Sunday, March 28, 2010

Kimchi in the Bathtub

A friend recently gave us a crash course on making kimchi, and after our trip to Korea last year we were eager students. We'd made sauerkraut in the past, so kimchi seemed like a logical step in fermented foods. Our take home prize from the evening was a five liter jar of that healthy, tasty, spicy fermenting brew. (Ok, it's not really in the bathtub anymore, but we do keep it in the bathroom for the cool temperature, and because it's easy to mop up if the brew overflows with enthusiastic fermenting.)

Haksai, or Chinese cabbage was just finishing up, and it seemed like a logical use for the extra heads in the Takashi's field. We peeled, cored, and sliced twelve heads, and then worked them over with a sprinkling of salt. The salt on the cabbage caused it to almost immediately wilt and release water. We continued adding cabbage and salt and massaging with our hands until the bowl in question was well full of wilted cabbage and frothy brine. (The froth resulted from all the air that was being worked in.) We transferred it to a larger container for holding while getting ready to massage the next round.

Once all the cabbage was done, we chopped up some daikon, komatsuna, carrots, and again added salt. As those items were being massaged, we grated ginger, peeled and chopped garlic, and chopped a ton of dried small red peppers from the garden. (Many recipes call for chilli powder, but we just went with what we had on hand.)

We then mixed the spicy stuff with the salted cabbage sinking our arms in to above the elbow to work the mass. We turned and turned that mass for a good half an hour. Once our skin was super tingly, the vegetables looked well mixed, and there was plenty of brine it was declared done.

We let our jar ferment for about four or five days before eating, and are enjoying it still.

Note: We didn't add dashi or fish product of any kind, although many recipes call for it. This recipe approximates what we did (leave out the sugar, though), and should give a pretty good idea of ratios and techniques.

Too spicy for you?
If kimchi seems a bit intimidating, try these quick Japanese cabbage pickles. Only a little spice, and they're ready in moments to augment any meal perfectly. Japan has a long history of eating fermented foods - from natto to a wide variety of tsukemono (pickles) - and enjoying the subsequent health benefits.

A little recommended reading
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz comes recommended by our kimchi sensei. He reports that "It's a little...'wild', but good stuff - anecdotes, recipes, and lore." The web page holds a great load of information including a Troubleshooting Q&A, recipes, and workshop listings for cheesemaking, pickles, and general fermentation.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mottainai: Garbage in Japan

A recent article about students at Wisconsin working on simplifying the garbage system at a cafeteria just made me smile. Tokyo residents have been doing this since 2005, and the Japanese even have a word for the philosophy behind this - Mottainai - that expresses regret at the loss of respect for the inherent value of something. There's also a campaign by the same name that has made this expression part of daily life.

I have to say, too, that after one year of living here and sorting our garbage this way it really isn't so bad. Each day a different kind of garbage is picked up (plastics - three kinds - on Monday; burnables - compostable food bits, mostly - on Tuesday and Friday; non-burnables - clothes, batteries, etc. - on Wednesday; and paper on Thursday). We made a few mistakes at the beginning and found our bags with the bright yellow stickers on them telling us (and our neighbors) of our error, but now we've got the hang of it.

Sorting our garbage and recycling in this way made me realize how much we took for granted the idea that we should be able to simply toss out whatever we want without a second thought. During those first days of garbage struggle and complaining, a good friend wondered why I thought it should be so easy to get rid of my garbage? It wasn't easy to make the product (from absolute start to finish) although it was presumably easy to buy and use. I needed to see it through. Mottainai.

Garbage sorting stations are everywhere in Japan. Train stations, airports, hostels, hotels, and convenience stores all have them, and they dot the campus - inside as well as outside buildings - near where we live. (The photo was taken during a recent bus trip at a highway rest stop, and the picture at left was taken at the university.) It's not difficult to sort and only takes a minute or two at best. And while the system isn't perfect by any means it does give me pause when shopping. (I've switched to a yogurt that comes in waxed cardboard versus plastic, for example.) It's also gotten us to begin carrying our own chopsticks on trips, and not minding the lack of paper towels in public restrooms. (Like Japanese people, we carry a washcloth with us now to dry our hands.)

