Archive for May, 2006


Now that it’s over it’s safe to say that this was not the best of morel years in the mid Hudson Valley. Early fruitings were   poor,   late ones abundant but caught by the rain. Dedicated (i.e. constant) hunters did ok, but we were able to go out only 8 or 10 times and thus ended up with only a few meal’s worth and   nothing to put by. Over and over we either found nothing or   found the ultimate frustration: carpets of riches too old and rain-ruined to be worth gathering. Fortunately,   Bill the determined never quits and on his final trip of the season came home with about 7   pounds of gigantic blondes.

Which we have of course been eating and eating in all of the usual ways, and some less usual ones too, including as a rich saucelike mélange of morels and corn. The combo   is an affront to freshness –   corn and morels are at opposite ends of abundance season – and I can’t vouch for how this would taste with supermarket corn, but frozen home-grown Silver Queen from last fall was great.

We used it to blanket pork chops and still had quite a bit left over, so the next night when it was Bill’s turn to cook he used it as stuffing for an enormous honker morel almost 8 inches long. ( He halved the thing,   egg-and-crumbed the pieces, shallow-fried   them crisp and then applied the reheated sauce mixture at the very last minute).


For 4 generous portions:

Slowly cook a diced medium onion in 2 tablespoons of butter until it is semi-caramelized, starting to get deep brown around the edges. Add about 4 loosely-packed cups of coarsely chopped mature morels (3 cups would probably be enough if they were young and less copiously juicy).   Let stew uncovered, stirring from time to time, until the morels are fully cooked and liquid is reduced to a few tablespoons. Add a slug of Madeira , simmer for a minute or two, then add 1 ½ cups of very tender cooked corn and about 1/3 cup of heavy, not-ultrapasteurized cream. As soon as these items are hot, it’s done. Taste, add salt if needed and serve.

One of Bill’s finds, with the proper cooking fat.

Best Bet Seedlings

Just realized I promised – on the vhv podcast – to post a list of summer annuals that it makes sense to buy as seedlings, either because they’re fussy to start, because they have timing issues related to light-levels, or because they take a long time between seed-in-the-ground and bloom. For those that do better directly-seeded, see the post below.

In no particular order: petunias, snapdragons, impatiens, stock, tall marigolds and giant zinnias (shorter plants and smaller flowers are pretty swift), cosmos, China asters, bells of Ireland, lisianthus, scabiosa – aka pincushion-flower, statice, and crested celosia – the cockscomby ones. Plume type celosias are faster and can be started from seed.

Annual Flowers

In spite of the persistent cold, the annual annual fever is on me: can’t resist mop-headed China asters, tall snapdragons (I love old fashioned black prince, the one with the black green leaves and deep, velvety red flowers), fragrant little yellow Lemon Gem marigolds, cosmos, petunias – and let’s hear a good word for petunias, hey. Not the doubles that look squirted out of a can, like the whipped cream on a cheap sundae, but those like the Wave hybrids that have decently small, simple flowers with some of the old fashioned petunia fragrance but not the old fashioned petunia tendency to collapse utterly at the first raindrop. And…

You know how it goes: take a quick trip to the garden center to get a new pair of gloves or a half-pound of grass seed and the next thing you know you’re wandering down the aisles, drawn by that patchwork carpet of bright colors, each teeny plant in its tiny cell putting out flowers that call, “buy me, buy me, buy ME!”

It can be hard to ignore them, but it’s better to buy the ones that are still more potential than performance, stocky little guys with multiple stems and healthy-looking leaves. And when I say little I do mean little. Best trick is to mutter “roots, roots” while shopping . After all, with constant water and fertilizer an annual can grow 8, 10 inches – a foot and more – tall in a pot the size of an ice cube, but that plant is going to have major adjustment problems when it moves into the garden.

And while we’re on the subject of seedlings, I see to my horror some places are selling baby sunflowers. SUNFLOWERS! There are gazillions of terrific sunflowers – classic yellows with one huge flower, like Russian Giant, not classic dark reds like Velvet Queen, that makes a huge, flower covered bush, and just about everything in between although as yet none are purple ( thank heaven for small mercies).

Point of rant: all of them will make MUCH better plants if you start them from seed. Nasturtiums , too, which are also more and more sold as seedlings but phooey on that, and here are a few more

Things that should be started from seed: poppies, evening-scented stock (Matthiola bicornis) coriander, annual phlox (Phlox drummondii), larkspur, annual lupine, morning glories… I’d say sweet peas , too. But those should be in by now.

