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.

Eau de cucurbit

In their natural state, some pumpkins and squash have an incredible scent nearly the opposite of pumpkin spice.

Their flowers and flesh exude a floral fragrance, kind of like gardenia, lilac or jasmine.

Fragrant C. maxima (Eastern Rise kabocha) blossoms above an immature C. pepo (Long Pie pumpkin) fruit.

It doesn’t matter if you are inhaling a blossom in the summer, or steaming chunks in the winter. You might get intoxicated. You might even start humming Lilac Wine while making dinner. None of that has ever happened to me, of course.

I’m not alone, others have noticed the sweet and heady smell of some pumpkins and squash. Alas, I have not yet discovered a scholarly review of the fragrance of winter squashes or their relatives in the global Cucurbitacea family.

Pumpkins and squash are in the genus Cucurbita which is dominated by three main species, C. maxima, C. moschata, and C. pepo. All of these plants originated in the Americas and were spread around the world after first contact by white Europeans. More than half of the world’s cucurbit production is now in India and China.

I’ve grown all three species in Anchorage, Alaska, and so far, I’ve only noticed a strong floral fragrance from Cucurbita maxima. More specifically, from the Chinese kabocha cultivar, Eastern Rise, which I’ve been growing for two years.

Eastern Rise kabochas store well in a cool garage.

I’ve sniffed but haven’t noticed a strong floral scent emanating from any of my Cucurbita pepo plants. This species includes summer squashes, gourds, and many other varieties.

I’m not surprised that my C. maxima flowers smell so good. According to Deborah Madison, the maxima group, including Buttercups, Hubbards, Kabocha, and Red Kuri, have some of the sweetest, most delicious flavor.

Per my taste buds, the seedy flesh from the bulb-shaped ends of Tromboncino squash, a C. moschata cultivar, has a delicate melon scent. The flesh isn’t quite as sweet as a melon, but it is easy to cut up raw and eat like fruit. Butternut squash is a moschata cultivar, too, but I’ve never sniffed it or eaten it raw!

Finally, I’ve grown an Asian plant in the Cucurbitacea family with flowers that smell even more intoxicating than my kabocha.

I’m referring to bitter melon (Momordica charatia) which has rather small and delicate flowers. Only a couple blossoms will make a greenhouse smell divine. Just don’t expect the flesh to smell or taste any bit similar.

Readers, have you noticed the floral smell of certain cucurbits? Please help me feel less alone by sharing your observations in the comments.

Wormwood: A plant that stinks in a good way

Sometimes plants deserve better than the names we give them.

A case in point is wormwood, a complicated and bitter herb that grabs your attention because of its name, then draws you in due to its beneficial uses and distinctive smell.

What is wormwood?

So far, it hasn’t fallen from the sky and made the waters of the Earth bitter. However, it is likely that my ancestors used it to purge worms, clean their houses, and make beer or wine.

Wormwood isn’t a single species. Rather, it refers to multiple species in the Artemisia genus that are bitter and aromatic.

Oil produced from wormwood leaves and stems is used in ointments and liqueurs. Dried and fresh leaves are infused for tonics or made into extracts. Many wormwood species are used to flavor alcoholic beverages, from beer to absinthe. Like many other plants, it’s important to use wormwood safely and in moderation.

I became curious about wormwood last spring, while experimenting with homemade bitters.

Locally, I couldn’t find a few ingredients for my bitters experiments. I began to imagine a new garden planted with bitter herbs suitable for Alaska conditions, including wormwood, and in particular, the best-known European species, Artemisia absinthium.

Little did I know at the time that wormwood was so interesting and had many important Alaska connections.

But, as is often the case, stray thoughts and bits of information began to converge.

Last April, while chatting online about a different plant, I asked Michelle Sparck, a small-business owner who grew up in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, to tell me about her favorite useful plant.

Michelle mentioned the wormwood of western Alaska—Caiggluk (JAI-thlook) in Yup’ik/Cup’ik, and called stinkweed throughout Alaska. It is one of the main ingredients in skincare products that Michelle and her sisters sell through their company, ArXotica.

At the time, I was curious about the differences between ornamental Artemisias, like the Silver Brocade in my garden, and others grown for human consumption. I was excited that Michelle was willing to share her insights about Caiggluk as well. 

