Quick Pickles To Beat The Heat

Of all the wonderful shops and businesses I frequented while living in Matsumoto, one of the most memorable was a family-owned produce store in Sōza, a quiet residential neighborhood on the city’s northeastern edge. On balmy summer evenings, just as dusk was settling over the rice paddies, I’d take a stroll over to the shop and pick up whatever looked good for dinner: tiny eggplants with shiny, purplish black skin for nasu dengaku, locally made yakidōfu (grilled tofu), or perhaps a bunch of spiky, crunchy mizuna from one of the many neighborhood farms.

Urban farm near Sōza, Matsumoto

Sōza second district neighborhood map, Matsumoto

The shop proprietor was a chatty middle-aged woman with strong, muscled arms and a slightly hoarse voice. Boundlessly energetic, she never failed to greet her customers with an enthusiastic “irasshaimase!” Her taciturn husband worked the fish counter, which held a beautiful array of fresh seafood and sushi, while her son somewhat sullenly stocked and rearranged produce in front. On occasion, the owner’s mother could also be found manning the cash register, chatting up elderly women from the neighborhood as they swung by to do their daily shopping. Like many small businesses in Japan, the shop closed early, around 6 pm, and the family would retire to their apartment above the store for dinner. Passing by, one could hear the faint patter of their conversation drifting down to the street below.

Once, out of curiosity, I asked the shop owner where most of her produce was from. Although she admitted that some items (such as citrus) were grown outside the prefecture, she proudly stated that the remainder was sourced as locally as possible. As proof, the refrigerator case was always stocked with Matsumoto-made tofu and soba noodles made from Azumino buckwheat. In the fall, nectar-sweet grapes from nearby vineyards sat alongside impossibly plump Nagano figs. Perhaps the most local product of all, though, were the superb asazuke (quick pickles) prepared in the shop by her brother-in-law. On any given day, one might find hot pink turnips with ginger, julienned daikon and carrot with yuzu, or Napa cabbage with kombu and dried red chiles. Sold in leaky plastic bags, they were emphatically humble yet decidedly delicious. No doubt they were also a great way to use up leftover produce that would otherwise head straight to the compost heap. (Not a bad use of vegetables, but wouldn’t you rather eat them?)

As it turns out, asazuke is also the perfect solution when one is faced with a surfeit of CSA produce on a hellishly humid summer day. This pickling technique doesn’t require boiling brine or sterilizing jars; instead, you simply toss your vegetables with salt and seasonings, weigh them down for a few hours, and enjoy. The resulting pickles are light and refreshing, the perfect antidote to barbecue fare and beer. Thankfully, they’re also far more palatable — and far prettier — than another batch of coleslaw ever could be.

Kyūri to Korurabi no Asazuke

きゅうりとコールラビの浅漬

(Cucumber and Kohlrabi Pickles)

To make these pickles, follow the technique for asazuke below. If you don’t have any kohlrabi (or simply don’t like it), substitute daikon, or use all cucumbers.

6 small, thin-skinned cucumbers (about 440 grams/15.5 ounces), halved lengthwise and sliced 1/2-inch thick

1 large kohlrabi, peeled (about 280 grams/10 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch by 1-inch batons

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 1/2 tablespoons kurozu (黒酢, Japanese black vinegar), optional*

Peel of 1 lime, cut into thin strips

One 4-inch sheet kombu, soaked and cut into thin strips

*Kurozu, which is made from brown rice, is lighter than its Chinese counterpart but far more complex than regular Japanese rice vinegar. Feel free to substitute the latter or any other mild, low-acid vinegar (~4% acid) of your choice.

Asazuke
浅漬け

(Japanese-style lightly pickled vegetables)

(Loosely) translated from Sirogohan.com

Basic ingredients:
– Seasonal vegetables
– Sea or kosher salt – 2% of the total vegetable weight (e.g. 1 teaspoon / ~5 grams salt : 250 grams / .5 pound vegetables)

Optional flavorings (to be added along with the salt):
– kombu – 2% of the total vegetable weight (optional, but adds a lot of savory depth)
– slivered dried red chiles, julienned fresh ginger, julienned yuzu (or lemon or lime) peel, vinegar, mirin, sake

Optional flavorings (to be added after pickling):
– soy sauce, toasted sesame seeds, myōga, thinly sliced shiso or other herbs

Some good combinations: cucumbers, ginger, and shiso; napa cabbage, dried hot peppers, and sesame seeds; napa cabbage, kombu, and yuzu.

The easiest method is to mix the ingredients together in a ziploc bag, squeeze out the air, and place on a tray in the fridge. Top with a second tray weighed down with something 4-5 times the weight of the vegetables (cans, jars of jam, etc.). Let sit a few hours. The more evenly you spread the vegetables out in the bag, the faster they’ll pickle.

Alternately, use a pickling device (who actually has one of these, anyway?), or place the ingredients in a bowl, cover with a small plate weighed down with a heavy object, and let sit for a few hours. (The downside with this technique is that the weight will probably topple.)

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