Panic, Peas and Pistou

Hi Friends

Welcome to springtime in the New England! It is 70 degrees today on March 8th in Northwest Connecticut, and in order to mitigate my rising alarm at the wicked respiratory cold they call Covid-19 racing across the globe, I’ve decided to take a break from the news. It’s time to pull on my gloves (the dirt protection kind, not the medical grade germ protection kind) and venture into the garden. Since cold season clearly isn’t over, and the best thing for a bad cold is a bowl of hot soup, I have my favorite spring soup in mind.

Pistou is a Provencal pesto of sorts, made with basil, garlic and oil. It is used primarily in a northern Italian dish called Soupe au Pistou. When I think Pistou, I don’t think of basil as much as I think of fresh peas, which is one of the necessary ingredients for this light, bright, healthy Mediterranean soup made with pasta, beans and spring vegetables. For Pistou later, I need to plan now. Click on the link under the photo for one of my favorite French versions from The French Barn.

St. Patrick’s day has always been my rule of thumb for the time to plant peas. In this region it is generally the time when the soil can first be worked, and in the past I’d wait for a sunny day soon afterwards. But the times they are a changin’, as they say. Climate change has done away with the regular patterns, and we have to adapt. For my purposes today, the sooner the ground is thawed, the better.

Different pea types to plant

When I chose my peas from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company in January, I was, as always, enchanted by the color glossy pictures and delicious descriptions of the vegetables. As always, I couldn’t decide on which varietals to choose, so I chose several. I may be sad when the weather warms and there is no room left in my garden for the tomatoes and eggplant!

Peas are very easy to plant. They love cool weather, they can handle a light frost, and they don’t mind soils in the 30’s. This makes them the perfect spring vegetable for our inclement Northeast weather. Once your soil is loose and has been amended with compost, simply poke them in the ground with your finger to a depth of about 1 inch. Space them 3″ apart in rows at least 24″ apart.

A type of netting for pea trellis

Most peas grow in vines, and need something to cling to as they grow. A trellis of some sort, either a net attached to stakes, such as I use, or a mesh fence or a woven panel will help them grow tall and make harvesting easy. It should be at least 5 feet tall, or higher, depending on the variety. Some peas can grow 10 feet tall! New this year for me is a bush type varietal called Kelvedon Wonder. Topping out at 18″, it needs no staking, and therefore even less work than usual.

Bush type peas varietal

A word of warning: New pea shoots and leaves are a favorite of some songbirds, and if found, they will peck at the leaves until there isn’t much green left for the new plant to photosynthesize. If you find your tiny new leaves are getting eaten, it’s wise to cover them with row cover for protection until they are strong enough to withstand a bit of abuse. A cover is also in order if a heavy snow is expected.

Deliciousness!

When I think of those first fat pods of sugar snaps dripping off the vines, and then lightly sauteed snow peas in butter, and finally thumb-sized shelling peas bursting with flavor to store for the winter, I’m ready to get them started. It’s easy to sit inside and panic, to worry and watch the numbers and listen to the talking heads squawk fear and discord, anger and accusations. Panic is antithetical to the gardener. If a gardener falls into the mindset that the world is ending and all is lost, he/she/they will no longer garden; hence they cease to be a gardener. Without a future, there is no point in a garden. The act of gardening is an act of hope. In fact, gardening is the natural response to fear and panic. It provides stability, a plan, future security and a firm foundation in a hope for better things. Let’s focus on what is important. Try to stay home. Try to stay healthy. Eat soup. Plant peas. Sow hope. Go put some seeds in the ground and see if you don’t feel better about your world. I dare you.

A Slow Food experience

Everything happens in it’s own season.

Seeds fall, sprouts grow, flowers bloom, fruit ripens, matter decomposes. Life happens. Especially with weeds. Those invisible weed seeds are just hiding out everywhere, waiting to pop their tiny green heads into the world and thwart us gardeners. But even tomatoes will grow where tomato seeds have fallen, whether we want them to or not, if the conditions are favorable to them. Life is undeniable.

As gardeners, we try to orchestrate conditions to be favorable to our needs, the needs of producing food and flowers. Our actions can have some influence over the seasons of things, to a certain extent. We force seeds that wouldn’t normally sprout by adjusting the amount of light, the temperature, the humidity, even the wind. We trick things into growing outside of their seasons, even outside of their regions. We grow them under cover to protect them. We grow them in planters to contain them. We grow them in cloth or plastic to give them more chances at life, for our sake. But life is undeniable. Even when it goes against our interests.

There are very few times when a gardener is unhappy about things sprouting. Sprouting means life. It means growth and promise and hope and bounty. Most of the time.

Disaster!

I’m weeping in my cup this morning because my garlic is sprouting. And I don’t mean the garlic that I intentionally planted in the garden last December. I mean my stored cache of cooking garlic that I cured last summer to last me all the long winter months and then some. Sprouting. Green. Bitter.

It’s my fault, of course. It should have been kept in paper bags rolled tight to keep out the light. But for some reason I thought it would be nice to have it accessible in a basket in the kitchen, hanging from one of the rafters. I though it looked pretty. All the purple and white bulbs in a big pile ready to be chopped, diced, crushed, cooked and consumed. Did I mention I love garlic? I have unwittingly provided it with the right amount of daylight hours and what it believes are about 62 degree soil temperatures, so it has decided that now is the time to push out new life and reach for the sun. I have deceived it.

What do I do with it now? If I do nothing, it’s taste will get worse and worse. It will eventually realize it has no soil, no water, no actual sun, and it will start to rot. But the garlic I planted last winter won’t be ready to harvest until July. That’s five long months with no garlic.

But all is not lost, I think. It’s not yet too bitter to use. I could slit open each of the cloves and mine out the green shoot to use in stock. I could chop up the shell of each clove, press it and store it in olive oil in the fridge. I could even plant some in a box inside and see if it grows. But that’s a ton of work. Hours of work. Whatever I do with it, I’ll be crushing out it’s first hopeful bid for life.

What’s the big deal, you’re asking yourself. Crying over some sprouted garlic? Get over it, you’re telling me in your head. Pull yourself together, woman, and go buy some fresh. It’s only about 5 bucks for three cloves of organic garlic. Times 40.

In 2014 I went to the Connecticut Garlic and Harvest Festival in Bethlehem CT http://www.garlicfestct.com/ where I found people who celebrated garlic as much as I do. There I sampled many varieties of garlic and purchased several types to grow myself. Since then I have been selectively storing and planting my favorites for four growing seasons. This garlic represents four years of being on my knees in the heat of July, carefully lifting out the bulbs to cure them, and four years of being on my knees in December, fingers frozen as I poke the cloves down into the frosty soil. And over fifty months of garlic bread, garlic chicken, garlic vegetables, garlic shrimp, garlic aoli, garlic sauce. At least I have some still tucked away in the frozen earth, waiting for it’s proper time to make a play for life.

I’m actually doing it.

And so I peel and chop. And peel and chop. And continue to peel and chop.
And I remind myself, dear reader, that this is slow food. My fingers, sticky with garlic juice, are tarred with garlic paper up to the middle joint. My kitchen smells like, well, a really garlicky place. I’m doing this not because I can’t afford to buy fresh garlic. Not because I am a food hoarder. Not because I have too much time on my hands. It’s because this garlic represents my labor. My care. My intention. Even, yes I’ll say it, my love. I love this garlic. It matters to me. I am not willing to cast off the result of four years worth of effort and buy some anonymous garlic. I take pride in cooking with food I have grown myself. Surprisingly, I feel that my garlic has a certain provenance. It’s journey has become my journey.

If you don’t already think I’m nuts, just keep reading.

There is some concrete science that says that food grown in a certain place is symbiotic with the surrounding biome. The plants and animals (us included) that live in that place have a certain microbiota different from other places. Those microbes that are symbiotic with all life in that area provide tangible benefit for their hosts in the form of immune support and disease prevention. All this really means is that different places have different germs, and garlic you grow yourself in your own dirt might actually be better for you than garlic grown elsewhere, in different germy dirt. That’s one of the reasons we eat local, right?

If you’re looking for me today, I’ll be in the kitchen creating my newest signature dish, winter sprouted garlic soup. I promise it will cure the sniffles with one sip. Ask me for the recipe!

First Out of the Garden

Early June in Connecticut is an exciting time for gardeners.  By now most things are in the ground that are going in, and all the planning and planting are complete.  I usually estimate mid to late may as the time to plant, but after the 15th I keep an eye on the weather and wait for a few days when the night time temperatures stay above 55.  Most plants don’t like to root out in the cold.  Now in early June the new garden, with its tiny shoots of new growth, is just getting itself established, and it’s too soon to count any success or failures.  Those of you who have a greenhouse might be laughing at me, for by now your gardens are lush wonderlands of heavily foliated plants happily bursting with buds and fruit.  Sadly, I only have my little bathtub and a grow lamp for starting seeds, and have relegated it to peppers only, so I start most of my vegetables from seeds right in the ground.

There are a few exceptions of course.  I always buy tomato plants already started, and with those it’s just a matter of money. The more money you pay, the more plant you get.  In early June, for the right price, you can get a plant with fruit already on it, or, if your pocket is not quite so full, at least a 4 to 5 inch healthy looking specimen.  This year my budget for plants was a little short, so I went with the smaller choices.  I try to buy heirloom varieties in most cases, but there is a good argument to be made for the old standbys like Big Boy and Early Girl.  They are reliable producers, are pest and drought resistant and produce nice firm fruits (just like you find in the grocery store!) but the heirlooms for me are much more exciting to grow.  I like the idea of plants that are not genetically modified almost as much as I like the unique fruits themselves, whether they are German green stripe or Purple Cherokee.  Check out Seed Savers, a wonderful source for heirloom seeds and a really great company, to learn more about heirloom and heritage seeds and genetic diversity (or lack of it) in the American food industry.  http://www.seedsavers.org/About-Us/

 

Another plant I buy already started is eggplant.  I have never tried to grow these from seed because I rarely succeed with the plant itself.  I have yet to produce a bumper crop of eggplant of any kind, which might be just as well, as I’m the only one in the family who enjoys it.  I usually plant just two plants, as I have very limited real estate in my garden, but even with constant attention and words of encouragement, they never seem to thrive.  Whether its those damn tiny aphids, blight, rot, or just plain weakness, they always look jaundiced and produce thin tiny fruit.  This year, when I saw my two healthy plants begin to yellow, I went to ask advice from a local gardening expert.  She starts many plants from seed in a greenhouse and sells them to local gardeners like me.  I have never bought from her before, but have heard about her renown with plants of all kinds.  She is the type who looks at gardening through the eyes of a chemist, while I’m more of a hope and a prayer type.  She explained that most people (me) plant eggplant too early, before the soil has warmed sufficiently, and they fail to thrive.  She said that most people (me) fail to protect their plants with a copper fungicide dip prior to planting, and that most people (Not me!) over water and leach the nutrients out.  She recommended the copper fungicide spray, a natural pesticide with soap in it, and a fish emulsion top dress to enrich the roots.  Maybe with these tools, and of course a few good thoughts, I’ll be serving eggplant Parmesan in August!  Oh, and she also gave me three varietals of eggplant that she had left over.  With five plants in the ground, I almost hope they don’t all thrive, or I’ll be eating eggplant by myself every single night!

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With everything going in, there is not much coming out this time of year, but that’s not to say there’s nothing to eat in the garden.  All my greens are up and we have been feasting on fresh spinach, sorrel, arugula and lettuce for a few weeks.  The radishes are full to bursting and the second planting is already coming up.  I love radish, and usually plant a spicy blend, with all different shapes and colors.  I use radish in a variety of dishes as well as eat them fresh washed out of the dirt.   I like the diversity of flavor and color, whether on a salad or sandwich, or stirred into an Asian inspired soup.  I made just such a soup the other day.  Recipe to follow.

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The green onions are ready to be picked, if you can bring yourself to give up a full sized onion later on in the year.  I always have a hard time with this.  While I’m not a patient person by nature, the thought of yanking out those half formed babies for a quick turn on the grill makes me pause.  It’s not that they wouldn’t taste delicious, it’s only that I think of myself trudging to the store in the middle of February to buy some old generic onion instead of plucking one out of the lovely onion basket in the basement, filled with my very own. Instead, I satisfy my taste for fresh onion by snapping off the stems of the onion flowers and chopping or grilling those. They taste just as fine as the whole thing, but I can leave the roots of the onion itself in the ground to fulfill it’s destiny.

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Aside from the radish, greens and onions, we have been eating lots of cilantro, parsley and basil as those plants establish themselves.  The beets are ready to thin and the greens are delicious sauteed or in salads.  The strawberries which I transplanted this spring are a bit behind the curve but are beginning to ripen.  The peas are blooming and the squash are flowering and the tomatoes continue to make suckers and flower.  It’s an exciting time in the garden and lots more to come.

 

ASIAN NOODLE SOUP

6 cups broth (I used pheasant broth because I had some left over)

3 TBS Mirin

4 TBS Soy sauce

1 TBS sugar

 

2 cloves garlic chopped fine.

salt and pepper to taste

dash of something hot (chili paste, Tabasco, red pepper)

3 cups cut up cooked chicken (or pheasant)

4 cups chopped fresh spring veggies, such as radish, baby carrot, green onion, endive, peas,

1/2 lime

 

 

Prepare rice noodles as directed on the package.  Mix the first 7 ingredients and adjust to taste.  Simmer and add the chicken.  When noodles are done add the fresh veggies to the soup and simmer for 5 minutes.  Be careful not to overcook the vegetables or they will be soggy.  Place a serving of rice noodles in a wide bowl and ladle the soup over them.  Squeeze the lime over the soup.  Serve with chopsticks and extra hot sauce.  Enjoy!

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My First…Morel

For those of you mushroom fanatics in the know, and those who desperately wish you were in the know, finding your first morel is about as memorable as your first kiss.  Mushroom hunters spend months and years wandering around in dead fall and through mushy forests in search of these precious gems of the spring, and once found, guard the secret of the location like treasure.  Many’s the time I have engaged mycological foragers in conversation trying to ferret out information about when, where and how they found these fungal delicacies, and never did I get a hint of a reliable clue.  Sure, anyone will give you generalities that you might find in any book on the subject, like look at the edge of the woods near old orchards, or where there are lime deposits, or near dying ash or elm, but disclose their secret spot to an outsider?  Never.

A few weeks ago my husband came back from hunting turkey with a giant brownish fungi that he imagined I’d find interesting.  It was about 5 inches tall, hollow, and had spongy pits all over its “cap”.  Although his hunt was unsuccessful, I was much more delighted with his efforts than if he had brought home a fat tom.  Little did he expect my shrieks of delight and demands that he take me immediately back to the exact location where he had found it.   We agreed to go back and I spent the next half hour poring over my books and through mycology websites to ensure that what he had found was indeed a true morel.  I’m sure I’m not the only newby mushroom forager to worry about poisoning my loved ones!   In fact it was a real morel, albeit an old one, and off we went to see if there were more.

After a short hike through some soggy march and then woodland brambles, we found an old tree with a half dozen large morels under it.  Mushroomers say that in order to know mushrooms you must know trees, so I suppose I’m not much of a mushroomer.  It’s no wonder I haven’t found any myself.  I can’t identify an ash from an elm, so I have no idea what type of tree they were growing under or why.  They were easy to find as they stood 5 to 7 inches tall, and were about 2.5 inches wide.  Morels are best when young.  As they mature they tend to get drier and more brittle, less tender and moist.  We decided to give them a try anyway.  After picking off a few slugs and a good long soak to drown any other bugs inside, I cut them into chunks for a soup. IMAG0293

I decided on a soup for two reasons; they were old, and my sons hate soup.  It’s not that I didn’t want to share, it’s just that they might be less likely to try mushroom soup than something like mushrooms in pastry crust, and therefore I had less of a chance of poisoning them if I had somehow made a mistake in my identifications.  Did I mention I was nervous to eat them?  I sauteed them in some butter and took a nibble.  The flavor was surprisingly good for slightly out of date mushrooms.  Earthy and pungent and very…mushroomy.  I waited a half an hour and didn’t develop stomach cramps so I decided to go ahead.  The recipe that follows is a delicious and decadent way to eat a morel.

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CREAM OF MOREL SOUP

4 to 5 cups sliced mushrooms

3 tbs butter

3 tbs flour

2 cups broth

1 1/2 cups half and half

1 tbs dry sherry

1 tsp fresh chopped thyme

Cut the mushrooms into small pieces and saute over medium heat in the butter until soft and tender, about 5 minutes.  Add the flour and stir.  Add the broth and stir until smooth.  Cook until the broth starts to thicken, about 5 to 10 minutes minutes.  Using a handheld puree tool or a blender, mix until smooth.  (if you like you can leave some chunks for texture)  Add the half and half and the sherry, making sure to keep the heat to a low simmer.  Serve topped with the chopped thyme and enjoy!

 

November Soup

I’m a big fan of soup.  I serve it year round, from hearty stews in the dead of winter to a cooling gazpacho or an avocado bisque in the heat of July.  When chillier winds start to blow in November, soup is definitely on the menu.  It’s cozy warmth really help to bring the family together around the table when the darkness comes early.  And they smell so good too! 

Tonight’s soup is a perfect dish for early fall, as the ingredients are what is naturally on hand.  Parsnips from the garden and apples from the orchard make this soup a creamy delight.  Non-dairy, and not too sweet, it’s scented with cumin and coriander.  Perfect as an accompaniment to a roast or stuffed chops,  or serve it on it’s own, with a hearty bread like sourdough or cheddar biscuits and a green salad.  With only a couple of ingredients it’s super simple to make and can be made ahead.  It will keep in the fridge for a few days, too.

For a nicer flavor, roast the parsnips in the oven for about 40 minutes on 350.  You can peel them first or just leave them as they are.  It will slightly caramelize the sugars and make for a richer soup.  Any variety of apples will do, but my favorites are good old Mackintosh or Gala.

Parsnip and Apple Soup

2 tbs good Olive Oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 firm apples, peeled and chopped

8 to 15 parsnips, depending on the size. (more for 1″ or less at the crown)

3 1/2 cups (or more depending on desired consistency) of chicken or vegetable broth

Sprinkle of cumin

Sprinkle of coriander

Salt and pepper to taste

Saute the onion in the olive oil until tender.  Add the apples and a dash of salt and and cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples are soft.  Add the parsnips and the broth and cook for 20 minutes if you roasted the parsnips first, 40 minutes if not.  Allow to cool and puree the mixture in a blender, or use a hand blender right in the pot.  Sprinkle with the spices and stir.  Serve alone or with finely chopped parsley or a dollop of yogurt. Enjoy!

Greens, and Other Garden Leftovers

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As a gardener I am still reeling from the summer growing season, and while this recent frost didn’t take me entirely unaware, It did make me realize that it is time to wrap it up.  And what is left in the garden in nearly November?  More than I’d like to acknowledge.  If I identify it, then I’m obligated to address it.   If I can ignore something, then I don’t have to do anything about it, right?  Isn’t that just the way of human nature?   Well, I have been ignoring too many things in the garden this fall, and now I have to put up or shut up.  Let’s take my hot peppers.  (https://eattheseason.com/2013/04/25/garden-planning/) What was I thinking!  Who needs that many varieties and plants of pepper?  I have singed the tongues and fingers of everyone I know with baggies of peppers and gallons of hot sauce this fall and yet the peppers still proliferate.  Thank goodness for the frost.  I lost about 3 gallons of hot habinero, Aji and serrano this last weekend and yet I still spent hours jarring what I was able to pick.  Well, they are done.  All that is left to do is pull out the plants.  

Not so for every other thing still growing.  I have piles of leeks that happen to be very frost hardy.  My endive are still clinging to life despite the frigid temps at night and I can’t pull them up until the greens all die back or they won’t force into cornichons properly.  My parsnips as well as carrots will happily ride out the cold under their layer of mulch until the ground actually freezes, so I can ignore them for a while longer.  What is calling out for my immediate attention are the beet greens.

I have a love hate relationship with greens of all kinds.  From kale to spinach, collard and mustard, I have grown and eaten them all.  I know they are a super food and oh so good for me, and I love the bitter, pungent taste of them well seasoned, but they take so very long to prepare that my shoulders droop at the thought.  Washing each leaf, checking for bugs, soaking and washing again…it is so tiresome.  I plant them because they are hearty, healthy foods that should be in all our diets, but come fall, when I have no choice but to eat them of throw them out, I sigh and march out to the garden with my clippers.  

The beet greens I have been able to ignore all summer.  In the spring they are too tiny to clip, and I tell myself not to damage the plant until the beet is fully formed.  In the summer the greens look like crap, all wilted and hot looking, covered in dust.  I’m more interested in the brilliant garnet gems under the greens.  Cold borsht, beet salad with chevre, these are the things that grace the summer table.  Greens are a fall dish, to be served with venison roast or grilled chops.  And now it’s fall, and the greens look bright and lively with the cooler air.  There are still plenty of them out there, as I pick only the largest of the beets, and the ones that were planted too deep tend not to erupt.  They still have verdant greens but not much of a beet.  And so I clip.

I came across this recipe for beet green soup that is super simple and interesting.  I happened to have some barley so I gave it a try.  Perfect for a fall evening served with cheesy bread.   Make sure to use a very wide (at least 10″) stockpot for this recipe. That way the eggs stay on the top and don’t sink down in the soup and into oblivion.

Beet Green Soup with Barley and Poached Eggs.

2 TBS olive oil

1 Medium Onion

4 cloves Garlic

8 cups Broth 

6 cups stemmed beet greens chopped to 1 inch.

3/4 cup of barley

salt and pepper to taste

4 eggs

Parmesan cheese

Saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil until soft and fragrant.  Add the broth, the beet greens and the barley.  bring to a boil and turn down the heat to simmer covered for 30 minutes.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Crack the eggs and let them poach in the soup until done to desired consistency. (I like a firmer egg so I cooked mine about 6 minutes)  Serve and sprinkle with the cheese.