Well, folks, it was a long weekend. With the JET Programme year coming to a close in just one more month, it seems like ever day is a party. Winter loans itself much better to elaborate cooking projects – and blogging, for that matter.
But there are some things that just can’t be appreciated at other times of the year. This week I decided to take on a challenge that I’ve been putting off for ages: cooking with Kaga Yasai – that is, vegetables grown in the Kaga region (a.k.a. central and southern Ishikawa). There are currently a total of 15 vegetable varieties officially designated as Kaga Yasai. They range from leafy greens, to gourds, to root vegetables, but they all have one thing in common: they are specific to the area and have been grown here since before 1887.
In Kaga Yasai (and their equivalents in a few other regions of Japan – Kyoto is well known) heirloom vegetables meet the regional foods craze, and their popularity is evident. People take these vegetables very seriously. They are often more expensive than their generic counterparts, but their superior quality and brand name make them worth the markup in price, and they figure consistently and prominently in Kanazawa cuisine.
So I’m told, anyway. To my knowledge, I hadn’t been given the opportunity to sample any Kaga Yasai until last weekend, when I was translating at a lunch reception for a handful of teachers who were visiting from the U.S. with a Fulbright/UNESCO program. Perhaps it was this program’s emphasis on Sustainable Development that inspired the menu, but they had at least three dishes prominently featuring local produce. Unfortunately, because I felt the need to at least feign professionalism, I didn’t actually eat anything during the reception, and by the time everyone left, the wait staff had bussed away everything but the egg salad sandwiches. Feeling slightly cheated, I decided to embark on my own Kaga Yasai adventure.
The three vegetables I bought were:
- Kinjiso (金時草) – a leafy plant with vibrant green and deep purple foliage. Often eaten pickled or as tempura.
- Utsugi Amaguri Kabocha (打木甘栗南瓜) – a variety of kabocha squash with especially rich, sweet flesh and vivid red-orange skin.
- Futo Kyuri (太きゅうり) – a huge cucumber, even by American standards. It is particularly sweet and juicy, and the seeds, while plentiful, are easily removed.
I boiled a little of the kabocha with soy sauce, sake and mirin, just to see how it compares to the kabocha that I always buy. At 398 yen a piece, it was worth every extra penny. Not only is the color festive, but it’s rich and flavorful. They just came in to season in mid-June, and should be in markets until October, so if you feel like trying something new, you have my blessing on this one.
Kinjiso came to the stores with the other leafy spring vegetables in spring, but it’s actually in season from June through November. I’ll try making tempura out of it later this week. I added a handful of finely chopped leaves to a cup of brown rice before steaming for a green, summery flavor – and it turned my rice purple! Definitely a plus for my bento color scheme.
Finally, the cucumber. I still have part of it soaking in vinegar in my fridge, but a few recipes I read suggested not pickling, but boiling it. I can’t say that I had ever even thought of cooking cucumber before, but I decided to give it a try. Final result? Pretty awesome. Chilled, it makes a great summer dish.
- 1/2 futo kyuri (or a very large cucumber), seeds removed, cut into pieces about 1/2 an inch thick
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 2 tablespoons sake
- 1 tablespoon corn starch
- 1/2-1 teaspoon grated ginger or ginger paste
- Bring water to a boil. Add soy sauce, mirin, sake and cucumber. Return to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about a minute.
- Combine corn starch with a small amount of cold water. Stir gradually in with the rest of the ingredients, heating until liquid becomes slightly thickened.
- Drain cucumber. Serve hot or chilled, topped with grated ginger.