Making its debut

My Swiss chard would like to announce that it is very fussy about getting its picture taken, and that it will only pose for someone using crazy 800 speed, neon color film. Here it is, making its cover-shot debut.

Ta daa! It would also like you to know that it is very picky about what touches its skin, and that it is thrilled to have been picked and cleaned and to have the pollen washed off, finally. It was just about at its breaking point with that stuff—spots, rivers, dust, and all. (Here my car and my sinuses would like to chime in, and say that they are feeling a little bit like Winnie the Pooh, walking around all day saying "Tut-tut, feels like rain!" and kind of wishing it would. They are fed up with pollen, too, only there's nothing they can do.)

What my Swiss chard doesn't know is that getting picked usually means the end is near. The warm, hot, buttery end, around here. It's not a bad way to go, but still. It isn't all roses and picket fences on the other side of the yellow dirt.

These days, everything seems to be meeting that sort of end. It all goes the same way: into the big, deep stainless skillet with a big pat of butter over a high blue flame. I've tried to think of more creative burials, but I keep coming back to this one simple preparation. It's a bit repetitive, but really, I don't think it's me.

Spring simply tastes good this way.

Sometimes, I'll add a little garlic and chicken broth in too, especially with Swiss chard. There's something about the Swiss chard juice that asks for it—without a little padding, it tends to kind of squeak around in your mouth, the way spinach and grapefruit salads sometimes do. That's a feeling a little splash of chicken broth can do wonders for.

Otherwise, I don't really like to mess with my Swiss chard too much. It's so simple, so elegant, and so fussy about its looks, that it never seems like a good idea to touch it beyond a bit of heat.

I hope you're enjoying spring, too.


If you have a garden, Swiss chard is one of the easiest greens to grow. It takes a little while to get rolling, but once it starts growing, there will be plenty to go around. There are more tips on growing it over here.

As for this recipe, it's one of my favorites. It's nothing special or complicated, but it makes an excellent noontime snack. I like to eat it with a piece of toast, and maybe a hunk of cheese.

1 tablespoon butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound Swiss chard, washed and patted dry
1/2 cup chicken broth

Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Once the butter is melted and the pan is very hot, throw in the garlic and cook it for about 30 seconds, stirring quickly the whole time so it doesn't brown. Turn up the heat to high and immediately pour in half the chicken broth, allowing it to reduce by about half. Turn down the heat to low, add the Swiss chard and the remaining chicken broth, and cover for about a minute. Stir, cover again for about a minute, and serve warm in a bowl with the broth.


The Local Food Report: 150 and counting

Imagine this: one day, you go to the store and pick up 150 different varieties of tomato seeds. You go home and plant every one, and by the time the farmers' market opens, you have 150 varieties of tomato seedlings for sale. It's crazy just as a thought, don't you think?

The amazing thing is, Clare Bergh of Bon Terra Nursery in Brewster—she actually lived it out. She planted Black Princes and Rosalitas and Green Sausages and everything in between. She planted the whole zebra family—green zebras and black zebras and big zebras and red zebras—inspired by a photo she saw in a magazine. She planted every sort of cherry and grape, big tomatoes, small tomatoes, tomatoes of every size and shape. She went tomato wild, if you know what I mean.

The biggest tomato she planted has one heck of a name: Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter. As the story goes, in the 1940s, MC Byles—a radiator repairman from Virginia who preferred to go by Charlie—was having trouble paying his mortgage. He planted 10 tomatoes in a circle—the biggest varieties he could find—with a single German Johnson seedling in the center. He moved pollen from the outer 10 varieties to the flowers of the middle plant, and over the course of seven years, developed an absolutely enormous tomato. He sold the seedlings for a dollar a piece, and eventually, paid his mortgage down.

I don't know about you, but if I could develop a tomato so big it could lift my mortgage, that would be a beautiful thing.

All of Clare's tomatoes seem to have a names with stories like this. She's got one called Bloody Butcher, named for the deep red color of its fruit, Fourth of July, gauranteed to produce by the holiday, and something called Zapotec Pink Ribbed—an heirloom Mexican variety that Clare calls the weirdest looking tomato she's ever seen. From what I gather, it looks like a flat, ribbed pumpkin on the outside and a Cosmo flower when you cut a slice.

