Tart and Velvety Beet Tonic from Poland

beet kwasI have seldom fermented beets on their own; for some reason these roots, when brined, seem more inclined to grow mold than to sour. But an ample harvest of beets from my garden this year inspired me to try making beet kwas, or kwas burakowy, a popular Polish tonic.

Kwas (or kvass) is a sour, refreshing fermented drink enjoyed throughout eastern Europe. The typical version, made from bread and water, may date to the tenth century. According to the Polish Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, kwas made from beets became popular in Poland in the 1920s. Deep red and slightly viscous, it has been traditionally used in a Christmas Eve borscht, but it is also drunk straight as an energy booster.

Today beet kwas enthusiasts make numerous claims about the health benefits of their favorite drink. Beets are full of antioxidants; they help prevent cancer and arteriosclerosis; they are good for colds, weakness, anemia, and recovery from antibiotic use. They support the kidneys and liver. They lower cholesterol; they improve immune function; they contain vitamins A, C, and B (including folic acid) and the minerals iron, potassium, and calcium. Fermenting the beets makes these nutrients more available to the body. Beet kwas “purifies” the blood and the liver, lowers blood pressure, and boosts stamina during exercise.

I can’t vouch for any of these claims, but a crimson vegetable that tastes like dirt has got to be good for you, right? Fermentative bacteria add their own nutrients and balance the dirty taste with lactic and acetic acid. Both the flavor and healthfulness of beet kwas can be enhanced with the seasonings of your choice—for Poles, garlic (always!), allspice, black pepper, sweet bay, fennel, horseradish, carrot, and celery. Americans who have recently discovered beet kwas favor sweet and fruity flavorings—lemon, orange, ginger, and sweet spices.

Finally, you add rye bread. Poles traditionally boost fermentation—even when making cucumber pickles—by laying a stale heel of sourdough rye bread on top of the brine. I hoped that adding a slice of my own homemade sourdough rye would get me sour rather than moldy beet tonic.

I followed the method of Robert and Maria Strybel, Polish-Americans who first published their Polish Heritage Cookery in 1993. Here is my version of their simple recipe:

Kwas Burakowy (Beet Kwas)

1 pound red beets, peeled and sliced thin
1 large garlic clove, chopped
½ teaspoon sugar
1½ teaspoons pickling salt
1 slice sourdough rye bread
5 cups lukewarm water (filtered or boiled, if it has been chlorinated)

Put the beets into a 2-quart jar (I used a mason jar). Add the garlic, sugar, and salt. Place the bread on top, and pour the water over. Cover the jar loosely. (I used a plastic mason-jar lid but screwed it on only part way; the Strybels advise using cheesecloth or a dish towel.) If the beets float to the surface, weight them. (Mine didn’t float, but if they had I would have weighted them with one of my glass candle holders.) Let the jar stand at room temperature.

After four days, begin tasting the liquid. When a pleasant tartness has subdued the dirty taste—for me, this took six days—strain the liquid. (Although neither the Strybels nor other Polish writers whose works I consulted advised this, I squeezed the bread before discarding it. I also saved the sliced beets, to use slivered in salads, although they had lost some of their color.) 

You should have about 1 quart kwas. Pour it into a bottle, cap the bottle, and chill it.

For health, Poles say, drink a cup of beet kwas once or twice a day. Some say to start with just an ounce or two and gradually increase the dose to 8 eight ounces.

I drank a small glass of my kwas each morning before breakfast until the bottle was empty. Although I usually balk at the thought of a chilled drink in the morning, I’ve missed my kwas since running out. Happily, there are still more beets in the garden, ready to harvest and to transform into kwas.

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Move Over, Kale, for Yellow Cabbage Collard

 

Yellow Cabbage collard“What’s this thing about kale?”asked a newbie in town, from Georgia, sipping her beer on a warm June evening on the terrace of our local brewpub. “I miss collards! Have you all ever even heard of collards?”

I had. I was growing them, thanks to somebody—I don’t remember who—who had brought tiny, hand-folded envelopes of Yellow Cabbage collard seeds to our local annual seed swap.

I’d planted the seeds in late summer of last year, and the plants had grown slowly over the winter. Normally, if I plant brassicas too late for a fall harvest, they go to seed as soon as warm weather arrives, if they survive that long. But through the spring the collards grew lushly. By then I couldn’t remember what it was I’d planted. I racked my brain to remember, because these brassicas looked good enough to eat even in lettuce season, when we neglect other vegetables to stuff ourselves with sweet, tender lettuce before it turns bitter and milky.

By the time I met the Alabaman, the collard plants were three feet tall. And with scant watering they kept growing through the hot, dry summer. The plants were so beautiful that my husband asked me to grow some in the front yard, where the neighbors could admire them.

Today the tallest of my four collard plants is four feet, and still the plants aren’t going to seed. Although I picked about 40 snails off the leaves this morning, the damage is scarcely noticeable from several feet away. The collards are still gorgeous.

Like kale, collard is a cabbage that doesn’t form a head (the word collard comes from colewort, an old name for wild cabbage). The thick green leaves have a waxy coating that repels water as oilcloth does. Tronchuda cabbage, which Portuguese cooks slice for caldo verde, is a kind of collard; so are the greens that Brazilians serve as a side dish with feijoada. Collard is rich in manganese and vitamins A, C, and K.

My plants bear big, open leaves all around the stem; the biggest leaves are two feet long. Yellow Cabbage collard gets the cabbage part of its name, I guess, because the plant makes a half-hearted effort at head formation, with small leaves in the center turning inward. The yellow part of the name makes sense to me only when I look at the smallest of my plants, whose color I would call yellow-green. The other three plants look to me more blue than yellow–but perhaps they are all yellower than typical collard.

