Tasting Local Chestnuts—American, Chinese, and European

peeled chestnuts smallerI am lucky to have Carol Porter’s chestnut farm nearby. After all, the whole United States has fewer than a thousand chestnut farms, totaling a little over 3,700 acres. Americans grow only 1 percent of the world’s chestnuts, while importing about five times the tonnage we produce. We would grow and eat many more chestnuts than that, I believe, if we could remember how good they are—even though they are a bit of a pain to prepare.

Americans once venerated the chestnut—the tree, at least, if not the nut itself. The American chestnut grew straight and tall, to more than 100 feet, and it dominated the forests of eastern North America. Its straight grain and resistance to rot made it ideal for log cabins—especially for foundation logs—and for poles, posts, masts, floors, and railroad ties. The nuts fed domestic pigs and cattle as well as people and wildlife.

By 1950, however, the American chestnut was a fading memory. In just a few decades, a fungus imported with Asian chestnut trees had killed nearly every American chestnut. This disaster was worse than the stock market crash of 1929, Carol says, in that it devastated the lives of the masses rather than harming a relatively few rich people.

Carol doesn’t actually favor American chestnuts. She acquired her American trees by mistake, after a nursery owner grafted European chestnuts (Castanea sativa) to American (C. dentata) seedlings. The grafts failed, and the rootstock grew up slender and tall among the wide, round canopies of the Chinese and European chestnuts.

Carol does like Chinese chestnuts (C. mollissima), which grow particularly well in her hillside orchard and reach only about 40 feet in height.

Yet all of the nuts Carol sells come from another chestnut variety, the Colossal, a hybrid of European and Japanese chestnuts (C. crenata) bred in California in the early twentieth century. The Colossal is vulnerable to chestnut blight, but that disease has never become an epidemic on the West Coast, with our dry summers and lack of native chestnuts. The American chestnut thrives here for the same reason.

Recently Carol led me and a few friends through her orchard. As Carol talked, the rest of us filled our pockets with American and Chinese chestnuts, which otherwise would have fed Carol’s pigs and goats, before Carol led us to an outbuilding to buy bags of washed and dried Colossals. Our petty theft allowed us to do a taste comparison later, at home, after roasting some of the nuts. The small, rather flat American chestnuts are said to be sweetest, but Robert, Renata, and I all found them more nutty than sweet. The Chinese chestnuts, bigger and rounder than the Americans, were sweetest. The very big Colossals—often an inch and a half across—were least sweet and least nutty. They tasted starchy, like yellow sweet potatoes, and mealy. European chestnuts, after all, have only 4 percent fat, in comparison to 10 percent fat in American chestnuts. Although Carol’s customers want the biggest chestnuts available and so buy only Colossals, we preferred the American and Chinese nuts.

All of the chestnuts we brought from Carol’s farm required some work in shelling and peeling. A chestnut has not only an outer shell but also a thin inner skin. Unless you are a hog, the skin as well as the shell is best removed before eating. To keep the nut from exploding, you slit the shell on the flat side once or twice, without cutting the flesh, before cooking the nut. Depending on how you plan to use the nuts, you might boil them after slitting, but for eating on their own chestnuts are traditionally roasted. Renata remembered her Swiss brother’s advice: Soaking slit chestnuts in water for as long as overnight makes it easier to remove the skin after roasting. To Renata and to me, an overnight soak seems overlong for fresh chestnuts, but we both found that a 15- to 30-minute soak really does seem to loosen the skins.

Oddly, chestnut recipes are scant in old American cookbooks. Mrs. Lincoln, in her Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1884), has recipes for chestnut stuffing and chestnut sauce, both intended for poultry, and The Settlement Cookbook (I have the 1976 edition) combines chestnuts with cabbage, with brussels sprouts, and with prunes, and also includes recipes for chestnut croquettes, chestnut ice cream (yum!), and “chestnut dessert.” But, perhaps because the nuts were just too cheap and commonplace, many old American cookbooks have no chestnut recipes at all, and most of the recipes I did find were identified as French or Italian.

I knew what I wanted to do with my chestnuts, and I knew how I wanted to do it. I would make a simple chestnut soup. The first chestnut soup probably came from France, source of so many purées, but no matter. The soup is sweet and smooth and not too rich, and it will satisfy you even if you forego bread with the meal. It is a very good use especially for Colossal chestnuts or any European variety.

I garnished my soup with a bit of chopped parsley, which provided an interesting contrast in color, texture, and flavor. I would have used finer, paler celery leaves instead, if I’d had any on hand.

chestnut soup small

Chestnut Soup

 1½ pounds fresh chestnuts, in their shells
4 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons butter
4 ounces chopped yellow or white onion
1½ cups whole milk
½ teaspoon fresh-grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon fresh-ground white pepper
Salt
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped celery or parsley leaves

Slit each chestnut once crosswise, or twice in the form of a cross, on the flat side. Put the chestnuts into a bowl, cover them with water, and let them soak for 15 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Lay the chestnuts slit-side up in a roasting pan. Roast them in the hot oven for 20 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven. As soon as the chestnuts are cool enough to handle, peel off their shells and as much of their skins as you can. If a nut crumbles while you’re trying to skin it, scrape the flesh out of the skin with a spoon. Combine all of the meats in a saucepan with the chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a simmer, and let it continue to simmer for 20 minutes.

While the chestnuts simmer, melt the butter in a small skillet. Add the onion, and sauté it until it is soft.

When the chestnuts have finished simmering, put them and their cooking liquid into a blender jar. Add the sautéed onion, and blend the mixture to a purée. Pour the purée into the saucepan. Add the milk, nutmeg, and white pepper. Stir, and add salt to taste. Heat the soup just to a simmer.

Serve the soup hot, garnished with the celery or parsley leaves.

 Serves 4

For recipes for chestnut cream and preserved chestnuts in syrup, see The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.

 

More about Chestnuts

American Chestnut Foundation
The Faint Taste of a Lost Harvest (New York Times)
Growing Chinese Chestnuts in Missouri
Chestnut Culture in California

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.

Adventures with Almonds, Part I: The Marvelously Fragrant Hall’s Hardy Almond

This is the first part of a two-part series. I’ll publish the second, on making marzipan, shortly.

