If I’m going to share recipes here, it’s only fair that I start by introducing you to my beloved umezu, my secret ingredient, my ace in the hole, my last minute back-up plan that can save any bland dish and make it taste magnificent.
Umezu, or Umeboshi plum vinegar, is the pickling liquid from dried Japanese plums, or technically, apricots.Ume plums are picked when ripe and, traditionally at least, dried on rooftop mats, then packed with salt into barrels with weighted lids that squeeze out the liquid as the ume cures.The fruits are eaten as pickles or blended into a tangy paste somewhat reminiscent of tamarind, usually with rice.The tart pickling liquid, although not a traditional vinegar, imparts some of the tangy acidity you might get from citrus or vinegar, and is amazing in salad dressing, beans, soups, and in anything you might otherwise add vinegar, and in absolutely anything really.It especially perks up green vegetables like kale and broccoli.Just a little sprinkle and even those who pooh-pooh such strong vegetable fare often find themselves actually enjoying and asking for more, including my 11 year old son Philip.Sometimes.I don’t want to overstate it.
Umeboshi (ume-plum, boshi-dried) aids digestion and calms uneasy stomachs – rice congee (see my last recipe) with umeboshi plums or vinegar helps fight nausea and is a traditional cold remedy.Ume increases appetite and energy, perhaps because of its digestive properties, and was traditionally eaten by the Samurai in battle to increase stamina. It clears systemic toxicity, and so has interestingly been used as a cure for hangovers as well as to soothe addictive cravings, especially when blended with kuzu – a japanese thickening starch that deserves its own ode…more to come… (Facts from memory and my other ace in the hole, Wikipedia!)
You can find umezu at health food stores, if not at your regular grocery in the natural or Asian food section.It is usually near the soy sauce.Some modern ume pickling techniques use less salt, yet make up for it with preservatives; so read the label.And although I usually buy umezu in gallon sized bulk through a food buying coop, and keep it for years, and send bottles of it home with friends who have never heard of it before…you don’t need a lot.A very little goes a long way.As with any salt, try just a drop or so and taste, gradually adding to the point of your preference.Maybe even less.Cause once it’s in there, you can’t take it back.And too much salt is a strain on your body.It can be a dangerous passion, this umeboshi love affair, one in which we must keep our wits about us.As with any passion.Too much of even what heals us can make us sick.
Here is a simple umezu recipe with kale that I use as a base for many other dishes.If you think you don’t like kale, try it.You may change your mind.Just make sure you cook it soft enough, and chew.The recipe is adapted from a recipe in Cynthia Lair’s excellent cook book Feeding the Whole Family, I think.I lent the book out, so I can’t check… Yet even if it’s not from that book, and even if you’re not feeding a whole family, check out her book, it’s a great resource for learning delicious natural food cooking.
And the garlic is optional.It’s tasty, and it will help ward off colds for sure.And I find that eating less garlic decreases my, um, scent.For what that’s worth.And the resonance of the food is a little softer without it – garlic is a strong medicine really, and probably more potent when used that way.It’s up to you.
May you enjoy this even close to as much as I do…
Oh umezu, how the hue of whole world brightens with the flavor of your touch…
Sauteed Kale with Umezu
Bunch kale, any kind
2 cloves garlic, minced, optional
Umeboshi plum vinegar, umezu
Prepare the kale.I say cook the whole bunch, if you don’t eat it all now then you have some left to munch on when you get hungry and start looking for snacks – better kale than potato chips.But you know yourself.It doesn’t take that long to cook if you want to make some now and some later.Sometimes I stem it and sometimes I don’t – not stemming yields a lot more food and the stems are delicious too.Although it is more tender without the stems. I hold the stem with one hand and strip away the leaf from bottom to top with the other hand. At least cook 4 – 5 cups of raw kale, chopped into bite sized pieces.Recognize that the kale will shrink considerably when you cook it.Rinse it after its cut.
Heat large skillet on medium high.Add enough olive oil to coat the pan, about 1 -2 tablespoons.
Add garlic, sauté lightly until soft.Sprinkle about a ½ teaspoon of umezu in the pan – it will splatter a little so stand back.Let it soak it in about 15 seconds, stirring so it doesn’t burn.
Add the rinsed kale, stirring.You may or may not want to add a little water now, a lot depends on the size of the pan and how wet the kale is from rinsing.For starters add about 2-3 tablespoons, you will learn each time you cook it.The trick is you want the kale to tenderize but not get overcooked and mushy.Stir occasionally so it doesn’t burn.Taste it often to see when it is done to your liking, about 5 – 10 minutes.Add a little more umezu to taste if necessary.
Serve as a side dish or as an ingredient in stir fries or pasta or any dish where you would like to add a green vegetable.It would taste nice topped with a little extra virgin olive oil and grated romano or parmesan cheese, if you need a little more flavor.(More recipes to follow!)
I could eat all of this, yet it could feed up to 4.
