Eating the Enemy: The European Brown Snail

Throughout last spring and early summer I murdered a hundred, sometimes two hundred, every day. Some were smaller than a pea, others were as big as a walnut. I would pluck them off leaves until both my hands were full, pile them on a stone or board, stamp once, hard, with my right foot in its rubber clog, and give a sideways shove to land all the sticky, slimy mess in a garden bed, where before the day was done their live cousins would turn them back to soil.

The European Brown Snail

 My husband was appalled at the waste. We could eat them, he would quietly remind me. But I couldn’t get up an appetite for creatures that reminded me of carnage and gore. I couldn’t even look at the sole of my shoe. I knew only that unless I kept up with the killing we’d have no vegetables, no melons—nothing appetizing to eat at all.

My enemy is the European brown snail, Cornu aspersum, formerly known as Helix aspersa and Cryptomphalus aspersus. In the Mediterranean region, people have been eating these snails for ten thousand years. They came to the West Coast of this country soon after the Gold Rush, when a Frenchman introduced them to his San Jose vineyard “with an eye to the pot.” The snails were especially adaptable, and predators were lacking. By 1900 the snails had been found in Oakland and Pacific Grove (near Monterey), and they were common in Los Angeles.* Today they are so ubiquitous in California that they are sometimes called the California brown snail. Here in Oregon they are rare in the country but abundant in the cities. They are said to live happily in forests and deserts, so perhaps they slid all the way to the Willamette Valley on their own slime. But I suspect they came on nursery pots.

One rainy day Robert and I returned from a drive to find a whole convention of big ones at the edge of the driveway and all over the artichoke plants beside it. I hadn’t been snail hunting in the artichoke bed, because snails don’t eat artichoke buds; they just like hanging out in the shade of the plants. Left alone through a wet early summer, these mollusks had grown big—almost gros gris size, as the French say, as opposed to petit gris. Robert smiled as if he’d stumbled on a morel in the forest or a well-marbled steak in a supermarket. I told him I’d collect some if he wanted to prepare them. He did.

In five minutes I’d bagged 60. Robert put them in a bucket in the basement with some cornmeal and covered the bucket with half an old T-shirt, held tight with string. One time the snails got loose, through a little armpit hole, and I had to gather them up as they were escaping in all directions across the pool table that serves as our all-purpose worktable. But otherwise their last days were uneventful. Their poop turned from black to white. Each day for six days, Robert cleaned the bucket of poop and slime. Twice a day we misted the T-shirt with water.

Europeans, we read, often kill their snails by salting them; this is supposed to thoroughly purge them of slime. But even I couldn’t be so cruel.

So Robert followed a different method. He rinsed the snails in several changes of tepid water, and then boiled them for 15 minutes in 2 gallons of water. He lifted out the snails with a basket ladle and dropped them into a bowl of water with ½ cup vinegar. He rinsed them, drained them, rinsed them again in vinegar-water, and then drained them again. He picked out the meat with a small paring knife, poking the point into the center of the whorl and unwinding the body with a twist of the wrist. And then he rinsed the meats a final time in the vinegar-water.

The 60 snails were now reduced to a collection of pretty shells and 6.5 ounces of snail meat. In the classic escargot preparation, you stuff the snails back into their shells along with butter, parsley, garlic, and the like, cook the snails, and then pull the meats out again to eat them. Robert chose a simpler way. He melted ½ cup butter, and in it he sautéed a minced celery stalk, a sliced lion’s mane mushroom, and three large garlic cloves, minced. He added the snails, 1/3 cup pinot grigio, and 2 tablespoons minced sage (unconventional, but Robert loves sage). He simmered the sauce down a bit while boiling 8 ounces of linguine. Then he added a handful of chopped parsley to the sauce and poured the sauce over the hot, drained pasta.

shelled snails

Sixty snails are a lot for two people, especially when one of them is feeling a little queasy. I would suggest increasing the quantities of pasta and sauce ingredients, inviting another couple to dinner, and serving plenty of wine. But Robert enjoyed his leftover snails for lunch. They taste fine when you stop thinking of them as war victims.

empty snail shells

I was so thorough in my slaughter in spring and early summer that now I’m killing only a dozen or two snails a day. But I have no doubt that when the rains start the snails will be back in force, if not from eggs in my garden then from the neighbors’ yards on both sides. When the creatures get really big again, I’ll ask Robert if he’s ready for another adventure with
escargot.

