Dilly Umbels

dillPeople who don’t keep gardens often ask me what a dill head is. One of the copy editors for The Joy of Pickling didn’t know. I tried the word umbel on her. Its meaning seems obvious when you consider that the seed heads of all the plants in the carrot family—umbellifers all—look like small umbrellas. But she seemed uncomprehending. When a breeze blows through a field full of blooming Queen Anne’s lace, some of us see little lace parasols dancing all around. Others see only a field.

Perhaps the editor wasn’t dense but only distressed at my vagueness, because a dill head can be many things. It starts out covered with tiny yellow flowers. Soon small green seeds form, and the flowers fall. As the feathery leaves wither on the long, stiff stalks, the seeds grow bigger and take on a pinkish-purplish hue. Eventually they turn brown, and soon they, too, begin to fall to the ground. As the heads mature, so does their flavor. The flowers taste nearly as sweet and brightly dilly as the green foliage. The brown seeds take on a darker, more bitter tone.

For pickling and every other culinary use I can think of, I prefer young dill—the leaves, the flowers, the small green seeds. But any fresh dill is better than dried seeds that have sat in the cupboard for months or years.

dilly beans 1Although dill has naturalized in the gardens of friends who live in nearby hills, I’ve always had trouble growing it in my lowland garden. This year I succeeded well, by tossing seeds in February onto a bare patch of ground where I’d taken up a sheet of black plastic laid there last summer. Like other umbellifers, dill needs a long, cool, wet period for its slow germination. It needs light, too, and so prefers no covering of soil.

I’d planted the dill seed too early, I figured as I set out my cucumber seedlings in May. The dill would soon be in flower, and the sweet, ferny foliage would shrivel before the cukes were ready to pickle.

Thankfully, a dill plant takes its sweet time, opening one flower head after another, so that any plant sold for pickling is likely to have some heads in bloom, others in seed, some as small as a teacup and others as broad as a dinner plate, with a little green foliage still hanging on the stalks. When I suggest adding a dill head to a jar of beans, two tiny flower heads will do, as will half or a third of a giant head with its full-size seeds. To fit part of a giant head in a pint jar, you might even need to fold the umbel upward—the way umbrellas bend only when they break—and clip off the bottoms of what on an umbrella would be the stretchers.

My dill patch has held out for me through the peak of my summer pickling. Most of the heads are turning brown now, and enough seeds are loosening that I collected a pint the other day. But I’ve used heads at all stages of maturity in four crocks of cucumber pickles already, and made two small batches of dilly beans besides. And still I see some yellow flowers and green foliage in the dill patch.

It’s time to consider where to lay down a sheet of black plastic, or a board, or heavy mulch, perhaps, to create a bare patch for planting dill again this winter.

A Good Use for a Glut of Coriander: Green Chutney from India

corianderWhen we call an edible green plant an herb, we usually mean that we use it in small quantities, for extra flavor in a prepared dish or even just as a decorative garnish. But some herbs, such as parsley, mint, and coriander, can be tasty when eaten in large quantities—as vegetables, really. For a gardener, it’s good to know ways to use such herbs by the armful when you’ve grown far more than you need.

In my garden I’ve nearly always had parsley and mint to spare, but until this year I never had a glut of coriander (or cilantro, if you prefer). In fact, I usually had a hard time growing coriander at all. I’ve learned some reasons for this, mostly the hard way. The seeds are viable only if they have been harvested when fully mature and thoroughly dried in the sun. (For kitchen use, coriander seeds are harvested earlier, when their essential oil content is highest, and dried artificially. So don’t plant seeds from your spice drawer.) The seeds lose most of their viability within three years. They take two weeks to sprout at air temperatures of about 60 degrees F (16 degrees C), and longer in cooler weather; they must stay moist through this period. The seedlings grow most vigorously if the seeds have been baked in the sun for a spell and soaked and chilled for another extended period. Transplanting coriander makes it bolt, fast.*

Doesn’t this sound like a plant that just wants to be left alone? A plant that has synchronized its life cycle to the droughts and deluges and chills that much of our planet endures every year, while resisting the will of gardeners and farmers?

I finally learned to let coriander go it alone, more or less. Last fall I collected ripe seeds from a couple of lone surviving plants and immediately tossed the seeds onto a bare patch of soil in a cold frame. I covered the cold frame for a couple of months in winter, mostly to protect the soil from the pounding rain (though sheltering the seeds from cold might be essential during a severe winter). In March I watched with delight as dozens of little coriander plants emerged.  I’d totally forgotten that I’d sown them.

