Sunday, December 1, 2013

Primula Fever

Gardening is not just about food, it is also about beauty.  The true gardener dreams of the moment a particular flower will share its beauty.  This is usually after months or perhaps years of cultivation and fussing.  From the viewpoint of the plant, all that beauty and fragrance is aimed at one thing: pollination. But for the gardener, just those few perfect moments are worth the long months of waiting.

Primula veris, the cowslip
This time of year, my dreams often center on a particular genus, Primula, which are the true primroses.  The name is derived from the fact that they are often a first plant to bloom in the spring, thus "first rose".  The modest and cheerful English wildflower, Primula veris (the cowslip) is one of the most welcome sights in my spring garden.

But there are many species of Primula, and many cultivars and hybrids.  The common garden primroses most often seen in cultivation are mostly "polyanthus", which are descended from hybrids of P. veris, P. vulgaris (the true primrose), and P. elatior (the oxlip).  Another species, P. juliae, has added more color range.

Because I was so enamored of primulas, I chose a garden primrose as my gravatar for this blog.  The picture is not of a "buttercup" but of a yellow polyanthus primrose that has been a sturdy guest of my garden for many years now.  It was given to me by a friend, which is the way primroses often get passed around.

Grace's Red
Two of my other favorite primroses were also given by a friend.  I've named them "Grace's White" and "Grace's Red" in her honor.  These are also sturdy and prolific.  Grace originally obtained them from yet another friend, who found them growing by an abandoned house.  It would be wonderful to know the full history.

Grace's White
Now I have divided and distributed these plants several times.  Primroses are best divided during their active growing periods, which are fall and spring.

I have grown many other types of Primula that I have started from seed.  This is a rather laborious process but the surest way to get many of them, since they don't all divide well and seed-starting is the way to get a wide range of types.  I've ordered many different ones from the North American Rock Garden Society seed exchange. I was able to start most of them, but many proved not to be hardy here in Michigan.

Long before I ever grew any Primula, I studied them in biology classes.  They are the classic example of self-sterile flowers.  Most of them have obligate outbreeding, that is, cannot pollinate themselves.  This is done both with genes and because the style and stamens are designed so that it is structurally impossible. Two types of flowers, pin (long style) and thrum (short style) exist; this is called heterostyly. Hand pollination is usually necessary to obtain seeds in the garden.  Here is a guide to hand pollination of primulas.

But a very few species do develop homostyly and can produce seed.  I inadvertently started a colony of candelabra primroses in my garden. I'm not sure of the species or cultivar because I had tried a number of different species in that bed the year before.  It may even be a self-sustaining new hybrid.

A rather perverse charm of Primula is that they are often short-lived if not cultivated very carefully.  They require top-dressing with compost and good fertility, not to mention water and protection from hot sun.  So I've lost many of them, and saved others through a last-ditch effort. Now I'm going to be trying to recover some of my favorites by starting seed as early as December, with long periods of chilling, warming, waiting, and slowly transferring the tiny plantlets until they are ready to plant in the garden.  I won't see any flowers from this year's seed-starting until next year.  But that is the price of having a lovely show of primroses in the early spring.

Note: There is a second post on Primula in the garden, Primula Odyssey.  Other posts on this subject will be labelled "Buttercup" for search purposes.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Keep It Simple, Sweetie!

There are many dishes that the abundant tomatoes of late summer can be used for, but finally we reach the moment when they simply need to be preserved for future use.  There are many methods that I've used, including dehydrating some plum tomatoes to be reconstituted for salads.  I haven't actually canned tomatoes in recent years because I have lots of freezer space, so I freeze them in several forms, including puree (cooked down, then put through a food mill) and Basil Tomato Sauce.

For many years I've used the Basil Tomato Sauce by itself and in combination (the Red Pepper Sauce and a rich complex ragu type spaghetti sauce that I have used the puree in as well).  But I wanted to explore some other options.

Perhaps I was the last person home cook in the Continental United States to discover Marcella Hazan's simple recipe for tomato sauce that is a galaxy away from my usual olive oil-garlic-spice based uses.  What I've learned is that her book,  Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking was central to reforming American cooking to utilize fresh produce and making food from scratch. Hazan died on September 29, 2013. In her obituary, her devotion to simplicity and fresh ingredients is stressed (a slightly different recipe for the famous tomato sauce is given there). She is quoted as saying, "Why not make it simple?"  Just before her death, I discovered this recipe and began experimenting with it.

