30 July, 2008

Rainy Day

This morning it's not actually raining, but it is overcast and the sky is grey and banded with bright patches that give an air of indecision. Whether the sky will clear is now a matter of wait-and-see. It mirrors my mood exactly.

Sitting by the bay window, looking through white lace, at the green and grey, I wonder what I might discover if I were the age of this child with everything new and all the time in the world, singing himself a little song about the rain with the refrain being the sound of the drops falling "pichi, pichi, chapu, chapu, ran, ran, ran"?

This song, Amefuri, Rainy Day, a well-known children's song from Japan, has a beautiful story. In it a child is waiting on a rainy day for his mother who will come to pick him up. He has an umbrella, kasa, but another child getting soaked under a willow tree has none. In empathy, the child gives his umbrella to the other.

In Japan, I had the same experience as the second child. I was in Kochi, a seaside area in the south of Shikoku, with a friend during the spring break, a time when the roads near the beach are literally full of bumper-to-bumper traffic that delays everything. We were not driving, but having come by train, were waiting on a side road for the bus to take us back to our inn. It began to rain heavily and as neither of us had an umbrella, I was holding a quickly soggy newspaper over my head. Despite the paper, the rain was running down my face.

Many cars were passing, and as one does, I was envying the dryness of the people passing in them. Suddenly a nice car stopped, and a well-dressed woman ran around the car and came across the road to present me with a beautiful pink and grey flowered umbrella with a wooden handle. I was flabbergasted and full of thanks. It felt as if I had stepped into a summer field of flowers and I and my friend put up the umbrella and shared it now waiting happily for the bus. I kept that umbrella for years until I finally gave it to one of my students who had none on another rainy day. But the beauty of that umbrella and the kindness with which it was given will always be with me, and may owe some little debt to a lesson taught to children by this song.

This post is dedicated to my new friend, haiku writer, and quilter par excellence, Autumn Moon.

19 July, 2008

Japanese Greens II: Spinach with Sesame Dressing

Lately, since I've had a chance to unpack my cookbooks from Japan, I've been browsing through them and looking at the pictures and that has awakened a wave of nostalgia and a craving for some of my favourite Japanese dishes.

Besides the cool salad greens that I spoke about in my last post, Japan has a wide variety of more fibrous greens meant for cooking and saucing. Japanese sauces tend to be rather simple, relying on the standards of soy sauce, sugar, mirin, sake, dashi, Japanese vinegar, which is milder than most vinegars available in the west, and of course, herbs like shiso and seasonings like sesame seeds. Known as goma in Japan, toasted sesame seeds make frequent appearances in sauces for cooked greens and are available fresh daily in the ready-to-eat section of almost all supermarkets.

One of the most simple sauces, this sesame dressing has only three ingredients: toasted sesame seeds (usually the white variety), sugar, and soy sauce. Despite its simplicity it is a taste star, shining and glowing when it's used to dress simple boiled greens. If you live in Japan you know how good this is, because you have already eaten it ready-prepared. What you might not know is that if you make it at home it has about three hundred per cent more flavour and it is so good that if you serve it to anyone who hasn't had it homemade, they are going to be really impressed.

It might be your secret how easy it was to make, or you might want to pass the recipe around to your friends so everyone can enjoy it. This recipe also has the virtue of being easy to make outside Japan, with a totally authentic flavour. You can't say that about that many Japanese foods because of the poor quality of ingredients usually available in supermarkets in North America. If you have access to a Japanese or Asian store you may be able to get good quality ingredients, and in that case consider yourself very lucky.

But here in the country, in Canada, I lucked onto a bonanza of good quality Japanese ingredients at the near-by town's Superstore. If you live near a Superstore look in the imported and health food sections for such things as Koyo brand nori from Japan, Koyo tamari (wheat free and organic no less and the tastiest sauce I've had outside Japan), umeshu (Japanese plum wine or vinegar), two kinds of miso, wasabi powder, and in the health food section, large bags of raw sesame seeds that can be toasted for this sauce. If they don't have these ingredients and you want them, I'm sure you could make a request because they have them on the stock lists.

Enjoy these greens with rice and any other side dishes you like. They would be lovely with fried tofu, grilled vegetables, tofu-burgers, anything really. They are very savoury so add a punch to any meal. Go on, treat yourself or someone you care about.

Spinach with Sesame Dressing/ Horenso no goma ae

About 1 - 1 & 1/2 cups, serves 2-4 as a small side dish

1 large bunch/ bag of fresh spinach
3 Tb toasted sesame seeds
1 Tb soy sauce/tamari sauce
2 Tb sugar (I used light brown)

Wash the spinach in plenty of water in a pot and then add water to cover and bring to a slow boil or simmer and cook for two minutes. Drain the water from the pot or put in a colander just to remove the water. You can save the water for soup if you like. Please refrigerate or freeze it in this heat.

Cover the spinach with cold water and swish it around for a minute until it is cool, then squeeze most of the water out with your hands and put it on a plate.

