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

Serve It with Flowers

Too seldom do I take the time to embellish meals with garden blossoms, whose bright colors can enhance the appeal of almost any food. At the Thyme Garden Nursery, in Alsea, Oregon, summer tours conclude with an outdoor luncheon, and each dish comes adorned with flowers. These pictures are from a visit I made to the Thyme Garden with four friends earlier this month. Edible flowers in these photos include nasturtium, nigella, and pinks. Among the decorative herbs are bronze fennel and sweet cicely.

Thyme Garden salad, small

Thyme Garden spread, small

Main dish at Thyme Garden, small

Dessert at Thyme Garden, small

Fennel Pollen—Really?

fennel head 2Examining a Florence fennel plant I’d let go to seed, my daughter came to the same conclusion I had—that the fad food fennel “pollen” was actually fennel flowers.

You’re supposed to rub fennel pollen over chicken or pork before roasting the meat, dust the pollen over salad or cooked pasta, or use it as a flavoring in bread, cake, or cookies. The chef my daughter works with has brewed fennel-pollen tea. To me the flowers seem best sprinkled over simply cooked seafood—white fish, shrimp, or squid—or even over eggs or buttered toast. You can most appreciate the bright yellow color and honey-sweet, anise-like flavor when the stuff is atop rather than mixed into other food.

I harvest fennel flowers by placing a plastic vegetable bag over a blooming fennel head, closing the bag around the stalk, turning the head downward, and shaking. After bagging and shaking each flowering head on a plant, I might have a teaspoonful of yellow bits. I spill them into a dish and let any spiders or other critters crawl away. Looking closely at what remains, I see little stamens and curled petals. The bees and other flying insects around my fennel plant are surely gathering pollen, but any pollen on my dish is invisible to my eye.

fennel flowersAnother way to gather fennel flowers is to cut blooming flower heads and hang them upside-down in a paper bag. The stamens and petals—and, I suppose, pollen—will fall off in time. The color and flavor of the dry mix will be just a bit less bright than the color and flavor of the fresh flowers.

Some of the fennel pollen pictured on the Internet looks more green than yellow. I suspect these products are actually crushed fennel buds. The buds are easier to harvest in quantity than open flowers; you just pull the buds off their little stems, and crush them between your fingers. The bits will look yellow-green, not bright yellow, but they will still have a delightful flavor. Judging from the pictures on the Internet, dried buds are less pretty than fresh ones.

Florence fennel is a somewhat difficult plant to grow as a vegetable; getting good bulbous stems depends on mild weather and plentiful water. But harvesting the flowers reminds me of all the good things fennel brings us. Bronze fennel is a lovely, if often invasive, garden ornamental. The caracois served on heaping platters in Lisbon bars are Theba pisana snails, harvested from the fennel stalks where the snails congregate and estivate (I once walked through Roman ruins in a field filled with snail-laden fennel, each plant barren of leaves but decorated with a dozen or more colorful shells). Mukhwas, the Indian after-dinner digestive aid and breath freshener, is usually made up mostly of fennel seeds, some of them candied. And how many Californians have childhood memories of scraping the “Indian bubblegum” out of dried fennel stalks and inhaling the heavenly scent of roasted fennel after a field fire?

Enjoy your fennel flowers, like the seeds, from your garden or the wild; you probably don’t need to buy them through the Internet. If you do, don’t fool yourself into believing that you’ve invested in a tinful of pollen.

 

Long Red Radishes from Italy, Angelica for the Bugs, and Roses for Preserves

long red radishI should have photographed these before they started to bolt, but they’re still lovely, aren’t they? The variety is Ravanello Candela di Fuoco, and the seeds were a gift from Charlene Murdock and Richard White of Nana Cardoon. Before the radishes get old and woody, they are mild, tender, and delicious. Charlene said she cooks with their pods, which I will try pickling.

If you want to attract beneficial insects to your garden, consider planting some angelica. As I’ve written before, this big, umbellliferous herb is good for candying, making into liqueurs and preserves, and even as eating as a vegetable. Besides all that, insects love the flower heads. Stopping for a minute beside my angelica plants today, I saw bees and flies—several species of each—and wasps, beetles, and more. I wish I had an entomologist on hand to tell me exactly what all these creatures are doing.

angelica with beetle

angelica with flyangelica with honeybee

moss roseOn a visit to an “heirloom” rose nursery yesterday I was disappointed to find more modern roses—such as miniatures and deep purple monstrosities—than old-fashioned varieties. I left with two David Austin cultivars, but just a mile down the road I had to stop to inhale the scent from a big patch of native nootkas, and back at home I admired my lovely moss rose, which came back after years of continuous mowing by the man from whom we bought this farm. I’ll probably use a few of the moss roses along with rugosas and nootkas when I make rose preserves this evening.

Anise Hyssop in the Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasting Lavender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lavender Syrup

 2 cups water
2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons fresh lavender buds

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

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

Makes about 2 ¼ cups syrup

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

Lavender Lemonade, by the Glass

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

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

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

 

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

Another Use for Angelica

blooming angelica Blooming exactly in accordance with European folk tradition is this Angelica archangelica, whose flowers burst forth in my garden on May 8, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel. When you see flowering angelica you may have missed your chance to cut stems for preserving—unless you also find some first-year plants, which will wait until next year to blossom. Happily, I have a bed crowded with both first- and second-year angelica.

Upon seeing the blooms I hurried to cut a few young, all-green stems (the flowering ones turn red), because I remembered that I’d wanted to make a traditional northern European preserve that combines stalks of both angelica and rhubarb. I thank Laura Content, of Portland, for telling me about—

rhubarb-angelica preservesRhubarb-Angelica Preserves

2/3 cup water
2 cups sugar
1 pound rhubarb stalks
½ pound angelica stalks

In a preserving pan, slowly dissolve the sugar in the water, and bring the syrup to a boil.

