Eating the Enemy: The European Brown Snail

Throughout last spring and early summer I murdered a hundred, sometimes two hundred, every day. Some were smaller than a pea, others were as big as a walnut. I would pluck them off leaves until both my hands were full, pile them on a stone or board, stamp once, hard, with my right foot in its rubber clog, and give a sideways shove to land all the sticky, slimy mess in a garden bed, where before the day was done their live cousins would turn them back to soil.

The European Brown Snail

 My husband was appalled at the waste. We could eat them, he would quietly remind me. But I couldn’t get up an appetite for creatures that reminded me of carnage and gore. I couldn’t even look at the sole of my shoe. I knew only that unless I kept up with the killing we’d have no vegetables, no melons—nothing appetizing to eat at all.

My enemy is the European brown snail, Cornu aspersum, formerly known as Helix aspersa and Cryptomphalus aspersus. In the Mediterranean region, people have been eating these snails for ten thousand years. They came to the West Coast of this country soon after the Gold Rush, when a Frenchman introduced them to his San Jose vineyard “with an eye to the pot.” The snails were especially adaptable, and predators were lacking. By 1900 the snails had been found in Oakland and Pacific Grove (near Monterey), and they were common in Los Angeles.* Today they are so ubiquitous in California that they are sometimes called the California brown snail. Here in Oregon they are rare in the country but abundant in the cities. They are said to live happily in forests and deserts, so perhaps they slid all the way to the Willamette Valley on their own slime. But I suspect they came on nursery pots.

One rainy day Robert and I returned from a drive to find a whole convention of big ones at the edge of the driveway and all over the artichoke plants beside it. I hadn’t been snail hunting in the artichoke bed, because snails don’t eat artichoke buds; they just like hanging out in the shade of the plants. Left alone through a wet early summer, these mollusks had grown big—almost gros gris size, as the French say, as opposed to petit gris. Robert smiled as if he’d stumbled on a morel in the forest or a well-marbled steak in a supermarket. I told him I’d collect some if he wanted to prepare them. He did.

In five minutes I’d bagged 60. Robert put them in a bucket in the basement with some cornmeal and covered the bucket with half an old T-shirt, held tight with string. One time the snails got loose, through a little armpit hole, and I had to gather them up as they were escaping in all directions across the pool table that serves as our all-purpose worktable. But otherwise their last days were uneventful. Their poop turned from black to white. Each day for six days, Robert cleaned the bucket of poop and slime. Twice a day we misted the T-shirt with water.

Europeans, we read, often kill their snails by salting them; this is supposed to thoroughly purge them of slime. But even I couldn’t be so cruel.

So Robert followed a different method. He rinsed the snails in several changes of tepid water, and then boiled them for 15 minutes in 2 gallons of water. He lifted out the snails with a basket ladle and dropped them into a bowl of water with ½ cup vinegar. He rinsed them, drained them, rinsed them again in vinegar-water, and then drained them again. He picked out the meat with a small paring knife, poking the point into the center of the whorl and unwinding the body with a twist of the wrist. And then he rinsed the meats a final time in the vinegar-water.

The 60 snails were now reduced to a collection of pretty shells and 6.5 ounces of snail meat. In the classic escargot preparation, you stuff the snails back into their shells along with butter, parsley, garlic, and the like, cook the snails, and then pull the meats out again to eat them. Robert chose a simpler way. He melted ½ cup butter, and in it he sautéed a minced celery stalk, a sliced lion’s mane mushroom, and three large garlic cloves, minced. He added the snails, 1/3 cup pinot grigio, and 2 tablespoons minced sage (unconventional, but Robert loves sage). He simmered the sauce down a bit while boiling 8 ounces of linguine. Then he added a handful of chopped parsley to the sauce and poured the sauce over the hot, drained pasta.

shelled snails

Sixty snails are a lot for two people, especially when one of them is feeling a little queasy. I would suggest increasing the quantities of pasta and sauce ingredients, inviting another couple to dinner, and serving plenty of wine. But Robert enjoyed his leftover snails for lunch. They taste fine when you stop thinking of them as war victims.

empty snail shells

I was so thorough in my slaughter in spring and early summer that now I’m killing only a dozen or two snails a day. But I have no doubt that when the rains start the snails will be back in force, if not from eggs in my garden then from the neighbors’ yards on both sides. When the creatures get really big again, I’ll ask Robert if he’s ready for another adventure with
escargot.

