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Winter Recipes: Greens

The riot of greens going on in my garden right now.

You might be surprised that I still visit farmers markets in winter, or that winter is my favorite season for vegetables in Japan.

"What is growing now?  It's too cold, isn't it?" you ask with eyebrows raised and often leaning back a bit as though afraid of what I might say next. When I talk about winter vegetables, you may lean even further back, and I'll worry that you might fall off your chair.

It is then my pleasure to tell you (or anyone else within earshot, frankly) of foods you already know: daikon and kabu, komatsuna and hourensou (spinach) as well as some you may not - norabo and kale (including the ornamental variety in pots just now), shungiku (edible chrysanthemum greens) and karashina. Mizuna, too, is on the list as are negi (long onions) and hakusai (Chinese cabbage) plus those old friends, kabbetsu (cabbage) and broccoli. Many of these are available real round in grocery stores, but winter is the season when they really shine.

Each of these vegetables can grow at warmer times of the year, but many actually taste better during the winter. Kale, broccoli, cabbage, and norabo, for example, become a bit sweeter with a good frost. Their natural reaction to the cold is to pump sugar into their leaves and stems to keep them from freezing. So, even though those leaves may be tinged a bit red or purple, they are delicious.

If these plants grow at a warmer time of the year, they may rush through their growing cycle, flower, and go to seed. Again, the doesn't mean they aren't edible. They are still delicious but in a slightly different form. Think of it as steak versus hamburger. Both are beef, but delicious in either form.

By this time, you're wide-eyed and nodding your head as this new world opens up before you. Later, you might even tell me that you shared this information with friends, who were just as pleasantly surprised. That's my hope, at least, which probably means I am evangelizing for vegetables. I'm glad to do it. If you understand what is available at this time of year and why it looks the way it does, then chances are good you'll buy it and eat it. That, in turn, is good for the growers and good for the plants. If we eat those things, then farmers will keep planting them.

However, I digress.

The next question is how to cook these vegetables. Most Japanese people know, but they are often curious what I, a foreigner, do with these items, and other foreigners are often wishing they had some idea of what to do. They would like to eat them, of course, but they hold back because they don't want to invest in something they don't know the first thing about. Here are my suggestions, ranging from full-on recipes to simple tricks.

Goma Ai Shungiku
This is a very simple traditional recipe for making shungiku, but with a minor adjustment of the boiling time you can substitute any of the greens found at farmers markets or chokubaijo (direct sale stands). Shungiku spends less than a minute in the boiling water, but other, more tender greens, like komatsuna and spinach, should only be in about ten seconds of so. Sturdier greens like norabo, kale, and broccoli leaves should be about the same as shungiku.

Mottainai Tip: Save that vegetable water for a broth or cooking rice. You can keep it in the fridge for a few days or freeze it for later.

Don't turn up your nose or shy away from a dish that might feel intimidating. Making it is not difficult, and unlike my recipe for it, you don't have to keep it in the bathtub. There is also a Bulgarian version I learned last year, but I don't know the recipe off-hand. I'm on the hunt and will add it here when I've got it and tried it for myself.

Nanohana no Kurashi
This is truly a classic spring dish, but folks can cheat a little bit and serve it up early with komatsuna, spinach, or norabo.

Well, there is no recipe here, actually, but this is easily my favorite way to eat winter vegetables. I simply gather stems from whatever greens I have, whack up the leafy parts, and toss it together with vinegar, olive oil, and shouyu (soy sauce). Throw in carrot, daikon and kabu, if you like. If you have edible flowers like violas and pansies, both winter hardy bloomers, add those for visual delight. Sprigs of habotan (ornamental kale) can get snipped and tossed in, too.  (It's edible and decorative, bless its' leafy little heart.)

Blanching Greens
If you have a garden of greens and a limited capacity for eating them in a timely manner, you can blanche and freeze them. I don't have a pressure canner or a dehydrator, so this is the best method I've found for preserving. I should mention that I get a little lazy and don't cut them up perhaps as much as I should. I then end up with long stemmy bits in my soup. They are quite edible but not attractive.

OK, so there is no recipe here, either, but just some advice. I often cut up our fresh greens and place them in the bottom of our soup bowls. When the soup is ready, I just ladle it over the top and serve. The greens become the most beautiful shade of green and are softened just the right amount.

Have other ideas or suggestions? Please share!


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