April 19, 2011


Asparagus! I got so excited I hopped around whooping and hollering in my backyard garden! Almost as excited as Mio swinging around on the akebi vines.
Poking through the thick, leafy winter mulch they were practically camouflaged. Now two weeks later they are about a foot tall already. One year down, two to go until we can get a decent harvest.

I remember the first time I saw asparagus growing in a garden, in my Grandpa's backyard. He picked a chubby, purply white shoot, barely poking through the straw, and told me to eat it raw. Delicious!

Then a few years later my Mom borrowed a long-ignored garden bed from our neighbor Margaret (she has a knack for acquiring bits and pieces of garden from the neighbors, so she can plant extra vegetables) and plugged it full of asparagus crowns. Now, a good five years later, she and my Dad are feasting on it.

We've got a few more years before we'll get to taste it, but already it's looking much stronger and bigger than the "2nd year" seedlings they're selling at the store. So don't be afraid to start it from seed in the springtime, as long as you're planting in rich soil-- much cheaper than buying crowns. Yesterday I had the wwoofers plant four flats of it to set out this fall in our forest garden.

April 6, 2011

smoked takuan

I guess it was December when the grandma down the road for us tottered over here with a wheelbarrow full of cute little daikon. I cut off the greens and Masa made some kind of delicious pickles with them that I wish I knew the recipe for. Probably something deceptively easy along the lines of mixing them with salt and stuffing them in a bucket and leaving them alone, and then knowing when they are ready and what to do with them.

As for the roots, I set them out to dry on the table outside, intending only to leave them for a few days but I got busy with other stuff. So they sat there for a few weeks, freezing every night and thawing in the morning. The idea is to dry them out just a little bit, so that they lose maybe 15% of their moisture. Finally around New Years I got around to rigging them up in the smoker and tried smoking them with pruned maple twigs, but it didn't work, or I wasn't paying enough attention or something, and I ended up using a few sawdust blocks, cherry I think. Again, I meant to have them in and out of the smoker in 24 hours but I forgot about them and they were there for another two weeks.

When I got around to making the takuan, Masa gave me a suspiciously vague recipe: Mix nuka (rice germ) with water until it's squishy, form a layer on the bottom of a bucket, and sprinkle it generously with salt (enough so that you can really see it on the surface). Then rub salt into the daikon and place on the bed of nuka, cover with more nuka and salt, then add another layer of salted daikon, until you reach the top. And every now and then throw in a few shards of kombu and dried chile peppers. Pat down the nuka and really cover the top with salt, otherwise mold will grow on it. Apparently you're supposed to put a weight on top at some point, but I neglected to do so and it doesn't seem to have messed anything up.

Then you just wait a month or so, and do a taste test. The daikon will have become really floppy and strong smelling from the nuka. Slice and eat with rice. Mine have started tasting really good just recently, after about 2 months, tangy, salty, mildly sweet, with a little effervescence on the tongue from the lacto-fermentation. One of our wwoofers told me I eat like a Grandma. Not sure exactly what that means. I guess it has something to do with liking traditional foods that are now considered quaint and that may happen to smell funny.

sansai primer part 1: yomogi and tsukushi

 yomogi on the left, the mushroomy looking things are tsukushi, and the feathery stuff on the right is sugina.

We're finally getting warm days here, so it's been nice walking around gathering wild herbs, known as sansai in Japanese. It's common in Japan for people to stroll the fields and forests and forage, maybe since Japan has a more recent history of starvation. Coming here two years ago I was amazed to discover the variety and abundance of edible plants, and all the different ways to prepare them.

Yesterday I gathered some yomogi, or Japanese mugwort. According to Masa (our resident wwoofer-chef), the best time to pick it is after the cherries have blossomed. I'm a little early. But no matter, there is plenty of it already. I gathered about three handfuls worth, steamed it, chopped it fine, and incorporated it into hot mochi (glutinous rice paste) and then wrapped it them around balls of shiro-an (sweetened white adzuki bean paste). It's a nice spring sweet to eat with matcha tea. You see it all over Japan in this season. Yomogi can also be dried for tea, with a flavor maybe halfway between sage and mint.

I also gathered a little bit of tsukushi, or horsetail shoots, which are not really my favorite but they are so weird and funny looking I can't help but gather a bit. Also I don't care for it so much since it's such an annoying weed in the fields, especially in our potato patch, and no amount of plucking seems to slow its growth. If you're going to eat it, it's better to pick the shoots before they've gotten big enough to release spores, otherwise it will be somewhat bitter and on the dry side. I boiled it in a little water, drained it, and tossed it with a little shoyu and mirin. I can't say much for its flavor, but it does have an interesting texture and it makes for a unique side dish.

Actually, yomogi and sugina (the leaf portion of tsukushi which emerges soon after) make up half of one of my favorite tea combinations. My friend at the coffee shop in town makes her own mix-- it's equal parts roasted kuromame or black soybeans, dokudami or houttuynia, yomogi, and sugina. I bought a bag for myself, and liked it so much I bought a few more for friends and family, only to find out later from the proprietress that its main use is as a medicinal tea to cure constipation... she must think I'm pretty stopped up!

February 19, 2011

I'm feeling inspired today. I washed diapers, planted lots of seeds with my Mom (she is my #1 gardening partner) and Mio, made a really great lunch with Midori (ma-bo tofu, spinach with sesame sauce, miso soup, daikon pickles, and brown rice). And I've been reading my friend Nick's awesome blog about climate change, which in turn got me started reading Gandhi.

Climate change is scary, isn't it? It gives me the same feeling that I used to get when I was a kid thinking about the end of the world. (For some reason this was my biggest fear when I was 5 years old-- I had the notion that the Earth would simply stop one day for whatever reason and we would all die. Maybe I was on to something. And my other biggest fear was dying and then going to heaven and having to spend eternity there... forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and... I would start feeling dizzy and sick. Thankfully I don't believe in heaven anymore.)

Most of the news about climate change tends to be about how we're all going to hell in a handbasket or about what world leaders aren't doing to fix the problem. Depressing. What I like about Nick's blog and about what Gandhi says is that the first changes we have to make are in our own daily lives, those little drops in the bucket that everyone uses as an excuse to do nothing. But if everyone puts a drop in the bucket, every day, then pretty soon it's raining. You never know what affect your seemingly little action will have. So starting now I want to make a small sacrifice every day in the name of reducing my carbon footprint. Tomorrow I'll ride my bike into town instead of drive-- what will you do?

February 1, 2011

I have been making lard.
I know, it's gross. It fills the house with the smell of melting animals.
It's also weird to put so much effort into making fat, especially having grown up in fat-phobic America, where compounds like Slim-Fast and Snackwells were considered healthy and the idea of using animal fat for something cute and innocent like frosting on a child's birthday cake would invoke the gag reflex. Although lard was once commonplace, its high saturated fat content and the accusation that it causes heart disease made it unpopular, and now most people use "healthier" oils or butter, even though butter is arguably less healthy than lard. It's actually lower in saturated fat than butter (40% versus 50%).

Butter survived the war on fat because it tastes so good. Lard either tastes like nothing or it tastes like the animal it came from, depending on how carefully it was rendered. My first experiments were more like bacon grease than lard, a bit brown and toasty. A little bacon fragrance is nice in cooking savory dishes or biscuits but I wanted something I could use in pie crusts. And since I'm rendering wild boar fat, it's got an especially strong, gamy smell, especially if it's an adult male boar (which is why many Japanese people claim to dislike it-- they were probably eating boar that was in the rut). Fortunately my most recent lard jar is filled with the pure white fat of a she-boar.