According to Slow Food, which has put Yellow Cabbage collard on the Ark of Taste, the variety got its start in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1887. There, Colonel Joe Branner developed collard with less bitter, thinner leaves and a yellower color than other collards had. Today Yellow Cabbage collard is grown mostly around Ayden, North Carolina, where Benny and Vickie Cox sell both bagged collard leaves and collard bedding plants from their roadside business, The Collard Shack, and the town holds an annual collard festival.

In North Carolina, the harvest of spring-planted collard begins around Mother’s Day. The leaves are considered best when they are young and small, no longer than a foot. Although in general people prefer to eat collard when it has been sweetened by cold weather, Slow Food says that Yellow Cabbage collard reaches its peak flavor in mid-summer.

You can use collard much as you might use kale. In the South, collard greens are usually boiled for a long time with smoked or salted meat. But long cooking isn’t necessary if you like greens with texture; you can instead briefly sauté the cut leaves in oil, with garlic. Southerners sometimes use collard instead of head cabbage in sauerkraut. According to Slow Food, Yellow Cabbage collard is traditionally pickled in vinegar, with hot peppers and a little brown sugar (if you have such a recipe, please share it with me!). You can even make the famed massaged kale salad with collard in place of kale.

collard saladWhether or not you’ve ever made massaged kale salad, you don’t need a recipe for the collard version. First pick a few collard leaves—fewer than you think you’ll need, because these leaves are surprisingly dense. Cut out the collard stems, and slice the leaves into strips. Sprinkle some salt over the collard strips. Rub the strips with your fingers until they lose their waxy coating and turn bright green. Taste the greens, and rinse them if they are too salty. Now add lemon juice and other ingredients of your choice—pickled onions, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, black pepper, chunks of tomato, small pieces of fresh or dried fruit. Finally, toss in some olive oil.

Before you make your Yellow Cabbage collard salad, of course, you must plant some Yellow Cabbage collard. The seeds can be hard to find. But Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has sold them in the past and probably will again, and one member of Seed Savers Exchange offered them this year. I may have seeds to share, too—assuming my plants ever produce any. Until then, I’ll think of my collards as lovely, edible evergreen shrubs.

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Canning Nectarines: Things the USDA Doesn’t Tell You

nectarines in jarsWhen a box of big, flawless, fragrant, just-ripe nectarines from the Washington State Fruit Commission landed on my porch, I had to decide quickly how to preserve them. Most years I’ve made my nectarines and peaches into pickles, chutneys, and fancified jams. Now nothing appealed to me more than the thought of simple canned nectarines in light syrup.

Thinking of the young 4H food preservers whose work I’d recently judged at the Benton County fair, I decided to walk in their shoes by following USDA instructions. I referred to both an Extension recipe and the Complete Guide to Home Canning, but the same recipe, with only slightly different wording, appears on the National Center for Home Food Preservation website.

Right away, I began to see how novice preservers can get confused. First I wondered if I should peel the fruit. The recipe says that “nectarines are not dipped in hot water or peeled like peaches” but gives no reason. Nectarine skins aren’t fuzzy, though they are sometimes a little bitter. But once the fruits are cut into pieces and heated in hot syrup, their skins begin to peel off. Floating skins are not pretty. Try to remove the skins completely at this point, and you burn your fingers. Wouldn’t it be easier to slip off the skins before cutting the fruits? (To defy the recipe in this way, you must turn to the canned-peach recipe for peeling instructions: “Dip fruit in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds until skins loosen. Dip quickly in cold water and slip off skins.”) So I didn’t peel my nectarines at the start. Instead, I pulled off the hanging skins while the pieces sat in hot syrup—ouch, ouch, ouch!—and left the skins that were still more or less in place semi-attached.

Before that, though, I had to decide whether to cut the fruits into halves or smaller pieces. Like peaches, nectarines come as freestone or clingstone. The recipe doesn’t mention that clingstone nectarines, like clingstone peaches, are very difficult to halve. My nectarines turned out to be clingstone, but they were so big that halves wouldn’t have fit in the jars, anyway. Still, it was difficult even to quarter the nectarines without squishing the fruit. I ended up leaving a lot of flesh on the pits.

Before putting nectarine pieces in syrup, the recipe advises, you should prevent them from browning by dropping them into an ascorbic-water bath. Citric acid is sold in many ethnic groceries, but ascorbic acid is harder to find. No matter—you can use 500-milligram vitamin C tablets, according to the recipe: “Crush and dissolve six tablets per gallon of water as a treatment solution.” I had only 1000-milligram tablets. Any 4-Her can figure out that three 1000-milligram tablets should work as well as six 500-milligram ones, but how to crush and dissolve hard tablets is less obvious. I used my electric spice grinder (a small coffee grinder that I dedicate to spices) and whisked the powder into the water.

The fruit seemed to swell a bit in the water. Was it absorbing water while giving up sugar and flavor? I hurried to finish cutting the nectarines and move them into the syrup. As I did so I considered: If I’d cut the fruit directly into the syrup, the syrup would have protected the fruit from browning.

The recipe gives options for both hot-packing (cooking the fruit before putting it in jars) and raw-packing (putting the fruit raw into jars) but also asserts, without explanation, that “raw packs make poor quality nectarines.” In other words, choose the hot-pack option or waste your time and ruin your fruit. The question nagged: Why is there a raw-pack option at all? But I chose hot-pack—and, innocently—burnt fingers.

The recipe provides options for canning the fruits in heavy, medium, light, or very light syrup—or in water, apple juice, or white grape juice. The instructions don’t say, however, that canning in water makes for mushy, “poor quality nectarines.” That I already knew. But how does apple juice or grape juice affect the taste of the nectarines? You will have to find out for yourself; the recipe does not tell you, and I haven’t tried this option.

