Grow Your Own Wasabi

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Discover The Real Thing And Never Look Back

After the usual cool spring, the night temperatures are finally on the rise. Now that’s it’s been a few weeks since night temps have plunged into the 40s, it’s safe to plant out heat lovers, from beans to tomatoes. Mine have been busily growing in a sunny bump-out window in the kitchen, where they get lots of light all day long. I only recently noticed that the busy beans have totally twined themselves into the tomatoes, which in turn poked their sweet little heads into a handsome and complex light fixture which came from Ikea. It’s made of circles of bendable plastic, slotted together to form a lovely series of flaring tubes that look much like a double columbine, the kind called grannies’ bonnets.

I carefully pulled the questing tomato tops out of the lamp, but in the process discovered that the lampshade, which has been hanging in that sunny bay window for 10 years, is now totally brittle. Each tomato came sweetly out of its tube, accompanied by a shower of small bits of lampshade. Hmmm. Happily, the warmer nights mean that these wandering plants can go outside, so I spent a happy hour giving them gracious, spacious new homes in my container garden on the deck.

Peas, Please

Besides the very first tiny, blissfully sweet peapods, my leafless peas are keeping me well supplied with tendrils, which I enjoy in salads and sandwiches as well as stir fries and garnishes. I pull the peas out as soon as they start to flag, and also yank all the early lettuces, which have been excellent this year. My all-time new favorite is the butterhead called Dancine Mountain, which is addictively crisp and crunchy, with more flavor than most butter lettuce can boast. Each little softball-sized head is so densely packed that it yields far more than you might expect, and that’s a good thing, since it’s just plain delectable, especially cooked in the European manner.

Baby Peas With Butterhead Lettuce

1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup shelled peas
1 small head butterhead lettuce, torn in pieces

In a wide, shallow pan, cook oil, shallot and salt over medium high heat until fragrant. Add peas and lettuce, cover pan, reduce heat to low and cook until peas are barely tender and lettuce is barely wilted (about 3 minutes). Serves at least one.

Water Loving Wasabi

As the early mustard greens and so on come out, many tender waiters-in-the-wings move into bigger quarters, from beans and tomatoes to perilla and basil. One big pot with a deep saucer holds aquatic wasabi, which likes damp, shady spots. Real wasabi is a culinary marvel, utterly unlike the gummy green paste offered in most sushi bars. Freshly grated wasabi is a delicate, baby ribbon green, with a bright, sharp heat that sings in the mouth, but it’s a fleeting song. Within minutes, the grated rhizome loses its warmth and power, so it’s only outrageously delicious when absolutely freshly prepared, preferably at the table. (A fine microplane is perfect for grating fresh wasabi.) Luckily, you can store the harvested root in the fridge, wrapped in clean cheese cloth and set in a bowl with a little water. It will keep for up to two weeks, so you can grate just a bit at a time as needed.

A kale cousin (as is horseradish), this leafy plant is edible from stem to stern, so to speak, since the heart-shaped foliage and slim stems are also tasty raw or lightly steamed. Don’t harvest too much foliage from a young plant, however, or you’ll end up robbing the slower-growing root, which is of course the main event. The roots need a season or two to reach harvest size, and you can tuck the smaller offshoots back in for another crop.

Grow Like Watercress

Half-hardy, wasabi can take a few degrees of frost but may be killed by prolonged, deep freezes, so they are best overwintered in a greenhouse in colder areas. In England, wasabi is commercially grown in open streams, along with watercress, where the running water protects the root from hard frost. Here on Bainbridge Island, several wasabi plants have happily colonized the banks of Issei Creek as it runs through Bainbridge Gardens Nursery half a mile from my home.

Leaves And All

Like the rhizome, wasabi foliage loses its zip quickly, so the fresher the better. As with arugula, a little may go a long way, so use fresh wasabi sparingly at first to determine how much edible excitement you prefer (or can stand). Fresh wasabi foliage offers a milder version of the shocking heat provided by a freshly grated rhizome, and the flavor jolt fades just as quickly, enticing you to take another bite, then another, and another….

Wasabi Leaf Salad

1 head butter lettuce, pulled in pieces
2 cups thinly sliced kale
1 cup pea tendrils
1 cup thinly sliced wasabi foliage and stems
1 cup cooked garbanzo beans
1 cup chopped cucumber

Combine all ingredients and toss with  simple vinaigrette. Serves 4.

There are lots of recipes out there that use a little wasabi as a wake up, including a horrifying number for wasabi frosting. Yikes! That’s just wrong, especially when you consider that store bought wasabi is really just a mash up of horseradish and mustard dyed green. No thanks! My own current favorite things to do with wasabi include poached salmon with basil and wasabi and wasabi mashed potatoes. If you can’t find fresh wasabi root, you can always use fresh horseradish for a less spectacular but still gratifying effect.

Poached Salmon With Basil Wasabi

1 pound salmon fillet, cut in four pieces
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 inch fresh wasabi root
1 tablespoon minced basil

Place salmon skin side down in a wide, shallow pan and sprinkle with salt. Add lemon juice with water to bring the liquid depth to about 1/4 inch. Bring liquid to a boil over medium high heat, cover pan, reduce heat to low and cook to an internal temperature of 136 degrees F (about 6-7 minutes). Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Grate the wasabi, blend quickly with the basil, add a teaspoon of the paste to each serving of fish and serve immediately. Serves four.

Move Over, Garlic Mashed

If you enjoy garlic mashed potatoes, you may find this blissful blend of bland and fiery flavors even more enticing. If you prefer, serve the potatoes with the wasabi on the side so each diner can adjust the seasoning to taste (or just snarf it right down, howling with pain and pleasure combined).

Wasabi Mashed Potatoes

1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, chopped
1 Walla Walla Sweet onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 inch fresh wasabi root

Place potatoes, onion, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a saucepan with water to barely cover, bring to a boil over medium high heat and cook until fork tender (15-20 minutes). Drain, reserving cooking liquid, and mash, adding cooking liquid to desired consistency and seasoning to taste with remaining salt. Grate wasabi root and stir into potatoes to taste. Serve immediately. Serves four.

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2 Responses to Grow Your Own Wasabi

  1. Patti baron says:

    Can one grow watercress without a stream?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Yes, but like wasabi, watercress needs fresh water flushing to taste good. Lacking a stream, it’s often grown in shallow containers set into the soil and filled with fresh water frequently. (They need shade to keep from crisping, though.) It can also be grown indoors in pots set into deep saucers of fresh water. Hope that helps!

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