Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cabbage for Sauerkraut


Not only do I like to eat cabbages, I like to look at them. I've always thought that there is nothing prettier in the garden than cabbages glowing against the earth. What a pleasure to find that others share this affection. On a page devoted to cabbage cultivation, the author states "There is no more regal a vegetable than a well-grown cabbage, three feet across, its giant silvery green or dusty purple leaves shining with health." Amen to that, brother.

When I began growing cabbage in my garden for the purpose of making sauerkraut, I was quite ignorant of cabbage varieties. I knew the difference between red and green cabbage, and that savoy and Chinese cabbage were different types, but otherwise green cabbage was cabbage. This was partly because green cabbage bought in the store is fairly nondescript and probably one of just a few varieties. For a while I grew "Stonehead", a nice compact cabbage that I now understand is an early cabbage. Then two years ago, a spectacularly bad decision: I planted "Gonzales". Rereading the catalog from Johnny's Selected Seeds, I have no idea why I selected that one. It is an early cabbage meant to be harvested young and small. When I held the plants into the early fall for the purpose of making sauerkraut, I lost a third of them to splitting.

I now understand that the reason cabbage splits in our climate is that it has had enough cool weather followed by hot weather to make it flower. In other words, splitting is the cabbage equivalent of bolting. The head splits and a flower stalk grows out of it. Since both Stonehead and Gonzales were early cabbages, they started to split in mid-August. Once the head splits, it is prone to bacterial rot and isn't very nice anyway.

Both of these cabbages also produced rather small heads, between 1-2.5 pounds with biggest exterior leaves removed. They were somewhat difficult to shred, since they didn't fit the large holder on the krauthobel very well. There was a lot of wastage after I cleaned off the exterior dirty and green leaves and cored them.

When I visited cabbage fields in Wisconsin where cabbage for kraut was grown, I was amazed at the large heads, the size of a beach ball. The interior was very firm and white. Finally I did some research and now understand that this was probably a variety of late cabbage especially good to use for kraut. The most popular among home kraut makers seems to be an old variety called Late Flat Dutch. It is so old-fashioned that most modern seed catalogs don't carry it, but I found it in R.H. Shumway. "Heads average 10-12 inches across, often weighing 15 to 20 pounds." Now, consider that a 3-gallon crock only holds about 15 pounds of shredded cabbage. These are clearly cabbages for the serious. Next year I'll grow these and also some other late cabbages. Early cabbages are supposed to be mature in 60 days. I was holding them past their prime. Late cabbages are about 110 days to harvest, so I'll plant early for a fall sauerkraut production run. These late dense heads are also the favored cabbages for winter storage. And I think they'll be fun to look at. (Edited for clarity)

Kaitlin cabbage (picture cropped from Johnny's catalog)
UPDATE (2013):  This post is one of my most-viewed, so I feel compelled to update it to be more useful.
In subsequent years I planted Johnny's Selected Seeds variety Kaitlin (F1).  This was a superior cabbage for sauerkraut and is bred for that purpose. (Note that the designation (F1) means that it is a hybrid and not suitable for seedsaving.) Here are some of the features that make it a good cabbage for sauerkraut:
Late.  As I explained in my original post, cabbages that are mostly grown as summer (early) cabbages for eating tend to split in late summer or early fall.  I was able to harvest Kaitlin in late September for excellent quality and yield. 
Light.  The interior is almost completely white, which makes for a very clean-looking kraut.  I also did not observe any internal tipburn, which is a flaw in some cabbages that leaves nasty little brown shreds in the kraut.
Heavy.  The heads were substantial.  I do not have a record of weights, but I recall that they were all in excess of 3 pounds and closer to 5 pounds.

 If you want to grow cabbage just for sauerkraut, this is a good one.  It is fine as a winter storage cabbage too. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Cabbage in Winter

Now that the garden is buried in snow, we are eating through our harvest. Most of it is preserved in some way, but there are still some roots in the produce crisper, and red cabbage in the basement refrigerator. Ruby Perfection makes heads rather late and they are very frost-tolerant. I brought them in just before the winter weather really hit. Now we are tired of rotkohl (German red cabbage), so it's time to try something else.

I wrote earlier about the lack of respect cabbage gets and its importance as a nutritious vegetable, especially to the world's poor. Now the New York Times has not only reinforced that point but includes some excellent-sounding recipes that are nicely frugal as well as nutritious. I like these recipes better than some of those in the links at the bottom of the article. As one of the authors notes, the answer to the blandness of cabbage and some of its less attractive flavor notes has been to smother it with pork, cream, cheese and such, thus to turn its nutritious, economical nature on its head (so to speak). Some of the recipes do that, and really I think using shrimp in stuffed cabbage is an aberration, especially since it is likely to be farmed shrimp. This Greek cabbage and feta pie sounds good, though.

Still, one of the articles reminded me that caraway seeds, a traditional flavoring for cabbage, also was used in medieval times as a digestive, thus offsetting some of the tendency for cabbage to cause bloating or other problems. It also reminded me of a recipe I think I'll use tonight.

Hot Cabbage Slaw

Core and shred a small head of cabbage, or 1/2 head green and 1/2 red cabbage. Toss it with 3 teaspoons of salt and allow to sit in a bowl for 30 minutes. Rinse and drain.

Cook 2 slices of bacon until crisp; set aside. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of the fat from the skillet.

Add the drained cabbage to the fat and cook until hot and wilted, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds, 2 teaspoons sugar, and 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar. Place on serving dish or individual plates and crumble bacon over the top.

Note: I have adjusted the seasoning from the original recipe, which called for adding 2 teaspoons of salt at the end, plus 2 teaspoons of caraway seeds. I also reduced the vinegar; add more to taste. Depending on how much cabbage you use, you may also want to use slightly more of the bacon fat. I found that 1/2 small head of cabbage was about right for 2 people, so reduced almost everything.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Ethics of Eating (a fish tale)

One pleasure of having a vegetable garden is that it embodies sustainability. It is sad that this good word is overused today, but it still speaks to a good concept and ethos. The classic expression was voiced by the UN Brundtland Commission , defining sustainable development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". It implies good resource management and renewal. With a vegetable garden, nothing is wasted; you draw vegetables and life from the good earth, and every stem, stalk, leaf and giant squash that isn’t used goes back to compost to begin again the next year. This has the satisfaction of an ethical act.

