Still Eating Parsnips, and Planning for More

parsnips

The longest root here ended up in the compost; it had dipped below the water table and so was rotting. The others broke off at about a foot below the soil surface, as usually happens with my parsnips.

At last week’s book club meeting, in the midst of a discussion of race and gender in nineteenth-century America and the founding of the U.S. Geological Survey, somebody asked the inevitable sort of question: How do you grow parsnips?

Our husbands think we talk about them at these meetings. We do, sometimes. But more often the talk turns to gardening.

I felt an immediate surge of affection for the new member who asked about parsnips. Parsnip lovers are rarities, it seems. Why is this? Who can dislike that carroty flavor combined with extra sweetness? Is the parsnip just too blandly white next to its sunny cousin the carrot? Or is the parsnip so pricey in the market that most people never even try it?

Why such a humble root should cost so much is puzzling in itself, but at least I could take a stab at the new member’s question. For my big parsnip crops of the past couple of years I must thank my friend Lisa, who told me to toss the seeds onto bare soil in February. This works because parsnip seeds require constant moisture for about two weeks while they think about sprouting. Here in the Willamette Valley, we generally have that constant moisture in February. Our frosts continue until mid-May, but that matters not at all to the hardy parsnip.

This year February was so strangely dry that I wonder whether Lisa’s parsnip seeds have germinated. As for me, I’ve held off planting. As I dig the last of last year’s crop, with roots averaging 8 inches across and 1½ feet long, I’m thinking I’d like this year’s parsnips to be a little smaller.

Most gardeners know that you’re supposed to leave your parsnips in the ground until after the first frost to sweeten them up. This is what I’ve done, though I don’t know that I wouldn’t like a less-sweet parsnip. Usually I leave most of my roots in the ground for much longer still. A virtue of parsnips is that you can store them right where they have grown all through the winter—unless the water table rises into their root zone, which causes them to rot, or unless the weather is so brutally cold that a mound of mulch won’t keep them from freezing.

But when you plant parsnips in February for digging in late fall and winter you’re at least doubling the usual four-month growing period. And when parsnips grow for that long they develop two problems: They get so big they become hard to dig, and they develop a hard core that gets bigger and tougher over time. By mid-winter the parsnips may have as much core as tender flesh, which makes for much effort in the kitchen and a big pile of trimmings. And then in late winter the plants sprout new top growth, because, like their carrot cousins, they are biennial. As parsnips prepare to produce seeds, their roots become entirely tough and inedible. So last week I dug the last of the parsnips that we’ll eat this winter. The rest I’ll till under or let go to seed.

We didn’t talk at book club about parsnip varieties. It may be that the variety I’ve been growing, All-American, is more prone to tough cores than others I might try, such as Tender and True, which is described as “almost coreless,” and Harris Early Model, which is said to have no core at all. Considering the high water tables here in winter, maybe the short- and thick-rooted German varieties would be an even better alternative. (Readers, if you’ve had success with particular varieties I hope you’ll share your comments.)

Regardless of the variety, the best course may be to plant parsnips later, dig them promptly after the first frost, and store them out of the ground. So, here’s how I tentatively recommend growing parsnips: Plant them late spring, around the time of the last frost. Use fresh seeds; old ones won’t sprout. Keep the seeds moist for two to three weeks, until they germinate (Next time I may try covering them with a board, as I do carrot seeds, or I even try germinating them on damp paper towels). Don’t give parsnips too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer; it’s said to make their roots hairy. Let them grow for 105 to 130 days, depending on the variety, to maturity. Start digging them as soon thereafter as you like. If you have time to devise some out-of-ground storage system, such as a clamp or box of sand, dig them all soon after the first autumn frost.

Preparing parsnips for the table is easy when you have no big, tough cores to cut out. Betty Fussel recommends boiling the roots, dousing them in cold water, and then slipping off their skins, but parsnips have no more in the way of skins than carrots, which I rarely peel at all. Just to make sure my parsnips are fully clean, though, I peel them with a swivel peeler. Then I use them in most of the ways you might use carrots. They are especially good roasted, on their own or along with carrots or chunks of squash or wedges of sweet potato, or pureed in soup flavored with nutmeg, as in my recipe here.

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Tomato Report 2014

I’m hurrying to get out this report to you, because here in the Willamette Valley it’s nearly tomato-starting time already.

Our long hot summer last year produced bountiful tomato harvests for many of my neighbors but a strangely scant one for me; apparently, the unusual heat made the plants repeatedly drop their blossoms. My report here is limited to the few varieties that produced fairly well in my garden.

