The Sweetest Carrots: August Seeding, March Harvest

Some years when I plant carrot seeds in late August, I feel like a chump. Once again, irrational hope has triumphed over the certainty that Bad Things will happen to those carrots over the winter.

over-wintered carrots in spring

over-wintered carrots in spring

Still, I protect the young shoots with hoops and row cover in October, then heap straw over them as winter hits hard. When a big storm comes through and lays waste to the row cover, I think, ah well – the frost will get them, or the voles.

But every now and then, the first day of spring comes and I know all over again that hope is bred-in-the-bone for a very good reason, and that reason is why I garden.

I LOVE to EAT.

These, btw, are Scarlet Nantes and White Satin carrots. Survivors of winter, 2012-2013. And sweet as Tupelo honey.

Home-made Silken Tofu

One of my favorite restaurants in New York City is Kyotofu in Hell’s Kitchen.

silken tofu with maple syrup and walnuts
silken tofu with maple syrup and walnuts

I’d walked by the place for years and hadn’t been tempted to go in – a restaurant based around tofu just didn’t hold much appeal for me. But one day when my vegetarian son was fed up with pizza and Chinese food, we decided to give it a try. Which is how I discovered that freshly made tofu is as different from the store-bought variety as a fresh loaf of crusty sour dough is different from Wonder Bread.

My favorite dish at Kyotofu is a pristine white mound of silken tofu (made daily in the restaurant) served with three different sauces, olive oil and tomato, soy and sesame, and kuromitsu (made from unrefined brown sugar). The dish is simple and perfect – the cool, ethereal tofu balanced by the dark, earthy, flavor-packed sauces.

When I recently discovered Andrea Nguyen’s beautiful cookbook, Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook it at Home, I decided to see if I could duplicate Kyotofu’s

silken tofu with dipping sauces
silken tofu with dipping sauces

wonderful appetizer. It turns out that making silken tofu is easy, and that yes, my homemade version was as good as Kyotofu’s.

It does take a little preparation, however. Silken tofu only contains three ingredients: good water, good dried soybeans and food grade gypsum (calcium sulfate). It’s not worth making unless you have the best quality of each on hand.

Food grade gypsum is used by home brewers, and is available at beer-making supply shops and on-line. My husband happens to be a beer-maker (an amazingly good one, lucky me), so I had a supply of gypsum available – it looks a lot like powdered chalk. As for water, if yours has chlorine in it, you will need to filter it, or buy/collect some good spring water.*

The soybeans can be found at health food stores, Asian markets and some grocery stores, or can be ordered on-line. I bought mine over the internet from Fairview Farms in Iowa, a family-owned business that sells non-GMO “Laura” soybeans. The beans are excellent,

Laura soybeans from Fairview Farms
Laura soybeans from Fairview Farms

big, yellow-skinned and very fresh, but they aren’t organic as far as I can tell. The ordering process was simple using a credit card and the beans arrived here in New Hampshire in under a week.

The first step in making silken tofu is to make rich soy milk. The soy beans are soaked overnight until plump, then ground with water in a food processor or blender to a thick slurry. This is then heated with more water, strained, and heated again (soy needs to be cooked throughly to make it digestible). The milk is then cooled and mixed with gypsum, which acts as a coagulant. This mixture is then gently steamed until it sets. The cooked tofu is refrigerated for several hours, after which it is ready to eat.

One trick I learned from Nguyen is that ingredients like citrus rind and maple syrup can be mixed into the soy milk before it is steamed. The results are like no tofu you will ever buy from a grocery store, good enough to turn even tofu-haters into tofu lovers.

The recipes below are based on those in Asian Tofu; if you like making things from scratch, I recommend you pick up a copy or take it out of your local library (though be warned, it is not strictly vegan or even vegetarian, though it does contain both sorts of recipes ). And while you’re at it, look for Andrea Nguyen’s other cookbooks – they’re all terrific.

