Rosemary, that’s for Remembrance

Photo: RemembranceBecause its distinctive and elegant, resinous perfume and flavor are so potent, the herb rosemary is intimidating to use. Hyper-sensory persons like my spouse can be reluctant to choose dishes when they detect a larger presence of herbs, and this beauty is among the most extroverted and easy-to-spot on that list. It can overpower extra delicate ingredients if used heavy-handedly.

But, like many accomplished and self-assured characters, when this fabulous herb is showcased to its best advantage, it’s the life of the party, the belle of the ball. With such a unique, recognizable scent and flavor profile, it’s easy for me to see how it would be the obvious choice as a symbol, and indeed, stimulant, of memory. Whenever I pass a rosemary plant I am compelled to stroke its incense-laden leaves, their odorous stickiness seeming to hold my hand in a reciprocal grasp. I inhale a long, deep draught of that alluring oil and am transported hither and yon in time and space. Of course, I was thinking about this unusually potent attraction when I wrote about the garden just last Tuesday.

Then, last night, I was reminded of how long the name has had a special resonance for me as well. My email held a little note informing me that my great-aunt Rosemary had just arrived at my blog as a subscriber, and without the aid of any herbal catalyst to take me there, I was transported back in time to when I first remember her, when I was very young and small. This Rosemary, too, has always had for me great beauty both inwardly and outwardly, not least of all because she was kind to little me and my siblings and our young cousins and friends and, especially, to my great-uncle, but also because she was eagerly intelligent, thoughtful, and full of quiet strength.

My great-uncle, her husband and companion of so many years, died just recently, and I can only imagine what a sea change this makes in her life. It’s a strange thing when relatives we have rarely been near in person for great lengths of time, whether the distance was one of miles, ages, life paths, or a combination of these as in our case, die. My great-uncle’s sister, my grandmother, left this world in an entirely different way, having been usurped by Alzheimer’s some years before she died and thus becoming a wholly different person than the one I’d known, while still living in a place where I could manage to see her occasionally without crossing the country. Two different sorts of separation, but in both instances, the person I knew from my youth had effectively been removed from my sight and my daily life for a long time; yet when each died, I was surprised to find I experienced the loss afresh. I suppose it’s partly being able, now, to mentally return to the place and conditions in which I felt I knew them best. Memory, yes, it is a strange and magical thing.

No more icebox cookies while reading in Grandma’s living room, or watching her crochet her perfectly aligned tiny rows to make the best potholders on earth while we visited. No more leafing together through Uncle Ralph’s gorgeous black-and-white photos of a full life and all of our relatives looking ever so much younger and more mysterious and glamorous in them, or hearing him discuss anything from nature’s beauty to what was on the table to psychology with avid, probing attention. Heaven knows there are enough quirks in our extended family to have kept his keen and trained mind busy with this last topic to the degree that I can only imagine it will continue to entertain him equally in the afterlife. He’s probably our there having a good laugh over my having said so.

But as for Rosemary, both the herb and my great-aunt, the preciosity lies, not just in the beauties of memory but also in being stalwart, graceful, and remarkably unassuming for such strong and lovely creations. It is truly good to reconnect with and be blessed by those gifts. One chapter of the story ends and a new and sweet one begins.

All Gardens should be Herb Gardens

photoI am prejudiced. It seems logical to me that any garden grown for beauty should be grown for utility as well, and any garden grown for use ought to be pretty to look at and full of great sensory experiences well before it gets put to work. Why shouldn’t gloriously pretty edible and functional plants be shown off in all parts of the landscape, and why shouldn’t we take better advantage of what we have growing around us anyway?photo

Thankfully, these biases of mine are becoming more widely put into practice all the time. While kitchen gardens have a grand tradition of being ornamental and landscape design has long had its elements of utility inserted, those approaches have tended to be rather exceptional than the norm. So I’m thrilled to see such a proliferation, a flowering, if you will, of the whole concept that these belong as integrated into a delightful whole.photo

My friend Christopher’s interest in starting the garden personalization of his next home with herbal inclusions and infusions (not to mention his appreciation of adventuring in the kitchen) got me thinking about my own past and present herbal operations. What do I consider a good framework for inserting my own preferences, herbally speaking, into the garden nowadays? And what, in turn, is actually happening in that way here? Not surprisingly at all, this thinking turned into a lengthy exercise in list-making. Herewith, my mental inventory of herbal ideas. Foremost among them: that I plant every and anything in my garden where I think it will thrive best, then opt for where it will provide the most splash and panache in complement with the nearby plants, and finally, tuck in some elements of surprise wherever I think they can inspire even the casual visitor to the place. Herbs, fruit, vegetables, common or exotic. So long as I’m not trying to subvert the laws of nature too far, let alone encourage an invasive alien species anywhere, it’s all fun.

