Equinox Thoughts

Half of the foliage filling the kitchen garden is signaling the end of spring and summer vegetables, yellowing corn stalks, withered squash leaves and leafless pole bean vines. The other half signals the rise of autumn and winter crops, robust tops of parsnips, carrots, turnips and celeriac, full leaves of kales, chard, leeks, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, all in healthy shades of green.



fall-equinox-green-leeksPoised between seasons, the garden at the autumn equinox encourages a look ahead to the meals promised by the green side, but just as much it encourages a look back at the garden year so far, at spring plantings and summer harvests and at the surprises and discoveries that this garden year has offered.

Sunchocola cherry tomato is my vegetable surprise of the summer. It has a kind of silly name but the Territorial Seed Company description tempted me to try it: “The 1 1/4 inch round, henna colored fruit are juicy and divinely sweet, with an added depth of slightly smoky, low acid flavor that’s unusual in a cherry tomato. Rambling indeterminate plants yield generous trusses of fruit early in the season and continue for the long haul.” All true!



It’s a perfect cherry tomato, imagine a mini Cherokee Purple, and the vines are spectacular, requiring a ladder now for harvest. Eaten out of hand, halved in salads or, when there are just too many to eat fresh, roasted into a syrupy sauce, it’s truly delicious and has earned a permanent place in my greenhouse.

Then there is summer-grown kale. As I wrote in May, spring-seeded kale was surprising in its succulence and flavor, slowly converting me from my bias toward frost-sweetened kale. The conversion became complete this summer. We ate kale salads every day for lunch from kale that volunteered throughout the spring and early summer and grew into robust plants producing tender leaves. I still planted a winter kale bed in mid-July, and still look forward to frost-sweetened kale, but summer kale has been an unexpected treat.

So many pears this year, how to make time to dry them all? Our extra-abundant crop left me looking for ways to speed up the time it takes to peel and slice them for the dehydrator trays. I remembered that my friend Debbie uses a mandoline to slice pears for drying and that she even leaves the skins on. In one of the biggest equipment discoveries of the summer, we tried the mandoline and it works, cutting our preparation time from over an hour to fifteen minutes. And it doesn’t take that much more time to peel off the skin before slicing the pears with the mandoline. Ours is a Swissmar Borner V-1001 V-Slicer Plus Mandoline.

Another equipment innovation this summer was an electric raccoon fence. After losing most of our corn crop last year to raccoons, we knew we needed to be more prepared for predators this year. Our friends Maxine and Debbie showed us the electric fence they use to foil raccoons and gave us the Premier 1 Supplies catalog so we could order some. It will be a few years before the corn harvest pays back the cost of the fence, but it’s completely worth it to have worry-free corn harvests. In fact, the corn fence was so successful that I may plant a little less corn next year.

Deciding how much to plant each spring is a puzzle I return to every year. This year, I radically reduced the number of storage crops I planted: half a bed of potatoes instead of a whole bed, the same for onions, only one bed of winter squash instead of two beds, the same for bush dry beans. Looking back on the harvest from this vantage point of the autumn equinox, I think I made the right choice. Harvest was certainly quicker, storage easier. It won’t take so long to shell the dry beans. I made the change because I’d noticed that, in our mild winters, leeks and winter roots growing in the garden were more tempting than onions, potatoes and squash stored in the shed. By spring there were still storage vegetables left, some of them spoiled. Maybe winter will surprise me this year with extra cold temperatures and some crop failures, but it’s a gamble I’m willing to take, one I’ll assess next year at the spring equinox.


Summer Meals

In this busy summer of guests and dinner parties, I find myself reverting again and again to the simplest preparations of the summer vegetables bursting from the kitchen garden right now. Tomatoes, green beans, eggplant, peppers, fennel, first harvests of potatoes and onions can all go from garden to table with very little effort.

Vegetables in baskets

Sliced tomatoes drizzled with a little olive oil, sprinkled with salt and maybe garnished with fresh basil fill a platter quickly, colorful cherry tomato halves mixing with slices of red and yellow heirlooms.

