A Black Currant Streusel Cake With Black Currant Compote

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So far, it’s been a good year for berries! A cold winter and abundant spring rains have given the plants what they want.  You will not hear me complain about the past winter nor about the rains (yet, at least…)

I am actually harvesting red raspberries… thanks to a bout of happy garden laziness. The raspberry canes that fruited last year should have been cut down at the end of the winter. For a number of reasons – none of them very good – I never cleaned the patch. And what’s the result? Raspberries  in June! Not something to do every year as the patch would rapidly becoming an awful mess, but every  2  years, or every year on half the patch alternating which half is cut in March. Remains to be seen, however, if the fall harvest is as abundant as before. Still raspberries in June is pretty nice.

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I have written before before about my fondness for red currants. I simply adore their brilliant tartness, when mixed with other berries, or by themselves with a light sprinkle of sugar, or in the easiest jelly in the world, one I make every year.

This year, I am also harvesting black currants. When I planted them, I had cassis on my mind, the syrupy dark purple liquor from Burgundy that’s also made in the Ile d’Orlean, in Quebec. I somehow imagines that the berries have the same flavors. Not so. Certainly not raw.

Black currants needs to be cooked for that haunting flavor. Otherwise it’s just another tart berry, and one not particularly remarkable at that. Pleasant but nothing special. Cook it however, and you’ve got something really special. Read more

Signs of Spring

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March 30:  black currant leaves just visible.

April 2: 14F (14F!!!!!!) at night. Forecast called for 24. I did not cover my newly planted brassicas. A week later they show damage – the outer leaves show large whitish spots.

April 3: spotted the first green deciduous tree on the way to a client – a weeping willow with its acid yellow-green new leaves.

April 5: Keith installs 2 new bee colonies.

April 7: peas pushing through. No sign of the fava beans. Afraid the mice got them.

April 8: we are harvesting large bowls of salad “greens” from the garden. My favorite fast food available again!

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April 9:  first bear visit of the year. Yikes! A big fellow (or madam?) too, on the porch, at 2 AM sniffing around empty grain bags. He carried out the box where I neatly fold the bags and proceeded to go through them. No damage done. Noise maker in action…

April 10: First dandelions blooming here. Time to start watching for bee swarms.

April 11: Spice berries clouded in yellow. Can the redbuds be far behind? And we all know what that means

 

 

Restarting The Kitchen Garden

I wish I could say that year-round gardening is the way of life here. But it has not been true for the last couple of years when several things have – ahem! – come in the way of winter gardening. So it’s spring, and I am planting!

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Lower Garden on March 23, 2014

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Postcard from the Winter Kitchen

grits & manchego souffle

Simple comforting lunch on this gray day: tomato soup (with canned tomato from last summer), buttermilk biscuits, grits & manchego souffle, roasted Hatch pepper & tomatillo salsa (peppers & tomatillo from last summer)

The Bees in Winter

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It’s been a hard winter for the bees. Harder than usual. We have lost 1 of our 3 colonies and it’ll be a few more weeks at best till we see reliably clement temperatures and blossoms for them. How can we help them?

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Winter Tomato Soup

winter tomato soupAs far as I am concerned, I grow tomatoes for winter eating. In fact, this year, I am mostly growing paste tomatoes: Roma, Amish Paste, San Marzano, and Grandma Mary’s Paste

Tomatoes in summer? oh, sure, I like a good tomato sandwich as much as anyone (they are a summer staple lunch in fact). And roasted tomatoes, fast or slow, as well as tomato salad or gazpacho or the occasional tomato sorbet.

But in February nothing beats a lasagna redolent with garlicky and rosemary tomato sauce (unless it’s one with mushroom & bechamel) nor homemade pizza with thick red sauce. Or a piping hot tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwich. All perfect comfort food that’s warming and delicious. A pleasure to eat when it’s gray and cold. And that is why I bother and can tomatoes.

The soup is easy, comforting and delicious. Read more

Local For the Holidays… Of Course!

Heirloom vegetables are a familiar term – conveying the idea of plants bred and selected over years of patient work for specific traits and local conditions, as well as the resulting seeds carefully passed down generations.  The livestock equivalent is “heritage” breed.

When it comes to turkeys, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is specific: heritage turkeys must reproduce and be genetically maintained through natural mating; are able to live outdoors a long productive life (5-7 years for hens, 3-5 years for toms); and grow “slowly” (by modern commercial standards), naturally building a robust skeleton and internal organs before they grow meat — reaching marketable size in 28 weeks or more. And those birds are magnificent!

Standard Bronze Turkey. Photo by and at Crowfoot Farm in Amissville, VA

 

Contrast that to most turkeys sold in the US:   Read more

On Cardoon

My husband says “cardoon” sounds like something out of The Lord of The Rings. I say it’s more like Deep Space 9.