A Costoluto Genovese tomato, left, beside a Kishinev pepper

A Costoluto Genovese tomato, left, beside a Kishinev pepper

Costoluto Genovese has deeply ribbed, meaty red fruits with large seed cavities. The lovely look of this fruit makes the bland taste all the more disappointing. Like most Italian tomatoes, this one has apparently been bred for sauce or drying, not for fresh eating. The low sugar and acid levels call for concentration. 

Tangerine is a medium-large to large, squat, old yellow-orange variety that won brief fame several years ago after scientists showed it to have more absorbable lycopene (an anti-oxidant that may protect against some cancers) than a typical red tomato.  Early in the season my Tangerine fruits seemed to have low acidity and an unremarkable flavor, but after mid-summer, as often happens with tomatoes, they tasted much better. The acid level, in fact, seemed unusually high for a yellow tomato.

Tangerine & Persimmon tomatoes

Tangerine and persimmon tomatoes. The cut one in the foreground is the Tangerine–I think!

Persimmon is an heirloom from the 1800s (says Territorial), from 1781 (says Henry Field’s), from about 1983 (says Gary Ibsen), or from the 1880s (says a Seed Savers Exchange member in Wisconsin).  The tomato is originally from Russia, says Burpee. It was grown by Thomas Jefferson, says Henry Field’s.

Whatever its origins, Persimmon turned out for me much like Tangerine—in the appearance of the fruit, the size of the plant (both are indeterminate), and earliness (about 80 days). But Persimmon’s skin color was a softer orange, truly reminiscent of its namesake, and the fruit tended to develop a navel-like blossom end. The flesh may have been a little less tart and flavorful than that of Tangerine, but Persimmon also had an appealing creaminess. My Persimmon plants were a little less productive that my Tangerine plants.

I had trouble choosing a favorite between these two big, delicious, blemish-free tomatoes. In the kitchen I didn’t try to keep them separate. I can tell you, though, that ratatouille made with Tangerine or Persimmon tomatoes or both is as tart as it should be and at the same time startlingly sweet.

Druzba, a Bulgarian red tomato, is about the same size and shape as Tangerine and Persimmon (Burpee calls Druzba a “mini-beefsteak”) but has bigger seed cavities and apparently even higher acidity. I will certainly grow it again.

Berkeley Tie-Dye tomato

Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye tomatoes

Striped tomatoes are the rage now, and Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, bred by Bradley Gates of Wild Boar Farms, is the best I’ve tasted so far. My friend Wendy, to whom I gave a plant, reported that it was “early, prolific, very attractive, and excellent tasting.” It wasn’t prolific for me, but I have high hopes that it will be this year.

If you’re still not sure which tomatoes to plant this year, you may want to also consult my Tomato Reports from 2012 and 2009-11.

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No-Cooking, No-Canning Black Currant Jam

raw black currant jamIn my intermittent effort to make space in my freezers, I was delighted to come upon a bag of black currants yesterday. Just the day before, while pruning my currant bushes, I’d been dazed by the musky fragrance of the wood—the same intoxicating fragrance that wafts from the fruit and leaves of the black currant.* (And perhaps most of all from the buds, for it’s the buds that the French collect for perfume.) And I’d suddenly realized that I’d neglected to make raw black currant jam last summer.

So I made some this morning, from my recipe in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves: 

Raw Black Currant Jam 

¾ pounds fresh or thawed black currants, stemmed
1½ cups sugar

Briefly blend the currants and sugar in a food processor or blender. Pack the jam into a jar, and cap it tightly. Store the jar in the refrigerator. Makes 1 pint.

Don’t be tempted to reduce the amount of sugar called for here unless you plan to eat up the jam quick or store it in the freezer. Provided the currants were free of mold when you picked them, the sugar will allow the jam to keep well—so well, in fact, that for me this jam keeps perfectly in the fridge for a year. And don’t assume the jam will be too sweet for your tastes. Currants are low in natural sugar, and the added sugar is well balanced by the currants’ high acid content.

If you taste the jam immediately, you’ll probably feel sugar grains on your tongue. That’s OK—the sugar will soon dissolve. And although the jam may already seem thick enough to spread on toast, it will thicken more in the fridge, though it will never jell hard, as cooked black currant jam does.

*I mean Ribes nigrum, the European and Asian black currant, which the French call cassis. The yellow-flowered, thicket-forming variety known as Crandall, which was selected from an American species, lacks the cassis aroma.

