Monday, April 23, 2018

Salon


1843 Magazine  Jonathan Beckman | April 18th 2018

On a mild spring evening, ten people gathered for dinner in a converted brewery in east London to speak of serious things. The event was hosted by Norn, a hospitality company that describes itself as an “offline social network”. Members can stay for a month or more in its houses in London, San Francisco, Berlin and Barcelona, and take part in salons and meals which come with conversation menus that prescribe high-minded topics for each course.

Nathan, the property’s community manager, showed me around. He was dressed in Breton stripes and had a plausible manner. The house had blond-wood floors, distressed rugs and a capacious free-standing bath. In the salon itself, a vast mirror leant against one of the walls and the battered leather chairs spoke of prolonged sedentary confabs.
Windows onto the soul Norn’s London base in Spitalfields 
The company is named after a figure from Norse mythology. I presumed that the bearer of such a gnarly name would be a malignant dwarf guarding a trove of magic gold. In fact, the Norns were beguiling women, the Viking equivalent of the Fates, who controlled the destiny of man. “And when you come here,” said Nathan, “you give yourself over to fate.”

At dinner were two other journalists, a few Norn employees and hangers-on, and two bonafide members. For starters, we were presented with a cracker laden with salmon roe and a doozy of a question: “Does the ephemerality of life and the transience of lived experiences scare you and make you sad, or inspire you?” No one said anything. From another room came the faint chords of anodyne electronic music. I thought I saw the tulips on the table open a fraction.

At last, the man from Monocle suggested that social media may have stopped young people from living in the moment. We agreed that going to a gig and filming sketchy four-second videos that you’ll never watch again was definitely not the way to hold back the sands of time. Louis, one of Norn’s PRs, said that Facebook allows the broken-hearted to remove their ex from their pictures. “That’s photographic genocide!” said Rosh, a jewellery designer.
Thought bubbles The roll-top bath
The marriage of sated appetites and adventurous conversation has a long history. In Ancient Greece, philosophical discourses were washed down with jugs of wine at banquets known as symposia. There was always a risk that some people would over-indulge. In the most famous description of a symposium, Plato describes how the guests, who included Socrates and Aristophanes, were expounding on the nature of love when they were interrupted by the arrival of a boozed-up general, Alcibiades. Table talk was considered an art to be mastered. Athenaeus, a Greek grammarian of the third century AD, wrote a 15-volume work entitled Deipnosophistae (“The Learned Banqueters”) about a series of dinners in which conversation ranged from philology to homosexuality.

In 18th-century France, the sharpest minds of the Enlightenment sparred in the salons of their aristocratic hostesses. Intellectual combat was a prerequisite of socialising. Over the last few years, there has been a flourishing of literary salons in London. These tend to be considerably less sharp-tongued then their precursors – often, they simply involve soft-ball interviews of authors with books to sell. But their popularity suggests that there is a demand for conversation that is both stimulating and intimate. The harder people work, the less often they see their friends and the more time they must devote, when they do, to a recitation of the chronicle of minor triumphs and disappointments known as “catching up”. Then comes gossip, gripes about work and family fortunes. Precious little time is left for truth and beauty. More formal occasions are little better: dinner-party chat can death-spiral with alarming speed into a collective lament over house prices, catchment areas and the intolerable expense of a loft conversion.

Over a tangy salad of bitter leaves and early-season peas, I discussed with Raquel, the other PR, who in our lives we had hurt and whether had we made amends. A certain therapeutic exhilaration comes from talking about feelings with strangers, though neither of us quite let go of our inhibitions. We agreed that we had no one to say sorry to – if anything, it was us who deserved apologies – and trespassed onto safer subjects. To my right, Geraldine, an operations manager for a renewable energy company, told me how she tended to a passenger who had fainted on the tube. This led to a more mundane set of mutual commiserations about commuting on the Central Line.

We reconvened as a group for pudding and testimonies of ecstatic experiences that have shaped our world. Nathan talked of sitting in the auditorium after watching a ballet, awestruck at the human body’s capacity for movement and incredulous that the rest of the crowd had hurried away. No one else spoke up. This wasn’t the right company for tales of sex or narcotics. Eventually everyone agreed that the rhubarb galette was out of this world.


