Archive for herb

For the Love of Purslane

When my neighbor went to Turkey a few years ago, she was fortunate to spend time with a Turkish family, and taste true Turkish cuisine prepared at home. She also had a grand time at the Istanbul Bazaar and came back with amazingly fragrant spices, some of which she gifted me. She really enjoyed many vegetable dishes and was particularly intrigued by a vegetable she never had before… and had I ever heard of it? such a funny name:  purslane?

Basil & purslane both like hot summer weather

Purslane & basil both like hot summer weather

I burst out laughing, and told her I’d bring her a big basket the following morning, wanted to harvest it when it was cool. Which I did. Fair is fair: a basket of “weeds” for a basket of spice.

Because, as you know, many Americans consider purslane (Portulaca oleracea) a weed. In fact, many don’t even know it’s edible. It’s a cousin of the ornamental  moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), sometime also called purslane. Don’t confuse the two  when buying seeds (you are unlikely to find Portulaca oleracea plants for sale)

Yet – it is. It’s also nutritious, mild (vaguely lemony) & crunchy – and for me it grows when lettuce does not. In the garden, it’s an annual succulent. It self-sows (and how!) but does not germinates until it is quite warm. In poor soil, it can look “weedy” indeed. But in good garden soil, it becomes a handsome plant that hugs the ground. Pick often to delay flowering and to encourage more leaves.

Leaves, stalks, buds, flowers and seeds are all edible. But the younger, firmer, leaves are preferable – so pinch out shoots to harvest (and encourage branching at the same time).  I dislike the texture of the tiny seeds, so I swish my harvest in a large bowl of cold water to dislodge the seeds that sink to the bottom of the bowl.

A cultivated “improved” version of purslane exists. The pale-golden green leaves are fleshier than the ones growing wild in my garden, but also more fragile and the plant is not as robust. I prefer the unimproved version.

So how do you eat purslane? Read more

Growing Ginger In Virginia

 

Nothing could be simpler than growing ginger in Virginia.

It’s almost true.

Just dug baby ginger in the fall

 

Ginger is reasonably ornamental – a reed-like plant with clear green leaves. While it can be grown in the vegetable or herb garden, it is not out of place with ornamental plants – provided you can dig them out easily enough — without damaging bulbs or perennials. Don’t plant them with daffodils!

A small clump of ginger growing with other tropicals and annuals

 

So yes, it is tropical – but that not necessarily a reason not to grow it. We grow many other plants from the tropics and treat them like annuals. You can do the same with ginger.

I have grown it for years in my garden – small yield but it was mine! Ginger requires a long frost-free growing season — about one year for mature ginger, 8 months for baby ginger. That’s more than our climate allows… except that you can start ginger indoors. farmers do it in high tunnels (aka hoophouses). I start it my greenhouse, but a very sunny window or sun room will work. With a warm early start in late winter, appropriate temperatures at all times, abundant water, and judicious shade, you can grow ginger to a harvestable size. Read more

Postcard from the Garden

November 6 – first hard freeze, down to 26 this morning. Good thing I harvested all the baby ginger that was growing outside. I still have some in a tub taken to the greenhouse. Let’s see how long it keeps growing.

Postcard From The Garden

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One of my favorite herbs, blooming now (complete with ant & pollinator)

it’s summer, you eat … WHAT???!!!

Purslane: I call it a nutritious easy to grow crunchy little green (now officially renamed par moi a “super gourmet green” !). Add it to green salads, or – my favorite – to potato salad. Other people like it too: El - of course! (go to this post for a picture … if you need one) – and Chelsea whose post of Warm Potato & Purslane Salad inspired me to try purslane with potato salad. Nonetheless, he calls it a weed. He eats it, though – gingerly. Me? I am going to pickle it, having found a recipe in one of my French cookbooks.

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Radish seed pods: I call them tasty little bits, great for salads and stir-fries. He just shrug them off and eats around them. But then he has no particular fondness for radishes, any of it (except the quick pickled ones). Make sure to pick only young and immature pods: they toughen as the seeds mature. There is actually a radish bred for its pods, with the evocative name of Rat’s Tail Radish or sometimes – less poetically – podding radish. I use my standard French breakfast style radish and let them go to seeds. Flowers are pretty, attract pollinators and beneficial insects … and are edible too.

