Magic Beans from Spain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My neighbor Roxanne called to thank me for “the magic beans.” I was surprised; how did she know I called them magic beans? I hadn’t mentioned the beans at all when I’d handed her husband a brown bag that also contained cucumbers and tomatoes.

“They’re magic,” Roxanne explained, “because they’re the best beans we’ve ever eaten.” This was high praise from the wife of a man who grew green beans for eighty-five or so of his ninety-some years, though he doesn’t grow them anymore, now that he is permanently bent in a planting posture. I agreed with Roxanne that these beans were the best, and then I explained why I call them magic beans.

I’d learned about these beans from my friend Teresa Barrenechea, when I was editing her book The Basque Table. In Spain, Teresa had explained, the typical green beans weren’t tubular but flat, and much, much tastier than the round kind. Ah, the Spanish grow Romanos, I had thought. I disliked Romanos because they were always in such a hurry to swell, and their seeds, to me, had an unpleasant beany flavor. But the Spanish beans, as Teresa described them, had no such faults.

A few years later, in 2001, I was traveling in Spain with my son Ben, who had just spent a year as an exchange student in Galicia. While walking in a public garden we came upon a small model vegetable plot with a few bush bean plants. Spying a dry pod, I pocketed it, slipped out the seeds, and dropped the empty pod to the ground.

The day Ben and I were to leave Spain I panicked. What if the agricultural police caught me with the bean seeds? What if they didn’t catch me, and my five seeds introduced some phylloxera-like bean pest into North America? I decided to leave the beans in the wastebasket of the pensiớn.

But where were they? I searched my jacket pocket, turned the jacket upside-down, shook it. The beans, to my relief and regret, were gone.

At home a few days later, I was sorting dirty laundry. I checked my jacket pocket and found a candy wrapper, a tiny tube of toothpaste . . . and the bean seeds—first one and then another, until I’d counted all five. Elated, I put them into a little envelope and labeled it “Magic beans 2001.”

The following spring I planted three of the seeds, but too late; early rains rotted most of the pods before they reached maturity, and I harvested only five more good seeds. More or less the same thing happened for the next several years, and some years I had nothing to plant except reserved two-year-old seed. But slowly I built my stock, and in 2008 I had enough to plant two long rows.

We started eating the beans. Teresa was right, we discovered; they were delicious, meaty and stringless with a flavor at once both rich and mild—“lacking the nasty part of the bean flavor profile,” as my husband put it. Unlike Romanos, the pods grew to full size and rested a bit before swelling and toughening.

This year, after pests ate my first and second plantings of Magic beans, I had plenty of seed for a third planting, and now I have beans to cook, freeze, share, and save for next year.

Can you grow beans like these? Spain has numerous varieties of flat, stringless judías, or green beans, of both pole and bush types. Renee’s Garden sells a Spanish variety that sounds very similar to mine, under the name Musica, but it is a pole bean. As far as I can find, no Spanish bush variety has been imported to the United States. Many American seed companies are selling a flat bean called Roma II, which looks similar to my bean, though shorter and broader, but I haven’t tried it. Other flat varieties pictured in the Vermont Bean Seed catalog look lumpy, swollen with bean seeds, rather than sleek like mine.

If you want true Magic beans, you can stop by my place for a few seeds. In trade, I would consider a cow.

Tiny Bubbles in the Pickle Jar

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the past couple of weeks two people have told me that they never see little bubbles rising in their containers of fermenting cucumbers. Usually bubbles start appearing after three or four days of brining. I explained that the bubbles may be hard to see because they’re very small. Their movement is most noticeable if the pickles are in a clear glass jar and the jar is moved. The bubbles are usually easy to see at the top of the brine, where they collect. If the brine spills over the top of the jar, you know it’s because gas has bubbled up inside and expanded the volume of the brine.

In the picture above, the cucumbers have been brining for about four days. You can see the bubbles at the top of the brine and a little further down in the gallon jar, just above the point where the jar begins narrowing.

