Rhubarb – A First Sign of Spring

One of the first signs of Spring’s awakening at Nana Cardoon is rhubarb. An herbaceous perennial vegetable native to Siberia it makes its appearance in the early months of the year, typically March.

Rhubarb covered with clay pot

Rhubarb covered with clay pot

We “force” our rhubarb, that is we place an earthen pot called a cloche (reminiscent of the closely fitting woman’s hat) over the barely emerging plant. Our cloches are from England where there is a long standing culture, even celebration of forced rhubarb. The Rhubarb Triangle including the towns of Wakefield, Leeds and Morley are home to several events. wikipedia.org/wiki/rhubarb-triangle has a fun and fascinating posting titled, “History, Cultivation and Culture”.

The function of the cloche can be improvised with a large terra cotta pot and a stone or piece of broken pot to cover the hole. Not as pretty but does the job!

Even in the closed environment of the cloche, the soil is warmed, the plant

grows tall and tender as it reaches for the light. Once the leaves reach the top of the cloche the pot is removed to reveal the most amazing array of colors depending upon the variety, combinations of “hot” lime green, rosy red and pink. Richard prefers to use a mixture of red and green stalk varieties. The red stalk varieties are flavorful, yet mild, while the green stalk varieties have a more complex flavor for the pie.

Spring rhubarb in clay pot

Spring rhubarb in clay pot

It’s become an annual event here: friends gather for the unveiling. We herald with a hearty “Da! Da! Da! Dat! Da!”, followed by exclamations of joy as the colors are revealed.

Each fall our plants are given a one-inch dose of compost and mulched with several inches of decaying leaves. A caution is in order. The leaves are high in oxalic acid, therefore somewhat toxic and not to be eaten.

Richard's rhubarb pie

Richard’s rhubarb pie

We always make something special from these beautiful stalks (petioles). Recipes, both sweet and savory abound. Above is a picture of one of Richard’s famous pies. There is always a secret ingredient, an intriguing accent: crystalized ginger in rhubarb, almond extract in cherry, freshly cracked pepper in strawberry, aged balsamic in apple. We cannot tell you any of the others, or we’d be revealing all his secrets!

We follow British chef and food activist Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall, www.rivercottage.net and use his recipes quite often. Here’s a recipe from The Guardian, ” Pretty in Pink: Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall New Season Forced Rhubarb Recipes”. The recipes range from savory to sweet. We chose the rhubarb and rosewater to illustrate the beauty of simplicity, just enough sugar to lift the rhubarb and enough drops of rosewater to enhance the floral notes. It only needs a shortbread cookie to accompany.

Delicate, delightful ode to Spring!

500 grams (1 lb approx.) rhubarb, cut into pieces

50   grams (4 Tablespoons or to taste) caster sugar

1/2 teaspoon to 2 teaspoons rose water

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Slice rhubarb into pieces and place in a baking dish with just the water that clings to it after washing, and toss with sugar. Cover with foil and bake for 30-40 minutes, until tender. Cool completely then gently stir in the rosewater, starting with just 1/2 teaspoon, adding a little more at a time until you have the depth of flavor that suits you. Serve with your favorite shortbread cookie.

Rosewater brings out the slightly floral quality of new season forced rhubarb, but if that isn’t your think, use orange flower water or a few drops of best-quality vanilla extract.

Weeds for Dinner – Hortopita

Greek Phyllo Pie filled with Foraged Greens

Illustration of Nana in gardenMaria, highly respected island cook and cooking teacher, Zakynthos, Greece, prepares her Hortopita for the oven in the photo above.

Posted by: our friend, Sotiris Kitrilakis, advocate for the best of traditional Greek foods, island resident and farming enthusiast

The hot sunny days of summer, the crowded beaches, and a multitude of tourists become fading memories by the beginning of November on the island of Zakynthos. The wine grapes have been harvested and the Zante currants have been collected from the drying flats some time ago. The olive harvest is in full swing and so is the rainy season. A carpet of weeds covered the dry, parched earth soon after the first rains. The sheep and goats are not the only ones delighted with the lush new growth. People are also foraging for their favorite weeds known as horta all over Greece. (You’ll recognize the word in the term horticulture).

When I moved to the island a dozen years ago I soon discovered the gift of the first rains, “the wild greens”, euphemism for weeds, at our friend Maria’s table. I went along on the next horta gathering trip. Armed with a short, sharp knife and toting a big plastic bag we walked into the hills behind the village. I soon learned to recognize the dozen or so weeds we were after. It turns out that most of them are varieties of dandelions (cichorium), endives are a domesticated version. Maria was very amused when I told her of the never-ending efforts expended in U.S. suburbia to eliminate them from manicured lawns. “Why don’t you just eat them?”, she said. In addition to the prolific dandelions we collected tender young mustard greens, wild fennel, wild garlic and leeks and a very aromatic parsley-like plant called caucaljda. In less than half an hour we had more than enough for a couple of meals.

The mix of weeds changes over the rainy months as new varieties replace earlier ones gone to seed. Many of the more aromatic plants come along in January and February. The flavor and the texture keeps changing.

The most common preparation is to simply boil the greens for 5 to 10 minutes until they are just tender and to serve them warm with plenty of lemon juice and olive oil. This is the season for the first ripening of lemons and newly pressed olive oil so the timing is perfect. It is impossible to describe the complexity of flavors that comes from the bitter greens and the sharpness of the young oil and the aromas of just picked lemons.

But my favorite dish is the pie, pita, made with a filling of stir-fried horta and feta cheese. It is a winter favorite and, as you can imagine, every pie is different reflecting the weeds used in the filling.

The following is Maria’s recipe based on my observations in her kitchen, she never measures, “she just knows” how much.

For a 10-12 inch pan:

For the shell, the country phyllo:

  • 3 cups               unbleached whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp                  sea salt
  • 1-1/4 cup         warm water
  • 1-1/2 ounces  extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 TB                 fresh lemon juice

For the filling:

  • 2 TB                extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6                      green onions, chopped, the white and tender part of the green
  • 2 lbs                greens, coarsely chopped (if you don’t have weeds, use cultivated dandelions, chicory, endives, chard, spinach, fennel, etc.)
  • 3 ounces        sheep’s milk feta cheese

Combine the flour and salt in a bowl making a well in the center. Add the water, oil and lemon juice and mix to form a soft dough. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes, cover it with a tea towel and let it rest for at least an hour.

Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the onions taking care not to brown. Add the greens and stir-fry until wilted, 7 to 10 minutes. Set aside and let cool. Crumble the feta and add to the greens, mix well.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shape the dough in to a ball and in two. Sprinkle a small amount of flour on your work surface and roll out one half into a 16-inch round. Brush olive oil on the pan and spread the phyllo round on the bottom. Place the filling in the pan.

Roll out the second portion of the dough, place it on top of the pan and pinch the edges together. Brush the top surface with olive oil and prick with a fork to allow venting.

Bake for 45 minutes to one hour. The top surface should be golden brown. Allow the pie to cool for at least 15 minutes before attempting to cut and serve.

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When we read Sotiri’s evocative copy regarding the gathering and preparation of wild greens we were intrigued to learn the derivation of the English word “horticulture”. We replied to his posting. He indulged us with more research. It all started with the Greek “horto/horta” thousands of years ago.

From Sotiris:

The word “Horta” is derived from the word “Hortos” used in an early version of the Greek language about 4,000 years ago. It meant an enclosed place of land usually used to grow things. It evolved from the earlier, about 5,000 years ago, Indo-European language term “Ghortos” which also mean an enclosed place intended to grow things. The term found its way into other Indo-European languages, “hortus” in Latin, “gortum” in Frygian (Anatolia, now Turkey), “garten” in German, “jardin” in French and, of course, “garden” in English. It was also a precursor for “court”, another enclosed space.

In Greek what grew in a “hortos” is “horta”. In modern Greek “horta” is in use meaning greens/vegetables, but not “hortos”. They also make the distinction calling the “horta” gathered in the wild “wild greens”.

The term must have originated at the time that the hunter-gatherers turned into farmers and had to protect their crops from animals and perhaps the neighbors.

Bagna Cauda – A Piedmontese tradition

Bagna Cauda (‘hot bath” or “hot dip”)

Illustration of Nana in gardenWhile attending a cooking school at Tenuta di Cappezzana near Florence, Italy over twenty years ago we discovered for ourselves puntarelle and other chicories, cardi (cardoon), and other garden vegetables and began propagating them in our garden.

 The cardoon soon had our full attention.

 Sometimes referred to as “high maintenance”, we revere the processes associated with cultivation and preparation of the cardoon.

 In our search for cardoon seeds, we searched for seed packets all over Florence. Not being fluent in Italian, we were not having any luck finding “cardi” seeds. One morning, while attending the market in the Piazza St. Spirito, across the river Arno in Florence, a nice stranger overheard our conversation at the seed store. He helped translate our request to the shop keeper…we wanted “carrrrrdi” (emphasize the trill of the “r”), not “cardi”. Success!!!

 Italian methods for growing cardoon sometime include blanching. Pictured are cardoons wrapped in newspapers and bags in a home garden. The larger scale production of the Cardi

Cardoons covered for winter.

Cardoons covered for winter.

Gobbi di Nizza Monferrato involves mechanically heaving up the soil in the rows of cardoon, forcing the plant to bend slightly under the soil, as it continues to reach for sunlight. This practice keeps the inner stalks tender and delicious. Cardoon grown in this manner is eaten raw in many dishes. This type of cardoon is also known as the “hunchback” cardoon, as pictured in the Nana Cardoon logo.

 Cardoon is a very old Mediterranean vegetable…some sources quoting it as the leaf in Corinthian architecture. We are especially fond of traditional peasant dishes from Italy and France. The smallest amount of ingredients, harvested at the peak of nutrition and freshness, served simply, combine to create taste memories…something that people long to return to time and time again.

One of our favorite ways of celebrating the cardoon is Bagna Cauda. Pictured below are three ingredients in the recipe we use. Our thanks to Gianluigi Peduzzi for the traditional terra cotta warmer used at table for the Bagna Cauda, and to his company, Rustichella d’Abruzzo, for the best anchovies available.

