A Taste of Winter Watermelon

Winter King and Queen watermelonMy friend Betty surprised me when she arrived on my porch holding what appeared to be a large white, gently ribbed pumpkin. “It’s your watermelon!” she told me, smiling broadly. And the thin stem, twisted like a pig’s tail, proved that it was indeed a watermelon.

I hadn’t seen Betty since before the coronavirus outbreak. But she had agreed that I might leave my start of ‘Winter King and Queen’ watermelon on her doorstep and that she would plant it in her garden. I’d gotten the seed from Andrew Still, who knew that I was interested in fermented whole watermelons and that ‘Winter King and Queen’ was a variety favored for the purpose by Germans from Russia.

In case you’ve never heard of Germans from Russia (GFR), they are probably the U.S. ethnic group most devoted to preserving their history, even though they have long and thoroughly blended into the general white population. Their ancestors left Germany for Russia in the late eighteenth century, after Catherine the Great invited foreigners to immigrate without having to give up their language or religious traditions, pay taxes, or serve in the military. A century later, the ethnic Germans lost their special privileges, and whole villages picked themselves up and moved to rural parts of North and South America.

Most GFRs have either stopped preparing their old family recipes or transformed them. In the Midwest, for example, many GFRs pickle cut watermelon flesh in a vinegar solution. But some, such as the Hutterites of South Dakota, still brine whole melons. And the variety they most like to brine is ‘Winter King and Queen.’

I tried two years in a row to grow ‘Winter King and Queen’ in my little city garden, but it produced no fruit. When nurseries say a plant requires full sun, they generally mean it needs six hours of sun per day. But some plants truly need all-day sun, which is hard to get in a little garden surrounded by buildings and trees. I suspected that ‘Winter King and Queen’ was greedy for sunlight. It wanted to grow in an open field.

So this year I started a few seeds in a pot in the greenhouse and left the pot for Betty, who has a small farm a few miles from town. Betty set out the start as promised, and eventually the plant produced several good-sized melons. Mine weighed more than seventeen pounds.

My main GFR contact, Gwen Schock Cowherd, maintains that GFRs never eat ‘Winter King and Queen’ fresh—they grow other melons for fresh eating—but only brine it or pickle it in vinegar. Some old seed catalogs say that the melon is delicious fresh but should be stored for a while to mellow. I had no intention of brining such a big melon, and I lacked the patience to wait for weeks before eating it. So after only a few days I cut it open. And the very cutting produced another surprise: The skin was quite hard. It wasn’t rubbery-tough, like the skin of a citron melon; it was hard like the skin of a pumpkin.

Most of the Germans in Russia lived along the Volga River, around Sarotov, where watermelons thrive. Because transportation was poor, the melons served largely for the community’s own subsistence. They were boiled down for molasses, they were brined to eat in late winter and spring, and they were stored until Christmas, or longer. At least some local watermelons were bred for these purposes. A hard skin would have made a melon keep longer and perhaps stay firmer when brined. But were these melons somehow unpleasant when fresh?

My watermelon, once cut, showed a rather thin white rind (this cultivar certainly wasn’t intended for making sweet watermelon-rind pickles!) The fruit released a fragrance that my husband compared to cucumbers and flowers. The flesh was the usual pinkish red with the plentiful black seeds of an old-fashioned watermelon.

The sliced melon tasted as good as it looked. The flesh was rather firm and not the sweetest, but it was definitely sweeter than that of any seedless watermelon, the only kind I can find in stores these days. My husband and I were both a bit put off by the coarse, whitish flesh that surrounded the seeds in a few places, but we still judged ‘Winter King and Queen’ to be a very good eating melon.

I set out to learn more about the variety. To my surprise, the venerable food historian William Woys Weaver described ‘King and Queen’ as a ten-pound melon with “white-green” skin striped with dark green. That didn’t sound like my melon. But Amy Goldman, author of Melons for the Passionate Grower, described an unstriped, greenish white, twelve-pound round ‘Wintermelon’ or ‘King and Queen Winter Melon’; this one sounded more like mine. I checked the catalogs of the few companies that sell ‘Winter King and Queen’ seed today. Some showed photos of a uniformly greenish white melon; others showed a pale melon with green stripes. Who was right and who was wrong here? Were the melons different strains of the same cultivar? The many alternative names—“Winter Melon,” “Winter Watermelon,” “Winter Queen,” “Winter King,” and more—only added to my confusion.

