Soups, Salads, Sauces and Snacks

Sweet Basil: Choosing, Growing, Storing and Recipes

basil 'Green Ruffles' (Ocimum basilicum

‘Green Ruffles’ makes a good bouquet filler after it’s gone to flower. Leaves are a bit larger than this at what might be called best edible stage.


“Write more about growing basil” has been on the do list for some time – years, actually, ever since the  basil harvest tips post that appeared back in 2006. (Nothing hasty, that’s my motto.)

But filling out this year’s seed orders has finally given me the requisite nudge. In catalogue after catalogue, Occimum basilicum and its close relatives are available in a far wider assortment than any other culinary herb (at least among annuals; thyme is another matter). This year we’ll be planting eight varieties and that’s just a small sampling.

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Autumn Soup: Winter Squash, Chestnut and (Wild) Mushroom

autumn soup (chestnut, wild mushroomand winter squash)

late autumn color, late autumn flavor: winter squash, chestnuts and wild mushrooms

Must say I do love a soup that tastes rich and creamy without being heavy – or containing cream. Also nice if it doesn’t require an arsenal of seasonings and is easy and quick to make.

The quick part does assume the squash is already baked, and that you know speedy ways to peel chestnuts, but why not? *

As usual, the ingredient list is pretty much the whole recipe, but given that the beauty shot of the main ingredients promised something a bit more extensive, here’s a rough outline, based on the most recent iteration.

“Rough” and “most recent” are definitely the words for it; this is one of those home style soups that’s infinitely variable.

In other words, almost impossible to screw up.

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Growing Great Lettuce – and The Best Spring Salad Dressing

After years and years of happy harvests, garden mainstays like heirloom tomatoes, squash blossoms and armloads of fresh herbs are as familiar as breathing, but every spring I get surprised all over again by the lettuces: how beautiful they are, how delicious, how willing…

And how different from the lettuce at the market, whether super or farmers.’ Being both extremely bulky and highly perishable, first class lettuce is a perfect poster child for home-grown.

panisse lettuce, forellenschuss lettuce

Panisse (left) and Forellensclhuss – one modern, one heirloom. One toothsome, one super-tender. Neither suitable for any but the most local commercial cultivation.

It’s an ever-changing parade, with overlapping performers. First come the mild, mid-green frills of Black Seeded Simpson, dotted around in self-sown clumps, offspring of last year’s late summer’s crop. Then close behind them the classics of spring planting, including our favorite: buttery thick-leafed Webb’s Wonderful.

volunteer black seeded simpson lettuce

Self-sown Black Seeded Simpson, being permitted to stay in place beside the tomato patch. It grows so fast we ignore Rule # 1 and just cut the crowded seedlings by handfuls until we’ve used them up.

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Free and Easy Home Made Chicken Bouillon Cubes

It is a truth well-known that commercial chicken bouillon cubes are useless for making bouillon – or anything else you might want to eventually eat. But the concept itself is great: put a cube in a cup, add boiling water and presto! chicken broth, curer of colds, foundation of soups – I’m thinking good thoughts about egg drop at the moment – and sauces too numerous to contemplate.

That’s why our freezer is always stocked with the homemade version. They aren’t as tiny as the salt bombs but they do squeeze a gallon of broth into a pile of little squares about the size of a yogurt tub (which is a very convenient thing to keep them in.)

The chunk in front is about 1 1/2 cubes' worth. I cut it big to show off what it looks like ( admittedly not much; but that's more or less the whole point). The one in the cup is bulked up by the wrapper.

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Orange and Endive Salads – Another Good Thing about Winter

Winter is orange city around here. Quantities of peel get candied. The zest adds flavor to stews, enhances the stuffing of roast fowl, perfumes custards and cheesecakes and lends its zing to pastries from pound cake to gingerbread. Result: the fridge is frequently full of naked oranges needing to be used up.

Orange and Avocado salad, one way to use up the oranges.

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Dried Chestnuts – From Soup to Dessert, with recipe stops at Stir-Fried Red Cabbage and White Chocolate Candy

On right, fresh chestnuts. On left, one of the all-time convenience ingredients: peeled, skinned and ready to go, as easy to cook as dried beans.

On right, fresh chestnuts. On left, one of the all-time convenience ingredients: peeled, skinned and ready to go, as easy to cook as dried beans.

Admittedly, dried chestnuts don’t have the mashed potato fluffiness of the fresh article. Somewhere between mealy and creamy is about the best they can do. But other than that they’re just shortcut chestnuts: great in soups and stews and stuffings, great with winter vegetables and great in holiday sweets and why they aren’t more widely adored is a mystery to me.

Sweet Snowballs (chestnut and white chocolate candy) recipe at the end of the post.

Sweet Snowballs (chestnut and white chocolate candy) recipe at the end of the post.