I began this lard project on a whim, after getting annoyed at the amount of vegetable oil we were consuming, and the expense of butter and extra-virgin olive oil in Japan. We grow, hunt, or barter for most of what we eat, but producing our own cooking fat remained elusive, and I wasn't about to start growing rapeseed and pressing my own oil. I also found out that most oil seeds are imported here and that alone makes me consider it unhealthy-- not unlike another oil we are all addicted to and forced to import. Since my husband hunts, it only makes sense to make use of the parts that none of the hunters wanted and in the past would throw away.

It feels healthy to be eating local fat, and knowing that the wild boar's diet was acorns, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and grubs means it's healthy meat. I wouldn't be too excited about eating lard made from a pig raised in a factory farm or tallow from cows fed corn instead of grass. And commercial lard is usually hydrogenated, so homemade is the way to go.
 It's not so difficult. Just obtain boar fat from the belly, back, or kidney (or some other fat from some other greasy animal), chop it into little pieces, and cook it over a double boiler, or really really low heat, until all the fat is rendered out and you neither hear nor see any bubbling, which takes more than a few hours but can be shortened by cutting the fat into smaller pieces than you see in the picture above. I was just being lazy. Make sure to turn on the fan in the kitchen. Then pour the hot fat through a strainer into your jar and you're done and now you can go wash the smell out of your hair and change clothes.

January 3, 2011

not quite Ann McIver's apple chips

I've made about 4 batches of this over the past few weeks-- easy to do even if you have a 7 month old baby and guests and a bunch of other stuff you should be doing. It's based on an old recipe for apple "chips" that my Grandmother's friend would make every year and there always seemed to be a jar of it in the refrigerator. I can't say I ever really liked it much as a kid, it was a bit sweet and heavy on the spice (cinnamon and cloves), but since I've got 330 pounds of fuji apples lounging on my back porch, waiting to go mushy and moldy, I thought I'd give it a try anyway.

I cut down on the sugar (the original calls for equal weight sugar and apples) and cut out the spices, wanting the pure apple flavor to shine through. Get out a big pasta pot (not huge but not medium sized-- the one you would choose when you're making pasta for 4 people or so). Put in a kilo or so (2.2 pounds) of sugar-- don't worry about being too exact-- I've done it with twice as much sugar and it works fine. Then start peeling and cutting up your apples into thin-sliced "chips". Keep slicing until the pot is full. The sugar will melt and the apples may turn a bit golden-brown. This is fine. Leave it overnight and the next day cook it over low heat until it reaches a honey-like consistency, maybe 3 or 4 hours. Add lemon juice (I use citric acid since I happen to have it and don't have lemons) to taste. Then ladle while still hot into jars and boil in a water bath for 15 minutes or so to seal.

For some reason the apples retain their shape and a bit of their texture, so they're not mushy like canned apples. Goes great spooned onto toast or stirred into yogurt along with a little bit of the "honey".

October 1, 2010

asparagus from seed

When I was looking into planting asparagus in the spring I was a bit discouraged from what I found on the internet. Most people grow from crowns, buy seedlings, or do their own starter plants in pots. Why did I find no one direct seeding?

In April a WWOOFer and I prepared a patch of ground. We did a typical sheet mulch by spreading grass cuttings, goat and chicken manure, some seaweed on the ground, then covered it with a layer of newspaper, wet it really well, and topped it with a thick layer of straw and compost, manure, and a thin layer of garden soil on top.

We debated what to do in the area. Perhaps let it settle a bit and plant something in the fall or wait a month and put in some summer veggies. When I mentioned planting asparagus from seed, the WWOOFer said "you can't, they will DIE!" So given my contrary nature, that's of course what I planted. I tucked in some seeds and crossed my fingers.

6 months later they are definitely not dead, but lush and leafy and looking quite a bit more mature than I expected. Maybe next year I'll be able to harvest a few spears even. My Mom continued building up the soil around the seedlings which seemed to help their stability, and sand to help drainage. She planted one little marigold seedling in the middle which has turned into a shrub, it's so big, which shows you how fertile a little sheet mulching can be.