For the moment, though, I’m focused mainly on herbs and a few similar animal (human or otherwise) friendly options.photo montage

Easiest to keep as perennials or self-sowing annuals are some of the best kitchen basic herbs and also some of the prettiest flowering or border texture plants, so they’re what I’d call genuine bargains in the herb dept:

Parsley (curled and flat-leaf); both can get pretty large over time, but are also pretty easy to cut back if necessary. Be prepared for gigantism, since parsley can easily top two meters in height when it’s stretched out in bloom.
Chives (common and so-called Garlic Chives); both give that nice light oniony flavor, and of course the ‘garlic’ variety has a hint of garlic in it as well. The purple pompom-like head of the common chive is attractive in the garden or as garnish and also edible, but I’m especially fond of garlic chives as a garden plant–they don’t look at all like the common chive, having a flattened stem and clusters of tiny white lily-like flowers in place of the purple variety’s.
Rosemary comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and leaf lengths, most tasting similar. It’s a woody, shrubby plant in general, but some are upright, some trailing. The blooms vary: white, pink, lavender, purple, even quite blue, depending on the variety. Pretty and fragrant even while still in the yard, and bees and butterflies tend to like it too.
Thyme also comes in a ton of forms. Its types vary slightly in the pink-to-violet bloom range (quite tiny flowers) and quite a bit in the leaf type: white- or yellow-edged green, solid green, silvery; some, like Lemon Thyme, have mildly differing flavors as well, and some, like Woolly Thyme, are more strictly ornamental. Me, I’m quite happy with common thyme (Thymus vulgaris); it’s really quite easy to grow, even as a sort of ground-cover plant in borders, easy to control, has those cute little blooms, and is a very versatile herb for cookery. My favorite with chicken.
Sage is pretty easygoing, too, and also has numerous colors. I like growing the purple-leaf and variegated yellow- or lime-and-green varieties for what they bring to the flowerbeds. They can get big and leggy and woody, so sometimes sage plants require some good pruning, but it’s not hard to do with them, and sage is so lovely with poultry and winter vegetables, not to mention that their fried leaves are fabulous with lots of dishes!photo montage

Some of the less common ones I love are well worth mentioning, too:

Lemon Verbena is better started from a live plant than seed and is fragile. I suspect it could work as a kitchen-window dweller for longer life, though I’ve not tried it indoors. I got lucky with it wintering over last year! As I said, great to add to tea (hot or iced), and would be dandy in anything where you want a less astringent lemony, kind of perfumy, flavor. There’s a lemon verbena ice cream recipe on epicurious.com that is sheer HEAVEN.
Borage is an annual, but I got lucky last year and it self-sowed from the previous season. It’s a kind of straggly and tall plant and has hairy, even lightly spiny, leaves and stems, but the hairs actually look kind of pretty in daylight, adding a lacy aura to the plant, and they don’t outright hurt when you touch them at all. Both leaves and flowers have a lightly cucumber-like flavor that’s nice in salads or cold drinks (chop the leaves finely or smash ’em to keep the fuzziness from being an off-putting texture in food), and the blooms are gorgeous, starry, true-blue dainties.

&    Sweet Bay, if you have the room for an actual tree, is a pretty one and exudes a faint resinous perfume on a windy day as well as providing bay leaves for all sorts of cookery. In a former home I had a 4 foot tall lollipop shaped semi-bonsai one I grew in a big galvanized tub and wish I could’ve taken it with me.
&    Saffron is both useful and a glorious choice for the garden, being the dried stigmas of a very pretty kind of crocus. These bulbs don’t naturalize readily like some crocus, but are of course worth the effort and expense if you can get them.
&    Sorrel‘s bright acidity makes it a welcome herb with which to spike a salad, my favorite use for it. The zippy sourness comes from oxalic acid, so it’s not something you want to eat by the bale, but it’s not so potent you can’t safely make soup or just eat it raw in small amounts. The flower stalk is slightly weedily aggressive, and the leaves are very popular with munching insects, but since it’s not a virulent spreader the flowering isn’t hard to nip, literally, in the bud, and those insects are often butterflies and moths, so I’m happy to share with them.

