review.) The leaves, again according to The Carrot Museum in the UK (a next vacation destination if ever there was one!), are edible, nutritious, and full of everything a body needs.
I fingered these lovely leaves thoughtfully for a moment, and then decided to charge forward with a grand experiment. Why not make them just as I do Goma Ai Shungiku?

The Results
Using the chrysanthemum recipe for cooking the carrot greens offered mixed results. The stems close to the carrot itself were quite thick and required a bit more cooking time. The feathery parts of the leaves and nearby stem were delicious, although they also would have benefited from a slightly longer cooking time. I would suggest cooking them for 90 seconds or even a full two minutes. I'll be trying this again, and will post results of future experiments.

A Few More Resources
Darya Pino over at Summer Tomato wrote this piece on the myth of super foods that offers good advice for thinking of food as not just nutrients, but as food and the power of eating a diverse diet of whole foods.

Purple carrots aren't new to the world, but knowledge of their specific health benefits is. This article, suggests they may be the next super food for their antioxidant properties. (Make sure you read Darya's article first, please!)

This recipe for purple carrot and purslane salad sounded lovely. I've already imagined replacing the pine nuts with walnuts, making the feta cheese soft tofu instead, and using rice vinegar rather than red wine vinegar for the dressing. (It also appeals to me as purslane is one of those unsung garden heroes, in my opinion.)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Front Balcony Garden in the Fall

Since moving to Tokyo nearly two years ago, I've had to relearn some things about growing in pots. It's been challenging to make the shift from garden beds to a series of pots of all sizes squished here and there on our balconies and windowsills, but I've enjoyed it. Many of the things I thought only of as summer herbs or vegetables in Michigan are here, in turn, happier in the cooler fall and winter days. (There's some experimental kale settled in the garden, and on the balconies I've added in some cilantro and parsley to see what will happen.)

My pots are now full of chrysanthemums blooming purple and gold, while a series of violas, a.k.a. Johnny-Jump-Ups turn their smiley little faces to the sun. Their yellow and blue and purple and gold blooms make a cheerful addition to our salads, as well, which is again a pleasant surprise. In Michigan, salad flowers are only a summer pleasure. Here, it seems, they may just be a fall and winter one.

Parsley and cilantro are both doing well, but the latter seems to really be enjoying itself. We've been adding its leaves as well to our salads, but also to soups and eggs. The flavor is strong and unique, and not always favored by everyone. Word has it that the Japanese in particular don't enjoy it, but so far I've heard no complaints nor seen any left on plates. Most people seem to even take seconds. Maybe I've just got the proportions right?

The pots this time around contain a mix of purchased compost and a scattering of composted chicken manure. I purchased both at a home improvement store not too far away. I managed to bring them home in my bike baskets, but it's no easy feat to ride with a 20 liter bag in the front and back. Each time I also had to fit in a plant or two I spotted on sale that I couldn't resist!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Itagawa Farmer's Market

During our our trip to Nikko we stayed at Zen Hostel - a reformed onsen tucked up along a river on the outskirts of Nikko city - where we found good food and beautiful scenery. I'll confess, though, that I chose it not just for its reasonable rates that included what sounded like (and was!) a tasty breakfast, but because the website mentioned making its food with ingredients bought at a local market. (As I've said before, I'm addicted.)

I hopped in the car with our host one morning, and we made our way to the Itagawa Farmer's Market. Open six days a week from roughly 6am until about 4pm, the market offers all the fixings one might need for a single meal or for a week. Standard vegetable offerings included daikon, three kinds of winter squash, four kinds of mushrooms, sweet potatoes, onions (long and regular), chinese cabbage, multiple varieties of lettuce, and sweet green peppers. (The summer vegetables made their way here from the many greenhouses in the area. Returning at night from our touring we could see them glowing like giant fat fireflies in the distance. The incandescent light bulbs, as they did for our chickens, created just enough heat to stave off damaging frost for the plants inside.)

Miso, multiple varieties of rice, eggs, locally grown green tea, beans - fresh and dried - along with fresh mochi. Bags of six to eight thick elongated* hunks of mugwort mochi were irresistible at best. I snapped up nearly all they had to take back to Tokyo for ourselves and as little presents for friends. They grill up beautifully and are a world away from the dried blocks we buy in the supermarket here. The taste, as one might expect, is so much better and the slight crunch of the peanuts inside makes for a delightful eating experience. (*We later learned when talking with the farmers that this mochi shape - about four to six inches long and rectangular - is a tell-tale sign of where the mochi were made. For example, Kyoto mochi tend to be made round while Tokyo mochi are made in rectangular blocks that bear a strong resemblance to bars of soap.)

While we shopped, a woman delivered her daily shipment of homemade udon and soba before heading to her day job at the local post office. My slight feeling of guilt at delaying breakfast for the other guests and the fact that I'd already finished my shopping kept me from running over to get a bundle of each. And something must be saved to try for our next visit!