I attempted to trace the melon’s history. The USDA Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1394, from 1934, got me off to a start, in a discussion of “a small round melon grown in Colorado and California and sold under the names Winter Queen, Winter King, Alaska, Klondike, and others. Varieties of this type were introduced from the Volga River section of Russian probably by Russians who settled in the Rocky Ford district of Colorado. . . . The Russian growers in Colorado follow the practice of placing these melons in salt brine and keeping them in a cold place until midwinter for their own use.”

The little town of Rocky Ford, about sixty miles east of Pueblo, Colorado, was established in 1870 by George Washington Swink, who led the construction of a communal irrigation system and soon began planting cantaloupes and watermelons. By the late 1800s the town was calling itself the Melon Capital of the World. Even today the local melon business thrives, and the Watermelon Day festival that Swink founded in 1878 is still an annual tradition.

Did the GFRs have something to do with the Rocky Ford melon business? Plenty of them settled in Colorado, mostly in the northern counties of Larimer and Weld, where they worked in the sugar-beet fields. But Rocky Ford also had its GFR contingent; thirty-nine GFR families arrived there in 1910 to work for the American Crystal Sugar Company—again, in sugar-beet fields. Whether the GFRs grew watermelons in their own fields I don’t know, but their tastes may have influenced the local watermelon trade. The Ebbert Seed Company of Rocky Ford began selling ‘Winter Watermelon’ seed in 1912 and ‘King and Queen’ in 1915.

The two varieties seem to have gotten confused early on. In 1911, the Grand Junction Seed Company advertised ‘King and Queen’ as having an an “ivory shell.” In 1912 Ebbert described ‘Winter Watermelon’ similarly:

Very prolific bearer. Flesh red of extreme firmness, almost hard as a citron—very brittle and deliciously sweet. Color very light green, almost white. Placed in a cool place will keep long into the winter and still retain its delicious sweetness and flavor.

In 1920, Ebbert left ‘Winter Watermelon’ out of the catalog and applied its former ‘Winter Watermelon’ description to ‘King and Queen.’ Perhaps this was an error?

In 1929 ‘King and Queen’ was still in Ebbert’s catalog, but this time with a different description:

Very light in color with a slightly dark stripe, size about 10 inches in diameter, average about 20 pounds, seed small, shiny black. The flavor, sweet and surprisingly delicious, is entirely distinct from a watermelon. . . . It should not be eaten right off the vine but should be allowed time to become mellow; can be kept in perfect condition until holiday time.

Presumably, Ebbert replaced ‘Winter Watermelon’ in its catalog with ‘King and Queen.’ But it isn’t clear whether ‘King and Queen’ arrived uniformly pale at Rocky Ford, and acquired its stripes through crossing or selection, or whether it had always been striped. Other seed companies, meanwhile, continued to sell a whitish-skinned, unstriped melon called ‘Winter Watermelon.’ The typical description of ‘King and Queen’ as the best winter watermelon–or simply the winter watermelon—may have contributed to the confusion of two different cultivars.

The name ‘King and Queen’ apparently originated with John F. Brown, who farmed winter melons in Elgin, Utah, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Elgin is now a ghost town, but the little settlement on the Green River was then the home of Brown’s ‘Eden’ cantaloupe, which seldom matured on the vine but months later would grow sweet and delicious. In 1898, Brown secured seeds of more winter melon varieties from Niels Hansen, a plant explorer and breeder employed by the USDA in South Dakota. Hansen had recently journeyed through various regions of Russia in search of fruits that might thrive on the northern U.S. plains. He sent Brown and other farmers an assortment of Russian seeds. Some of them came with names.

But none was called ‘King and Queen.’ Brown, then, must have named the melon himself. After growing it for four or five seasons, he described it this way:

The King and Queen watermelon is yet king and queen of the melon world; my offer of $100 for a pound of seed that will grow as handsome, as lucious [sic] and as valuable a melon has never been taken up. Its weight is about 25 pounds. The Salt Lake hotels and restaurants have been using this melon for about three years. They are also shipped to all parts of the East, and the demand has always exceeded the supply. Its keeping qualities are wonderful, and we have them on hand up to Christmas and they are as fine as when gathered from the vines on September first.

To my frustration, Brown failed to describe the melon’s shape, flesh color, or skin color or pattern. He probably would have mentioned the color if it was nearly white, but not necessarily; melons varied more in those days than they do now. Hansen had brought back seeds of watermelons with white, yellow, and green flesh; spots instead of stripes; bright yellow skin; and, in one case, “skin adorned with pretty designs.”

But only one of Hansen’s cultivars came close to matching William Woys Weaver’s description of ‘King and Queen.’ Originally from Chimkent, Turkestan, this melon was “round, quite large, light green with dark stripes, flesh red; late and of good keeping quality.” Although the fruit didn’t ripen in the South Dakota trials, the plant may have produced well in Elgin, Utah. If it did, Brown would have had to give it a name, because Hansen had not. And what would he call “the king and queen of the melon world” but ‘King and Queen’?

