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 More, Sweet preserves, Wild foods | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

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.

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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

First Achocha Harvest

I’ve had to wait through several weeks of computer woes to post his piece. I send it with wishes for a happy new year!

img_9628Achocha foliage with a fruit behind it. In my hand is a sandita.

In mid-December, freezing rain adorned the bare branches in my garden with icicles, which hung in place through a day of snow and several nearly sunless days that followed. But autumn’s first freeze had come only about a week before the freezing rain, nearly two months late. Suddenly, the nasturtiums, tomatillos, and oca and sandita tops had turned to mush. But no matter: The tomatillos and sanditas had long stopped fruiting, the nasturtiums hadn’t borne blossoms for weeks, and the oca had set its little pink tubers, which were now ready for harvest.

Only one vegetable plant seemed caught off-guard by the freezing weather: the achocha, Cyclanthera pedata. Just the day before it had seemed still in its prime, filling out its trellis and climbing onto the deck to smother the potted plants there.

This South American native, so long domesticated that it can’t be found in the wild, goes by many names, among them lady’s slipper and Bolivian cucumber. Although achocha indeed belongs to the cucumber family, to me it resembles a cucumber only in that both are vines, and even in their vining the two differ radically. The achocha, unlike the cucumber, attaches itself to trellises and anything else in its path by grape-like tendrils. The smooth, bright green leaves are un-cucumber-like as well; in fact, they look like cannabis leaves.* Achocha fruits are plump but two-sided, gently curved like mangoes, and smooth, firm, and semi-hollow like peppers.

Through the summer, my single achocha plant suffered in the warm, light soil on the sunny south side of the deck. The vine grew slowly and seemed set on hiding under the deck instead of climbing the trellis of nylon netting. Soaking the roots with water didn’t seem to help, though perhaps I didn’t soak them often enough.

Then the rains came, and cooler weather, and the vine flourished. At the end of August it had produced only three fruits; before the freeze it bore seven more, each two to three inches long.

I’m not sure why my yield was so poor. Achocha is said to like plenty of sun and well-drained soil, but it also likes moisture and humidity, and Willamette Valley summers are dry. Perhaps my achocha would have thrived if I’d managed to keep its roots cool and moist with a well-placed rock or a sheltering neighboring plant. Maybe the east side of the deck would have been a better place to plant the achocha.

But since the vine managed to produce lots of tiny flowers through the summer and fall, I suspect my main problem was not the planting site but poor pollination. Achocha flowers are pollinated by hoverflies, or syrphid flies, which come in many species but generally look like wasps or bees with just one pair of wings—distinctly long wings—instead of two pairs. I saw no hoverflies around my achocha.

Or maybe I didn’t look hard enough; maybe I simply didn’t notice the hoverflies. Although achocha is supposed to be self-fertile, perhaps pollination is improved with two or more plants.

Other problems I had with this plant were (1) finding the fruit, and (2) knowing when to pick it. The fruit starts out as green as a jalapeno pepper, the same color as the foliage, and maintains this color for weeks, it seems, before lightening a bit. When I managed, with difficulty, to find some fruits among the foliage, I couldn’t tell how ripe they were. Achocha fruits are edible at all stages, but the older ones are more hollow inside, with big, black, roughly square and wrinkled seeds. From less developed fruits, I scraped out the tender, pale seeds and the spongy white pulp around them with a grapefruit spoon.

The seeded fruits are bland-tasting but pleasantly crisp. South American writers say that younger achocha fruits can be eaten raw, whereas the older ones are usually cooked. Achochas are often stuffed—so often, in fact, that in some places they are called pepinos de rellenar. And I’ve read that baby achochas, as small as olives, are sometimes pickled.