 

Meteor Over Crater Lake

from: NASA APOD

 
Image Credit & Copyright: Brad Goldpaint (Goldpaint Photography
 
Explanation: Did you see it? One of the more common questions during a meteor shower occurs because the time it takes for a meteor to flash is typically less than the time it takes for a head to turn. Possibly, though, the glory of seeing bright meteors shoot across and knowing that they were once small granules on another world might make it all worthwhile, even if your observing partner(s) could not share in every particular experience. Peaking late tonight, a dark sky should enable the Lyrids meteor shower to exhibit as many as 20 visible meteors per hour from some locations. In the featured composite of nine exposures taken during the 2012 shower, a bright Lyrid meteor streaks above picturesque Crater Lake in Oregon, USA. Snow covers the foreground, while the majestic central band of our home galaxy arches well behind the serene lake. Other meteor showers this year -- and every year -- include the Perseids in mid-August and the Leonids in mid-November. 


Watch the Birdie

If you like watching birds go about their business, especially the business of raising their young, check out these webcams: 

California Condors

See youngster Pasquale and its parents, 60 ft. up in a redwood tree cavity. 

"Welcome to Condor Cam, the first webcams to stream live video of wild condors! For your best chance of seeing condors on the cams, check back periodically. The central California population is growing due to ongoing releases, wild nesting and the care we provide them but they are wild. Condors fly in and out as they please; you might see a dozen or more at once, or you might not see any. 
 
By visiting Condor Spotter as you watch, you can identify individuals by their wing tags. You might even see them feeding on carcasses provided by biologists to ensure a clean non-lead contaminated food source as the population recovers. In some years, we offer a nest cam, so you can watch a nestling from the time it hatches up until it fledges."  Condor Nest Cam








Red-Tailed Hawks

This family lives in a 100ft. blue gum tree on the Presidio.


"To help you learn more about bird breeding behaviors in the park, the Presidio has established a live video stream – similar to PG&E’s popular Peregrine falcons webcam or other live bird cams – of these “love birds.” We’re dubbing this “Hawk Cam,” and though we won’t share the nest’s exact location (we’d like to give this couple a little privacy), over the next few months we’ll observe this pair as they make a home for their young, and watch as their small chicks make their way from egg to first flight. Also, we’ll continuously update a highlights playlist from the Hawk Cam on the Presidio’s YouTube channel so you don’t miss an important moment."  Presidio RTH Nest




Raven

This is a bare bones cam of a raven in Iceland nesting on a covered ledge on a building like a Home Depot in Iceland.  No chat, no sound.  Because of the time difference, image is b&w for much of the west coast day.  Raven Nest Cam




Peregrine Falcons


Our high-definition camera atop PG&E headquarters in San Francisco’s Financial District provides a bird’s-eye view (pun intended) of this annual spectacle of nature for legions of bird fans across the world. In the 2017 nesting season alone, this page recorded about 100,000 visits.

Our falcon pair began their nest early this year: Their first egg made its appearance on Feb. 13, likely the earliest peregrine falcon egg-laying on record in the Bay Area, according to regional bird researchers.

As always, nature makes its own rules. Sometimes the falcon parents build their nest on the PG&E building, and sometimes they don’t. And, even when they do, the eggs don’t always hatch. That said, getting to watch the parents protect and feed their young and seeing them grow from furry blobs to young birds taking their first flight is quite an experience.


PG&E Peregrines 



About Spider Silk

Today in Ancient Arachnid Activities…

Photo credit: AMNH / David Grimaldi
Behold the prehistoric perfection of a 20 million-year-old spider exquisitely preserved in Dominican amber while in the act of unweaving their special spider silk.



Here’s some additional info about Dominican amber from a helpful Redditor:
“Dominican amber is amber from the Dominican Republic. This spider was caught in resin from the extinct tree Hymenaea protera, which is the source of Dominican amber and of most amber found in the tropics. Dominican amber is different from Baltic amber (Baltic region) by being nearly always transparent and having a higher number of fossil inclusions. This has facilitated the detailed reconstruction of the ecosystem of a long-vanished tropical forest.”


