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August 26, 2010

The Oregon Grape

Wild Fruit for a Tart and Tasty Jelly

 

In the woods one day, my friend Jocelyn saw me eat an Oregon grape, tried one herself, and screamed. I was unfazed; just after my daughter, not yet two years old, had eaten her first Oregon grape, she had pantomimed death throes.

If you were to taste one of these little not-grapes—and I urge you to try one—you too might guess that they were poisonous, for they are very tart and a little bitter. But they are rich in pectin and make a fine jelly. Nearly black in color, the jelly has a grape-like but spicier flavor.

In either its tall or short form, Oregon grape, Mahonia, is an evergreen shrub with prickly, holly-like leaves and bright yellow blossoms. Though native only to the Pacific Northwest, from northern California to southern British Columbia, the plant is widely grown elsewhere for its beauty and its drought-resistance. I saw it growing in public beds all over Paris, often along with another Northwest native, red-flowering currant.

In summer, Mahonia’s yellow flowers turn to blue berries that hang on the plant for several weeks. The berries are ready to pick when they’re uniformly dark. For three half-pint jars of jelly, you’ll want to collect about three and a half pounds of berries. Just slide your fingers down each bunch, and the berries will fall into your basket.

It’s easy to extract the juice of Oregon grapes with a steam juicer. If you don’t have a steam juicer, simmer the berries, covered, with half their volume of water for fifteen minutes, mashing them after the first ten minutes. Drain the juice through a jelly bag—let the juice drip for several hours—and then boil it for ten minutes to reduce it a bit. From this point on, making jelly is quick and easy.

 

Oregon Grape Jelly

 3 cups Oregon grape juice

2 ¼ cups sugar

Combine the juice and sugar in a wide, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pan (that is, a pan with a stainless-steel or well-enameled interior surface). Place the pan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, and then raise the heat to medium high. Boil the syrup, skimming occasionally, until it begins to jell. This will take only a few minutes. You can test for jelling by scooping a little of the syrup with a metal spoon and then tipping the spoon high over the pan. You’ll see the drops thicken and slow, and then two drops will run together. That’s the point at which you remove the pan from the heat.

Skim any remaining foam from the surface of the syrup. Immediately pour the syrup into three sterilized half-pint mason jars. Add the jar lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for five minutes.

Remove the jars from the water bath, and let them cool on a rack or pad. Leave them alone until the next day, when the jelly should be firm.


August 16, 2010

The World's Best Apple


“The Gravensteins are almost ripe,” I emailed my mother. “Want some?

“We’ll be down after dinner,” came the reply five minutes later.

Still farming at eighty, my parents hadn’t had time to come to dinner for a long time. But they would drop everything and drive two hours for a bucket of Gravenstein apples.

Who wouldn’t? As Luther Burbank wrote, “It has often been said that if the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.” This broad green apple, often striped with red, is wonderfully tart, sweet, juicy, and aromatic. It ripens early, beginning in late July, to provide first aid from the long hunger for fresh apples. The Gravenstein isn’t a keeper; its short stem often makes it fall; and its moist, crisp flesh bruises easily. But there are plenty of good ways to preserve this apple, bruised or not. I believe it makes the very best sauce, butter, pies, sweet cider, and hard cider.

The Gravenstein originated in the seventeenth century in Denmark, where it is still well appreciated; the Danish food minister declared it the national apple in 2005. Russian otter hunters planted it, along with other fruits, at Fort Ross on the northern California coast in 1820, and their orchard became the foundation of a thriving Sonoma County apple industry. Growing up in Santa Rosa, I ate little besides Gravensteins for a month every summer.

Sadly, California apple orchards have been pushed out by housing tracts, vineyards, and imports of apple-juice concentrate from China. Only 900 acres of Gravenstein orchards remain in Sonoma County, and the only other North American Gravenstein orchards are in Nova Scotia. Slow Food recently listed the Sebastopol Gravenstein in its catalog of “forgotten flavors.”

Although the Gravenstein prefers a cool, coastal climate, it does grow elsewhere. In my flat, low-lying Willamette Valley orchard, I get a crop at least every other year. This year’s crop is big. The apples may not be as good as Sonoma County Gravensteins, but they are very, very good.

If somebody offers you apples in mid-August or earlier, there’s a good chance they’ll be Gravensteins. If they start softening faster than you can eat them, here’s what to do: Peel, core, and slice them, and freeze them for pies and crisps. Or heat the pieces in a covered pot; soon you’ll have applesauce with a heavenly fragrance and texture—forget the mashing or pureeing. Do you hate peeling and coring apples? Then simply cut them into pieces before cooking them. Sieve out the skins and seeds, add sweet cider or brown sugar or both along with spices, and cook the puree uncovered until it becomes a thick apple butter, a fine treat to put away for winter breakfasts. If you’re lucky enough to have several boxes of Gravensteins, press them into cider yourself (you can rent a crusher and press from a brew store); it will be the best you’ve ever tasted, and it will ferment to an outstanding hard cider with no other varieties added. Before the cider ferments, if you like, boil some down into an amazing no-sugar-added syrup or jelly.

If you are so unlucky to lack a Gravenstein tree, or any friend with a Gravenstein tree, hope is not lost. Gather your nursery catalogs, and start figuring out where you’ll plant your own Gravenstein tree this coming winter.


July 15, 2010

Gooseberries


Before you eat or cook a gooseberry, you must top and tail it--that is, pull off the stem and the shriveled, dry blossom. These are my first harvest of Hinnomaki, an old Finnish variety. They're not only prettier than my green gooseberries (Oregon Champ, a nineteenth-century variety from Salem, Oregon); they're also sweeter.

Because I'd never done it before, I decided to can the gooseberries in syrup. For a cup of fruit, I used 1/3 cup each sugar and water. That's a heavy syrup, but not as heavy as recommended by the old preserving book I consulted, which also told me to pour some of the syrup into the jar before adding the berries. This is supposed to keep the berries from floating, as apparently is the Extension recommendation to dip the berries in syrup for 30 second and then drain them before putting them in the jar and pouring the syrup over.

After putting the berries in the jar, you pour the syrup over, leaving 1/2 inch headspace, and then process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.

Although I put some of the syrup in the jar before adding the berries, they floated. They're beautiful anyway, though, and they should be delicious next winter, over ice cream, cheesecake, or pound cake.


June 30, 2010

June in a Jar

 

This year’s long, wet spring in western Oregon pleased my Alexandria strawberries, which I planted last year under the arching canes of an old climbing rose. The pale pink roses, white from a distance, are just beginning to bloom, and breathing in their fragrance while tasting the just-ripe berries made me dream of my jam pot.

Introduced by Park Seed in 1964, Alexandria is one of several seed-propagated varieties of Fragaria vesca, the European woodland or alpine strawberry. Although the fruits of Alexandria are bigger than those of other Fragaria vesca cultivars, the longest of my berries measure less than an inch. The fruits ripen over a long period, so you have to plant a lot of starts if you want to collect enough berries for jam. For these reasons, many gardeners treat the Alexandria strawberry as an ornamental ground cover rather than a food source. But eating one of the perfectly ripe berries produces a shocking rush of flavor. However jaded you are from crunching gigantic green-picked strawberries from California, you will recognize Alexandria’s flavor as the essence of strawberry.

I collected a couple of handfuls of berries and then looked up at the rose bower. I hadn’t yet made rose preserves this year, and I’d missed the peak bloom of both the rugosas and the delicate pink wild roses. But I knew I could find roses enough to combine with the strawberries. The flowers overhead were too pale for a red jam, sadly. For better color and an equally delicious aroma, I collected some pink moss roses, pulling the blossoms away from each calyx with one hand and, with the other, clipping off each petal’s pale, slightly bitter base with the tiny scissors of my pocket knife.

