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.


Good Ladybug Bad Ladybug

These little guys are so clever but so naughty! They are the bad ladybugs that are destroying the tomato, eggplant, zucchini and cucumber plants. If you touch the leaf near them they fall off and pretend to be dead! Then I guess they just climb straight back up again. Very naughty! There was a good ladybug not far away, (it had disappeared by the time I got the camera, so no comparison photo), and it had fewer spots, bigger spots, didn't play dead, and its head was different. Fascinating!

Here's what they've done to our eggplants... they very thoughtfully left some for us though, so they're maybe not totally evil?

PS. I just found out the Japanese name is tentomushi damashi, their scientific name is epilachna vigintioctopunctata, and the English name is the 28 Spotted Potato Ladybird. This link has more information, they're apparently everywhere, Brisbane, the UK, all over the place, no escape! Their larvae are kind of cool looking though, there are some pictures if you follow the aforementioned link. I remember seeing them a few weeks ago, but had no idea they were connected in any way.


Frozen Watermelon and Banana Shake

Oh the incredible wonderfulness of frozen fruit! I froze a couple of bananas the other day, then a whole lot of chopped up watermelon a few days later, then yesterday I threw some of each in a blender with some cold milk and it was amazing! Straight to the top of the list for summer coping mechanisms!

Here's how absorbingly delicious it was:

And here's how much of it there was left when we were all finished:


Natto Chijimi!

Natto and kimchi are two things that we pretty much always have in our fridge, so I don't know why I hadn't tried this recipe before! It's fantastic! There was nothing left to take photos of though, so here's a little green moth who was hanging out on the kitchen ceiling the other night instead. It's antennas are amazing, you can see them really well if you click on the photo to get the larger image!

Ingredients: (makes 12)
80g natto
80 grams fresh chives
100g cabbage kimchi
1/4 of an onion
1 large potato
1 egg
1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon soy sauce
extra sesame oil as required

1. Chop the chives into 3cm pieces, the kimchi up as you like it, and slice the onion finely.
2. Peel the potato and soak it in cold water for 5 or 6 minutes
3. Mix together the egg, sesame oil and soy sauce, add the vegetables from 1. and the natto. Grate the potato very finely into the mixture and combine well.
4. Heat the remaining sesame oil in the frying pan and leave on low heat, and add the mixture 1 tablespoon at a time to make little round pancake shapes. Cook for 5 minutes on one side before flipping and cooking for a further 2 minutes.

We put a little bit of kochujan on them when we ate them. Ah, happiness!


Veggies Ahoy!

Nothing worth reporting on has been produced in our kitchen in the last few weeks, so here's the next best thing - potential future meals from our backyard! Y and our neighbour ploughed up the yard a few months ago and planted many things, some of which are now almost ready to eat! Hooray! I did my best to cleverly photograph just the vegetables and not the weeds, but it turned out to be an impossible task. At least it's proof that we don't use herbicides I suppose. So, we have eggplants, yellow zucchinis (which M was devastated to discover only LOOK like bananas), and shishito (somewhere between a chilli and a capsicum). Tomatoes, chillis, pumpkins, and cucumbers are still on the way. It was a long cold winter this year - there was apparently still snow on the ground in May - which means everyone's vegetables have gotten off to a slow start. That is to say in practical terms, that cucumbers are being given away by the handful, not by the bucketful like they were this time last year.

The hydrangeas have started flowering around here at last as well which is really exciting. I never realised how much I liked them before. When I went to take some photos of the ones in our garden, this is what I found though! I got totally distracted and never got around to photographing the flowers! I'm going to have to go and find out what it's called now.

And here, with nothing much else to distract my attention, I ended up taking some flower photos. These are the hydrangeas flowering at the Shinto shrine next door to our house. It wasn't really great weather today, but you get the idea. Aren't they just ever so pretty?