*Robert E. C. Stearns, “Exotic Mollusca in California.” Science 11:278 (April 27, 1900), pp. 655-59.

Mulberries for Jam

I’ve been curious about mulberries ever since I visited Dave Holderread’s waterfowl farm, about 25 years ago, and saw them planted in his duck pens. Dave explained that the trees would not only provide shade for the birds but would feed them without his intervention.

I wondered at this. Blackberries that grew on trees! Why didn’t more people plant mulberries? Why didn’t I plant a mulberry tree?

But I never identified a good place on the farm for a mulberry tree, and I certainly couldn’t make room for one when we moved to town. So I was delighted when my sister told me that my father’s mulberry tree. only a few years old, was producing heavily. That was in early July. A month later she told me that the tree was still producing loads of ripe fruit.

The other day I paid my father a visit. He, like Dave Holderread, had planted his mulberry tree to feed birds. But my father doesn’t keep ducks, or even chickens; he wanted to feed wild birds. He remembered a mulberry tree in the yard of a childhood home that had attracted all kinds of birds, whole flocks of birds. He had loved watching the birds eat the mulberries, and in his old age he wanted to repeat the experience.

The birds must have already had their fill for the day, because I didn’t notice any as I picked a pound and a half of mulberries for myself. I drove home with fingers stained deep purple.

The stains weren’t only on my fingers. Carrying the bag of mulberries into the house without removing my shoes, I noticed that my shoes were sticking to the floor, which now bore purple stains. The soles, I saw, were covered with mulberry gunk. I tried to rinse them in the kitchen sink, rubbing off the gunk with my fingers, but the water kept running purple. I scrubbed the soles with a sturdy brush to get the gunk out of the crevices. But immediately my shirt became covered with tiny purple-black dots. I felt like the Cat in the Hat with his pink bathtub ring. The water in which I was rinsing my shoes simply would not run clear, so I wrapped the shoes in a rag and set them outdoors to dry. Then I dropped my shirt in the sink and poured three kettlefuls of boiling water through the cloth. Sadly, the dots were much more stubborn than wine or blackberry stains. I gave up on the shirt, defeated by anthocyanins.

Black fruits from the species Morus nigra are considered the tastiest mulberries, but not all mulberries are black. M. rubra, native to the eastern states, is named for its red or purple fruit. M. alba, named not for its fruit but for its pale buds, can produce white or lavender as well as black berries. M. alba is the mulberry of East Asia, the original silkworm food (the caterpillars can also eat the leaves of other mulberry species). Although the West has long given up sericulture in favor of nylon and other synthetics, Europe and North America both had silk industries once, and for this reason the white mulberry is now a weed tree in Europe, much of Canada, and every U.S. state except Nevada (although, strangely, I have never seen one). M. alba is a promiscuous thing, crossing so often with the native M. rubra that some fear the red mulberry will soon no longer exist in its pure form. The heat-loving M. nigra, meanwhile, keeps to itself, not hybridizing with the other two at all. It will bear temperatures no lower than 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are other mulberry species, and many interesting cultivars within the species. One Green World Nursery sells a contorted mulberry, a weeping mulberry, a dwarf mulberry, and a mulberry from Pakistan with fruits as long as six inches.  Jim Gilbert, the nursery’s founder, has said he particularly likes ‘Illinois Everbearing,’ which although black-fruited is an alba-rubra cross. I suspect this is the cultivar my father has. It performs well not only in the Willamette Valley but throughout much of the country, to USDA zone 4. And the fruit is intensely tasty. Some compare the taste to blackberry and blueberry combined.

I stored my berries in the fridge overnight and, in the morning, clipped off their stems with kitchen shears. This is the only tedious part of processing mulberries, whose fine but tough stems are hard to pull out, easier to cut. Then I made the berries into jam in the usual way, by mashing the fruit and adding sugar and a little lemon juice. They need no added pectin.

