Thursday, September 30, 2010

I See Winter Vegetables Everywhere

We finished preparing this field and two others like it for winter planting. We spread assorted manures and seaweed by hand, and then Takashi-san plowed it all in to achieve this lovely look. The daikon seeds from the first planting are already sprouting, and soon the seeds for kabu, karashina, komatsuna, and pak choi will follow suit. A dirty but good day.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Red Lycoris: A Japanese Favorite

Along with the tulip and crocus bulbs planted last week in the west wall bed I also put in three bulbs of Red Lycoris. This time of year the flowers can be seen everywhere, and in my quest to increase the color and texture of my garden it seemed like a brilliant idea to add them to the mix. They are not one of the seven fall flowers of Japan, but they're fast becoming a new favorite of mine. (Although, I will say I'm simply a fool for flowers so that's not so surprising.)

I've been impressed so far by the lantanna and lavender with their staying power for color and texture, and wanted to build on that. Red Lycoris reminds me of Spider Flower (a.k.a. Cleome) in it's bloom shape, but I like it's straight delicate stem more. I also like that's it's leaves will add pleasant green texture to the garden bed, too. I like the idea that folks strolling by find something nice to look at, too, and so I confess that I plant with an audience in mind.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Swallowtail Caterpillars Like Parsley

I swear that I've never seen a greater variety of butterflies in my life than I have in the nearly two years we have lived in Japan. (During our trip to Hokkaido I counted at least six different varieties while sitting in one spot for two hours.) Black, black and white, yellow, orange, black with blue, and ranging from about an inch to those that look like bats or small birds fluttering by. It's been another of the unexpected pleasures of living here.

Last year these fat little fellows trimmed my fennel plants, and this year they've arrived to keep the parsley in the west wall bed in check. (Truth be told, they're straight up devouring it and we are parsley-less.) My minimal knowledge and experience with these creatures told me this could be something rather exciting. A short search for "black and yellow caterpillar" images has me believing they are swallowtails, but I'm not entirely sure if they are Old World Swallowtails or if they are Black Swallowtails. Regardless, while I await word from a professional they will keep munching and I'll be glad for the company in the garden.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Nira in Bloom and Stars in My Miso

I couldn't resist letting a few of my nira (Japanese garlic chives) go to flower. As I've mentioned before, I have felt a real dearth of color and vibrancy in the garden this year. The west bed where perennials and overflow plants go is also where I do some experimenting. Purchased on something of a whim this spring, I popped them in there and have been slowly savoring them for about two weeks. (The farmers report they are a main ingredient in gyoza, fried chinese pork dumplings that are tastier than should really be legal.)

I still happily cut them for their tasty green leaves (visible below the blooms in the above photo) in salad or miso, and now I add the flowers to both as well. The blossoms look like floating stars, and have a pungent flavor all their own, too. What's better than pretty food? Eating it, of course!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Yacon Update

This spring I received a box full of goodness from a woman I met last fall at a Slow Business festival. Inside, much to my delight and surprise, were seeds for fusen and goya, along with Jerusalem Artichoke bulbs and yacon seedlings. Because of her kindness our green curtain was born, Jersulaem Artichoke grow on the balcony, and yacon stand in the garden. (I also had a fair amount of advice from Radix and a handful of other tuber fans in the blogosphere to help me get them happily settled.)

Yacon, a tuber from South America, is increasing in popularity here in Japan. With a flavor and texture reminiscent of apples, it is an excellent addition to soup, salad, or a dish of sauteed vegetables. Planted in the west wall bed, they stand about three feet tall. (This photograph was taken in August, and they are taller and more lush now.) I've kept them well mulched with grassy weeds to help ease them through the unseemly heat of summer. Troubled a bit by the heat and drought, and a marauding bunch of katydids desperate for snacks, they're looking quite happy during these slightly cooler days. No flowers yet, but perhaps they are still to come. I imagine harvest will be sometime in the next couple months, and it is then that I hope to save some back for planting next year, too.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tulips and Crocus'

The bed that runs along the west side of the garden and at the base of a cement wall is where I tend to do experiment a bit. Perennial herbs like mint, oregano, sage, and lavender are here along with rhubarb and lantanna. The yacon are also planted here where I can monitor their growth and dig up the tubers (whenever that may be) without disrupting the cycle of planting and harvest in the other beds. Home to the plants that come home with me after a splurge at the nursery, as well as the lasagna bed and the compost bin, the bed is a mosaic of ideas, textures, and colors. It's also where I see toads, salamanders, and an occasional cat. I love it.