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Cucumbers, Really a lot of ’em, and the World’s Easiest Pickles (or Salad)

“Really a lot” is really the right number because I’m doing a mega-testing of vegetable varieties and Rob Johnston (thanks, Rob!) has given me access to the trial fields at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Combine that with help from Steve Bellavia, Johnny’s Vegetable Product Manager, and from Vegetable Product Technicians Andrew Mefford and Lauren Saraiva and what do you get? Among many other things, 34 varieties of cucumbers.

Cucumbers in the foreground, peppers (to come) in back

At Johnny's trial fields. Cucumbers in the foreground, peppers (to come) in back

There’s a different variety every 10 feet

and on each plate ( only a few shown here).

and on each plate ( only a few shown here).

Sample slices were taken from large and small fruits, from the blossom end and from the middle. Result in addition to many tasting notes: pounds and pounds of cut cucumbers that needed to be used up right away.

Easy PICKLESALADRELISH to the rescue.

Easy PICKLESorSALAD to the rescue.

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Ilse's All-Star Herring Salad

If you are of a saving disposition, you know how satisfying it is to be going through old storage boxes looking for, say, a potato ricer and among the hoarded tools find a great saucepan you’d completely forgotten you had.

You also know what’s coming next; the find was a recipe. I was searching for a pre-computer Good Food column about 3 Day Black Fruitcake (requested by Colleen back on Halloween – eek!). This involved pawing through many boxes of ancient clippings. And there among them was a guide to herring with the recipe for Ilse’s Salad, the great converter of herring haters into passionate fans.

Ilse's Salad, with beets, potatoes,apples and onions - and herring

Ilse's Salad, with beets, potatoes, apples and onions - and herring

When the piece came out in 1985, the things that herring had going for it included great taste, moderate price and lots of health-promoting fatty acids. Now we can add: less endangered than most of the fish you’d actually like to eat and less well-seasoned with toxic pollutants than most other fatty fish.

I’m speaking here of pickled herring, a dependable staple available almost everywhere. Fresh herring, one of the world’s tastier foodstuffs, more or less doesn’t exist because it has a shelf life of about 5 minutes. Like mackerel, bluefish and similar delights, it gets disagreeably fishy so fast only those who’ve eaten it right off the boat know how delicious it can be, and it’s almost never sold in U.S. fishmarkets. Of course we never used to see edible fresh sardines, either, so maybe eventually…

where was I? Oh, the recipe Read More…

“Global warming” – bad; Cream of (wild) Mushroom Soup – good

Another piece of not-exactly amazing news: being physically warmed up – by holding a hot drink, for instance – makes people feel more warmly toward others, more generous, more tolerant, while getting chilled – by holding a coldpak, for instance – has the opposite effect. You can read all about it here or here.

And then you can be sorry all over again that “global warming” has gotten established as the shorthand for catastrophic climate change. Warm is a hugely positive word, as others before me have been pointing out for some time. If you’re trying to sound the alarm about human-caused atmospheric changes that have enormous downsides (flood, drought, and biblically destructive storms, for starters), using a word that’s more or less synonymous with “good” is probably not such a great idea.

Same problem with undifferentiated “climate change,” given that – as you may have heard lately – change can be something desirable.

frost didn't take the cosmos until well into October

frost didn't hit the cosmos until mid-October, two weeks later than usual

Do I have a solution? Not for for the main problem, and not (at least so far) for what to call it. But for the keep yourself feeling warm part, can’t beat

Cream of (wild) Mushroom Soup

Rich in flavor but comparatively light in texture, a redemption of the genre. Also – if you tweak it a bit – a redemption of any recipe that has canned cream of mushroom soup on the ingredient list.

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The Mushrooms of Autumn (hen of the woods)

OK, mushroom fans, another guest post from Bill Bakaitis, on another of the all time great delicious wild mushrooms, the hen of the woods ( Grifola frondosus), now appearing on an oak tree – or on a shelf at a high end market- somewhere near you.

time to look for hen of the woods

time to look for hen of the woods

by Bill Bakaitis

September. The days grow shorter. For mycologists, gone are the languid days of summer when we would slowly, patiently, and gently try to identify those interesting mushrooms that grow singly here and there. The photographs, spore prints, the keys, the chemical and microscopic analysis, the process that might take hours or days for us to determine even the genus are luxuries we can no longer afford. The sap that now flows through our veins and that of the world around us cries out for haste.  There is so much to do in so little time: the garden, the house and yard, the movement of game in the forests, fall migrations of fishes in the ocean. Each claims its hegemony over our lives and the dwindling hours available.  As for mushrooms, we have not time for the tiny, the new, the tantalizing odd; we long instead for the truly substantial.  Enter frondosus!

Polyporus (Grifola) frondosus

Polyporus (Grifola) frondosus

Frondosus – call it Polyporus frondosus, or Grifola frondosus, Maitake, Sheep’s Head, or Hen of the Woods. Here is the mushroom that answers the question, “Where’s the meat?” It is large in size and fruits reliably in the same locations year after year, allowing us to take a twenty minute detour from our hectic lives to collect a year’s supply. And it is one of the best tasting of all wild mushrooms, appearing on every mycologist’s top ten list.   Read More…