Archive for the ‘passing pleasures’ Category

Passing pleasures: Hops shoots

Many years ago I planted hops vines along my fences, planning to use the flowers for brewing. Not long afterwards, I gave up beer for weighty reasons, but in my difficult climate I’m not likely to get rid of plants that grow lustily with no attention. There was also the delightful bonus of hops shoots every spring. Gather the young shoots by snapping them off at the point where they snap easily. This is usually about the terminal 6-7 inches of the vine.

When it comes to cooking them, I’m very opinionated. After trying other ways, I’m convinced that this way suits their rich-bitter flavor best. Rinse the bundle of shoots and cut them in cross section, 1.5-2 inches long. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. You don’t want to crowd the pan too much. A 12” skillet is right for one large bundle of shoots.  When the pan is hot through, add a glug of good olive oil, swirl it around, and add the shoots. Toss them around, sprinkling them with a good pinch of salt. Toss the shoots every couple of minutes.

Here’s the part that many find difficult. When they look like this, keep going. Taste them at this stage and, if you like them you can stop here, but I think that you haven’t yet tasted hops shoots at their best. Instead add a pat of butter, at least a tablespoon, and keep cooking.The butter will brown a bit and is important to the flavor.

This stage, in my opinion, is their point of perfection. They have shrunk considerably. The stems are browned in spots and many of the little leaves are brown and crisp. Taste for salt and serve. I find them delicious. They are especially good alongside ham or bacon, and I like them with fried eggs for lunch.

Hops plants are known to contain an estrogenic compound and chalcones. The latter are an interesting group of chemicals with anti-tumor properties, and you can read more about them here. What this means in practice is anybody’s guess, and my own opinion is that it means very little, since the shoots are only in season for about 3 weeks and no one person will eat enough of them to make much difference one way or another. They are a springtime gift of the earth, thrown up exuberantly in great quantities with no effort on the gardener’s part except providing them with something to climb on, and I cherish them as such.

If you plan to grow them, remember that hops are intent on world domination and need a sturdy support. Also, they spread and come up in unexpected places. This is fine with me, since I keep a very untidy yard anyway, but if you like things to stay neatly in their assigned places, the bold independent nature of hops may not be to your taste.

Annual Pollinator Post

Every year I post about pollinators, and it’s always a thinly disguised excuse to post pictures of poppies.  So this year I will just say again that planting flowers that bees like is one of the kindest things that you can do for them, and there is no flower that bees like more than the common Shirley poppy.  Buy a packet of seed in late winter, sprinkle it over fertile ground while the weather is still cold, water regularly, and in late May or early June the show starts. I have started planting a bed of carrots in early March, then sprinkling the poppy seeds over the planted bed. You can’t see it in this picture, but underneath the poppies are carrots, and they are growing quite happily.  So it is quite possible to get a crop of flowers for the bees and for your viewing pleasure, and still harvest food from the same bed.  After they bloom the poppies die back and the carrots can take over, or if you gave the flowers the bed to themselves, you can dig up the bed at that point and plant something else.

The last few weeks have been filled with work obligations, sad things in the news, and a friend’s urgent medical issue, but I have tried hard to pause and notice the poppy bed every time I walk past it, and listen to the humming of the bees inside the blossoms. Poppies in June are a good reminder that we too are in bloom only a short time and need to revel in our time in the sun.

Flowers of Spring

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This year, for the first time, the blooming crocuses were not the first exciting gardening event of spring. Thanks to experiments with Agribon frost blanket, I started harvesting huge beautiful heads of broccoli in January. But the crocuses are still very exciting. Their rich intense stained-glass hues seem almost defiant on a winter day, and in morning sun they are a reassurance that you made it through another winter and it was all worth it. Last fall I finally remembered to buy enough of them to plant the big black pots on the sheltered east side of my house, and here they are blooming happily in mid February.
Even if you are mostly a food gardener, as I am, don’t forget to plant a few things that brighten your property and gladden your heart. I call it endorphin farming.  These early minor joys draw you outside in any scrap of pretty weather, and cause you to notice that green onions are sprouting, new shoots of fennel and tarragon and peas can be seen, fruit tree buds are swelling, and yes, the coming season will be beautiful and worth working for.

I remember some garden writer who moved to the Pacific Northwest writing about asking his new neighbor what he needed to know about winter gardening in Seattle, and the neighbor looked at him and replied bleakly “Prozac.” A few crocuses are a lot less expensive than a season’s worth of antidepressants, and have no side effects whatsoever.
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The Season of Scapes

