How is this for a garish plate? The mashed potatoes are made with Purple Peruvians, an old fingerling variety with the most intensely purple flesh I’ve ever seen in a potato (though not all of the tubers are solid purple; some are marbled purple and white). When I made baked chips for a dry-farmed potato tasting last year, I I had trouble with the Purple Peruvians; they needed much more time in the oven than the other varieties before they would dry out and turn crisp. Still, as chips they were the second favorite of five varieties among a big roomful of food enthusiasts, and as boiled potatoes they nearly tied for second place.
But what Purple Peruvians are best for, in my opinion, is mashing. I like the way the lavender mashed potatoes stand out here beside cooked mixed greens from the garden and the tomato-citrus jam, thinned with soy sauce, that tops the albacore steak. And these mashed potatoes don’t just sport a pretty color. They truly taste as good as they look.
You don’t need a recipe to make Purple Peruvian mashed potatoes. Fingerlings can be hard to peel completely, but I simply strip off the skins with a vegetable peeler and ignore the many eyes. I boil the potatoes in just a little salted water, so they are cooked mostly by steam. When they are tender, only a very little water is left in the pan. I then add milk and butter to the hot potatoes, set the pan over low heat until the butter melts, and purée the contents with an electric mixer. I can beat the potatoes for quite a long time without their becoming gluey.
I haven’t grown this potato myself before—the ones I’ve used were left over from the tasting—but I will make room for one in my little garden. The Maine Potato Lady tells me what to expect of the plant: These potatoes are late, frost-tolerant, pest-resistant, and, like the Makah Ozette, “rangy”—by which she means you have to search widely to find all the tubers if you don’t want them volunteering the following year.
Thanks to the mild winter, Robert and I have been eating so much greens that I keep checking my skin for a greenish tinge. It’s hard to keep up with the spring onrush of asparagus, artichokes, and Asian brassicas while we’re still eating overwintered arugula, collard buds, and Swiss chard.
The chard is especially overwhelming. Mostly self-sown, it grows in deep-green clumps all over the garden, reaching ever taller as it prepares to set seed. I’ve been cutting the stalks, squishing the snails, separating the best leaves, and cutting up and burying all the rest of the plants in hope of foiling leafminers, the larval stage of flies who lay their tiny white oblong eggs in neat rows on the underside of the leaves.
I’ve been packing the best-looking leaves into bags and taking them to the neighbors (two fully extended arms equals six feet of social distancing). But now I’ve run out of neighbors. So, when heavy rain and wind sent a few chard plants sprawling over the ground the other day, I decided it was time to do some preserving.
The thought of frozen chard reminds me of frozen spinach, which my mother used to buy in a paper box, thaw in a saucepan, and plop onto plates while my father sang that he was Popeye the Sailor Man and I turned white and covered my mouth. But frozen spinach is actually little different from cooked fresh spinach, and frozen chard is little different from frozen spinach. You can use frozen chard in puréed soups, chunky soups like minestrone, lasagna, tossed pasta, crêpes, quiche, saag paneer, and much else. And how handy, on busy days, to have cooked chard in a form that needs only thawing. No disposing of snails and slugs, no washing, no cutting out stems. Just thaw the stuff, and it’s ready to incorporate into dinner.
So yesterday I prepared and froze some chard. The process is simple:
Immerse the chard, in batches, in a big kettle or bowl of water, and agitate the water enough to clean the leaves of snail dropping.
Drain the leaves in a big colander.
Cut the stems off small leaves, and cut the stems out of large leaves, with a knife or kitchen shears.*
Cut the bigger leaves into pieces. You don’t need to chop the leaves; you would lose more nutrients that way, and leaving them in big pieces gives you more flexibility when you take the chard out of the freezer.
Bring a kettle of water to a boil, and blanch the leaves in batches for 2 minutes, using a blanching basket.
Lift the basket, drain off the hot water, and transfer the chard to a big kettle or bowl of cold water. Agitate the water a bit to cool the leaves.
Drain the cooled chard in a colander.
Stuff the chard into pint-sized freezer containers. I use freezer-weight plastic bags. Don’t squeeze out excess liquid; you can do that after thawing the chard, if you decide you want to.
Label the containers, and put them in the freezer.
You’ll notice that both the blanching water and the cooling water look a little green afterward. Your chard has lost some nutrients, but you don’t have to throw them down the drain. Return the water to the garden instead.
*You can avoid this task of stem extraction by planting verde da taglio, an Italian chard variety with relatively flat, tender leaves and thin stems. With verde da taglio, you can simply cut off the stems rather than carving around them.
