Monday, June 30, 2008

Drying for a Drink

I've mostly kicked the coffee habit these days, thanks to the excellent tea brews (both black and herbal) offered by the Renaissance Man.

Hanging around him and playing with his collection of dried herbs has reinvigorated my own experimental brewing, suiting a morning's herbal infusion to my mood and state of health as well as the weather.

I'm no stranger to this: I've followed a couple of recipes to create soothing herbal tisanes for when I'm not at my peak, and I developed my own midsummer brew a couple of years ago. But I'm learning to try some new herbs and new combinations that work well for everyday use.

Happily, herbal tisanes and infusions can also fit into my desire to eat and live more locally. And not only can I grow several herbs for tea, but I've also found a number of plants that I can forage at the Farm and elsewhere that also fit nicely into my tea chest.

Down on the Farm, it's no surprise that red clover grows rampant in the fields where the neighbor pastures his cattle as well as around the lake. Clover appears to be one of the handiest wild plants on farms, offering nutrition to animals, fixing nitrogen in the soil, and adding a little beauty.

There's also plenty of yarrow growing inside the lake dam. I use yarrow frequently in my cramp tea, and I planted some this year, but I've never before had the chance to harvest any.

Despite having brand new soil and compost in the garden beds, I've been finding several wild edibles cropping up, including stinging nettles. They might not be much fun to pick when they're big (I don't mind grabbing a handful of them when they're small), but they dry easily and provide a nice boost of nutrition to an herbal brew.

I've combined methods for drying all these herbs for storage. The red clover and yarrow were spread out on trays and cookie sheets to begin to dry, but as the weather turned damp, I slid the cookie sheets into the oven at 170 F and gave them half an hour to an hour to finish (and to kill off the remaining bugs). The nettle leaves I gathered and tied together before hanging up to dry in an area that gets plenty of air circulation.

Add to those herbs the chamomile I gathered from the Lady Bountiful's farm and the rose petals plucked from the Renaissance Man's garden, and you can see I have a great start toward restocking my tea cabinet.

(Left to right: rose petals, chamomile, red clover, yarrow, nettle)

And as the season draws on, I plan to harvest multiple kinds of mint and some lemon balm from the Renaissance Man's garden, some dill and sage and thyme from my own, and who knows what else?

Just the thought of it makes me thirsty already.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

I'm Such a Silly Gooseberry

Remember those gooseberries we bought at the farmers' market this morning?

I might have passed them right up, but as the word "gooseberries" issued from the mouth of the fellow running the local orchard stand, the Renaissance Man perked up. He turned to me and asked, "Have you ever had gooseberry pie?"

Since the answer was no -- actually, I'd never eaten gooseberries before at all -- the smile on his face only settled in more deeply as he decided that we needed to buy enough gooseberries to make a pie this weekend.

Translated: he wanted me to bake a gooseberry pie this weekend.

Well, what could I say? He was willing to buy the berries, and we faced a rainy forecast that precluded much outside work on the Farm, so I agreed.

Once we arrived at the Farm and settled in for the weekend, I headed into the kitchen to rinse and stem the berries and then to make the dough for the pie crust before joining the others in more technical discussions.

Later in the afternoon, I decided to bake the pie ahead of dinner, so I pulled out the dough and the filling and started assembling. Now, in looking up recipes for gooseberry pie, I mixed up a recipe for tarts (requiring a cooked filling and a pre-baked shell) with pie, so I goofed in simmering the berries with sugar, flour, and a bit of water, and it looked awfully wet when I poured it into the pie shell.

No matter -- I just slapped on the top crust, finished it off, and shoved it in to bake while I prepared dinner.

Happily, the pie baked just fine, with only a little leaking around the edge. It smelled wonderful, and everyone saved room after dinner for some fresh pie à la mode.

Yes, the berry juice still spilled out all over the dessert plates, and the filling quickly tried to follow. But we really couldn't complain, because the melting ice cream blended with it to make a creamy sauce for the pie that tasted perfectly sweet and sour.

Though the berries were a deep dusty pink stripe in color and not the pale green we had expected, they tasted pleasingly tart and made the pie filling turn a lusciously girly-girl color -- quite a change of pace from my usual baking!

I guess I don't have to feel quite so silly, then, since it all worked out well!

