Some years we don't have lettuce. To put this into perspective, salad is my favorite food, so no lettuce is a hardship. But to fully disclose, a year without lettuce has not happened since the boys were small. Though there are plenty of times during the year when we do not have lettuce in the field. Usually it is because we planted late or because we didn’t weed at that one crucial moment in the early fall when the weeds threaten to engulf the fall vegetables. Weed that one time, and no need to weed again until spring. You’d think we wouldn’t miss that window, wouldn't you? But miss it we do.
It’s a bit like “out of sight, out of mind.” After the last summer vegetables are harvested, my mind elsewhere, I often forget to go check Tadaaki’s field.
Late fall, I pick the green summer tomatoes that will never turn red and make green tomato relish from Diana Kennedy’s Nothing Fancy. We valiantly eat the lingering eggplants, cutting away crusty brown patches or hard edges that result as the plant loses vitality. If we have had a successful year of peppers, I fill my basket one last time, and pop them into Ziplocs for freezing. Oh, I’ve done escabeche, but now find frozen whole, the best way to “preserve” the peppers fresh taste. Though in truth, nothing matches that vitamin C blast from home grown, field peppers, bright and crisp in their complex hotness. Some years we have one or two scraggly little plants that yield up a total of ten jalapeño or serrano chiles for the whole summer. Some years we have none. Farming at our house is an imperfect system and we are imperfect people. But last year was a bumper crop, with six varieties of chiles grown from organic seeds bought at Berkeley Horticulture. There is no greater pride than knowing the success of growing from seed. Especially heirlooms.
Some may think this means sprinkling seeds in the ground and hoping they will grow. Not so, here in Japan. We don’t irrigate and the weeds grow madly. We start shoots in planting boxes, otherwise the seedlings would never outpace the weeds. Radishes are the exception, because they grow faster than weeds and can often be harvested in a month. When the shoots are ready to be replanted, Tadaaki plows the fields right before the rain comes, and we take the SSU! kids to the field to plant. This is a fun job because our feet sink into the freshly churned earth and there is a feeling like we are being sucked into the heart of the field. I love that, and the kids seem to respond without thought, reveling in the tactility of the loamy soil. They also love the trust I give them as I lay a tender shoot in each of their hands, admonishing them to be gentle with the “baby plant.” They eagerly await their turn to place the tiny root tendrils straight down into the small holes we have dug out with our fingers. And they are just as happy to troop down to the field with water bottles in hand, to water the seedlings when the expected rain doesn’t materialize. Farming, it’s an imperfect art for imperfect people, but when we get it right, it’s right.
Getting it wrong is just as easy, and usually happens because we let an opportunity slide by, missing the perfect time to plant or that last chance to weed. And in those years, we are lucky to have the volunteer arugula that can be used for salad; or wild mustard greens and reseeded turnips whose roots are not tasty themselves, but produce enough bitter greens for braising, to hold us over in the winter months. I crave leafy greens, so am deeply grateful for the aliveness of the field. Like a refrigerator in a well-used kitchen that yields odds and ends to be incorporated into the next meal, so does a field reproduce seeds from past seasons. Volunteers sprout up in the late summer or early fall, little bonuses, to bridge the gap through less prolific seasons. I love that the field hands us a present, so selflessly, because the field is our partner. And we may not tend her perfectly, but she is forgiving if treated with thoughtful respect and appreciation.
And as winter meanders along, so come spring and the flowering tops. I call them rapini, but was told recently by Hank Shaw that this is technically incorrect, as rapini is a specific genus. Hank should know, so I’ll call them flowering tops for now. In Japanese, na no hana, is the catchall name for any green flowering tops that produce bright yellow flowers and small broccoli-like clusters, though mustard or turnip greens are most common. Na no hana literally means flowering greens. Sautéed, steamed or quick boiled, these flowering tops are both mild and bitter at once. The pleasantly acrid winter leaves have softened by the early spring warmth as they turn from dark to bright green. And this means spring has arrived.
I love that the field has given us the gift of salad, greens and flowering tops all without effort on our part. A sort of helping hand in times when we cannot do our best job on the field. I love that the field forgives us and that makes me want to try harder, because I don't want to let her down.
Flowering Tops with Dashi: Grasp flowering tops in the middle of the bunch and dip stems into a pot of boiling water. Count to 10, then let go and cook for a total of 1-3 minutes, depending on thickness of stems. Scoop tops out from boiling water, and refresh in a large bowl of cold water. Once cool, remove from cold water, squeeze, cut into 5 cm (2") lengths, and stack attractively in a medium-sized bowl. Julienne konbu from dashi and strew on top of flowering greens. Ladle in one scoop of dashi (100 ml) and drizzle with organic soy sauce to taste (1-1.5 tbsp).
Dashi Method: prepare 2 cups cold water in a medium saucepan. Add a couple 6-inch pieces of konbu. Bring to almost a boil, pluck out konbu and throw in a handful of katsuobushi shavings. Turn flame to low and simmer 6-7 minutes. Turn off flame and let sit 20 minutes before straining out katsuobushi.
Pork Belly & Flowering Tops: Sauté thinly sliced pork belly in a small amount of organic rapeseed oil with a few dried red peppers and some chopped ginger until the fat sizzles, and there is some minimal browning, but don't over do it.
Cut rapini or flowering tops into 2-inch lengths and place in a mesh strainer with a handle. Lower into a pot of boiling water and cook for about 30 seconds, or until no longer raw. Keep the strainer at the top of the water surface in order to scoop the rapini out in one fell swoop. Shake off the hot water and toss into the cooked pork belly. Toss a few minutes more over high heat and season with salt. Cook for about 30 seconds more, then serve.