You’ve probably never met a soup like this

Vegetarian Dishes from Across the Middle EastMushroom and Fruit Soup. Yep. I don’t know if you’re going to like this recipe. I did. Erik made it, which shocked me, because he has a general prejudice against savory fruit preparations. In fact, he has a general prejudice against soup, seeing it somehow as being a substandard food form. Nonetheless, he cooked this soup. 

I smelled it first, as it was cooking, and it smelled really good. Then I saw it in the pot, and said, “What the…?” (Imagine an onion and mushroom broth with wrinkly black things floating around in it.)  Then I tasted it. My first impression was that I’d never tasted anything like it, and I needed to adjust to the newness of the flavor combination. It’s an Armenian recipe, from Vegetarian Dishes from Across the Middle East by Arto der Haroutunian, but it made me think of Russia. Which makes sense, I guess. There’s a lot of cross-pollination between Russia and Armenia. Strangeness aside, the soup was undeniably tasty, and I went back for seconds.

This soup seemed blog-worthy for a couple reasons. The first is that it is really simple, and I like that. Second, those ingredients almost seem like it could be a pantry soup. It calls for fresh mushrooms, but I’m wondering if it wasn’t made with dried mushrooms back in the day. It also calls for green onions but we used regular onions to good effect. The other primary ingredient is dried fruit. Dried mushrooms, dried fruit, stored onions: I can imagine this soup being conjured out the pantry on a cold night in the dead of winter.

We used a nice mix of fresh mushrooms. Since there are so few ingredients in this soup, mushrooms are the stars. I’m not sure if it would be as good if it were only made with, say, white salad mushrooms because they aren’t super-flavorful. Maybe it would work, though. Anything is worth a try.

If you make it, let us know what you think. Recipe after jump:


The recipe is from a book we’ve mentioned before, Vegetarian Dishes from the Middle East.

Mirkov Soongabour
Mushroom and Fruit Soup

4 cups water
2 oz. mushrooms, washed and sliced
2 tablespoons of butter
1 oz. sliced green onions (Erik used 1/2 of a regular onion, sliced)
1 teaspoon flour
1 1/2 oz. raisins
1 1/2 oz. prunes, halved and stoned
1 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper

Put water in a large saucepan, bring to a boil. Add the mushrooms and simmer for 5 minutes.

While that’s going on, melt the butter in a small saucepan, add the onion and cook until golden brown. Stir in the flour to coat the onions, then add a few spoonfuls of the hot mushroom water to the onion mixture and stir until combined.

Add the onion mixture to the mushroom pot. Add the raisins and prunes, and simmer it all together for 30 minutes.

Season to taste with salt and pepper at the end.

Note: This isn’t a hearty soup, so it’s best for  a light lunch or as a starter to a big meal.

Newsflash: Thift shop where rich people live

Some newsflash, huh? Los Angeles has plenty of rich people, but many more poor people, and legions of dedicated thrifters. I’ve pretty much given up hope of finding bargains here. Your chances of happening on a really good find in this city is equivalent to being struck by lightning. But I’m learning that it pays to take little jaunts out of town now and then, to find better hunting grounds.

Case in point, I visited the idyllic town of Ojai with a friend recently. While we admired their copious public parks, clean public bathrooms, and shops filled with a vast selection of sensible shoes and flowing linen outfits for well-heeled ladies of a certain age, we also checked out their thrift stores. In one, I found a baking dish. I needed a new baking dish because I destroyed our Pyrex dish doing experiments for Making It. Yep, I warped a Pyrex. Didn’t think it was possible, did you?

This dish I spotted was oval–not ideal, but workable. It also turned out to be a Le Cruset pan. “Le Cruset?” I said to myself. “That there’s one of them classy brands I done seen down at the Sur le Table.” So I bought it for a few bucks and brought it home. Once home, I looked it up online. It’s actually an enameled cast iron “au gratin” dish. Who knew you needed a dedicated pan for cheesy potatoes? Market value? $150. 

Sure, I’d never pay so much for such a pan, and that’s a crazy price for a baking pan under any circumstances, so it’s sort of a hollow triumph–but still. I got me one helluva fancy pants pan.

Still need something to bake brownies in, though.

Spigarello: Nature’s way of saying that broccoli is so over

Spiga-what-the-who-now? The wavy leaved stuff is the spigarello. The flowers are arugula.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Spigarello, more properly called Cavolo Broccolo a Getti di Napoli, is a leafy green that tastes a lot like broccoli. But unlike broccoli, you eat the leaves instead of the flowers.