Then I remembered the rhubarb stalks I’d harvested a few hours earlier. Rhubarb can be problematic for preservers and bakers because it is typically ambivalent about color. The varieties that are red inside and out tend to lack vigor, and all-green varieties are hard to find. Most rhubarb in home gardens has red or red-speckled  skin but green flesh, and even red rhubarb skin may lose much of its color in the wrong growing conditions. The color problem is one reason rhubarb is so often combined with strawberries. The happy marriage of flavors is another reason; the tartness of the rhubarb complements the sweet perfume of the strawberries. But full-scented roses marry well with rhubarb and strawberry both, so why not a ménage-a trois? This I had to try.


Rhubarb–Rose–Alpine Strawberry Jam

 1 pound rhubarb, cut crosswise ½ inch thick

3 ounces Alexandria strawberries (about ¾ cup)

2 ½ ounces fragrant unsprayed rose petals (about 1 ½ cups, well packed)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 cups sugar

In a bowl, gently mix the ingredients. Cover the bowl, and leave it at room temperature for about 8 hours, until the sugar has mostly dissolved.

Pour the mixture into a preserving pan, and set the pan over medium heat. Stir gently. When the sugar is completely dissolved, raise the heat to medium-high. Boil, stirring occasionally.


The mixture will thicken in just a few minutes as the rhubarb fibers separate. When the mixture has reached a jam-like consistency, remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the jam into jars, and close them. You should have about 3 cups.

You can process the jars in a boiling-water bath, if you like, for 5 minutes if you have sterilized them or 10 minutes if you haven’t.


To smell and to eat, this jam is fantastic. I have captured June in a jar.


June 25, 2010

Pickling Leek Tops

 

While happily munching pickled garlic scapes—budding flower stalks, that is—at the Portland restaurant Evoe (pastaworks.com/evoe), my daughter suggested I try pickling some scapes of the many leeks going to seed in my garden. I had never eaten leek tops before, and the garlic tops at Evoe were a little tough for my taste. Besides, the length and rigidity of either garlic or leek scapes would make them hard to pickle in small quantity; you’d need a very big jar, which you’d want to fill well to avoid wasting vinegar (a big jar full of erect scapes was sitting, in fact, on the restaurant counter). But I wondered: What if I blanched my scapes before pickling them? That might make them tender enough to suit my taste and limp enough to curl into a small jar. So here’s what I made the next day:


Quick-Pickled Leek Scapes

 6 ounces leek tops, clipped about 6 inches below the bud

1 garlic clove, sliced

½ teaspoon pink peppercorns, crushed

1 tarragon sprig

2/3 cup white wine vinegar

1 1/3 cups water

2 teaspoons pickling salt

 Bring a wide pan of water to a boil, and blanch the scapes for 2 minutes. Rinse them immediately in cold water, and drain them well. Then curl them into a jar.

Heat the vinegar, water, and salt just to a boil, and pour the liquid over the scapes. Once the jar has cooled, store it in the refrigerator. The scapes will be ready to eat within a day.

 As you can see, I used a bulbous 1-liter Weck jar for this pickle, because even blanched the scapes were too stiff for a narrower container. The jar could have held twice as many scapes (if you want to pickle more, just increase the other ingredients accordingly). The texture of the scapes was just right, and I loved the licorice-like note of the tarragon, though it was a little too strong for my husband. Next time I might try black pepper and fresh dill instead.

 I took care, by the way, to leave plenty of leeks to flower in the garden. While pickled scapes are a pretty garnish for the table, flowering leeks are more striking still, and you can save the seeds for planting next year.


June 25, 2010

Green Almonds


I found these at Barbur World Foods (www.barburworldfoods.com), a Portland neighborhood grocery–cum–Mediterranean specialty market, where green almonds make their appearance every spring. At the stage you see here the almond kernel is hard but still moist, rather like a shell bean (think of edamame—soybeans—briefly boiled in their pods, or cooked fresh fava beans). The nut has a pale skin that easily peels away with the fingers. You might add a few of the kernels to a jar of apricot or peach jam, or sauté them in a little olive oil and eat them sprinkled with salt. Or enjoy them just as they are, for their mild, pleasant vegetable flavor, enhanced perhaps with the perfume of bitter almond, which I tasted in the batch I bought last year but not, for some reason, in this year’s.

At an earlier stage of greenness, the kernel is a translucent gel and the fruit is edible whole. At this point the green almond, like a green walnut, can be pickled in vinegar or preserved in syrup. I hope I’ll be able to experiment with green almond pickles and preserves in a few years, when my newly planted Hall’s Hardy almond tree (a cross between a peach and an almond) grows up.

      


June 18, 2010

Mixed Berry Jam, from the Freezer


Here in western Oregon, summer seems a long way off. The heavy soils that dominate the region are still too wet to plant, and my summer vegetable garden is pot-bound in the greenhouse. Strawberries are beginning to ripen, and I have even picked a few raspberries, but the 2010 preserving season has yet to begin.

Yesterday, however, I found in my freezer plenty of berries from last year to make a big batch of jam. So I decided to try combining red currants, raspberries, and strawberries in--

 Mixed Berry Jam

 2 pounds frozen red currants, thawed

2 pounds frozen red raspberries, thawed

2 pounds frozen strawberries, thawed

7 cups sugar

In a covered preserving pan over medium heat, bring the currants and raspberries to a simmer. Uncover the pan, and simmer the fruits about 5 minutes, until they are quite tender (if you use fresh fruit instead of frozen, the simmering will take a bit longer).

Purée the mixture through the fine screen of a food mill set over a large bowl. Briefly mash the strawberries with a potato masher (to break them into pieces, not to obliterate them), and add them to the fruit purée. Stir in the sugar.

Pour half the mixture into the preserving pan. Boil the mixture over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, skimming the foam, until the jam mounds in a chilled bowl. Ladle it into pint or half-pint jars, and close the jars. Cook the rest of the fruit mixture in the same way, and fill more jars with the jam. You should have about 5 pints total, with the perfume of raspberries, tartness of currants, and occasional smooth globs of pure strawberry.

Notes:

• The red currants in this jam provide abundant acid and pectin for a strong gel. I undercooked my jam a bit to keep the gel on the soft side.

• Unless your food-mill screen is finer than mine, some seeds will slip through, enough to add a little texture without making the jam unpleasantly seedy.

• Process the jars in a boiling-water bath as usual: 5 minutes if the jars are sterilized, 10 minutes if they're not.

• You can cut this recipe in half and cook all the jam at once.


April 26, 2010

To Candy Angelica

Very old preserving books always include candied angelica, and I wanted to continue this tradition in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves. I ended up leaving out this herb, though, because I’d never managed to grow it. In fact, I didn’t even know what it tasted like. But last year, luckily, I found a start at Nichols (a local seed company, in Albany, Oregon, and one of my favorites) and the plant has happily sprung back despite the extreme cold of December. So over the past week, for the first time, I have candied angelica.

Angelica is a member of the genus Umbelliferae, which provides an awesome assortment of flavors for the kitchen (other members include parsley, carrot, parsnip, fennel, anise, coriander, celery, dill, cumin, lovage, and caraway). Like many of its cousins, angelica is biennial; the seeds sprout soon after they’re dropped in the summer, and then the little plant overwinters before sending up tall seed stalks the following summer. (The reasons I and other gardeners have had trouble growing angelica from seed, apparently, are that the seeds need light to germinate and that they lose their viability quickly.) Angelica archangelica, the European variety traditionally used in cooking, can grow as tall as eight feet. Tasting the bitter leaves might make you avoid this plant as potentially poisonous, and in fact the herb has been used more as medicine than as food. The leaves, seeds, stems, and roots of angelica species have all served as remedies for various complaints, especially digestive and bronchial problems. In the kitchen, the leaves have been used for tea, the roots and seeds have flavored wine and liqueurs, the ground dried root has been added to baked goods, and the fresh leaves have flavored salads, soups, stews, custards, ice cream, and other desserts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers angelica safe for use as food.

Many old recipes specify that angelica should be cut in April for candying. Early May should be fine, too, provided the stems are still green, not purplish (although you shouldn’t wait until the plant blooms, which according to European tradition happens on May 8, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel). Use only thick stems, and cut away the leaves and leaf stems.

