Friday, October 28, 2011

Nasturtium Buds and Blossoms - Yum!

Nasturtium blossoms and buds, like violets, add a delicate and piquant flavor to salads. I grow them for their beauty and forget to use them for food – so when it started to snow yesterday afternoon I rushed out into the front patio to harvest the autumn array of nasturtium blossoms and buds. The red and orange flowers with their chic flat leaves were being crushed by the heavy wet snowflakes. The resulting harvest, captured in a bowl indoors, was small but very beautiful. I ate one or two blossoms right away – their crunchy peppery flavor is similar to true watercress (be careful where you harvest watercress – the water it thrives in may be polluted. It’s best to go for market-grown cress, unless you really know the water source).
I read years ago that nasturtium buds can be prepared and used like capers. I am a caper fanatic, pardon me while I switch to my favorite spelling, capar – but their high price and excess saltiness can put off even this extreme saltaholic. As you can see in the photo, I put the buds in a wee bowl with a small amount of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Go ahead and add salt – I did not.
I placed a covering over the blossoms and marinating buds and refrigerated overnight. This morning the blossoms were still crisp, ready to glamorize the salad that I will have tonight – and the buds are succulent, subtle microcosms of a good salad – they burst and melt in the mouth.

(Those are post-blossom seed pods in the lower left of the photo.)

Autumn is icumen in

Food appetites and preferences shift gears with the approach of colder weather. What causes this shift – the drop in day-length? Why does it happen – to fatten us up for the winter?
While I am sure that “studies have been done,” a conclusive understanding no doubt remains elusive. This is a good reason to get out of the academic grove and head into the kitchen to cook a hearty autumnal meal.
My first clue that autumn was upon us, was an unexpected wild craving for roasted root vegetables – Brian Jaques’ “Redwall Cookbook” suddenly stood out on the cookbook shelf as if spotlighted. While my first autumn feast was not out of those pages, it was certainly inspired by Jaques’ twee but tasty recipes, such as “Mole’s Favourite Deeper’n’Ever Turnip’n’Tater’n’Beetroot Pie” ! We’ll call my meal a cabbage and potato roast-up – no apostrophes were harmed in the making of this dish.
At Ludgates Farm Market I purchased a small head of purple cabbage and a pound-plus of Finger Lakes fingerling potatoes. I cut the cabbage into quarters, put it in an ovenproof pan with a bit of olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and a small amount of water, covered the pan and roasted this glorious item for at least an hour at around 400 degrees F.
Meanwhile I washed, dried and cut in half the small potats and put them in a glass oven pan with fresh rosemary, salt and pepper, and a few Tbs of olive oil – mixed it all up and roasted it uncovered for 20-25 minutes at 425F. An Epicurious recipe suggested scattering a few Tbs of balsamic vinegar on the finished dish and re-roasting for a couple more minutes – intense favor enhancement!
These handsome, deeply-flavored, aromatic and comforting items lasted me three days – first as a one-person feast; then as side dishes for other happy, home-cooked meals.
The second autumn-craving dish has a name with capital letters: Two-Bean Turkey Leg Chili. It needs improvements – it is a tad heavy on the digestive system – but sure tastes good. I soaked black and pinto beans together with olive oil and garlic. I added about ten more cups of water and simmered, adding a (defrosted) turkey leg left over from our Canadian Thanksgiving, a half cup of uncooked brown rice, and a 15 ounce can of Mexican tomato sauce (hot). Whew!
After 1-2 hours I had me a warming, (spicy), satisfying, but heavy dish – best savored in small bowls with a green vegetable side-dish. Following these two mad forays into midwinter, I ate salads for two days in a row.
The photos show the finished cabbage and potato roast-up and the Two-Bean Turkey Leg Chili, which I ate out of an original Bledsoe Batware mug.

