Sweet Milk and Sweet Parsnips

I first made parsnip soup many years ago, after listening with my then-small eldest child to Peggy Seeger sing, “What Did You Have for Your Supper?” on the record American Folk Songs for Children.* I didn’t read the song’s title in the record notes, though, and I heard the words as “What’ll you have for your supper?”

parsnip soup croppedWhat’ll you have for your supper,
Jimmy Randall, my son?
What’ll you have for your supper,
My own little one?
Sweet milk and sweet parsnips;
Mother make my bed soon,
Because I’m tired at the heart
And I want to lie down.

With each sweet Peggy’s voice soared to the top of the octave; Jimmy was pleading for sweet white comfort food that Mother and no other could provide. Or so I thought.

Little did I know that I was hearing a surviving fragment of “Lord Randall,” an Anglo-Scottish ballad about a man who may actually have lived, in the thirteenth century or thereabouts, until he was poisoned—by his sweetheart at dinner, according to most versions of the song. Typical versions say that she also poisons Randall’s dogs, who “swell up.” Feeling poorly after the meal, Randall goes home to his mother. The story is told through conversation between mother and son as poor Randall heads for his deathbed. Fuller versions don’t mention milk or parsnips; usually he has eaten eels or other fish. And Mother is always less curious about the tainted food than she is about the distribution of Randall’s worldly goods.

The parsnip has been popular since Roman times, though it was probably thin and woody and suitable only for flavoring until about the time Lord Randall was getting sick on eels. Then gardeners developed it into a fleshy, aromatic root that at its best cooks up quite tender. The parsnip is still a trial for the gardener; with seeds slower to sprout even than those of most other umbellales, the plant take months to grow to size while the gardener repeatedly weeds around the root. Then it must stay in the ground even longer, well mulched, until it is sweetened by frost. Finally it can be stored in a cellar or left in the ground, depending on your climate, until some cold night in winter or early spring when you’re craving something sweet, starchy, and soothing.

The modern English name parsnip may have been influenced by parsley, for a white-rooted cousin, and turnip, for an unrelated and fleshier root vegetable. The parsnip is even more like the carrot than like either of these, but sweeter and starchier, with no bitterness. People who describe the parsnip’s flavor as “nutty” are probably thinking of chestnuts.

Parsnips are good roasted, fried, pureed with apples or carrots or potatoes, diced in chicken pot pie, and flavored with curry powder or ginger. But when I heard Peggy’s song I knew just what I wanted to make with parsnips, and it’s what I most like to make with them today:

Parsnip Soup

Saute some diced onion in butter. Add diced parsnips (don’t bother to peel them first). Add chicken stock, and cook the parsnips in the stock until they are tender. Add milk, cream, or half-and-half. Season with salt, white pepper, and grated nutmeg. Puree the soup in a blender, and reheat it if needed.

I don’t believe Jimmy Randall ever got sick on sweet milk and parsnips. It was his mother who fed him the soup, I’m sure, and he woke up the next morning feeling fit and lively. Even his dogs survived. At least that’s how I like to sing the song.

*Rounder Records 8001/8002/8003. Sung and played by Peggy and her brother, Mike Seeger, the 94 songs on this album are from the book American Folk Songs for Children, by their mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger. The book is still in print, and the album is now available on CD.

Cure Your Own Olives

olives close upTo 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 Pickling (ANR publication 8267) and 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—Red Devil, which you might use to clean out a kitchen drain—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.

Last of the Quinces

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally I am running out of quinces. I have two trees, of the variety called Pineapple, and they produce more reliably than any of the apple, pear, plum, and cherry trees in my lowland orchard. So I always give away quinces, and this year I even sold some. Yet it’s January 20, and still I have a box of the fruit left in the unheated guest bedroom.

I’m not complaining. Quinces are good for a lot of things. From the nineteenth century until after World War II, quinces were valued especially for their pectin. People would cook the sliced fruit in water, and then either make the liquid into jelly or boil it down until it was sour and viscous before combining it with other fruits in jelly or jam. For centuries before that quinces were made into paste, the original marmalade—or, simply, thick, sliceable jam—to be served as finger food. Quince paste has never lost popularity in Spain or parts of Latin America, and it seems to be coming back into style in the United States. Even more appealing than quince paste, to me, are pastes from quinces combined with other fruits, such as berries and plums. Quinces also make delightful, fragrant syrups (I most like a raw syrup of quince and honey), and jams that can turn out red or white, and smooth or rough, depending on your method. Cooked in syrup for nearly two hours, quince cubes or slices become a ruby-red spoon sweet. Steeped in vodka with sugar, quinces become an aromatic liqueur. Poached in white wine with honey, they become a tart relish for roasts or even a dessert. Quinces combine well with apples in pie, and some people like them best simply hollowed out (with a coring tool that looks like a small, heavy spoon with a pointed tip) and baked whole like an apple.