It makes my plain old Sun Gold cherries look pretty darn boring.

Happily, thanks to Clare, I now have some crazies mixed in, too. I have an Aunt Ruby's German Green and three Green Grapes and a Zapotech Pink Ribbed. I still have a whole row of Sun Golds and Amish Paste, but there's room for everyone. There will certainly be nothing ordinary about the patch as a whole.

If you have any interest in adding some crazies, check out this list of over 600 tomato varieties. Or head over here, where they have fewer types but longer descriptions, or if you have an idea of what you want to learn about, it's worth perusing this exhaustive database. Lastly, if you'd rather just talk to a human, Clare's around. She's at the Orleans Farmers' Market every Saturday, from eight to noon, and starting in June, she'll be at the Mid Cape Market, too. Start by asking her about the Zapotec, and you're bound to get a whole load of good stories.

Happy planting, everyone.


Patience in droves

I spent a good deal of time yesterday at the dump. Apparently, the dump is a very popular place to be on Memorial Day, because I saw a lot of other people there, too. Most of them were after the same thing I was: free compost. (Two were playing golf, with white balls and clubs and all, over a twenty foot mountain of dirt, but I decided it was best not to ask about that.) I simply kept shoveling, and looked the other way. The compost had too important a purpose to be persuaded by distractions like that.

The compost was for the asparagus patch.

The asparagus patch is very much an imaginary place right now, but with any luck, this compost will help bring it into the world of dinner plates and dirt.

Asparagus is one of those plants I've always hoped to grow. I admire anyone who has the patience for a good patch, because waiting around happily is not my forte. To wait three years in this world—in this world of zooming emails and mobile phones and learning to instant message when you're five—to wait three years in this world to pick a vegetable is an act of amazing restraint. Growing asparagus requires patience in droves.

But the thing is, showing up at 7:30am to line up at the farmers' market every Saturday in May and June to make sure you get one of the only three or four bundles of spears before they sell out—this also requires patience of a kind. I was lucky last week—Ron Backer knew I was coming late and saved me a half pound—but I can't count on this sort of kindness all the time.

The other day, I realized that planting a row of crowns looked pretty rosy in the patience department in comparison to lining up and waiting all the time.

(Plus, I transplanted a rhubarb shoot this spring that I can't touch until next year, and despite the visions of pie I go to sleep to each night, I've managed to wait. I think maybe —just maybe—the patience department of my brain might be growing. Either that or there's something to the phrase hurry up and wait.)

So I went to the dump, shoveled compost into the truck and then from the truck to a comfortable little spot in the yard, and tomorrow, the crowns will go in.

In the meantime, last night with dirty hands and an aching back, I cooked up that half pound of spears. I heated a skillet with a pat of butter and snapped the ends from the spears, and then laid them down against the silver bottom one by one. I fit a lid over top, let their bodies go just limp, and brought them out onto a plate. They'd soaked up all the butter, every last drop, and steamed in their own moisture a bit. They were perfect—every bit spring and tenderness.

If you're patient enough to have your own patch, hopefully you've got a stick of butter hidden away, too. I can't think of a better snack than butter poached asparagus.


The Local Food Report: the first farmers' market

This week, I went to the farmers' market. I'm going to type that again, because I'm still pinching myself, trying to figure out whether or not it's really true.

This week, I went to the farmers' market. Phew!

I have been waiting for this day for months, every month, in fact, since last October, when the farmers' markets in Orleans and Provincetown and Hyannis and everywhere else on this sandy strip shut their doors. They simply put down their tent flaps and left—a terrible thing for a friend to do anytime, but in the gray, cold, rainy months in particular.

I went to a few markets in other states while they were gone—a winter market in my hometown of Brunswick, Maine, and the huge year-round market in Providence, Rhode Island. They were both exciting, but not the same. I couldn't wake up bleary-eyed, throw on my jeans, and run out the door. Julie wasn't there, and neither was Gretel, or Claire or Darnell or Tim. I didn't know anyone's name, or what they usually had for sale—they could've just gotten a crazy new hair cut and stopped growing radishes and decided to be a lobsterman, and I'd never have known.