I chose to make the light syrup, using the specified 5¾ cups water and 1½ cups sugar for 9 pints. But this didn’t seem enough to cover 11 pounds of nectarines, the weight of whole fruits called for in the recipe, and 11 pounds of nectarines wouldn’t fit in the 5-liter pan I’d chosen. So I poured the syrup into my biggest pan and added half again as much water and sugar. I had forgotten something missing from the recipe that I know well from past experience: The nectarines should be heated in batches. I would end up with a lot of leftover syrup. And if I’d planned to heat the fruit in batches I wouldn’t have cut all the nectarines at once and so wouldn’t have worried about the long exposure to air that causes browning.

The recipe also fails to say that hot-packed fruit needs less syrup than raw-packed fruit. After brief cooking, fruit softens, so that it packs tighter in the jar. Less room is left for syrup. Although the recipe writer frowns on raw-packing, the quantities of water and sugar called for seem intended for raw-packed, not hot-packed, fruit. Even if I hadn’t increased the quantity of syrup, I would have had too much.

Once the nectarine pieces were heated, according to the recipe, I should layer them cut-side down. This is sensible; the pieces pack tighter if they are all curved in the same direction. But imagine how much harder it is to place them this way after they have been heated in syrup. Ouch, ouch, ouch! The recipe should call for gloves.

The recipe didn’t tell me to check the filled jars for trapped bubbles. Instead of poking a knife or chopstick or plastic “bubbler” into the jars and disturbing the arrangement of fruit slices, I simply turned the jars back and forth gently before adding any more needed syrup.

Before finishing up I raw-packed two jars and marked the lids with an R. After processing (I used a steam canner, for 20 minutes), the fruit in these jars was a little yellower, less orange, in color. The fruit also floated a bit more in these jars; that is, the jars held a little more syrup in relation to fruit. I think this is what the recipe meant by “poor quality,” but I’ll wait until winter to open the jars and find out what else may be poor about my raw-packed nectarines. I suspect I’ll find them more than palatable.

Hopeless rule-breaker that I am, I deviated from recipe just a bit in the end: Before putting the nectarine pieces in jars I dashed out to the garden and gathered some herb sprigs—mint, basil, shiso, lavender, and anise hyssop. Slipping one into each jar, I hoped the flavorings would be subtle; I didn’t intend to make anything fancy. But the herbs had been waiting to be used, and they now look so pretty in the jars. The USDA writer, of course, fails to mention the possibility of adding flavorings of any sort.

And what to do with leftover syrup? I dropped in the nectarine pits, still bearing a lot of flesh, cooked them a bit, and then strained the syrup. It sits in a jar in the fridge now, waiting to be mixed into soda water or cocktails.

As a reward for all this work, I sucked the flesh off the cooling pits.

The lesson I take from this project is this: USDA recipes are handy for reference, especially for processing times, but in their aloof brevity these recipes can trip up even an experienced home preserver. They certainly can’t take the place of good writers and teachers in guiding us through the tricky business of home food preservation. The lovely preserves that dozens of children presented to the Benton County Fair are a tribute to their 4H leaders’ skill.

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Preserves with a Nordic Touch

Savory SweetFrom the University of Minnesota Press comes a preserving cookbook especially for cold-climate cooks, whether they grow their own produce or shop at farmers’ markets and farm stands. Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen is a collection of condiment recipes by Mette Nielsen, a Danish-born gardener and photographer, and Beth Dooley, a cookbook author and journalist.

Omitted from the book are warm-climate fruits such as guavas, mangoes, fig, and quince, but Californians and even Southern cooks will find plenty to work with here. Beth and Mette use dried apricots in place of fresh, and they liberally employ fresh citrus—especially grapefruit juice and rind, which they combine with various fruits and even with pickled beets.

I don’t know whether the preference for grapefruit is typically Danish, but the Nordic touch is obvious in the authors’ frequent use of juniper, caraway, and dill. Still, I wouldn’t call this cookbook Scandinavian or even Midwestern. Beth and Mette play freely with ideas and ingredients from India, Mexico, Britain, Spain, Italy, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The book includes condiments of all kinds—pickles, relishes, chutneys, dips, sauces, jams, jellies, syrups, butters, mustards, and flavored salt and sugar—and some other preserved foods such as dried fruits and shrubs. Looking through the recipes along with Mette’s lovely photos made my mouth water. Particularly interesting entries include a fennel and onion confit, a pesto of garlic scapes and hazelnuts, a brined radish pickle flavored with juniper and coriander, and a tomato ketchup made with tamarind concentrate. Parsnips surprised me in two recipes—a relish, with grapefruit, and a marmalade, with lime. A chutney of butternut squash and dried apricots “was popular years ago,” but I’d never heard of it (I suspect that the original recipe is from the U.K.). An apple “compote” is sweetened chunky applesauce with horseradish and pepper flakes. The pear shrub with ginger and lime, according to the authors, is a pioneer recipe, though in a quick search I could find no old recipes for shrubs made with pears (prickly pear shrubs do go way back). In any case, almost any preserver will find intriguing ideas in this handsome hardcover volume.

Take note of one odd thing about this book: Although most of the recipes call for mason jars with flat lids and bands, the jars are to be stored in the fridge or freezer instead of the pantry. The authors’ claim that a boiling-water bath would overcook the contents isn’t entirely credible, since most of the condiments are well cooked before they are jarred. No matter, though—most of the recipes have USDA counterparts. If you don’t want to fill your refrigerator and freezer with mason jars, simply use standard processing times as appropriate (see the National Center for Home Food Preservation website). And if you don’t like canning, feel free to use your Tupperware instead of Ball jars.

