Archive for April, 2006

FORSYTHIA MADNESS (GOING FOR THE GOLD)

I hate to gush – ok, I don’t hate to gush – only giving fair warning that paragraphs are about to be spent swooning over the forsythia. It’s spectacular in the Hudson Valley, friends tell me the same is (was) true at least as far south as Pennsylvania and if the buds are any indication; it’s going to be amazing in Maine, any minute now.

Every spring is wonderful – how can a plant be so blindingly sunny – but I think this is the best I’ve ever seen it… seems like every single bud came through the winter unscathed.

Forsythia as a plant is tough, but the buds often get frozen; that’s why after a hard winter you often see bushes with only a skirt of flowers, all the color close to the ground where it was protected by snow.

common forsythia

Common Forsythia (F. x intermedia), unknown cultivar from a friend

In theory, forsythia can be attacked by bugs and diseases, but the only problem I’ve ever seen is age. Best bloom comes on 2nd, 3rd and 4th year stems , so when the bush is choked with ancient trunks that can’t manage much in the way of new sprouts, total bloom begins to decline. The standard rule is to prune yearly, after the 4th year, by removing the oldest stems at the base, but I’ve never been that fanatical. It’s easier to just look at the bush and see what’s blooming well and what’s not. Unbranched young shoots won’t be flowering, but their youth is obvious, so there’s not much chance of making mistakes.

There is, however, a chance to make a great many more plants: common forsythia is as easy to propagate as willow. Just keep the stems in water – changing it every week or so – until root initials form along the submerged part.

Forsythia spreads like a weed, and a lot of ’em ARE weedy, but there are at least seven species and more than 40 cultivars, including many dwarf types, several that are variegated, and one : Forsythia viridissima var koreana ‘Kumson,’ that has white veins in its dark green leaves and looks like a real stunner. It’s rated hardy to zone 6, so it ought to be ok in the mid and lower Hudson Valley, and I intend to give it a try in Maine, too…

The widest choice is by mail-order , from sources like Rare Find Nursery and Forestfarm, but the more alert local nurseries also offer good selections, and many of them will special order if you ask, especially if you ask when they aren’t crazy-busy. Wholesalers sell far more
goodies than retailers have room to display

Department of Just in Case You Were Wondering: There is a European species (from the Balkans), but most forsythias are native to Asia. Plant hunter Robert Fortune is credited with bringing them to the West, in 1844, but the botanical name honors Scottish botanist William Forsyth (1737-1804), a major player in British horticulture who ran the Chelsea physic garden, started an international seed and plant exchange, and wound up as King George 3rd’s chief superintendent of the royal gardens at Kensington and St James’s.

Yummy Weeds, part 2 ( Chervil and Coriander)

herbweed

That’s chervil on the left, nestled up against dandelion, another delicious weed (harvesting and recipe tips below – in the entry for April 3rd). No pic of the coriander – yet. It’s too windy every time I think of it…

The first seeds we planted (peas) have barely broken the surface, but the coriander and chervil that planted themselves are off and running; chervil vinaigrettes have been on the menu for several weeks now and we had the first guacamole with homegrown cilantro about 10 days ago.

Having these two in abundance after a winter of pallid store cilantro* and no chervil at all, what a thrill!

The flavors are very different; clean-spicy anise-y chervil has nothing in common with the funky richness of cilantro except a penetrating greenness, but in the garden they are almost twins:

Both are cool weather plants that sprout early, go to flower in the summer and make a second crop in fall.

Both are rampant self-sowers; just let a few of those flowers ripen and drop seeds and you can have truly delicious weeds.

Both are easy to remove if they do show up in the wrong spot, in part because both are tap rooted, which means

Both will either die or bolt ( send up flower stalks) if you try to transplant seedlings. Same goes for dill, another annual herb that should always be grown from seed. Parsley is tap rooted, too, and often presents the same problem, but because it’s a biennial it’s tougher. Parsley seedlings can move successfully as long as they are still very small and young.

The not-twin part is in the seeds:

Chervil seed should be very fresh, it doesn’t keep well from year to year. Cilantro seed is much longer lived. Also much cheaper to buy in bulk as spice. It won’t germinate if it’s been irradiated, but it usually hasn’t, so there’s no reason to buy those little dinky packets. Seeds cost less than a dollar an ounce when they’re sold as flavoring – for chili / sweet yeast breads/ gin…

Chervil seed is no special culinary delight, but coriander is not only great dried ( the classic spice use), it’s also delicious when green and soft. The flavor is right between funky leaf and sweet-flowery dried , wonderful in sauces for fish, in potato salad…

*cilantro is the most common US name for the leaves of the coriander plant, and is used here for convenience.

Standing Tall ( Slowly)

I know this is the age of instant gratification, but – this being the season – let’s hear it for planting young trees. The rewards ( I speak from experience) are huge: a personal forest – or great big hedge, or both – isn’t simply a visual treat and haven for Our Friends The Birds, it’s also shelter from road noise, wind, and whatever lies next door. And as long as you don’t go overboard, trees are a terrific investment. Deposit a 4 to 6 footer now, enjoy a major increase in property value when it hits the 14 foot mark – or, of course, soars beyond.