Depending on the variety and your timing, coriander may grow back as many as three times after you cut it. But I’m not counting on having a summer-long supply of cilantro. I only want to make good use of my current glut.

And the best use I know for a glut of coriander is green chutney, the kind served with every meal at most Indian restaurants in the United States. To make this chutney, handfuls of coriander are puréed with a lesser quantity of fresh mint, usually, and sometimes also with green or bulb onions. Liquid is added in the form of water, yogurt, or coconut milk, and the mixture is acidified with lime or lemon juice. Green chiles provide heat. A little ginger is optional; so is toasted cumin. Other ingredients sometimes added include sweet green peppers, spinach, tamarind, garlic, roasted peanuts, and sesame seeds.

coriander-mint chutneyFollowing is a recipe for the chutney as I made it last weekend. Lacking fresh peppers, I used some of my green Hinkelhatz hot sauce. I weighed the herbs because measuring them by the cupful is difficult to do with any precision, but exact measurements aren’t important. You can visualize the amount of coriander I used as two supermarket bunches, and the mint as one little supermarket bunch. Tasting will tell you when you’ve added enough of each ingredient.

Coriander-Mint Chutney

3.5 ounces coriander leaves (include petioles but not stems)
1 ounce spearmint leaves
1 ounce garlic chives, chopped
3 quarter-size slices ginger
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon (or more) hot green pepper sauce, or 1 to 2 chopped hot green peppers
2/3 cup coconut milk
½ teaspoon cumin, toasted in a dry skillet until fragrant, and ground in a mortar

In a blender, blend all the ingredients except the cumin to a purée. You’ll have about 1½ cups chutney. Serve it with the cumin sprinkled on top.

The chutney should keep for about a week in the refrigerator, and it should freeze well, too.

My green chutney was an excellent accompaniment to smoked chicken last Saturday evening and to boiled potatoes on Sunday, when the chutney had developed an even better flavor. This green sauce makes a fine dip for pakoras and papadums, and a nutritious spread for sandwiches as well. With the ginger omitted, it will go perfectly in tacos.

With more coriander growing tall in my garden, I think I’ll make another batch of green chutney, this time for the freezer.

 

*For more detailed information about growing coriander, see Axel Diederichsen’s Coriander: Coriandrum Sativum L.

Hop Shoots for Dinner

Emerging hop shoots

Yesterday, incredibly, the sun shone nearly all day, and the earth dried out enough for me to pull the grass from around our hop plant. I found some hop shoots as tall as a foot and many others barely out of the ground. I wanted to leave only a few sturdy bines to grow, so I cut out the others. The smallest I set aside for dinner. See the short, plump, pale sprouts in the lower right of the picture? Those are hop shoots of the tenderest, tastiest sort, blanched by the cover of grass I’d removed.

I followed the advice of Patience Gray, whose Honey from a Weed is one of my favorite books. In it she describes “SALAD OF HOP SHOOTS. These shoots, picked about 7.5 cm (3”) long, blanched for a few moments in boiling water, then dressed with oil and vinegar, are delicious; poor man’s asparagus. Picking time is April. The shoots can also be used in a frittata.”

If you’ve ever licked a hop flower, you know that hops are among the world’s most bitter foods. But the new shoots have no bitterness at all, even eaten raw. Their flavor is mild and earthy. And although the older bines, like the stalks of hop’s cousin Cannabis, are tough enough to make into rope, the new sprouts are tender—again, even eaten raw.

Robert and I decided against adding the shoots to a tossed salad, a risotto, or a frittata. We wanted to taste them on their own. He dropped them into a little pot of boiling water for about twenty seconds and then dressed them with a few drops each of red wine vinegar and roasted hazelnut oil.

Our little harvest of hop shoots amounted to only an appetizer, but we’ll probably have another picking or two before new sprouts stop emerging. Maybe this modest spring treat will ease our wait for the heaps of rich man’s asparagus to come.

Peppermint for Tea

One of my favorite things about summer is the smell of peppermint—from the fields, after a cutting; from the tubs full of fresh-chopped mint, as they’re trucked by our place on the way to the distillery; and even from the pummy (the word comes from pomace), when it’s steaming in a heap in my garden a year after harvest.

