Fresh fallen firecoals

chestnuts loose

fresh fallen firecoals

Once again the chestnut trees are dropping their glossy nuts, and the squirrels and I are in a fierce but silent battle. My grandfather planted several varieties of Chinese chestnut so he would have an extended harvest. What made him think to do that? He was a lawyer, he read the Wall Street Journal and sipped his drink. Yet he was a fervent chicken-necker of crabs, picker of beans, of wineberries. Did he know we might need it? Because he read the Wall Street Journal?

The first tree that ripens is on the other side of the lane from my garden so I don’t hear it as well as the second one. The nuts are covered with a satiny down, and tend to be a little smaller than the others. Those are ripening now, and the squirrels are silently aware of each burr that opens. I have heard people say it will be a wet, cold winter. It has been a while since we have had heavy snow. Chestnuts are very nutritious; in fact in French one old name for a chestnut tree is arbre a pain: tree of bread.

Remember hearing about how the hallucinatory smut fungus called ergot on rye was the cause of people being accused of being witches? People would actually confess to flying around on broomsticks, when they were actually tripping. Many grain crops are problematic in wet climates. They tend to “lodge” or lie down due to rain and wind, where they rot. Often in rainy Europe in the old days the wheat crop would fail and peasants would go hungry.  Many people relied on chestnuts to survive. Italy and France have lots of chestnuts. They used to smoke-dry them in special chestnut smoking houses, since chestnuts will otherwise be wormy inside a week. There are many ancient chestnut based dishes which tend to be heavy and nutritious. I used to trick my grandmother into eating by reminding her of how she used to eat chestnut puree at her landlady’s house when she was in graduate school in France in the Twenties. Charmed by the memory, my anorexic granny would absently spoon down piles of the rich puree de marron I had made from the chestnuts my grandfather had planted, while we talked about Alsace and the calorie counter in my head spun happily.


These silky ones mature first

When gathering chestnuts, squeeze each chestnut, especially if it seems unusually dark. Fresh, firm, bright nuts are what you want. Refrigerate them if you aren’t going to process them immediately. Make one long slash through the skin and bake them until they pop open. From there you can put them in the blender for creamy soup, eat them as is, boil them and mash them or rice them, candy them, dry and grind them into flour, or throw them for the dog. They do not have a nice texture if frozen; it is sort of heavy and gummy. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter after cooking.

There are two trees on the farm that have very glossy chestnuts. These are the fresh fallen firecoals I refer to, after Gerard Manly Hopkins. ( This link will send you to last years chestnut rhapsody, in which I discuss Hopkins, which is such great stuff.) Startlingly reddish brown- chestnuts are chestnut- they are so shiny that the best way to get them gathered is by children, whose small hands reach for the beautiful things, to carry them home in a sack and caress them. Just make sure they don’t try to pick them out of the chestnut burrs, which are like small hedgehogs. Those spines stick and break off under your skin. Do wear gloves if you touch them. It generally isn’t necessary. Most ripe nuts just fall right out. Go squirrels!

chinese chestnut burrs

beware of spiky burrs

And remember to wear shoes walking under that tree next year. My dear stepdaughter was walking barefoot unawares under a chestnut tree a few years ago and let fly a few expletives, then realized that her new aunt was being baptized in the swimming pool within earshot.  I’m pretty sure the angels were guffawing all over the place.

So go pick them, slash them, and bake them. My other article is more how to.

Got Raspberries?

Red Heritage Raspberries

Red Heritage Raspberries

I think God really hit the nail on the head when He made raspberries. How could anything be more delicious?  And they are really not hard to grow. Once you have them established it’s easy to develop a big patch and keep them forever and ever, amen.

Raspberries like the edge of the woods, so dappled sunshine is better than shade or blast heat.  I find that Purple Emperor, which has more rugose (wrinkly/ridgy ) leaves, seems more tolerant of full sun than Red Heritage, which seems to develop more yellowish leaves and less abundant fruit in those conditions.  Purple Emperor has huge purple berries that look incredible on a cake, and bears heavily in June, then no more. I like Red Heritage though, because it has a better flavor and, beyond the two flushes- summer and fall- seems to usually have a few berries on it, even in warm patches of winter. It is a kid magnet beyond compare.

Red Heritage Raspberries

My niece in the razzes

I worked up a rich, fairly well-drained bed for mine years ago and planted them not too deep, as they are subject to crown rot. I put down landscape fabric and mulched them with wood chips, again, not too deep around the canes. I pounded in heavy metal stakes at either end and strung wire at three levels, with turnbuckles to tighten them as the wire stretched. A turnbuckle is a small, inexpensive tightener which you can get at the hardware store. Loop the wire at each end and it will be easy to keep your wires taut. I use the wires to keep the raspberry canes in some kind of order and up off the grass, using quick twists.

In winter I prune the canes to 2-3 feet, weeding and removing dead canes. These canes will produce berries in June. in zone 7. As those canes peter out, new, taller canes will emerge and bloom. I am tying those up right now. After a while the first canes will turn yellow and you will be able to remove them. Notice that established bushes will produce offsets- baby plants that come up  short distance from the parent plant. You can dig these up and replant them. The best way to do this, as they are at first not well rooted, is to drive a shovel into the dirt between the parent and child plants without digging it up. This severs the runner and forces the new plant to develop a more independent root system before you dig it up. In any case, plant it in line with the other plants, approximately 2-3 feet from the next bush, and definitely keep it well watered until it is established. This takes longer than you think. You aren’t out of the woods until the fall rains come. But once established, your raspberry bushes will be there for good, barring a serious crown rot epidemic.

stem borere damage on a raspberry bush

stem borere damage on a raspberry bush

Stem borers are a nuisance, as they take out the growing tip, and Japanese beetles  eat the leaves.  I remove and burn parts of the stem with borers in them, and crush Japanese beetles with my fingers as I see them.

