Foraging with Laszlo: Discovery of new tastes

Laszlo and crabapples

The munching explorations of Laszlo, our new puppy, has had me in stitches more than once this summer. When I trimmed and bundled garlic, the puppy was sitting underneath the patio table chewing on leaves and stalks that fell down. I did not realize that a big fat garlic clove had dropped down as well, until my husband, who was lying down with a headache and cuddled with Laszlo for comfort, wondered about the puppy’s intense garlic smell, which made him feel even worse. Continue reading

Rosy rhubarb, emerging from the dark

Forced rhubarb bunchIt does not happen too often that I see something and have the instant, burning desire to own it. Yet when I first saw a terracotta rhubarb forcer in a magazine a few years ago I wanted one. Not only would it supply us with rhubarb from the garden several weeks earlier, the tall cloche just looked beautiful, like an ancient relic in the garden. Continue reading

How to cut a citron melon (without cutting yourself)

After I turned the citron melons I harvested a few weeks ago into two types of jam (the first with orange, vanilla and star anise; the second with ginger and lime), vegan mincemeat, and candied citron melon for Christmas baking, I think I got a pretty good handle on prepping them.

Citron melons are not unlike quince: you have to work hard to coax them into something delicious. But then, what a reward! All my worries that citron melons weren’t worth growing in the garden have been dissipated; they are a wondrous fruit, and I will certainly grow them again next year, though in much less quantity.

When I was cutting another citron melon this morning I took some impromptu photos of the process.

1

First and foremost, the knives must be very sharp. Citron melons have a tough skin and very dense flesh.

To get a better handle on the slippery melon, cut a thick slice off one side so you can place the melon flat on the cutting board. Because there was no second pair of hands around, I could not take a photo of this step.

Quarter the melon, then cut it into smaller wedges. Cut each wedge in half.

2

Generously remove the soft pulp around the seeds and discard it. This part is gooey and not used.

Save the unblemished seeds (quite a few get nicked when you cut the melon) for yourself or your gardener friends.

3

Once you have thoroughly removed all the seeds and soft pulp…

4

…peel each chunk with a vegetable peeler, preferably one with a wide blade.

5

After neatly peeling all the pieces…

6

…cut them into the desired size. Here I used a mandoline for slicing.

7

Proceed with your recipe. The melon is usually mixed with sugar and left to sit at least overnight.

More about that, and some recipes, next time.

Citron melon, or: how I succumbed to gardener’s greed

Citron melon 1

In my early gardening days, like many other novice gardeners, I wanted to grow just about everything I saw in seed catalogs and nurseries. Over time, realism kicked in and I learned to respect the limits set by time, space, climate, and money. In other words, I managed my gardener’s greed.

Or so I thought.

Then, last November, I read about citron melon jam in Mimi Thorisson’s blog Manger, and I knew I wanted those melons in my garden. It intrigued me that the melons are harvested in the fall, long after the other melons are gone, and that they are not palatable raw. I’ve been to Médoc near Bordeaux, France, where, as Mimi writes “at this time of the year, local Médocains are all preparing the melon d’Espagne [citron melon] jam” however, I had neither heard of the melon nor the jam before.

I could not find the seeds in the United States but came across A Gardener’s Table (funny coincidence!), a blog by food writer Linda Ziedrich. She had written about growing citron melon so I sent her an email asking where she got the seeds. The seeds are not commercially available but she offered to mail me some of the ones she had saved. I wanted to reciprocate but did not have any unusual seeds for her. Instead I asked if she would like some of my yearly allotment of dark chocolate that my mother in Germany had just sent me. Seeds then traveled from the West Coast to the East Coast, and chocolate in the other direction.

My exchange with Linda did not stop after I received the beautiful dark red citron melon seeds in the mail. We’ve had a lively and most interesting email dialog since, about a variety of gardening and food preservation topics, and last summer Linda and I conducted experiments with different pectin products for jam and both blogged about it (see my blog Spoonfuls of Germany). Linda’s two books, The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and other Preserves, and The Joy of Pickling have become my first references to read up on the subject and look for recipe inspirations when I get swamped with produce from the garden.

2012 had been a terrible year in my garden for all members of the cucumber family. I had almost none or no cucumbers, zucchini (yes, that is possible), melons, and winter squash. This year I decided to overplant everything, including the citron melons. My goal was to have one melon so at least I would know how it tastes.