I developed my candying method from several old, slow recipes, although quicker methods might work as well. Here’s what I did:

 

Candied Angelica

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

½ pound thick green angelica stems, cut into 3- to 8-inch lengths

Extra-fine sugar, for dusting

Bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring. Remove the pan from the heat.

Br
ing a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add the angelica stems. Over medium-high heat, cook the stems for 4 to 6 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Their sharp, bitter aroma will fill the air. Drain the stems, rinse them in cold water, and drain them again. Peel off the thin skin. A vegetable peeler may help, but most of the skin should rub off easily with your fingers. Put the stems into a bowl, pour the syrup over them, and weight them with a small plate.

T
he next day, drain off the syrup into a saucepan. Boil it until it has thickened a bit (to about 225 degrees F), and pour it over the angelica. Repeat this process the next day, and again the day after. At this point the stems should appear partially translucent.



On the following day, pour off the syrup again, and boil it to the thread stage (230 degrees F). Add the angelica stems, and bring the syrup back to the thread stage. Drain the stems in a colander, and then place them on a rack or screen in a warm place until they are dry to the touch (a food dryer or a convection oven set on very low heat will speed the drying).


Dust the dried stems with sugar, and store them in an airtight container.

Before you store your angelica, of course, you’ll want to taste it and consider how to use it. The flavor reminds me of horehound, but others compare it to licorice. My husband says it’s not like either; he detects roses and grass. Angelica’s bitterness should still be apparent in the candied stems, but it should be balanced by the sweetness of the sugar.

Cookbooks with recipes for candied angelica usually mention its use in or on cakes. But what sorts of cakes? I checked at least a dozen cookbooks that I thought might answer this question, but none did. I think I’ll try my candied angelica in gingerbread, biscotti, or fruit cake. I’ll also eat it on its own now and then, to experience its strange, strong flavor again.      

Note: Several species of angelica are native to North America. They can presumably be used in the same ways as Angelica archangelica, but before you gather any wild angelica make sure you can tell it from poisonous water hemlock, Cicuta maculate.



April 25, 2010

Celebrating Food in Portland


 I'm just back from the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Portland, where I signed books at the Culinary Book Fair and attended workshops on topics that included Lebanese and Peruvian cuisine, memories of James Beard (with Madhur Jaffrey and Judith Jones), and Pacific seafood (with steelhead, Dungeness crab, and Oregon shrimp prepared by Gary Puetz--my favorite meal of the week!). Have a look at Willamette Week's article on the conference and book fair (http://wweek.com/columns/headout), which includes my recipe for Moroccan Pickled Beets.



March 13, 2010

Sweet Milk and Sweet Parsnips


I first made parsnip soup many years ago, after listening with my then-small eldest child to Peggy Seeger sing, “What Did You Have for Your Supper?” on the record American Folk Songs for Children.*  I didn’t read the song’s title in the record notes, though, and I heard the words as “What’ll you have for your supper?”

 

What’ll you have for your supper,

Jimmy Randall, my son?

What’ll you have for your supper,

My own little one?

Sweet milk and sweet parsnips;

Mother make my bed soon,

Because I’m tired at the heart

And I want to lie down.

 

With each sweet Peggy’s voice soared to the top of the octave; Jimmy was pleading for sweet white comfort food that Mother and no other could provide. Or so I thought.

Little did I know that I was hearing a surviving fragment of “Lord Randall,” an Anglo-Scottish ballad about a man who may actually have lived, in the thirteenth century or thereabouts, until he was poisoned—by his sweetheart at dinner, according to most versions of the song. Typical versions say that she also poisons Randall’s dogs, who “swell up.” Feeling poorly after the meal, Randall goes home to his mother. The story is told through conversation between mother and son as poor Randall heads for his deathbed. Fuller versions don’t mention milk or parsnips; usually he has eaten eels or other fish. And Mother is always less curious about the tainted food than she is about the distribution of Randall’s worldly goods.

The parsnip has been popular since Roman times, though it was probably thin and woody and suitable only for flavoring until about the time Lord Randall was getting sick on eels. Then gardeners developed it into a fleshy, aromatic root that at its best cooks up quite tender. The parsnip is still a trial for the gardener; with seeds slower to sprout even than those of most other umbellales, the plant take months to grow to size while the gardener repeatedly weeds around the root. Then it must stay in the ground even longer, well mulched, until it is sweetened by frost. Finally it can be stored in a cellar or left in the ground, depending on your climate, until some cold night in winter or early spring when you’re craving something sweet, starchy, and soothing.

The modern English name parsnip may have been influenced by parsley, for a white-rooted cousin, and turnip, for an unrelated and fleshier root vegetable. The parsnip is even more like the carrot than like either of these, but sweeter and starchier, with no bitterness. People who describe the parsnip’s flavor as “nutty” are probably thinking of chestnuts.

Parsnips are good roasted, fried, pureed with apples or carrots or potatoes, diced in chicken pot pie, and flavored with curry powder or ginger. But when I heard Peggy’s song I knew just what I wanted to make with parsnips, and it’s what I most like to make with them today:


Parsnip Soup

Saute some diced onion in butter. Add diced parsnips (don’t bother to peel them first). Add chicken stock, and cook the parsnips in the stock until they are tender. Add milk, cream, or half-and-half. Season with salt, white pepper, and grated nutmeg. Puree the soup in a blender, and reheat it if needed.


I don’t believe Jimmy Randall ever got sick on sweet milk and parsnips. It was his mother who fed him the soup, I’m sure, and he woke up the next morning feeling fit and lively. Even his dogs survived. At least that’s how I like to sing the song.

 

*Rounder Records 8001/8002/8003. Sung and played by Peggy and her brother, Mike Seeger, the 94 songs on this album are from the book American Folk Songs for Children, by their mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger. The book is still in print, and the album is now available on CD.


February 10, 2010

Cure Your Own Olives

 

To my regret, I never got around to curing the fruit of the huge old olive trees on my parents’ California ranch, which they have long since sold. Like many other gardeners in the Pacific Northwest, I now have my own little olive tree, of the hardy Arbequina variety, and I await the first crop with greedy anticipation. Last year, though, I got to wondering: In the age of the Internet and overnight delivery, did I have to wait? Could I buy some fresh olives to cure at home?

In fact, I could. For less than thirty dollars, I had ten pounds of green Sevillanos delivered to my door in early September. I looked them over carefully; you don’t want to cure olives that are bruised or otherwise damaged. Nearly all were perfect. I grabbed my copy of the University of California’s “Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling” (ANR publication 8267) and began to study up.

There are many ways to cure olives. The best choice depends on the variety, whether the olives are green or ripe, how you want to store them, and how long you’re willing to wait before you eat them. I chose the method that “Olives” calls Sicilian-style—that is, simple brining—for most of the olives. For the rest, I chose a lye cure followed by a shorter brining.

For the Sicilian-style olives, I filled two glass jars, one gallon-size and one 3-quart-size, with olives, hot peppers, chopped garlic, bay leaves, and fennel umbels, and then I added a brine made of 1 cup pickling salt, 1 gallon water, and 1 pint red wine vinegar. The remaining 2 quarts of olives I treated with lye—Red Devil, which you might use to clean out a kitchen drain—mixed with water. The olives soaked in the lye water for about 12 hours, and then I repeatedly rinsed them and soaked them in pure water for about 30 hours, to remove the lye. At this point the olives had lost their natural bitterness, but they still needed to ferment to develop their flavor and texture. I mixed up a brine with the same ratio of salt to water as before, but this time I left out the vinegar. Presumably because lye kills the lactic-acid-forming bacteria on the olives, the recipe told me I needed to add a starter. I used a little brine from a jar of unpasteurized fermented cucumber pickles.

Two months later, the lye-treated olives were already tender, but they also tasted of dill and cucumbers from the pickle brine. So, though the recipe didn’t call for seasonings, I added hot pepper, garlic, bay, and thyme. A week or so later, these olives were delicious, and my husband and I started eating and sharing them.