To learn more about what this ancient spooder was up to, watch this fascinating video of Dr. Cheryl Hayashi from the American Museum of Natural History talking about spiders and their amazing silks:

20 MILLION Year-Old Spider!! Unweaving Spider Silk 🕷

It's Okay To Be Smart  Published on Dec 12, 2017  7 min. 51 sec. 

Living things have engineered some pretty awesome materials, but I’m not sure anything measures up to spider silk. It’s as strong, as stretchy, and as resilient than even humans’ most advanced creations like Kevlar and steel. So how do these awesome arachnids weave such an incredible substance using nothing but their rear ends? And… what IS this stuff? I went to meet Dr. Cheryl Hayashi, one of the world’s experts in spider silk, to find out. Special thanks to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation: https://www.macfound.org/

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Chicago High-Rise Peregrines


Peregrine Falcons. Photo: Luke Massey   Flock Together

Peregrines—and a Photographer—Bunk Out at Chicago Man’s Apartment

A flower-box nest provides the perfect opportunity for some close-up shots of a plucky falcon family.

 Audubon  by Becca Cudmore  August 12, 2015

In the spring of last year, a Peregrine Falcon began visiting Dacey Arashiba’s condo balcony in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Counting himself lucky, he began documenting the bird with photos and video, and he happened to be filming on April 3 when a second peregrine swooped in. “Holy crap!” Arashiba exclaims on the tape, “there are two of you?” There were indeed—a pair looking to procreate. Apparently, the 28th-floor flower box was the perfect love nest. (“I hadn’t replenished the dirt in a few years,” admits Arashiba, an IT consultant who moonlights as a comedian and singer.)

A delighted Arashiba named the birds Linda and Steve after the classic Perry rockers, the (unrelated) lead singers for 4 Non Blondes and Journey, respectively, and so began a chatty, weeks-long human–raptor cohabitation. Arashiba’s footage often catches him greeting his two amigos—“Good afternoon to you, too”; “Morning”; “It’s a bit windy today, isn’t it?”—who, for their part, largely ignore him. They seemed primarily interested in each other, calling out frequently with their loud eechup courting call. 

Unfortunately, all that noisy inter-avian propositioning irritated other condo owners, as did the copious amounts of bird poop raining down around them. After fielding numerous complaints, the building manager decided that the birds had to go. “And that was it,” Arashiba says, “for a while.”

Linda. Photo: Luke Massey

Within two months, though, Linda and Steve were back. “I kept my mouth shut and told the peregrines to do the same—not that it did any good,” Arashiba says. Then, on May 29, an espresso-colored egg appeared in the flower box. Then two. Then three. Now it was serious; Arashiba turned to Google. His “Peregrine Falcons in Chicago” search directed him to the Chicago Peregrine Program at the Field Museum, which has tracked Illinois’s population since 1985. Arashiba sent program director Mary Hennen an email with a photo of Linda and Steve attached. 



Blood samples will help the Peregrine Program identify each young falcon in the future—and allow the group to check for harmful parasites now. Photo: Luke Massey
“It’s the Belmont-Addison pair,” Hennen immediately replied, identifying the birds by the names of the parallel streets that run through their territory. She said the couple had united three years ago (peregrines mate for life), and had already attempted to nest twice that year (in 2013 the pair had successfully fledged four falcons in a different flower box in the area). The falcons are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so it is illegal to kill or even disturb them, Hennen told Arashiba. Armed with this information, he went on the offensive. “The birds have returned, but we can’t do anything about it,” he explained to the building’s management. And with that, Linda and Steve became the tower’s newest tenants.

Hennen told Arashiba it was unlikely the couple’s third clutch of the year would survive, and she was right. In early July Arashiba looked out to find an empty nest. (When peregrine eggs fail the parents either push them out of the nest or eat them.) Linda “sat on the railing that night, not in the nest as usual,” Arashiba recalls. “I poured a whiskey, and we had a little wake.”