Lime Ginger Pear Shrub

For this recipe Beth and Mette recommend the Luscious pear, a sweet, juicy variety developed by South Dakota State University for the cold Northern Great Plains. If you live in a warmer climate, you might substitute Bartlett pears. This is a good way to use up soft, overripe fruit.

Because the pears aren’t cooked in this recipe, I recommend you follow the authors’ advice to freeze the jars instead of processing them.

To serve, mix ¼ cup of the shrub into 1 cup sparkling or still water, and pour the mixture over ice. If you like, add a jigger of rum or vodka.

2/3 cup loosely packed coarsely grated ginger
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 cup sugar
3 pounds very ripe pears, coarsely chopped (about 7 to 8 cups)
1 cup cider vinegar

Combine the ginger, lime juice, and sugar in a medium bowl. Add the pears as you cut them. Crush the pears with a potato masher or a fork to release their juice.

Tightly cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and set the bowl on the countertop out of direct sunlight. Macerate the fruit for at least 8 hours or overnight.

Place a medium-mesh sieve over a large bowl. Working in batches, press the pear mixture through the sieve, scraping the underside of the sieve with a clean spoon. Discard the solids left in the sieve. Stir in the vinegar.

Wash the jars, lids, and bands in very hot soapy water, rinse them well, and place them upside down on a clean towel to drain.

Pour the shrub into the jars, leaving a half-inch of headroom to allow for expansion during freezing. Wipe the rims with a clean wet cloth or paper towel, add the lids and bands, and tighten the bands.

Label the jars, and store them in the refrigerator or freezer.

Makes about 7 half-pints

This recipe is from Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen, by Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Copyright 2017 by Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.

 

 

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A Better Way to Make Cherry Chutney

cherry-rhubarb chutney

Cherry-Rhubarb Chutney with grilled chicken

With some of the big, dark cherries the Washington State Fruit Commission sent me last year, I made a tasty chutney. It disappointed me, though. The cherries were so mild in flavor that the spices and vinegar overwhelmed them, and when cooked down the cherries lost their appealing meatiness. The chutney might have been made from almost any dark fruit.

I knew that the flavor of these cherries was too muted to shine in any sort of canned product, but this year I challenged myself to cook them into a chutney in which they would stand out anyway, for their shape and fleshy texture. I made the challenge even harder by also deciding to use rhubarb, which usually turns to mush with a few minutes’ cooking. The way to get what I wanted, I figured, was to combine the ingredients of an English-style chutney with a method of making fruit preserves—that is, I cooked the mixture slow, in the oven.

The chutney turned out beautiful. The tartness of the rhubarb complements the sweetness of the cherries, and the cherries lend the rhubarb better color. And you can tell at a glance that you’re eating cherries and rhubarb, not some mystery fruit.

Cherry-Rhubarb Chutney

2 pounds dark sweet cherries, pitted
2 pounds rhubarb stalks, cut into 1-inch chunks
¼ pound onion, cut into wedges
2½ cups light brown sugar
3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
3 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds, toasted in a dry pan until they pop
2 tablespoons chile flakes
2 3-inch cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons canning and pickling salt
2 cups cider vinegar

Set the oven to 250 degrees F. Combine all the ingredients in a large nonreactive, oven-safe pot. Put the pot, uncovered, into the hot oven.

After 40 minutes, gently stir the mixture. The sugar should have dissolved.

After another 40 minutes, stir gently again.

After a final 40 minutes, remove the pot from the oven. With a slotted spoon, transfer the solids to a bowl, leaving the cinnamon sticks in the pot. Boil the liquid on the stove top, with the pot uncovered, for about 15 minutes, until the liquid is reduced approximately in half, to a syrup.

Remove the cinnamon sticks from the syrup, and return the fruit to the pot. Heat the mixture gently, without stirring, just to a boil. Ladle the chutney into pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 10 minutes.

Makes 3 ½ pints

 

 

 

 

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A New Fruit for Cooler Climates

haskaps on bushIf you’ve come upon fruiting blue honeysuckle bushes in your local garden center this year, you can thank two fruit-loving Oregonians, Jim Gilbert and Maxine Thompson.

After one of his fruit-gathering trips to Russia in the 1990s, Jim introduced American gardeners to Lonicera caerulea, or the honeyberry, as he called it, through his mail-order nursery, One Green World. Later Maxine, a professor emeritus in horticulture at Oregon State University, began breeding the Japanese subspecies, from the northern island of Hokkaido. Maxine called the berries haskap, their Ainu name. She has sold plants of numbered selections to people who wanted to test them and, subsequently, propagation rights to nurseries all over the world.

haskaps in handIf you get the right variety for your region, these plants may be worth a try in your garden. Dark-skinned, with a bloom, the fruits look like elongated blueberries. They are high in vitamin C and richer in antioxidants than even black currants. The berries are not particularly aromatic, but they are mildly sweet and pleasantly tart. Their many seeds are hardly noticeable on the tongue, and the berries makes a luscious jam with no need for added pectin and none of the graininess of blueberry jam.

I planted two of Jim’s honeyberry varieties on our farm about ten years ago. One never produced berries; the other produced a few, but only once or twice. I admit that I probably didn’t water the plants often enough, but Maxine, when I visited her homestead in wooded hills north of Corvallis, explained to me the bigger problem: The two Russian subspecies, L. caerulea edulis and L. caerulea kamtschatica, are adapted to extremely cold winters. Here in the Willamette Valley, they break dormancy too early and as a result bloom too early. The Japanese subspecies, L. caerulea edulis, blooms about a month later. And yet haskaps are the earliest berries of the year, ripening even before strawberries.