Some herbs are big on flavor but not worth trying to grow in the wrong climate or simply too short-lived for my lazy wishes:

&    Cilantro: I love it, but it bolts (goes to seed) so fast that unless I grew a huge patch of it for one-time harvest and freezing or kept planting it repeatedly through the season, it’d be sprouted and dead in no time, so I’m happy to pay farmers to grow it for me.
&    Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass and ginger (okay, that’s a rhizome, not an herb) are exceedingly delish in all kinds of Asian foods but require more tropical conditions than I’ve lived in for their happiness!photo montage

Some annual herbs are worth the effort, even if they don’t tend to self-sow:

&    Basil is one that I have been known to plant in a couple of varieties a season for different purposes: the purple leafed types are pretty as well as decent tasting; Thai Basil gives a specific and welcome familiar spice to Thai and Vietnamese cookery; Sweet Basil is the most versatile flavor king among them. They all have nice blooms, though not showy; if you let them bloom, though, they tend to wind down as their work is done, so you want to keep beheading at least some if you plan to keep using it through the whole growing season. Then basil tends to keep proliferating. Cruelty pays! 😉
&    Lettuces are of course lovely, but cabbages too are often forgotten as ornamentals, but as you know, I like planting them for their leaf color and texture, can cut occasional leaves for food or garnish, and when I leave the rest to do so, they bloom in very hummingbird-friendly ways and are a fun novelty in the flowerbed as well. Another lettuce cousin I like a lot is chard (silverbeet), whose leaves are tasty spinach imitators (raw or cooked) and whose varieties include some with great colorful stems that make them look like rhubarb or Pop Art versions of it in yellow and orange. Mine wintered over this year in the front flowerbed, surprisingly. Radicchio is a great member of this whole group, too: edible and showy burgundy colored leaves, and if you let some or all of them go to flower, they’re tall blue daisy-like things. Quite delightful.
&    Shiso, or Perilla, is a less commonly used leafy herb in the US, but the popular Japanese treat comes in a number of often quite attractive leaf shapes, textures and colors. I grew a gorgeous one some years ago that had a slight scallop on the leaf edges, a gracefully veined texture, glorious purple and green-black hues, and a spectacular metallic sheen. I confess I didn’t use it much for food because I couldn’t bear to snip it.
&    Garlic and Onions, on the other hand, have distinctive and fun flora, and can survive longer term if you don’t choose to dig all of them up to eat.

Some herbs are potentially invasive pests but I still like them for their beauty and/or culinary gifts, so I’m willing to keep massacring them occasionally to keep them in check:

&    Oregano spreads fairly easily but is a pretty bloomer as well as a tasty leafy herb, and not awful to control.
&    Mint is a genuine monster that wants to take over the world, especially my favorite commonly named ‘apple mint’ (huh??? I’ve never figured out what’s apple-y about it) that’s so incredibly versatile, but I try to plant it in places where it can spread without turning into square-stemmed kudzu. There are a number of interesting and fun varieties of mint ‘flavors’ available, but I stick with my old reliable despite the allure of Chocolate Mint, Orange Mint, and even true Peppermint and Spearmint, since one aggressive invader variety is enough for me. Wintergreen is a beautiful plant but, besides not being a mint variety at all, is pretty hard to find. It’s a broad-leafed evergreen with small white flowers and big pinky-red berries, and the crushed leaf is wonderfully fragrant, but it’s not commonly found, isn’t a snap to prepare for edible uses like most of these others, and has a picky attitude in climate and growth requirements. Still, I did grow it once in Washington because of its peculiar attractions. Maybe I feel an affinity with it by virtue of my husband’s having chosen me for my peculiar attractions. Ha.
&    Dill is sometimes known as Dill Weed for good reason, as it can run rampant in friendly climates and it’s a large, blowsy plant despite its delicate thread-like leaves. But its starburst flora and subsequent seed heads are pretty among the leafy lace, and it’s so danged delicious in so many meals that even if your climate is conducive to such running amok it’s worth the trouble. Besides, in that case you can at least put in some of the dwarfish kinds of dill. Pretty unbeatable with fish, and indispensable in deli pickling!
&    Fennel is similarly a member of the uncontrollable-toddler plant type, moving aimlessly but at speed all over the garden and being a big showoff of a thing, but even if you’re a little hesitant about the licorice-y hints it gives food, it too has a nicely delicate look for such a tall plant, and you can bring some nice color into the beds by planting bronze fennel. Just chop it ruthlessly when it wants to flower to keep it in check. I’ve never tried growing bulb fennel myself since as rarely as I use it, it’s easier to buy it and give the garden space to something else.photoClearly, I could wander on like this for ages. My experimental wildflower mini-meadow out back has behaved modestly well in its first half-season last year and appears to be letting a few sprouts emerge for a good beginning again now. I will go out in the next few days and give it a thorough haircut with the weed-cutter so that it has its own mulch through the remaining unreliable chills of late winter and early spring, and have been feeding it a kind of pre-compost over the winter by tossing the chopped and blended remains of the kitchen’s dregs in and letting them freeze and decay gradually as they would have in a regular garden, and will add to that with some other treats as the patch begins to revive. I am very curious to see what of the multitudinous kinds of seed I’ve planted out there now makes an appearance and what will take hold for the long term, as much of what I put in was intended to be naturalizing perennial feed for the birds and insects as well as soothing wildflower beauty. The bonus, if all goes well, will be lots of herbal fun for my dining companions and me. Only time and Mother Nature will tell.

