Ode to Umeboshi

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

Olive oil

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.

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