Tomatoes in blue bowl '16

Green and yellow, skinny and wide pole beans cook in three minutes in boiling water and provide a lovely tangle of colors and textures in a shallow bowl.

Beans in vietri bowl '16

Eggplant quartered lengthwise, brushed with olive oil and roasted at 475 for about 20 minutes then pureed in the food processor with garlic, lemon zest and juice, ground cumin and tahini makes a lovely spread or dip, smooth flesh mixing with bits of charred skin. Chunks of potatoes and red onions, squares of red and yellow peppers and thick slices of fennel all tossed in a little olive oil, lightly salted and spread in a single layer on sheet pans roast in a 400 degree oven for 30-40 minutes. Served warm or at room temperature they make a colorful, flavorful potato salad.

Vegetables summer on island '16

The pleasure in these meals starts with filling harvest baskets in the cool, early morning air and ends in the evening with friends around the sun-warmed table. Time in the kitchen is minimal, leaving the rest of the day open. Later on, when the calendar clears a bit, there will be time for more complex preparations but for now the flavors of summer nourish us with very little effort from me.

Summer Plums

Plums on tree IE

Our Elma’s Special and Imperial Epineuse plum trees set a lot of plums this spring and now in late-July the small, sweet, dark purple plums are ripening. After years of trying to deter birds and raccoons with netting and traps while the plums approached perfect ripeness, I discovered that I can harvest these plums before they are fully ripe, and before they attract predators, and they will ripen to near perfection in a cool pantry. Raccoons still occasionally stage nighttime raids and birds peck at fruit now and then, but we get the bulk of the harvest to enjoy fresh, transformed into desserts or preserved for winter.

A bowl of fresh plums to share at breakfast, lunch or dinner is the easiest way to serve these summer treats, but a plum cake is almost as easy. I use a recipe first published in the New York Times in 1982. It goes together easily, bakes for about an hour, and disappears so quickly that I make one every few days this time of year. It makes a lovely dinner dessert but is also great for breakfast or lunch.

Plum Torte

Original Plum Torte

  • ¾ 
cup sugar
  • ½ 
cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup unbleached flour, sifted
  • 1 
teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt (optional)
  • 2 eggs
  • 24halves pitted purple plums (or enough to cover the top of the cake closely spaced)
  • Sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon for topping
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cream the sugar and butter in a bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and eggs and beat well.
  3. Spoon the batter into a spring form of 8, 9 or 10 inches. Place the plum halves skin side up on top of the batter. Sprinkle lightly with sugar and lemon juice, depending on the sweetness of the fruit. Sprinkle with (about) 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, depending on how much you like cinnamon.
  4. Bake one hour, approximately. Remove and cool; refrigerate or freeze if desired. Or cool to lukewarm and serve plain or with whipped cream.
  5. To serve a torte that was frozen, defrost and reheat it briefly at 300 degrees.

I like this torte plain but for really special occasions I will double the plum experience and make plum ice cream. Years ago my friend Kathy told me about the plum ice cream she was making from a recipe in David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop (2007). I bought the book for my husband and we started making this and many other amazing ice creams following Lebovitz’s excellent and imaginative recipes.

This particular recipe couldn’t be easier and the flavor, texture and color are perfect. Plums, sugar, cream and a bit of kirsch are the only ingredients. We use a Cuisinart ice cream maker that is easy to use and to clean.

Plum ice cream

David Lebovitz’s Plum Ice Cream

 Makes 1 Quart

 1 pound plums 

⅓ cup water

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup heavy cream

½ teaspoon kirsch

 Halve and pit the plums, cut them into 8ths and put them in a medium saucepan with the water. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar until dissolved. Let cool to room temperature.

 Once cool, puree in a blender or food processor with the cream and kirsch until smooth.

