Archive for April, 2007

Dandelions = Delicious

Here we go again; it never fails. On the news just yesterday morning – “asparagus is the first vegetable of spring.”

NO! dammit. Dandelions are the first vegetable of spring, or rather they are the first green vegetable. Parsnips that have overwintered (” spring dugs”) are even earlier, but by spring one has had enough roots for a while no matter how sweet they may be.

What dandelions are: delicious. Tender and fresh-tasting, with a pleasantly bitter endive edge and an earthy greenness that has no analogy. They’re low in calories, high in vitamin A , lutein and beta-carotene – look out carrots, you’ve got competition – and absolutely free.

What dandelions are not: instant. On account of the picking and cleaning. But picking is pleasant, a good chance to get outside, and a great activity to share with kids; anybody over about 3 knows what a dandelion looks like. And cleaning goes fairly quickly if you use the greens washing trick that works for anything wrinkled and sandy.
Cooking takes about 5 minutes, so once you’ve got cleaned greens you’ve got fast food.


Greens must be gathered before the flower bud starts pushing up or they will be tough and unpleasantly bitter. Greens from shady places (left) are usually wider, flatter, and milder than greens grown in full sun (right)

Mediterranean Dandelions with olive oil, garlic and lemon.

Fine hot or cold as a vegetable dish, easily expanded into Dandelions with Pasta and Prosciutto, a one-dish supper for spring. Measurements are given mostly for the form of the thing. Please for the love of heaven don’t bother to follow them to the letter.

For 4 servings:

a basketball-sized heap of cleaned dandelion greens, well drained but not dried:

¼ cup olive oil

3 large cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons lemon juice; about half a lemon if it’s a decent lemon

salt to taste

Heat the oil in a wide sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and sizzle until pale gold. Add greens, standing back to avoid the spatter when water hits the hot oil. Stir, cover, turn heat to medium low. Cook about a minute, stir again, recover and cook 2 or 3 minutes more. As soon as they’re all wilted, they’re done.

Dandelions with Pasta and Prosciutto


For 4 servings:

6 ounces thick pasta ( about 2 ½ cups dry)

1/3 cup olive oil

4 or 5 large cloves garlic

about 2/3 cup prosciutto, cut into small dice. *

¼ cup currants

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1 batch cleaned dandelions ( see above)

lemon wedges

Hard grating cheese to accompany **

Get the pasta cooking. When it’s about half done, heat the oil in a wide skillet, sizzle the garlic and prosciutto dice until both start to brown on the edges. Stir in the currants, cover and turn off the heat.

When the pasta is barely cooked, stir the dandelions into the pasta pot. They will wilt instantly. Drain at once and return to the pot. Stir in the prosciutto mixture , taste, add salt if necessary and serve garnished with lemon wedges. Pass the cheese and a grater at the table.

* We use “prosciutto ends,” the bit at the tip that’s too small to slice neatly, chunks our local market obligingly sells at a bargain price. Failing that, start with a single thick slab roughly 1/3 inch thick or substitute some other strong-flavored ham. It won’t taste the same, but it won’t taste bad. Or switch gears completely and use toasted pine nuts instead of the meat.

** last time I made this we used Magic Mountain, a sheep cheese from Woodcock Farm, in Vermont. Parmesan is fine, but why not experiment with alternatives made closer to home? The American Cheese Society has accomplished members in almost every state.

Toward a Rosy Future

“The rose and herb garden outside our kitchen door” sounds poetic, but it’s really just a small sloping rectangle with a row of old roses at the bottom and a middle full of thyme and sage, cilantro, chives, tarragon, basil, parsley, oregano, lovage, fennel – and quite a few more roses. It was planted (in the Hudson Valley) in 1994, has always been managed organically, and has turned out to be quite a teacher.

Big lesson number 1: herbs do not repel pests as well as organic gardening advisors would have you believe. This includes garlic, unfortunately.