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Market Report: 6/28/08

After not getting much of a chance the past couple of weeks to enjoy the farmers' market fully, lingering to talk with all the farmers and spending freely, I made sure we had plenty of time to devote to the experience this week.

And it was so well worth it!

--honey and a cucumber from the Lady Bountiful
--golden beets, carrots, and dill from the Spelt Baker
--broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, a small loaf of zucchini bread, and a handful of cookies from the Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe
--small potatoes and more lavender from the Herb Lady
--a quart of sour cherries from the Fiddlin' Farmer
--pickling cucumbers from the Amish Farmer
--two kinds of goat milk fudge (peanut butter and butter pecan) from the Goat Lady

And, through the generosity of the Renaissance Man, I also took home a variety of fruits from the local orchard: more sweet cherries for drying, red raspberries for snacking, red currants (also for drying), and the Renaissance Man's insistent choice, gooseberries.

We took an hour to visit the market, to talk with the farmers and with our fellow shoppers, and we rounded out the visit with a breakfast supplement of fry pies from the local orchard (cherry for him, grape for me). What a treat!

Now, of course, I have a fridge full of produce -- and I'm running away to the farm again. I'll definitely have my work cut out for me next week!

But it's so good to enjoy a morning at the market!

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Friday Night Is Date Night

Since I've been overwhelmed with good produce lately and the need to preserve as much of it as I can, I haven't done much baking.

Sometimes, though, my sweet tooth won't be denied, and I have to pull out pans and bowls and fire up the oven.

Knowing that I'd be sharing dinner with the Renaissance Man this evening and then heading out to the Farm for the weekend, I thought I'd bake something to share with everyone. And when I picked up my CSA produce this week, the basket of strawberries that came home with me inspired me to pull out my date bar recipe and try yet another variation.

I simmered the chopped strawberries and dates together with a splash of rose petal syrup and a little water, allowing it all to meld together while I mixed together and pressed a ginger-laced shortbread base into the pan.

Once the fruit had cooled slightly, I spread it over the shortbread, added an easy oat crumb topping, and baked it.

The bars turned out a little thin but oh so fragrant, and after a deliciously green and fresh dinner, the Renaissance Man expressed his approval of dessert in no uncertain terms. (I managed to get the pan away from him eventually, despite his desire to be alone with it.)

With a date like that, who could resist?

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Fava Better Than Expected!

After picking the first batch of fava bean pods earlier this week, I realized that the time had come to find out if I actually liked them.

Did I mention that I've never eaten fava beans before? Did I mention that I assumed they'd taste like lima beans, easily my least favorite vegetable?

Did I mention I'm a little nuts? (Oh, wait, you've probably figured that out on your own...)

I really took a chance this year, buying seeds for something I actually expected not to like. But I've been delighted all along with the unusual growth of these legumes, and despite a hint of anxiety as I headed into the kitchen this afternoon, I was ready to give the favas a try.

Fava beans do require a little extra work. First, you have to pop open the thickly cushioned pod and remove the beans.

Then you have to blanch the beans to remove their thick translucent skins. (Ed has the process so beautifully documented on his blog that I won't attempt to repeat it here.)

After I had rinsed the blanched beans in cold water, I found myself inhaling a fragrance I hadn't expected: even fresh out of the casings, the blanched beans had an almost buttery, rich scent that made my mouth water.

By that point, my anticipation for dinner had turned to excitement, and I could hardly wait to share my produce with the Renaissance Man.

I sauteed some minced green garlic in a blend of butter and olive oil, and once the garlic started to turn golden, I added the fava beans and cooked them a little longer. With a dash of salt and pepper as well as fine ribbons of fresh basil and lemon balm from the garden, the beans turned out succulent and flavorful -- a simple but compellingly delectable side dish that held its own against the fennel pasta dish I had made for a main course.

Who would believe it? I sat there, savoring each tender bean individually, a happy smile lighting my face as I realized that even though I still wouldn't touch lima beans with a ten-foot pole if I could at all help it, I would be more than happy to eat as many favas as I could pile on my plate. (Perhaps it's a good thing I had a small crop.)

And I'm really glad I took the chance on an unknown vegetable this year.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Oh, Say, Can You CSA? Week 4

Storms rolled in quickly this afternoon -- and just as quickly rolled out, leaving just a fine mist of rain as we headed out to the farm to pick up this week's CSA basket. (I love it when the weather cooperates!)

And isn't that a sunny, colorful array of fruit and vegetables to ward off the grey skies?

