Artichokes aren't a great crop for a tiny veggie patch, but if you have the space, the plants are heraldically spectacular. (They grow over a yard high and wide, with long, deeply-serrated leaves.) The first flowering spike often dies back after it has produced its yearly crop of buds, but, with any luck, small plants (offsets) will develop around the base of the original plants, and eventually your tiny seedling will turn into a multi-stemmed monster (a bit like rhubarb, but BIGGER.) If you're lucky, the resulting clump of artichoke stems will flourish for years, producing multiple buds in spring for you to snap off and cook.
(You already knew that the bits we eat are the flower buds, didn't you? And that if you don't pick them, the buds will develop into huge prickly purple thistle flowers? And, indeed, that artichokes are edible thistles, domesticated in North Africa and loved by the Romans? Of course you did!)
But beware. Just as artichokes are a delicacy for us humans, the leaves are apparently considered delicious by a whole range of bugs. Mine had a bad attack of aphids this year (far too many for my resident ladybirds to control), followed by leaf miners. I pruned off the oldest, biggest and worst-infested leaves, squashed the aphids on the younger, less affected (which took more hours than you can imagine,) baited the ants again (the Argentine ant supercolony here loves to farm aphids on my plants), and studiously ignored the leaf miners.
I don't know how commercial growers get the HUGE buds that you see in stores. Mine never reach anything like that size; they're more like golf balls than tennis balls. But the first bud on a plant - the first one, on the tallest stalk of the plant - is always the biggest. (Once you pick it, the plant will develop smaller buds on all the side shoots.) You have to use your judgement about when to pick any of them, but err on the side of small and delicate. Remember that the true delicacy is the baby artichoke. And, if you pick them as babies, you'll never have to worry about cleaning the hairy inedible choke out of the middle of the bud. (If you ever have to do it, just cheat by cutting the artichoke in half, then use a sharp teaspoon to scrape out the spiky fluff.)
To pick your artichokes, just snap the buds off the stem, one by one, leaving as much stem attached to each of them as you can without also picking the next teensy baby buds further down the stem, and take them inside to cook.
If you're the sort of person who orders whole artichokes in restaurants and carefully tooth-scrapes the edible bit from the base of the outer leaves until you reach the delicious heart, you get the award for patience. I prefer to trim them right down to one delicious bite-size before I cook them.
Starting with baby artichokes (golf-ball-sized) makes the whole process very simple. Start with your just-picked artichokes soaking in clean water, to flush out any insects hiding between the "petals" of the buds. Drain them. You will need a saucepan big enough to hold about 1/4 of the bulk of the buds, after you've trimmed them. (Yes, you lose a lot. It's good for the compost, though.)
Put water about one and a half inches deep into that saucepan, and a big splash of decent vinegar - preferably cider or white wine vinegar. Then pick up one of the artichokes and start snapping off the leaves, working from the base. After a while, you'll find that the leaves change: they'll be more vertical, and mostly yellow, tinged with green at the top. Stop pulling the leaves off at that point. Cut off the top 1/3 of the bud, and pare off the hairy green outside skin of the base and the attached stem, and any damaged bits. (The stem near the bud is just as delicious as the artichoke heart.) The artichoke flesh oxidizes to dark grey very fast. As soon as it looks cute enough, drop it into the water-and-vinegar mix. Then pick up the next one, and the next, and the next. If any of them are bigger than bite-size, you can cut them in half, or even quarters, lengthwise. When you've done them all, bring the water in the pan to a gentle boil, and simmer for ten minutes. Leave the artichokes to cool in the saucepan for a while, then drain them into a pretty dish and pour some fairly decent olive oil over them as a lovely glistening coating. You can add salt and pepper then or later. Then put them in the fridge. They seem to taste better once they're cold, and even better the next day.
You could add them to salads, but you'll probably find that there are fewer in the dish every time you open the fridge, and by the time you come to construct the salad, there's only ever one artichoke left. (I blame the fridge elves.)