The essence of the recipe is that it is startlingly simple and completely at odds with the palette of "Italian" flavors that we have become (perhaps too) familiar.  It consists of tomatoes, butter (not olive oil!), salt, and an onion that is removed before serving.

  One onion, five tablespoons of butter - that's it.

Apparently many people have made this with canned San Marzano tomatoes.  But I wanted to use my own tomatoes and I didn't want to keep all the seeds or to remove them by hand.

A friend who likes to make and can a huge amount of tomato sauce each year tipped me off to the use of a device often called a "sauce master" that uses a screw-type action and a screen to separate juice and pulp from seeds and skin.  There are several stand-alone versions but I found that my KitchenAid stand mixer has an attachment (the Fruit & Vegetable Strainer) which works much better.

Using this attachment, I produced 3 quarts of thin tomato purée from 6 pounds of very ripe tomatoes.  This then has to be concentrated slightly before using by cooking at low to moderate heat for about an hour, which reduces it to about half the volume.  I then used 3 cups of this (a total of 3 pounds of tomatoes!) to produce about 2 cups of dense sauce that is the very essence of tomato.  A little Parmesan, a little pasta, and you have a meal.  (This sauce does not have the faintly caramelized taste one obtains with tomato paste.)

Note the lush thickness of the sauce and how it adheres to the pasta. (Click on the image to get a closer look.)

Simple Tomato Sauce
modified from Marcella Hazan

3 cups tomato purée
One yellow or white cooking onion, peeled and cut in half
5 tablespoons butter
salt to taste

Place the pureé, onion and butter in a saucepan.  Cook at low to medium heat with occasional stirring until butter is well incorporated (a little layer of butter may appear at the top near the end, to be stirred back in) and the onion is cooked.  Remove the onion.  (It may be eaten separately or reserved for other use.)  Salt to taste (recall that tomatoes are rather salty on their own).

Use immediately.  I don't recommend storing or freezing this sauce.

Using a KitchenAid stand mixer with Fruit & Vegetable Strainer attachment 


Core the tomatoes and cut into quarters.  These must be pushed into the feeder with the supplied tamping tool.  A screw drives the seeds and skin out the end, while the pulp and juice come through the screen.

The housing for the screen channels the juice and pulp into a separate bowl.
 I found that the skin/seed material can be run through a second time.

Three quarts of tomato purée from six pounds of tomatoes

NOTE:  If you use Roma-type paste tomatoes instead of the more watery round tomatoes, the resulting puree is thick enough to use directly without concentrating it first.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Fruits of Summer: Eggplant and Tomato

The gorgeous fruits of summer's bounty are a delight to the eye but a challenge to the cook.  How to use not just one eggplant, but six or eight all at once?  And the tomatoes just keep on coming, despite numerous batches of sauce.  This sets off a search for dishes that use several of these fruits of summer at once.

Middle Eastern and "Mediterranean" dishes are a great source for such recipes.  Every summer I know that when the eggplants come in, I'll be making my favorite lamb and eggplant stew from Claudia Roden's classic A Book of Middle Eastern Food  (it has since come out in a revised version but I cling to my old one).

Note that most recipes in this book, and many other recipes using eggplant, call for sprinkling the cut eggplant with salt and then draining it after awhile.  I think this may have been intended to cut the "bitter factor" from the eggplant.  However, I do not use the large eggplants but rather a smaller variety, Neon. There are many varieties of pear-shaped eggplant that are similar but I have found this one to be sweet and mild even when fairly mature.  I never use the pre-salting technique.

Lamb and Eggplant Stew
adapted from Claudia Roden

1 large onion, chopped
1 pound or more of lamb stew meat (this can be made from leg of lamb)
3 tomatoes (quartered, peeled by immersing in boiling water)
1 tablespoon concentrated tomato paste
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
olive oil
2-3  eggplants (medium size)
salt, black pepper

Brown the meat and onion together in scant oil.  Mash the tomatoes into the mixture and add the tomato paste, lemon juice and spices.  Add water to cover and simmer for about 1 hour until the meat is tender enough to cut with a cooking spatula.

Slice the peeled eggplants thinly and sauté in batches until translucent.  This will take up a lot of olive oil.  Some of it may be poured back into the skillet for the later batches.

Mix the eggplant into the meat mixture, cover and simmer for about 1/2 hour more.  Salt and pepper to taste.

This mixture is excellent over a bulgur wheat pilaf, but any grain pilaf should work.  It is also very nice with some yogurt on the side.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ripe Tomato Solution: Gazpacho

There comes a moment in the summer when the tomatoes are so red, so ripe that they demand a really luxurious use.  Sauces can come later.  Of course, many people would say that slicing them and eating with or without a drizzle of olive oil is enough.  But what I think of is gazpacho.

Ingredients for gazpacho are simple.
Gazpacho is a much abused dish.  I've been served many versions, and in browsing recipes I've found many horrors.

A common abuse is that bread is omitted.  The dish probably originated as a bread soup.  According to Wikipedia, it may have come to Spain from the Moors or from Rome, as a soup made of bread and vinegar.  Today there are several classic Spanish soups in which bread is a primary ingredient.

Many recipes have Too Many Vegetables.  Others actually use commercial tomato juice or add herbs or even Worchester sauce.  The result is more a salad than a soup.

I learned to make gazpacho from a Spanish woman and still use a much stained recipe in her hand to make mine.  Sara used only a few ingredients to make the soup, then passed little bowls of chopped vegetables (onions, green pepper, cucumbers) and cubes of bread to add as you wished.

Sara's Spanish Gazpacho

Soak a couple of pieces or a heel of French bread in water.

Remove stems from 4-5 very ripe tomatoes.  (No need to peel.)
Remove stems and seeds from a green pepper.
Peel 1-3 cloves of garlic.  (Three makes it rather garlicky.)
Squeeze the water out of the bread.

Place all of these into a blender (a little at a time, so that it will liquify and blend).  Once blended, add "a drop of oil and a drop of vinegar"  (I advise about 2:1 olive oil to wine vinegar) and salt.  You'll have to add these by taste.  I start with 2 teaspoons of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of vinegar, then add a little more after tasting.

Chill.  Serve with cubes of bread and vegetables to taste.  It will keep several days in the refrigerator and makes a great refreshment drunk out of a glass, too.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Green Bean Plenty

Mid-July brings a harvest of green beans (some call them "string beans") that moves rapidly into the "embarrassment of riches" period.  After the first several meals of simply prepared beans (I usually just cook them until fully tender and add butter, salt and pepper), it begins to be time to think of something else.
One popular idea I haven't tried yet is to pickle them (dilly beans).  Another winner is Maan's Green Beans, a recipe that has been passed around the Michigan food blog circuit.  (If you like garlic, you'll love Maan's.)

But my first impulse is to make up a bunch of Ted's Syrian Rice.  This is a meat stew with green beans that freezes quite well.  Like every treasured recipe, it has a history.

Middle Eastern food was essentially unknown in Oklahoma during the 1950s (unless you count Jamil's, where I first tasted tabbouleh and cabbage rolls).  So a dish titled "Syrian" was immediately exotic.  It was the specialty of one of my parents' dear friends, who would occasionally bring a dish of it to our table.  I don't know how he obtained the recipe, but it wasn't from traveling in Syria. It would be interesting to know how it came to include Worcestershire sauce.

Ted used canned green beans (what we mostly had in those days).  I simply cook my fresh beans well before adding them, and I use a lot of beans.  I've also added a pinch of cinnamon to make the dish taste just a little Middle Eastern.

Syrian Rice
modified from Ted Walstrum

1 pound lean ground beef
3 medium onions, chopped
1/4 green pepper, chopped
2 cups cooked tomatoes with juice (or 14.5 oz can)
2 cups - 1 quart cooked green beans, drained
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
salt, pepper (note canned tomatoes are already salty)
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon  (optional)

Cook the onions in butter (Ted's choice) or olive oil until they are translucent.  Remove and brown the ground beef.  Add back the onions and the chopped green pepper.  Mix in the green beans, tomatoes and seasonings.

Cook in a covered casserole at 325° for one hour.  Serve with rice.  (Ted made a hearty brown rice pilaf, but plain white rice or any other similar grain, like bulgur wheat, works just fine.)