The birds weren’t likely to return to the same nesting spot, Hennen told him. But this past spring, almost exactly a year after the first encounter, they were back. “Linda showed up and sat on the railing,” Arashiba says. “I was really excited.” Then came Steve. By mid-April there were four eggs. Arashiba had a hunch that this time the eggs would hatch, so he set up a webcam and started posting his photos to Instagram.


Ceding your balcony to birds means accepting a whole lot of guano. Photo: Luke Massey

The account caught the eye of wildlife photographer Luke Massey as he lounged one night in his camper van near Venray, the Netherlands, scrolling through Instagram after a full day filming beavers. “I was pretty amazed by the photos,” says Massey, whose camera work of illegal bird hunting in Malta won a 2014 Green Ribbon Award for Best Environmental Campaign by U.K. media. A few hours later Massey direct-messaged Arashiba, asking about the peregrines. Arashiba responded, recounting Linda and Steve’s multi-season nesting saga.

Eventually Massey asked if he could come photograph the birds; Arashiba agreed and even offered Massey and his assistant (also girlfriend), Katie Stacey, his spare room. Three weeks later they arrived in Chicago, where Arashiba, at work at the time, had left spare keys with his front desk. “I’m a trusting sort of guy,” he laughs, recalling his couch-surfing days as a rock musician.


All program birds get a name, as well as a band with a unique string of numbers and letters. Photo: Luke Massey

While Arashiba went about his normal routine, Massey and Stacey began shooting the birds and their just-hatched offspring. During three different visits, they spent 14-hour days capturing the early lives of the chicks, named Katy, Luke, Joe, and Refrigerator after other famous Perrys.

The chicks were naturals, and the parents were very forgiving. “Luke [Massey] lucked out with a very calm pair,” Hennen says. None of the photos showed signs of agitated birds—wings outstretched or beaks wide open. Still, Massey kept his distance—at least six feet from the new family. To capture Linda in her favorite corner roost, Massey had to hang out of a window, while Stacey held the flash eight feet behind him, ready to swap lenses. (There was a lot of precarious leaning involved in the 8,000-plus shots Massey took.) 

 

The parents hunt for food—mostly birds, sometimes small rodents—to feed the chicks. Photo: Luke Massey 
 

Dinner time. Photo: Luke Massey 
 
Despite living in such close quarters, Massey, Arashiba, and Stacey managed to avoid getting on one another’s nerves. Talking peregrines by day and consuming wine and dinner together after dark, they bonded quickly. The photographers saw Arashiba’s comedy troupe, Awful People, perform its newest sketch, “Odd Bird,” a David Attenborough–inspired nature documentary spoof on the peregrines (“It’s May, and the wandering falcons have returned to the city . . . instead of a cliff scrape, a 30-story building with a pool . . .”).

By late June the chicks had lost their downy feathers and were preparing to fledge. Their early attempts at flight put the three humans on edge, but luckily the birds were smart enough to tip in onto the balcony, instead of out onto the pavement—300 feet below. Before they flew off for good, Hennen and a colleague from the Chicago Peregrine Program stopped by to attach identification bands to the chicks’ legs, standard practice with urban peregrines. When the last chick flew on the first of July, Steve and Linda left as well. “Once [the chicks] were off the balcony, my primary emotion was relief,” Arashiba says. “I also felt that second-hand pride of an uncle when the kids turn out well.”


 

One of the chicks, in a teenager phase. Photo: Luke Massey 

 
Hennen and her team will be able to identify the Belmont-Addison fledglings in the months and years to come thanks to their ID bands—essential for a bird that was removed from the state’s endangered and threatened species lists only in May. Thanks to the Peregrine Program’s successful captive-release effort, 21 breeding pairs now thrive in a state that hosted just one back in 1988. Similar programs, and the 1972 banning of DDT, allowed Peregrine Falcons to be removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999—the same year they became Chicago’s official bird. The raptors have rebounded quickly, in part because of their willingness to adapt to urban environments, swapping their preferred cliff nests for skyscraper ledges and, of course, high-rise balconies.