According to ancient medical expert Galen, bear meat should be boiled twice before eating. Erk erk erk. (This horrifying fact brought to you via Food in the Ancient World from A-Z by food historian extraordinaire, Andrew Dalby.)
Forget the people who tell you to start gardening with radishes or carrots. Snow peas are much nicer than radishes or carrots, and they're easy peasy - the easiest and most rewarding of vegetables to grow. They're usually ridiculously expensive to buy, mostly because they need careful manual picking every day or two. Harvesting machines won't work! But that's not a problem at home.
If you can grow sweet peas, you can grow snow peas. The seeds are large, reliable and easy to plant, so there's no advantage in buying seedlings. Just get an inexpensive packet of snow pea seeds, and check the right time to plant them for your area, then put them in a sunny spot with a sturdy trellis for them to grow up - just like you would with sweet peas. When the seeds sprout, you might need to protect them from foraging birds, because the sprouts are tender and delicious. The baby plants will soon twine up their support, and in a few weeks you will see white flowers. They're not fragrant and pretty like sweet peas, but each of them will develop into a lovely crisp snow pea. Yum! Pick them when they are about the length of your index finger, and they will be incredibly sweet and delicious. At first it will take a few days to collect enough to make a meal, but keep picking them, and they will produce more and more.
It's a good idea to start a new batch of plants in another sunny spot a few weeks after you plant the first batch. It's insurance in case bad weather or inconvenient animals destroy the first batch. Also, you will need to plant a replacement for the snow pea plants, sooner or later. Snow peas won't live for more than a couple of months. The older leaves and the stems will get dried and yellow, and look mottled and nasty. When they stop producing, just pull out the old plants and put them in the compost.
You may find that you don't need to cook the snow peas, because people in the household munch them down all raw and crunchy before you get a chance.
If you do want to cook them, be sure not to overcook. Different people like different levels of trimming, and different levels of cooking. At a minimal level, you can wash them and put them in a heatproof bowl, then pour boiling water over them and leave them for a few minutes before draining and eating. Some people may want to pull or cut the tops and tails off them. Some people may want to microwave them (in water, or else they go yellow and soggy) for a minute or two. Some people may want to steam them. And they are delicious thrown into a soup, stew or pasta sauce a few minutes before serving.
Bowl of cactus leaf gumbo on antique French farm table
One morning, I went out to my garden and discovered that coyotes had climbed up our large cactus to eat the half-ripe fruits. All the prickly pears (tunas) I had looked forward to making into jam and drinks were gone.Also gone were many of the cactus's huge leaves. They had not been strong enough to support the coyotes’ weight and now littered the ground. I planted most in my cactus garden; two I kept for cooking; one led to this recipe.If you
have not made gumbo before, you may wish to refer to my earlier post "Cajun Gumbo Made Easy."Cactus Leaf Gumbo Ingredients3 cups nopales (cactus leaves), thorns removed and chopped into ½-inch cubes, measured after chopping
olive oil for coating
½ cup canola oil or other cooking oil with a mild flavor
½ cup white flour
3 medium onions, chopped into ½-inch squares
2 green bell peppers, chopped into ½-inch squares
1 cup sliced celery
6 cups cups “no chicken” chicken broth or tomato-free vegetable broth
3–4 bay leaves (fresh or dried)
6–8 large sprigs of thyme (any edible variety) or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon ground chipotle chile pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
Tabasco brand or Crystal brand hot sauce to taste
3 cups uncooked converted rice
1 teaspoon filé powderInstructions 1.
Set the oven to 350°F. Toss the nopales cubes with a little olive oil and salt. Spread on a baking sheet with a nonstick coating or lined with a nonstick mat. Bake for 15 to 25 minutes, or until they have given up their moisture and become soft. Let sit until cool enough to handle. 2.
Meanwhile, make a brown roux: Heat the ½-cup oil in a heavy-bottomed kettle. Gradually add the flour, whisking constantly. Cook until the mixture turns the color of peanut butter, being careful not to burn it. It should smell of toasted nuts. 3.
Add the onions, green bell peppers, and celery and sauté for 5 minutes or until the vegetables start to soften. 4.