In the fall of 1889 Brown shipped to the USDA “187 pounds of seeds and a carload of melons from a planting of 3 ½ pounds of seeds given me.” The seeds were distributed to melon-growing regions around the country, and Brown began talking up the ‘King and Queen.’

I like to imagine GFRs on their long journeys by ship, rail, and wagon with seeds sown into the hems of their skirts or tucked into corners of their valises. And maybe the white-skinned ‘Winter Watermelon’ did come to America in such a way. Hansen, after all, tested seeds of six watermelon varieties that he gathered from a Mennonite GFR community in Windom, Minnesota, and another “American” watermelon variety that went by the name ‘Volga.’ Those seeds, too, may have been distributed around the country. And seeds of other winter varieties may have spread from GFR communities anywhere from the Pacific Coast to New York.

If I can get Betty to grow Andrew Still’s ‘Winter King and Queen’ again, and to give me two fruits instead on one, I will try keeping one until Christmas and brining the other. And I will also try to order seeds of a striped ‘King and Queen.’ I am eager to learn if the two are strains of the same cultivar or if the differences are more than skin-deep.

 

ChouAmi: A New Jar-Top Fermentation Device

parts of a ChouAmi
ChouAmi parts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lemon-Soured Cucumber Pickles

saltwater dills, shrunk

While I was promoting the first edition of The Joy of Pickling at the Oregon State Fair, in 1998, a woman asked me if I’d make lemon pickles. Certainly I’d pickled lemons; I started to show her the various pickled-lemon recipes in the book. She clarified her question: Had I made fresh cucumber pickles with lemon juice in place of vinegar? I had not.

So this woman, Glenda Lund, mailed me a recipe—because people did that sort of thing, before the turn of this century (and hardly ever since then).

The recipe called for 1 quart lemon juice to 3 quarts water to 1 cup salt. I didn’t know what to think. USDA folks wouldn’t like the recipe, I knew; they hadn’t studied cucumber pickles made with lemon juice, and they would countenance the inclusion of the recipe in my book only if I increased the amount of lemon juice to 3 quarts for 3 quarts water, to match their rule of thumb for cucumbers pickled with vinegar. That would make horribly sour pickles.

So I left the recipe out of the second edition of The Joy of Pickling and again out of the third edition. After all, I had plenty of other recipes to develop and add to the book. But I kept Glenda’s handwritten letter in my file of ideas for future editions.

This year, as I considered how to use the last few batches’ worth of cucumbers from the garden. I thought of Glenda’s recipe. I had never even tried it. After twenty-one years, I should do it now.

I did not, after all, have to process the pickles; instead, I could store them in the refrigerator. The cool temperature of the fridge, combined with the acid and salt in the brine, would prevent the growth of pathogenic microbes for at least several weeks.

So I would make a refrigerator pickle, and I would reduce the recipe to one-quarter of the original so that all the pickles would fit into a 2-quart jar.

Next I had to consider the source of the lemon juice. Since Glenda would have had to squeeze about 30 lemons to produce a quart of juice, I figured she had probably used bottled lemon juice. But I don’t like the taste of that stuff, and I had plenty of fresh lemons in a basket on the buffet. Fresh-squeezed lemon juice is more acidic than bottled lemon juice, but generally not very much so. I would use real lemon rather than ReaLemon.

Now that the pickles have aged for about two weeks, I can say that they’re like no other cucumber pickle I’ve eaten before. They are quite sour enough. They taste briny and lemony and clean, and I would like to eat them with feta cheese and oily black olives. I would like to feed them to everyone I’ve ever met who hates the taste of vinegar.

Here, finally, is my version of Glenda’s recipe for—

Saltwater Dill Pickles

 3 cups water
1 cup strained lemon juice
¼ cup pickling salt
2 grape leaves
Enough whole pickling cucumbers, 3 to 5 inches long, to fill a 2-quart jar
2 large dill heads, with foliage
6 to 8 garlic cloves

In a covered saucepan, heat the water, lemon juice, and salt just to a boil. While the liquid heats, lay the grape leaves in the bottom of a 2-quart jar. Cut away the cucumbers’ blossom ends, and pack the cucumbers into the jar, interspersing the dill and garlic among them.

When the liquid comes to a boil, pour it over the cucumbers, covering them completely. Close the jar with a plastic cap.

When the jar has cooled, store it in the refrigerator. Wait a week or so before serving the cucumbers.