While the spinach is cooking you can also be toasting the sesame seeds. If you are in Japan, you may want to use the ready-toasted ones, but I can't promise the same fresh flavour.


Put the 3 Tb of seeds in a hot cast iron or other pan, ungreased, and stir them over low to medium-low heat until they are a bit golden and are smelling good. This will take a couple of minutes usually. I always taste a few seeds to see if they are toasted enough, but if you do this be careful as they will be hot. Keep swirling them around with the back of the spoon so they will toast evenly and when they are done put them in a bowl or on a plate to cool, as they might burn if left in the hot pan.

Put the seeds in a food processor or a suribachi (mortar and pestle) and grind them to a powder. It may help to add the sugar to the seeds for this. Last, add the 1 Tb of soy sauce or tamari and finish by whirling briefly to get a paste that looks like the following picture.

You may want to add a few tablespoons of the water you cooked the spinach in if the paste or greens seem too dry to combine. Don't add too much, though, because the dish is meant to have a dry paste sauce.

Mix the sauce with the cooked spinach well. It may take a minute or so to distribute the sauce through the spinach. Don't leave big lumps of sauce. Serve immediately for best flavour, or keep the spinach and sauce separate until just before serving.

It's a rather small recipe so unless you are alone you can probably finish it in one meal. Put the leftovers, if any, in the next day's lunch box.

08 July, 2008

Beat the Heat with Japanese Greens

Japan has a wide array of wonderful green vegetables. They are tasty, healthy and usually cheap. They can add a lot to your diet in the way of vitamins and fibre and help protect you from getting more than your share of the colds and flus circulating there throughout the colder months. In summer, they are great to give your body the stamina it needs to help it cope with the prodigious heat and humidity that the whole central and southern part of Japan "enjoys".

Summer in Japan can be long. In Shikoku and the central portions of the country it lasts from May to October. During that time you are going to be wanting to be eating food that cools you off. Many of the greens available in every grocery store can be thrown into salads to perk them up and add nutrition. Any of the sprouts that you see in the small square clear plastic containers can be put in salads, sandwiches, or in soups. Some of them, like Daikon radish sprouts and cress are spicy but others, like mitsuba and mibuna are milder.

Spinach is great in salads; there are usually more than one kind in stores, and it's available all year. I like to mix up spinach with other green leaves, like Japanese celery, and shredded savoy cabbage, amaranth , sliced white stems of Bok Choy or torn lettuce to make the base for a quick salad. Add some chopped or sliced sweet peppers, sweet tomatoes, a few chunks of apple, slivers or shreds of carrot, a handful of raisins, some walnuts or peanuts, even some leftover cooked brown rice, and you have a salad that's healthy and easy.

Though the Shiso/Perilla non-oil dressing pictured above was one of my favourites, I rarely used other bottled dressings. I first learned how to make dressings when I was working as a cook in an Italian deli/restaurant/fresh pasta shop. Though I can still throw together a complicated dressing without a recipe, for every day I usually just make the very easy vinaigrette that is the standard of dressings. Even if you are wedded to your bottle of blue-cheese or ranch (though I can promise you that I never will be) you can break the processed dressing habit with an easy, fast dressing that you can vary with your mood and how much time you want to spend.

In the summer in Japan, that might be 2 minutes. You can do it in that time. Here's how:

Assemble all your salad greens and cut veggies and fruit, nuts, or what-you-like in a bowl. Shake on salt and pepper. Drizzle on some oil of choice. Often I choose extra virgin olive oil but any oil will work. Splash on some vinegar (about half as much as the amount of oil) or a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Add a sprinkle of your favourite dried or chopped herbs. Toss and eat.

That's the easiest way to dress a salad. If you want to spend an extra minute, then put your lemon juice and or vinegar (balsamic, cider or flavoured), oil, salt and pepper and a tsp of sugar, and herbs of choice (oregano and basil are good for an Italian flavour, fresh basil shredded is wonderful in season as are any fresh herbs like shiso), and any extra seasonings that you like (dijon mustard, garlic paste, smidge of cayenne pepper) into a cup. Give it a good whip with a fork or two chop sticks to start the emulsification. I t should look a little cloudy. Put it on those greens as quick as you can say" I yam what I yam" and eat. Grow Popeye muscles, or just get an iron boost.

For those of you who may be, like I was, a little unsure of what greens to eat and what they were, I found a link here at the Kitazawa seed company. This website is a wonderful resource for pictures of many vegetables available in Japan. There are photos of the actual vegetables. If you do a little exploring and click on the different varieties listed at the bottom of each category, you will be sure to come across some that look familiar. I found many that I had used or that I had seen in local stores. With suggestions for how the vegetables can be used, this site is more than a seed catalogue. Wish I had found it earlier when I was in Japan.

There are also a few books available in Japan that identify ingredients. One I own is: The Dictionary of Japanese Food. The link will take you to the Amazon website in Japan.

Eat your greens and keep cool!