Add 1 cup broth and stir over medium heat until the mixture is very thick. Continue adding broth 1 cup at a time until the mixture has the consistency of a runny sauce or a thick stew. This will take 5 to 6 cups of broth. 5.
Rinse the oil, salt, and sap off of the baked nopale cubes and add to the mixture. Stir in bay leaves, thyme sprigs or dried thyme, chopped garlic, chipotle powder, cayenne, and hot sauce. 6.
Simmer the gumbo for 1 to 4 hours. 7.
Cook rice according to rice cooker or package directions to be ready at mealtime. 8.
When rice is done, add filé powder to gumbo and remove thyme stems and bay leaves. 9.
Serve the gumbo in bowls over rice.
Animal sacrifice in ancient Greece was seldom a terrible "sacrifice," as we moderns use the word. Occasionally the entire animal was burnt on the altar for the god or gods, holocaustos
(wholly burnt) - but this was rare. Usually, an animal sacrifice meant a major party, with meat for everyone, and only bones wrapped in fat burnt as the gods' portion.
Indeed, the current scholarly consensus, according to all the best books about food in ancient Greece, is that flesh meat was seldom eaten except as part of a sacrifice - which were by no means all major state occasions. A sacrifice could be arranged by anyone who could pay for the animal and for the mageiros
, the specialist sacrificer and cook who did the hard work. I'm adding here a description of a sacrifice from my short historical novel, The Priestess and the Slave. The 5th century BC narrator has suffered a stillbirth that nearly killed her; a year later, her husband is celebrating the birth of a healthy baby to their slave Glukera.
... A few days later, he held the proper feast for all his friends and relatives, even my parents, hiring a man to sacrifice a full-grown sheep. After the sacrificer-cook slit the sheep's throat and let the beast's blood pour over the small altar in our courtyard, he sliced up the animal on the table he'd brought with him, removed the skin, and wrapped long bones and other morsels in fat to burn on the altar as the gods' rightful portion. We prayed that all the gods would enjoy the smoke, as the sacrificer-cook poured unmixed wine over the flames.
Next, the man cut up the best of the animal's insides, the heart, the spleen, the kidneys and the tender liver, and slid them onto iron skewers. They went on the altar to roast as special treats for the guests of honor. While they were on the flames, the sacrificer-cook skillfully butchered the remaining carcass, cutting the muscle meat into chunks and setting them to boil in a tripod cauldron, with onions, herbs and barley. Slaves mixed great bowls of wine with water, and served it out to all, while we waited for the meat to stew.
I was not sad, during this merriment. The gods had willed my childless state; it seemed to fit, somehow, with my odd ways of thought. I'd been a distant, unsatisfactory daughter to my mother, a constant source of discontent to her. Perhaps it was better that one like me did not bring up a child. Perhaps . . .
Glukera sat her baby boy on my childless lap, and his starfish hands grasped for my empty breasts. I gently disengaged his tiny hands and gave him my gold bangle instead. He made a soft noise, bringing the bright bangle to his mouth, and Glukera smiled at me.
I nodded; it was good. When Kinesias grew to adulthood, he and his future wife would tend the family graves, giving the dead the oil, milk and honey that was their due, as I did now. My own dead baby would not go hungry, down there in the dark earth.
My Rice Pudding Cake is a grab-bag of neolithic elements from across Europe and Asia: rice, milk and eggs. Rice was domesticated in China 12,00 years ago - but my cake uses the Arborio rice bred by Italians for risotto. Our modern dairy cows, along with other cattle, are apparently all descended from 80 or so beasts domesticated from wild aurochs in Iran
(ancient Persia) about 10,500 years ago. (Most milk used by the ancients would have come not from expensive, high-status cows, but from the far more democratic, and more readily available sheep and goats.) Eggs from chickens (domesticated in India or Asia) were uncommon in Europe until about the Roman Empire - a chicken was considered an impressive gift in 5th century BC Greece - but eggs from other birds must have been on the human menu since the Paleolithic._
My Rice Pudding Cake is based on the "Golden Lemon-Rice Cake" from Patricia Well's wonderful cookbook Trattoria. It's a fabulously healthy-feeling cake, not too rich and sweet, and every time I've made it, people have asked for the recipe.