The ethics of sustainability are more difficult to achieve with purchased food. If you are a conscientious person, eating most foods requires a considerable amount of selective forgetting. Every bite completes a long chain of events, many of them with ethical coloration. Since it is unpleasant to ingest sins and indiscretions with one’s food, the natural thing is to overlook them. But when we see ourselves as part of the greater scheme of things, it is possible and good to stop sometimes and look that forkful in the eye (or whatever part has been impaled). Here are some ethical questions to consider over dinner.

1. Has the food required the sacrifice of another animal’s life?
2. Was the individual food animal treated humanely before death and was it killed humanely?
3. If the food required restraint of an animal (as, for example, with eggs and milk), was that humanely managed?
4. If harvesting a wild animal was involved, did the process endanger the survival of the species? Were only the animals to be eaten killed?
5. Were whole ecosystems damaged in order to grow a particular food crop?
6. Were people enslaved, maltreated, deprived of their own food choices, or subjected to bad governance in order to grow or process the crop?
7. Is the crop practice appropriate to the whole ecosystem, or does it cause erosion, overfertilization of water sources, greenhouse gas emission, accumulation of toxic chemicals in wildlife and humans, loss of gene plasm diversity in the crop species, air or water pollution?
8. Is the energy cost of processing and transporting the food excessive for the little food value contained in it?

We who seek sustainability are making more and more ethical choices about food. It may restrict the variety of things we can eat or be more expensive but at some point the food looks back at you from the fork and you have to make that next step. We gave up veal a couple of decades ago and never even consider fois gras. Lately we’ve been seeking out meat from grass-fed animals and buying “Amish” poultry because they are reputed to be better treated. We try to buy as much food that is produced locally as is feasible (if it is organic, even better) and look carefully at the selection of fair trade coffee and chocolate. In the process, we change our taste for food so that the unethical choices don’t even look appealing any more.

Michael Pollan certainly laid out a lot of this for us in The Omnivore's Dilemma. Reading that was a life-changing experience for many. Now Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times, hits us with the bad news about fish.

Here is the short version: Worldwide, we have almost depleted the populations of the most desirable wild fish. In 2003, 32% of populations had crashed, 39% were overfished, and the remaining 29% were "fully exploited", at the limits of sustainability. Even more troubling, industrial fish farming is threatening the stocks of the smaller fish that are the food of the larger ones like salmon and tuna. Huge quantities are being ground up to feed to farmed salmon. Salmon and shrimp farms cause immense water pollution (a farm of 200,000 salmon produces as much fecal matter as 60,000 humans) and despite heavy use of antibiotics, pose a disease threat to wild populations. Bittman proposes that we should avoid farmed fish (though tilapia can be farmed sustainably, he dismisses it as tasteless, which has been my experience) and eat the smaller ones, like sardines and anchovy.

I've been eating more canned sardines and use canned wild salmon, but what about fresh fish? One option is to eat more locally - freshwater fish native to this continent. I love walleye though it is expensive and somewhat seasonal. But in following Bittman's "small fish" lead, I remembered smelt.



The Rainbow Smelt (Osmerus mordax) is not native, but has been established in the upper Midwest freshwater lakes, originally seeded as food for salmon. They are still caught by locals during "smelt runs", typically in March-April. But they are available and cheap (the pound I bought cost $3.49) in the freezer as headless and dressed individually frozen fish.


These little babies are eaten whole and can be panfried or baked. But deep-fried smelt are popular in many Asian cuisines and lakeside fish restaurants. And the bones are good for you. As you crunch, think sustainability. Have your friends over - one pound will feed 4, or 6 with the fried vegetable sides and a salad. There are many possibilities for the breading (including the classic flour-egg/milk-bread crumbs or cornmeal), but I think a very light tempura batter is nicer.




Deep-fried Smelt

Tempura batter: combine 1 egg yolk with 2 cups of ice-cold water and 1/4 t baking soda. Stir in 1 2/3 cups of flour. This should produce a thin batter that is a little frothy.

Drop dressed, thawed and drained smelt into flour (may be seasoned) on a plate, shake off the excess, then quickly drop one at a time into the batter, retrieve with tongs (edit: on trying this again, I found that using one's hands are the easiest and most effective way to take the fish from the batter, though messy), then drop into hot oil. Oil should be deep enough to submerge the fish completely. Do not try to cook more than 3 or 4 (edit: or about 6) at once. Remove with a slotted ladle or frying strainer or tongs after each is light brown (2-4 minutes). Place in pan in a 200° oven while finishing the batch. Serve immediately with any preferred sauce, from mayonnaise-based tartar sauce to Asian soy sauce-based, or just offer lemons to squeeze. Note that this recipe has not included salt unless it was added with the flour. (Edit: a tomatillo/green chile/cilantro salsa or Indian chile/cilantro green sauce are excellent with this and the vegetables. Think pakora.)

Great additions: sweet potato rounds, half mushrooms, cauliflower buds, onion rings, or any vegetable that is not too wet and can stand up to this treatment. Or - make potato (French) fries - the batter makes them wonderful. Dip them in the batter without the preliminary flouring and fry separately from the fish. Remember not to crowd - if the temperature of the oil drops, they'll be oily.

Notes on deep-frying: the secret of delicious fried food, crisp on the outside, moist inside and not oily, lies in using the correct oil temperature. This is usually stated as 325-375° but keeping to the higher temperature is better. Use a kitchen thermometer. You should use only oils that can stand up to the heat. This is dependent on their smoke points - no oil with a smoke point under 400° should be used. I prefer peanut oil because it has a neutral flavor; I find that canola oil develops an unpleasant odor when heated to a high temperature.

There is real danger in heating oil on the stove - you can be severely burned from splashes and it should never be left unattended or allowed to heat to the oil's smoke point. One way to avoid trouble is to use a cast-iron Dutch oven for deep-frying. The steep sides prevent splashing. Don't fill any fuller than necessary. I usually use about a quart of oil in my 7 qt pan. Oil can be reused once if filtered and stored in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

May You Live in Interesting Times

We have certainly arrived in that moment. Although today is a day of hope for new beginnings, it is also surely not the end of a run of really bad news and there is a mountain of uncertainty ahead. Humanity has just about succeeded in ruining the planetary weather systems, kills off an increasing number of other species every year, and it seems that every other week natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes claim more human lives. In addition, new plagues (whether AIDS, avian flu, or foodborne toxic E. coli) continue to pose a threat, civil wars in many parts of the globe seem to trend toward genocide in their cruelty and viciousness, food scarcity is increasing, and government regulation has proved ineffective against adulteration of imported foods and drugs. In this country as well as others, civil liberty and freedom of thought have been damaged with the apparent complicity of a good half of the population. On top of all that, the world economic system has been destabilized. What to do? Voltaire had the answer. "Il faut cultiver notre jardin." Or, as usually translated, "We must cultivate our garden."

