Wild Sustenance

Ramps & morels

Several years ago, I spent a summer working at a small garden in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. The work was sweaty and strenuous but also remarkably satisfying. My days were mostly occupied with transporting and turning compost, starting seedlings, mixing soil, watering, harvesting and drying herbs, and tending to vermicompost bins. One task that didn’t figure prominently into my daily routine, however, was weeding. Rather than spending hours uprooting every last foreign shoot from the beds and mulched paths, I took some advice from my supervisor, Martha, and let them take root. She taught me which varieties were edible and suggested ways to cook them. Lambs quarters, she warned, should be blanched first to remove any traces of toxic oxalic acid; amaranth leaves were better when young and tender. Armed with this knowledge, I returned home every week with armfuls of greens: peppery wild arugula and delicate lamb’s quarters were sautéed with garlic and plenty of olive oil before being incorporated into frittatas, blanched amaranths got tossed with spaghetti and salty cheese, and juicy purslane found its way into countless tomato and herb salads.

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Sansai Season

Japanese mountain vegetables

Japanese mountain vegetables

Why hello again!  Apologies for the silence ‘round here, but a combination of too much traveling, which in turn triggered a nasty flu, has left me without much time or energy to devote to blogging lately.  However, I thought I should at least post some photos of the wonderful spring produce available in Japan at this time of year.  What follows is a broad, though by no means exhaustive, selection of the sansai available around Matsumoto right now (for more on sansai, see this post from early March).

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Signs of Spring

Although I’m currently back in New York for a brief visit, I’ve been thinking a lot about spring in Japan, particularly what new foods will be available in the markets once I return in April.  Even in February, when it was most definitely still winter, it was clear that people’s minds were already turning toward spring.  Stores around Matsumoto began introducing sakura (cherry blossom)-flavored goods: a little street stand that sells taiyaki (fish-shaped pancakes surrounding sweet red bean paste) featured a sakura and mochi-filled version, and the local Starbucks was advertising a sakura frappuccino!

Then, in early March, we had a full week of sunny weather, with temperatures reaching 15°C (~60°F) some days – perfect biking weather.  As I pedaled around town, I noticed that the mountains had taken on a reddish tinge, due to the appearance of buds on deciduous trees.  Many of the local rice paddies had turned a verdant, brilliant green, and some plum blossoms had even begun to peek out.

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