The cake is naturally gluten free. It works JUST FINE with lactose-free milk, if you have lactose-free people to worry about as well. And the sugar can be reduced, or replaced with glucose powder, if you have people with sugar problems. (One warning: don't try too many substitutions at once unless you have to. A version made with low-fat lactose-free milk AND minimal sugar is more or less edible, but a touch spartan. On the other hand, the friend I make it for that way thinks it's a luxury compared with no cake at all.) _
6oz / 180g Arborio rice
1 and 3/4 pints / 1 litre full-fat milk (2% milk is fine, but low-fat milk makes the cake distinctly less luscious.)
5 oz / 150g caster sugar
3 large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon of real vanilla extract/essence
1. In a large glass bowl, combine the rice, milk, salt and 2/3 of the sugar. Microwave for about 30 mins (stopping the microwave and stirring every five minutes or so and making sure it doesn't boil over) until the rice is tender and it's a bit porridgey but not quite as thick as risotto. Allow to cool for 20 or 30 minutes. It will form a skin but it doesn’t seem to matter, I just keep stirring it back in. (Note – at this stage, if you just stir in the vanilla and don't bother to add eggs or cook it, it is delicious spooned into bowls as a quick rice pudding.)
2. Preheat the oven to 325F / 170C.
3. Prepare a 10 in / 25cm round pan in your favourite way. I always use silicon paper, with a spot of butter or olive oil to stick it to the sides of the pan.
4. With an electric mixer, or by hand if you’re feeling strong, combine the eggs and the remaining sugar and beat until thick, about 2 minutes. Stir in the vanilla. Next, pour that mix into the rice/milk mixture in the big bowl and stir a bit. Pour it into the prepared pan. It will be really quite gloopy.
5. Place the pan in the centre of the oven and bake until the cake is a pale golden colour and firm in the centre - 40 or 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan.
6. Turn the cake out onto a plate. The top can be sticky, so put some silicon paper on the plate you turn it with. Optionally, sprinkle with icing sugar through a small sieve/strainer, to make it look prettier. It's great with cream and/or ice cream, and especially good with berries as well.
- Jenny Blackford
Beer is an ancient food, dating back about 11,000 years in Mesopotamia and Egypt. In fact, barley may have been domesticated so that people could brew beer.
Humans have been gathering honey for a long time too. A cave painting in Valencia, Spain, from about 8,000 years ago shows two people gathering honey as angry, giant bees buzz around them.
Today, the White House announced at its blog that President Barack Obama was inspired by home beer brewers to try the ancient art of beermaking himself.
Several rounds of brewing experiments ensued, and the White House installed its first bee hive at the White House, which now houses 70,000 bees. Today's announcement said that the White House is now producing beer flavored with its own honey, and it provided a link to two of the White House beer recipes
, which are now available here
for anyone to make. -- No, I haven't forgotten that I promised to post a recipe for cactus gumbo. The recipe is ready, but many of my New Orleans friends have not yet returned home or do not yet have power. I'll post the recipe in a couple of days.—Shauna
Leaves and flowers of the sassafras tree
If you've ever seen a gumbo recipe, you may have been intimidated by the long list of ingredients and the longer list of instructions. In fact, though, gumbo is a forgiving dish.
The Cajuns of southern Louisiana have a long history of cooking with whatever foods are in season or available, and the seemingly endless number of gumbo recipes reflect this. The basic structure is simple and adaptable to what you have on hand and your schedule for the day. How simple is a gumbo? This simple:
If you are making a nonvegetarian gumbo, there is one additional step: Cook the creature(s) or creature parts and add them at the appropriate time. Duck, turkey, andouille (a hard smoked pork sausage common in Louisiana), tasso (a ham-like smoked pork cut), chicken, and similar meats can stew for a long time, whereas quail, shrimp, crab, and fish should be cooked and added at the last minute.