Posted in Fruits, Sweet preserves | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Anise Hyssop in the Kitchen

anise hyssop 1My new darling of the herb garden, anise hyssop, is neither anise nor hyssop but a member of the mint family. You can tell this from the square stems and opposite leaves, but the scent might fool you. It’s a bit minty but even more licorice-like, with other, elusive characteristics. One nurseryman compared the aroma to that of root beer. My younger son is reminded of basil, but unlike basil anise hyssop tastes sweet, and to me it’s more refreshing than basil, in the way of wintergreen. The botanical name, Agastache foeniculum, tells you the plant is fennel-scented; it’s the fennel-scented member of a genus with a lot (agan) of wheat-like flower stalks (stachys).

Having decided to plant anise hyssop as a late nectar source for bees, I bought seeds from Nichols and easily sprouted them in the greenhouse last spring. Once I had set out the plants and they had grown a bit, I disregarded the bees and started picking the leaves and little lavender-blue flowers for my own use. Dried, they make a tasty and soothing herbal infusion. You can sprinkle the fresh flowers over a fruit salad, and the leaves are tender enough to add to a salad as well. Some people, I’ve read, use anise hyssop to flavor jelly, and others add the seeds to cookies and muffins.

Native to the upper Midwest and Great Plains, anise hyssop had medicinal uses for the tribes. Some found an infusion of the leaves good for colds and coughs. Others used the herb for bringing on sweat, as a wash for itchy skin rashes, or as a poultice for burns. Anise hyssop was also known as a cheering herb, a remedy for depression and anxiety.

Strangely, this plant gets scant recognition from cooks and herbalists in the Euro-American tradition. In fact, several of my herb books fail even to mention it. This may be because of its confusing popular name, but more likely because neither this species nor any other in its genus is native to Europe. One species, A. rugosa, comes from eastern Asia. It is added to Korean pancakes and stews and is one of the fifty fundamental herbs of traditional Chinese medicine; modern science has proven its antibacterial and antifungal properties. But all of the many other Agastache species are American. Together, the Agastache clan ranges from Mexico to Arctic Canada and from the West Coast to the East.

Ornamental gardeners have long loved these three- to six-foot herbaceous perennials, for their varied fragrances and bloom colors; for their eagerness to thrive, given sun and adequate drainage; and for their favor among bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. When I bought a pretty plant with tubular yellow flowers at a garden sale last fall, I looked at the label and thought, Agastache—the name sounds familiar. I’d acquired ‘Summer Glow,’ a sterile patented cultivar that sadly won’t self-seed. More recently I bought ‘Sangria,’ an A. mexicana cultivar with pink flowers and lemon-scented leaves. Another cultivar, ‘Tutti Frutti,’ is supposed to have bubble-gum-scented foliage! They are all cousins, I now know, of my sweet anise hyssop. Maybe I’ll plant my three Agastaches side by side, so I can easily compare their looks and aromas.

Flower gardeners and breeders have long admired the Agastache species. Perhaps it’s time for more food gardeners to take note?

Posted in Herbs, Wild foods | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Fresh-Pickled Watermelon

pickled watermelon 2I love discovering in my garage “pantry” a forgotten jar of something unusual—a one-time experiment, most often, that I’ve neglected to taste. Sometimes the contents are unremarkable, and I search my paper and computer files for the recipe just to note that information. But once in a while the contents are fabulous, and I think, I should make this every year!

Such is the case with the watermelon pickle that I recently happened upon. Jarred up in 2011, it isn’t a rind pickle but is made entirely of red watermelon flesh. Unlike a typical rind pickle, this one isn’t syrupy; it’s only mildly sweet, and mildly sour, too. The melon pieces lack the crispness of fresh watermelon, of course, but they have a bite, almost a chewiness, and a pleasant, soft spiciness. They seem to demand a partnership with cured meat or fish of some kind—perhaps look-alike cold-smoked salmon.

I’ve written before on this blog about fermenting whole watermelons, as I learned to do through the help of Gwen Schock Cowherd, a proud descendant of Germans from Russia. I thank Gwen, too, for telling me that Midwesterners whose grandparents brined their watermelons in barrels now often pickle their melon in pieces, with vinegar.

In 2011 Gwen was planning to send me her vinegar-pickled watermelon recipe—an award-winner at the Minnesota State Fair—but she forgot, and in the meantime I found a similar-sounding recipe in a little Germans-from-Russia community cookbook, called Küche Kochen and published in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1973. From Esther Hoff’s sketchy instructions in Küche Kochen I developed the recipe that follows.