Artemisia stelleriana, Silver Brocade

A few weeks after that conversation, I joined an Alaska Native Plant Society hike at Windy Corner in nearby Chugach State Park where, by coincidence, Caiggluk—scientific name, Artemisia tilesii—was just starting to poke out of the ground.

Artemisia tilesii poking out of the ground in Chugach State Park

Other foragers have since informed me that A. tilesii is not nearly as common in the Anchorage area as it is in western Alaska, where Michelle grew up. However, it can be spotted routinely on local hikes. Other Artemisia species, including A. frigida, known as prairie sagewort, can be found on dry, alpine slopes in nearby public parklands.

Moreover, an Alaska Grown cultivar of A. tilesii, officially named “Caiggluk,” can be found in some unexpected places, such as local road easements, because it is used in road and mining reclamation projects around Alaska.

I mainly wanted to find out how some of these species compared in terms of taste, aroma, and potency, and I wanted to acknowledge and pay respect to traditional Alaska Native uses.

I knew that I’ll need to grow at least one of the plants to make any comparisons, so I set this project aside for the next growing season.

So here we are. It’s over a year later. What did I learn so far?

During the Christmas holiday, I thumbed through and took notes from a Lower 48 relative’s copy of The Drunken Botanist, which provides significant detail on various wormwoods used in alcoholic beverages. Later during that holiday trip, I purchased a packet of A. absinthium, simply labeled “Wormwood,” at the Baker Creek Seed Store in Mansfield, Missouri.

Better yet, in early spring, I reconnected with Michelle and did a proper interview. Here are many of the interesting things she shared for this blog:

Caiggluk means “nothing bad about it” and it’s almost a perfect plant. It’s functional, aromatic, and multi-purpose in its medicinal benefits.

Growing up in Chevak and Bethel, Michelle learned to use Caiggluk as a steam bath switch for joint pain or a sipping tonic for sore throats.

When Michelle was around 8 or 10, she remembers her aunt giving her a cup of cold, brewed Caiggluk to sip on when her throat and chest hurt. As the tonic went down her throat, she felt her lungs clear up immediately.

As adults, Michelle and her sisters experimented to find a way to use Caiggluk in ArXotica retail products. They continue to harvest it and other tundra plants in western Alaska—such as fireweed and crowberry—to use in their skincare products.

Michelle raves about the size and abundance of Caiggluk growing near Bethel. “These plants tower over us. They form their own little forest and are very fragrant. It’s so nice to have the scent on your fingers while you are harvesting.”

Some Alaska harvesters prefer using wormwood after the stalks have already died and turned brown, but the Sparck sisters harvest it green for ArXotica products.

For those who want to ingest wormwood, Sparck does not recommend drinking it down like a cup of tea. It should be sipped as a tonic over a number of hours, she said.

“A lot of people think plants are unassuming and harmless, but drugs come from plants, and they can be powerful. It does require care to use them.”

Recently I came across a Haines company using locally grown A. absinthium (as well as lemon balm and anise hyssop) to make its award-winning absinthe.

Also, very recently, I met a local botanist with a strong appreciation for Artemisia species. She has previously written about the biogeography and traditional uses of various species.

The Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines sources its wormwood from a local resident, says Rebecca Kameika, the company’s business operations and supply chain manager.

While I’m not interested in making anything nearly as potent as absinthe, I would like to try using wormwood as a tonic, for culinary purposes such as DIY vermouth (I prefer vermouth to white wine in cooking) and to continue my experiments with homemade bitters.

To this date, my botanical knowledge of native Artemisia plants in Alaska remains thin. For now, at least, I’m aware of their significant diversity.

The Flora of Alaska provisional checklist includes 30 distinct Artemisia species. The late Eric Hultén described many of them as local races and pegged a couple species for forming “hybrid swarms.” (This has caused me to speculate that my cultivated wormwoods will hybridize with each other, and with Caiggluk, if I added it to my herb garden.)

For the moment, building a bitter herb garden remains a figment of my imagination, and my wormwoods are still babies.

Silver Brocade is still coming back to life in my garden after a cold winter without a proper blanket of mulch. The A. absinthium I grew from seed this year is taking off in two different parts of the yard. (From the moment they sprouted their first true leaves, the seedlings emanated a distinct and powerful aroma that wasn’t unpleasant at all.)

Caiggluk is also flourishing where I’ve seen it this summer—in the Turnagain Arm area and at the Alaska Botanical Garden. This past weekend, I saw it growing side by side with native Angelica in the Williwaw Lakes area.

