Sakura or Cherry Blossom Jellies

Sakura or Cherry Blossom Jellies

Spring is the most ephemeral of seasons in New England. We spend the long winter looking forward to it, then in a flash, it’s over. Take the case of our cherry tree — it sits outside our front door and each year, as it starts to bloom extravagantly, we make plans to salt cure the blossoms, but the flowers always drop before we have the chance. We kept a closer watch this time, then found we’d missed the best time for curing, when they’re still in the bud stage.

Sakura or Cherry Blossom Jellies

With the tree in full bloom, we quickly considered other ways of preserving them, and discovered Sakura Jelly and Cherry Blossom Jam. Unlike what the names would imply, both are prepared with agar agar, a gelatin-like base, to make a kind of Japanese sweet. In place of dried blossoms, we more than doubled the amount of fresh blossoms, then proceeded to gently simmer them in a mix of sugar and water. The simple syrup took on the palest of pink tints, but something seemed missing.

Sakura or Cherry Blossom Jellies

The Gardener then mentioned we had another ornamental cherry tree out back. Its location had made it easy to overlook, but our interest in discovering and exploring the edible plants already in our garden had us seeing it anew.

Sakura or Cherry Blossom Jellies

As soon as we harvested the blossoms, we noticed the difference — these were fragrant while the others were not, and gave the second batch a delicate note missing from the first, while also lending a deeper hue.

Sakura or Cherry Blossom Jellies

You might remember agar agar from high school biology, where it’s often used as a lab culture. It’s commonly found in Asian sweets and, as it’s made from algae or seaweed,is suitable for vegetarians. After infusing and straining the syrup, the agar agar is stirred in and brought briefly to a boil to activate its gelling abilities. The liquid is then poured into a thin layer in a shallow container, and sets up quickly once it’s in the fridge. In comparing the two batches, the paler one, while beautifully translucent, had a slightly grassy taste. The flavor of the second, darker batch was better balanced, with the sweetness playing against a haunting floral note, capturing a little bite of spring. It was also obvious how these could be cute into cute shapes, ready for a Bento box.

Sakura or Cherry Blossom Jellies

To turn jelly into “jam,” we blended them until each was transformed in texture. The pale jelly readily took on a silky, glossy quality, while the darker batch, which had simmered longer, had a harder set and turned out more granular.

Sakura or Cherry Blossom Jellies

There are tweaks to be explored, such as finding ways to infuse the syrup with more flavor, or increasing and controlling color. And though the cherry blossoms are now past their prime, the just blooming lilacs, another edible flower, could easily take their place.

Cherry Blossom Jellies

20 – 40 cherry blossoms
14 ounces | 400 grams filtered water
3.5 ounces | 100 grams granulated sugar
.17 ounces | 5 grams agar agar

- Wash the cherry blossoms; remove the leaves and as much of the stem as possible. Simmer the water and sugar together to dissolve the sugar. Add the cherry blossoms and continue simmering until the syrup takes on color, 5 to 10 minutes. Strain the mixture, whisk in the agar agar, and bring to a brief boil, about 30 seconds.
– Pour mixture in a thin layer in a shallow container, and cool in the fridge until firm. To serve, jellies may be cut into squares or shapes. To make a jam, place in processor or blender, and process until mixture is smooth and shiny, and slightly warm. Sakura jellies and jam may be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Adapted from Dessert Professional.

Local ingredients: Cherry blossoms from the garden.

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5.26.14 All the leaves were calling me

5.26.14 All the leaves were calling me

I meant to do my work today —
But a brown bird sang in the apple tree,
And a butterfly flitted across the field,
And all the leaves were calling me.
— Richard Le Gallienne

Traditionally, we hold off much of our planting until Memorial Day weekend, at which point we’re safely past any danger of last frost. This year the occasion falls earlier than usual, and instead of rushing things into the ground, we’re trying to plant by following the phases of the moon rather than the calendar. From the The Old Farmers’ Almanac:

• Plant flowers and vegetables that bear crops above ground during the light, or waxing, of the Moon: from the day the Moon is new to the day it is full.

• Plant flowering bulbs and vegetables that bear crops below ground during the dark, or waning, of the Moon: from the day after it is full to the day before it is new again.

Above: Apple tree in bloom with what we now know are edible blossoms, but not too many.

5.26.14 All the leaves were calling me

By holding off transplanting until later in the week, the lunar cycle moves into a new and, hopefully, more amenable quarter, with the added bonus that overnight temperatures may finally budge out of the 40’s. Despite the slow start, there’s still lots going on in the garden. After spending several years of getting established, we hope to get some fruit from the beach plums (above) this season, and the generous profusion of blooms is a promising start.

5.26.14 All the leaves were calling me

The sea kale (above) is also flowering but we harvested only a few side shoots to sample. From Paradise Lot, as described by Jonathan Bates:

The tender spring leaves taste a little like collard greens, but a single plant yields a crop of only a half dozen leaves a year; eating more would put an end to the plant in short order. One alternative is to eat some leaves in the fall after most of the growing has taken place, but we have come to prefer the early spring broccolis. Along with the first six to eight inches of tender new flower stalk growth, the broccolis, or broccolitas, can be eaten raw, mixed into salads, lightly cooked with butter and salt, or added to a vegetable stir-fry.”

We’ll leave the majority of the florets on the plant, where they’ll bloom for most of the summer, then turn into crunchy seedpods, another edible part.

5.26.14 All the leaves were calling me

Every clove of garlic planted last fall came up, and each leaf represents a sheath around the final bulb — the more leaves, the better the protective cover when we eventually harvest and store them. Above: Music garlic.

5.26.14 All the leaves were calling me

Early spring plantings of lettuce greens and kales in the cold frames are waiting to be thinned, and will go into the first garden salad of the season — it’s like a bed of Vitamin Green.

5.26.14 All the leaves were calling me

There’s not quite enough rhubarb yet to make a tart, but we couldn’t resist snatching a few stalks (above) to make a batch of scones.

5.26.14 All the leaves were calling me

First of the season radishes (above), the leafy tops as precious as the roots. To store, cut the greens off and keep in a closed container in the refrigerator, separate from the radishes. The greens are edible and can be sautéed or stir-fried, made into a pesto or a soup; we especially like them in a spring frittata.

Harvesting: Steady supply of asparagus; first of the rhubarb and radishes; and a sampling of sea kale florets.

Preserving: Quick-pickled asparagus.

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Putting Up: Quick Pickled Asparagus + Preserving Round-Up

Putting Up: Asparagus

It may be the result of a late spring or that many local farmers are now growing it, but for the first time there’s enough asparagus around to consider putting some of it up. After considering our options (see Resources: Preserving Asparagus below), we decided on quick pickling them, an easy process that can be made up in one-jar batches and keeps much of the fresh crunch of whatever is being pickled. Ball’s 1½-pint jars — a new favorite size — are perfect for packing tall spears of asparagus, and will hold about a pound per jar. As a starting point, we used the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s infinitely variable Refrigerator Spring Pickles, which is more of a template than recipe, and were inspired by the choice of pickling seasonings at A Veggie Venture‘s (via Food in Jars). The following recipe will make up one of these jars, and, if you should be so lucky as to have that much asparagus, may be scaled up for larger batches.

Quick Pickled Asparagus
Makes one 1½-pint jar

1 pound asparagus spears
1 tablespoon peppercorns
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 small dried chile pepper
1 cup white or cider vinegar
1 cup water
1 tablespoon canning/pickling salt
1 tablespoon sugar

- Wash the asparagus, snap off the woody ends, and trim spears to fit in jar, leaving at least a half-inch of headspace. Pack prepared asparagus spears snugly into a clean 1½-pint jar or similar sized heatproof lidded container. Add the peppercorns, mustard seeds, garlic and chile pepper to the jar of packed asparagus.
– To make the brine, mix the vinegar, water, salt and sugar in a small pot. Bring to a boil and let boil for 2 minutes, then remove from heat. Carefully fill the jar with brine to within a half-inch of the rim. Place the lid on the jar and refrigerate. Allow the flavor to develop for 1 to 2 days before serving. Use within 2 weeks.