Red Watermelon Pickles in Sweetened Vinegar

A small, 3½-pound watermelon yielded the 2¼ pounds prepared pieces that I used to make 2½ pints of pickles. I’ve slightly adjusted the measurements here to fill three pint jars, for which you’ll need a melon of about 4¼ pounds. If your watermelon is bigger than that, you can either use just part of it or double or triple the recipe.

As you cut up your watermelon, be sure to reserve the excess juice. Chill the juice until you need it.

3 pounds watermelon pieces, about 2 inches square by ¾ inch thick and free of seeds and rind, including the white part (reserve the juice from the leftover seedy parts)
2 teaspoons pickling salt
¾ cup cider vinegar
¾ cup sugar
1 1-inch cinnamon stick, broken
1 small Mediterranean bay leaf
Pinch of fennel seeds
Pinch of coriander seeds
2 allspice berries
3 black peppercorns

Combine the watermelon pieces and salt in a bowl. Cover the bowl, and leave it at room temperature for 2 hours.

Drain the salty juice from the melon, and measure the juice. Add enough of the reserved juice to make 1½ cups.

Put the vinegar, sugar, and spices in a saucepan. Heat the mixture over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add the watermelon pieces, bring the mixture to a boil, and reduce the heat. Simmer the mixture for 10 minutes.

 Ladle the watermelon pieces and their liquid into pint or half-pint jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.

After several family members happily devoured my watermelon pickles, I wrote Gwen to ask about her recipe. Was it like this one?

Not exactly, Gwen said. In fact, she wondered if I’d mixed up a recipe for rind pickles with one for red watermelon pickles. Her watermelon pickles, Gwen explained, have proportionally more salt and much less sugar and vinegar than mine. She discards all the watermelon juice and replaces it with water, because she likes a clearer brine. She flavors her watermelon pickles as most people do fermented cucumber pickles, with dill heads, garlic, and a little hot pepper as well as mixed pickling spices. She tries to leave some white rind on each watermelon piece, to help keep it intact (mine held together well–perhaps the higher sugar content helped). And she likes the pieces small, no bigger than an inch by half an inch, so they are easy to eat without cutting.

I will certainly try Gwen’s recipe next summer, and if she lets me I’ll share it with you. As for my recipe, I can’t call it Esther’s, because Esther didn’t specify how much salt or exactly what mix of spices to use, and perhaps she meant to call for water and forgot. But I love the way my watermelon pickles turned out. I’ll definitely make them again—though perhaps I’ll leave on a little of the white rind. And maybe I’ll reduce their size a bit, too.

Posted in Fruits, Pickles | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Berry Sorbet, Jar Lids, a Book Plug, Bambi Wars, Home-grown Chickpeas, and Terra Madre

I’m sorry I’ve been silent so long; the past couple of months have been especially busy for me I’ll try catch up here by taking on several small topics at once.

SORBET MIX FOR THE PANTRY

After dance class last Friday night Greg had a hankering for ice cream, so he and his wife, Wendy, and I sat on plastic chairs outside Baskin-Robbins licking our cones, gazing at Albany’s ugliest intersection—treeless parking lots on all corners, backed by buildings that look like giant shoe boxes—and pondering why we don’t make our own ice cream more often. Ice cream is for birthdays, I said, and it’s always after I’ve made the cake and cooked the dinner that I realize I’ve failed to search out cream, and I must have the real thing, which is darn hard to find in our area if you don’t keep your own cow. But sorbet is better than ice cream, anyway, Wendy reminded me, and where was that raspberry sorbet recipe I’d promised her three years ago? It’s simple, I said—raspberry purée and sugar, that’s all you need. Like me, Wendy and Greg always have raspberries in the freezers. Yes, that’s plural, freezers. I have so much fruit in my freezers that there is little room for anything else. Then I had an idea: What if we made up a sorbet mix in advance, and stored it on a pantry shelf? Probably we would all eat sorbet more often, and stay away from this ugly intersection.

So Wendy vowed to make some raspberry sorbet, and I made plans for my next picking of Triple Crown blackberries, for which I use the same basic recipe. Here it is in the pantry version, which I developed just yesterday:

Berry Sorbet

Press the fresh berries through the fine screen of a food mill.

7 cups blackberry or raspberry purée, from about 4½ pounds fresh berries
2 tablespoons lemon juice (optional, and only for lower-acid fruit such as my Triple Crowns)
3 cups sugar

Combine the berry purée, the lemon juice (if you’re using it), and the sugar in a large pot, and stir. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Boil the mixture gently for 1 minute—no longer, or you may turn it into jam.