The Orleans market, on the other hand, is like one of those friends you've always known—warm and smart and inviting—the kind that you can read like a book. It has 21 vendors, all from the Outer Cape, selling everything from rhubarb to radishes to asparagus to greens. They have muffins, too, and other baked goods, and live lobster and shiitake mushrooms and flower bouquets. This week, they had seedlings—things like celeriac and strawberries and mesclun mix and 150 different varieties of tomatoes. Now that's what I call a friend.

This first week, I did more catching up than shopping, but I still brought a full bag of veggies home. I tucked away a bunch of French Breakfast radishes, a bundle of scallions, three leeks, a dozen eggs, a pint of cherry tomatoes (from the E & T Farms greenhouse!), and a flowering currant plant for a friend. All in all, a pretty good haul.

Other markets will be opening up soon—in Provincetown and Hyannis, on the islands, and up Cape. There's a full list here. So keep your eyes peeled for those rows of white tents, and just as soon as you can, pick up the makings for the salad below. It's the best I've had since October.


I mixed the radishes greens from the bunch above with spinach, butter lettuce, Italian dandelion, and tat soi from my garden to make a spring salad mix. Look for very young radishes if you plan to use the greens; the bigger they get the more fuzz they have on their skin, and they also tend to acquire a more bitter taste. This recipe makes enough salad for roughly four.

for the salad:
1 pound spring greens
1 bunch French breakfast radishes, sliced into thin half moons
2 scallions, thinly sliced

for the dressing:
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons wine vinegar (slightly sweet is nice)
5 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons mayonnaise (preferably homemade)

Wash and dry the greens and toss with radishes and scallions. On a cutting board, mash together garlic and salt with a fork. Scrape into a small jar and shake together with vinegar, olive oil, and mayonnaise until well mixed. Pour dressing over greens and toss well.


Feeling leek-y

Recently, I've been feeling sort of like a leek.

I've been feeling stretched a little thin, with layers and layers of thoughts and to-do's beneath. I've been feeling crazy, and a little bit out of control, but in an excited way—the kind of way that makes you unsure just which direction you ought to be going in at any given moment, but that makes you quite sure that whatever you pick will be good.

The leek-y-ness is related, I think, to the fact that I haven't been home much. After that perfect Seattle trip, I headed off to the Greenbrier in West Virginia for a food writers' symposium, and it’s been a whirlwind ever since. I loved every minute of being gone—I loved the writing panels and the brain stretching and the dinner conversations and the mint juleps and the great stories that came out of the bottles of Kentucky bourbon—but I have to admit I’m awfully glad to be back.

I think everyone else is glad to see me, too: the tomato seedlings are begging to be caged, the dog has some sort of strange canine cold that makes him sneeze in a weird, wobbly, tail-shuddering sort of way, and the Fishmonger doesn't seem to have touched a single thing in the fridge, not even the rhubarb, the entire time I was gone.

Even my film is a bit off its stride. See that picture below there? It was taken on a roll that passed through the security x-ray four times.

Thankfully, there is a cure for feeling leek-y, and that is to go ahead and cook some up. I have this theory that when you eat leeks, when you dress them up with white wine and cream and a pinch of nutmeg, the craziness of feeling leek-y subsides, and you come back down to earth. It sounds a little far-fetched, I know, but I swear it works every time.

Sunday morning, we ate a whole heaps of the sliced green stalks simmered in chicken stock and cream with an egg over easy and slices of imaginary toast. We mopped up the leek cream and yolk with our spoons, and though real bread would have been nice, it was a perfect meal all the same.

Besides, toast is around all the time. When there are vegetables as good as leeks in season, it can wait.


adapted from the 1997 Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker

I found the bunch of leeks below at the first Orleans farmers' market of the season on Saturday morning. The woman I bought them from said they had wintered over and were the first things to show life once the brighter days came around. Since leeks are cold weather crops, they won't stay for long. I highly recommend picking some up while you can.

