in which midsummer finds our heroine in her garden

IMG_3659As I struggle to finish two articles, work through the sudden loss of my beloved cat and a separation from my husband, and ponder a brave new world and perfect my Oregon tan* at the same time, my garden beckons, that heartbreaking seductress.  How did we get to mid-July? How did I get here?**

The raspberries are still producing, but slowly.  Blackcaps are done. I had no tayberries this year, and that’s probably for the best — the ones in the market were not terrific. Must have been a glitch in the weather, as the loganberries are fine, the boysenberries fanfuckingtastic. Also an almost complete failure of my ‘Poorman’ gooseberries, but the ‘Cherry Red’ currants were finally old enough for a great crop and the rhubarb didn’t wimp out this year.  My ‘Benton’ strawberries are throwing out sisters, rather rudely far from their nice contained bed, deep into my herbs and beans.

I packed away the cured garlic yesterday, big juicy heads of ‘Keith Red’ hardneck with mottled purple-brown skin (above), and a braided strand of a dozen or so pearl-white, mostly ‘Silver Rose’ softneck.  And the potatoes came out: a bit early, but nevertheless a terrific harvest of ‘Russian Banana’ fingerlings and an improved version of the Yukon Gold called Island something-or-another, I forgot.

Still need to thin my cute little round Dutch carrots and cut some kale, which rebounded beautifully from an aphid infestation. Poppies were a bust in partial shade.  Malabar spinach: you disappoint me.  But the frisée and celtuse? Big, perhaps bitter.  I understand.

My peas are finally through, or at least I finally got tired of them, so I pulled them out, gently extracting around the ‘La Vigneronne’ Swiss pole beans that are so pretty with maroon and green striations.  I trained a volunteer ‘Delicata’ squash (or maybe it’s a goddamn gourd) on the far side of the chickenwire fence and thought very hard about more properly netting up my cucumbers.  I bought a few rounds this year, and finally a few heirloom seeds and some hybrids took, and then I supplemented with late starts of ‘Mexican Sour Gherkins,’ ‘Salt and Pepper’ yellows, and ‘Poona Kheera’ whites.

Tomatoes are going like gangbusters; peppers are slow and small-leaved, but fruiting.  I think the early heat and time in the greenhouse produced leggy plants, so they are still recovering by throwing out leaves.

The squash is a mystery, quite frankly.  I planted little hills when garden space freed up: some Open Oak variety of ‘Delicata’ here, a ‘Costata Romanesco’ ribbed zucchini there, some yellow crooknecks over there.  A pumpkin volunteer sprang up in the tomato bed.  A gourd or two or four are scattered throughout.  I cast out seeds.  I take my chances.  Same as it ever was; same as it ever was; same as it ever was; same as it ever was.

*The slightly pinkish hue that comes from being outside with sunscreen and a hat whilst raspberry picking on a hot day.

**At least I’m no longer obsessively thinking about Dante’s hell in the middle of the road.

a bumper crop

A bumper crop of gourds.  It’s the one crop that flourished this year, despite little attention.  Now, I can’t complain.  With my wonderful group of waterers, everything in the garden survived The Great Summer Catastrophe of 2012, but because I fractured my knee in the beginning of the gardening season proper, and wasn’t able to tend to anything all of July and most of August, it wasn’t a terrific year.

I did have a respectable crop of green beans, a gorgeous purple and green striped Swiss variety that I loved so much last year, and my tomatoes and peppers are coming along slowly like everyone else’s in the PNW.  Strawberries were good; fall raspberries are coming on now.  I had marvelous gooseberry, currant, and haskapberry crops; elderberry and tayberry had problems with pollination.  I managed to freeze pounds and pounds of purchased cane berries, so I’ve got plenty for jam, but using my own cucumbers for pickles wasn’t even a possibility, given the failure of the soaker hose in that row.

But what grew wonderfully in all my carefully planned food garden beds, besides the tangling vines of anxiety?  Gourds.  I had bought a bunch last fall to enjoy before turning them over to the squirrels, who promptly took them to the soft, leafy, garden beds, and, well, planted them.  The plants sprung up early and took advantage of the early heat spike in June, then managed to crowd out all the squash I actually wanted to grow: pumpkins, Oregon heirloom sweetmeat, romanesco zucchini and plain crookneck summer squash, and saddest of all, farmer Paul Atkinson’s special sweetmeat-like squash that I loved last winter.  I was so thrilled when a friend gave me a few cherished seeds, so I planted them twice, only to have the crows demolish them before they even got a chance to grow.  Grand total of the entire squash bed: four zucchini, one the size of a baseball bat.

And dozens of inedible gourds.

I’ve found a few recipes online for eating them, but quite frankly, I already have a giant baseball bat zucchini, I don’t want any more woody, tasteless cucurbit flesh, thanks.

So, come harvest, I’ll be the one with the highly decorative porch.  This is the first of many glamour shots.

harvest

Such an odd year. Picked the rest of the green tomatoes, finally, which will turn into salsa, and will make ajvar out of the ripe peppers. Cooking down apples into butter in the crock pot. Ethiopian berebere peppers, which have a fantastic flavor, and a bunch of Hungarian paprika and others gifted by Jeff Eaton, who wanted to share the remainder of his crop (thanks, Jeff!) are drying in the dehydrator along with another gift, a tub of newly fallen walnuts (thanks, Lara!). Still haven’t figured out what to do with all those cranberries, but that’s next.

If you’re interested in going nuts, the filbert crop is in and walnuts are coming. I took some shots of the harvest at Thistledown Farm the other day. They close a couple days after Halloween, so if you want your store of winter squash, potatoes, onions, or apples, head out there soon.  It’s a time to be amazed by the bounty of our valley.  Even in a crummy year, we manage to pull it off.

how not sweet! pumpkin soup for the rest of us

I’m particularly proud of this creation, a squash soup made with one of our giant heirloom ‘Oregon Homestead Sweetmeat’ squashes, onions and leeks, and celery leaves.  I was seeking a way to make pumpkin soup without the sweet flavors that always dominate.  I wanted a hint of sweetness and more body than just fiber.  That usually means UMAMI, the battle cry of the meat eater.

Umami is, as we’re probably all well aware by now, the “meaty” fifth taste, alongside its frat brothers, sweet, salty, bitter, and sour.  Think mushrooms, nuts, soy sauce, cheese.  Sauteed onions, too, add some umami to a dish.

The garnishes keep the soup fascinating, another risk one runs with monotone squash soup.  I roasted the squash seeds after only a quick rinse to retain some of the squash fibers clinging to the seeds for more flavor.  Topped with black pepper, truffle salt, and a bit of argan oil, they were gilded like gilded lilies. But even better, I broke apart pickled chive blossoms and floated them on top of the bowl of soup.

I urge you, gardeners, to make chive blossom vinegar this spring.  It’s a wonderful dressing, colored rose pink, and you can use the pickled blossoms in all kinds of ways.  Here, it provides the sour balance to the sweet, salty, bitter (from the celery leaves), umami soup.

Don’t omit the celery.  It provides an important taste component (see above), and the soup really needs the mirepoix of onion-leek-rutabaga-celery to add complexities to the flavor.

I’ve been using Marisa at Food in Jars‘ suggestion to take soups to work in mason jars.  I’m a bit leery of using my canning jars for daily eating, since they tend to break more easily when they’re redeployed in canning after being banged about, but portable soup is such a messy proposition, I recommend the nice, tight seal canning lids can provide.

Here’s my basic recipe.  The delight of soups is that you add as you go, so I don’t have measurements for this one.

Savory Sweetmeat Squash Leek Soup

  • A healthy chunk of sweetmeat, or butternut, pumpkin, or similar squash (estimate 6-8 cups cubed)
  • 1 onion
  • 1 small rutabaga or a few carrots or parsnips
  • 2-3 leeks
  • 2 stalks of celery, with leaves
  • 2-3 tablespoons of butter or bacon fat*
  • 1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
  • 1-2 teaspoons of winter savory or thyme
  • enough chicken stock to cover squash by a few inches
  • a cup or so of half-and-half
  • salt and pepper to taste

Cut the squash in 1-inch cubes and dice the other vegetables.  Add all vegetables to a stock pot with the butter/bacon fat and some salt and pepper, and sweat on medium low heat with the lid on until everything softens up, about 20 minutes.  Add stock and herbs, and mash the vegetables.  Bring to a simmer, then let cook down for 45 minutes or more on medium low heat.  Puree the soup with a hand blender, then add the half-and-half.  Mix well.  Let flavors combine and liquids cook down even more, about 30 more minutes, on low heat. Adjust seasonings and garnish before serving with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chives, or other herbs.

Another option is to roast the squash first, in large chunks, at 325 degrees for about an hour, then scoop the flesh off for the soup. It adds more flavor.  Plus, you can roast the squash seeds at the same time.

* I have the luxury of having a tub of wonderful bacon grease from local pigs, so it adds loads of flavor to my soups and pot roasts.  You might consider browning some pancetta, minced, in oil and using that for the fat.

squash and parsnip soup for the chill in the air

Elin England, Eugene author of the locavore cookbook, Eating Close to Home: A Guide to Local Seasonal Sustenance in the Pacific Northwest, requested a recipe for a soup I mentioned a while ago, a thick, hearthy vegetarian winter squash, parsnip, and barley potage served at a friend’s Halloween party.  It would be a welcome addition to the Thanksgiving table (or perhaps an after-Thanksgiving detox?) and good for any day that threatens snowflakes.

We ate the soup with a grating of romano cheese and some black pepper, while munching on nutty pumpkin seeds.  The cheese adds umami, the savory “fifth taste” that balances out vegetarian one-pot suppers.  As an alternative to cheese, I’d  suggest adding bacon or a drizzle of smoked paprika oil or truffle salt. I might even dry-roast the barley before adding it to the soup by warming it up on a cast iron pan until just very ever-so-slightly browned.

If you can’t find pomegranate vinegar, a good substitute is apple cider vinegar or a slightly sweeter vinegar, such as Riesling vinegar.

Stay warm; eat soup!

Squash-Parsnip Soup

Serves 6-8.

  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 heaping cup leeks, sliced thinly
  • 2.5-3 lb. buttercup squash, peeled and cut into 2″ chunks
  • 4 medium-large parsnips, peeled, sliced, and cut into small chunks
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme
  • 6 cups stock or water
  • 1/3 cup barley (I prefer dehulled to pearled)
  • juice from 1/2 large lemon
  • 1 teaspoon pomegranate vinegar or to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • optional: parsley, chile powder, crème fraîche, grated romano, etc.

Heat olive oil in a medium-sized pot on medium heat, and add leeks.  Sweat leeks (cook slow and low, without browning) until soft.

Add squash and parsnips and cook 2-3 minutes.*  If using finely chopped ginger, add 1 tsp or to taste now.  Add thyme.

Add liquid and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.  Add barley.  Cook 30-40 minutes or until vegetables have softened and barley is cooked.

Mash with potato masher until soup’s texture is uniform but still slightly chunky.

Add lemon and vinegar, aromatics (parsley, chile powder, etc.) if desired, and salt and pepper to taste.  Adjust as needed.  Garnish as desired with spice, creme fraiche, and/or cheese.

*I add salt late and I like less than other people.  Conventional cooks [Ed: including yours truly, Culinaria Eugenius] would add some salt at the beginning, say 1/4-1/2 tsp, to help break down the vegetables.

simmered kabocha squash

I recently enjoyed a squash soup with barley at a friend’s house.  She had purchased a squash that was being sold as kabocha, a Japanese winter pumpkin with hard green skin and vivid dark orange flesh.  Since I cook often with kabocha, I immediately recognized that she had been a victim of mislabeling.  The soup was still quite good (the barley an inspired addition), but it didn’t have the characteristic denseness and sweetness of my favorite winter squash.

If you haven’t tried kabocha, get thee to an Asian market and pick one up.  Buttercup squash is rather more light and fluffy, with a more subtle taste.  Its relative, kabocha, has drier flesh, and it isn’t at all stringy.  Another tip-off is the seeds — kabocha seeds have very thick skin and can’t really be eaten with pleasure like buttercup squash seeds can.  They look very similar, like squat green, striped/speckled pumpkins, but the buttercup sometimes (not always!) has a protrusion on the top that looks like an overturned cup.  Both are a pain to prepare, as they are rock hard and solid.

We grow more buttercup than kabocha in the Willamette Valley, but sometimes you can find some at a market stand.  It’s worth growing your own or finding a local vendor, as home-grown kabocha is particularly delicious.  And I would know, because my squirrels ate all of mine last year while they were still on the vine.

Next recipe: squirrel stew.

Although kabocha makes a wonderful soup and the best, creamy, rich, deeply flavored pumpkin pie in the world, I most often simmer my kabocha as “nimono,” a class of Japanese dishes often translated as “boiled things.”  I will often add ground pork and just eat the kabocha with a bowl of rice, as generations of Japanese home cooks do.  Sometimes I add a bit of miso to the broth, as Japanese home cooks don’t.  When I was living in Japan, I’d make what I termed “fortified miso,” which was a big pot of miso soup with kabocha chunks and tofu in it. Yum.

With any boiled preparation, kabocha is filling, low-fat, nutrient-dense, and delicious.  It’s not the most beautiful thing in the world, but looks aren’t everything.  Often, the skin is partially sliced off prior to cooking, creating a mottled effect, but it’s also left intact to help keep the chunks together and add more fiber.

Kabocha Nimono (Simmered Japanese Pumpkin)

Serves 4-6 with other dishes.

  • 1 small to medium kabocha
  • 1/3 lb. ground pork (optional)
  • 2 cups dashi*
  • 2 tablespoons mirin
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • salt and white pepper to taste
  • finely chopped green onion as garnish (optional)

Wash the kabocha well.  Peel the kabocha in an irregular pattern with a sharp, sturdy vegetable peeler. Kabocha are very hard, so be careful with your peeler and knife.

Using a cleaver or other thick, sturdy chef’s knife, maneuver a good slice off the bottom of the squash.  This will steady it for the next step. Next, keeping your fingers well out of the way, whack the kabocha in half with a confident blow to the middle of the squash.  Wriggle and saw your knife down into the middle, and crack open the squash to reveal seeds.

Remove seeds and discard.  They’re too tough for roasting.  Scrape inside of cavity with large serving spoon to smooth out jagged bits of flesh.

Cut the kabocha into wedges, then into two-bite-sized pieces.  Don’t cut them too small, or they will fall apart when simmering.

If you are using it, fry the ground pork in a medium-sized pot on medium-high heat with a bit of vegetable oil.  When the pieces are browned, add dashi and bring to a gentle boil.

If you are not using pork, bring dashi to a boil.  Turn the heat down to medium, and add mirin, sugar and soy.  Taste liquid with spoon — if it tastes too much like washwater, add a bit more salt and/or sugar.  Do not add more soy, as it will darken the squash too much.

Add the kabocha pieces, skin side down.  Bring to a gentle boil, then turn heat down to low.  Cover pot with lid (or if you have one, a Japanese wooden drop lid or other disk-like lid that can submerge the squash down into the liquid).

Let simmer for about 20 minutes, allowing the liquid to soak in to the kabocha until it is less than half the original amount.  Poke with a sharp knife.  The pieces should yield easily.  When simmered properly, the squash will not be falling apart, but will be soft and cooked throughout.

Place in small bowls (2-3 pieces per serving as a side dish), garnish with green onion slices, and serve with rice and other dishes.  Pieces of leftover kabocha can be cut into smaller pieces and added to miso soup with leftover liquid the next day, or added to a bento lunchbox.  Keeps well in the refrigerator for several days, and it is good at room temperature as well as hot.

*Dashi soup stock is traditionally made of flaked, dried bonito fish and kelp, but is usually purchased as a powder (dashi-no-moto) to add to water (like a bouillon cube, I suppose).  There are also liquid dashi-no-moto.  Both may contain preservatives, so choose wisely, and follow the instructions on the package.  You can substitute chicken broth or water, but it won’t have the same flavor.  Dashi provides umami and depth to the dish.

dark days #17: savory delicata squash leek bread pudding

My much-needed break this weekend turned into a ninth inning rally that found me in bed on Saturday with a stomachache, working on food.  A strangely felicitous combination.  I made progress on my proposal for a panel for a titanic conference that doesn’t accept many of these little rafts of folks clinging to one theoretical lifeboat; we’ll hope for the best.  Women and children first!

I finally got out into my garden on Sunday, armed with new spades, forks, and a vision of edible landscaping for the front yard.  Managed to get in two bare root ‘Cherry’ red currant bushes, two ‘Imperial Star’ artichokes to replace one withered ‘Green Globe’ in the back, ‘Cherry Red’ rhubarb, and a bunch of flowers and flowering bushes. Turned the compost (cooking nicely) completely, fertilized the struggling elderberry and the honeyberry hedge-to-be, and weeded the caneberries, rhubarb in the back, and strawberries.

This, of course, means I didn’t do much cooking, local or otherwise.  I did make one local meal for the Dark Days winter eating local challenge, though.  On Friday night, I had the smarts and leftover challah to make a big casserole of Thomas Keller’s leek bread pudding recipe, and we enjoyed that with a simple salad of arugula from the garden (it’s only growing more when I pick it!) and dried local Asian pears that a friend gave to me.  I added previously roasted delicata squash — our last saved local winter squash, yay! — to the leek bread pudding, which provided a bit more nutrition and sweetness to the affair.  I think, if I were to make it again, I’d also add more leeks.  I like leeks, and they’re in the market now.  We were also able to use my now flourishing chives and thyme, local eggs, cream, and milk.

dirty pumpkin seeds

IMG_1040

Happy Halloween!  Retrogrouch and I carved our jack-o-lantern last night, and got our scaaaaary on.  I am bedecking our porch with body parts, and he’s been nailed through the head.  Luckily, the injury wasn’t bad enough to stop him from the carving.

IMG_1029

For me, the best part of pumpkin carving has always been roasting the pumpkin seeds.  Each year, I carefully separate out the seeds from the goo, rinse them and dry them, salt them, and put them in a 350 degree oven.  Each year, I also forget about them and have to throw half of them away when they get too dark.

Last year, when working on the Master Food Preserver hotline, someone called in and asked how to make pumpkin seeds.  I started to give my standard schpiel, then realized that I could (and should) look up a recipe in our giant binder of recipes and techniques that are tested by our Extension program and others across the country.  And lo!  The Good Book shewed that she was in great error.  I was roasting the seeds at way too high of a temperature, hence the bitter charring when I forgot about them.

This year, I looked at the seeds with their pretty orange lacing of goo, and thought that I might capitalize on the extra flavor of the pumpkin pulp on the seeds, so I didn’t rinse them.  I tossed them in some oil with coarse sea salt and black pepper, then roasted the speckled, striped seeds.  And lo!  Dirty Pumpkin Seeds were born.  And they were delicious.  Even after I forgot about them.

IMG_1049

Dirty Pumpkin Seeds

This recipe doesn’t measure the amounts, since the amount of seeds one gets from a pumpkin can vary widely.  The larger jack-o-lanterns can actually have fewer seeds than the smaller ones.

  • Seeds from one jack-o-lantern
  • Coarsely ground sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.  Carefully pick through the pumpkin innards to get all the seeds.  Discard malformed seeds and as much of the orange goo surrounding the seeds as possible, placing seeds in a clean bowl.

Do not rinse the remaining pumpkin goo off the seeds.  Add coarsely ground sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, then coat the seeds in enough vegetable oil to make them slick but not dripping with oil (I used about a tablespoon).

Spread seeds out in a single layer in a Pyrex dish or cookie sheet.

Roast for about 45 minutes, checking occasionally, until light gold in color and completely dry.  If you forget about them, they’re ok for about an hour.  You’ll smell a gentle roasting smell, not the charring of burnt seeds, as a reminder.

They tell me the seeds will keep for about a week unrefrigerated, but mine have never lasted more than a day or two.

having my way with winter squash

IMG_0902

As we tumble into fall, all eyes turn to those fleshy orange squashes that we associate with holiday cooking.  Although I must say that I recently devoured a maple cream puree made with the grey squash above, I prefer winter squash dishes that don’t add extra sugar.  The marshmallow yam Thanksgiving casserole?  *shudder*

Sure, a little sugar heightens flavor, and a sweetener like maple syrup (especially the stronger tasting Grade B) can add nuances to the monochromatic flesh of squash.  So can smoky fats and meaty nuts.  When making roasted squash, I opt for olive oil and spices like coriander, cumin, and black pepper instead of the baking spices, or a Japanese flavor profile of soy sauce, mirin or sake, and sesame.  I like roasting because it creates different textures on the top and bottom of the squash pieces.

Pumpkin soup made with white miso is fantastic.  For Thanksgiving, I’ll sometimes make small cups of my kabocha squash and bacon soup.  The ultra-rich, smooth, dense texture of the kabocha makes particularly good soup.  Or add a little bourbon, and olive oil infused with rosemary and thyme, the ingredients of the world’s first perfume, Queen of Hungary water.  A couple of weeks ago, I made a lighter soup from sweet meat squash (the grey squash I’ve already mentioned) with fresh cream, zucchini shreds, and corn, flavored with the nutty Egyptian spice mix dukkha.

IMG_0873

It’s all good, as my students say.  To turn squash into a soup, you can either simmer chunks in water or chicken stock until tender, then smash up right in the same pot, or take the easy route and roast the squash in larger pieces (halves or quarters, depending on the size) with the skin on.  Brush the pieces with a little vegetable oil, then roast at 375 degrees.  When tender, let the squash cool until you’re able to scoop the flesh from the skin.  Much easier to manage than hacking off the uncooked skin, plus you get a flavor boost from the roasting.

When turning the roasted squash into soup, add a few cups of rich milk or chicken stock, and your spices of choice.  I won’t even complain if you add a little maple syrup and tiny pieces of bacon.  Or, if you cook up your bacon and then let it caramelize in some maple syrup, *then* add it.  No, I sure won’t.