The three plants Maxine sold me, each of a different numbered variety, grew into little vase-shaped shrubs beside our farmhouse. They looked very different from the sprawling honeyberry plants I’d bought from One Green World. One of those was entirely prostrate and the other a little taller, but both seemed unsure whether they were vine or bush.

Upon selling the farm I said goodbye to Jim’s honeyberries, dug up Maxine’s plants, and set the haskaps in our little city garden, where they are thriving. Now four years old, they are three to four feet tall and maintaining their handsome vase-shape. And this year, for the first time, they provided me a substantial crop.

As Maxine must have intended, the three selections together exemplify the diversity of the haskap subspecies. One’s fruits are long and torpedo-shaped, extra-tart and least numerous. The more productive, medium-size plant has thick, blunt-ended, sweeter berries. The smallest plant has the shortest berries, and their tendency to hold on to their blossoms makes for a bit of fuss in the kitchen.

The L. caerulea plants you find in your garden center will have names, not numbers. Yezberries (Yez is an old name for Hokkaido) are Maxine’s selections, released in 2016 and 2017. Yezberries Maxie, Solo, Keiko, Tanna, and Sugar Pie all bloom late and are suitable for warmer climates, like mine and Maxine’s. Also late-blooming are some of the varieties bred by Bob Bors, of the University of Saskatchewan, who has crossed Maxine’s Japanese selections with Russian honeyberries. Bob’s releases include the late-blooming Boreal Blizzard, Boreal Beauty, and Boreal Beast, and, for colder regions, the earlier-blooming Indigo series, Tundra, Borealis, Aurora, and Honey Bee. Other early bloomers are Berry Smart and Sugar Mountain Blue, both bred in the Czech Republic. You’ll find information on all of these at Honeyberry USA.*

None of these haskap or honeyberry varieties is self-fruitful, so plan to buy at least two plants, of different, compatible varieties. Plant them five to six feet apart in a sunny place. Give them some mulch, and water them now and then, but don’t worry—haskaps aren’t nearly so thirsty as blueberries. L. caerulea doesn’t need acidic soil, either.

Most varieties will grow to about six feet tall. After four or five years you’ll probably want to prune the bushes lightly, by removing weak growth and the oldest wood; this will make harvest easier. You’ll probably be harvesting more than once each season, because the berries generally don’t all ripen at once (some varieties hold on to their fruits better than others, making it possible to delay picking). You’ll likely deal with no pests but birds.

After about five years the average haskap or honeyberry plant is said to produce 8 to 10 pounds fruit. From my three plants I got only about two pounds this year, but my plants are set a bit close to one other and to other shrubs in my edible landscape, and, after all, they suffered a move after their first two years. I expect a bigger harvest next year.

Haskaps are easy to prepare and store. Maxine, an octogenarian fireball when I met her (she is now in her nineties), was freezing most of her berries and sending each buyer home with a bag of frozen fruit and a recipe for haskap crisp: Mix 6 cups berries with 1½ cups sugar and 2 tablespoons tapioca; top the sugared berries with a mix of 1½ cups each brown sugar, oatmeal, and whole-wheat flour, 1 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts and ½ cup melted butter; and bake about ½ hour at 350 degrees F.

Drying haskaps may be trickier. When I dried some in a small dehydrator that lacks a thermostat, it was difficult to keep the berries from turning hard and crisp. Like cranberries, they might dry to a more appealing, tender, chewy texture after a soak in syrup. Without added sugar, I suspect, haskaps should be dried slowly, at a low temperature.

I had to try making haskap jam. This couldn’t have been easier. Here is my small-batch, low-sugar recipe.

haskap jam 1Quick Haskap Jam

To ensure good gelling, I nearly always add lemon juice to my jams. My haskap jam, however, turned out quite tart, so next year I’ll try the recipe without added lemon.

 1 pound haskaps, rinsed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup sugar

Put the haskaps into a 12-inch nonreactive skillet. Mash them coarsely (I use a potato masher). Heat them over medium heat to a gentle boil.     

Turn off the heat, and add the lemon juice and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring, until a drop of jam mounds slightly in a chilled dish. This should take no more than 5 minutes.

Ladle the jam into pint jar or two half-pint jars. Process the jars, if you like, or else store them in the refrigerator.

Makes about 1 pint

 

*Another good source of information about L. caerulea is the website of the Haskap Canada Association.

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Sweet Violets for Jelly

IMG_0024As everybody knows, violets are blue—except when they are pink, or white, or mauve, or white tinged with lavender. This is what I learned after tilling the seven-foot-wide planting strip stretching the width of our city lot between the sidewalk and the curb.

I don’t know how many decades the seeds of Viola odorata had lain dormant under the grass and moss that covered this strip, but after brief exposure to the sun the seeds sprouted through several inches of bark mulch, and soon mounds of dark green, heart-shaped leaves formed a ground cover around the shrubs and larger perennials that I had planted.

IMG_0027That was last summer. A couple of weeks ago the violets began blooming, and now I have only to open the front door to fill my head with their unique sweet scent.

But few of my violet plants produce blue flowers. Shades of pink predominate in the parking strip, and where I’ve torn up parts of the shaded, mossy back lawn I’m finding white and blue-white violets.

In Europe and Asia, the homeland of the sweet violet, odd colors apparently arose spontaneously. Beginning in the nineteenth century, breeders named and propagated selections they particularly liked. The seeds must have sold widely. I imagine a long-ago resident of my house tearing open a packet of mixed-color violet seeds, sprinkling them up and down the planting strip, and tossing the leftovers into the backyard. The plants would have spread by seed and by rhizome until someone tore them up and planted lawn in their place. In recent decades, broad-leaf herbicides probably kept the violets from returning.

