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-yellow

fall-equinox-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!

tomato-sunchocola

tomato-sunchocola-vine

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.

 

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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

 

 

 

 

Roasted Pears

This year was a great pear year. Our Orcas, Highland, Conference and Comice pear trees all produced many pounds of pears, 526 pounds to be exact. We’ve already dried boxes of fast-ripening Orcas pears, filling the food dehydrator every day for over two weeks and packing gallon jars with these chewy pear treats. The Highland, Conference and Comice, all of which require a chilling period before ripening, are stored in a generous friend’s large fridge, giving us the luxury of a slower pace and longer pear season as we bring out and ripen one box at a time.

While I was waiting for the Highlands to reach perfect ripeness, I came across a recipe for roasted pear and rainbow chard salad. I wasn’t so interested in eating raw chard from my winter kitchen garden, but I was really intrigued by the idea of roasting pears. The recipe author emphasized that pears that aren’t quite perfectly ripe become “sweetly delicious” when roasted. She’s right. It’s a magical transformation and the resulting pears are perfect for all sorts of uses. And even though this method is recommended for not-quite-ripe pears, ripe pears gain wonderful flavors from roasting too.

Pears roasted prep

To roast pears, cut them in half lengthwise and cut out the core. Next, remove a bit of skin and pear from the outsides of the pear halves to create a flat surface. Finally, cut each half in half again so that you have four half-to-three-quarter-inch slices of pear. Arrange on a sheet pan and brush with either olive oil or melted butter. I’ve found that the olive oil adds a nice flavor for salads while the butter is tastier for desserts or breakfast. Roast at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes, turning them after ten minutes so both sides caramelize and brown. You can also roast the pear halves instead but I find the thinner slices cook more evenly and have more tasty caramelized surfaces.

Pears roasted in pan

Instead of chard as a salad green for roasted pears, I turned to burgundy colored Fiero radicchio and light green Pan di Zucchero, both upright growing bitter greens, but any pungent green such as arugula or red mustard is a great match for sweetly caramelized pears. My friend Diane had the same idea, writing: “Today’s salad…was radicchio and goat cheese.  The recipe called for raisins soaked in balsamic, but I thought hey, I have those pears which are great roasted…so I added some balsamic to the roasting process and oh my. Wonderful.”

Pears roasted salad

Pears and pork are also a perfect pairing. The other night I served pork sausage, roasted pears and cornbread to accompany poblano chile soup. Another night, roasted pears were a perfect side for a pasta sauce of sautéed chard, onion and bacon. And then there was roasted pear and bacon pizza for an informal dinner and for a more formal meal pork chops with darkly roasted pears on the side next to sautéed red onions, wild mushrooms and chicory.

Pears roasted bacon pizza

Pears roasted w: pork chop

Breakfast and dessert turn out to be more great venues for roasted pears. Fresh pears are great with yogurt and granola but roasted pears add their pleasant caramel softness to breakfast. And for dessert, roasted pear slices on their own are lovely; added to cream, ice cream or custard they would be lovely too.

Pears roasted granola

There are half a dozen more boxes of pears in my friend’s fridge so many opportunities to find more uses for roasted pears. I’m already imagining something new for the Thanksgiving table. I just saw a recipe for roasted pears with roasted Brussels sprouts. I’ll try it between now and T-day.

Ground Cherry Adventures

Ground cherries 3During a visit to England in spring 2013, we enjoyed many puddings and cakes garnished with little round golden/orange colored fruits framed by lighter gold husk-like leaves. They were slightly crunchy with a sweet and tart flavor, tropical like pineapple. I’d never seen or eaten them before and even their name, Cape Gooseberry, was unfamiliar.

Months later as I was ordering seeds for the 2014 kitchen garden I saw them again, this time in the Territorial Seed catalog under the name Ground Cherry, Physalis peruviana. They were listed along with tomatillos, another husk-enclosed orb of the Physalis family. I definitely had to try growing some of these delicious little fruits. Of the two varieties offered, Aunt Molly’s and Pineapple, I chose Aunt Molly’s because the days to maturity were ten days shorter than for Pineapple.