Unlike many of the “exotic” Italian greens we grow, this one is not bitter, and probably will pass muster with those who are fussy about vegetables. To me, it tastes like broccoli, but better. A little like broccoli sprouts. Or a cross between broccoli and kale. Let’s just put it this way–I fell in love with it the first time I took a bite of it a Winnetka Farms. The texture of the leaves is sturdy but tender.

It’s very easy to grow. If you don’t give in to temptation and eat it prematurely, each seedling will grow into a big, sturdy plant. I think of them as broccoli trees. You harvest the leaves as you need them, leaving the plant intact to generate more leaves. Eventually it produces tiny white flowers the bees love.

We’ve never had any luck growing regular broccoli–I really resent fighting off aphids and cabbage worms for months, all for the privilege of harvesting one lousy head somewhere down the line. For that reason, we’ve always grown broccoli rabe instead, and I like that too, but rabe has a more aggressive flavor than either broccoli or spigarello, while spigarello has that true broccoli mildness.

We’ve been growing this as a winter crop in our southern California climate (I believe we planted the seeds back in November, and it’s still going strong).  Fundamentally, Spigarello is a cool season vegetable that can take some frost. That means it’s suited to be a spring or fall crop in 4-season climates. All in, in deciding how and when and where to plant it, I’d just pretend it was kale.

Our source for seeds was our friends at Winnetka Farms who sell heirloom Italian vegetable seeds at gardenedibles.com. They are out of stock right now, but will have more in the fall.

Update 4/2/13: Our friends no longer sell this, but you can get Cavolo Broccolo Spigariello Foglio Liscia at Seeds from Italy (growitalian.com).

_________________________________________

  • Interesting side note from Mr. Homegrown:  Sources I’ve come across cite spigarello as a kind of primitive ancestor vegetable of either broccoli or broccoli rabe.
  • Translation request: Do any Italian-speaking readers want to help us with the translation of the full Italian name? We’re thinking it might be something like “Jetting Cabbage Broccoli from Naples”–but we could be very wrong about the getti.

Countdown

Our new book comes out just about a month–April 26th–and today two super-advance copies came to us by mail. Believe me, it’s awfully strange to see something that has existed only as computer files suddenly materialize on your porch!
We realize we haven’t given our new book a formal introduction yet, so here goes. 

Making It: Radical Home-Ec for a Post Consumer World is our follow up to The Urban Homestead.

The way we see it, The Urban Homestead was less a how-to book and more a “why should I?” Its purpose was to get people excited about this homesteadish stuff, and see that they could work toward self-reliance, no matter where they lived. Making It is a pure how-to book: Project #1 – #70.  There’s no chit-chat or opinionating. Its focus is on making the home an engine of production rather than consumption.
The book is a little eccentric (like us) because it covers a wide range of subjects, everything from lotion to compost bins to beekeeping. So it’s not the ultimate resource on any one subject, but it is an excellent place to get started on a wide range of self-reliant activities. Since it’s about so many different things, we arranged the projects by difficulty, as well as by how often they must be done, rather than subject matter. This means the fast and easy projects are in the front, and the more complicated, infrastructure-type projects in back.
This book was designed by the very talented Roman Jaster, and illustrated by the amazing Teira Johnson. As a result, it’s fresh and modern and easy to use. Our publisher is the esteemed House of Rodale. The whole team did a great job. It’s really pretty. And though it’s a paperback, it feels solid. Like you’re getting something for your money.
Here’s a couple of page spreads (excuse the layout marks) to give you an idea of what it looks like inside:
Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have it available for pre-order. I was shocked to see that though the cover price is $19.99, they’re both selling it for $12.14. I’m not sure if this is a pre-order special, or if that’s where they’ll keep it, but it’s a wicked good deal. Not that we don’t support indie bookstores!!! Including big ones, like Powells.

Obligatory Cute Chick Post

Look, it’s just that time of year. We have to live with it.

We have no chicks this year. Our ladies are not maternal, they have no male companionship, and we’ve made no chick missions to the feedstore. These pics are from our neighbors’ house. Anne and Bill have a menagerie of ridiculously cute small animals. You recall the pea eating Chihuahua?

Among their collection are a pair broody little Silkies, who are old-timers on their micro farm, and a new bantam hen–the tiniest chicken I’ve ever seen, hands down–who ended up in their yard somehow or another a couple of months ago. She’s not in these pictures because she’s not a very involved mother (not that I’m judging). After her arrival, this new hen received several brief but scandalous visits (not that I’m judging) from a very small rooster who breached the fence, coming and going like the gigolo he is as he pleased, leaving the World’s Tiniest Hen with a pile of tiny, potentially fertilized eggs.