In the meantime, you might check out two articles I recently published with Mother Earth News, “Finally, a Good Thermometer for Home Preserving” and “Fun to Watch, Fun to Eat: Pickled Mixed Vegetables Brined in Glass.”

 

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Hall’s Hardy almond tree

I finally got around to cracking last fall’s crop of Hall’s Hardy almonds, my biggest in the five years since I planted the tree. I had more than half a cup of nutmeats!

Hall’s Hardy is actually a peach-almond cross. But because it blooms late, resists fungal disease, and self-pollinates, it is considered the only almond variety suitable for growing in the Pacific Northwest. Or so it was considered until recently, when Jim Gilbert of One Green World introduced several Ukrainian almond varieties, all of which are said to have the same virtues as Hall’s Hardy, plus more: They are true almonds, with soft or semisoft shells. But the Ukrainian varieties are yet unproven in Oregon. For now, I’m grateful for my tiny almond harvest, especially because these almonds have something the soft-shelled true almonds almost certainly lack: the lovely flavor of almond extract—that is, the flavor of bitter almond.

Hall's Hardy in shellCracking a Hall’s Hardy almond is problematic. Once freed of its husk, the nut looks like a peach pit, and it’s just as thick and hard. I tried using a kind of nutcracker, meant for walnuts and pecans, that surrounds the whole nut; as you press the two arms together, the hinged central cup hugs and squeezes the nut inside until the nut breaks at the seam. I cracked two or three nuts with this cracker, and the small kernels, to my delight, turned out whole. And then the hinge sprang.

hammering almonds, bestSo I got out a hammer, an old bread board, and a dishtowel I’d consigned to the rag bin. With the hammer method it’s important not to use a board or a towel that you care about, because you’re bound to damage both. You place a few nuts at a time on the board, lay the towel over, and then bang, bang away. You remove the towel and collect all the nut pieces, most of them itsy-bitsy. And then you toss out a mountain of thick shell pieces and sweep the stray ones from underfoot before they damage your floor or your flesh.

By this point some of you dear readers no doubt feel alarm, and not about the dangers of stepping on nut shells. It’s my mention of the flavor of bitter almond, right? The essential oil of bitter almond is nearly pure benzaldehyde, a chemical that signifies the presence of amygdalin, which enzymes in the intestines convert to prussic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide. And cyanide kills. Some scientists say that eating 50 bitter almonds will kill an adult; a child may die after eating only 5 to 10. Other stone-fruit kernels—apricots, peaches, and plums—contain the same flavor, the same chemicals, and the same deadly power.

Despite its toxicity, amygdalin has a long history as a medicine. In China, for example, apricot pits have been traditionally used for coughs and constipation. But amounts taken were probably miniscule before the 1950s, when amygdalin in the form of laetrile, or so-called vitamin B17, became a folk treatment for cancer. In the United States, the popularity of laetrile surged after 1972, when a researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center reported that the drug inhibited secondary tumors in mice. Although other researchers were unable to confirm these results, desperate cancer patients traveled to Mexico to buy laetrile or got their amygdalin directly from stone-fruit pits—especially from apricots, whose kernels, even richer than bitter almonds in amygdalin, are used as a food flavoring in Turkey, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region. At least a few children who might have survived cancer succumbed to laetrile poisoning instead.

Because some people will apparently force down the bitterest pill or nut if they think it’s good for them, bitter almonds cannot legally be sold in the United States. You can buy “pure” almond extract, which may be made from apricot or peach pits, or almond paste, probably flavored with apricot pits if not a synthetic imitation, but you can’t sell the almonds.

Some businesses do sell them, however, and those businesses include Trader Joe’s and Costco. Or so say consumers of Marcona almonds from Spain. Apparently, a bitter almond or two appear now and then in a bag of roasted Marconas, a variety with rounded kernels that are especially rich in oil. One bite of a bitter Marcona leads to spitting and gagging and a foul taste in the mouth that lasts the whole day through. Or so say these startled consumers.

This never happens with California almonds. You might occasionally taste a rancid California almond, if your nuts have been stored for too long. A rancid nut may make you spit and gag, but rancidity is not the same as bitterness.

The problem with Spanish almonds is something biologists call xenia, after a Greek word for hospitality. Xenia happens when the pollen of a plant of one genetic strain affects the seeds and fruit of the fertilized plant. This effect is distinct from the effect the pollen has on the next generation. Xenia is the reason gardeners plant their sweet corn far away from any field corn, popcorn, or ornamental corn, even if they don’t plan to save seed for planting in a subsequent year. The pollen of any of these other types of corn could turn the sweet corn starchy. In the same way, ears of white corn pollinated by yellow corn will turn out yellow, and the kernels of popcorn pollinated by sweet corn will turn out sweet and, probably, shriveled.

In the United States, all our commercial almonds are grown in California, in Central Valley orchards so extensive that beekeepers from all over the country truck in their hives for winter forage (this annual gathering of the hives is largely responsible for the rapid spread of various bee pests and diseases across the continent). Blooming California almond orchards are a lovely sight to see, as you race up or down the interstate, but they are a picture of modern, industrial farming. No doubt Spain, the world’s second largest almond producer, has orchards much like them, but I haven’t seen them. Traveling through Andalusia one winter, I got a different view of almonds in flower. Masses of pale-pink blooms were scattered here and there over the landscape. The almond trees, some small and some towering, marked old fence lines, roads that might have been buried in sand, and other past and present boundaries where the trees had grown up from seedlings and thrived without care. Almonds have been growing here since Roman times. Although bitterness in their nuts is a recessive trait, controlled by a single gene, bitter almond trees dominate in numbers because critters avoid eating their nuts—that is, their seeds—and also, apparently, because sweet almond trees are less tolerant of very dry, sandy soil.

