Monday, August 27, 2012

Best tree you've never heard of

Gloria admiring the late January flowers
Cornelian cherry is popular with writers of antiquity and the middle ages. Their fruit was fed to pigs by Circe, preserved like olives by a Columella; their wood was turned to spears by Romulus. No monastery was complete without one.

All that has been forgotten. They are now delegated to the obscure ranks with the elderberry, loquat, medlar and Saskatoon - cool fruit that someone, somewhere once ate, but what does that have to do with us?

Why has no one heard of Cornus mas, also known as the cornelian cherry, or cornelian dogwood? Your guess is as good as mine. This tree has it all.

Cornelian dogwood flowers in late January to February, ahead of the forsythia and the Camellia. Its little yellow flowers are a treat to look at and a life saver for any pollinating insects that happen to be active at that unusual time of year.

Our tree is large for the species, most are multi-trunked, large shrubs. The wood is slender and tough; sprouting wood is very straight. We gave some to a friend who made drum sticks from it. Shoots have been used for wagon spokes and weapons. I think they would make good magic wands, conferring to the wizard the beauty, tenacity and generosity of the tree.

The whole tree is covered with fruit.

Come summertime,  the whole tree covers itself with fruit. Because it does not all ripen at once, the weeks leading up to harvest are gorgeous, with yellow, orange, red and maroon fruit studding the tree like multi colored lights.

The cornelian cherry is not a true cherry. The picture to the right shows a branch without fruit -the leaves are opposite at each node.

This cherry is a dogwood! Compared to real cherries, this fruit has a much later harvest time.

Ours is ready in late August. I've seen one at Kubota Gardens that's about three weeks later. I've also seen them at Seattle Center, near the Armory. It is beginning to ripen right now, as of August 27.

Cornelian cherries are native to Eastern Europe and Western Asia. When you see a jar of "cherry" jam in a Turkish deli, it may really be from these fruit.

You want to pick cornelian cherries at the peak of ripeness. Wait until they are deep, maroon red, and gently pinch one. It should be slightly soft between your fingers. If you pick one too early, you will know the moment it goes in your mouth. They are astringent, puckery and frankly, you will never want another one.
Breath. It wasn't ripe. Try a darker one.

The flavor should be sweet with a hint of sour around the pit, aromatic profiles of banana and pear and a moist, slightly mealy texture. They are ok for fresh eating - but you are probably harvesting plums, blackberries and raspberries right now - the very finest fresh fruits of the year. Cornelian cherries shine in preserves, jam and other winter treats.

Risky but speedy way to remove pits
Like cherries, each fruit has a single pit - much harder to remove than a cherry's. The pitter your mom got you won't work - neither will a hairpin. The three ways I know to pit cornelian cherries are by putting them in your mouth and sucking the fruit from around the stone, by running them through a blender at the lowest setting and hoping a stone does not break the blade, or by boiling them and then straining through a chinoise. Perhaps this pit removal challenge is why they are not more common.
Once pitted, the pulp is good to go.

You can use it in any jam recipe, or freeze the pulp and bake it into pies, danish pastry, or anywhere you would use cherries or other summer fruit. I make a jam by boiling equal weights of pitted fruit and sugar with one teaspoon citric acid per quart of fruit. Once it reaches boiling I cook for 6 minutes, then pour it into hot jars, seal, and bring to boil in a water bath for ten minutes. This makes a soft, sauce-like jam. The jam will not reach its full, bright red color without added acid. Like many red foods, it discolors to a grayish purple if its pH gets to high.

Once the cornelian cherry passes its ripened prime, it is one of the fastest fruits to ferment. I would love a wine making friend to come experiment with some fully ripe specimens. They might make good natural-yeast wine, and almost certainly they would do well with any recipe.

Every year, we harvest four or five gallons of fruit. This represents maybe a tenth of the tree's total contribution. We simply can't eat it all. We share what we can with other people, because we know what happens to the rest. As the fruit ferments, first on the tree and then falling to the ground below, the ducks, wasps, goats and chickens move in for the big party.

There is plenty of evidence, in the form of raccoon and bird leavings, that wildlife gets in on the bounty as well.

