Friday, 31 May 2013

Asparagus Pesto

More asparagus! Our garden asparagus is over, but there still seems to be plenty available in the markets.

I really like this fairly mild take on pesto.  Since it is so mild, I slather it on and the two of us eat it all, but it could stretch to four servings. I also really like it with buckwheat (soba) noodles, but whatever pasta you like should be fine.

2 to 4 servings
30 minutes prep time

Asparagus Pesto

500g (1 pound, plus) asparagus
1/2 cup sunflower OR pumpkin seeds
3-4 cloves garlic
1 tsp salt
1 cup packed fresh arugula
2 tbsps packed parsley leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
the juice of 1/2 lemon
100 grams (3 ounces) crumbled feta cheese

Wash and trim the asparagus. Cut of the tips, and set them aside (about 1 1/2" pieces). Steam the asparagus stems until they are very tender, about 6 minutes.

Rinse the asparagus in cold water and drain it well. Chop it roughly and add it to the food processor, along with the sunflower or pumpkin seeds, salt, arugula, parsley, olive oil and lemon juice. Process until the mixture is completely pureed. You will likely need to scrape down the sides a couple of times.

Taste the pesto and adjust any of the flavours as you like. Bear in mind that it will taste much more intense without noodles. If you spread a bit on a small piece of bread, it will be easier to assess.

The pesto can be used at once or kept sealed in the refrigerator for 24 hours. I heat it in the microwave for 3 minutes before tossing it with cooked pasta, but you could reheat it in a pot - stir frequently. Serve it tossed with pasta - about 125 grams per serving, before cooking - and top with some crumbled feta cheese.

Last year at this time I made Asparagus with Brown Butter.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Poached Eggs & Asparagus on Grilled Cheese Toast

Hardly a recipe, more of a serving suggestion. The combination of eggs and asparagus on toast is completely classic; I like to throw in a little cheese too. I only had a baguette when I made this, but a more standard sized slice of bread is a better choice in my opinion. 

Garden crunch time is here, so it's off to plant things in between rain showers. This has been a lovely spring for rain, now if only the nights would stay decently warm we might get somewhere.

per serving
20 minutes prep time

Poached Eggs and Asparagus on Grilled Cheese Toast

1 or 2 large eggs
150 to 250 grams (1/3 to 1/2 pound) asparagus
1 tablespoon mild vegetable oil
1 or 2 slices of sandwich bread
30 to 60 grams  (1 or 2 ounces) Cheddar or other meltable cheese
salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste

Put a pot of water with a tablespoon of white vinegar in it on to simmer to poach the eggs, or cook the eggs in the oven, as here. It takes 8 minutes to cook a firm poached egg (pointless, in my opinion, but it's what some people want) and 3 or 4 minutes to poach a soft, runny egg. Time them to be done when the toast and asparagus go onto the plate - that process will take about 10 to 12 minutes.

Wash the asparagus, and break off the tough ends. Turn on the oven grill. Toss the asparagus with the oil on a large baking tray, and cook it under the grill for 4 or 6 minutes.(Start hard eggs just before turning.) Turn it over, and add the slices of bread to the tray.  Return it to under the grill, (start soft eggs now) and cook until the bread is toasted.

Turn the bread over, and cover it with the sliced cheese. Return it to under the grill, and cook until melted and bubbly, perhaps a little browned. Put the grilled cheese toasts on serving plates, and cover them with the cooked asparagus. Top with one or two poached eggs, and add salt and pepper as desired.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Growing Asparagus

Asparagus is an interesting and unusual vegetable to grow. Unlike most veggies, which are grown as annuals, it's a perennial. Once planted, it takes several years to get large and strong enough to harvest, but then will be there to harvest every year for 20 to 30 years or more. The sight of them in the spring is amazing. They look just like asparagus... coming right out of the ground! If you don't pick the stalks, they quickly shoot up and open to a large, ferny plant that is the general shape of a pine tree, but more airy. Well-established plants can easily reach 6 or 8 feet in height, and the stalks can be quite tough and woody when you clear them away in the fall.

Most people buy asparagus plants (sold as "crowns") when they plant it. You can buy one year old or two year old crowns; the two year old will be more expensive but theoretically ready to harvest a year sooner. I say theoretically, because in my experience larger plants take longer to settle in and smaller plants are likely to catch up. Don't really expect to pick much asparagus until the third year anyway.

You can also grow asparagus from seed. Asparagus is easy to start from seed, since the seeds are large, and germinate readily at warm temperatures. Start them indoors fairly early in the season, say sometime in March, to give them the longest start their first season, but you could start them as late as June and expect most of them to survive the winter. Plant them out once danger of frost has finished. (Which at the rate we are going here, might be next year some time. Argh.) This will be considerably less expensive than starting with crowns, but you will need to add at least another year to the waiting time. What we did was plant some of both, to allow us some earlier asparagus but still save some money.

Asparagus likes good rich soil, and it will be in place for a long, long time, so choose your planting site carefully. It needs full sun, and should not have to compete with tree roots. It's worth while to expend some effort in improving the bed with compost and a little bonemeal. It's even more worth while to be sure the bed is really, really free of weeds before you plant. Since asparagus also likes a moist but well drained soil - it can actually be quite dry once the first flush of growth is past in the spring - it's best to raise the bed a little. It also prefers slightly alkaline soil, although ours has tolerated our slightly acidic soil very well. The moisture level is more important; the fact that our soil is quite sandy helps a lot.

Once you are ready to plant, the asparagus goes in quite deeply. Since your plants will start out as miniature versions of their more mature selves, it's best to dig a bit of trench to start them off in, and fill it in as they get to look more robust. Ultimately, they should end up about 8" deep. Deep plantings will help encourage thick, fat spears - much more succulent than skinny ones. Once you are getting fairly thick spears, you will know they are mature enough to harvest. Start by harvesting for 2 weeks the first year, checking the bed every day or two for new growth, and work up to 6 weeks of harvesting once the beds are completely mature. (Some people say 8 weeks, but that just seems so long to me. Poor plants!) The plants should be spaced about a foot apart in any direction; your choice whether to plant them in a bed or a row. Don't make your bed too wide though! Five feet is probably the maximum; four is better if you don't have long reach, as you should stay out of the bed to avoid compaction and breakage.

Asparagus does not have many pests or diseases. Ours is afflicted with both striped and spotted asparagus beetles, which are by far the most common pests of asparagus. They are distinctly a nuisance, and we try to control them with hand-picking and insecticidal soap, but they persist nevertheless. Fortunately, they don't seem to do a lot of harm, since they don't really get going until after we stop picking and the plants will put out new growth to replace what has been eaten. We remove the dead ferns at once in the fall, in the hopes of removing some of the eggs as well. This is generally a good practise, although some people wait until very early spring to remove the debris. Either way, it should be removed, to help prevent the build up of fungi or beetles. Rust (a fungus) is another problem that may affect asparagus, but modern varieties are fairly resistant to it. Aphids may also show up, in season, but again are probably more of a nuisance than a danger.

It's important to keep your asparagus well weeded. Once deep-rooted weeds get into it, it is next to impossible to get them out again. The previous owners planted our first patch of asparagus, then let it go to weeds. We are still, 5 years later, fighting those weeds constantly. I'm told that you can water your asparagus with salt water to kill weeds, since asparagus was originally a seaside plant and is very salt tolerant. I have not had the nerve to try this, as I worry about run-off affecting other plants.

One experiment we have tried is planting strawberries amongst the asparagus. Our hope was that since asparagus is deep rooted, and strawberries are shallow rooted, that the strawberries would smother the weeds and give us a double crop. The results have been mixed. If you are short of space, it works quite well for double cropping. Strawberries don't mind the light shade provided by the asparagus and the roots don't seem to compete too much. However, strawberries really aren't that great at keeping down the weeds. Any time saved by their taking up the space of some of the weeds is lost by the fact that you have to weed around them. They also make it a bit difficult to mulch or to fertilize the asparagus. If you don't do this, it makes a lot of sense to mulch. Grass clipping work well, provided they are cut before the grass goes to seed, and are likely to be readily available.

As you may suppose, a perennial plant can't have all its growth cut for 6 weeks or more every spring without needing a lot of fertilizer to help it keep going. We are still working out a good plan, but the recommendation is to fertilize your beds twice per year. Once right after you stop cutting for the season, and once in the late fall or early spring. My thinking is that it may be best to use a little bone and bloodmeal in the early summer once you stop picking, along with a foliar feed of kelp based fertilizer, with a good 2" mulch of compost or old manure in the late fall or very early spring. I prefer the fall to the spring, because then it has the winter to really work its way into the soil.

How much asparagus should you plant? I've seen recommendations of 5 plants per person right up to 30 plants per person, with 10 being a fairly typical recommendation. It depends on how much you love asparagus and of course how much space you have to allot to it. We could eat a good half pound of it each, every day, in season so have gone for the high end figure. We don't bother to freeze it. I don't think frozen is nearly as good as fresh, and I find its fleeting nature is part of the pleasure of asparagus.  Another thing that will affect how many plants you need is whether they are male or female plants... oh yeah, asparagus has the MOST interesting sex life. I had no idea.

It's a little unusual, but not particularly rare, for plants to have separate male and female flowers or even separate plants, as asparagus does. Asparagus is a dioecious plant. What this means is that if you want seeds, you must have some male and some female plants to get fertile berries on the females. Unless you are a breeder, however, you are most unlikely to want to get berries, and there are real disadvantages to growing female asparagus plants. They grow fewer spears, so about half harvest in the same space as a male, and furthermore the spotted asparagus beetle particularly likes to feed on the berries and lay eggs in them, so better not to have them. Male plants are also up earlier in the spring, and live longer too.

How do you get male plants only? This is where things go from the slightly unusual to the whoa, really!?! Traditional varieties will produce about half and half male and female plants when grown from seed, and even if you plant crowns, they will have been grown from seeds originally, so you can expect that half of your crowns will be female. You can dig out female plants and replace them new crowns once they are mature enough to identify, but you will still be replacing them with half female plants. You can improve the situation considerably by doing this, but it might be easier to simply plant one of the all-male hybrids to start with.

When I first heard of all-male hybrids, my first question was, "HOW THE HELL DO THEY DO THAT?" and the answer is fascinating: they use super-males. Yes, asparagus has three sexes: female (xx chromosomes), male (xy chromosomes) and super-male (yy chromosomes). If you cross a super-male (yy) with a female (xx) asparagus, the resulting offspring should always be males (xy). Voila; all-male seed. It's a bit more complicated than that in real life, and you may get the occasional female plant from "all"-male hybrids, but it's close enough to go on with.

 So, it's time to talk about specific varieties of asparagus. They all taste pretty similar, so the actual variety will be of more interest to the gardener than the cook. Asparagus is available in three colours; the original green, purple-tinted, and white. White is just a green asparagus that has been earthed up as it grows to prevent the formation of chlorophyll, so it's a technique rather than a specific variety. I don't care for it and couldn't be bovvered anyway, so no info about doing that here.

The most common traditional varieties of asparagus around here seem to be Mary Washington, Argenteuil, Mary Washington, Viking, Mary Washington, and Mary Washington. Yeah. Odds are very good that you are going to get Mary Washington.

Purple asparagus is a lot less common, and there only seem to be a few varieties, none of which appear to be all-male at this point. Purple Passion is the most common, but we got our hands on some Crimson Pacific seed this spring and will be trying it out. Purple asparagus is supposed to be sweeter than green asparagus. Alas; it turns green when cooked.

The most common all-male hybrid around here is Guelph Millennium, bred at the University of Guelph. You can expect to pay about ten times the price for seed as for the old standards, and I haven't seen it available as crowns (yet). Apparently there are a good few out of New Jersey as well; Jersey Giant, Jersey Knight, and Jersey Supreme. Given the investment in time into asparagus, if you are growing it from seed the extra money spent is probably well worthwhile. Ordinarily, I try to avoid F1 hybrids, but with asparagus the difference is so real and the plants so long-lived there is no reason not to go for them.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Rhubarb Mousse Pie

And if you don't want a Mousse Pie, you can just put it in a bowl or bowls, and call it Mousse. Either way, this is a nice tart-but-not-too-tart rhubarb dessert.  I do like mousses etc, that are set with a firm meringue rather than whipped cream - so much lighter. The egg yolks do give it some more substance and help tone down the sourness of the rhubarb. Very nice!

8 servings
30 minutes prep time - add 3 hours for cooling and setting

Rhubarb Mousse Pie

Make the Crust:
2 cups (200 grams) graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 350°F. 

Crush the crackers to fine crumbs. Melt the butter. If you are using a glass pie plate, the butter can be put right into the plate and melted in the microwave. Add the crumbs to the butter and mix well, until there are no dry crumbs left. Press them against the edges and bottom of the pie plate to form a crust.

Bake the crust for 10 minutes. 

Make the Filling:
4 cups diced rhubarb
1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons plain gelatine
1/4 cup cold water
3 large egg yolks
3 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 cup sugar

Put the rhubarb and tablespoon of water into a pot, and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the rhubarb is cooked and mostly disintegrated; about 15 minutes. Watch and stir carefully; this is a dry mix and until the rhubarb begins to cook and exude juice, it is at risk of scorching.

While it cooks, sprinkle the gelatine over the quarter cup of cold water in a small bowl. Let it soak until needed.

When the rhubarb is cooked, allow it cool for about 5 minutes. Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl, and slowly mix in a bit of the cooled rhubarb. Then, beat the egg and rhubarb mixture into the pot of rhubarb. Return it to medium heat, and cook, stirring constantly,  until slightly thickened. Remove from the heat, and stir in the soaked gelatine until well dissolved. Set the rhubarb mixture aside to cool as  you proceed.

Put the egg whites with the cream of tartar and sugar in the top of a double boiler, and put onto a pot of simmering water. Beat the egg whites until they are very stiff and starting to set; about 5 minutes.

Immediately fold or briefly beat them into the rhubarb mixture until evenly mixed. Scrape the filling into the prepared pie crust and spread it out evenly. Chill the pie until set; at least 2 hours.

Last year at this time I made Broiled Rhubarb.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Carrot Soup with Dill & Chives

The trouble with having a garden is that I forget what's available in the markets. Or rather, I forget that what's available in the garden has a much wider availability range than what's for sale. Right now, carrots will be very hard to still find for sale. In the garden, though, I am yanking out last years carrots as fast as I can think of things to do with them, before they go to seed and/or I need to plant something else in that spot. Anyway, this made good use of an entire row of them. Only about 6 more rows to go...

6 servings
45 minutes - 30 minutes prep time

Carrot Soup with Dill and Chives

900 grams (2 pounds) carrots
4 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt (OPTIONAL)
1/4 cup minced fresh dill
1/4 cup minced fresh chives
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 cups milk

Peel and trim the carrots, and cut them into chunks. Put them in a large pot with the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Add the salt if it is required - only if you use unsalted chicken stock. If your stock is salted, omit it for now and adjust the salt at the end of making the soup. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until the carrots are quite tender. Purée the mixture in a blender or food processor until smooth. This can be done in advance, anc refrigerated  until wanted.

Wash, dry, and mince the herbs. Put the butter and flour into a heavy-bottomed soup pot, and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the minced dill and chives about halfway through, and continue cooking until they are softened and reduced. Season with the pepper. Slowly mix in the milk, a little at a time, stirring well between each addition to avoid lumps. Once the milk is all in, continue to cook and stir over medium-low heat, until the mixture thickens. Mix in the carrot purée and heat through. The soup can be made in advance and re-heated.

Last year at this time I made Tzatziki Stuffed Cucumbers.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Strata of Monte Cristo

I had all these ingredients that needed using up so I came up with this brilliant idea... googled it and as usual discovered that half the world has been there ahead of me. Oh well. A good idea is a good idea. All the great flavour of the traditional Monte Cristo sandwich, easier to deal with as a savory bread pudding, or strata. Not really any quicker to make, I suspect, but much less fiddly especially if you are serving more than one or two people.

Actually, a Monte Cristo sandwich is often served with raspberry jam. I didn't have any, or I would have tried it. I suspect it would be a good idea to heat it first. You can use any reasonable sandwich bread, white or whole wheat. I used a sourdough rye, actually. Hm... next up, how about a Reuben strata?

6 servings
1 hour  30 minutes -  30 minutes prep time

The Strata of Monte Cristo

4 large eggs
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
fresh black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
10 to 12 slices slightly stale sandwich bread
2 tablespoons butter
200 grams (1/2 pound) sliced ham
250 grams (generoud 1/2 pound) sliced or grated cheese
    -  gruyere, gouda, cheddar or havarti

Whisk the eggs in a medium mixing bowl with the milk, salt, pepper and mustard. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Use the butter to butter the bread on one side of each slice. Cover the bottom of an 8" x 11" baking dish with a single layer of the bread, butter side down. You can trim the crusts or leave them on, as you like. This should use half the bread.

Ladle about 1/3 of the egg and milk mixture evenly over the bread in the pan. Cover it with an even layer of the ham, and about half of the sliced or grated cheese. Top with another layer of the buttered bread; butter side up this time. Ladle the remainder of the egg and milk mixture evenly over the bread. Cover the top evenly with the remainder of the cheese.

Let the strata rest for about 10 minutes before it goes into the oven. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until lightly browned on top. Remove it from the oven and let it rest for another 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Sorrel Sauce for Chicken, Fish or Eggs

Here's more sorrel, in a very simple but classic sauce. It goes together very quickly; you can prepare all the sauce ingredients while the chicken, fish or eggs cook. Serve with rice, mashed potatoes, pasta or even toast (the eggs in particular), and enjoy the light lemony taste of spring. 

4 servings  
30 minutes prep time, including cooking the chicken etc.

Cook the Chicken, Fish or Eggs:
4 medium (700 grams or 1 1/2 pounds) skinless boneless chicken breasts
OR 4 fillets (700 grams or 1 1/2 pounds) whitefish fillets
OR 8 large eggs
a little mild vegetable oil if needed

Simply broil or pan-fry the chicken or fish fillets, using a bit of oil to keep them from sticking as needed. Fish should be cooked within 10 minutes, and chicken within 20 minutes; turn when half done. When they are done, remove them to a hot serving plate, and keep them warm until the sauce is poured over.

If you wish to serve eggs instead, poach them to your liking. Follow the directions here, or drop them into a pot of just-bubbling water to which a tablespoon of vinegar has been added, and poach for 4 to 8 minutes, depending on how firm you want them.

Make the Sauce:
2 shallots
OR a handful of shallot, chive or wild leek greens
2 cups loosely packed sorrel leaves
1 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons arrowroot or cornstarch
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or other fat
1/4 teaspoon salt
fresh black pepper to taste

Peel the shallots, if using, and chop them roughly. Otherwish wash and trim the shallot, chive or wild leek greens, and chop them roughly. Wash the sorrel and drain it well, and break off any tough stems (most of them). Put the shallots or other allium greens into a food processor with the sorrel, and process until finely chopped, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Mix the arrowroot or cornstarch into the buttermilk until completely lump free, and set this aside. 

Melt the butter in a skillet - if you have cooked the fish or chicken in it, and there is some fat left in it you can use that instead or as part of your cooking fat - and when it begins to sizzle add the contents of the food processor. Cook, stirring constantly, for 2 or 3 minutes, until the sorrel changes colour to a faded khaki green. Season it with the salt and a few good grinds of pepper while it cooks.

At this point, slowly mix in the buttermilk, stirring well as you add it. Once it is all in, continue to cook and stir until the whole mixture is hot and bubbly, and thickens slightly, about 1 or 2 minutes. The whole time to cook the sauce shouldn't be more than 3 or 4 minutes. Pour it over the hot, cooked chicken, fish or eggs and serve at once.

Last year at this time I made Palak Alu (Saag Aloo).

Friday, 10 May 2013

Chicken, Asparagus & Mushroom Glass Noodle Soup

Wow, it's the first asparagus from our garden! Actually it's the second asparagus; we just steamed the first batch and ate it plain. Fresh from the garden asparagus is amazing - so sweet and delicious.

The delicate flavour of aspargus goes so well with the delicate flavours of chicken and mushrooms, and I love the texture of glass noodles, also known as cellophane noodles or mung bean noodles. This goes together very quickly. Once you have soaked the noodles and chopped everything, it won't take much more than 10 minutes to get it all cooked. 

I used a mixture of oyster mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms, but button mushrooms would be fine, or any combination of the three or perhaps even others...

4 servings
30 minutes prep time

Prepare the Ingredients:
200 grams dry glass noodles
1" piece of ginger
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
2 or 3 green onions
250 grams (1/2 pound) mixed mushrooms
250 grams (1/2 pound) fresh asparagus
450 grams (1 pound; 2 medium) skinless boneless chicken breasts

Soak the noodles for 15 to 20 minutes in very hot tap water, or water that has been brought up to just short of a boil then removed from the heat. When they are soft and clear, use scissors to snip them into 2" or 3" pieces. Drain, rinse in cold water, and re-drain the noodles well.

Meanwhile, wash and slice the ginger into thin slices. Peel and mince the garlic. Wash, trim and chop the green onions. Clean, trim and chop the mushrooms fairly coarsely. Wash and trim the asparagus, and cut it into bite-sized pieces. Cut the chicken into large bite-sized pieces.

Finish the Dish:
2 tablespoons mild vegetable oil
2 to 3 tablespoons soy sauce and/or oyster sauce
1/2 to 1 teaspoon hot chile sauce (optional)
4 cups chicken stock. 

Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet or heavy-bottomed pot. Cook the chicken until it is lightly browned. Add the mushrooms and continue cooking and stirring regularly, until they are softened and slightly reduced in volume.

Add the asparagus and the soy sauce, or a tablespoon or two of water or broth, and continue cooking and stirring until the asparagus turns bright green and the liquid is evaporated. Add the ginger, garlic and green onions, and stir in well. Add the hot sauce, if using, then slowly pour in the chicken stock and bring the mixture up to a simmer. Simmer for a few minutes until the chicken and vegetables are done to your liking.

Add the noodles and cook for just a minute or two longer, until they too are heated through.

Last year at this time I made Cabbage with Onion Greens.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Annual Garden Panic, Perennially

As usual for May, we are out in the garden trying to do ten things at once. I did get organized before the mad rush started, by doing something I've been meaning to do for the last 4 years. I printed out our bed-plans and put them in a binder in plastic page covers. Now we can wander around going, "Oh yeah! These sprouts must be that vegetable!" instead of having to run into the house, look it up on the computer, and say, "Which bed was that again?" I also found some old zippered pencil cases that look like they will be useful for taking out the seed packets to be planted.

Gets a bit complicated in spots... peppers in particular will be a lot easier to figure out. I hope.

Speaking of peppers, there they are. Currently residing in pots that get hauled in and out every day. We are very relieved when this stage is over, because it is awfully time consuming, and they have to be checked for water constantly. They dry out very fast in their little pots. They seem to be growing very slowly this year, for some reason. Tomatoes are doing well though.

Spinach is on its last legs. We left it under the hoop-houses too long and it got too hot, I think. Also the deer is continuing to get in occasionally and they got munched last night. We found a hole in the mesh covering one of our gates, so we think that's where he's getting in. Hopefully once it's patched these nocturnal visits will cease.

Still digging just a few more beds. These were plowed up last year and kept covered with plastic to keep the weeds down. Ultimately we expect to plant them with perennials like raspberries and strawberries, but this year it will be vegetables grown for seed saving purposes and watermelons. We are growing an excessive number of melons this year. The goal is to figure out which ones are the best for us. And also to eat a lot of melon.

Things are moving along. We have the first two trellises up over the peas. We've been using row covers this spring for the first time and we will definitely be using more of them. We got excellent, excellent pea germination with them. Partly because of extra warmth, but I suspect mostly because it prevented birds from snacking on the sprouted peas. Once the peas are big enough to trellis, we move the row covers to the next bed that needs one.

There is a little tear in one of the row covers, where the deer stepped on it. Only the one though, because apparently he really disliked the sensation and is now avoiding them. Bonus!

Mr. Ferdzy installs the pea trellis in the wet beds, which are properly wet this year, at least so far. It's been a much better year for moisture than last year, but we are getting to the point where some rain would be a good thing.

The garlic planted last fall is looking good. The onion seedlings planted next to them are also looking good, although you will need a magnifying glass to see them. I'm very excited about our onions and shallots this year. We have some interesting varieties and crosses.

This is an experiment we are working on. We planted these potatoes late last August, then seeded spinach over them, and installed a hoop-house. We had poor spinach germination because it was still hotter and drier than it should have been, but never-the-less it looks like the experiment will be a success. We pulled the spinach at the time we wanted to pull the spinach, and the potatoes are just coming up. This should give them a jump start on the other potatoes, which have only just been planted. The variety is Envol; very early, and it should give us potatoes by mid-summer. We'll see, but it's looking very hopeful.

Mr. Ferdzy examines one of our dedicated seed-beds. We have a couple of small beds well away from the main garden where we plant things to collect seed from. Right now the bed contains Hungarian Nantes-type carrots, and Mako onions, also a Hungarian variety. We planted about 75 Mako onions last year. About 65 survived the winter and I pulled about 15 of the weakest specimens leaving 50 to go to seed. In the spots thus opened I have transplanted some rutabagas that survived the winter in the open. There is also some Bright Lights Swiss chard that survived the winter in the open. Pretty good; the winter wasn't super hard (though no-where near as mild as the year before) but there was a lot of fluctuating temperatures in March that definitely thinned the herd. We hope these will give us some good resilient seed.

Here's another thing we are excited about: Haskap. Lonicera caerulea, also known as Honeyberry, or Sweet Honeysuckle. It really is a honeysuckle, which amazes me. It's in flower right now! Even though we left it heeled into the ground in pots all last year and just transplanted it last week! It's supposed to have berries as early or even earlier than strawberries! They say they taste delicious, and we're really hoping to have some to try this year. It seems to like our lousy, semi-acidic soil (too acidic for vegetables; not acidic enough for blueberries.) So lots to be excited about with these.

Our final big excitement this spring is the wild leeks (ramps) we transplanted last spring. We were not very optimistic about these. A week after we moved them, last summer's brutal drought started. We persisted in watering them  until they went dormant but we did not expect them to make it. However, about 80% of the patches we planted are there, some of them looking very nice indeed. It will be a good few years before we expect to be able to pick any, but they are there and it is happening.

Speaking of happening, time to get back to work...

Friday, 3 May 2013

Potato & Sorrel Salad

So for my first foray into sorrel usage this year I went with a simple potato salad, which also had the advantage of putting a dent into one of the boxes of steadily sprouting potatoes down in the cold cellar.

I was pleased to note that although none of the salad dressing ingredients was produced by us, every ingredient in the salad part of the recipe came out of our garden. Yay, us! 

I actually made double this amount of salad, and we have been eating it for lunches as we get out in the garden and work, work, work. Amazing, too, how the weather has gone from cold and rainy to what I'm afraid I'm going to have to describe as a heat wave! A little cooler next week, I hope, but we need to find a better rain dance; this one's not working...

4 to 6 servings
1 hour - 40 minutes prep time

Make the Salad:
4 cups boiled diced potatoes
1 cup packed, shredded sorrel leaves
1 green onion
1 medium carrot
2 or 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Wash and dice the potatoes. Put them in a pot with plenty of cold water to cover them. Bring them to a boil and boil until just tender, about 15 or 20 minutes. Drain well and rinse in cold water. Let cool.

Meanwhile, wash and dry the sorrel leaves, and shred them finely. Wash, trim and finely chop the green onion. Peel and grate the carrot. Wash, dry and chop the parsley.

Mix the vegetables in a large bowl.

Make the Dressing:
1/3 cup mayonnaise (light is fine)
1/3 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon celery seed, ground
1/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Whisk all these ingredients together in a small bowl. Scrape the dressing into the bowl of vegetables and mix well. Add the potatoes once they are well drained and completely cool, and mix them in well.

The salad can be made ahead of time, and it probably should be, to allow the flavours a little time to settle.

Last year at this time it was Rampapalooza: Spinach with Wild Leeks, Chicken with Wild Leeks and Spaghetti with Wild Leeks. Haven't had a moment to get out and look for any this year... but I also think (hope!) they are a little later too.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

French and Garden Sorrels

When we go out and tramp around the garden searching desparately for signs of spring (Okay, it's finally here!) I always get a smile from my patch of sorrel. Perky little 2" leaves have been there since the snow melted, just waiting for a little warmth to really get growing. As such, sorrel will be one of the first green vegetables picked from the open garden.*

This is the first year I expect to pick any of it. I planted it last year, and thought it had better get established before I started picking, although it grew quickly and well. I'm not sure whether I have French or Garden sorrel since I grew mine from a packet a friend gave me - which was labelled in Russian! They are two quite similar species, rumex scutatus (French sorrel)  and rumex acetosa. French sorrel may be little the more tender and mild of the two, but they can be used interchangeably.

While sorrel is easily found as seed or young plants for the garden, it seems strangely absent from groceries and markets. I hope it can be found in some farmers markets, but at any rate anyone with even a small garden not necessarily dedicated to growing vegetables can grow sorrel. It has a lot of relatives, many of which are highly successful weeds (rumex acetosella, grrrrrrr!) and it retains a weed-like robustness and tolerance for different soils that makes it an easy plant to grow. However, unlike its more weedy relatives, it doesn't spread by runners but stays in a nice clump. I would recommend removing the flowering tops before they go to seed though, or it will be everywhere. It's also a relative of spinach, rhubarb and buckwheat. The leaves are rather spinach-like, with a tart lemony flavour reminscent of rhubarb, although not that sour.

Tender young leaves can be added to salads, made into sauces for eggs, fish, or chicken, put in soups and used to liven up the last of the previous years potatoes.

It's generally regarded as best in the spring, because the leaves are most tender and mild when grown in cool, moist weather. However, fresh young leaves could be used throughout the summer if you really wanted to. Perhaps a better plan is to give them a rest during the hot days of summer, then start picking again in the fall when things cool off.

If you don't have an herb or perennial vegetable bed in which to plant sorrel, it could go into a perennial flower bed quite easily. The leaves are a mid-green arrow shape, a bit coarse but not unattractive, and a small patch would make a good neutral background to more showy plants. A spot a foot around would be sufficient, although if you like it you will want more than that. Along with Welsh onions or walking onions**, sorrel is an exciting find in early spring when we are longing for fresh green things from the garden and worth finding space for, in even a very small garden.

* I wrote this a couple of days before I wandered out with my camera, planning to photograph the patch (which I did. See: photo) and pick some (which I didn't. See: photo). It was the first thing picked, all right. The deer picked it. Those bastards. I thought they weren't getting in any more. I thought we had an agreement: they wouldn't eat my veggies, and I wouldn't eat them. So much for that

** Seen in the photo next to the sorrel. Apparently the deer don't care for them. Hu-bloody-rray.