In Spain, sweet almond orchards are mostly planted in damper, coastal areas. But sweet almonds can also grow on irrigated land or on dry land without irrigation if the scions are grafted to bitter almond trees or to peach-almond hybrids. It is in these dryland orchards, I suspect, that xenia happens. The sweet almond flowers are supposed to be fertilized by the pollen of other sweet almond varieties that bloom at the same time and are interplanted in the same orchard. (Self-pollinated varieties are yet a novelty in both Spain and California.) Every once in a while, however, a bee carries pollen from an almond tree growing wild in the fencerow or anywhere else in the vicinity; honeybees, after all, often fly two miles from the hive in search of pollen or nectar. Xenia happens when a bee brings pollen from a wild, bitter almond tree to a sweet almond tree with a recessive allele, that is, an allele—or gene variant—that when matched with another recessive allele will cause bitterness. Marcona almonds, like most of the other varieties grown in both Spain and California, is heterozygous for sweetness. From the flower where the bee deposits pollen, a bitter nut develops.

The more bitter the nut, the more amygdalin it contains. A study of Spanish almonds found amygdalin ranging from 2.16 to 157.44 milligrams per kilogram in nonbitter almonds, 523.50 to 1,772.75 milligrams per kilogram in semibitter almonds, and 33,006.60 to 5,3998.30 milligrams per kilograms in bitter almonds. The least bitter bitter almonds, then, had 210 times as much amygdalin as the most bitter nonbitter almonds. The most bitter bitter almonds had 25,000 times as much amygdalin as the least bitter nonbitter almonds.

Given that my Hall’s Hardy almonds weren’t almonds at all but an interspecies cross, I didn’t know whether to classify them as nonbitter, semibitter, or bitter. (I will continue to call my almonds almonds, however, because genetists have determined that through millennia of development peaches and almonds have crossed repeatedly.) Because of their strong aroma of benzaldehyde, I figured that the Hall’s Hardies must contain more than a little amygdalin. I found an old gardening publication from Cornell University that recommended against growing either Hall’s Hardy almonds or another hybrid variety, called Ridenhower, because of the nuts’ bitterness and possible toxicity. But I could taste barely any bitterness over the strong benzaldehyde flavor of my nuts, and I tend to be sensitive to bitterness. They tasted so good, in fact—so much more interesting than California almonds!—that I would have tossed all the kernels into my mouth if I hadn’t had other plans for them.

My plan: I would make my own, no-flavor-added marzipan.

Now Aboard the Ark: Scio Kolace

Scio kolace.JPG

New to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste  are kolace (pronounced “ko-LA-chee”) from Scio, Oregon, my home for 21 years. I’m proud to have nominated these filled sweet yeast buns whose history is so tightly bound with that of the little town.

Kolace are made from a sweetened yeast dough enriched with eggs, milk, and shortening (butter, lard, or vegetable shortening). Proportions vary somewhat among recipes. After the dough has risen, it is rolled out and formed into small rounds. When the dough has risen a second time, it is brushed with melted shortening, indented in the center, filled, and baked. The most common kolace fillings, traditionally, are ground and sweetened poppy seeds and a jam made of prunes or apricots. Other fruit jams can be used, or a filling made from cottage cheese. Sometimes streusel (posipka) is sprinkled on top before baking, or the baked kolace are topped with powdered sugar or glaze.

Still popular in the Czech homeland as koláče, these little buns migrated with the Czechs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to communities across the West and Midwest, Scio (pronounced “SIGH-oh”) among them.

Now a village of some eight hundred people, Scio was established in 1866 by Oregon Trail pioneers around a water-powered grist mill built ten years before. The city soon became the commercial center of a region of fertile farm land known at the time as “the forks of the Santiam.” When Czech settlers began arriving in the area in 1888, Scio already had a population of more than five hundred, and the city was beginning to boom. The Czech newcomers established farms, stores, and other businesses, and more Czechs came. By 1937 there were 170 Czech families in the Forks.

In 1922 the ZCBJ (Zapadni Czechoslovakia Brakaska Jednota, or Western Czechoslovakan Fraternal Association) Lodge No. 226 built a gathering hall in the center of Scio. The ZCBJ Hall  was intended primarily for lodge meetings and Sokol activities (the Sokol program trained children in precision drill and gymnastics). But since its early days the ZCBJ Hall has been Scio’s main gathering-place for both Czechs and non-Czechs, for dinners, weddings, funerals, flea markets, plays (in Czech and in English), concerts, and, above all, dances. The hall had its own accordion band, and from the 1930s through the 1950s people throughout over the Willamette Valley knew the ZCBJ Hall as an outstanding venue for dancing.

A feature of all these events, at least when Czechs have been involved, has been kolace. Before lodge events people would order kolace by the dozen. When soldiers came to dances from Camp Adair, north of Corvallis, during World War II, they were given kolace for free.

Today most of the Scio Czechs have died or moved away, and in 1993 the ZCBJ Hall was given to the Linn County Lamb and Wool Fair. But some non-Czechs have learned to make kolace, and Scio residents continue to learn from the kolace recipes that have been passed along or published in community cookbooks. And so kolace are still made, now and then, for community events at the ZCBJ Hall. These treats help keep memories of the town’s past alive.

Scioans aren’t the only Americans who still love kolace. The buns are popular in many places where Czechs settled in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But kolace have evolved differently in different surroundings. Montgomery, Minnesota, for example celebrates Kolacky Days ]with squarish buns, whose dough is gathered at four points and stretched to the center, to cover most of the filling. Texas kolache  are sometimes filled with sausage, which is completely enclosed in the dough, like a hotdog in a corndog. Scio’s kolace have their filling entirely exposed, which means the cook must take extra care to keep the filling from running, falling out, or scorching.

Here’s my own recipe for kolace. I’ve adapted it from one in Carol Bates’s Scio in the Forks of the Santiam; Carol took it from the Scio Centennial Cook Book, published by Scio Home Extension in 1966. The original recipe calls for “shortening” instead of butter and “vanilla or any other flavoring,” amount unspecified. Over time, I have doubled the number of eggs and increased the amount of fat by half. I have also found it easier to cut pieces of dough from a rope than to roll out the dough and cut it into circles, as specified in the original recipe, and I’ve added a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar.

Linda’s Kolace

Remember, there is no single recipe for kolace; cooks have always improvised a bit. Possible additions include grated lemon peel and mace or nutmeg in the dough, and a sugar glaze, powdered sugar, or streusel on top of the buns.

¼ cup lukewarm water
4 teaspoons dry yeast
1 teaspoon plus ½ cup sugar
2 cups lukewarm whole milk
14 tablespoons (1 ¾ sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
4 eggs, beaten
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
About 8 cups all-purpose flour (about 2 ½ pounds)
About 1 cup jam (preferably prune or apricot, without much added sugar) or poppy-seed
        filling
Cinnamon sugar

Pour the water into a large bowl, and sprinkle the yeast over. Stir in 1 teaspoon sugar, and wait a minute or more for the mixture to bubble.

Add the milk, the remaining sugar, all but 2 tablespoons of the melted butter, the eggs, the salt, and the vanilla. Stir in enough flour to make a ball that pulls away from the side of the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a floured board, and knead the dough for several minutes, working in more flour as necessary, until the dough is smooth and only slightly sticky.

Place the dough in a greased bowl. Cover the bowl, and set it in a warm place until the dough has nearly doubled in bulk and fails to spring back when poked with a finger.

Punch down the dough, and form it into two long ropes. Cut each rope into 20 equal pieces, and roll them into balls. Place the balls on greased baking pans to rise.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.

When the kolace have nearly doubled in bulk, brush them with the remaining butter (you may need to reheat it first). Hollow out the center of each kolace with your fingers, leaving a border of no more than ½ inch. Fill each center with about 2 teaspoons poppy-seed filling or jam, and sprinkle the kolace with cinnamon sugar. Put the pans into the oven, and immediately reduce the temperature to 375 degrees F. Bake the kolace for about 18 minutes, rotating the pans about halfway through the cooking, until they are lightly browned.

Makes about 40 kolace

 

Poppy Seed Filling for Kolace        

Hand-cranked metal grinders for poppy seeds are widely available in Europe but harder to find in the United States. Some people manage with an electric coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle. I’ve had best results by soaking the seeds overnight and then grinding them in a powerful blender.

1 cup boiling water
1 cup poppy seeds
¾ cup milk
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

Pour the boiling water over the poppy seeds, and let them sit overnight.

In the morning, pour off the water through a fine-mesh strainer. Grind the poppy seeds in a blender (I use a VitaMix) with the milk and sugar. Transfer the mixture to a small saucepan, and cook the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly, until it is thick, a few minutes. Stir in the honey, spices, and vanilla, and remove the pan from the heat.

Shrub, Part I: The Story of a Drink

Fifty Years AgoIs there any living man who now calls for shrub?

You may still see it on the shelf of an old-fashioned inn; you may even see the announcement that it is for sale painted on door-posts, but no man regardeth it. I believe that it was supposed to possess valuable medicinal properties, the nature of which I forget.

So wrote Sir Walter Besant in 1892, in his book Fifty Years Ago, about a drink a half-century out of style in England. But Besant wasn’t reminiscing about today’s typical shrub, sweetened flavored vinegar served well diluted. More likely he was remembering an alcoholic lemonade, like the one fortified with brandy and wine in Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1766). Or he might have remembered an orange shrub; Benjamin Franklin left a recipe for one, made with rum, among his papers.

Besant associated shrub with “medicinal properties” because shrub was, after all, a sort of syrup (the words shrub and syrup are closely related, with Arabic roots), and both syrup and alcohol had long histories as vehicles for drugs. In 1892, though, medicine was modernizing fast, and disease was no longer a valid excuse for alcoholic imbibing. So shrub had gone the way of outmoded English drinks like purl, copus, bishop, and dog’s-nose.

Across the Atlantic, however, shrubs were still popular. During the nineteenth century they had actually expanded in variety, as Americans substituted local fruits for citrus. Cookbooks contained recipes for red and white currant shrub, cherry shrub, raspberry shrub, and occasionally even fox-grape shrub.

With the exception of grape, all of these shrub varieties are included, along with orange and lemon, in Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide of 1862. Thomas added vinegar only to his raspberry shrub, probably because the other fruits were sufficiently acidic without it. (He specified that the cherries should be “acid”; that is, they should be sour cherries, not sweet ones.)

Judging by the frequency of its appearance in nineteenth-century cookbooks, raspberry shrub became the standard type. Perhaps because raspberry shrub always included vinegar, vinegar became a standard shrub ingredient. The method of making shrub changed, too: Instead of cooking the fruit, as was always done in older shrub recipes, the fruit was now soaked in vinegar, and then the vinegar was strained and combined with sugar to make a sour syrup. Here’s a typical recipe, from Estelle Woods Wilcox’s Buckeye Cookery (1877):

Raspberry Shrub

Place red raspberries in a stone jar, cover them with vinegar, let stand over night; next morning strain, and to one pint of juice add one pint of sugar, boil ten minutes, and bottle while hot.—Mrs. Judge West. 

For serving, the syrup was well diluted with water and ice. The shrub might or might not be spiked with brandy or other liquor at serving time.

(I let my fruit steep much longer than Mrs. Judge West advises, three weeks or more. And I often use the berries, too, after straining them out: I toss them into a fruit or green salad, and then I dress the salad with oil but no vinegar or other acid. The vinegar-soaked berries keep for many weeks in the refrigerator.)

By the late nineteenth century, the American use of the term shrub had narrowed. In 1892, the same year in which Besant wrote, the Missouri Horticultural Society published a recipe for raspberry shrub along with nearly identical recipes, except for the choice of fruit, for “blackberry vinegar” and “strawberry acid.” Shrub was coming to mean one thing only: Sweetened raspberry-flavored vinegar, diluted with water and ice.

By the mid-twentieth century shrub was waning in popularity even in America. Apparently only country people—those with scant access to fresh lemons but with plenty of homemade cider vinegar—bothered to make the drink. For farm families such as one I know here in the Willamette Valley, raspberry shrub has been a special, non-alcoholic refreshment for the hot summer days of haymaking.

Several years ago, though, shrub became a hot topic of discussion among the hip. It seemed that scads of city folk were throwing out their kombucha cultures and mixing up their first batches of shrub. Partially responsible for the trend was Andy Ricker, of the Portland restaurant Pok Pok, who discovered “drinking vinegars” in local Asian markets and started making his own in 2005 (he now sells them under the label Som). Some people recognized Andy’s drinking vinegars as shrubs. And suddenly shrubs were back in style.

