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.
Even though I didn’t plant Jerusalem artichokes this year, even though I deprived last year’s survivors of water, and even though I pulled up many of the young plants over the summer, I still expect to harvest an enormous crop of tubers sometime in the next several months. The plant is tough.
But now I have a new way to use bucketloads of tubers. I developed this method last spring, after wondering whether turning the tubers into chips might relieve them of some of their windiness.
For the first trial batch, I sliced the tubers thin and soaked them for a half-hour in water with salt and lemon juice stirred in. This soaking, I hoped, would both prevent browning and give the chips extra savor. Then I dried the slices in the dehydrator until they turned leathery.
The chips turned out pale and uninteresting. So I baked them in the oven at 200 degrees F. until they were golden brown. Now, to my delight, they were sweet and crisp.
But I couldn’t taste the salt. Also, I concluded that the lemon juice had been unnecessary, since sliced Jerusalem artichokes seem uninclined to brown with exposure to air. So for the next batch I soaked the slices for an hour in a brine made of ¼ cup pickling salt to 1 quart water. I skipped the dehydration step; instead, I put the slices straight into the convection oven.
The second batch turned out as good as the first, with a bit of saltiness added.
I imagined that they would have been just as good with no salt at all. Besides, keeping the chips salt-free might discourage overconsumption—and overconsumption would be risky if the drying and baking failed to overcome the vegetable’s gassiness.
Here is my recipe. You decide about the salt.
Jerusalem artichoke tubers Salt (optional) Vegetable oil (optional)
Break the tubers apart at the nodes, scrub the tubers, and slice them thin with a mandoline. If you’d like your chips a little salty, soak the slices for at least an hour in a brine made of ¼ cup pickling salt to 1 quart water.
Drain the slices well, and spread them in a single layer on wire racks set over baking pans. If you have no wire racks that the slices won’t fall through, spread them directly on the baking pans, but expect the pieces to stick a little. To prevent this, you might oil the pan or even toss the slices with a little olive oil or other vegetable oil.
Put the pans into a convection oven heated to 200 degrees F. If you don’t have a convection oven, use a regular oven heated to 225 to 250 degrees F. Bake the slices for 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hour, rotating the pans at least once, until the chips are almost crisp. Don’t cook them so long that they turn dark brown, or they will be bitter, just like brown potato chips.
Turn the chips out to cool. As they cool they will grow crisper. When they are cool, store them in airtight containers.
I tested the chips on people at an afternoon political meeting. Everybody seemed to like them, and none could guess what they were made of. Two people were gracious enough to take home small bagfuls, eat the chips all at a sitting, and report the results.
One of them told me that “right around 10 p.m. it hit. They weren’t particularly odorous or loud, just little bubbly poots all night, and that was pretty much the end of it. “
The other declared, “If I knowingly eat this food again I will plan on working around loud machinery, or going on a hike by myself.
I see I haven’t written one of these reports since 2015. That’s because I’ve settled on favorite varieties and and grown them year after year. But friends are always urging me to try different cultivars, and so this year I tried a few that were entirely new to me, along with others I’d grown in the past and forgotten about. Here is my report.
De Berao Braun, left, and Purple Russian, right.
Purple Russian. This Ukranian heirloom, which I wrote about 2015, is sold by Baker Creek and Totally Tomato. The pinkish-greenish fruits, about 3½ inches long and 6 ounces in weight, are impressively uniform in size and shape. The cultivar is supposedly very productive; I found it slow to start fruiting but unusually prolific late in the season. All of these late tomatoes, however, were deeply cracked, even though I’d long since stopped watering and we’d had no rain to speak of. Baker Creek says Purple Russian has “flavor that tops the charts,” and one person compared the flavor to bacon. I found the tomatoes a little bland, nothing like bacon, and too low in acid. All of the Purple Russian slices I dried turned black in the dehydrator, while none of the other varieties did. Perhaps the Purple Russians were too ripe. As I noted in 2015, they taste best when picked while still quite firm.