Pick raspberries that are darker pinkish red and pull easily off the cluster. The soft ones are still good but may have lots of little beetles in them. These can be easily blown or rinsed away if you like. If the berry is too squishy I usually toss them somewhere inhospitable. Keep bushes well picked as unpicked bushes encourage beetles and a rotten raspberry is a tragic waste.

I eat them fresh, in a bowl of milk, cream or yoghurt, with granola, scattered in a salad, crushed in a drink over ice, cooked into a jam or a sauce, or made into a syrup that can be canned and diluted into a drink. Today I poured some ginger ale my kids bought into a glass of raspberry flavored plum juice with ice cubes. Yummy.

raspberry jam

raspberry jam

Raspberry Jam, conventional

Prepare 6 jam jars and boil the lids in water for 15 minutes. Take 4 or 5 c. raspberries and crush them thoroughly with a potato masher. Measure the lovely slop. Boil without lid for 5 minutes. Measure and add an equal amount of sugar. Boil without lid 5 minutes or less if it sheets before that.  No need to skim, really. Just don’t let it boil over- big mess! I know it’s a lot of sugar but if you use less it won’t gel so well, and the raspberries are very tart, especially if you pick a few under ripe ones- not white but just a little lighter and firmer.

Don’t bother with seedless raspberry jelly unless you are dealing with a dietary condition like diverticulitis. The pectin is in the seeds, and the crunch is nice. I haven’t even tried making it. I’m guessing you would strain it after boiling 5 minutes, which would give you the pectin.

What is sheeting? My mother had a cookbook that showed a picture of sheeting. Joy of Cooking, I think. Here’s what to do. Stir the cooking jelly or jam with a wooden spoon that has a smooth shape. Scoop up a little and spin the spoon so that the liquid runs around on the spoon and cools a little but doesn’t spill. A few seconds. Then hold the spoon sideways with the edge down in front of you. Watch the drips coming down the face or back of the wooden spoon. Two drips will run down and drip into the pot, sometimes running together at the end. As the jam or jelly begins to jell, the quality of the drip will change, and eventually the two drips will run together in a sort of small sheet, rather than one running into the other. That’s it. Turn off the heat, fill the jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace, and seal with the clean, boiled lids. Process in an open water bath for 15 minutes. Cool and label. Awesome.

A tarter jam: Now, you can also just sweeten your crushed, cooked raspberries to taste and can them. It won’t gel, but there is enough thickness that it is still useable on toast. It just sort of soaks into the bread more the less sugar you use.That is more to my husband’s taste, You can also make a syrup of raspberries and sieve out the seeds, and can that. Easy, if you know how to can. Or you can just put it in the refrigerator and eat it before mold sets in. Awesome.

What I don’t know about: I haven’t used honey because I love to eat all my honey, which has such a delicate flavor. Also sugar interferes less with the taste of the berries. I know sugar is death, but we use it so rarely, and we try to afford the raw sugar in bulk. I just want to put all my prejudices aside and show gratitude for the berries by making sure we have them all year! I haven’t tried yellow raspberries. They say they are less attractive to birds. I don’t have a bird problem so far knock on wood. My experience with pigment lacking fruits and vegetables is that they are sweeter because they lack a counterbalancing strong flavor. This isn’t all bad- white sweet potatoes are heavenly- sugar sweet and delicate, almost vanilla. White tomatoes are subacid and very sweet- highly attractive to bugs, I found. White peaches are very pretty and slightly more delicate tasting. I don’t remember if I’ve tasted a yellow raspberry, but I am suspicious that they would lack oomph. I’ll let you know when I do. But remember I am of Virginian descent, and you know how many Virginians it takes to change a lightbulb.

Easy 1-2-3-4 Old Fashioned Kosher Dill Pickles

A good trellis makes the cucumber vines more productive and keeps your cukes off the ground.
A good trellis makes the cucumber vines more productive and keeps your cukes off the ground.

These are the easiest pickles, and they are utterly delicious. I have a lot of cucumbers growing, so I try to pick every day. There are always some hiding. For pickling you want to use smaller cukes. They stay firm better. I like them 3-5 inches, no ore than 6. I only grow the pickling cukes- those are the little grayish green warty ones; the Kirby types. You can use them for salad and gazpacho, so what else do you want? There are lots of fun cukes to grow, but I like to save seeds so I mostly grow one at a time.

OK, here is where I originally got the recipe. Thanks, Glora. I added something and I also can (groans) elaborate, since I do, snort, have a degree in English…..

Wash your cukes, trim off the blossom ends by about a 16th of an inch with a paring knife (removes possible bacteria),

remove 1/16th inch of blossom end to avoid bacterial contamination
pare off blossom end of cuke

004  and soak for 30 minutes in a bowl of ice water. They will feel crisper. Get a crock or big glass jar that will accommodate your pickles. Actually, get a pickle jar. Clean it well. On the bottom, put a 1 layer of 2 fresh grape leaves, 2 sprigs of dill, and 3 big garlic cloves. Trim the bottom end off of your garlic cloves. Pack in the cucumbers, then repeat the stuff you put on the bottom on the top, finishing with the grape leaves. You can find wild grapes everywhere. This is Vinland, after all. I have heard you can use cherry leaves, but haven’t tried it.

dill, garlic, and grape leaves
dill, garlic, and grape leaves

Mix water in the following proportions: 3 c. water, 2 tbsp vinegar*, 1 tbsp kosher salt. One two three. Fill your pickle jar to the top, put on the lid, and set outside for 4 days. One two three four. Little white flakes will form on top. You can skim this off or simply wash the top grape leaf. This is the old-fashioned lactic fermentation, same as kimchee and sauerkraut. It is really magical, and very good for you as well.