The peppermint grown commercially in the Willamette Valley nearly all gets distilled into oil, for toothpaste, chewing gum, and candy. After the mint is cut and chopped in the field, it’s blown into enormous enclosed tubs that each become part of a still. One hose is attached at the base of the tub to inject steam, and another is attached to the top of the tub to collect the oily steam and feed it into a condenser. In a separator can, the oil rises to the top of the water. The steamed mint “hay” then gets dumped in piles, where it fragrantly rots into what must be one of the world’s best combined soil conditioner– fertilizers (provided the mint hasn’t been sprayed with a long-lasting herbicide like Stinger).

If you want peppermint for tea or any other purpose, your local mint farmer might not be prepared to accommodate you. My children, when they were little, addressed this problem by ripping a peppermint stolon from a neighbor’s field and burying it in our front garden. This is actually the way mint is normally propagated; seedlings are too variable. In the front garden the mint has spread a little over the years, but not much, because I give this thirsty herb scant summer water. In this way I’ve managed to ensure enough peppermint for an occasional cup of tea without the whole garden’s turning into a peppermint patch.

A good time to dry peppermint is just before it flowers, especially if this happens to be when you’re feeling guilty for running a half-empty electric food dryer. Last week my North Star cherries were nearly dry when I thought to add a few trays of peppermint to the dehydrator.

Some people prefer to dry their herbs in bunches hung from the ceiling. My daughter, actually, has a bunch of lavender hanging from the kitchen light fixture right now. For most herbs, this technique tends to work well only in places like California or the Southwest. Here in western Oregon, the weather is seldom hot and dry enough to dry herbs well—that is, so they keep their color and flavor. When I try to dry herbs in bunches, I usually end up throwing them out because they’ve turned musty.

Drying herbs in the dehydrator is less trouble, anyway. For the peppermint, I shake or brush off any spiders, and then I tear off and discard the old, tough leaves at the base of the stalks. I run each stalk between my thumb and forefinger to remove the rest of the leaves, which I spread thickly on the dryer trays. I set these trays over any drying fruit, which needs a bit more heat. Then I enjoy the fragrance of peppermint for the next hour and a half, by which time the leaves are thoroughly dry.

I crush the leaves as much as needed to fit them into a tea can, and I stow the can away in the cupboard. Stored this way, peppermint keeps its flavor and aroma for years, if we don’t use it all in the coming winter, as we probably will. I look forward to those chilly, dark nights when I’ll again breathe in the powerful scent of peppermint, in the steam from a hot mug.

If you have no peppermint growing close to home, you might order the variety “Corvallis” from Nichols Garden Nursery.

Linden Flower Tea

The linden trees are blooming, and the bees and I are grateful as ever for their profusion of fragrant flowers.

My three lindens appear to be littleleaf, Tilia cordata, a species native to northern Europe. I can’t be sure, because when I bought the bare-root trees seventeen years ago they were mislabeled as honey locusts (which look completely different, although they likewise please the bees). Also known as lime trees, honey trees, and basswood, lindens come in some thirty species—from Europe, Asia, and eastern North America—and dozens of cultivars. The rangy, big-leaved American linden has fibrous inner bark (or bast, hence “basswood”), which made excellent cordage for native tribes, who also sometimes ate the mucilaginous young leaves and buds. European linden or “common lime,” T. x europaea, is believed to be a natural hybrid of T. cordata and the Eurasian bigleaf linden, T. platyphyllos. All three of these species are planted and often pollarded (cut to trunks or limb stubs) or coppiced (cut to stumps) in European cities and villages. Woodworkers love the lindens—whose English name comes from an old word meaning “flexible” or “resilient”—for their soft, evenly grained wood that doesn’t split or warp. Other people, like me, love lindens for their blossoms, perfuming the summer air with their honey-like scent and, later, opening once again in a cup of hot water.

When the rain stops—yes, it’s raining in Oregon in mid-July!—I’ll gather a bowlful of linden flowers and lay them in a shady, breezy spot to dry. As I pick, I’ll pass by the older, yellower flowers, which can be quite narcotic. But I won’t forget that, even when made from freshly opened flowers, linden tea has proven medical powers. It promotes sweating during fevers, loosens mucus, and helps relieve hypertension and stomach cramps. Most famously, linden tea soothes the nerves.

I like my homegrown linden tea for its mild but pleasing aroma and flavor and for the joy of watching the blossoms open before my eyes. And, on a winter’s evening— say, after a fractious community meeting—I often welcome linden’s mild sedative effect. For pleasure and as medicine, linden beats stinking chamomile hands-down.

