By Peter Heffelfinger
posted July 22, 2022
With the arrival of hot weather the early spring crops are ending their run. The snow and sugar snap pea vines are turning yellow as the last of the pods swell with starchy seeds. The early Romaine and Bibb lettuces are getting bitter as they mature, even with regular watering. The last-planted rows of potatoes are finally flowering while the rest of the patch holds on to the green foliage for a short time before shriveling away. You can sneak a few potatoes to sample early, especially the delicate red or ‘new’ potatoes, but it is best to leave them in the ground for two weeks after the stalks have fully died down in order for the skins to harden up for storage.
The bulb fennel, after sitting through the early weeks of cold and wet, is now filling out at the base, while also sending up a central cluster of foliage for future seed. The white, anise-flavored bulbs are one of my favorite crunchy vegetables. For a Mediterranean style appetizer, dip slices of fennel in olive oil flavored with mashed anchovies. I also like to use the cup-shaped ends, either whole or sliced in half, as vegetable scoops for hummus, tabouleh, or whatever salsa is available.
Fennel can also be roasted with sliced onions and large sweet Italian peppers such as Bull’s Horn or Green Marconi. Plus, the fronds make a slightly fragrant covering atop baked salmon.
Basil Buds & Pistou
While the green tomatoes are just starting to size up in the hoop house, the clumps of basil, transplanted at the same time as the tomatoes, have been in full leaf now for several weeks. To keep the basil producing the rest of the summer it is important to remove the flower buds at an early stage. Snip off the young buds and the immediately adjacent leaves on the same stem every 3-4 days to keep the plant bushy. Do not let any buds develop into white flower stalks, which will quickly happen in the heat; the plant then starts to die back as it shifts to seed formation.
Remember to keep the soil moist around the basil plants to maintain steady leaf growth and be available for use soon with ripe tomatoes.
To maintain its bright green color fresh basil must be processed immediately in a blender with olive or other oil, a bit of salt and a little lemon juice before it wilts and turns black. This becomes pistou (pesto without cheese), to be used as a salad dressing, mixed into soup, or as a general purpose table sauce. I use chopped walnuts in place of expensive pine nuts for the base. At first I was mixing the basil with garlic scapes, or early cloves of garlic; lately I’ve been adding tender grape leaves and even a few tomato leaves; cilantro also works well, along with garlic chives, and parsley of course. Any tender greens mixed with the basil will be good on toast, poached eggs, crackers, as well as pasta or noodles. The pistou can be frozen in pint jars for a taste of summer next winter. And you can always add the Parmesan at any time for traditional pesto.
Artichokes: Steamed, not Boiled
Summer has also brought the rush of artichokes, both the small purple Violetta de Provence variety, and the standard Green Globe. In the past I boiled the heads for 30-40 minutes, until the leaves pull off the base easily, but now I prefer to steam them, to prevent the heads from getting waterlogged and mushy. I use a large metal Oriental steamer to do up to six at a time, removing the smaller, more tender purple ones first, and letting the larger and stiffer green ones steam longer. I find that with steaming the leaves remain separate, and not clumped together, and more of the taste stays in the leaves since they haven’t been boiled. And of course you can use your basil sauce of the day as a dip, as an alternative to the traditional butter.
Unfortunately my garlic crop developed serious black mold with all the rain. Some of the heads may be saved, but the stalks are still green, having never fully dried out enough. Luckily it’s ordinary black fungus not the dreaded white root rot. So I am hoping the small percentage of undamaged heads will dry sufficiently to last in storage. I did process some of the rescued garlic cloves with olive oil and canning salt, to store in the fridge, where it will keep for up to a year, though the bite will become slightly sweet. But the luxury of having bags of solid heads of garlic all winter will be missed.
In any case, the garlic strains I have been maintaining for over a decade will have to be restarted with untainted seed stock and fresh ground, hopefully free of black mold. Growing garlic in the Northwest can be a challenge.
Day Lily buds
Day lilies are now in full bloom, offering a chance to graze in the flower garden, along with the local deer. As first noted in the classic foraging book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons back in 1960’s, unopened day lily buds can be lightly stir fried in butter, his usual treatment of most wild greens, including milkweed broccoli. Any vegetable oil will also work. The day lily buds can also be included in vegetable soups as a thickener, adding a decorative touch as they open slightly while simmering in the broth. I prefer the smaller, thinner buds of standard day lilies as opposed to the larger pods of a newer variety such as ‘Stella D’Oro.’ Note: dried day lily buds are also a traditional ingredient in Szechuan hot and sour soup.