1 and 1/2 tablespoons butter
3 large spring leeks, cleaned and trimmed
1 cup chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 sprig fresh thyme, picked
salt to taste
1/4 cup white wine
2 tablespoons whole milk or cream
a teeny pinch of freshly ground nutmeg

Haul out a big frying pan and let it heat up over a medium-low flame while you cut the leeks. Slice them very thinly into rounds, so that they come off the knife in tiny concentric circles, keeping an eye out for dirt. (The higher up from the root you get, the more likely you are to see dirt embedded between the layers. Just pull off a few of the outermost leaves, and you should be able to wash it away.) Slice up to where the leek grows tough, and discard the leaves.

Put the butter in the hot frying pan, allow it to melt, and add the leeks. Cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly and being careful not to let them brown. Add the chicken stock, the thyme, and a few pinches of salt, and let this mixture simmer for about 5 minutes, or until the leeks are tender. Turn the heat up and pour in the white wine.

Let this boil for about 7 or 8 minutes, until the alcohol is cooked off and half the liquid is gone. Add milk and nutmeg, and cook for another minute or so, until the liquids come together and the spice is fully absorbed. Serve hot with toast and a fried egg, and salt and pepper to taste.


The Local Food Report: wild wintergreen

There are a lot of amazing things about Donna Eaton. For starters, she runs a CSA-W, a farm share with wellness tacked on—as in with your carrots, you might get an herb to help combat summer allergies or arthritis pain. That alone makes her pretty cool.

But then there's what she can find in the woods on a bright spring day in the middle of Harwich. Did you know you can eat this plant?

That's chickweed, and it's only one of many, many edible spring greens. Donna took me foraging the other day at her farm, Cedar Spring Herb Farm, and we identified all kinds of things— chickweed, dandelions, wild dock.

Best of all, she showed me where to find wintergreen.

Or rather, how to identify wintergreen. Because once you've seen it—the ivy green leaves and bright, cherry red berries—you realize it's everywhere. It likes to spread out on the floor of woodland upland areas, like beneath the patches of scrub oak all over the Cape. When I got home, I even found some in my own backyard.

Wintergreen is one of those plants I'd always heard about, from grandmothers and godmothers and people who grew up a generation or so ago. Wintergreen seems to have been a real presence then, finding its way into teas and chewing gum and oils and tinctures—a cure-all of sorts. But I'd never really imagined it in the present, let alone in the woods behind my house.

When Donna first pointed it out, I thought it looked poisonous. It reminded me of a small, equally shiny version of poison ivy, only the leaves didn't come in threes and it was dotted with little red berries peeking out. The berry itself didn't look too terrifying—more like a blueberry with an inverted crown than anything that might require ipecac.

After eating several of the fruits, I am happy to report that not only am I still alive, but they taste very, very good.

Not good in an icy wintergreen gum way, like that tingly Wrigley's feeling or the way you feel after a peppermint. They have that same minty ring, but they make your mouth feel warm and sweet somehow, like you're cozied up in the tub with a good long book. The whole experience is more like pulling on a pair of wool socks than the usual wintergreen plunge-into-the-lake scenario.

No matter what, it's a good idea to do your research before you go ahead and pick. I don't want any of you keeling over on my watch, so check out the picture here and the illustration here and even take a peek at this book before you go out. Better yet, head over to Donna's farm on Saturday and she'll show you herself. She's collaborating with Slow Food Cape Cod to host a day of foraging for wild salad, with wintergreen berries at the top of the list.

Mornings like this

Some mornings start too early, with too little milk, and too far away from home. For instance, this morning. By 4:34 am I had already shampooed my hair, checked my bag, and made it through security to Gate A7 at Boston Logan. Some people, I understand, do things like this routinely, but I am not one of them. Nor do I ever hope to be.


Instead, mornings like this make me wish I could still be at home, asleep, waking up in a few hours to red and yellow tulips and a breakfast spread like the one above. Because that blackened baguette you see up there? That is a very good thing.

It’s a French thing, one that I’d heard my father talk about once or twice—but one that I’d never dreamed of making until we grew a crop of very spicy radishes this spring. They’re black radishes, nero tondo or gros noir d'hiver, from 16th century Europe, and they grow crazy fast. We have to eat at least two a day, otherwise the leaves will completely overshadow the row of scallions next door, and we might never see the spinach again. We bring them in, shower them, and scrub their skins clean. Then, I peel them off, because the other day I figured out that the skin is where the spice lives.