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Foodie Tuesday: Warm Up the Winter

There are plenty of good reasons to love winter eating. Every season has its particular pleasures and what appeals and tastes best varies with the weather, activities particular to the time of year, and winter–whatever challenges the season may present in terms of work and play–is rich in favorites too. What I tend to love in winter is mostly the kind of food and drink that spells comfort in colder weather: roasted, fried, grilled, hearty, spicy and/or deep flavored comfort is particularly welcome at my table.

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Roasted squash stuffed with artichokes and sage is complemented by roasted beetroot and rosemary. They can all go in the oven at the same time, too, with just a little supervision!

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Shredded slow-cooked or roasted meats like spicy chicken or [pork] carnitas are filling and satisfying. If there were roasted vegetables yesterday, a mash or puree of them can make a lovely accompaniment to today’s entree. Simple, silky carrot puree with lemon juice and butter, for example, works in companionable comfort with the coarser mash of guacamole–the latter, easily made on the fly when I keep some mashed avocado handy.

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A moist and tender pork roast, with a half avocado, some pan-fried green beans and red capiscum slivers, and potatoes roasted in the oven with butter, salt and pepper, smoked paprika, mustard seeds, and crushed cheddar cheese puff crumbs, makes a grand and gratifying meal.

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A good curry (at our house, nearly always nothing more than good coconut milk spiced with homemade sweet curry masala*) is a great way to combine any sort of roasted, grilled or sauteed vegetables, with or without seafood or meat. A couple of pieces of grilled citrus for drizzling into the curry to taste, adds a nice bright note that can bring a dash of sunshine to the winter, too.

KINCURRY
A curry masala recipe, courtesy of the late Quentin Kintner of Port Angeles, WA.
I think Q would approve of my sharing this, since he was generous enough to share it with our family in the first place!

4 T (tablespoons) ground turmeric
3 T ground coriander
2 T ground cumin
2 T ground ginger
1 T ground cardamom
1 T ground mace
1 T whole white peppercorns
1 T whole cloves
1 T whole fenugreek
2 tsp ground cayenne

Grind the spices together and store carefully away from light and heat; I use a dedicated small coffee grinder for my spices. That’s all there is to it! This masala freezes well, if you’re not fast enough to use a whole cup of it up quickly or are planning to give some away. I like to make a double batch (about 2 cups) since it does keep. It’s wonderful toasted in either a dry pan or a little ghee before adding to various dishes, savory or sweet.

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Even the standard steak dinner, sided with rice and vegetables, can be jazzed up a little for winter with some seasonal fruit favorites as garnish. Here, a perfectly ripe pear and a handful of brightly-sweet pomegranate arils please the eye as wonderfully as they do the palate.