 Makes 2 quarts

Thanks, Glenda!

 

 

Salad in a Jar: A Quick, Light Sliced Cucumber Pickle

suyo pickleAs the sky turned grey and the rains commenced, I knew what I wanted to do with what might be the last of my suyo cucumbers. I wanted to fill a quart jar with thin crosswise slices, adorned with sliced red onion and yellow pepper and covered with vinegar diluted to the point that I could serve the mixture as a salad.

Had I created such a recipe before? I couldn’t find one in the Joy of Pickling. No problem—I would start from scratch.

Suyo, suhyo, or sooyow cucumbers are not a particular cultivar but a general type of Cucumis sativus. These long, slender cucumbers, said to have originated in northern China, have undergone a lot of breeding in Japan. At harvest they are at least 10 inches long. At 1 inch in diameter, some cultivars may reach 18 inches. If left to grow longer they may reach 2 feet or more, although they will be past their prime. The vines’ small tendrils make them good climbers, and when the vines climb they are more likely to produce straight rather than curled fruits. The skins of the fruits can be ridged or smooth, and they are fairly thin; for salads or pickles, you can peel these cucumbers partially, completely, or not at all. The best thing about suyo cucumbers is that they are seldom bitter (although the cultivar I planted this year had an inch or two of mild bitterness at the stem end).

mixed cukes
At the right and left here are two different suyo cultivars.

Suyo cucumbers’ uniform diameter and typically small seed cavity make them ideal for cutting into crosswise slices or chunks. If you like to make bread-and-butter pickles, you should definitely be growing suyos.

But bread-and-butters are too sweet and too sour for my taste. Instead I’ve made this light, pretty pickle.

Quick Suyo Pickle Chips

Feel free to change the spices to suit your whim.

1 ¼ pounds suyo cucumbers, unpeeled, sliced crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick rounds
1 small red onion, about 4 ounces, halved lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise
1 to 2 sweet yellow or red peppers, about 4 ounces, halved or quartered lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise
2 tablespoons pickling salt
1 teaspoon grated fresh turmeric
2 garlic cloves, sliced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly crushed
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
6 tablespoons cider vinegar
¾ cup water
2 teaspoons brown sugar

In a bowl, combine the cucumber, onion, and pepper slices. Add the salt, and toss the contents together. Drop the ice cubes from one full tray on top. Let the bowl stand at room temperature for 3 hours.

Drain the vegetables in a colander, rinse them, and drain them again. In a small bowl, mix together the turmeric, garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, and pepper flakes. Pack the vegetables into a quart jar, layering them with the mixed spices.

In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, and sugar. Cover the pan, and bring the mixture just to a boil. Pour the hot liquid into the jar of vegetables. Turn and tip the jar to release trapped air bubbles, and then cap the jar. When it has cooled, store it in the refrigerator.

Wait a day or two, at least, before serving the pickle.

Makes 1 quart

Radish Pods, for Seeds and Pickles

radish bushTo replenish my stock of Candela di Fuoco radish seeds, I let a single plant go to seed. It grew into a lovely bush, about three feet tall and wide, with pretty pink blooms that continued to appear as seed pods matured and dried. Although I loved the look of the plant, it was taking up bed space that I needed for other things. So last week, as soon as I could collect a few handfuls of dried pods, I pulled up the plant.

radish pods & flowersBut most of the pods were still green and tender. I couldn’t let them go to waste. Although they were quite small—unlike the pods of “rat-tail” varieties, which are grown specifically for their pods—I collected enough to fill a pint jar. And now I have one more pickle, a jarful of tangy tidbits with a mild radishy bite, to bemuse my friends this summer.

 

pickled radishes

 

 

Pickled Radish Pods

1 pint fully formed but still tender radish pods, stems trimmed to ¼ inch
1 small hot pepper, fresh or dried
1 tarragon sprig
1 large garlic clove, sliced
½ cup cider vinegar
½ cup water
1 teaspoon pickling salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

Pack a pint jar with the radish pods, hot pepper, tarragon, and garlic. In a saucepan, bring to a boil the vinegar, water, and salt. Pour the hot liquid over the pods, covering them well and leaving only about 1/8 inch headspace. Cap the jar, and leave it at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours, turning it two or three times.

Add the olive oil to the jar, cap it tightly, and store it in the refrigerator, where the radish pods should keep well for months.

Makes 1 pint

How to Freeze Artichokes

artichoke plants, smallLast winter we had plenty of freezing nights, but they were always followed by warmish days. As a result, none of the artichoke plants lining my short driveway died back at all, and this spring I’ve been harvesting artichokes by the bucketload. Last year’s harvest was only a little smaller. With our warming climate, the big, gray-green, edible-budded thistle so commonplace in California gardens seems to have become an ideal perennial vegetable for the Willamette Valley.