The catalog description suggested growing them as you would tomatoes, starting seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last spring frost, carefully hardening them off before setting them out in a warm place, and watering regularly. When I told my friend Carol, a specialist in unusual plants, that I was growing ground cherries this year she offered me seeds of goldenberry, a related variety, to try as well. The tiny seeds of each variety germinated well though slowly, and by late spring I had sturdy plants to set out. I put two of each variety in the cold frame where they’d get plenty of heat and good irrigation, spacing them about eighteen inches apart.

Ground cherries growingGoldenberries growingIn the weeks that followed their growth habits emerged. The ground cherry sent out branches in all directions, hugging the ground as its name suggested. The goldenberry grew upward, strong branches more like those of tomatillos. Both produced lovely exotic blossoms, yellow with purple centers. If they’d done nothing else, they’d still have been a great ornamental addition to the kitchen garden, but by mid-July the blossoms gave way to little lantern-like shapes hanging from the branches, lovely as well. The ground cherry lanterns were light green and rounded while the goldenberry lanterns were darker green veined with purple and elongated.  And finally, just as the catalog described, the  husks on the ground cherry turned from green to golden tan and dropped to the ground. I gathered a handful, peeled back the husks and there were the golden/orange orbs I’d tasted over a year ago on English desserts. We ate them like candy. The cold frame became the favorite kitchen garden snack stop.

We’ve continued to treat them like candy but the abundance of ground cherries has lead me to look for other ways to prepare them. They are definitely more than a dessert garnish. In her cookbook Chez Panisse Fruit (2002), Alice Waters suggests holding them by the husk and dipping them in chocolate for a stand-alone dessert treat. Moving beyond desserts, she suggests adding them to salsas and to salads. Their sweet/tart flavor combines well with spicy peppers, pickled onions and sweet tomatoes as well as with pungent greens like arugula. Recently I made a salad of fresh corn, cherry tomatoes, lightly pickled red onion, basil and lots of husked ground cherries. The ground cherries added a welcome layer of sweet tart flavor to this already tasty mix. Ground cherry salsa saladTo a grain salad made with Bluebird Grain Farms Potlach Pilaf (cracked emmer farro and wild rice), I added sliced fresh plums and basil leaves, toasted pecans, and lots of ground cherries to the cooked and cooled grains for a delicious complement to pork chops.

Ground cherry pilaf

And one morning, I added husked ground cherries to cornmeal scones, just to see what they’d be like. Cooked, they lose some of their intense flavor and reminded us most of blueberries. They were tasty but their flavor raw is so much more interesting I think I’ll stick with them fresh and experiment with more salsas and salads.

Ground cherry scones

Waters also points out that ground cherries “continue to color and ripen after harvesting and should not be eaten until they have turned yellow or orange.” (52) Other sources explain that when green and unripe, ground cherries can cause an upset stomach. Finally, in good news for storage, Waters and others say that ground cherries in their husks will keep for months in a cool, dry place.

Google searches have turned up many more dessert and salad recipes for ground cherries as well as more tips for growing and harvesting them and even lists of other names they go by: husk cherry, Peruvian ground cherry, bladder cherry, husk tomato, strawberry tomato, pohas or poha berries. I’ll continue to collect recipe ideas as the remaining ground cherries ripen. In another month the goldenberries should be ripe too and will provide more material for experiments. Thanks to those English desserts, ground cherries and their cousin goldenberry will be part of our kitchen garden from now on.

 

 

Pear Pairings

Pear tree ConferenceI’ve been working my way through this year’s crop of Conference pears, a pretty and productive English heirloom pear that Scott harvested from his kitchen garden orchard in early October and stored in a friend’s walk-in cooler for a month.  We retrieved them in early November and have been ripening several dozen at time. Conference pears are especially good for chutney because their firm flesh holds up to long cooking, but we’ve also been enjoying their creamy texture and honey-like sweetness with yogurt and in salads and desserts.  In all these preparations, I’m reminded that the sweetness of pears is a perfect match for spicy, sharp and pungent flavors.  A pear by itself is delicious, but paired with contrasting flavors it’s even better.

