Wednesday, June 25, 2014

'Shroomin' in Tokyo (Guest blog post from Japan)

Location: New York City (Brooklyn and the Bronx, to be exact). Some heavy rains have resulted in a bumper crop of my favorite fungus.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo my friend Hiroko was also thinking about mushrooms - albeit more productively.

Here's her guest blog post: 

As an apartment dweller in Tokyo, words like "farming" and "harvesting" don't typically come very close to me. So when I found a pile of plastic wrapped logs labeled "Shiitake Log" at the fresh produce section of my local super market, I was really skeptical. They were sold 399 yen (around $4) a piece. Seriously? Hey, a pack of Shiitake Mushroom costs about $2.99! So why not giving it a try? Even if it fails, we have nothing to lose!

The idea of farming Shiitake was an instant hit with my 8 years old son. No pets are allowed in this building, but a pet Mushroom Log? YES! With enthusiasm, we opened the plastic wrapping, but we didn't find any instruction,  just a piece of hand-written memo that said, "Remove the wrap. Spray water. In a few days, Shiitake comes." Oh thank you very much!

My son did some research and said: "My fungus needs a high moisture level." He started to spritz water on the log, twice a day, as if it was an honorable job. And really, in two days.....voila! MUSHROOMS!

Whoa! Almost too much!

Tokyo is currently in its rainy season, which is called "Tsuyu" ("Plum Rain," the annual rainy season when plums are ripening), so along with my son's diligent spritzing, the Shiitake Log is getting plenty of moisture on our balcony. Did you know 90% of a Shiitake is water? 

The Shitakes are thriving, happily popping up. Harvesting has become my son's daily routine!

Harvesting mushrooms for dinner.

Miso Soup with Shiitake and Scallions, Bean Thread (Saifun) Salad with Shiitake, Eggs and Fish Cake, Chicken Drumsticks and Eggs, Pickles

Miso Soup with Shiitake and Scallions, Bean Thread (Saifun) Salad with Shiitake, Eggs and Fish Cake, Chicken Drumsticks and Eggs, Pickles.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Grow Your Own

The determination some folks have to grow a lawn, despite challenging conditions - arid land, tiny plots - is so strong that it requires psychological insight. One compelling theory suggest that human beings possess a deep impulse to recreate the African savanna, the cradle of human existence, by cultivating a lawn.

Are my sister and I similarly driven by powerful forces in our pursuit of the Rockaways gardens or our youth?

Growing up, we lived in a house with a backyard. Our home was 9 blocks from the ocean, barely within the New York City limits. Our backyard had toads, roses, honeysuckle and best of all, a fig tree, courtesy of our next-door neighbors who had planted a tree right up against the lot line. Every summer would bring a bumper crop, with zero effort on our part. Our generous neighbors were happy to share the bounty - a very good thing, considering that most jurisdictions accept the legal theory that whoever's lot houses the tree trunk owns all the fruit as well. Thank you, Stern family!

Of course, I fantasized about having a similar agricultural experience on my Manhattan balcony. Last year I bought a small fig tree at the Union Square Greenmarket. It developed lush foliage but no fruit. I wrapped it like a mummy to withstand the winter's frost, and have been tending it it carefully since springtime. Here's how it's going so far: 

Sigh. The weed in the corner is obviously doing a lot better than the fig tree is. 

I'd blame the container the fig tree is in, but my sister's two fig plants - one from the Union Square Greenmarket and the other from a botanical center - aren't doing much better, and hers are in the ground in her garden.

A gardening guru told her not to worry; dead-looking fig trees were capable of rebounding in early summer and even bearing abundant fruit by summer's end.