But the meaning of the term shrub has shifted once more: Now shrub is any sort of drink acidified with vinegar. It might be made with cooked or raw fruit. It might be drunk with soda water. It might be a sort of cocktail. It might be made from beets! (You can imagine how simple that recipe can be: Pour some liquid from a jar of sweet pickled beets into a glass. Add water and ice to taste.)

A commercial quince shrub even won a 2015 Good Food Award. Its maker, a California company called INNA Jam, has returned to the eighteenth-century tradition of cooking fruit to make shrub.

I make quince shrub, too, but in the more modern, American way: I use raw fruit, thus preserving its vitamin C and fresh flavor. You’ll find my recipes in “Shrub, Part II: Quince Vinegar, Syrup, and Shrub.”

Taking the Wind Out of Jerusalem Artichokes

jerusalem artichokes
Jerusalem artichokes look like thick, pale gingerroots.

Does your spouse refuse to eat Jerusalem artichokes because they’re too—err—windy? Have you yourself abandoned your Jerusalem artichoke patch to the weeds or the pigs, because no human of your acquaintance would eat the damn things again? If so, you have plenty of company.

If you can’t quite place this native North American vegetable, you may know it instead by a name invented by a California produce wholesaler in the 1960s: the sunchoke. The sun part of this moniker comes from sunflower, because the plant is closely related to the sunflower that provides us seeds for birds and snacks and oil. Jerusalem artichoke blooms look like small sunflowers, and they can grow just as tall.

The Jerusalem part of Jerusalem artichoke came about soon after the plants were first grown in Europe, in the early seventeenth century at the Farnese Garden in Rome. From there they were distributed to the rest of Europe as Girasole articiocco, “sunflower artichoke.” In the diet book that he published in 1620, an English doctor, Tobias Venner, translated Girasole as “Jerusalem”—a good first guess, perhaps, but unfortunately the name stuck. Soon inventive English cooks were making their Jerusalem artichokes into “Palestine soup.”

Sunroot would be a better name for the vegetable than sunchoke, because Jerusalem artichokes certainly are not artichokes, and they have nothing like the hairy, inedible part of an artichoke that is called the choke. Yet the two vegetables known as artichoke are discreetly similar in their chemical makeup and flavor. Samuel de Champlain noted this in 1605, when he found Indians on Cape Cod growing roots with “le goust d’artichaut,” the taste of artichokes. Both artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes, he may have observed, share a peculiar sweetness. This sweetness comes from inulin, a kind of soluble fiber that passes through the human digestive system intact until bacteria go to work on it in colon, releasing a lot of gas in the process. Artichokes are rich in inulin. Jerusalem artichokes have about half again as much, by percentage of fresh weight.

I thank Rose Marie Nichols McGee, of Nichols Garden Nursery, for asking the question I should have long ago asked myself: Can fermentation rid Jerusalem artichokes of their windiness?

Rose Marie posed that question about a year ago, and the two of us promptly decided to conduct an experiment. After digging up the little patch of Jerusalem artichokes that I’d ignored for ten years, I brined a pint of the rhizomes according to the kakdooki (Korean fermented daikon) recipe on page 64 of The Joy of Pickling, with garlic and powdered chile. Rose Marie developed another recipe based on one of mine, she said, although nothing about it sounded the least familiar. With a stroke of brilliance, she added turmeric, so that her pickled Jerusalem artichokes turned out a brilliant yellow. We shared both pickles, hers and mine, at a Slow Food board meeting, and people seemed to find them both tasty. I requested follow-up digestive reports.

But I got none. Was this good news? I couldn’t be sure. Apparently nobody’s bellyache was bad enough to prompt a complaint. But, then, the meeting attendees hadn’t actually agreed to tell me about their gas problems. Some of them may have felt they really didn’t know me well enough. And none of them had eaten more than a small handful of the pickled rhizomes. So the results of our study were inconclusive.

In digging up my Jerusalem artichoke patch, however, I must have missed a little rhizome. Last summer, sans weeding and sans water, a single nine-foot sunflower stalk shot up. I could experiment some more!

I waited through most of the winter to dig up the rhizomes, because time alone has been said to convert much of the inulin in Jerusalem artichokes to fructose. In January, I harvested a crop just as big as the previous year’s, at least ten pounds. Several nights of temperatures around 0 degrees Fahrenheit had done the rhizomes no harm.

I first assessed their windiness by simply roasting some with salt, pepper, and olive oil. The roasted rhizomes were delicious, but still gassy.

Inspired by Rose Marie’s example, I then pickled some of the Jerusalem artichokes in this way:

fermented jerusalem artichokesMellow Yellow Jerusalem Artichoke Pickle

1½ pounds Jerusalem artichokes, broken into nodes, thoroughly scrubbed, and cut into ½-inch dice
1 teaspoon ground dried turmeric
1 ounces garlic (about 8 cloves), chopped
½ ounce fresh ginger, minced (about 1 ½ tablespoons)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons pickling salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1½ cups water

Toss together the diced Jerusalem artichokes, the turmeric, the garlic, the ginger, and the cumin. Pack the mixture into a jar with a capacity of at least 6 cups. Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water. Pour the brine over the Jerusalem artichokes; it will not cover them at first. Add a brine bag (a gallon freezer-weight plastic bag containing 1 tablespoon salt dissolved in 3 cups water) or another suitable weight.

The next day the brine should cover the Jerusalem artichokes. If it doesn’t, add more brine mixed in the same proportions.

Wait several days before tasting the pickle. I found it perfect after a week: The brine was sour, and the Jerusalem artichokes pleasantly, mildly spicy and still crunchy.

When the pickle has fermented enough to suit your taste, store the jar in the refrigerator. Keep the Jerusalem artichokes weighted so they won’t take on a grayish cast.

Several people have now eaten this pickle in potentially distressing quantities. The test subjects remained on site this time, so that if reports didn’t come verbally they would emerge in another form. And nobody has suffered.

I hope that these results will be duplicated by other investigators. Let me know, OK? Don’t be shy.

Purple Mustard from Homemade Must

Once you try the purple, you won't want the yellow.
Once you try the purple, you won’t want the yellow.

The moment I spotted a little article about moutarde violette in a recent issue of Saveur, I got excited. Surely no one would think to flavor mustard with violets. So, could this be a kind of mustard prepared not with vinegar but with must—pressed grape juice—the once common ingredient that gave mustard its French and English names?

Indeed it was. Moutarde violette is today made by members of the Denoix family, whose Maison Denoix has been creating liqueurs and aperitifs from walnuts and fruits in the Limousin region of France since 1839. As Elie-Arnaud Denoix told a New York Times reporter in 2004, ”Moutarde violette was very fashionable during the Belle Époque. But for some reason the demand dropped off in the fifties, and by the eighties it was all but forgotten.” Only one ancient woman in the region was still making it in 1986, when Denoix decided to add it to the family’s product line. He didn’t give the reporter his recipe, but he mentioned that it included cinnamon and cloves. That sounded to me very, very old-fashioned—practically medieval, in fact.

So I was pleased but unsurprised to track down two similar-sounding recipes for mostaza Francesa—French mustard—in Ruperto de Nola’s Libre del Coch, a cookbook written in Catalan and published in Barcelona in 1520.* De Nola’s two recipes differ mainly in method: In one you cook the mustard along with the fresh must, and in the other you boil down the must and then add the mustard and other ingredients, including cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Happily, I had on hand some already boiled-down must, which I’d pressed from wasp-riddled Glenora grapes last summer and reduced to about 15 percent of its original volume. I could make some purple mustard immediately, following de Nola’s second method.

Just enough grinding for a pleasantly rough texture
Just enough grinding for a pleasantly rough texture

Elie-Arnaud Denoix, the Times reported, “coarsely grinds the seeds instead of pulverizing them, so the mustard has a crunchy texture.” On an Internet forum someone described the Denoix moutarde violette as “wonderful whole-grain black mustard, which looked like caviar.” So I fetched from the cupboard the big, black seeds of Brassica nigra, a native of the Mediterranean region, instead of Brassica juncea, Indian brown mustard, which wouldn’t have been easily available in centuries past, anyway, or Brassica alba, white mustard, which is used along with turmeric in prepared yellow mustard. To make the black mustard seeds easy to grind, I soaked them overnight in a little vinegar, which is a minor ingredient in the Denoix mustard as well. Grinding the seeds the next morning would have been quick in a food processor, coffee grinder, or blender, but because I wanted that caviar look I used a granite mortar (which was probably easiest of all, honestly, since I didn’t have to clean around a blade afterward). I then added my Glenora grape molasses, as I call it, a little salt, spices, and some wine and water to thin the mixture, and I was done.

My moutarde violette tasted good—sweet but not cloying, tart but mildly so, chewy from the coarse-ground seeds, and subtly aromatic from the sweet spices. But I wouldn’t consider it finished until I tasted the Denoix product.

A few days later, I found something called Purple Condiment in a tiny grocery in San Diego’s Little Italy. The words moutarde violette, “violet mustard,” or “purple mustard” were nowhere on the label, but the Denoix name was there. Two days later I sadly gave the jar up to a TSA agent, who was deaf to my protests that it contained a paste, not a liquid or gel (though, yes, I knew that toothpaste is a paste and is also banned from airplanes). Knowing that my precious mustard might be seized, I’d already tasted the stuff three times, the last time only minutes before the agent unrolled my pajamas to extract the little jar. I doggedly held the taste in my mouth through the flight to Portland and the trip to the car park and all through the long drive home, after which I headed straight for the fridge and my own jar of moutarde violette.

Mine was different, I already knew; the Purple Condiment wasn’t caviar-like at all, but smooth as French’s mustard; it looked like melted chocolate. My mustard and Denoix’s were very close in flavor, however.

Was the Purple Condiment the same moutarde violette that others had written about? With a little more investigation I learned that, whereas the Purple Condiment is made by Maison Denoix, the old family business in Brive la Gaillarde, a coarser purple mustard, labeled Moutarde Violette, is manufactured down the road in Turenne, at the Distillerie des Terres Rouge, which dates only to 1988. Mustards are a specialty at Terres Rouge; the website lists 43 types produced there, along with aperitifs, absinthe, pastis, and olive and nut oils.

If a family feud might explain the confusion, the parties are keeping mum. In any case, it was the Terres Rouge mustard that was pictured in Saveur, in a squat glass jar belted with a slender label. Like the Maison Denoix product, the Terres Rouge mustard is available in the United States, so I will look for it on my next big-city trip. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my own homemade moutarde violette.

Here is my recipe:

Moutarde Violette

If you have no grape molasses on hand, but you do have canned or frozen grape juice, whether pressed or heat-extracted, you can boil it down yourself as described here. Feel free to use a non-vinifera variety, like Glenora, provided the grapes are not too foxy.

6 tablespoons black mustard seeds
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ cup grape molasses
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon fine salt
2 tablespoons red wine
2 tablespoons water

Put the mustard seeds into a bowl, and cover them with the vinegar. Let them rest for 8 to 12 hours.

Grind the mustard seeds coarsely. Stir in the grape molasses, spices, salt, and wine. Add the water gradually, to thin the mustard to suit your preference.

Store the mustard in a tightly closed jar.

Makes 1 cup

You can use moutard violette in almost any way you use other prepared mustard. In Brive and its environs, moutard violette is eaten with boiled beef, sausages, hams, and pâté. It should be just as good on sandwiches and in sauces and dressings.

 

*To be precise, I found Lady Bridghid ni Chiarain’s English translation of a 1529 Spanish translation. The Spanish translation is titled Libro de Guisados.

Dietary Propaganda, Hoover Style

FOOD posterI don’t know where my friend Raphaël stumbled upon this poster, but when he showed it to me I first thought it something new. It seemed, after all, to spell out the latest dietary consensus, a set of rules that gourmets, locavores, ecologists, vegetarians and vegans, gluten-intolerants and -phobics, and anti-obesity activists could all agree on. But then I noticed the name at the bottom. Not the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but the U.S. Food Administration. What was that? And why would any agency of the U.S. government discourage the eating of wheat?

