Archive for February, 2006

Say Cheese

It should probably be said at the outset that I’m more or less the dairy queen; if it’s got butterfat in it, I’m for it. But I’m particularly fond of cheese, which leads us to a recent party where Masako, a friend from the city, wandered into the kitchen as I was butchering a rather elderly Barat.
“What’s that? ” she asked. “It’s a local cheese, ” I said, “comes from a place called Sprout Creek Farm . It’s a cow cheese – nutty and mild, a bit on the dry side … (especially this one, I thought without saying) It’ll be great with the red wine you brought.”
Meanwhile the Barat is coming apart in very funny looking chunks – you can only cut it neatly when it’s very fresh – so of course I handed her a piece.
She chewed. I unwrapped crackers and went looking for the walnuts. ” Where IS this farm? ” she asked. ” Far from here? Do we have time to go there before dinner? ”
Point of story: it’s easy to forget how far American cheese has come in just the last little while. The Barat, for instance, is local in the Hudson Valley, which has lately become a hotbed ( coolbed ? ) of very tasty cheese. If you go to the website of the New York State Farmstead Artisan Cheese Makers Guild, you’ll find links to 20 farms, each of which makes multiple cheeses: cheddars and blues and gouda-types, ricottas and fetas…almost all from the milk of beasts that live outdoors in summer and eat grass, almost all cheese that tastes of this place and nowhere else.
Stop me before I swoon… Of course every one of these marvels is either pasteurized or aged for at least 60 days. It’s against the law to sell the kind of goozy, fresh raw milk cheeses that you eat in Europe and think, well, maybe I could buy a little apartment and just live here part of the year. But one Wisconsin cheesemaker has found a way around this problem and it’s such a lovely idea it deserves widespread dissemination.
The story comes by way of Steve Jenkins, one of the country’s best known cheesemongers, currently plying his trade – and blogging –at Manhattan’s famed Fairway market. The entry is for January 21st; the teller is one of Jenkins’ suppliers, a woman named Mary Falk. She sent him some splendid fresh raw milk cheese, he asked what it was called. And here in shortened form is what she said:

” The ‘cheese’ is currently called “Fishbait” since it is only 6 weeks old and made from raw Jersey cow’s milk… My customers have been routinely asking me for young, fresh, grassy raw milk cheeses. For the past 10 years I have dutifully told them that it is against the law in Wisconsin and Minnesota to sell raw milk cheese aged less than 60 days for human consumption. This has always been a sore spot for me since our farmstead milk is so darn clean.”

Then she explains and says a whole lot more ( it’s a long story, but well worth reading). Then she describes an aborted attempt to sell the raw milk cheese as cat food. THEN she says:

” I phoned the Department of Natural Resources and asked them what, if any, license requirements were necessary to produce fishbait. The DNR said that it would be nice if the product was bio-degradable. I said that we could do that.
So now we bring Fishbait to the St. Paul Farmers’ Market and we sell it with a sign that states that it is not legal to sell raw milk cheese aged less than 60 days for human consumption … so we bring it to the citizens of Minnesota, Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, as “Fishbait”.
We have been EXTENSIVELY inspected by the state of Wisconsin because of our Fishbait, and also by the USFDA, but it seems OK so far to sell the product in this manner as long as the public is properly notified that it is fishbait, and not legal cheese… ”

Ms. Falk has not copyrighted the name fishbait and is actually hopeful that cheesemakers elsewhere will follow her lead.
Me too. But while we’re waiting, there is plenty of great local cheese being made – in plenty of localities. For a partial – and very impressive – guide to what’s shaking nationwide, check out the member-locator map at the American Cheese Society.

A Good Word (or two) for Spiraea

Rereading Vita Sackville-West ( see below) reminds me to say a good word for spiraea, specifically the early bloomers that just had a sort of bloom-time preview because they were covered with snow. The ones in our yard are Spirea arguta, the old fashioned bridal wreath, and S. vanhouttei, which runs it a close second in the grandmother’s garden department. Soon enough they’ll be flowering in earnest, along with thousands of others just like them, in untidy great white arching hedges all over the Northeastern spring.

Like lilacs and forsythia, they lack a bit in year-round charm. But in their season, they’re glorious, they’re very easy to grow, and there are so many cultivars you’re bound to find one that will work at your place. ( One cultivar, that is. I can’t imagine one white spiraea looking like much except lonely.)

To get a better sense of what’s out there than any local nursery can provide, a sense more sensible than Google’s omnium-gatherum, go to  Plantinfo online,
a service of the University of Minnesota. It provides access to:

” current sources in over 700 North American nurseries for over 88,000 plants, an estimated 250,000 – 300,000 citations to current plant science literature, listings for more than 2100 North American seed and nursery firms, and an evaluative review of 75 CD-ROMs and web sites of plant images.”