De Berao Braun. Andrew Still and Sarah Kleeger, of Adaptive Seeds, got this cultivar from Gerhard Bohl, a seed steward in Germany (I don’t know where the seeds originally came from; the name looks to me like a misspelling). The fruits are smaller than those of Purple Russian, about 2½ inches long, and rounder. The color is similar to that of Purple Russian but more copper and therefore more attractive, at least to me. The tomatoes are juicy, tart, and sweet, and as suitable for salad as for drying or sauce. They are far less prone to cracking than Purple Russians, and the vines have continued to produce unblemished fruit through late October. I will definitely plant this variety again.
Italian Heirloom. I got the seeds for this one from Lisa Almarode, who urged me to try them. Like me, you might expect this to be another plum-shaped paste tomato. But Italian Heirloom has big, irregular, round to heart-shaped fruits. Although they are meaty, they are also tasty; they won the Seed Savers Exchange tomato tasting in 2012. The plant is extremely productive and early. I picked my first fruit, weighing a pound, on July 17, and in early August I picked a 1½-pounder.
Chocolate Stripes. I am no less enthusiastic about this tomato than I was in 2015. In late October, I am still getting fruits as big as 4 ½ inches across. Their thin skins are prone to damage from snails and slugs and may develop fine cracks around the top, but I cut out any blemishes and thoroughly enjoy these beautiful fruits. It’s lucky I set my one plant in a corner of a bed this year, because this vine likes to sprawl.
Druzba. I wrote a little about this tomato in 2014, but now I’m even more enthusiastic about it. This Bulgarian heirloom, whose name means “friendly,” produces perfectly uniform, unblemished, round medium-size fruits, about 6 ounces, all season long. (Celebrity, which I grew alongside it, did pretty much the same thing, although Celebrity’s fruits are a little bigger, about 8 ounces. The important difference is that Celebrity is a hybrid; if I save the seeds, the plants that grow from them may lose disease-resistance and other good features.) The fruits’ flavor isn’t special, but it’s very good. This is the tomato you give to people who won’t eat fruit that doesn’t look like it came from a supermarket. They will learn what those supermarket tomatoes are supposed to taste like.
Druzba seeds are widely available.
Ananas Noire. This is a Belgian variety introduced in 2005, a cross between Pineapple and a black tomato. For me Ananas Noire produced big fruits (1 to 1½ pounds) that were more green than black, with dark red streaks throughout. The tomatoes looked beautiful when sliced, but if I hadn’t taken a picture in July I wouldn’t remember this. Now, in late October, the fruits are small and a uniform orange-red. Has anyone reading this had a similar experience?
Orange Russian 117. I’ve grown this tomato over several summers, beginning in 2010. A cross between the red oxheart Russian 117 and the yellow and red beefsteak Georgia Streak, Orange Russian 117 is probably the only bicolored oxheart around. It is a meaty tomato, and big, weighing from 8 ounces to a pound. The texture and colors remind me of peaches–I gasp at the beauty of the fruit every time I slice one. The flavor is very good. On the farm I never got more than a dozen fruits from one of these plants (probably because I was battling deer during those years), but this year Orange Russian 117 has been one of my most productive tomato plants–perhaps the most productive. In late October the plant is still going strong.
Orange Russian 117 was bred by Jeff Dawson of Sebastopol, California, in the 1990s. Seeds are available from Tomato Fest,Tomato Growers Supply, and a few other sources.
When we were young and living in Somerville, Massachusetts, Robert and I liked to visit a tiny Indian market in Union Square. On one of our visits he picked up a little can with a label picturing something dark green and golden brown, rolled and sliced like a cinnamon roll. Curious, we added the can to our pile of spices and legumes.
At home, we fried the rich, spicy, slightly sweet rolls, called patra, according to the instructions on the label. Every time we visited the store after that, we had to bring home patra.
When an Indian salesman from Robert’s company visited Oregon last year, he came to our house for dinner. Robert and I hadn’t eaten patra in thirty-five years, but neither of us had forgotten its taste. So in the talk of Indian foods Robert asked about patra. Ankur was surprised. The women in his family used to make it, but they hadn’t in recent years. Ankur hadn’t tasted patra in a long time.
Ankur was no cook, so he couldn’t tell us how to make patra. But he knew we needed a special leaf, a big leaf . . . He tried and tried but couldn’t remember the English name of the plant.
Knowing how enthusiastically Indian cooks have taken to the Internet, I later googled “patra recipe.” Suddenly, patra lost all its mystery. The big leaf, I learned, is from taro, or colocasia, as Indians prefer to call it; the Hindi name is arbi ke patte. This is the tropical wetland plant whose starchy tubers are a staple food for Pacific islanders and West Indians (the latter call the plant dasheen). The arrow-shaped leaves are edible, says one Indian writer, only when they “are not itchy.” The paste around which the leaves are wrapped is made up mostly of besan, gram flour—or, to us, chickpea flour.
Some cool-climate gardeners grow taro in summer and dig up the tubers in fall to overwinter indoors, but I have no patience for ever-thirsty plants, especially when they can’t survive the winter outdoors. And I’m sure that no grocery store in this town stocks colocasia leaves. Still, Robert wasn’t discouraged. He figured he’d just found a new use for collard leaves.
The next day Robert studied several recipes on the Internet and created his own—
3 medium collard leaves 1½ cups chickpea flour 1 teaspoon ground dried hot pepper 2 teaspoons ground coriander 1 teaspoon ground cumin 2 tablespoons brown sugar About ½ teaspoon salt 1 1-inch chunk fresh ginger 1 green jalapeño pepper 6 small garlic cloves About 5 to 6 ounces water Frying oil 1 tablespoon black mustard seeds 2 teaspoons sesame seeds 1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
Cut the large central rib out of the leaves, and cut each leaf in two lengthwise. Trim each leaf half a bit so that it is more or less rectangular. With a rolling pin, lightly crush each leaf half to make it more pliable.
In a bowl, mix the flour with the dry spices, sugar, and salt. In a mortar or food processor, make a paste of the ginger, pepper, and garlic. Add the paste to the flour mixture, and stir well. Add water a little at a time, stirring, until the mixture forms a spreadable paste.
Lay a leaf half on a board. Spread some of the paste in a thin layer on top. Place a second leaf half over the first, and spread the paste in a thin layer over the top. Roll the leaves to form a log. Use the rest of the leaves and paste to make two more logs in the same way.
Place the logs in a steamer heated to a boil (Robert uses a Chinese bamboo steamer set over a wok). Steam the patra for 25 minutes.
Let the logs cool, and then slice them crosswise into 3/8- to ½-inch rounds.
Pour enough oil into a large skillet to cover the bottom ¼ inch deep. Turn the heat to medium. When the oil is hot, add the mustard and sesame seeds. As soon as the seeds begin popping, place a single layer of patra rounds in the pan. Cook for about 1 minute, until the paste begins to brown. Turn the rounds, and cook them on the other side for another minute. Transfer them to a dish lined with paper towels to soak up the excess oil. Cook the remaining slices in the same way.
Serve the patra warm with chopped cilantro.
Makes about 3 dozen
The spices covered up the cabbagy flavor so well that Robert’s patra tasted, to us, just like the patra we remembered from the Indian market. With the sole addition of sautéed daylily buds, his patra made a lovely dinner.
Robert took a picture of his patra and sent it to Ankur. About a week later, Ankur sent back a very similar picture of a dish his own family meal. Apparently, he had talked his mother into making patra.
A little more than a year ago, my friend Mitzi, a massage therapist, and her colleague Rhonda told me about a salad that acts as an outstanding liver tonic. You slice head cabbage, grate raw beet, and chop some walnuts. You mix all this together with lemon juice, if I remember right, and olive oil. You let the vegetables wilt, and you eat a little of the salad every day.