*Robert E. C. Stearns, “Exotic Mollusca in California.” Science 11:278 (April 27, 1900), pp. 655-59.

Mulberries for Jam

I’ve been curious about mulberries ever since I visited Dave Holderread’s waterfowl farm, about 25 years ago, and saw them planted in his duck pens. Dave explained that the trees would not only provide shade for the birds but would feed them without his intervention.

I wondered at this. Blackberries that grew on trees! Why didn’t more people plant mulberries? Why didn’t I plant a mulberry tree?

But I never identified a good place on the farm for a mulberry tree, and I certainly couldn’t make room for one when we moved to town. So I was delighted when my sister told me that my father’s mulberry tree. only a few years old, was producing heavily. That was in early July. A month later she told me that the tree was still producing loads of ripe fruit.

The other day I paid my father a visit. He, like Dave Holderread, had planted his mulberry tree to feed birds. But my father doesn’t keep ducks, or even chickens; he wanted to feed wild birds. He remembered a mulberry tree in the yard of a childhood home that had attracted all kinds of birds, whole flocks of birds. He had loved watching the birds eat the mulberries, and in his old age he wanted to repeat the experience.

The birds must have already had their fill for the day, because I didn’t notice any as I picked a pound and a half of mulberries for myself. I drove home with fingers stained deep purple.

The stains weren’t only on my fingers. Carrying the bag of mulberries into the house without removing my shoes, I noticed that my shoes were sticking to the floor, which now bore purple stains. The soles, I saw, were covered with mulberry gunk. I tried to rinse them in the kitchen sink, rubbing off the gunk with my fingers, but the water kept running purple. I scrubbed the soles with a sturdy brush to get the gunk out of the crevices. But immediately my shirt became covered with tiny purple-black dots. I felt like the Cat in the Hat with his pink bathtub ring. The water in which I was rinsing my shoes simply would not run clear, so I wrapped the shoes in a rag and set them outdoors to dry. Then I dropped my shirt in the sink and poured three kettlefuls of boiling water through the cloth. Sadly, the dots were much more stubborn than wine or blackberry stains. I gave up on the shirt, defeated by anthocyanins.

Black fruits from the species Morus nigra are considered the tastiest mulberries, but not all mulberries are black. M. rubra, native to the eastern states, is named for its red or purple fruit. M. alba, named not for its fruit but for its pale buds, can produce white or lavender as well as black berries. M. alba is the mulberry of East Asia, the original silkworm food (the caterpillars can also eat the leaves of other mulberry species). Although the West has long given up sericulture in favor of nylon and other synthetics, Europe and North America both had silk industries once, and for this reason the white mulberry is now a weed tree in Europe, much of Canada, and every U.S. state except Nevada (although, strangely, I have never seen one). M. alba is a promiscuous thing, crossing so often with the native M. rubra that some fear the red mulberry will soon no longer exist in its pure form. The heat-loving M. nigra, meanwhile, keeps to itself, not hybridizing with the other two at all. It will bear temperatures no lower than 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are other mulberry species, and many interesting cultivars within the species. One Green World Nursery sells a contorted mulberry, a weeping mulberry, a dwarf mulberry, and a mulberry from Pakistan with fruits as long as six inches.  Jim Gilbert, the nursery’s founder, has said he particularly likes ‘Illinois Everbearing,’ which although black-fruited is an alba-rubra cross. I suspect this is the cultivar my father has. It performs well not only in the Willamette Valley but throughout much of the country, to USDA zone 4. And the fruit is intensely tasty. Some compare the taste to blackberry and blueberry combined.

I stored my berries in the fridge overnight and, in the morning, clipped off their stems with kitchen shears. This is the only tedious part of processing mulberries, whose fine but tough stems are hard to pull out, easier to cut. Then I made the berries into jam in the usual way, by mashing the fruit and adding sugar and a little lemon juice. They need no added pectin.

Mulberry Jam

1½ pounds stemmed mulberries, rinsed
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

First, put on an apron or, better yet, your painting clothes. Then put the mulberries into a preserving pan. Cook them over medium-low heat, crushing them with a potato masher, until they are tender. Remove the pan from the heat.

Add the sugar and lemon juice. Return the pan to the heat, and cook the mixture over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat to medium high, and cook the jam to 218 degrees F, until a drop mounds in a chilled dish. This will take about 5
minutes.