Pour the purée into two quart jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. If you come up a bit short, top off the jars with boiling water. Then add lids and rings. Process the jars fin a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.

A day before freezing your sorbet, put one of the jars into the fridge to chill. Freeze the sorbet according to the directions that came with your device.

Makes 2 quarts

NEW RULE FOR HANDLING JAR LIDS

Jarden, the company that owns Ball and Kerr, has informed Oregon State University Extension that it’s no longer necessary to soak Ball and Kerr mason-jar lids in hot water before using them. Instead, just wash each lid before placing it on a jar and screwing on the ring.

ESSENTIAL FOR FOOD-LOVING OREGONIANS

Food Lover's Guide to PortlandSeptember 1 is the coming-out party for the second edition of Liz Crain’s foodie handbook, Food Lover’s Guide to Portland. A helpful guide for Portland residents, Liz’s book is an essential resource for those of us who visit the city only occasionally and so struggle to keep up with all the changes in the local food biz. Liz lists the many farmers’ markets and CSAs (“community-supported agriculture”—i.e., subscription food boxes), tells where the food carts congregate, and covers ethnic groceries (from Caribbean to Korean to Russian), cured-meat and halal meat markets, bakeries, cooking schools, breweries, wine shops, fish shops, and chocolate shops (13 of them!). She also describes stores that sell supplies for cooking and preserving, such as Mirador, where I send people for pickling crocks and the like. Food Lover’s Guide to Portland, 2nd edition, is available for pre-order from Powell’s Books and from Amazon.

BATTLING BAMBI

While minding the local public library one Saturday afternoon, I read a book on dealing with deer. I’d already tried some of the author’s ideas; for example, I regular spray rotten egg around the garden. (Beat four eggs, add a quart of water, cover tightly with cloth, and let ferment for several days in a warm place far from the house.) But I’m reluctant to spray this stuff on vegetables and fruits that people will be eating soon. I was looking for new ideas.

I puzzled over the suggestion to pin “dryer sheets” around the garden. Dryer sheets? Then I remembered: Dryer sheets are the little squares of nonwoven petroleum-based fabric (interfacing, we called it, in the days when girls and women sewed all their own clothes) that are treated with fabric softener and chemical perfume and sold in the cleaning aisles of supermarkets. Labeled according to scent–“ocean breeze,” “forest glen,” etc.—they burn my eyes and nose and smell uniformly sickening to me. God only knows what they do to the produce in the adjacent aisle. But my thoughts were only about Bambi, who was already making nightly raids on my tomato patch, picking fruits that weren’t even full grown yet, much less ripe, and taking one smile-shaped bite out of each. I went to a supermarket and sniffed up and down and shelves of dryer sheets—coughing, eyes watering—until I found the stinkiest packet.

dryer sheetsNo wonder I couldn’t walk down the cleaning aisle of a supermarket without holding my nose, I thought when I got home. The dryer sheets were enclosed in a thin cardboard box and nothing more, no plastic bag or plastic lining. This is legal, in a food store? And now I would use these toxin-laden squares to pollute the air in my own vegetable garden? Yes, I was that desperate. I put one clothespin on my nose and used all the rest from the clothesline to pin the dryer sheets to bamboo tomato teepees and bamboo poles set along the bean rows.

And the dryer sheets did the job, in part. The tomato raids stopped, for several days. But meanwhile Bambi devoured all the bean plants not directly under dryer sheets. I recalled the mystifying rows of little white flags, about a foot tall and a foot apart, that I’d seen in a neighbor’s garden. My neighbor was ahead of me: Those little white flags were protecting rows of bush beans. I bought more dryer sheets—a different brand, with a supposedly different but apparently identical scent, and again packed loose in a thin cardboard box—and planted rows of little white flags, hoping that they wouldn’t give Bambi the wrong idea. I was not giving up!

Placed low and close, the dryer sheets kept the deer off the beans, but in the meantime Bambi was biting smiles into the tomatoes again. I sniffed a dryer sheet from the first packet. The smell was gone. As strong as they had stunk at first, the chemicals had lost their sting.

Now, should I replace the old dryer sheets with new ones? Would I have to do this once a week? What a sad waste that would be. Besides, I have a big batch of rotten egg in the barn, smelling up the entire building. What if I dip the dry sheets in the egg and then pin them on the bamboo? So that’s my next garden chore. Again, I’ll reserve one clothespin for my nose.