Voltaire's garden has virtually become a kōan for Western writers. Everyone has an interpretation of what Voltaire meant by this innocent-sounding conclusion to Candide. Surely one of the most leaden ones is that of a recent translator, Burton Raffel. In a rejoinder to a review of his translation, he asserts that "Candide is a novel, not a philosophical tract" and vigorously defends his translation of the phrase as "we need to work our fields", arguing that the verb cultiver meant in Voltaire's time "to bestow labor upon land in order to raise crops".

But as Adam Gopnik argues in a beautiful review of the book Voltaire in Exile, "By 'garden' Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction,'We must cultivate our garden', is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action." Gopnik also notes that though the conclusion of Candide "seems to retreat from a confrontation with human cruelty to an enclosed garden, its publication marked Voltaire’s... moral development ... toward a faith in liberal meliorism."

Voltaire lived through "interesting times" too. He was born François-Marie Arouet in 1694 in a France where the excesses of the aristocracy and monarchy were already laying the foundation for the French revolution that began nearly a century later (1789). He made his way into the outer circles of high society as a poet and playwright (and assumed the name of Voltaire), was exiled to England for a time because of his impertinence, made money by what appears to be a bit of a scam involving a public lottery, wrote a number of very serious treatises, some of which were iconoclastic, was eventually exiled from France and settled near Geneva. He was appalled by the suffering caused by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, by the cruelty of the Spanish inquisition, by the destruction caused by the Seven Years' War, by the pitiful condition of the peasants. His disgust at the torture and capital punishment used in France and elsewhere (in which living bodies were rended asunder), especially on religious grounds, led to his campaign against l'infâme.

So what did he do? He made a garden. In exile near Geneva, he developed estates, first at the leased villa Les Délices, then at one he purchased at Ferney. He really did garden, writing the friend who owned Les Délices, "Many thanks for the lavender; I promise to have it planted in all the borders of your kitchen garden...at this moment I am sowing your Egyptian onions...Please send me everything you can in the way of flowers and vegetables."

But Voltaire's garden wasn't just about producing food or having pretty views, though it certainly did that. He created a productive enterprise to benefit his little corner of the world. When he first took possession at Ferney, he wrote to a friend that the landed estate was depopulated and miserable, without industry or resources. "My land is excellent, and yet I have found (50 hectares) belonging to my inhabitants which remain uncultivated...it is seven years since the curé celebrated any marriages, and no children have been born...poor people who have scarcely even any black bread to eat, are arrested every day, stripped, and imprisoned, for having put on this bread a bit of salt which they have bought (without paying taxes)...One's heart is torn when one witnesses so much misery. I only bought the Ferney estate in order to do a bit of good." He immediately put workers to cleaning and widening ditches, plowing fields, and planting vines. He visited his cowsheds: "I love my bulls...I stroke them and they make eyes at me". He bought and bragged about new farm implements. Over time he brought in more people and became the patriarch of a little community. He even initiated an industry to support his people, a watch factory which, with his astuteness in merchandising, became a successful business. (Quotes and information from Voltaire In Exile, by Ian Davidson.)

So, the point - the meaning of Voltaire's garden is not a retreat but an engagement. In times like these, we must make our little corner of the world into a generative force. This includes the support for local farming operations, community gardens, the ability to keep chickens, local commercial enterprises, growing and preparing our own food and in general the betterment of our small community to enhance our sufficiency. This is where reality truly lies and where goodness begins. Now I must go cultivate my garden.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Roots


We have had several frost scares, though no hard frosts yet. The appetite turns to warm baked dishes with apples and orange-fleshed winter squash. But there are also root vegetables that come into their own now and continue to thrive during these cooling days.

The red root on the left is Scarlet Queen turnip. This can be larger than the specimen shown and it has continued to grow and thrive through the cooler weather. It has a much finer texture than the common purple-top turnip and gets large without being either woody or pithy. It is from Johnny's Select Seeds. On the right is President celery root (celeriac). Its green leaves are still perfect and the roots are just now beginning to fill out. I started the seeds, from Cook's, very early but waited to put the plants out until it became warm, on the advice that the plants might otherwise bolt in warm weather.

I was introduced to these last year by a local organic grower, Tantré, and because I had both of them in my refrigerator I made a serendipitous discovery that they make a lovely salad in combination with each other. Scarlet Queen can also be cooked any way you cook turnips and celeriac is used in cooked dishes or made into a purée. But the fine firm texture of the two roots combines into a light fresh salad that can be kept for days in the refrigerator.















Julienne of Fall Root Vegetables

Peel Scarlet Queen turnip roots and celery roots in equal numbers and cut off any discoloration. Cut each into long narrow strips and combine with a vinaigrette (3 T olive oil to 1 T good vinegar, salt and pepper), a scallion cut into disks, and a smattering of dried basil or other herb. Marinate in the dressing a few minutes and serve.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Frontiers of fermentation

I've been fascinated for some time with the practice of fermenting foods for preservation and have spent some years perfecting the production of sauerkraut from cabbage. Last year my husband gave me a Christmas present of a fancy crock from Germany (Harsch) that adds some low-tech ease to the process. While I have learned to use a standard crock with a wooden cover for the kraut, a weight (quart jars filled with water), and covered with a tea towel, then a bath towel, this crock takes care of a number of those requirements. The essential requirements are that the vegetable needs to be pressed firmly to make "juice" (after being salted at 3 Tablespoons pickling salt to 5 lbs cabbage), pressed down with a weight and covered with brine, then protected from molds and yeasts and allowed to ferment to an anaerobic condition. For a pictorial account of this method, see Kim's account.

The fancy German crock has its own ceramic weights that substitute for finding a plate to fit or buying a wooden cover, and the rock or jars used to weight it down. They are two semicircles that drop in elegantly. Then a water seal consisting of a grove in the top of the crock plus the lid prevents any contaminants from getting in and helps promote the anaerobic progress of the fermentation.

I used the crock this year for my second batch of sauerkraut. Since I had already made a batch using my standard recipe, I became a little more experimental. Both the recipes that came with the crock and those in a book on preserving food (Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning,Chelsea Green Publishing Co.) had made me aware that some European traditions do a lot more with sauerkraut, adding different vegetables and some spices to the mix. Apparently one can make turnips into shreds for this process, and carrots are another popular addition, but there are many variations. I chose a very conservative combination of several recipes. I added one onion, shredded very fine, and 3 bay leaves, 3 sage leaves, 3 whole cloves, and 6 juniper berries to my 10 pounds of cabbage, layering as I went. After 4 weeks of fermentation, the kraut was flawless and my husband says it tastes "spicier". The taste of the added spices is barely detectable, very subtle, and probably would not be detected if cooked.

