March 19, 2010

Asian Influence In Local Cuisine

by Nate Rafn

The next time you assume that unique vegetables are scarce in the Willamette Valley, Melinda & Gen Nikko will surely come to mind.

With approximately 5 acres of land on the northern outskirts of Aumsville, Oregon, the Nikkos have created an impressive, yet modest, farming operation.

"We are really seeking to do a sustainable type of farming on this land," says Melinda. "We grow a variety of mushrooms and vegetables. We like focusing on Asian vegetables."

Due to the Willamette Valley's relatively short growing season, the Nikkos utilize two greenhouses (one of which, Gen designed and built himself) for cultivating plants during winter and early spring. This practice, which has become increasingly popular among both gardeners and farmers, effectively stretches the growing season to include all twelve months of the year. The result is a more consistent supply of vegetables, and earlier availability of seedlings.

In addition to the greenhouses, Melinda and Gen tend a small garden area, which supports summer vegetable crops, including heirloom tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, onions, cucumbers, and a wide selection of peppers.

The mushrooms are grown under shade-cloth, on either oak, alder, or other type of wood, depending on the variety. Fresh mushrooms are available most of the year, with different varieties maturing at different times.

"Everything that we are doing right now is an outdoor cultivation," says Melinda, referring to the mushrooms. "...we grow maitake, hiritake, nameko, and enoki."

The Nikkos are just one facet of the rising undercurrent of local agricultural innovation. Many farmers, especially the small-scale producers, are focusing on diversity and pushing the boundaries of the consumer.

For now, Melinda continues to expand the farm, and build her customer base.

"It's a little different for this market, so it's been hard educating people," says Melinda. "But people are starting to understand that there's a wide variety out there."

Locally grown Asian-Style products at a glance

Shiitake - A popular ingredient in restaurant kitchens, this mushroom asserts a pungent, earthy taste and aroma, with subtle tones of chocolate. The most flavorful shiitake are grown outdoor on oak logs. In cookery, they are often used in soups, sauces, and stuffing. Their broad, flat caps can also be stuffed with meat or vegetables, and baked.

Pac Choi - Typically harvested in spring or fall, pac choi has thick, green, round leaves on a firm, white stalk. The mildly sweet and tender leaves are a good addition to stir-fries, salads, and sandwiches.

Mizuna - The deep green, narrow, serrated leaves of mizuna add a delicious crunch to salads. Mizuna grows quite well in the mild climate of the Willamette Valley.

Negi - This Japanese scallion reaches nearly two feet tall, with blimp-shaped stalks. Culinary applications for negi are endless, as their sweet, pungent qualities pair nicely with other savory foods.

Every Saturday, Nikko Farm offers their products at the Salem Public Market, located on Rural Ave. between 12th St. and 13th St. in Salem.

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