I’m a Sorrel Patch Kid

When I was in college and needed to stay up all night to finish an assignment, I would head over to the student café and fill a bag with Sour Patch Kids™.

Those tart, chewy candies provided a shot of energy and comfort during my worst hours in libraries and computer labs. They were like a drug and I binged hard.

While I haven’t had a Sour Patch Kid™ in many years, I do reminisce about that candy quite often due to one plant in our vegetable garden: sorrel.

Sorrel growing with English daisies, ahhhh.

It isn’t sugary, but sorrel has an amazing, lemony tang when you bite into a fresh leaf. It only starts tasting like a vegetable to me after it is cooked.

Our sorrel came from seeds provided by Alaska gardener Saskia Esslinger at least a decade ago. The seeds were labeled French sorrel (Rumex scutatus) but I believe they are garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa) based on the more elongated shape of the leaf and the high acidity.

I’ve been growing the same patch of sorrel in my perennial garden bed ever since. In fact, now I have two patches. Every few years, I divide the patches and give away clumps to anyone who will take them.

Why grow sorrel?

The biggest plus for sorrel is that it’s a perennial vegetable in Alaska.

The sorrel we grow is native to Alaska and has several edible relatives. Many Alaskans enjoy the tart flavor of alpine or arctic sorrel (Oxyria digyna). The Rumex acetosa in my garden is one of the Rumex species known as sour dock, a traditional Alaska Native food. Another well-known edible is Arctic dock (Rumex arcticus).

In our Anchorage garden, the first shoots of garden sorrel emerge in April from the partially-frozen ground—about the same time as the rhubarb. (That is interesting to me, because both plants are high in oxalic acid, which is responsible for their sour taste.)

First shoots of sorrel emerging in late April.

Garden sorrel requires very little attention. In fact, the only attention I give it is what I give its neighbor plants—water and occasional compost.

Another great thing about sorrel is that it isn’t bothered much by pests. Yes, I occasionally find slugs, but they don’t seem to do much damage. They just take a nibble here and there and then move on. Perhaps this is due to the oxalic acid, which plants use to repel insects and animals.

Our sorrel plants go to seed in early summer. At that point I hack them down and let them grow back for another crop.

How do we use it?

Most of the fresh leaves I gather become pesto and sorrel sauce, and the flowering stalks go to the community compost station.

The leaves are OK in salad but if eating raw, my preference is pesto. I freeze the pesto and we eat it in pasta all winter. The cooked version of sorrel sauce is OK frozen, too, and is nice on potatoes.

An important fact about sorrel is that when cooked, it will quickly turn from bright to drab green and melt down to a little blob in the pan.

Each summer, I experiment with a fancy or unusual dinner using sorrel—French sorrel soup or salmon and sorrel, usually. We’ve also tried gongura (sorrel) dal, rhubarb sorrel crisp and vegetarian borscht made with sorrel.

Unfortunately, except for the gongura dal, I’ve been disappointed so far in my search for a soup or main course with sorrel that pleases my taste buds.

One of these days, I’ll try to make candied sorrel leaves, to see if they taste at all like a Sour Patch Kid™. I’d also like to try making sorrel pasta or sorrel gnocchi.

Until then I will churn out sorrel pesto and enjoy sugar-free snacks from the sour patch.

New year, new seeds

I have a confession to make—I’ve mostly kicked the seed catalog addiction.

Yes, I still enjoy thumbing or clicking through my Johnny’s, Fedco and Territorial seed catalogs. But mostly, I’m scanning through to stock up on a favorite variety or investigate anything marked “NEW.”

Nevertheless, I need to consult these catalogs for new varieties every year. I did go a little overboard in 2019. Here are some of last year’s seed experiments with a photo gallery and a short recap on how they did.

How’d they do?