Rich Soy Milk

  • 6 ounces dried soybeans, rinsed, then soaked overnight at room temperature until swollen and soft (soaking time depends on temperature – if your house is cold it will take longer)
  • 4-5 cups of water
  • you will also need a strainer lined with muslin or a clean linen or flour sack dishtowel

Combine the soy beans with 2 cups of water (you can use the soaking water, or use fresh water) in a food processor or blender. Pulse the mixture until the beans are chopped into

soybean puree
soybean puree

very small pieces. There should be no large pieces or whole beans left in the mixture; it will be quite pale and fluffy.

Pour the mixture into a large pot. Swirl 1½ cups of water in the bowl of the food processor or the blender to coax out any remaining bean puree, then add this to the pot. Turn the heat to low and, stirring frequently to keep the bottom of the pot from burning, bring the mixture to a simmer.

A white froth will float on top of the mixture, which makes it a little hard to see if the mixture is simmering or not, so peek beneath the froth from time to time to check. When the mixture comes to a simmer, let it bubble for several minutes, then turn off the heat.

froth on soybean milk
froth on soybean milk

Allow the mixture in the pot to steep off the heat for 5 or 10 minutes, while you prepare the strainer. Rinse the muslin or other liner with cool water, then line the strainer with the wet cloth. Place the strainer over a large bowl or pot to catch the soy milk.

Scoop the hot soybean mixture into the lined strainer, pressing down hard on the pureed beans (the “lees”) to extract all the milk from them. When all the liquid has drained, twist the top of the cloth closed and squeeze as much more liquid as you can from the lees. Finally mix about 1/2 cup of water into the lees and give them another squeeze. (The leftover lees can be added to soups or stews, or stir-fried with vegetables. In Japan they are often sold as animal feed – my chickens love them).

Return the milk to the pot (be sure to rinse it out first) and bring it to a simmer over low hit, stirring often to prevent scorching. Let the milk bubble slowly for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour the milk into a clean container (a metal bowl is good, because it helps to cool the milk quickly). Allow it to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until cold.

Makes about 3 cups.

Silken Tofu

  • 3 cups chilled rich soy milk (if the milk you made measures less than this, add enough water to it to make 3 cups)
  • flavorings, if desired, such as grated orange or lemon rind (use organic fruit and wash well), maple syrup, etc.
  • 1½ teaspoons food-grade gypsum
  • heat-proof ramekins or custard cups
  • a large pot with a lid
  • a steamer rack to fit the pot

Put enough water into the pot so that it comes up to just below the steamer rack; put the lid on the pot. Turn on the heat and bring the water to a gentle simmer.

Meanwhile, combine the gypsum with about 2 teaspoons of water – just enough to make a paste. Stir the gypsum slurry into the cold soy milk and stir very well to combine completely.

Divide the soy milk between the ramekins (how many you need will depend on their size – probably around 5 or 6). At this point, you may add flavorings to the soy milk, such as a teaspoon or two of maple syrup or a pinch of freshly grated citrus rind.

Place the ramekins on the rack over the gently simmering water and return the lid to the pot. You may need to cook the tofu in batches, but that is fine. The tofu is done when it is set and no longer liquid in the center. How long this takes will depend on the size of your ramekins, but will probably be 15-20 minutes. A skewer inserted in the center of the tofu will leave a small hole behind when they are ready.

Lift the ramekins from the rack and set them on a tray to cool to room temperature. Cover the cooled tofu with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving. To unmold, run a knife around the sides of the ramekin to loosen the tofu, place a plate on top of the ramekin and invert. You may also serve the tofu in the ramekin.

Silken Tofu Serving Suggestions:

These ramekins are delicious with warm maple syrup and toasted walnuts. Or, serve them in Kyotofu’s style with three dipping sauces.

My three dipping sauces are:

  1. Equal parts chopped cilantro and basil, mixed with grated fresh garlic and good olive oil
  2. Equal parts fish sauce, water, and lime juice with a pinch of sugar, sliced limes, and hot pepper flakes
  3. 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil, 1 teaspoon maple syrup, 2 tablespoons water, 2 chopped scallions.

*Many people in NH rely on wells rather than municipal water supplies, and sometimes the wells provide water that’s a little too full of iron, or even arsenic. Which is why locals always know where there’s a good spring from which to collect pristine water. You’ll see people by the side of the road with empty gallon jugs, holding them under an endlessly gushing pipe. No one ever seems to know who put the pipe there, who it was who decided to share that bountiful spring, because it happened a long time ago. Talk about paying it forward. I’m pretty sure no matter how much of a jerk that person was in life, sharing that water supply was enough to get him or her into heaven.

Puff Pastry Recipes

Puff pastry is a sublime demonstration of the power of mathematics. You begin by layering a block of butter between two layers of dough. Fold the dough in thirds, and now there are 3 layers of butter between the layers of dough. Let it rest, roll it out, fold it in thirds again and now there are 9 layers of butter. Repeat – 27 layers of butter. Repeat – 81 layers of butter. Repeat – 243 layers of butter. And one last time – 729 layers of butter, and 730 layers of dough (including the top and bottom layers).

As the puff pastry bakes, the butter fat melts, which separates the layers of dough, while the butter liquids turn to steam, forcing the layers apart and causing the pastry to rise in a spectacular fashion. And unlike a soufflé, which must be served immediately before it falls, properly baked puff pastry will maintain its loft even after it cools.

When golden brown and fully cooked, puff pastry is a delight in the mouth, melting almost as soon as it hits the tongue into rich, delicate shards. And rich as it is, puff pastry provides a neutral backdrop, working well with both sweet and savory fillings.

I think puff pastry’s reputation for being tricky to make has more to do with the cultivated mystique of the pâtissier than the reality of the recipe. It’s actually a pretty straightforward process, though it does require a cool kitchen and patience through all the resting and rolling. It also requires care in choosing ingredients – the butter needs to be cold, the flour needs to be bread flour.

It also requires care in measuring. I recommend weighing ingredients whenever you’re baking, for this recipe in particular. If you don’t have a scale, make sure you fluff up the flour, dip a measuring cup designed for dry ingredients into it, and then use a knife to level the cup (rather than tapping it on the counter, or pushing it down with your fingers, which compacts the flour). Here’s a link to my recipe for Puff Pastry.

The best thing about puff pastry is how flexible it is. Once it’s in your freezer, you’ll be able to throw together an impressive and delicious main dish or dessert in an hour or less. Here are links to three recipes that use puff pastry (either purchased or home-made):

Spinach Feta Tart

Spinach Feta Tart

A Rhubarb Tartlet

A Rhubarb Tartlet

A slice of maple tarte tatin

A slice of maple tarte tatin

Maple Syrup Season: Maple Almond Praline Roulade and Roast Chicken Glazed with Maple, Garlic and Smoked Paprika

Sunset Cross-country Ski on Corn Snow to Canterbury Shaker Village

Sunset Cross-country Ski on Corn Snow to Canterbury Shaker Village

Every season has its Trio of Delight. In mid-March the troika is: 1) almost twelve hours of light a day; 2) cross-country skiing on corn snow; 3) steamy sugar houses where maple sap boils over wood fires.

My in-laws, who own North Family Farm here in Canterbury, NH, seem to never sleep during sap season. Maple syrup is nearly half their living (the other half is a combination of hay and wood). It’s hard work, all the tapping and sap-hauling and wood burning and syrup boiling. Never mind the canning and promoting and selling and shipping.

In August, dragging a crate of maple syrup to a farmers’ market feels old. But now, in March, when the sun is rising higher in the sky day by day, and the air is warm enough to stand in for a coat, and the red-winged black birds have returned with their dopey cowbird step-brothers, and the sap isn’t just running, it’s gushing – now, gathering sap and making syrupfeels likes the best job any person has ever had in the history of the world.