The recipe sounded Russian to me, although the cabbage wasn’t supposed to ferment. And olive oil? That couldn’t be right. Such a salad would be very good with toasted walnut oil. And it might be even better—and certainly most Russian, with sunflower oil.
I don’t mean refined sunflower oil, the stuff used for deep-frying. I mean cold-pressed sunflower oil, the kind sold in every Russian grocery. This golden oil has a powerful fragrance and flavor, like a mouthful of raw sunflower kernels. It can take getting used to.
As far as I knew my liver was perfectly healthy, but that same day I made Mitzi’s salad, with sunflower oil. The first batch lasted only two or three days, because my husband liked it as much as I did. Somehow this salad seemed perfect for early autumn. Perhaps it really worked as a seasonal tonic. I made two more batches before I tired of the salad.
A week ago, I had a sudden craving for head cabbage. This was odd, because I greatly prefer Asian over European brassicas. Some years I don’t plant even one head of cabbage. After all, collards and kale are almost the same thing, and they are so much more practical, in that you can harvest from a single plant for months (or years, as in the case of my Yellow Cabbage Collard).
And then for some reason I thought of beets, and my mouth watered again. I remembered Mitzi’s salad. After months of eating tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers every day, it was time to eat cabbage and beets.
Here is Mitzi’s salad as I made it last week and again yesterday:
1½ pounds white head cabbage (half a 3-pound head), sliced fine 1 red beet, about 6 ounces, peeled and grated ¾ cup walnuts, chopped (toast them before chopping them, if you like) Grated zest of 1 lemon Juice of 1 to 2 lemons (about ¼ cup) About ¾ teaspoons salt, to taste ¼ cup sunflower oil (or toasted walnut oil, if you have no Russian grocery nearby)
Toss together the cabbage, beet, walnuts, lemon zest and juice, and salt. Add the oil, and toss again. Let the vegetables wilt for at least a half-hour before you eat the salad. Store leftovers in the refrigerator. The salad will taste even better the next day.
Two light frosts have blackened the tips of the tomato vines, but the fruits continue to ripen, slowly. They taste like autumn now, cold and a little mealy. I don’t care to haul out the canner for a small basket-load, so into the oven they go. Roasting and freezing are a good way to preserve tomatoes when you’ve had enough of canning and the house is chilly enough to make you want to turn on the oven.
Having misplaced the roasted-tomato recipe I’d developed in past years, I looked through others, on the Internet. How fussy they tend to be. Although tomatoes are rich in sugar and acid, and roasting concentrates both, many writers add sugar and vinegar to their tomatoes before roasting them. Most writers also call for tomatoes of a particular size, and usually you’re to place them all in the pan cut-side up—except in cases in which you’re to place them all cut-side down. Some writers even ask you to seed the tomatoes.
To my mind, all this fuss is a waste. I use tomatoes of any size, and I cut them into halves, quarters, eighths, or more pieces so they will cook into bite-size morsels. I toss them with oil and salt before tossing them into the pan. I add garlic and herbs, but I see those as optional.
The tomatoes end up simmering in their own juices, but they will do that however you slice and place them. Eventually the juices will dry up, and the tomatoes may even char a bit. At this point they are ready, to top pasta, pizza, or a tart or to freeze until later.
The one good tip I’ve garnered from other writers’ recipes is to line the pan with parchment paper. The tomatoes slide cleanly off the paper, and the pan needs barely any scrubbing.
Easy Roasted Tomatoes
4 pounds tomatoes, of any kind and any size, cut into chunks 3 to 4 garlic cloves (if you like garlic) 2 teaspoons fresh savory or thyme leaves ¼ cup olive oil 2 teaspoons kosher salt
Set a convection oven to 300 degrees F. (or a regular oven to 325 degrees F.), and line a 12-by-17-inch nonreactive pan with parchment paper. Toss the tomatoes in a bowl with the garlic, herb leaves, and olive oil. Add the salt, and toss again. Spread the tomatoes in the pan. Bake them for about 1½ hours, until almost all the liquid has evaporated.