  • Guinea Bean/Snake Gourd – did not germinate, will try again (I blame improper technique). I bought the seeds at Monticello—they were introduced by Thomas Jefferson and are still grown in his garden.
  • Bitter Melon – created a beautiful vine with perfume-y flowers and a few melons in the unheated greenhouse, which I did not eat but enjoyed anyway; many people were surprised that I could grow these in an unheated greenhouse in Alaska.
  • Eastern Rise Winter Squash – healthy vines that produced few female flowers and thus not many squash (not the variety’s fault) in my low tunnel.
  • Pan di Zucchero Chicory – delicious bitter green that tended to bolt; only one plant grew completely into its columnar form, and I churned the rest into pesto.
  • Fiero Radicchio – another delicious bitter green that tended to bolt; these hardly grew into the intended tall form, but the leaves were beautiful and good to eat.
  • Baltisk Rod Purpurkal Kale – deep purple kale giants that maintained well in the garden, almost to Christmas.
  • Root Grex Beet – grown in pure compost, they produced the biggest, most colorful beetroots and large leaves I’ve ever grown myself.
  • Valley Girl Tomato – a good variety that will join the regular rotation; it doesn’t seem to get as stressed out in my greenhouse as some other northern favorites.
  • Delft Blue Nigella – oops, forgot to plant this one!
  • Adam Gherkin Cucumber – my favorite new cucumber variety; I like pickling varieties without thick skin or large bumps; this European-style pickler grew very fast and uniformly in my low tunnel.
  • White Half-Runner Beans — good for shelling beans; still grow pretty tall but a little more manageable on a shorter trellis.
  • Ascent Peppers — these Thai-style peppers nearly took over the greenhouse; I was picking chiles until frost; unfortunately I stored the dried peppers in the cupboard not realizing they still had a little moisture in them. Mold!

Also last year I also had an amazing experience with a single Costata Romanesco zucchini plant given to me as a seedling. I’ve never received so many large but delicious zucchinis from one plant. This variety deserves its own raised bed.

What’s new for 2020? No secrets here.

This winter, I visited the Baker Creek heirloom seed store in Missouri, so many of my new seeds for 2020 were purchased in person rather than from a catalog. In continuation of my experiments with varieties likely to bolt (if planted early in the season), I purchased seed for a couple exotic radishes – Japanese wasabi and Sichuan Red Beauty. I also purchased Chinese Pink Celery and Queen of Malinalco Tomatillo.

On the herb front, I purchased wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and the Kapoor/Rama variety of holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), also known as tulsi basil.

I probably spent more time researching the herbs than the vegetables. On one hand, I was interested in growing a plot of different types of wormwood, but I found out that these species are likely to hybridize – something I don’t want. Also, at least four species of tulsi basil are available from online sellers, so I had to think about the preferred characteristics for my garden and kitchen. I opted for Kapoor/Rama, the main type grown in India, though now I’m sorting of wishing I had picked the Shyama/Krishna variety.

As usual, some of the “new” seeds I selected for the garden, greenhouse, and low tunnel in 2020 are pushing the envelope for our latitude/day length and climate. But that’s all part of the adventure.

Do tell if you have some experiences with the plants listed above or you’d like to dish on your own new seed selections for this year!

The Winter Garden

A friend recently wrote a book focusing in part on Alaskans’ longing for specific and unique food items–from box cake mix to whale blubber.

Winter is an ideal time of year for Alaskans to plow through their favorites. In fact, winter is my favorite time to eat food from the garden.

As a dilettante food preserver, the canned pickles in the pantry, the packages of cubed pumpkin in the freezer, and the jars of various ferments in the refrigerator seem more precious to me than fillets of wild salmon.

In recent weeks, I’ve hacked apart three large pumpkins and winter squash, mostly to preserve in the freezer but also to make pie, pumpkin butter, maple-pumpkin-cornbread, stews, pepitas, and a really awful pudding (don’t EVER replace blackstrap molasses with pomegranate molasses). Several more pumpkins and squash are waiting in the living room for their turn to be carved.

Fragrant buttercup squash with saved seeds.

Cutting up pumpkins used to be intimidating, but I’ve learned how to knife through them relatively quickly, stopping the knife tip in the center cavity, and carving down from one end to the other. I scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp with a sharp grapefruit spoon. If I’m cutting up raw cubes of pumpkin for vacuum packing, I’ll start by peel the tough skins off with a sturdy Y-shaped peeler.