This year I abandoned the practice of canning my kraut and have preserved all of it in quart canning jars in the refrigerator. It is delicious but this method results in some bad moments when trying to find places for other things around all the kraut jars. The kraut is very good as is but also serves as a salad with a simple vinaigrette (3 T oil to 1 T vinegar, pepper, no salt) and a chopped scallion. Cooked with sausages and a few caraway seeds, it is just as tasty in a different way.

I grew two varieties of cabbage for use in kraut this year. The one I have grown for several years, "Stonehead" from Jung, began to crack in mid-August. Kim and I made it into kraut that was decanted mid-September. The other variety, "Tendersweet" from Johnny's Select Seeds, I used for the second batch in mid-September, decanted in mid-October. Tendersweet has odd flattened heads and very thin leaves. I thought it would be superior for kraut because it made very fine strands. However, the resulting product is not as crisp and clings together when served rather than standing out a bit. I probably won't use it again for that, but it is a superior eating cabbage.

Timing of kraut production has been related to head splitting, which ruins the cabbage for making kraut and invites bacterial soft rot. Tendersweet appears to be somewhat more resistant to early splitting. I've discovered that the splitting of the head is preparatory to blooming. Cabbage is a biennial but apparently our climate has enough cold shocks to induce flowering. Perhaps I should investigate to see what varieties the kraut packers in Wisconsin use. I recall that they had huge basketball-size heads and might be resistant to splitting.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Bounty of Peppers

For several years now, red bell peppers have been an important crop for my garden. There has been a vogue for purple, yellow, and even "chocolate" peppers, but to me, a ripe pepper can be any color as long as it is red. We eat them fresh, but I've learned to roast and peel them for freezing or pickling, so I've dedicated a noticeable fraction of the garden to them.


This has also entailed a search for the best variety. This year I tried three. From left to right: Crispy (Burpee), Maxibelle (Burpee), and Karma (Park). Note that "Crispy" and "Maxibelle" are both the yield on one day from one row of 5 plants; "Karma" is the yield from two rows. I keep on growing Karma because the fruits are big, blocky, and thick-walled. But they take a long time to grow and ripen. I've noticed in the past that I was picking red fruit from Crispy before any coloring on Karma at all. This year I tried for a third choice with Maxibelle. But contrary to the name, the fruit is no bigger than Crispy's, and the yield appears inferior. (Since these were photographed, the plants have now borne a new crop of red fruit ready to pick.) So the answer to the Desert Island question is apparently Crispy. Still, I'll probably continue to plant Karma. The fruit really is more impressive than this photograph shows.

Then the real punishment: an afternoon and early evening spent cutting, roasting (broiling) till the skin blisters, and peeling. The resulting slabs of pepper essence can be used in salads or cooking and I'll now be freezing them in small portions to use all winter. From the fruit shown above, I prepared 3 1/2 pounds of finished peppers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Steakplant


The late Clifford Simak wrote many science fiction novels in which the protagonist lived a quiet life in the rural backwater of some distant future world, often sitting on his porch, fishing, and of course tending his garden. One of the concepts I thought particularly intriguing was that one such garden included a "steak plant" right next to the potatoes and carrots - a plant that produced little steaks hanging from its branches instead of fruit. Obviously genetic engineering was well developed by that time. How nice not to be involved with caging and butchering animals, but simply to go out into the garden and pick a nice steak to go with your vegetables of an evening. (Simak used folksy phrases like "of an evening" a lot.)

Well, we are almost there. Eggplant satisfies a lot of that part of our appetites that yearns for solid meat-type food along with all the greens and starches. It is a staple of many vegetarian dishes and extends others that contain meat. I've been planting the variety "Neon", from Cook's Garden, for several years, after experimenting with other varieties. It has a firm nonbitter flesh and remains at a high quality in the garden for a long time (when it becomes seedy, it obligingly turns a lighter, duller color). While most recipes for eggplant call for salting and pressing to rid it of a bitter flavor, this is never necessary for Neon. I find that my husband, who usually expects meat as a part of dinner, will tolerate the occasional meatless dinner made with eggplant.

We used to visit an Italian restaurant in San Diego (Capriccio) where the Eggplant Parmigiana was so good that we skipped the similar Veal Parmigiana. Unlike most recipes for this dish, the poor eggplant was not breaded, fried, and baked with layers of sauce and cheese, but rather served up straight with the sauce on the side. The result was remarkably meatlike.

Eggplant Parmigiana à la Capriccio

Slice a large fresh peeled eggplant into disks about 1/2 inch thick. If eggplant is not overmature, it should not require salting and pressing and doing so will ruin the character of the dish. Dip the freshly cut slices into flour (they will be very thinly coated), then into a mixture of egg and milk (about 3/4 c milk, beat the egg into it). Then press the eggplant slice into a seasoned bread crumb mixture (try oregano, dash of garlic salt, and paprika). Sauté in olive oil until browned on both sides. Place on cooking sheet and arrange a slice of mozzarella on top. Bake the slices briefly until the mozzarella is puffy. Serve with any good Italian sauce on the side, such as a marinara, basil-tomato-onion-garlic, or a roasted red pepper sauce as shown here.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Squashed




Summer squash is a rewarding and easy vegetable to grow. The tiny tender fruit come along reliably once the plant reaches a decent size. Apart from a long-ago problem with borers and the occasional fruit rot in really moist conditions (Aspergillus, I think), I've experienced few pest problems. Those first succulent fruit are so tasty, just steamed or lightly sautéed. This year I grew two varieties, Magda, a kousa-type squash from Park Seed, and Supersett, a yellow crook-neck from Renee's Garden. (I consider zucchini to be bitter and overrated.) I was so late getting started that I just direct-seeded into warm garden soil rather than starting plants early in peat pots. Even so, the plants were generous. We had both squashes, sometimes one at a time and sometimes as a mixture. I like to cook slices with just a little butter and some fresh dill, and steam them in my grandmother's old chicken fryer. Magda has a subtle fresh flavor and Supersett is sweeter, with a bonus for cooking them till they are slightly caramelized but not scorched.