In a an ode to Brooklyn's fig trees, the food writer Melissa Clark attested to this phenomenon, writing,

[I was told that] fig trees are forgiving; if they die in winter, they can come back from the roots and bear fruit. I can vouch for this. That first winter, I wrapped my fig tree in old blankets, giving it a bucket for a hat. In spring, I unwrapped the tree. Everything else in the garden flourished. The mint and lemon balm grew tall and fragrant. The roses budded. But the poor fig tree remained adamantly brown, and I was scared I had killed it. Finally, in June, I gave up hope and lopped off the branches to stake my tomatoes. Then in July, I noticed my tomato stakes were pushing out leaves, and the stump in the barrel had started to grow. Suddenly, instead of one fig tree, I had six. I kept the hardiest of the lot and gave the others away. Now, my tree is laden with darkening fruit, branches bending under the weight. Every year the yield increases. First I got 2 figs, then 5, then 20. Now it's too many to count.

So we keep watering and keep harboring hope. 

Meanwhile, the farmers in Union Square have gone into floral overdrive, taunting me a bit with their lush greenery.

One plant in particular continues to catch my eye.

So far I'm holding strong and just tending to the fig tree I have rather than buying a new one. Really, I have no reason to think a replacement plant would necessarily fare any better. 

Besides, if I want a hardy plant, I know what to grow - a plant chock full of Vitamin C and calcium and more beta-carotene than carrots

And on a 16th story balcony, feral cat pee shouldn't be much of an issue.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

When Bad Produce Happens to Good People - Watermelon

This is not a tale of the cunning redeployment of substandard produce - tasteless blueberrieswithered grapes or never-gonna-ripen pears.

Rather, this is the Curious Case of the Exploding Watermelon.

It's also a contender for My Most Disgusting Produce Story, poised to dethrone the current champion, the tale which begins with my college roommate Kumi preparing some crudites in a lidded box for her Japanese class's midyear party. In June, I discovered the box when I was clearing out our dorm room. I guessed that the orange liquified bits had begun their lives as carrots, the pale green ones, celery. As for the darker green ones - sugar snap peas? String beans? I was too too busy gagging to make it interesting with a wagering pool. (Kumi, safely back in California by then, naturally found the story hilarious. She still does.)

This new story begins with a nice watermelon that looked like this:

When I set it aside for 2 days, my worst fear was that it was under-ripe and wouldn't taste very good.

Clearly, my fears lacked imagination and ambition. When I went to cut it up last night, the watermelon looked like this:

"Gee, my watermelon looks like it's taking a swim in a lake that could catch on fire," I thought cheerfully. "But who would put viscous water in the bowl?"

The next thought was dawning horror.

I grabbed a doubled trash bags and dumped the bowl's contents into the bags.

Normally I a pretty committed composter, but at times like this I am grateful for my dishwasher and my building's trash chute (one of the delights of apartment living). 

If you have a delicate stomach, you might want to skip to the end of this blog post. The watermelon had become truly revolting. Its rind collapsed and the watermelon's insides came pouring out.

The liquid was everywhere, damaging the wood of the furniture the mat was on, wetting (but mercifully not causing lasting harm) a fancy lamp, and in generally making a colossal mess. 

"Wow, that looks like the scene of a crime!" a friend said when I showed him the pictures.

What happened here?

According to a blog post called "Why Do Watermelons Crack, Split and Explode?",

As soon as a fresh plant is removed from its host plant or reaches maturity, it begins to very slowly break down. Heat accelerates this process. 
As it breaks down, a colorless gas called acetylene forms inside the water melon. The gas is volatile and quite unstable while in gas form (which is why when it's used in scientific experiments it's usually used in liquid form.)
The gas will try its best to escape the water melon but as it slowly increases due to the rotting in the water melon, the pressure will continue to increase.
When the skin of the watermelon is no longer strong enough to hold the gas inside, it will explode, often spraying all nearby surfaces with rotten water melon. Sometimes a trip home from the shop in a warm car is the final catalyst required to create an explosion.

Despite the disgusting scene at my house, I feel we got off easy. Just Google a phrase like "exploding rotten watermelon" and you'll see videos with watermelon bits on the ceiling and comments about the worst smell in the world. My watermelon didn't stink and I didn't have to destroy the carpet and the floorboards underneath.

Because of this, I could be more tolerant. Don't we all explode at times? 

So even if this isn't a redemptive tale, at least it has a happy ending: watermelon and I are still friends. Now excuse me while I bite into this instant refreshment.