- Make a brown roux.
- Cook the "holy trinity" and the okra (optional) in the roux.
- Add stock.
- Add bay leaves, thyme sprigs, garlic (optional), cayenne (optional), and vegetable (optional).
- Cook until time to eat and vegetables are well cooked.
- Add filé powder.
- Serve on hot rice.
Now for a few notes on each step.1. Make a brown roux. You probably
learned to make a white sauce in your high school Home Ec class. A brown roux is very similar. For a roux for one pot of gumbo, heat 1/2 cup of oil in a cooking pot with a very heavy bottom and then gradually whisk in 1/2 cup of white flour. Whisk constantly until the mixture is the color of peanut butter and smells like roasted nuts. This step is the only tricky part of making gumbo: If you keep the heat too high, you may burn the flour and have to start over. If you keep the heat too low, it will take forever for the roux to darken sufficiently. For a more extended discussion of roux and other ways to make a dark roux, see the instructions at the "Gumbo Cooking" blog,
the instructions for Magic Roux Powder
, and three roux recipes from restauranteur Alex Patout
.2. Cook the "holy trinity" and the okra (optional) in the roux.
The "holy trinity" of southern Louisiana cooking consists of onions, green peppers, and celery, all chopped. You can use equal volumes of each or adjust the proportions to your own taste. You should have 3 to 5 cups total of the "holy trinity" and another 2 to 3 cups of chopped okra, if you are using it. Cook for about 5 minutes or until the veggies have softened.3. Add stock. For most gumbos, the best stock is a chicken stock or a "no chicken" chicken stock. A vegetable stock without tomatoes also works. Add stock 1 cup at a time to the pot, stirring until the mixture thickens to the consistency of a thick sauce. Keep adding stock in this manner until the mixture has the consistency of a thick stew
. Five or six cups of stock should do it. 4. Add bay leaves, thyme sprigs, garlic (optional), cayenne (optional), and vegetable (optional).
Again, the quantity of herbs depends on your own taste. It is fine to use dried bay leaves and thyme if you don't have fresh. If you are not using okra in your gumbo, you probably will want to add 2 to 3 cups of a chopped vegetable now. 5. Cook until time to eat and vegetables are well cooked.
You can let your gumbo simmer at your convenience for one to four hours. The gumbo will be brownish and the vegetables very soft and nearly indistinguishable from each other.6. Add filé powder. About a teaspoon for a pot of gumbo is good. Filé powder is the dried and ground leaves of sassafras. You may find it in your regular grocery store with the herbs or with the ethnic foods. Be sure to read the ingredient list to make sure your filé powder contains sassafras and nothing else. Or you may need to try a gourmet grocery
store or an upscale health-food store. If you have used okra in your gumbo, you don't need filé powder; each ingredient serves to thicken the gumbo, so most recipes call for one or the other. However, I personally like the flavor of filé and use it even with okra. If you are not a vegetarian, you can add some Worcestershire sauce now.7. Serve on hot rice. Use converted rice if you can find it. It may be shelved with the regular rice or with the ethnic foods. Converted rice looks, cooks, and tastes much like white rice, but it provides better nutrition and the grains stay nicely separate.
Cook 1/2 cup of raw rice per person. You can serve your gumbo over the rice or serve them side by side. Garnish with flat-leaf parsley if you like.In a few days, once my New Orleans friends are home from Hurricane Isaac and have electricity again, I will post a recipe of my own for
cactus leaf gumbo.
In the meantime, you now know enough to make your own authentic gumbo!If you prefer to follow a recipe, the New Orleans Times-Picayune has five pages of links to recipes for gumbo and other southern Louisiana stews, starting here.—Shauna (sassafras art in the public domain)
"Is there no Latin word for Tea? Upon my soul, if I had known that I would have let the vulgar stuff alone."
Hilaire Belloc, On Nothing (1908)
Image: La Tasse de Thé, Mary Cassatt (1845–1926), pastel on paper (Image is in the public domain in the United States.)