Illinois recently removed peregrines from their endangered species list. Photo: Luke Massey 

 
Massey, who is publishing a children’s book and a 2016 calendar of his photos, hopes Steve and Linda will return next spring. If they do, he may, too—even after thousands of photos, there was one shot he didn’t perfect: the food pass between parents. Regardless, the trio will reconnect soon; Arashiba will join Massey and Stacey for a vacation in Spain, where the couple is currently photographing the Iberian lynx.

Back at the condo, the residents are now fully on board with sharing space with the birds. Massey recalls one neighbor across the way who liked to crack a beer and just sit back and watch them. “It’s almost the norm for locals now,” he says, “just grilling on your balcony barbecue, right there next to one of the fastest animals in the world.”




While the chicks were young, Massey and Arashiba kept their distance from the protective parents. Photo: Luke Massey 

 



Linda. Photo: Luke Massey


San Francisco Peregrines

Baby falcons born atop SF’s PG&E building ready for city living

With scratched and bleeding hands, Glenn Stewart picked up a 25-day-old peregrine falcon on Thursday and attached a small band around its leg. The bird squawked and squealed as its parents violently circled their nest — atop a high-rise in downtown San Francisco.

After Stewart, director of the Predatory Bird Research Group at UC Santa Cruz, attached bands to the baby falcons’ two siblings, he stood up and the little birds fell silent. A fluffy, white feather stuck out of a wound on his hand.

 Photo: Alison Graham.Glenn Stewart, director of UC Santa Cruz’s Predatory Bird Research Group, places a band on the leg of one of three baby falcons atop the PG& building.

The three birds hatched earlier this month outside the 33rd floor of the 34-story Pacific Gas & Electric Building at 77 Beale St., and the bands are marked with numbers that will allow researchers to follow each falcon’s movements and nesting patterns. 

The falcons, one male and two females, are part of a long legacy of birds hatched and raised atop the PG&E building and on other skyscrapers nearby. 

Glenn Stewart, director of the Predatory Bird Research Group at UC Santa Cruz, banded three falcons June 29 atop the PG&E building in downtown San Francisco.


Media: Alison Graham / sfchronicle.com 1 min. 1 sec.
 
Stewart and his team set up the current nesting box in 2007. Since then, about 35 baby falcons have taken their first flights from the building. 

Skyscrapers are perfect nesting places for the species, which, in the wilderness, usually find their homes atop cliffs, Stewart said.

“They want to be on a site that dominates the landscape,” he said. “These are like cliffs to them.” 

If there is an abundance of food in the area, peregrine falcons will nest there. For falcons living in downtown San Francisco, that diet is mostly pigeons.

Photo: Alison Graham.  Glenn Stewart, director of the Predatory Bird Research Group at UC Santa Cruz, holds bands he placed on the legs of three peregrine falcons hatched earlier this month atop the PG&E building, 77 Beale St., in San Francisco.
 
“The peregrines pick the spot,” Stewart said. “They picked this building. They picked downtown. We don’t just willy-nilly put up nest spots.” 

The PG&E nesting box location was carefully selected after Stewart observed that the falcons were already nesting on nearby buildings as early as 1986. He first set up a nest on the north side of the PG&E building, but the falcons used it for only two years before finding a better location. 

Stewart worked with PG&E to set up the current nesting box, which has been consistently used since 2007. 

“They’ve given us an opportunity to have nature in the city,” Stewart said.

He attributes his work with peregrine falcons to being in the right place at the right time. He learned that the falcon population was nearing extinction in the Bay Area when he was a student at UC Santa Cruz in the 1970s.

Photo: Alison Graham.  These three peregrine falcons hatched earlier this month atop the PG&E building, 77 Beale St., in San Francisco. On Thursday, members of the Predatory Bird Research Group at UC Santa Cruz, placed bands on their legs.
 
Back then, researchers could find only two pairs in the Bay Area. 

Stewart worked with teams at UC Santa Cruz to breed, hatch and release falcons, eventually bringing the population to more than 300 pairs that can now be found flying around the region. 

