28 September, 2007

Cabbage for Breakfast

Cabbage -- the winter vegetable. Ubiquitous on the grocery shelves in colder months, looking chilled and pale as the season. Heavy and bulky and a lot of vegetable. It looks so big, how can we ever use it all, if we don't have a family gathering we want to make a mound of Kohl slaw for, or cabbage rolls for a pot luck? I've often picked one up and then turned away, if I didn't have a specific use in mind. Spurned it in the aisle, without even a backward glance.

But cabbage is in my background, and maybe even in my blood. I come from an area of Nova Scotia known for its sauerkraut. Just a few miles down the road from my mother's seaside cottage one can jump on a little ferry and be whisked out to an island that almost seems to be frozen in time. It's small enough that people don't need licenses for their cars, and if you go without one, you will be walking for awhile down dusty roads. The Island's name is Tancook and I can promise you that if you're from Nova Scotia you know the name. Because Tancook's specialty is sauerkraut, and it's the best sauerkraut in Nova Scotia. The south shore was settled by Europeans in the 18th century, primarily, and a lot of those people were Germanic.They were mostly skilled tradesmen and their families who came on the boats, fleeing the Rhine area where the French invaders were killing them in masses. It was a long road to get to their farms and land in the Lunenburg area, but after they settled in one thing they couldn't do without was their sauerkraut. I grew up on "salt pork and sauerkraut" dinners served always with mashed potatoes, and probably with a side of mustard pickles. Full of salt, my lips would burn after eating it, but that didn't stop me from having a second helping, or developing a love of fermented cabbage, driven into the blood and bone.

It's one of my favourite foods, when I can get it. Here in Japan it's a bit scarce, but recently I got a book called Wild Fermentation by Sandor Elix Katz. It looks like sauerkraut is not that difficult to make. I intend to give it a try as the fall cabbages are now in the stores.

We can get two kinds of cabbage here that I know about. One is the standard strong-flavoured one that is similar to what I can find at home, but the other is what I like to think of as salad cabbage. It's "curly" and milder and perfect for eating straight from the head.

Before I came to Japan, other than sauerkraut and Kohl slaw, and sometimes in soup, I probably didn't eat that much cabbage. But here, in restaurants, I began to notice that cabbage was the main ingredient in many salads. They didn't have the strong taste that I associated with raw cabbage. The cabbage was cut small and finely shredded and decorated with a little seaweed, or a few tomatoes and a "wafu" (Japanese oil and vinegar) dressing; it was sweet and fragrant, and filling. It was also the base for Tonkatsu, the breaded deep fried pork cutlet, when I was still eating meat. A whole mound of it formed a nest that was a perfect foil for the slight greasiness of the meat.

Breakfast salads are a tradition in Japan. Rather than the more expensive (harder to get in the past), and now often imported fruit, salad is the star, providing fresh vitamins and crunch in the first meal of the day. Since breakfast here is often rice and the very savoury miso soup, salad makes a better pairing than the sweeter fruit. Since brown rice is featured in most of my breakfasts, I have gotten into the habit of eating a breakfast salad at least a few times a week. And since I've been on a diet, it helps fill in for those missing fat calories.

Yesterday I ate this simple salad of the mild curly cabbage, cooked soybeans, tomatoes, a few of the small bunch chives, chopped and topped with black pepper, sea salt, some dried basil and oregano, a bit of cider vinegar and a small spoon of a nice green Spanish olive oil. It was pretty good. I think next time I will add a few chunks of the fresh apples just coming into season now, and a tablespoon or two of raisins, perhaps a squeeze of one of the small green mikans (Japanese tangerines) you can find in abundance in the stores now. Cabbage loves a bit of sweetness, as do I.

27 September, 2007

Granny Green

I realize I'm veering a little from my normal posting of mostly talking about food and green household hints. I hope you'll stick with me because I have some recipes lined up that I'll put up soon. But right now, coming across a poem that I have found significant, and at the same time feeling a bit of displacement and homesickness with what will be the 7th straight Thanksgiving I've spent apart from my family coming up, my thoughts have turned to home, family, and inevitably my grandmother.

At the same time I realize that I have been spending most of my life refusing the gifts that I have been given. I haven't said it before on here but I draw, and paint and write poetry. Most of it is pretty mediocre, but mostly because I haven't spent the time to work on it and get through the dross. Perhaps this blog, apart from teaching, is the most sustained thing I have worked at in my life. And it's not even a year old yet. But writing once a week, or a few days a week has helped me to discover that it's something I want to continue to try doing. Because although I'm far from sure I do it well, I know now that it's something I need to do. And whether I ever do it well, or get recognized, or even can do it well enough to satisfy myself, it's something I have finally run out of the energy to keep refusing. So now I say yes. Yes to good and bad writing, good and bad poetry, and yes to having the courage to continue on whatever else happens. Yes to these things for me and for my grandmother, who refused to give up until the very end. Yes to her gifts of delight in the colours and feeling of fabric and the bite of the stitches that wove it into something fit and beautiful. Yes to the food arts that she started me out on with the twisty punch of my first doughnut hole. Yes to her strength and love and perseverance. And yes to those things that I realize, at long last, are the most precious and central parts of me. Even the "faults". Yes to those too.