After a while we get a little more jaded and I start making squash gratin. This has various versions. I cut and steam the squash briefly before placing in a baking dish, usually with onions sautéed in butter, and perhaps some red or green pepper. Then either I make a white sauce (best with a little grind of nutmeg) or just drizzle some cream straight over the fruit after salting and peppering. Add a generous sprinkling of gruyère or Swiss cheese, and bake till bubbling and a light brown on top. I used to add buttered bread crumbs but this makes a heavy dish. If made with a large quantity of squash and a white sauce enriched with cream, the dish freezes well.

Eventually the squash stay in the produce drawer longer and longer as the season progresses and the generosity of the vines begins to overwhelm the menu. Even with various innovative ways to slip them into mixed vegetable dishes and soups, the delight of the early summer has become the albatross of the refrigerator.

Finally I go to the garden and find the dreaded Submarine. These are a known terror. Gardeners offer them to their friends and leave them on porches. Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Mineral) admits to locking her door to keep from having them left in her kitchen. About this time of year (late August to September), newspaper food columns begin to feature recipes for zucchini bread and offer chirpy suggestions like "scoop out the seeds and stuff". But after years of guilty efforts to use this bounty, my advice is — Compost. The goodness of the earth will be enhanced next year and you will still have the courage to plant squash again in the spring.


By now the Squash Monster is in full cry, with a new Submarine, it seems, every time I go to the garden. At least this year I didn't grow Renee's "Trombetta di Albenga" squash - a horrifyingly prolific long-necked squash that is at least a foot long even in youth. I would advise growing this squash only if you have (a.) a family of 10 to feed; or (b.) a distant relative has come to stay, rent-free, for the duration. Squash soup, squash casserole, baked stuffed squash, squash bread and squash omelettes should take care of that problem.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

You say Taboli, I say Tabbouleh

Parsley has a bad reputation as being hard to start from seed. From "Park's Success with Herbs": "Growing parsley is not for the impatient...the most recently tried method was placing seeds on wet paper...on a plastic meat tray...put atop the furnace...the sprouted seeds were then placed with tweezers..." - well, you get the idea. But in spite of this and although the seed packet was at least 5 years old, I just threw the seeds into one of my standard seed trays with germination medium, put it into a bread bag and onto my bottom heat shelf. I wasn't expecting much so was surprised to see germination in about 3 days. The result was a huge yield - about 24 plants - of curly parsley. I tried to give some away but finally ended up with most of the plants in my garden.

Now, when I was growing up, the main use for parsley was as a garnish (never eaten) on restaurant plates, or sometimes chopped over potatoes. But as I planted these, I thought, "finally, enough to make tabbouleh". Tabbouleh, as all right-thinking people should know, is basically parsley salad. My first taste of it was in about 1960 at Jamil's, the steakhouse in Tulsa that served tabbouleh, hummus and cabbage rolls as first courses before the steak arrived. It wasn't until I was in Madison for graduate school in the 1970s that I learned the name of the dish and how to make it. We did a lot of "gourmet" cooking and having fellow students over for dinner in those days. My officemate Hasib (a Druse Lebanese) returned the favor by inviting us over for a memorable meal prepared by his own bachelor hands. He explained that he was using his mother's recipes. He gave me this recipe for tabbouleh.

Hasib's Mother's Tabbouleh

3/4 cup bulgur wheat
2 chopped fresh tomatoes
2 finely chopped medium sweet onions
1 large bunch parsley, chopped fine
1/2 cup fresh mint (spearmint) leaves, or 1 T dried mint
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons)

Soak the bulgur wheat in enough hot water to cover until soft - drain any excess. Mix with vegetables. Add seasonings, oil, and lemon.

This is a favorite of mine to make when we have fresh ripe tomatoes from the garden. I cheat on this recipe because I also add chopped cucumbers when I have them in my garden (Hasib told me this was ok) and I skimp a little on the mint. But I always balance this with plenty of parsley.

On trips home to Oklahoma with my newfound sophistication, I was interested to observe that suddenly bulgur wheat was being sold in the produce section in the tiny town of Tahlequah. I thought this to be very exotic. But it wasn't till I was served "taboli" by another former Oklahoman that I realized something had happened after I left home. She informed me that this was a native Oklahoman dish! But it was mostly the wheat and some vegetables. I asked her "where is the parsley?" and she informed me that she didn't like parsley in it. This is like serving pizza without a crust. I have since learned that a number of Lebanese Christians had settled in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City had a steakhouse similar to Jamil's) and the popularity of tabbouleh spread from there, especially after Bishop's (http://www.bishoptaboli.com/recipes.htm) began selling the bulgur wheat in the 1960s. Apparently now you can't go to a potluck in Oklahoma without being served tabbouleh - except that it may not contain parsley. If you refer to the Bishop's website, you will see what appears to be a bulgur wheat salad, garnished with a few vegetables. It is an interesting story in evolution of a dish - as this picture of my tabbouleh shows, the bulgur should only be stars in a parsley sky, not the main dish.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Cabbage is King


Cabbage as a culinary vegetable gets no respect in some quarters. Novels about the seamier side of life always cite the lingering odor of over-cooked cabbage in hallways of cheap apartment buildings as an instant scene-setter. You'll rarely find cabbage on the menus of exclusive restaurants as part of a delicate sauté, or pictured as the main subject of a coffee-table cookbook. Many of us eat it mostly as coleslaw in fast-food restaurants. Yet I will venture to say that if we could have only one green vegetable on that desert island, it should be cabbage.

For one thing, it is so productive and reliable. Today Kim and I made 20 lbs of sauerkraut from about 30 pounds of cabbage, or about 15 heads - one row. A lot of food that grew there on its own with very little intervention from me once I set the plants in the ground back in early April. Not even regular watering and just one application of Bt to keep down the cabbage loopers that those white cabbage butterflies gift me with. Like all members of its genus (Brassica), it produces both lots of Vitamin C and other good vitamins, and also the sulfurous compounds that give overcooked cabbage such a bad reputation. It is also relatively high in plant protein and keeps well, either as a storage vegetable or preserved by fermentation (sauerkraut). No wonder it is the food of the poor. I've read that prosperity is bringing an end to an old Chinese custom. Often people stored tens of heads of cabbage on their back porches to survive the winter - their only vegetable and almost only food. Now they can afford to buy fresh things from the market.

But cooked properly, cabbage is also delicious and satisfying. And it does stretch the food budget. This year I tried a new variety, Tendersweet. It makes funny flat heads that are perfect for making cabbage rolls, because the leaves separate easily. I used it to make enough cabbage rolls for 3 meals out of one pound of ground beef. This recipe was inspired by the cabbage rolls served as a first course by a steak house in Tulsa. It was called "Jamil's" and was clearly Lebanese or Turkish in origin since they also served tabbouleh and hummus before the steak.


Cabbage Rolls inspired by Jamil's

Blanch a medium head of cabbage, by removing leaves and setting briefly over boiling water until flexible, then setting them aside.

Mix 1 lb raw ground beef, 1 cup uncooked rice, 1 chopped small onion, 1/2 cup chopped parsley, 1/4 cup pine nuts (optional), and 1/2 cup chopped tomato (use canned if that's all you have). Season with 1 t oregano, 1/2 t salt, a grind of black pepper, a pinch of thyme, a dash of allspice, 1/2 t cinnamon, and 1/2 t of Aleppo pepper or paprika.

Roll small sausage-shaped parts of the mixture in cabbage leaves, fold the leaves over them to make a bundle, and tuck them into a large flat casserole. If there are any leftover small cabbage leaves, they may be tucked into corners. Pour over this a tomato sauce, either of home-cooked tomatoes, or 2 (1 lb) cans, chopped, to which has been added a pinch of oregano and a dash of allspice. Add a little water if needed to cover the rolls. Bake covered for 1 hour at 350° F. These freeze well.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Salad Days

The meaning of the term "salad days" is in some dispute. A quick browse finds a number of opinions, with the predominant one that if you are in your salad days, you are "green" and therefore not quite with it yet.

Its origin is well known.

From Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra, 1606:

CLEOPATRA: My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then! But, come, away;

Note that she does say she was "green in judgment", supporting the naivete argument.

But my notion of what the phrase meant even for Shakespeare is that it is a reference to the wonderful time in early spring when one can first have fresh greens for a salad. It is a fleeting moment, heady and happy, when those tender delicate leaves reach their edible stage and before they begin to age to something still edible but no longer as incredibly sweet and delicious. We have gotten somewhat used to such tender greens now that they are grown commercially and cut, bagged, and readily available (though I no longer buy them). But consider that with the natural seasonal cycles in place, this lasts only six to eight weeks in the spring. It is a perfect metaphor for heedless, happy youth, a bloom that soon fades to the disillusion of experience.

Our salad days are not quite over though it is now late June (I began the post earlier). The "Merveille des Quatres Saisons" is gone, as are the arugula and spinach, but a fresh wave of "batavians" are almost ready to eat, and the "Reine des Glaces" is still green and crisp. Now I've planted my old reliable Black-seeded Simpson, a good hot weather survivor. Still, before long we'll be eating cooked greens, not that tender fleeting lettuce.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

If I May


I went to school in a day when we still memorized poetry. One of my favorites was always James Russell Lowell's "And what is so rare as a day in June?/Then, if ever, come perfect days;/Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,/And over it softly her warm ear lays." Of course if I were writing that today, Earth, not heaven, would be the capitalized and feminine entity, but those were the old days. Still, the poem catches the rhapsodic feeling of these precious days. I believe that since Lowell was from New England, his "June" was equivalent to our May. Part of the poem references bird songs and nests, and that is certainly going on right now. I have to say that these are the most euphoric few weeks of the year.

Gardeners actually live most of the time in a sort of virtual reality of the imagination, all the while dealing literally with the solid ground. So most of the year I have to carry May in my mind and right now it is like entering into a dream. Most of my flower gardens this time of year are blue, white, and yellow, by preference. The main exception is my multiplicity of primroses in all sorts of colors. I'm especially fond of members of the borage family. These include the Virginia bluebells (pictured), forget-me-not, Brunnera, and comfrey. All of these are blooming in my garden right now and all are blue except for the comfrey, which is a cream color, and except for some white forget-me-nots. Most of them self-seed vigorously, which means forget-me-nots (true to their name) in almost any open soil, and gradually expanding islands of bluebells. These blend happily with the yellow Primula veris (cowslips) that have also self-seeded many places, and the other yellow, blue and white primroses, plus yellow wood poppies, white trillium, and the fresh young green of expanding fern fronds and hostas.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Preservation of food security

One of the big problems of being a consumer primarily of local food is the "seasonality problem". We have gotten used to fresh vegetables all year long. That just isn't possible unless you live in California or other 12-month growing climates (and it isn't really even true there) or unless you import food. And as we know, importing food from hundreds of miles away is costly in fuel, greenhouse gases, and increasingly, in food dollars. If we are to have "food security", that is, assurance of a continued supply of healthful food, we need to learn how to eat from what we can grow ourselves or buy locally.

Actually, it has been wonderful, this transformation to year-round fresh food. When I was a young woman first cooking for my own household, the only fresh vegetables available in the winter were celery, hothouse tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, carrots, potatoes, onions. The celery and lettuce were probably from California, maybe the carrots too, the potatoes and onions stored. Everything else was canned or frozen. Now we expect to waltz into the supermarket and get everything needed for any possible dish, any month of the year. It is a great luxury.

But it is a block to eating locally produced food. Vegetable crops can be staggered for a longer harvest but they still are intensively seasonal in our climate, available perhaps for 2 months of the year in most cases. So it is feast or famine, unless you take steps to preserve them.

The feast part is great, of course. I remember growing up in the South when every meal had at least three vegetable courses in the summer. There were squash (pattypan - zucchini was an exotic), cooked in water with a little butter; mustard or turnip greens; butter beans or blackeyed peas (both fresh, not dried, and also "cowpeas"); coleslaw; ripe cantelope peeled and cut into thin crescents, salted and peppered and served as a salad; cucumber salad made with onions, vinegar, water, and a little sugar; fried okra of course, and eggplant dipped in flour and fried till delicate in the middle and crisp on the outside; new potatoes and peas cooked together with milk and butter; potato salad (homemade, with pickle relish and mayonnaise) for picnics and grated carrot with raisins. For those who like them, fresh sliced tomatoes. And of course, corn on or off the cob in season (maybe five weeks in midsummer) and fresh green beans. Later in the season, we could have Waldorf salad (apples, celery, walnuts).

But in winter, we ate canned green beans, lima beans, peas, or spinach; the dreaded iceberg lettuce wedges; canned pear halves with cream cheese; canned corn, either straight or cream-style; canned yams, sweetened with brown sugar for holiday fare; canned asparagus when we were being fancy; and, inevitably, Jello salads with canned mandarin orange slices, canned pineapple, or bananas.