I’ve been sharing the last few jars of dill pickles and pickled runner beans with friends and co-workers. The last few too-salty fermented pickles are mellowing out in a water container. I’ll fish those out to dice into tuna salad.

One of the best gifts from the garden at this time of year is the “fast food” provided by kimchi and other fermented vegetables. The jars of lemon-dill kraut, curtido, celery, and hot peppers in the fridge could last until March or April. Everything in those jars is delicious, and if the fridge smells a little spunky, we don’t notice anymore.

Seaweed/sesame kimchi, fermented celery with sage and thyme, and garlic dill slices.

A new treasure from last year’s garden is the small cache of runner beans bagged up in the freezer. For a ski trip this past weekend, some of the purple speckled beans were soaked, cooked and tossed with pesto and pasta. They looked beautiful (staying purple) but I discovered a much more flavorful use for the beans is cooking them and tossing with rosemary, dried marjoram, capers, tarragon vinegar and lots of garlic.

Here are a few recipes that have worked well for us so far this season.

Pumpkin Maple Cornbread (you can cut the sugar and try making your own pepitas if you have really large pumpkin/squash seeds that are too tough to roast).

Warm White Bean Salad with runner beans instead of cannellini.

Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Dilly Beans with runner beans. I prefer this recipe which is in her book. The recipe in the pickle section of her website omits lemon peel.

If you have some favorite recipes for preserved food that you are enjoying this winter, please send along or share them in the comments!

picture of oregano

An annual herb for all seasons

My earliest food memory of oregano is the musty scent of over-seasoned marinara sauce.

Like too much salt, too much oregano can ruin a dish; for a while, maybe ruin your appetite for marinara-based dishes.

When I was in my 20s, my faith in oregano was restored at an marvelous restaurant in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. At least back then, Nabeel’s made magic with oregano in baked seafood and souvlaki.

In my own kitchen, I still tend to over-season with oregano. Nevertheless, Origanum is the ruling genus of my herb garden. And here’s why.

Various aromatic species of oregano can flourish in the quasi-Mediterranean microclimate of our deck, less than a full step away from the kitchen. This area is fully exposed to sun and protected by the eaves from late summer rains.

After oregano seedlings are well established, the less I nurture them, the better. The plants grow prolifically enough for me to allow them to flower, feeding local bees, while snipping enough new leaves to dry for winter meals.

Unlike the delicate species planted on our deck, common oregano (wild marjoram) grows into a perennial bush in our Anchorage garden.

Most oregano species, subspecies and hybrids don’t overwinter reliably in an Anchorage garden. In contrast, O. vulgare (common oregano or wild marjoram) grows back in local, unamended dirt with brio, developing huge spreads of flowers that attract almost as many bees as the raspberry canes. That’s a lot of bees!

In recent years, my preferences among various oregano species, subspecies and hybrids has flipped around. One year, thanks to Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, I only wanted to grow the more finicky marjoram (it’s currently placed in the Origanum genus). I planted it anywhere a spot of dirt was available.

I still overplant marjoram. I rarely use all of it fresh, so I dry the rest to replace oregano in dishes that benefit from a more delicate, flowery note. (Note: The culinary snobs who refuse to use dried marjoram are missing out.)

Additionally, I plant Italian and Greek oregano in the spring, treating them as annuals. Occasionally, they come back, but weakly. I also plant at least one ornamental oregano every year. Dittany of Crete is a sweet, fuzzy little medicinal/ornamental plant that fits well in a hanging basket or deck planter. Many thanks to Cathy Sage for ordering a bunch of Dittany starts for the Anchorage Botanical Garden’s Herb Study Group a couple years ago.

If we had a longer growing season, these oregano “roses” would grow to look more like hops.

I’ve also tried Kirigami and Kent Beauty ornamental oregano, but my latest favorite is the hybrid Barbara Tingey, discovered by chance last spring at a local nursery.

This summer, for the first time, I preserved oregano – the Barbara Tingey – for indoor floral arrangements. (Actually, what happened is I put the flowering stalks in vases, and they dried up beautifully with zero attention!)

If any of this has inspired you to learn more about oregano, it just so happens that I gave a really nerdy talk on the subject in Spring 2018 to the Herb Study Group. At the time, I worked hard on this “fact sheet” which outlines the various major species, hybrids, and subspecies–culinary, ornamental and medicinal.