Ladle the jam into sterilized pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 5 minutes.

Makes 1 ½ pints

This jam turns out distinct from blackberry jam, although the color and flavor are similar. The big difference is the seeds. Mulberries have more. Thankfully, mulberry seeds are small—too small to stick between the teeth—and they are pleasantly crunchy, like sesame seeds.

Mulberries are good for more than jam. The fresh ones are a treat. The fruit can be dried and—no surprise—used to make a dye. Both the leaves and the root bark are used medicinally.

Judging from the red and white immature fruits on my father’s tree, it will probably keep producing fruits for another two weeks or more. Who can resist a tree that produces huge quantities of fruit over such a long period, that brings birds to the garden, that grows to maturity quickly, that usually stays fairly small (‘Illinois Everbearing’ grows no taller than 20 feet), and that can take the form of a shrub, an espalier, and a contorted or weeping ornamental as well as an ordinary tree?

One warning, though: You should not plant a black-fruited mulberry near a walkway or in an area where children play, unless they are better trained than I to remove and clean their shoes before coming into the house.

Today I cleaned gobs of mulberry gunk off my car mat. Somehow, even the driver’s seat had acquired a few deep purple stains. They will probably be there forever.

A New, Smooth and Savory Plum Sauce

What exactly is Chinese plum sauce, anyway? I’ve often pondered this while making the stuff according to my own recipe in The Joy of Pickling, which produces a delicious chutney, thick and chewy with mustard seeds. But there is nothing Chinese about my beloved Chinese plum sauce besides the inclusion of rice wine, which I’m sure was one of my own additions to the recipe as it was passed down to me, by whom I don’t remember. My Chinese plum sauce, I’m afraid, is basically English, with a strong, nostalgic whiff of India.

Plum sauce is supposed to be Cantonese. It has long been served in Cantonese-American restaurants, where it accompanies duck or deep-fried foods. It usually takes the form of a gloppy, pink sweet-and-sour sauce that may or may not include plums or any fruit at all. But what exactly was plum sauce in China, if it even had a life in China before appearing in the United States?

Some plum sauce recipes, including Kikkoman’s, include apricots. That’s a clue: Apricots are closely related to China’s most common plum, Prunus mume, the very tart, golden fruit that’s salted and dried or used to make plum wine. The Chinese call the plant mei, the fruit meizi. The Japanese call the fruit ume, the name I know it by, too. With its high acid content and beautiful golden color, ume would make a fine sauce for meat or fried foods with no added vinegar at all.

Most plum sauce manufacturers are in the United States. At least one is in Malaysia. Kikkoman is Japanese but operates two plants in the United States and sells its products all over the world. I’ve located just one plum-sauce maker in China—in Hong Kong, actually: Lee Kum Kee. Lee Kum Kee’s founding legend goes like this: Lee Kum Sheung, the company’s founder, accidentally invented oyster sauce in 1888, when he simmered some oysters for too long. He liked the result so much that he introduced the sauce to the world. Today Lee Kum Kee makes not only oyster sauce but plum sauce from salted ume, which are spiced only with ginger and chile.

Methley plums

Sadly, I have no ume tree. Not yet, anyway—the grafts from a friend’s tree, with the rare virtue of producing fruit in our climate, have failed to take. But last week my friend Renata brought me two grocery bags full of Methley Japanese plums, and Robert and I couldn’t eat them all fresh. It was time to make plum sauce.

pitted plums

I didn’t want to use my old recipe. I wanted something more like real plum sauce, if I could figure out what that might be. I scanned recipes on the Web. Some contained soy sauce, but that would darken the plum sauce. Some included a slough of muddying spices. Some called for starch—cornstarch or potato starch or yams.

I didn’t want my sauce to be gluey, overspiced, oversweetened, or any darker than it needed to be (Methley plums are purple). But I did want it to be smooth, so I would leave out any vegetables or seeds, and I would put the mixture through the food mill. I would keep the sugar content moderate and the spicing typically Chinese. Here is the recipe I developed.

Methley Plum Sauce

3 whole star anise
2 teaspoons chile flakes
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppers
1½ tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 pounds pitted Methley or other Japanese plums
1 tablespoon pickling salt
1½ cups rice vinegar
1½ cups sugar

Put the star anise, chile flakes, cinnamon stick, and Sichuan peppers into a spice bag. Put the spice bag along with the remaining ingredients into a large nonreactive pot. Bring the mixture slowly to a simmer, and simmer it uncovered for about an hour, until it has thickened substantially but is still thinner than hot jam or chutney.