Finding myself alone one evening with five achocha fruits, I decided to use them in a stir-fry for one, along with the last of the eggplants :

Stir-Fried Achochas and Eggplants

 1 tablespoon peanut oil
½ medium onion, cut into wedges
1 garlic clove, minced
1 quarter-size slice fresh ginger, minced
5 achochas, halved lengthwise and seeded, and each half halved again
3 ounces small eggplants, cut into pieces approximately ½ by ½ by 2 inches
Soy sauce, sake, and honey to taste
1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted in a skillet
Roasted sesame oil, to taste

Pour into a hot wok 1 teaspoon of the peanut oil. Add the onion, and stir-fry the pieces until they are barely tender. Add the garlic and ginger, and stir-fry about 10 seconds more. Remove the onion mixture to a serving bowl.

Return the wok to the heat. Add the remaining peanut oil, and then the achochas and eggplants. Stir-fry the vegetables briefly, until the achochas turn a brighter green. Reduce the heat, and add about 2 tablespoons sake. Dribble about 2 teaspoons soy sauce down the inside of the wok. Add the honey. Cover the wok, and simmer the vegetables until they are just tender.

Return the onion mixture to the wok, and stir. Sprinkle over about ½ teaspoon sesame oil. Cover the wok, and turn off the heat. Wait 1 minute.

Transfer the stir-fried vegetables into a serving bowl, and sprinkle the sesame seeds over. Serve the vegetables with steamed greens and steamed rice.

It was a fine solo meal, texturally rich with the crisp achocha, soft eggplant, firm onion, and chewy sesame. I hope you’ll keep stir-frying in mind among ways to prepare achochas. And definitely try partnering achochas with eggplants.

Achochas probably haven’t yet shown up in your local farmers’ market, but you can buy seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery.

*Achocha is so little known in the United States that writers disagree on its botanical name. Those marijuana-like leaves are a clue: They are palmate, or like a bird’s foot, which is what the species name pedata means. C. brachystachya, a relative with which C. pedata has been confused, has very different leaves as well as much smaller, oblong, spiny fruits. A common name for C. brachystachya is cuchinito, “little piggy.” The piggies are said to make good, gherkin-like pickles.

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Save That Potato: The Makah Ozette

Ozette potato 4.jpgThe one little potato tuber I planted in my city garden this year turned out to be a good choice: My single Makah Ozette plant yielded nearly 13 pounds of tubers.

Until recently grown only by the Makah tribe of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the pale-skinned Ozette is called a fingerling for its elongated shape, not its size; my biggest tuber was 8 inches long by 2 inches in diameter. Some other fingerling varieties, of course, can also grow gigantic. A stranger thing about the Makah Ozette’s appearance is its profusion of deep-set eyes, evenly distributed over each tuber. The big and little fingers look puckered like a hand-tacked quilt.

ozette-plant

My Makah Ozette plant, just beginning to yellow at the start of October

Stranger still is the way the plant grows. Although I planted my tiny tuber in a back corner of the garden, where it competed with nearby shrubs and received little water, the plant grew five feet tall. And it kept growing into autumn.

It’s said that potatoes, like tomatoes, come in both determinate and indeterminate types. The determinate ones die soon after producing their tubers, more or less all at once; the indeterminate ones keep on growing until disease, insect predation, or freezing weather kills their tops. Makah Ozette, then, must be indeterminate, and unusually disease-resistant besides. My plant showed no shriveling or discoloration until well into October, after at least a week of steady rain.

Harvest time brought more surprises. First, although the tubers I dug were all close to the surface, they had spread widely from the center of the plant, a foot and a half in all directions. What a clever way, I thought, for a tuberous plant to protect its future generations from soil-borne disease.

Second, the thin skin of the Makah Ozette proved remarkably tough: I could scrub the potatoes immediately after digging without rubbing off any skin. I didn’t need to store these potatoes dirty while they hardened off.

All of the other potato varieties I’ve raised have grown only about two feet tall, have died back in August, and have kept their baby tubers close to Mom. The tubers have had tender skin and shallow eyes, clustered at one end. Why is the Makah Ozette so different?

A 2010 DNA study provides the answer: The Makah Ozette, unlike all the other potato varieties with which I’m familiar, did not derive from the Peruvian potatoes brought to Spain in 1570. Those varieties slowly spread through Europe, and eventually Scottish and Irish immigrants brought them to North America. The first permanent North American potato patches were established in New England in about 1719. From there the potatoes spread westward.

But potatoes reached the Pacific Northwest long before the first big wave of white settlers. The Pacific Fur Company planted potatoes near Astoria in 1811, and the Hudson’s Bay Company grew potatoes and other vegetables at its forts, beginning with Fort Vancouver in 1825. By that year, however, native tribes in the region were already growing and trading potatoes in large quantities. Among these tribes were the Makah.

The DNA study shows that the Makah Ozette, along with two other varieties traditionally grown by Pacific Northwest tribes, is more closely related to Chilean potatoes than to European, North American, or Peruvian cultivars. The researchers concluded that the potatoes reached the Pacific Northwest by ship from Chile, perhaps with a stop in Mexico. The ancestral version of the Makah Ozette may have been brought by the Spanish traders who had a garden with potatoes at Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, from 1790 to 1792, or by the Spanish explorers who, in 1792, built and briefly occupied a fort at Neah Bay, in Makah territory. Or the potatoes may have come with some earlier, forgotten expedition: In 1790, Manuel Quimper noticed natives along the Strait of San Juan de Fuca wearing Chinese, Portuguese, and English coins as earrings, although the people had never seen a ship before.

In any case, the Makah, like other Northwest tribes, took quickly to the potato. The tribes grew potatoes much as they did camas, on “prairies,” and they named this new vegetable after wapato, a water plant whose tubers, harvested by tramping in aquatic mud, taste similar to potatoes. Hunger for potatoes drew the tribes to trade with the fur companies, and success as potato growers drew them back to the posts to sell their crops. In 1854, the ethnologist George Biggs wrote, the Duwamish and other tribes cultivated about thirty acres of potatoes at the outlet of Lake Washington, and they harvested about three thousand bushels. That’s one hundred bushels per acre—the same average yield as for commercial farmers today.

The tribes got out of the potato business when white settlers took over their lands. Some tribes, however, continued planting potatoes in their gardens. The Makah have stewarded their Ozette potato, named for one of their ancient villages, for well over two centuries. Not until the late 1980s did the Makah share the potato with outsiders.

In 2005, the Makah Ozette potato was boarded to the Slow Food Ark of Taste, and in 2008 the Makah Nation, Slow Food Seattle, and local farmers together formed a Slow Food “presidium”—a project to safeguard the future of a traditional food by establishing production standards and promoting local consumption. Today the Makah Ozette is available for planting both by farmers and by home gardeners. I got my seed from Nichols Garden Nursery.

I know I’ve been trying your patience with so much history. You want to know what this potato tastes like, right? Gardeners have variously described the Makah Ozette as earthy, nutty, firm, creamy, and similar to cooked beans. To me the flesh is dry, not so different from that of a russet potato; any nuttiness or beaniness is subtle. Still, I like the Makah Ozette for roasting, and it is delicious boiled whole and dipped in aioli (or seal oil, I suppose, in Makah style), or baked, lightly smashed, and showered with roasted hazelnut oil. The Ozette is excellent for mashing; I boil the tubers whole, slip off the skins, and blend the flesh in an electric mixer with plenty of hot liquid (any combination of cooking water, milk, cream, oil, and melted butter). Along with high productivity and drought- and disease-resistance, good taste is one more reason to try this potato in your garden.

Posted in Food history, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

Salad Days and Striped Beets

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The fall rains came early this month to the Willamette Valley, and they have scarcely let up for more than a few hours since. The ripening tomatoes split and opened like flowers. The vines blackened and finally dropped their remaining fruit, green spotted with rust and sometimes hairy with mold. I’ve gotten wet and muddy as I pull up vines and dismantle trellises, and frustrated as I fumble with knotted wet twine. But the grey clouds hiding the sun have a silver lining: These are our salad days.