Notice that I’m not using a plastic brine bag to hold down the cucumbers; instead I’ve laid the biggest cucumbers crosswise across the top to hold down the rest. Some of the dry spices are floating; that’s okay. But the brine is pushing grapes leaves too close to the surface, where they might attract the wrong microbes. After taking this picture, I tucked the grape leaves down around the cucumbers.

Approximately a day after I took this picture, a yeast scum began forming at the top of the jar. The yeast isn’t essential to the brining process, but it’s a sign that all is well. I skim off the scum when it gets heavy.

Fresh Lychees

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While in Beaverton yesterday to demonstrate pickling at the farmers’ market, I stopped in Uwajimaya, the Japanese supermarket. I always come upon something amazing in Uwajimaya’s produce section, and yesterday was no different: I found fresh lychees!

A tropical-to-subtropical fruit native to Asia, the lychee has a thin, knobbly, leathery red skin. Cut into it with a knife, fork, or fingernail, and easily peel away the skin to reveal white, fragrant flesh with a gently chewy texture like that of firm jelly. In the center of the flesh is a shiny, inedible seed approximately the size, shape, and color of a Kalamata olive.

Along with its relatives the small longan and the beautiful, hairy rambutan, the lychee has long been treasured in Asia. According to Alan Davidson (The Oxford Companion to Food), during the first century a Pony Express-style courier service began bringing fresh lychees from Canton north to the imperial court of China. Later, during the Ming dynasty, clubs of lychee lovers met in temples and gardens to consume hundreds of the fruits at a sitting.

I don’t know where Uwajimaya got the lychees, but they were quite fresh; if they hadn’t been, they would have been brown rather than red. Lychees grow in Florida and Hawaii as well as Asia, so perhaps we’ll see them in Oregon more often in the future. And maybe, if I’m very lucky, someday while traveling I’ll be able to pluck a ripe lychee from a tree.

What did I do with the lychees? I did not preserve them. Canned lychees, easy to find in Asian markets, are bland in comparison with the fresh fruit. So I put the lychees into a bowl and sat down with my husband and son. Then we slowly unwrapped and ate our perfumed treasures one at a time until they were all gone, all the while trying to fix their look, flavor, and texture in our memories. It may be a long time before we encounter fresh lychees again.

Harvesting Love in a Mist

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Friends of the Library are coming tomorrow for a potluck. Tidy gardeners all, they are sure to frown on that patch of dried-out nigella stalks by the blueberries. This gives me extra incentive to harvest the seeds today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANigella damascena, or love-in-a-mist, is an annual beloved by less-tidy flower gardeners for its lovely little blue flowers surrounded by delicate, lacy foliage. The flowers develop into pods rather like those of opium poppies. When the pale green pods have turned golden and their little black seeds rattle inside, many gardeners cut the stalks and save them for winter arrangements.

This is what I had in mind, too, the first year I grew love-in-a-mist. But my small daughter, an incorrigible browser then and now, told me they had a more practical use. “Taste the seeds, Mama! They’re good!”

I chided her, as I always did, for eating whatever plants lay in her path. But my curiosity got the better of me, and so I asked what the seeds tasted like. Raised on natural foods, she couldn’t place the flavor. But I could, as soon as I gingerly bit into one of the black, teardrop-shaped seeds: Grape Kool-Aid!

N. damascena is closely related to N. sativa, which in India, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East is beloved at least as much for its culinary and medicinal purposes as for its ornamental value. The seeds are used in and on breads, like sesame seeds and poppy seeds. In India, where nigella seeds are called kalonji or onion seeds (for their appearance, not their flavor), they are briefly fried or toasted and added to pickles, chutneys, and sauces. The seeds are believed to ameliorate digestive, respiratory, rheumatic, and skin problems, and some of these medicinal benefits have been scientifically confirmed.

I harvest nigella by pulling the stalks from the ground and turning them upside-down into a paper grocery bag. Because I’ve waited a bit too long to harvest, as many as half the seeds scatter to the ground in the process. That’s fine with me; they will grow into next year’s crop.

