Season finale for herbs

Come August, the days are over when I can just grab a pair of garden scissors and cut a bunch of picture-perfect flowers for a vase or a flower arrangement. Late-summer bloomers like zinnias are often covered with powdery mildew. Sunflowers, which bloom into October, don’t survive the voracity of the rabbits unless I protect every single stem with hardwire cloth. And, I am not too wild about dahlias, asters, and chrysanthemums.

Roaming around I found that a bunch of herbs is the best I can do right now: mint, sorrel, lavender, lemon verbena, lemon balm, dill, rosemary, sage, and parsley.

The herbs are still a lush green, their last big outburst of energy before shutting down for the winter, or dying. Having supplied my kitchen with wonderful flavors and scents for the last six months, they indeed deserved to be the centerpiece on the dining table on this gorgeous fall day.

Know no shame, or: Anything for strawberries

Even after ten years in the country, I am squeamish as can be about anything furry – dead, alive, or in-between. Once our dog killed a groundhog in front of the garage door and it remained there until my husband returned from a trip to his parents a couple of days later. My mother-in-law, on one of my hysterical phone calls, recommended to cover it with an old towel, then load it onto a shovel, but just approaching the thing sent me screaming.

When it comes to protecting the new strawberry patch, however, I seem to be turning into a fearless, indelicate roughneck. The new commercial repellent I spread around the patch about a week ago seems to be working. But when I was weeding down there the other day and saw our dog lift his leg a few times around the patch, I had an idea. I had read somewhere that fermented human urine works as a critter repellent. Since we won’t be eating strawberries from the patch until next summer, and urine is sterile anyway, why not collect our own organic repellent? I sprinkled an old lemonade bottle full of donations around the perimeter of the patch twice this week. No rabbit damage so far!

But the next worry is already lurking around the corner. When I bought strawberries from our neighbor yesterday, he complained about half of his patch being affected by fungus because he had sprayed only once this season. Of course, now I am wondering what else will I have to battle after the rabbit plague, especially because I want to grow the strawberries organically, like the rest of the garden.

Enough kvetching, let’s get to the bright side of strawberries. Thanks to the healthy half of our neighbor’s strawberry patch, I was able to make another strawberry cake. It had to be something really easy and quick with the ingredients I had in the house, which was low-fat ricotta, but certainly whole-milk ricotta will make an even better, creamier filling.

Strawberry-Ricotta Roulade with Pistachios

Sponge cake:

2 eggs + 1 egg white

½ cup sugar

¾ cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

Filling:

¼ cup shelled pistachios

12 ounces strawberries

10 ounces ricotta

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

½ cup confectioner’s sugar, more for dusting

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line the bottom of a 16 x 11-inch jellyroll pan with parchment. Grease the parchment and the sides of the pan.

2. Beat the eggs and the egg white until light and fluffy.

3. Mix the flour with the baking powder and the salt and sift into the eggs. Fold it into the eggs lightly but thoroughly until no more flour pockets remain.

4. Pour the dough into the jellyroll pan and smoothen it with a spatula.

5. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, or until golden and springy to the touch.

6. Lift the parchment with the sponge cake onto the kitchen counter or a baking sheet and cover immediately with a clean dry kitchen towel. Let cool.

7. Lightly toast the pistachios. Cool, then chop and set aside.

8. Beat the ricotta with the vanilla extract and the confectioner’s sugar until smooth and creamy.

9. Wash, hull and slice the strawberries.

10. Flip the parchment with the sponge cake over and place it on a large baking sheet lined with the kitchen towel or with parchment. Carefully remove the parchment from the baking of the sponge cake.

11. Spread the ricotta evenly over the sponge cake, leaving about ½ inch uncovered on the long sides. Spread the sliced strawberries on top and sprinkle with the pistachios.

12. Using the towel as a lifter, roll up the cake from the long side. Place the roulade with the seam-side down on a serving platter. If you are making this just en famille, and not for fancy presentation, or if you don’t. have a platter long enough, cut it in half to fit, (that’s what I did). Chill for 1 hour. Dust with confectioner’s sugar before serving.

Bunny wars (cont.)

I did not do my homework, or I was naïve, or both, thinking that the rabbits would leave my new strawberry patch alone. They are systematically eating their way through the rows. I should have known better – pet rabbits are given strawberry leaves as a treat. Fencing in the strawberry patch is out of the question because to really keep the bunnies out, the fence needs to be galvanized hardwire cloth, buried 6 inches in the ground and at least 3 feet high, like my vegetable garden. Even a stubborn gardener like me must admit that this is not economical for a strawberry patch, and very labor-intensive.

But I wasn’t ready to give up just as yet so as a last attempt (all products I have tried in the past did not work), I bought Plantskydd, an organic rabbit repellent from Sweden that is supposed to do miracles. With one leaf left on a plant, so I learned, the strawberries might survive the onslaught. If in a week or so, the new leaves are not chewed off, the stuff works. Until then, I am not getting my hopes up too high.

Fortunately, our neighbor, a part-time farmer, grows strawberries. He has supplied us with super-ripe strawberries twice this week. This strawberry cake was an impromptu operation so I used what I had on hand. For the lining of the crust, I made a small batch of strawberry jam of the ripest strawberries. Unless it’s top-quality or homemade, I find most strawberry jams nothing but sugary so this was more than a solution borne out of necessity.Strawberry Cake with Vanilla Custard

Crust:

¾ cup + 2 tablespoons (125 g) all-purpose flour

2½ level teaspoons baking powder

½ cup (100 g) sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 eggs

3 tablespoons lemon agrumato olive oil (or lemon-infused olive oil)

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 pinch salt

Filling:

1¼  to 1½ pounds washed and hulled strawberries

Strawberry jam for brushing

1 batch homemade vanilla pudding (recipe is on my other blog, Spoonfuls of Germany)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees Celsius). Line a 10-inch (25 cm) cake pan or springform pan with baking parchment and grease the sides.

