It’s been a hard winter for the bees. Harder than usual. We have lost 1 of our 3 colonies and it’ll be a few more weeks at best till we see reliably clement temperatures and blossoms for them. How can we help them?
Tomatoes in summer? oh, sure, I like a good tomato sandwich as much as anyone (they are a summer staple lunch in fact). And roasted tomatoes, fast or slow, as well as tomato salad or gazpacho or the occasional tomato sorbet.
But in February nothing beats a lasagna redolent with garlicky and rosemary tomato sauce (unless it’s one with mushroom & bechamel) nor homemade pizza with thick red sauce. Or a piping hot tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwich. All perfect comfort food that’s warming and delicious. A pleasure to eat when it’s gray and cold. And that is why I bother and can tomatoes.
The soup is easy, comforting and delicious. Read more
Heirloom vegetables are a familiar term – conveying the idea of plants bred and selected over years of patient work for specific traits and local conditions, as well as the resulting seeds carefully passed down generations. The livestock equivalent is “heritage” breed.
When it comes to turkeys, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is specific: heritage turkeys must reproduce and be genetically maintained through natural mating; are able to live outdoors a long productive life (5-7 years for hens, 3-5 years for toms); and grow “slowly” (by modern commercial standards), naturally building a robust skeleton and internal organs before they grow meat — reaching marketable size in 28 weeks or more. And those birds are magnificent!
Contrast that to most turkeys sold in the US: Read more
My husband says “cardoon” sounds like something out of The Lord of The Rings. I say it’s more like Deep Space 9.
Either way, we love it here. It’s beautiful in the garden and it’s delicious (recipe at the end of the post)
While I normally start cardoons from seeds, this year I was too lazy/too late/too swamped to start seeds, and so I bought 6 healthy seedlings at one of our local small family-run nurseries Morningside Farm & Nursery. They have a super nice section of herbs, succulent, tropicals and perennials. Morningside sells cardoon as an ornamental – perennial in zone 7 or lower. For us in the Nothern Virginia Piedmont, it’s a perennial if we have mild winters — which we have had for the last several years. Certainly cardoon is a very striking plant in the garden, with its statuesque presence (if grown well, it can reach 6 feet when in flower — the 2nd year), its large silvery felt-like leaves and its oversized thistle flowers (assuming you let it bloom). It IS a gorgeous plant. And gorgeousness is the reason most people will ever grow them for. But it’s also eminently edible: it’s an artichoke grown for its stem. When properly prepared, they do indeed taste of artichoke. The other artichoke, globe artichoke, is grown for its flower bud. Yep, you are eating a thistle bud when you eat an artichoke!
Plant them out at the same time the morels emerge. Read more
Japanese quince flowers are truly enchanting in the spring. But the fruit that ripen in mid-fall sure aren’t pretty: hard to the touch and to the teeth, gnarly, pitted, inhabited often. Raw they are so tart that they’ll make your mouth puckers (if you don’t break a tooth first biting into it) and your stomach revolts if you manage to swallow. So why do I want anything to do with them?
Because, when managed correctly, you’ve got some pretty tasty treats. That’s why!
European quince (of which I have written, here, and here) turn into hauntingly floral soft fruit once cooked, making them great as side dish to rich meat, as sauce, in baked desserts, ice-cream, jam, jelly, booze etc.
Japanese quince are viewed almost purely as ornamental in the Western world and their culinary use is much more limited. (If you are interested, do check out this page on the medicinal properties of Japanese quince). Because of their incredible tartness I have only used them with lots of sugar: jam, jelly, syrups & cordials. Or honey – it’s a wonderful combination. And their aroma? Think sharp lemon jam with floral undertones and none of the bitterness. As they cook with sugar they turn a perfectly beautiful red hue.
Now isn’t that something you could use? Tart, beautiful color, fragrant? I thought so: don’t let your Japanese quince go to waste!
Granted, it’s some work to get it all done – but think about it: how much time did you spend taking care of the shrub? Zilch would be my bet! So get your knives out and get going.
You can turn the fruit into an exquisite jam (recipe for Japanese Quince Jam below). Or you can cook it and strain it: the resulting juice is absolutely wonderful in jelly (Recipe for Japanese Quince Jelly below), and the remaining purée can be used for jam or rustic fruit paste (less nice than if you also use the juice, but still nice). But here is my triumph – and I came to it accidentally. I had been chopping hot peppers – without gloves – while a pot of jelly was simmering. I used my finger to taste the jelly… and I had this most wonderful spicy hot, sweet and tart taste… the best hot pepper jelly.
Now, I like some hot pepper jellies – the one made by my friend Jennifer, as well as the one made by the Turners through their Virginia Chutney Company. But too often the jelly is over-sweet and too rubbery. It’s because one must use lots of pectin since peppers don’t have any to talk of. One must also use vinegar for acidity – and sometimes sub-par vinegar is used. But here I’ve got this incredibly tart juice that naturally so full of pectin that it jells if you look at it wrong. In fact that when I tried to make a syrup, it jelled solid over night.
Anyway… that’s my triumph: Japanese Quince Hot Pepper Jelly. Try it – you won’t regret it.
Yes, it is time consuming to shell fresh chestnuts. There, I said it. But if it’s not difficult – provided you blanch the chestnuts and peel them while still warm.