We don't mind having a mixed bunch of happy animals crashed on our lawn, but man are they grumpy the next day. Until they go back for a little "hair of the dogwood"

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Stuffed grape leaves

 To ripen grapes here, I do everything I can to grab whatever heat and sunshine our cool climate allows. I keep the vines cut back to allow in light, create air circulation. I cull the clusters of fruit to a reasonable number, try to keep the vines open and airy. But prune as I will, the vines seem to grow back faster. They keep me busy all summer.

The goats love grape leaves, and so do I. I wrap cheese in them to age, which gives them a pungent flavor and creamy texture. I also line plates with them to serve cheeses, fruit or other delicate foods.

Mostly I make dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves. I use a  modified version of a recipe from
Classic Armenian Recipes, by Alice Antreassian and Mariam Jebejian, a hard to find book I can't recommend enough.
 They attribute the recipe to an unfaithful housewife, who accidentally loitered away more time than she expected, and had to make something fast before her husband got home.

I find this doubtful. This recipe takes me an hour and a half to make, not counting the time gathering the leaves and flavorings. It's "fast" in the sense that the rice cooks in the leaf instead of having to be precooked, but in no other way would any contemporary person consider it quick. It took me from the time David and Noah left for Little League practice till they got back. I couldn't have had an affair if I'd wanted to! (Which I don't).

While there are a number of time consuming recipes in this cookbook, there are plenty of others that our hypothetical wife could have thrown together in less time and still been able to grab a quick shower. I believe the making of dolmas was associated with doing something time consuming and indirectly, with devotion to the family. If a family lacked money, it could at least have the luxury of painstakingly prepared dishes. So any cook who tried to bring some efficiency  to the process was perhaps seen as a bit radical.

On to my modified recipe.

1 Cup white rice
2 tsp salt, divided
4 Tbsp lemon juice, divided
1/4 Cup olive oil, divided
1/4 onion, chopped fine
1/4 onion, cut into slices
1 small tomato, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped, stems reserved
1/2 tsp dill weed
2 Tbsp dried blueberries
1 Tbsp walnuts
1 Tbsp pine nuts
40 tender, fresh grape leaves

Plunge the grape leaves into boiling water, then immediately drain and place in a bowl of ice and water. Once they are cold, remove and pat dry.

Scatter the stems from the parsley, the sliced onion and any leaves from the onion if it was fresh picked, on the bottom of a wide, shallow pan.

These will create a flavorful broth and will nearly vanish during cooking. They also protect the leaves from sticking to the pan.

Mix all the remaining ingredients in a bowl. The proportions of rice, salt and lemon are important, but you can change up the other ingredients as you choose.

Try different herbs, and feel free to leave out the dried berries, or substitute currants (or raisins to stick with the grape theme). I just happen to have some berries I dried last year, and with fresh ones on the way, I was ready to move them out.

I have tried this with different amounts of olive oil and find that it oil does contribute to the flavor, but you could cut it back without any real problem.

The nuts, too, are optional. The onions really add flavor, but you could use scallions or chives.

Place a grape leaf on a flat surface and spread it out to its fullest. Set a spoonful of the mixture in the center.

Fold the two lobes by the stem over the filling, and then fold the opposite corner over to meet them.

Last, fold in the two sides and flip the stem over to cover the packet.

Arrange the wrapped leaves in tight concentric circles in your pan.

Sprinkle on the reserved lemon juice and salt, then pour on water to just barely cover. Bring to a gentle boil. Add the reserved olive oil, and cover the pan tightly. Cook 45 minutes.

Let the leaves cool for 15 minutes. Then cover the pan with a deep sided plate and hold on tightly.

Over the sink, flip the pan/plate combo over. The dolmas will all neatly tumble onto the plate. So will a fair amount of delicious, slightly thickened broth, which will burn your hands if you aren't very careful.

This dish can be served hot, at room temperature (my favorite) or cold. If you are serving it anything but hot, be a smarty and wait for it to cool before you put it on a plate.

Serve it with a salad and fried haloumi cheese - which will be a future blog post.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Edible flowers

I will never meet my nutritional needs by growing edible flowers; though they are full of antioxidants and micronutrients, I simply couldn't  eat enough to survive.
A fragrant and delicious daylily

But I like things to be pretty as well as useful, so I grow as many edible flowers as I can, and I make a point of eating - or at least tasting - them all. Besides, without flowers, it wouldn't feel like a garden.

My current favorite is the daylily. I once spent a few weeks on a sheep farm in Iowa. The ditch across from the us had a bank of daylilies perhaps a quarter mile long and five feet across. They grew wild (or maybe naturalized), but looked like the most meticulously cared for garden lillies.

The plant opens new blossoms daily, so you can eat them all today and by tomorrow morning more will be back. If you don't eat them, no problem. They are naturally self-deadheading, so spent flowers don't clutter them up.

Daylilies form large, thick mounds that compete well with grass, but they don't spread much by seed, nor do they runner (at least mine haven't), so they are not in immediate danger of taking over the garden.

They transplant beautifully, and tolerate a huge range of soil and climate types. Some are fragrant, which makes a good dried flower for soups, but can be overwhelming if eaten fresh. I like the less scented varieties in abundance, as a primary vegetable in stir fries. If you use the unopened buds, there is no chance of insects being inside them - not true of all edible flowers.What's not to like?

Help! They're taking over
A pretty orange nasturtium
Nasturtiums are stronger stuff, physically and in flavor. They clamber over structures, run down hills and if not managed, drop their seeds and start again next year. Their flavor is spice verging on the horseradish, with a sweet pocket of nectar in the spur. I love their color and enjoy their flavor in moderation. They are especially good as a layer in sandwiches, instead of mustard. Beware. They are beloved of aphids, which do not add to the beauty of your garnish.

We dug this plant up from a
I mostly grow roses and honeysuckle for their beauty and scent. But once a year, I make a rose and black current jelly that is outstanding.  Roses - you know their scent, sweet, and feminine, depending on variety anything from exotic to grandmotherly. Black currant, on the other hand, smells like tomcat piss.

How can that improve such a celestial perfume as roses? All I can say is, the musk in cologne is a similar phenomenon. If you caught a whiff of straight musk from the source it would probably not please you. But in a perfume, it pulls down the lighter notes, acting as a counterpoint and holding them in your palate longer. Floral scents can be frivolous, musky ones bring us back to the earth and deeper.

I imagine the satiny roses casting down their petals and tangoing with a dark, somber stranger.

Borage, a rare, naturally blue food
I grow borage because it's easy, its flowers are blue, and it smells of cucumber. The whole plant is edible but so hairy, I never get much pleasure from it. But the flowers add a coolness to salads and beverages. Garnish a cucumber and yogurt soup to counter point all the pallor.

My darling lemon thyme
Fennel flowers - pollinators love it too
The flowers of many herbs are edible, including oregano, basil, sage, thyme, fennel, arugula and dill.

Add them to salads, or throw them and some garlic or chive blossoms into hot olive oil and toss with pasta.

Marjorum (or maybe Oregano?)
Bursts of various flavors will keep you guessing. Some of the flowers are a bit papery. You could fussily remove their sepals, or you could just live with it.

You can laminate edible flowers between sheets of homemade pasta for confetti noodles. I'll get pictures when it happens but it's a lot of work, and I've got a gallon of goats' milk to deal with every day right now, so not this week.
I can't believe I can grow this stuff!

Oh - I forgot. I grow the big eating flowers - broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes, all eaten in the unopened bud. Kale will sometimes produce a multitude of broccoli-like shoots for a week or so in spring, right before going to seed. Snap them off and saute with garlic and red pepper flakes.
Viola or Johny jump-up

Tonight I'm scattering viola, calendula, basil and thyme over an omlette of home grown eggs and home made goat cheese.
Alongside, I'll serve a bowl of Sabzi, a Persian dish of mixs herbs, in this case a few salad greens with a hefty helping of flowers. Drizzled with olive oil and home made feta, it will be almost- but not quite - overpoweringly flavorful.

 Dessert will be shortbreads with some of that rose and currant jelly. We can sip some clover, fennel and bee balm flower tea, and call it a night.

There will be more flowers waiting tomorrow.