Adding to the beauty of the early fall morning and the changing colors of the surrounding mountains were chrysanthemums - edible as well as ornamental - in pots and bouquets. Yellow, purple, and white blooms joined ornamental kale as harbingers of the turning season. Branches artfully planted with wispy air ferns hung nearby, and looked simply stunning.

Hankering after a farmer's market?

Tokyo folks can find farmer's market every weekend of nearly every size. There are only a couple left for November, but I'll be posting about December fresh food shopping shortly. I'm also more than glad to hear about other markets or great places to find fresh vegetables and locally grown food!

Monday, November 15, 2010

End of the Morning Glories

On my back balcony I've had a small yet lovely conflagration of morning glories. The leaves and flowers seemed to fill and absorb a whole section with green and purple. While they didn't create much shade for our kitchen (too far over to be effective) they did successfully shade the potted kale and made an otherwise nondescript space enticing for morning coffee.

So, with gratitude and a touch of sadness I'm preparing to take them down and compost them. I'll save some seeds back and maybe add them to our green curtain mix for next summer. Meanwhile, I'll also freshen the dirt in the pots and perhaps set out some cilantro, parsley, calendula, and violas for our winter salads.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Nira Seed Collecting

Sunshine and pleasant temperatures enticed me out to the garden this morning. Our latest round of visitors left late this week, and so we're working on catching up on this and that. I'd made it to the farm to work a few times each week, but only to the garden to drop off compost.

The west bed, as I've mentioned before, is where I put perennial flowers and herbs, and where I'm experimenting a bit with building up the soil. I'd let some of my nira go to flower earlier in the season as the blooms were too pretty to not enjoy. In the back of my mind, too, was the idea that perhaps I might gather up some of the seeds for next year and for sharing.* That bright snap of garlic flavor makes it a popular ingredient in Asian dishes from Japan to China to Korea and even Thailand. It works wonders in soup, salad, and miso, and I want to make sure it's around come spring. (I've heard they make a great addition to kimchi, too!)

I snipped off the seed-heavy heads and popped them into a bag to transport them home. I haven't decided whether or not to hang them or set them on the ume baskets to finish drying. Either way, I should have a nice bundle of seeds for sharing in a few weeks!

*Word also has it that nira are invasive if the seed heads aren't snipped off in due time.

Monday, November 8, 2010

More Bouquets in Unlikely Places

Last week while visiting Nikko I found this lovely little bouquet in one of the restrooms. Less surprising perhaps than those spotted at a highway rest stop on the way to Hakuba (it is a World Heritage Sight, after all), I was still pleasantly taken aback.

On it's own the restroom was pleasant - tidy and well lit with soap - but the flowers softened the institutional edge, and made me grateful to whoever took the time to pick, arrange, and put them there. There were no flowers in the nearby garden - just trees with leaves running from green to red to gold to orange - so these were brought in specifically for this purpose. Another simple thing that transformed a space!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Balcony Garden Visitor and Biodiversity

While out checking on my morning glories and doing a general tour of the balcony plants with a cup of coffee, I spotted this very cool butterfly (or moth). I've got a volunteer tomato plant that is roaming about near the morning glories, and it took me some moments to notice his (or her) camouflaged self. (Clearly, it's time to start learning the names of my flying and crawling neighbors.)

It's a real pleasure to find more wildlife on the balcony, and it reminds me of one of the many reasons I love growing things. Growing my food is easily my number one reason for having plants on the balcony as well as in the garden, but flowers and herbs are just as important to me. A garden (or a farm, for that matter) benefits from the beauty of blooms of all types and assorted leafy matter. Beneficial insects - pollinators and predators alike - settle in the leafy spots for the little buffet those blooms create, and any pests that settle on nearby crops.

Supporting such biodiversity isn't just for the folks at Nagoya's COP10 Conference, but it's for gardeners, farmers, and everyday folks, too. We rely on these little ones to give us the food we eat everyday, the medicines we rely on when we or our loved ones are ill, as well as for our clothing and shelter. It's also not difficult. Setting out a potted plant - large or small, many or few - or tending a garden is lending a helping hand and being, in a small way, part of a bigger picture.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Thinned Daikon or Bathing Beauties

I picked these up at one of the nearby farms at their little vegetable stall. We've done our thinning (mabiki) of the daikons already at the farm, and we finished half of the kabu field on Friday. We ate the leaves in salad and sprinkled over our miso, and the roots got finely chopped in any assortment of salads, too.

The daikon is normally a mild-mannered member of the radish family, but these packed quite a pungent punch. (I am a fan of alliteration as well as farmer's markets.) If they maintain this kind of flavor as they get larger, they should be a spicy addition to our winter dishes!