But I am pushing my luck. Today I’ll pick green tomatoes, the perfect ones, full sized and with no sign of disease, in hopes that they will ripen indoors, stretching the fresh-tomato season a little longer.
Last 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:
a barrel full of fermented cucumbers;
flavored hummuses (among the merchants are numerous Turks and other immigrants from the Near East);
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.
In the Zillertal, a valley in the Tyrol, we saw many standard pear trees, like this one.
In the Salzkammergut, near Salzburg, we saw several pear trees espaliered against the walls of buildings.
Austrians love all kinds of fruits. At the Nashmarkt in Vienna, these women were selling an assortment of fruit juices.
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.
Here are lingonberries in a market.
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.
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.
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.
Unable to work up an appetite for the fancy cakes, I ordered humble apple strudel in a pool of custard.
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 loveliest cafés in the world.
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.
But Austrian bakers make white breads, too, like these in the shape of soccer balls.
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.
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).
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!
We found this sausage vending machine along the street in the town of Aschau, in the Zillertal.
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.
This breakfast room, at the Hotel Hubertushof in Bad Ischl, is typical in its comfort and beautiful woodwork.
This was one of my breakfasts at the Hubertushof.
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.
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.
And here is Sturm for sale in the Naschmarkt.
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.
Apologies for such a long silence; I’ve been concentrating on a big book project. Now it’s time for a little break. I have much I’ve been wanting to share with my blog readers. Here’s a start:
I finally figured out how to grow cucurbits in a garden infested with European brown snails, who had eaten nearly all my cucumber, melon, and squash plants to the ground since we moved into town. This year I started the plants in 4-inch pots, as usual. Then I cut the bottoms off several gallon-size nursery pots. (These pots, as you probably know, vary in thickness. The thin ones I cut with scissors, the thick ones with a box knife.) After setting each start in the ground, I fit a bottomless gallon pot over the top and pressed the cut edge into the soil. I sprinkled Sluggo (iron phosphate) over the top, so that some pellets landed in the pot and some on the soil around it.
This worked just as I’d hoped. The pellets around each pot got eaten quickly, but most of the plants remained untouched. In two cases in which the snails got into the pots, they were still inside, stuck to the wall, in the morning, and I was able to remove them before they finished consuming the plants. In a third case I found the snail sitting right outside the pot, looking as if it had a serious bellyache. It must have eaten a lot of Sluggo before it found my little melon plant. I ended its suffering.
The pots are helping with watering, too. They tell me where to aim the hose, and they retain the water, preventing runoff.
I’ve written before about eating kale buds. Although they are delicious, much better still, I’ve learned, are collard buds. Or collard tops, I should say, because the top six inches or so of the stems are so tender and mild that you oughtn’t leave them behind. If they are bearing any flowers or little leaves, don’t worry—you can eat everything.
My original Yellow Cabbage collard plants finally went to seed this past spring, after a year and a half in the ground and just about the same time that the collard plants I’d started late last summer got big enough to eat. Although we’d been eating collard through the winter, in April the tops were a special treat.
Collard tops are milder in flavor than either broccoli or kale buds, and they need little cooking. We steamed or boiled them briefly, and then we sautéd them or just tossed them with garlic-butter or garlic-oil.
Just the other day I cut down the last of my four old collard plants, the one I’d left so I could collect the seeds. A new plant, sprouted from the old stem, near the base, was already three feet tall. Maybe I didn’t need to start new collard seeds last summer!
I have never had great success with radishes, but I’ve found two varieties that I may plant every year from now on. In April we enjoyed long, red Candela di Fuoco radishes, which I’d planted in the fall. Mild, moist, and beautiful, these are the only radishes that have overwintered for me instead of bolting prematurely.
Now we’re eating Mino Early radish, from Kitazawa Seed Company. This is the first daikon I’ve managed to grow in the spring.
I have seldom fermented beets on their own; for some reason these roots, when brined, seem more inclined to grow mold than to sour. But an ample harvest of beets from my garden this year inspired me to try making beet kwas, or kwas burakowy, a popular Polish tonic.
Kwas (or kvass) is a sour, refreshing fermented drink enjoyed throughout eastern Europe. The typical version, made from bread and water, may date to the tenth century. According to the Polish Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, kwas made from beets became popular in Poland in the 1920s. Deep red and slightly viscous, it has been traditionally used in a Christmas Eve borscht, but it is also drunk straight as an energy booster.
Today beet kwas enthusiasts make numerous claims about the health benefits of their favorite drink. Beets are full of antioxidants; they help prevent cancer and arteriosclerosis; they are good for colds, weakness, anemia, and recovery from antibiotic use. They support the kidneys and liver. They lower cholesterol; they improve immune function; they contain vitamins A, C, and B (including folic acid) and the minerals iron, potassium, and calcium. Fermenting the beets makes these nutrients more available to the body. Beet kwas “purifies” the blood and the liver, lowers blood pressure, and boosts stamina during exercise.
I can’t vouch for any of these claims, but a crimson vegetable that tastes like dirt has got to be good for you, right? Fermentative bacteria add their own nutrients and balance the dirty taste with lactic and acetic acid. Both the flavor and healthfulness of beet kwas can be enhanced with the seasonings of your choice—for Poles, garlic (always!), allspice, black pepper, sweet bay, fennel, horseradish, carrot, and celery. Americans who have recently discovered beet kwas favor sweet and fruity flavorings—lemon, orange, ginger, and sweet spices.
Finally, you add rye bread. Poles traditionally boost fermentation—even when making cucumber pickles—by laying a stale heel of sourdough rye bread on top of the brine. I hoped that adding a slice of my own homemade sourdough rye would get me sour rather than moldy beet tonic.
I followed the method of Robert and Maria Strybel, Polish-Americans who first published their Polish Heritage Cookery in 1993. Here is my version of their simple recipe:
Kwas Burakowy (Beet Kwas)
1 pound red beets, peeled and sliced thin 1 large garlic clove, chopped ½ teaspoon sugar 1½ teaspoons pickling salt 1 slice sourdough rye bread 5 cups lukewarm water (filtered or boiled, if it has been chlorinated)
Put the beets into a 2-quart jar (I used a mason jar). Add the garlic, sugar, and salt. Place the bread on top, and pour the water over. Cover the jar loosely. (I used a plastic mason-jar lid but screwed it on only part way; the Strybels advise using cheesecloth or a dish towel.) If the beets float to the surface, weight them. (Mine didn’t float, but if they had I would have weighted them with one of my glass candle holders.) Let the jar stand at room temperature.
After four days, begin tasting the liquid. When a pleasant tartness has subdued the dirty taste—for me, this took six days—strain the liquid. (Although neither the Strybels nor other Polish writers whose works I consulted advised this, I squeezed the bread before discarding it. I also saved the sliced beets, to use slivered in salads, although they had lost some of their color.)
You should have about 1 quart kwas. Pour it into a bottle, cap the bottle, and chill it.
For health, Poles say, drink a cup of beet kwas once or twice a day. Some say to start with just an ounce or two and gradually increase the dose to 8 eight ounces.
I drank a small glass of my kwas each morning before breakfast until the bottle was empty. Although I usually balk at the thought of a chilled drink in the morning, I’ve missed my kwas since running out. Happily, there are still more beets in the garden, ready to harvest and to transform into kwas.
“What’s this thing about kale?”asked a newbie in town, from Alabaman, sipping her beer on a warm June evening on the terrace of our local brewpub. “I miss collards! Have you all ever even heard of collards?”
I had. I was growing them, thanks to somebody—I don’t remember who—who had brought tiny, hand-folded envelopes of Yellow Cabbage collard seeds to our local annual seed swap.