*A very important thing I need to add- do only use the nasty strong white vinegar from the store to acidify. When I used my homemade vinegar it wasn’t quite strong enough and the pickles spoiled partially. The vinegar is just to preserve it long enough for the right fermentation to create enough sourness to preserve the pickles. If I ever try it again with my vinegar, I will use more than the 2 tbs. This recipe is super easy but it’s certainly not the only one around.

After 4 days I put them in the fridge to cool. They will get more sour over time and eventually you will start getting soft ones. They still taste fantastic, and you can use the brine to inoculate and speed up other batches.

The grape leaves were my addition. They help the pickles stay crisp. Who needs pickling lime!

I fill the fridge with these. I really need a cold European cellar and some barrels. They are so addictive. I am going to go make some right now!
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Saving Lettuce, Coriander and Arugula Seed

Rocky Top seed mix from baker's creek

Nice heirloom mix from Baker Creek

You can go buy some seed in a packet and go ahead and toss your spent plants in the compost pile, but if you have the room and the patience to let your plants mature, you can save your own seed. Will it come true- will the new plants be like the old ones? Depends if you used a hybrid seed, if there are other varieties it could cross pollinate with, and if it is likely that it did.

I have a speckled romaine that comes from romaine and some red lettuce I grew that crossed, probably Red Sails. I like it. My own quasi Forellenschuss. I have just cleaned seed from a Brune D’Hiver French heirloom lettuce plant that was all by itself in the greenhouse, so probably it didn’t cross. I plan to save seed from the cool Baker Creek Rocky Top mix and see what happens. Life is too short to just grow one lettuce a year so you can save pure seed. Luckily I only have one kind of arugula. It volunteers in my garden all year long, but it is fun and easy to save.

Let your plants bloom and go to seed. This is actually good for your garden because you attract beneficial insects. I also find that the dreaded Harlequin beetles

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

will stay on flowering brassica crops and leave leafy crops alone, if pressure is not that high, It’s also pretty. Endives are in the chicory family so they have pretty blue flowers. Once the seedheads are dry enough for the seed to “shatter;” fall into your hand when you crush the seed head, you’re ready. Get a big clean bucket and cut the tops of the plants into it. Sometimes I just pick the tiny dandelion looking heads of the lettuce into a little bowl. If you pull up the plants it is easy to get crumbs of soil in with your seeds. This is fixable but extra work. Set the bucket somewhere  to dry if there is any flexibility in the plant material.  When you are ready to clean the seed out, crush the seed heads so the seeds fall into the bucket. Discard the stems. At this point I generally transfer the seeds and chaff to a light mixing bowl.

Arugula seeds with chaff in a bowl

Arugula seeds with chaff in a bowl

Arugula and mustards drop a lot of seedcases. The seed settles so you can actually pick most of that off the top and compost it. You should do this outdoors. Put a wide bowl on top of a sheet in a place where there is  a light breeze. Holding the other bowl about 2 feet in the air, pour it into the bowl on he sheet. You will see that the chaff falls at a different angle from the seed, and even that different colored or sized seed falls differently. You will soon get the knack of winnowing- humans have been doing this for thousands of years- and won’t need a sheet any more. Look through your seed, blow on it to remove last bits of crud, check it for dirt and insects. Light seed will tend to blow away, leaving you with the best seed. Crush a seed with your fingernail to make sure it is dry enough to store. If you put moist seeds in plastic they will mold. Let is sit out in an open bowl until you are confident that it is dry enough to store. It’s less critical if you are using a paper envelope.  Put it in an envelope, label and date it, and put it in your seed file.

With lettuce I tend to sit with my morning coffee and pick off seed heads, then crumble them into a small bowl. The fluff comes off as you rub it between your fingers. You can then go outdoors to winnow out the fluff. I just pour it into my palm, pour it into the bowl, blow on it, and play with it until I have a few teaspoons of clean seed to put away; enough to seed several hundred lettuces. Some people knit.

The next seed I will be saving is cilantro. It makes a lot of seed, and guess what- that is coriander seed! You should never have to buy that from the store. It’s too easy! I use a lot of that for Indian cooking, like this fabulicious venison curry, inspired by lamb vindaloo but not,

venison curry

venison curry

and it is so good for you! This keeps me from being too sad when the cilantro bolts. Speaking of which, it is now cool enough for me to go back out and seed some more cilantro. Later.

OK. I forgot to take pictures. I cut off the dead cilantro plants, carried to the shed, and let them sit on a rack out of the rain for a few days. Then I put them on a sheet and crumbled the seed heads to make the little round seeds come off. This left me with a lot of broken up dead plant material which went right in the compost. It rolled into a bunch on the sheet and I picked it up together. What was left I poured off the sheet into the big mixing bowl. I took a smaller bowl- no particular reason, – and went outside to winnow. I crumbled the seeds against each other to break off little stems, and rubbed them to get tiny chunks of dirt to become dust which is easy to winnow out. I poured the chaffy seeds from one bowl to another, holding the bowls up in the slight breeze. The chaff poured off to the side while the heavier seeds poured straight into the bowl. Eventually I had to resort to blowing, swirling, etc., and the dust was clinging, I wonder how hard it would be to get them dry if you washed coriander seeds. I poured them into a couple of small jam jars and labeled them.

Best Yummy Venison Curry, garam!

Delicious Venison Curry

Sorry about the photo- we ate so much of it!

Not that I was getting tired of making our deer meat into my Granny’s fabulous Chili con Carne or my mother’s velvety Hungarian Goulasch, but I just had a yen for curry- Curry Goat, Lamb Vindaloo- so why not try something like that with venison?  Having been to India twice and gotten a serious Aunty Manjula YouTube addiction I felt equal to winging it. It came out very well- looks like lamb vindaloo, with the slightly softer texture of venison, with a complex fragrance, just the right heat for us- just short of pain, and leaves a gentle warmth in your stomach, as if the ginger is helping your digestion.

In following this recipe don’t just dump the ingredients in the pot as you read them off. Do follow the traditional steps. It makes a world of difference in the flavor.

You will need:

A big heavy pot with a lid

1 quart-sized freezer bag of venison stewing chunks.

11/2 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon mustard seeds ( I have substituted any brassica seed)

2 tablespoons butter, coconut oil, or other healthy fat.

1 onion, chopped

4 carrots, peeled and chopped bite sized

3 potatoes, peeled and chopped bite sized

a knob of ginger root about the size of a walnut

4 big cloves of garlic

4 dried chilies, cayenne type (reduce if you can’t take heat)

1 tablespoon cardamom pods

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 inch of cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons turmeric powder

1 tomato or 4 tablespoons tomato sauce

Water to cover

salt to taste

OK, put the coriander seeds, which you can save from when your cilantro bolts, in the coffee grinder with the peppercorns, the cinnamon bark(break it up with your fingers first), the cardamon pods, and the dry chilies. If you feel the chilies are not really brittle, you should toast them briefly in your dry pot, without turning your back. (This is a nice extra step, and you should learn how fast chilies toast, because you can make your own chili powder. ) Powder your spices finely, and transfer them to your blender or small chopper. Add the garlic, ginger root, and turmeric, and whiz to a coarse paste. BTW if you don’t have dry chilies, I have added fresh ones to the garlic, ginger, etc. and it was great. Slightly different.

Put the cumin seed and mustard seed in the pot dry and toast them on a medium flame until the mustard seeds start popping.  Add the paste and 2 tablespoons butter or oil. I have used half and half coconut oil and butter. Stir over medium heat until it smells delicious- maybe 3-4 minutes. Compliments will be pouring in. Add onions and carrots and continue to stir so the mixture doesn’t burn but the onions are softened and the sugars are caramelizing a little. Add the meat and stir until the juices that come out of the meat have evaporated and the meat is brown- you won’t really be able to get it brown without burning so- well, gray is fine. Just don’t let it burn. Add a lot of water to cover, tomato, and maybe a 1/2 tsp salt to start with. Simmer covered 30-40 minutes -until the meat is tender, add the potatoes- just sort of tuck them in and submerge them well, then remove the lid and let it cook down until the broth turns into a thick gravy. Be especially careful towards the end that it doesn’t scorch on the bottom. Check the seasonings at this stage. It should be nice and spicy. See if it needs another pinch of garam masala. Many Indian recipes use garam masala at the end, and it is a nice, sweet/spicy rich flavor which adds to the complexity.

It goes well with with Basmati rice, a creamy sour element (raita), a sweet fruity element( chutney), and in our house, steamed greens. Last time I put some very thick Kefir on the table, which substituted nicely for raita. I should have taken a flashlight to the garden for cilantro but I got lazy. Fresh mango or peach or melon chutney is great, but it is winter and I didn’t have any. I think we need to try something with watermelon pickle.

And of course Kingfisher beer!

Easy 1-2-3-4 Old Fashioned Kosher Dill Pickles

A good trellis makes the cucumber vines more productive and keeps your cukes off the ground.

A good trellis makes the cucumber vines more productive and keeps your cukes off the ground.

These are the easiest pickles, and they are utterly delicious. I have a lot of cucumbers growing, so I try to pick every day. There are always some hiding. For pickling you want to use smaller cukes. They stay firm better. I like them 3-5 inches, no ore than 6. I only grow the pickling cukes- those are the little grayish green warty ones; the Kirby types. You can use them for salad and gazpacho, so what else do you want? There are lots of fun cukes to grow, but I like to save seeds so I mostly grow one at a time.

OK, here is where I originally got the recipe. Thanks, Glora. I added something and I also can (groans) elaborate, since I do, snort, have a degree in English…..

Wash your cukes, trim off the blossom ends by about a 16th of an inch with a paring knife (removes possible bacteria),

remove 1/16th inch of blossom end to avoid bacterial contamination

pare off blossom end of cuke

004  and soak for 30 minutes in a bowl of ice water.Get a crock or big glass jar that will accommodate your pickles. Actually, get a pickle jar. Clean it well. On the bottom, put a 1 layer of grape leaves, 2 sprigs of dill, and 3 big garlic cloves. Trim the bottom end off of your garlic cloves. Pack in the cukes tightly. then repeat the stuff you put on the bottom on the top, finishing with the grape leaves.

dill, garlic, and grape leaves

dill, garlic, and grape leaves

Mix water in the following proportions: 3 c. water, 2 tbsp vinegar. 1 tbsp kosher salt. One two three. Fill your pickle jar to the top, put on the lid, and set outside for 4 days. One two three four. Little white flakes will form on top. You can skim this off or simply wash the top grape leaf. This is the old-fashioned lactic fermentation, same as kimchee and sauerkraut. It is really magical, and very good for you as well.

After 4 days I put them in the fridge to cool. They will get more sour over time and eventually you will start getting soft ones. They still taste fantastic, and you can use the brine to inoculate other batches.

The grape leaves were my addition. They help the pickles stay crisp. Who needs pickling lime!

I fill the fridge with these. I really need a cold European cellar and some barrels. They are so addictive. I am going to go make some right now!