However hard I shake them, the pods will hang on to some of their seeds, so on a windy day I’ll scatter the stalks where I want more love-in-a-mist to grow. Then I’ll winnow the seeds left in the bottom of the paper bags. I’ll store the clean seeds in a jar, and I’ll take some out now and then to sprinkle on top of bread just before baking it.

If I serve the bread to company, I’ll wait for my guests to ask what the strange black seeds are. Before I tell them, I’ll ask what the seeds taste like. Grape Kool-Aid, anyone?

UPDATES

August 20, 2009: Joanne from Lake Oswego tells me that N. sativa is available from Penzey’s as charnushka. Russians and Poles sprinkle charnushka (chernushka, czarnuszka) on top of rye bread before baking it.

November 29, 2009: I recently bought some seeds of N. sativa from the San Francisco Herb Company. They look like N. damascena, but their flavor is not at all foxy. I can best describe it as bitter–though less bitter than, say, celery seed–and complex, dark, almost smoky. I hope I like them better on bread.

Green Rhubarb Jam

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While my husband and I were visiting Tours, France, a few weeks ago, the owner of our chambre d’hote (bed-and-breakfast), served us jam that she had made just the day before from rhubarb growing in the long, narrow garden behind her row house. Brigitte’s rhubarb jam was the best I’d ever tasted. And it was green.

Most garden rhubarb has skin that is all or mostly red and flesh that is all or mostly green. Cooks covet varieties that are red through and through, because they make beautiful jams, tarts, and pies. Green-fleshed, red-skinned rhubarb tends to cook up a pinkish brown. For this reason, many cooks combine their rhubarb with strawberries. Some doctor it with red dye.

Brigitte’s rhubarb jam was the color of kiwi flesh. Her plant may have been of a variety called Goliath, which I’ve since found mentioned on a French website and in some British and Australian sources. Or perhaps it was Mammoth Green, which was popular in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These old varieties are said to be vigorous and especially tart and flavorful, but they are now rare. Most likely, Brigitte’s rhubarb was Victoria, today’s main commercial variety. Victoria comes in both red and green forms.

Gardeners who buy rhubarb crowns for planting are sometimes surprised to see the stalks come up green. In these cases the crowns were usually sold simply as “rhubarb,” with no mention of color or variety. If your unnamed green rhubarb has pink speckles on the skin near the base of the stalks, and if the plant hurries to send up a seed stalk, it is probably Victoria.

Remembering Brigitte’s beautiful and delicious green rhubarb jam, I wanted to make some like it. But my rhubarb plant—probably red Victoria—has red-skinned stalks with a little red pigment here and there in the flesh. I solved this problem by cutting the stalks approximately in half. The lower halves had pale flesh with occasional pink patches; the upper halves had grass-green flesh with almost no red pigment. I used the lower halves for strawberry-rhubarb preserves. With a paring knife, I skinned the upper halves, and these I turned into green rhubarb jam.

As you can see in the picture, my jam is really a greenish gold; it’s not as green Brigitte’s. But the color is much prettier than pinkish brown, and the flavor is delightful.

Here’s my recipe for green rhubarb jam: Peel the green-fleshed parts of rhubarb stalks, cutting away any pink parts, and cut the stalks crosswise into ½-inch pieces. In a big, wide, nonreactive pot, mix 1 1/2 pounds of these rhubarb pieces with 2 cups sugar. Let the mixture sit overnight; in the morning, the sugar will be nearly completely dissolved. Boil the mixture over medium-high heat until the syrup is almost all absorbed and the texture is jam-like.

 

Toshiba Apples

In Marina Lewychka’s Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, an old Ukrainian war refugee, lonely in his English cottage since his wife’s death, refuses to heat his sitting room, because that’s where he stores boxes of apples through the winter. Even after he marries the voluptuous young slattern Valentina, the apples are his dietary staple. He eats them simply sliced and microwaved—Toshiba Apples, his daughter calls them.