Growing (Delicious) Asparagus

Is easy, asparagus being a crop that offers fabulous returns for very little work. Admittedly, it’s a project to plant, involving the preparation of a deep trench and lots of good soil to fill same. But you only do THAT once every 15 to 20 years; in between there is nothing but semi – yearly maintenance: spring mulching; fall cleanup and fertilizing. That’s it, unless you count harvesting.

I don’t. Picking asparagus is not work. Neither is cutting the beautiful tall ferns to enhance summer bouquets.

In short, assuming you plan to stay put for a while, there is just one thing about asparagus that can be a deal breaker: It isn’t small. A row generous enough for 4 people to pig out all season takes about 30 x 3 feet and that’s a substantial chunk of real estate.

On the other hand, asparagus needn’t be in the vegetable garden. The ferns are handsome enough to make it a suitable background for roses, say, or you could use it to mask a pool fence… or

Anything that lets you grow your own. Truly fresh asparagus is right up there with truly fresh peas, a vegetable apart.

Variety also matters, though this is one case where just about all of them are tasty – differences mostly come in looks , yield, and disease resistance. Only one, the new(ish) Purple Passion, is substantially sweeter than the others. It’s also reputed to contain less of the compounds that some smell in urine ( Not everyone pees asparagus pee; and of those who do, not all of them can smell it. )

I asked Bill what kind he planted when he set ours, 13 years ago. “Whatever they were selling at the Agway,” he said. “Jersey King, maybe, or maybe it was Martha Washington.” So much for being fussy about varieties. Whatever we have is plenty tasty enough, but it is highly variable… and there are so many female plants I think it’s probably old standard Martha, even though early releases of J. King were not as all-male as promised.

More serious truck gardeners would have dug up and discarded the less spear-productive females – easy to distinguish because they have berries – but we have so many plants (about 75 feet of row; it’s a long story, mostly about greed) that we haven’t bothered. Even now when I’m getting ready to plant some Purple Passion, I’ll just put it at the end of one of the rows we already have.

We’ll get our Purple Passion from Nourse Farms , the same place we got the strawberries extolled back on May 1st. An alternative source is Pinetree Garden Seeds. The Nourse website has good planting instructions, complete with diagrams.

Our neighbor Dan’s Purple Passion, just starting

He offered to weed when he saw the camera, but I told him the unexpurgated version was probably more inspiring. Once it gets well established, asparagus is not easily discouraged by a little competition.

Wild Strawberries

When it comes to Foods the Americas Gave the World (as the Smithsonian once described them), the Americas in question are mostly South and Central, original homes of tomatoes, potatoes, corn , chiles, chocolate and vanilla, just for starters. Once you head North, there aint much shakin’ except wild rice and maple syrup.

But there are the world’s best strawberries, tiny wild strawberries, Fragaria virginiana, the ones that Roger Williams was talking about when he said, in 1643 “…this berry is the wonder of all fruits growing naturally in these parts. It is of itself excellent so that one of the chiefest doctors of England was wont to say, that God could have made, but never did make a better berry. …”

Still true – and one of the wonderful things about them is their subtle variation: color, shape and sweetness all depending on the soil, the shade, the weather of the season. Always delicious but never predictable, the best are so intensely fragrant it takes just a handful to lift a whole quart of garden berries into the sublime.

A mercy, that, because picking wild strawberries is – let us not say a pain – but certainly not a task for the time pressed. The biggest one I’ve ever found was about the size of a nickel, though plumper, and you do have to know a good spot; thickly carpeted with plants – each one bears just a few fruits – and undercarpeted with grass, leaves or some other barrier to sand and dirt. (washing any strawberry is bad, washing the wild ones is criminal – and usually ineffective. )

It would be easier if you could move some into the garden, but for some reason you can’t. Or rather, you can move the plants; but they will remain just as shy bearing and the fruit won’t taste the same.
Enter fraises de bois, wood strawberries, F. vesca, often called wild strawberries by the wishful thinkers who write menus. Slightly larger than the wild ones and very easy to grow in gardens, they are dependably delicious — if you believe the catalogs.

Over the years, I’ve grown several varieties, including Alexandra and Baron Solemacher, each of which is often touted as tastiest. Every one of them, to a strawberry, tasted exactly like fake grape flavoring – the kind in cheap candy and gum. ( should say they taste the way this flavor smells on the breaths of others. I must have consumed some when a child but that was quite a while ago).