If we are to live off the land locally, either from our own gardens or from local market growers, we'll have to recapture those days when one literally ate what was in season. (If not repeat the actual winter menu of those days.) This means relearning the arts of canning and preserving. Of course, the home freezer has made a big difference too. But that's why I am pickling, fermenting, and exploring other means of preservation of home-grown food.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Quantum Broccoflower


For some time now, I've been fascinated by the importance of fractals in nature. These are mathematical relationships that create a certain type of geometry best characterized as "self-similar". I'll let the mathematicians explain. See http://classes.yale.edu/Fractals/ . Fractals are closely related to the Fibonacci sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers, thus 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and so on. You are saying Why is this in a blog about gardening and food??. Because plants grow according to this mathematical sequence and are themselves fractal in form. The distances between nodes at the growth apex follow the Fibonacci sequence. As shown in this picture of Romanesco broccoflower (a cross between broccoli and cauliflower) , there is a lot of self-similarity to be seen.

But I was surprised to find this picture on the cover of Science illustrating a special issue on quantum matter. The explanation:

"Like a cauliflower, the quantum critical regime has the same appearance irrespective of viewing distance."

See, fractals really do describe the universe and everything.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Secrets of Sauerkraut

After about five years of experimenting with making sauerkraut, I've finally figured out how to do it reliably. I'm going to share the secrets. Some I got from a version of the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning that is no longer available online. Some was from Ohio State Extension. Some is hard-earned experience from making mistakes or having a lucky inspiration.

First, grow your cabbage. Sauerkraut is best made from freshly harvested cabbage. USDA says "between 24 and 48 hours after harvest". I suspect this requirement is because the lactic acid bacteria (lactobacilli) population that is native to the leaf surfaces begins to die off in stored cabbage. I pick and partly clean the cabbage the day before processing, cutting off roots, discarding dirty outer leaves, and rinsing off any remaining dirt. Soaking would probably be a bad idea. Then I just leave the heads out on a clean work counter overnight.

The timing of harvest and the variety of cabbage are important. My early trials were poor because I kept thinking of sauerkraut as a fall harvest task and trying to do it in late September. This is wrong for two reasons. One is that a certain temperature is needed for fermentation. The other is that cabbage tends to split as it gets mature and if there are cool nights with good soil moisture. Last year I chose an early-maturing variety, "Gonzales", a real mistake; I lost 1/3 of my crop to split heads even though I harvested over Labor Day weekend. Gonzales is meant to make "miniheads" for fresh eating during the summer - I must not have had my reading glasses on when I chose it. Other years I have grown "Stonehead", with some splitting but perhaps not so early. This year I'm going to try a mix of Stonehead and "Tendersweet", a flatter head that is said to be resistant to splitting. For the last two years, I have harvested and made the kraut around Labor Day, with good results. Temperatures are warm but not too warm during fermentation.

For processing, the heads are cut into quarters, outer green leaves and cores removed, and then shredded. Unless you have amazing technique, shredding with a knife blade is too uneven as well as tiring, and a food processor makes shreds that are too coarse. In past years I used a mandoline, inefficient and time-consuming but with good results. Finally I broke down and bought a real kraut shredder, or as they are called, a krauthobel. I have concluded that all these come from the same factory in Slovenia. It is like a huge mandoline made of wood with multiple blades and a square box that rides over them. No pressure is required on the cabbage to make the cuts.

I trust stoneware crocks best for fermentation and pickling. Some people use plastic buckets but the references I consulted warn against using anything but food-grade plastic. The crocks are prettier anyhow. Old ones are fine if they are not cracked, but new ones are a good investment. A 3-gallon crock will make 15 lbs of sauerkraut, and a 5-gallon crock will make 25 lbs. Then a plate that just fits inside the crock is needed to press down the cabbage and help keep out molds.

The salt used should be pickling salt, or kosher salt would probably work. Pickling salt is of a high purity without iodine. In old recipes you will find different amounts of salt used, but I try to keep to a strict ratio of 3 tablespoons to 5 lbs of shredded cabbage. I shred cabbage and weigh it in a large bowl until I have 5 pounds, then mix it with the salt and put it into the crock, with pushing down to express juice. I finally bought a hand-crafted sauerkraut stomper from Lehman's ; it looks like a table leg but really works.

After the crock is filled to a few inches from the top, put a plate (best fit) over the cabbage and press down. Brine should come up over the plate. If it doesn't, the cabbage can be topped off with boiled and cooled brine ( 1 1/2 tablespoons pickling salt per quart of water). Weight the plate with a couple of clean quart jars filled with water. By now the crock should be resting where it is going to stay for 4-6 weeks, in a place with low traffic and relatively constant temperatures. Drape a clean tea towel over the jars and crock, then a heavy bath towel over that. Disturb as little as possible, but check after several days and then weekly to see if any molds or yeast scum need to be removed. Some foam formation at first is expected, since the bacteria are producing carbon dioxide. According to Ohio, when temperatures are between 55-65, fermentation will take place in 5-6 weeks. At 70-75, it is 3-4 weeks. Much cooler and it won't ferment. I had to throw out my entire batch one year because it never fermented, and other years when it was too cool, the brine turned a dark brown over an exceedingly long fermentation time. Ohio says that above 80 the cabbage may spoil. According to my max/min thermometer last year, temperatures through September were 64-76 and the kraut was perfectly fermented in 5 weeks. Small amounts can be taken out with a clean fork and tasted to see whether it is "done".

My friend Dan, who helped last year and carried away some of the cabbage to ferment on his own, refrigerated all of his and is still happily eating it out of his refrigerator. He believes that the lactobacilli are healthful. I canned most of mine in glass jars (hot water bath method) and this is perfectly satisfactory for most cooked dishes. However, with Dan's encouragement, I kept several quarts in my refrigerator and this made a lovely fresh kraut slaw with just a little vinaigrette.
UPDATE:  A better description of the process as done in my kitchen, complete with stepwise pictures, can be found on The Farmer's Marketer post Homemade: Sauerkraut.  Highly recommended.

Choucroute

Most people in this country call it sauerkraut, but I thought that Voltaire would better recognize choucroute. Either way it is cabbage preserved by lactic acid fermentation. I've always loved it and I'm also fascinated with the fermentation process. Lactobacillus bacteria occur naturally on plant surfaces, especially cabbage. The cabbage is salted (to make the tissues weep and inhibit other microorganisms) and incubated for four to six weeks. The bacilli pull oxygen out of the liquid (they are facultatively anaerobic) and lower the pH by breaking down available sugars into lactic acid. This preserves the cabbage from molds and rotting and putrifying bacteria. A similar process is the secret of yogurt and other fermented milk products. Lactofermentation is a very old means of keeping vegetables out of season and whole cuisines are built around it. It probably prevented scurvy in most of Middle Europe for hundreds of years.