2: Some roses really are tougher than others and there are many to choose from besides the squatty, bland, scentless “foolproof” types (Knockout, I’m talking about you) that offer so little of roses’ splendor you might as well grow something else and be done with it. See below for sources that offer hundreds of handsome, hardy roses that can thrive without noxious chemicals.

3. There will always be at least one “must have” that’s a challenge to earth-friendly ideals. Mine is Reine des Violettes, an antique beauty (introduced in 1860) that cannot endure both crowded conditions and the Hudson Valley’s hot summers.


Here she is in Maine, where the cool summers we used to enjoy made it easy to grow even fussbudgets with relative ease. The fragrant flowers open dusky pink, then fade to the pale purple of the name, and the foliage has a distinct smell of pepper. The hosta in the background is Sum and Substance, unfazed by our current plague of imported snails, which brings us to

4. Japanese beetles, perhaps the greatest test of will in the organic rose department. Not counting milky spore, there are basically two ways to deal: with products derived from the tropical neem tree, or with calm acceptance and screening.

A) Neem: Attacks on mulitple fronts, discouraging beetles from feeding, interfering with their growth chemistry, and with !hooray! their mating behaviour. It only works when applied biweekly, but then it works very well indeed , as proved not only by us but also by a study done at Perdue and reported in the invaluable Hortideas newsletter. Insects must eat it to be affected; it seldom kills beneficials; and it’s relatively harmless to other creatures – except fish. But too much neem coated pollen can hurt bees, so we try not to spray open flowers.


B) That would be open flowers of potatoes. The roses we enjoy in spring before the beetles emerge, and in fall after they’re gone. In between, we let the garden go wild. Not so good for low-growing herbs, but excellent for drawing the eye away from devastated roses.


In person, columbines are not blurry. And because they cross so freely, new colors are always opening up, the gift of surprise every year.

Shopping for low-input roses:

Most of them are modern developments like hybrid rugosas, the Canadian Explorer and Parkland series, and recent introductions from Kordes. But there are also antiques, including beauties like Mutabilis, as changeable (from pale yellow through orange-pink to red) as its name suggests, and thornless, super-perfumed Zepherine Drouhin, a deep pink with no candy in it. Roses are highly climate sensitive – I’ve been tripped up more than once by the optimistic words “hardy to zone 5.” But that’s because I didn’t talk to the rose grower before placing my order; all the good ones are glad to help you fall in love with something you can actually live with.

North Creek Farm- run by Suzy Verrier, an expert in all things Rugosa

Antique Rose Emporium – exactly what its name promises

High Country Roses – for a large assortment of tough roses both elderly and brand new

Roses Unlimited – a good selection of modern Kordes roses, which until recently have been difficult to find in the US. Growers in the know have been ordering from Palatine, up in Ontario.

Vintage Baking Pans

Once more, the adage is proven: complain that something doesn’t exist and whammo! It appears. No sooner did I announce – at the end of last week’s Honey Bar recipe – that 11 ¼ x7 ½ x 1 ½ inch baking pans seemed to be pans from the past than there they were in the new supermarket (our neighborhood’s first Hannaford’s), in the not terribly well stocked housewares aisle. Not exactly, but 11 x 7 x 2, which is close enough.

Now the question is what inspired the manufacturer; very few modern recipes specify a pan of this size: google offers a paltry 1,760 hits when asked for the for roll-the-dice size, versus 102,000 for an 8 inch square.

So evidently the pans are out there, but why buy new when it’s so much fun ( and so environmentally preservational) to collect and use pre-owned models – the ones that are “vintage” in age and attractiveness but not yet “vintage” in price. There’s a ton of terrific tin out there; glass that’s not jadeite is still inexpensive, and yard sale season will be starting soon (if it ever stops raining).