Now we have finished off the lye-treated olives and are waiting for the Sicilian-style ones, which have lost most of their bitterness. I actually like the slight bitterness that remains, but the texture is still a little too chewy. We’ve just reached the minimum curing time for these olives—about four months. We’ll probably wait another two weeks or so before we start eating them.

“Olives” includes recipes for other curing methods, and none of these methods is more complicated than the two I tried. Curing olives, like making other sorts of pickles, is not only possible for people who don’t grow their own; it’s also easy.


January 20, 2010

Last of the Quinces


Finally I am running out of quinces. I have two trees, of the variety called Pineapple, and they produce more reliably than any of the apple, pear, plum, and cherry trees in my lowland orchard. So I always give away quinces, and this year I even sold some. Yet it’s January 20, and still I have a box of the fruit left in the unheated guest bedroom.

I’m not complaining. Quinces are good for a lot of things. From the nineteenth century until after World War II, quinces were valued especially for their pectin. People would cook the sliced fruit in water, and then either make the liquid into jelly or boil it down until it was sour and viscous before combining it with other fruits in jelly or jam. For centuries before that quinces were made into paste, the original marmalade—or, simply, thick, sliceable jam—to be served as finger food. Quince paste has never lost popularity in Spain or parts of Latin America, and it seems to be coming back into style in the United States. Even more appealing than quince paste, to me, are pastes from quinces combined with other fruits, such as berries and plums. Quinces also make delightful, fragrant syrups (I most like a raw syrup of quince and honey), and jams that can turn out red or white, and smooth or rough, depending on your method. Cooked in syrup for nearly two hours, quince cubes or slices become a ruby-red spoon sweet. Steeped in vodka with sugar, quinces become an aromatic liqueur. Poached in white wine with honey, they become a tart relish for roasts or even a dessert. Quinces combine well with apples in pie, and some people like them best simply hollowed out (with a coring tool that looks like a small, heavy spoon with a pointed tip) and baked whole like an apple.

Having made all those things this year, I wanted to try something different. I gazed at the quinces, sitting in the guest bedroom beside the last of the peppers (peppers keep much longer in a cool guest room, by the way, than they do in a refrigerator), and I wanted to combine the two. I’d already made some wonderful quince–red pepper jelly. What else could I try? I decided on—

 Quince Chutney

1 to 2 tablespoons mustard oil*

3 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 pound peeled and sliced or diced quinces

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 medium-large (about 1/2 pound) onion, halved and sliced thin

2 ounces small fresh hot red peppers (I used jalapeños and Fresnos), sliced thin

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped gingerroot

1 teaspoon salt

1 3-inch cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons raisins

 Heat the oil in a preserving pan. Add the garlic and cumin seeds, and stir them over medium heat until they release their aroma. Immediately add the remaining ingredients. Boil the mixture gently, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed and the quince is tender, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.

When the quince has cooled, store it in a covered container in the refrigerator. It's even better after a week or two.


 *Available in Indian markets, mustard oil is always labeled in the United States as “for external use only.” The USDA requires this labeling because the oil contains erucic acid, which is said to cause “nutritional deficiencies as well as cardiac lesions” in lab rats (mustard seeds and prepared mustard also contain this natural chemical, of course). Mustard oil has a very strong flavor. If you’re not sure you like it, use only 1 tablespoon. If you’re sure you don’t like it, or if none is available, substitute another oil.


This recipe is actually a variant of one I developed for apple chutney, and that chutney turned out equally delicious. So if your guest bedroom is filled with apples rather than quinces, this is a good way to use them.

         

January 6, 2010

Hot-Pink Sauerkraut

 

When my friends Wendy and Greg handed me a gorgeous, huge red cabbage from their garden a couple of months ago, Greg told me he loves to make red-cabbage sauerkraut. The Pickle Lady was humbled; I’d never made or even tasted sauerkraut from red cabbages! Now I knew what I would do with my beautiful cabbage.

I decided to take as my model a low-salt red-cabbage sauerkraut recipe from an odd little Canadian cookbook, Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home. I cut the head fine, using a mandoline, and mixed the shredded cabbage with some apple and onion slices, a bay leaf, caraway seeds, and juniper berries. As always  in making sauerkraut, I tossed the mixture with salt and packed it firmly into a crock. But several hours later the cabbage had released almost no juice. This was problematic; when you’re making sauerkraut, the cabbage must be well covered with liquid to keep from rotting. The Canadian authors, warning that red cabbage is “a very hard vegetable,” suggested pressing “thoroughly with a potato masher,” but this didn’t work for me. I could have added some brine from one of the big jars of fermented pickles in my garage refrigerator, following another suggestion from the Canadian authors, but then the sauerkraut would have tasted of dill and garlic. A final suggestion from the Canadians was to add whey, strained out of buttermilk or kefir, which they said would jump-start the fermentation. That sounded to me like an unnecessary bother. So I decided to add fresh brine--that is, salted water.

Two weeks later, I pulled from my crock heaps of gloriously hot-pink, tart, delicious sauerkraut. Here’s the recipe. You can add more spices or leave them out, as you prefer.

4 pounds finely shredded red cabbage, plus a few whole outer leaves

1 large apple, cored and sliced thin

1 medium-large onion, sliced thin

1 Mediterranean bay leaf

Pinch of caraway seeds

3 juniper berries

3 tablespoons pickling salt (fine, pure salt)

1 quart water

In a large bowl or stockpot, thoroughly mix the shredded cabbage, apple, onion, bay, caraway, juniper berries, and 1 ½ tablespoons salt. Pack the mixture firmly in a crock or gallon jar. Wait an hour or two for the salt to dissolve.

Stir the remaining 1 ½ tablespoons salt into the water, and keep stirring until the liquid is clear. Pour the brine over the cabbage mixture. Lay the whole cabbage leaves on top, and add weights. (I used the weights that come with a Harsch pickling crock. With an ordinary crock, cover the cabbage with a plate that just fits inside the crock, and weight the plate with a capped, water-filled glass jar. If you’re using a gallon glass jar, weight the cabbage with a freezer-weight plastic bag filled with brine in the proportion of 1 ½ tablespoons salt to 1 quart water.) The cabbage mixture should be well covered with liquid. If it isn’t, add more brine in the same proportion. Keep the crock or jar at warm room temperature for two to three days, until fermentation gets underway, and then set it in a cooler place. If you’re using an ordinary crock, you’ll need to skim the brine occasionally.

Begin tasting the sauerkraut after two weeks. When it’s as sour as you like, transfer it to a clean jar, and store the jar in the refrigerator. If you like, you can freeze some of your kraut in plastic bags, rigid plastic containers, or glass jars. I don’t recommend canning it. Although with the addition of brine my recipe is saltier than the Canadians’ version, the sauerkraut will still be less salty than the USDA approves for canning.

           

December 30, 2009

Candied Fennel Cores

 


Four consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures put an end to the remains of my vegetable garden. As in many years past, I was late in digging carrots and setting up plastic tents over the greens (which might actually have survived if I’d included an electric heater, set on high). After three days of bitter cold I dug up the carrot bed, in frozen chunks six inches deep, and set the blocks in the garage to thaw. I also dug up two enormous bulbs of Florence fennel, the kind sold in stores as anise (which it isn’t) or finocchio (Italian for “fennel”). The bulbs were frozen through.

I set the fennel in a big bowl on the kitchen counter for a day and a half, until the bulbs had thawed enough to handle. Then I cut away the outer layers, which had browned a bit. Most of the rest became, with the addition of onion, potato, chicken stock, and sour cream, a big pot of pureed fennel soup. Delicious! It was the best thing I’d ever made with fennel—until two days later.

I had saved the fennel cores. These were hard, solid, and white, like cabbage cores. The cores of Florence fennel are included in many Italian recipes, although they take longer to soften than the outer layers; I could certainly have cooked them in the soup. But I had been reading Tim Richardson’s Sweets, a wonderfully entertaining yet scholarly history of candy. Tim had made me think how medieval my Joy of Jams was. All those fruit pastes and syrups started with recipes the Arabs developed, or borrowed from the Persians. These treats became popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. My book even includes some recipes for crystallized fruits, which are just preserves with the syrup drained off. To a large extent, The Joy of Jams is about medieval confectionery.