One of the favorite fact sheet items: the name of the genus is thought to originate from Greek words that mean “joy of the mountains.”

One day, I hope to roll around joyfully on a Mediterranean hill covered in wild oregano (avoiding protruding rocks, perhaps). But in the meantime, I’m trying to appreciate the intensely aromatic plants in my own part of the world.

And that’s a blog post for another day ….

For all who’ve faithfully read to the end of this post, here is your reward: a still-accurate list of favorite culinary uses for oregano and marjoram.

Our summer in beans

For Alaskans who grew beans in this year’s abnormal heat, the harvest exceeded expectations.

It may have even induced a little panic for those who sowed generously. Pleas from fellow Anchorage gardeners normally associated with runaway zucchini started showing up in my Facebook feed, in the context of beans.

Fortunately, our household ended up with just the right amount for two bean eaters’ annual needs.

Well, to be honest, at the end of the summer, I could have used couple more pounds of snap-tender beans to experiment with lacto-fermented recipes. But at that point, all but a few pods were swollen and ready for shelling.

I can’t complain though. This summer was a sizzling success story for beans. We vacuum packed them. We made a few beautiful jars of tightly-packed dilly beans. We “quickled” them with kombu and lemon. I added them to cabbage ferments, stir fries, and stews.

Shelling half-runner beans for freezing and drying.

This year I eschewed dependable, prolific bush beans and only grew runner bean varieties: my favorite St. George red-and-white variety; a few mystery beans saved from last year that grew to resemble the St. George variety; and a white-flowered, half-runner variety re-gifted by a gardener friend.

From the get-go, the half-runner beans had tough shells, so I let all of those mature into shelling beans. Until flowering ended, they attracted hordes of bees.

At the end of the summer, I shelled a dozen or so of the driest half-runner beans for possible replanting in the deck trellis next summer. The rest went in the freezer, because I’m no expert (yet) in deciding when to dry out fresh beans versus freezing them.

Piles and piles of speckled St. George runner beans for the freezer.

Thanks to this summer’s large crop, the months ahead should provide many opportunities to try runner beans in a wider variety of winter recipes. Now … if only we had as much salmon in the freezer!

Moss Phlox

Up close with spring buds

Updated Monday, April 29

One of my favorite garden tasks in April is monitoring the buds of trees and shrubs, and the new growth of perennials like rhubarb and sorrel.

Below is my garden’s current status in pictures. (I’ve updated this post to include a few more photos taken this weekend and removed the gallery feature, which made it difficult to read captions.)

NOTE: Over the last couple days I’ve been experimenting with the macro setting of a Canon Powershot G5 X purchased a few months ago. It’s a bit tricky to lock in focus but so far beats my efforts with a basic iPhone 7, which lacks portrait mode. I love having full control of the aperture!

Emerging rhubarb
Rhubarb plants in spring look like baby aliens. My rhubarb patch seems to start growing quite a bit later than other rhubarb patches in warmer parts of Anchorage.
Garden sorrel
Garden sorrel is usually the first herbaceous perennial in my garden to send up new shoots. The tart greens contain oxalic acid, as does rhubarb, and are delicious in soup, salad, pesto, or cooked down into sauces.
Redleaf rose buds
The redleaf rose (rosa glauca) is a natural beauty with single-petal pink blossoms, bluish-green leaves, and reddish stems.
Aurora haskap bud
Haskaps, also known as honeyberries, are the first shrubs to leaf out in my garden.
Their elongated berries look like blueberries but taste more like raspberries.
Black currant buds
Black currants have an intoxicating smell and flavor. I love having them in my garden
but I think they need a better, wetter spot to flourish and produce more berries.
Mount Royal plum tree
I planted Mount Royal and Toka plum tree saplings in 2018. Due to our poor soil, I planted them in raised beds. I hope they will bloom at the same time and cross-pollinate!
Fruiting spur of a Norland apple
Fuzzy fruit spurs, flower buds, and leaf buds on a young Norland apple tree.
Serviceberry shrub
The late Verna Pratt recommended planting serviceberries as a native edible in Alaska. The flowers are beautiful. The berries are large and juicy but a bit bland.
Buds on a Romeo cherry bush
This petite Romeo cherry bush is only a few years old yet produced several cherries in 2018. Romeo is part of the dwarf sour cherry “Romance” series developed by the University of Saskatchewan and planted by many local fruit growers in recent years.