Stuffing the Wild Grape Leaves

Fox grapes and lunaria

Fox grapes and lunaria

Euell Gibbons I’m not, but I am really pleased about this one. When I saw the tender shining wild fox grape leaves in the hedgerow  they looked so nice I thought I’d try stuffing them. Turns out it’s not hard. Here’s how to do it.

First, go pick 50-60 grape leaves. You want to do this when they are in active growth, like May around here. Get leaves about the size of the palm of your hand or bigger, but not too mature. Look for a vine tip and go back 2-3 nodes to a larger size, but a leaf that is still lighter in color than further towards the root. If you get some that are too dark colored or otherwise unsuitable you can still use them for lining the pan.

Prepare your leaves by cutting off the stem and any thickish veins. I didn’t see any veins worth worrying over. Lay them in a stack.

Bring a medium sized pan of water to a boil, cut it off, and plunge your leaves into it. Cover and let it sit 5-7 minutes. Interestingly the smell is somewhat grapey. I actually use the infused water for tea, and it is delicious; rather like regular chinese black tea. It makes great ice tea. Grape leaves are a delicious green and a wonderful liver tonic but also a good poultice for bug bites.

Drain, roll, and set where it can’t dry out. Pick your filling.

dolmades filling

dolmades filling

You can wrap all kinds of stuff in grape leaves for what Greeks call dolmadakia. You can even wrap several leaves around grilling foods like fish. You can freeze the leaves, dry them, or pickle them in brine.  But here we are talking about the cute little rolls sold n salad bars. You can wrap them around a traditional rice based filling, and here is the recipe I like best, adapted from Caroline Cummins on

olive oil

1 onion

3-4 garlic cloves

1/2 c. chopped walnuts

1 1/2 c. rice

2 1/2 c chicken or veg stock

1 organic lemon juiced and zested (grate off the skin)

3 handfuls of herbs such as fennel, dill, mint, and parsley, chopped

Fry the onions and garlic in 3 tbs olive oil, 5-7 minutes.  Add the walnuts and rice and stir until rice is lightly toasted. Add stock and simmer on low about 15 minutes until absorbed. It will not be quite enough water. Add the lemon zest, herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Let cool so you can handle it.

Get a pot about 12 inches across the bottom, fairly sturdy and thick bottomed. Put a few skewers or chopsticks across the bottom to prevent stickage and then put 2-3 layers of grape leaves across the bottom. Now start rolling dolmadakia.

Rolling dolmadakia

Rolling dolmadakia

Lay a leaf out flat, and put about a teaspoon sized blob of filling just above where you sliced off the stem. More if you can fit it.  Fold in the bottom side points towards the center,

Rolling dolmadakia

in some leaves there are 5 points

then the top side points,Rolling dolmadakia and then roll the whole thing up into a neat little roll. Rolling dolmadakiaThe tip of the leaf sort of seals the envelope. Lay it in the pot. Rolling dolmadakiaRepeat until the pot has 2-3 layers, then cover the dolmadakia with another layer of leaves. Add the lemon juice and another cup of water to the pot, cover, bring to a boil and then lower heat. Simmer about 20 minutes. Watch it doesn’t boil dry as the rice is supposed to soak up the water, which is now wonderfully infused with grape leaf flavor. Let cool and arrange  on a plate with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and pretty rounds of lemon. Rolling dolmadakiaThis is called a meze in Greek- something to have on the table. (Interesting- mez is table in Hindi) We took some out on the river one night, anyway. Delicious!

What to do with Plums



A rich, sweet, juicy, tender ripe plum is an amazing experience.  You may remember the  William Carlos Williams poem
This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

-William Carlos Williams

Well, I guess he isn’t too descriptive about the actual plum, beyond cold and sweet, but for me it connects the flavor and texture of a plum with the pleasure of a poem- classic imagist. If you follow my blog, you know how much work I do to get my Methley plum tree to produce usable fruit in a region that is very bug- and fungal pathogen- friendly. This is a classic gardener thing- the harder it is to get something to grow, the more you want it. Methley is a Satsuma type Japanese plum. Satsuma apparently means “cherry,” and the smallish purple- red plums do have the cherry look. The skins are very tender and the juice is delicious and very red.

At this writing I do have a lot of fruit, rapidly perishing from Japanese beetle damage, rain splitting, and brown rot.  Nonetheless I did get a few gallons preserved today. I made plum jam. plum juice, plum ice cream, and plums in syrup. Easy. This is how you do it:

Not too sweet Plum Jam:

Stirring plums through a coarse colander

The coarse colander is the thing

First, you will need a coarse colander, mixing bowl, and a wooden spoon. The coarse colander makes your job so easy.

You will also need clean jars for the jam and clean bottles for the juice. I usually keep mine in the boiling hot attic in bags so they are clean. If I weren’t sure I would run them through the dishwasher. Put the lids in a pot and boil them 15 minutes. Mind they don’t boil dry. Make sure you have tongs to hand to get them out.

plumsPick plums, throwing away rotten ones. If there are little rotten spots or bug chomps, remember, you are going to wash and boil these, so it’s ok to rub away rot and bug chomps in water and use. The plum flesh is so soft that you can rub away anything gross with your thumb in the water. I spray with Surround clay emulsion, which is completely ok to eat but I wash it off anyway. Drain and fill a stockpot with them. You can put in a little water in if you like to prevent sticking but I don’t. The plums will cover with condensation and then dissolve into juicy red loveliness in minutes once you turn on the burner.

Plum Juice: In about 15 minutes you should see the plums sitting in red juice, skins peeled off and yellowish flesh tender. You can go longer- it will only make your plums go through the colander faster. We aren’t trying to preserve texture here. Put your colander in a big mixing bowl and carefully dump the contents of the stockpot into it. Once the juice has drained, put the colander on top of the stockpot while you pour the hot juice carefully into clean bottles. Get the tops out of the boiled water and cap them. Set them to cool. You could sweeten the juice if you like first. We mix it with water or sparkling water unsweetened for us, sweetened with honey for kids. It’s also wonderful in a wine cooler mix. A drop of lemon juice brightens it- selzter turns it dull- remember acid/base indicators in high school chemistry?

Making plum jam

Making plum jam

Plum Jam: Once your juice is bottled, return the colander to the mixing bowl and stir the plums through it. Stir until the pits click in the colander. The longer you stir, the thicker your puree will be and the easier it will be to make a thick jam. Discard the pits. Put the puree in a large pot so you can stir it and cook it down just a little;5 minutes boil Sweeten to taste. Honey is great, but sugar doesn’t interfere with the plum taste. You can use anything, though. The jam is thick enough that you won’t need it to jell. I use a cup of sugar to 4-5 c. pulp and boil it another 5 minutes. I’m sure you can use Stevia.  I use a funnel to put it in the jars so I won’t have to wipe the rims. If you don’t wipe the rims and you have food on them you can’t get a good seal. Put the lids on and tighten.

If you can comfortably and safely do so, invert them for 7 seconds, then quickly unscrew the tops for a fraction of an instant, then tighten again quickly. Don’t burn yourself. This scalds the lids and causes a quick burst of hot air to force its way out, sealing the jar. I have often done no more than this for jams and jellies, skipping the canning step altogether. Nobody recommends this anymore, so I won’t either. Canning is more reliable and it’s not too hard. My grandmother used paraffin- she would pour a 1/4 inch layer of melted wax on the surface of the jam. I remember saving the discs for remelting the next year- yes, I’m sick, I know. Folks used to seal preserves with brown paper soaked in whiskey….

Processing: I use an open hot water bath for acid or sugary things like jams, jellies, preserves, apple sauce, tomatoes, and pickles. I really only get out the pressure canner for low acid foods like beans, meats, and mushrooms. Plum products are acid so the official word is 30 minutes boiling. With jams and jellies which are also preserved with sugar and really don’t need processing at all, 15 minutes. We really are only looking to heat up the airspace  and exhaust some air so that we will have a good seal. If you have a clean jar with no nicks on the rim, a good lid, and hot, sterile contents, and you seal it well, it will keep as long as you can conceivably want it to. I shouldn’t say this, but I have eaten my grandmother’s preserves 15 years old. Don’t try that at home, kids. Of course we are talking about stuff with maximum sugar and/or rum content…..

Plum Ice Cream: I have an ice cream maker that is the easiest thing- no salt or ice. It has a gel canister that is sealed. I leave it in the freezer all the time and just take it out to make ice cream. They ave a recipe book but you can seriously just toss whatever you want in there and it will turn into ice cream or sorbet. Since I make my own yoghurt, this works easily. I just put 2 cups of yoghurt, 2 cups of plum pulp, and honey to taste and switch the thing on. This makes a very tart, plummy ice cream with a wonderful pink color. It is pretty tart but you can add more sweetener during the process since the top is open.

Plum Juice: You will need clean mason jars, lids and rings. Select perfect plums as you work and fit them tightly into the jars. Make a 1/1 sugar syrup, or lighter if you want, bring it to a boil, fill the jars with it, seal and process. A syrup of half honey, half water is wonderful, and lighter than a sugar syrup. I label it as such if I had honey to spare, because it is really special. The fruit skins color the syrup a lovely red. I like to put one in the window. When you open these, you will have a lot of syrup. The fruit rises in it. Spoon out the fruit with some of the syrup and eat with cream or vanilla pudding… the rest of syrup to mix with water for a delicious juice drink, or with wine…..mmm.

I have made pickled plums with a sweet vinegar syrup and spices, the way you make pickled peaches, but after a while I thought the spice overwhelmed the plums. On the whole it was a bit medicinal. I prefer honey syrup. The delicate flavors are amazing. Poetical.



By the sweat of thy brow pt 2- and Tomatoes!

When I lived in the city I had a neighbor who did a lot of stoop sitting. One hot day as I was passing by he commented,”I can take the heat. It’s the damn humility I can’t stand.”

Well, I guess I’ll work indoors for a while until the steam bath that passes for a sunny day in June around here passes off a bit.

Bolting spinach

Bolting spinach

I have the honor to be acquainted with beet seed warrior John Navazio, (that’s actually a link to an organic seed event his band performed at, for yuks) and he gave me some spinach seed; beta seed as it were. It is delicious, even bolted, and I will probably save seed and grow it again. Spinach is a real cold weather crop. You want to get it in early. I planted mine in early March and it was too late for the good crop we could have had.  I would say as soon as the soil can be worked by hand. Just scratch it up and plant. Some spinaches are best for spring and some are for fall. Here it would be good to get them seeded in July, but generally July is hot and dry and the garden is full of insects thirsting for baby spinach. Spinach is not super transplant friendly, but I could try starting them in the house. Probably better either to just plant when it gets a little cooler in September and shrug your shoulders or maybe try shade cloth over hoops. Tyee and Malabar are good spinach substitutes for summer. Chard holds up better than anything though.

Rocky Top seed mix from baker's creek

Nice heirloom mix from Baker Creek

I have really enjoyed the Rocky Top lettuce blend from Baker Creek. I actually planted it last winter, and it made small rosettes and waited for spring. The varieties included are not only delicious and pretty but they are intellectually stimulating- Amish Deer Tongue, Merveille des Quatres Saisons, Lolla Rossa….Lettuce, like spinach, does well in cold weather. The more headed it is the more it likes cold. The most heat tolerant I know is the open leaf lettuce Oak Leaf.  Long after Bibb and Romaine have gone to seed the Oak Leaf is still standing. It is not as sweet, of course, but by then you can mix it with sweet tomatoes.