Seeds of ordinary blue violets are still available from many sources, but only a few suppliers sell seeds of old cultivars—Reine de Neiges (white, from Swallowtail Garden Seeds), Queen Charlotte (blue and white, from Hazzard’s Seeds), and the Czar (blue, from both Swallowtail and Hazzard’s). At least one nursery, Valleybrook Gardens of British Columbia, is still breeding violets; Valleybrook sells its Classy Pink, Intense Blue, and Bridewhite violets as potted plants to garden centers in Canada and along both U.S. coasts.

Maybe you wonder who would pay for a potted weed. Violets, after all, can be invasive. But even today some people take their violets so seriously that they join organizations to study, celebrate, and promote the little plants. The U.S. has its American Violet Society, and France Les Amis de la Violette. There is even an International Violet Conference.

I suspect that these violet aficionados fuss mainly over the appearance of the blossoms. I focus instead on the plant’s uses. Not only are violets among the earliest garden flowers to bloom, and not only are they fragrant. Since they don’t much object to mowing, they are an attractive addition to a shady lawn. The fresh blossoms are lovely in a salad, and they can be crystallized for decorating desserts. The dried blossoms and leaves, in a tisane, are said to soothe headaches and relieve insomnia. Violet liqueur is essential for cocktails such as the Aviator, and violet syrup can be a pleasant coloring and flavoring for white or sparkling wine, meringues, and ices.

A modern use for violets—because it requires added pectin—is violet jelly. High-methoxyl pectin, the regular kind, requires acid for gelling, and the acid I add comes from lemon juice.* Lemon juice also enhances the flavor of the jelly, and it has another effect, one that might impress your children: A little lemon transforms violet “juice” from the deep blue of blue violets to a pinker shade, nearly as pink as some of my pink violets.

IMG_0033Last week I decided to make violet jelly using only blue violets and to leave all the pink blooms alone. I don’t know what color jelly pink violets would make.I will try that experiment one of these days.

Much of the violet aroma is sadly lost in cooking, but if you start out with plenty of blossoms you will produce a jelly that is intensely flavorful as well as gorgeous.

violet flowersViolet Jelly

When you pick your violets, you needn’t remove the green calyx at the base of each flower. Even a bit of stem here and there won’t hurt your jelly.

In this recipe I’ve used Ball’s “Classic” pectin because I had some on hand, not because I favor it. You can substitute another brand, but you may need to adjust the method according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Note that when you strain your violet “juice” you can safely squeeze the jelly bag without making the juice cloudy.

4 cups blue violets
2 cups water, boiled and then left to cool for about 2 minutes
3 tablespoons strained lemon juice
3 tablespoons Ball “Classic” pectin
1½ cups sugar

Put the violets into a bowl (I use a quart glass measure), and pour the water over them. Cover the bowl, and let it sit at room temperature overnight.

In the morning, strain the liquid through a jelly bag. Squeeze the bag to extract the last of the blue liquid. Add a little water, if needed, to equal 2 cups.

Stir the lemon juice into the violet liquid. The liquid will turn a pinker shade. Pour the liquid into a preserving pan. Gradually sprinkle the pectin over, and stir it in. Bring the mixture to a full boil, and immediately add the sugar. Bring the mixture back to a boil. Boil it for 1 minute.

Remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the syrup into sterilized ½- or ¼-pint mason jars. Add two-piece caps, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 5 minutes.

Makes 1¼ pints

 

*Low-methoxyl pectin requires no acid for gelling, but in my experience this pectin produces cloudy jelly. Also, low-methoxyl pectin is usually used to produce low-sugar products (you can identify it in stores by phrases like “for low- or no-sugar jam”). Keep in mind that if your jelly is low in both sugar and acid it is not safe to eat.

Posted in Sweet preserves, Wild foods | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Hunting for Oregon Truffles

Last Sunday I joined a local truffle hunter and a few other Slow Food members on an expedition to a farm near Sweet Home. The farm includes groves of Douglas fir trees, planted close in tidy rows. This was just the sort of place to find Oregon white truffles, said Marcie, the truffle hunter. The truffles favor 20- to 50-year-old stands of “Doug fir,” now our dominant conifer, the favorite of timber companies because it grows well and fast on clear-cut land.

img_9932Luna the truffle dog had to be harnessed and leashed; she couldn’t wait to get hunting. Regardless of breed, dogs may or may not thrill to the smell of truffles. But Marcie had trained Luna with truffle-scented dog toys since early puppyhood, and the smell never failed to turn the little dog wild. She needed no treats to drive her on.

People are like dogs; some love truffles, and others are indifferent. To me the smell of truffles is chemical, like a strong cleaning product, and animal, like sweat. In fact, a major component of the truffle aroma, the steroidal pheromone androstenone, is also a component of male human sweat and female human urine. A scientific study found that some people learn to perceive androstenone only with repeated, intense exposure, and that others never sense it. The rest of us smell it strongly. We may like it or not, but at least subconsciously we may find it sexy. In another study people who sniffed androstenone rated photos of women as more sexually attractive than did people not exposed to the scent.

I don’t get to sniff truffles often, but the scent is growing on me. I loved my husband’s truffle-scented toasted hazelnut oil, which for months we sprinkled on salads, gnocchi, rice, and cooked vegetables. And the time I most enjoyed truffle-scented food was just a few weeks ago, when Marcie brought a truffle-scented triple crème cheese to a Slow Food meeting.

img_9936-2Luna pulled Marcie into the woods and began running to and fro as the rest of us scrambled behind. Almost immediately Luna stopped and began digging. She paused, snout buried in the soil, and inhaled deeply before frantically digging again. Marcie pulled her back, holding tight to Luna’s leash, while sifting the dirt for truffles with her free hand. They were hard to find, since they were less than an inch across and well coated with soil. Often Marcie is briefly fooled by a hazelnut or a cherry pit dropped by a bird. But she found a truffle at Luna’s first stop, and another and another as Luna ran a few yards and stopped to dig again. Apparently, truffles were everywhere.