The three falcons banded Thursday will stay on top of the building for another three weeks as their flight feathers grow. After that, they will begin to soar around the immediate area before leaving to set up their own nests.

In the meantime, people can watch them grow on a live camera feed at www.pge.com/falconcam and submit suggestions for their names using the hashtag #pge4me on Twitter, or by emailing currents@pge.com by July 7.

Matt Nauman, manager of PG&E corporate relations, said there were more than 200 name submissions for last year’s falcons.

Next spring, Stewart will return to San Francisco and band a new group of baby falcons. 

He does this all over the Bay Area, so scratched and bloodied hands are part of the job for him. Through this work, he said, researchers have learned vital information about migration patterns and mating activity in the area and have saved the species from the brink of extinction. 

Alison Graham is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: agraham@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @alisonkgraham To watch a live stream of the three baby falcons hatched atop the PG&E building at 77 Beale St. in San Francisco, log on to http://pge.com/falconcam

Crow Kine!

‘Alala ‘becoming more proficient’ at natural behaviors 6 months after release

  • Photo courtesy of SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL/File Two ‘alala, or Hawaiian crows, take flight after being released into the wild in October 2017.
  • Two ‘alala, or Hawaiian crows, take flight after being released into the wild in October 2017.
  • Photo courtesy of SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL/File

About six months after their release, researchers are finding 11 young ‘alala are coming out of their shells. 

Audio recordings and observations made in the Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve show the juveniles — introduced into the forest through a captive breeding program — expanding their vocabulary and showing increased natural behaviors.

Those are good signs that they are adapting to the native forest and scientists with the ‘Alala Project say they remain cautiously optimistic about their continued success. No other ‘alala, a crow species native to Hawaii, exist in the wild. 

“They are flying around the forest and becoming more proficient at being wild birds,” said Joshua Pang-Ching, a field supervisor with San Diego Zoo Global, in a taped interview released by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. 

San Diego Zoo, DLNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are project partners. Researchers at the University of Hawaii at Hilo are analyzing recordings of the birds’ calls. 

Researchers released an earlier group of five juvenile males in December 2016, but three died within a week. The remaining two were brought back into captivity. 

‘Alala also were released into the wild in the 1990s, but the species was thought to be extinct in the wild as of 2002.
Researchers say the male birds appear to be practicing their mating and territorial calls. 

“When we approach breeding season, they may come more into context,” Pang-Ching said.
The natural area reserve is located near Volcano.

The birds are natural seed dispersers and their reintroduction is expected to help maintain the forest’s health. 

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Strange Picture Developments

I got turned on to this cool webpage  called the Deep Dream Generator.  It's a sort of program that you can use to enhance your images with a number of effects. Some of them make the picture look like a painting - impressionistic - and one of them fills the images with startling creatures and other weird effects.  Check it out! 

Here are a few of my photos and art put through the "Deep Dream" processor.  Pretty wild.

You really need to see these blown up pretty big to appreciate the effect.  Click to enlarge images. To make them even larger, right-click the enlargement, select "view image," and click again on the magnifying glass icon..   

Artwork & Photos © Geonni Banner












Saturday, April 14, 2018

I Love Mochi in the Springtime

Spring treat: Yomogi-mochi, made with the young leaves of the yomogi plant, is a popular spring dessert. | MAKIKO ITOH

Celebrating the spring with homemade Japanese sweets

The Japan Times  by Makiko Itoh  Contributing Writer
Spring is a great time for fans of wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets. While many wagashi reflect the seasons all year long visually — especially the colorful, beautifully formed nerikiri created by skilled artisans — this is the time of year when you can taste, as well as see, the season as it progresses.

In March and early April, there are sakura-mochi that use salty, tangy preserved cherry blossoms as well as leaves for flavor. And later on in May, there are kashiwa-mochi, wrapped in woodsy kashiwa (oak) leaves, as well as chimaki, which use young green bamboo leaves as wrappers.