It seemed a logical choice then to plant a handful of bulbs here. I realize after this year's utilitarian style garden that I need flowers and a dash of chaos almost as much as I need vegetables and herbs. The tidiness of this year's garden proved uninspiring to me (as did the unseemly heat and ensuing drought), and so I'm plotting a return to wild growth habits and bounteous color. Tulips tucked alongside the chives and behind morning glories going to seed seemed like a good start, as did a line of crocus under the rhubarb leaves. Imagining those bright spots of color come February and March is already making me smile.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Clean Slate

This morning Takashi-san plowed in the compost, seaweed, wood ash, eggshells, chicken manure, and bacteria spread yesterday to boost the garden soil. Next week I hope to do a bit of planting, and work on preparing the garlic bed.

Here's my current list of winter vegetables:
The first seven I grew last year, and savored every last morsel. I'm quite excited to grow them again, and plan to do a bit of blanching and freezing in preparation for the somewhat greens bleak summer months.

The next four - Chinese cabbage, kale, beets, and swiss chard - I have either not grown on my own or only grown as summer vegetables. As I've mentioned before, I'm going to experiment with them as winter vegetables. I think the greens will be particularly happy and should be relatively bug free due to the cold temperatures.

Garlic I have grown, and even though this last year it was a bit of a failure, I'm going to try again. I picked up some very nice looking organic garlic from EcoPlaza while doing an interview with the Earth Day Market folks that I think will grow nicely. I'm also reading up on what garlic likes best for growing, and plan to incorporate as much of that as possible. Thoughts and ideas, of course, are welcome!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Good Month for Visiting

This morning we are at long last getting some much needed rain and some very welcome cooler weather. Old friends who arrived yesterday must have brought it with them, and we're glad their touring days with us will be comfortable, albeit a bit damp.

That said, I've snuck in some time at the farm and garden and computer, but I've only got very rough drafts about our trip to Hakuba. And a recipe for squash butter is in the works while my recently harvested squash wait patiently on the counter. And the tulip and crocus bulbs are in the garden, but a small handful are waiting to be potted for the balcony gardens, too. And I've got a lovely bunch of seeds waiting to be set in the garden for winter eating, too. How is it possible there is so many wonderful and fun things to do everywhere I turn?

Meanwhile, though, we'll be off touring in the city and surrounding areas. I'll post as I can - promise!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Savoring the Squash Harvest

Before we left for our trip to Hakuba, I harvested a few of our coveted squash. Both varieties turned out fairly well, although I do suspect I left them on the vine a tad too long. Most photos of the final product feature a dark green or grey fruit while mine are orange in hue. The advice I got was to wait until the stems turned gray. (I was a bit impatient, so even this orange beauty here was picked perhaps too early for that particular indicator.)

Reminiscent of the butternut, also a cucurbits moschata, the skin on these does not cook up as nicely as it does on the average kaboucha or buttercup. Our curry the other night was tasty except for the skin, so in the dish below I peeled the leftover half before cooking. A tedious task that I attempt to avoid at almost all costs it proved worth the effort in the end.

While it's still a bit hot for miso I decided that after nearly ten days of eating out a simple home-cooked meal was in order. A big salad, rice, and miso filled the bill nicely. As it did in the houtou udon the squash added a bit of texture as well as flavor to the miso, and the sweet-spicy Korean chili paste I mixed in for good measure was the perfect companion. (I may try the Niseko Station Inspired Squash Salad, too, for good measure when our next set of guests arrive.)

Spicy Squash Miso Soup
1/2 squash, peeled and cut into bite size pieces.
4 heaping tablespoons, miso
4 cups water
1/2 cup dashi or soy sauce
1/2 block of tofu, cut into bite size pieces
1 tablespoon Korean chili paste
1 1/2 inches fresh ginger, thinly cut

Start heating the water and gradually smooth in the miso paste. Then toss in the squash, tofu, and ginger slices. Stir in the Korean chili paste. Bring it to a boil, then softly simmer until the squash cuts smoothly with a knife. Serve piping hot in small bowls!

I recommend experimenting with leaving the peel on the squash. When tempura-ed in Japan, the peel is on and folks I've met in Michigan eat baked squash with the peel on, too. My hunch is that all that green skin can't be bad for you, unless it turns you off. Then peel it.

The amount of tofu used is relative, of course, if you ask me. We like a goodly amount, but others may prefer less. Bite size is also relative. My favorite spouse prefers smaller bites while I don't mind double bite-size chunks.

We like spicy food, and the Korean chili paste we get here is a wee bit sweet, too. If you're using anything else, start sparingly and ramp it up as you go.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hiking in the Japan Alps: Getting There

We returned early from the Japan Alps due to the typhoon, but needed to finish up our visit with a good friend before I could sit down to write. He's back home now, and after a morning sweating it at the farm I'm back at the computer.

Our trip was fantastic, although the trails were at times harrowing and hair-raising. We didn't know about the typhoon until we got to the second hut, and then there were the chains on the trails and the unstable rock field we crossed. (The copious amounts of what looked remarkably like bear scat on the trail seemed tame in comparison.) Beautiful, but the experience is slightly overshadowed by the fact that I spent large chunks being terrified. I'm glad to be home in Tokyo getting dirty on level ground again.

Getting there
As we did for our trip to Kawaguchiko, we took a bus from Shinjuku directly to Hakuba. (We took the same bus this past March, a trip which I'll write up later when folks are itching to get to some snow.) The bus is extremely pleasant with a restroom, great views, and fairly comfortable seats. A little napping, a little snacking, a little gazing out the window, and you arrive in no time flat.

The bus also makes two stops along the way. Highway rest stops in Japan are lovely affairs: multiple recycling stations; vendors selling their version of local delicacies, i.e. fruit, soba, specially concocted sweets or savory treats; a small handful of restaurants; and often a little park for stretching the legs and the dog.

I lingered, as any vegetable otaku would, near the stands of beautifully arrayed fruits and vegetables, but what really caught my attention this time were the restrooms. Simple seasonal bouquets sat tidily on the counters to brighten and soften what otherwise feels rather institutional. I don't have high expectations for public restrooms, but things like this just brighten my day.

(Inspired by Jared Braiterman over at Tokyo Green Space, too!)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hiking in the Japan Alps

We're taking another trip. We're off to Hakuba to hike in the Japan Alps for a few days, and so I won't be posting until we return. A good friend is visiting and hiking is his thing, so off we go! We'll be staying in mountain huts as we did in Hokkaido, but these won't be as small or as remote. The photos we've seen show gigantic things that look as though they ought to house a villain from a James Bond film. I promise to tell all when we return.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Squash ala Tokyo Farms

It seems every vegetable stand in our neighborhood and beyond is near to bursting with kaboucha, a.k.a. Japanese pumpkin. A nice little round green winter squash, kaboucha flesh is deep orange with a rich flavor comparable to buttercup. It is utterly delectable as tempura, in houtou udon, and just about any other dish one could imagine.

While visiting the Weymiller's during our trip to Hokkaido we happened to be discussing vegetables, food, and gardening one evening. (Shocking, I know.) Toby mentioned a tiny restaurant in Niseko Station in Sapporo that served a fantastic squash salad. Describing it as similar to potato salad with a creamy sauce and only a few other ingredients, I was intrigued. Why not? It made perfect sense.

Presented with the abundance of kaboucha (along with onions galore!) these days and the overwhelming heat, it seemed logical to devise a salad.

Niseko Station Inspired Squash Salad
1 kaboucha, cut into bite size pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic
2 small onions, chopped
2 tablespoons dashi or soy sauce
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
A dash of hot sauce or a whole chilli (if you dare!)
1-2 cups black beans

Wash and cut the kaboucha in half and remove the innards and seeds. Cut into bite size pieces and steam until they cut easily with a knife. (We aim for something only a tiny bit al dente so it's not too squishy, although it's still quite tasty.) Drain and plop in a bowl. Press in the garlic, and throw in the remaining ingredients. Give it a good stir and sample. I tend to add more garlic or chilli or both, depending on the day. Serve immediately or chill in the fridge until it's time to eat.

Usual Caveats
I used black soy beans, which are readily available here. Usually served cold and al dente with a sauce made of dashi and sugar, they are a simple source of protein that's tasty on a hot day.

The kaboucha seeds can be saved for roasting in the pan or oven, but I opted to send them to the new compost bin. Too hot to think about cooking anything else at the moment.

Using a whole chili is fine, but I might recommend giving the flavors a chance to meld. In my most recent batch I used a whole one, and we ate some moments later for lunch. It was tasty, but the pepper hadn't quite permeated. By dinner time, it should be pleasantly spicy and offer the kind of heat I can appreciate.