Monday, November 28, 2011

Eggplant Pickles: Summer's Official End

It feels absurd to write that title near the end of November and just after friends and family in America celebrated Thanksgiving. But there is a grain of truth of in it as the eggplant field still remains at the farm, home to the summer vegetable of Japan.

Since arriving in Japan in the 8th century, it's made itself right at home. The exact road it traveled I don't know, but this is a country that loves it with a fervent passion. The first eggplant of the summer is met with a joy that merits a holiday of its own, and the last of this deep-hued favorite is similarly mourned. Even though it is not my favorite vegetable and summer is nowhere near my favorite season, I well understand the sadness that comes with the end of the season. I am sorry to see one of the grandest of our fields and crops come to a close.

The low slant of light this time of year always engenders a certain nostalgic feeling in me, not in the least I'm sure, because it makes everything around me look particularly beautiful. Every sight takes my breath away as the light perfectly highlights deep red leaves, brilliant orange kaki, the rich green leaves of the broccoli and cabbage as they ponder producing their fruits, and the dazzling blue sky arching over it all. Hurried as I might be on any given day, my steps slow inevitably slow each time I walk through the farm gate to drop off compost or begin whatever task is set for the day.

The eggplant field, beaten up by another unusually hot summer and one of the strongest typhoons to hit the city in years, is scheduled for destruction next week. We've not harvested for sale for at least two weeks, and unusually large fruit now hang from some of the vines while others burst open to spill their seeds in a last shout of glory. Spiders string their webs everywhere to catch the last of the butterflies and dragonflies still moving about these days. The elaborate latticework of poles and bands and string will be removed. Branches will be cut and trunks pulled. The plastic mulch taken up and all this will be composted, pitched, or stored until the next seedlings arrive in the spring.

It seemed only appropriate then to try my hand at a new pickle recipe. I have a limited supply of canning jars here, so this is actually a big decision. (Anyone who cares to send along a box or two of half-pint or smaller jars should leave a comment for my address. I promise to send a sampling of the proceeds.) I found the recipe while searching for something to do with a bounty of red peppers (another summer vegetable that recently closed up shop for the season), and thought it might be interesting. I'm worried about the slime factor, but it could be good. If life isn't about trying something you think might be weird, then it is about nothing at all.

Aubergine Pickles
4.5 cups of water
5 lbs eggplant (about four large or whatever combination of small and large you think)
1.5 cups white vinegar
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
2 tsp pickling or canning salt
6 cloves garlic
- taken from Ball's Complete Book of Home Preserving (courtesy of much-beloved and missed friends at Ambry Farms)

Eggplant Preparation
Bring the water to a goodly boil while quickly peeling and topping the eggplants. Cut them into strips about 3 inches long (7.5 cm) and 3/4 inch (2 cm) wide. Plop them into the bubbling water immediately and gently boil them for about 10 minutes. Every couple minutes press them down into the boiling water to make sure they cook thoroughly. When the pieces are sufficiently tender, drain them and rinse thoroughly with cold water to stop the cooking process. (You are, in effect, blanching the eggplant.) Let them loiter for a moment in the strainer while prepping the jars, lids, and canner.

Meanwhile...
Peel and prep the cloves of garlic so they are at the ready when it's jarring time.

Once the jars are literally moments from being ready...
Stir together the vinegars, sugar, oregano and salt and bring it to a boil over a medium-high heat. Plop in that eggplant and bring it to a boil once again. Then, remove from heat.

Place one clove of garlic into the jar, pack in the hot eggplant pieces, and ladle that steaming brine over the top. Leave a 1/2 inch (1cm) headspace and remove air bubbles. Once that's done, check the headspace again and add more hot brine if necessary. Wipe the rim, put the lid and screw band on, and repeat!

Process jars for 15 minutes in a boil water bath canner.

Caveats
I peeled and topped as quick as I could, but this process, while not as slow as those darn chestnuts, is not fast. The eggplant begins to brown rather quickly, so popping it in the water stops that process while starting another. I ended up doing two batches, so a few pieces turned an unsightly shade while I waited. I'll use them in something else, but yet again, canning shows what a great group process it can be. My advice would be to have at least one more pair of hands working away to get the eggplant ready.