It's really not difficult (even school kids are doing it) and if it reduces waste, then why not?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

JA Maps: Tracking the Neighborhood Farm

When I can't make it to one of the farmer's markets or my garden is at in-between stage, I pull out of our best finds yet. It's a handy little map from our local JA (Japan Agriculture) office. One side shows a map of the area with all of the local farms and farmstands clearly marked. On the other side are photos of some stands with a short description of their produce, plus a handy chart showing when assorted vegetables are in season and can be purchased. The best part of all? More often than not the field or orchard where the kiwis came from is visible just over the fence.

The map is all in Japanese, but that isn't much of an obstacle. Familiar friends like broccoli and cabbage will undoubtedly lead to experimenting with an assortment of new vegetables - daikon, satoimo, and komatsuna, to name just a few - as well as a little language practice!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Snow in Tokyo

We thought we'd left the snow in America, but it turns out it followed us all the way here. Gray skies full of rain that turned to snow by the afternoon with damp, bone-chilling cold.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Tokyo Garden Greens Ready to Eat!

I stopped by the garden on an early morning foray. (Jet lag is good for that sort of thing.) I found beds ready for harvest! Komatsuna, red and green karashina, big heads of broccoli and cabbage, and spinach planted late last year are all ready to go. Arugula and wasabina are all showing signs of regrowth, and the kale is showing signs of life, too.

Picture note
All of the rows have covers - netting or plastic with ventilation holes - to keep the plants a tad bit warmer as well as keep out some critters. The photos of the cabbage, arugula, and broccoli are hazy due to the netting of the floating row cover, and the edges of the plastic row cover shows on a couple photos, too.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Forty-One Year Old Cake

As our visit winds down my mother is trying to get in every last flavor she knows we love or remember. We've had meatloaf (twice), blueberry pie, chicken and rice, tatertot casserole, homemade coffeecake, good sharp Wisconsin cheddar and German sausage. (We've also gained about seven pounds, as one might expect.)

At a recent family gathering, my mother prepared for dessert a cake she's been making for my birthday as long as I can remember. She confirmed, as well, that she's had the recipe since the year I was born. Coincidence? Perhaps.

This recipe turns the average angelfood cake it into delicious layers of bitter chocolate and coffee that simply melt in your mouth. The recipe, a battered and besplattered piece of magazine paper that my mother reports is perhaps from a 1969 or 1968 issue of Better Homes and Gardens Magazine is tucked in the cookbook she keeps on the counter. My mother's adage, "It's only air." as she encourages us to eat something like dessert or clean up our plates is perhaps true for one of the few times ever.

Heavenly Torte
1 7 ounce jar marshmallow creme
1 tablespoon hot water
1 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup whipping cream
1 10-inch angel cake
1/2 square (1/2 ounce) semi-sweet chocolate, shaved (3 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons slivered almonds, toasted

In a small mixing bowl, combine marshmallow creme, hot water, coffee powder, and vanilla. Beat using electric mixer on low speed until blended, then beat at high speed until fluffy. Whip cream until soft peaks form. Fold in marshmallow creme mixture. Split cake cross-wise into three layers. Frost each layer with marshmallow filling; sprinkle with shaved chocolate. Assemble layers on cake plate and garnish top with toasted almonds.

Note from my mother:
- She sometimes uses ground walnuts rather than almonds, which is how I remember eating it most often. She also doesn't always toast the almonds. The day she made it here, she didn't toast them and we didn't mind in the least.
- She also shaves the chocolate directly onto the layer in question rather than shaving ahead of time and hand-sprinkling. (See photos.)