Last year I trimmed some of the artichokes down to their hearts and pickled them. Destroying the integrity of the beautiful buds before cooking them is painful—or at least it is if you’re accustomed to serving artichokes whole, peeling off the petals one by one, and scraping every petal across your teeth. But if you tear off those tough outer petals without mercy before you cook your artichoke, you end up with a fully edible, delicious nugget that can be added to any number of dishes.

This year I decided to freeze artichokes hearts instead of pickling them. I could always pickle some of them later, I reasoned, using the recipe in The Joy of Pickling (page 195 of the third edition).

As always, I harvested my artichokes when they were young, firm, and choke-free. Old artichokes are more trouble to prepare; you must hollow out the center to remove the choke.

Whether you’re freezing or pickling artichokes, you prepare them the same way:

Frozen Artichoke Hearts

 Rinse the artichokes one at a time, holding them upright under running water to wash out any earwigs. Turn the artichokes upside down in a colander to drain.

 Prepare a bowl of acidulated water, enough to cover all your artichoke hearts. I use vitamin C tablets—1,000 grams of vitamin C, ground in an electric coffee grinder, for each quart of cold water. Lemon water will do as well, if you happen to have a glut of lemons, as will a commercial product called Fruit Fresh. Vinegar or citric acid would be less effective.

 Begin heating a large pot of water to a boil.

artichoke, petals removed, smallPick up an artichoke, bend back the outer petals, and tear them off at the base. Keep pulling off the petals until you’re holding a cone that is yellow in its bottom half and light green at the top.

With a stainless-steel or ceramic knife, trim the stem. You don’t need to cut it away completely, since the stem of a young artichoke is tender and tasty.

artichoke heart, nearly ready, smallTrim away any green bits remaining at the base of the artichoke.

 Cut off the top of the cone, removing all of the tough green portion. Be unsparing, or you’ll regret not doing so when you find yourself spitting out fibrous bits. The petals of the finished heart should be so tightly wrapped that they are difficult to tear away.

artichoke, fully trimmed, smallTo keep the artichoke heart from browning, plunge it upside-down into the acidulated water. (It will promptly turn right-side up.)

 Prepare and submerge the rest of your artichoke hearts in the same way. As you work, occasionally dunk the hearts.

 

artichokes in acidulated water, smallDrain the artichoke hearts, and immediately drop them into a large pot of boiling water. Blanch them for about 10 minutes. If some of them are especially large, either cut them in half before blanching them or leave them in the water longer, about 15 minutes. Time the blanching period from when the hearts enter the pot. Keep the heat on high throughout. As the hearts cook, prepare a basin of ice water.

 Drain the hearts, and plunge them into the ice water.

artichokes ready for freezing, smallWhen they are cool, drain them again. Lay them on cookie sheets, and freeze them.

 Pack the frozen artichokes in freezer bags, and store them in the freezer.

After thawing frozen artichokes, steam or boil them until they are tender.

 

Preparing artichoke hearts for the freezer, or for pickling, will leave you with an enormous pile of outer petals. You don’t need to compost them, yet. You might instead boil or steam them and eat their tender inner flesh in the usual way, by dipping the base of each into mayonnaise, aioli, or garlicky olive oil and then scraping off the flesh with your teeth. Then the petals can go in the compost.

A More Colorful, Flavorful, and Textured Rhubarb Chutney

quick rhubarb chutneyThe best apple chutney I ever ate was made as I watched by a sorority cook who said she never used a recipe. She would make chutney quickly and instinctively for the young women in her care the same day that they would eat it, and they would eat it all. The apple slices in Trish’s chutney were tender but whole. Her chutney tasted as much of apples as of vinegar or spices.

English-style chutneys, to my mind, are too often too sour, too sweet, too dark, too pasty. Sometimes I can’t identify the main ingredient without looking at the label—even if I’ve made the chutney myself. A good rhubarb chutney is particularly difficult to produce, since rhubarb so quickly turns to mush as it cooks and since it’s quite sour even before you add vinegar.

As I pulled my first rhubarb stalks of the season last week, I vowed to make a rhubarb chutney inspired by Trish’s apple chutney. I wouldn’t can my chutney, since I’d make only a small quantity and since I wouldn’t use enough sugar and vinegar to guarantee safety without laboratory testing. The lesser quantities of sugar and vinegar would produce a thick chutney with only brief cooking, and I needed to keep the cooking brief so the rhubarb wouldn’t turn to mush.

