Friday, July 29, 2011

Exotic Herbs - Chinese Parsley?

Common names of plants and animals can be funny, strange and confusing. Think of the groundhog, woodchuck, or whistlepig - all the same furry brown animal, all not pigs (or chucks).

Chinese parsley is another misnomer - you probably think you've never seen or tasted this herb, but oh, I bet you have. Does this look familiar?

Glossy green, serrated broad leaves - beautiful!
It's Coriandrum sativum - better known in America as cilantro!

I have no idea why this herb would be called Chinese parsley. It only vaguely looks like parsley, and no one would mistake the distinct flavor of cilantro for parsley. Wikipedia tells me that cilantro grows wild over a large region of southern Europe and the Near East - it seems to be certainly not a native of China.

Cilantro is also known as coriander, and the seedpods are often ground into coriander powder. I consider cilantro leaves and coriander seeds to be completely separate flavorings - the leaves are for Mexican and Latin American dishes, and the seeds are for Indian cooking. I'm sure there are plenty of other national cuisines that use cilantro in other ways, and probably a huge number of fusion dishes involving cilantro in either form.

I've had a difficult time growing cilantro - far more failed crops than successes over the past three years. But the successes are pretty fabulous, and with herbs, a little bit goes a LONG way. So even a meager handful of cilantro brings a ton of flavor and can fancy-up a basic dish.

Salsa that tastes like summer!

At a family party this Tuesday, I chopped up the leaves from 8 or so leaves of cilantro and mixed them in with a jar of Wegman's brand salsa. WOW - I was so surprised - the salsa went from run-of-the-mill blah-de-blah-blah to a fresh zinger that just begs for tortilla chips!

I highly recommend this as a quick recipe (a.k.a. a fixer-upper for grocery store food), because there's many times when 100% homemade is just not practical. This is perfect for last-minute get-togethers and hot, hot days of July and August.

Cilantro-fied Salsa
1 16-oz. jar of salsa (from the store or your own pantry)
6-10 stalks of cilantro, washed, stems removed

1) Dump the salsa into your fancy serving dish.
2) Finely chop the cilantro leaves. I like using the chiffonade technique, but another good technique is to use kitchen shears.
3) Mix about half of the cilantro bits into the salsa; taste and add more cilantro until you have the desired flavor. (I recommend this taste-and-add approach because too much cilantro tastes like soap to me - not a successful outcome!)
4) Put the salsa out with some chips, pour yourself a mojito, and kick back to enjoy the summer!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lettuce and Peas, an Early Summer Delight

A bouquet of fresh lettuce - lucky me!
Where I grew up, peas and lettuce were a springtime delicacy, enjoyed during the months of May and June. People typically started peas on St. Patrick's Day, and enjoyed peas in their pasta primavera during the season of primavera (spring in Italian). Not so in the land of New England - peas and full heads of lettuce are harvested firmly in the territory of summer, especially when the spring is a little on the wet and cold side. So, it's after the Fourth of July and the daytime temps and humidity feel like summer. But with peas and lettuce overtaking the garden, it still seems a bit like spring!

This week, the lettuce has succumbed to the heat and the peas are starting to go... but I've still got both peas and lettuce in the fridge, sustaining spring for a few more days.

A jungle of pea vines - see if you can spot the pea pods.

Peas can handle cool weather but not hot. The seeds go into the ground as soon as it can be worked in the spring, grow like crazy during warm spring days, and as soon as the temperatures start reaching 80 on a consistent basis, the leaves start to look a little peaked, and then a little yellow, and then it's time for the pea vines to go to the compost heap. Make way for the heat-loving peppers, tomatoes and eggplants.

Lettuce is similar - cool weather keeps it leafy and low to the ground, while hot weather triggers the plant to bolt, or to start growing upward to set flowers. Bolting also spurs the production of secondary chemicals, which render the leaves bitter and the sap milky. There are some lettuces that have been bred to handle hot weather, but the best season for lettuces is spring to early summer, yielding soft, mellow salad greens. When the lettuce gives up, it's time for plants that can take the heat - cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash.

Here's a simple recipe for snow peas - perfect for days that feel like summer!

Snow Peas with Garlic Scapes and Almonds

Heat olive oil in a pan with a bit of salt and pepper.
(For a little spice, add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes.)
Add 2 cups of snow peas and 1/2 cup of garlic scapes; saute about 5 minutes.
Let the peas turn bright green, but still have their snap to them.
Then add 1/4 cup sliced almonds; saute for 1 minute.
Pour in a splash or three of a good aged balsamic vinegar; saute about 30 seconds more.
Scrape the pea mixture out onto a plate, and enjoy hot!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Backyard Wildlife Sightings - Forest Chickens and Wood Frogs

Chickens at 2-1/2 months chasing mosquitoes
We've been doing a lot of work around the house this weekend, and have been letting the chickens free range while we are outside to keep an eye on them. They love it, and it's really a lot of fun to watch them.

They really like to hang out in the "comfrey forest" in the side yard, as comfrey provides cover and also a tasty snack. I think this must be something like chicken heaven - a nice, leafy lunch buffet where you can hang out, socialize, scratch in the leaves, and take a nap.

The beech grove right behind the barn is also a popular spot, as there are a lot of insects and worms in the leaf litter. I hope that the girls get to work on the tick control - I've found two ticks on me in the last two days from wrangling the chickens back into their coop.

I raked out the side yard this afternoon. This is one of those chores that falls to the bottom of the list and stays there - permanently. The side yard is shady, damp, full of mosquitoes, and is not visible from the road or most of the house - and thus, I have neglected it for at least a year. Neglect has not improved the situation.

Rana sylvatica - Wood Frog
Unless you are a wood frog - then you think my neglected side yard is pretty fabulous. I was really, really surprised to unearth this little guy while raking, and even more surprised that I could catch it. Wood frogs range in color from pinky-brown, like this one, to tan to brown. The best way to tell if you've got a wood frog is by its black bandit mask around the eyes.

I just updated the 2011 harvest log, if you'd like to see what I've been pulling out of the garden, other than loads and loads of weeds. Click on 2011 Harvest at the top of the page.