We missed our greens last spring, when the weather turned unseasonably warm. The lettuce, mizuna, arugula, and spinach all flowered before they could grow to eating size. We ate some tough, bitter salads while waiting for the cucumbers to appear and the tomatoes to ripen.

Salad days go fast here in fall, too. Some years the weather stays too hot for too long, and again the greens go to seed. Other years the first freeze comes too soon, in early October. Growth stops, and the little plants begin to rot.

But as long as the rains keep falling, the garden greens thrive, immune to the diseases discoloring and shriveling the tomato and cucurbit vines. Slugs and snails, if I let them, will eat everything but the chicories, but a daily patrol ensures that the humans get some leaves, too.

So for dinner at a friend’s house last weekend I happily offered to make a salad. I would prepare a big bowlful of tender young leaves of spinach, mizuna, arugula, chicory, and nasturtium. While harvesting I pulled up some Chioggia beets, the Italian variety with the candy-striped roots. I cut off the leaves and chilled them to cook later. The roots would provide contrasting color for the salad.

These beets have posed a problem for me: When I cook them their colors run. The stripes disappear, and the roots end up looking like red beets with anemia. So I decided we would eat the beets raw.

I grated them coarsely and tasted them. The raw shreds had the earthiness of cooked beets without the sweetness that disguises the roots’ inherent bitterness. I bathed the shreds in vinaigrette; that didn’t help much. But then I added a little sugar, and the bitterness seemingly vanished. I knew what to do: I would bring the beets to our friends’ house in a lidded container with the vinaigrette, and then dress the greens with the mixture right before dinner.

In just two hours in their bath, however, the beets lost their stripes. The shreds were now uniformly pink. To preserve the stripes, I should have done the grating and the dressing all at the last minute. Still, the pink shreds of beet were pretty, especially in contrast with the deep greens of the leafy vegetables.

Fall Green Salad with Shredded Raw Beets

I used tarragon in the dressing because the plant will soon die back and I won’t taste tarragon again until early summer. But I could have instead used some of the green seeds on the five-foot-tall fennel plant by the deck; I would have crushed them lightly in a mortar to bring out their flavor. Cumin would be delicious with the beets, too.

My husband would have liked me to use unrefined sunflower oil instead of olive oil. For many people the flavor of sunflower oil would be too strange, but for the two of us that would have been a good choice.

If you don’t have Chioggia beets or don’t care about stripes, you can use red or yellow beets in this recipe instead.

 1 teaspoon minced tarragon
¼ teaspoon fine salt
½ teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon prepared mustard
A few grindings black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
½ pound Chioggia beetroots, peeled and coarsely grated

 Combine all the ingredients but the beets in a pint-size jar or other container. Cap the jar, and shake well. Open the jar, and add the beets. Shake again.

If you want the beet shreds to keep their stripes, serve the beets immediately, with their dressing, over fall salad greens. Otherwise, store the jar in the refrigerator, and take it out 15 minutes before serving the salad.

Posted in Vegetables | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Fermenting and Storing Kraut in Small Jars, without Pasteurization or Refrigeration

cabbage-heads-2-croppedI’ve more than once seen Extension home-ec agents roll their eyes when asked if it’s possible to store sauerkraut in the same jar in which it has fermented, with no heating or chilling. Where do such ideas come from? the agents ask.

From Extension’s mother agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of course! Randal Oulton recently sent me a 1936 USDA press release, intended for radio broadcast, about how USDA researchers had made and stored sauerrüben—fermented shredded turnip—in just this way:

Shredded [and salted] turnips were packed in 2-quart glass jars, which held approximately 4 pounds of turnips each when packed firmly. Because of the pressure produced by the gas released during the initial fermentation, the lids of the jars had to be left loose. By this means the gas was allowed to escape, yet at the same time a sufficient concentration of carbon dioxide to prevent aerobic spoilage was maintained over the fermenting material. As the evolution of the gas lifted considerable quantities of the juice to the top of the jar, causing it to overflow, the jars were placed in enameled pans until the period of gas formation was over. Once each 24 hours the lids were removed, the shreds were pushed down into the jars by means of a wooden spoon or blunt wooden stick, the lost juice was returned to the jars, and the lids were replaced.