The Pied Piper

It's very exciting, there's going to be a movie made in the village! And the old Kuimaru Primary School, half of which was knocked down late last year, is going to be the main filming site! Once the filming's finished, they'll knock the rest of it down. What a huge waste of a fantastic building. The director, a guy called Tsubokawa Takushi (sorry, Japanese only link, the next one too), apparently traveled all over Japan looking for the perfect spot and found it here in the village. How flattering!

The movie's about the problems that little rural places are having all over the world right now because most of the young people leave and never go back, so the film is going to be called 'Hamlyn', as in the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. Apparently some of the actors in it are very famous, and they're all working for free because Tsubokawa-san has no budget at all for the project. He's won a few prizes at big international film festivals, but it pretty much unheard of here. Well, here's hoping this changes all that for him. Y, M and I hung out with him and a few of his band members (Kumonosu Quartet, Tsubokawa-san's an accordionist, amazing!!) and showed them around a bit with the help of the principal of the local primary school. The batteries for my camera ran out after this first photo at the school though...sigh. We went to some very beautiful places, so we'll have to go back with new batteries sometime.


Hijiki Seaweed Salad

I've been looking for some good seaweed salad recipes lately for my good friend Mr O. and came across this hijiki seaweed salad. The plan was to make it and take photos, but the recipe calls for cucumber and celery neither of which can be found in the village in winter time. After dealing with many many kilograms of cucumbers last summer, I'm happy to wait for another few months so it actually worked out quite well! The closest thing I could think of was tofu seeing as it's cool and refreshing and it was great. Here's the real recipe though, it should be just as good if not better! Oh, and if you're wondering about the funny shape of the tofu, it's because I forgot to take the photo before we started eating it.

10g dried hijiki
1 cucumber
1/2 stick of celery
as many toasted sesame seeds as you like

1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon each of
soy sauce
vegetable oil (I used olive oil)
pinch of salt

To Make:
1. soak hijiki in warm water until soft, blanch, and drain.
2. slice cucumber and celery finely, soak in iced water and drain.
3. mix dressing ingredients together
4. mix it all together and sprinkle sesame seeds on top.

So simple! And if you believe everything you read on the packet, hijiki is very good for you - it's apparently high in iron, calcium, magnesium and fibre. Nice.


(Belated) Happy New Year!

Back in June last year about a week after we moved to the village, our neighbour got up at the crack of dawn, de-shrouded his geriatric tractor and started ploughing up the garden right outside our bedroom window. I was pretty unimpressed because the first I'd heard of the whole scheme was the tractor roaring round the corner of the house that morning. Y. spent the next three days telling me how lucky we were because that would normally cost 5000 yen, while I helped to plant the green soybeans (edamame) that our neighbour had decided we needed to grow because they're a great snack to have with beer. Still struggling with the local dialect, I misunderstood my instructions and planted only one seedling per hole instead of two, and so spent the next week being alternately ridiculed and scolded by our neighbour at least twice a day.

Against all odds the beans battled their way through life, and by October we were eating them! We ate some when they were still young, boiling them with a little salt and eating them, yes, as a snack with beer. (No beer for us breastfeeding mothers of course though!) Any we couldn't finish we left to dry on the bush, then picked them, shelled them, dried them in the sun and put them away for winter. I wrote about it briefly in this post. By the end of the month they were safely away in the cupboard. But what next? I had a feeling there was a pretty good chance that the next time we'd see them would be in six year's time when we pulled them out from the back of the cupboard in an unrecognisable state.

Well, this year I decided to have a go at cooking Japanese New Year's food. It always looks very fancy and is arranged in tiered boxes. There are all sorts of things that tend to go in these boxes, with Kazu no Ko, roe of the Pacific herring, being one of the staples. We found out that around here instead of leaving the roe whole which is what I've usually seen, they break it up and mix them with soaked and boiled green soy beans. Hooray! What exciting news!

So here it is, New Year's Herring Roe with Beans by Us! Not all that pretty, but it was very yummy and helped fill up the empty spaces in the boxes. And for once in my life, I've seen something through right to the bitter end. Not a bad way to start the New Year!