Every year the garlic harvest seems to come a little earlier than the last. This year I harvested on June 14, despite on-and-off rain. I couldn’t wait any longer; on some heads the cloves were already pushing outward, which will lead to early sprouting, and rust spots were beginning to appear on some leaves. The rain was likely to continue for at least another day. Here in western Oregon June is normally a nearly dry month, with an average of only an inch and a half of rain. But what’s normal anymore? Last year I harvested during a downpour.
I worked as fast as I could, using only my hands to lift the heads—the soil is that light. Light soil makes for clean garlic, provided that the soil is dry, as it should be by harvest time. But this time my garlic heads were covered in mud. I washed them in a bucket so I could pour the dirt soup back into the bed, and then I gave the heads a final rinse with a garden hose. You have to clean the base of each head thoroughly if you plan to keep the pretty rootlets but don’t want to contaminate your kitchen workspace with soil (which could lead to a risk of botulism, depending on how you store the food you’re preparing). Thankfully, the rain stopped long enough for the clean garlic to dry in the sun for an hour or two before I had to hurry to carry it indoors.
Now the garlic is drying further on the pool table in the basement. This isn’t the ideal place to dry garlic; last year I lost some of the heads to rot. But I’ll keep the windows open and turn the garlic twice a day, and in a few weeks I’ll make some beautiful braids. I think we’re set for garlic for the coming year.
Finishing the garlic harvest always seems like cause for celebration. The best way to celebrate is with an aioli platter—bread and boiled eggs, potatoes, and other vegetables with a bowl of aioli (a Provençal word; it’s alioli in Spain), mayonnaise’s simple—and, I think—superior, garlicky ancestor.
Most Americans make aioli or mayonnaise with flavorless vegetable oil, but I like to use extra-virgin olive oil or even roasted hazelnut oil. The latter is unusual but irresistible. I use a whole egg instead of the traditional yolk so that I can make the aioli quickly with a hand blender. Alternatively, you could use two yolks. If you have no hand blender, use just one yolk and add the oil drop by drop, beating constantly with a whisk.
If you’re worried about the risk of salmonella from eating raw eggs, use a pasteurized egg.
Vary the number of garlic cloves depending on their size and pungency. Fresh-dug garlic is sometimes really hot!
1 whole egg 1 to 3 peeled garlic cloves, chopped ¼ to ½ teaspoon fine salt, to taste 2/3 to ¾ cup roasted hazelnut oil or extra-virgin olive oil
Put the egg, garlic, and salt into a tall and narrow container. Begin blending on high with a hand blender. Pour in the oil gradually, and keep blending until the mixture is uniform and quite thick. Chill the aioli until you’re ready to eat.
Every year red orach comes up here and there in my garden, and usually it goes right to seed, sending up a stalk at least three feet tall that bears opposite pairs of two- to three-inch heart-shaped leaves. I could pinch back the top of each plant to encourage it to bush out, but I haven’t bothered. The small leaves are never bitter or tough, and they are perfect for adding whole to green salads.
Orach—the word almost rhymes with borage–is Atriplex hortensis, an ancient Eurasian herb in the amaranth family that comes in green, red, and “white,” or bright yellow-green. The plant is related to spinach and chard and tastes like both, only much milder, with barely a touch of sourness. Given plenty of water, the plant can grow as tall as six feet. I’ve never managed to grow orach neatly in rows, but I always let at least one plant self-sow. The seeds, in their flat, papery husks, apparently spread themselves among the garden beds, and just enough of them manage to sprout. I welcome the spot of red color—the only color I’ve grown—wherever it appears, especially when the wind comes up and exposes the leaves’ fuchsia undersides.
Something different about the weather this year has slowed the orach’s race to seed production, and now I appreciate the plant more than ever. It has formed lettuce-like heads with big leaves, about five inches across. Yesterday, as I considered what to make for dinner, I knew these big leaves were probably the only ones I would get; the plants were already beginning to bolt. So, dinner had to include orach salad rolls.
I picked eight big orach leaves, trimmed out the lower part of the midribs, and rolled each leaf around bean-thread noodles, pickled threads of carrot, mint leaves, and salad shrimp. This was much easier than making salad rolls with rice-paper wrappers; the leaves proved to be at once sturdy and flexible. For accompaniment, I made a sweet peanut-chile sauce.
I didn’t check my watch, but I’ll bet that Robert and I ate the whole stack of salad rolls in less than three minutes.