One of my favorite springtime wagashi is kusa-mochi, which means “grass mochi,” also known as yomogi-mochi, made with the young leaves of yomogi — Artemisia princeps, sometimes called Japanese mugwort (it differs from European or common mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris). Kusa-mochi was originally made with a plant called hahako-gusa (Gnaphalium affine), which is one of the seven herbs of spring, and enjoyed by the nobility during the Heian Period (794-1185).

In the Edo Period (1603-1868), kusa-mochi started to be served during Momo no Sekku, the Girl’s Festival held on March 3. But hahako can also be translated to mean “mother-daughter,” and tearing apart a food containing “mother-daughter plant” leaves was considered to be unlucky on a day to celebrate girls.

So the yomogi plant started to be used instead of hahako. (Mochi sweets containing yomogi leaves existed in China too, where the idea may well have been copied from.) An advantage of using yomogi is that it is free, since it grows wild almost everywhere in Japan. Even now, yomogi grows in abundance in the poorest soil, along roadsides and in empty lots: It’s a rather invasive, perennial weed. The plant’s vigor is one of the reasons why it’s also used as a medicinal plant throughout East Asia.

Seasonal sweets: Sakura-mochi, inspired by and flavored with the spring cherry blossoms. | MAKIKO ITOH
 
Yomogi-mochi comes in many different shapes, depending on which area of the country you’re in. The common factor is the tender dough that is made with short-grain or mochi rice, sugar and/or mizuame (a sweet syrup derived from starch) and yomogi. The dough is a subdued green color, and has a refreshing fragrance and flavor. The green color of the mochi symbolizes new life and growth. The most common type of yomogi-mochi involves the green dough bring wrapped around a dollop of an (sweet adzuki bean paste) in a round or taco-like shape, but sometimes the dough is served as is, rolled out and cut out into squares or diamond shapes.

Making mochi sweets is quite difficult if you start with uncooked rice, which first has to be steamed and then pounded, but shiratamako, a steamed short-grain rice flour that was invented hundreds of years ago, simplifies the process considerably.

Jōshinko, which is made in a similar way from medium-grain rice, is also added for more texture. If you use fresh yomogi, only pick the young, tender leaves, and make sure it’s actually yomogi, not another plant that could be poisonous! Yomogi powder is available by mail order or from well stocked supermarkets. For this recipe, I’ve specified store-bought an, but homemade would be even better.

Yomogi-mochi: Mochi cakes with a seasonal twist

Ingredients (makes 10)
• 100 grams shiratamako flour
• 50 grams jōshinko flour
• 40 grams white sugar
• 5 grams yomogi powder or about 100 g fresh yomogi leaves
• 120-150 milliliters water
Katakuriko (potato starch flour)
• 200 grams tsubu-an (chunky sweet adzuki bean paste) or koshi-an (smooth adzuki bean paste)

To make yomogi-mochi:
If the bean paste is too loose, cook it in a pan over low heat while stirring until the moisture evaporates and it becomes a stiff paste (it will get stiffer when it cools). Cool, and divide into 10 portions. Form each portion into a ball. Dust a baking tray or large plate generously with the katakuriko.

If using fresh yomogi leaves, wash very well. Bring 1 liter of water to a boil and add 1 tsp. of salt. 

Boil the leaves for 2 minutes, drain and cool under running water. Squeeze out well, and puree by pounding it using a mortar and pestle, or use a food processor if you have a small bowl attachment. Measure out 25 g of the puree. (Any left over can be frozen.)

Mix the shiratamako, jōshinko, sugar and yomogi in a microwave-safe bowl. Add 140 ml water if using yomogi powder (120 ml if using puree) and mix well until it forms a smooth, thick paste.

Microwave on the high setting, uncovered, for 1 minute. Beat the paste vigorously with a wooden spatula. Microwave for another 2 minutes, and beat and mix again. Repeat at 30 second intervals until the paste has thickened to a fairly thick yet still soft dough.

While the dough is still hot, but cool enough to handle, divide into 10 portions with moistened hands and form into balls. Flatten each ball with your hands on the katakuriko in the tray, and wrap around the bean paste. These should be eaten the day they are made.

For variety, use kinako (roasted ground soy beans) mixed with a little sugar and a pinch of salt instead of the katakuriko.