But what to do about color? Most rhubarb stalks are more green than red, and when you combine them with spices you get brown. My rhubarb stalks were almost entirely green, but I wanted my chutney to be as red as cooks imagine rhubarb to be. So I decided to add hibiscus flowers, jamaica. They would contribute their own tartness to the mix, but just a little hibiscus would produce a lot of color.

Here’s the recipe I created that day. The chutney is a wonderful accompaniment to grilled chicken.

Quick, Chunky, Rosy-Red Rhubarb Chutney

You can buy dried hibiscus flowers in Mexican and Middle Eastern markets. Grind them in an electric coffee grinder.

1 pound rhubarb stalks, diced ½ inch thick
½ pound white or yellow onion, quartered lengthwise and sliced crosswise
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon fine salt
2 teaspoons hot pepper flakes
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
Zest of 1 orange, in thin strips
1/2 cup white sugar
½ cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon ground dried hibiscus flowers
½ cup raisins, preferably golden

Combine all the ingredients in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Simmer them about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and gently. When the liquid is nearly all absorbed, remove the pot from the heat.

Store the cooled chutney in the refrigerator. Before serving, remove the cinnamon stick. You might also warm the chutney briefly, on the stove or in a microwave oven.

Makes 3 cups

Found: Good Sweet Cherry Peppers

sweet cherry peppersYou may or may not remember my article Cherry Peppers for Stuffing, about my beautiful stuffed cherry peppers that were too hot for me to eat. I wrote that I’d finally found seeds for sweet, rather than hot, cherry peppers, in two varieties, both sold by Reimer Seeds.

The seeds of one, Kuners, failed to germinate at all—like many of the other seeds I bought from Reimer (whose representative told me, by the way, that the company would not replace or issue refunds for any bad seeds).

The seeds of the other variety, Red Cherry Large, sprouted well, but the plants produced irregularly shaped and sized fruits. Most of the peppers were conical rather than round. Only one of the plants produced truly round peppers.

But I saved the seeds of those round cherries and planted them last February. And the four plants that I set out produced beautiful sweet peppers, round, fairly uniform in size (no bigger than 1½ inches and no smaller than 1 inch), with virtually no cracking, and early. I took the picture above in mid-September.

I have stored the peppers in diluted vinegar and will fill them for the holidays as I described in Cherry Peppers for Stuffing.

This goes to show that plant breeding isn’t always difficult. But now I must hope that the seeds I saved from these pretty peppers aren’t crossed with any of the other pepper varieties that I’d planted in the same bed. It’s not easy to keep unique varieties going in a small kitchen garden. If you would like to help steward this cherry pepper, please let me know.

A Taste of Austria

IMG_3190Last month I had the luck to spend two weeks in Austria, a little country of cheerful, modest people and outsized natural and cultural wealth, from the ancient salt mines to the soaring Alps, from Baroque palaces filled with with art to the operas of Mozart, from the gold and jewels of the royal treasury to the lushest cow pastures I’ve ever seen.

As the pastures might suggest, the Austrian food world is rich as well. The butter tastes like butter, the egg yolks are as orange as oranges, restaurants pride themselves on their local and bio ingredients, and farmers all over the country produce their own excellent cured meats and schnaps (brandies from assorted fruits). Here are a few gastronomic highlights of the trip.

Found in the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s double row of permanent produce and restaurant stalls, stretching from one metro stop to the next:

Pickle barrel

 

a barrel full of fermented cucumbers;

pickles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

more pickles;

 

 

 

 

 

fruit vinegars

 

 

 

fruit vinegars;

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2067

 

 

 

 

flavored hummuses (among the merchants are numerous Turks and other immigrants from the Near East);

 

 

Kletzen and Weingartenpfirsich

 

 

 

Kletzen, whole dried pears, upper left; and Weingartenpfirsich, vineyard peaches, lower right. The peaches grow from seed in the vineyards of western Austria, where they ripen at about the same time as the grapes and so provide a handy snack for the harvesters (in case the workers have tired of eating grapes). Although these peaches are small and rather dry, they are preferred over big, juicy peaches for cooking, especially for jam. The dried pears are traditionally used at Christmastime to make Kletzenbrot, a yeast bread containing nuts, spices, and rye flour as well as dried fruit.

 

Pears are a particularly important food in mountainous areas where grapes don’t grow. The favorite seems to be Williams, or, as we call it in the United States, Bartlett.

standard pear in the Zillertal

 

In the Zillertal, a valley in the Tyrol, we saw many standard pear trees, like this one.

 

 

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In the Salzkammergut, near Salzburg, we saw several pear trees espaliered against the walls of buildings.

