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Mulberries: The Forgotten Fruit

An Unsuspecting Gift

When we moved into our house, a weird, little tree was growing in the corner of our garden. I didn’t think much about it for a couple of years. One June I noticed berries forming on the branches. They looked like little blackberries. After doing some research, I discovered that this was a White Mulberry tree and that the mulberries were edible. We picked the dark juicy berries and popped them in our mouths. They are not quite as sweet as a blackberry, but they have a very nice taste that the whole family has grown to love.

People tend think mulberries and blackberries are almost the same fruit. While they do look a bit alike, they are actually very different. In fact, mulberries are not even a berry. They are a fruit that grows on a deciduous tree, whereas blackberries are a true berry belonging to the rose botanical family.

Summer Pickings

Ever since the mulberries first appeared on our tree, from mid-June to mid-July, I stop and nibble on these little darlings every time I pass under the branches. In fact, you can count on me taking three to four minutes extra every time I walk under it. One of the most enjoyable things about this tree is to listen and watch the robins go to town in the branches. They sing and fight with each other, but mostly they are busy stuffing their little beaks full of the nutritious, little berries.

People often call the mulberry tree a weed because said birds deposit the seeds elsewhere. For my part, I am glad they do. That, no doubt, is how we got ours. Next time, however, I will tell the birds to plant it on the back corner of our yard instead of the front corner, as I do spend a bit of time sweeping the berries off our sidewalk!

White Mulberry trees are quite a common tree in our region, probably for the above reason. They have an interesting trait in that they have leaves of three distinctly different shapes. One is unlobed, one is shaped a bit like a mitten, and one can look a little like a two-thumbed mitten. The tree originated in China where its leaves are used as the main food for the silkworm. The leaves are edible for humans if cooked first. They can be used in wrapping foods as you would with a grape leaf.

Cooking with Mulberries

This year I’m drying the berries to add to muffins and granola. They are also great served fresh in both savory and sweet dishes. After slightly crushing them, they are delicious sprinkled with superfine sugar and served over a lemon curd tart. They add depth to icy drinks by muddling them with fresh mint leaves. They make for a sweet/savory fresh salsa with lime and cilantro. I enjoy using them as an interesting counter to the savory taste of a bok choi salad. For breakfast, they are a great addition to crepes with brie cheese and cinnamon. Creating with these tasty little berries has kept my creativity working overtime.

Mulberry, brie cheese, and cinnamon crepes.

I love the idea of eating such an interesting berry from a tree that was planted by those chatty, fat robins, that many consider a nuisance. While mulberries don’t come close to matching the sweetness of raspberries or strawberries, I am thoroughly enjoying having this tree around. It is a part of my edible landscape. It truly is a multi-purpose tree: it feeds us, feeds the robin population, keeps us entertained, looks good with strands of twinkle lights wrapped around its branches, and provides nice shade and vertical dimension to that corner of the yard. We don’t dance around it singing nursery rhymes– wait! Maybe we should do that as well…

Mulberries over a lemon curd pie with homemade whipped cream.
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Rhubarb: The Vegetable That Thinks It’s a Fruit

The Heritage of Rhubarb

When I think of the classic plant that has anchored the corner of every Midwestern garden for the past century, I think of rhubarb. Some of my favorite dessert recipes are based on rhubarb. Rhubarb custard pie is oh, so delicious! I remember with fondness my Mom’s strawberry rhubarb freezer jam which we spread on warm toast. Warm Spilling Rhubarb over vanilla ice cream. My friend Jill Jorgensen’s gooey sweet Rhubarb Rolls. All these come from an unassuming plant that is so easy to grow you almost forget it’s even in your garden.

Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable that can flourish in most parts of the country. Rhubarb is delicious and easy to add to your garden. There are many recommended varieties to choose from. In my experience, the pinker the stems, the better they taste. Once planted, it can be left undisturbed to come back year after year.

Growing Rhubarb

Growing rhubarb is very simple. The plants make a nice addition to the perennial section of a vegetable garden or even a perennial landscape. In milder climates where they can overwinter without freezing, rhubarb also grows well in pots if you give it enough root space.

Spring is the perfect time to plant. Working some well-rotted compost or manure into the rhubarb bed will increase production. However, don’t pick any stems in in its first year. The plant needs all its foliage to help it establish a strong root system. In the second year, a small percentage of the stems can be harvested. In the third year and after, removing up to a third of the plant every year will keep it healthy and producing strong stems year after year. Dividing the plant every five years keeps the roots from getting too crowded. Which of your friends would turn down the offering of one or two baby rhubarb plants?

Uses of Rhubarb

Even though rhubarb had been used medicinally in China for thousands of years, its use as a food really started in England in the 17th century once sugar became available to counter its tartness. In the U.S., its use didn’t take off until the 1930s.

Nutritionally, rhubarb is high in fiber and loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. It can be a healthy addition to your diet if you curb the often added sugar. The stems (or petioles) are the only part of the plant we can cook and eat. The leaves contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to ingest and irritating to the skin if there’s prolonged contact.

Rhubarb is a great addition to desserts such as pie or crisp, cake, muffins, jams and jellies, and more. It is also great as a tart chutney over meat such as pork. My favorite completely unsweetened way to regularly include rhubarb is in fruit smoothies. The sweetness of the other fruits counters the tartness of the rhubarb, which lends a refreshing brightness to the final product.

Common Questions

  • Can you eat the leaves? No, they contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans. So throw away the leaves, and use the stems.
  • We just had a late spring frost that has damaged my rhubarb. Can I still eat the stems? No, when the plant has been affected by frost, the oxalic acid migrates from the leaves down into the stems, leaving them also toxic. If this has happened, throw away the whole plant. Look in your farmer’s market or grocery store for this year’s supply. If you live in a region prone to early or mid spring freezes, plant your rhubarb in a protected part of your yard. Last spring many in my area lost their rhubarb to freeze damage. Mine was spared because it is planted in a corner, protected on one side by a shed and on the other by a fence. The other option is to keep track of the weather forecast and cover it if a frost is on the horizon.

If you haven’t already, make this the year to add rhubarb to your yard. Like a long-time friend, it’ll always be there for you, but you never have to tend to it.

 

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The Many Uses of Ginger Root

A Ginger Collection

Who knew when we were young and sipping on a can of ginger ale that this root would become such a large part of our culture and diet?

As one of Scandinavian heritage, I was first exposed to the spice in the form of my Aunt Joyce’s incredibly crisp ginger snaps and my family’s Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. It was an ingredient people used to bake things. I didn’t give it much thought or find it particularly remarkable.

The root morphed its way into my life like the shoe collection taking over my closet. It slowly expanded, almost unnoticed, into more and more of the dishes I made. Now I eat it in something almost every day.

I really started playing around with the ingredient back in the early 90s. I was developing an Asian grilled pizza recipe, and I wanted a fresh kick component to the sauce. In went grated ginger root. It was the perfect je ne sais quoi I was looking for.

Cooking with Ginger

When I started exploring the world of Indian dishes, ginger was in all of them.

Next it landed in my Thai Curried Noodle Soup, and then I started pickling it to serve alongside Vietnamese dishes. I love serving it pickled with sushi. Now it shows up in my homemade rosemary ginger tea or in the lemon ginger kombucha that the family seems to devour around my house.

Fresh or frozen root is not the only way to go. My latest obsession is candied ginger, which I tuck into impossibly tender scones, buttery pound cake, and cookies. You can also sprinkle on ice cream or pancakes; the list could go on and on.

Ginger is a grass which grows in tropical regions. It produces a pretty yellow flower and is often used as a part of landscaping in warm climates. The root of the grass is called a rhizome. It reminds me of an Iris bulb, which is also a rhizome. The various Asian cultures started incorporating ginger into their cooking and diet thousands of years ago. They brew it in tea or use it as a spicy addition to hot and cold dishes alike when a little kick is wanted. They use it pickled, candied, dried and ground into a powder, and of course fresh.

Thai Curry Noodle Soup with rice noodles, ginger, curry, chicken, mango, red onion, cilantro, lime, and green onions.

Facets of the Root

There is much debate between Eastern and Western medicines as to ginger’s specific health benefits. While the experts battle this out, we can all sit back and enjoy this wonderful, edible rhizome, knowing at the very least, it is okay for you health-wise, and at the very best, it aids it relieving a half a dozen or more illnesses.

I would be remiss if I didn’t end by mentioning ginger beer, the essential ingredient in the ever-popular drink, a Moscow mule. Served in an icy cooper mug, this refreshing drink is the perfect thirst quencher on a hot summer evening.

On this cool and gratifying note, start incorporating this versatile and delicious spice into your recipes. I always have a fresh root in my vegetable drawer, a frozen root in my freezer, and the powdered or candied spice in my cupboard. Just like shoes, you can never have too much.

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Sweet Mangoes – A Fruit of My Youth

Malagasy Mangoes

When I was a girl, my family lived on the island of Madagascar. Often my mom would ask me to fetch something from the yard. “Cami, would you go get me some mangoes?” I would take my wagon out to the cluster of mango trees down by the river. It was pure heaven to have the grove of mango, avocado, leches, banana, and citrus trees so close at hand. I would soon return with a wagon-full of sweet mangoes. This it when my love of this fruit first began.

When they were in season, we could never get too many mangoes. We peeled them and ate them plain, biting the juicy meat off the center seed. It was a messy business with all that sweet elixir running down our arms and dripping off our elbows. My mom would remind me, “Don’t get that juice on your clothes. Mango stains!”

The Fruit’s History

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Hailing originally from South Asia about 5,000 years ago, mangoes are now one of the most popular fruits worldwide. Nutritionally speaking, they are good sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, making them very healthy to eat.

Mangoes play a central role in the cuisines of many tropical cultures. They are cultivated all over the world: Asia, Africa, southern Spain, South and Central America, the southern United States, Hawaii, and Australia, thus completing the global circuit.

The sweet meat is used in as many ways as the cuisines it inhabits. It can become aam panna or mango lassi, both popular beverages throughout Asia. In India it becomes a part of the main entrée as an ingredient in dahl, a sauce served over rice. Furthermore, mangoes can be pickled, dried, juiced, grilled, added to salads, and mashed. Or even eaten plain.

Mangoes in Your Kitchen

With modern agricultural advancements, different varieties of mangoes are now available almost year round. I think of them, however, as a late winter/early spring fruit. Currently there are two varieties available in our grocery stores, the creamy, sweet, golden Alphonso or “honey” mango and the more prevalent green/ruby-colored Tommy Atkins cultivar. Both types are delicious. They do, however, have slightly different flavors from each other.

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A delightful curry quinoa salad with mangoes, green onions, cilantro, and almonds.

I tend to use Alphonsos in a way that lets their sweet, smooth nature shine. I cut them into large slices and serve them in a way that they can stand alone. The Tommy Atkins mangoes hold up very well in grain salads or are used green in more of a Thai or Vietnamese-type dish. Strips of under-ripe mango simply tossed with lime juice, green or red onions, diced jalapeños, and a sprinkling of sea salt is a perfect example of a dish that rises above the sum of its parts.

The versatile, delicious mango is in season right now. Let us help you discover this wonderful fruit. Together we can explore mangoes in our myriad of classes that include them. In the meantime, when you are in the produce section, pick up some mangoes. Peel them, bite into the sweet meat, and discover the many ways you can add this gem into your meals. They are, oh, so worth it!

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Bring Your Own Knives

Learning from a Master

Years ago I worked with a chef named Hosch. He was an extremely talented chef, very quirky, and one of the funniest people I have ever met. I quickly came to understand the meaning of a belly-laugh and laughing until you cry. He kept his coworkers constantly entertained, all the while imbuing us with nuggets of culinary wisdom. His knowledge was vast, standards clear and high. Learning from Hosch was like running through a warm, summer rain shower; delightful.

One year I invited Hosch and his family to join my family for Thanksgiving. Can I just insert here that it is a bit intimidating inviting a chef like him over for a meal? I still remember opening the front door to greet them. There stood Hosch with a rolled bundle in his arms. When he unrolled this bundle in my kitchen, there lay all of his favorite knives.

“I don’t go anywhere without my own knives,” he informed me. This has been a lesson learned for me. Invest in a few good quality knives and sharpen them correctly (Trust me, I have wrecked a couple of very nice knives from sharpening them at the wrong angle). When I first saw Hosch standing at my front door with his own knives, I thought this was both ridiculous and funny. Now, however, I do the same thing.

The Best Knife

If you are going to be doing a lot of chopping, having a sharp knife not only speeds up your work considerably, but it is also safer. A dull knife can be a dangerous thing. Also using a wide blade for chopping is much healthier on your hands and wrists.

IMG_4151 (2)How do I pick my favorite knife? It is a little like picking a favorite flower. I cannot. Each knife has its own uses. A bread knife is perfect for neatly slicing those crusty Breadico baguettes. A paring knife is the perfect size for getting garlic cloves ready to mince. The six inch and eight inch chef knives are what I use for chopping.

That fancy chef knife with holes down the blade is a vegetable knife, and the holes serve to release the suction that can build up when chopping large, wet vegetables. And then there is that monster knife. My friend Tami picked that up on a trip to China. It’s just the right choice for making quick work of cutting up a large roast or anytime you need to cut through bone. The Chinese use this type of knife for cutting through whole, large fish to slice them into steaks.

My takeaways from Hosch: Invest in the right knives for the type of cutting and chopping you need to do, keep them sharp, bring them with you at all times, and infuse laughter everywhere.

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Microgreens in the Winter

Why Microgreens?

I am thinking about them right now in the colder months because they grow so easily inside. Microgreens are defined as the edible, immature greens that are harvested about two weeks after germination. Little pea shoots, the tiny leaves and stems from broccoli, kale, amaranth, red cabbage, and sunflowers; these are a few of the more common types of microgreens.

The Uses for Microgreens

They can be used in a myriad of ways including as a confetti topping on an open-faced sandwich or pizza, tossed as a salad, or as a refreshing accompaniment to any braise. I love including them in cold quinoa or rice salads because the raw crunch adds not only depth but also beauty to the dish. Try them in a wrap or a soup. Mix them into your breakfast smoothie. They are a tasty reminder of summer.

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Research done by the USDA has shown that microgreens are many times more concentrated in a wide variety of nutrients than their adult counterparts. Research is still being done on these jewels that pack so much nutritional punch, but in the meantime, eat and enjoy knowing you are eating something good for your health.

Growing your Own Greens

I buy my microgreens at out local co-op store. I love that they are locally grown. However, if you would like to grow your own, it is very easy. Any disposable tray or pie plate will work. Poke a few holes in the bottom for drainage, fill it with moistened potting soil, and sprinkle your chosen seeds per instructions on their packets. Usually you just barely cover the seeds with more soil. Water the soil by misting it with water a couple times a day. You want to keep the soil moist but not wet. Place the tray in your sunniest window or under grow lights. The plants should get about four hours of sunshine each day.

Next time you are building a turkey, vegetable sandwich, include baby pea sprouts instead of that leaf of romaine. You will love it!

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The Ancient Beverage Kombucha

The Rise of Kombucha

It seems kombucha is everywhere. It is available on tap both at my local co-op and a nearby brewery. Dozens of flavors sit on display in our grocery stores. From coffee shops to restaurants, this probiotic tea is the hot, new beverage. It rightly deserves its popularity. This drink simultaneously boasts being refreshing and highly nutritious.

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Originating in China, kombucha has been made and consumed for centuries. The ingredients, black tea, sugar, healthy bacteria and yeast, and flavorings of your choosing ferment together to produce a fizzy, delicious drink that is teaming with beneficial bacteria called probiotics. The immense value of these probiotics to your gastrointestinal tract and other regions of your body cannot be disregarded. As a culture, we are only recently beginning to appreciate all the healthful advantages that probiotics offer.

Brewing Your Own Kombucha

If you have purchased this fermented drink lately, you have discovered that making this a frequent activity will surely drain your wallet. For this reason as well as because it makes for an enjoyable hobby, I brew my own kombucha. It is fun and tasty to mix ingredients to create custom brews. Some of our favorites are raspberry lime, lemon ginger, and strawberry.

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Ripe and Roasted offers a class to give you both the tools and the knowledge to successfully start making your own kombucha. We will teach you the process, and you will be given your own SCOBY (the bacterial starter) to get you going.

Kombucha, the ancient drink from centuries ago, is the drink of today, delicious, fresh, rich with healthy probiotics, and easy enough to make in your own home. Let me show you how!

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Beets

Attributes of the Beet

This deep ruby-colored globe is as delicately flexible to use in your cooking as it is beautiful to behold. The National Garden Bureau has named this “The Year of the Beet.” A justly deserved honor this is!

Beets are an obliging workhorse in the garden. They thrive in a variety of conditions, easily started in spring, after the last frost and not resowed until early August. They prefer slightly acidic soil (pH greater than 6.0) and are fine with a sunny or part-sunny spot.

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Microgreen salad with shredded beets, toasted almonds, crème fraîche, and dried cranberries in an oil balsamic vinaigrette.

Cooking with Beets

Both the leaves and the root are delicious and packed full of nutrients. I love beets roasted with a little olive oil and sea salt, used as one of the essential ingredients of Russian Borscht stew or boiled then tossed with goat cheese, crisp apple wedges in a toothsome salad. Likewise, the greens contribute well to soups, salads, or even smoothies. Because of their high nutritional value, they’ve taken the health-conscious world by storm. You can buy everything from beet pills or juice to beet powder.

Nothing, however, replaces a good old chunk of roasted beet.

Let’s explore together this versatile vegetable. From its humble beginnings all covered with loamy brown dirt to a rich garnet sliver poking out of a meaty braise, let’s celebrate the year of the beet.

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My Grandmother’s Spoon

Heritage and History

A parallel exists between beauty, heritage, and function. I received this cherished spoon from my grandmother. It was carved in Norway with the Norwegian art form called Rosemaling. This spoon encompasses the mission and goals of Ripe and Roasted. It works to make cooking and gardening into crafts that pass from one generation to the next.

This spoon remains preserved and treasured three generations after its creation. In the same way, the culture of great food does not easily die out over time.

When families raise their children with an appreciation for freshly canned peach jam, pasta sauces simmering on the stove, meat falling off the bone from being tended at the grill all day, scratch whipped cream atop a handmade pie, these delicacies become a part of what makes each day whole. Each child will carry the light of their heritage of cooking to their children. Thus a family creates a continuum of food across the span of time.

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The Traditions of Our Lives

Rich traditions help to define us culturally, whether they pass down from parents or grandparents or they are something we simply turn into a custom. In our family we prepare foods and dishes that come from the different cultures that compose the patina of our lives. We also hold to traditions that we created many years ago. For example, when my kids were young, we decided that the combination of Chicken Chili and Cinnamon Rolls were a “thing.” So today, if we make Chicken Chili, we are probably going to make Cinnamon Rolls as well.

My grandmother’s beautiful spoon is a symbol of this multi-faceted nature of life. In its great simplicity yet masterfully carved splendor,  it represents the way food, lovingly and skillfully made, can unite family or friends in one moment as well as in all the moments to the end of time.