OK, tomatoes. I know they say broccoli is the garden devi, but tomato is the love apple deva. I put a lot of time and thought into them. I plant all the solanaceae together, alternating rows of tomatoes with rows of peppers, eggplants, tomatillos and tamates. I space the tomatoes 3 feet apart, and more for giants like Brandywine. Peppers I space according to size. Anchos, pasillas, and Anaheims get 3 feet. Chiltepins and other teensies get a foot. One of the painful tasks I had to ask my DH to interrupt his train of thought for was pounding in the stakes, because it takes me so long with my lesser upper body strength.

pounding in tomato stakes easily

This gizmo let me pound in all my stakes in an hour.

Until the pounding gizmo came along. I really don’t know what it is called but it is genius. I did the whole solanum area by myself in no time. Anybody know what the name is? I put my longest, heaviest stakes at each end- recycled metal fence posts, stakes bought over the years, and the next strongest at the midpoints. The least sturdy go in between those. I walk through the garden and determine what goes where, put the stakes where I will be working, and stand on a folding chair for the taller ones. The flanges for the outermost ones should be perpendicular to the row, because of the weight of the tomatoes pulling them inwards. The inner ones should be in line with the row, because they tend to sag over.

Tomato stakes

Line them up exactly with the tomato stems.

Make sure you line the stakes up with the tomato stems. Next tie them up. This is easiest if you have been removing lower leaves and suckers from the tomatoes, and if the tomatoes haven’t gotten big and rolled over. I didn’t mention that? I’ve been busy. I like to remove lower leaves because those will catch the soil born diseases first, and suckers because I don’t want too thick a tangle of stems. You want to have good air flow and you want to see your fruit as it ripens. Anyway, I like to tie them with jute twine because it is cheap and in the fall you can just burn it all. You can get a big roll of jute twine at the hardware store for about $13. It comes in a paper sheath which helps it to stay together. This is good towards the end of the  roll, when it starts getting tanglesome. Tie one end to the end stake about a foot off the ground- it will stretch in the rain- and run it along the row, tucking it under the plants as you go. At each stake you see loop the twine, being careful to keep it taut. Go down to the end, come around the other side, and come back, tying the cut end of the twine to the same stake. Your plants are trapped between two pieces of twine and can’t lie down in the mud.

tying up tomatoes

If you do it early when the plants are small you can train them better.

Go along and pull and tuck everything into place. Be gentle- damage can allow the entrance of disease. You will need to add another layer soon. Eventually the whole thing will look like a tomato hedge. Don’t be afraid to prune, but do so on a dry day, and only one plant at a time, or you could spread disease with your cutting tool.

For now I am skimming up and down the rows with a weeder wedge. This handy tool slides along just below the surface and lops off weeds. It also skims under grass roots. So while it doesn’t kill everything, the easy action is like mopping the floor, and as long as you are careful not to hit your plants, it’s a big help. This really works best when the ground is not wet. It is really best to stay out of the garden when it is wet, because you compact the soil. Also if you work with the tomatoes when they are wet you can spread spores.

Once everything is planted and I have a moment to breathe, my husband and I will lay strips of old carpet down the rows. This smothers weeds, keeps down soil splash, and even retains moisture. Good carpet will last a long time. I have some that’s been out here 7 years. It’s a great use for stained carpet. Get a cheap serrated bread knife and saw the carpet into strips. It is easy. The strips should be as long as possible and as wide as your rows, which is generally 2 1/2-3 feet if you have a lot of space, but at least wide enough to sit down and do some hand weeding. You can also lay these strips over something you want to compost by dragging it sideways, and voila, you have some clean bare ground where the carpet was. Of course it might be a bit compacted from being a walkway, but you can easily work it up.

That’s all for today!

By the sweat of thy brow

Michihli (Napa)Asian heading cabbage

Michihli (Napa) Asian heading cabbage

I love working in the garden- I think I just love work in general. Not so much paperwork and organizing, but real work; swinging a maul, cutting wood, hoeing weeds. I used to work in the garden at high noon when my children were small, because that’s when they were down for their naps. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which absolutely counts as the South, no lady stays in her garden after 9. Mad dogs and Englishmen.

One of the main reasons I got started on this blog was because of a friend’s excitement over digging sweet potatoes in my garden. She was raised in an affluent New Jersey town by parents who were one generation from the Georgia clay, and considered it good riddance, but she remembered the wonderful things her grandparents did, and felt robbed of an important heritage. I think so many people are, and more and more they know it and are doing something about it. But the ignorance is incredible. I met a girl who was at our farm a few weeks ago who looked at the shining bok choy heads in my arms and asked wonderingly “Did you grow that in the dirt?” She was a very nice person; she just hadn’t ever seen a vegetable outside of the context of buying it, and dirt was something to clean. I understood- I lived in a city for 12 years. The dirt there is

seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;.

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil.

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur.

As Joel Salatin would say, folks, it ain’t normal.

So here’s what we’re up to. Because of the cool spring, our cold season crops- lettuce, spinach, radishes, endives- lasted longer than usual. As a matter of fact I actually have beautiful cabbages which were planted later than they should have been in our area.

Napa and Red cabbages

Notice the handy carpet strip? Keeps down weeds as well.

The Michihli (Napa)B.rapa are almost ready to turn into kimchee and stir fries, but I am not sure that the red cabbage or cauliflower will make it. In the dry heat they become really attractive to harlequin beetles, and I’m not sure what to do about that except cuss, pick them off and squash them, and try to seduce them with other sacrificial brassicas, like the bok choy that is flowering.

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

Harlequin beetles on Kale! the worst!

They are not affected by Neem or Safer’s Insecticidal Soap. As far as I can tell they are down there happily brushing their nasty little teeth and scrubbing their gaudy carapaces with those products. I had a friend who always took her cordless Dustbuster to the garden to suck up squash bugs. But since the dry heat, which concentrates the sugars in plant sap and makes it even more delicious, is conspicuously absent this year, the beetles have been controllable by hand. So far.

onions and leeks

the leeks are on the left by the beans

I have high hopes for the onions this year. Not only did I educate myself about the different between short-day and long-day onions so I could stop trying to grow onions that don’t do well in my zone, but the constant moisture that onions love has been provided by God. Onions are pretty high maintenance that way. They absolutely will not get big if you are hit or miss with the watering, which I have to say I am. They need careful weeding because they can not tolerate competition. You have to be very strict about crop rotation because onion maggots can reduce your pretty bulbs to a stinking mess, and they have multiple generations in a growing season. Never plant onions where there have been any alliums in the last three years. Onion maggots are very legalistic about this. Two years won’t do. I have my garden mentally divided into 6 sections, and I can remember where they were. Since I grow garlic as well, but in the fall, it’s tricky. I have leeks growing next to the onions. I used onion starts this year, because I was late seeding the ones I grew last year that did well- the lovely white cipollini Bianca di  Maggio, and the all purpose old French Jaune des Vertus.  I recommend the bundled green onions starts over the bulblets because the bulbs sometimes believe it’s time to go to seed. I planted Walla Walla because some onions growers in our area said they were the correct day length. They seem good so far. I also got some red onion starts from a farmer at our farmer’s market who is growing in Bivalve. He advised me that my starts would grow better next time I sprout onions from seed if I trim them back with scissors. Since each new leaf adds to the size of the bulb, that makes sense, since cutting would stimulate leaf production. Unfortunately that leaves me without a good storage onion. The big sweet onions don’t keep well and I forgot the names of the ones the guy from Bivalve had. Stuttgart and Ebenezer are great keepers, but usually don’t get bigger than an egg for me- doubtless my watering neglect again.

planting leeks

They seem threadlike, but they will grow.

push small leek root end into soil leek seedlingLeeks are a wonderful crop in Maryland, because the winters are just right. Cold enough that they sweeten, but mild enough that they are undamaged. They are labor intensive when they are small. I start them in January- February in flats, in the house, so they will germinate, and then set them in the cold greenhouse, where they slowly develop. By the time I am ready to plant them they are still tiny, but they have a tough root system. I plant them in a trench, lay them along the wall of it, and then push soil down around their roots so they stand up. As they grow, I hill them up. This helps them to grow straight, fat, white shanks, and keeps their roots more constantly damp. In winter they stand in a military row, glaucous blue, and I leave a spading fork right there to dig them up for delicious leek and potato soup, braised leeks, yum. I cut the root system and the long leafy tops right into the compost bin, unless I’m making vegetable stock. In spring any uneaten leeks send up giant mauve pom poms that bees adore, a rival to any drumstick Allium in a flower catalog. From this I save seeds. The circle completes!

Garlic will be ready soon. I have been enjoying garlic scapes, the flower top which loops out of the top of the garlic plant in May. You snap them off and steam, boil, or grill them, and they become sweet and surprisingly starchy in texture. I made a garlic scape and potato soup that was as nice a hot vichyssoise as I’ve had, and a bowl of boiled scapes with butter is a fine treat for hungry gardeners. You have to snap them off anyway so they won’t waste energy on seeds. A handful of them tied with twine is cool looking, because they all loop the same way.

sugar snap peas

Sugar snaps coming on

Sugar snaps and snow peas are about done- past their glory anyway. The picture is from a few weeks back- ephemeral delight!  I tried a nice tall French heirloom, Carouby de Maussane, from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, bless them. It has bi-colored flowers prettier than some sweet peas I have, and the pods are 5 inches long. You really do have to string them though, both sides; pull the strings off that have been bred out of many modern peas, along with the flavor. I planted them in March. We say plant peas and potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th. Easy to remember, with some wiggle room for the moon and the weather. The 3 1/2 foot tall pea fence is fine for most sugar snaps and English peas but snow peas need about 4 feet of support and maybe a bit wider spacing. Vegetable candy!

bamboo trellis for cucumbers

bamboo trellis for cucumbers

Next to them I built a bamboo trellis for my pickling cucumbers, about the same height. I didn’t see the need to grow slicers because picklers are like Kirby cukes anyway; smaller, sweeter, and all purpose. That way I can save seed as well if they do well. The jury is still out on how high to go with cukes- Some people let them rambler on the ground, others hang them high. I have a lot of bamboo which is easy to tie together with twine, and I like the way it looks. I do make a lot of kosher dills though, so if another way works better, I’m interested.

In this picture you can also see that we have a ton of kale, which I transplanted out of the greenhouse salad bed at the end of March. The seeds were saved, a bit mixed, yet the Russian Red Kale, or Ragged Jack and Scotch Vates curly type seem to have retained their separate characteristics. The Vates hasn’t gone to seed yet, whereas some of the Russian has, and is a magnet for harlequin beetles, so I go straight to them to pick them off, while the Vates is staying relatively unblemished. I direct seeded some Lacinato kale- what we call dinosaur kale because of its weird frosted dark blue pebbly leaves, and it is now doing well. My friend in Ecuador has some plants that have not gone to seed in  years. I saw them myself, still producing. Perhaps the unchanging day length confuses them.

This is getting a bit long and work calls so, to be continued