And so I studied a little history. President Woodrow Wilson, I learned, created the U.S. Food Administration in 1917, to cope with food shortages in wartime Europe and resultant price rises in the United States. He appointed as head of the new agency the then little-known Herbert Hoover, who had previously led the Belgian Relief Organization and who insisted on working without pay to model self-sacrifice for the American populace. Hoover’s job was to cut food consumption at home and to mobilize the resulting surplus to feed both the fast-growing U.S. army and allied armies and civilians. As much as possible, Hoover wanted to accomplish all this without rationing or any other sort of coercion. He would convince Americans to cooperate voluntarily.

Posters like the one Raphaël found were essential to the propaganda effort. On work sites and in public places, posters told Americans that “Food Will Win the War.” Accustomed to prodigal consumption of cheap and abundant foodstuffs, Americans were now encouraged to grow their own, to can and dry local produce, and to eat all leftovers instead of throwing them out. They were urged to eat potatoes and corn instead of wheat and to deny themselves sugar and meat and butter as well, so that the foods most in demand could go to the army and the allies.

Door-to-door canvassing complemented the poster campaign. Canvassers asked housewives to sign and post pledge cards attesting to their efforts to conserve foods. Following the lead of restaurants and hotels, householders were soon observing wheatless Mondays and Wednesdays and meatless Tuesdays. Even schoolchildren signed a pledge:

I’ll eat corn-meal, oatmeal and rice
And nice sweet hominy;
Cornflakes and mush with lots of milk
Are good enough for me.
At table I’ll not leave a scrap
Of food upon my plate.
And I’ll not eat between meals but
For supper time I’ll wait.

The campaign was impressively effective. In some cities nearly all households signed the pledges. Nationwide, home food consumption fell by 15 percent over a 12-month period from 1918 to 1919.

Immediately after the Armistice of 1918, the U.S. Food Administration began shutting down its activities. The agency was finally terminated in 1920. But the food conservation campaign had a lasting effect in Europe: The surplus stores created by U.S. food shipments helped prevent a European postwar famine.

The needs of others, apparently, can be a more compelling cause for sensible eating than today’s dominant appeal to personal health and good looks.

Here are a few of the other posters produced by the U.S. Food Administration.

Food poster 2

potato poster

we-eat-because-we-work-war-food-poster-6

garden-war-food-poster-5

The posters are scattered among various collections, including the National Archives and the USDA National Agricultural Library. You can see some of the other posters here, here, and here.

NOTE: The children’s pledge appears in The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917-1918, by George H. Nash (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996, page 158). For more about the U.S. Food Administration, see History of the United States Food Administration, 1917-1919, by William C. Mullendore (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1941). Records of the U.S. Food Administration are stored in the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University.

Limed Yum-Yum Pickles

limed yum-yum pickles
“Young ladies’ dreams are sometimes made of bread and butter and pickles, eaten in the pantry after everybody is gone to bed.” —Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, vol. 35 (June 1847): 287.

Summer seemed to vanish suddenly a few days ago, when a mid-afternoon thunderstorm dumped two and a half inches of rain here in less than two hours, and a total of nearly five and a half inches by sunrise the next morning. Such storms are nearly unheard of in western Oregon, where rain rarely falls at all in summer. While the lights flickered and the house shook, water poured from the clogged gutters over the doors and windows.

The next day dawned damp and autumnal: The black walnut tree began shedding its leaves—which floated gaily toward the house gutters—while three apple trees dropped their fruit, and the fall crocuses popped out of the ground in bright pink patches.

Yesterday summer was back: The sky was a cloudless blue; the weather was warm and dry. Today is just as sunny. To celebrate these last days of summer, here for you is one last summer pickle, the yum-yum.

I learned about the yum-yum from Randal Oulton, a Canadian who writes the food encyclopedia CooksInfo.com. Yum-yums (or yum yums, without the hyphen) are just like bread-and-butters but often even sweeter. Their name is apparently of older origin; Rowat & Co of Glascow, Scotland, was making Yum-Yum Mixed Pickles, and supplying them to Canada, Australia, South Africa, and the international maritime industry, in 1900 or soon thereafter. In the United States, Yum Yum Pickles made by a company called Bayles were sold in Los Angeles, Omaha, and Ocala (Florida) between 1903 and 1910. I don’t know exactly what either of these pickles were made of.

However yum-yums may have changed over time, their name caught on, especially in Canada. There a company called Bick’s, owned by Smucker Foods, still produces Yum Yum (without the hyphen) Pickles. Bick’s Yum Yums look just like b&bs.

The term bread-and-butter pickle is said to have originated in the early 1920s, when Cora Fanning, of Streator, Illinois, traded jars of her sweet pickle chips to a local grocer for groceries, including bread and butter. I suspect that this story is apocryphal. According to a 1929 article in the Journal of Home Economics, bread-and-butter pickles was by then a generic term, favored because the pickles were “extensively eaten with bread and butter.” It was as natural then to call sweet pickle chips bread-and-butters as it is to call them hamburger pickles today.

I made some yum-yums recently with my own b&b recipe, except that I increased the sugar to the same volume as the vinegar—which in fact is in keeping with typical b&b recipes. And I made one other major change: I treated the cucumbers with mineral lime. Liming pickles is a mostly Southern tradition; as far as I know it has never been popular in Illinois, Canada, or Scotland. Liming makes cucumber slices firm—almost brittle—and inflexible, so that more pickling liquid is needed to cover a given volume of cucumber slices. I wanted to determine just how much more liquid I would need.

I also wanted to test a tip from Tom Peter, who is starting a pickle business called Crisp & Co. Tom said that the time the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends for soaking pickles in lime—12 to 24 hours—was much longer than needed. Tom was right; my cukes got rigid with only a two-hour soak.

Note that Jarden, the owner of Ball and Kerr products, no longer sells pickling lime. I found pickling lime packaged with the Mrs. Wages label at a local farm-supply store.

I made one final change to my b&b recipe: Because I was out of celery seeds. I used lovage seeds instead. The flavor of the two is very similar, although lovage seeds are larger.

Yum-Yum Pickles

Use cucumbers that are no more than an inch in diameter, and discard their ends.