But I’d left out candied vegetables. “All kinds of roots and stalks were being candied in England by the sixteenth century,” according to Tim. They included parsley roots, angelica stalks, lettuce stalks, and stranger foods like sea holly, borage, and bugloss. They also included fennel roots.

My fennel had tough, rough, dirty roots, and I didn’t want to waste my time on them. But the cores seemed to hold some promise. So I made a small batch of . . .

 

Candied Fennel Cores

5 ounces Florence fennel cores, cut into 3/8-inch cubes

1 cup water (plus more for cooking the fennel)

2/3 cup sugar

Pinch of cream of tartar

Put the fennel cubes into a saucepan with enough water to cover them. Simmer them for about 20 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Drain them.

Combine the 1 cup water, the 2/3 cup sugar, and the cream of tartar in a saucepan, and heat the mixture gently until the sugar dissolves. Bring the syrup to a boil, and continue boiling it until it is reduced by about one-third. Add the fennel, and bring the mixture to a full boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Let it stand at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

Return the pan to the stove. Simmer the fennel in the syrup for about 25 minutes, until the cubes are partially translucent and the syrup reaches thread stage (230 degrees F.).

Remove the pan from the heat. Let the fennel cubes rest in the syrup at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

Drain the fennel cubes. Set them to dry in a warm place until they are no longer sticky. I used a food dehydrator, but you could instead use a very low oven or even a woodstove.

The finished candies ranged in color from pale gold to amber. They were firm but not tough and had a mild but appealing fennel flavor. If you wanted to intensify the flavor, you could add a few fennel seeds to the syrup.

I thought about including the candied fennel cubes on a Christmas dessert platter, alongside my candied Asian pears, or in a Christmas pudding, but I didn’t hide them away fast enough. They got eaten almost immediately. I must admit that I got my share.




December 30, 2009

Another Reason to Preserve Foods at Home

 Maybe you’ve replaced your old plastic water bottle with a stainless-steel one to avoid exposure to bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical linked to reproductive abnormalities and increased risks of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. But did you know you could be ingesting BPA through commercially canned food? BPA is a component of the epoxy resin that has long been used to line metal food cans. Consumer Reports (December 2009) tested for BPA in 19 name-brand canned foods—soups, juice, tuna, corn, chili, tomato sauce, corned beef, and green beans—and found the chemical in all of them. Organic brands didn’t necessarily have less than nonorganic brands, and even cans labeled “BPA-free” contained the chemical. The highest levels were in green beans, vegetable soup, and chicken-noodle soup. “A 165-pound adult eating one serving of canned green beans from our sample . . . could ingest about 0.2 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day, about 80 times higher than our experts’ recommended daily upper limit,” the magazine reports. FDA guidelines allow a much higher daily exposure, 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight. According to a congressional subcommittee, however, the FDA has relied too heavily on studies sponsored by the plastics industry and should re-evaluate BPA’s safety. Aren’t you glad you get most of your “canned” foods out of glass jars?

July 15, 2010: Some weeks after writing the preceding paragraph I learned that the notorious BPA is also used to line the flat lids of mason jars. While Jardin (the owner of Ball, Kerr, and Bernardin) works on developing an alternative liner, home canners don't need to worry: As long as we store our jars upright, the food inside will never come in contact with the lid.



November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving Pickles

I have never cared to emulate the Pennsylvania Dutch, with their seven sweets and seven sours at every meal. But the dawn of Thanksgiving Day drew me to the pantry, where I scanned the shelves for favorite pickles to add to the feast.
    Here are the sour pickles that fortified us while the turkey roasted.


Clockwise from the left are cornichons (tiny cucumbers pickled in vinegar), pickled scallions, pickled red peppers (a mildly hot pimiento cross), brined cucumbers, dilly beans, and pickled sweet yellow peppers. Recipes for all of these are in The Joy of Pickling.

In the center of the platter are cherry olives. A simple old North American recipe turns wild cherries that are too small to pit, and perhaps too bitter or sour to eat plain, into what look like little black olives but taste wonderfully different. To make cherry olives, fill a quart jar with small black cherries. Combine 1 cup each water and vinegar with 1 tablespoon salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar, and pour the mixture over the cherries to cover them well. Close the jar tightly. Store it in the refrigerator if you like, or keep it in in a cool pantry. (Do not process the cherries with heat.) Wait a couple of months before serving the cherries.

More gracious than gravy as complement to a roast are sweet pickles and relishes. So Greg's fat, juicy pasture-raised turkey was accompanied not only with Barb's cranberry sauce and my cherry relish but also with pickled Seckel pears and Desert King figs.


The cherry relish, pear, and fig recipes are also in The Joy of Pickling.

What piquant reminders of the summer that's gone! Pious I'm not, but with each tart little taste of my Thanksgiving pickles I had to silently thank the dirt, the sun, and the rain, the seeds, trees, flowers, and bees, and my own strong muscles and bones, all of which together bring such pleasure to the table.

Thanks to you, too, for reading this journal, and I hope you ate equally well.




November 10, 2009

The Scoop on Pickle Crisp

I'd never heard of Pickle Crisp until a couple of weeks ago, when I was giving a radio interview and a caller mentioned the product. Pickle Crisp, I learned, is a trade name for calcium chloride, a common additive in commercial canning. Calcium chloride is used for several purposes, but in pickles it is mainly a firming agent.

On searching the Web for more information, I learned that Pickle Crisp had been marketed by Jarden, the company that makes Ball jars, but was no longer available.

To find out more, I contacted Lauren Devine at Jarden. The company sold Pickle Crisp for about two years. It was intended to replace pickling lime, which home picklers, particularly in the South, have long used to firm such pickles as bread-and-butters and pickled figs. But lime is troublesome to use: You must first soak the fruit or vegetable pieces in a mixture of lime and water, and then rinse and soak them repeatedly until the water is clear and the lime won't affect the pickle's pH much. Calcium chloride is easier to use: You add 1/8 teaspoon along with the fruit or vegetable pieces and the pickling liquid to a pint jar, or 1/4 teaspoon to a quart jar. (Jarden has tested Pickle Crisp only with fresh pickles, not with fermented ones.)

Unfortunately for Jarden, sales of Pickle Crisp were slow, and only upon removing the product from the market did Jarden realize that there was much demand for it. Jarden decided to bring the product back, but in improved form. The old Pickle Crisp was a powder that tended to dissolve into steam. The new version will have bigger grains.

The new Pickle Crisp should be in the home-canning sections of supermarkets and farm-supply stores next March or April. In the meantime, if you want to try pickling with calcium chloride you can order it by that name at www.bulkfood.com/calciumchloride.asp.



November 6, 2009

A Good Weed


A few days ago, while tearing up the sorrel that had invaded my rhubarb bed, I took care to separate the leaves from the creeping roots. The roots I left on the ground to rot; the leaves I took into the house for soup.

In past years I have grown French sorrel (Rumex scutatus), which has relatively large, shield-shaped leaves, but this Eurasian perennial has never survived our wet winters. I might one day try garden sorrel (R. acetosa), which has big leaves shaped like arrowheads and grows well in England. But for now I may as well enjoy my field sorrel, or sheep sorrel (R. acetosella), with its small, arrowhead-shaped leaves. Like rhubarb, its cousin, this spreading weed loves the bed I made by stacking newspapers and heaping mint pummy atop the native soil. If I let it, field sorrel will take over other half-shaded areas of the garden with rich, acidic soil.

Like rhubarb, all species of Rumex are rich in oxalic acid, which gives the leaves their sour, lemon-like flavor. These species are not to be confused, though, with Oxalis, trefoil wood sorrels, although Oxalis species, too, are edible. California children love to chew the stems of a yellow-flowered wood sorrel, which they call sour grass. According to Patience Gray (Honey from a Weed), the French once considered Olaxis the best sorrel for sorrel soup, or potage Germiny, which even today bears slivers of French sorrel in imitation of tiny wood sorrel stems, for the stems didn't break down with pounding as the leaves did.

With a name that comes from the same root as sour, sorrel has a long history as both a medicinal and a culinary herb. It has been considered cooling and cleansing, a remedy for fever and for bladder, liver, kidney, and skin problems. The English have traditionally used garden sorrel in a sauce, called green sauce, to accompany meat. Other Europeans use sorrel as a stuffing for fish, as an addition to spinach soup, and, sauteed in butter, as a drssing for steamed potatoes. Sadly, in the United States sorrel hasn't really caught on.

The cook preparing sorrel for the first time should remember three things: (1) You must use nonreactive cookware with this acidic vegetable. (2) Sorrel needs only very brief cooking. (3) Sorrel won't keep its bright color. When cooked, the leaves turn gray-green.

I had picked sorrel leaves from the rhubarb bed once this past summer to make potage Germiny, a soup that's truly cooling when it's served chilled, as it typically is. In early November, the sorrel leaves were so tender and succulent that looking at them made my mouth water, but I wanted a warming soup for dinner. And I didn't want a gray puree.

So I decided to combine the sorrel with potato and, instead of white or yellow globe onions, the giant scallions so abundant in my fall garden (leeks would have worked as well). The soup turned out green--well, moss green, but at least you couldn't call it gray. With nothing to accompany it but homemade bread, it made a warming, satisfying, and delicious autumn meal.

Autumn Sorrel Soup

3 tablespoons butter
5 cups chopped scallions or leeks
1 quart chicken stock
1 medium-large russet potato, peeled and diced
2 quarts sorrel leaves
1 cup cream
Salt to taste

Melt the butter in a nonreactive pot, and gently cook the scallions or leeks in the butter until they are tender.

Add the stock. When it has nearly begun to boil, add the potato. Cover the pot, and cook the mixture until the potato pieces are tender.

Stir in the sorrel leaves. As soon as they are wilted, whirl the mixture until smooth in a blender. Check for any strings (from the sorrel stems); if you find them, you should strain the soup.

Stir in the cream and some salt. If needed, reheat the soup before serving.

Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a starter
  

Last of Summer’s Bounty: Winter Squashes

When sunlight streams through the red and yellow grape leaves as if they’re made of greased paper, when the walnut spreads a gold carpet of leaves across the driveway and pelts the roof with its black-husked nuts, when the new grass shimmers as green as in April and everything looks brighter in the clean air, it’s time to bring in the pumpkins and other winter squashes. They should be hard-shelled and full-colored now, dark green as the cedars, yellow and orange and red as the leaves dropping all around. The thick stems of the maximas should have turned woody, ready to separate from the dying vines. You need strong clippers for the bigger pepos; cut the stems to just an inch or two. Be careful not to break off a stem, or rot will set in early at the wound site.

            A light frost or two will have done the squashes no harm. If you’ve let them sit out through weeks of rain, well, you probably should have got to them sooner. Scrub off the mud, and let the squashes dry. Set them in the sun or another warm place for at least a few hours; I put mine on a sunny deck on the south side of the house. In a wet autumn, a spray or wipe of bleach water may ward off fungus.

            “Experts” will tell you to store your squashes at fifty degrees. If you’re thinking of a damp shed or basement, though, think again. Dampness makes squashes rot before their time. A better choice is a cool room in a heated house. My squashes keep well in laundry baskets in the dining room until March, at least. This past August, in fact, I fed the ducks the last of last year’s harvest—a few spaghetti squashes and Jack-Be-Littles—although they showed no signs of decay. But I wanted to save my appetite for the new crop.

  Maybe you have some really big squashes—say, blue-gray Sweet Meats (Oregon heirlooms) or a Cinderella-style Rouge Vif d’Etampes.  In Traditional Portuguese Cooking Maria de Lourdes advises, “Break the squash by hurling it to the ground.” But Maria is telling you how to make pumpkin jam; sometimes you need a cleaner cut. For that, you might strike with a cleaver once or twice before dropping the squash hard on a counter. Or you might gash the squash with a long knife—my husband bought me a 14-inch chef’s knife for this purpose—and then hit the back of the blade with a mallet.

Maybe instead you’d like to cut off the top of your squash jack-o-lantern style. Then you can scoop out the seeds and bake the squash whole, so you can serve it with soup or stuffing inside. I do this with miniature pumpkins, which are delicious with just a little pat of butter or a custard filling.

Whatever sort of squash you’re cooking, don’t throw out the seeds. Tossed with a little salt and oil and roasted, squash seeds make an excellent snack. Another Oregon
heirloom variety, Golden Delicious, is today grown commercially just for its seeds. The flesh, though sweet and smooth (it was developed for baby food), is spit out by the harvest machine and tilled into the soil.

My favorite way to cook winter squash is to bake halves cut-side down. A good dry, sweet squash will leak into the pan not water but a little thick, tasty syrup—the cook’s kitchen treat. Cut slices of the baked squash for dinner, or spoon out the flesh and mash it. Taste it before seasoning it; you may finds it needs no butter and maybe not even salt.

What do you do with the leftover flesh from a big squash? I puree it all. If the squash is a bit stringy, I use a food mill, but otherwise I use the KitchenAid mixer. The puree goes into plastic containers in the freezer, where it’s ready to thaw for pie or bread or soup or ice cream or a dish of plain old pureed squash. I am embarrassed to write this—no respectable householder keeps any frozen food for more than twelve months—but pureed squash keeps well in the freezer for several years.

            With your squashes serving as home décor and an occasional meal, you can put up your feet and wait for the seed catalogs to arrive. If you’re like me, you’ll pick out an old favorite squash or two for next year, and then you’ll choose a new one that promises to be sweeter, creamier, or prettier than any you've tried before.




October 15, 2009

Pickled Nasturtium Pods


 

A low, sprawling annual plant, the nasturtium can enliven your salads all summer with its tender, round leaves and orange edible flowers. But don't forget to pick the seeds. If they're already brown, save them to plant next year. If they're still green, plunk them into vinegar, so you can enjoy them in sauces and salads all winter. Pickled nasturtium seeds (or pods, or buds, as they are variously called) taste much like pickled capers, but they're crunchier and a little peppery. As Euell Gibbons said, "Nasturtium buds make better capers than capers do."

This year I had just a single pot of nasturtiums, and they were plagued by aphids both in spring and in late summer. But the plants flowered and produced seeds, and when I walked by the pot I'd pick the fat green ones. In The Joy of Pickling, I provide a variant of Eliza Smith's rather complex recipe for pickled nasturtium pods, from her 1727 cookbook The Compleat Housewife. This year I decided to do something simpler: In early July, I combined 1/2 cup cider vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small jar, and stirred to dissolve the salt. I covered the jar tightly and set it on a cupboard shelf. And then I added nasturtium pods, a few at a time over the next three months, until aphids and cold weather did in the plants.

That's all you need for pickling nasturtium pods: vinegar and a little salt. Refrigeration isn't necessary. If I don't eat them all sooner, my pickled nasturtium pods will last in the cupboard until next summer, when the nasturtiums will be blooming again.



September 3, 2009

An Excellent Pickler


My new favorite pickling cucumber has a name that's a mouthful: Vorgebirgstrauben. It's a European type, with abundant little prickles instead of scanty warts. This cucumber is thicker than skinny French cornichon types, but unlike most American pickling cucumbers it doesn't tend to bloat; it makes an attractive pickle at any length from one inch to five inches. Although the fruits from my plants have been slightly bitter, the bitterness is lost in pickling, and the mostly dark green color is retained. The plants are very productive and, in comparison with the other varieties I planted this year, disease-resistant.

   
I bought Vorgebirgstrauben seeds from Harvest Moon Seed Company. I hope other U.S. seed companies will begin stocking this outstanding variety.



August 28, 2009

Magic Beans from Spain

 


My neighbor Roxanne called to thank me for “the magic beans.” I was surprised; how did she know I called them magic beans? I hadn’t mentioned the beans at all when I’d handed her husband a brown bag that also contained cucumbers and tomatoes.