This week we picked up:

--a pound of broccoli (which My Wonderful Parents took)
--a bag of assorted leaf lettuce and a bunch of Red Sails lettuce (we split)
--a small sweet onion (to the folks; I got the extra one left over from the other CSA shares)
--green garlic (we split)
--a dozen Nevis carrots (we split)
--a quart of snow peas (mine!)
--a bunch of radishes (all mine!)
--the last quart of strawberries (mine, mine, MINE!)

On top of that, My Wonderful Parents bought an extra quart of snow peas for themselves, and I picked up two more pounds of broccoli for me since I love it so much.

The Lady Bountiful's flyer for the week featured her mother-in-law's recipe for broccoli noodle and cheese soup (I might have to make that this weekend!) as well as my easy recipe for broccoli-walnut pasta. I'm so tickled that she decided to use it!

We lingered only briefly to chat this week and didn't visit the fields since it's been awfully wet out lately, but it's always such a delight to talk with this family -- they carry the sunshine with them!

On the way home, we stopped at the local dairy so that I could stock up on unsalted butter, eggs, and ice cream (all local and delicious), then headed home to unload. Once again, I've got plenty of preserving work ahead, but I think I might just have to enjoy some of this fresh food real soon.

And just so you can enjoy it, too, I'll share my recipe with you as well.

Broccoli-Walnut Pasta

Feel free to use any kind of pasta you like in this dish. My favorites are homemade whole grain noodles, whole wheat elbows, or for special treats, frozen cheese tortellini. I've also been known to vary the cheeses (sometimes feta, sometimes cheddar) or to add oven-dried tomatoes along with the walnuts. It's an easy, quick fix for lunch or dinner on a really busy day, and it makes great leftovers.

8-12 oz dry pasta
1 c chopped broccoli
1 to 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced, or 1 whole garlic scape, chopped
1/4 c chopped walnuts
salt and pepper to taste
grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Cook the pasta in boiling water. When pasta can just be cut with a fork, add the broccoli and cook until pasta is tender and broccoli is bright green. Drain.

Heat olive oil in saucepan over low heat. Sauté garlic 1 minute, until fragrant, then add walnuts, salt, and pepper. Add pasta and broccoli, and toss, adding a little extra olive oil if needed.

Serve warm with fresh grated Parmesan cheese on top.

Serves 2

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Going, Going, Green

Exhaustion late last week and storms over the weekend prevented me from making a second trip to the garden last week, so I experienced a bit of trepidation as I approached the plot after work today.

With good reason, apparently! What had been lush and green last week had suddenly turned into a jungle, throttled by those tiny weeds I had missed a mere eight days ago! Yikes!

Still, I have to feel proud to have nurtured this garden so far along... and thrilled to see so much growth and blossoming. I suspect we'll be enjoying lots of good produce well into fall from this small plot of land!

I mean, look at those tomatoes! (I know, where???) Only three plants, but already they're bushy and loaded with blossoms and small green tomatoes, and the basil plants interspersed in the bed are also filling out nicely. There'll be some fine fresh insalata caprese later this summer...

And look at the greens in the lower bed! The amaranth is taking off, the kai lan produced another round of stems for picking, and the lettuces, pac choi, and mizuna are all about as big and as full as I can stand. In fact, as I picked fresh greens, I decided to start pulling some of the plants, laying them down as a sort of mulch (trying to protect the now-bare soil until I can plant a fall crop), since I suspect that if they get any bigger, they're not going to taste so great.

The melons, alas, did not fare so well in the past week. Not only did the purslane grow exponentially to take over parts of the bed, but something (animal? hail?) beat up the poor cantaloupe seedlings something awful. Several leaf stems were broken, leaves were tattered, and I have yet to see if they will actually survive the onslaught. (The watermelon seedlings, on the other hand, look robust. Go figure!)

The bean rows are well overgrown as the plants have gotten tall and tipsy. This is the row of cannellini plants, and while I haven't seen too many blossoms yet, I think this could end up as a terrific crop. I did notice blossoms on the Tiger Eye bean plants, so those are well on their way, too.

And if you look closely, you'll see two small pink flowers on the garbanzo plants -- exciting!

The fava pods had grown and multiplied since last week, and following Ed's advice on when to pick the pods, I decided it was time to harvest about half the crop. Now to find a recipe to try with this new-to-me food! (No, Ed, I don't think I'll try this suggestion -- thanks, though!)