1 gallon water
½ cup pickling lime
¼ cup pickling salt
3 pounds 3/16-inch cucumber slices
3½ cups cider vinegar
3½ cups sugar
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon celery or lovage seeds
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1 pound shallots or small onions, sliced into thin rounds

Put the water into a large pot or bowl, and stir in the lime and salt. The salt should dissolve; the lime will not. Add the cucumbers. Soak them for 2 hours.

With a Chinese wire strainer or a slotted spoon, lift the cucumbers from the lime water, and spread them in a broad-based colander. Rinse them well with running water. Rinse the bowl or pot, and return the cucumbers to it. Cover them with water and ice cubes. Leave them for 1 hour.

Rinse the cucumbers and the container as before, cover the cucumbers with water and ice as before, and let the cucumbers soak for another hour.

Soak the cucumbers once more in water and ice for an hour. Drain the cucumbers well.

In a large nonreactive pot, bring the vinegar, sugar, turmeric, and spices to a boil. Add the cucumber and shallot or onion slices, and slowly return the contents to a boil. With a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables to pint or half-pint mason jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. You should have about 6½ pints. Divide the liquid evenly among the jars. Close the jars with two-piece caps, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.

 

Pickling Watermelons Whole

In my blog post about Moldova I shared my daughter’s photo of watermelons that had been brined intact, and I promised to write about how to pickle watermelons in this way. Before watermelon season passes again, I want to share my own photos and a recipe.

I first tasted brined watermelon some fifteen years ago, when I bought a few slices from Guss’ Pickles, whose retail shop was a sidewalk stand on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. If you liked your pickles crisp, fuggetaboudit! The brined watermelon was soft and slimy. It seemed more tomato than melon. But its sweet and sour brininess grew on me.

Much later, I sought advice about pickling watermelons from Gwen Schock Cowherd, a descendant of Germans from Russia—that is, Germans who went to live in Russia after Catherine the Great, in 1763, invited foreigners to immigrate without having to give up their language or religious traditions, pay taxes, or serve in the military. The first of these German immigrants settled along the Volga River, where watermelons were a major crop (later, other Germans settled on the north shore of the Black Sea). A century after their migration began, Germans in Russia lost their special privileges, and whole villages picked themselves up and moved to the Americas—Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and the United States. Today the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those immigrants still celebrate their Russian-flavored German heritage.

I wanted to know how Germans from Russia pickled whole watermelons. Were the melons fermented or pickled in vinegar? Was sugar added, and were spices included? Were holes poked in the melons to let the brine penetrate?

The melons were of small, firm varieties, Gwen told me, and they ranged from green to ripe. They were always fermented intact. “Do not poke holes in the melons, or the juice will run out,” she warned. With no poking, “the salt water will penetrate the rind and thus preserve the melon. The sweet comes from the melons themselves.” As Gwen remembered, less ripe melons turned out more salty and sour than sweet. Each melon tasted different, because “with the rind intact you didn’t know what you were brining.”

Gwen sent me Mrs. Henry Lindemann’s recipe for “sour watermelons,” from the German Russian Pioneer Cookbook, published in Eureka, South Dakota, in 1975 (Germans from Russia and their American descendants have published hundreds of community cookbooks). Mrs. Lindeman would line the bottom of a 30-gallon barrel with dill, fill the barrel with melons, top them with more dill, and add 1½ cups sugar, 1 cup vinegar, 6 pounds salt, “lots of red peppers,” and garlic. Then she would fill the barrel with water and weight the melons with a board and a rock.

In Sei Unser Gast (“Be Our Guest”), a cookbook published by the North Star Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia in Minneapolis in 1996, a writer left the sugar, vinegar, peppers, and garlic out of her watermelon pickle but added grape leaves. According to Küchen Kochen, published by the Lincoln, Nebraska, branch of the same organization in 1973, some cooks scattered cherry rather than grape leaves throughout the barrel, along with hunks of ripe melon flesh.Gwen’s own grandma left out all of those extras but added pickling spices. “I guess you can spice them anyway you want,” Gwen said. As with cucumber pickles, there is no single right way to season a watermelon pickle.

Golden Midget watermelons
Golden Midget watermelons

In the fall of 2010, I decided to try pickling Golden Midget, a 3-pound watermelon variety that had been developed at the University of New Hampshire in the mid-twentieth century. Borne on yellow-leaved vines, the little fruits tell you when they’re ripe by turning from light green to lemon-yellow. I figured their size would make them perfect for pickling. I used two of them to make my own version of—

Whole Pickled Watermelons

2 3-pound watermelons
2 tablespoons dill seed
8 peeled garlic cloves
6 small dry hot peppers, slit lengthwise
10 tablespoons pickling salt
5 quarts water

Put the melons into a large crock or food-grade plastic pail with the dill, garlic, and peppers. Stir the salt into the water until it dissolves, and pour the brine over the melons. Weight them with a clean rock or a plate or board topped with a water-filled jar. Be sure the watermelons remain well immersed in the brine. Cover the crock with a cloth, and let the crock stand at room temperature.

Check the crock daily, and skim off any yeast or mold. Wait at least four weeks before cutting open a watermelon. At this point you might move the crock to a cellar, where the remaining melons should keep all winter.

pickled whole watermelonOn New Year’s Eve of the same year, I cut open one of the melons. The flesh was glistening, tender, and red throughout. The melon smelled and tasted like a strong fermented cucumber pickle, with extra sweetness and the slimy texture I remembered from the pickled watermelon I’d tasted in New York. I took the melon to a New Year’s Eve party, and people tasted it with interest. For some a little taste was enough, but others ate big slices with gusto.

The next time I pickle watermelon, I’ll do a few things differently. Because I had to skim mold off the brine for an extended period, I’ll use a crock with a water lock. I might add a little vinegar to curb mold growth or some cucumber pickle brine to speed the fermentation. And I’ll add a little sugar, just to see what difference it makes.

The collapsed side of a pickled Golden MidgetMy single complaint about Golden Midget is that its thin rind caved in a bit with brining, so that the pickled melons looked like partially deflated playground balls. But an icebox melon with a thicker rind might collapse this way, too, according to my Moldovan friend Cristina. Still, next year I may try a variety that Germans from Russia might have chosen generations ago, such as Astrakhanski, Melitopolski, or the white-fleshed Cream of Saskatchewan.