Chill thoroughly, then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Though some in this household might disagree, we can really eat only so much cake and ice cream. For the rest of the plums ripening in the pantry, I’ve found that while drying plums is easy even with the long drying time in the dehydrator, the quickest way for me to preserve plums is to cut them in half, remove the pits, arrange them closely, skin side down, on parchment paper-lined sheet plans and roast them at 300 degrees for about an hour.Plums roasted

At this point, they’ve softened and the juices have concentrated. When they are completely cool, I slide them into pint canning jars, screw on lids and freeze them. Thawed months from now, they are delicious with yogurt and granola. They aren’t the same as a ripe, fresh plum, but on a dark winter morning they bring back welcome memories of warm summer days.

PS: see Karen’s comment about skin-side up or skin-side down in the Original Plum Torte.  I’ve been doing skin-side down lately as in the photo above.  Here’s a version of skin side up.  Pretty too!  Thanks for noticing Karen!

Plum torte skin side up





Spring Turnip Dinners

We’ve been enjoying delicious spring turnips from the kitchen garden for the past two weeks. The seeds I planted May 1st provided 1-inch turnips on May 29th and we’ve been harvesting increasingly larger turnips, up to an inch-and-a-half diameter, since then. There’s one more meal left in these rows; then I’ll need to wait a few days for turnips from the seeds I planted in mid-May. In early July we’ll have turnips from a June 1st planting. Succession planting is a great way to extend the harvest of these spring treats.

Turnip closeup

Oasis is the quick-growing variety I plant, my favorite ever since learning about these tender spring turnips five years ago. They grow almost as quickly as radishes, and while they are tasty raw like a radish, I have most fun roasting them, sautéing their leaves and combining both with other flavors and textures.

One night last week I harvested half a dozen turnips, their greens and a head of cauliflower. With some already-cooked Drabo cannellini beans leftover from the night before, I began putting together a meal. After cutting off and setting aside the greens, I quartered the turnips and tossed them and some cauliflower pieces in olive oil, sprinkled on a bit of salt and I set them in a 425-degree oven to roast.

Spring turnip greens raw

Spring turnips and cauliflower

While they cooked, I put half a cup of red quinoa in boiling water and set the timer for eleven minutes. While the quinoa simmered, I sautéed the turnip greens in olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes; when they were almost wilted, I added the beans and some yellow raisins.

Spring turnip greens saute

The greens and beans were ready just as it was time to drain the quinoa, and a few minutes after that the turnips and cauliflower were softly caramelized and ready to eat. Arranged around the plate, these four pieces made a pretty picture and an even better meal.

spring turnip dinner

We sampled individual parts, then tried combinations, quinoa and greens, greens and turnips, greens and cauliflower, cauliflower and quinoa, gradually melding all the flavors and textures together into a wonderfully satisfying spring meal. Summer food is on the horizon, but for now it’s hard to imagine anything tastier than spring turnips.

Kale Lessons

I’ve always planted kale in mid-to-late July and watched the plants grow into robust, dark green towers of kale by October. But I always waited to harvest any until the plants went through a frosty night or two and the leaves became deliciously sweet. The leaves before the frost seemed thin and almost bitter compared to the sturdy, sweet, post-frost leaves.

Over this past late fall and early winter, however, kale plants, clusters and singles, volunteered in various spots throughout the garden, along edges of beds where seeds had dropped and through cover crops from seeds that must have survived the compost heat.  Curious about how they’d taste, I let them mature. Kale volunteers

Kale volunteerMy prejudice for July-planted, fall frost-sweetened kale kept my expectations low but I’ve been amazed by how succulent and sweet these later appearing, later maturing kale leaves are. The only frost they got in this past year’s mild winter was when they were quite small plants.

The July-planted kale, which in its last weeks of early May growth gave us many meals of delicious flower buds, is finally in the compost bin but the volunteer kale plants are still providing welcome salads and even some flower buds. And more volunteers have sprouted here and there in the past few weeks. I’ll let them mature too and see how they taste as they grow in the frost-free summer. And if they taste as good as I’m hoping they will, I’ll change my kale planting plan for the year ahead to try to mimic what volunteer seeds and weather patterns have taught me. We may end up eating kale year-round instead of only from October to May.