The tasty meal casserole (roughly 6 1/2x 4 ½ ) is, I just learned by looking on e-bay, a Planters peanut collectible… shoulda known from the hat. Ignorance has been useful, though, because I’ve been using them for years for things like custards and potpies. Had their serving-dish nature been known they’d probably never have gone in the oven, even though they’re thick as Pyrex. The popover pan is Griswold cast iron but not the kind collectors chase, so examples can still be found for no more than new pans that aren’t nearly as good. It’s HEAVY, as a popover pan should be; and because there are air spaces between cups the popovers can do just that and still stay crisp and separate.

crocus, bees and honey cake

Like most of the Northeast, we had a false alarm last Wednesday: it was actually warm out, almost balmy. The crocus in the crocus lawn was beginning to look carpetlike although the effect was (and remains) patchy, because last fall’s newly planted fill-ins are in the usual way coming up later than the established clumps.

There are still plenty, all of them very attractive to the bees. We lost one hive over the winter, a loss rate of 50 % but better than a lot of the pros did. Bill picked up 2 new boxes yesterday. They’re in the basement keeping warm, and I’m baking some honey bars – just to inspire them.


Bill got this picture by putting his camera on one of those tiny tripods that looks like Mr. Gumby. There will be no crocus honey because honey is not being made yet. The first nectar all goes to feed the brood.


This is a close adaptation of the recipe for Candy Cake in the American Heritage Cookbook, published in 1964 and now out of print but widely available and worth having, for the wealth of historical photographs as well as the recipes.

½ cup butter
a scant ½ cup sugar
3 well-beaten eggs
½ cup mild honey
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
¼ teaspoon each salt and baking soda
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or black walnuts which are wonderful if you like them

1. Heat the oven to 350. Butter a 9 inch square 2 inch deep baking pan. (8 inch may be substituted, see note at end.)

2. In a large bowl, let the butter soften, then beat in the sugar. Beat in the eggs, honey and vanilla, then lightly stir in the flour, salt and soda. Add walnuts and stir/fold just enough to mix them through.

3. Turn the batter into the pan and bake until edges shrink and a toothpick comes out clean, about a half hour. Let cool in the pan, then cut into small bars.

Note: The original recipe calls for an 11 ¼ x 7 ½ x 1 ½ inch pan, which must once have been a common size, albeit I don’t think recently (ours was found in a junk store 25 years ago). 9x13x2 is too big. The only problem with an 8 inch square is that the edges usually overcook before the center is done. Solutions in order of hassle include: pretending you didn’t notice; slicing off edges and feeding to dog or edge-lover; and making the cake plus a cupcake: fill the pan about 2/3 full. Bake remaining batter in whatever small shallow ovenproof vessel you happen to have around.

Update: Shortly after writing this, I found an 11 ¼ x 7 ½ x 1 ½ pan in the not very well stocked equipment section of a local Hannaford. Don’t know what to make of this but will say that’s a very useful size for all sorts of 2-person cooking.

Hi Hi Blackbird!

It’s not puddle-wonderful yet; but we’re gainin.’ About a third of the crocus are up; almost all of the snow is gone and Bill is starting to make fly-casting gestures as we walk over the hill to the broad meadow threaded by Sprout Creek.

And once we’re there the creekside trees are filled with red-winged blackbirds, the birds that mean spring to me. Never mind the robins; they’re around all winter now, and though geese on the move are still distantly evocative, the reality of geese on the ground is too painful for them to have much spring cred left.

The forecast is for April showers all week – until Thursday, when snow is predicted. Doesn’t matter, the red-winged blackbirds are here, trilling and burbling and rasping over the water. Better days are coming.

Red-wings do sometimes come to the feeder, but Mr. Earl is actually looking at a house finch. It’s clinging to a native wisteria (W. frutescens) that will eventually – we hope – provide summer shade.

Blackbird tidbit from the terrific Cornell bird site: The males fight mega for territory and each usually has multiple females resident in his real estate. But the females seem to be no boundaries types: from a quarter to half of their offspring are sired by the neighbors.