When my husband and I moved to Nagano, Japan, this fall, we rented a traditional post-and-beam house at the foot of the Japan Alps. It came complete with straw tatami mats and sliding paper-covered doors in the living room, seventies-style orange and yellow linoleum in the kitchen, and a detached bathhouse that sometimes requires a sprint through rain or snow to reach. It also came with a lifetime’s worth of stuff. From bedroom closet to garden shed, it was full of possessions that had belonged to the elderly woman who lived here for decades before we moved in. After she passed away a few years ago, her family kept using the house for holiday get-togethers. They became our landlords, and when we moved in, they told us to do what we wanted with whatever we found.
Our first month in the house was part treasure hunt, part endless spring cleaning. We opened closet doors to discover towering stacks of futons, wool blankets, and comforters (over fifteen sets, it turned out). The glass and wood cabinets in the kitchen were stocked with enough dishes to amply supply a restaurant, and additional tea sets, beer glasses, hot plates, and thermoses were stashed throughout the house. Sun porches revealed train sets, inflatable pools, and copious kerosene heaters. These had all been carefully maintained for the yearly visits from the extended family, our neighbors told us.
Out in the storerooms we found all the miscellaneous trappings of a small-scale farm: rusting scythes, skeins of rope, fruit crates, bamboo baskets, and snow shovels. But the best discovery was a storehouse stacked with the relics of pickle making. Being a pickle addict myself, I admiringly washed and set aside the various crocks, weights, lids, and jars, dreaming of how I would revive them with my own favorite recipes. In one corner of the shed, I found a yellow plastic tub big enough to easily fit a toddler or two. When would I reach that level of pickle production? I wondered.
Turns out that day came sooner than I could have guessed. Earlier this week I had the good fortune of receiving ten kilos (about 20 pounds) of greens from a nearby farmer looking to give away the last of her crop before the really cold weather set in. In this area, families pickle the greens in the fall and eat them until the snow melts in the spring. Having an enormous yellow tub on hand, I thought I’d give it a try, and share the recipe with you.
You’ll end up with something quite different from the pickled Chinese cabbage I blogged about a few weeks ago. That recipe requires fermenting with salt; this one involves submerging the greens in a bath of vinegar, soy sauce, and sugar spiked with chili and ginger. Because of that difference, this recipe is pretty much fail-proof (no need to deal with bacteria, which can be tricky), and perhaps more friendly to the average Western palate. The recipe given here makes enough to last through the winter, but of course you can experiment with smaller quantities.
Note: Wash and dry all pickling equipment well before use. It’s not necessary to boil everything as you would for traditional canning, but it’s a good idea to set equipment out in the sun for a day or wipe it with alcohol after washing.
1. Remove wilted or damaged leaves from the greens, and chop off the root. Leave the base intact for easy handling (you don’t want to end up with a mountain of separate leaves). Wash well, making sure to get the dirt out from between the leaves. You can do this in your bathtub or at an outside tap or stream. Put the greens in a crate or barrel with holes in the bottom and let dry for 1-2 days (this is to make sure the pickling solution doesn’t get watered down from moisture clinging to the leaves).
2. Roughly chop the greens into lengths of about one inch. To be safe, you might want to discard the bottom few inches where dirt is likely to be lodged. Put the chopped greens in a large plastic tub or ceramic crock.
3. Mix the soy sauce, vinegar, and sugar in a large pot. Heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Cool and stir in the chili and ginger, then pour over the greens.
4. Place a large plate or tray on top of the greens and weigh down with a pickling weight, sterilized (ie, washed, boiled, and cooled) rock, or large container of water. Liquid should rise to cover the greens by the next day, at which point you can reduce the weight just to the point where the greens stay submerged. Cover with a sheet of newspaper tied in place with a string, and store in a cool, dark place. You can start eating the greens in a week or two, and continue through the winter. Make sure to remove them from the tub with a clean fork or spoon, and replace the plate, weight, and paper afterwards. Serve with steaming hot rice – or do as one neighborhood mom does, and set out a bowl for after-school snacking. And those of you who are watching your sodium intake, be careful not to eat too much of this addictive but salty pickle!