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We both agree though that green coriander seed is a short live treasure. Short lived in the garden, as you need to pick the young green immature seeds before they start to mature, and once picked must eat them within a few hours, before they start to dry. The taste is something between cilantro and coriander – which is no surprise since it is both – but without the toughness of the mature coriander shell. The younger the seed (smaller and more vibrant green, with no tinge of yellow), the brighter the taste. I use them in rillettes (just cooked for a few minutes), add to sautéed pork chops or chicken, salsa etc – again adding them just for the last couple of minutes of cooking. I like them so much that I am collecting some and freezing them for future use. The ones I don’t harvest green will become coriander: some will end up in the pantry, others will reseed themselves for a fall crop.

Volunteer Seedlings

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Among the pleasure of the early spring garden is the hunt for the wanted volunteers: dill pokes its elongated slim first leaves among the sowed arugula while cilantro is coming up now in the pea bed – both bright green, brightly flavored, their unmistakable pungency released when you crush or brush them. Both are volunteers that I strongly encourage by scattering the ripe seeds in the fall: I find the plants are much stronger when they come up when they want and not when I want.

cilantro-self-sown-mid-march

And if you think dill and cilantro look similar now, you are right, and they should: they both belong to the carrot (Umbelliferae) family. And if there is a question of what they are, touching them and then smelling my fingers would, without a doubt, tell me. Or I can wait and, then, the true leaves would announce their name as true dill leaves and cilantro leaves look not at all the same… except for dill-leafed cilantro that looks like dill and tastes like cilantro (yep there is such a beast ! – you know there must be an exception that confirms the rule…)

Do you encourage volunteers in your kitchen garden?

Note: the photos were taken mid-march, 10 days ago. True leaves are now showing.

A Potted Kitchen Garden

Do you do pot?

Not that kind of pot, silly! But “pot” as in food grown in a container…

Virginia Rockwell asked me in a comment on the post labeled “Eating Local in the Northern Piedmont in Winter” if I have “any tips for newbies [about] growing your own in central VA? […] focusing on growing edibles in containers, close by the kitchen door, and the easy, rewarding stuff – using local, sustainable sources for seeds, plants when possible.”

Virginia is a landscape designer in Gordonsville, VA and offers container gardening to her clients, of ornamental plants – as much as I can tell. So, going edible is just one step away from what she is already doing. I started to write her a private e-mail, but realized this would make a good post, so here is my letter to Virginia.

Dear Virginia:

Thanks for contacting me! I am always truly happy when one more person wants to grow some of her own food, so I hope you have a great attendance for your workshop.

My first edible garden was eked – almost 20 years ago – out of the bareness of a 6th floor balcony of an apartment building in Fairfax County. No elevator. Everything was man- or woman-carried up 6 flights of stairs: the pots, the soil, the planters, the plants, the tools. I mostly remember the tomatoes, started from seeds, and the numerous mile-long walks to Merrifield garden center, and back with plants: fern, rosemary, little annual packs… and I remember all the plants I wanted to grow then but could not. Then I got married, and we moved to a townhouse. Twice. Each time we left a small garden behind us.

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Lovely Lemony Sorrel

There are indubitable signs of springs out there (besides the 2 minutes of additional daily daytime we are getting now).

For once, the snowdrops are nodding their tiny white bells in the still blustery gusts of wind and then, then!, yellow IS swelling the buds of the early daffodils. But for the ever hopeful kitchen gardener, a much surer sign that spring is coming is what’s budding, swelling, germinating, pushing up or otherwise showing signs of life in the vegetable garden.

Is there something fresh I can sink my teeth in – or at least wake up my taste buds (pun intended) with? Something green? With a little bite? Something… live? I have talked about reliable mache growing outside in winter, but a few other denizens that grow happily enough in a cold frame provide fresh taste at this time of the year: spinach, cutting celery, parsley, arugula, and sorrel are among them. They do not need a cold frame per se, but the protection provided by a cold frame allows them to send forth new leaves much earlier than their unprotected brethren, left totally outside in what is otherwise a generally bleak landscape at this time of the year.

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Sorrel might be less well known on the list, so let’s talk about it, a little, shall we? Read more

Of Summer Melon, Virginia Ham & Combava

Twice this past week-end, I prepared a simple dish combining a few very much local ingredients: easy, lots of flavors, nice colors, great smell, happy eaters… and no need to apply heat: as far as I am concerned, the perfect summer party dish. What was it? Melon & Virginia Country Ham Salad with Combava (Kaffir Lime) Leaf Dressing.