Along with the favas, I harvested more pac choi for me and for She Who Cannot Be Labeled (I always have pity on the poor starving college students, what can I say?), both kinds of lettuce (for ditto), another small round of kai lan, and more of the stinging nettles that have cropped up in the soil. (More on those another time.)

The Renaissance Man then picked me up from my lengthy visit to the garden, took me home, and joined me for a big salad dinner, topped with carrots and cucumber from Saturday's farmers' market shopping spree -- just perfect for a warm evening.

Who says it ain't easy being green?

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: June, Week 4

When you're intent on preserving as much of the summer harvest as possible to feed yourself and your loved ones throughout the winter, it's awfully easy to lose sight of the need to continue making good, fresh, wholesome meals now.

As promised, my Week 4 posts in this series won't focus on preserving so much as enjoying the produce of the moment. If you ever feel -- like I often do -- that you're displaying too much of your Ant tendencies, working overtime to put food in the freezer or pantry, then you need to give yourself permission to be the "lazy" Grasshopper once in a while, sitting back and savoring the fresh flavors of summer while they're at their peak.

Of all the produce that comes into season in June here in Ohio, the leafy green vegetables offer the biggest selection of vegetables that just won't wait or be preserved for winter. Spinach and pac choi and some of the darker greens can be dried or frozen, but who in their right minds would want frozen and thawed lettuce? Nope, this is salad season, and there's no getting around that fact.

But eating salads day in and day out can get a little, well, boring. So it's worth it to get out of that rut now and then and actually cook something from the produce that's been piling up in the refrigerator.

For my featured local meal, I had planned to try out a new Indian recipe for Punjabi mustard greens. I had found mustard greens in this past week's CSA pickup, and with spinach from the farmers' market and lambs' quarters from weeding the Lady Bountiful's lettuce beds, I knew I had a good mix of greens to use. I added garlic scapes from my CSA along with the spices, making the greens almost entirely local, and I intended to serve them over cooked spelt berries (bought from the Spelt Baker at the farmers' market).

It all made a very healthy meal, but I had to agree with the Renaissance Man who colorfully described the dish's appearance as "a compost pile on a plate." (He is a brave soul, willing to try all my experiments, and he had an understanding smile on his face as he made the comment, so don't worry, I was able to laugh with him.) And while the idea and the flavor were both reasonable overall, it lacked something to take the edge off the mustard greens, and we agreed that it didn't really need to be repeated.

So instead, I offer you a different local meal for the month of June:

--a salad, of course, made from the Deer Tongue and Freckles lettuces from my CSA this past week and the leaf lettuce and amaranth from my own garden

--pesto pasta: homemade spelt pasta (with local spelt flour and eggs) topped with homemade pesto (local basil and garlic), oven-dried tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese

--a glass of cherry wine from the local vineyard

The dinner was not 100% local, of course, thanks to the olive oil and cheese and nuts (in the pesto), but it came pretty darn close. And I especially like that, without even thinking, I was able to use both fresh produce and some of what I had preserved last summer (the pesto and the tomatoes), so that you can see how handy it is to have preserved foods in the pantry to add to the fresh ones.

After this week's trip to the farmers' market, I'll have to make even more fresh dinners to use some of that good fennel and the asparagus that remains in the refrigerator, as well as more greens from my garden.

There's always a balance to be struck between preserving all the summer's bounty and enjoying it as much as possible while it's still fresh. I think everyone has to find their own balance -- and to keep readjusting the balance as needed -- because not everyone wants to do as much preservation work as I do. And that's okay! If you're new to preserving food, by all means, start slowly, appreciate what you are able to do, and savor whatever you eat now. The more you preserve now, of course, the more you'll enjoy later -- but don't let that stop you from enjoying the now, too!

And don't worry... we have more Now coming next week. Stay tuned!

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Market Report: 6/21/08

I do love Saturdays in the summer.

As much as my body might prefer that I sleep in, when Saturday morning rolls around, my mind and spirit and stomach nudge me out of bed early in order to get ready for a trip to the farmers' market. Today I had extra incentive to get going so quickly as I had planned to head out of town early for a day on the lake.

The Renaissance Man and I arrived at the market well before opening, but fortunately for us, many of the farmers had already set up shop and were ready for us to browse. We chatted with them along the way, stopping to ooh and ahh over all the beautiful produce and even to buy some as well.