 

 

 

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Austrians love all kinds of fruits. At the Nashmarkt in Vienna, these women were selling an assortment of fruit juices.

 

 

 

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High on a mountain over the Zillertal, a man stopped his car, pulled out a ladder, and propped it against a mountain-ash (or rowan) tree heavy with fruit. Can you see him in the tree? He is probably gathering the berries—Vogelbeeren—for schnaps. The birds must share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were fortunate to be in Austria when the Preiselbeeren—lingonberries—were ripe. A mound of lingonberry sauce, served alongside meat-and-potato or meat-and-noodle dishes, tastes like cranberry sauce but a bit less sour and bitter. Lingonberries are smaller than cranberries, though, so they look more like red currants without the hairy bits.

Preiselbeeren

 

Here are lingonberries in a market.

 

 

 

 

 

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We found lingonberry plants covering the floor of spruce forests above the Zillertal. Often lingonberries and huckleberries—Heidelbeeren–grow together, so it’s difficult to harvest one without harvesting the other. A handful of the two together makes a fine snack for a hungry hiker, and a basketful makes a nice batch of mixed-wild-berry jam, which we tasted in our hotels.

 

 

 

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In the Zillertal Regional Museum, we found an old berry basket and berry comb. We’d seen a woman using a comb like this as she foraged in the woods over the Zillertal, while her husband dozed in the car by the side of the road.

 

 

 

 

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While in Vienna I felt I must visit one of the city’s venerable coffeehouses. I chose Café Landtmann. The outdoor tables looked tempting in the sunshine, but the traffic noise drove me into the staid interior.

 

 

 

 

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Unable to work up an appetite for the fancy cakes, I ordered humble apple strudel in a pool of custard.

 

 

 

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The strudel made a fine, though expensive, lunch, but when I afterward explored the nearby Kunsthistoriches Museum I wish I’d gone straight there, because smack in the middle of the museum is what must be one of the most beautiful cafés in the world.

 

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Most Austrian breads are dark and dense, as you might guess from the dimensions of this bread-cutting tray at the Zillertal Regional Museum. I particularly liked the Dinkelbrot, which, I found out only after coming home, is made from spelt.

 

 

 

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But Austrian bakers make white breads, too, like these in the shape of soccer balls.

 

 

 

 

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My favorite snack in Austria was Mohnzelten, which are like fig Newtons but big and round and filled with poppyseeds instead of figs. This one, bought in Dürnstein and baked nearby, was made with a potato dough.

 

 

 

 

 

Sausage man

 

 

The cured meats of Austria are amazingly diverse and good. This man, in the Naschmarkt, gave us so many samples that we couldn’t eat lunch afterward (note that his Lederhosen straps don’t hold up his Hosen but are printed on his T-shirt).

 

 

 

 

 

hot-dogs

 

Scattered throughout Vienna are Würstelstände, sausage stands. Long, thin sausages served in a bun are called by their English name, hot dog. The vendor cuts off one end of the bun, jams the bun cut-end down on a spike, inserts the sausage in the hollow thus formed, and squirts in some mustard. We enjoyed the Käsekrainer, a cheese-studded smoked pork sausage. Oh, to find such a hot dog at home!

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We found this sausage vending machine along the street in the town of Aschau, in the Zillertal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

breakfast

 

Meats, cheeses, breads, fruits, vegetables, and often fish are included in the lavish breakfast spreads at Austrian hotels—and when you reserve a room in Austria, you’re usually reserving a seat at a breakfast table as well. These two photos show just part of the spread at the Hotel Unter den Linden, in Krems. breakfast 2

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This breakfast room, at the Hotel Hubertushof in Bad Ischl, is typical in its comfort and beautiful woodwork.

 

 

 

 

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This was one of my breakfasts at the Hubertushof.

 

 

 

 

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Austrian hotels have amazingly sophisticated coffee machines, like expert baristas in a box. Enzianhof, in the Zillertal, even has a machine for poaching your own eggs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s too bad for us that so little Austrian wine is exported to the United States (though the amount is growing), because Wien ist Wein, as they say. Both the red and white wines made around Vienna are excellent. We were happy to be there during the harvest season, so we could taste Sturm, grape juice that has fermented no more than a few days or weeks.

Heuriger Kierlinger

 

The best place to taste Sturm is at a Heuriger, a wine garden on the outskirts of the city. The wine growers are allowed to sell their own wines along with an assortment of meats, salads, and so on, which you usually order by weight at a counter. This is Heuriger Kierlinger, in Nussdorf.

 

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And here is Sturm for sale in the Naschmarkt.