2. Add all ingredients for the crust to a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until combined, then beat at high speed for 1 minute. Pour into the prepared pan.

3. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until firm and golden. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly then unmold onto a cake rack and let cool completely.

4. Brush the cake with jam.

5. Prepare vanilla pudding following recipe. Spread on cake while still lukewarm, leaving about ½ inch (1.25 cm) free all around to give the custard room to spread without dripping down the sides.

6. Wash and hull strawberries and arrange in an overlapping shingle pattern. Refrigerate and serve within a day.

Makes 1 cake 

If life gives you beet greens…

Risotto with beet greens

Growing beets has always been difficult for me in my garden. Before I put up a Berlin Wall-like fence, the tender greens were chewed to the ground by rabbits as soon as they emerged. But even now, and despite painstaking soil sifting and amendment with sand, most of the beets in the rocky Pennsylvania soil are small, woodsy and gnarly. Their greens, however, is a totally different story! It is as if the plants put all their energy into the lush, shiny, large foliage. So every year I end up with several bags of frozen beet greens.

Before I became a gardener, I did not even know that beet greens are edible. That’s no surprise, because unless you buy the beets super-fresh from a farmers market, they reach the store leafless. And that’s a shame, because the leaves have more nutritional value than beet roots.

I have tried different recipes with beet greens but I always return to the same two recipes: Trouchia, a French vegetable omelet, and this risotto. The recipe is adapted from Amanda Hesser’s terrific book The Cook and the Gardener. But since I have such an abundance of beet greens, I maximized their amount and left out the chard used in the original recipe.

Frozen beet greens are easy to break into small bits while still in the bag so no chopping needed.

Risotto with Beet Greens

8-10 ounces cleaned and trimmed beet greens, fresh or frozen

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

4 cups low-fat chicken broth

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 bay leaf

1 cup Arborio rice

1/3 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon butter

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

1. Chop the beet greens if using fresh, or break frozen leaves into small pieces.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet and add the garlic. Cook for 2 minutes until soft. Don’t let the garlic brown.

3. Stir und cook until leaves are wilted. Remove from the heat and set aside.

4. Heat the chicken broth in a saucepan.

5. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium-size pot with a heavy bottom. Add the shallot and cook 2 minutes until translucent.

6. Add the bay leaf and the rice and stir to coat evenly. Cook over medium heat until the rice releases a nutty smell and looks glassy.

7. Add the wine and ¼ cup hot broth. Cook while stirring constantly until all the liquid has been absorbed.

8. Continue adding chicken broth in ½ cup increments and stirring constantly, only adding more broth when the previous addition has been absorbed, until all the broth has been used and the rice is tender but not mushy, about 20 to 25 minutes.

9. Add the beet greens and stir until reheated. Then stir in the Parmesan and butter and season with salt and pepper. Cover with a lid and let stand for 1 to 2 minutes before serving.

Makes 2 servings as a main course, or 4 servings as side dish

Victory (for now)

Every gardener has his/her nemesis. Mine is rabbits. But today I can declare at least a partial victory. I harvested a carrot!

When I started the garden in 2004, there was no initial problem. I guess the rabbits just hadn’t discovered the new organic supermarket in the neighborhood yet. But then, year after year, they became more voracious. On top of it, I learned that rabbits go through seasonal taste changes – a vegetable that they leave alone one year is the first to be wiped out the next year. Slipping through the fence, the rabbits devoured basil, beet greens, carrot leaves (nibbled to the ground), blooming French filet beans, lettuce, radish leaves (it is a mystery to me how they can find those hairy, tough leaves tasty), spinach, pea seedlings, and Swiss chard. Tomatoes and eggplants, usually not rabbit fare, weren’t safe from them neither. They just bit off the tiny plants and spit them out.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to fight the rabbits with one ineffective remedy after another: hot pepper flakes, anti-rabbit spray with a nauseating smell, granulated fox urine, pieces of garden hose that were supposed to look like snakes, mint sprigs, cotton balls soaked in vinegar and tossed all over the garden, ammonia-soaked rugs hung over the fence, dangling CDs, flashing bike lights at night, dog hair, plastic cups filled with moth balls that had to carefully drained far from the garden after every rain…

After nothing worked, it was either putting up another fence, or giving up the garden. Last spring we reached deep into our pockets and put up a second fence of sturdy hard-wire cloth. Over several weeks my beloved undertook the backbreaking task of digging a trench around the entire garden and packing it with 2B modified gravel. But it still wasn’t enough to keep the rabbits out – they simply jumped over the new fence through the old fence and wrecked havoc. So we reached even deeper into our pockets and doubled the height of the fence. Finally it worked! We named it “Berlin Wall No. 2”. Except for the occasional toad I have spotted no living being without wings in the garden ever since.

Lately I noticed that something is devouring the new stems of the Charantais French breakfast melon, which is growing on trellises outside the fenced-in area.  I console myself with the thought that in a few weeks, I would have to prune out the abundant growth anyway so the rabbits are doing the job for me. What the rabbits don’t know: next year, I will plant everything behind the Iron Curtain.