Ranks of gray misty rain march up the valley, the cats who are not ours are huddled on the porch, and I swear night fell about 3:30 this afternoon. Perfect weather for having the oven on all day - and between roasting the squash and baking the cake, I have an excuse to warm up my kitchen for a few hours. (I am only doing it so I can get a non-Halloween image; I promise we will not enjoy the cake at all. Really.)
I adapted this recipe a few weeks ago, when some good friends celebrated the tenth anniversary of their move to the fog valley with a potluck. The only request was that we use locally produced food if possible, something that is not exactly a stretch for most people around here, although mid-October isn't exactly the time of prime produce. I wanted to make dessert but the only fruit on hand was apples and pears, neither of which got me too excited. The squash, however, was abundant and diverse.
Starting with a recipe for a sweet potato cake, I swapped in squash, reduced the oil and added applesauce for moisture, then tossed in a hefty dose of fresh spices. After infusing the olive oil with sweet bay, I toasted and ground cardamon, then grated ginger and nutmeg. The squash and applesauce make for a moist, but not heavy, cake; and the mix of fresh spices make me swoon. Iced, this is a cake worthy of a party; unadorned it could be served as a coffeecake.
Some people insist on doing things the hard way, the complicated way, and I will gladly admit to being one of them - especially when it comes to bread. Not all the time, mind you, there are days when I need bread today and throw together a quick batch of baguettes, but on the other hand...well, lets just say that when I had to make fresh sourdough starter - after doing unmentionable things to my old one (the pretty pink stuff growing on it was cute but unappetizing) - I insisted on doing it by capturing wild yeast.
Worse, I made three kinds of starter: rye, white whole wheat, and white. This met with varying degrees of success, let's just say that if you plan on doing this at home, you can skip the plain white flour version. After ten days of nurturing three starters along, however, my kitchen is but a Bunsen burner away from qualifying as a mad scientist's lab. And I still haven't made any bread from the wild yeast starter, two jars of which are bubbling along in the refrigerator.
I think every baker needs a few never-fail recipes in their back pocket. Recipes that they can play with endlessly with a fair degree of certainty of success. This recipe is a variation of one of my standby recipes: a poolish baguette from Peter Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice. If I had to pick just a few breads to bake all the time, this would be one of them. In its original form, it makes wonderful baguettes and is well suited to being shaped for breads like epis and I have been able to corrupt... err, vary it pretty endlessly over the years.
In fact — confession time — I once made a double batch of this bread. Except I didn't double the yeast. And I tripled the oil. (don't ask, it was late, I was rushed and had no business driving a KitchenAid...) As I kneaded the dough, stumbling my way through a series of "this feels all wrong" corrections, I slowly figured out how badly I had screwed up. Ever the good food writer, I trudged on, determined to take photos for an article titled "How to waste two pounds of flour" that I would write someday. Except for one problem: the bread was fine. It wasn't great, but it was good. This recipe earned its place in my back pocket that day.
Lovage is one of those obscure, sort of old-world herbs, that few people seem to have heard of. You may even have some in your garden, like some friends of mine, who were nevertheless, unsure exactly what it was - it looks, smells and tastes like celery, after all, but it never actually grows any celery stalks. Confusing beast.
My first recollection of lovage only goes back a decade, to one of those 9 course tasting menus at the Herbfarm, which included Columbia River sturgeon in a ragout of apples, leeks and lovage. While I liked it quite a bit, someoneElse announced then and there that he was going to have to figure out how to make it. I offered, "It's in his cookbook," and someoneElse has been offering me food with lovage ever since.
Most of the time, youngish leaves are used - they toughen as they get older, so save the mature stalks for soups and other dishes where you will remove them before serving - chopped up to lend a slightly more complex celery flavor to food.
The stalks, however, are hollow and lend themselves to all sorts of interesting uses. As a straw, for example, for a bloody mary or other vegetable juice based drink. Rumor has it that you can candy the stems like angelica, although I have never done it. You can even make them into decorative thingies by slicing them and tossing the cut pieces into ice water. Strange but true. What I wanted to try was a bit different: creating an appetizer by stuffing the fattest stems I could find with...something.