Mulberry Jam

1½ pounds stemmed mulberries, rinsed
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

First, put on an apron or, better yet, your painting clothes. Then put the mulberries into a preserving pan. Cook them over medium-low heat, crushing them with a potato masher, until they are tender. Remove the pan from the heat.

Add the sugar and lemon juice. Return the pan to the heat, and cook the mixture over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat to medium high, and cook the jam to 218 degrees F, until a drop mounds in a chilled dish. This will take about 5
minutes.

Ladle the jam into sterilized pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 5 minutes.

Makes 1 ½ pints

This jam turns out distinct from blackberry jam, although the color and flavor are similar. The big difference is the seeds. Mulberries have more. Thankfully, mulberry seeds are small—too small to stick between the teeth—and they are pleasantly crunchy, like sesame seeds.

Mulberries are good for more than jam. The fresh ones are a treat. The fruit can be dried and—no surprise—used to make a dye. Both the leaves and the root bark are used medicinally.

Judging from the red and white immature fruits on my father’s tree, it will probably keep producing fruits for another two weeks or more. Who can resist a tree that produces huge quantities of fruit over such a long period, that brings birds to the garden, that grows to maturity quickly, that usually stays fairly small (‘Illinois Everbearing’ grows no taller than 20 feet), and that can take the form of a shrub, an espalier, and a contorted or weeping ornamental as well as an ordinary tree?

One warning, though: You should not plant a black-fruited mulberry near a walkway or in an area where children play, unless they are better trained than I to remove and clean their shoes before coming into the house.

Today I cleaned gobs of mulberry gunk off my car mat. Somehow, even the driver’s seat had acquired a few deep purple stains. They will probably be there forever.

A New, Smooth and Savory Plum Sauce

What exactly is Chinese plum sauce, anyway? I’ve often pondered this while making the stuff according to my own recipe in The Joy of Pickling, which produces a delicious chutney, thick and chewy with mustard seeds. But there is nothing Chinese about my beloved Chinese plum sauce besides the inclusion of rice wine, which I’m sure was one of my own additions to the recipe as it was passed down to me, by whom I don’t remember. My Chinese plum sauce, I’m afraid, is basically English, with a strong, nostalgic whiff of India.

Plum sauce is supposed to be Cantonese. It has long been served in Cantonese-American restaurants, where it accompanies duck or deep-fried foods. It usually takes the form of a gloppy, pink sweet-and-sour sauce that may or may not include plums or any fruit at all. But what exactly was plum sauce in China, if it even had a life in China before appearing in the United States?

Some plum sauce recipes, including Kikkoman’s, include apricots. That’s a clue: Apricots are closely related to China’s most common plum, Prunus mume, the very tart, golden fruit that’s salted and dried or used to make plum wine. The Chinese call the plant mei, the fruit meizi. The Japanese call the fruit ume, the name I know it by, too. With its high acid content and beautiful golden color, ume would make a fine sauce for meat or fried foods with no added vinegar at all.

Most plum sauce manufacturers are in the United States. At least one is in Malaysia. Kikkoman is Japanese but operates two plants in the United States and sells its products all over the world. I’ve located just one plum-sauce maker in China—in Hong Kong, actually: Lee Kum Kee. Lee Kum Kee’s founding legend goes like this: Lee Kum Sheung, the company’s founder, accidentally invented oyster sauce in 1888, when he simmered some oysters for too long. He liked the result so much that he introduced the sauce to the world. Today Lee Kum Kee makes not only oyster sauce but plum sauce from salted ume, which are spiced only with ginger and chile.

Methley plums

Sadly, I have no ume tree. Not yet, anyway—the grafts from a friend’s tree, with the rare virtue of producing fruit in our climate, have failed to take. But last week my friend Renata brought me two grocery bags full of Methley Japanese plums, and Robert and I couldn’t eat them all fresh. It was time to make plum sauce.

pitted plums

I didn’t want to use my old recipe. I wanted something more like real plum sauce, if I could figure out what that might be. I scanned recipes on the Web. Some contained soy sauce, but that would darken the plum sauce. Some included a slough of muddying spices. Some called for starch—cornstarch or potato starch or yams.

I didn’t want my sauce to be gluey, overspiced, oversweetened, or any darker than it needed to be (Methley plums are purple). But I did want it to be smooth, so I would leave out any vegetables or seeds, and I would put the mixture through the food mill. I would keep the sugar content moderate and the spicing typically Chinese. Here is the recipe I developed.

