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Originally published Saturday, October 20, 2012 at 10:00 AM

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Sharing lessons from a farm in Japan

City Kitchen: Nancy Singleton Hachisu, a native Californian, moved to a small village in rural Japan more than 20 years ago. She shares her personal stories in a just-released cookbook, "Japanese Farm Food." Recipes: Salt-Massaged Cucumbers with Miso and Sesame, Sake-Steamed Kabocha Squash with White Miso

The New York Times

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Though she had intended to spend only one year abroad, Nancy Singleton Hachisu has lived in a small village in rural Japan for more than 20.

As she says, "I came for the food, but stayed for love." A native Californian, she met Tadaaki, an organic farmer, married him and has been there ever since, raising a family, absorbing the culture and cooking up a storm. Her personal stories make her just-released cookbook, "Japanese Farm Food," come alive.

I first met Nancy when I cooked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. Whenever she was in town for a visit, she always came by for a meal or two. She quickly turned from diner to friend, and finally ended up helping out in the kitchen. Her visits always included piles of gifts, a habit picked up in Japan. Sometimes it was a smuggled package of delicate bean curd, sometimes a handmade teacup, but she never arrived empty-handed.

That kind of generosity extends to her cookbook, in which she shares two decades' worth of cooking knowledge in a disarmingly intimate way.

Nancy is fearless (she says "stubborn" is a better word for it). She simply jumps in and learns. Used to the weather in the temperate Bay Area, where seasons change only subtly, and it rarely snows, she needed to change her mindset when relocating to the Japanese countryside.

Instead of year-round produce, there were harsh winters to contend with, and the concept of real seasonal farm cooking gained meaning. As she discovered, vegetables there during the warmer months are abundant, yet eating farm-to-table often means having the same vegetables for weeks on end, waiting for the next plantings' offerings to appear.

She writes of tackling daily tasks like pickle-making, rice-planting and the hard labor of harvesting, and joining in seasonal rituals. There's a lovely description of the communal celebratory pounding of mochi (glutinous rice) for the Japanese New Year to make traditional sweet rice cakes. (Of course, being stubborn as well as foreign, Nancy also insists on her own tradition of Champagne and French gougeres for Christmas.)

The book offers a breadth of information, with lessons about Japanese products and techniques, and instructions for everything from homemade tofu to udon noodles. But for me, the recipes for simple vegetable dishes, often flavored with only a bit of miso or a splash of sake, are the most fascinating.

When I made the steamed kabocha squash, I found it astonishingly delicious, straight from the pan or cold the next day. Likewise, the easy salt-massaged cucumbers with roasted sesame proved the point that mindful cooking with minimal ingredients can produce marvelous results.

SALT-MASSAGED CUCUMBERS WITH MISO AND SESAME

Adapted from "Japanese Farm Food" by Nancy Singleton Hachisu (Andrews McMeel, 2012)

Time: About 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

7 or 8 very small seedless cucumbers (about 1 pound)

2 teaspoons kosher salt

4 tablespoons unhulled sesame seeds

3 tablespoons brown rice miso

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon finely grated ginger

6 shiso leaves (available at Asian markets)

1. Wash cucumbers but do not peel. Cut off and discard ends, then slice cucumbers into 1/8-inch rounds. Put in a medium-size bowl, sprinkle with salt and mix well. Leave for 10 minutes.

2. In a dry skillet over medium-high heat, toast sesame seeds until fragrant and just beginning to pop, 1 minute or less. Transfer to a suribachi (Japanese grinding bowl) or mortar and grind to a coarse paste. Add miso, vinegar and ginger and stir well.

3. Squeeze cucumbers a handful at a time to express their liquid. Drain in a colander. Stack shiso leaves and roll into a cigar shape. Slice thinly with a sharp knife. Dress cucumbers with miso-sesame mixture. Sprinkle with shiso slivers, toss gently and serve.

SAKE-STEAMED KABOCHA SQUASH WITH WHITE MISO

Adapted from "Japanese Farm Food" by Nancy Singleton Hachisu (Andrews McMeel, 2012)

Time: About 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

1 pound kabocha squash (about half a medium squash), seeds removed

3 tablespoons white miso

6 tablespoons sake

3 tablespoons canola oil or mild vegetable oil

6 small dried red chili peppers

Kosher salt

1 teaspoon sesame oil, optional

1. Using a vegetable peeler, peel squash very lightly, still keeping it green at the edge. Cut squash lengthwise into 1-inch-wide wedges, then cut the wedges crosswise into ¼-inch slices.

2. In a small bowl, combine miso and 3 tablespoons sake, stir and set aside.

3. Heat oil in a wide skillet over medium. Add chili peppers and let them sizzle, then add squash and stir to coat. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Spread out squash slices in one layer and cook gently without browning for about 3 minutes. Add remaining 3 tablespoons of sake and cover with lid. Allow squash to steam for about 2 minutes more, until it is just cooked through.

4. Add miso-sake mixture and sesame oil, if using, carefully combining to coat squash slices without smashing or breaking them. Serve hot, at room temperature or cold.

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