Almost all the citron melon seeds germinated. I planted five seedlings and gave the rest away. Citron melons must love the soil and climate on our Pennsylvania hilltop. They grew and grew and grew. After they had set fruit and I spotted about a dozen tiny melons I started pruning the vines so that the plants would put all their energy in the fruit that was already there. I had to prune them many more times but they just kept growing, over the fence and down the slope if I had let them.

From the photos the citron melons looked about the same size as the Charentais French breakfast melons that I like to grow. To keep those off the ground, I put each melon in a piece of pantyhose and suspend it from a trellis or the garden fence. Well, the citron melons grew so large that the pantyhose burst. And I had to take the melons off the fence, otherwise it would have collapsed.

Today was harvest day. I had to recruit my husband’s help to bring the 22 heavy melons up from the garden. Several weeks ago, when I realized I would have many more melons than I could possibly handle, I started lining up a group of testers, all experienced cooks and/or passionate canners, unafraid and with a healthy dose of curiosity to try something new.

Among the testers is Pat Taylor whom I met at an event of my Master Gardener group in August. She mentioned being into colonial cooking and I remembered reading somewhere that citron melons were used in those days. Pat did research about citron melons, which are also called “jam melons” or “pie melons”, and found recipes like Citron Cream in The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook by Mary Randolph, whose brother, she explained to me, was married to Jefferson’s daughter. Little did I know that I was in for a history lesson, too!

Of course I hope that the jam or whatever the citron melons will become in the end, is going to be tasty. And if they don’t taste that great, I won’t be upset. Just explaining to everyone who came to my garden this summer, “No, these are not watermelons,” and telling the story, and connecting with people I would have never met otherwise, makes it a fun experience already.

To be continued.

Citron melon 2

Photos by Ted Rosen

Guard owl and green harissa

Guard owl

It is the nature of gardening that after you have solved one problem the next challenge already lurks around the corner. After we moved the elderberry patch to a new location with moister soil last fall, the bushes are thriving. They developed many blossoms, albeit unusually late in the season, and some of them are still flowering.

ElderberriesThe birds would be just as happy about the elderberries as I am so the next question was how to protect them. We looked into bird netting and quickly dismissed the idea as too involved and too expensive. Then I remembered the plastic owl we had not used in years. So up on a tall stick it went. To give it more weight and make it sway more in the wind, my husband filled it with insulation foam.

If the birds won’t get used to the sight of the owl by the time the elderberries ripen, I am slightly optimistic that we will have elderberries this year!

Green bell peppers are an unwanted by-product from my garden. I do not like them and they only land in my kitchen when a stem breaks off, or when I harvest all of them before the first frost, regardless of their color. I have not been very successful in ripening peppers in a brown paper bag or cardboard box; they always soften before turning orange or red.

Yes, I do not like green bell peppers but that does not mean I would ever dump them on the compost. I usually freeze them, hoping that I will eventually find a recipe that uses lots of green peppers. The only recipe I make on a regular basis is Black Bean Soup with Cilantro, however that is only one green pepper down. I have looked for recipes using lots of green peppers but they always ask for so many other ingredients I do not have at hand that making those recipes would defeat the purpose.

Cleaning out the freezer the other day left me with two large bags of green peppers from last year. They had to go, with minimum effort and other ingredients. I decided to try my hands on some sort of mild harissa, hoping for a miraculous green pepper metamorphosis. Worst thing that could happen would be to throw them out after all.

A few hours later I had three jars of a smooth tasty olive-green spread for sandwiches or crackers. A generous amount of ground coriander and caraway gives it a distinct “Tunisian” flavor. And I was able to use up some leftover jalapeños in the process, too!

Green harissa

I am not sure my late Tunisian grandmother would call this a harissa but she was a recycler herself so she would understand.

Green Harissa

2.5 pounds cored and seeded green bell peppers

12 garlic cloves, chopped

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

5 cored and seeded jalapeños, to taste

1 teaspoon chili powder

2 teaspoons salt

½ cup olive oil, more for covering

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Place all ingredients in a large cast-iron Dutch oven. Cook in the preheated oven for 2 to 3 hours until the liquid has been absorbed and the peppers are mushy, turning once in a while at the beginning, and more often towards the end.

3. Puree in the food processor or with a stick blender. Fill into sterilized jars with screw-top lids and pour a bit of olive oil on top. Keep refrigerated and use within 2 to 3 weeks.

Makes 2 to 3 medium jars

In pursuit of black raspberry vinegar

Wild black raspberries

A few years ago I bought a bottle of black raspberry vinegar from Montgomery Place Orchards in the Hudson Valley, as a gift for my cousin and his girlfriend in Germany. They liked it so much that I bought a second bottle for my next visit, but then had to tell them this would be the last one, because after our daughter graduated, we would no longer make frequent trips to Annandale-on-Hudson. I suspect one of the motives of my cousin and his now wife for spending their summer vacation in the US this year is to load up on black raspberry vinegar… There are no black raspberries in Germany, they are a North American specialty.

We have a few black raspberries on our grounds, usually not enough to get excited about. This year however seemed different. I spotted brambles full of berries and picked a handful for fruit tart the other day, making a note to myself to get more. It took me a few days to work up the energy to leave my cool office and actually do it – in 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 55 percent humidity, covered up head to toe with boots, long sleeves, hat, protective glasses, and gloves. Even the dog, usually following me everywhere and inching forward with me sphinx-style when I pick strawberries, preferred to stay in the house.

For a good hour or so, I disappeared into the thicket. It was work but I picked more berries than I had hoped for. And I even found a large patch of blackberries, to return to in August. I don’t think I have had this explorer/discoverer feeling since I was a kid. When I came back to the house I was filthy and slightly scratched yet exhilarated and happy.

Of course the black raspberries had to go into black raspberry vinegar. For all that effort, I want something lasting. For instant gratification, there were enough berries left for a quick dessert for two.

I had made raspberry vinegar before, according to a recipe from the River Cottage Preserves Handbook, and found it a bit too sweet. This time I followed the recipe recently posted by Phoebe’s Pure Food.

It remains to be seen if the black raspberry vinegar will be as good as the one I gave away as a gift. Maybe knowing that it was made with the berries I foraged will make up for the difference in taste.

Raspberry vinegar & dessert

Me and my steam juicer

Concord grape soda

As I mixed one of the last jars of Concord grape juice  from last year with seltzer water it occurred to me that there would not be any of this homemade soda if it weren’t for the steam juicer that I brought back from Germany. Therefore I simply must rave about this wondrous invention.

Steam juicerA steam juicer is a large pot where the base is filled with water and the top colander holds the fruits or vegetables. As the water boils and softens the fruit, the juice drips down from the colander into the juice kettle, from where it is released through a drain tube. The drain tube has a clamp so for the first hour or so, depending how hard and juicy the fruit is, you let the juice accumulate in the kettle, then open the clamp and let the juice run into a bowl placed underneath.  I’ve had the steam juicer for several years yet I still relish the moment when I open the clamp – it feels a bit like digging for water or oil when a jet of the precious good eventually comes bursting out of the ground.

The yield is much bigger than with a jelly bag, it takes a fraction of the time, and it is no hassle at all to clean, just make sure you wash the steam juicer right after using; only the colander needs a bit of soaking sometimes. Except for grape juice, which I can as is with about ¼ cup sugar per quart of juice, I use most of the juice for making jelly.

The drawback: in the United States, steam juicers are expensive, especially the stainless steel models cost $100 and up. I do not recommend aluminum because it reacts with acid. A steam juicer is a small investment but for me it is an essential canning tool, just like a few good tools are essential in the garden. A rototiller for the garden? Never! A steam juicer for the kitchen? Absolutely. I cannot do without it.

Steam juicer elderberries

Photos by Ted Rosen

Fighting a cold, locavore style

Elderflower tea

For the past three days I have been knocked out with a cold. Between feeling sorry for myself over cancelled weekend plans, and watching the entire first season of the US remake of the Danish crime drama The Killing (great program, by the way), I remembered that I had dried some elderberry blossoms for tea last May.

Elderflower tea is an old home remedy against common cold and fever. The formulas vary. I used 1 heaping teaspoon of dried elderberry flowers per cup boiling water, steeped it for 10 minutes, and sweetened with local honey from our neighbor. In grey chilly January weather, sipping the hot tea from blossoms collected on a beautiful sunny day already feels good.

Hot elderberry juice with lemon juice and honey is also an excellent cold remedy but I don’t have any elderberry juice this year, and can only hope that the elderberry bushes transplanted last fall will love their new, less wind-beaten location in moister soil and produce lots of berries in the future.