What’chu Takuan About?

To most Americans, it’s that strange yellow thing in vegetable sushi. Salty, crunchy, and plant-based, it’s otherwise unidentifiable. Those in the know will recognize them as tsukemono, aka “pickled things,” or more specifically oshinko, which is a pickle made with salt. Daikon radish, a woefully under appreciated vegetable, gets to play the leading role here, slowly morphing from bright white to a luminous shade akin to saffron.

All it takes is time, and lots of it. Traditionally, daikon are sun-dried for a few weeks before ever seeing brine, where they then ferment for months. That process alone creates the signature golden hue, although most manufacturers today take shortcuts. Artificial coloring is used liberally, in addition to chemical preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup. These practices are so widespread that few people even know what proper takuan should taste like.

There’s no going back once you cross that line. Ever since getting a bite of authentic takuan, pickled from sun-dried daikon grown in Miyazaki, mass-produced takuan have been ruined for me. It’s impossible to replicate that distinctive crunch, subtly nutty undertone, gentle sweetness, and gently tart flavor. The seasonings serve to enhance the natural flavor of the daikon, rather than cover it up. Like an addict, I’m forever chasing that same high.

“Simple” doesn’t always equate to “easy,” and while it requires little labor, summoning the patience for these pickles to properly mature can be more difficult than the most complex preparation. Ideally, you should set aside two to four full weeks to achieve the proper texture and flavor using traditional methods. Time is the ultimate secret ingredient that no machines can replicate and no amount of money can buy. That said, modern technology can help a good deal; use a dehydrator to expedite the process if you’re worried about leaving food out in the open for that long, don’t have ideal conditions for drying, or just want to get down to the good stuff sooner.

Rich in natural probiotics, takuan is good for your gut, too! No proper Japanese meal is complete without a few slices to contrast with a rich entree, cutting through heavier tastes with a clean, crisp palate cleanser. Once you’ve had the real deal, there’s no going back.

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Cucumber Confessional

I love cucumbers. Full stop. People profess their love to many types of foods, saying they could eat them everyday and never get bored. I actually do; everyday, I’ll eat at least one whole cucumber, sprinkled with just salt and pepper, or dipped in hummus, or chopped up in salad. Tiny Persian cucumbers, large English cucumbers, plain pickling cucumbers- I love them all.

Why hasn’t this obvious obsession factored more clearly into my writing or recipes? It’s not interesting, quite frankly. I’m not doing anything exciting with them, just eating them in mass quantities. Even this idea that I’m here sharing today is far from earth-shaking. Barely the tiniest twist on a time-honored classic, surely it’s been done before. However, it’s good enough that it bears repeating: Make shirazi salad while summer produce is at its peak, but replace the tomatoes with watermelon.

That’s it, that’s the whole recipe. Adding a whole recipe card with formal measurements is really overkill when so much of the dish is based on the produce itself and personal taste. If I can be honest and break down that fourth wall for a minute, the recipe card is for Google. For you, I trust you can figure it out.

Consider the chopping an opportunity to practice your knife skills, to meditate, or simply revel in the aroma of summer. The minute you slice into a cucumber or watermelon, that aroma floods the air, setting the mood like candles for a romantic evening, only with notes of whimsy, sunshine, and a cooling breeze.

To anyone complaining about the amount of liquid leftover at the bottom of the bowl: Congratulations! You completely missed the point. That heavenly elixir, my friend, is a beautiful meeting of the worlds, the best parts of fruits and vegetables, sweet and savory, existing in harmony as one. Don’t you dare dump it out. When you pick up the mostly empty bowl, the only option is to bring it to your lips and drink every last drop.

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Good to Grow

Like painting or or singing, some people have an innate gift for gardening. Call it a natural talent that’s given at birth, I’ve seen sickly plants flourish under the right care. It seems even more magical to me, as someone who’s liable to turn that scenario on its head and drive supposedly indestructible vegetation right back into the ground. Described more favorably, you could say that I’m excellent at making compost.

This is the year that I’m changing all that. It’s no secret that I haven’t had the greatest luck with plants, laying to waste everything from succulents to bamboo, but that’s all in the past. Now, with a bit more experience and the right tools, I’m already the proud plant mama of some lush fresh herbs, thriving tomato vines, and even a few flowering pepper buds, ready to burst forth with fruit any day.

How is this possible, you may ask? As with most things in life, it comes down to dumb luck, hard work, and a few simple tricks.

Location, location, location! Make sure you start growing in a space that gets at least 8 hours of direct sun everyday to best suit most plants. You don’t need a ton of acreage or even a yard to start growing; any outdoor space can become a flourishing garden. Apartment dwellers would be wise to invest in a vertical planter to maximize limited balcony space. Lacking that, a window box planter can go anywhere, indoors or out.

Make it rain. Water religiously, even if mother nature does help out with a few showers. Make a habit of checking the soil everyday; if it seems dry, add more water. No need to go crazy, and you might not need to water everyday, depending on your climate. Set yourself a regular calendar reminder if you’re liable to get swept up in the daily madness and forget. Gardening apps like Planta and Flourish are brilliant for this and so much more, specific to your particular plants.

Feed me, Seymour. Like a pet, plants need good food to grow, too! About a month after the first sprouts emerge, add plant food to the soil. You can easily and cheaply make your own from Epsom salts and baking soda, an reapply roughly once a month. Just a little bit will do! Alternately, consider adding ground kelp or seaweed into the soil, which is a rich source of trace elements such as iron, zinc, barium, calcium, sulphur, and magnesium.

Don’t be a pest. Pull out weeds and other odd interlopers, of course, but don’t get sentimental over your own dying sprouts, either. If any of your plants are on their way out, remove them before they have time to rot, attract bugs, and potentially spread disease. If you suspect an infestation, don’t panic, and don’t pull out the toxic chemicals. Depending on the pests, there are many natural remedies you can make from household ingredients.

Slow and steady wins the race. Be patient, don’t overdo it, and celebrate the small victories. Especially if you’re starting from seed, it will be a while before you can reap the fruits of your labor, so buckle in and get comfortable for the long haul. Personally, the actual fruits and vegetables are a bonus at this point; just seeing greens living and thriving under my care, growing bigger and stronger by the day, is something to celebrate already.

Worst comes to worst, if your best efforts still end in barren earth, you’ll still end up ahead of the game. You’ve just enriched your soil for even better growing conditions next year! Your future plant babies will thank you for it.