RED ORACH SALAD ROLLS Serves 4 normal people
Quick Carrot Pickle 2 tablespoons rice vinegar 1½ teaspoon sugar ¼ teaspoon fine salt 1 medium-large carrot
Sweet Peanut-Chile Sauce 1 tablespoon peanut butter 3 tablespoons Thai sweet chile sauce About 1 tablespoon rice vinegar About ¼ teaspoon fine salt
Two bunches bean-thread noodles 8 large orach leaves Handful fresh mint leaves (I used a Vietnamese variety, but spearmint is good) ½ cup (cooked and peeled) salad shrimp
Carrot Pickle: In a wide bowl, stir together the rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. Cut the carrot into thin sticks. You can do this by slicing it diagonally and then cutting the slices thin lengthwise, but the tool shown here makes the job quicker. Toss the carrot in the seasoned vinegar. The sticks will quickly lose their stiffness.
Sweet Peanut-Chile Sauce: Put the peanut butter into a small serving bowl. With a fork, mix in the Thai sweet chile sauce. Loosen the sauce with rice vinegar, and season the sauce with salt.
In a large saucepan, heat water to a boil. Cook the bean-thread noodles briefly, until they are tender, separating them with chopsticks or another tool as they begin to soften. Drain the noodles, and rinse them well with cold water.
Cut out about 1 inch of the lower, thicker midrib from each orach leaf. Lay the leaves, one at a time, upside-down on your work surface. Top each leaf with a portion of the noodles, carrot, mint, and shrimp, and roll the leaf from the base to the tip. Place the roll seam-side down on a plate. Make the rest of the rolls the same way.
For garnish, borage blossoms provide an interesting color contrast.
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.
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, to thoroughly purge them of slime. My French son-in-law says the salting is actually just torture, not murder; that comes later. In either case, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
True wealth, I believe, is a mature Persian walnut tree, to feed you, your family, and your friends through the winter with tasty kernels rich in fat and protein, and to provide green nuts in early summer for liqueurs, preserves, and pickles.
Sadly, I am walnut-poor. I planted a walnut tree on the farm but had to take it out so it wouldn’t shade the solar panels. Here in town, the squirrels keep trying to plant walnuts in my little garden, but I always pull up the seedlings, because if I had a mature walnut tree I wouldn’t be able to grow much else.
Fortunately, walnuts often come free to anyone who doesn’t mind picking them up off the ground. I used to collect from trees along country roads and one in a middle-school playground. Now my husband and I gather walnuts while walking around town, where they fall in the street and on the sidewalk, or in yards when the homeowner doesn’t mind. We dry them on the pool table in the basement, crack them in front of the fire on winter evenings, and eat them every day in our breakfast bread and at holiday time in various kinds of cookies.
Once in a while I crave candied walnuts. Then I remember that most candied nuts are overwhelmingly sweet, because they are more candy than nuts. But one day I thought I’d try candying walnuts so that they would turn out like kettle corn, with just a little sugar and some salt, too. I didn’t want to end up tossing nuts all over the kitchen—making kettle corn without a mess requires a very, very deep kettle—so I developed a method that uses water to make a syrup. Basically, I stir hot nuts into a little hot caramel and then separate the individual nuts. Walnuts candied this way are a fine treat for the holiday table, and they shouldn’t break a tooth or pull out a filling.
I like this treatment even more with pecans, the walnuts of the South. The method should work well for hazelnuts and almonds, too.
Candied Nuts, Kettle-Corn Style
1½ cups walnut or pecan meats 1½ tablespoons water 3 tablespoons sugar 3/8 teaspoon fine salt
Heat the oven to 300 degrees F. Spread the nuts in a baking pan, and place the pan in the heated oven. Roast the nuts for about 30 minutes, until they have darkened a bit and begun to smell toasty.
While the nuts roast, pour the water into a heavy-bottomed stainless-steel skillet. Sprinkle the sugar and salt over. Lay a piece of parchment paper on a counter close by.
When the nuts are ready, turn off the oven, but leave the baking pan inside. Heat the skillet over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Raise the heat to medium, and set the hot pan of nuts by the stove. When the syrup begins to color, remove the skillet from the burner. Swirl the skillet a bit as the residual heat caramelizes the syrup. If the syrup isn’t caramelizing completely, set the skillet over low heat briefly. As soon as you have a uniformly colored syrup, add the hot nuts. With a wooden spoon or spatula, turn the nuts in the syrup until they are all coated. Then turn them out on the parchment paper, spreading them with your spoon or spatula.
Let the nuts cool for a minute or two, and then separate the individual nuts with your fingers. As soon as the nuts have cooled to room temperature, store them in an airtight container.
I am lucky to have Carol Porter’s chestnut farm nearby. After all, the whole United States has fewer than a thousand chestnut farms, totaling a little over 3,700 acres. Americans grow only 1 percent of the world’s chestnuts, while importing about five times the tonnage we produce. We would grow and eat many more chestnuts than that, I believe, if we could remember how good they are—even though they are a bit of a pain to prepare.
