While we are all avoiding trips to the grocery store, it’s good to remember that the garden may offer much more interesting things to eat, anyway. Here I’ve combined the last of the arugula with shaved fennel and johnny jump-ups, which have jumped up everywhere in the gravel between my raised vegetable beds. These flowers are not only edible but truly tasty. Since their aroma is easily overwhelmed by vinaigrette, they are best eaten straight from the plant, but how they prettify a salad! I’ve added handfuls of tart, juicy haskaps, the first fruit of the year, always beating out strawberries by at least a week. And finally I’ve sprinkled over big green seeds of sweet cicely, a ferny plant of the carrot family whose roots, leaves, and seeds all taste sweetly of anise and are said to be helpful to the digestion. Safeway may have some fennel bulbs in stock, but otherwise none of these plants can be found there. Together they taste of springtime.
The food shortages that accompanied the outbreak of the coronavirus and continue to this day have made local food—food produced for the local population rather than for shipping across the country and overseas—a suddenly more urgent cause. I have struggled to understand why supermarkets have been able to stock all-purpose flour but not bread flour or whole-wheat flour. But I have asked myself a more important question, too: Why are we all reliant on grain and flour from Midwestern mega-mills? One hundred and twenty years ago, everyone in this valley ate wheat both grown and ground within ten miles or so from home. If we still did that, we would have some security against crises that upset the national and international food distribution networks.
As I thought about all this last week, my heart swelled for the one pair of local farmers I know who grow wheat, barley, and meal corn, bag it themselves, and spend much of the summer at farmers’ markets selling their goods to the public. And I took a bag of the Harcombes’ naked barley out of the freezer.
Naked barley gets naked by dropping its inedible hulls during harvest, just as modern wheat varieties do. This means the barley doesn’t need “pearling”—the abrasive process that removes the bran as well as the hull of each kernel. Naked barley takes longer to cook than pearl barley, but it has a pleasant, chewier texture, nutty flavor, and more nutrients. And its habit of shedding its own hull means that small commercial farmers and even homesteaders can easily process it to a ready-to-cook stage. You can use naked barley in brewing and for animal feed as well.
Paul and Nonie Harcombe’s naked barley is a variety called ‘Streakers,’ the first release of the Oregon State University Barley Project. Naked barley was nothing new when the OSU researchers started their project, but they aimed to breed something new indeed: a naked barley that would resist the rust disease endemic to the Pacific Northwest. The grain has grown well for Paul and Nonie. Now they just need to get people used to eating barley.
And why not eat barley, especially when it’s hulled but not pearled? The whole grain is full of minerals and fiber. It can help to lower both blood sugar and cholesterol. It is excellent as a breakfast cereal and in grain salads and pilafs. And it makes an interesting substitute in some traditional pearl-barley dishes, such as this soup.
I have used here a mix of chanterelles and winter chanterelles (funnel chanterelles, yellowfoot chanterelles) from the freezer. Both are easy to find in the lower Cascades, not far from my home, and easy to identify, too. Before freezing the mushrooms last fall, I cleaned them and cooked them in a dry skillet until they stopped releasing water.
¾ cup naked barley
2 ¼ cups water
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 quart beef or chicken stock
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
4 ounces onion, chopped
2 ounces carrot, chopped
2 ounces celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
8 ounces frozen cooked chanterelles or other mushrooms, thawed
½ cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh thyme or savory leaves
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
Put the barley into a bowl with 1½ cups of the water. Cover the bowl, and let it stand overnight or for at least several hours.
Toward the end of this period, put the shiitakes into a bowl with the remaining ¾ cup water. Weight the shiitakes with another bowl set inside the first, and let them soak for an hour.
In a pot, combine the barley, the stock, the shiitake soaking water (reserve the shiitakes), and the bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover the pan, and let the barley simmer for an hour or until it is tender.
In a small skillet, heat the oil or butter over medium heat. Sauté the onion until it is tender. Add the carrot, celery, and garlic, and sauté 5 minutes more. Put the vegetables into the pot along with the frozen and thawed mushrooms, the parsley, and the thyme or savory. Slice the shiitakes, and add the tops to the pot. Add the salt and pepper to taste. Return the contents of the pan to a simmer, and simmer them for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
Serve the soup at once, or cool it for later reheating. The naked barley won’t swell as much as pearl barley, so your soup won’t turn into porridge. If you’d like it thinner, though, just add some stock or water.
Serves 3 as a main dish
I am so mechanically inept that I have never been able to figure out the Kraut Source fermentation device—an expensive thing ($30!) made up of several stainless-steel parts that somehow fit together on top of a standard American mason jar. I was just as bemused when I received in the mail a ChouAmi fermentation device, which is nearly exactly like the Kraut Source device except that the ChouAmi version fits on a straight-sided, 1-liter Le Parfait jar. Such a jar was included in the package, but instructions were not.
The jar and all the stainless-steel pieces sat on the kitchen counter for months. Occasionally I would examine them and try fitting them together. Enlightenment alluded me. Then I decided use a big daikon and an Egyptian walking onion, before it went to seed, to make some kakdooki.* I looked at the Le Parfait jar. It appeared to be just about the right size to hold my big daikon. It was time to try out the ChouAmi.
Kakdooki is Korean-style fermented radish cubes, flavored with ground red pepper, green onions, garlic, sometimes ginger, and often fish sauce or tiny brined shrimp or both. This is one fermented pickle that I never bother to weight, because the seasonings seem to prevent any yeast or mold growth. Regardless, I would use my fancy new device. I mixed the radish cubes and seasonings, dropped them into the jar, and pressed down the mixture with my fingers. It fit perfectly, with just an inch or so of headspace.
I picked up the ChouAmi pieces, and suddenly I knew exactly how they fit together. I placed the main piece on top of the jar and screwed the ring over it. Then I turned the loop in the center of the main piece. This released a spring attached to a perforated plate sized to fit perfectly in the jar (this main piece is actually three; they come apart for cleaning). The plate pressed against the vegetables, while liquid rose over it. I set the dome on top.
Only hours later did it occur to me that the dome wasn’t meant to keep out dust. It was sitting in a trough. So I filled the trough with water. Now I had an airlock! Carbon dioxide could escape under the dome, through the water, but oxygen couldn’t get in.
What an elaborately clever device! No wonder the price was so high.
Actually, though, I don’t know the price of a ChouAmi. The company is still getting started, through a Kickstarter campaign. The company website needs work; I couldn’t get the instructional video to play.
So I’m afraid that if you head to your local kitchenware store today you won’t find the ChouAmi. But the store is probably closed, anyway. So, wait until the danger of the corona virus eases, and then keep your eyes open for the ChouAmi. If you’re happy to make most of your vegetable ferments in a 1-liter jar, this device may prove to be a bon ami indeed.
*Green Egyptian walking onions are sweeter and milder than scallions.
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.
I think I may welcome those volunteers.
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.
Makes 1½ cups
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
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.
More about Chestnuts
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.