Kitchen gardener’s habits need to be nudged in new directions now and then, prejudices and rules challenged. With our warming climate, kale may be the first of many vegetables that will cause me to rethink planting calendars and favorite varieties. I’ll pay closer attention.




Habas y Jamon & Espárragos Revuelto

We’re just back from three weeks of walking in the countryside and cities of Andalusia, Spain. Dramatic landscapes, complex history, friendly Spaniards and fellow travelers were all highlights of our trip. We also returned with very fond memories of Andalusian food.

On our village-to-village walks I watched for kitchen gardens and the vegetables growing in them this time of year. Onions, chard and early lettuce stood out against brown soil and in even in the smallest garden plots there were often stands of habas, what I know as fava beans and what the English call broad beans. Favas growing in AndalusiaIn larger gardens long rows of favas grew around almond and olive trees, some with blossoms and some with pods already formed, like those in the kitchen garden of Las Chimeneas, the inn and restaurant in Mairena where we stayed for a week while taking daily walks into the mountains and to surrounding villages.

Fava beans are one of our kitchen garden favorites here on Lopez Island, planted in fall or in early spring and harvested in June or July. Fava beans growing jpgWe serve them pureed for crostini or sandwiches and whole in pasta sauces or as side dishes, but none of these Italian and Californian preparations prepared me for Habas y Jamon, fava beans and Serrano ham, a classic Andalusian dish. The first night our hosts served it I was transported. There was the familiar earthy fava flavor but with a pleasant, faint bitterness from the skin still encasing the small, tender beans. Added to these flavors were the salty sweetness of the ham and the subtle flavors of onion, tomato and orange in the surrounding sauce. Familiar tastes yet a totally new combination. I wanted to eat it every night.

When I told our hosts how much I enjoyed this dish, they graciously offered to show me how to make it, adding this dish to the paella demonstration they’d planned. ConchiAssisted by Emma on the right, Conchi began by adding nearly a cupful of olive oil to a large skillet, warming it as she sliced in a couple of onions and lightly softened them. Next she added two or three handfuls of thinly sliced ham, warming it briefly before chopping and adding several tomatoes, zest from an orange and finally several quarts of small shelled but not peeled fava beans. That was it. The mixture simmered back in the kitchen as she showed us how to make paella. Habas y Jamon was served as a side dish to the paella but for me it could have been the entire meal

With only peeled and frozen favas from last year’s crop and no true Serrano ham, I was still determined to recreate this dish. My first scaled-down version of Conchi’s recipe was very tasty, bringing back happy memories of the original dish. Habas y Jamon in skilletI’m looking forward to this year’s fava crop and the chance to try some unpeeled beans from an early harvest. And maybe I can even find some real Serrano ham.

Asparagus was another spring vegetable we saw many times but not growing in gardens. Instead, in our walks along country paths, we saw long, thin stalks of wild asparagus in the arms and pockets of foragers. Forager #1

Forager #2These jolly foragers reminded me of the cookbook author and writer David Tanis’s story of eating wild asparagus in Andalusia in the spring. Tanis writes: “Long, skinny and ever so slightly bitter, Spanish wild asparagus has a deep green flavor. The best way to cook it, I was told, is sautéed in olive oil with garlic, then swirled with beaten eggs to make a revuelto…a kind of scrambled eggs.” The recipe he developed to accompany his story includes chorizo, green onions and a scattering of toasted croutons along with the eggs and asparagus.

Back home with asparagus from our kitchen garden, I followed his recipe. Though missing the wild asparagus and the wonderful pimenton-flavored chorizo of Andalusia, the dish was delicious and kept our food memories of Spain alive.Asparagus Revuelto




Black Beans and White Beans

Beans in pantry

I like to add beans to many dishes, both for their delicious flavor and for the protein they supply. Black, white, cranberry, flageolet, fava all go wonderfully with pastas, grains and greens. Lately, black beans and white beans have been my favorite additions, perhaps because I had such a good crop of each this year and also because now that I’ve finally finished shelling them all, the pantry holds jars full of beans.