Americans once venerated the chestnut—the tree, at least, if not the nut itself. The American chestnut grew straight and tall, to more than 100 feet, and it dominated the forests of eastern North America. Its straight grain and resistance to rot made it ideal for log cabins—especially for foundation logs—and for poles, posts, masts, floors, and railroad ties. The nuts fed domestic pigs and cattle as well as people and wildlife.
By 1950, however, the American chestnut was a fading memory. In just a few decades, a fungus imported with Asian chestnut trees had killed nearly every American chestnut. This disaster was worse than the stock market crash of 1929, Carol says, in that it devastated the lives of the masses rather than harming a relatively few rich people.
Carol doesn’t actually favor American chestnuts. She acquired her American trees by mistake, after a nursery owner grafted European chestnuts (Castanea sativa) to American (C. dentata) seedlings. The grafts failed, and the rootstock grew up slender and tall among the wide, round canopies of the Chinese and European chestnuts.
Carol does like Chinese chestnuts (C. mollissima), which grow particularly well in her hillside orchard and reach only about 40 feet in height.
Yet all of the nuts Carol sells come from another chestnut variety, the Colossal, a hybrid of European and Japanese chestnuts (C. crenata) bred in California in the early twentieth century. The Colossal is vulnerable to chestnut blight, but that disease has never become an epidemic on the West Coast, with our dry summers and lack of native chestnuts. The American chestnut thrives here for the same reason.
Recently Carol led me and a few friends through her orchard. As Carol talked, the rest of us filled our pockets with American and Chinese chestnuts, which otherwise would have fed Carol’s pigs and goats, before Carol led us to an outbuilding to buy bags of washed and dried Colossals. Our petty theft allowed us to do a taste comparison later, at home, after roasting some of the nuts. The small, rather flat American chestnuts are said to be sweetest, but Robert, Renata, and I all found them more nutty than sweet. The Chinese chestnuts, bigger and rounder than the Americans, were sweetest. The very big Colossals—often an inch and a half across—were least sweet and least nutty. They tasted starchy, like yellow sweet potatoes, and mealy. European chestnuts, after all, have only 4 percent fat, in comparison to 10 percent fat in American chestnuts. Although Carol’s customers want the biggest chestnuts available and so buy only Colossals, we preferred the American and Chinese nuts.
All of the chestnuts we brought from Carol’s farm required some work in shelling and peeling. A chestnut has not only an outer shell but also a thin inner skin. Unless you are a hog, the skin as well as the shell is best removed before eating. To keep the nut from exploding, you slit the shell on the flat side once or twice, without cutting the flesh, before cooking the nut. Depending on how you plan to use the nuts, you might boil them after slitting, but for eating on their own chestnuts are traditionally roasted. Renata remembered her Swiss brother’s advice: Soaking slit chestnuts in water for as long as overnight makes it easier to remove the skin after roasting. To Renata and to me, an overnight soak seems overlong for fresh chestnuts, but we both found that a 15- to 30-minute soak really does seem to loosen the skins.
Oddly, chestnut recipes are scant in old American cookbooks. Mrs. Lincoln, in her Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1884), has recipes for chestnut stuffing and chestnut sauce, both intended for poultry, and The Settlement Cookbook (I have the 1976 edition) combines chestnuts with cabbage, with brussels sprouts, and with prunes, and also includes recipes for chestnut croquettes, chestnut ice cream (yum!), and “chestnut dessert.” But, perhaps because the nuts were just too cheap and commonplace, many old American cookbooks have no chestnut recipes at all, and most of the recipes I did find were identified as French or Italian.
I knew what I wanted to do with my chestnuts, and I knew how I wanted to do it. I would make a simple chestnut soup. The first chestnut soup probably came from France, source of so many purées, but no matter. The soup is sweet and smooth and not too rich, and it will satisfy you even if you forego bread with the meal. It is a very good use especially for Colossal chestnuts or any European variety.
I garnished my soup with a bit of chopped parsley, which provided an interesting contrast in color, texture, and flavor. I would have used finer, paler celery leaves instead, if I’d had any on hand.
1½ pounds fresh chestnuts, in their shells 4 cups chicken stock 3 tablespoons butter 4 ounces chopped yellow or white onion 1½ cups whole milk ½ teaspoon fresh-grated nutmeg ½ teaspoon fresh-ground white pepper Salt 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped celery or parsley leaves
Slit each chestnut once crosswise, or twice in the form of a cross, on the flat side. Put the chestnuts into a bowl, cover them with water, and let them soak for 15 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Lay the chestnuts slit-side up in a roasting pan. Roast them in the hot oven for 20 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven. As soon as the chestnuts are cool enough to handle, peel off their shells and as much of their skins as you can. If a nut crumbles while you’re trying to skin it, scrape the flesh out of the skin with a spoon. Combine all of the meats in a saucepan with the chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a simmer, and let it continue to simmer for 20 minutes.