Press the spice bag with a spoon against the side of the pot, and remove the bag. Press the plum mixture through the medium screen of a food mill. Return the sauce to the pan, heat the sauce just to a boil, and then ladle it into pint or half-pint mason jars. Process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.

Makes 2 to 2½ pints

With no duck on hand, we tried the sauce on ham. The sauce is tart, mildly tannic, and aromatic, and not too sweet. I like it very much, though I think I would like it even more with lighter-colored plums.

Feel free to vary this recipe according to your tastes. You might leave out the chile flakes, the Sichuan peppers, or both if you dislike them. The ginger and star anise should be the dominant flavors—though you might leave out even the star anise if you prefer; after all, star anise probably isn’t traditional in Cantonese plum sauce.

I look forward to re-inventing plum sauce once more when I have some fresh ume plums to work with. In the meantime, I may try making a small batch in the Lee Kum Kee style, from ume plums that I salted myself last year.

Now, tell me: What is Chinese plum sauce to you? Do you have your own unique way of making it?

Eating Purple Peas

I fell in love with purple peas two years ago at Monticello, where the pea was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable. He had his slaves plant every variety he could get his hands on.

Capucijner peas at Monticello
Capucijner peas at Monticello

I didn’t taste the purple peas; I only saw them growing in Monticello’s restored garden. With their lovely pink-and-violet blossoms and deep-purple pods, they were the Blue-Podded Capucijner, said to have been grown by Franciscan Capuchin monks as early as the sixteenth century and now for sale in the Monticello gift shop. The Capucijner is recommended for drying for soup, but it is sometimes picked young and eaten as an edible-podded snow pea. I didn’t know that at the time, or care. I just loved the plant for its looks.

In Monticello’s shop I reluctantly bypassed the Capucijner seeds, because in my little garden I can spare only four feet of row for peas, and I usually devote all of that space to Cascadia snap peas. But after Slow Food USA paired seeds from the Ark of Taste with new varieties from the young company Row 7 in Slow Food’s Plant a Seed Campaign last year, a packet of Beauregarde snow pea seeds was passed around the table at a Slow Food Corvallis board meeting. With one look at the watercolor image of purple pods on the packet, I dropped the packet in my bag.

Beauregarde peas on the vine
Beauregarde peas on the vine

Last February I planted some Beauregarde seeds alongside my Cascadias, and soon I was rewarded with pink-and-purple blooms like the ones I’d seen at Monticello. Deep-purple pods followed, bending as the peas inside began to swell. I had to search for the packet to remind me what sort of peas I was growing. At this point, some of the peas—green in their purple pods—were nearly big enough for eating shelled. But Beauregarde was supposed to be a snow pea. So I started picking.

Beauregarde was bred by Michael Mazourek, an associate professor at Cornell, where he breeds vegetables to resist insects and diseases on Northeastern farms. Row 7 Seeds is his collaborative venture with Dan Barber, chef and restaurant co-owner at the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, also in New York, and seedsman Matthew Goldfarb. The men’s shared goal is to breed vegetables for taste as well as suitability for organic farming, to produce the seeds organically, and to sell them widely. On the Row 7 website, they list all their collaborators, chefs around the United States who test the vegetables in their kitchens and farmers across the country who produce the seeds.

Michael Mazourek named Beauregarde for Violet Beauregarde, a character in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As you may remember, rude, arrogant Violet chews an experimental gum that makes her swell up and turn blue, like a giant blueberry. The Oompa-Loompa factory workers squeeze the juice out of her, but the indigo color remains. And that’s what most special about the Beauregarde pea pods: However you cook them, the deep-purple color remains.

The purple color comes, of course, from anthocyanins, which may or may not enhance human health by fighting infections, inflammation, cancer, and diabetes, by preventing dementia, and by improving vision. Unfortunately, none of these benefits has been proven. What we know anthocyanins do is improve plants’ defenses–against disease, drought, predation, and other stresses. Perhaps because of anthocyanins, Beauregarde resists fusarium wilt, although the plant is susceptible to powdery mildew late in the season.

After the peas are eaten, purple stains remain.
After the peas are eaten, purple
stains remain.

Humans appreciate anthocyanin pigments for their appearance, in the garden and on the plate, and for the extra, vaguely spicy flavor they lend to, say, Black Krim tomatoes or Purple Haze carrots. But there is one annoying thing about most red and purple vegetables: Their pigments tend to leak out. I’ve written about this effect in pickled Swiss chard stems, and I’ve experienced it also with purple peppers. Michael Mazourek knows the trick of keeping the purple in the peas.

I didn’t research Beauregarde peas before cooking them, so their color retention amazed me. Cooking the peas brought other surprises as well. First, they are not sweet. My snap peas are sweet enough to eat as dessert. Shelled peas are sweet, too, if picked at the right stage. Green snow pea pods develop sweetness as the peas develop, although as they reach maturity the sugar turns to starch. Row 7 advises letting Beauregarde pods swell until the peas are halfway to shelling size. This is what I do when I grow green snow peas, but I must disagree with this recommendation for Beauregardes. Swollen Beauregarde pods look deformed, they are tough, and they need stringing. And their flavor is not improved over the flat pods.

The second big surprise, for me, was the long cooking Beauregarde peas seem to require. I haven’t timed the cooking exactly, but at least ten minutes are needed to render even flat Beauregarde pods tolerably tender.

The third surprise was that Beauregarde peas taste bland. Their anthocyanins don’t seem to give them that extra je ne sais quoi. I can best describe their flavor as neutral vegetable.

Beauregarde pea pods stir-fried with bok choy and served over Thai magenta noodles
Beauregarde pea pods stir-fried with bok choy and served over Thai magenta noodles, which are colored by anthocyanins from the tropical perennial Peristrophe roxburghiana (or P. bivalvis)

But still these pea pods can be delicious. I love them sautéed in olive oil with plenty of garlic and then braised with a little water liquid until they are tender. The tender but chewy texture, the taste of garlic throughout, and the prodigious purpleness combine to make me devour a dishful of Beauregardes, and reach for more.

I would love to hear about your experiences with these and other purple peas, such as Sugar Magnolia, Royal Snow, and Royal Snap II.

Shopping in the Garden for Spring Salad Makings

spring salad

While we are all avoiding trips to the grocery store, it’s good to remember that the garden may offer much more interesting things to eat, anyway. Here I’ve combined the last of the arugula with shaved fennel and johnny jump-ups, which have jumped up everywhere in the gravel between my raised vegetable beds. These flowers are not only edible but truly tasty. Since their aroma is easily overwhelmed by vinaigrette, they are best eaten straight from the plant, but how they prettify a salad! I’ve added handfuls of tart, juicy haskaps, the first fruit of the year, always beating out strawberries by at least a week. And finally I’ve sprinkled over big green seeds of sweet cicely, a ferny plant of the carrot family whose roots, leaves, and seeds all taste sweetly of anise and are said to be helpful to the digestion. Safeway may have some fennel bulbs in stock, but otherwise none of these plants can be found there. Together they taste of springtime.

Naked Barley: Lovely and Local

The food shortages that accompanied the outbreak of the coronavirus and continue to this day have made local food—food produced for the local population rather than for shipping across the country and overseas—a suddenly more urgent cause. I have struggled to understand why supermarkets have been able to stock all-purpose flour but not bread flour or whole-wheat flour. But I have asked myself a more important question, too: Why are we all reliant on grain and flour from Midwestern mega-mills? One hundred and twenty years ago, everyone in this valley ate wheat both grown and ground within ten miles or so from home. If we still did that, we would have some security against crises that upset the national and international food distribution networks.

As I thought about all this last week, my heart swelled for the one pair of local farmers I know who grow wheat, barley, and meal corn, bag it themselves, and spend much of the summer at farmers’ markets selling their goods to the public. And I took a bag of the Harcombes’ naked barley out of the freezer.

Naked barley gets naked by dropping its inedible hulls during harvest, just as modern wheat varieties do. This means the barley doesn’t need “pearling”—the abrasive process that removes the bran as well as the hull of each kernel. Naked barley takes longer to cook than pearl barley, but it has a pleasant, chewier texture, nutty flavor, and more nutrients. And its habit of shedding its own hull means that small commercial farmers and even homesteaders can easily process it to a ready-to-cook stage. You can use naked barley in brewing and for animal feed as well.