I used cider vinegar instead of white vinegar as that is what is available in my local grocery store.

Speaking of the brine, I recommend tripling the amounts listed here. I ended up with only three pints in the end with lots of eggplant bits left over. Operator error may be the culprit here (it wouldn't be the first time) and I may try again. I would be grateful to hear word from anyone else who gives this a go.

Please be aware that these are not attractive pickles. My husband just asked if they were octopus, which ought to be telling.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tokyo's Farmer's Markets: November 26th and 27th

December approaches and the winter bounty continues. Head on out to one of these most excellent markets to see what the season has to offer. And don't hesitate to share a recipe or two, too. I'm always on the look-out for something new to make!

Saturday, November 26 and Sunday, November 27
A gem of a market hidden away in one of Tokyo's high-end shopping districts offering seasonal favorites in a way that feels homey yet rather boutique-y.
11am to 5pm

Sunday, November 27
I could go wax on forever about how great this market is and how important it is for the future of Japanese farming. Instead, I'll just insist that folks go and see for themselves what great things the market and these innovative growers are doing.
10am to 4pm, Rain or shine!

Every Saturday and Sunday in November
A massive weekend affair that is great fun and features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Plus, the curry I had during my last visit from one of the vendors was plate-licking good. (I refrained, but only just.)
10am to 4pm

Every Saturday in October
A recent first visit to this market was well worth the trip for the number of organic growers and getting to meet a Tokyo farmer from just down the tracks in Kokobunji.
10am to 2pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in October
Another nice market not far from the sumo stadium in Ryogoku it's worth casing out for the neighborhood as well as the vendors.
11am to 5pm

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Taken in early November at one of my favorite nearby farm stands, this seasonal bouquet shone like a star. Our bags were full, but there was no resisting its burst of color on that gray afternoon.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chestnut Liqueur ala Tokyo

I am an imperfectionist. At times I refer to it as laziness, i.e. not removing the pith from the yuzu when making yuzushu, and while other times I imply a certain creativity. Really, it's a blatant disregard for direction. Even as I read a recipe I wonder if a step is really necessary or if a particular ingredient could be switched with something I have or can easily find in Japan. Even so, despite faithfully-made shopping lists, I change my mind in a flash as I catch sight of another potentially scrumptious addition, and the original formula carefully concocted by professionals and those much more experienced than I is lost.

Such is the case with my first ever batch of chestnut liqueur. Spotted on Twitter the concept sounded like a perfect fit with my year of shus. How could I not add this one to my little family of blueberry, rhubarb, plum, and two varieties of ume shus?


It was no surprise then that one late October afternoon found me parking my bike in front of a little fruit and vegetable store (yaoya) near the university. I pass it nearly everyday, but almost never stop because I am running late or because my nearby farmstands have filled my larder to the brim. The yaoya owners, an older couple who live upstairs and have a fantastically large (yet small, of course) bonsai forest on their balcony, are often seen puttering about the shop. While she usually rearranges a display, he sits peeling potatoes or, most recently, chestnuts for their customers convenience. It was the latter, of course, that brought me over.

Chatting for a bit about the persimmons hanging to dry in front of the shop (hashigaki), I opted for the bag of unpeeled chestnuts. It seemed like cheating to take the pre-peeled ones. "I'm a farmer," I thought. "I don't need no pre-peeled chestnuts." Besides, the outer shell would make good fodder for the compost bin. (See recipe and caveats below for my current thinking on that.)

Chestnuts, known as kuri or marron here in Japan, are a distinct flavor of autumn. The rich brown shell gives way to a sweet-fleshed nut that turns golden when cooked. Good steamed simultaneously with rice, the Japanese turn them into any number of wonderful desserts that simply knock the socks off your taste buds. Different from the tochi, these nuts come from a shorter cousin. The kuri don't require as much preparation and effort as the nuts from their taller tochi cousin in order to eat, but are just as delicious.