Methley Plum Sauce

3 whole star anise
2 teaspoons chile flakes
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppers
1½ tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 pounds pitted Methley or other Japanese plums
1 tablespoon pickling salt
1½ cups rice vinegar
1½ cups sugar

Put the star anise, chile flakes, cinnamon stick, and Sichuan peppers into a spice bag. Put the spice bag along with the remaining ingredients into a large nonreactive pot. Bring the mixture slowly to a simmer, and simmer it uncovered for about an hour, until it has thickened substantially but is still thinner than hot jam or chutney.

Press the spice bag with a spoon against the side of the pot, and remove the bag. Press the plum mixture through the medium screen of a food mill. Return the sauce to the pan, heat the sauce just to a boil, and then ladle it into pint or half-pint mason jars. Process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.

Makes 2 to 2½ pints

With no duck on hand, we tried the sauce on ham. The sauce is tart, mildly tannic, and aromatic, and not too sweet. I like it very much, though I think I would like it even more with lighter-colored plums.

Feel free to vary this recipe according to your tastes. You might leave out the chile flakes, the Sichuan peppers, or both if you dislike them. The ginger and star anise should be the dominant flavors—though you might leave out even the star anise if you prefer; after all, star anise probably isn’t traditional in Cantonese plum sauce.

I look forward to re-inventing plum sauce once more when I have some fresh ume plums to work with. In the meantime, I may try making a small batch in the Lee Kum Kee style, from ume plums that I salted myself last year.

Now, tell me: What is Chinese plum sauce to you? Do you have your own unique way of making it?

Naked Barley: Lovely and Local

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.

Naked barleyPaul 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.

mushroom-barley soup

Mushroom-Barley 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

Barely Candied Nuts

candied pecans
Barely candied pecans

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

 

Tasting Local Chestnuts—American, Chinese, and European

peeled chestnuts smallerI 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.

chestnut soup small

Chestnut Soup

 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.

 Serves 4

For recipes for chestnut cream and preserved chestnuts in syrup, see The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.

More about Chestnuts

American Chestnut Foundation
The Faint Taste of a Lost Harvest (New York Times)
Growing Chinese Chestnuts in Missouri
Chestnut Culture in California

Salad in a Jar: A Quick, Light Sliced Cucumber Pickle

suyo pickleAs 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).

mixed cukes
At the right and left here are two different suyo cultivars.

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.

Makes 1 quart

Radish Pods, for Seeds and Pickles

radish bushTo 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.

radish pods & flowersBut 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 radishes

 

 

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.

Makes 1 pint

A More Colorful, Flavorful, and Textured Rhubarb Chutney

quick rhubarb chutneyThe best apple chutney I ever ate was made as I watched by a sorority cook who said she never used a recipe. She would make chutney quickly and instinctively for the young women in her care the same day that they would eat it, and they would eat it all. The apple slices in Trish’s chutney were tender but whole. Her chutney tasted as much of apples as of vinegar or spices.

English-style chutneys, to my mind, are too often too sour, too sweet, too dark, too pasty. Sometimes I can’t identify the main ingredient without looking at the label—even if I’ve made the chutney myself. A good rhubarb chutney is particularly difficult to produce, since rhubarb so quickly turns to mush as it cooks and since it’s quite sour even before you add vinegar.

As I pulled my first rhubarb stalks of the season last week, I vowed to make a rhubarb chutney inspired by Trish’s apple chutney. I wouldn’t can my chutney, since I’d make only a small quantity and since I wouldn’t use enough sugar and vinegar to guarantee safety without laboratory testing. The lesser quantities of sugar and vinegar would produce a thick chutney with only brief cooking, and I needed to keep the cooking brief so the rhubarb wouldn’t turn to mush.

But what to do about color? Most rhubarb stalks are more green than red, and when you combine them with spices you get brown. My rhubarb stalks were almost entirely green, but I wanted my chutney to be as red as cooks imagine rhubarb to be. So I decided to add hibiscus flowers, jamaica. They would contribute their own tartness to the mix, but just a little hibiscus would produce a lot of color.

