I finally got around to pickling chard stems again last week, when I needed to dig out several big Swiss chard plants so I could start next year’s garlic crop in a raised bed. These plants were of the Bright Lights variety, with its assortment of beautiful yellows, pinks, and reds.
Bright Lights first proved me a fool me last spring, when the plants had grown about two inches tall. I had expected to find all the various colors on a single plant, as with a capsicum plant whose fruits change according to individual timetables from green to yellow to orange. Not so with the chard. I found some seedlings with yellow stems, and others with pale pink, beet-red, or white stems. Obviously, a farmer sells a multicolored bunch of chard by banding together stems from various plants. Someone with a very small garden who wants multicolored chard may have to choose one color for herself and share other seeds or seedlings among her friends, with the hope that they can trade full-grown stems later on.
Bright Lights turned out to be just as stringy as plain old white-stemmed chard. I was fooled again in the kitchen as I pulled off the strings; as with most rhubarb varieties, the color on those pink, yellow, and red stems is only skin deep, and much of it comes off with stringing. My Bright Lights had dimmed before the pickling began.
I made the pickle as in my prior post on this topic, except in a quart jar this time. The next day I thought I would take a picture of the pretty jar, but now, strangely, the contents appeared uniformly pink. Tipping the jar, I saw that the top ends of the chard stems were all the same color, a very pale pink. Fooled again! The chard had given up its color to its pickling liquid. I might as well have pickled a jar full of white-stemmed chard and slipped in a small slice of beet.
Bright Lights chard in all its lovely colors is still growing strong in the main garden. Until the rains drown the plants or the cold rots them, I’ll search for other ways to bring their beauty to the table.
Yesterday my husband brought me a glass of the dandelion wine we made lastApril. It’s a lovely brew, gently aromatic from the citrus and ginger, and sweet with residual sugar. I think I now know what the dandelions are for: They give the wine its pale golden color, to imitate white wine or, perhaps, mead.
The only way I can imagine improving the recipe would be to substitute honey for the refined sugar. But then I would have mead, and the dandelions might be superfluous.
As it is, our sweet, spicy, slightly bitter dandelion wine makes an excellent low-budget treat for the bleak mid-winter. I recommend drinking it cold, preferably by a warm fire.
Look what I found in the liquor store in Albany, Oregon, among the flavored vodkas and cheap tequilas! I wasn’t looking for maraschino (pronounced maraSKEEno), but finding it made my day. It’s cherry season in the Willamette Valley, a region once well-dotted with cherry orchards. Almost all have long since been cut down, but the birds continually replant the feral descendants of the Bings, Lamberts, and Royal Annes that once made our nurserymen and farmers so proud. The fruit of the cherry trees that manage to grow up, mostly along the edges of farmed fields, can be large or small, red or yellow or black, and sweet or sour or bitter. My favorite tree, which grew from a seedling beside our shed, annually produces hundreds of pounds of small, black, slightly bitter fruits.
Because these cherries are too small to pit, I’ve had to find uncommon ways to preserve them. This was the same quandary faced hundreds of years ago by the people of Dalmatia, a region of modern Croatia along the Adriatic Sea where thrived the marasca cherry, a small, dark, slightly bitter variant of the sour morello. Sixteenth-century Dominican monks in Zadar (or Zara, as the name is still spelled on the Luxardo label) crushed the cherries along with their pits and some of their leaves and probably added some honey before distilling the fermented mash. The product, aged in white ash and then sweetened with cane sugar, became known as rosolj, “sun dew.” In the eighteenth century, rosolj was renamed maraschino and relished by the wealthy all over Europe.
Girolamo Luxardo began making maraschino in 1821. Luxardo’s double-distilled clear liqueur is sweet, viscous, and mildly bitter, with a complex flavor and aroma that you probably wouldn’t recognize as cherry or almond. By the time of the U.S. Civil War, Luxardo maraschinowas available in the United States, where bartenders put it in cocktails. By the late 1800s, marasca cherries soaked in maraschino had also become popular. They were the ultimate cocktail garnish.
Prohibition put an end to the importation of both maraschino and maraschino cherries. So in the 1920s Ernest Wiegand, a professor at Oregon Agricultural College, devised a cheap, nonalcoholic substitute for maraschino cherries, using Oregon’s big, fleshy, pale Royal Annes. He first soaked them in a salt-and-alum brine, and then he packed them in sugar syrup doctored with food coloring, acid, and almond extract. His shiny crimson knockoffs soon took the place of maraschino cherries in cocktails, in “fruit cocktails” (which had gradually lost their liquor but continued to be served in cocktail glasses), and atop sundaes.