As the syrup heats, cut the rhubarb into 1-inch pieces. Peel the angelica stalks, and cut them it into slender rings. Add the angelica and rhubarb to the hot syrup, stir, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer it very gently for an hour or longer, stirring very little if at all, until the rhubarb is quite tender and the syrup is somewhat thickened. Keep in mind that the preserves will thicken more as they cool.

Ladle the preserves into four half-pint sterilized jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add lids and rings, and process the jars for 5 minutes.

The recipe to which Laura referred me was actually one for rhubarb-angelica jam. If you want a jammy texture, you can simply stir the preserves during or after cooking. But I think that preserves are prettier, especially if your rhubarb is the red-skinned kind.

Angelica has a strong aroma that mystifies and even scares people unfamiliar with it. If you’d prefer to tone down the angelica, at least the first time that you try this recipe, simply increase the weight of rhubarb in relation to the angelica. Try, say, 1¼ pounds rhubarb to ¼ pound angelica.

If you really love angelica, you might use proportionally more than called for here. One reader of this blog wrote that Icelanders use equal parts rhubarb and angelica in their preserves. That might take some getting used to, but I already like angelica in this more modest role.

An Appetizer for Spring: Fried Angelica Sheaths

angelica pods on the plantWhile browsing in Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed yesterday, I came upon a description of two angelica species, Angelica archangelica and A. sylvestris: “Both these angelicas grow wild near abandoned ruins and damp places. In February the Salentines [the people of the Salerno, the heel of the Italian boot] go feverishly in search of them. This is the moment when the incipient flower-heads are still enclosed in their sheaths right up against the greenish-purple stem. You cut these sheaths with a knife.”

Ah, I though, here is my reward for letting angelica—the garden variety, A. archangelica—take over an entire flower bed. I headed straight to the garden to cut some of the little sheaths. According to Patience, I could boil or grill them and serve them with olive oil and a little wine vinegar, or I could boil, flour, and fry them. The sheaths would taste strong and bitter, I knew, although Patience described them as “aromatic and faintly sweet.” British by birth, she had adopted Italian tastes; she seemed to truly like bitter weeds. I might prefer the bitterness softened with grease and starch. So I decided to fry my sheaths.

angelica pods before blanchingThe sheaths came in various sizes. I tore into some of the large ones because I could feel bits of hard stalk inside. Within each large sheath I found a smaller one, or, usually, two. Sometimes the larger of the two contained two more little sheaths. The soft green pouches within pouches reminded me of Matryoshka dolls, or of the Cat in the Hat, with all the little and littler cats hidden beneath his topper.

A tender green flower-head peeked out from one slightly open sheath, looking like a strangely delicate broccoli floret. Perhaps this sheath was past its prime? I decided to use it anyway.

To make zavirne fritte, you boil the sheaths “for a few minutes,” instructed Patience. I hurried to put a pot of salted water on to boil, because the cut edges of the angelica had begun browning immediately after harvest. I boiled the sheaths vigorously for five minutes. This was perhaps a bit too long; one or two began to fall apart, though the open sheath turned out fine. Next time I’ll give them just three to four minutes.

I drained off the now vivid-green water, covered the sheaths with cold water, and let them sit in the water for an hour, as Patience instructed. The soaking, I supposed, would moderate their bitterness.

blanched angelica podsAfter an hour had passed, I drained the sheaths and dried them on a towel. I rolled them first in beaten egg and then in salted and peppered flour before frying them in hot oil until the coating turned golden.

We ate the fried sheaths immediately, while I finished cooking dinner. This was the right thing to do, because zavirne fritte are best hot; the warm, crisp coating counteracts the bitterness.

cooked angelica podsAngelica sheaths are bitter, more bitter than radicchio, I’d say, though less so than dandelions. The incipient flower-heads inside are tender and sweetly perfumed in the odd, medicinal way of angelica—rather like licorice, rather like anise, but at the same time wholly different from both. To know this flavor you must try angelica candy or liqueur, if not zavirne fritte.

Robert dislikes the flavor of angelica; it reminds him of soap. (Soapmakers take note: The scent of angelica would be appealing in your products.) Maybe the flavor will grow on him, if he lets it. But eating angelica is lovely thing to try even if you do it just once. You will no doubt marvel at the taste, and, if you believe the old-time herbalists, you will leave the table fortified against witches, evil spirits, and the plague.

 

Bartering for New Tastes

food swapLast Sunday I attended my first food swap, at an alpaca farm on Rodgers Mountain. In this first-time swap in a quiet corner of the Willamette Valley, only seven households participated, but we needed no more. I’d been afraid that we wouldn’t find foods we wanted and would go home packing nearly everything we came with. In fact, among the products of our seven homesteads (including one little rental apartment in town) we had plenty to pick from: eggs, honey, frozen meat, root vegetables, squashes, dried beans, grains, freshly-fermented pink sauerkraut, beer, liqueur, assortments of canned goods, and more. Robert and I chose alpaca sausage, homemade toffee, whole-wheat flour, and a heavenly scented herbal tea mix (rose petals, fennel, and mint). Nearly everybody exchanged something or other with everybody else in the room.

More important, everybody talked with everybody else, one on one, to negotiate specific trades. Then the twelve of us sat around one big table—actually three tables pushed into a square—and together discussed our common interests—gardening, farming, food, and cooking—over a potluck meal that included rabbit stew, sausage and kraut, marinated mussels, two kinds of home-baked bread, and homemade cider. We came away with full bellies and new acquaintances, potential new friends. I’m pretty sure that we’ll do it again.

For advice on holding a food swap in your own corner of the world, or to find an existing local swap group, check out the Food Swap Network.

food swappers