From a utility standpoint, I won’t be able to compare these wormwood species for some time, but for now, I’m having fun watching them grow and taking a good whiff, now and then.

Note: If you live in Anchorage and you’ve read to the end of this post, it so happens that I have a few, tiny A. absinthium sprouting in my greenhouse right now (second week of June 2020). Send me a message or leave a comment if you’d like to give it a try.

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!

Zucchini – the road less traveled

Zucchini and yellow squash were my least favorite vegetables during childhood and occasionally I still find them revolting.

It might seem odd then, that I grow so much summer squash. Striped Cocozelle zucchini is an annual fixture in the garden, as is tromboncino squash, an vining Italian variety that can produce arm-length specimens that ripen into winter squash if you let them.

This year, a friend gave me a seedling for an über zucchini, Costata Romanesco, yet another Italian import. I’m dubbing the plant “Andre the Giant” because it dwarfs all of the Cocozelle plants in the garden and yet produces huge and tender fruit.

Of course, I don’t grow vegetables just to be amused by them. They need to provide for the table.

While I still haven’t made my peace with yellow squash or spaghetti squash (due entirely to the “baby food” flavor and texture of most pan-fried or baked summer squash), I’ve grown zucchini for at least 11 years.

Most of that time, I’ve sliced it into thin coins for quick pickles or, more often, grated it and froze it for future quick bread and gratins. Heck, I still have four Ziploc bags of last year’s grated zucchini in the freezer. Fortunately for our waistlines, however, I’ve discovered better uses.

The first discovery was “zucchini carpaccio” – in which fresh, raw zucchini is sliced into paper-thin coins and sprinkled lightly with olive oil, lemon juice, good Parmesan, and thin shreds of mint. A Norwegian friend found the recipe in one of the final print editions of Gourmet, and we feasted on it multiple times during one epicurean summer (This recipe seems to have disappeared from the Internet, but I’ve told you all you need to know).

In general, my “texture” issues with zucchini can be overcome with wafer-thin slabs or diced zucchini tossed raw in a salad or cooked as briefly as possible – preferably over a grill. My preference is to grill very thin slabs and toss them into dishes, especially this one featuring fresh herbs, lemon, and goat cheese. This recipe, by the way, is very helpful if you have large amounts of mint and basil that need regular trimming.

This year, I’ve also begun to “dry fry” zucchini in a pan without oil. It seems to limit the “mush” factor that is hard to avoid when you need to sauté a large amount of summer squash for a pasta dish. In fact, I’m planning to try dry frying zucchini this year with a few main course recipes that previously failed the test due to the “mush” factor.

My most recent experiment (last night) was zucchini gazpacho, in which I blended up raw zucchini, cucumbers, mint, chives, chickpeas, red wine vinegar, olive oil, chilled water, garlic, and a bit of salt and pepper. That was a low-carb masterpiece!

Here are a few other favorites:

Zucchini Hummus (2 cups of diced zucchini, 2-3 large cloves of garlic, 1/2 cup of tahini, juice from one lemon, 2 tsp. cumin, and a pinch of salt. Blend till smooth and refrigerate.) This is another recipe that has disappeared from the Internet.

Corn Sweet Onion and Zucchini Saute with Fresh Mint

Zucchini Pickles

Note: A lot of people complain that their zucchini fruit rot on the vine. Usually this is due to lack of pollination. If you have no male flowers, your female flowers will not swell up and grow up. However, you can still eat them as delicious “micro” zucchini. If you have only a few male zucchini flowers, I recommend hand pollinating your female flowers using the following technique that I’ve filmed and posted on YouTube.

I hope I don’t have to explain the technique any further …

Finding respite at elevation

In mid-June, I finally stopped spending all my spare time puttering in the vegetable garden and made some dates to hike with friends and look for plants.

It’s now two weeks into July. We’re past the “peak flower” time for wildflowers in the Chugach Mountains. I’ve been too busy to post about each adventure but have saved up some memories and pictures to share in a few photo galleries.

My hiking group will have bittersweet recollections of one hike late June. Several of us joined a 7 a.m. trip that started on the lower slopes of Pioneer Peak – the familiar massif that looms over Palmer, Alaska. Six days later, we found out that one of our hiking companions and two others, including her husband, had died in a small plane accident.

Also, in recent weeks, Alaskans have been suffering from record-level heat, smoke from wildfires, and the dumpster fire of Alaska’s political situation. Higher elevations have been providing many of us with a little respite from all of the above.