I wonder if the researchers strained out the fruit flies before returning the juice to the jars. Anyway, the report continues:

As soon as the gas ceased to be given off, which required about 4 days, the jars were sealed tight and stored at room temperature. The fermentation was generally completed in 12 to 14 days, and the product was then ready for use. The product put up in this manner has been kept for 3 years and is still in excellent condition, although heat has not been applied.

Presumably the jars were stored in a cool place such as a cellar and not in a really cold place like a refrigerator. We aren’t told what kind of lids the researchers used and whether the lids formed a vacuum seal. In any case, the method worked, and the writer suggests trying it with 1-quart as well as 2-quart jars. The article makes no mention of exploding jars, which the home-ec agents always warn about.

I would certainly prefer to try this method over another recommended in the same piece: After fermenting the shredded turnip in open stone jars, you cover the surface with mineral oil.

Have you tried making and storing sauerkraut or sauerrüben in small jars without heating or chilling? How well did your method work? I’d love to hear your stories.

Posted in Fermented foods, Pickles, Preserving science, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Goodbye, Scrumptious September

With October have come gray and dripping skies and, to the garden, split and spotted tomatoes and feasting snails and slugs. This weather is the norm for autumn in western Oregon—if not for the Pacific Northwest in general.

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Renata’s happy face at the Lebanon Downtown Farmers’ Market

But nearly all of September was sunny and warm, the peak of the harvest season. Last month was a time to celebrate, and I did.

First was the Labor Day weekend tomato tasting at the Almarodes’. What an excellent way to compare and choose among varieties that have done well for your neighbors! With homegrown and home-smoked turkey, homemade wine, live music, and salads from everybody’s gardens, this annual event is always a big, noisy party.

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A couple of weeks later the Santiam Food Alliance celebrated the Day of the Nightshades at the Lebanon Downtown Farmers’ Market.

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Master Gardener Betty shares advice and beautiful books.

 

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Here’s Lisa making tomatillo salsa. In the foreground is her eggplant relish, in the background an assortment of fresh tomatoes for tasting.

Robert and I squeezed in a food expedition to Portland, with visits to the Barn (Trapold Farms’ overgrown farmstand) and various ethnic markets. My favorite was Supermercado Mexico. In the long glass case lining one side of the store were beautifully cut meats and, at one end, seafood, salsas, and dulces.

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Tomato salsa goes by many names. On the left is one that makes its primary use clear.

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On the left, candied fruits; on the right, guava paste and quince paste

Then there was a tasting of savory jams, at my house. For at least an hour my tasters were silent and serious, absorbed in their work.

savory-jam-tasting

Robert and I ended the month with a plane trip to Boulder, Colorado, where some people, at least, stop running and pedaling in the sun long enough to cook and eat well. We especially enjoyed an inventive but unpretentious dinner at Arcana, lunch at the Dushanbe Teahouse, and basil-mint-chocolate-chip ice cream at the Heifer and the Hen, where other imaginative ice-cream flavors include squid-ink-and-lemon.

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Preserves on display at Arcana

 

teahouse

The teahouse was shipped in pieces from Boulder’s sister city in Tajikistan.

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The Heifer and the Hen–a swinging place!

leyden-cheeseI nearly forgot to mention our greatest find in Boulder: raw-milk Leyden-style cheese made from grass-fed Jersey cows at James Ranch, near Durango. I’ve never had true Dutch Leyden cheese, so I don’t know how it compares, though I can say that the James Ranch cheese lacks the annatto-orange rind of the Dutch version. In any case, I love the hard, sharp, crumbly James Ranch Leyden, laden with both cheese crystals and whole, fragrant cumin seeds. We didn’t even balk at paying nearly thirty dollars a pound for this cheese at Cured, a shop on hip Pearl Street in Boulder.