I’d planted the seeds in late summer of last year, and the plants had grown slowly over the winter. Normally, if I plant brassicas too late for a fall harvest, they go to seed as soon as warm weather arrives, if they survive that long. But through the spring the collards grew lushly. By then I couldn’t remember what it was I’d planted. I racked my brain to remember, because these brassicas looked good enough to eat even in lettuce season, when we neglect other vegetables to stuff ourselves with sweet, tender lettuce before it turns bitter and milky.
By the time I met the Alabaman, the collard plants were three feet tall. And with scant watering they kept growing through the hot, dry summer. The plants were so beautiful that my husband asked me to grow some in the front yard, where the neighbors could admire them.
Today the tallest of my four collard plants is four feet, and still the plants aren’t going to seed. Although I picked about 40 snails off the leaves this morning, the damage is scarcely noticeable from several feet away. The collards are still gorgeous.
Like kale, collard is a cabbage that doesn’t form a head (the word collard comes from colewort, an old name for wild cabbage). The thick green leaves have a waxy coating that repels water as oilcloth does. Tronchuda cabbage, which Portuguese cooks slice for caldo verde, is a kind of collard; so are the greens that Brazilians serve as a side dish with feijoada. Collard is rich in manganese and vitamins A, C, and K.
My plants bear big, open leaves all around the stem; the biggest leaves are two feet long. Yellow Cabbage collard gets the cabbage part of its name, I guess, because the plant makes a half-hearted effort at head formation, with small leaves in the center turning inward. The yellow part of the name makes sense to me only when I look at the smallest of my plants, whose color I would call yellow-green. The other three plants look to me more blue than yellow–but perhaps they are all yellower than typical collard.
According to Slow Food, which has put Yellow Cabbage collard on the Ark of Taste, the variety got its start in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1887. There, Colonel Joe Branner developed collard with less bitter, thinner leaves and a yellower color than other collards had. Today Yellow Cabbage collard is grown mostly around Ayden, North Carolina, where Benny and Vickie Cox sell both bagged collard leaves and collard bedding plants from their roadside business, The Collard Shack, and the town holds an annual collard festival.
In North Carolina, the harvest of spring-planted collard begins around Mother’s Day. The leaves are considered best when they are young and small, no longer than a foot. Although in general people prefer to eat collard when it has been sweetened by cold weather, Slow Food says that Yellow Cabbage collard reaches its peak flavor in mid-summer.
You can use collard much as you might use kale. In the South, collard greens are usually boiled for a long time with smoked or salted meat. But long cooking isn’t necessary if you like greens with texture; you can instead briefly sauté the cut leaves in oil, with garlic. Southerners sometimes use collard instead of head cabbage in sauerkraut. According to Slow Food, Yellow Cabbage collard is traditionally pickled in vinegar, with hot peppers and a little brown sugar (if you have such a recipe, please share it with me!). You can even make the famed massaged kale salad with collard in place of kale.
Whether or not you’ve ever made massaged kale salad, you don’t need a recipe for the collard version. First pick a few collard leaves—fewer than you think you’ll need, because these leaves are surprisingly dense. Cut out the midribs, and slice the leaves into strips. Sprinkle some salt over the collard strips. Rub the strips with your fingers until they lose their waxy coating and turn bright green. Let them rest for twenty minutes or so. Then taste the greens, and rinse them if they are too salty. Now add lemon juice and other ingredients of your choice—pickled onions, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, black pepper, chunks of tomato, small pieces of fresh or dried fruit. Finally, toss in some olive oil.
Before you make your Yellow Cabbage collard salad, of course, you must plant some Yellow Cabbage collard. The seeds can be hard to find. But Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has sold them in the past and probably will again, and one member of Seed Savers Exchangeoffered them this year. I may have seeds to share, too—assuming my plants ever produce any. Until then, I’ll think of my collards as lovely, edible evergreen shrubs.