In 1988, California girl Nancy Singleton Hachisu met, then married, a lanky Japanese “organic farm boy.” She documented two decades of cooking, teaching, and homemaking in the rural Saitama prefecture in her book, ‘Japanese Farm Food,’ out last fall, a true cook’s season, when glorious vegetables and cool temperatures make warm kitchens and rich meals suddenly desirable again. But now it’s full-on winter and the larder’s seeming bare. We want nourishment that’s both healthful and comforting, so we turned to Hachisu for help.
When we spoke, Hachisu was sitting in the family’s cold farmhouse, rebuilt in 1930 using beams and posts from the ancestral, 200-year-old structure. (Her husband, Tadaaki, is not a big believer in heating, and as an egg farmer who was once a cowboy in Brazil, traveled to the USSR on a Peace Boat, and participated in “farming missions” in Communist China and North Korea, he’s a subject for another story.) Hachisu calls authentic Japanese farm food “uncomplicated and intuitive, with a limited number of easily learned methods.” The book has handy charts of vegetables and seafood by method, plus notes on tools and knives, plucking duck feathers, brown rice miso vs. barley miso, and a bounty of direct, respectful recipes that produce deep and clear flavor.
On the variability of farm life and weather, Hachisu says, “I like the fact that there’s something out of my control. The body gets used to extremes.” In season now: spinach, hardy greens, carrots, cabbages, daikon, broccoli, and negi (a Japanese leek). She gave us some ideas; her current cravings may become your own.
Sake-Simmered Chicken With Negi-Miso and Arugula
(Hachisu is very lucky to obtain an ancient negi variety, tsunohara negi, from a friend’s farm, where it is the only place in Japan it is still grown. As a substitute, use fat scallions or spring onions.)
• 2 boneless, skin-on chicken thighs
• 1 bottle sake (see note below)
• Arugula, 2 large handfuls
• 3 tablespoons negi (or scallion whites), sliced into thin rounds
• Yuzu (or Meyer lemon) peel
• 4 tablespoons golden sesame seeds, roasted
• 4 tablespoons brown rice miso
Wedge chicken thighs in a heavy pot just large enough to hold them. Pour sake over until the chicken is almost submerged and flatten a piece of parchment paper across the top. Find a flat pan cover that will fit inside the pan and set it directly on the parchment paper to keep the juices from boiling away too quickly. Cover the pan with its lid, bring to a simmer over high heat, decrease to medium-low or low, and cook for 30 minutes. The chicken should have some active gentle bubbling but should not get wild.
Remove the pan from the heat and let the chicken cool in its juices as long as you are able but for at least 45 minutes. When cool, transfer the chicken to a medium-sized bowl with a pair of tongs, leaving the simmering liquid intact in the pan. Do not wash the pan! Roughly shred the chicken meat and discard the skin.
When you are ready to serve, slide the shredded chicken into the pan juices, bring to a rapid boil over high heat, and drop in a couple of large handfuls of arugula (cut crosswise into 3- or 4-inch segments). Throw in a tablespoon or so of chopped negi and a few slivers of yuzu peel. Stir quickly over high heat until the arugula is wilted. Immediately remove the pan from the stove and do not cover.
Mound cooked Japanese rice on a dinner plate. Catch up some chicken and arugula and drape over the rice. Drop a dollop of negi-miso on the chicken and greens, spoon over some pan juices, and serve.
Take 4 tablespoons golden sesame seeds, roasted and roughly ground. Muddle in 4 tablespoons brown rice miso and a splash of sake. Mix in a few pinches of finely slivered yuzu peel and 2 tablespoons negi cut into thin rounds.
Note on Sake (from ‘Japanese Farm Food’)
A good-quality sake for cooking can be found in the ten-dollar range for a 720 ml bottle. Harushika is readily available in the U.S. and an excellent mid-range choice.