Either way, we love it here. It’s beautiful in the garden and it’s delicious (recipe at the end of the post)

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While I normally start cardoons from seeds, this year I was too lazy/too late/too swamped to start seeds, and so I bought 6 healthy seedlings at one of our local small family-run nurseries Morningside Farm & Nursery. They have a super nice section of herbs, succulent, tropicals and perennials. Morningside sells cardoon as an ornamental – perennial in zone 7 or lower. For us in the Nothern Virginia Piedmont, it’s a perennial if we have mild winters — which we  have had for the last several years. Certainly cardoon is a very striking plant in the garden, with its statuesque presence (if grown well, it can reach 6 feet when in flower — the 2nd year), its large silvery felt-like leaves and its oversized thistle flowers (assuming you let it bloom). It IS a gorgeous plant. And gorgeousness is the reason most people will ever grow them for. But it’s also eminently edible: it’s an artichoke grown for its stem. When properly prepared, they do indeed taste of artichoke. The other artichoke, globe artichoke, is grown for its flower bud. Yep, you are eating a thistle bud when you eat an artichoke!

Cardoon

Cardoons growing with Swiss chard. Both vegetables produce stems that make sumptuous gratins.

Plant them out at the same time the morels emerge. Read more

The Other Quince

Japanese quince flowers are truly enchanting in the spring. But the fruit that ripen in mid-fall sure aren’t pretty: hard to the touch and to the teeth, gnarly, pitted, inhabited often. Raw they are so tart that they’ll make your mouth puckers (if you don’t break a tooth first biting into it)  and your stomach  revolts if you manage to swallow. So why do I want anything to do with them?

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Because, when managed correctly, you’ve got some pretty tasty treats. That’s why!

European quince (of which I have written, here, and here) turn into hauntingly floral soft fruit once cooked, making them great as side dish to rich meat, as sauce, in baked desserts, ice-cream, jam, jelly, booze etc.

Japanese quince are viewed almost purely as ornamental in the Western world and their culinary use is much more limited. (If you are interested, do check out this page on the medicinal properties of Japanese quince). Because of their incredible tartness I have only used them with lots of sugar: jam, jelly, syrups & cordials. Or honey – it’s a wonderful combination.  And their aroma? Think sharp lemon jam with floral undertones and none of the bitterness. As they cook with sugar they turn a perfectly beautiful red hue.

Now isn’t that something you could use? Tart, beautiful color, fragrant? I thought so: don’t let your Japanese quince go to waste!

Granted, it’s some work to get it all done – but think about it: how much time did you spend taking care of the shrub? Zilch would be my bet! So get your knives out and get going.

You can turn the fruit into an exquisite jam (recipe for Japanese Quince Jam below). Or you can cook it and strain it: the resulting juice is absolutely wonderful in jelly (Recipe for Japanese Quince Jelly below), and the remaining purée can be used for jam or rustic fruit paste (less nice than if you also use the juice, but still nice). But here is my triumph – and I came to it accidentally. I had been chopping hot peppers – without gloves – while a pot of jelly was simmering. I used my finger to taste the jelly… and I had this most wonderful spicy hot, sweet and tart taste… the best hot pepper jelly.

Now, I like some hot pepper jellies – the one made by my friend Jennifer, as well as the one made by the Turners through their Virginia Chutney Company. But too often the jelly is over-sweet and too rubbery. It’s because one must use lots of pectin since peppers don’t have any to talk of. One must also use vinegar for acidity – and sometimes sub-par vinegar is used. But here I’ve got this incredibly tart juice that naturally so full of pectin that it jells if you look at it wrong. In fact that when I tried to make a syrup, it jelled solid over night.

Anyway… that’s my triumph: Japanese Quince Hot Pepper Jelly. Try it – you won’t regret it.

japanese Quince Jelly Read more

Chestnuts?

Chestnut time!

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Yes, it is time consuming to shell fresh chestnuts. There, I said it. But if it’s not difficult – provided you blanch the chestnuts and peel them while still warm.

Besides chestnuts are a treat, made all the rarer because the trees take a long time to grow and bear fruit; the nuts must be harvested almost daily to avoid chestnut-eating worms. In fact, best if you can put a cloth on the ground, shake branches with a long pole and move away fast to avoid the rain of thorny shells.  Thick gloves and stout boots are helpful too.

As well, true American chestnuts are a rarity. Once a mighty tree that provided rot-resistant timber & fence wood; fire wood through coppicing; tannins to tan leather; abundant flowering for honey bees;  fresh nuts for humans, pigs, and wild life; and dry nuts and flour for winter food, chestnut trees may have constituted as much as 25% of the Eastern North American forest. Alas an imported blight practically wiped out them in the 20th century. Some remain west of the Rockies and a few specimens in rare pockets in the East. They generally don’t live long, and the most promising trees (in terms of disease resistance) have been crossed and back-crossed with the immune Chinese chestnuts through the efforts of organizations such as The American Chestnut Foundation and  the American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation.

So local chestnuts, whether cultivated or foraged are likely to be the Chinese or even Japanese chestnuts, or hybrids. Chikapin chestnuts (another native that grows on a small tree) are really tiny – so ignored by people.  The large chestnuts sold in the store are imported from Europe.

By the way, when buying or collecting chestnuts, carefully inspect them for tiny holes. They are the sign that the nuts are inhabited.  Discard them. I collect fresh chestnut, and as I soon as I get home, I dump them in water and discard the ones that float, on the theory that the flesh has been eaten or has started to rot.

Chestnuts are versatile, used with equal success in desserts and in savory dishes, as the lovely recipe below.

Chestnut and Onion Braisée Read more