What you do not have is the human voice , which leads us back to Ms. Sackville-West, whose real name was Victoria Mary. She was a novelist and poet, a member of the British aristocracy, the lover and friend of Virginia Wolf and a whole lot else that we won’t go into now because I want to get right to her garden writing, and point you toward her white garden, at Sissinghurst, the most famous white garden in the West and inspiration for countless others.

Few of those others approach it in beauty, partly because they are not located on the grounds of Kentish castles and partly because – all too often – they’re just collections of white flowered items, rather than carefully designed gardens in which all flowers are white.

More on garden design to come, but for now, a few words from Vita Sackville-West. They come from A Joy of Gardening, a collection drawn from two of her books ( In Your Garden Again and More for Your Garden) published by Harper and Row in 1958 and now out of print. But that doesn’t mean much. Those books – and the others based on Sackville-West’s garden columns – have been and continue to be more or less continuously recycled, as a quick check at Amazon or your favorite used book store will reveal. Whatever form you find them in, these short pieces are inspiring and entertaining in equal measure and who can say fairer than that?

” One of the prettiest and easiest of spring flowering shrubs is surely spiraea arguta, more descriptively known as bridal wreath or foam of May. In a warm season it may well start foaming in April ; and foam it does, for every one of its black twiggy growths is smothered tight with innumerable tiny white flowers. In fact you cannot see the plant for the flowers…
Obviously the pure candor of its whiteness would look best against the dark background of a yew hedge, or any dark shrubs if yew is not available. There comes a moment at twilight when white plants gleam with a peculiar pallor or ghostliness. I dare to say of white, that neutral tint usually regarded as an absence of color, that it is every bit as receptive to changing light as the blues and reds and purples. It may perhaps demand a patiently observing eye, attuned to a subtlety less crude than the strong range of reds and purples that we get in, say, the herbaceous phloxes which miraculously alter their hue as the evening light sinks across them. I love color, and rejoice in it, but white is lovely to me forever…”

Those Muffins

Sorry it took so long, but here are the muffins discussed at some length back on February 4th.


Honesty compels me to admit the low-fat version was an accident ( I was melting the butter on the woodstove in another room, and you know what they say about “out of sight…”). But it turns out these muffins are very tasty – maybe even tastier – when the only butter you use is used to grease the cups. Just be warned that that’s tasty, not tender; texture is definitely better when you put the butter in. And muffins made with no added fat get stale a lot faster.

For 12 muffins:

1 cup wheat bran
1 1/3 cups whole milk yogurt
¼ cup butter (optional, see above), plus butter for the pan(s)
1 ¾ cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 ½ tsp. fresh* baking powder
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp salt, or a bit more if it’s unsalted butter
2 extra-large eggs
¼ cup lightly piled* brown sugar
¼ cup molasses
3 tbl. wheat germ
¾ cup light or dark raisins or diced dried apricots or any combination thereof.

1. Set oven to 400 degrees.

2. In a small bowl, mix the bran with about half the yogurt. Set aside. In another small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

3. Melt the butter if using. Heavily butter a dozen* 1/3-cup muffin cups.

4. Use the whisk to lightly beat the eggs, then beat in the remaining yogurt, brown sugar, molasses, wheat germ and reserved bran mixture.

5. Switch to a large mixing spoon and quickly stir in the fruit lumps, then the flour mixture. Distribute among the prepared muffin cups, filling them 3/4 to 4/5 full (these don’t rise all that much). Bake until well browned and dry-toothpick producing, about 20 minutes. Cool briefly in the pan before turning out onto a rack or into the breadbasket.

* Fresh Baking Powder: Unless you’re really big for biscuits or belong to Cornbread Nation, it’s quite likely your can of baking powder has been around long enough to lose lifting power. If you have reason to suspect staleness, dissolve a teaspoon or so in a half cup of hot water and watch for vigorous fizzing. Medium fizzing is ok – just use 2 teaspoons. But languid bubbles or none at all mean it’s time for a new can.

*Measuring Brown Sugar: Because brown sugars vary so much in comparative loft, the famous instruction “tightly packed” helps ensure accuracy when you’re measuring by volume. But I can’t bring myself to call for “2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons tightly packed brown sugar,” which is about the amount you want. (In theory, tight packing also smooths lumps. In theory. )

* Muffin Cups: Hold quite different amounts, so it pays to measure. It also pays to use two 6-cup pans instead of one that holds a dozen. The 2 in the middle of a 12 cupper don’t get as much heat as those on the outside, so they tend to rise less and cook less quickly.

Snowdrop Season

We are back in the cold again, but there’s something temporary about it and the snowdrops are here already, earlier this year than ever before in our 15 years in this house. They must have came up sometime around New Years’, because they were in full bloom when we first saw them, on January 31st.

It’s just one valiant little clump – over on the north side of the yard, underneath a group of tall hemlocks, beside the now- pointless privet hedge that used to screen a patio. That little slope will soon sprout creeping phlox and forget-me-nots and columbines and willowy hyacinths from the forced pots of years and years gone by, but in the early season it’s just green – or brown or white , depending – and those chaste-looking little flowers: white bells with dots or strokes of green that you must tip them up to see.