The black turtle beans I’ve grown for years are tiny, coal-colored beans full of sweet, earthy flavor. Soaked for about eight hours, either overnight or during the day, they cook in about twenty minutes and hold their shape perfectly. Last year I started adding them to cooked emmer farro. The contrasting textures, soft beans and chewy farro, are perfect together and the black and tan tones are pretty on the plate. With a side of chard sautéed with oil and garlic and topped with some yellow raisins and toasted hazelnuts, they make a satisfying meal.

Beans and farro

Black beans and broccoli are another tasty combination I discovered recently. Overwintered broccoli plants had started producing lots of small shoots of sweet florets so I lightly brushed some with olive oil, sprinkled on a little salt and roasted them on a sheet pan. Delicious on their own, they were even better mixed with some leftover black beans warmed in olive oil and garlic. I’ll definitely make this combination again with broccoli and soon with flower buds from kale and other brassicas.

Beans black and broccoli

White beans combine well with grains too. In his always-inspiring cookbook Plenty More, Yotam Ottolenghi offers a recipe for parsley, lemon and cannellini bean salad with red quinoa. It sounds like a summer salad but it’s wonderful in winter too. I first made a half batch in January for lunch and we finished it all in one sitting. I used my standard white bean, Drabo, a cannellini type. Its sweet, nutty flavor was perfect with the grassy-flavored quinoa, and the crunch of quinoa contrasted nicely with the soft beans. Parsley, mint, chives and a touch of allspice added herbal flavors to the lemon and olive oil coating the beans and quinoa. And finally, the red quinoa is beautiful against the white beans. I made this salad again yesterday using Tarbais beans, another delicious white bean I grew from seeds my bean-loving friend Carol gave me.

Beans and quinoa

Parsley, Lemon and Cannellini Bean Salad

2/3 c red quinoa

2/3 c flat-leaf parsley, finely shredded

2/3 c mint leaves, finely shredded

3-4 green onions, thinly sliced (I used chives)

1 1/3 cups cooked cannellini beans

1/2 large lemon, skin and seeds removed, flesh finely chopped

1/2 tsp ground allspice

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and Pepper

 Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Add quinoa and simmer for 11 minutes. Drain, refresh under cold water, and set aside to dry completely. Transfer the cooled quinoa to a large bowl. Add parsley, mint, green onions, beans, lemon, allspice, oil, 3/4 teaspoon of salt and some black pepper. Stir everything together and serve.

Last month my friend Peggy gave me a pound package of Marcella beans, Italian Sorana beans, grown by Steve Sando at Rancho Gordo and named for the late Italian cookbook author, Marcella Hazan. The January 5, 2016 New York Times reported the lovely story behind these beans and their namesake, and Peggy, knowing my fondness for beans, ordered some for me. Quoting Hazan’s husband Victor, the Times article reveals that “To Marcella, one of the ultimate pleasures in life was warm beans with good olive oil.” I agree. I cooked up some of these creamy, sweet beans and they are delicious this way. I cooked more a few nights later and I tossed them with some sautéed garlic, minced sage and oil-cured black olives, squeezed on a little lemon and paired them with couscous. The light couscous was a great match for the delicate flavor and texture of the beans while the garlic, sage, olives and lemon added lovely background layers of flavors to the beans and couscous.

Beans and couscous

In two months, around mid-May, I’ll plant beans for the year ahead. They are easy to grow, germinating quickly if the days are warm and dry, more slowly if its cool and damp, filling out into large, leafy plants that suppress weeds and need no attention except watering until mid-to-late September when the pods, swollen with beans, will be ready to harvest and shell. Between now and then, we’ll continue to add this year’s crop of beans to lunches and dinners. And we’ll hope we don’t run out before fall.