IMG_0632.JPGOregon has two species of white truffles, one produced in winter and one in spring. Marcie never knows in advance exactly how the seasons are playing out in a particular woodland. Many of the truffles Luna found were falling apart or still intact but full of tiny worms. It seemed the winter truffle season was ending and the spring season hadn’t quite begun. Still, Marcie was finding a truffle or even two nearly everywhere Luna dug.

In the first, younger stand of trees that we explored, the truffles seemed to be only about four inches below the surface. In the second stand they were mostly deeper. Truffles can develop as deep as eighteen inches below ground, Marcie said. But she wouldn’t let Luna dig that deep; that would amount nearly to self-interment for such a small dog. Besides, the deeper Luna dug the more she disturbed the forest floor. And while she dug her teeth tore furiously at every root in her path.

Using a truffle dog isn’t nearly as destructive as searching for truffles with a rake can be. The craze for truffles in recent years has driven many prospectors armed with rakes into Oregon’s public and private forests. Some arrive with permission; others do not. Some rake away so much soil that roots are exposed in large circles around the trees. Understandably, more and more forest owners and managers are taking measures to keep out truffle hunters of all kinds.

Be assured: We had permission to hunt in these woods. And Marcie and her son carefully pushed the soil and duff back into every hole Luna dug.

After two hours of hunting and digging, Luna hadn’t tired, but we had. And Marcie had gathered more than a half-pint of usable truffles or truffle pieces. Many were wormy but still suitable for flavoring. Marcie washed the truffles and divided them among small plastic containers. One she left for the farmers, in payment. Luna would get a few wormy scraps.

img_9943At home, I let my truffles dry a bit and then put them into a large Tupperware container with two half-sticks of butter and a piece of cheese, an American imitation of young Asiago. Too bad I had no triple crème on hand. But I expect I’ll thoroughly enjoy this cheese and butter when, a day or two from now, I take the lid off the Tupperware and flood the kitchen with the scent of Oregon truffles.

Posted in Wild foods | 9 Comments

Cooking—and Eating—with a Hyphen

Cooking-with-a-hyphenMy German-American friend Nadia Hassani has started an online community of food writers who celebrate “the diversity of the foods that we eat every day.” From cioppino to sauerkraut to tacos to ramen to hoppin’ John, our favorite American dishes originated somewhere else. Write about that, says Nadia. Tell your readers you support diversity.

As a child in California I loved to eat fruits, cookies, ham, steak, ice cream, sourdough bread, and potatoes. Other foods repelled me. I’d stare for hours at the cold mess on my plate until I’d sneaked it all, bit by bit, to the beagle under the table.

I emerged as an adult, happily, with a fresh appetite and adventurous spirit. My adult eating habits and preferences developed under the influence of ethnic foods. A sansei roommate, a Cantonese-American cooking teacher, Indian restaurants, Italian-American winemakers, and cookbooks by immigrants from around the world—all these helped teach me to eat. While still in my teens I figured out that the best restaurants (at least, the best I could afford) were run by people fresh off the boat or plane and cooking mainly for their countrymen and -women. Most exciting of all to me were the ethnic groceries—Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese. The Japanese produce sellers in Berkeley. The Portuguese markets in Somerville, Massachusetts, where we bought chouriço and the greenest, fruitiest olive oil. The Armenian shops in Watertown, with their bulgur and fresh lavash. Boston’s North End, with its cannoli, torrone, fresh ravioli, and semolina bread. Here in Oregon, the Polish sausage maker in Tigard, the Korean supermarket H-Mart, and the Russian/Romanian/Ukrainian markets with their thick sausages, smoked mackerel, and Canadian sour cream. As a gardener, I searched for seeds of Japanese eggplants, Spanish peppers, Russian tomatoes, and Chinese greens. From the foods we grew and the influence of countless immigrant cooks, my family and I developed our own hodgepodge cuisine.

And so perhaps you can forgive me for thinking, during the Syrian refugee crisis, of flatbread, shawarma, kibbeh, falafel, and baklava. How odd to live in a place called Lebanon where nobody appreciates these foods! Wouldn’t it be nice to have a few Syrian families move into our little town? Think what they could do with the local lamb!

On a community website for Lebanon, Oregon, people express their excitement when a new fast-food restaurant opens. They lament that the town lacks a steak house. As a once picky eater, I can’t fault anyone for wanting to eat solely from the same short menu for fifty years or more. And I don’t believe in open borders; an overdose of immigration causes social upset, especially when the natives are finding it ever harder to make a living.

But for me, immigrants in the neighborhood offer adventures in eating—and in shopping, in language, in stories, in music. Immigrant butchers, bakers, cooks, and grocers remind us to value quality over predictability, and community over convenience—because good food and community are ever intertwined. So I say to the world, give us your tired, your poor, and sprinkle them generously across this land. And then let them feed us.

Posted in Books and blogs | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Cherry Peppers for Stuffing

036-2When I traveled to Italy for Slow Food’s Terra Madre two years ago, I spent a lot of time examining fruits and vegetables in jars. And the preserve I saw more than any other was stuffed cherry peppers. Most were filled with prosciutto and cheese; some were filled with tuna. Some were sott’aceto, under vinegar; most were sott’olio, under olive oil.

I was most impressed with the peppers themselves: They were uniformly round, red, and free of cracks and other imperfections. I had grown cherry peppers for years, from seeds of various origins, and I’d tried to improve the fruits by saving seeds from only the best plants. But always my peppers turned out uneven in size and shape, with many of them more conical than round. When the rains came, they all would crack around the stem. Upon learning that vastly improved cherry peppers existed, I promised myself I’d throw out all my old seeds.

