As 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).
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.
To 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.
But 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 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.
If you’re proud of your home-preserved foods, why not show them off at your county or state fair? You probably won’t win big prizes—fair premiums are small these days, if they are available at all—but you’ll inspire your fellow preservers to aim higher, and you might even motivate some people to try preserving foods for the first time.
Of course, you’ll want your jars displayed with ribbons, preferably blue. To maximize your chances, check out these rules I’ve gleaned in judging preserves at county and state fairs:
Be sure you’ve used a conventional recipe. This takes much of the fun out of showing off your preserves, but most fairs specify that the recipe must come from the USDA, Extension, or Ball or Kerr. You might try citing a Ball or USDA recipe that’s almost the same as yours and noting what you’ve changed. This way the judge will know that you haven’t done anything to jeopardize the safety of the product.
But don’t be too conventional! Your chances of winning for one of a dozen nearly identical jars of blackberry jam are pretty low. You might do better with a less common fruit, such as quince or red or black currant, or with preserves, jelly, or chutney instead of jam. “Fermented foods, dried foods, and meat and seafood are always underfilled classes,” says Carol Newton, an Oregon State Fair judge (at the Oregon State Fair, fermented foods don’t have to be pasteurized, if they’re submitted on ice or in a cooler). At my own county fair, I’d like to see more pickles, especially whole-cucumber pickles and properly packed dilly beans.
Make sure you’ve used fresh produce, picked at the right time, and fresh spices. Even without tasting your entry, the judge may be able to spot inferior produce. Green beans bulging with their seeds were obviously picked too late. A cucumber held too long may look a bit shriveled, and cutting into it may expose a hollow center. Corn that looks brownish may be a supersweet variety—a type unsuitable for pressure canning because the sugars can caramelize.
Show off your knife skills. Canned bean and carrot pieces should be identical in size. Beets should be sliced as evenly as possible (while slicing, you might save ends and other small pieces for a salad).
In case you’re not so handy with a knife, using a mandoline probably won’t hurt your chances for a ribbon. Crinkle-cut carrots may well catch the judge’s eye.
Avoid floaters. Floating fruit is often inevitable, but choosing slightly underripe pears or peaches, for example, certainly helps, as does careful, tight packing. Choose your best-filled jar for submission to the fair.
Check for appropriate headspace. A good judge knows that the proper headspace of ¼ or ½ inch may change after processing. But a jar with too much headspace appears only partially filled. Never enter a jar that has lost liquid in processing; sauerkraut, for example, should be completely covered with brine. (In boiling-water as well as pressure canning, you can usually keep liquid from leaking from jars by avoiding rapid changes in pressure. After processing canned fruits, tomatoes, or pickles, let the jars sit in their hot water bath for five minutes after you turn off the burner.)
Use standard packaging. Submit a jar with a conventional size and shape, so the judges can tell that the processing time was appropriate. The jar should be sealed with a two-piece lid, because many judges are nervous about one-piece lids, and even more so about glass lids. Note that less common jar shapes may be accepted and even favored if they bear the Ball label; I watched one judge choose a “pretty” Ball jar for first place without tasting any of the entries. Tatler lids are also usually accepted.
Avoid rust. Many judges hate the sight of rust; some will remove a metal jar band just to check for any rust on the inside. So use a brand-new band, or at least one that looks brand-new.
Make sure the jar is clean. You washed the jar well before filling it, of course, but did you remove any residue from an old label? Take off the band and check for stickiness around the rim, because many judges will do exactly this.
Label the jar completely and neatly. Check the fair guidelines carefully to be sure you’re including all the information asked for and writing it in the right place. Usually you need to provide at least the name of the product, how it was processed (by a boiling-water bath or pressure canner), and for how long. You may have to add where you got the recipe and, for jam or jelly with added pectin, which brand and type of pectin you used. (Regardless of whether the fair requires it, I suggest noting if you made your jam or jelly without added pectin. Judges who always use commercial pectin themselves don’t seem to understand that strawberry or peach jam naturally turns out soft.) A decorative paper label, on the top or side of the jar, may win you points over entries labeled with black marker on the lid. You might even tie a handsome label around the jar rim, if the fair rules allow this.
No doubt you’ll feel let down if you don’t win a ribbon, especially if the judge didn’t even taste your entry. Be aware that most fairs forbid judges to taste low-acid canned goods, because of the risk of botulism, and some forbid any tasting at all. Also, since tasting is time-consuming, and ultimately can be sickening, the judges may prefer to rank entries by looks alone. “Unless I deem then unsafe,” says Carol Newton, “I taste jams and soft spreads, most specialty foods, and pickles.” But not all judges do.
If you don’t win, hopefully you’ll at least get an encouraging comment from the judge. Carol Newton always provides comments, she says, to allay disappointment and encourage entrants to come back. Other judges simply don’t have time to write comments. If there is something wrong with your entry, though, the judge will probably let you know, so you can do better next time.
If you garner neither ribbon nor comment, your entry may have been perfect and yet not outstanding. If the fair uses the “American system” of judging, which allows for only single first-, second-, and third-place ribbons in each class, the judge’s decision may have been arbitrary. Don’t let this upset you. Look around; see what your fellow preservers are failing to bring to the fair. Next year, bring that. And make sure it’s beautiful as well as delicious.
“That weed we had last night gave me whacky dreams,” complained Robert. His dreams may have been whacky, but he was wrong to blame the weed: Pokeweed has no reputation for causing wild or vivid dreams. Poke just makes you throw up or get the runs. Or it kills you. And these things happen only if the cook is careless, which I’m not.
Pokeweed is new to our table, though it grows untended in our garden. I used to think poke grew only in the Deep South, in the kind of place where the movie Deliverance took place. Or in Louisiana, where the gators are so mean that they eat grannies, says Tony Joe White’s song “Polk Sallet Annie.” Actually, according to the USDA, Phytolacca americana is native to all but ten states and to eastern Canada besides. I think it must be new in my town, because most people here don’t recognize it. But today it’s growing rampant in our parks and gardens.
I don’t call it by its Southern name, poke sallet, because poke is a potherb, not a salad herb. That is, you must boil the stuff before eating it. As an early-summer seedling, unfortunately, poke looks like a salad herb, with tender, deep-green leaves that remind me of flat-leafed spinach. Like spinach, poke leaves are rich in vitamins A and C. As I gather the leaves, I have to restrain myself from biting into one.
Unlike spinach, poke is an herbaceous perennial. Mature plants look like medium-large shrubs, with thick, 8- to 10-foot stems that turn from light green to crimson over the summer. Bunches of berries hang from the branches, gradually turning from green to shiny black. For a while the plant is gorgeous, and then comes the pleasure of watching birds gorge themselves on the fruit. Afterward you either cut the plant down or let freezing weather do it in.
The poison in poke, people say, is in the red parts. For this reason you’re not supposed to eat poke shoots that are more than 6 to 8 inches high. But shoots that grow in the shade grow taller before they redden. I’ve harvested foot-tall, all-green seedlings from a shady area while rejecting pink-tinged 2-inch seedlings growing in gravel in full sun.
The most poisonous part of the plant, people say, is the root. The last time I harvested pokeweed I pulled the seedlings from the ground, but next time I’ll remember to clip them at the soil line instead.
To remove any trace of poison, poke leaves should be boiled in two or three changes of water. Southerners typically recommend long boiling—20 or 30 minutes or more. I suspect this is because they gather leaves from older plants. The master forager Green Deane advises harvesting shoots no taller than 6 inches and boiling them once for a minute and again, in fresh water, for 15 minutes. In 15 minutes, however, young leaves turn into something resembling pond scum. Is this what Southerners mean by “a mess of greens”? In any case, the next time I gather poke I’ll consider the advice of North Carolina State Extension: “Peel and parboil tender young shoots (less than eight inches) in two changes of water several minutes each.” That’s pretty vague, but if I aim for two 5-minute boilings I’ll take 6 minutes off Green Deane’s total cooking time, and perhaps my poke leaves will retain some integrity.
Besides the leaves, other parts of the poke plant are useful. Although I’ve thrown out even the tiny stems of my poke seedlings, some people cook and eat both young and old stems, although they carefully peel away the red skins first. Some fanciers compare poke stems to asparagus.
Poke berries not only make a fine ink, but they are sometimes taken a few at a time as a remedy for arthritis or gout, and when they are crushed and strained of their seeds they are said to make a delicious and nutritious juice. Although many people warn against eating poke seeds, North Carolina State Extension says that “cooked berries are safe for making pies.”
I must admit that I find pokeweed bland. It has none of the strong and interesting taste of spinach, chard, cabbage, mustard, or even lettuce. For children, this is probably a virtue. And perhaps if I cook my poke for a shorter period next time I’ll be able to appreciate its subtle flavor.
I do like poke in the traditional recipe below. Here bacon fat and eggs lend plenty of flavor, while pokeweed provides a beautiful contrasting color along with a texture like well-cooked spinach.
Scrambled Eggs with Pokeweed
1 tablespoon bacon fat 3 ounces twice-boiled young poke leaves (change the water between boilings) 5 eggs, lightly beaten Salt and black pepper to taste
In a skillet, melt the bacon fat over medium heat. Add the greens, spread them in the pan, and heat them through. Add the eggs and the salt and pepper. Turn the eggs and greens together, gently, until the eggs are just set. Serve immediately.
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.
Last 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.
Pick 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.
Trim 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.
To 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.
Drain 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.
When 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.
The big difference between cooks who garden and those who don’t is that the former start with what’s available. Market shoppers may claim to do the same—to begin their meals by buying produce that’s fresh and in season. But shoppers usually buy only what they can use right away, and so seldom have to deal with excess. Every success in the garden brings with it a burden—heaps of vegetables or fruits that must be dried, pickled, canned, stored in the cellar, or crammed into the refrigerator. The last is easiest, when the harvest isn’t too big, but before the veggies go sad and limp in the fridge the gardener had better wash the soil from her hands and open the cookbooks.
That’s what I did yesterday, after bringing in a pile of French Breakfast radishes. Nearly everybody eats radishes raw—in salads if not at breakfast with butter. And, of course, radishes are good for fermenting and vinegar-pickling, in various ways. But surely they are most digestible cooked. If I wanted to put a lot of radishes into our stomachs right away, I needed to cook them.
I found inspiration in Irene Kuo’s book The Key to Chinese Cooking (1977). In it is a recipe for a pork-and-radish soup. I had no raw pork on hand, but I had the remains of a half brined ham. And I had a potential ingredient Irene may never have considered: a pot full of fragrant leek broth.
The leek broth resulted from an earlier harvest the same day. Needing to clear a bed so I could plant it with tomatoes, I had brought in an armload of leeks. Since I had plenty more leeks in another bed, these could all go into the freezer. I washed them, sliced them, and blanched them for a minute in batches before spreading them on cookie sheets, freezing them, and vacuum-packing them. Now the blanching liquid smelled too good to throw out.
So I made a radish soup like Irene’s, but with a leek-and-ham-flavored broth and bits of leftover ham. Because my soup wouldn’t be one dish among several but dinner in itself, I served it over buckwheat noodles, with a dish of raw arugula to tear and add at will, Vietnamese-style. What a simple and satisfying meal!
If you have no leek broth on hand, you can certainly substitute other vegetable or meat stock.
Ham and Radish Soup with Leek Broth
2 quarts leek broth, preferably unsalted, from blanching or cooking leeks About 12 ounces ham bone(s) 6 quarter-sized slices ginger ¾ pound radishes About 1 12 ounces ham, in ½-inch dice Salt, if needed Fresh or dried buckwheat or wheat noodles A small bunch of arugula or other greens, such as watercress or spearmint
Strain the broth, if it needs straining, into a large saucepan. Add the bone(s) and the ginger. Simmer the stock for about 1½ hours.
Cut the radishes into pieces about ½ inch by 1 inch. Depending on the variety and size, you can slice them into quarters or eighths, or you can roll-cut them, slicing diagonally with a quarter-turn between slices; this maximizes the cut surface area of each piece and promotes even cooking and flavor absorption. Add the radishes and ham to the soup. Simmer about 30 minutes longer, until the radishes are tender. Taste the broth, and add salt only if needed; the ham will have probably provided enough.
Before the simmering is done, cook fresh or dried buckwheat noodles in boiling water. Drain and rinse the cooked noodles, and divide them among large soup bowls. Ladle the soup over the noodles. Serve the soup with fresh arugula or other greens for eaters to add according to their taste. Diced avocado and oily chile sauce are other tasty optional additions.
Now that my Makah Ozette potatoes are sprouting in the basement, I’m trying to find ways to use them faster. Everybody eats more potatoes when they come to the table in the form of French fries, right? So last night I made some Ozette fries.
I’ve used russets, all-purpose potatoes, and waxy potatoes for French fries, but none have produced such distinctive fries as the Ozette. They turned out crisp on the outside, dry on the inside, and surprisingly rigid. This is the potato for anybody who dislikes limp fries.
I’d imagined thecoriander chutney as a good accompaniment to the fries, but I preferred the potatoes with the roasted tomatoes as sauce. Because the potatoes lack sweetness, the candy-sweet Sungold-Juliette mix complemented them wonderfully. Next time I might consider frying the potatoes in small chunks and dropping them all straight into the bowl of hot tomatoes.
The coriander chutney did get eaten—it proved a perfect accompaniment to the pan-fried albacore belly that rounded out this meal.
The chutney, tomatoes, and tuna all came out of the freezer, so slicing and frying potatoes was the only real work involved in preparing this little feast.
On Halloween, fall has finally set in here in the Willamette Valley. The trees stand bare, red and gold leaves carpet the ground, the sky is as grey as the wet streets, and the air is damp and cold. At this time of the year I pick the last of the peppers and remember where I was four years ago, watching the same change of seasons.
My daughter and I had hiked to a hilltop village near Alba, Italy, where beside a blazing fire we ate plate after plate of a fixed-price lunch. My favorite dish was soft, sweet, oily roasted peppers flavored with a paste of anchovies and garlic. It’s a perfect dish, I think, for the last of the pepper harvest.
In Piemonte peperoni al forno is made in various ways, and here in America we also have options. You might use salted anchovies instead of anchovies canned in oil. You might use big, thick-skinned peppers and char them to remove their skins. I prefer to use thin-skinned peppers and to leave the skin on. You know the little supermarket peppers that come in red, orange, and yellow? They would do, and if their flavor is dull the roasting would certainly enhance it.
That supermarket mix is the ancestor of one of my favorite peppers, which I have stabilized as Little Orange Sweet. It’s a little bigger than its hybrid forebears, with few seeds and a wonderful sweet taste. It’s an ideal pepper for roasting with anchovies and garlic. Here’s how I do it.
Peperoni al Forno My Way
2 pounds thin-skinned, ripe sweet peppers 2 ounces anchovy fillets packed in olive oil 1 small head garlic, cloves separated and peeled ½ cup olive oil
Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Rinse the peppers, and pat them completely dry. Halve or quarter them, depending on their size, and seed them. Spread the pepper pieces in a roasting pan. In a mortar, pound the anchovies and garlic to a paste. Blend in the oil from the anchovies and the additional oil, and toss this mixture with the peppers. Roast the peppers, stirring them at least once, for about 30 minutes, until they are tender. Serve them hot or at room temperature, with fresh bread to sop up the extra oil.
You 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.
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.