Pear closeup Conference

Chutney is the most dramatic melding of pear sweetness with strongly contrasting flavors.  The recipe I’ve made for the past few years calls for pears, vinegar, onion, garlic, yellow raisins, mustard seed, cinnamon, cloves and lots of candied ginger. As these ingredients cook down together, sweet and sharp, pungent and spicy fragrances fill the kitchen, reminding me of all the meals I’ll serve with this rich pear condiment, everything from cheddar cheese sandwiches and baked potatoes to savory tarts, curries and roasted meats.Pear chutney tray

Plain yogurt with its pleasantly acidic flavor is another perfect foil for pears.  Yogurt, fruit and granola have been our standard breakfast for years, fruit varying with the seasons.  The pear months are especially tasty times because fresh pears along with dried pears in the granola make a double pear experience, lots of sweet to match the tang of yogurt.

Pears, yogurt, granola

Fall and winter salads are a classic canvas for sweet pears and contrasting flavors.  The other night, inspired by a recipe for “Red Mustard Salad with Asian Pears and Pecans” in Alice Waters’ newest cookbook The Art of Simple Food II, I added sliced Conference pears and chopped toasted hazelnuts to a bowl of Scarlet Frills mustard, Giant Red mustard and arugula and tossed this beautiful blend of colors, textures and flavors with a dressing of white wine vinegar, diced shallot, grated fresh ginger, olive oil salt and pepper.  Spicy greens, hot ginger, pungent shallot and sharp vinegar met sweet pears in a salad combination I’ll definitely make again.  But before I do I’ll make a different salad that combines pears with Gorgonzola or another pungent blue cheese.  Arugula or mache would be good greens here and sherry vinaigrette.  Next, instead of cheese, I might combine just pears and greens and let mustard vinaigrette provide the contrasting sharpness.  There are so many variations on sweet pear salads. I’ll run out of pears before I run out of salad combinations.

Pear mustard salad with dressing

Finally, there are pear desserts that bring ginger and other spices into the mix. A few years ago our friend Peggy introduced us to Upside down Pear Ginger Bread Cake, a perfect dessert for fall and winter. Wedges of pear soften in sugar and butter beneath the baking gingerbread batter, and the finished cake, pear side up, offers mouthfuls of sweet caramelized pear and spicy, dark molasses cake.  And if there’s no time for baking, a perfectly ripe pear makes a lovely dessert too, maybe with a bit of candied ginger on the side.

Pear Gingerbread

Conference pears fill the gap between our September-harvest Orcas pears and the even later Comice pears.  Luckily I have a couple of boxes of Comice pears still in my friend’s fridge, ready to ripen when the Conference are gone. Comice is a classic dessert pear served all on its own but I know I’ll be slipping them into salads and breakfast yogurt too.

Pears comice

Rhubarb

Rhubarb growingRhubarb grows so quickly, exploding from the ground, shooting up stalks, billowing out foliage, all in a few weeks.  It leaves other spring perennials, asparagus, artichokes, strawberries, far behind.  But this rapid growth is good; it means pies and sauces sooner.

We are a two-pie family when it comes to rhubarb.  Scott prefers rhubarb custard lattice-top pie while I’m partial to plain rhubarb pie, either two-crust or galette style.  I’ll often make one of each and we’ll sample each other’s favorite but have seconds of the one we like best.

Rhubarb pies

Rhubarb pie sliceBoth recipes I use are from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, 1973 edition. I’ve used the excellent pie section so often that the pages are falling out.

Rhubarb Custard Pie

Mix 1 and ½ cups sugar, ¼ cup all-purpose flour, ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg and a dash of salt.  Add to 3 beaten eggs; beat smooth.  Stir in 4 cups 1-inch slices rhubarb. Prepare pastry for 9-ince lattice-top pie.  Fill with rhubarb mixture.  Dot with 2 tablespoons butter.  Adjust lattice top; seal.  Bake at 400 degrees for 50 minutes.