HOME-GROWN GARBANZOS

garbanzos on plantAfter discovering green garbanzo beans at a supermarket in Salem, I had to try growing my own. A friend had given me some seeds of Hannan Popbean, a brown- to black-seeded chickpea selected by Carol Deppe,  a Corvallis plant breeder. Carol calls this bean a popbean not because the pods make a popping noise as you press them open—all chickpeas do this, apparently—but because she pops the dried seeds like corn, by parching them in a hot, dry pan until they swell and break open.

Although Carol grows her popbeans in spring, without irrigation, I planted mine in late May, along with soybeans, runner beans, long beans, and regular bush beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). A couple of weeks after the initial planting I had to fill big gaps in the other bean rows, but to my surprise every one of the garbanzos germinated. I was surprised again by the foliage, which looks much like vetch and nothing like other bean leaves. The third surprise from my chickpea row was the best one: Deer don’t eat these plants. I learned why they don’t when I ate my first green garbanzo, just two months after planting, and tasted something sharply sour on my fingers. I touched my tongue to a bean pod and understood: The plant defends itself from grazing by seasoning its pods and foliage with malic and oxalic acids. Brilliant!

So, forget my fears about all the special requirements for growing chickpeas. I don’t have a long growing season. I don’t have sandy soil. I didn’t add nitrogen-fixing bacteria to the soil. But I didn’t need any of these things. Garbanzos seem to be an excellent crop for my garden. They are certainly easier to grow than edamame.

TERRA MADRE AND SALONE DEL GUSTO

delegate_FBbadge_v4-2I’m happy to announce that Slow Food USA has chosen me as a delegate at Terra Madre, the biennial international food fair and Slow Food conference in Torino, Italy. If any readers of this blog will be at Terra Madre or in or near Torino for any other reason in late October, I would love to meet you.

Posted in Books and blogs, Fruits, Preserving science, Sweet preserves, Travel, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Pickled Pink

pink cauliflowerIf you use The Joy of Pickling or you have traveled in the Middle East, you may be familiar with pink pickled vegetables, colored by either a bit of beet or some sliced red cabbage. Although the pink turnip and cauliflower pickles in my book are made with vinegar, fermented pickles are also popular in the Middle East. In fact, as one of my readers told me a couple of years ago, when he lived in Egypt the local pickles were always brined, with no added vinegar. On a counter in every kitchen, batch after batch of pickles would be were fermented in a jar whose brine was seldom thrown out, although I would guess that salt was added from time to time.

Were those Egyptian pickles pink? I’m not sure whether I asked, but adding beet or red cabbage does the trick whether you’re using vinegar or fermenting in brine. With this in mind, I made brined pink cauliflower to share at a recent preserving fair in Albany, Oregon. Here is the recipe:

Brine-Pickled Pink Cauliflower

1 pound cauliflower florets
½ teaspoon caraway seeds
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
1 small beet, or a piece of a larger beet, cut into chunks
2 small dried hot peppers, slit lengthwise
1½ tablespoons pickling salt
1 quart water

In a 2-quart jar, mix the cauliflower, caraway, garlic, bay, beet, and hot peppers. Dissolve the pickling salt in the water, and pour it over the cauliflower. Weight the cauliflower, cover the jar loosely, and let it stand at room temperature.       

After about five to six days, when the cauliflower is as sour as you like, cap the jar and store it in the refrigerator. Or leave it on the kitchen counter, if you prefer, but expect the cauliflower to get more and more sour and eventually to soften somewhat.

I’m not sure whether I like the flavor of this pickle better than that of the vinegared version; brining seems to bring out more of the cauliflower’s bitterness. But I love the firm texture and lewd color of the fermented florets.

You can certainly vary the aromatics to suit your taste. Dill—already forming seed heads in my garden!—might be an excellent addition or alternative to the caraway.

Posted in Fermented foods, Vegetables | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Tasting Lavender

Sharon Roberts lavenderAt a potluck last week I was eager to taste the lavender lemonade, something I’d never made myself and drunk only once or twice before. But the drink was sweetened to a child’s taste; I guessed it had been made with twice the volume of sugar as lemon juice, before lavender syrup was added. And because the lemonade was already so sweet, apparently, only a little lavender syrup was included, so little that I could barely taste the lavender.

It occurred to me that the culinary use of lavender was a growing trend that I’d been nearly ignoring. I use lavender for repelling moths in closets and dresser drawers, and I’ve stirred the flowers into blackberry jam for a mysterious resinous touch, but the smell of lavender never makes me hungry. I actually like looking at my hardy, tidy, deer- and drought-resistant lavender plants more than I like sniffing them.