Here’s the recipe I created that day. The chutney is a wonderful accompaniment to grilled chicken.

Quick, Chunky, Rosy-Red Rhubarb Chutney

You can buy dried hibiscus flowers in Mexican and Middle Eastern markets. Grind them in an electric coffee grinder.

1 pound rhubarb stalks, diced ½ inch thick
½ pound white or yellow onion, quartered lengthwise and sliced crosswise
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon fine salt
2 teaspoons hot pepper flakes
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
Zest of 1 orange, in thin strips
1/2 cup white sugar
½ cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon ground dried hibiscus flowers
½ cup raisins, preferably golden

Combine all the ingredients in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Simmer them about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and gently. When the liquid is nearly all absorbed, remove the pot from the heat.

Store the cooled chutney in the refrigerator. Before serving, remove the cinnamon stick. You might also warm the chutney briefly, on the stove or in a microwave oven.

Makes 3 cups

After the Radish Harvest, Hot Radish Soup

radish soupThe big difference between cooks who garden and those who don’t is that the former start with what’s available. Market shoppers may claim to do the same—to begin their meals by buying produce that’s fresh and in season. But shoppers usually buy only what they can use right away, and so seldom have to deal with excess. Every success in the garden brings with it a burden—heaps of vegetables or fruits that must be dried, pickled, canned, stored in the cellar, or crammed into the refrigerator. The last is easiest, when the harvest isn’t too big, but before the veggies go sad and limp in the fridge the gardener had better wash the soil from her hands and open the cookbooks.

French breakfast radishesThat’s what I did yesterday, after bringing in a pile of French Breakfast radishes. Nearly everybody eats radishes raw—in salads if not at breakfast with butter. And, of course, radishes are good for fermenting and vinegar-pickling, in various ways. But surely they are most digestible cooked. If I wanted to put a lot of radishes into our stomachs right away, I needed to cook them.

I found inspiration in Irene Kuo’s book The Key to Chinese Cooking (1977). In it is a recipe for a pork-and-radish soup. I had no raw pork on hand, but I had the remains of a half brined ham. And I had a potential ingredient Irene may never have considered: a pot full of fragrant leek broth.

The leek broth resulted from an earlier harvest the same day. Needing to clear a bed so I could plant it with tomatoes, I had brought in an armload of leeks. Since I had plenty more leeks in another bed, these could all go into the freezer. I washed them, sliced them, and blanched them for a minute in batches before spreading them on cookie sheets, freezing them, and vacuum-packing them. Now the blanching liquid smelled too good to throw out.

So I made a radish soup like Irene’s, but with a leek-and-ham-flavored broth and bits of leftover ham. Because my soup wouldn’t be one dish among several but dinner in itself, I served it over buckwheat noodles, with a dish of raw arugula to tear and add at will, Vietnamese-style. What a simple and satisfying meal!

If you have no leek broth on hand, you can certainly substitute other vegetable or meat stock.

Ham and Radish Soup with Leek Broth

2 quarts leek broth, preferably unsalted, from blanching or cooking leeks
About 12 ounces ham bone(s)
6 quarter-sized slices ginger
¾ pound radishes
About 1 12 ounces ham, in ½-inch dice
Salt, if needed
Fresh or dried buckwheat or wheat noodles
A small bunch of arugula or other greens, such as watercress or spearmint

Strain the broth, if it needs straining, into a large saucepan. Add the bone(s) and the ginger. Simmer the stock for about 1½ hours.

Cut the radishes into pieces about ½ inch by 1 inch. Depending on the variety and size, you can slice them into quarters or eighths, or you can roll-cut them, slicing diagonally with a quarter-turn between slices; this maximizes the cut surface area of each piece and promotes even cooking and flavor absorption. Add the radishes and ham to the soup. Simmer about 30 minutes longer, until the radishes are tender. Taste the broth, and add salt only if needed; the ham will have probably provided enough.

Before the simmering is done, cook fresh or dried buckwheat noodles in boiling water. Drain and rinse the cooked noodles, and divide them among large soup bowls. Ladle the soup over the noodles. Serve the soup with fresh arugula or other greens for eaters to add according to their taste. Diced avocado and oily chile sauce are other tasty optional additions.

Serves 4