Last year we enjoyed an authentic course of choucroute à l'alsacienne prepared by our friend Francis, who is a chef. We contributed the sauerkraut and Francis added several cuts of pork (sausages, loin, among others), juniper berries, wine, and other mysterious things. I think some duck fat may have been implicated. This was served simply with boiled potatoes, followed by a green salad and then a cheese course. Wonderful.

Other people may simply think of sauerkraut as what you put on Reuben sandwiches or eat with sausages. I like that too, but my favorite meal for two is two pork chops placed on top of sauerkraut in a baking dish, some white wine poured over both, then the chops are anointed with a mixture of ketchup and Worchestershire. Bake uncovered at 275 for 2 1/2 hours. The chops are completely tender and falling apart, fat has disappeared into the kraut, and with that and a baked potato you have dinner.

Sauerkraut is good on pizza, too. Not too much, and it simply makes it moister and more flavorful. We learned this last year that it can be eaten as a salad, especially if it is fresh. Simply rinse and add a mayonnaise dressing or a simple vinaigrette (I like to add a chopped scallion too) and serve like a slaw. I've heard of it mixed with creamed noodles and here in Michigan there are rumors of something called sauerkraut balls. (I think they are fried fritters with sauerkraut in the batter.) Of course sauerkraut pirogies are the best.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Celery root


I’ve never been tempted to grow celery in my vegetable garden. It is so readily available and relatively inexpensive, and I’ve never heard anyone brag about the just-picked flavor of their garden celery.

But last fall I bought some celeriac (celery root) from Tantré Farms and had a revelation. It can be grown here, and it makes a really good companion to other late root crops. I made a julienne of the celeriac and some turnips, also from Tantré, with a simple vinaigrette and a little dried basil. It was enthusiastically received here. I suspect that it is also good in any recipe that uses roasted root vegetables. The roots kept a long time in the vegetable crisper, and I believe that their flavor is more subtle than ordinary celery (the leaf petioles).

So – I bought seeds of the variety “President” from Cook’s Garden. The picture looked like the one from Tantré. Some celeriac is round and knobby; this was cylindrical and knobby. The seed packet said to start 8-12 weeks before last frost, which meant right away. So now I’m checking my seed tray on the heater every day.

For some years I have grown another close celery relative, lovage. This perennial herb is about 5 feet tall when it blooms. Blooms are like all those of the Umbelliferae (the carrot family) —they are like Queen Anne’s Lace but not as pretty. I use lovage sometimes when I’m out of most other leafy herbs— it is not too bad as a substitute for parsley but actually the leaves have a strong celery taste. Because of my experience with the lovage, I know I’m likely to have problems with Cercospora leaf spot on the celeriac too. Fortunately this disease is favored by hot weather so begins somewhat later in the season.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Buttercup

Yes, I know it's not a buttercup (Family Ranunculaceae). If you don't get the joke, I'm not going to help you.

Roasted Red Peppers

Last November ended as a snowy and icy mess, but first we had two weeks of fine warm weather, with frost scares at night. My two varieties of bell pepper, Crispy and Karma, continued to grow long after I had already removed most of the still-green peppers to give away to friends. They were even making new little peppers. I kept the partly red peppers on the plants and used a makeshift barrier of old row cover and burlap around the pepper patch to ward off frost.

The result was truly an embarrassment of riches. I even had to give red peppers away. But this was only after many, many batches of roasted red peppers were resting in my freezer. Next year maybe I'll try to use some of those special recipes I collected, like the Serbian red pepper and eggplant preparation. I only managed to roast, peel, and freeze the peppers under press of everything else.

Actually, though they are called "roasted", I think most people do as I do and broil them. I arrange cleaned seeded pieces as flatly as possible on a cookie sheet, and put them up under the broiler element until the outer skin turns black. Too long, and the flesh dries out. The really thick-walled peppers (Karma is very good) are best because the flesh stays moist and full even when the skin is fully blackened. Then the blackened skin is removed and crumbs brushed off. When the peppers sit in a pile on a plate during processing, a liquid collects that is saved to add to recipes, and also keeps the peppers moist while refrigerated. For freezing, I simply weighed out quarter-pound and half-pound portions and placed them into plastic containers or freezer bags. They are so delicious. I'm amazed at their quality after thawing. Especially because we had that little mishap with the freezer door being left open and then having to refreeze most of the peppers.

I've been finding lots of ways to use them. Of course, they are an essential element in my personal spaghetti sauce recipe and go right onto pizza. The larger portions are for making a roasted red pepper sauce with tomato, basil, onions, and garlic (the last two ingredients are sauteéd in olive oil, then all blended together). I chop the peppers and incorporate them into meatloaf. They also go into any kind of egg dish, can be added to gratins and scalloped potatoes, and today I just chopped some and threw them into a casserole of chili mac. Um!

Addresses and destinations

When I set up Voltaire's Garden I tried to use the address voltairesgarden.blogspot.com, but found that title was taken. Hence the French version. Today it occurred to me to see what that other blog was about. It turned out to be something called "My Secret Garden", apparently a completely private diary written only for the writer. It seems to have been abandoned.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

And now to the garden

Probably Voltaire's best-known quote is from Candide where he concludes "we must cultivate our garden". You remember, Candide is an innocent who begins in a castle, where he studies under Professor Pangloss ("the best of all possible worlds") and falls in love with the beautiful Cunegonde, daughter of the baron. Through a series of misfortunes, he travels the world with Pangloss, (who becomes syphilitic and deformed), and recovers Cunegonde (who was raped and stabbed by invaders, enslaved, prostituted, and ultimately loses her beauty) ; meanwhile Candide is tortured, partially flayed, and almost eaten. Eventually he becomes rich (but loses most of it) and he, Pangloss and Cunegonde, together with a couple of companions, end up on a small farm in Turkey. Pangloss once again philosophizes that all has been for the best. Candide says "That's well said, but we must cultivate our garden". It should be noted that Cunegonde has in the meantime become an excellent pastry cook.

There has been much analysis of what Voltaire actually meant to say by the retreat to the garden. Some may be repeated here in subsequent posts. But for me it has meaning on both the real and metaphysical levels; gardening as a focus on the here and now, the garden as an escape from the cruelty of the world, but also the garden as a symbol of renewal and a metaphor of life. And it produces food, too.

So this blog will also celebrate a retreat to the garden, figuratively and literally. Here will be a record of my garden, musings about the universe — and food.