At the request of readers, I included the home version of Wiegand’s recipe in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves. But I personally preferred to soak my cherries in brandy. I’d never tasted marascas, but they sounded quite similar to my own favorite cherries. I figured that my brandied cherries, with sugar and a little almond extract added, must be pretty close in taste to true maraschino cherries. A couple of years ago I tried my brandied cherries on a young woman from northern Italy. They did taste something like maraschinos, she said. But they weren’t the same.
This year I have what I need to make almost-true maraschino cherries—I have maraschino. So here’s my new recipe: Fill a jar with stemmed sour cherries (preferably small dark ones with a touch of bitterness). Cover the cherries with maraschino. For a pint jar, you’ll need about a cup of liqueur. Cover the jar, and put it in a cupboard. Wait a few weeks or months. Then eat your cherries and drink your now dark and frankly cherry-flavored liqueur, over ice, in a cocktail or fruit cocktail, or however else you like.
I’ll let you know come fall how I like my almost-maraschino cherries. In the meantime, let’s hope that one of our new little distilleries considers producing an Oregon version of maraschino liqueur.
UPDATE 2022: The almost-maraschino cherries were heavenly. My currant black cherry tree, grown from a scion of the seedling tree on our farm, produced a sizeable crop here in town last year. Although I greedily ate every one of those cherries out of hand, this year I hope to make almost-maraschino cherries once again.
In jams, pies, cobblers, and other sweet treats, rhubarb routinely gets paired with strawberries, for good reasons: Rhubarb and strawberries tend to reach the peak of their seasons together, and strawberries disguise the often lackluster color of rhubarb (although all-green rhubarb can be attractive on its own; see my recipe for Green Rhubarb Jam).
But in a spring as cool the one we’re experiencing in the Pacific Northwest now, local strawberries lag behind the rhubarb. There’s hardly a spot of red in the berry patches yet, and nobody wants to substitute hard, green-centered strawberries from California for sweet, tender red fruits from the garden or farm stand. This is a good time, though, to clean out the freezer, to make room for the abundance that will come (it will, really). And amid the pork chops and pesto may lurk bags and bags of last year’s fruit. My friend Sally hauls all out all her frozen fruit this time of year to make a batch of mixed-fruit wine. I make jam.
I decided to make jam from the last of last summer’s blueberries combined with the first of this year’s rhubarb. The pairing worked: The rhubarb took on the deep-blue color of the berries, lent an interesting texture, and balanced the berries’ high pectin content so I could use minimal sugar and yet avoid a tough gel. To eliminate the unpleasant fibrousness of cooked blueberries, I first heated the berries separately and then pressed them through a food mill. The result is a lusciously soft, dark jam that seems the essence of blueberry until you notice the tart yet subtle background note of rhubarb.
Supposing no blueberries turn up in your freezer, wait a few weeks. With adequate watering, your rhubarb will still be going strong when the first blueberries ripen. Then you can mix the two deliciously in jam—or in a pie, a tart. a crisp, or a cobbler.
1 1/2 pounds blueberries 1 pound trimmed rhubarb (leaves and tough bases cut off), cut into small pieces 3 1/3 cups sugar 2 tablespoons lemon juice
If the berries are frozen, let them thaw.
In a broad, heavy-bottomed pan, simmer the blueberries, covered, for about 5 minutes. Press them though the fine disk of a food mill.
Combine the berry purée in the pan with the rhubarb, sugar, and lemon juice. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the mixture, while still stirring frequently, until the rhubarb breaks down and a bit of the jam mounds in a chilled bowl, or until the temperature of the mixture reaches 221 degrees F. This should take no more than 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
Skim the foam from the jam, and ladle the jam into sterilized half-pint mason jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Close the jars, and process them for 5 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
Remove the jars to a rack or pad, and let them stand undisturbed for 24 hours, after which time the jam should be well set. Store the jars in a cool, dry, dark place.