The alchemy of angelica

Second in a series

If you read my previous post on angelica, you already know I’ve been entranced by this magestic plant in the Parsley family.

So far this year I’ve consulted botanists and herbalists in Alaska and the Lower 48, experimented with dried angelica root infusions, given a presentation to our local Herb Study Group, submitted an article for the Anchorage Master Gardeners newsletter, and agreed to give a presentation to another local group next year.

Much of my research has focused on native species of angelica in Alaska. In this post I’m circling back to my original plan to study garden angelica (Angelica archangelica), a Nordic subspecies with a rich history in folklore, magic, healing and my favorite – food. (Note: I highly recommend clicking on the link above to see garden angelica growing in its native habitat and learn its fascinating history.)

The Herb Study Group – volunteer caretakers of the herb garden at the Alaska Botanical Garden – hold monthly meetings in the “off season” that include discussions on various herbal plants. Many of us in the group are intrigued by angelica, whose giant, flowering stems are one of the herb garden’s most striking features.

The group’s decision to discuss angelica this spring was timely for me because I wanted to learn about harvesting its roots. Last year, I purchased a tiny bag of A. archangelica root, of unknown origins, to make rhubarb bitters for flavoring desserts and beverages. With time and opportunity, I wanted to produce my own supply of dried root.

Culinary uses of garden angelica have evolved dramatically over thousands of years – from cooked vegetable to tart candy, from medieval plague fighter to monastic liqueur flavoring. Depending on the preparation, angelica’s flavor can resemble celery, mild licorice or juniper berries.

In modern Europe, angelica stems are boiled to make candy, and essential oils distilled from the root and seed are used to make herbal infusions and flavor alcoholic beverages such as gin, Chartreuse, and Galliano.

I gravitate toward simpler recipes. I remembered a writer friend’s article about an old-school cocktail recipe called The Alaskan, which she adapted with locally-distilled gin and Chartreuse. I thought it would be fun to make a “do-it-yourself” version of Chartreuse, making The Alaskan recipe even more Alaskan. In the future, I hope to cook angelica leaves and stems as a vegetable dish or dessert. Jekka’s Herb Cookbook includes some appetizing recipes for angelica – including Braised Lettuce and Angelica Flowers. Online I’ve found recipes for jam and a lazy method to make candied angelica with honey.

For my faux Chartreuse infusion, I used a recipe from Homemade Liqueurs and Infused Spirits featuring eight herbs and spices, much fewer than the alleged secret blend of 132 in Chartreuse. The homemade version was delicious but didn’t look like the real thing due to my omission of artificial or natural dyes. It doesn’t need to be used as an alcoholic beverage – it makes a good drizzle for fish and poultry or an herbal marinade.

Garden angelica produces a huge root – up to three pounds – in the fall of its first year of growth. That’s the best time to harvest and dry the roots. It should be possible for an Alaska gardener to develop a personal supply of A. archangelica root lasting many years.

Find out more: You are welcome to download the angelica fact sheet I created for the Herb Study Group, which includes information on various angelica species, their uses, and cultivation and harvest notes.


Ancient grains in an Alaska garden

Usually I’m pretty good at remembering how I met a fascinating new plant.

For amaranth, however, my memory is hazy. My best guess is I first laid eyes on a Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus), dripping from a friend’s front porch flower box.

Initially, my gaze focused on the plant’s long, magenta locks (other varieties come in lime green or even coral seed heads). Similar to my experience with runner beans, it took a few years of growing amaranth to appreciate its edible qualities.

My current favorite for floral arrangements is Red Spike Amaranth (A. cruentus).

Widely cultivated in ancient Mesoamerica and other regions for food and religious practices, gluten-free amaranth is by no means a cold climate plant. But even though A. caudatus (pictured above) and A. cruentus (to the right) look like divas, they don’t act that way. Amaranth germinates and reseeds like a champ, and needs limited attention during the growing season.

