Getting ready for winter

Well, it's starting to get cold again already, and we've even had a little bit of snow! So winter preparations have begun. I'd love to be able to say that we've got our massive autumn harvest stored away to keep us fed over the winter...but that would be our neighbours, not us! We've been given lots of pumpkins, cabbages, green onions, sweet potatoes and Chinese cabbages by different people we know, endless gratitude goes out to them! This year we only really succeeded in growing massive yellow zucchini, but I don't think it's entirely all our fault. I asked one of my old lady friends who lives up the road and has an amazing veggie patch what I could do to improve the soil, and she said after a bit of a silence...'....hmmm...grow sweet potatoes perhaps....?' essentially saying that the case was hopeless. She then offered to let us use some of her land next year instead, so we'll take her up on that and see how we go!

What we have done this year that we didn't do last year, is have a go at drying some persimmon. An embarrassingly small amount, but still, you've got to start somewhere!

Here they are. I peeled them, doused them in cooking shochu to stop them getting moldy, and hung them outside where they get lots of sun, but are still under the roof so they don't get wet in the rain. They're actually astringent persimmon (as opposed to the non-astringent, sweet type), so unless you do something to them first, they're pretty horrible I'm told. There seem to be a few options, one of which is drying them. Don't ask what else you can do with them, this was the simplest, and was as far as I was willing to go at the time!

And here's the most important part of getting ready for winter - yuki-gakoi. Boarding up the windows to make sure they don't break under the weight of the snow. We're very lucky and don't have actual boards like a lot of old houses still do, but have clear perspex-type covers instead. This means that we still get light into the house during winter, as long as the snow hasn't piled up too high. (The photo above is the shed where all the covers are kept the rest of the year).

Y. pretty much did all the hard work. Thank you!


Mushrom Hunting

Something about the universe this year has set off a local mushroom extravaganza. Apparently it's been at least 20 years since anyone's seen such as good mushroom season, and little roadside stalls selling wild mushrooms have sprung up all over the place. There's a shop at the end of our street that I thought had been abandoned, but for the past few weeks the doors have been open and they've been selling what everyone else is. The market is experiencing a total glut of course, and mushrooms such as the sought-after Matsutake are now selling for around 10 000 yen per kilo, instead of 3 - 10 times that amount which I've been told is the usual going price. The variation depends on who's doing the telling. Or the selling?

You can always tell when there's a glut of something, because suddenly we start getting things for free! Last year was terrible year for mushrooms, and I think we hardly ate one mushroom meal in the whole season. This year we have done extremely well though, and I've had to madly hunt around for good mushroom recipes. The simple things seem to work best though, just stir-frying wild shiitake with butter is ridiculously good, and the only thing you need to put in a good Japanese-style mushroom soup is salt, and a tiny bit of soy sauce, just for the colour. And some tofu if you've got it.

Our neighbour, as well as being a famous craftsman and famous loach-catcher is also a self-reported famous mushroom hunter. He's been going out pretty much everyday, and brings back at least 10kg at a time. Which is a lot of mushrooms! He sells as lot of it, and dries or salts the rest. On the weekend, he invited Y. to go with him into the forest hunting for mushrooms and Y., once again, proved no match for our 79 year old neighbour and came back half-dead! But with lots of mushrooms, such as...

Maitake, which have a pretty strong flavour, so apparently you shouldn't cook them with meat. These can get really big, and our famous neighbour once found one weighing 30kg!! He has the photos to prove it. We sent this little one off as a present to Y.'s parents. And...

Kuritake, which are for eating straight away, and can be cooked with anything you like.

You have to boil them before washing them, or otherwise they break up too much. Then you can cook with them. I made a pork-y Chinese-style something or other, very good! And...

Akanbo, which are very tasty, so we were advised to salt them and eat them in the winter time when we need cheering up with something yummy. These too need to be boiled before they're washed so they don't break. Then all you have to do is bury them in salt, and it's all done!

I still can't get over how many different types of edible mushrooms there are out there! This is but a tiny selection. Some of the ones our neighbour was bringing back were typical mushroom shape like this last two here, but they weighed up to and above one kilo each! I've never seen anything like it. They're called Shishitake and are also quite sought-after so he was extremely pleased with himself!



This has gotten a little bit late, but we harvested the backyard myoga a few weeks ago and pickled it! Myoga is a member of the ginger family I believe, and it sends up little bulbs at ground level. This is what you pick and eat. Our neighbour's technique is to push the plants over like in the photo above, so that's what we do too, but apparently the correct way is to just forage around and not push the plants over. Can you see the myoga in the photo below? They blend in a little bit, but you should be able to see about three little bulbs.

Once they've flowered, like the one in the photo below, they're not edible. Pretty though! It's tough getting the timing right, and last year I got blasted by the neighbour for letting too many flower! He was a bit nicer once I explained that we don't have myoga in Australia. Incredulous, but slightly more understanding.

And here are the pickles, ready to be eaten! No photos from along the way, but here's what I did, just in case you're wondering:

washed the myoga
boiled it for 1 minute
covered it in salt for 5 minutes
brought a mixture of sugar and vinegar to the boil, then cooled it
washed the myoga, dried the myoga, put the myoga in sterilized jars
poured the pickling liquid over the myoga, lid on, then in the fridge for 3 days.

When you first make the pickles, the liquid's a yellow colour, but by the end of the 3 days, it turns a lovely rosy pink.

Unfortunately it this type of pickling only keeps for a week. If you want to keep it longer, you need to pickle it in salt or miso. But I like this better. You can also make really great salads with raw myoga, for example, natto, cucumber and myoga salad! I made it a few weeks ago, but yes, forgot to take a photo. It was too good, we couldn't wait that long!


Biotope and Shiitake Mushrooms

There's a biotope in the village and I never knew! Until about 2 weeks ago when we got a last minute invitation to go along to an event they were having there. Well, you could call it an event if by that you mean about 5 kids and their Dads running around with fishing nets. It was fantastic!

Just so you know, a biotope is a mini, artificial version of the surrounding natural environment, and any that I've ever seen (all in Japan) seem to be water based. So they divert some water out of the local supply, create a series of mini-lakes and creeks, and then feed back into the main system. They aim to educate people about what's actually living around them, and because they're so accessible they seem to be good at this. They also try to conserve local wildlife that are doing it tough, by providing them with a safe environment to hang out in. The use of the word biotope seems to be a bit different here though, because when I looked it up on wikipedia, it was a slightly different thing.

Anyway, my favourite thing of the day was this little salamander! The one with the frilly ears. SO cute!! I'm not sure what type of salamander it is, but one of the guys said that when it's a bit bigger it will make great tempura. I'm choosing to believe that he was joking. The other thing behind it is a loach by the way. They've got cute little whiskers when they're swimming, not nearly so offensive as when you're trying to eat them. And speaking of loaches, one guy caught one that was about 12cm long! Wow.

The reason why I'm suddenly writing about this today is shiitake mushrooms (stay with me!). One of the organisers of the biotope is also an organic shiitake mushroom farmer, and he dropped by with a few packets of his ultimate extra special mushrooms this evening to say thank you for coming to see the biotope. Little does he know we don't need bribing, but maybe we should keep that information to ourselves - these mushrooms were amazing! Apparently there are only a few days a year when he can harvest these special mushrooms, something to do with temperatures I think. He said the one on the far left in this photo below is an ideal mushroom because the cap hasn't broken away from the stem. Aren't they just gorgeous!

He suggested we boil them, slice them thickly, and dip in soy sauce with wasabi. So that's what we did. I never knew shiitake could (look or) taste like this! You must come and try them! Really, you must!


Loach soup-to-be

Here's the latest catch of loaches from the rice field waterways, skillfully undertaken by our neighbour, S-san. They look almost pretty when they're swimming around in the water, but S-san insisted on putting them into the basket for the photo. Unfortunate because they kind of froth up in that kind of situation! The basket, by the way, was also made by S-san.



It was kind of weird weather today, but still good enough for a walk. Here are some photos:

The little white dots you can see under the trees are flowers like this one here.

Through the mountains in the background of this photo is the back way into town. With the rock slide closing off the road through to Kaneyama until September, it's now the main road into Aizu Wakamatsu.

I love these bendy-bottomed trees!
And somebody's growing shiitake mushrooms here in the next photo:

And, not really related to cooking or looking, but I learnt a new word today thanks to Nick Cave. Murine. The Oxford Dictionary on my computer says that it means 'of, related to, or affecting mice or related rodents.' Thanks Nick.


Chocolate and Zucchini Cake

Well, I tried to make it pretty, but it just didn't work! Do you like the plate though? It's Noritake from a second-hand junk shop, it was probably the most exciting thing that's happened to me since...forever?

Anyway, the chocolate zucchini cake recipe came from chocolateandzucchini.com. There's a really beautiful picture there that you can look at instead. The recipe says you can use either butter or olive oil. I tried the oil, and even though it wasn't bad, I imagine butter would make it great. That's all for today, I just wanted to share my newly acquired status as a convert to chocolate cakes with veggies in them with the world.