Garden Gratitude – 2011

I am not a very good gardener but am getting better. Last fall I realized, following another growing season of minimal results, that standing in front of lackluster plants shaking my head in puzzlement was not enough – that I had to do hard physical work continuously, and quit griping.
While this year’s harvest was not what anyone else around here would term abundant, it sure was better for me: The additional compost, weeding, mulching and watering (even when the well went dry and I had to lug buckets from the neighbors’ pond) paid off in a modest but continual yield for my fresh produce needs and earthly delights.
I especially want to give a call out to the TOMATOES who gave me daily joy – the small blasts of flavor from the cherries, straight off the scented vines, in the warm mornings, and the earthy aromas of tomatoes in sauce and bright salads in the kitchen; the incredible luxury of having all the SNOW PEAS I could consume daily for over a month; the repeated astonishment of being able to harvest TOMATILLOS in my own backyard for sauces. (Beets and potatoes, let’s try again next spring. And this fall I got the garlic planted in October!)
Most of all -- thanks go to the Plantsman Nursery in Lansing for getting me started in earliest April, when the local outdoors was still a mud-bath, with a container of small lettuce and kale plants. I harvested the lettuces within a couple of weeks – what a confidence-booster and SO GOOD; I also planted another kale type and collard green seedlings, from Earlybird Farms just south of Ithaca. The result - ALL SUMMER long I had PLENTIFUL, incredibly flavorful greens for every type of dish – sautéed, boiled, cut up and added to other dishes. When cut, these plants regrew. OMG.
The photos show a midsummer yield and assorted greens bed; the final lingering cherry and plum tomatoes in September, and the goodbye-til-spring harvest of assorted greens – harvested on October 26. Oh yeah!

Mystery Mint Becomes Hanshaw Road Backyard Mint Tea!

We stopped mowing the backyard for a variety of reasons. One reason was to see what would come up! What native or interesting plants had been suppressed by decades of mowing wetlands and old pasture into a “grassy lawn”?
The re-grown backyard now boasts native sedges and grasses, wetland shrubs and seedling trees that are gone from surrounding cultivated or paved areas. Also, to my surprise, there is a plentiful and spreading bed of mint, which revealed itself via its beautiful scent when stepped on. Mowed into the lawn for many years, the plants had managed to spread across a sizable area of the backyard, and grew up into sizeable plants over the spring and summer months.
The photos show the mints emerging from the surrounding grass; and the rolls of mint-leaf filled paper towels that I use to dry the harvested leaves for tea.
Twice this past summer, I cut the plants off about a third of the way down each one, to harvest the leaves and to allow the small plants to become sturdier and bushier for future growth (I dunno if I am doing this right!).
I rolled single layers of leaves into paper towel bundles, fastened with rubber bands, and left for a month to dry fully. I have found this method works better than air drying, which in this moist climate can lead to mold and bug infestation, not to mention spider webs!
The dried mint leaves yield a pure, honest mint tea when a few are crumbled into a tea-ball and steeped in hot water. The aroma alone will carry you to a better inner place for long enough to truly refresh.

Apples and Pears from Roadside Trees

My mid-20th century house is on an old road, co-existing with the remnants of older landscapes. Apple trees dot the roadside woodline. Although today they are ignored and overgrown, they indicate that earlier residents planted and used these excellent fruits. A hearty old apple tree peeks out of the woods along the road just east of my house, and this year it was loaded with small pretty green apples, ripening with a tinge of red. There is also a small pear tree growing at the end of my driveway. It was “always there” while I grew up; today it is in bad shape, half-dead: but every summer it produces a healthy crop of small hard pears.
This August I finally “got” or “took” or “seized” the time to pick a small bucket each of the pears and apples, and prepared a combination sauce. The photos show the apple tree; the half-prepared pears; and the resulting thick creamy apple-pear sauce.
These wild or feral fruits take a little longer than their fully tame cousins to prepare. They are small and hard. They require cutting with a small sharp knife, and cleaning out of seeds and bug-holes. I did not peel them.
I put the resulting mixed fruit (three-four cups total) in a pan on the stove with a small amount of water, and let it come to a rolling simmer. I stirred the pan and left it – for only about four minutes – and when I looked again the apples had sort of exploded into a creamy mass. The pears were firmer and retained their shape and intense pear flavor. I stirred, tasted, and added 2-3 tablespoons of sugar, as the sauce was too tart for me (and I like tart).
This wild apple-pear sauce was creamy, dense, mousse-like. Wonderful, powerful. I’ll do it again. Gets easier once you have done it the first time!

My own personal cookout

August 2011:

What a heavenly backyard meal. Although this summertime feast is usually consumed in the company of others, it tasted just as good when savored alone. I don't eat meat very often; the local sweet corn this summer was superb. Local red potatoes & butter from down the road!

The soft evening and a good read made for a wonderful, private celebration of living well. Cats for company.