Local Ingredients: Cider vinegar from Ricker Hill Orchards; asparagus and garlic from the garden.

Putting Up: Asparagus

Resources: Preserving Asparagus

Canning — Whether in pieces or as spears, hot or raw-packed, you’ll need a pressure canner to process this low-acid vegetable:

Pickling — The addition of vinegar to fresh-packed asparagus allows it to be processed using a boiling water canner:

• Quick Pickling — Easy to make up by the single jar, asparagus are covered with a hot brine, and stored in the fridge; includes how to vary the seasonings:

• Fermenting — Curing in a salt and water solution produces lactic acid, which acts as a preservative:

Freezing — Blanching inactivates the enzymes, and helps to preserve color, flavor, and nutrients:

Drying — Same as for freezing, pretreat by blanching before drying:

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5.19.14 Asparagus — Roasted with Green Garlic

5.19.14 Asparagus — Roasted with Green Garlic

This week’s harvest of asparagus marks the first real harvest of the season. In a fit of scorpacciata, we’ll be indulging in these as much as we can these next few weeks.

5.19.14 Asparagus — Roasted with Green Garlic

We never tire of them simply roasted, and tossed them in olive oil with a bunch of leafy green garlic from Meadow’s Mirth to round out the batch.

5.19.14 Asparagus — Roasted with Green Garlic

We like how oven-roasting concentrates the flavor, caramelizes the natural sugars, and crisps the edges — about 20 minutes in a 400° oven, or under the broiler if you’re watchful.

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Putting Up: Victorian Barbecue Sauce + Rhubarb Ketchup

Putting Up: Victorian Barbecue Sauce + Rhubarb Ketchup

The rhubarb was so late coming up this spring, we thought they hadn’t survived the harsh winter and bought a back-up plant just in case. So when they finally did appear in the garden this week, it hardly seemed fair to have a couple of bags of it left unused in the freezer. To show our appreciation for their annual arrival, we made up a spice-filled batch of luscious Victorian Barbecue Sauce.

Putting Up: Victorian Barbecue Sauce + Rhubarb Ketchup

We first heard of Victorian Barbecue Sauce at one of our “Ask a Master Food Preserver” events at the farmers’ market, when a woman stopped by in search of a recipe for it. Given the vast number of recipes indexed at Eat Your Books, we were surprised to find only one reference. From the Ball Complete Book Home Preserving on the recipe’s origin: “Victorian cooks roasted their meat in huge kitchen fireplaces and enhanced it with homemade sauces concocted from garden staples such as rhubarb. Today’s barbecue chefs can add the same fruity complements to grilled foods as they cook.”

Putting Up: Victorian Barbecue Sauce + Rhubarb Ketchup

For a less chunky version, we slightly altered the original recipe (below) by omitting the raisins, mincing the onion finely, and used cider vinegar in place of white. The sauce cooked down more quickly than expected and, when we went to adjust the seasoning, the taste was unexpectedly familiar. We realized that we’d made a wonderfully delicious rhubarb ketchup and, along the way, discovered how one recipe could be made two ways.

Victorian Barbecue Sauce
Makes about 4 pint jars

8 cups chopped rhubarb
3½  cups lightly packed brown sugar
1½ cups chopped raisins
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon salt

- Prepare canner, jar, and lids.
– In a large stainless steel saucepan, combine rhubarb, brown sugar, raisins, onion, vinegar, allspice, cinnamon, ginger and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring frequently, until mixture is thickened to the consistency of a thin commercial barbecue sauce, about 30 minutes.
– Ladle hot sauce into hot jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Remove air bubbles, adjust headspace, if necessary, by adding hot sauce. Wipe rim, center life on jar, screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.
– Place jars in canner, ensuring they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process for 15 minutes. Remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool and store.

Adapted from “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving” by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine.

For Rhubarb Ketchup: Omit the raisins, mince the onion finely, use cider vinegar in place of the white. Further reduce the sauce until thick and spoonable. If desired, blend for a smoother texture. Makes about 4 half-pints.

Local ingredients: Onion from Black Kettle Farm; cider vinegar from Ricker Hill Orchards; and rhubarb from the garden.

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Banh Bot Loc Tran — Vietnamese Tapioca Dumplings

Banh Bot Loc Tran — Vietnamese Tapioca Dumplings

When we first heard we were going to make naked dumplings, we weren’t sure what to expect. Through Kittery Adult Education, Rose of Van Vietnamese Cooking was again offering a fun series of classes, and we quickly signed up for the one making Bánh Bột Lộc Trần, or Vietnamese Tapioca Dumplings. As it turns out, there’s a version of dumpling folded into banana leaves (Bánh Bột Lộc Là), without which the dumplings are considered “undressed.”

Banh Bot Loc Tran — Vietnamese Tapioca Dumplings

We made two different fillings for the dumplings — one of pork belly and shrimp, the other with mung beans, a vegetarian version favored by Buddhist households.

Banh Bot Loc Tran — Vietnamese Tapioca Dumplings

The peeled mung beans (above) were soaked for several hours, them simmered until they broke down into a dense slurry. While some versions of these dumplings use a mix of tapioca and rice flour, this one uses only tapioca, which is naturally gluten-free and makes these dumplings suitable for those with a wheat intolerance.

Banh Bot Loc Tran — Vietnamese Tapioca Dumplings

After the mung beans have broken down into a paste, it’s furthered cooked down until dry enough to form into balls, then seasoned with salt, fish sauce (above), black pepper and a smidge of sugar. The pork and shrimp filling is also precooked — both are minced, then sautéed until caramelized.

Banh Bot Loc Tran — Vietnamese Tapioca Dumplings

In a process similar to making Vietnamese udon noodles, Rose begins to make the dumpling dough (above) by adding boiling hot water to the tapioca flour, then kneading it by hand until it transforms itself, becoming smooth and elastic.

Banh Bot Loc Tran — Vietnamese Tapioca Dumplings

Once the dough is ready, each dumpling is formed by hand with our choice of the two stuffings. Above, clockwise from top: Shrimp and pork stuffing; the finished dumplings; and mung bean paste rolled into balls the size of large marbles, and ready to use as stuffing.

Banh Bot Loc Tran — Vietnamese Tapioca Dumplings

To cook, the dumplings are boiled in small batches in a large pot of water.

Banh Bot Loc Tran — Vietnamese Tapioca Dumplings

As they float to the surface, the cooked dumplings are transferred to a warm water bath to keep them from sticking to one another before serving.

Banh Bot Loc Tran — Vietnamese Tapioca Dumplings

Once all the dumplings are cooked, they’re drained and dressed with scallion oil, and served with a lemony dipping sauce of fish sauce, garlic and chilies, and topped with crispy bits of fried shallots. At this point the dumplings have taken on a translucent quality, and have a softly chewy yet slightly slippery texture, in contrast with their rich, savory fillings — deliciously addicting and, with each dumpling only a bite or so, all too easy to overindulge in.

For more information about cooking classes with Rose, visit Van Vietnamese Cooking.

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5.12.14 Sing a song of Spring

5.12.14 Sing a song of Spring

“Sing a song of Spring!” cried the sunshine of the May,
And into bloom the whole world burst in one delicious day!
— Celia Thaxter

From our house, we can see the Isles of Shoals, where the poet Celia Thaxter kept her island garden. She must have known a spring like this, one that seemingly happens all at once. With a week of sunny weather, everything is indeed bursting forth. Even the most obstinate of plants are finally poking through, and we prowl through the garden taking stock. Things we’d thought we’d lost to winter, like the rhubarb and asparagus, are only now appearing, and we welcome them back like old friends. But it’s the flowering fruit that signal spring’s true arrival — first the fiercely brilliant quince (above), next the showy cherry, and then the graceful apple, all in breathless succession. If ever there’s a moment in the season we wished could be stretched longer, it’s now.

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