Posted in Sweet preserves, Travel, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finally, Stainless-Steel Mason Jar Bands

“See this rust?” asked a county-fair judge of a young 4-Her, pointing at a little spot inside the band the judge had just removed from the child’s jam jar. “This can keep your lid from sealing.”

I’d never known even the rustiest band to keep a mason jar lid from sealing, and I was startled to learn that a fair judge might withhold a blue ribbon because of a tiny spot of rust on the inside of a band. But I do think that rusty bands are ugly. If you want to make a good impression when you display or sell or give away your preserves, you’ve got to use brand-new bands.

But why must the bands go rusty by the second or third use? After one of my readers and I recently shared our annoyance at this, he started googling. To our mutual delight, he discovered a source for stainless-steel mason jar bands.

Maggie and Ryan Helseth, owners of Mason Jar Lifestyle, say that their rings are stain-resistant, not stain-proof; they may start to rust if they’re left soaking in water for days. But they won’t rust with normal use, including passes through at dishwasher. I’ve tested some of the stainless bands by using them in a boiling-water bath and by immersing them in water for a full day. So far they show no sign of rust.

As you might expect, the stainless-steel bands cost more than regular ones: You get five narrow-mouth stainless bands for $11.99 or five wide-mouth bands for $13.99. Because of their higher cost, and because the stainless-steel bands are identical in appearance and weight to regular bands, you’ll want to take care to keep the two types separate, so you don’t give away the good bands accidentally. If you do mix up your bands, though, you can tell the stainless from the soon-to-be-stained with the help of a magnet. The stainless bands, unlike the others, are not magnetic.

stainless band & silicone lid linerMaggie and Ryan sent me some of their other products to try. I am much taken with their silicone lid liners and sealing rings. Made of material that is stable and nonreactive—that won’t leach chemicals and won’t be damaged in a dishwasher—the liners can be used under plastic mason-jar caps or two-piece lids to keep food from touching metal or plastic and to keep plastic caps from leaking, a problem especially during transport to potlucks and picnics. Though flexible, the liners are sturdy enough, at 2.2 millimeters thick, that you can use them with rings alone. The sealing rings, like the lid liners, can be used with plastic Ball caps to prevent leakage and to provide an airtight seal—not for canning, of course, but for storage of unpasteurized foods in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry. Ten silicone lid liners cost $13.99 in narrow-mouth size and $14.99 in wide-mouth. Ten silicone sealing rings cost $6.99 in narrow-mouth size and $8.99 in wide-mouth.

silcone sealing ringMaggie and Ryan also sell stainless-steel mason-jar caps, which come with their own removable silicone sealing rings (since the rings are removable they are also replaceable, although I don’t imagine they wear out fast). Without logos or other decoration, these lids are plainly attractive, especially if you dislike plastic. Like plastic mason-jar caps, the metal ones are not intended for canning. Five stainless caps with silicone sealing rings cost $16.99 for in narrow-mouth size, $18.99 in wide-mouth.

Self-described “mason jar geeks,” Maggie and Ryan have other products, too, such as a stainless lid with a hole for inserting a drinking straw. See all their stuff at masonjarlifestyle.com.

Update: August 24, 2016
A few of Maggie and Ryan’s customers have complained that the stainless-steel bands have come off in during processing, usually in a pressure canner, Ryan tells me. Because stainless steel is harder than tin, the threads on the Mason Jar Lifestyle bands are less well defined than those on ordinary mason-jar bands. Ryan is working with the factory to fix this problem. If you plan to use the stainless-steel bands for canning, I suggest waiting at least a few weeks before ordering them.

Posted in Fermented foods, Pickles, Preserving science, Sweet preserves | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments