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This spring’s chervil seed grew to big frothy plants in no time, then flamed out — hardly a chance to decide whether I liked the stuff. Just twice I harvested a handful and minced the delicate leaves into scrambled eggs, the second time gussied up with chopped smoked salmon, as per Jerry Traunfeld. Well. Jury was out on whether to grow this one again — it’s got a licorishy bite that didn’t do much for me, at least with eggs.

So the plants went to seed and dried up; I never got around to cleaning up after the party. And now thanks to last week’s hard rain, a new generation is up and growing in force.

In spite of their numbers I’m afraid these little guys won’t make adulthood before the cold, wet, and dark brings them down — but still. I can respect an edible that thrives in spite of, or perhaps thanks to, a bit of benign neglect. So if chervil wants to grow in our garden unprompted, okay. I’m thinking it won’t be too much of a stretch to find ways to cook with and enjoy it.

What are your favorite partners for chervil?

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First trip to the food bank in who knows how long, but early chard is finally ready, having survived massive slug predation, a bad leaf miner infestation, one week of scorching heat, and otherwise thoroughly terrible growing conditions. Chard and other hardy greens are the main focus in the food bank beds this year, so hopefully these will keep producing into fall, maybe even next spring if we’re lucky.

The food bank beds at our pea patch are nourished by many folks from both within and without, who give time practically year-round to keep things up. Thanks to herb starts from Lettuce Link, a local nonprofit supporting food bank gardeners, we already have some basil to give. We’ll donate a few carrots planted some months ago by a preschool down the street, and having a spare moment on my hands yesterday afternoon, I culled a giant fistful of wild mint from the weedy hillside.

All in all not such a bad first delivery, except for how late it is already in the year. Short of an Indian summer we won’t likely make up for it with an end-of-season windfall. Still, being able to share garden abundance with others is definitely part and parcel of what makes summer feel like summer.

I’m pleased to report that basil is looking sort of respectable lately. Something I heart about growing basil is that once the little plants are up and going, you’ll have a guaranteed supply through fall so long as you pinch back the tops every now and again. So easy. Pinching prevents the plant from flowering and going to seed (which robs the leaves of their flavor and lovely aroma), and thus causes plants to grow bushier and leafier. Which means pesto now and pesto all winter if you’re diligent.

What’s your favorite use for garden basil?

Is it just me, or is mint taking over the world? It grows wild behind the pea patch, and I’m forever ripping the burly runners out of the food bank beds. The strategy is containment, not eradication. And think long and hard before throwing mint stems into the home compost, especially if your pile doesn’t get overly hot.

Not that mint is the enemy. Not at all. It can be so versatile in the kitchen, almost like basil the way it can go savory or sweet. I like chopping it into a garlicky yogurt sauce to go with pan roasted lamb chops or grilled eggplant; thin slices are nice for Vietnamese cucumber salads and tabbouleh.

Even the picky Biscuit likes to chew on mint, and she can happily entertain herself with a sprig while I chop soil and pull weeds. For a few minutes, at least, which is good as it gets these days.

I give bunches of mint to everybody I think might care to use them. Our hippie neighbors. Our foodie friends. I gave a big bunch to a chef friend, who took one sniff and exclaimed, “Cocktails!”

Indeed. First week in May, and even if you don’t care much about race horses, you can still enjoy a refreshing beverage with crushed mint and delicious alcohol. Only the mint is truly local in this drink, so if food miles are a concern, make up for it by using lots of the stuff.

The Old Cuban

One dozen mint leaves, or more to taste / 3 tbls lime juice / 4 tbls simple syrup* / 2 tbls rum / 2 dashes bitters / 4+ tbls Champagne

Muddle mint and lime juice in cocktail shaker. Add simple syrup, rum, bitters, and ice, and shake until chilly. Strain into two cocktail glasses and add half of the Champagne to each.

*Make simple syrup from 1 cup sugar dissolved over heat into 1 cup water.

A humble garnish most of the year, parsley elbows its way into the kitchen every spring when the garden’s overwintered plants bolt and the sheer mass of green simply must be dealt with. Sure, you can make tabbouleh. Deborah Madison describes her recipe as “moist and intensely green, practically a parsley salad”, and it’s earthy and hearty, a lovely way to use that first flush of spring mint besides.

But then what?