I had a smaller budget for this week's purchases (simply because I had not stopped at the ATM ahead of time), but I managed to buy many delicious things:

--carrots, spinach, and snow peas from the Spelt Baker
--lavender, mulberries, and fennel from the Herb Lady (back this year for the first time!)
--two quarts of shelling peas and a cucumber from the Cheerful Lady
--two quarts of sweet cherries from the local Orchard (actually, that was the Renaissance Man's purchase, after a little pleading on my part)
--butter pecan goat milk fudge from the Goat Lady

I am noticing a somewhat disturbing trend of finding more and more produce items available much earlier than usual, throwing off my usual pattern for preservation. For example, cherries don't usually show up before July around here, but a chat with the fellows from the Orchard indicating that this might be the only cherries we get for a while compelled me to buy them now in order to have enough to dry for winter. Looks like I may have to cram more preservation in each week just to make up for the vagaries of harvests!

So many other items tempted me, but with my wallet emptying rapidly and my schedule filling up equally quickly, I decided not to indulge.

Next week, though... look out!

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Friday, June 20, 2008

A Berry Pleasant Surprise

I usually have a deep conflict about work: the work that pays the bills isn't necessarily the work that feeds my deeper hunger. It's not easy to see how I can make a difference by sitting in front of a computer all day, pushing electrons around.

Sometimes, though, working with government information gives me a inside track to finding more information about agriculture and environment and our food system, all of which fit into my personal interests of cooking and preserving and gardening and general homesteading. And sometimes, I find something really interesting in our collection.

Such was the case this week.

There it was on the return shelf, all by itself and staring me in the face: an Education Department document with the title "Rural Philosophy for Education: Wendell Berry's Tradition."

A government document about Wendell Berry! Amazing! This prophetic firebrand, one of my intellectual and practical heroes, had caught the attention of the federal government in a positive way, as someone who had insightful perspective on education in rural settings.

In skimming it, I found much to appeal to my own sensibilities, including a quote found here: "If rural dwellers are to have real communities, then, according to Berry, the equilibrium with nature must be re-established. People must care intimately for one another and cherish the land they inhabit."

Somehow, I think Wendell Berry would correct the author of this fact sheet (PDF) to say that all of us must re-establish that balance and learn to care for each other and for the land.

I like to think that that's what many of us are trying to do with our writings and with our actions, with our blogs and our Victory Gardens and our food preservation -- just to name a few essential things.

And I like to think that someone, somewhere in the federal government, somehow thought this was important enough to share through a publication aimed at those responsible for educating the next generation.

Some days, it's easier to make a difference, I guess.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Oh, Say, Can You CSA? Week 3

I'm really coming to love my weekly CSA pickups. First, it gives me a nice little high point in the middle of a long work week. Second, it gives me a chance to visit either with My Wonderful Parents or the Renaissance Man for at least an hour. Third, it involves a scenic drive through the countryside, giving me plenty of restful views and occasionally some ideas.

And did I mention the food???

Once again, the Lady Bountiful had a truly splendid array of late spring and early summer produce bagged and ready to go for her CSA customers.

This week's selection included two kinds of lettuce (Deer Tongue and Freckles), Red Russian kale, more Swiss chard, Nevis carrots (a dozen), garlic scapes, the first pint of snow peas, two quarts of strawberries (what a prolific crop this year!), and the first raw honey of the year, taken from the bees' visits to the local black locust trees.

My Dear Papa and I divided the spoils pretty evenly: we each took lettuce, half the garlic scapes, and half the strawberries. He chose the chard and the snow peas while I picked the kale and the carrots (and bought more carrots, to boot). And when it came to the honey, the Chef Mother sent down the final decision: I got it. (Thanks, Mom!)

The Lady Bountiful's weekly flyer gave a couple more recipes for cooking with greens, including a tasty-sounding wilted kale that uses orange juice, so I might have to give that a go.

In addition to all that great produce, she had also picked a tub full of chamomile in her attempt to clear out the lettuce tunnel to make way for peppers. She left the roots on for those CSA customers who wanted to plant their own, but I took what was left in the bin (I was the last customer of the day) and requested that her eldest son trim off the roots and band the stems together so that I could hang the chamomile up to dry. (He graciously held this enormous bunch of chamomile for me to photograph, though he laughed self-consciously at the idea of a "beauty queen bouquet" being forced upon a strapping young man -- what a trooper!)