“They’re magic,” Roxanne explained, “because they’re the best beans we’ve ever eaten.” This was high praise from the wife of a man who grew green beans for eighty-five or so of his ninety-some years, though he doesn’t grow them anymore, now that he is permanently bent in a planting posture. I agreed with Roxanne that these beans were the best, and then I explained why I call them magic beans.

I’d learned about these beans from my friend Teresa Barrenechea, when I was editing her book The Basque Table. In Spain, Teresa had explained, the typical green beans weren’t tubular but flat, and much, much tastier than the round kind. Ah, the Spanish grow Romanos, I had thought. I disliked Romanos because they were always in such a hurry to swell, and their seeds, to me, had an unpleasant beany flavor. But the Spanish beans, as Teresa described them, had no such faults.

A few years later, in 2001, I was traveling in Spain with my son Ben, who had just spent a year as an exchange student in Galicia. While walking in a public garden we came upon a small model vegetable plot with a few bush bean plants. Spying a dry pod, I pocketed it, slipped out the seeds, and dropped the empty pod to the ground.

The day Ben and I were to leave Spain I panicked. What if the agricultural police caught me with the bean seeds? What if they didn’t catch me, and my five seeds introduced some phylloxera-style bean pest into North America? I decided to leave the beans in the wastebasket of the pensiớn.

But where were they? I searched my jacket pocket, turned the jacket upside-down, shook it. The beans, to my relief and regret, were gone.

At home a few days later, I was sorting dirty laundry. I checked my jacket pocket and found a candy wrapper, a tiny tube of toothpaste . . . and the bean seeds—first one and then another, until I’d counted all five. Elated, I put them into a little envelope and labeled it “Magic beans 2001.”

The following spring I planted three of the seeds, but too late; early rains rotted most of the pods before they reached maturity, and I harvested only five more good seeds. More or less the same thing happened for the next several years, and some years I had nothing to plant but reserved two-year-old seed. But slowly I built my stock, and in 2008 I had enough to plant two long rows.

We started eating the beans. Teresa was right, we discovered; they were delicious, meaty and stringless with a flavor at once both rich and mild—“lacking the nasty part of the bean flavor profile,” as my husband put it. Unlike Romanos, the pods grew to full size and rested a bit before swelling and toughening.

This year, after pests ate my first and second plantings of Magic beans, I had plenty of seed for a third planting, and now I have beans to cook, freeze, share, and save for next year.

Can you grow beans like these? Spain has numerous varieties of flat, stringless judías, or green beans, of both pole and bush types. Renee’s Garden sells a Spanish variety that sounds very similar to mine, under the name Musica, but it is a pole bean. As far as I can find, no Spanish bush variety has been imported to the United States. Many American seed companies are selling a flat bean called Roma II, which looks similar to my bean, though shorter and broader, but I haven’t tried it. Other flat varieties pictured in the Vermont Bean Seed catalog look lumpy, swollen with bean seeds, rather than sleek like mine.

If you want true Magic beans, you can stop by my place for a few seeds. In trade, I would consider a cow.



August 27, 2007

Another Pickle Picture


Here are cucumbers that have been in their brine for one day (left) and about one week (right). You can see that, in the jar on the right, the colors have changed and the brine has gotten cloudy. This is just what is supposed to happen. Fermentation is well under way.



August 20, 2009

Tiny Bubbles


In the past couple of weeks two people have told me that they never see little bubbles rising in their containers of fermenting cucumbers. Usually bubbles start appearing after three or four days of brining. I explained that the bubbles may be hard to see because they're very small. Their movement is most noticeable if the pickles are in a clear glass jar and the jar is moved. The bubbles are usually easy to see at the top of the brine, where they collect. If the brine spills over the top of the jar, you know it's because gas has bubbled up inside and expanded the volume of the brine.
   
In the picture above, the cucumbers have been brining for about four days. You can see the bubbles at the top of the brine and a little further down in the gallon jar, just above the point where the jar begins narrowing.

Notice that I'm not using a plastic brine bag to hold down the cucumbers; instead I've laid the biggest cucumbers crosswise across the top to hold down the rest. Some of the dry spices are floating; that's okay. But the brine is pushing grapes leaves too close to the surface, where they might attract the wrong microbes. After taking this picture, I tucked the grape leaves down around the cucumbers.


Approximately a day after I took this picture, a yeast scum began forming at the top of the jar. The yeast isn't essential to the brining process, but it's a sign that all is well. I skim off the scum when it gets heavy.
   


August 9, 2009

Fresh Lychees


While in Beaverton yesterday to demonstrate pickling at the farmers' market, I stopped in Uwajimaya, the Japanese supermarket. I always come upon something amazing in Uwajimaya's produce section, and yesterday was no different: I found fresh lychees!
    
A tropical-to-subtropical fruit native to Asia, the lychee has a thin, knobbly, leathery red skin. Cut into it with a knife, fork, or fingernail, and easily peel away the skin to reveal white, fragrant flesh with a gently chewy texture like that of firm jelly. In the center of the flesh is a shiny, inedible seed approximately the size, shape, and color of a Kalamata olive.


Along with its relatives the small longan and the beautiful, hairy rambutan, the lychee has long been treasured in Asia. According to Alan Davidson (The Oxford Companion to Food), during the first century a Pony Express-style courier service began bringing fresh lychees from Canton north to the imperial court of China. Later, during the Ming dynasty, clubs of lychee lovers met in temples and gardens to consume hundreds of the fruits at a sitting.
    
I don't know where Uwajimaya got the lychees, but they were quite fresh; if they hadn't been, they would have been brown rather than red. Lychees grow in Florida and Hawaii as well as Asia, so perhaps we'll see them in Oregon more often in the future. And maybe, if I'm very lucky, someday while traveling I'll be able to pluck a ripe lychee from a tree.


What did I do with the lychees? I did not preserve them. Canned lychees, easy to find in Asian markets, are bland in comparison with the fresh fruit. So I put the lychees into a bowl and sat down with my husband and son. Then we slowly unwrapped and ate our perfumed treasures one at a time until they were all gone, all the while trying to fix their look, flavor, and texture in our memories. It may be a long time before we encounter fresh lychees again.


August 2, 2009

Harvesting Love in a Mist



The Friends of the Library are coming tomorrow for a potluck. Tidy gardeners all, they are sure to frown on that patch of dried-out nigella stalks by the blueberries. This gives me extra incentive to harvest the seeds today.

 Nigella damascena, or love-in-a-mist, is an annual beloved by less-tidy flower gardeners for its lovely little blue flowers surrounded by delicate, lacy foliage. The flowers develop into pods rather like those of opium poppies. When the pale green pods have turned golden and their little black seeds rattle inside, many gardeners cut the stalks and save them for winter arrangements.

 This is what I had in mind, too, the first year I grew love-in-a-mist. But my small daughter, an incorrigible browser then and now, told me they had a more practical use. “Taste the seeds, Mama! They’re good!”

 I chided her, as I always did, for eating whatever plants lay in her path. But my curiosity got the better of me, and so I asked what the seeds tasted like. Raised on natural foods, she couldn’t place the flavor. But I could, as soon as I gingerly bit into one of the black, teardrop-shaped seeds: Grape Kool-Aid!

 N. damascena is closely related to N. sativa, which in India, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East is beloved at least as much for its culinary and medicinal purposes as for its ornamental value. The seeds are used in and on breads, like sesame seeds and poppy seeds. In India, where nigella seeds are called kalonji or onion seeds (for their appearance, not their flavor), they are briefly fried or toasted and added to pickles, chutneys, and sauces. The seeds are believed to ameliorate digestive, respiratory, rheumatic, and skin problems, and some of these medicinal benefits have been scientifically confirmed.

 I harvest nigella by pulling the stalks from the ground and turning them upside-down into a paper grocery bag. Because I’ve waited a bit too long to harvest, as many as half the seeds scatter to the ground in the process. That’s fine with me; they will grow into next year’s crop.