Rhubarb Pie

Combine 4 cups 1-inch slices rhubarb, 1 and ½ cups sugar, 1/3 cup all-purpose flour and dash of salt; let stand for 15 minutes. Prepare pastry for 2-crust 9-inch pie; line 9-inch pie plate with rhubarb mixture. Dot with 2 tablespoons butter.  Adjust top crust, cutting slits for escape of steam; seal; flute. Bake at 400 degrees for 50 minutes.

In this season of abundant rhubarb, pie is for dinner, or even lunch but for breakfast I like rhubarb sauce with plain yogurt and granola.  Several years ago I discovered Nigella Lawson’s rhubarb sauce recipe that calls for baking rather than boiling the rhubarb with sugar and grated orange rind and it’s the one I’ve used ever since.

Rhubarb sauce raw

Rhubarb sauce, cooked

Rhubarb Sauce

For two pounds of sliced rhubarb, add 1 or 1 and 1/3 cup sugar, depending on your sweetness preference, and the grated rind of one orange.  Bake, covered, at 375 degrees for 35-45 minutes until soft but not mushy.  I’ve sometimes substituted candied ginger for orange rind or simply left out the flavorings.  All variations are delicious.

The rhubarb in my current clump is from starts friends in eastern Washington gave me.  An unnamed variety, it’s the best rhubarb I’ve ever grown. The light pink stalks are tender and flavorful, needing less sugar than some of the darker red varieties I’ve grown in the past.  And it stays lush well into late summer with only moderate watering.

Our daily indulgence in rhubarb will no doubt wane as strawberries, raspberries and blueberries come in but until then, it’s the best thing on offer and we’ll eat our fill.

Peeling/Coring/Slicing/Drying Apples

Apple peeler:corer:slicerThis time of year I pull out one of my most fun kitchen gadgets, an apple peeler/corer/slicer. It peels, it cores, it slices and all at once with just the turn of a handle.  Push an apple onto the forked end of the shaft and a half-dozen turns later the peel is gone, the core is gone, the apple is sliced and ready for whatever next steps you have in mind. For me, that step is cutting through the apple “slinky” to create perfect apple halves. While these halves would be fine filling for a pie, my plan is to arrange them on food dehydrator trays, set the dehydrator temperature at about 130 degrees and four or five hours later have tasty dried apples.

Apple slinkyApple slices on tray

Who invented this amazingly fun tool and when?  I realized that I had no idea, so I turned to Google where a short search led me to the website of the Cheshire County Historical Society in Keene, New Hampshire and an entry titled The Labor Saving Devices of David Goodell:

In 1864 Goodell invented and patented the “lightning apple parer,” a device which peeled an apple faster and easier than could be done by hand. Goodell began to produce these machines in Antrim, and sold them through a New York distributor. A few thousand of the parers were sold during the first two years. In 1867 Goodell went on the road to sell the product himself. He sold 24,000 parers in three weeks and the machine became known far and wide…When Goodell passed away in 1915, his successful company employed 250 people. Although the firm expanded its line of products over the years, the original labor saving apple parer was known to generations of Americans and was still being produced by the Goodell Company in the late 1970s, 115 years after David Goodell invented it. http://www.hsccnh.org/mm/mm092.cfm

My apple parer isn’t an original Goodell, sad to say.  It’s a Progressive Kitchenwares copy, but David Goodell’s ingenuity still pleases me as I happily peel, core and slice apples one after the other.

The dried apples I’m making now, a batch a day for the next week or so, are all meant for Christmas gifts.  A few years ago I began adding dried apples to the gift box for my brother and his family and they were such a hit that I’ve added them to the gift boxes for six other families, both siblings and in-laws.  The soft, fruit-leather texture and the intense apple flavor of each dried slice make them a delicious snack, but my brother also puts them in a ground pork pie and says the flavor they add is great.  I’m pleased by their popularity because these dried apples are a way to share the bounty of our kitchen garden orchard with family living far away.Apples dried

Melrose is the apple variety I use for drying.  They are latest-harvest apple we grow, picked in mid-October and stored in a cool place for six weeks or so while their flavor mellows.  By late November, they are sweet and juicy and ideal for drying.  They are also a nice round shape, a perfect fit for David Goodell’s ingenious parer.  I’ll be sure to include his story in this year’s Christmas box.