Having made all those things this year, I wanted to try something different. I gazed at the quinces, sitting in the guest bedroom beside the last of the peppers (peppers keep much longer in a cool guest room, by the way, than they do in a refrigerator), and I wanted to combine the two. I’d already made some wonderful quince–red pepper jelly. What else could I try? I decided on—

Quince Chutney

quince chutney 5

1 to 2 tablespoons mustard oil*
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 pound peeled and sliced or diced quinces
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 medium-large (about 1/2 pound) onion, halved and sliced thin
2 ounces small fresh hot red peppers (I used jalapeños and Fresnos), sliced thin
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped gingerroot
1 teaspoon salt
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons raisins

Heat the oil in a preserving pan. Add the garlic and cumin seeds, and stir them over medium heat until they release their aroma. Immediately add the remaining ingredients. Boil the mixture gently, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed and the quince is tender, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.

When the chutney has cooled, store it in a covered container in the refrigerator. It’s even better after a week or two.

*Available in Indian markets, mustard oil is always labeled in the United States as “for external use only.” The USDA requires this labeling because the oil contains erucic acid, which is said to cause “nutritional deficiencies as well as cardiac lesions” in lab rats (mustard seeds and prepared mustard also contain this natural chemical, of course). Mustard oil has a very strong flavor. If you’re not sure you like it, use only 1 tablespoon. If you’re sure you don’t like it, or if none is available, substitute another oil.

This recipe is actually a variant of one I developed for apple chutney, and that chutney turned out equally delicious. So if your guest bedroom is filled with apples rather than quinces, this is a good way to use them.

Hot Pink Sauerkraut

hot-pink sauerkraut

When my friends Wendy and Greg handed me a gorgeous, huge red cabbage from their garden a couple of months ago, Greg told me he loves to make red-cabbage sauerkraut. The Pickle Lady was humbled; I’d never made or even tasted sauerkraut from red cabbages! Now I knew what I would do with my beautiful cabbage.

I decided to take as my model a low-salt red-cabbage sauerkraut recipe from an odd little Canadian cookbook, Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home. I cut the head fine, using a mandoline, and mixed the shredded cabbage with some apple and onion slices, a bay leaf, caraway seeds, and juniper berries. As always  in making sauerkraut, I tossed the mixture with salt and packed it firmly into a crock. But several hours later the cabbage had released almost no juice. This was problematic; when you’re making sauerkraut, the cabbage must be well covered with liquid to keep from rotting. The Canadian authors, warning that red cabbage is “a very hard vegetable,” suggested pressing “thoroughly with a potato masher,” but this didn’t work for me. I could have added some brine from one of the big jars of fermented pickles in my garage refrigerator, following another suggestion from the Canadian authors, but then the sauerkraut would have tasted of dill and garlic. A final suggestion from the Canadians was to add whey, strained out of buttermilk or kefir, which they said would jump-start the fermentation. That sounded to me like an unnecessary bother. So I decided to add fresh brine–that is, salted water.

Two weeks later, I pulled from my crock heaps of gloriously hot-pink, tart, delicious sauerkraut. Here’s the recipe. You can add more spices or leave them out, as you prefer.

4 pounds finely shredded red cabbage, plus a few whole outer leaves
1 large apple, cored and sliced thin
1 medium-large onion, sliced thin
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
Pinch of caraway seeds
3 juniper berries
3 tablespoons pickling salt (fine, pure salt)
1 quart water

In a large bowl or stockpot, thoroughly mix the shredded cabbage, apple, onion, bay, caraway, juniper berries, and 1 ½ tablespoons salt. Pack the mixture firmly in a crock or gallon jar. Wait an hour or two for the salt to dissolve.