I casted about for ideas. A friend suggested chimichurri, which I dutifully concocted for grilled steaks. Tasty. Still, there was plenty more parsley. Much more. I consulted my cookbooks; English chef Simon Hopkinson suggests a potato-based parsley soup, which sounded too frankly plain, as well as a parsley salad tossed with anchovies, olives, and capers. I wasn’t sure about that either, but after noting a similar Alice Waters recipe, I allowed that there might be something I didn’t know about here.

Indeed. We adored this bright, briny, green pasta, which matches wonderfully with fresh tuna. And it’s so easy to make that I’m glad — dare I say — this year’s parsley seedlings have broken ground.

Green Fettucine with Briny Tuna

½ pound tuna steak / 1 garlic clove, minced / 1 tbls capers / 10 or so olives, chopped roughly / 1 lemon / ½ cup parsley, chopped finely / ½ pound fettucine / ¼ cup olive oil / salt & pepper to taste

Slice tuna thinly. Zest the lemon, then slice off the ends, cut away the white pith, and slice the remaining flesh into rounds. Begin cooking the pasta.

Heat a large skillet over high heat. Swirl 1 tbls of the oil in the pan, then saute tuna until no longer raw, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Add garlic, capers, olives, and lemon zest and rounds and cook, stirring, for another minute or so. When pasta is ready, drain and toss tuna with pasta, parsley, and remaining olive oil. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, if desired. Feeds 2. Adapted from Alice Waters and Simon Hopkinson.

dill-cuke2

For once we’ve got a lush dill crop, the key apparently being that clever combination of good sunlight and good drainage. Only problem has been a lack of garden partners, so for most of the season we’ve been chopping the herb into piccata sauces — simple amalgams of lemon, butter, and dill served over sauteed chicken breasts or grilled fish, a throwback to Charlie’s New England childhood.

That’s until this week, when the first cucumbers came ready, and just in time for dill to send up its yellow umbrels. So the overlap with cukes won’t be more than ten days or so, but still. It’s enough time for tasty cucumber salads dressed with this easy dill-yogurt sauce adapted from the incomparable Deborah Madison. The sauce is also terrific with fried rounds of eggplant, available now at the farmers market.

A couple of tricks here in your prep. First is to drain the yogurt of whey using a fine-mesh strainer, which yields a thickened yogurt ‘cheese’ — I find that homemade yogurt releases a fair quantity of whey, and straining firms things considerably. Alternately opt for a store brand like Nancy’s Organic Yogurt, which comes almost as thick as the Greek stuff, which gains body from pre-drainage. Second trick is to pound the garlic to a pulp with a bit of salt, which mellows the flavor and diffuses it more evenly through the sauce.

Recipe: Dill-Yogurt Sauce

½ cup plain yogurt / 1 small clove garlic / ¼ tsp salt / 1 tbls dill, chopped finely / pinch cayenne

Drain yogurt in a fine mesh strainer until fairly firm, about 30 minutes. Pound garlic with salt and add to yogurt when yogurt is fully drained. Stir in dill and cayenne, correct for salt, and chill for 30 minutes before serving tossed with sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and feta, or atop fried eggplant. Makes ½ cup. It’s best on the day it’s prepared.

Basil
Our hot-house plants are finally starting to respond to Alaska’s long summer days. First to harvest was basil, which went directly into a what’s-in-the-pantry pesto sauce:

Pesto (double batch)
2/3 cup of chopped fresh basil / 4 cloves crushed garlic / 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese / 1 cup olive oil / walnuts / fresh ground pepper

Blend ingredients in a food processor or blender until (mostly) smooth. I ended up using walnuts in this recipe because there were no pine nuts or cashews in the house. Serve with pasta.

After dinner, we freeze the remaining pesto sauce in an ice cube tray to preserve it in single-serving units.

falafel

A few warm days and the overwintered parsley is sending up umbrels, those harbingers that the end is nigh. It was time to shift into a mindset of abundance, a sudden and welcome transition after winter’s scarcities, kale notwithstanding. In fact all of the herbs are growing at top speed these days, and standing in the backyard garden my thoughts jumped right to the Mediterranean — a plate of falafel, creamy with chickpeas and green with parsley, eaten with a minted yogurt, since there’s no scarcity in that department either right now.

Add in herbed meatballs mixed with parsley, mint, and oregano, plus a salad of arugula and baby greens, and you’ve got a nice little dinner on your hands. And one that’s pretty darn local, if I do say so myself.

But the cooking wasn’t quite as easy or smooth as my imagination made it out to be. On first go ’round, I found that frying falafel was like frying ice cream; they just melted into the hot oil. A bit of internet research led to an overnight chill for the falafel batter plus a deeper pot of hot oil, and voila. By then dinner was just a memory, but the falafel balls made a lovely lunch tucked into a pita and eaten, you guessed it, with more minted yogurt.

Falafel

1 cup cooked chickpeas / 1 clove garlic / ½ onion, coarsely chopped / 1 tsp cumin / ½ tsp coriander / pinch cayenne / ¼ cup parsley, chopped / salt & pepper / lemon juice / flour

Combine first 7 ingredients in a food processor and process until pureed. Add bean liquid sparingly if needed. Stir in salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste. Chill for at least one hour.

Heat 2 inches of oil in a heavy pot to 350 degrees and maintain at 350-375 degrees. Alternately, a bit of batter dropped in the oil should sink to the bottom then rise. Form falafel mix into 1½-inch balls. Mix should not stick significantly to your hands. If it does, add flour by the tablespoon until stickiness goes away. Roll balls in flour, then drop in hot oil and cook until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Serve right away. Feeds 3-4.

Minted Yogurt

1 clove garlic / ¼ tsp salt / 1 cup plain yogurt / 2 tbls mint, finely minced / pinch cayenne

Mash garlic and salt into a paste. Stir together with yogurt, mint, cayenne, and refrigerate for at least half a hour before serving.

scallion-pancakes

The information superhighway is packed with claims of how easy it is to make scallion pancakes, a Chinese street vendor food. Not so fast. What’s easy are pa jun, the eggy Korean pancakes with minced alliums or vegetables added to the batter. Pa jun are similar to crepes and can be made in a matter of minutes — perfect when you suddenly find yourself in need of something hot, fried, and salty. Check out the New York Times’ recipe for details.

By contrast, scallion pancakes take at least an hour to make. The process involves kneading, resting, rolling, and twisting, followed by more resting and more rolling. But the result is a crispy, oniony, slightly chewy bread that takes hot, fried, and salty to a new level. Check out Seattle food writer Matthew Amster-Burton’s essay on scallion pancakes for a sense of all that is involved. Here’s my recipe, adapted for the bright green bundles of chives in the garden right now:

Chive Pancakes

2 cups all-purpose flour / ¼ tsp salt / scant 1 cup boiling water / 4 tsps sesame oil / ¼ cup finely minced chives

Mix flour and salt in a deep bowel then add water slowly, incorporating with a wooden spoon until the ingredients come together loosely. You may not need all of the water. Knead the dough into a ball, 1-2 minutes, then cover with a damp towel and rest for ½ hour.

Divide the dough into 4 portions. On a floured surface, roll each portion into a very thin square. Spread 1 tsp sesame oil across the rolled dough with your fingers. Sprinkle oiled surface with chives. Beginning at one edge, roll up the dough like you are rolling up carpet. This should make a rope of dough. Gently twist the rope a few times. Then, starting at one end, coil the dough in a circle, forming something like a cinnamon roll. Repeat with remaining portions of dough, and cover coiled dough with the damp towel and rest another ½ hour.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add vegetable oil when pan is nearly smoking. Lightly flatten the dough with a rolling pin into a pancake shape, taking care not to press out all of the air bubbles so the dough becomes completely flat. Place pancake in pan when oil is shimmering and cook 2-3 minutes per side, until browned and dough is slightly puffy. Cut into 8 triangular pieces and serve immediately with a dipping sauce made from 3 tbls soy sauce, 3 tbls water, 1 tsp rice vinegar, and sambal oelek to taste. Feeds 4 as an appetizer.

This weekend while sawing back Ceanothus branches that fell onto the patio during the December snowstorms, I glanced over and saw this:

chives-09

Closer inspection of the herb garden revealed that not only were chives up and kicking, but a flush of tarragon buds have broken through the ground and last year’s marjoram plant — an annual, to my knowledge — is sprouting green growth at the crown. Which means that it’s barely Februrary and I’m behind in the garden. Already. Good thing the perennials more or less take care of themselves. Now to figure out the year’s flower and vegetable plantings.

Eat Local Northwest

A food blog documenting the adventures of two friends trying to cook and eat sustainably in Seattle and in Anchorage.