I feel almost like a proud parent on the first day of school, watching my baby walk off alone into the big, bad world. (Somewhere, theKid is reading this and cringing.) In this case my baby is a it more virtual, and luckily the labor pains were much less painful. Welcome kitchenMage's Herb Garden to the World Wide Web!
Grown less than a mile from me on an organic farm, these tomatoes were downright inspiring. So much so that I had to let the garden open its gates before it was fully leafed out, so to speak, but I'd love it if you'd go visit.
Not much bigger than those tiny little tomatoes, the Herb Garden is showing off a recipe I made up last night for Three Tomato Pasta - a fast and delectable way to use up a bit of the season's bounty (and my contribution to weekend herb blogging). And don't forget to wander over to Kalyn's Kitchen to check out this week's herb blogging roundup.
Over at A Year in Bread, one of my other playgrounds, I just posted my recipe for the current round of "summer breads": Pesto Rolls. Made like a savory cinnamon roll, but with baguette-ish dough, pesto and Parmesan, these are great for summer picnics where slicing and buttering is a hassle but plain bread is boring. I absolutely adore these things and start making them every summer as soon as I can get my hands on basil. Read the rest and get the recipe here. I also put up a flickr set of action photos taken while making them...and clutching a camera remote in my teeth. (yes, really)
Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is one of my favorite herbs you have never heard of. The herb's lack of public recognition always seems odd to me. It's a versatile herb with a palate-friendly flavor a lot like celery, yet more complex and nuanced. Fresh, young leaves are mellow enough to use whole in a salad, but it also stands up to long cooking in soups and stews.
The obvious presenting flavor of lovage is celery, but the flavor is more complex than that. Along with the concentrated celery is a large dose of the bright green flavor of parsley and a hint of something sweetly earthy. I use it as a celery substitute whenever it is available and find it provides some ineffable extra taste that I really like.
The hollow stem, a section of which can be up to a foot or more in length and an inch in diameter, makes an excellent straw for drinks, such as a Bloody Mary, where a celery flavor is desired. Lovage stems can be candied, like angelica, as an unusual sweet treat.
Excuse me a moment of excitement, but I just discovered a new trick for lovage stems: sliced lengthwise and put in ice water, they curl like the ridged curling ribbon they make for wrapping presents! This offers all sorts of possibilities from the sublime (make a brush for putting melted butter on corn on the cob) to the ridiculous (edible icons of the Flying Spaghetti Monster). Curlicue garnishes. Hair for Halloween monsters. This could be fun.
Lovage is also a beautiful addition to your herb garden. Unfurling from
asparagus tip-like bundles in early spring, lovage quickly becomes a
hip-high bush of soft green foliage. Midsummer sees flower spikes
shooting to eye level before opening golden umbels that slowly mature into marvelously tasty seeds, something the birds know as well as I. Come fall, the birds and I vie for themature seeds, with my winnings finding their way into stews and breads over the winter.
appreciate lovage because it is easy to grow, tolerating most soil
condition and even a bit less water and sun than large, leafy herbs.
(It is easy to tell when lovage is thirsty; mine, which is in direct
sunlight, droops noticeably on hot days. Fortunately, it revives just
as quickly with a bit of water.) A perennial that, like tarragon,
requires a period of cold dormancy, lovage is often grown as an annual
in warm climates. If you have to do this, you can save your own seeds,
stored in an airtight jar in the refrigerator, over the winter for
spring planting. You can often find plants at a local nursery, although probably not at
a 'big-box' store, and seeds are available from a number of sources,
including Territorial Seeds and Seeds of Change.
Better yet, keep an eye out for a plant in the garden of a friend or
neighbor; If you see one, don't be afraid to ask for a start for your
garden. A single plant is enough to supply all but the most avid of
lovage fan - and two will do for even them - and since lovage
self-seeds, there are often small "volunteers" growing around the base
of established plants. Spring (now as I write this) is the perfect time
to divide lovage clumps, preferably on a cool, cloudy day.