They’re probably Galanthus nivalis, or elwesii, I’ve never taken the time to see for sure. There are about 13 species of Galanthus, whose name comes from Greek words for milk and flower, and dozens and dozens of cultivars. Most of them bloom super-early, often through the snow. But according to the RHS , ” snowdrop” is not an environmental reference; it comes to us from the German Schneetropfen, a style of earring popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.

I’m not sure I believe this. Germans have been plant-conscious for a lot longer than a few centuries and it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn the earrings were named for the flowers. * In any case, the Society also says: “Several English vernacular names pre-date the name snowdrop, including Candlemas bells and fair maids of February, both of which are associated with Candlemas Day, 2 February, which is the peak of the flowering season.”

American bulb-sellers don’t offer anything like the assortment available to the Brits, but for a look at the possibilities, check out When you do, you’ll see dozens of subtle differences. You’ll also see that they’re all little white bells, and will probably be reconciled to the selections offered by and

Because snowdrops bloom in spring, catalog sellers often put them in the autumn offerings and they often sell dry bulbs to plant along with the tulips and things. But most authorities agree that snowdrops should be planted “in the green,” and that is certainly when you should divide them, if you have access to a patch. I’ll post instructions here in early March.

Snowdrops are long lived and seldom bothered, though in wet years they get a fungus disease related to the one that whacks peonies, and in places where early spring is warm, they’re vulnerable to the narcissus bulb fly – a pernicious creature that should be called the amaryllis bulb fly. (Galanthus, like Narcissus, is in the Amaryllidaceae.) If you summer your amaryllis outside and have had trouble with bulbs that went hollow in the middle, it’s likely you’d see a fat hideous bulb-fly grub if you cut one in half. To avoid this problem in future, don’t put your amaryllis out until July, after the flies have laid their eggs.

*Note: After the podcast, my German friend Ilse wrote in to say that she grew up calling snowdrops Schneeglöckchen (snow bells). But she is only in her 80’s, so that may be the (comparatively) modern name.

Cabin Fever Relievers

Okay, 40 degrees and rainy doesn’t fix it. It’s been November for months and it looks like it’s going to keep right on BEING November right through February. Only thing for it is to work hard at getting the garden orders together, then go in the kitchen and bake something – like maybe bran muffins.

Let me start by confessing that up until a couple of weeks ago, I had not eaten a bran muffin for – I dunno – 20 years. Then my friend M., who prides herself on her bran muffins, gave us a whole plateful. VERY tasty. And very conveniently filling : have one of these mothers for breakfast and you’re all set until lunch. They were toasty tasting without being toasted, chock full of raisins, and reminiscent of gingerbread in their overtones of molasses.

Almost perfect, in other words, except for being just slightly sweeter than my ideal, and a bit less wheaty.

Reason suggests the way to deal with this is to ask for the recipe, then modify . We are not talking about fancy pastry here; muffins are among the most forgiving baked goods in all creation. You can almost always cut back some on sugar without destroying the crumb, and getting a stronger grain flavor is often as simple as upping the salt.

But no, that would be too… well, anyway, I started fooling around with recipes. Go to your cookbook collection and look up a few – turns out they call for differing amounts of every major ingredient: flour, bran, sugar, eggs, fat, you name it. Yield varies too: 8 muffins, 10 muffins, 9 muffins. For reasons that are probably related to the non-divisibility of eggs, there are very few recipes for 6 muffins or 12 muffins, numbers that are, as you may have noticed, favorites with makers of muffin pans.

I have every expectation that version 4 – coming up shortly – will finally produce my ideal bran muffin, and getting there has been half the fun. It will be posted here when it’s ready, so you can start playing too.

On the garden front, a few less-common catalogs:
Baker Creek Heirloom seeds: One of my favorites for the food garden. You have to read between the lines – the descriptions are sort of like olive grading, where giant is the smallest and they aren’t actually large until you get to super colossal. And Baker Creek is in Missouri, so they do much better with things like melons and eggplants than Northerners are likely to. But THAT at least they’re forthright about. The prices are fair. The service is good. And the selection is splendid: about 80 kinds of winter squash, really a lot of whacky eggplants, stuff like that.

Select seeds antique flowers: The name says it all, and although it IS mostly seeds, this is also a good place to get small plants of unusual tender things like blue-flowered thunbergia, a fancy ( and alas rather fussy) relative of good old black eyed Susan vine.

Arrowhead Alpines: This guy is a master of that esoteric artform: the fabulously cranky plant catalog. It’s all text, no drawings or photos. No common names. There are no climate zones. Pot sizes are hinted at but not always given and not guaranteed. You pays yer money – which tends to be quite a lot of it, especially after you add in the shipping – and you gets what they have to send you. The kicker of course is that what they have to send you is all sorts of rare treats, grown by genuine plant nuts who really love their metier.