After that, we wandered back to the fields and greenhouses so that I could pick as much extra chamomile as I wanted (a bundle about twice as large as the one above, thanks to the Gentleman Farmer's Eldest Son) and so My Wonderful Parents could get a better look at the starting points of all their good local meals.

In this week's newsletter, the Lady Bountiful had mentioned the rapid growth of her tomatoes, and she wasn't kidding! They've really jumped up since I last saw them a mere two weeks ago, and I'm afraid I salivated just a little to think of all the juicy red tomatoes that would be headed my way later in the season.

We lingered a little bit to talk -- about preservation, about their next plans for the farm (a pole barn? maybe a weeding machine?), about this series (since I've got them reading my blog now and probably blushing over all the completely true and honest things I say about them and their produce), and about food in general -- before My Wonderful Parents and I headed back down the road toward home.

I expect that I'll preserve about half of what I brought home this week -- drying the carrots, saving the carrot tops for stock, freezing strawberries and possibly the garlic scapes -- and focus on eating the greens to make room in the refrigerator for next week's produce.

I know the question has already come up in personal conversations as to whether the CSA actually saves me money compared to what I would buy at the local farmers' market, when you consider how much driving needs to be done each week to pick up the produce. When you consider the cost of gas these days (something I don't normally do except to smirk a little; sorry, but I'm human!), no, I'm probably not saving money by participating in the CSA.

However, I'm gaining so much more: time spent with loved ones, a restful break from the usual routine, a chance to visit a beautiful farm and a wonderful family of friends, and the opportunity to learn more about agriculture and food. And thanks to the mid-week pick-up, it helps me spread out my food preservation a little more than when I buy everything at the Saturday morning market. To me, that more than compensates for the cost of gas. (But then, I'm not the one buying the gas!)

And it certainly makes every Wednesday worth the wait!

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Monday, June 16, 2008

This Land is Your Land, This Land is Kai Lan

Ignore what your calendar says about the impending solstice. Summer is here.

Don't believe me? Well, I have proof. The lightning bugs are offering their twinkling lights to the evenings, the first crickets are raising their songs, and the garden is going crazy.

Despite the abundance of weeds (and wild edibles) in the garden bed and the fact that I took this photo from the more open end of the garden (leaving room for melons to sprawl out), you can see that certain areas are getting a little more lush with every day.

Might be hard to tell, but the mizuna at the near end of the bed is already bolting, the Tiger Eye beans in the middle are thickening, and the Hopi red amaranth at the top has jumped up anywhere from 6" to 10" in the space of a week. Thank you, rain and heat!

Given that garden growth appears to be accelerating, I know it's time to step up my visits to twice weekly. And I find that if I make my first visit on Monday after work, at least I'm halfway to my goal early on.

I spent about twenty minutes weeding, and though I didn't get everything, I managed to clean out the biggest and boldest of the weeds.

Then I picked. Yes, I took home more greens -- again -- including pac choi and lettuce, along with fresh cilantro and a sturdy handful of kai lan, the Chinese broccoli.

There weren't many kai lan stems growing, but since a couple had already started to bloom, I figured I'd go ahead and pick them all and use them in dinner tonight. I knew I wouldn't be able to recreate the delicious dish I used to get at the dim sum restaurant, drizzled with oyster sauce, but I had something equally delectable in mind.

As I cooked a pot of whole wheat spaghetti, I prepared vegetables: a garlic scape from my CSA, pac choi and mizuna greens as well as the kai lan from my garden, and a small handful of dried red pepper from last year's preservation stash. Once the pasta (and kai lan) were done, I sautéed the rest and added tamari, toasted sesame oil, lime juice, and a touch of cilantro and threw it all together.

The flavor turned out to be a cross between my fried rice, my broccoli pasta, and something a little lighter and almost Thai-flavored -- in short, a very satisfying meal for a summer evening!

It's a pity there isn't more kai lan growing in the garden (unless it decides to surprise me!) because I really liked its taste (a little stronger than broccoli) and texture (firm, almost crunchy, even after boiling). It would be nice to share it with other friends, so I may have to get more seeds next year.

After all, this kai lan could be made for you and me.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: June, Week 3

Here it is, mid-June already, and though I've been awash in fresh greens for a couple of weeks, my focus this weekend is on the food that always says June to me: strawberries.

Though I would rather let someone else do the back-straining work of picking them, I still have fond childhood memories of June mornings spent plucking ripe juicy berries from their stems as the Chef Mother did the same a row away, followed by hours in the kitchen spent stemming, slicing, mashing, and cooking the berries into sweet, glittering ruby-tinted jam.

Throughout the summer, I'll make other kinds of jam -- and variations on the basic fruit flavors with added herbs or nuts. But strawberry jam, due to its precedence in the calendar and its ever-pleasing flavor, ranks highest in my heart of culinary hearts.

It seems appropriate, then, to devote this week's "Preserving the Seasons" to jam-making.

First of all, let me state a disclaimer: If you have never made jam before, find a recipe and follow it to the letter. Jams are more forgiving than canned vegetables or sauces, because the sugars in the fruit and added in go a long way to preserving the fruit adequately and preventing spoilage. But they are not foolproof. Read up before you start!

Good places to find basic jam recipes include:

Putting Things By
Stocking Up
Ball Blue Book
(or the online Ball site)
any other books dedicated to home preserves

Once you have a recipe, here are some basic rules of thumb to follow:

1. Read the recipe thoroughly before starting.

2. Set out everything you need ahead of time, including prepped fruit. You may not have time to look for something if you're in the middle of canning!

2A. Check your equipment before starting, especially jars. If there are nicks in the jar edge or any cracks, DO NOT USE THE JAR. It can break when hot jam is added or when the jar goes through the hot water bath.

3. Be safety-conscious: Watch what you're doing with a knife, handle hot sterilized jars with hot pads or canning jar tongs, approach the hot-water bath with caution, move slowly.

That said, here's a rough overview of my jam-making session Friday afternoon. (Don't take this as a recipe, just as a show-and-tell!)

In prepping the berries, I usually wash and stem them, cut them into quarters and put them in the pot, and then mash them with the bottom of a clean bottle or glass. I prefer this to using a blender or food processor because (A) I don't have one that works, (B) I like the low-tech approach, and (C) I like my jam to have chunks of real fruit in it.

I also don't like to add pectin to my jam recipes because I don't like jam that wobbles on my toast and rips the top of the pancake when I try to spread it. I like my jam sloppy and drippy, thank you very much, and if you do, too, you might take a look at Valerie's recipe for no-pectin strawberry jam over at Cincinnati Locavore.

Once the berries are mashed or pureed, simmer them (with sugar) over low to medium-low heat until the jam boils, stirring constantly so that the sugary jam doesn't burn on the bottom. Continue to simmer for the time stated in the recipe.

You'll note a pink foam on top of the jam here, raised from the air worked into the jam by the bubbling. It's supposed to be there -- don't worry!

Once the jam has finished cooking, though, turn off the heat and skim off the foam with a large spoon. I highly recommend dumping this frothy "scum" into a small bowl because it's just as tasty as the jam and makes a fine first treat on toast. (If you left the scum on the jam, it wouldn't affect the flavor of the canned jam, but you'd get lots of extra air in the jar that could accelerate spoilage.)

If you're working efficiently, you've had your hot water bath coming up to the boil, with your clean jars, lids, and rings soaking away and getting sterilized in it. Now is the time to remove all those things, dry them, and fill the jars.

Of all the tools in the canner's toolbox, the canning funnel is by far the most essential. When you have one of these wide-mouthed funnels tucked inside the rim of your jars, you are well set against spilling or dribbling hot jam down the sides of the jar or onto your towel or counter. They're dirt cheap and completely worth it. Just look how neat and clean this process is with a canning funnel!

Once you've filled your jars with jam, leaving the appropriate amount of head space (as always, consult your recipe, but for jams you can usually fill to the bottom of the screw ridges around the top). Run a knife or chopstick along the inside to remove air bubbles. Wipe the rim clean with a damp cloth, add the sterilized lid, and secure with a ring. Settle the jars securely in the rack inside your hot water bath, lower the rack into the water, and set the timer for the processing time listed in your recipe.

When you remove the jars from the canner, be careful. This is best done with jar tongs, which fit securely around the ring rim of the jar and have enough heft to carry the now-full jar to a towel or cooling rack. It's not a bad idea, though, to wear an oven mitt on the other hand and cup the bottom of the jar lightly, just in case you lose your grip on the tongs.