Tokyo Chestnut Liqueur
500 grams chestnuts, peeled*
150 grams honey
200 ml water
640 ml brandy**

Peel the chestnuts.
Easily the most tedious part of the process, peeling chestnuts is never much of a pleasure. Knowing the seasonality of the nut is some comfort as are thoughts of the dish to come. I tried Wright's suggested method of boiling and then peeling, but if I do this again I might return to Takashi-san's simple soak-overnight-then-peel concept. It is ultimately less painful physically and emotionally, and I would not be left with a crumbling mass of sweet chestnut flesh.

Craft the liqueur.
Boil the chestnuts in 200ml of water for about 10 minutes and then drain. Stir in the honey and cook the solution until the honey dissolves. (Wright's directions are a bit different, and it's worth a look for the sake of comparison.)

Place the nuts in a jar and pour the water-honey mix over them but through a sieve. Pour the brandy over them and seal up the jar. Wait.
*Listed amounts are 'give or take' meaning that while John Wright's original recipe called for a specific number I fudged it to suit my needs.
**This number is exact. I wanted the fluid to cover the chestnuts, and so I simply put in the whole bottle.

The Usual Caveats
As I mentioned earlier, if given the opportunity, buy pre-peeled fresh chestnuts. Do not confuse this with a recommendation to use canned or precooked chestnuts, though. It might work, but I believe fresh is best to give the liqueur full flavor.

Soak the chestnuts overnight to loosen the peels. Doing this is much easier than cooking them as there is a great deal less risk of burns (those solid little things really hold the heat!) or cutting off a finger while simultaneously juggling and peeling.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tokyo's Farmer's Markets: November 19th and 20th

Quite a few more markets than last weekend, including the most excellent UN University Night Market. Lots of good stuff to be had as always at all of them, so make a list for the week and make your way. It's a great chance to practice Japanese, learn new recipes, and get a peek into Japan's evolving food scene.

Sunday, November 20
11am to 5pm
A nice sized market held on the terrace just in front of Ebisu Garden Place that will always be special to me for introducing me to dried natto and tea seedpods.

Sunday, November 20
Another hidden gem, but this time over in Mitaka and of some of the best local organic eats around. Wear your elastic-waist pants and make the trek!
11:30am to 2pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in November
A massive weekend affair that is great fun and features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Plus, the curry I had during my last visit from one of the vendors was plate-licking good. (I refrained, but only just.)
10am to 4pm

Saturday, November 19
A unique event in the heart of the city that a vegetable loving geek like me wouldn't miss for the world. What better way to get the healthy vitamins and minerals you need to sustain an evening of karaoke and izakaya hopping?
8pm - ?

Every Saturday in October
A recent first visit to this market was well worth the trip for the number of organic growers and getting to meet a Tokyo farmer from just down the tracks in Kokobunji.
10am to 2pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in October
Another nice market not far from the sumo stadium in Ryogoku it's worth casing out for the neighborhood as well as the vendors.
11am to 5pm

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Today's photo comes right from our Tokyo neighborhood. A nearby farm sells their produce directly each afternoon, and these radishes were too pretty to pass up.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tokyo's Farmer's Markets: November 12th and 13th

Only a small handful of markets this weekend, but that only means it will be easier to decide where to go! As temperatures drop, dishes like oden, houtou udon, or sweet potato stew sound more scrumptious than ever, and the best part is that all the ingredients are in season at this very moment. Why, it might even be time for a fresh batch of kimchi, too!

Every Saturday and Sunday in November
10am to 4pm

Every Saturday in October
A recent first visit to this market was good fun, and the covered roof means its perfect for damp days, too.
10am to 2pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in October
11am to 5pm

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Taken at the Roppongi Farmer's Market in October, these apples got me dreaming of all the tasty ones I sampled during our trip to England. And got me thinking about my yuzu-apple-ginger marmalade, too. You can probably hear my stomach growling from here...

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Himomo Sprouts New Life

The brilliant himomo or ornamental peach tree, a much admired spring bloomer, showed signs of new life recently. Blown down by Typhoon Roke in late September, the farmers left a somewhat tall stump standing in hopes new sprouts would grow.

These little leaves are the first signs of new growth, and since taking this photo two weeks ago a handful more dot the trunk. A quick count of the rings showed the tree was a mere ten-years-old when the storm arrived, which means with any luck we'll work again in her shade again soon.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ishinomaki's Tsunami Gardens

This past Saturday we returned from a week of volunteering with Peace Boat in Ishinomaki. Devastated by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, Ishinomaki presents another facet of the disaster. These days the majority of media attention focuses on the Daiichi Power Plant and Fukushima Prefecture's efforts to emerge from that radioactive shadow. Yet, what's not covered is the continuing struggle of Tohoku's coastal communities - large and small alike - to emerge and rebuild.
























What we saw was both uplifting and heart-breaking, and I struggle to wrap my mind around it all much less find the words to describe it in a meaningful way to others.The water forced its way into each and every home and business without exception, and left behind a jumbled mass of debris large and small. Many buildings have been cleared and cleaned, but many more remain broken and jumbled. Trees stand mostly dead with branches still full of debris, and the landscape is mostly barren of life. I have never seen such devastation, and try as I might I cannot imagine the fear of that moment. And I cannot imagine the grief permeating the lives of those left behind to shovel and shift debris, to forge ahead on the edge of a sea that can be as generous as it can be vicious. The best I could do was add my back to the thousands of others trying to push the region forward to some kind of stability, some kind of normality. It didn't feel like enough, but I know it made a difference to a few.















What I did see, though, that made me smile were the gardens. On empty lots where homes once stood, next to tsunami bent rebar still clutching bits of cement, or in front of homes with blue tarps for windows were vegetables and flowers. Planted to reestablish a sense of normalcy while residents wait to find out if the government will allow them to return, the gardens removed a very thin layer of the helplessness and hopelessness filling their lives since March. My guess is that a homegrown cabbage never tasted so good.















Get Involved
Volunteer or donate with a well-organized effort committed to the long-term redevelopment of the community and region.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Tokyo's November Farmer's Markets

November is the beginning of my favorite season wherever I live: winter. I thrive in cooler temperatures and crisp winds. Tokyo's trademark blue skies this time of year are bonus material of the best kind, and if snow crunched underfoot I'd be the happiest of citizens. In lieu of that crunching snow, though, I get what I firmly believe is one of the best growing seasons here. The absolute bounty of greens, fantastic root vegetables, as well as dried fruits and crafty concoctions like miso is an eater's delight. And what better place to find all of these and more than a local farmer's market?

Saturday, November 5
11am to 3pm
A once-a-month outreach effort by the students running a neighborhood grocery featuring fruits and vegetables from independent farmers.


Sunday, November 6 and Sunday, November 20
11am to 5pm
A nice sized market held on the terrace just in front of Ebisu Garden Place that will always be special to me for introducing me to dried natto and tea seedpods.

Saturday, November 5 and Sunday, November 6
Saturday, November 26 and Sunday, November 27
A gem of a market hidden away in one of Tokyo's high-end shopping districts offering seasonal favorites in a way that feels homey yet rather boutique-y.
11am to 5pm

Sadly, it seems this market may no longer exist. I'm in the process of finding out more, and will keep folks updated. It seems a shame, although maybe some of our Mitaka-area farmers could move in and strut their stuff?
11am to 5pm

Sunday, November 20
Another hidden gem, but this time over in Mitaka and of some of the best local organic eats around. Wear your elastic-waist pants and make the trek!
11:30am to 2pm

Sunday, November 27
I could go wax on forever about how great this market is and how important it is for the future of Japanese farming. Instead, I'll just insist that folks go and see for themselves what great things the market and these innovative growers are doing.
10am to 4pm, Rain or shine!

Every Saturday and Sunday in November
A massive weekend affair that is great fun and features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Plus, the curry I had during my last visit from one of the vendors was plate-licking good. (I refrained, but only just.)
10am to 4pm

Saturday, November 19
A unique event in the heart of the city that a vegetable loving geek like me wouldn't miss for the world. What better way to get the healthy vitamins and minerals you need to sustain an evening of karaoke and izakaya hopping?
8pm - ?

Every Saturday in October
A recent first visit to this market was well worth the trip for the number of organic growers and getting to meet a Tokyo farmer from just down the tracks in Kokobunji.
10am to 2pm

Every Saturday and Sunday in October
Another nice market not far from the sumo stadium in Ryogoku it's worth casing out for the neighborhood as well as the vendors.
11am to 5pm

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!