Posts Tagged ‘herbs’

Wild or Cultivated? Both. Also Delicious.

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As a general rule, I try not to review cookbooks until I have owned them for at least a year.  I buy them at retail, paying the same price that my readers will eventually pay, and then I read them, cook from them and think about them.   Many cookbooks that seemed very enticing when I first brought them home are relegated to distant shelves a year later.

This one still has a prominent place at my bedside, which is my favorite place for reading and thinking about food. Chef Emmons  writes about a year that she spent cooking from a wildly varied organic vegetable farm, Eva’s Farm.  This farm seems to be doing on a very large scale what I am trying to do on my property on a very small scale, i.e. there is a little bit of everything and no clear line between the cultivated plants and the wildlings.  Lambsquarters and nettles are given the same culinary consideration as spinach and chard, but there is no particular emphasis on their wildness; they’re just there.  This is absolutely as it should be, in my view. The difference between a cultivated plant and a weed is a rather slight one.

The recipes read as an ongoing series of seasonal improvisations on the level of “see it growing, cook it, eat it.”  They certainly work if you want to follow them closely, but in my view are better read as a vision of the garden through the eye of a cook, who might see infinite possibilities but can only cook one of them at a time. There is an emphasis on frugality but not an obsession with it. The use of herbs in lavish free-form ways is a delightful subtext. The sidebars are full of interesting thoughts about farming, cooking, and just being alive. The recipes include meat and dairy products and, in general, everything that might grow on a vegetable farm or be bartered for.

In brief, I love this book, use it, and recommend it. I put it aside this winter, but when the first greens showed above ground, it was back at my bedside. It looks a bit worn and has a food stain on the cover, which tends to distinguish the cookbooks that I read from the ones that I use.

The greens of fall: Nasturtium

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With the first frost behind us, there are parts of the garden that are just getting into full swing. This is the second great greens season. During the summer I enjoy the beauty of nasturtiums and put the flowers in salads frequently, as well as using the leaves here and there. After a frost, flower production slows way down but leaf production increases, and this is the time to use these wonderful tender leaves with the flavor of watercress. I use them fairly simply. The largest ones always become hand rolls, and my favorite things to put in them are cream cheese with capers and some of their own blossoms, slivered sushi salmon with pickled ginger and other accompaniments, and smoked salmon. I use two leaves stacked to make up each role so that you get a good watercressy flavor in each bite.
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The smaller leaves go into quickly sautéed mixtures of greens and herbs that flavor omelettes. Green garlic is available again this time of year after the summer hiatus, and I like to chop up a small stalk of it leaves and all, chop up a packed pint of the smaller nasturtium leaves and a celery leaf or two chopped fine, and sauté them together quickly in butter and put them in an omelette of eggs from my own hens. Delicious. If you care to gild the lily by adding slivered smoked salmon and bits of cream cheese to the filling, it only gets better. If you can eat outside in the clear October sunlight, that’s best of all.
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Fennel in the Garden and Kitchen; a Nose-to-Tail Herb

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Fennel carries the true taste of summer. I love fennel and always have it around, and my favorite form, the only variety that I keep these days, is the subtly metallic bronze fennel. If you want fennel bulbs you will have to grow a bulbing type, but my interest is in other parts of the plant so the bronze suits all my purposes.
The first pleasure it offers is aesthetic: this is a lovely plant to have around. The color isn’t really bronze but a soft coppery-purple, and when hung with drops from a summer rain it is nothing short of breathtaking, in a quiet way. When dry, it is furry like a cat until the stalks form, and a little later the umbels of tiny yellow-green blooms look surprisingly pretty against the darker background. It would pass muster as a front yard edible in the most exacting neighborhood.
Second, it is beautifully aromatic. I brush my hand down a frond every time I pass it to inhale the anise-y scent.
Third, it’s delicious. I can’t understand why so few people eat their bronze fennel. I admit that my main use of it is to chew up a frond while weeding or doing other garden tasks. The resiny rush is succeeded by a taste of intense sweetness and herbal licorice. I realized years ago, when going through a Greek cookbook binge, that fennel and not dill is a primary seasoning herb for horta, the greens mixture that forms a part of so many Cretan meals and snacks. A generous handful of chopped fennel fronds, sautéed with other aromatics, gives the right flavor to a batch of greens mixture. Chopped fronds are also an essential part of fish marinades and rubs, in my view, and can be delicious on chicken. A little dab of herb salad, made from chopped bronze fennel and chives or garlic chives and dressed with a very good vinaigrette, is good as a seasoning garnish alongside fish or chicken. Chopped fennel fronds are lovely in mayonnaise to sit atop grilled salmon, or yo dress cold fish salad. When grilling fish, consider putting the larger stems of fennel across the grill to make aromatic smoke. I love a small handful of chopped fronds in salads. This is a nose-to-tail herb, since besides using the leaves and stalks you can collect the pollen if you have enough plants (fennel pollen is a common aromatic seasoning in Tuscany,) and the seeds can also be collected for culinary use. One cookbook writer said that she made an anise-flavored pesto from blanched bronze fennel fronds, and that sounds delicious too, although I haven’t tried it yet. On days when I’ve worked late in the garden and the late sunset finds me hot and dirty and with a poor appetite from the heat, I can throw together smoked salmon crostinis with fennel:

Cut a few diagonal slices off a good baguette or, if you are ketogenic, cut a few thin slices of ketogenic coconut bread. Toast them, spread with green mayo Or your own favorite tarragon-seasoned mayonnaise, put on one thick or two thin slices of smoked wild-caught sockeye salmon, smear with some mascarpone or creme fraiche, and top each with a couple of generous pinches of  chopped fennel. It takes five minutes, it’s cool and soothing, and yum.

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Incidentally, I remember reading somewhere long ago that fennel stalks coated with tallow were burned to summon good witches, and mullein stalks were used the same way to summon bad witches, unless maybe it was the other way around. So if you want to try it, you’ll need to get straight which is which. But I can say from experience that a couple of dried fennel stalks tossed on a dying fire in the fall give a lovely aromatic end to the evening that doesn’t summon anything but contentment and sleep.
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Seasonal Reminder:Tarragon

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Tarragon is at its beautiful peak in my garden, and if you have a goodly bush of it yourself, don’t forget to fill a jar with sprigs and cover with wine vinegar so that your salads next winter will carry that delicious flavor. Your own red wine vinegar is preferable but any good grade of wine vinegar will do. If you don’t already have a favorite vinaigrette recipe, try my Opinionated Vinaigrette.