Tabbouleh for a Warm Spring Day

During a long, cool spring, like the one we experienced in the Northwest last year and the one we’re grousing about now, the rare warm day is an occasion for celebration. In summer I often try to satisfy my craving for tabbouleh, the Near Eastern salad of parsley, mint, and bulgur wheat, only to find my parsley gone to seed and my mint old and tough. Spring, not summer, is the best season for tabbouleh. But as a main course, at least, tabbouleh is best on a warm day. So one day recently, when the thermometer neared 70 degrees, I set out to make tabbouleh for lunch, with tender parsley, mint, and lettuce from rain-soaked garden beds.

Tabbouleh (tabouleh, tabouli, tabooley—spell it as you will) is often served with little cupped leaves of romaine lettuce, which serve as scoops for the mixture of wheat and herbs. Although I had no romaine, my butter lettuce was at its best, so I picked some as a bed for the salad. And along with spearmint I picked some lemon balm, a citrus-scented member of the mint family that has become a weed in my garden.

Traditionally tabbouleh is made with fine bulgur (or burghul), which you can find in Lebanese and Turkish markets. Bulgur is wheat that has been parboiled, parched dry, coarsely ground, and then rubbed to remove the outer layers. Covered in water, it quickly swells to a texture perfect for eating. Medium or coarse bulgur, available in many supermarkets, will do well enough for tabbouleh, but it will need longer soaking, and you may want to use hot water rather than cold. (Bulgur is not the same as cracked wheat. If you want to substitute ordinary cracked wheat for bulgur, you’ll have to cook the wheat and then let it cool.)

In summer, tabbouleh is often served with sliced or cubed cucumber, pepper, or tomato, and with grape leaves rather than lettuce. I decorated my tabbouleh this time with home-cured olives and cubes of cotija cheese; feta would have been just as good. My husband’s homemade pinot gris wine made a fine accompaniment.


I never measure ingredients when I make tabbouleh, but here’s an approximate recipe:

2 cups bulgur
1 cup minced onion
Salt to taste
1 1/2 cups minced parsley
1/2 cup minced spearmint, or a mixture of spearmint and lemon balm
1/2 cup lemon juice, or more
1/2 cup olive oil, or more

Put the bulgur into a bowl, cover it with water, and let the bulgur soak for an hour. Drain and press out any excess water. Mix the bulgur with the onions, crushing the onions with your fingers. Add salt to taste. Stir in the herbs, the half-cup lemon juice, and the half-cup olive oil. Taste the salad, and add more salt, lemon juice, or oil, if you like.

Serve the tabbouleh immediately, with lettuce or grape leaves, or chill the salad until you’re ready to eat.

To Candy Angelica

Very old preserving books always include candied angelica, and I wanted to continue this tradition in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves. I ended up leaving out this herb, though, because I’d never managed to grow it. In fact, I didn’t even know what it tasted like. But last year, luckily, I found a start at Nichols (a local seed company, in Albany, Oregon, and one of my favorites) and the plant has happily sprung back despite the extreme cold of December. So over the past week, for the first time, I have candied angelica.

Angelica is a member of the genus Umbelliferae, which provides an awesome assortment of flavors for the kitchen (other members include parsley, carrot, parsnip, fennel, anise, coriander, celery, dill, cumin, lovage, and caraway). Like many of its cousins, angelica is biennial; the seeds sprout soon after they’re dropped in the summer, and then the little plant overwinters before sending up tall seed stalks the following summer. (The reasons I and other gardeners have had trouble growing angelica from seed, apparently, are that the seeds need light to germinate and that they lose their viability quickly.) Angelica archangelica, the European variety traditionally used in cooking, can wave its umbels as high as six feet in the air. Tasting the bitter leaves might make you avoid this plant as potentially poisonous, and in fact the herb has been used more as medicine than as food. The leaves, seeds, stems, and roots of angelica species have all served as remedies for various complaints, especially digestive and bronchial problems. In the kitchen, the leaves have been used for tea, the roots and seeds have flavored wine and liqueurs, the ground dried root has been added to baked goods, and the fresh leaves have flavored salads, soups, stews, custards, ice cream, and other desserts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers angelica safe for use as food.

Many old recipes specify that angelica should be cut in April for candying. Early May should be fine, too, provided the stems are still green, not purplish (although you shouldn’t wait until the plant blooms, which according to European tradition happens on May 8, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel). Use only thick stems, and cut away the leaves and leaf stems.

