When May arrived this year, I still had not planted any summer seeds. My attempts to buy seeds had also been thwarted by bad timing and falling asleep at the keyboard, mid-order. But, by chance, I passed a co-op in Portland and managed to find an assortment of organic heirloom seeds. Phew, saved. Back in Japan, with only one week before my next trip, houseguests and a television crew at SSU! took precedence over the planting. Finally on May 1, my departure date looming the following morning, I abandoned my packing, grabbed a shovel and headed to the field. Tadaaki had instructed me to dig up our so-called mulch pile (really not much more than a decaying mound of leaves and scraps). He makes everything sound so easy, but it’s just not. To get to the rich decomposed soil and leaves, I had to plunge my shovel into the base of the mound. But the weight of the 6-foot tall mound made this a fierce struggle. What the hell, so there were a few leaves mixed in with the dirt, it was good enough for me. I filled two feedbags with compost and returned home to dump the dirt into my planter boxes, first lining them with newspaper. It took me another half hour to plant 23 kinds of seeds: tomatoes, peppers, herbs and lettuce. Feeling virtuous, I went back to my packing.Also, when the seeds magically sprout, the gratification is immediate. But when it comes time for transferring the seedlings to the field, you start cursing their buoyant success and wish you could just throw a few over your shoulder and be done with it. But you can’t, so you religiously plant each little sprout then plunge headfirst into a summer of gorgeous vegetables along with a Sisyphean battle against the jungle of weeds. They say the rainy season is in July, but don’t be fooled. It rains all year long here.
At the end of August, when the late summer vegetables are finally kicking into high gear, we almost can’t pick enough peppers, tomatoes or eggplant every day. And sometimes we don’t. But as we revel in our baskets piled high with green, red and purple, devising yet another way to use the eggplants and peppers (tomatoes, we can freeze) that is exactly the time we should be planning our winter vegetable planting.
And for this reason, we often miss the perfect time to plant. First, planting needs to be done right before it rains, as we don’t irrigate. Judge that wrong and you’ll be carting water to the field in containers like we did last year. Luckily the SSU! kids thought this was great fun and helped carry. Second, you need to get a sense of the overall weather pattern and suss out the exact turn from summer to fall. Seeds won’t like being in the hot dry summer soil, but they will thrive in the warm waning fall days that are intermixed with rain.
And then there is that pesky thing called daily life. Which day will there enough time to prepare the field? Will Tadaaki be able to squeeze in an hour or so to plow that section of the field? Will the SSU! kids be around to help? Do I want them to?
Last fall, I waited until late September before I planting. Tadaaki (the real farmer), got his fields planted earlier of course. It was a busy fall, SSU! curriculum planning and writing projects seemed to keep me at my computer. I was dragging my heels, knowing the window for planting our school garden field was narrowing. Everyday I felt that nudge at my back, “go to the field, get it done.” But, somehow, each day went by without planting. The guilt mounted until mid-morning one Saturday in late September.
Tadaaki breezed in to snatch up some egg orders from the fax machine. As he headed out the door, he ever so casually mentioned, “it’s gonna rain today.” The truth is, I had already seen that and had already made the decision to plant. But, sometimes I get derailed from my plans. Those four measured words, uttered so plainly, pushed me off my chair and into the car with my hoe, line measuring device and seeds. And it really was going to rain, so I decided to plant on my own. The kids who come for the Saturday program are a bit unruly and I just wanted to get it done.
Tadaaki had plowed that section of the field a couple days before, so the earth was like fluffy loam. My feet sunk in several inches, my clogs pulling up and spewing out dirt sprays as I paced out the lines. I had gotten about five lines marked, lettuce and radish seeds sprinkled, earth kicked over to cover and had side stepped down the row gently pressing the earth down with my clogs when, the previously tentative, raindrops began to increase their rhythm and pace. I, in turn, picked up mine and raced to finish the last five rows. The small drops seemed to join together into larger glops of water, glancing off my head as I worked furiously, almost at a run. But I couldn’t move very fast because the water was also hitting the field making the soil clump together on the bottoms of my clogs. Every step seemed to garner more heavy wet earth until it felt like I had bricks strapped to my clogs.
I dropped my hoe and loped awkwardly to the car, where I had left my rubber beach sandals. Back in business, it didn't take long for the beach sandals to amass about 4 inches of mud on their soles. Stupid. I shouldn’t have bothered. I abandoned the flip-flops in the field and finished barefoot. Sinking through the wet topsoil to the warm dry soil below was like putting my feet into a hopper of fresh-milled flour upon which water had been spilled.
By the time I finished, my hair dribbled rivulets of water down my back and my tee shirt and shorts were soaked to the skin. But no time to change. I grabbed my hoe and mud caked flip-flops, then drove to the school to cook lunch. I felt a little guilty for not including the kids, but in the end the rain would have been a problem. Mud, wet clothes…wet hair…parents, potential colds. Sometimes it’s easier to just do it myself.
Photo by Kenji Miura
Soy Sauce Dressed Red Oak Leaf Lettuce with Half-Cooked Egg & Mayonnaise: Salad
is my favorite food, but I don’t often stray much further than pristine lettuce
from our field. So whenever I’m at Chez Panisse, I usually skip the mains and order three salads: avocado,
beets, whatever. I’m in heaven with the sometimes surprising, yet always
logical combinations as well as their characteristic sensitivity and restraint. Chez Panisse knows how to make a salad
(and many, many restaurants do not).
Drippy, gloopy, tasteless vegetables. No thanks, I’d rather eat French fries. But I suppose I’m getting off
course. Growing up, my sister and
I were in charge of the vinaigrette for our family salad. We never measured, but always tasted. I continued following that “formula”
well into my adult life, but now as I develop Japanese recipes, have started to
measure. And I derive great
comfort from discovering the logic of ratios in all of these salad dressing
variations. Though ultimately, it’s up to
you to figure out how much dressing to make and to hold yourself back from
drenching the salad. I’ve been using
an extremely bright, organic rapeseed oil and recommend tracking some
down. Also, I would not skimp on
the soy sauce or rice wine vinegar.
Buy organic and buy the best.
Whisk soy sauce & vinegar together in a small bowl, then whisk in
rapeseed oil. Pour enough dressing
on salad to film leaves and gently toss with light hands (1:1:2—soy sauce: rice
wine vinegar: rapeseed oil). And,
if possible, don’t wash the lettuce.
Just wipe any clinging dirt with a damp towel. Half-Cooked Egg: fill a small saucepan ¾ full with hot water and bring to a
boil. Lower in a few super fresh
farm eggs and cook 7 minutes. Dump
boiling water and run cold water until eggs have completely cooled. Dry, whack in half with a razor-sharp
knife and carefully scoop out eggs with a soupspoon. Serve with chopped chives and a dollop of homemade
Photo by Kenji Miura