Click on the pictures for a closer look.

Pioneer Peak trail, June 23 with the Alaska Native Plant Society:

Hatcher Pass, Gold Cord Lake trail, June 30

Hatcher Pass, Craigie Creek trail, July 6, with the Alaska Native Plant Society

Denali State Park, Ermine Hill Trail, July 7

Rhubarb cake

Savoring the ‘barb

*** Updated 6/19/19 with recipe contributions from readers … plus a favorite recipe that I forgot to include!

Michael Pollan has seven words for eating: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

I wish I could come up with only seven words for eating rhubarb. I need 12: “Eat rhubarb, mostly with sugar and butter, not too much of either.”

It’s almost a competition (with myself): Find a rhubarb dish that provides a delightful amount of tang and adequate amount of sweetness. (Hint: The roasted rhubarb recipes are the ones that really deliver.)

Finding that balance requires copious rhubarb for weekend experimentation. Ironically, we are getting our biggest harvest this year in a spot where I tried to eradicate rhubarb several years ago.

I had made the painful decision to dig up rhubarb plants in a raised bed where they were languishing. I set the divisions in pots to give away or replant elsewhere (I finally gave away the last of those pots this year) and dug a new hole (into which I may have dropped a frozen fish carcass) and set down a tiny Romeo bush cherry, planning for it to fill out the bed as years go by.

Rhubarb leaves
Giant rhubarb stems next to my original rhubarb raised bed for scale …

Fast forward to the year after eradication: the rhubarb came back somewhat vigorously, to the right of the cherry bush. This year, the rhubarb is encroaching on the cherry bush, just as it attempts to set its first bumper crop. Until now I’ve never grown rhubarb with leaves as big as a king-sized pillowcase. And I’ve been trying ….

Selfie with rhubarb leaf
Rhubarb much bigger than my head.
Rhubarb cake
My take on a buttery rhubarb and spruce tip cake featured in the Juneau Empire. I added rose-scented geranium sugar and left out the lemon zest.

So far this year I’ve used our unexpected rhubarb bounty to make two new rhubarb recipes, one old favorite recipe, and an okay recipe for rhubarb chutney (I prefer it chunkier). This rhubarb-spruce tip cake recipe from a creative and talented Juneau Empire writer/blogger was a huge hit (I think mine looks better than hers, to be honest). The rhubarb-lentil dish was appalling (not sure what I did wrong). I also made my old favorite rhubarb-rosewater syrup, which is perfect in beverages or poured over ice cream.

I can’t wait for an occasion to make this upside-down cake from Saveur which I’ll warn you will fall short of expectations if you don’t watch for a perfect amount of caramelization. I’ll probably also make this very simple rhubarb jam, which is just as delicious as the fancier rhubarb-ginger or rhubarb-rosemary jams.

I may also try to find a good rhubarb pickle recipe and churn out a few rhubarb galettes – the latter with the frozen puff pastry from the grocery store and long stems of rhubarb sprinkled with whatever spices strike a chord (ginger, cardamom?) and a little sugar. No recipe required.

The last few years, we’ve mostly eschewed rhubarb pie due to a growing aversion to sugar-heavy desserts. Though … we wouldn’t turn down rhubarb pie if it magically appeared in front of us!

If you have a favorite rhubarb recipe you’d like to share, you are very welcome to share it in the comments.

Updated material below ….

Here are a few recipes readers have contributed off-line that sound amazing:

* Rhubarb Muffins: Kate says the buttermilk makes them especially great. She usually increases the rhubarb and adds fresh ginger.

* Rhubarbecue: Boneless country ribs with rhubarb BBQ sauce?!?

* From Barbara: “I like to steam juice rhubarb in large quantities While the juice is cooling down, I mix with honey and cinnamon. This is excellent to drink, or make soda by adding yogurt whey to the cooled juice and leaving it on the countertop in a bottle with a bale for a few days. The juice is also excellent for making sorbet! The hot steamed juice can be canned into whatever size jars for future use. I also like to thinly slice fresh rhubarb to go into garden salads.”

Sausage with Chard and Rhubarb: Another recommendation from Kate that we will try this summer.

Lastly, I should mention that I left out one of my favorite rhubarb recipes of all time. It’s too special to make often. Rhubarb, Rose and Cardamom Jam (Diane Henry)