Granny Green

Where I am:
water, and a rushing to water,
wind, and a reaching to wind,
by a pond,
to a green thread attached.

Her cheeks settled in violets,
A past threaded with pines,
sewn-up into the bag of sky.
the pieces of her,

Set in a different order,
make a girl fit for stitching
into checks and calicos,
a flounced pattern.

There are no eyes watching
as she pulls out her ribbons,
no kiss to melt lips
from invincible frowns.

Only the faces in the trees
asking questions;
only little time
and water flowing,
rushing together
by a pond
to a green thread attached.
and a rushing to wind.

26 September, 2007

Poets Should Not be Shot!

The poet, Nick Bruno, whose blog, They Shoot Poets -Don't They? I just discovered though serendipity, I'm convinced, has a wonderful poem about his mother called, "A Pilgrimage to L'Orignal".

This poem describes exactly my feelings on returning home from Japan to see my grandmother, who was so alive and vital when I left, lying in bed at 99, shrunken to a "changeling" who I could hardly recognize. When she was gone, I tried to spackle the space with my memories, but realized there were not enough to fill the large hole.

I offer a link to the poem with my strongest recommendation.

A Pilgrimage to L'Orignal

12 September, 2007

Vinegar for all Reasons

Are you the kind of person who really likes Tide Laundry detergent, Javex bleach, and Lemon-fresh Joy dish detergent? Do you just feel better knowing that your laundry and home is clean and bright? Do you really enjoy the convenience of stopping off at Wall-mart or the Grocery for a whole range of cleaners that you don't mind paying a bundle for and need at least a bag or two to carry home, because you know they just "work"? You're busy after all, and don't want to think that hard about cleaning products. There are better things to do in life. And the price is really reasonable when you consider all the tough cleaning in your house.

I used to be that kind of person. I never met a cleaner that I wouldn't try. I believed all those promises of easier ways to get more shine. Easier was the key word with me. I didn't really like housework all that much, so the sooner I got it over with the better. I was pretty much a sucker for the promises of the Big Business of Cleaners. The perfect customer.

It's a little different these days. I don't use tile and tub cleaner. I don't use chlorine bleach. I don't use fabric softener in the laundry. I don't use special de-greasers, oven cleaners, stove cleaners, cupboard cleaners, counter top-cleaners, living room and all-purpose cleaners, furniture polish, glass cleaners, fridge cleaners or pet shampoos. Okay, maybe the last one is cheating. I have a cat and she cleans herself.

And I certainly don't use those aerosal sprays that are supposed to "freshen" the air and smell like the devil's version of what he imagines a pine forest that he's never visited smells like. I hate car deodorizers, almost ubiquitous in Japan. I read somewhere that the air in a car is 5 times more polluted than the air outside it. Makes "car sickness" a little more understandable, doesn't it? For me, opening a window is much better than putting some artificial smell in there that is almost guaranteed to make you gag before you get round the first corner. But for those addicted to them, like some of my students, I have taught them to put a few drops of natural essence on a cotton ball and put it in an opened baggie or jar somewhere in the car. Smells better and costs only a few yen.

What I'm getting at, the long way around, is that we really don't need all the chemicals in cleaning products and smell-pretties in our lives. They just add to air pollution and get in our lungs. What we need is some old-fashioned clean, which really smells the best of all. And that can be provided by a few simple products that are usually quite cheap and very effective.

What are those products? Baking soda, washing soda, simple detergent or soap, and vinegar. That's about it.

Like people have noticed on No Impact Man, baking soda can be a very good underarm deodorant/antiperspirant. A little bit works as well or better than any of the commercial ones. And commercial cosmetics are full of dozens of chemicals with no purpose except to fool our noses into thinking they are smelling something pretty. All made in laboratories, nothing much natural in them at all. Read Fast Food Nation if you don't believe me. The chapter on how additive companies manufacture taste and smell out of chemicals will open your eyes, wide.

For the last year I've opted out of most of the commercial cleaners. I do use a bio-degradable natural laundry detergent and dish soap, because I've found those two to be the hardest to make. Believe me, I tried. It was hard to get the consistency right. Although the laundry detergent worked fairly well, it was too runny and I ended up using too much. The dish detergent I buy is organic from the Anew store, and is used to wash the kitchen counters, cutting boards and floors, in combination with my secret ingredient-- plain white vinegar. I get it fairly cheaply from The Flying Pig in the big big size, so I don't have to order often, and I buy two at once. Saves on the shipping, which I do feel a bit guilty about. It's possible that some Japanese brand might be able to substitute, but Japanese vinegar is different, not so acidic. If anyone has tried it for cleaning and has a comment about it's usefulness, I'd be happy to hear it.