Stir the remaining 1 ½ tablespoons salt into the water, and keep stirring until the liquid is clear. Pour the brine over the cabbage mixture. Lay the whole cabbage leaves on top, and add weights. (I used the weights that come with a Harsch pickling crock. With an ordinary crock, cover the cabbage with a plate that just fits inside the crock, and weight the plate with a capped, water-filled glass jar. If you’re using a gallon glass jar, weight the cabbage with a freezer-weight plastic bag filled with brine in the proportion of 1 ½ tablespoons salt to 1 quart water.) The cabbage mixture should be well covered with liquid. If it isn’t, add more brine in the same proportion. Keep the crock or jar at warm room temperature for two to three days, until fermentation gets underway, and then set it in a cooler place. If you’re using an ordinary crock, you’ll need to skim the brine occasionally.

Begin tasting the sauerkraut after two weeks. When it’s as sour as you like, transfer it to a clean jar, and store the jar in the refrigerator. If you like, you can freeze some of your kraut in plastic bags, rigid plastic containers, or glass jars. I don’t recommend canning it. Although with the addition of brine my recipe is saltier than the Canadians’ version, the sauerkraut will still be less salty than the USDA approves for canning.

Candied Fennel Cores

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Four consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures put an end to the remains of my vegetable garden. As in many years past, I was late in digging carrots and setting up plastic tents over the greens (which might actually have survived if I’d included an electric heater, set on high). After three days of bitter cold I dug up the carrot bed, in frozen chunks six inches deep, and set the blocks in the garage to thaw. I also dug up two enormous bulbs of Florence fennel, the kind sold in stores as anise (which it isn’t) or finocchio (Italian for “fennel”). The bulbs were frozen through.

I set the fennel in a big bowl on the kitchen counter for a day and a half, until the bulbs had thawed enough to handle. Then I cut away the outer layers, which had browned a bit. Most of the rest became, with the addition of onion, potato, chicken stock, and sour cream, a big pot of pureed fennel soup. Delicious! It was the best thing I’d ever made with fennel—until two days later.

I had saved the fennel cores. These were hard, solid, and white, like cabbage cores. The cores of Florence fennel are included in many Italian recipes, although they take longer to soften than the outer layers; I could certainly have cooked them in the soup. But I had been reading Tim Richardson’s Sweets, a wonderfully entertaining yet scholarly history of candy. Tim had made me think how medieval my Joy of Jams was. All those fruit pastes and syrups started with recipes the Arabs developed, or borrowed from the Persians. These treats became popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. My book even includes some recipes for crystallized fruits, which are just preserves with the syrup drained off. To a large extent, The Joy of Jams is about medieval confectionery.

But I’d left out candied vegetables. “All kinds of roots and stalks were being candied in England by the sixteenth century,” according to Tim. They included parsley roots, angelica stalks, lettuce stalks, and stranger foods like sea holly, borage, and bugloss. They also included fennel roots.

My fennel had tough, rough, dirty roots, and I didn’t want to waste my time on them. But the cores seemed to hold some promise. So I made a small batch of . . .

Candied Fennel Cores

5 ounces Florence fennel cores, cut into 3/8-inch cubes
1 cup water (plus more for cooking the fennel)
2/3 cup sugar
Pinch of cream of tartar

Put the fennel cubes into a saucepan with enough water to cover them. Simmer them for about 20 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Drain them.

Combine the 1 cup water, the 2/3 cup sugar, and the cream of tartar in a saucepan, and heat the mixture gently until the sugar dissolves. Bring the syrup to a boil, and continue boiling it until it is reduced by about one-third. Add the fennel, and bring the mixture to a full boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Let it stand at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

Return the pan to the stove. Simmer the fennel in the syrup for about 25 minutes, until the cubes are partially translucent and the syrup reaches thread stage (230 degrees F.).

Remove the pan from the heat. Let the fennel cubes rest in the syrup at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

Drain the fennel cubes. Set them to dry in a warm place until they are no longer sticky. I used a food dehydrator, but you could instead use a very low oven or even a woodstove.

The finished candies ranged in color from pale gold to amber. They were firm but not tough and had a mild but appealing fennel flavor. If you wanted to intensify the flavor, you could add a few fennel seeds to the syrup.

I thought about including the candied fennel cubes on a Christmas dessert platter, alongside my candied Asian pears, or in a Christmas pudding, but I didn’t hide them away fast enough. They got eaten almost immediately. I must admit that I got my share.

Green Rhubarb Jam

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Toshiba Apples

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

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

Actually, they were delicious.

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

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

Sugared Violets

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet Violet Syrup

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

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

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

Sweet Violet Syrup

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

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

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

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

Makes about 3 cups