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!