 

 

 

 

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In the Zillertal Regional Museum we found the biggest kraut board I’ve ever seen. It must be four feet long. We saw old kraut boards, big and small, displayed elsewhere, too, but I don’t remember seeing sauerkraut on a menu. Perhaps it was too early in the fall . . . or perhaps kraut has fallen out of style.

 

 

 

 

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Finally, just for fun, here’s dessert.

 

 

Preserves with a Nordic Touch

Savory SweetFrom the University of Minnesota Press comes a preserving cookbook especially for cold-climate cooks, whether they grow their own produce or shop at farmers’ markets and farm stands. Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen is a collection of condiment recipes by Mette Nielsen, a Danish-born gardener and photographer, and Beth Dooley, a cookbook author and journalist.

Omitted from the book are warm-climate fruits such as guavas, mangoes, fig, and quince, but Californians and even Southern cooks will find plenty to work with here. Beth and Mette use dried apricots in place of fresh, and they liberally employ fresh citrus—especially grapefruit juice and rind, which they combine with various fruits and even with pickled beets.

I don’t know whether the preference for grapefruit is typically Danish, but the Nordic touch is obvious in the authors’ frequent use of juniper, caraway, and dill. Still, I wouldn’t call this cookbook Scandinavian or even Midwestern. Beth and Mette play freely with ideas and ingredients from India, Mexico, Britain, Spain, Italy, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The book includes condiments of all kinds—pickles, relishes, chutneys, dips, sauces, jams, jellies, syrups, butters, mustards, and flavored salt and sugar—and some other preserved foods such as dried fruits and shrubs. Looking through the recipes along with Mette’s lovely photos made my mouth water. Particularly interesting entries include a fennel and onion confit, a pesto of garlic scapes and hazelnuts, a brined radish pickle flavored with juniper and coriander, and a tomato ketchup made with tamarind concentrate. Parsnips surprised me in two recipes—a relish, with grapefruit, and a marmalade, with lime. A chutney of butternut squash and dried apricots “was popular years ago,” but I’d never heard of it (I suspect that the original recipe is from the U.K.). An apple “compote” is sweetened chunky applesauce with horseradish and pepper flakes. The pear shrub with ginger and lime, according to the authors, is a pioneer recipe, though in a quick search I could find no old recipes for shrubs made with pears (prickly pear shrubs do go way back). In any case, almost any preserver will find intriguing ideas in this handsome hardcover volume.

Take note of one odd thing about this book: Although most of the recipes call for mason jars with flat lids and bands, the jars are to be stored in the fridge or freezer instead of the pantry. The authors’ claim that a boiling-water bath would overcook the contents isn’t entirely credible, since most of the condiments are well cooked before they are jarred. No matter, though—most of the recipes have USDA counterparts. If you don’t want to fill your refrigerator and freezer with mason jars, simply use standard processing times as appropriate (see the National Center for Home Food Preservation website). And if you don’t like canning, feel free to use your Tupperware instead of Ball jars.

Lime Ginger Pear Shrub

For this recipe Beth and Mette recommend the Luscious pear, a sweet, juicy variety developed by South Dakota State University for the cold Northern Great Plains. If you live in a warmer climate, you might substitute Bartlett pears. This is a good way to use up soft, overripe fruit.

Because the pears aren’t cooked in this recipe, I recommend you follow the authors’ advice to freeze the jars instead of processing them.

To serve, mix ¼ cup of the shrub into 1 cup sparkling or still water, and pour the mixture over ice. If you like, add a jigger of rum or vodka.

2/3 cup loosely packed coarsely grated ginger
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 cup sugar
3 pounds very ripe pears, coarsely chopped (about 7 to 8 cups)
1 cup cider vinegar

Combine the ginger, lime juice, and sugar in a medium bowl. Add the pears as you cut them. Crush the pears with a potato masher or a fork to release their juice.

Tightly cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and set the bowl on the countertop out of direct sunlight. Macerate the fruit for at least 8 hours or overnight.

Place a medium-mesh sieve over a large bowl. Working in batches, press the pear mixture through the sieve, scraping the underside of the sieve with a clean spoon. Discard the solids left in the sieve. Stir in the vinegar.

Wash the jars, lids, and bands in very hot soapy water, rinse them well, and place them upside down on a clean towel to drain.

Pour the shrub into the jars, leaving a half-inch of headroom to allow for expansion during freezing. Wipe the rims with a clean wet cloth or paper towel, add the lids and bands, and tighten the bands.

Label the jars, and store them in the refrigerator or freezer.

Makes about 7 half-pints

This recipe is from Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen, by Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Copyright 2017 by Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.