Lavender has traditionally been little used for cooking. The name of this herb, after all, comes from a Latin word for washing, and lavender is still most beloved as a scent for soap. Although southern France is famous for its lavender production, most of the oil is used in perfumery. The famous herbes de Provence, typically rubbed on meats for grilling, sometimes include lavender blossoms, but lavender has no place in the certified label rouge mix, which comprises only thyme, rosemary, savory, oregano, and basil. French cooks do sometimes infuse lavender flowers in milk to flavor ice cream or custard, and the flowers are occasionally used in tisanes and in vinegar or vinaigrette, but other culinary uses seem rare in France.

Americans, in contrast, are experimenting freely with lavender in foods. I’ve eaten both lavender meringues and lavender shortbread. Alma Chocolate, in Portland, makes caramel sauce and caramel candies from cream infused with lavender (the candies are coated in bittersweet chocolate and sprinkled with salt). Sundance Lavender Farm, also here in Oregon, recommends using lavender stems as skewers for fruit or shrimp kabobs; freezing the blossoms in ice cubes; infusing honey and jams with the flowers; adding lavender sprigs to pink champagne cocktails, lemonade, or punch; and sprinkling the flowers over salads, fruit, and desserts. Renee Shepherd puts lavender sugar in hot or iced tea; makes a syrup with lavender, dessert wine, and orange juice to pour over cut fresh fruit; rubs lavender blossoms in lemon juice and olive oil on pork or lamb for grilling; and tosses lavender stems, leaves, or flowers over the hot coals while grilling lamb, pork, or salmon. American bartenders, likewise, are making their own lavender syrup and adding it to cocktails.

If I wanted to experiment with fresh lavender this year, I knew, I had to hurry. The flowers are best harvested while still in bud, and mine were beginning to open. The day after the potluck dawned sunny and dry, so in the cool of the morning I sniffed my various specimens of Lavandula angustifolia—“narrow-leafed” lavender, true lavender, or English lavender—and chose the intensely fragrant, deepest blue flowers of Sharon Roberts, a Nichols Garden Nursery introduction.*

I wanted to make lemonade that tasted more of lavender than sugar. But how should I instill the lavender aroma? I could flavor the sugar, as Renee Shepherd suggests, by burying several lavender spikes in a jar of sugar and closing up the jar for a week. Or I could make up a batch of plain lemonade, add lavender flowers or spikes, and chill the lemonade until the flavor seemed right. Alternatively, I could make a batch of lavender syrup, which I could keep on hand for making lemonade or cocktails by the glass, with the lavender syrup standing in for sugar (in the case of lemonade) or plain syrup (in the case of cocktails).

I chose the last option. Now I had to decide how strong the syrup should be, in both sugar content and lavender aroma. I decided on the typical sugar-water ratio for a bartender’s simple syrup: 1 part sugar to 1 part water. A 1:1 syrup needs refrigeration or pasteurization for long keeping, but it won’t tend to crystallize, as a 2:1 syrup will. And I would use plenty of lavender, more than was called for in any recipe I could find.

Lavender Syrup

 2 cups water
2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons fresh lavender buds

Bring the ingredients slowly to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove the pan form the heat, and cover it.

After 30 minutes or longer, strain the syrup through a fine strainer. Press the flowers in the strainer to extract as much syrup as possible.

Makes about 2 ¼ cups syrup

My syrup turned out nearly colorless, with a silvery tinge, a strong floral aroma, and a mildly bitter taste. Even without alcohol, it would make a grown-up lemonade.

Lavender Lemonade, by the Glass

About 6 ice cubes
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon lavender syrup
¾ cup club soda or plain water

Put the ice cubes into a 12-ounce glass, and pour the lemon juice and lavender syrup over them. Add the club soda or water, and stir.

As I’d hope, the lemonade turned out more aromatic than sweet, and slightly, refreshingly bitter. My husband would have liked an even stronger lavender flavor, but I don’t advise using more than a half-cup of flowers in your syrup. My son Ben suggested adding gin to the lemonade (I sent him home with a jar of lavender syrup, which he says he’ll try in various cocktails, such as a Lavender Aviation, with lavender syrup replacing the crème de violette). For me, though, club soda makes this drink celebratory enough, and with plain water it’s a fine accompaniment to meals.

