Peering beneath the knee-high canopy of the garden by our front door this morning has, thrillingly, revealed the first crookneck squash, bright yellow and swelling admirably among a juicy forest of green. Beautiful skies today. A shade of hopeful, unbroken blue. Nurtured from seed, the initially unhappy cancellation of our annual end of year trip means that this time, we will actually be here to guide them through the heat and, even better, to harvest them at the ripe, right moment. I’ve just the broth in mind. I’ll miss New Zealand’s particular brand of cool, isolated wilderness this year but there is an up side to each down it would seem.
Tokyo Deli is pleasant stroll from our lushly-planted front door. Last week, an airtight package of ‘Mountain Vegetables’, sansai, came home among the bags of bancha tea, bonito flakes and yet more arame. Traditionally, sansai are gathered by hand; a combination of wild mountain vegetables that are, for export purposes perhaps, dressed in mirin and soy. Fresh, clean, young shoots of things like bracken, fiddlehead ferns and horsetail; miniature caps of enoki and black fungus chopped into short lengths; tiny sweet pieces of bamboo. Plants that push through the earth and quietly unfurl in the damp, cool air of Japan’s mountain forests. I’d never come across them before.
They are, like their hushed mountain setting, beautiful.
This then, is an excellent antidote to the heat and excess that is very nearly upon us. It has, for me, all the healing elements I wish for: fine black strands of arame, meaty slices of shiitake, sharp, hot ginger and that quintessential culinary symbol of virtue, brown rice. Some aduki beans simmered in this way would be good (they always are) as would chunks of flaked tuna, but a bowl of this, with virtuous vegetal things, from forest floor to salty sea bed, is all I want between celebratory glasses.
Brown rice with shiitakes, ginger and arame
Recently Rosa Jackson mentioned a soy-based dressing that I simply couldn’t get out of my mind. Offered salt or sweet, invariably I lean toward the former so this simple infusion – of soy sauce and cider vinegar with, among more familiar things, thyme and rosemary – is just right. Plain soy sauce or tamari are excellent substitutes, though a splash of lemon juice, cider or rice vinegar may be needed for balance.
1 cup medium-grain brown rice
10 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked and drained
1 cup arame, soaked and drained
A large thumb of ginger, peeled
1 crisp, young zucchini
Pale sesame oil
1 x 120g packet of ‘mountain vegetables’ (optional, naturally)
This dressing, or this, or just plain tamari, to serve
Pink-pickled ginger, to serve
Natto miso, to serve (optional)
Cook the rice in 2 cups of water, brought to a boil. Clamp the lid on tightly the moment it boils then reduce the heat to your stove’s lowest setting. Leave, untouched, for 40-45 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, lift the lid, fork it around a bit and cover until required.
Soak and drain the mushrooms (30 minutes) and the arame (for 10). Slice the shiitake caps thinly and tip both murky liquids into the garden.
Slice the carrots and ginger into matchsticks. Slice the zucchini into slightly thicker batons. Heat a little sesame oil in a frying pan and fry the carrots and ginger until the carrot takes on some colour. Toss in the zucchini, the shiitakes and the arame and stir-fry for about 3 minutes – just long enough to get the flavours going.
Drain the mountain vegetables (if you’re lucky enough to have them) and add to the pan. Work in the rice, adding a large spoonful each time, stirring and frying after each addition. Add a tablespoon or more, to taste, of the dressing or whatever you are using in its place. Eat, hot, from deep bowls garnished with pickled ginger, natto miso if you have it and pass more dressing separately.
Does Nigella Lawson ever, I wonder, amid dusty flurries of powdery sugar and empty, refined white flour, crave simpler things?
A bowl of brown rice, some crisp, tamari-salt tofu and a gingery flourish of seaweed is all I can think about. Took to bed early last night, I did, with Rosemary Brissenden, to dream about makrut limes, dried lily buds, lemongrass and rau ram. Chilli-spiked, coconut-soothing curries rather than baking, baking, baking.
To those among you who can photograph chocolate, I tip my hat. Damn frustrating substance with which to work. Particularly frustrating when the bulk of the work you are currently neck-deep in requires the kind of photos (and glutinous, sugary cooking) you just don't do.
Any tips for making chocolate - finished, 'styled' chocolate - sing visually?
I could make all sorts of awful puns about this No Knead Bread, but I just don't have it in me. Consider yourselves spared.
In times of economic uncertainty,
during which you freak out like a mad woman, buy three bags - that's right, three - of practically nutrition-less white bread flour, the kind you normally spurn,
it's heartening to know that they will all be used. The confidence a loaf of bread made all by your self can instill is enough to make the heart race. Especially one that crackles audibly as you lift it from cast-iron pot to rack, cracks satisfyingly down the middle like a real peasant loaf and has a crumb so good that the elder of your two step-sons asks which bakery you bought it from.
A proper baker I am not, nor likely ever to be, but if I can make a loaf this good several times a week (and let's be honest; as Jim Lahey suggests, a toddler could make this and I'll add, probably whilst blind-folded) then I am certain that we shall eat like royalty.
Whatever the economy throws at us.