Both times guests were really intrigued by my “secret ingredient” and were trying – unsuccessfully to place it- until I told them what it was: Kaffir lime (aka Combava). The Oxford Companion To Food recommends that the traditional name “Kaffir lime” be replaced by “makhrut lime” or “makrud lime” (makhrut/makrud being the transliteration of the Thai word) because Kaffir is a derogatory term for a black person in South Africa . But very few people do it and Kaffir lime is by far the more common. However I have also seen Combava lime (which is one of its French name). Since I like the deep musical sound of “combava” and the word reminds me of my years in France, that’s the name I’ll be using to describe what is known botanically as Citrus hystrix.

Combava leaves (also known as Kaffir Lime or Makhrut Lime)

Combava is a citrus plant originating in South East Asia, where its leaves are used in cooking. Many people in the US have encountered Combava when eating at Thai restaurants. The leaves are roughly hour-glass shaped, or rather, one leaf looks like two leaves put together end-to-end. The fruit is small, green, round and has very little juice. I grate the rind (that is when I am lucky enough that my tree gives me fruit) and use it to flavor drinks and many dishes; slice the fruit very thinly and mix it with chili peepers, garlic and other spices to make a fresh chutney/salsa to serve with fish and rice. The fruit can also be candied producing an interesting sour/slightly bitter and yet sweet confection – a little like candied pomelo rind. The plant is tender here in the Northern Piedmont (and in most of the US), but as with many citrus, it can live happily in a large pot, that spends the winter in a cool sunny room.

The leaves are what I used for my dish. But although the flavors were similar, the presentation of the dish was not because there were two very different meals. Yes, I know, I am getting to specialize in “obscure leafy ingredients” in the words of David Lebovitz. But it’s easy to grow, you can buy it frozen in markets specializing in South East Asia ingredients and it is really good! By the way, don’t use dry leaves: they have a very different texture, the taste is fainter and they will not give you the appealing bright green flecks that you get with the fresh leaves.

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Lemon Verbena for Summer Fragrance

Lemon Verbena

Lemon Verbena Growing in a Container at Morninside Nursery

A small shrub from South America, lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) is a delightful plant in the garden. Because it is a tender perennial, I grow two mother plants in pots that come in the house or the greenhouse in winter, and make cuttings every spring that I plant in the garden once they have rooted. It’s amazing how fast they grow once they are planted out: they’ll give me plenty of leaves for all sorts of uses. I have trained my potted plants as topiaries, but in its natural habitat lemon-verbena grows as a multi-branched, airy shrub up to 10 foot tall. In a sheltered dry-in-winter place, I suspect lemon verbena would perennialize in Zone 7: the plant would die down but new shoots would come from the roots in spring. The plant itself looks better in the ground, healthier, darker green and lusher – one does not have too keep watering it as in pots. Last year, I left one of my containers out when the temperature dropped to below 20 degree F several night in the row. The top growth died, but new shoots came from the roots, and the plant is now perfectly healthy – still in it pot. The picture above is a healthy specimen growing in a container at Morningside Farm & Nursery in Griffinsburg, VA.

Close up of lemon verbena leaves

The white flowers are rather small and the sweet lemon fragrance come from the crushed or brushed leaves. Plant it where you can brush against it as you go by – it’s a wonderful, slightly haunting smell. Great for delicately scenting cloth, for pot pourri or for wreaths (the flexible fresh branches are easy to fashion into a wreath that will just dry over a few weeks), it also makes a pleasant tea and is wonderful to make into fragrant syrup to poach fruit. It can also be infused for sorbet, ice-cream, flan, custard etc. I understand that lemon-verbena marries very nicely with fish – something I have not yet tried.

What I have tried – with most delicious results – is to use lemon verbena for sorbet and to poach fruits. It’s particularly wonderful with peaches , and will come handy if you ever face some peaches that are slightly under ripe, that you don’t have time to ripen, and that you must serve now. A quick poaching in lemon verbena syrup will elevate them to another dimension. Using fully ripe peaches will yield commensurably tastier results. Guests are always intrigued by the taste. The two recipes provided below (Lemon-Verbena Poached Peaches and Lemon-Verbena Syrup) are more guidelines than recipes per se. The hardest part will be to locate a lemon verbena plant. I have noted that it’s becoming increasingly easier to find, many good herb plant shops carry it.

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