Having recently and independently invented Toshiba apples myself, I was embarrassed to read about them. I could have dubbed them Panasonic Apples, after my own trusty nuker, but clearly I was less creative than Lewychka’s character; I hadn’t named the dish at all. Worse, I now realized, I had taken to eating old-people food. Though I still had my teeth, I’d gotten fussy and lazy: I found apple crisp too sweet, apple pie too fatty and troublesome to make, applesauce—well, I loved applesauce, and in fact I had been planning to make some when I discovered Toshiba Apples. I’d sliced and peeled a few apples but then had to go out; there was no time to make a pot of applesauce. So I put the bowl of apple slices in the nuker and ate them hot a few minutes later, with my fingers.

Actually, they were delicious.

It’s a lucky householder who has enough apples to last the winter and a cool room to keep them in (I use an unheated guest bedroom). Good keeping apples, like my Fujis and Braeburns, grow sweeter in storage, and they retain a firm texture instead of growing cottony like a Red Delicious. But by February stored apples may be starting to shrivel; they are no longer attractive as a raw snack or dessert. They are best for cooking, and in winter and early spring you probably prefer a hot snack to a cold one anyway. Microwaving unadorned apple slices is a quick and easy cooking method that preserves the integrity of the slices and their pure apple flavor better than any other.

Here’s how to make Toshiba Apples: Slice and core as many apples as you’d like. I prefer to peel them, but peeling isn’t necessary. Put the slices into a bowl, and nuke them for about ten minutes; the time will vary depending on how much fruit you’re using. You might toss the slices once so they cook evenly. When they are as tender as you like, take them out of the microwave. Sprinkle them with cinnamon if you want, but I never do. Eat and enjoy.

Sugared Violets

While the violets continue to bloom, my daughter, Rebecca, suggested I describe how to candy them. Here’s what to do.

Pick 50 or so sweet violets, each with a bit of stem. If you can’t candy them right away, keep them covered and chilled for as long as several hours.

When you’re ready to proceed, lay a sheet of waxed paper on a plate. In a small bowl, beat an egg white with about a teaspoon of water. Have at hand small, soft pastry brush and a small bowl of extra-fine sugar, store-bought or ground in a blender or spice grinder from ordinary granulated sugar.

Holding a violet by the stem, brush the back of the petals with a thin coating of egg white. Then brush the front of the flower with egg white, spreading the petals as you do so. Sprinkle a think layer of sugar over every surface, lay the flower face up on the waxed paper, and pinch off the stem. Do the same with the rest of the blossoms, and then set the plate in a warm, dry place until the flowers are completely dry (for me, this means overnight on the pellet stove).

Store the dried blossoms in a small glass jar until you’re ready to use them. They look lovely on a cake or a plate of sweets.

Sweet Violet Syrup

There is little as pleasantly startling as the scent of blooming violets on a cold day in early spring. The little purple flowers have spread so thickly through my front lawn over the years that I now have nearly more violets than grass. But what a lovely ground cover, and what a cheering fragrance when nothing else is blooming but periwinkle and the early, scentless daffodils.

Sweet violets (Viola odorata) are edible; many people candy them or sprinkle them over salad greens. If you don’t mind spending twenty minutes or so picking the blossoms, you can also make them into syrup—syrup as amazing for its blue color as for its aroma. Come summer, you’ll want to try it in soda water, iced tea, or champagne.

The recipe that follows is adapted from my forthcoming Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.

Sweet Violet Syrup

3 ounces (about 4 cups) stemmed violets
2 cups water
About 2 cups sugar

Combine the flowers and water in a saucepan. Simmer the contents, uncovered, for 15 minutes.

Strain the mixture through a dampened jelly bag. You can squeeze the bag, when it’s cool enough to handle, to extract more liquid. Then measure the volume of the liquid, and combine it in a preserving pan with an equal volume of sugar. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Raise the heat to high, and bring the syrup to a full boil.

Remove the pan from the heat. Funnel the syrup into a bottle. Store the bottle, tightly capped, in the refrigerator.

Makes about 3 cups