Besides chestnuts are a treat, made all the rarer because the trees take a long time to grow and bear fruit; the nuts must be harvested almost daily to avoid chestnut-eating worms. In fact, best if you can put a cloth on the ground, shake branches with a long pole and move away fast to avoid the rain of thorny shells. Thick gloves and stout boots are helpful too.
As well, true American chestnuts are a rarity. Once a mighty tree that provided rot-resistant timber & fence wood; fire wood through coppicing; tannins to tan leather; abundant flowering for honey bees; fresh nuts for humans, pigs, and wild life; and dry nuts and flour for winter food, chestnut trees may have constituted as much as 25% of the Eastern North American forest. Alas an imported blight practically wiped out them in the 20th century. Some remain west of the Rockies and a few specimens in rare pockets in the East. They generally don’t live long, and the most promising trees (in terms of disease resistance) have been crossed and back-crossed with the immune Chinese chestnuts through the efforts of organizations such as The American Chestnut Foundation and the American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation.
So local chestnuts, whether cultivated or foraged are likely to be the Chinese or even Japanese chestnuts, or hybrids. Chikapin chestnuts (another native that grows on a small tree) are really tiny – so ignored by people. The large chestnuts sold in the store are imported from Europe.
By the way, when buying or collecting chestnuts, carefully inspect them for tiny holes. They are the sign that the nuts are inhabited. Discard them. I collect fresh chestnut, and as I soon as I get home, I dump them in water and discard the ones that float, on the theory that the flesh has been eaten or has started to rot.
Chestnuts are versatile, used with equal success in desserts and in savory dishes, as the lovely recipe below.
Chestnut and Onion Braisée Read more
Leeks, one of my favorite cold weather vegetables, are the stars of many slow-cooked comfort dishes. They are however often used in combination with other vegetables, where they silkiness and mellowness have a supporting role: think soup, especially leek & potatoes. But they are superb as the main vegetable as in leek tart or as in this recipe, slow-cooked with plenty of butter and finished with fresh tangy goat cheese.
Do choose healthy thick specimens with the longest possible shaft – the white part. I can’t help laughing when I see thick leeks in the store - with a puny 2 or 3 inches of white and all leaves!!!! Good leeks have long sturdy stems: that’s the part you want. Sure the blue/green leaves are perfectly edibles: treat them like any strong-flavored greens – myself, I like to cook them with kale. But for this recipe (as with most recipes you are likely to find), the shaft, not the leaves, are what you want. That’s where the mellowness is. If you grow leeks, look for varieties which naturally grow a long stem. Also hill them up throughout summer and fall
Leeks are in season now until late winter. They are biennial, meaning they go to flower (and produce seeds) their second year. So, in early spring, the leeks planted the prior year, start to develop a woody core – they are making a flowering stem. And it is woody – fine to flavor soup, but way too hard to chew. Beware of March leeks!
The spread can be prepared several days ahead and gently reheated before putting it on freshly toasted crostini. In winter, I like using lard to crisp the crostini – lard rendered from the fat of a pastured pig, not hydrogenated. Feel free to use extra-virgin olive oil if you prefer.
Leeks & Goat Cheese Crostini Read more
Blackberries are producing madly. They have been loving this more temperature summer. Me too! And so they have rewarded us with beaucoup berries since mid-July. For a few weeks in fact they were producing along the Saturn flat peach. ahhh…
Loads just got bagged and tossed in the freezer. Lots got turned into jam, some mixed with blueberries. New to me this year was blackberry gastrique, an awful name if there ever was one: just hearing it makes me want to reach for the bottle of crème de menthe. But it is a homemade competitor to flavored balsamic vinegar — a syrupy blackberry vinegar akin to shrub that I like to drizzle on hard cheese, add to sparkling water, use for vinaigrette, baste ribs or chicken on the grill. I had heard of gastrique before but dismissed it , unjustly based on its name. I came across this video from Sherri Brooks Vinton and realized it was akin to shrub. I made it and I am hooked. I have since made Peach ginger gastrique and there is a tomato one in the works.
And then I have been having fun with sherbet using honey from our hives. This version came by accident: I wanted to make sherbet with buttermilk (something similar to this blueberry sherbet) but there was none in the fridge. There was however sour cream, so that is what I used. Instead of my usual vodka (used to prevent the sherbet from becoming too icy) I splashed in some crème de cassis. Wow! I was really pleased with the depth of flavors and the mouthful – it is, in fact, one of my favorite sherbet. Don’t sweat the proportions too much: let your taste buds guide you. I was reakky measuring when I was making it.
So without more ado, 2 recipes: Blackberry Gastrique and Blackberry Honey Sherbet. Read more
The bumble bees – I have really been noticing them this year – and how hard they are working: on the tomatoes, the cucumbers, the squash, the blackberries and the raspberries – and yes on ornamental too, like this sulfurous cosmos. Thank you, my ladies!
End of season for the blossoms – they are now drying for later uses. The bees love linden too. That’s the other name for basswood aka American linden, Tilia americana. The British call linden “lime” which used to confuse me to no end. But by any other name, the flowers smell delicious and the bees turn them into a specially fragrant honey.