Our hemlock hedge, for instance, is about a hundred trees long, so it had to start out as young ‘uns. We paid 5 or 10 bucks apiece – this being 12 years ago, more or less – for an assortment of rather spindly 4 to 5 footers. Two years later, when the tallest had barely hit 6 feet and were still more promise than performance I got antsy. Bought a bunch of 10 footers, at about 40 bucks a pop, to plant in front of the most grievous eyesore.

Sure enough it DID make an immediate difference, but the little guys only took 2 or 3 more years to catch up, and once they did that was it for the benefit – annual pruning evened it all out. Now that every tree in the hedge is 14 to 16 or more feet tall, you can’t tell which is which.

tall hemlock hedge

That’s Bill with the electric pruner, on a 12 foot ladder.

 

Other benefits of starting small:

* small trees suffer less damage when taken from the field, so they recover more quickly when planted ( big trees usually stay the same height for at least a couple of years ; they’re too busy repairing their roots to do much of anything else.).

* small trees are DIY, which matters huge when you’re talking about a lot of them. You can pick up a 4 footer without serious consequences for your back. You can dig a hole for it without taking all day, and you can keep it watered … even a skinny 8 foot tree needs about 20 gallons of water each week – more if the weather is hot and windy.

The alternative, if you’re planning to stay put for a long while or have truly extensive tree needs, is a whole bunch of the tiny trees sold super-cheaply by many soil and water conservation districts and slightly less cheaply but still bargainish by mail order tree-nurseries. These’re little sticks, about 18 inches tall… it’s gonna be a long time to glory; and you do have to spray ’em against deer for at least the first couple of years. But they’re certainly easy; one stroke of the shovel is all it takes. And the price is right: here in Dutchess County, NY, it’s $16.50 for a bundle of 10 Norway spruce, each of which will ( or more properly, can) grow 50 or more feet tall.

The pre-order period is over so there are no guarantees, but leftover bundles are usually available at the yearly plant sale at the Farm and Home center on Rte. 44 in Pleasant Valley. It’s April 21 and 22 ; be there early or be disappointed. For further details call 845 677 8011, extension 3, or see the website.

A Fool For Dandelions

I’m seldom out ahead of the pack, but I did get fooled before April 1st. On the most recent podcast , to be exact, when Dean sidetracked my passionate defense of home cooking into a celebration of dandelions.

Well, okay. Not the best argument for home cooking. But a GREAT example of great food close to home. Dandelions are everywhere, first green of the season. They’re delicious (like endive, only more so) and almost obscenely good for you : tons of vitamin A, quantities of B complex, C, and D, plus iron, potassium, and zinc.

To say nothing of absolutely free,

BULLETIN: Just looked out at the feeder. The goldfinches are golden again, drab winter plumage all gone.

WILTED DANDELIONS

This is the way I learned to love them when I was a kid in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Italians have other ideas, which will be addressed another time.

For about 4 to 6 side dish servings or dinner for 2

A good sized heap – half a brown paper grocery bag full – of young dandelions ( see below) or other bitter greens, washed and coarsely chopped

½ pound bacon

1/3 cup cider vinegar

1/3 cup water

3 or 4 tablespoons brown sugar

Several turns of the pepper mill

A bit of minced garlic is not authentic but is tasty

2 hardboiled eggs

1. Let the greens come to room temperature in a large, heatproof bowl. Cook the bacon in a heavy skillet over low heat until very crisp.

2. Set the bacon aside to drain and pour off all but about 1/3 cup of the bacon fat. Put the pan aside, off the heat. Crumble the bacon and slice the eggs thinly.

3. Add the vinegar, water, sugar , pepper (and garlic) to the skillet and bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When sugar is dissolved, bring dressing to a rolling boil and pour it over the greens. Toss thoroughly. Garnish with bacon and hard egg and serve.

(If the season is almost over and the greens are on the serious side, cook them briefly in the dressing … just until wilted.)

To Harvest and Clean Dandelions:

Size doesn’t matter – the older the root, the larger the rosette of leaves – but youth is crucial: go for plants with small, tight flowerbuds buried in the center. Once buds start swelling, greens turn bitter and tough.

Cut the rosette at ground level. Discard any discolored leaves and trim off the dirt-covered base before dropping the rest in your bag or basket.

Separate leaves and chop coarsely, then dump in a large bowl of cool water. Swish ’em around, then lift into a colander. Discard sandy water in bowl. Repeat until no more sand comes out. It almost always takes 3 passes and often takes more .

(Taste a leaf, bearing in mind that the dressing will gentle them quite a bit. If they still seem mindbendingly bitter, let them soak in cool water for an hour or two). Drain so they’re not sopping wet but don’t worry about drying them.