If your chard has thick stems, though, you can certainly use them. You might pickle them, for example, with vinegar or by brining. But I dislike them and so chop them up and compost them. I don’t worry about leafminers hatching in the compost, because the flies don’t lay eggs on the stems. (Snails and slugs don’t eat chard stems, either. I’m not the only one who dislikes those stems!)
True wealth, I believe, is a mature Persian walnut tree, to feed you, your family, and your friends through the winter with tasty kernels rich in fat and protein, and to provide green nuts in early summer for liqueurs, preserves, and pickles.
Sadly, I am walnut-poor. I planted a walnut tree on the farm but had to take it out so it wouldn’t shade the solar panels. Here in town, the squirrels keep trying to plant walnuts in my little garden, but I always pull up the seedlings, because if I had a mature walnut tree I wouldn’t be able to grow much else.
Fortunately, walnuts often come free to anyone who doesn’t mind picking them up off the ground. I used to collect from trees along country roads and one in a middle-school playground. Now my husband and I gather walnuts while walking around town, where they fall in the street and on the sidewalk, or in yards when the homeowner doesn’t mind. We dry them on the pool table in the basement, crack them in front of the fire on winter evenings, and eat them every day in our breakfast bread and at holiday time in various kinds of cookies.
Once in a while I crave candied walnuts. Then I remember that most candied nuts are overwhelmingly sweet, because they are more candy than nuts. But one day I thought I’d try candying walnuts so that they would turn out like kettle corn, with just a little sugar and some salt, too. I didn’t want to end up tossing nuts all over the kitchen—making kettle corn without a mess requires a very, very deep kettle—so I developed a method that uses water to make a syrup. Basically, I stir hot nuts into a little hot caramel and then separate the individual nuts. Walnuts candied this way are a fine treat for the holiday table, and they shouldn’t break a tooth or pull out a filling.
I like this treatment even more with pecans, the walnuts of the South. The method should work well for hazelnuts and almonds, too.
Candied Nuts, Kettle-Corn Style
1½ cups walnut or pecan meats 1½ tablespoons water 3 tablespoons sugar 3/8 teaspoon fine salt
Heat the oven to 300 degrees F. Spread the nuts in a baking pan, and place the pan in the heated oven. Roast the nuts for about 30 minutes, until they have darkened a bit and begun to smell toasty.
While the nuts roast, pour the water into a heavy-bottomed stainless-steel skillet. Sprinkle the sugar and salt over. Lay a piece of parchment paper on a counter close by.
When the nuts are ready, turn off the oven, but leave the baking pan inside. Heat the skillet over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Raise the heat to medium, and set the hot pan of nuts by the stove. When the syrup begins to color, remove the skillet from the burner. Swirl the skillet a bit as the residual heat caramelizes the syrup. If the syrup isn’t caramelizing completely, set the skillet over low heat briefly. As soon as you have a uniformly colored syrup, add the hot nuts. With a wooden spoon or spatula, turn the nuts in the syrup until they are all coated. Then turn them out on the parchment paper, spreading them with your spoon or spatula.
Let the nuts cool for a minute or two, and then separate the individual nuts with your fingers. As soon as the nuts have cooled to room temperature, store them in an airtight container.
I am lucky to have Carol Porter’s chestnut farm nearby. After all, the whole United States has fewer than a thousand chestnut farms, totaling a little over 3,700 acres. Americans grow only 1 percent of the world’s chestnuts, while importing about five times the tonnage we produce. We would grow and eat many more chestnuts than that, I believe, if we could remember how good they are—even though they are a bit of a pain to prepare.
Americans once venerated the chestnut—the tree, at least, if not the nut itself. The American chestnut grew straight and tall, to more than 100 feet, and it dominated the forests of eastern North America. Its straight grain and resistance to rot made it ideal for log cabins—especially for foundation logs—and for poles, posts, masts, floors, and railroad ties. The nuts fed domestic pigs and cattle as well as people and wildlife.
By 1950, however, the American chestnut was a fading memory. In just a few decades, a fungus imported with Asian chestnut trees had killed nearly every American chestnut. This disaster was worse than the stock market crash of 1929, Carol says, in that it devastated the lives of the masses rather than harming a relatively few rich people.
Carol doesn’t actually favor American chestnuts. She acquired her American trees by mistake, after a nursery owner grafted European chestnuts (Castanea sativa) to American (C. dentata) seedlings. The grafts failed, and the rootstock grew up slender and tall among the wide, round canopies of the Chinese and European chestnuts.
Carol does like Chinese chestnuts (C. mollissima), which grow particularly well in her hillside orchard and reach only about 40 feet in height.