Naked barleyPaul and Nonie Harcombe’s naked barley is a variety called ‘Streakers,’ the first release of the Oregon State University Barley Project. Naked barley was nothing new when the OSU researchers started their project, but they aimed to breed something new indeed: a naked barley that would resist the rust disease endemic to the Pacific Northwest. The grain has grown well for Paul and Nonie. Now they just need to get people used to eating barley.

And why not eat barley, especially when it’s hulled but not pearled? The whole grain is full of minerals and fiber. It can help to lower both blood sugar and cholesterol. It is excellent as a breakfast cereal and in grain salads and pilafs. And it makes an interesting substitute in some traditional pearl-barley dishes, such as this soup.

mushroom-barley soup

Mushroom-Barley Soup

I have used here a mix of chanterelles and winter chanterelles (funnel chanterelles, yellowfoot chanterelles) from the freezer. Both are easy to find in the lower Cascades, not far from my home, and easy to identify, too. Before freezing the mushrooms last fall, I cleaned them and cooked them in a dry skillet until they stopped releasing water.

¾ cup naked barley
2 ¼ cups water
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 quart beef or chicken stock
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
4 ounces onion, chopped
2 ounces carrot, chopped
2 ounces celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
8 ounces frozen cooked chanterelles or other mushrooms, thawed
½ cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh thyme or savory leaves
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

Put the barley into a bowl with 1½ cups of the water. Cover the bowl, and let it stand overnight or for at least several hours.

Toward the end of this period, put the shiitakes into a bowl with the remaining ¾ cup water. Weight the shiitakes with another bowl set inside the first, and let them soak for an hour.

In a pot, combine the barley, the stock, the shiitake soaking water (reserve the shiitakes), and the bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover the pan, and let the barley simmer for an hour or until it is tender.

In a small skillet, heat the oil or butter over medium heat. Sauté the onion until it is tender. Add the carrot, celery, and garlic, and sauté 5 minutes more. Put the vegetables into the pot along with the frozen and thawed mushrooms, the parsley, and the thyme or savory. Slice the shiitakes, and add the tops to the pot. Add the salt and pepper to taste. Return the contents of the pan to a simmer, and simmer them for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.

Serve the soup at once, or cool it for later reheating. The naked barley won’t swell as much as pearl barley, so your soup won’t turn into porridge. If you’d like it thinner, though, just add some stock or water.

Serves 3 as a main dish

ChouAmi: A New Jar-Top Fermentation Device

parts of a ChouAmi
ChouAmi parts

I am so mechanically inept that I have never been able to figure out the Kraut Source fermentation device—an expensive thing ($30!) made up of several stainless-steel parts that somehow fit together on top of a standard American mason jar. I was just as bemused when I received in the mail a ChouAmi fermentation device, which is nearly exactly like the Kraut Source device except that the ChouAmi version fits on a straight-sided, 1-liter Le Parfait jar. Such a jar was included in the package, but instructions were not.

The jar and all the stainless-steel pieces sat on the kitchen counter for months. Occasionally I would examine them and try fitting them together. Enlightenment alluded me. Then I decided use a big daikon and an Egyptian walking onion, before it went to seed, to make some kakdooki.* I looked at the Le Parfait jar. It appeared to be just about the right size to hold my big daikon. It was time to try out the ChouAmi.

Kakdooki is Korean-style fermented radish cubes, flavored with ground red pepper, green onions, garlic, sometimes ginger, and often fish sauce or tiny brined shrimp or both. This is one fermented pickle that I never bother to weight, because the seasonings seem to prevent any yeast or mold growth. Regardless, I would use my fancy new device. I mixed the radish cubes and seasonings, dropped them into the jar, and pressed down the mixture with my fingers. It fit perfectly, with just an inch or so of headspace.

trough, spring, and plateI picked up the ChouAmi pieces, and suddenly I knew exactly how they fit together. I placed the main piece on top of the jar and screwed the ring over it. Then I turned the loop in the center of the main piece. This released a spring attached to a perforated plate sized to fit perfectly in the jar (this main piece is actually three; they come apart for cleaning). The plate pressed against the vegetables, while liquid rose over it. I set the dome on top.

adding the domeOnly hours later did it occur to me that the dome wasn’t meant to keep out dust. It was sitting in a trough. So I filled the trough with water. Now I had an airlock! Carbon dioxide could escape under the dome, through the water, but oxygen couldn’t get in.

What an elaborately clever device! No wonder the price was so high.