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Back in 2009 I wrote a post on onion and garlic scapes that you can find here, and all I can say is that if I had known that hundreds of people were going to look at it and it would still be going strong in 2016, I would’ve been more thorough. But then, when I think about it, I think my advice to get young tender garlic scapes, chop them in about 1 inch lengths, and pan fry them in hot olive oil is still my favorite way to use them. These days I usually cut the whole bud off before cutting them up to cook. It has a slightly starchy quality that does not, in my current opinion, go well with the greenness of the rest of the scape. Try it both ways and see what you think.
I also still enjoy putting them under roasting meat and poultry to stew in the juices, and in fact tonight I will be having roast chicken thighs on a bed of garlic scapes, almost exactly as I described in that post seven years ago. Make sure that they get 20 minutes or more to cook. If necessary, you can take the meat out to rest and continue roasting the scapes until done. Make sure the pan doesn’t get dry, which will cause them to burn. Add a little water or broth if needed to keep things a little juicy but not soupy.
I can also add that allicin, the antioxidant in garlic and other alliums that is thought to have many health benefits, is present in much higher levels in the green part of the garlic plant than in the cloves that you typically cook with, so eating the plant bits is good for you as well as tasty.
I am also experimenting with dehydrating scapes and grinding them into powder. I am not doing this with garlic scapes because I prefer to eat them as is, but I have been dehydrating onion and shallot scapes so that they can be ground into an attractive green powder that, I hope, will be useful for seasoning. So far, I have sprinkled some over salad with good effect. I am thinking about using it to coat chicken thighs, along with salt, and then searing them in olive oil and finishing them in the oven. I’m not sure how the green color will play out in this context, but I think it will brown enough that it will not be particularly startling.
The best advice that I can give to vegetable gardeners is: grow green garlic. Grow a lot of it. Use the greens, and ignore any rigid advice to use the white parts only, because you would be missing the best part of the garlic. Remember to slice crosswise in 1/4″ slices when using the whole stalk and leaves, since they are not as tender as the scape, and once the scape appears, the stalk and leaves are too tough to use. Try it every which way, because you are probably going to love at least some cooking methods. Click the tag for “green garlic” at the head of this post to look at all my various experiments with it.  If your space is limited and you can’t grow enough for your yearly needs, you can eat all your garlic as green garlic and then buy heads of garlic at your farmers’ market, grocery, or food co-op for winter use. If you are limited to a small space, there is no point in using it on storage vegetables.
Be aware that you can create a very long season by choosing a number of different varieties. My green garlic season starts in mid-March with the very early Chinese Pink, and right now in late May the late Mount Hood and elephant garlic are still providing wonderful green garlic. I buy all my garlic from Territorial Seeds, and I strongly recommend getting your order in by June because the most interesting varieties sell out quickly. It will be delivered in fall in time for planting. This year I have finally planted enough that I think I will be able to replant from my own stock; in previous years, I’m afraid I have gluttonously eaten it all.

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Tadpole update

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The little jellyish tadpoles introduced in a previous post now have well-developed hind legs, growing front legs, and are beginning to look like tiny toads. And there is no such thing as too many toads, in my opinion anyway. If you want to get them in your yard, in most parts of the country all you have to do is build it and they will come. Have a ground-level source of fresh water, plenty of shade, and some insects, and you will have toads pretty soon. Listen for their high-pitched “singing” around your pond some time. They sound more like katydids than like frogs, and it’s music to the gardener’s ears.

Tales of Tadpoles

We have had a really unusual summer with lots of rain, and one of my neighbors found his horse paddock flooded. He started to pump it out, and as the water level fell he discovered tadpoles. We scooped them into a bucket, and I put them into a kiddie pool that I keep in my back yard because I have a dog who loves a dip on hot days.
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At first they were little blobs of jelly with tails.they poked around the bottom of the pool for microbials and weren’t really seen that much.
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Then they began to swim more purposefully and I saw them a lot more.
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Now they are flattening out, forming little embryonic hind legs, and their eyes are on top of their heads and becoming protuberant. They are well on their way to becoming frogs.
I haven’t raised tadpoles since about age six, and I’d forgotten how fascinating it is to watch the entire course of vertebrate embryology occur in vivo, right before my eyes. It is a commonplace miracle but still a miracle. It would be hard to quantify the pleasure I’ve gotten from my rescue tadpoles. The chance to watch life work should never be taken for granted.

Red, White, and Blue Cobbler

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The tart or pie cherry is a pretty yard tree all season, and gorgeous in full fruit, with the glowing colors of a Russian enamel. This year my pie cherry tree bore heavily for the first time, and after making a new supply of tart cherry liqueur (no sugar this time,) I made a few cherry cobblers.
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First, catch your cherries. They need to be the bright lacquer-red pie type, not the darker sweet cherries, which will turn a rather dreadful color if you try to cook them.
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Next, pit enough of them to make 1 1/2 cups of pitted cherries. This will serve 2 gluttons or four normal people. I have a pitting device from OXO that pits four at a time, but it’s still tedious work. Be certain to run your clean fingers through the pitted cherries several times to find any pits that you missed, so that no teeth are cracked later.
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If you eat sugar, it’s very simple from here on. Add a handful of wild blueberries or (from my yard) fully ripe clove currants or serviceberries  for the blue element, sweeten to taste, and make your favorite biscuit dough but sweeten it a little more than usual. Put the cherries and berries in a buttered 7 inch tart pan, top with artistic globs of the biscuit dough, and bake at 375 until the dough is done and browning attractively. If you eat low-carb it’s a little more complicated but not much. Sweeten the cherry mixture to taste with half erythritol and half Sweet Perfection oligofructose, working the sweeteners in with your fingers so that they don’t cake, and add a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Make the topping as follows:
1 1/2 cups almond flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup of Swerve sweetener confectioners type
1/3 cup Sweet Perfection oligofructose
1/4 cup butter, cold
2 egg yolks
Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl and stir well with a fork. Work in the butter, cutting it in with the fork until the largest remaining butter pieces are the size of baby peas. Add the egg yolks, working them in with a fork until the mixture is fairly well amalgamated. Drop on top of the cherry mixture in the small buttered tart pan, pat it out just a bit with your fingertips (it will be sticky and messy,) and bake at 375 until the dough is cooked through and coloring. This dough doesn’t brown evenly as sugar-containing doughs do, and you have to watch carefully so that it doesn’t burn. Serve hot with low-carb
vanilla ice cream.
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Happy Independence Day!
The gorgeous image of a cherry branch second from the top was on a Google page and I can’t find an attribution for it. If anyone knows who the photographer is, please let me know so that I can give credit.