While the chestnuts simmer, melt the butter in a small skillet. Add the onion, and sauté it until it is soft.
When the chestnuts have finished simmering, put them and their cooking liquid into a blender jar. Add the sautéed onion, and blend the mixture to a purée. Pour the purée into the saucepan. Add the milk, nutmeg, and white pepper. Stir, and add salt to taste. Heat the soup just to a simmer.
Serve the soup hot, garnished with the celery or parsley leaves.
For recipes for chestnut cream and preserved chestnuts in syrup, see The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.
As the sky turned grey and the rains commenced, I knew what I wanted to do with what might be the last of my suyo cucumbers. I wanted to fill a quart jar with thin crosswise slices, adorned with sliced red onion and yellow pepper and covered with vinegar diluted to the point that I could serve the mixture as a salad.
Had I created such a recipe before? I couldn’t find one in the Joy of Pickling. No problem—I would start from scratch.
Suyo, suhyo, or sooyow cucumbers are not a particular cultivar but a general type of Cucumis sativus. These long, slender cucumbers, said to have originated in northern China, have undergone a lot of breeding in Japan. At harvest they are at least 10 inches long. At 1 inch in diameter, some cultivars may reach 18 inches. If left to grow longer they may reach 2 feet or more, although they will be past their prime. The vines’ small tendrils make them good climbers, and when the vines climb they are more likely to produce straight rather than curled fruits. The skins of the fruits can be ridged or smooth, and they are fairly thin; for salads or pickles, you can peel these cucumbers partially, completely, or not at all. The best thing about suyo cucumbers is that they are seldom bitter (although the cultivar I planted this year had an inch or two of mild bitterness at the stem end).
Suyo cucumbers’ uniform diameter and typically small seed cavity make them ideal for cutting into crosswise slices or chunks. If you like to make bread-and-butter pickles, you should definitely be growing suyos.
But bread-and-butters are too sweet and too sour for my taste. Instead I’ve made this light, pretty pickle.
Quick Suyo Pickle Chips
Feel free to change the spices to suit your whim.
1 ¼ pounds suyo cucumbers, unpeeled, sliced crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick rounds 1 small red onion, about 4 ounces, halved lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise 1 to 2 sweet yellow or red peppers, about 4 ounces, halved or quartered lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise 2 tablespoons pickling salt 1 teaspoon grated fresh turmeric 2 garlic cloves, sliced 2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly crushed ½ teaspoon cumin seeds 1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes 6 tablespoons cider vinegar ¾ cup water 2 teaspoons brown sugar
In a bowl, combine the cucumber, onion, and pepper slices. Add the salt, and toss the contents together. Drop the ice cubes from one full tray on top. Let the bowl stand at room temperature for 3 hours.
Drain the vegetables in a colander, rinse them, and drain them again. In a small bowl, mix together the turmeric, garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, and pepper flakes. Pack the vegetables into a quart jar, layering them with the mixed spices.
In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, and sugar. Cover the pan, and bring the mixture just to a boil. Pour the hot liquid into the jar of vegetables. Turn and tip the jar to release trapped air bubbles, and then cap the jar. When it has cooled, store it in the refrigerator.
Wait a day or two, at least, before serving the pickle.
To replenish my stock of Candela di Fuoco radish seeds, I let a single plant go to seed. It grew into a lovely bush, about three feet tall and wide, with pretty pink blooms that continued to appear as seed pods matured and dried. Although I loved the look of the plant, it was taking up bed space that I needed for other things. So last week, as soon as I could collect a few handfuls of dried pods, I pulled up the plant.
But most of the pods were still green and tender. I couldn’t let them go to waste. Although they were quite small—unlike the pods of “rat-tail” varieties, which are grown specifically for their pods—I collected enough to fill a pint jar. And now I have one more pickle, a jarful of tangy tidbits with a mild radishy bite, to bemuse my friends this summer.
Pickled Radish Pods
1 pint fully formed but still tender radish pods, stems trimmed to ¼ inch 1 small hot pepper, fresh or dried 1 tarragon sprig 1 large garlic clove, sliced ½ cup cider vinegar ½ cup water 1 teaspoon pickling salt 1 tablespoon olive oil
Pack a pint jar with the radish pods, hot pepper, tarragon, and garlic. In a saucepan, bring to a boil the vinegar, water, and salt. Pour the hot liquid over the pods, covering them well and leaving only about 1/8 inch headspace. Cap the jar, and leave it at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours, turning it two or three times.
Add the olive oil to the jar, cap it tightly, and store it in the refrigerator, where the radish pods should keep well for months.