At table, for Italian fall-themed dinners, we begin with Bagna Cauda service. Each guest has their own personal warmer, into which they dip cardoon pieces, pepper slices, and other seasonal vegetable slices. The vegetable slices are dipped in the warm anchovy, garlic, olive oil mixture, and usually held over a piece of rustic bread, which is then consumed, or used to mop up the last tasty drop.

Bon Gusto!

Serves 4-6 people as a first course or appetizer

  • 3/4 ​cup         extra-virgin olive oil*
  • 4    ​TB            (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 8-10               garlic cloves, minced to a fine, paste-like texture
  • 10-12             anchovy fillets, oil-packed preferred
  • 8-10  ​cups    assorted raw vegetables, such as fennel, sweet bell pepper, endive and radicchio, trimmed and cut into 3″ – 4″pieces
  • 4  stalks of cardoon, trimmed, cut into 4″ pieces and cooked in acidulated water until tender
  • coarse, country-style bread, cut into approx 1/2″ slices

Preparation

In a saucepan over low heat, gently warm the olive oil with finely minced garlic and anchovies which should “melt”  in to oil and will provide a wonderful flavor. This should take about 5 minutes. Don’t rush it. Remove from the heat and swirl in the butter.

Bagna Cauda ingredients

Bagna Cauda ingredients

Pour the oil mixture in to a warmer (again, gentle please). Pass vegetables and bread slices. As your guests dip the vegetables into the flavored oil they can use the bread to catch the drips.

Use a high quality extra virgin olive oil with a harvest date no older than 12 months.  Your oil should taste and smell fresh, not rancid. This is a country dish often served in the fields in the fall and winter months to vineyard folks as they did the hard work of pruning.

Kurdish Flatbread

Kurdish Flatbread – baked in a brick oven!

“What’s Nana Cooking?”

  • Makes 8 flatbreads – approx 5″ x 12″ shape, or 10-12″ round, as desired
  • Adapted from Flatbreads and Flavors of the World, Naomi Duigud

Illustration of Nana in garden“I am working with the recipe for Kurdish Flatbread from Naomi Duigud’s Flatbreads and Flavors of the World. It is a traditional peasant bread, and very easy to work with out of doors and with students, and is baked in the earth oven. It goes well with hummus made from our own garbanzo beans. Our goal is on-farmed process bulgur wheat, so that there is provenance in this simple, nutritious flatbread.”

Ingredients

  • 1 cup             bulgur
  • 1 tsp              sea salt
  • 1/2 cup        minced onion
  • 2 cups          boiling water
  • 2 cups          unbleached all-purpose white flour (as freshly milled as possible)

Preheat oven to 450° F

Pour water over bulgur, salt and onion. Let stand 30 min. Incorporate flour by hand. Knead 10 min on floured surface. Let stand 15 min to 3 hrs. Divide into 8 pieces. Roll out with rolling pin to desired shape, about 1/8″ thick. Transfer 2 at a time to the oven. Bake 2 minutes each side, until breads begin to brown around the edges.

Cardoon House Crackers ready for oven.

Cardoon House Crackers ready for the oven.

 

Nana’s House Crackers

“Our house crackers are served at most events held here at the farm. Their special quality is directly related to tending our levain. Most everyday we refresh our levain by discarding small amounts, and adding an equal amount of water and flour back in to the levain. The cracker recipe is:”

  • 1 cup               levain
  • 1-1/4 cup        flour (whole white, whole wheat and rye combinations)
  • 1/3 cup             unrefined coconut oil*
  • 1/2  tsp             sea salt

Preheat oven to 350° F

Mix by hand. Let rest 7 hours, roll out until very thin ( 1/16”) on two parchment-covered baking sheets and score with tip of knife or pastry cutter.

Bake for approximately 8 minutes, rotate the pans and bake for another 8 minutes. Turn off the oven and prop the oven door open using an oven mitt. Crackers will crisp up while the oven cools.

* We use La Tourangelle 100% organic and unrefined coconut oil. This is a great substitute for shortening, and has a neutral flavor and no trans fats.

What is a levain?

A levain is the portion of pre-ferment flour and water that goes into the final dough and raises the whole mass during the bulk (first) and final rises.

To make a levain, you must first make a starter culture, which is essentially a mixture of flour, water, and ambient yeasts and bacteria, which under ideal conditions, will thrive and multiply. This is a 6-8 day process of taking a small amount of the flour and water mixture and adding more flour and water, until you have a strong active culture. Once you have an active starter, you again take a portion and “build” it with larger amounts of flour and water. After two builds, the levain should be ready.

Any good artisan bread book will have a thorough explanation of this process.

At Nana Cardoon we use two basic methods for building levain.  One comes from an article in The Art of Eating publication: “A Recipe for Pain au Levain,” by James MacGuire. (Number 83, Winter 2009). In the same issue is an interesting article about the Poilane Bakery Pain au Levain. The second method we use is described in Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. We also consult Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish.