LATE-SUMMER LETHARGY AND AN ELDERBERRY SHRUB

There’s always something to contend with as a gardener (and as any kind of living creature, I suppose) – bugs, weather, disease, timing, pathogens – but the one that’s been plaguing me lately is my own lethargy.

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I googled lethargy to make sure that was the particular word I wanted and here is a list of its synonyms: sluggishness, inertia, inactivity, inaction, slowness, torpor, torpidity, lifelessness, listlessness, languor, laziness, idleness, indolence, shiftlessness, sloth, apathy, passivity, weariness, tiredness, lassitude, fatigue, inanition, hebetude. That about sums it up. All I’ve want to do is be inside, in the A/C with my dog, lost in a book. Or at the lake. Which is why my blog is weeks behind.

(By the way, I’m completely obsessed with the book I’m currently reading, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s about a post-apocalyptic traveling performance group who roam the area around the Great Lakes twenty years after a flu pandemic has killed 99% of the population. They perform Shakespeare. It’s incredible. I can’t wait to finish it and I never want it to end. It was very deservedly nominated for the National Book Award. I’m in love with it.) More about the flu a little later…

Back to my inanition. It seems silly to blame it on the heat. It gets hot in Arkansas in August. And humid. And deafening. That incessant ratchety acceleration of cicadas makes it seem that much hotter. Pulsing. Electric. Alive. I know this. I accept it. I have been known to relish it. But this summer, it has indeed induced hebetude.

Meanwhile, the tomatoes, peppers, and okra are in their prime and ripening faster than we can keep up with them. Some like it hot.

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There’s a mantra I adopt about this time every year, it goes like this. Next year….

Next year I will stake my sauce tomatoes. Next year I will plant fewer shishito pepper. Next year I may skip zucchini entirely.

In the spirit of staying inside and making use of the bounty that is August, I’ve been in the kitchen.

I pickled radish seed pods.

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If you neglect to harvest your radishes, by choice or dereliction of duties, they will flower and then eventually those flowers become seed pods. They are a delicious treat, like a mild radish in a different form.

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I made salsa verde.

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In an attempt to use up an overlooked zucchini that consequently grew to the size of my forearm, I made zucchini bread.

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Although when all was said and done, it made use of less than half of it.

I spent the better part of two days making and painstakingly documenting homemade ketchup, which was, very disappointingly, an epic fail. I suppose I’ll find a use for it, but you won’t be getting it for Christmas.

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I made chile verde.

I made heirloom tomato sauce. Twice. 

I made a simple and delicious carrot soup (http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/a-simple-carrot-soup-recipe.html). Do you know this site? Heidi Swanson’s blog 101 Cookbooks is a beautiful, elegant, site with unique, healthy recipes. There is something very soothing about it. All that clean white marble, those sumptuous photos of that virtuous food, very inspiring.

And then I fried okra.

Oh, and… I made an elderberry shrub! Remember elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) from the Hedgerow post? (https://thecultivator.net/?s=hedgerow) Well it bloomed. This is May 21st.

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And by August 8th, we had berries.

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Some of which I managed to get to before the birds did.

The berries are beautiful, glossy purple-black with vibrant magenta stems. As a plant it is a gangly, unruly thing. The eminent horticulturalist Michael Dirr says it is “only suitable for rough areas of the garden.” But it suffuses those rough areas with a rich history of mystery and medicine.IMG_8990

In most of Europe the elder was so closely connected with magic that permission had to be asked for its use of the dryad, Hylde-Moer (or Elder-tree mother) who resided in it. If treated well, the goddess was benevolent, thus elders were often planted around houses for protection. It was also believed that they repelled lightning strikes – one more reason to plant one near your house. The rise of Christianity suppressed nature worship and the elder became the tree of witches, and as the site of Judas’ hanging, an emblem of sorrow. It’s mentioned in several of Shakespeare’s plays. It was also believed to mark the entrance to the Underworld. If you fell asleep under one you might end up there and never return. Good thing I’ve been taking my naps inside.

Medicinally, elders were considered ‘the medicine chest of the country people’. In 1633, a Dr. Blochwich published a comprehensive book titled The Anatomie of Elder that spends 230 pages listing its virtues and uses. And as recently as 1995, it was used to treat a flu epidemic in Peru.

Our North American elder is Sambucus canadensis, while the Europeans have Sambucus nigra. They are very similar in terms of physical properties and how they are used, although ours is more heat tolerant and shrub like, whereas S. nigra can grow into a small tree. They have been used extensively – bark, leaves, flowers, berries, and even a fungus that grows on the tree – since the Romans for ailments from toothaches to the plague. Another North American sambucus, red elder (S. racemosa) is extremely toxic. Incidentally, the bark, stems, leaves, unripe berries, and even the tiny stems on the berries of all sambucus contain cyanide producing glycocides, which can be poisonous, so stick with the flowers themselves and the ripe purple berries, and to be on the safe side, heat both of those as well.

The flowers make an relaxing, restorative tea whose properties change if they are used fresh or dried, hot or cold. Fresh flowers have a mildly laxative effect and can help with constipation, while a tea made with dried flowers is used to drive out fever. This quality, along with its anti-inflammatory traits, a slew of antioxidants, and more Vitamin C than oranges make it a highly effective treatment during cold and flu season, it’s also used for asthma and hay fever.

Or try the flowers lightly battered and fried for a delicate spring fritter.

An infusion of the leaves can be used for a variety of skin ailments including sunburn, and to ward off mosquitoes.

The berries can be used to make jams, jellies, cordials, syrups, or, in my case, a shrub.

A shrub, or drinking vinegar, was the first carbonated soft drink. It originated in 17th century England and was brought to America by the early colonists as a way to preserve the essence of fresh produce. Shrubs fell out of favor when we got home refrigeration, but are having a renaissance in the craft cocktail movement of our moment. Today’s mixologists use them as a novel way to add complexity, acidity, and even nutrition to cocktails, but they’re also great simply mixed with carbonated water as a new old-fashioned soda.

Shrubs at their most basic are fruit, sugar, and vinegar, but the process for combining them can differ. In one method, the fruit is macerated with sugar for several days, then the resulting syrup is strained and mixed with vinegar. Alternately, the fruit can be crushed and mixed with vinegar, this can be strained, and the resulting fruit-infused vinegar can be mixed with sugar. It can be heated or not. You can get creative by experimenting with different vinegars and sweeteners, as well as adding aromatics. Culinate has some great ideas (http://www.culinate.com/articles/features/shrub_love) that I can’t wait to try.

For my first elderberry shrub, I placed one cup of clean berries in a pint jar and mashed them up with a fork.

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Then I added a cup of apple cider vinegar, shook it up and put it in the refrigerator overnight, shaking it a few times for good measure.

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The next day I strained it

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and put the strained liquid in a saucepan with a cup of cane sugar. This would be the time to add aromatics. For my next elderberry shrub I’ll add ginger and some cloves at this point.

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Once the sugar was melted, I let it cool, poured it into a jar, and voila, a cocktail enhancement that can ward off the flu! Elderberry gin and tonics for everyone!

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I’ve also done some work out there trying to get a fall garden planted. The planting is not the hard part, it’s keeping it alive – see above – bugs, weather, timing, pathogens, torpidity…

So far I’ve got arugula, broccoli raab, spinach, collard greens, kale, calypso beans, fennel, and cucumbers coming along. 

I hope you’re all staying cool and collected and if you’re not getting anything done, I hope you’re not beating yourselves up about it.

Thanks for stopping by!

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Fava bean and pea crostini

I don’t know when it started, but in the past few years, my good friend Jennifer has become obsessed with horse racing. Her unbridled enthusiasm has gotten our entire group of friends interested as well. Such is the beauty of a well-tended obsession. She recently had a Belmont-watching party, and I must say, watching American Pharoah win the Triple Crown – the first horse to do so in 37 years – was surprisingly emotional and stupendously thrilling. 

I wanted to take an appetizer capitalizing on what was ready to harvest in my garden and an adaptation of Jaime Oliver’s “Incredible smashed peas and fava beans on toast” was just the thing. I love Jaime Oliver. He’s so enthusiastic and accessible. Not to mention adorable. I love all his cookbooks, but I especially love Jaime at Home. It’s seasonally based around his amazing kitchen garden and is full of beautiful photos and growing information. There’s a show too. It’s like the cookbook come to life. I can’t get enough.

I bought a baguette, some lemons, and some parmesan. And while I was at the farmer’s market, I picked up some gorgeous fromage blanc from White River Creamery (http://www.whiterivercreamery.com).

Then I harvested peas and fava beans. 

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I would be lost without those little scissors. I use them to harvest almost everything. Favas, peas, beans, peppers, tomatoes, herbs. There are few things more frustrating than ripping off an entire stem when you only meant to get a pepper. Plus a clean cut is important because it leaves less of an entrance for diseases to enter. I also just like scissors in general. I find them the perfect embodiment of form and function. I think these babies are particularly attractive. Photogenic too. I picked them up at Pearl River Mart in New York (http://www.pearlriver.com) with no idea they would serve such a purpose in my life. I also like this basket for harvesting. When it’s cooler I use a big stainless steel bowl, but once it starts to get hot, they heat up so quickly that they’re no friend to tender legumes and leaves.

Watch your back. This guy is notorious.

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I also harvested some radishes and mint.

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There’s always an opportunity for a moment of zen when you’re shelling legumes. So even though time was ticking to make it to the party, and I was documenting, I tried to take it.

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Once your beans and peas are shucked, put some of the raw peas, a few mint leaves, and some salt in a mortar and pestle.

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And, as Jaime would say, bash ’em up!

I must admit, I don’t have the right mortar and pestle. I tried both of mine. And while I love them both as objects, what I really need is one of those molcajetes that they make quacamole in. Something with a little more grit. It all worked out eventually, but I did break a sweat.

When you get a nice mash working, start to add your fava beans. Jaime used his raw, but I blanched and peeled mine. Once everything is good and pulverized, add some olive oil to make it creamy, plus some parmesan to ground all that freshness. And then kick it into gear with some lemon juice. Keep tasting until you have the perfect balance of bright creamy salty freshness.

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Now you may not have fava beans hanging out in your garden waiting for you to fulfill their destiny, but this next bit is a keeper. Crostini. “Little toasts.” They are a cinch to make and are the perfect vector for truly endless numbers of toppings. Slice a baguette thinly, brush with olive oil (a little brush for olive oil is a really handy tool to have around), sprinkle with salt and pepper, and pop in a 350º oven for 15-20 mins. Voila! They only challenging part is getting them golden brown without burning them. I was feeling fancy, so I smashed a garlic clove and gently rubbed it on mine. I broke a couple, so I had to be extra gentle. But then I had testers.

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I made a little salad with julienned radishes, pea shoots, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt.

Then, to assemble, I spread a little fromage blanc on each crostini, put some of my lovely green mash on, and topped them with the radish salad.

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I needed something for the middle of the plate, so I tossed arugula, pea shoots, a bit of mint, and some fava bean shoots with olive oil and lemon juice, tossed on the few remaining radishes, grated some parmesan and lemon zest on top, grabbed a bottle of wine out of the fridge and raced to Jennifer’s. Luckily she lives about two minutes away, so I just took the platters as they were.

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Thanks for the party Jennifer! And Congratulations American Pharoah!!!!!!!

CAULIFLOWER

I am writing about growing cauliflower successfully today, because this might be the only chance I get!

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This refined variation of Brassica oleracea (var. botrytris) is notoriously hard to grow because of its strict requirements for consistently cool moist weather and because as a member of the brassica family it is manna for every bug that plagues a garden. Okay, maybe not every bug, but some really determined ones.

Spring this year in Fayetteville has been exceptionally cool and while it’s not quite true, it feels like it has rained every day for weeks. In fact, it’s raining right now! I can’t remember a spring like this. If this is what it takes to grow cauliflower successfully I’d better take note. 

To give you an idea the hurricane vase in the picture above is all rainwater. It’s even more full now.

You might be surprised to learn that cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, and heading cabbages are all variations on the same plant – Brassica oleracea – a weedy biennial that originated in Europe and Northern Africa. Each cultivar was developed by emphasizing a different part of the plant. Kale and collards emphasize the leaves. In cabbages, the terminal bud was exploited. With Brussels sprouts, it’s the axillary, or lateral buds that were tweaked.  And with cauliflower and her kin broccoli, it’s the flowers, or inflorescences that early breeders concentrated on. That head of cauliflower is actually a mass of flower buds stopped in development before bloom. 

Like its fellow members of the brassica family, cauliflower is incredibly good for you. It’s high in Vitamin C, Vitamin K, and fiber- which is important as it binds with cholesterol to sweep extra fat out of the body. It also contains protein, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, magnesium, phosphorus, folate, potassium and manganese. It’s a good source of choline which plays important roles in brain development and memory, including protection from age-related memory decline (note to self: remember to eat more cauliflower). Additionally, sulfur compounds in cauliflower have been shown to kill cancer stem cells, improve blood pressure, and maintain healthy kidney function. They are full of antioxidants, phytonutrients, and glucosinolates – which keep the immune system from over-reacting. When our immune systems get too wound up too often it can result in chronic inflammation that’s linked to heart disease and cancer.

They are also really versatile in the kitchen. Raw, they’re an elegant crudite, or – I can’t wait to try this – finely ground in a food-processor they become a kind of rice or couscous which can be eaten raw in a tabouli-like salad, cooked with broth risotto-style, or frozen until you think of the perfect application (http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-cauliflower-rice-couscous-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-203344). They lend themselves beautifully to roasting, stir-frying, and pickling. They also add low-calorie, nutrient-rich, creaminess to purèes and soups.

My first attempt to grow cauliflower was last year (2014). I started ‘Giant of Naples’ seeds indoors on March 3rd.

On March 31st, I began hardening them off outdoors.

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And on April 10th I planted them out in the garden.

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Only then did I order a floating row cover from Johnny’s Seeds. (http://www.johnnyseeds.com)

When it arrived I covered them up to protect them from marauding insects.

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To no avail. Daily, I diligently lifted the veil and picked off the green catepillars (Pieris rapae) that are remarkably the exact same color as the cauliflower leaves. I had lots of gorgeous leaves for them to eat.

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But absolutely no cauliflower. Not a curd. In fact the only glimpse of white I had was the fluttering cabbage moths who were laying the eggs that were becoming the worms that I was picking off. Very discouraging. In the windy picture above, the flower pot on the left side contains gaura ‘whirling butterflies’ – a perennial that I love. I had read somewhere that the moths were territorial and would think that space was already occupied by fluttering cabbage moths. No such luck.

Ultimately, my June 27th journal entry reads “I need to get the leaf bed cleaned out and just admit that cauliflower and broccoli was a bust. Will I try again? Probably.”

And…scene.

This year I entirely neglected to start cauliflower and broccoli seeds at all, but while I was buying my onion seedlings, I impulsively picked up an 8-pack of cauliflower seedlings labelled ‘Snow Queen’. (Although, I’ve found very little information about this variety online, and quite a lot that rings true about ‘Snow Crown’…) Regardless, nothing ventured…

I planted those out on March 17th and oh so proudly harvested five heads on Thursday, May 28th! In between, it rained and rained and rained some more. We built a PVC frame, but I never put on my floating row cover. And at some point – a little too late – I blanched them by tying the leaves up around the heads to keep them white. 

The perfect cauliflower is a thing to behold, tight creamy white curds cradled in sturdy, elegant, leaves that seem to turn more blue as they age. Such refinement. They became very popular in France during King Louis XV’s reign as they were a favorite of his mistress, Jeanne Beçu Comtesse Du Barry. Like Parmentier and his potatoes, cauliflower is forever entangeled with the Comtess Du Barry, so if you see crème Du Barry on a menu, know you’re looking at cauliflower soup – and don’t lose your head.

White cauliflowers are typical, but they also come in creamy orange, chartreuse, and a purple that doesn’t even look real. Check out this gorgeous spread from our farmer’s market. Those crazy green fractal ones are romanesco. My next challenge.

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Here’s my crew. Perhaps not the finest specimens in all the land, but my mother’s love is blind. And while I know most of my success was Mother Nature’s, I’m still pretty pleased. Time will tell if I ever do it again. 

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I should have harvested them sooner, and not all at once. Ideally, you want tight, white, curds as the flower heads are called. They should be 6-8″. A couple of mine are larger and coarser than ideal and are tinged in purple. Purple heads are a result of sunlight activating anthocyanins which are pigments that occur in the tissues of all higher plants. They are what create the purple and red hues we see in autumn leaves. 

But we ate them nonetheless!

Roasted cauliflower is a revelation. Olive oil and salt is all you really need. That and a 450º oven with a little tossing about now and again. Depending on the size of your florets they should be ready in about 30 minutes. Beyond that, they lend themselves to your endless culinary creativity. Fresh lemon juice and herbs? A creamy cheese sauce? A little fishy brine in the form of anchovy or fish sauce, and maybe some capers? You could go Asian with garlic and ginger. Or Indian aloo-gobi style with potatoes, peas, curry and turmeric. Mustard, parsley, mint, or dill all work nicely.  Beans, polenta, or pasta will make it more substantial. And pork, pork always works.

I had friends over for what I dubbed Cauli-palooza! ™ We had Cajun-spiced roasted cauliflower to start, a homegrown arugula salad with the first of the season roasted beets and goat cheese to break things up, and then seared sea scallops on creamy cauliflower puree with roasted cauliflower steaks, braised greens, and an oyster mushroom piccata sauce. Good stuff. And great company, but only passable photos.

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An aside. When I worked at Elettaria in Manhattan, our strange and brilliant wine-guy, John, had this wine-education kit. Le Nez de Vin. It was from a company called Wine Aromas (http://www.winearomas.com). They provide educational tools that develop your sense of smell and enhance your enjoyment of wine. The kit we had was Les Defaults. The defaults. It contained twelve little vials. These were full of molecules directly linked to the twelve most common faults in wine. We all sat around and smelled these little vials and talked about wine. Pretty cool. Until we got to number nine. Number nine was cauliflower. The second I smelled it, I gagged. It made me angry. Like when someone accidentally hurts you and your first instinct is to hit them back. It was awful. Worse than vegetal, rotten apple, vinegar, glue, soap, sulfur, rotten egg, onion, horse, moldy earth, or cork. I held that against cauliflower for a while. But we’re really good now.

In cauliflower’s defense, the stench results when those, oh so good for you, sulfur compounds are released. That’s why it’s not a great idea to boil cauliflower for very long. Maybe a quick blanch before another method. Because, not only does overcooked cauliflower smell bad, it becomes less good for you. And there are so many healthier, less smelly ways to do it.

On the tails of my success, I’m going to try growing some more for fall. Based on an October 20th first frost date, Clyde is advising me to start seeds inside on June 21st, plant them out by July 26th, to begin harvesting in October. I’m skeptical. Summer is so hot. I don’t see how they could stand it. But I have some seeds for ‘Amazing’ cauliflower from John Scheepers, about which his catalog reads,

“Aptly named for its unique attributes, it is amazingly adaptable throughout the U.S. Both high-heat and freezing-cold tolerant, Amazing has uniform, bright-white, deep dome, 10” heads that are…self-wrapping! Hooray! Its productive sturdy plants have large, dense curds with tight florets just bursting with flavor. (OP.)”

Nothing ventured…