Gardeners appreciate lovage because it is easy to grow, tolerating most soil condition and even a bit less water and sun than large, leafy herbs. (It is easy to tell when lovage is thirsty; mine, which is in direct sunlight, droops noticeably on hot days. Fortunately, it revives just as quickly with a bit of water.)
A perennial that, like tarragon, requires a period of cold dormancy, lovage is often grown as an annual in warm climates. If you have to do this, you can save your own seeds, stored in an airtight jar in the refrigerator, over the winter for spring planting.
You can often find plants at a local nursery, although probably not at a 'big-box' store, and seeds are available from a number of sources, including Territorial Seeds and Seeds of Change. Better yet, keep an eye out for a plant in the garden of a friend or neighbor; If you see one, don't be afraid to ask for a start for your garden. A single plant is enough to supply all but the most avid of lovage fan - and two will do for even them - and since lovage self-seeds, there are often small "volunteers" growing around the base of established plants. Spring (now as I write this) is the perfect time to divide lovage clumps, preferably on a cool, cloudy day.
"Is this cookie lavender?" Sarah looked up from her herb snipping with a big grin. "I hope it's cookie lavender!"
Most people probably associate lavender with soap or maybe perfume, but not cookies! Who has ever heard of lavender cookies?
Well, let's start with the obvious: yes, they smell like lavender! (and butter, if that helps) The scent is either intoxicating or...well, off-putting might be an appropriate term. I have taken these to several parties and I love the reactions.
Some people smell them and immediately get the lavender scent. I can tell because the response is usually a skrinched nose accompanied by a moment while a polite way of ask if they contain...umm, err, soap is sought. (Seriously, I can see the wheels whir. The thought goes: "These smell like soap! OMG! I can't say that? But she knows how to cook! How could she...but she must have tasted one...but...SOAP!" So far, I haven't laughed, but it is getting harder.)
Others simply can't identify the scent.
Every once in a while, a sniff is met with an arched eyebrow, and an inquisitive glance. Those people get a special little note in my internal list of people I can suck into tasting weird creations. Err, I mean recipe testers!
One bite, however, and the cookies have gained a fan. Never fails. These tender little cookies are melt-in-your-mouth buttery with a delicately floral taste. Nary a hint of soap.
There are several types of lavender commonly available, but for culinary uses, English Lavender is what most cooks choose. Most other lavenders are too strong, being either more camphorous than sweet or simply overwhelmingly flowery.
Interestingly enough, English lavender is actually not a scientific designation of lavender. This common name refers to a number of lavender species with the most common being Lavandula angustifolia officinalis, which is most common and prized for its sweet scent and flavor along with superb oil quality. The Lavandula angustifolia species "Hidcote," "Munstead," and "Melissa," along with Lavandula intermedia "Provence" are amongst the favorites for cooking.
Although only a handful of lavenders are suitable for culinary uses, there are a number of others that definitely deserve a spot in your garden. Some of my favorites are:
Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) has lovely bracts, often called "rabbit's ears" or "wings," making it one of the showiest garden lavenders. I have half a dozen different Spanish Lavender species, including several shades of purple and one or two pinks, but this yellow lavender (said to smell of lavender and rosemary) is going on my endlessListOfThingsIWant right now!
French lavender (Lavandula dentata) has finely-toothed leaf edges and small, pale purple flowers. It is another attractive, and less common, plant for the garden.
Lavandin (Lavandula intermedia) is a hybrid cross between L. angustifolia and Lavandula stoechas with particularly long flower stalks. Lavandin is commonly used for perfume oil and is also common in gardens.
Woolly lavender (Lavandula lanata) has silver leaves and dark purple flowers, making it a beautiful landscaping plant.
Sweet Lavender (Lavandula heterophylla) is an oddly named plant as it is far too camphorous to use in cooking. It is one of the tallest lavenders, however, with spikes of up to 4 feet.
Cookie Lavender (Lavandula cookieus), which isn't a species, but should be, is usually Munstead, but occasionally Melissa, or even Alba, grown in my front garden bed. Soon in Sarah's garden too.