Once all your jars are out of the hot water bath, it shouldn't take long before you hear loud pops and pings as the lids seal, creating a vacuum that will protect your jam for long-term storage. Hearing all these noises may be disconcerting at first, but you'll find yourself counting them with increasing glee as you hear every single one of your jars seal. What satisfaction!

Pat yourself on the back! You've made jam!

And I highly recommend celebrating by toasting some very good bread, slathering sweet unsalted butter on the toast, and then spreading that leftover scum on top and eating it while it's still warm. Taste good? Now you know what you have to look forward to this winter!

Depending on how much fruit you have, making jam can take from about one hour to a few. If you're new to canning, start with small batches so that you don't overwhelm yourself. But once you get the hang of it, you'll find you want to start making jam with all kinds of fruit.

What better way to store summer in a jar?

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Market Report: 6/14/08

I had a scandalously late night last night due to dinner out with a new acquaintance and lingering in the bunker-like restaurant as strong thunderstorms rolled through town, so I slept in this morning.

I mean, I slept in. Like a normal person. Not just until 6 AM, which on my schedule is considered sleeping in. I mean, sleeping in like a big ol' bump on a log.

All of which is to say that I did not make it to the farmers' market at my usual early hour prior to the official opening of the market. In fact, I didn't get there until almost the halfway point.

My favorite farmers were all shocked -- shocked, I tell you! -- but ever so relieved that I hadn't met with misfortune or, worse yet, grocery vegetables. And while I missed some good produce (the Spelt Baker's carrots all sold early), I still brought home some very tasty and beautiful items:

--from the Fiddlin' Farmer (well, from his son, as the Fiddlin' Farmer was well and truly fiddlin' around, playing folk music): two bundles of organic asparagus
--from the Cheerful Lady: two bags of spinach and a handful of cookies
--from the Amish Farmer: broccoli
--from the Lady Bountiful: a quart of her luscious strawberries
--from the Spelt Baker: another bag of spinach and a little sprig of dill (her gift!)

The folks who bring the maple syrup a few times each summer were also there, so I bought my first pint of local maple syrup for the year. What a treat!

I think about half of this week's produce will get preserved (probably dried) for winter use, but that will have to wait until next week. I'm off to the Farm for the weekend, with one bag of spinach in hand so that I can make spinach lasagna for dinner tonight. When I get back, I expect I'll be enjoying the broccoli and the asparagus in various pasta dishes or other treats. (Hmmm, might be time to make crepes again...)

And next week, you'd better believe I plan to get up earlier!

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Little Rose a Long Way

Walking home from work today, I passed a cottage that had rose beds for the entire front lawn. Every last bush was in full, glorious bloom, and I thought how nice it would be to get out to the local arboretum to enjoy the rose gardens there.

So I called the Renaissance Man and invited him to a picnic out among the roses, a suggestion he readily accepted. And then I took myself into the kitchen to prepare dinner:

The last of the asparagus from last week's farmers' market made a good addition to whole wheat pasta elbows, with amaranth leaves from my garden, feta cheese, and crushed walnuts added for texture. The little carrots, scrubbed to a fare-thee-well, also came from the market -- the last of the bunch I bought from the Spelt Baker.

We almost had an added flavor in the meal as the crabapple tree under which we dined persisted in dropping very small fruits on us. (That's a very crabby crabapple!)

After a leisurely meal, the Renaissance Man eyed my basket and asked if there were any more biscuits. (He's fond of them.) I informed him that yes, there were, but he couldn't have them until dessert.

That, you see, is because I had made biscuits from scratch specifically for the purpose of serving strawberry shortcake -- using those juicy berries from this week's CSA pickup and the remainder of the rose-petal-syrup infused whipped cream. And he very quickly agreed that this was, in fact, worth the wait.

After we packed up the picnic basket and folded the blanket, we wandered around the gardens, enjoying the sights and scents of the multiple varieties of tea, damask, and climbing roses. (It's a gorgeous place, and if you're ever in the area in June, you must stop and visit the arboretum.) While I would not, of course, forage for edible rose petals here (I suspect the groundskeepers spray the roses), I certainly can get plenty of ideas for the kinds of roses I would love to grow!

I don't get out to the arboretum very often, and it's a shame, because every month there's usually something different to appeal to the senses. But when I do get out here, even a brief visit can refresh me and feed my soul.

Especially if a picnic dinner is involved.

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