Actually, though, I don’t know the price of a ChouAmi. The company is still getting started, through a Kickstarter campaign. The company website needs work; I couldn’t get the instructional video to play.

fermenting kakdookiSo I’m afraid that if you head to your local kitchenware store today you won’t find the ChouAmi. But the store is probably closed, anyway. So, wait until the danger of the corona virus eases, and then keep your eyes open for the ChouAmi. If you’re happy to make most of your vegetable ferments in a 1-liter jar, this device may prove to be a bon ami indeed.

*Green Egyptian walking onions are sweeter and milder than scallions.

Lavender Mashed Potatoes

lavender potatoes croppedHow is this for a garish plate? The mashed potatoes are made with Purple Peruvians, an old fingerling variety with the most intensely purple flesh I’ve ever seen in a potato (though not all of the tubers are solid purple; some are marbled purple and white). When I made baked chips for a dry-farmed potato tasting last year, I I had trouble with the Purple Peruvians; they needed much more time in the oven than the other varieties before they would dry out and turn crisp. Still, as chips they were the second favorite of five varieties among a big roomful of food enthusiasts, and as boiled potatoes they nearly tied for second place.

Purple Peruvian potato
Purple Peruvian, eager to get into the ground

But what Purple Peruvians are best for, in my opinion, is mashing. I like the way the lavender mashed potatoes stand out here beside cooked mixed greens from the garden and the tomato-citrus jam, thinned with soy sauce, that tops the albacore steak. And these mashed potatoes don’t just sport a pretty color. They truly taste as good as they look.

You don’t need a recipe to make Purple Peruvian mashed potatoes. Fingerlings can be hard to peel completely, but I simply strip off the skins with a vegetable peeler and ignore the many eyes. I boil the potatoes in just a little salted water, so they are cooked mostly by steam. When they are tender, only a very little water is left in the pan. I then add milk and butter to the hot potatoes, set the pan over low heat until the butter melts, and purée the contents with an electric mixer. I can beat the potatoes for quite a long time without their becoming gluey.

I haven’t grown this potato myself before—the ones I’ve used were left over from the tasting—but I will make room for one in my little garden. The Maine Potato Lady  tells me what to expect of the plant: These potatoes are late, frost-tolerant, pest-resistant, and, like the Makah Ozette, “rangy”—by which she means you have to search widely to find all the tubers if you don’t want them volunteering the following year.

I think I may welcome those volunteers.

Chard for the Freezer

Thanks to the mild winter, Robert and I have been eating so much greens that I keep checking my skin for a greenish tinge. It’s hard to keep up with the spring onrush of asparagus, artichokes, and Asian brassicas while we’re still eating overwintered arugula, collard buds, and Swiss chard.

The chard is especially overwhelming. Mostly self-sown, it grows in deep-green clumps all over the garden, reaching ever taller as it prepares to set seed. I’ve been cutting the stalks, squishing the snails, separating the best leaves, and cutting up and burying all the rest of the plants in hope of foiling leafminers, the larval stage of flies who lay their tiny white oblong eggs in neat rows on the underside of the leaves.

I’ve been packing the best-looking leaves into bags and taking them to the neighbors (two fully extended arms equals six feet of social distancing). But now I’ve run out of neighbors. So, when heavy rain and wind sent a few chard plants sprawling over the ground the other day, I decided it was time to do some preserving.

The thought of frozen chard reminds me of frozen spinach, which my mother used to buy in a paper box, thaw in a saucepan, and plop onto plates while my father sang that he was Popeye the Sailor Man and I turned white and covered my mouth. But frozen spinach is actually little different from cooked fresh spinach, and frozen chard is little different from frozen spinach. You can use frozen chard in puréed soups, chunky soups like minestrone, lasagna, tossed pasta, crêpes, quiche, saag paneer, and much else. And how handy, on busy days, to have cooked chard in a form that needs only thawing. No disposing of snails and slugs, no washing, no cutting out stems. Just thaw the stuff, and it’s ready to incorporate into dinner.

So yesterday I prepared and froze some chard. The process is simple:

Cleaning chard

  • Immerse the chard, in batches, in a big kettle or bowl of water, and agitate the water enough to clean the leaves of snail dropping.
  • Drain the leaves in a big colander.
  • Cut the stems off small leaves, and cut the stems out of large leaves, with a knife or kitchen shears.*
  • Cut the bigger leaves into pieces. You don’t need to chop the leaves; you would lose more nutrients that way, and leaving them in big pieces gives you more flexibility when you take the chard out of the freezer.

Blanching chard

  • Bring a kettle of water to a boil, and blanch the leaves in batches for 2 minutes, using a blanching basket.
  • Lift the basket, drain off the hot water, and transfer the chard to a big kettle or bowl of cold water. Agitate the water a bit to cool the leaves.
  • Drain the cooled chard in a colander.

Chard for the freezer

  • Stuff the chard into pint-sized freezer containers. I use freezer-weight plastic bags. Don’t squeeze out excess liquid; you can do that after thawing the chard, if you decide you want to.
  • Label the containers, and put them in the freezer.

You’ll notice that both the blanching water and the cooling water look a little green afterward. Your chard has lost some nutrients, but you don’t have to throw them down the drain. Return the water to the garden instead.

verde da taglio going to seed
Verde da taglio, going to seed

*You can avoid this task of stem extraction by planting verde da taglio, an Italian chard variety with relatively flat, tender leaves and thin stems. With verde da taglio, you can simply cut off the stems rather than carving around them.

If your chard has thick stems, though, you can certainly use them. You might pickle them, for example, with vinegar or by brining. But I dislike them and so chop them up and compost them. I don’t worry about leafminers hatching in the compost, because the flies don’t lay eggs on the stems. (Snails and slugs don’t eat chard stems, either. I’m not the only one who dislikes those stems!)

Barely Candied Nuts

candied pecans
Barely candied pecans

True wealth, I believe, is a mature Persian walnut tree, to feed you, your family, and your friends through the winter with tasty kernels rich in fat and protein, and to provide green nuts in early summer for liqueurs, preserves, and pickles.

Sadly, I am walnut-poor. I planted a walnut tree on the farm but had to take it out so it wouldn’t shade the solar panels. Here in town, the squirrels keep trying to plant walnuts in my little garden, but I always pull up the seedlings, because if I had a mature walnut tree I wouldn’t be able to grow much else.

Fortunately, walnuts often come free to anyone who doesn’t mind picking them up off the ground. I used to collect from trees along country roads and one in a middle-school playground. Now my husband and I gather walnuts while walking around town, where they fall in the street and on the sidewalk, or in yards when the homeowner doesn’t mind. We dry them on the pool table in the basement, crack them in front of the fire on winter evenings, and eat them every day in our breakfast bread and at holiday time in various kinds of cookies.

Once in a while I crave candied walnuts. Then I remember that most candied nuts are overwhelmingly sweet, because they are more candy than nuts. But one day I thought I’d try candying walnuts so that they would turn out like kettle corn, with just a little sugar and some salt, too. I didn’t want to end up tossing nuts all over the kitchen—making kettle corn without a mess requires a very, very deep kettle—so I developed a method that uses water to make a syrup. Basically, I stir hot nuts into a little hot caramel and then separate the individual nuts. Walnuts candied this way are a fine treat for the holiday table, and they shouldn’t break a tooth or pull out a filling.

I like this treatment even more with pecans, the walnuts of the South. The method should work well for hazelnuts and almonds, too.

Candied Nuts, Kettle-Corn Style

1½ cups walnut or pecan meats
1½ tablespoons water
3 tablespoons sugar
3/8 teaspoon fine salt

Heat the oven to 300 degrees F. Spread the nuts in a baking pan, and place the pan in the heated oven. Roast the nuts for about 30 minutes, until they have darkened a bit and begun to smell toasty.

While the nuts roast, pour the water into a heavy-bottomed stainless-steel skillet. Sprinkle the sugar and salt over. Lay a piece of parchment paper on a counter close by.

When the nuts are ready, turn off the oven, but leave the baking pan inside. Heat the skillet over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Raise the heat to medium, and set the hot pan of nuts by the stove. When the syrup begins to color, remove the skillet from the burner. Swirl the skillet a bit as the residual heat caramelizes the syrup. If the syrup isn’t caramelizing completely, set the skillet over low heat briefly. As soon as you have a uniformly colored syrup, add the hot nuts. With a wooden spoon or spatula, turn the nuts in the syrup until they are all coated. Then turn them out on the parchment paper, spreading them with your spoon or spatula.

Let the nuts cool for a minute or two, and then separate the individual nuts with your fingers. As soon as the nuts have cooled to room temperature, store them in an airtight container.

 Makes 1½ cups