This reheats well after freezing (the beans are not supposed to be crisp anyway).  Freeze without the rice.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Summer Beet Soup (Borscht)

Beets were the bane of my childhood.  They were one of those "no redeeming virtue" foods and I hated the smell of them cooking.  Whether simply boiled or with sickening sauce ("Harvard Beets" were a particular horror), I avoided them.  Then one day, I bravely tasted pickled beets.  That was a revelation.  Turns out that beets are transformed when made into a sweet-sour dish.

I've made pickled beets that stay in the refrigerator and canned pickled beets.  All good.  But another way to use this happy marriage of beets and sour is to make borscht.  Beet borscht apparently originated in the Ukraine.  (Sorrel soup is sometimes called "green borscht", though it is entirely different.)  There are many variations on it, though they all use beets and vinegar or lemon for the sour touch.  Some include big pieces of stew beef, and I've seen recipes calling for potatoes, celeriac, green peppers, tomatoes, parsnips, and turnips.

Probably some of those thick meaty versions make a great winter soup.  But for summer, a cold light borscht can be really refreshing.  Midsummer brings a bounty of beets and summer cabbage, also an important component of the dish. This can be vegetarian.  I like to use a homemade beef broth in making it, but water can be substituted.  Interestingly, the vegetables and the tomato paste are the only sweetening agents; no additional sugar is added.


1 bunch red beets (3-5, depending on size, about 1 1/2 lb)
3 carrots
1 medium onion

Peel the beets and carrots and julienne.  Chop the onion.
Simmer these vegetables for 20 minutes with 1 bay leaf in water to cover.  

1 small cabbage or 1/2 larger one
1 T butter
1 T red wine vinegar
2 T concentrated tomato paste (the kind from a tube is best)
3 cups - 1 qt homemade beef broth or water
Black pepper

Slice the cabbage very thinly and add to the other vegetables, along with the other ingredients except the salt and pepper.  Simmer until all is tender (about 30 minutes more).  Add salt and pepper to taste (check).

This could be eaten as is but I prefer to blend it and serve as a puree. (For summer, serve cold.)

Garnish with sour cream or yogurt, plus a little chopped dill.

Note: homemade beef broth may be made with a soup bone or trimmings from a bone-in roast.  Cook for 2-3 hours in a couple of quarts of water with 1-2 carrots, a parsnip, an onion, and a stalk of celery. Strain and cool; remove fat.  This freezes well and can be used for soups like borscht.

Additional note: Borscht freezes well and can be reheated.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Peppers to Brighten the Winter

When I was growing up in the South, there were two kinds of hot pepper sauce that we used.  One was Tabasco or one of its imitations.  The other was a bottle of hot peppers in vinegar with a dispenser top that sat on almost every diner table and certainly in our condiment shelf.  The vinegar's main use was to add piquancy to cooked greens, like turnip greens.

Now hot peppers of many kinds dominate American cuisine and I've grown a fair number myself; ancho, Anaheim, jalapeno.  But in recent years I've discovered serrano peppers.  They can be used sparingly in cooking or salsas (I usually choose jalapenos instead for those purposes) but they make excellent hot pepper vinegar.

In the past I've picked them all green but this year they got away from me and began to ripen.  I suspect this will make the vinegar even spicier.  We're still using last year's batch - this is one of those things that gets better with sitting.

I found that the excellent Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich had a recipe for something she calls Picque.  Picque, or pique, is a Caribbean vinegar-based sauce that apparently is often made with pineapple rind and various herbs.  This recipe is simpler and is great with kale, cooked Southern-style.  It is also good as a brightener in cooking or salads where you might add a squeeze of lemon juice or other splash of acidity.

adapted from Joy of Pickling

Clean serrano chiles (green or mixed green and ripened) and remove most of the stems.  Slit with a knife but leave whole.  Choose glass bottles with non-reactive caps (old vinegar bottles with dispenser tops are ideal).  
Divide these ingredients among the bottles.  (You'll have to guess how much in each bottle depending on the size of the bottle.)

4 garlic cloves, halved
12 whole black peppercorns
1/8 t pickling salt

Push serrano chiles into the bottles as tightly as possible.  Pour unheated, undiluted cider vinegar directly over the chiles to fill the entire bottle.

Note: The recipe is for 1 cup of cider vinegar; divide the other ingredients according to the size of the bottle. The chiles take up a lot of volume and I typically get two bottles per recipe.

Shake the bottles to dissolve salt, cap, and let sit in a cool place for several weeks before using.  You may refill the vinegar once, but it won't be as good.