 However hard I shake them, the pods will hang on to some of their seeds, so on a windy day I’ll scatter the stalks where I want more love-in-a-mist to grow. Then I’ll winnow the seeds left in the bottom of the paper bags. I’ll store the clean seeds in a jar, and I’ll take some out now and then to sprinkle on top of bread just before baking it.

If I serve the bread to company, I’ll wait for my guests to ask what the strange black seeds are. Before I tell them, I’ll ask what the seeds taste like. Grape Kool-Aid, anyone?


August 20, 2009: Joanne from Lake Oswego tells me that N. sativa is available from Penzey's (www.penzeys.com) as charnushka. Russians and Poles sprinkle charnushka (chernushka, czarnuszka) on top of rye bread before baking it.

November 29, 2009: I recently bought some seeds of N. sativa from the San Francisco Herb Company (www.sfherb.com). They look like N. damascena, but their flavor is not at all foxy. I can best describe it as bitter--though less bitter than, say, celery seed--and complex, dark, almost smoky. I hope I like them better on bread.



June 23, 2009

Green Rhubarb Jam

 

While my husband and I were visiting Tours, France, a few weeks ago, the owner of our chambre d’hote (bed-and-breakfast), served us jam that she had made just the day before from rhubarb growing in the long, narrow garden behind her row house. Brigitte’s rhubarb jam was the best I’d ever tasted. And it was green.

Most garden rhubarb has skin that is all or mostly red and flesh that is all or mostly green. Cooks covet varieties that are red through and through, because they make beautiful jams, tarts, and pies. Green-fleshed, red-skinned rhubarb tends to cook up a pinkish brown. For this reason, many cooks combine their rhubarb with strawberries. Some doctor it with red dye.

Brigitte’s rhubarb jam was the color of kiwi flesh. Her plant may have been of a variety called Goliath, which I’ve since found mentioned on a French website and in some British and Australian sources. Or perhaps it was Mammoth Green, which was popular in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These old varieties are said to be vigorous and especially tart and flavorful, but they are now rare. Most likely, Brigitte’s rhubarb was Victoria, today’s main commercial variety. Victoria comes in both red and green forms.

Gardeners who buy rhubarb crowns for planting are sometimes surprised to see the stalks come up green. In these cases the crowns were usually sold simply as “rhubarb,” with no mention of color or variety. If your unnamed green rhubarb has pink speckles on the skin near the base of the stalks, and if the plant hurries to send up a seed stalk, it is probably Victoria.

Remembering Brigitte’s beautiful and delicious green rhubarb jam, I wanted to make some like it. But my rhubarb plant—probably red Victoria—has red-skinned stalks with a little red pigment here and there in the flesh. I solved this problem by cutting the stalks approximately in half. The lower halves had pale flesh with occasional pink patches; the upper halves had grass-green flesh with almost no red pigment. I used the lower halves for strawberry-rhubarb preserves. With a paring knife, I skinned the upper halves, and these I turned into green rhubarb jam.

As you can see in the picture, my jam is really a greenish gold; it’s not as green Brigitte’s. But the color is much prettier than pinkish brown, and the flavor is delightful.

Here’s my recipe for green rhubarb jam: Peel the green-fleshed parts of rhubarb stalks, cutting away any pink parts, and cut the stalks crosswise into ½-inch pieces. In a big, wide, nonreactive pot, mix 1 1/2 pounds of these rhubarb pieces with 2 cups sugar. Let the mixture sit overnight; in the morning, the sugar will be nearly completely dissolved. Boil the mixture over medium-high heat until the syrup is almost all absorbed and the texture is jam-like.



March 29, 2009


Toshiba Apples


In Marina Lewychka’s Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, an old Ukrainian war refugee, lonely in his English cottage since his wife’s death, refuses to heat his sitting room, because that’s where he stores boxes of apples through the winter. Even after he marries the voluptuous young slattern Valentina, the apples are his dietary staple. He eats them simply sliced and microwaved—Toshiba Apples, his daughter calls them.


Having recently and independently invented Toshiba apples myself, I was embarrassed to read about them. I could have dubbed them Panasonic Apples, after my own trusty nuker, but clearly I was less creative than Lewychka’s character; I hadn’t named the dish at all. Worse, I now realized, I had taken to eating old-people food. Though I still had my teeth, I’d gotten fussy and lazy: I found apple crisp too sweet, apple pie too fatty and troublesome to make, applesauce—well, I loved applesauce, and in fact I had been planning to make some when I discovered Toshiba Apples. I’d sliced and peeled a few apples but then had to go out; there was no time to make a pot of applesauce. So I put the bowl of apple slices in the nuker and ate them hot a few minutes later, with my fingers.


Actually, they were delicious.


It’s a lucky householder who has enough apples to last the winter and a cool room to keep them in (I use an unheated guest bedroom). Good keeping apples, like my Fujis and Braeburns, grow sweeter in storage, and they retain a firm texture instead of growing cottony like a Red Delicious. But by February stored apples may be starting to shrivel; they are no longer attractive as a raw snack or dessert. They are best for cooking, and in winter and early spring you probably prefer a hot snack to a cold one anyway. Microwaving unadorned apple slices is a quick and easy cooking method that preserves the integrity of the slices and their pure apple flavor better than any other.


Here’s how to make Toshiba Apples: Slice and core as many apples as you’d like. I prefer to peel them, but peeling isn’t necessary. Put the slices into a bowl, and nuke them for about ten minutes; the time will vary depending on how much fruit you’re using. You might toss the slices once so they cook evenly. When they are as tender as you like, take them out of the microwave. Sprinkle them with cinnamon if you want, but I never do. Eat and enjoy.

           


March 28, 2009

Sugared Violets



While the violets continue to bloom, my daughter, Rebecca, suggested I describe how to candy them. Here's what to do.

Pick 50 or so sweet violets, each with a bit of stem. If you can't candy them right away, keep them covered and chilled for as long as several hours.

When you're ready to proceed, lay a sheet of waxed paper on a plate. In a small bowl, beat an egg white with about a teaspoon of water. Have at hand small, soft pastry brush and a small bowl of extra-fine sugar, store-bought or ground in a blender or spice grinder from ordinary granulated sugar.

Holding a violet by the stem, brush the back of the petals with a thin coating of egg white. Then brush the front of the flower with egg white, spreading the petals as you do so. Sprinkle a think layer of sugar over every surface, lay the flower face up on the waxed paper, and pinch off the stem. Do the same with the rest of the blossoms, and then set the plate in a warm, dry place until the flowers are completely dry (for me, this means overnight on the pellet stove).

Store the dried blossoms in a small glass jar until you're ready to use them. They look lovely on a cake or a plate of sweets.



March 16, 2009

Sweet Violet Syrup

 


There is little as pleasantly startling as the scent of blooming violets on a cold day in early spring. The little purple flowers have spread so thickly through my front lawn over the years that I now have nearly more violets than grass. But what a lovely ground cover, and what a cheering fragrance when nothing else is blooming but periwinkle and the early, scentless daffodils.

Sweet violets (Viola odorata) are edible; many people candy them or sprinkle them over salad greens. If you don’t mind spending twenty minutes or so picking the blossoms, you can also make them into syrup—syrup as amazing for its blue color as for its aroma. Come summer, you’ll want to try it in soda water, iced tea, or champagne.

The recipe that follows is adapted from my forthcoming Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.

 


Recipe for Sweet Violet Syrup

 

3 ounces (about 4 cups) stemmed violets

2 cups water

About 2 cups sugar

 

Combine the flowers and water in a saucepan. Simmer the contents, uncovered, for 15 minutes.

Strain the mixture through a dampened jelly bag. You can squeeze the bag, when it’s cool enough to handle, to extract more liquid. Then measure the volume of the liquid, and combine it in a preserving pan with an equal volume of sugar. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Raise the heat to high, and bring the syrup to a full boil.

Remove the pan from the heat. Funnel the syrup into a bottle. Store the bottle, tightly capped, in the refrigerator.

 

Makes about 3 cups

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