When it comes to radishes, I am no fan of spice.

Actually, if we're being honest, I don’t really love any radishes, spice or not. I like them alright, in a salad or a stir-fry, but for the most part, I don't think they add much. They kind of disappear between the butter lettuce and the dressing without giving even a passing kick.

But that spread above—radishes on toast? It changes all that. Or rather, I should say, very thinly sliced radishes and salted butter and sea salt on toast that is slightly burnt and still warm. The change has everything to do with the details.

For starters, the toast needs to be a little bit black. I burnt it accidentally the first time I made this, but then when I got to the end, to the tiny section of the loaf that was only golden brown, I realized it had been a serendipitous mistake. The butter tastes sweeter on slightly burnt toast, and the radishes do, too. With a sprinkling of salt, the whole thing melds together. The radishes get so bendy they nearly blend in with the butter, the toast stays stiff underneath, and the salt bring the whole thing alive.

It's the kind of breakfast that makes you want to dance around the room. But since I only have 13 minutes more of paid time on Cleaveland International's wireless at&t, I'm not going to stick around for that.

I'll see you Thursday, and you'll just have to let me know how it went.


The variety of radishes I used for this, nero tondo, is very spicy. If you're going to buy yours at the farmers' market or grow them yourself, I think I would stick with a pink variety—one that is more delicate, with a little less kick. French breakfast would be nice, or the ones that they call Easter eggs.

half a baguette, sliced in half horizontally and then cut in half again
6 or 7 large radishes, sliced very thin
butter, for shaving
sea salt to taste

Toast the baguette until it is just a little bit black. Shave as much butter as you feel is right over the warm toast in long peels. Layer with radishes, and sprinkle sea salt over top. Eat warm, with a cup of creamy coffee or sweet black tea.


The Local Food Report: making goat cheese

Goat cheese is magical. Take what it does to this salad, for instance. You pile up a heap of spinach, one warm, sliced beet, and a bit of chevre. The goat cheese melts into the warm beets, coats the spinach with a thick, oozy glaze, and with a sprinkling of sea salt, a drizzle of olive oil, and a little bit of vinegar, suddenly, there's a meal on your plate.

But what's truly magical is making goat cheese. I learned how the other day.

Jen Holloman from Ocean Song Farm in Cummaquid taught me. She brought in two gallons of fresh goats' milk from the farm, poured them into a stainless steel bucket, and heated them up over the stove. When they started to steam, we began to whisk, and after a few minutes the milk was pasteurized. We turned down the heat, and made an ice bath in the sink.

From there, the work was quick. We stirred in a bit of rennet—the enzyme that separates the milk into curds and whey—and added a bacterial culture to give the cheese that distinct, chevre taste. Thick, soft curds came together into a ball, and we poured the liquid down the sink through a cheesecloth bag. (You can use whey in some recipes for biscuits and bread—but we had enough on our hands for one day.) What remained was a malleable, creamy ball of cheese—the first chevre I'd ever made.

Sadly, as I discovered when I went to eat the cheese three days later at home, we messed the process up. We didn't let the curds and whey cool for long enough after adding the rennet—usually Jen lets them sit overnight, but since I was there, we rushed things a bit—and my cheese turned into a rubbery ball. But that wasn't the important part. The important part was that I learned the basics, and now, whenever I please, I make magic on my own.

You can too. I'm might be a bit biased, but I recommend you start by listening to this week's show, which condenses an hour of step by steps into a mere four minutes—live! Once you've heard that, you can move on to the recipe below. Just don't forget the beets and spinach—the combination of the three is far and away the best part.


recipe & step by step thanks to Jen Holloman

2 gallons goat milk
1/8 teaspoon mesophilic culture
1/2 tablet junket rennet
1/2 cup cold water
1 heaping teaspoon of salt (table or kosher)

Pour goat milk into a VERY large saucepan. Heat to 160 degrees F, and hold it there for about 45 seconds. Cool in an ice bath—or by allowing time to pass—until it reaches 90 degrees F. Add mesophilic culture and stir until completely dissolved. Dissolve rennet in water and add to milk. Add salt, and then stir, stir, stir!