Loading Wood to Boil Sap

Loading Wood to Boil Sap

Unless, maybe, you have the job of creating recipes for this year’s fresh-out-of-the-sugar-house maple syrup. So far, it’s Grade A Light Amber. And it’s sublime.

I am tempted to say that you could replace the maple syrup in the recipe for Roast Chicken with Maple, Garlic and Smoked Paprika with another sweetener – brown sugar, maybe, or honey. But don’t. This recipe is really good just as it is. And if you don’t happen to have any smoked paprika on hand (it’s pretty easy to find in grocery stores these day) use regular paprika, or take a chance and substitute any herb or seasoning that strikes your fancy.

As for the Maple-Almond Praline Roulade, the recipe looks long and complicated, but really is pretty fast and easy to put together. The hardest part is making the praline, and that could be left out completely if shy on time or ingredients. Keeping in mind that maple is a subtle flavor, and that the roulade is worth savoring on its own, it would also be delicious with a sauce made from frozen berries, or, in season, fresh ones. Continue reading

Starting Seeds

French Breakfast Radishes

French Breakfast Radishes

Though there’s the tail-end of a nasty winter storm howling outside my window, my imagination has been deep in summer. I’ve been sowing seeds like crazy this week – the peppers that I’ll plant in May into my unheated greenhouse, the onions and other alliums, like leeks and shallots, that can go into the garden before the last frost is over, and flowers that need a long head start, like pansies, and those that need to spend some time in the refrigerator before planting, like delphinium.

I’ve even been out in my cold greenhouse planting seedlings I started in February, among them cold hardy lettuces such as Winter Marvel and Red Tinged Winter, the cool-loving spinaches, Tyee and Winter Bloomsdale, beautiful purple Kolibri kohlrabi and a lovely frilly mustard called Ruby Streaks. 

Ruby Streaks Mustard with Other Greens

Ruby Streaks Mustard with Other Greens

In February in the greenhouse, I direct-seeded Coral peas and Blue Pod Capucinjers, an heirloom soup pea that produces purple flowers rivaling sweet peas for beauty and perfume. I also sowed Easter Egg and French Breakfast radishes, Alpine daikon, Evergreen Hardy White scallions, among other things. Everything seems to be coming up now, except the scallions, but they can take some time to germinate.

Want to start your own seeds indoors but don’t know how? Check out my How to Start Seeds Indoors page for an illustrated primer. Need to order some seeds? Here’s a link to a list of my favorite Mail-order Seed Companies and Nurseries. To see a list of all the seeds I planted in February and so far in March, check out my Garden Calendar pages.

Beet Recipes

March is the month when gardeners begin starting seeds inside and eating the last of the vegetables stored in their root cellars. They’re called “root” cellars for a reason, because roots, like carrots, rutabagas, storage radishes (such as daikon) and beets, are what keep there best.

This is because most root vegetables are designed for a winter of storage below ground. They’re biennials; that is, they live for two years. The first season, they turn out leaves above ground for photosynthesis, and large swollen tubers below ground in which to store energy for the following year. If left in place or replanted in spring, these tubers would send up flowers in their second year of growth, go to seed, and, having reproduced successfully, die.

At the end of the winter, stored root vegetables have a remarkable ability to tell that their second growing season is approaching. They sprout new leaves and use up their stored sugars, going limp and bitter. It’s time to use them up and seed in new plantings.

Beets are one of my favorite root vegetables, sweet enough to moisten a cake, yet full of antioxidants and folates, B vitamins and potassium. Raw grated beets tossed with lemon juice and olive oil make a great salad; roasted beets are delicious tossed with butter and dill, or in one of these recipes:

Beet Hummus

Beet Hummus

Borscht

Borscht

Spicy Beet Soup with Turmeric Rice

Spicy Beet Soup with Turmeric Rice

Beet Tzatziki

Beet Tzatziki

Lots More on Tomatoes

Bulgarian Heart Tomatoes

Bulgarian Heart

If you’d like to read more about the tomatoes in the gallery I posted today, check out this
page: Tomato Gallery. It has lots more information on some of my favorite varieties.