Vinegar has the very useful property of killing mold. It is also very acidic so it is good for killing bacteria. I use it straight to clean my cutting boards occasionally, after I have first washed them with a bit of the dish detergent and then rinsed them well.

Vinegar kills odour. You can put it in a spray bottle, recycled, with a bit of essence if you like. I use the natural peppermint essence I get from Tengu natural foods. But you could use a little real vanilla if you have it. I use this one as a room spray when I want to freshen up, and I keep a bottle in the bathroom during the winter when I don't want to leave the window open so much.

A bit of vinegar in the dish washing water, cleans off the grease and leaves dishes sparkling clean.

Vinegar is the only thing I know of that will completely remove the moldy, musty smell from anything washable. It's almost a miracle, because often you think you will have to toss out things which have been in storage and gotten musty. And it might be something you really like too. I took a beautiful Noren (the curtains that hang over doorways here) back to Canada. It was sitting in a drawer and not used for awhile. When I found it again it was completely musty. It was made of the traditional hand-dyed Indigo cloth that is characteristic of this area of Japan with white hand stitched patterns. Not to be bleached. What to do? I searched on the Internet and saw somewhere that vinegar might work. I put it in the wash with a cup or so of white vinegar. The musty smell was completely gone and there was no damage to the fabric. I hung it out to dry with a big smile.

Vinegar will also remove odour in clothes. If you have socks, underwear or anything sweaty put a cup of vinegar in the wash water. It will help remove the smell. Any residual vinegar smell evaporates when the clothes are dry.

I have used vinegar in water with a bit of detergent on a sponge to get rid of the musty smell on stored furniture. Sponge down and rinse. Let dry, outside if possible. No more bad smell.

I guess I don't have to say that vinegar is much better for the environment, and you, than chlorine bleach, but I will anyway. Do yourself a favour and get a bottle and get rid of all those cleaners that are clogging up the space under your sink, out-gassing into your living space, and going into your lungs every time you use them. Not only will you free up some space, and get a naturally clean cooking area, but you'll save yourself quite a bundle at the check-out counter too and maybe a hernia carrying them all home. And you'll be saving the green spaces for your grand-children.

06 September, 2007


When I recommitted to vegetarian eating this year, I wondered, like anyone who won't be eating animal protein anymore, how I would get enough in my diet. Of course, after years of combining proteins following the Frances Moore Lappe methods, and raising my family on the recipes, I had a leg up on understanding that if you eat "complementary proteins", that is, foods with different combinations of amino acids together, you can get proteins that are as complete as if you eat a meat or fish-based diet.

Recently I read "The Vegetarian Starter Kit" from Vegetarian Times magazine that makes a pretty good case for a vegetarian diet being more healthy than a non-veg one. I learned that you may actually be getting more calcium in a vegetarian diet, something I worried about for awhile when I had to cut out dairy products.

They have good rice here in Japan. It's in most cases much fresher than that you'll find in supermarkets in North America. Japanese people demand it. They know their rice. And here in the countryside many of the families are growing their own.

But rice alone doesn't make a meal. In the cooler months especially, my thoughts turn to Indian curries and dals. Dahl or dal is a stew of simmered lentils or split peas, often spiced up with a bit of red pepper, garlic, cumin, and other flavours that make it positively addictive when you serve it with rice. Of course in India they serve it with curry and other side dishes as part of the meal, but I've found it makes a perfect accompaniment to rice or Indian breads as a breakfast or lunch. If you want to eat it with rice you add a bit more water, to make a soup or sauce, and for bread dipping you simply add a bit less. The final consistency is all in the amount of water and cooking time you choose.

There are many good recipes for dal, some of them online, but here is my adaptation of one I really like from Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery. I've made this many times and it's as good each time as the first time I tasted it. Fragrant with ginger and cumin, garlicky and with just a kiss of heat, serve it with any Indian bread or rice and prepare to be smitten.

Dahl-ling! (About 4 servings)

1 cup Chana or other dal * (yellow split lentils)
a few good shakes ground turmeric (1/2 tsp)
2 thin slices unpeeled fresh ginger
4 cups water

1 & 1/2 to 3 Tb vegetable oil ( I use Anew organic)
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 small onion chopped
1/2 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp. salt
small shake of garam masala (1 tsp)

Put the first four ingredients in a large pot with a lid. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to low and cover, leaving the lid slightly ajar. Cook until tender and soft, to your taste.

Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan over medium heat and add the cumin seeds. Toast for a few seconds and add the chopped garlic and onions. Fry until lightly browned. Add the ground red pepper and stir it in. Take the pan off the heat and pour the mixture into the pot of cooked lentils. Add the salt and garam masala. Remove the sliced ginger if you like.

Serve over rice or for dipping with breads.

North Americans could use yellow "split peas". I used chana dal in this recipe.