Also from the Yoga Sutras, five hindrances to clarity that block us from seeing things as they are.
satya – truthfulness – giving up dishonesty
One way I have been balancing the cold dryness this winter is by eating congee – basically rice cooked with lots of water on low heat for a long time to make a moist soupy base for many different dishes. I was reminded of congee by Sarah Adams of Yuki Herbs here in Concord, NH (www.yuktiherbs.com), who made an amazing congee soup with shitake mushrooms and leeks in a broth laced with a myriad of healing herbs like astragalus and mallow, flavored with adzuki bean miso and red pepper flakes. If you don’t know what some of those ingredients are, don’t worry. Congee can be made much more simply and still be delicious and healthful – although if you want to try and emulate her recipe, as I have, go for it. It is very satisfying.
I started playing with congees, sometimes making them really soupy, sometimes more thick like a porridge. Zach Brown of Burlington, VT, another creative chef, said he was taught to make congee with leftover rice, and suggested using rice milk to soften the rice into congee. He inspired me with his use of black beans and beets in the various congees he has made.
One of my current favorites it to add the beets and carrot grounds from my juicer to cooked congee along with black beans and brown rice vinegar and some sort of salt, soy sauce or miso paste – a salty fermented soy-or-other-bean-and-sometimes-rice paste that melts into a flavorful soup base. You can find miso in health food stores, if not in your regular grocery.
I have made this congee really thick and dry by cooking it down till the rice grains break wide open, then added the carrots, beets, rinsed canned black beans, brown rice vinegar and salt, and bulked it up with toasted sesame seeds. Instead of juicer grounds, you could substitute grated vegetables of any kind, cooking them for a little while in the congee to soften if desired. It tastes great as is, although I really like it rolled or scooped into romaine lettuce leaves and drizzled with lemon juice and sesame or olive oil. I haven’t tried it yet, but I think this thick congee would make a great veggie burger. Maybe with a little chickpea or rice flour to hold it together, although with the sesame seeds it may not need it. And with Nel Norwesh of Manchester, NH’s delicious za’atar – a tangy middle eastern spice combination of sesame seeds, dried sumac, salt, and I think thyme? It would be delicious.
This morning for breakfast I ate a soupy forbidden black rice, brown rice and sweet rice congee with the beet, carrot and black bean mixture and chickpea miso, with some sweet potatoes on the side. Perhaps not your typical breakfast fare, and yet Paul Pitchford, in his iconic tome Healing with Whole Foods, states that congee, or hsi-fan – rice water – is commonly eaten as breakfast food in China. It is easily digested and so helps the body assimilate the nutrients from other foods added to the congee. So helps break the fast…
Pitchford describes congee as a handful of rice simmered in five to six times the amount of water in a covered pot for four to six hours on warm or on the lowest flame possible, or in a crockpot. And that it is better to use too much water than too little, and that the longer the congee cooks the more powerful it gets. From that general recipe you can experiment as you like. And while it seems daunting to cook something for four to six hours, just put it on the stove when you get home and let it cook – not for the meal you are eating now but the ones you will eat later. Then you’ve always got some rice ready, just add vegetables and flavoring.
I’ve included a sample and very general recipe here to inspire you, eat it any time of day. Try it as is, and use it as a springboard for your own creations. Share them here if you like, we all inspire each other.
Kale, Carrot and Shitake Congee
1 cup short grain brown rice
5 cups water
2-3 carrots, sliced into rounds
2 cloves garlic (optional)
4-6 dried porcini or other mushrooms (optional)
1 cup sliced fresh shitake mushrooms
2 cups kale chopped into bite sized pieces
Miso – any kind – I like brown rice, barley, adzuki bean and chickpea, in that order for this soup…
Fresh ginger root (optional)
Bring rice, water, and carrots to almost boiling, turn heat to warm and let cook for at least four hours, adding water if necessary. If desired, add garlic cloves and ½ inch of sliced ginger now. Leave the ginger in large rounds so you can decide to eat it with the soup or take it out if that is too spicy. Alternately you could add the ginger at the end, see the last instructions in the recipe.
Add water and cook until desired consistency, I’m imagining a soupy porridge for this congee.
Let dried mushrooms soak in cold water for at least ½ hour.
Add fresh shitake to congee during last 20 minutes of cooking
Add kale during last 15 minutes of cooking.
Add porcini and soaking liquid during last 5 minutes.
Place one tablespoon miso per serving in deep bowls right before eating. You don’t want to cook the miso in the soup, as it is a living food and overheating will kill it. Serve it to order. Mash the miso with a spoon into a small amount of congee in each bowl before adding the rest of the serving, to blend the miso into the whole soup rather than leaving it in a little clump in some of the soup. Ladle congee into each bowl, stir well, and top with scallions. Squeeze lemon juice to taste. Optionally, grate ginger root on the smallest holes or your cheese grater and squeeze the juice, and some of the grounds, onto the congee. Adjust seasonings to taste.