Yet all of the nuts Carol sells come from another chestnut variety, the Colossal, a hybrid of European and Japanese chestnuts (C. crenata) bred in California in the early twentieth century. The Colossal is vulnerable to chestnut blight, but that disease has never become an epidemic on the West Coast, with our dry summers and lack of native chestnuts. The American chestnut thrives here for the same reason.
Recently Carol led me and a few friends through her orchard. As Carol talked, the rest of us filled our pockets with American and Chinese chestnuts, which otherwise would have fed Carol’s pigs and goats, before Carol led us to an outbuilding to buy bags of washed and dried Colossals. Our petty theft allowed us to do a taste comparison later, at home, after roasting some of the nuts. The small, rather flat American chestnuts are said to be sweetest, but Robert, Renata, and I all found them more nutty than sweet. The Chinese chestnuts, bigger and rounder than the Americans, were sweetest. The very big Colossals—often an inch and a half across—were least sweet and least nutty. They tasted starchy, like yellow sweet potatoes, and mealy. European chestnuts, after all, have only 4 percent fat, in comparison to 10 percent fat in American chestnuts. Although Carol’s customers want the biggest chestnuts available and so buy only Colossals, we preferred the American and Chinese nuts.
All of the chestnuts we brought from Carol’s farm required some work in shelling and peeling. A chestnut has not only an outer shell but also a thin inner skin. Unless you are a hog, the skin as well as the shell is best removed before eating. To keep the nut from exploding, you slit the shell on the flat side once or twice, without cutting the flesh, before cooking the nut. Depending on how you plan to use the nuts, you might boil them after slitting, but for eating on their own chestnuts are traditionally roasted. Renata remembered her Swiss brother’s advice: Soaking slit chestnuts in water for as long as overnight makes it easier to remove the skin after roasting. To Renata and to me, an overnight soak seems overlong for fresh chestnuts, but we both found that a 15- to 30-minute soak really does seem to loosen the skins.
Oddly, chestnut recipes are scant in old American cookbooks. Mrs. Lincoln, in her Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1884), has recipes for chestnut stuffing and chestnut sauce, both intended for poultry, and The Settlement Cookbook (I have the 1976 edition) combines chestnuts with cabbage, with brussels sprouts, and with prunes, and also includes recipes for chestnut croquettes, chestnut ice cream (yum!), and “chestnut dessert.” But, perhaps because the nuts were just too cheap and commonplace, many old American cookbooks have no chestnut recipes at all, and most of the recipes I did find were identified as French or Italian.
I knew what I wanted to do with my chestnuts, and I knew how I wanted to do it. I would make a simple chestnut soup. The first chestnut soup probably came from France, source of so many purées, but no matter. The soup is sweet and smooth and not too rich, and it will satisfy you even if you forego bread with the meal. It is a very good use especially for Colossal chestnuts or any European variety.
I garnished my soup with a bit of chopped parsley, which provided an interesting contrast in color, texture, and flavor. I would have used finer, paler celery leaves instead, if I’d had any on hand.
1½ pounds fresh chestnuts, in their shells 4 cups chicken stock 3 tablespoons butter 4 ounces chopped yellow or white onion 1½ cups whole milk ½ teaspoon fresh-grated nutmeg ½ teaspoon fresh-ground white pepper Salt 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped celery or parsley leaves
Slit each chestnut once crosswise, or twice in the form of a cross, on the flat side. Put the chestnuts into a bowl, cover them with water, and let them soak for 15 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Lay the chestnuts slit-side up in a roasting pan. Roast them in the hot oven for 20 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven. As soon as the chestnuts are cool enough to handle, peel off their shells and as much of their skins as you can. If a nut crumbles while you’re trying to skin it, scrape the flesh out of the skin with a spoon. Combine all of the meats in a saucepan with the chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a simmer, and let it continue to simmer for 20 minutes.
While the chestnuts simmer, melt the butter in a small skillet. Add the onion, and sauté it until it is soft.
When the chestnuts have finished simmering, put them and their cooking liquid into a blender jar. Add the sautéed onion, and blend the mixture to a purée. Pour the purée into the saucepan. Add the milk, nutmeg, and white pepper. Stir, and add salt to taste. Heat the soup just to a simmer.
Serve the soup hot, garnished with the celery or parsley leaves.
For recipes for chestnut cream and preserved chestnuts in syrup, see The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.
After many years of wanting to visit Joe Brocard and his famous apple press, I finally made it to his annual public pressing last weekend. Joe and his wife, Catherine, brought the press to Oregon from the East Coast, where his father and grandfather had pressed apples for farmers from miles around, beginning in 1913. Now that Catherine is long gone and Joe has passed ninety years, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren do the work of pressing the apples and selling the juice and vinegar.
For more about Joe and his press, see this six-year-old article in the Sweet Home New Era.
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.
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.
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.