 

*”English” lavender, like other lavender species, is native not to England but to southern Europe, although unlike other species it is hardy enough to grow in England. My “Spanish” lavender, L. stoechas—the species whose fat flowerheads are each amusingly topped with four large violet-pink bracts—succumbed to last winter’s extreme cold. Toothy-leafed “French” lavender, L. dentata, also lacks cold-tolerance. In any case, these species are too bitter and camphor-like to use in cooking, as is the powerfully aromatic L. latifolia, also known as spike lavender. Yet another kind of lavender is lavandin, a cross of L. angustifolia and L. latifolia. Because of its high productivity, lavandin is now the most cultivated lavender in Provence, but it is better in perfume than in food.

Posted in Herbs | Tagged | 15 Comments

Brined Cherries, for a Change

brined cherriesPickled fruit? People often ask me that two-word question with a look of mixed astonishment and horror. But in the Anglo-American tradition fruits have commonly been preserved in strong vinegar, along with plenty of sugar, to make sour, sweet, and long-keeping accompaniments for meats. These pickles are similar to English-style fruit chutneys, though not as heavily spiced. Less common but also traditional in North America are lightly sweetened vinegar-picked fruits, such as cherry olives—that is, vinegar-pickled dark cherries that resemble olives more in appearance than taste.

These pickles all have their place. I love sweet pickled figs or plums on the Thanksgiving table, sour pickled grapes on a salad dressed with olive oil alone, and cherry olives with pâté. But for a milder-tasting fruit pickle that complements a wider range of foods and drinks, it’s worth considering leaving out vinegar altogether. Pickling fruits in brine, in the same way as cucumbers and other vegetables, can be another appealing way of extending the season.

I recently applied this method to my favorite wild cherries, which are slightly bitter, too small to pit, and nearly black when ripe. To ensure that the cherries wouldn’t soften too much with fermentation, I picked them when they were not quite ripe but still dark red. And then I devised this recipe:

Brined Cherries

1 pint (about ¾ pound) small, slightly underripe cherries, stems trimmed to 1 inch or removed
2 small dried hot peppers, slit lengthwise
4 garlic cloves, sliced
2 to 3 sprigs thyme
¼ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns (or substitute black peppercorns)
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
2½ teaspoon pickling salt
1½ cups water

Rinse the cherries well, and put them into a clean quart jar along with the peppers, garlic, thyme, Sichuan peppercorns, and bay leaf. In another container, dissolve the salt in the water. Pour the brine over the cherries. They won’t float—at least mine don’t—so you shouldn’t need to weight them.

Cover the jar loosely, and let it stand at room temperature for about a week. Check occasionally for yeast or mold, and promptly skim off any that appears. When the cherries taste at once briny, tart, and a little spicy, cap the jar and refrigerate it. Serve the cherries cold.

I like brined cherries as a small, slow, thoughtful snack, because even for me they are strange and hard to categorize. They are good with drinks before dinner; upon first tasting them my son Ben immediately wanted to try one in a martini. Use a gin with plenty of juniper, he recommends, but light on other botanicals.

 

Posted in Fermented foods, Fruits, Pickles | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Strawberries in Red Wine

strawberries in red wineHere in the Willamette Valley we’re at the height of strawberry season, and the berries have acquired the full aroma and sweetness that tell you summer has arrived. I snack on the fruits every time I pass by any of my three strawberry patches, and I’m stuffing the freezer with bags full of berries, for making jam and preserves when time allows and instant strawberry ice cream whenever my youngest is around. And after I pick a big basketful of strawberries I always put some aside for dessert, because the strawberries deserve—and we deserve—this formal celebration of the season.

Unfortunately, Robert and I aren’t usually in the mood for extra flour, fat, or a lot of effort in the kitchen at this time of year. So, for dessert, we’ve come to prefer our strawberries simply halved, tossed in sugar, and bathed in red wine.

For this recipe you’ll want a wine that’s not too heavy or tannic. A California merlot has served the purpose well; we found an Australian shiraz to be too much. A very low-acid wine might call for a bit of added lemon juice.

Vanilla sugar is sold in grocery stores in Europe (and in specialty markets, at high prices, in the United States), but I make it simply by keeping halved vanilla pods buried in a bowl of sugar. Plain sugar will do fine if you have no vanilla sugar. If you like, you might add a drop of vanilla extract to the strawberries.

If you want to get fancy, add slivered mint, basil, or lemon verbena leaves.

1 pound strawberries, topped and halved
1/3 cup vanilla sugar
1 cup red wine

In a bowl, gently toss the halved strawberries with the sugar. Pour the red wine over. Let the berries macerate for 2 hours.

Divide the berries among dessert bowls or glasses, and pour the wine over them.

Serves 3 generously

Posted in Fruits | Tagged | 2 Comments