She just sort of left the eggs under some leaves and went about her business, so Neighbor Anne decided to give the eggs to her Silkies, because she knows those gals are rabid incubators. They’ve incubated kittens. Seriously.

The shock-headed Silkies, who remind me of spinster sisters in Victorian novels, took to their new charges with gusto, bickered over the eggs, scratching them to and fro in the nest, both eager to incubate them to term.

In the end, 3 eggs hatched and I went over there the next day to check out the scene. If you want to see pics from the first night, check out Neighbor Bill’s blog.

See, what we’ve got here is an extreme cuteness overload. What’s missing in these pics is scale. Those hens are not full sized hens, and the chick is smaller than regular chicks. Also, Silkies don’t have feathers so much as they have downy fluff. Imagine, if you will, the world’s tiniest chicks surfing in a sea of marabou feathers, coming up to surface, and then diving deep again.

 

You can fit all three chicks in one hand. I think two will look like their mom, and one like the Mysterious Stranger.

I became a little obsessed with the idea that the stripey ones look like chipmunks. Then I found a cat toy on the floor which was a chipmunk. Imagine my delight: CHICKMUNK!


Hippie Heart Horizontal

Mrs. Homegrown here:
So I was wrong about the rains in that self-pitying post I wrote a week or two ago. They came again. (But this time, I really do think this is our last spate of rain.) It was a strong, blustery storm and it laid our flax flat. The poor hippie heart.

It had just started to bloom. Those little blue flowers turn to pods. Each pod holds a few seeds. That’s where flax seeds come from. As a city girl, I find this very impressive. Even more mind blowing is to look at these stalks and realize linen is made from them.

Flax is notorious for falling over from its own weight if not planted close together or supported. Rosalind Creasy, queen of the attractive edible garden, makes metal grids for her flax to grow through so it stays upright. I’d been trusting the universe. And the universe worked, until the storm. They might fluff up again when they dry. Or I might go out and see if I can encourage them into verticality.

If I can’t, I’ll harvest the stems, rot them, pound them, learn to spin, learn to weave, and make one square inch of linen.

Concord grape, newborn and amazing

Mrs. Homegrown here:

This lovely thing is a newborn, unfurling Concord grape leaf. I had no idea it would be so beautiful. Why the crazy pink? Why does it look like it was dipped in sugar?

Even more amazing is that this event, though spectacular, is tiny. The Concord grape in question is a presently a 10-inch high stick, newly planted bare root stock, almost invisible. Only the flash of color caught my attention today and drew me to it to inspect. That this stick is suddenly bearing sugary pink wonders seems like a miracle.

Wish us luck with this grape. It is meant to shade our back porch. However, we’re beset by the sharpshooters, and the disease they carry (ever wonder why SoCal doesn’t grow wine?) which killed the first vine we planted, and then proceeded to kill the second one we planted, even though that one was supposed to be resistant to that blight–leaving us without summer shade on the porch for…how many years now? Fingers crossed that this grape will thrive, and grow from 10 inches high to 10 feet high and spreading.

Harvesting and Drying Calendula

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Okay, so in a previous post I talked about growing Calendula. This post I’m going to talk about harvesting and drying it. The next post I’ll do on the topic will be about making a skin-healing salve from the dried petals, olive oil and beeswax.

When to harvest: 
Start harvesting your Calendula as soon as the first flush of flowers is in full bloom. Don’t try to “save” the flowers. The more you harvest, the more flowers each plant will put out.  After the first cutting, you can probably return to harvest more every 3 days or so.
The ideal time to harvest is in the morning, before it gets warm, but after the dew dries. You want them all fresh and perky and at their peak. This is traditional wisdom. However, I believe it’s better to harvest when you can than not at all, so I harvest at all times of day.
A side note regarding seeds:
If you don’t harvest the heads, they die back on their own, and then they’ll go to seed fast. If you don’t like the idea of Calendula volunteering all over your yard the following year, you’ll want to collect all the heads before they die back. However, you may also want to monitor them carefully and collect ripe seed for planting the next year (you want to collect the seed when it’s brown, not green).  And if you want to keep track of such things, if you make a point of saving seed only from the plants with the best blooms, your favorite colors, etc., over generations you can breed your own line of Calendula.
Alien beauty. A seed head in its early stages. The seeds are the green things that look like bugs.
What parts to harvest:
I harvest the flower heads only, though I understand that the foliage has much the same properties as the flowers. If I were short on plants, and knew I’d get few flowers, I’d harvest and dry the leaves to make up that lack. Given a choice, though, I prefer the flowers, just because they’re good for cooking and decoration as well as my salves. People used to eat Calendula leaves (they’re known as “pot marigolds” because they used to go into the cooking pot), but I’ve tasted them, and I don’t think I’ll be making them part of my diet unless I have to.
To harvest, I either pinch off the heads or cut off the heads with scissors. This often leaves a long, beheaded stem behind. That stem can be trimmed back to the first set of leaves, for the sake of aesthetics. Or not. (ETA: A commenter recommends that you always cut the stem back to the first set of leaves, so the stem does not become a conduit for rot. Makes sense.)
How to dry:
Bring the flower heads indoors, into an area out of direct sunlight. Don’t wash the heads.

Spread the heads out face down on a dishtowel or a sheet or newspaper or for fancy, an old window screen stretched between two chairs. I find laying out the heads an oddly satisfying activity.
Of course, if you have a dehydrator you could use one of those. Calendula should never be subjected to high heat, so oven drying is out of the question. Set your dehydrator to 90-95 degrees F.  
If you’re air drying, turn the flowers over every so often. Keep them out of direct sunlight.
They’ll shrink quite a bit as they dry, so you’ll have room to keep adding fresh specimens as they come in.
When are they dry enough?:
They must be completely and absolutely dry before they go into storage. Believe me when I say this is important. A couple of years ago I was impatient and put a few chamomile buds which must have been not-quite-dry in to a jar with the rest of my (painstaking) chamomile harvest. The next time I opened that quart jar I got a big nasty whiff of mold. I almost cried.
So–the flowers must be dry. They should be fragile, crispy and very dry, like crepe paper. Make a habit of feeling them at different stages of drying to develop sensitivity in your finger tips. You’ll notice that when they’re not quite dry they’ll *look* dry but when you touch them they are a bit cool compared to a truly dry flower. In other words, you can feel the water in them. Leave those for another day or so.
The green part, the flower head to which the petals are attached, dries more slowly than the petals themselves, because it has a greater mass. Be cautious of this. If you’re going to store the heads whole, then you need to allow extra time for the green parts to dry.  Which brings me to the next item:
To pluck or not to pluck:
There isn’t a right or wrong here. Everybody does it different. 
If you plucked all the petals off the heads when you first brought them indoors, those petals would dry very fast. But that, in my frank opinion, would be a pain. It would be like playing a game of “He loves me, He loves me not” that lasted for hours.
If you want to leave the petals on the heads that’s fine. The heads (green parts) have medicinal properties too, so you can use them whole. The only thing is that you must make sure those heads are completely dry before you store them, as I said above.
What I do is is wait until the petals are dry, then I pluck them from the heads, to avoid the whole “is the head still damp?” issue. When the petals are dry, they come off the head very easy. In fact, the ease with which they come off the head is an indicator of their dryness. If they’re resistant at all, they’re not dry. To work in bulk, you can take a whole bunch of dry heads and put them in a bowl and rub them between your hands. The petals will fall off. The heads will collect at the bottom of the bowl, because they are much heavier than the petals. Or you can strip them by hand. When they’re dry, this only takes a single gesture.
Only the driest petals go in the jar. All that debris around the jar is stuff that’s not dry enough yet.
Can you use the flowers fresh?:
Yes. And no. Depends. The next step in this series of posts is the making of an oil infusion.  I never put anything “wet” in oil, because of the slight chance that botulinum toxin might develop in the oil.  Herbalists who I respect put fresh matter in oil nonetheless, and I envy them, because I suspect they’re getting more out of the plant by doing so. But I’m not going to take that risk–or write about it if I do. This is just safer. 
You can use the flowers fresh other ways. You can make them (and the foliage) into a tea, which you could use as a skin wash for sunburn or irritation–or drink. Fresh flowers could go into your bathwater to make a soothing bath. Fresh flowers can also be soaked in alcohol to make a tincture.  
Storage:
I keep my very dry herbs in sealed mason jars in a dark cupboard. You don’t want to expose any dried herb to sunlight for any length of time. I use jars because I don’t take any chances with pantry moths (it’s amazing what they’ll get into). The risk with jars, as I’ve said, is that if the herbs aren’t perfectly dry, you’ll get mold. This is why other people opt to keep their dried herbs in paper bags–bags breathe a bit, so lessen the chance of mold. This is a good option, too.
I try to switch out my dried herbs every year–at least the ones I grow. Some of the things in my cupboard are older than that. I think some herbs keep their properties longer than others, but in general you should try to use them in a year or so. Like spices, the are best fresh, but usable, if not as potent, as they age. 

Label and date all your herbs. Even if you think you’ll never forget, somehow or another you will, and at some future find yourself standing at your cupboard, holding a jar full of strange plant matter and saying to yourself, “What is this?”