I’ve cultivated Love Lies Bleeding from saved seed for many years. In 2016, I grew out nearly every seedling that germinated – quite a lot – and peddled them to all of my gardening friends. That summer I created at least three new amaranth fans in metropolitan Anchorage.

Gluten-free popped amaranth takes a few messy seconds to make on the stove. Make sure to strain out the un-popped seed.

This week I popped a half pint jar of seeds I saved a few years ago. (You need to boil or “pop” amaranth seeds to digest them.) I hope to use my remaining popped seeds to make a small batch of traditional Mexican snack bars

Growing and harvesting amaranth is a simple way to learn rudimentary skills in threshing and winnowing. Amaranth likely isn’t a viable commercial crop here but growing it at home might be fun for families who want to try harvesting small batches of their own grain.

The amaranth genus includes some invasive plants that plague farmers, including pigweed, which has arrived in Alaska. I admit to a certain fondness for the plant, due solely to ‘Old Pigweed’, a favorite Mark Knopfler tune.

Growing and Harvesting Tips: For big, happy plants, provide fertile soil, sunlight, and lots of space. You can plant amaranth in containers and move them under the eaves of your house if you experience rainy falls that diminish seed production.

In the fall, snip the long flowering stalks when they are completely dry. Store them carefully and whenever convenient for you, thresh and winnow them. If the chaff blows in your face, wash it off carefully. Speaking from experience, rubbing chaff off your face is rather painful!

In my garden, amaranth grows much better than another ancient grain, quinoa, which develops seed over a longer season. I’ve also found it easier to harvest the seed from amaranth, perhaps because my quinoa seed never matured properly. All of the amaranth varieties I’ve tried produce edible salad greens and large quantities of seed. Plus they make amazing floral arrangements.

Eating runner beans

Ode to runner beans

In our household, runner beans are the vegetable equivalent of sockeye salmon, another abundant species that fills up Alaska freezers every year.

I started growing cold-hardy runner beans after learning that pole beans need a lot of summer heat and wouldn’t produce well in our garden. Bush beans would do well, but I wanted a climbing variety to train on a rustic, homemade trellis.

I learned about runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) from a Master Gardener friend who grows them ornamentally. Looking at the varieties in the Territorial Seed catalog, I was impressed by their vigorous growth (8-10 feet tall!) and colorful blossoms. They even tolerate a light frost!

Runner beans
St. George runner beans twine up a trellis with dill and sugar snap peas.

Runner beans are an annual feature in our garden. They give us massive floral displays all summer and copious amounts of homegrown beans to harvest for winter meals.

Many gardeners who grow runner beans spurn eating them because the texture is coarser than a typical snap bean. I think runners have great bean flavor and the sturdy pods hold up better in the freezer. I harvest them after the pods grow nice and long but before they toughen up.

For beauty’s sake, my favorites are the St. George and Sunset varieties but I’m always looking for unusual ones that I haven’t tried yet!

Growing and harvesting tips

Alaska companies Foundroot and Best Cool Seeds sell Scarlet runner bean seeds with solid red blossoms and lush green foliage. You’ll have to look elsewhere for additional varieties.

I clipped this excellent 2009 article on growing runner beans from Vegetable Gardener magazine and re-read it almost every year. It has interesting factoids and detailed instructions for growing them. One important point is that you need bees in your garden to pollinate the bean flowers. I notice that our runner beans don’t get adequately pollinated until the raspberry canes nearby are blooming.

The article above points out that you can eat runner beans in three stages – snap, shell, and dried. Due to our short season and rainy fall, we almost always eat runners as snap beans. One year I hit the jackpot and harvested shell beans. We enjoyed the large, mottled purple beans simmered in a pot with fresh sage, water, and a glug of oil. I’m still waiting for that to happen again!

I grow bush beans for fresh eating and runner beans for freezing. Unlike other vegetables, I notice no difference if I don’t blanch runners before freezing them. I just wash, cut, and divvy them up in meal-size portions. They preserve well in vacuum-sealed freezer bags. I typically add the frozen beans to stews and pasta dishes near the end of cooking.