Once upon a time, the kitchenMage had the herb garden of her dreams. Wisteria draped the entrance arbor, opening onto a herringbone path interplanted with thyme and moss and edged with lavender and a plethora of mints. Herbs, both common and rare, filled this garden and new finds were constantly finding their way there. Rare thymes and more mints than she could name filled the beds, and the air, with intoxicating scents. A few choice trees also lived there: the prized sweet bay, a pink dogwood bent near horizontal from its attempts to survive its old home, and the maples (no two the same) that defined the border.
Oh, I'm sorry! I was daydreaming there for a minute.
While I would love to have that herb garden again (and it is worth a look, although I apologize for the old, not so great photos) the sad fact is that I don't. Worse, I won't have anything like it for a few more years to come. A few summers from now, I expect to once again walk through a garden like that, although not too much like that.
I have a new house and a new "yard" - if one can call close to nine acres a yard - but after two years, the new garden remains unplanted. When we arrived, the little beds around the house's foundation looked like builders had done the planting: some unkempt low junipers and dozens of pansies, in a stunning array of magenta and white-one shade of each. Boring! (When the foxglove and daisies that had been hidden in winter, when we bought the place, first emerged, it seemed fitting somehow that they were also white and purple.)
Frankly, the only thing to recommend the gardened areas was the blueberry patch. The untended space, mostly Douglas firs (originally planted for timber harvest) with fern-laden undergrowth edged up against wild fog forest, has more to recommend it, including the wildlife. At least most of the time.
Call me naïve, but I really hadn't counted on the sheer volume of critters in the yard. In addition to the deer and small creatures common to the cusp of field and wood, there's an elk herd - numbering from a dozen to many times that, depending on how close we are to hunting season - wanders through on their way from on valley to the next. I don't even want to think about what the neighbor's escaped cows did to the poor magnolia!
There was a bit of momentary panic at the thought of doing without any herb garden while I wait for fencing to protect my treasures from marauding beasts before I put them in harm's way. Really good fencing. Luckily, it was winter and I really couldn't do much beyond sulk at the idea of life sans garden. That and watch the critters.
Over the first couple of months, I noticed that nary a critter has ventured close enough to the house to see, let alone nibble, the beds of evergreen blobs and rampant pansies. Go figure.
One day it dawned on me. They never came close to the house.
Those beds, filled with plants I found neither useful nor, truth be told, attractive were rapidly emptied and replaced with an herb garden that, while not quite so poetic as the old one, is wonderfully functional and quite lovely in its own way.
This small scale gardening has also been a learning experience. The prominent location and shallow beds call for plants that are beautiful as well as aromatic and tasty so I have selected colorful varieties of some favored herbs: Tri-color and golden sage, variegated mint and thyme, and golden oregano, along with lots of edible flowers brighten front edges, while a swath of many mints thrives in the back, dry stripe under the roof overhang. My favorite rosemary has a home and creeping thyme softens the hard line between concrete and garden Best of all, there are chive clumps everywhere! And I must admit I love being able to step outside in bare feet to harvest herbs, something that was more difficult in the large garden.
some plants has been a struggle. The first winter killed all the
expensive new tarragon plants and last
winter's freeze/flood cycle took out half of the rosemary yearlings. Those plants sometimes died at the old place too, but with room to plant a hundred rosemary cuttings, rather than a tenth that, half of them dying isn't quite so sad.
After two years though, almost everything I need for cooking is here. There isn't a lot of some things, the thyme collection is short a few things (lavender and caraway evade me) and I can't find any lime mint. But there is enough to cook with daily and share with friends. And it is lovely, not looking at all like it was planted as a functional garden. More than one person has commented that it looks like a park.
This garden has also led to my conviction that any small space - even yours - can be transformed into a gorgeous herb garden that will rock your culinary world. Thoughtful plant selection and placement can result in a garden that will improve both your cooking and your yard.
While I know this isn't my old herb garden, it will do for now. In fact, even after the large garden goes in, the little one stays. I just need a cat-sized wisteria arbor.
(my herb garden set on flickr)