I am not alone in this opinion. A brief supporting quote – from Eleanor Pereny’s garden classic, Green Thoughts, is on the May 4th podcast from Virtual Hudson Valley.
Perenyi, who attributes the whole fraise de bois phenom to savvy marketing, starts out by quoting Alice B. Toklas, another authority to be reckoned with: ” The small strawberries, called by the French wood strawberries, are not wild but cultivated. It took me an hour to gather a small basket for Gertrude Stein’s breakfast, and later when there was a plantation of them in the upper garden our young guests were told that if they cared to eat them, they should do the picking themselves.”

I wouldn’t add these words (from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook) if it weren’t for the next paragraph, forgotten until I went back to find the strawberries:

” The first gathering in the garden in May of Salads, radishes and herbs made me feel like a mother about her baby – how could anything so beautiful be mine. And this emotion of wonder filled me for each vegetable as it was gathered every year. There is nothing that is comparable to it, as satisfactory or as thrilling, as gathering the vegetables one has grown.”

(Green Thoughts and Ms. Toklas’ Cookbook have languished out of print from time to time but both are now readily available as inexpensive paperbacks..)

plum lovely

More on strawberries – and cream – shortly. Meanwhile a bit of garden serendipity. Was just weeding under the plum trees and came across this souvenir of late last year who knows when. Leaf is a bit of garlic mustard – evil weed! Beetle genus and species a mystery but if you take that metallic blue and pump it up tenfold you’ll see what I saw – tiny and shining in the shifting shade.



When it comes to strawberries, I’ve been a yoyo gardener for years. They do come under the heading of “one more thing,” and the Northeast is gratifyingly full of pick your own farms that grow decent varieties. Result: the patch languishes and by and by I take it out. Then I taste something delicious, or write a story and remember how easy they are to grow. Next thing you know, I’m out there setting a small bed – just enough to, you know, make sure there are enough to nibble on.

Any more, all we grow is Tristar, best tasting of the day neutrals, varieties that can bear from spring to fall because they don’t depend on day length to trigger flowering. ( This year I was going to try Everest, supposedly even better. But by the time I got around to ordering, they were all sold out…

Many strawberry connoisseurs feel about day neutrals the way I feel about “early” tomatoes, namely: ” so what? I’d rather just eat great ones in season and let it go at that.” But early tomatoes are always followed by more wonderful tomatoes, whereas day neutral strawberries just keep coming, long after the spring wonderfuls are gone. With day neutrals, the smallish spring crop starts a season that runs through summer, peaks in early fall, then continues at a modest pace until stopped by hard frost.

That said, the fussbudgets are right about flavor – the tastiest action is all in old fashioned June bearers, original fruit of the 18th century cross between tiny, super sweet North American Fragaria virginiana and bland but big F. chiloensis, from the continent to the south.

There are several hundred named June bearers, though you’d never know it by shopping – whether for fruit OR for plants. Strawberries are still 2 or 3 decades behind tomatoes in the heirloom awareness/ variety savvy department.

Yet – let’s all fall over with surprise – there are umptillion kinds of home garden strawberries that beat out most commercial fruit, for the usual home garden reasons: no need for durability, no need to turn red before ripening, no need to whap out large crops all at once to cut down on field labor…

June bearers that have been delicious for us include ‘Northeaster’, somewhat shy bearing but very flavorful; ‘Fairfax’, which spoils in less than a day from the plant – too juicy! – and is close to wild strawberries for the fragaria part, and good old fashioned ‘Sparkle’, on the small side but otherwise yummy and grown by several pick your owns, the fact that frees us to focus on Tristar.

For more – far far more – about garden strawberries, check out the excellent strawberry site put up by let’s hear it for a GOOD use of tax dollars! the National Agricultural Library

I get my plants from Nourse Farms
Strawberries in the kitchen to come – after they’re better in market.

Meanwhile, possibly under the influence of the buzz about “Feeding Desire” the Cooper-Hewitt’s new utensil show (new show, old utensils), I started hankering after an – I confess, second – silver berry spoon, for the ultimate in dishing ’em out. On eBay: 12089 “strawberry” items; 542 in home daécor; 1 – one! – silver berry spoon. At google: 11,600 responses to a request for “silver berry spoon.” In the garden, fortunately for my budget: 11,600 things that need planting/weeding/mulching… and picking. The asparagus is up! (while you’re cruising the Victorian silverware, get a load of all those nifty asparagus tongs)