Foodie Tuesday: Like, Totally Fried

A natural outgrowth of loving fat as I do is loving fried foods. There is a bit of truth in the claim that Texas is the heartland of all-things-deep-fried, and not only at the state fair (though that event lays a credible claim to being the epicenter of glorious fry-dom) but right on through this great and glorious state. Logically, living in this state should keep me in a state of bliss. As it happens, there are less than perfect and even somewhat horrendous fried foods (including at the State Fair of Texas, forgive me O sainted Big Tex), but there really are a whole lot of goodies that, no matter how swell they are from the beginning, get just that much better by virtue of bathing in hot fat until crispy.photoMy state of residence is far, far from the only place where recognition (or worship) of the marvels of frying food dwells. There is, of course, a long and respected tradition of such wonders, well documented in the great cuisines, from elegant tempura to calamari fritti (thank you, Chicago John!) and arancini, chiles rellenos and those magical Vlaamse Frieten of Belgian dreams. If it can be cooked, it has a good chance of being fry-able. Why, there are a number of foods that are treated to the process more than once, not least among them the ever-popular twice-fried tostones and Chinese green beans and leading up to such modern classics as that Southern inevitability, chicken fried bacon. Beyond that are the infinite possibilities of frying that the scientists of food never fail to pursue with great delight: long before state fairs all across the US got so seriously competitive about frying, to the point where they don’t even bother with any fatuous titular attempts to disguise the degree of culinary craziness and just come right out and call their recipes Deep Fried Butter and Deep Fried Sugar, there were pioneers of the art dunking candy bars, haggis, Twinkies [aficionados of the famed snack cake will be relieved that despite the demise of its American parent company the Canadian distributor appears to continue production] and pickled eggs into the hot oil at Scottish chip shops.photoDespite all of the fantastic and phantasmagorical delights possible in the whole fried world, there are times when simple is grand enough. Think of oven fries–julienned Russet and sweet potatoes tossed with half olive oil, half melted butter and seasoned with lemon pepper and salt and chili powder (and rosemary, if nobody green-phobic is dining with you) and roasted in a medium oven until toasty and browning nicely–they go with practically anything, and are easier than easy to make. Then again, there are some of the classics that are well worth the mess and fuss. Fried chicken, for example. Coat it in buttermilk (or if you, like me, haven’t any on hand, in yogurt) seasoned with salt, pepper, cinnamon and cayenne and soaked for a couple of hours; shake off all of the excess yogurt or buttermilk and coat the pieces in a mixture of 1 part cornstarch, 2 parts fine masa, and 2 parts potato flour, seasoned with salt, pepper and chili powder. Fry until golden and finish in a medium oven–conveniently enough, the temperature used for oven fries works pretty nicely for such purposes. And coincidentally, one fried food (oven fries) tastes rather yummy when paired with, say, another one (fried chicken). Or so I’ve heard.

Foodie Tuesday: A Touch of the Sun

Mediterranean-style foods bring with their ingredients and flavors a joyful dose of the sun that nurtured them into being. Eating Mediterranean-inflected foods almost makes me feel I’m giving my insides a solar power retrofit. I rather wish that this meant I would become the human equivalent of a ray of sunshine, but at least I hope there’s a noticeable mood enhancement in the short term when I indulge in such deliciousness.

A characteristic I’ve seen in the foods of sunny climes is that many of their indigenous cuisines have built-in traditions of hors-d’oeuvre style dining. Given warm temperatures, lighter meals of smaller portions can often be a grand way to ward off feeling overcooked as an eater. Many of these same food cultures are characterized by wonderfully intense flavors, and somehow the right combination of heightened spicy, zingy, smoky or, say, tomato-y tastes tends to make foods seem slightly more-ish to an extent that the nibbles make a perfectly fulfilling and lovely whole meal.

The treats of this occasion light up with some of that bright, vivid deliciousness and make for a nice nibble or snack, or when combined with a few more of their kind, a pleasant summery version of complete dining. No matter what the season or the weather.

A good sunshiny plate-full:

Stuffed grape leaves (homemade would undoubtedly be grand, but I’m not above choosing ready-made ones as I did here), marinated artichoke hearts, pimiento-stuffed green olives, sun-dried tomatoes rehydrated in red wine, and soft boiled egg, with a dip made of whole-milk yogurt seasoned with lemon pepper, dill and salt to taste.photoSparked-up Three Bean Salad:

Three bean salad is a longtime favorite of American picnickers and lunchers, and there is a fairly classic style of making it: green and wax beans and kidney beans combined in a lightly sweet vinaigrette, sometimes with minced onion and even, occasionally, with added chickpeas–and often, using all canned beans for convenience and the traditional texture. There’s no law, however, that this already delicious old recipe can’t have a few surprises added. My latest combination was the simple three-bean version with only two small additions, canned (not marinated) baby corn, and for a contrasting splash of sweetness, some more of that minced sun-dried and red wine rehydrated tomato. The sun is inherent in the salad, but if I’m going to tweak it anyway, I couldn’t resist garnishing it with the first tender dandelion sunbeams that came my way.photoEven adding any of these individual items to a menu can heighten the flavors of the other foods in the meal and bring some of the same cheering pizzazz to the occasion. Think of serving the pickled-tasting salad alongside a deeply roasted leg of lamb, or trimming a magnificent platter of rosemary-scented pork roast with the plate-full at the top of the post, and adding a few fat-roasted potatoes; methinks there might be a whole number of diners that would feel sunlight pervading their innards and their spirits when presented with such taste treats. I know I wouldn’t mind even just repeating this part of the menu, and you never know when the rest might follow.