Before the blossoms have all fallen, I want to share these pictures of my ‘Pineapple’ quince trees. Like other quince varieties, they grow no more than fifteen feet high, and each forms an umbrella-like canopy. The trees blossom profusely, with pale pink flowers that are bigger than the blooms of all my apples and pears. The quince trees’ springtime appearance is outdone only by their glory of autumn, when their hundreds of big, golden, pear-shaped fruits perfume the garden with a pineapple-like scent.
Prior to the invention of packaged pectin, nearly every American farmstead or garden had a tree like this, if the climate allowed, because quince is an excellent source of pectin. The tart, light-colored juice combines well with other fruits and juices and with spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The fruit is hard and mildly astringent, but when cooked it mellows and softens, without losing its shape, and with long cooking it turns from white to a startling ruby red. You can poach quinces in wine and honey, roast them with vegetables, bake them like apples, stew them with meat (as do cooks in the quince’s Caucasian homeland), and add them to apple pies and applesauce. You can make quinces into jelly, preserves, wine, syrup, paste (membrillo), and liqueur. And you can probably do all this with the harvest of one mature tree.
Even if you’re not sure you like the fruit, consider planting a quince tree. You need only one, because it will self-pollinate. You won’t have to spray it; the hard fruit resists both apple maggots and coddling moths. You can think of your quince tree, if you like, as an easy-care ornamental.
But do try using the fruits. Here’s a very simple recipe for an aromatic syrup that’s delicious in either hot tea or iced water.
Raw Quince-Honey Syrup
Use a sturdy knife to slice the quinces. For coring, a tool that looks like a thick, sharpened little spoon works best.
1 pound peeled and cored quinces, cut into 3/4-inch cubes 2 cups honey
Layer the quince cubes and honey in a quart jar. Cap the jar tightly, and let it stand at room temperature for two weeks.
After two weeks, drain off the syrup and pour it into sterilized jars. Cap the jars, and store them in the refrigerator or another cool place. The syrup should keep well for months.
Eat the shriveled quince cubes as candy, if you like, or simmer them in white or rosé wine and serve them with roast poultry or pork.
Even as I was curing olives for the first time, in 2009, I knew I’d do it differently in 2010. Cured olives, like breads and wines, are wonderfully various. I love them green or black, big or little, salty and shriveled, bitter, sour, herbed, or oiled. Both ripeness and curing method, I knew, determined a cured olive’s look and taste. But how much difference did cultivar make? I wasn’t sure.
The olives I ordered in 2009, from M&CP Farms of Orland, California (www.greatolives.com), were green Sevillanos, which grow as large as an inch across and have firm flesh that you must chew off the pit. They were delicious both lye-cured and long-brined. But when M&CP offered another variety, Lucques, in 2010, I ordered them without hesitation.
As soon as I slit open the box the FedEx man brought me, I knew I’d never confuse Lucques olives with Sevillanos. Whereas the Sevillano olive is oval, the Lucques is long, slender, and slightly crescent-shaped, with a pointed tip. The unripe Sevillano is pale green, but the unripe Lucques is bright green like a Gravenstein apple.
Although the Lucques probably originated in Italy, the variety is an old favorite in Languedoc, especially around a village called St Jean de la Blaquière, where in the 1990s the local co-op cured two hundred tons per year. Although St Jean’s olives are now cured in nearby Clermont-l’Herault, St Jean still hosts the annual Fête de la Lucques.
Each autumn, all France awaits the cured green Lucques olives, beloved for their light, nutty, sweet taste; their meaty flesh, which comes away easily from the pit; and their color, which remains bright green even after curing. Most of the olives are available just a few weeks after the September picking, because they are treated with lye, which quickly eliminates all bitterness.
Unsure how best to cure my Lucques olives, I managed to track down two recipes from St. Jean de la Blaquière, one for the standard commercial cure, with lye, and one for the family-style long-brine method. I cured a gallon each way.
The lye-cured olives were ready less than three weeks later. They were indeed sweet and nutty and mild, and they were so good that they were gone in a month. I’d used no herbs or garlic, and nobody missed these embellishments. With only salt to enhance their flavor, the olives were irresistible.
A second gallon of Lucques olives got the slow cure—a fresh-water soak, with frequent changes, for fifteen days, followed by immersion in a light brine for four days and a medium-strong brine thereafter. These olives are still sitting in salt water, again without flavorings, in a warm closet. They are bitter, but every time I taste one it’s less bitter than the last. By the first of April, I predict, my family will start on our second Fête de la Lucques. I can hardly wait.