About the time I did so, last winter, someone gave me a few seeds of a superior cherry pepper. I must have planted all the seeds, because I can’t find the envelope, and now I’m no longer certain of the variety name. But I believe it was Ciliegia Piccante (“Hot Cherry”), a popular hot cherry pepper from Italy.

And how lovely those peppers were in the garden! As the perfect 1-inch green spheres gradually turned red, they never cracked, even when heavy rains fell in September.

When my cherry peppers were uniformly scarlet, I picked them all at once and then considered what to do with them. In past years I had pickled a lot of cherry peppers whole, but this year’s peppers were so pretty that I felt they merited stuffing, Italian-style.

The stuffed peppers I’d seen in Italy were once a common household product, but no longer; people were worried about botulism, which from time to time has sickened a handful of Italians. The Italian government provides general advice on safely preparing vegetables sott’olio: Basically, you boil the vegetables in vinegar before covering them with olive oil, and then you give the jars a boiling-water bath. But there is no Extension-style advice for making stuffed peppers sott’olio.

An Italian friend explained to me how her mother prepared stuffed peppers: She would freeze the fruits whole after harvest, and then just before serving them she would boil them, seed them, stuff them, and marinate them.

Freezing peppers without blanching works well; raw peppers don’t soften in the freezer as other vegetables do. But my freezer was full, and in any case I didn’t think the peppers would benefit from boiling. I wondered if I could pickle the peppers—jar them up sott’aceto—and then, later, simply stuff them.

Because I didn’t want the peppers to turn out too sour, I used a light pickling solution, with more water than vinegar. I left most of the peppers whole, without slitting them, although for the sake of comparison I seeded one pintful. I poured the liquid hot over the peppers, but I did not process the jars, because in my experience processing makes peppers soft. Then I stored the jars in the refrigerator, although because I’d sterilized the jars before filling them and they had sealed well, pantry storage would have been adequate.

Three and a half months later, on Christmas Eve, I opened a quart jar of the peppers, stuffed them with prosciutto and cheese, and marinated them in the refrigerator overnight. About a week ago, I did the same with the rest, except that this time I stuffed some of them with a tuna filling.

The peppers I’d seeded before pickling turned out softer, and their liquid was cloudy and tinted orange, whereas in the other jars the liquid was a clear yellow. In other words, the seeded peppers had given up more of their goodness to the pickle juice. A bigger fault, though, was that their cut edges were torn in places. They had been hard to cut cleanly, when fresh, and now they looked untidy. The whole pickled peppers, in contrast, were easy to cut, Jack-‘o-lantern-style, without any tearing.

This is the way I’ll treat my cherry peppers from now on:

Marinated Stuffed Cherry Peppers

 For pickling:
1¾ pounds whole ripe cherry peppers
1½ cups white wine vinegar
2½ cups water
2 teaspoons salt

For Stuffing #1:
4 ounces thin-sliced prosciutto
3 ounces cheese (such as provolone, manchego, or aged cheddar), in ¼-inch cubes

For Stuffing #2:
1 6.5-ounce can albacore, packed in water or olive oil
1 ounce (about ½ small can) anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon capers
About 3 tablespoons olive oil
Ground black pepper to taste

For the marinade:
1 cup olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
A few grindings of black pepper

img_9833-2Rinse the peppers, and trim their stems. Pack the peppers into two sterilized quart mason jars. In a saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, and salt to a boil. Pour the hot liquid over the peppers, leaving ½ inch headspace. Release any bubbles with a pointed chopstick, and top up the jars if needed, retaining the ½ inch headspace. Add flat lids, and screw the rings on tight. Turn the jars upside down for 5 minutes, and then right them. When the jars have sealed and cooled, store them in the refrigerator.

img_9838-2

Each pepper is packed solid with seeds.

Several hours to a day before serving the peppers, open the jars. Cut around the stem of each pepper as if you are making a tiny Jack o’ lantern. Using a small spoon, such as one meant for feeding a baby, seed each pepper.

To make Stuffing #1, cut the prosciutto into ½-inch lengthwise strips. Wrap a strip snugly around a cube of cheese, aligning one edge with the top of the cube. Tuck the excess prosciutto under the cheese cube, and insert the wrapped cube into a pepper. You should have enough prosciutto and cheese to fill half the peppers.

To make Stuffing #2, combine the ingredients in a food processor, adding olive oil from the can of tuna or anchovies or both, if you like, plus enough additional oil to make a soft, smooth mixture. Spoon the tuna mixture into the remaining peppers, and level the top of the filling.

img_9855-2Place the filled peppers in a single layer in one or more serving dishes. Whisk together the marinade ingredients, and pour the mixture over the peppers. Cover the dishes, and chill them until 15 minutes before you are ready to serve.

The stuffed peppers all tasted good, apparently; on both occasions they got eaten up fast. Unfortunately, one little bite was all I could stand. The peppers were too hot for me!

I want to make stuffed cherry peppers again, and I want to be able to eat them myself. So now my task is to find a beautiful, uniform sweet cherry pepper. I have just received from Reimer Seeds seeds of both Kuners and Red Cherry Large sweet cherry peppers. Kuners, in the catalog picture, looks much like Ciliegia Piccante. Red Cherry Large, said to date to before 1860 (how have I missed encountering this variety before?), is supposed to be 1½ inches in diameter. For Red Cherry Large I’ll cut my cheese cubes a little larger; hopefully a stuffed pepper this big won’t be too awkward to eat. I’ll let you know!

Do you have your own favorite cherry pepper, hot or sweet, to recommend for pickling or stuffing?

 

 

 

Posted in Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments