Further notes on baba ghanoush…

I’ve made another batch of baba ghanoush this week as eggplants are still plentiful. This week I had the large purple, globe ones.

These large globe eggplants are significantly “wetter” than the oriental style or the white eggplants and will benefit from a longer draining time before you puree and add the other ingredients. They were still quite “drippy” after about 15 minutes so I let them drain for almost half an hour before I added the lemon, extra-virgin olive oil, tahini paste, and other seasonings.

Vegetable cookbooks….

At the Wake Forest Farmers’ Market today, purple-hull peas made an appearance. There were lots of questions about them.  What are they? They certainly don’t look like what most folks are used to as “peas”.  How do you cook them?  Do you eat the pods? What do they taste like?

One of the joys…or perhaps frustrations, for some…of a trip to the farmers’ market is that you find “new” vegetables–uncommon ones, or simply regional ones–like purple-hull peas which are not necessarily included in a vegetarian cookbook.  So you need general, basic information–not fancy recipes; just the basics for starters.  Where to go?

There are lots of vegetarian cookbooks out there–some very sophisticated with wonderful recipes that make vegetables into worthy main courses or entrées; however, that’s not what you need to begin cooking a vegetable that is completely new to you.  For that what you want is the nitty-gritty information of how to prepare it–do you shell it, peel it–or how best to cook it.  The more sophisticated vegetarian books may just call for the ingredient and not give you the those basics or even just some simple recipes.

One of my favorite vegetable (note that I didn’t say vegetarian) cookbooks (and gardening information too) is The Cover of The Victory Garden CookbookVictory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash.  It’s organized by veggies in alphabetical order so you can go directly to beets, kohlrabi, cauliflower or whatever, and find information on growing, preparing, buying the vegetable.  There’s a highlighted section of special information that includes yields (how much usable vegetable do you have after preparation/trimming or peeling), how to store and preserve, microwave instructions, and even suggestions for things to do with what is left from your first use (especially useful if you’re doing single-serving cooking).  Now that’s a vegetable cookbook!  The recipes given go from the most basic to more advanced. Terms (e.g. string and snap beans) are explained.  It’s a great place to start with a new vegetable.

The one I have in my library was published in 1982– I guess it’s time for me to go to the Regulator Bookshop and browse through the cookbooks again to see if there’s a new edition and if it has significant additions.  As for pink-eyed purple-hull peas…well, unfortunately, the closest this book came was black-eyed peas. True, they’re a Southern thing…and that’s another post coming up.

Another cookbook for single-serving cooking

Cover of Serve YourselfI’m always browsing cookbooks–especially those that appear to deal with single-serving cooking.  A friend recently mentioned Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One to me. True to form, I immediately went in search of it–and was pleased to find it available in Kindle format.

I really identified with a statement made in this book: “…we solo artists deserve just as varied a diet as anyone.  While I love having some leftovers around that can morph into new dishes, I also appreciate the beauty of starting and finishing a single cooking project on a given night.” (Kindle location 173)

One of the things that I find delightful is that there are suggestions and recipes that are incredibly helpful in allowing morphing leftovers.  These include condiments (to use not only on leftovers) but suggestions on using those extra ingredients that seem to be the bane of single-serving cooking–such as what’s left of that bottle of wine that you opened to go with dinner yesterday evening.  Personally I think that this is a book worth having in your library if you cook for one, but I suggest that, at least, you check the local library and peruse this one.

I’d also recommend his website for fun reading of his “Cooking for One” column for more thoughts on cooking for one, and more recipes.  Even cooking for one it can still be a son goût!  

USDA hardiness zones

I’ve talked about growing your own herbs, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned that certain perennials are hardy in some zones and not in others.  If you are unfamiliar with these, here is a link  from the National Gardening Association which will answer some questions about hardiness zones, and will let you check out your zone.  Remember that drainage can affect hardiness, and it will make a difference if the plants are in pots, rather than in the ground.

It’s not only cold that affects your plants:  It’s thought that plants begin to suffer physiological damage at temperatures above 86 ° F.  From the American Horticultural Society, here is a link to a downloadable heat zone map; online this map may be viewed at the Southern Gardening website.  This gives the average number of days when the temperature is above 86 ° F

In using either of these (cold hardiness or heat zones) you have to consider where your plants are being grown–in the ground, in pots, the soil drainage, and water availability, among other things.

Growing your own herbs

Whether you have a huge garden, or just a deck with some pots, you can grow herbs.  For me having fresh herbs makes cooking for one easy and exciting.  Just having the herbs around where you smell them when you brush against them can be inspirational.

Mentha spicata 'Kentucky Colonel'

Mentha spicata 'Kentucky Colonel'

Herbs pretty unfussy plants to grow–generally they like sun, and want the soil to be well drained.  Some are more drought-tolerant than others and some are more sun-tolerant than other; a few even like a bit of shade.

You can use a wide variety of containers–plastic, ceramic, wood…just be sure that there are holes in the bottom for good drainage.  Herbs really do not like wet feet.  I prefer to put my herbs in fairly large plastic containers since it reduces the need for watering in hot weather–a six-inch pot is about the smallest that I will use. Smaller than that and you’ll spend a lot of time watering in hot weather.

Though not glamorous, my favorite device for keeping herbs happy in hot weather is a spike that screws onto a one-liter (or two-liter) soft-drink bottle which is then stuck into the pot.  It delivers water slowly to the roots where it’s needed.   I catch rainwater in a five-gallon bucket to fill the bottles rather than using tap water.  You’ll see these in use in some of the pictures.  Locally, I can find these at Stone Bros. & Byrd.  They are also available in garden supply catalogs and seed catalogs.

We usually hear herbs characterized as “full sun” plants–that really means that most of them need at least six hours of sun a day; many are happy sitting around in the sun all day–but you have to take your climate into account.  An herb that might be wonderfully happy in all-day sun in the Pacific Northwest might not survive all-day sun in the southern U.S.  As you grow herbs you will learn to look at them and know if they are happy or not.

Herb-Gallium Odorata IMG_3834-1

Sweet Woodruff (Gallium odorata)

Some herbs such as sorrel, chervil, sweet cecily, sweet woodruff, and lemon balm would rather have some shade.  If you are planting them in the garden, you need to consider the position of the sun in all seasons of the year, and the presence (or absence) of trees that will leaf out in the summer.  One of the advantages of growing herbs in containers is that you can move them around to give them optimal sun and shade. No matter what the soil you use, if the sun is not there you’ll have spindly, leggy herbs without much flavor and  they will be prone to disease.

Soil is next in importance to sun for growing herbs.  An additional advantage of growing herbs in containers is that you control the soil. Herbs must have good drainage whether in the garden or in containers. (I suspect that many of us who cook for one will be growing them in containers, so that will be my focus.) I use potting soil from a reputable garden supply center.  I know that it’s not going to have diseases carried in it, and I know that it’s formulated to drain well as long as I put it in a  pot with appropriate drain holes, and that it will also hold water in an appropriate manner as well.  It’s a happy medium that I don’t have to fuss with–I can just plant herbs and cook with them.

Many of the herbs that we grow are perennials, so they won’t be moved and may not even be repotted every year, so it’s important to have good soil.  If they are planted in a large pot they may need only top dressing between times when they become root-bound and need to be divided or repotted.  I may fertilize more in the second year that they are in the same pot if it looks as if it is needed.

For many herbs I plant several in a much bigger pot–12 to 14 inches.  It looks great and watering frequency is reduced.  You do need to consider what herbs to plant together because of the differences in their likes for soil moisture and feeding.  Many of the Mediterranean  herbs (oregano, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, lavender) are very drought tolerant once established and need less water. Not so with basils:  basil likes sun, but likes evenly moist soil; I might plant several varieties of basil together in a large pot, or even have a basil plant share a large pot with a tomato plant, but I’d not mix basil with oregano and marjoram because of the differences in watering needs.

Basil (a fast-growing annual herb) is, in contrast to perennials (sage, oregano) is a heavy feeder as well; it will need to be “fed” more often–perhaps a dilute (quarter-strength) solution of all-purpose plant food or fish emulsion monthly. You need to consider the appetites of your herbs, as well as their proclivity for sitting in the sun, before you put them all together in a big pot.  Once you get perennials established they will provide much enjoyment with very little effort.

Some herbs which can be very invasive should be kept in separate pots: lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and mints, for example.  Other herbs simply do not do well in pots because they develop deep taproots, e.g. dill–and you cannot provide depth enough in a reasonable sized pot for them to do  well.  Others are simply too big for planting in containers (e.g.  angelica and borage) that we’d use here.  More varieties are being developed that are “dwarf” and are suited to containers.  While many dills (such as Anethum graveolens ‘Mammoth’)  do not do well in containers, there are some dwarf varieties (Delikat and Fernleaf) that are suitable for containers.

You’ve got containers, and soil.  Do you start with seeds or with plants?  Many garden centers will have herb plants, but they may not have a large selection of different varieties–you may only be able to get a generic “sage” or “thyme”.  One of the joys of herbs is seeking out different flavors and those that are especially  aromatic, with high levels of essential oils.  The “tarragon” that you find in the big-box garden center may not be French tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus, var. sativa) which is what you want.  The oregano that you find there may not be Greek oregano, but Italian oregano, which is really sweet marjoram (Origanum marjorana).  You’ll want to find a good garden center, or try farmers’ markets in the spring.  Those growers will likely know more about the varieties of herbs that they have.

Buying plants is probably the best way to start growing herbs.  Starting from seeds gives you more possibilities, but you have extra seeds, the difficulties of getting them to germinate; some are slow growing, so you won’t be able to use them as quickly.  It can literally take weeks for some to germinate, the germination rate may be poor (e.g. Stevia), and then many more weeks before you can harvest for use in cooking, and that is really the point of growing your own herbs.  You want to smell and taste them, and season your food with them.

I’m addicted to having fresh herbs at my doorstep…I’m also picky about what varieties I have, so I usually start with seeds.  It also means that I wait impatiently to see if the seeds are going to germinate, and for the tiny  plants to get big enough to transplant, and then to harvest.  It’s always fun to try new varieties.  You do find out that all plants labeled “sage” are not the same.  Starting from seeds, there is always variability in the plants so some may be more aromatic than others.  When you are purchasing a plant, you should crush a leaf and smell it to be sure that it’s what you want–fragrant and potent.  Only plants taken from cuttings will be exactly the same.  Some herbs can only be propagated by cuttings (French tarragon, for example) so you want to be sure that is what you get. (That’s why I’m giving you the botanical names with the common names of the herbs.)

If you get to the point where you hanker to try a new variety of mint, or basil, there are suppliers from whom you can order plants that you cannot find locally.   Just for fun you might want to browse Richters Herbs , Johnny’s Selected Seeds, or Mountain Valley Growers just to get an idea of the wonderful variety that is available.  (Mountain Valley Growers has some wonderful recipes on their website for herbs too.)

There will be more on selecting plants and growing specific herbs coming soon.

Herbal joys of spring

Chives with blossom

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)

Even though we’ve had the occasional chilly day, it does feel as if spring is close.  I felt that especially going out on my deck and seeing that green was showing amongst my pots of herbs.   For some herbs, I take their hardiness for granted–sage, rosemary, lavender, mint, oregano, marjoram, chives.

There are others that make me breathe a sigh of relief when I see the green shoots coming up in the spring.  Even for the hardy ones, it is such a pleasure to see them return each spring: it means more freedom to improvise with seasonings.  I don’t try to winter-over in the house.  There is not enough room, or light to have really flavorful herbs.  During the coldest parts of the year, I depend on good quality dried herbs, or purchase fresh ones from the grocers.  The problem with having to depend on buying fresh ones is that it really dampens spontaneity in the seasoning process.  So the green shoots of spring are especially welcome.

Several weeks ago I was able to pick a few sorrel (Rumex acetosa) leaves to make sorrel butter to add some sparkle to my griddled salmon.  I had to be careful not to get greedy as there were so few leaves there at the time.  Now it’s  a lovely

Sorrel

Garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

clump of bright green foliage.  Sorrel sauce for salmon is in the offing.  While discussing herbs with a customer at the Durham Farmers’ market last week, it was mentioned as something to be added to white bean soup.  I’d not thought of that, but my mouth says that might be really interesting, given the bright, tart,  somewhat citrus-like  flavor of sorrel.  That got me to thinking that I might try it in the lentil soup that I like so much (instead of the lemon–definitely not with the lemon juice).   Sorrel leaves are very delicate and will cook down and almost literally melt into a sauce.

Greek oregano

Greek oregano (Origanium vulgare hirtum)

Another herb that I’m always happy to see showing new green in the spring is oregano–it’s one of my favorites.  I grow the Greek, and usually the Italian (or marjoram), and Syrian as well.  In addition to all the things like pizza and pasta sauces, I like to toss haricots verts (grown in a pot on my deck) with just a little extra-virgin olive oil that has been carefully infused with some fresh oregano (Greek or Italian, depending on my mood at the time I’m cooking them).  While oregano and marjoram do well as dried herbs, there is nothing like the flavor of the fresh herb to wake up your taste buds and say that the season has changed.  Spring is on the way!

Evolution of comfort food.

A few days ago it was gray, rainy, chilly and no matter what there thermostat said, I could not feel warm.   Peering into the refrigerator, I could not find anything that I wanted to eat and I did not want to cook.  Comfort food was in order, something basic: grilled cheese and tomato soup.

That got me thinking about why grilled cheese and tomato soup was so appealing.  I realized that it was likely because that was comfort food when I was a child–home from school with a cold, or sometimes, just a treat.

I did fix myself a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup, and it was wonderful–just what I needed.  Munching away, I started considering, even though this was grilled cheese and tomato soup (our of a can), how different it was from what I had as a child.

Growing up on a farm in the country we were pretty self-sufficient: raised and butchered our own meat, curing our own ham and bacon, canning vegetables, raising chickens for our own eggs, and milking cows so that we had our own butter, milk and cream.  I grew up with home-made bread, cakes, pies as a routine thing.   From that vantage point, “store-boughten” was a treat.

One of those treats was a grilled cheese sandwich made with American cheese and something like Wonder bread–so it all squished down flat under the bacon press.  Heaven was to have that accompanied by a can of Campbell’s cream of tomato soup–yes, the condensed stuff.

Given the home-cured country ham, bacon, and good meats (beef, pork, and maybe even lamb, with some rabbit and maybe venison) a treat was a bologna sandwich!  Extra special if fried.  Probably almost anything that came out of a tin can that required a can opener, and did not come out of a Ball/Mason jar would have been considered a real treat.

The things that came out of the Ball/Mason jars were luscious halves of peaches, whole tomatoes,  pears, apple butter…and I did not appreciate them then–they were just food, nothing special.  Well, how things do change.

Now, even though I admit to really liking mortadella, and having just had a grilled cheese sandwich with cream of tomato soup for comfort food–my idea of quality of comfort food has changed a lot.

My grilled cheese sandwich was made with excellent imported, firm, nutty Swiss cheese, with bread sliced from a whole loaf of Italian bread.   That bread was lightly brushed with extra-virgin olive oil, almost like was done in my childhood, put onto a cast iron griddle and carefully browned on both sides.  Lovely, crunchy on the outside, melted cheese oozing with every bit, and delicious.

My tomato soup, admittedly, did come from a can but what a difference from condensed soup.  It was Progresso chunky tomato with basil, not cream of tomato, but really pretty good for soup out of a can.  I did, however, want cream of tomato soup.  I put half the soup into the refrigerator to be used another time, and after heating the other half in the microwave, I added two teaspoons of heavy cream, and some fresh (frozen) basil to it.

I was quite happy with my comfort food–but I did have to reflect on how my taste has evolved.  The original American-cheese, Wonder-bread sandwich never even occurred to me; no did Campbell’s condensed cream of tomato soup–yet my choice was cream of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, but such a difference now.

This made me think of other differences then and now.  When I first left the farm and went to the city, I was amazed at “city” or deli ham…thought I liked  that better than “country ham”.  Living alone and cooking for one, I even used mac ‘n’ cheese from a box–very different from what I had grown up with.  I was so thankful to be away from the farm, to not have to milk cows, churn butter, and make cheese.  Now, I seem to  have come back to where I started–I want to grow things, buy from the farmers’ market, and will search out those things that I took so much for granted as a child.