To my regret, I never got around to curing the fruit of the huge old olive trees on my parents’ California ranch, which they have long since sold. Like many other gardeners in the Pacific Northwest, I now have my own little olive tree, of the hardy Arbequina variety, and I await the first crop with greedy anticipation. Last year, though, I got to wondering: In the age of the Internet and overnight delivery, did I have to wait? Could I buy some fresh olives to cure at home?
In fact, I could. For less than thirty dollars, I had ten pounds of green Sevillanos delivered to my door in early September. I looked them over carefully; you don’t want to cure olives that are bruised or otherwise damaged. Nearly all were perfect. I grabbed my copy of the University of California’s Olives: Safe Methods for Home Picklingand began to study up.
There are many ways to cure olives. The best choice depends on the variety, whether the olives are green or ripe, how you want to store them, and how long you’re willing to wait before you eat them. I chose the method that Olives calls Sicilian-style—that is, simple brining—for most of the olives. For the rest, I chose a lye cure followed by a shorter brining.
For the Sicilian-style olives, I filled two glass jars, one gallon-size and one 3-quart-size, with olives, hot peppers, chopped garlic, bay leaves, and fennel umbels, and then I added a brine made of 1 cup pickling salt, 1 gallon water, and 1 pint red wine vinegar. The remaining 2 quarts of olives I treated with lye mixed with water. The olives soaked in the lye water for about 12 hours, and then I repeatedly rinsed them and soaked them in pure water for about 30 hours, to remove the lye. At this point the olives had lost their natural bitterness, but they still needed to ferment to develop their flavor and texture. I mixed up a brine with the same ratio of salt to water as before, but this time I left out the vinegar. Presumably because lye kills the lactic-acid-forming bacteria on the olives, the recipe told me I needed to add a starter. I used a little brine from a jar of unpasteurized fermented cucumber pickles.
Two months later, the lye-treated olives were already tender, but they also tasted of dill and cucumbers from the pickle brine. So, though the recipe didn’t call for seasonings, I added hot pepper, garlic, bay, and thyme. A week or so later, these olives were delicious, and my husband and I started eating and sharing them.
Now we have finished off the lye-treated olives and are waiting for the Sicilian-style ones, which have lost most of their bitterness. I actually like the slight bitterness that remains, but the texture is still a little too chewy. We’ve just reached the minimum curing time for these olives—about four months. We’ll probably wait another two weeks or so before we start eating them.
Olives includes recipes for other curing methods, and none of these methods is more complicated than the two I tried. Curing olives, like making other sorts of pickles, is not only possible for people who don’t grow their own; it’s also easy.
UPDATE 2022: I don’t have an olive tree here in town, and in recent years I’ve have trouble buying fresh olives from California. FedEx deliveries now take about a week, and after that much time olives aren’t fresh enough to use. But, for those who can pick their own olives or buy them at a farm, a complete recipe for fermented olives is in The Joy of Pickling.
Maybe you’ve replaced your old plastic water bottle with a stainless-steel one to avoid exposure to bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical linked to reproductive abnormalities and increased risks of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. But did you know you could be ingesting BPA through commercially canned food? BPA is a component of the epoxy resin that has long been used to line metal food cans. Consumer Reports (December 2009) tested for BPA in 19 name-brand canned foods—soups, juice, tuna, corn, chili, tomato sauce, corned beef, and green beans—and found the chemical in all of them. Organic brands didn’t necessarily have less than nonorganic brands, and even cans labeled “BPA-free” contained the chemical. The highest levels were in green beans, vegetable soup, and chicken-noodle soup. “A 165-pound adult eating one serving of canned green beans from our sample . . . could ingest about 0.2 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day, about 80 times higher than our experts’ recommended daily upper limit,” the magazine reports. FDA guidelines allow a much higher daily exposure, 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight. According to a congressional subcommittee, however, the FDA has relied too heavily on studies sponsored by the plastics industry and should re-evaluate BPA’s safety. Aren’t you glad you get most of your “canned” foods out of glass jars?
July 15, 2010: Some weeks after writing the preceding paragraph I learned that the notorious BPA is also used to line the flat lids of mason jars. While Jardin (the owner of Ball, Kerr, and Bernardin) works on developing an alternative liner, home canners don’t need to worry: As long as we store our jars upright, the food inside will never come in contact with the lid.
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.
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.