Allow this mixture to sit in a nice warm area, covered with plastic wrap, for at least 6 hours. It will separate into curds (solids) and whey (liquid)—that's good. Line a colander with a cheesecloth bag and pour the curds and whey through. Once most of the whey has drained out, put the whole shooting match in the fridge—leaving the bag full of curds in the colander with a big pot beneath to catch any remaining whey drips—and let it age for three days, or up to a week. The sour taste will mellow out of the cheese a bit, and it will form a soft, creamy ball, ready to eat. Enjoy as you would any old goat cheese.

For more on the upcoming Slow Food goat cheese making class, click here.

Remember this place?

It's opening tomorrow
we'd love it if you might
stop by.


Just as nice

I don't know why everyone in Seattle is always carrying on about the rain.

So far as I can tell, it's a very cheerful city. I spent six whole days there—visiting a friend with another friend in tow—and it was sunny every one. We took the ferry out to Bainbridge Island, rented bikes and found our way to the beach, and spent the ride back shaking sand from our pants. We ate mortadella on warm, toasted buns with onion jam above Pike's Place Market, drank hot tea with fresh baguette on top of Rattlesnake Mountain, and kayaked around Union Bay with our t-shirts on.

We rang in my 24th birthday with nachos and shrimp tacos and salt-rimmed margaritas, and arrived home to find five red roses from the Fishmonger on my friend's apartment steps. We wore our flip-flops from shop to shop, tried on expensive dresses downtown, and got a coffee at the very first Starbucks at the corner of Virginia and Pike.

It did rain once, but that was the night of a book party for six of the city's food writers, and we were inside in the audience drinking red wine and devouring paella. We could hardly mind on an evening like that.

In fact, the only flaw Seattle has so far as I can tell, is that it is a very, very difficult place to come home from. Between the time difference and the overnight flying and the sudden disappearance of acceptable coffee, it has me walking around like some sort of sleepless dead. Or rather, it did, until I realized the rhubarb was in.

Driving down Route 6, I saw the tractor set up with a cooler full of stalks and a neat printed sign: F-R-E-S-H R-H-U-B-A-R-B. I had to pinch myself at first, to be sure it had really arrived, but when I picked up the pink, satin bundle, handed over my five dollars, and untied the twine, I couldn't help but do a little dance.

Then I rushed home to bake a pie.

It came out perfectly—whether because of the egg in the filling or the milk and sugar I brushed on top, I really don't know. Either way, it woke me up right away. I forgave Seattle for the jet-lag, took a shower, and brewed a pot of tea.

Because after all, coffee and cities are nice. But between the rhubarb and the ice cream, home is just as good.


I bought the rhubarb for this pie from a friend, Jim Rose, who sells it from a very cute little tractor in his front yard. He only puts it out on sunny days, across from the Post Office on Route 6 in Wellfleet. The stalks go for $2.50 a pound.

Jim is also the one who told me the secret about using eggs. Adding a few to the filling makes the pie much less runny, and forms a nice sort of custardy layer around the fruit. I like to use the "Tart and Pie Crust" recipe from Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food, but if you have a different favorite, feel free to use that.

Also, I bake my pies in a 12-inch Emile Henry plate that my sister gave me as a graduation present, so this recipe makes a lot more filling than you'd need for a 9-inch plate. I'd cut everything by a third if your plate is small.

6 cups rhubarb, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
3 cups granulated sugar
1 and 1/2 cups flour
3 eggs, whisked together

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a large mixing bowl, stir together rhubarb, sugar, and flour. Add the eggs, mix well, and spoon the mixture into a 12-inch pie plate draped with a bottom crust. Place a top crust over the fruit and working your way around the edge of the pie, pinch the two crusts together. Roll them over into a thick edge and press the dough against the lip of the plate. Once you’ve made your way around, use a knife to cut several slits in a radial pattern in the top of the crust.

Brush the crust with a paste of equal parts milk or cream and granulated sugar. Bake for 30 minutes, then turn the heat down to 325 degrees F and bake for another 20, or until the filling has set. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.