Posted on Leave a comment

A Lemony Life

Dreaming of Lemons

I have always wanted a row of lemon trees in my yard. You know the look; fruit trees planted in massive pots along a pathway, or better yet along the edge of a garden that is overflowing with lavender, basil, and San Marzano tomatoes. As I walk down the aisles of this imaginary garden, my feet crush the tiny purple blossoms of creeping thyme, releasing its intoxicating scent into the air. 

I even have gone so far in this wishful wonderland of having purchased a massive (and I mean massive) tiled terra cotta planter that would house my first lemon tree. Of course living up in the hinterland, the bliss of smelling blossoms on my way to pick basil has obviously not materialized. My funky and sizable pot has instead held red twig dogwood and curly willow branches. I guess in the north country, this is the best I can hope for with a lemon tree pot, and I must rely on the local grocer to obtain my harvest.

Fruit of Spring

The fresh cheerfulness of lemons signal for me the onset of spring. The dance between spring and lemons is as natural as that of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They were meant to dance with each other. Spring days are crisp, and a slight breeze rustles through the branches. The cool refreshing taste of lemons mirrors the weather outside, delightfully zippy. Whether creating a sweet or tart dish, this fruit can nourish and bring joy. I have in my hands something that will be used to create delicious beauty.  

Whatever the reason, it’s at this time of year that I want to move away from rich, dark, heavy braises and into using early spring greens, vegetables such as spring sweet peas, and newly harvested baby bok choy. These create a bed for grilled lean meats. I top everything with a lemony crumble, and I marinate or drizzle with abandon a dressing that includes lemon juice as a key ingredient.

Left: Chicken with lemon, mushrooms, dried plums, and green olives. Right: Grilled salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, Italian parsley, salt, and pepper 

Lemon Feasts

Forget the tradition of ham for Easter dinner. At our house, our custom is lemon for Easter. This year it appeared in many forms. Appetizers included garlicky crostini topped with a lemony Tzatziki sauce. We tossed shreds of Napa cabbage with a ginger lemon Szechuan pepper dressing to serve as a base for marinated and grilled flank steak. Then just so dessert wouldn’t feel excluded, we served little ramekins of lemon pudding cake topped with macerated strawberries and dollops of whipped cream. Did all of this meet my need for all things lemon? 

Left: Lemon pudding cake, Right: Lemon cake with a lemon glaze

Nope. Just as spring marches on, so does my need for more lemony quests. French lemon custard, caramelized onion, Ricotta, and lemon galette, risotto al limone, and Greek egg lemon soup are among my favorites. I love lemony chicken with green olives over cheesy polenta or grilled lemon slices scattered on charred slabs of salmon. For dessert, lemon gelato or curd, lemon blueberry muffins, and lemon olive oil almond cake come to mind. From hors d’oeuvres to desserts with beverages in between, I fill my menus as well as my life with this fruit.

Left: Caramelized onion, Ricotta, and lemon galette, Right: Grilling the salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper

A Savory Twist

Let’s talk a little about the use of lemon in savory dishes such as in risotto al limone or Greece’s egg lemon soup. It seems counterintuitive to add such a bright flavoring to an otherwise rich, toothsome dish. Take risotto, for example. A typical risotto is creamy with the predominant flavor being that of salty Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. When you add lemon, it’s almost like the dish changes lanes on a freeway. The lemon zest and juice transform it into something very refreshing.

Above: Risotto al limone

A similar thing happens with egg lemon soup, otherwise known as Avgolemono in Greece. This would have a fairly typical “cream of chicken soup” flavor if not for the addition of lemon to the pot. As with the risotto, the addition of lemon elevates this soup from commonplace to splendid. Such is the beauty of the lemon.

Above: French lemon cream custards with candied lemon zest

A New Lemon Drink

The most recent lemony addition to my beverage repertoire is switchel.  My current favorite variety is lemon ginger. Switchels are a beverage with a rich history. They are a beverage based on vinegar, most commonly apple cider vinegar. Switchel was to our early colonists what soda pop is to us today. Basically, it was ubiquitous. It was (and still is) seen as both refreshing and healthy.

Apple cider vinegar was available in the northeastern states and thus became the tang in the recipe, which consisted of water, cider, a sweetener like molasses, honey, or maple syrup, and a flavoring like ginger and/or lemon. Switchel, also known as Haymaker’s Punch because of its refreshing nature, became the refreshment for those working long hours out in the hot sun. However, it was not only consumed by ordinary folk but was always available on the floors of our early Congress, reportedly with a liberal flavoring of Jamacian Rum. This, shall we say, fortified switchel, probably “flavored” a few of our country’s famous and formative oratories.

Left: Switchel, Right top: Salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper, Right bottom: A lemony spring spread

Spring Awakening

Tender green buds unfold on the trees. Plants poke their first leaves up through the cool earth. Nature is waking up, opening its eyes, and soon will show its full, adorned glory. Meanwhile, my sweet pea seeds have been tucked into the earth along the fenceline. Tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings are moving into adolescence under the grow-lights in my basement. The vegetable seed packets have been arranged and rearranged as I impatiently wait to plant them in the garden.  

Above: Risotto al limone

Warmer days are on the horizon. Evenings spent outdoors with dear friends will be here soon.  At the moment, though, I’m trying to decide, do I make marmalade or preserved lemons with the extras taking up space in my fridge? Such is the sweet conundrum of a lemon-filled spring. 

Posted on 4 Comments

A Year for Beans

“Never ever ever mess around with my greens. Especially the beans!” My sentiments exactly. This line from the musical Into the Woods echoed through my mind as I watched the beans twist and curl their way up the fences. This summer was, for me, an adventurous journey into the world of funky, heirloom beans. 

Too Many Kinds to Count

There were so many varieties, each with distinctive patterns and colors. White beans inside yellow pods, black or brown beans in green pods, pink stripes, purple stripes, deep purple; these are just a sampling of this summer’s collection. Even multiple continents made an appearance. There were beans from Italy, Ireland, the U.S., Germany, France, the Netherlands, and even a bean developed in good ol’ Minnesota. 

I used the forgotten spaces of the fenceline to plant the pole bean varieties. I tucked the bush beans into open areas or spaces previously used by early spring vegetables like radishes.  Because beans need to be planted once the soil is warm, you can inter-plant them with plants like sugar snap peas and radishes that bear quickly in the spring and then are done. Beans mature much later than radishes or peas, so by planting them in the same space, you are maximizing your garden yield. 

A Beneficial Legume for The Garden

Beans are part of the legume family. Legumes are a beneficial type of vegetable to plant throughout your garden because legumes fix nitrogen. They pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air, and then the bacteria attached to its roots convert the nitrogen into a form usable as a nutrient for the plant. When the plant is done, the usable forms (ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites) are available in the soil for the nearby plant roots to use. Biological nitrogen fixation is an example of nature using its own plants to fertilize itself. 

Companion Planting the Beans

This concept is also referred to as companion planting, where plants mutually benefit each other when planted next to one another, a practice that has been done for centuries. Native Americans mastered this age-old practice when they would plant a combination of vegetables they named “the three sisters.” First they buried corn kernels into the ground in the shape of small rings, and then they surrounded the corn with beans. Lastly, they planted squash in the spaces between the corn/bean rings. The beans fertilized the soil for the corn and squash, using the tall corn stalks as a trellis to climb. The squash formed a high thick carpet on the ground that cooled the roots of the beans and corn, allowing them to thrive. The squash’s thick prickly leaves also served as a deterrent for animals that might want to come and nibble on the crops. 

The Health of Beans

Beans are not only good for the soil; they are likewise good for your health. A wonderful source of the B vitamin folate, they are also high in fiber, protein, iron, and magnesium. As a nutrient-packed, low fat, and very inexpensive vegetable, let’s just say their return on investment is huge. For each single little bean buried into the sweet summer dirt, you will reap a hundredfold in harvest.

Harvesting and Storing

I began harvesting the long, thin French varieties in July. They add a delightful crunch to salads. You can steam them with a touch of butter and lemon or steam and quickly cool them to dip into aioli on an antipasto platter. The wax and purple varieties came next. These went into stir fries, soups, and casseroles. Finally, a breakpoint arrived where I halted harvesting them so the remaining could mature and become dried beans for this winter. 

This is where I find myself now. I have brought all the beans in from the garden. I have threshed the driest of the bunch to get the beans out of the stiff, dried pod. The rest find themselves spread out in the basement until they are also ready for threshing. 

I have pulled out a select few from each variety to plant again next year. I will store these in a cool spot until early next summer when I will plant them. The remaining dried beans are awaiting incorporation into our winter menu of hearty stews, casseroles, bean salads, and dips.

Garden grown beans offer a welcome consolation in these cool, dreary, autumn days. Whether it’s a cassoulet or a bowl of ham and bean soup, these are the gifts summer has given to winter. The memory of delicate purple flowers gracing the tips of vines exploring their way up and over the fenceline. Tiny little bean pods transforming into delicious adult counterparts. I taste these memories as I bring a spoonful to my lips. 

Yes, as the fairy tales have claimed, beans are certainly magical. And they are not to be messed with.

Posted on 2 Comments

For the Love of Tomatoes

How is it that our favorite vegetable is only available in its perfectly ripened glory for a couple months in late summer? Tomatoes, naturally sweetened by the sun, have a fresh yet unami quality that is hard to replicate in the winter months. Their shortened availability feeds our ubiquitous obsession with the pomme d’amour of all colors and sizes.

Growing Tomatoes

I have grown (and attempted to grow) tomatoes for over 30 years. They can actually be quite a finicky plant to grow well. Many factors go into successfully planting, growing, and harvesting these beauties. They are known to be heavy feeders, so you want to plant them in rich soil. They tend to be susceptible to diseases, especially those that are moisture-related. A number of insects agree with us and think they are delicious. They do best in as much sun as they can get. The stems can break easily, so we’re always looking for the newest and greatest way to support them. This is getting to be a daunting list.

Despite these potential obstacles, tomatoes are the one vegetable around which my garden is organized. My primario. I decide where in the garden I am going to move my tomatoes (because, of course, tomatoes are picky about this as well. They shouldn’t be planted in the same spot year to year, or they will get a blight disease that harbors in the soil). Once I know they’ll be in a spot they fancy and where they’ll flourish, I lay out the blueprint for the rest of my garden.

Choosing Varieties

My first consideration in choosing which tomatoes to plant is always about how I am going to use them in the kitchen. Will they be eaten fresh, in sandwiches, in salads, or as part of an hors d’oeuvre? How much pasta sauce or salsa am I going to preserve this year?

IMG_2549 (2)

That leads me to which varieties are going to serve my needs best. I tend to prefer the complex flavors, shapes and colors of heirlooms, yet I am constantly frustrated by how easily they get diseased and how relatively few tomatoes each plant produces. After years of planting only heirlooms or hybrids, the last few years I have planted a cross between the two. I am hedging my bets, hoping that the best qualities of each will shine through.

I have faithfully done everything my high-maintenance, lipstick-colored orbs require. The soil has been enriched with compost, they have been fertilized, mulched, pruned, staked, nipped, and tucked. Now it’s time for them to start giving back. To earn their keep, so to speak. It’s August, and I have big culinary plans, almost all of which involves tomatoes.

Cooking with Tomatoes

Let’s start simply. The cherry versions often don’t make it out of the garden, nibbled by kids and adults alike. One of my favorite treats is to sprinkle an interesting sea salt on slices and eat these while still warm from the sunshine.

This is when I splurge on great olive oil, as freshly pressed as I can find. I lean toward the grassy peppery flavor tones. This gets drizzled over tomatoes, slivers of my newly harvested garlic, pieces of torn basil leaves, crushed pepper, and a flaky sea salt. When stacked atop a slice of grilled baguette, it becomes a dish I could actually eat every night of the year. I know I can’t, however, thus compounding its allure.

My imagination for their uses is only limited by the available waking hours of the days. I tuck tomatoes into tarts, crepes, tacos, soups, pizza, braises, pasta dishes, salads, and sandwiches. I haven’t included them in my oatmeal or homemade ice cream, so for now, breakfast and dessert haven’t been invaded. I’ll have to work on that. A tomato sorbet might be in my future.

Posted on 2 Comments

Garden Planning to Soothe the Soul

Spring Planting

Seed catalogs litter my couch. I keep pouring over the pages of flowers and vegetables. I have garden tabs open across the top of my computer screen, and I have been driving through town, stopping by garden shops. Amid all this planning, the plants are pulling me in, whispering, “I am beautiful. I am delicious. Buy me. Plant me.”

Planting time is approaching. The days are longer and warmer. We have been cooped up, self-isolating, and our reaction to this seclusion is to get outside. In the face of sickness, we have an inner voice inspiring us to self-improve and do what we can within ourselves to combat the enemy that is consuming our world.

IMG_2406 (2)

We have this urge to grow plants for eating. We want to surround ourselves with beauty, living greenery, and flowers. The desire to eat healthy foods enthralls us. We are exercising more than ever. It seems more important than ever that we plant our gardens. For our soundness of mind, we need to sink our hands in the dirt and bury seeds that soon will produce vegetal plenty.

Finding Garden Plants

Now, where to go to procure these seeds and plants? As local businesses are struggling, it seems more important now than ever to support them. I choose to buy my garden supplies from those I value and rely on during normal gardening seasons. I carefully tuck away the catalogs, turn off the computer, and buy from the shops in my community.

Whether it’s calling on the phone, ordering by computer, or, mask in hand, actually visiting these shops, seeds and plants will come home with me. The plants that fill my garden this year and the flowers that will spill out of my planters will mean more than ever.

IMG_7065 (2)

Planning the Garden

First, I start with a plan. What should I plant first? Second? In a few weeks? My garden map is sketched, pencil on graph paper. I need to place the nightshade plants in a new spot this year. Maybe where the basil was last year.

IMG_3425 (2)

I tend to go a little crazy on tomato plants. My resolution for 2020 is to control myself and carefully choose my favorite varieties. A few heirlooms, some Romas for pasta sauce, a couple sweet cherries, a couple dependable heavy producers, and most importantly, some new interesting colors and shapes. These are going to take too much room. I erase and rearrange the vegetables on my map, trying to squeeze in my indulgences. So many indulgences, so little space… There are simply too many have-to-have tomatoes.

Planning a Timeline

The cool weather vegetables need to go into the ground. Kale, arugula, sweet peas, radishes, lettuces, onions, leeks, carrots, beets, radicchio, Swiss chard.

My attention now turns to planning what I will plant in late May. It is important to purchase them now, as these unusual varieties tend to sell out. Plants include tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and cold-sensitive herbs and flowers. After bringing them home, they can harden in my yard for a while before they get planted.

IMG_9795 (2)

Lastly are the vegetables that cannot get planted until the ground is very warm: beans, cucumbers, and squash. I buy the seeds but will hold off planting until early June.

IMG_2820 (2)

With my plan forming, I can already smell the intoxicating scents of the garden. Tall dill that I allow to self seed everywhere (My small contribution to the black swallowtail butterfly). The delicate white cilantro flowers. Marigolds and nasturtium. The distinctive aroma of a just pruned tomato plant. Green fingertips. The yellow finches flitting from coleus to coleus, eating their seeds. This planning process elicits a visceral reaction. This garden is already worming its way into my soul.

The Hope of Spring

While on a walk, I hear the robins chirp as they busily go about building their nests. The squirrels race from tree to tree, busy with who knows what. The buds on the magnolia trees are just appearing, ivory cashmere petals emerging from pale green, velvety calyx.

The cool spring air. I breathe in deeply. Thankful. The soft new grass seems so green. Rhubarb and strawberry leaves push up through the soft, damp earth. The roses and clematis don’t realize there’s a deadly virus afoot. The plum and cherry trees are blithely budding. Nature is seemingly unaware of our current crisis.

This new birth is calming and reassuring. Heading to the garden, trowel and seed packets in hand, I settle in to dig, plant, and water, waiting for the future, waiting for new life to emerge.

Posted on 1 Comment

A Garlic Obsession

Is it possible to create a new food group? How about an additional nutrient? Maybe it was one of the treasures found in the pyramids of Egypt. Questions fly around such as, “Is it a vegetable or an herb?” Aaahhh, yes, you know I am talking about garlic. In my kitchen there are few things that sneak themselves into my cooking more often than that firm but juicy bulb named garlic.

Cooking with Garlic

I must admit, I have a self-diagnosed and historical obsession with the culinary bulb. As a way of denial, let’s call it a garlic penchant. Garlic has been inching its way more and more into my dishes and menus for several decades now. It started innocently enough back in the mid ‘80s when a little garlic powder sprinkled on my garlic bread was a natural accompaniment to spaghetti sauce with meatballs. When I moved from opening a jar to creating the sauce for the afore-mentioned spaghetti sauce, I realized the value of its culinary pungency. It was uphill (or should I say downhill?) from there.

I seem to regularly make dishes that just happen to have it as an ingredient. Or do I search for dishes that include it? In the back of my mind, I remember, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” In my way of thinking, it is “A garlic clove per day…”

IMG_2904 (2).JPG
Ingredients for a Cambodian chicken curry featuring scratch lemongrass paste made with garden garlic and lemongrass.

Three square meals of garlic per day, you say? That is possible. Garlic for breakfast? Yep. A necessity in mushroom crepes. Lunch? Of course. The classic French oil and vinegar dressing drizzled on my garden greens by all standards Françoise must contain a minced clove. Then from 4:00 p.m. and onward, it shows up everywhere, working its way into every dish. Garlic is an essential part of the tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella cheese crostini I’m currently addicted to. Whether I make a Mexican dish like pork green chili, a toothsome Tuscan garlic and kale soup, a Creole classic Maque Choix, or Spanish paella, they are all rife with garlic.

IMG_2395 (2).JPG
Garden tomatoes, basil, and garlic with mozzarella over French bread.

Growing Garlic

Garlic has been much more easily consumed in my kitchen than grown in my garden. My issues with growing a successful crop has included forgetting to harvest it in a timely fashion (it needs to come out of the ground once about half of the green tops have dried and turned a sandy color and in mid July), overcrowding the cloves when planting, locating the garlic plot in a sunny location, planting smaller cloves (large cloves=large bulbs the following year).

Well, this year I’ve finally arrived! I successfully grew garlic! Last summer I decided it was time I took the time and effort to buy and plant this beloved vegetable properly. After reading up on the specifics of growing garlic, I shopped around online and ended up ordering from Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa. I chose the sunniest spot in my garden beds and prepped the soil. Garlic bulbs are heavy feeders, so I added extra compost to the area. In late September I buried them in the ground, layering inches of dried leaves overtop to insulate against our frigid winters. I secured these with battened down cardboard. Lo and behold, they even survived this winter’s Polar Vortex.

About the Bulb

Regarding garlic, it belongs to the onion genus, Allium, which in turn is a part of the lily family. In the garden, it has almost no enemies. I suppose the same odor that, when consumed by you and me, scares away friends and family also keeps away garden pests. As it turns out it is also rather easy to grow (a fact that previously seems to have eluded me). When you give it sun and space, it rewards you first with scapes and then large bulbous heads.

The only catch to success is that you have to plan a year in advance. In the upper Midwest, the bulbs need to go into the ground in the fall nine months before they are harvested. If you have a sunny corner and an interest in growing garlic, it is almost time to plant. You can check your local greenhouses or look at online vendors, bearing in mind that favorite varieties sell out quickly.

Varieties

The garlic that you find in the vegetable section of your grocery store usually is not successful in your garden. There are several reasons for this. First, much of our grocery store garlic comes from China and they treat it with a chemical to prevent it from sprouting. Secondly, most garlic you find in grocery store is soft neck garlic which isn’t hardy north of zone 6. If you live in zone 6 or south and want to try planting these soft-neck varieties, do it in the very early spring while it is still cold out.

The rest of us have to “settle” for the wonderfully interesting hard-neck varieties. These little gems we’re settling for, why do we love them so? I know I’ve mentioned juicy before, but that’s one of their prime descriptors. Juicy and crisp. Very different from your grocery store bulbs that have been sitting around for months before they get to the produce department. And quite honestly, the taste is fresher. Something is delicious about them because they are disappearing out of my kitchen faster than I can say “I am crazy for roasted garlic soup.”

Health Benefits

I know you are asking, is garlic actually healthy for me to eat? There has and continues to be a great deal of research around this bulb and its health benefits. What the holistic community has been touting for millennia the modern scientific community is working hard to confirm. From acting as an antimicrobial to helping to improve lipid profiles to aiding in the prevention of some types of cancer, more of garlic’s attributes are being discovered or confirmed every year.

This really is a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” situation. Do we love the ethnic foods from every continent because they contain our beloved garlic, or is it because of our preoccupation with this crisp and flavorful bulb that we snatch up all available fresh heads at the local farmers market to work into our evening menu?

Does it matter? I say go forth. Indulge. And if you can’t convince your friends and family to join you in your garlic-feeding frenzy, make sure you have a stash of breath mints handy.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Rise of Spring

Awakening Creation

Spring. Warm, sunny days. Cool rains. The green of the budding trees is almost electric, and emerging plants are the same. Their lime color is cheerful yet soothing. I am daily transfixed by the new strawberries poking their leaves up through the caramel mulch. Lily of the valley are slowly uncoiling their leaves. Soon the intoxicating perfume of their flowers will greet me each day.

The garlic cloves I buried in a corner bed last fall have long been up and stretching toward the sky. I cannot stop thinking about the garlic scape pesto I will be creating from the curly scapes that will swirl up from each plant. As I look across my other garden beds, I see the tiny evidence of early spring peas, lettuces, and pak choi.

IMG_7104 (2)
Garlic shoots

Spring Preparation

The time has not yet arrived for planting my summer seeds and plants. In this part of the country, we wait for the soil temperatures to warm up. What I am doing now is collecting. My stack of vegetable seed packets increases by the day. A wide array of pepper and tomato plants are hardening in my yard and garage. Flowers and plants with interesting foliage await being planted into ceramic pots.

IMG_7072 (2)
Collecting plants

Gardens with multi-season plantings bring life to the spring season when we have been without outside color for months. Some of my favorites are the early bulbs such as the subtly-hued Lenten rose, stubby crocuses that almost look like they are laughing at late winter as they push themselves up through the frosty remnants of winter, muscari with its clusters of tiny indigo grape-like flowers standing at attention up and down the stem, and fritillaria whose upside down tulip-shaped flowers look like miniature plum checkerboards. These are of course in addition to the many varieties and shades of daffodils and tulips.

The First Market

Just as I welcome the visual freshness of spring, so I also eagerly anticipate the clean crispness of spring fruits and vegetables. The weekly summer tradition of going to the farmers market began this weekend. Like walking through a seasonal portal, the opening of the farmers market is, for me, the start of my summer gardening season. Catching up with the farmers, scouting their new offerings, listening to the bluegrass band, buying something here, tasting something there. The aroma of coffee beans grinding or pizza baking in a wood-fired oven. It all comes together to lift my spirits. It is saying, “hello spring,” “hello warm sunshine,” “hello cool rich earth!” “Are you ready to welcome and nurture what I’m planting this year?”

IMG_7076 (2)
Farmers market bounty

Cooking for Spring

Of course, I brought home some culinary gems; trumpet mushrooms, Japanese spinach, and bok choy. These formed the components of our evening meal. So upon returning from the farmers market, I had to create in the kitchen. The ingredients called for simple dishes. We needed to hear the crunch of the bok choy and feel the bite of the emerald Japanese spinach. I decided to do an Asian interpretation by tossing in some pistachios and drizzling the greens with a mixture of peanut and sesame oil, Tamari sauce, freshly grated ginger root, minced garlic, and rice wine vinegar.

The just-harvested trumpet mushrooms that I buy at the market are so marvelous that I had to do the classic preparation of sauteing them in butter albeit with the twist of a sprinkling truffle salt. Strips of Ataulfo mangoes topped with coarsely ground pepper and charcoal-grilled chicken thighs marinated in a mixture of Vietnamese lemon curry, sea salt, and black pepper rounded out the dinner plates.

IMG_7139 (2)

I wake up to the multitude of birds chirping outside my bedroom window and go to sleep to the sound of gentle rain. Digging into the chocolate dirt, I carefully place my seeds within. I clean windows, sweep sidewalks, wash off yard furniture, and for the next five months we move our lives outdoors. Yes, spring has arrived. She has flung her bountiful self upon us, and I am basking in her presence.

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted on 2 Comments

What Should You Plant First?

As early spring begins, I am starting to think about what seeds I want to plant in my garden beds for the first planting of the season. You are probably thinking it is too early to start thinking about one’s summer vegetable garden. However, this is the ideal time to plan and purchase those first seeds. Some of the most interesting varieties of seeds sell out fairly quickly, so once you know what you’re hoping to plant, get the seeds while they are still available.

A number of types of vegetables thrive in the cool, wet days of spring. Many plants need this weather to really do well.  I take the temperature of my garden soil, and when it’s around 50 degrees, it is time to plant.

The vegetables I am planting this early spring include:

Radishes

Last year I planted “D’Avignon,” the traditional French breakfast radish. This year I am trying two very different varieties. Early Scarlet Globe is a very dependable radish. It is ready in 20 to 28 days, so we can enjoy eating them early. And because I like to try new things, I am planting Purple Plum, a purple radish with a great flavor. A second new venture for me is Watermelon, a white radish with a stunning, dark pink center. This variety shines in the very early spring. It lends itself well to pickling, so I may play around with doing that later this spring.

Sweet Peas

I’m going all out on three completely new varieties of snap or snow peas this year. I chose two from Seed Savers Exchange (an organization that preserves historic and heritage varieties of seeds, saving them and also reproducing some for sale) The first pea variety is the Amish Snap. This is a pea that was been grown by the Amish community long before our present varieties existed. It vines tall and vigorous. The other choice from Seed Savers is Swenson Swedish. This heirloom variety was brought to Minnesota from Sweden in 1876. It is sweet, flavorful, and productive.

Another seed company that is doing great work in preserving rare and heirloom varieties is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds out of Missouri. I chose my third variety of sweet pea from them. This hypertendril snap pea produces more tendrils instead of some of its leaves. These, along with the beautiful pink blossoms, are deliciously edible and taste just like peas.

Lettuce

With lettuce I like to plant several kinds. I start early in the spring and reseed several times throughout the summer so I have a constant supply. I am planting two mixes, a Mesclun blend that contains some peppery lettuce varieties and a lettuce blend. All the Romaine lettuces are wonderful, so this year I am planting Red Romaine. A large variety, it is both a colorful and tasty addition to salads. Lastly, I am planting an English variety Craquerelle du Midi, sweet and crisp with dark green curled leaves. Its slowness to bolt in the heat of summer is another desired trait.

Carrots

I am starting with two varieties of carrots this year. One is an old faithful I have used for years, Scarlet Nantes. It is sweet, tender, and a proven producer. The other is a red carrot called Dragon. I love the beauty of red carrots. This tasty variety is red on the outside and orange in the center.

Arugula

The arugula I planted last year will come up again this year. I am also, however, planting a bitey variety that will nicely complement what is already out in my garden. Wasabi arugula has the spicy taste of wasabi, a very helpful addition to Asian dishes. It is more tolerant of swings in weather than other varieties. I’ll also be picking the edible blossoms to throw into salads or pasta dishes.

Kale

Lacianto Dinosaur is my kale choice this time around. This Tuscan variety dates back to at least the early 1800s. It is beautiful with dark green, deeply savoyed leaves. It is quite flavorful, making for a fabulous addition to soups and stews. This grouping of vegetables prefers the cool wetness of spring. At least a month before the final frost, I am out cleaning my garden beds and burying the these little nuggets in the ground. They don’t mind a little snow, frost, and cold spring rainstorms. They get to work, germinating and soon popping their little heads through the surface of the earth. The unsuspecting surprise of eating sweet lettuces or crunchy peas in the middle of May when most of us are just starting to put in our summer vegetables is refreshing indeed.

These early vegetables in an otherwise dormant space is like spring opening her door and saying, “Welcome to my home.” And, in fact, welcome it is!

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

IMG_3852 (2)

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!

IMG_4031 (2)