vegetables

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There are two Japanese vegetables that I can't get fresh here that I miss very much. One is burdock root or gobo; the other is bamboo shoot or takenoko (竹の子 or 筍). Bamboo shoots are very much a spring-only vegetable, much like asparagus, so around this time of year I always get a craving for the crunch and subtle flavor.

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Periodically, someone asks about Japanese pickles - those crunchy, salty, sweet-sour, even spicy bits of goodness that accompany a traditional meal, especially breakfast. There are a big variety of Japanese pickles, and sooner or later you might consider making them.

Some time ago I did a week-long series on making instant, or overnight pickles. These pickles can be made very quickly, usually with ingredients that are easy to get a hold of. If you want to try your hand at Japanese style pickles, I recommend starting there. There are also a couple of cookbooks in English dedicated to quick and easy pickles, both of which are quite good: Quick and Easy Tsukemono: Japanese Pickling Recipes by Ikuko Hisamatsu, and Easy Japanese Pickling in Five Minutes to One Day: 101 Full-Color Recipes for Authentic Tsukemono by Seiko Ogawa.

However, the type of pickles that you are likely to be served in a high class traditional inn in Japan, or even the type you can buy in vacuum sealed packs at a supermarket, are a bit more complicated to make, especially outside of Japan. Here are some examples.

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How to prepare that hairy looking beast, the taro root or satoimo.

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These tasty little savory cakes are made of ground lotus root. The texture is quite surprising - almost like mochi cakes. It's a great vegan, gluten-free savory snack that's high in fiber and packed with flavor.

Next year, the United Nations wants us to celebrate the humble potato for an entire year. I'm not certain how the UN makes its decisions about such things (why not the Year of the Tomato or the Year of the Turnip?), but I have no objections against the humble potato, one of my favorite foods. Unless you are an avowed anti-carb person, how could you not love the potato?

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Have you ever made tomato water? It's the clear liquid strained gently from a ripe tomato, and one of the best treats of summer. When made from juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes, it has a sweet yet green-tomatoey taste that is so intense that a little goes a very long way.

Making tomato water is very simple. All it requires is a blender or food processor, a fine mesh sieve, paper towels, and patience. What you do with the resulting water is up to your imagination. Here I have added a little gelatin to make it into a tomato gelée (or, to be non-fancy, jelly). Served on top is a tomato coulis made from the pulp that is left over after the water is strained. The only heat-adding cooking involved is in melting the gelatin. It fits in well with my minimal-cooking mood this summer.

This would make a very interesting first course for a summer meal, or an amuse-bouche if served in tiny portions. It would be a great in-between courses palate cleanser too, if you are having an elaborate meal.

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Continuing with my light and quick summer dishes:

This year we got a bit more serious than usual about our garden, and planted three zucchini plants. If you have a garden with zucchinis, you know that sometime around midsummer they start to produce babies like crazy. We've had a rather cold and rainy summer here up until now, but this week our three innocent looking zucchini plants have gone into high gear, and we're picking them as fast as we can before they turn into seedy, tasteless baseball bat sized monsters.

Zucchini pancakes are one way to use up a lot at once. This version uses chickpea flour instead of wheat flour or eggs, with a little bit of spice in it. It's great hot or cold, and is a perfect snack, side dish or complete vegan main dish, since the chickpea flour is such a terrific source of protein and carbs (nutritional info). Serve it with a salsa, curry, or just on its own. Here I just served them with some super-ripe tomato wedges. The shredded zucchini adds moisture and a rather creamy texture, which I love.

Chickpea flour is used in Mediterranean and Indian cooking. I get mine from a local Indian grocery store, where it's sold as gram flour; it's also known as besan, ceci flour, and so on.

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At the moment, cherries are everywhere here in Switzerland. Roadside signs proclaim "Kirschen" or "Chriesli" (the Swiss-German dialect for cherries), luring you to farms and fruit groves and farm stores. They're on sale at the Migros supermarket too, for the busy person to pick up in a hurry.

When I get started on cherries, I can't seem to stop until I've had my fill, and I do mean fill, of that sweet, dark juice with a hint of sourness. Fresh cherries are so good that I just can't bring myself to do anything more than pop them in my mouth one after another, methodically spitting out the pits. I know there are numerous cherry recipes out there, but as delicious as things like cherry pie and cherry clafouti are, there's really nothing to beat the naked, unadorned cherry.

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Everyone knows in theory that the fresher the vegetables, the better they are. But I think that many of us fall into the habit of buying a bit too many vegetables, storing them in the fridge, and using them as long as they haven't rotted away or become science experiments in some form. You know, things like carrots and celery, apples and other rather indestructible produce.

But once you see how produce does deteriorate, you start to wonder. Case in point I had some rhubarb stalks left over, and stored in the fridge for about a week after I bought them. (Normally I cook rhubarb right away, but it was cheap at the market so we'd bought more than we needed.) So, yesterday I took them out - they looked crisp and perfectly fine - and turned them into rhubarb crumble pie.

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Celery isn't a very Japanese vegetable, but with the addition of the right flavors it can be turned into a refreshingly crunchy pickle that goes well with white rice, which is the base criteria for determining whether a pickle fits a Japanese meal or not. Besides, I always seem to have some celery in my fridge (who doesn't?), and this is a good excuse to use some up.

This is a nice salad-like pickle, that's best eaten with some of the pickling liquid spooned like dressing over the top. There's a nice bite and a color zing from the thin slivers of red chili pepper. (Pirikara means spicy-hot.) There's a little sake and mirin in the dressing, which gives it a twist.

Since celery is more fibrous than cucumber, it needs to marinade for a bit longer. Give it at least 3 hours, or overnight. It doesn't keep too well at room temperature, so reserve this for eating at home. It assembles as quickly as the other quick pickles in this series.

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