I developed my candying method from several old, slow recipes, although quicker methods might work as well. Here’s what I did:

Candied Angelica

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
½ pound thick green angelica stems, cut into 3- to 8-inch lengths
Extra-fine sugar, for dusting

Bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring. Remove the pan from the heat.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add the angelica stems. Over medium-high heat, cook the stems for 4 to 6 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Their sharp, bitter aroma will fill the air. Drain the stems, rinse them in cold water, and drain them again. Peel off the thin skin. A vegetable peeler may help, but most of the skin should rub off easily with your fingers. Put the stems into a bowl, pour the syrup over them, and weight them with a small plate.

The next day, drain off the syrup into a saucepan. Boil it until it has thickened a bit (to about 225 degrees F), and pour it over the angelica. Repeat this process the next day, and again the day after. At this point the stems should appear partially translucent.

drying angelica
 

On the following day, pour off the syrup again, and boil it to the thread stage (230 degrees F). Add the angelica stems, and bring the syrup back to the thread stage. Drain the stems in a colander, and then place them on a rack or screen in a warm place until they are dry to the touch (a food dryer or a convection oven set on very low heat will speed the drying).Dust the dried stems with sugar, and store them in an airtight container.

candied angelica

 

Before you store your angelica, of course, you’ll want to taste it and consider how to use it. The flavor reminds me of horehound, but others compare it to licorice. My husband says it’s not like either; he detects roses and grass. Angelica’s bitterness should still be apparent in the candied stems, but it should be balanced by the sweetness of the sugar.

Cookbooks with recipes for candied angelica usually mention its use in or on cakes. But what sorts of cakes? I checked at least a dozen cookbooks that I thought might answer this question, but none did. I think I’ll try my candied angelica in gingerbread, biscotti, or fruit cake. I’ll also eat it on its own now and then, to experience its strange, strong flavor again.

Note: Several species of angelica are native to North America. They can presumably be used in the same ways as Angelica archangelica, but before you gather any wild angelica make sure you can tell it from poisonous water hemlock, Cicuta maculata.

Harvesting Love in a Mist

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Friends of the Library are coming tomorrow for a potluck. Tidy gardeners all, they are sure to frown on that patch of dried-out nigella stalks by the blueberries. This gives me extra incentive to harvest the seeds today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANigella damascena, or love-in-a-mist, is an annual beloved by less-tidy flower gardeners for its lovely little blue flowers surrounded by delicate, lacy foliage. The flowers develop into pods rather like those of opium poppies. When the pale green pods have turned golden and their little black seeds rattle inside, many gardeners cut the stalks and save them for winter arrangements.

This is what I had in mind, too, the first year I grew love-in-a-mist. But my small daughter, an incorrigible browser then and now, told me they had a more practical use. “Taste the seeds, Mama! They’re good!”

I chided her, as I always did, for eating whatever plants lay in her path. But my curiosity got the better of me, and so I asked what the seeds tasted like. Raised on natural foods, she couldn’t place the flavor. But I could, as soon as I gingerly bit into one of the black, teardrop-shaped seeds: Grape Kool-Aid!

N. damascena is closely related to N. sativa, which in India, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East is beloved at least as much for its culinary and medicinal purposes as for its ornamental value. The seeds are used in and on breads, like sesame seeds and poppy seeds. In India, where nigella seeds are called kalonji or onion seeds (for their appearance, not their flavor), they are briefly fried or toasted and added to pickles, chutneys, and sauces. The seeds are believed to ameliorate digestive, respiratory, rheumatic, and skin problems, and some of these medicinal benefits have been scientifically confirmed.

I harvest nigella by pulling the stalks from the ground and turning them upside-down into a paper grocery bag. Because I’ve waited a bit too long to harvest, as many as half the seeds scatter to the ground in the process. That’s fine with me; they will grow into next year’s crop.

However hard I shake them, the pods will hang on to some of their seeds, so on a windy day I’ll scatter the stalks where I want more love-in-a-mist to grow. Then I’ll winnow the seeds left in the bottom of the paper bags. I’ll store the clean seeds in a jar, and I’ll take some out now and then to sprinkle on top of bread just before baking it.

If I serve the bread to company, I’ll wait for my guests to ask what the strange black seeds are. Before I tell them, I’ll ask what the seeds taste like. Grape Kool-Aid, anyone?

UPDATES

August 20, 2009: Joanne from Lake Oswego tells me that N. sativa is available from Penzey’s as charnushka. Russians and Poles sprinkle charnushka (chernushka, czarnuszka) on top of rye bread before baking it.

November 29, 2009: I recently bought some seeds of N. sativa from the San Francisco Herb Company. They look like N. damascena, but their flavor is not at all foxy. I can best describe it as bitter–though less bitter than, say, celery seed–and complex, dark, almost smoky. I hope I like them better on bread.