Cucumber Salad with Corn, Feta and Herbs

At the height of summer, on long days of working and playing outside, nothing is better than a refreshing garden-fresh salad. The lemon cucumbers that have been ripening back-to-back on our vines are deserving of better than a humble supporting role. We’ve enjoyed plenty sliced with a pinch of salt.

As a basis of a more substantial dish, perfect for al fresco lunch, I mix the beautiful slices with corn, fresh herbs, feta, and succulent wild greens. Dressed only lightly with extra virgin olive oil, the flavors balance and compliment one another wonderfully– salt from the feta, sweetness from the corn, and light citrus from the purslane.

I’ve used mint and basil together since enjoying the best-ever caprese salad in a restaurant, and now my tomatoes are paired more often with mint than the latter. We also use the abundant herb in myriad savory dishes that I would have once thought strange, since mint always meant “sweet” to me– an association I suspect an unfortunately large population of Americans share. I only urge you to branch out! Zucchini and mint are a match made in heaven. And there’s always mint wine.

Here I use grapefruit mint, my favorite variety. It has the power and aroma to turn a cold glass of water into a refreshing summer mocktail with a simple muddled leaf.

As for the purslane and oxeye daisies: both are exceptionally common, easily identified wild plants, though of course I encourage research before foraging for food. Both are used medicinally and are delicious greens.

While the beautiful seas of daisies have dried on Northwest hillsides, lush basal leaves continue to sprout everywhere. (Check your garden!) Their flavor is pleasantly herbal and mild. Baby arugula would make a stronger-flavored domesticated stand-in, and wild amaranth leaves would be nice as well.

Purslane especially likes inhospitable cracks in the sidewalk and gravel driveways, so just look down. It’s an unassuming succulent with a cucumber-citrus flavor. More on this lovely wild snack from Grow a Good LifeAttainable Sustainable, and Little Big Harvest. Sliced lemon verbena or lemon mint might stand in adequately, though without the cool crispness than purslane offers.

Cucumber Salad with Corn, Feta and Herbs

Quantities are notably omitted. Use a handful of each ingredient as you prefer.

Cucumbers, preferably lemon variety, sliced 1/4-inch thick

Steamed corn, cut from the cob

Feta cheese, crumbled

Purslane, tips and leaves

Oxeye daisy, basal leaves

Basil leaves, thinly sliced

Mint leaves, such varieties as grapefruit, apple, or spearmint, thinly sliced

Extra virgin olive oil (very little)

Salt (very little)

Black pepper (very little)

For garnish: basil or mint sprigs, oxeye daisy flowers, borage flowers, or nasturtium.

Toss all ingredients together, then arrange in shallow salad bowls and add garnishes, all of which above are edible and delicious.

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Eating Mustard Flowers

Across the West Coast, mustard flowers are budding and beginning to turn the hills and fields brilliant yellow. At this stage, just before the blossoms open, the flower heads resemble broccoli florets and taste even better.

Mustard, like broccoli, is a a brassica, and the flavors are similar. Mustard packs a bit more punch, but the tender buds are sweet and milder than the leaves and open flowers. They are gorgeous additions to salads and irresistible eaten fresh from the plant.

Superpowers of Stinging Nettles

Many of us have long known nettles for their bee-like sting to the ankle as we sweep by the leaves along a trail or wade into them in the corner of the yard. I was introduced to nettles when I fell into a patch while on a hike as a kid. Via tiny hollow hairs, the plant delivers a mighty sting that swells, burns and itches for hours.

Therefore my appetite was far from the first sense raised when I ever encountered one. That has decidedly changed. Now that a little winter rain has ushered in a bounty of lush wild plants, we look most enthusiastically to the ever-expanding crowd of nettles in our field.

Stinging nettles are quite easily identified, making them a great choice for novice foragers. They grow up to two or three feet tall and have paired heart-shaped, dark-green leaves with distinctly toothed edges and tiny hairs. The flowers hang down in tiny light-green clusters.

We drink nettle tea very regularly, so we run our dehydrator near-constantly when they’re in season. The drying deactivates the sting, and the tea tastes similar to green tea with a hint of honey-like sweetness. The tea turns the most robust Disney green as it steeps, and it darkens intriguingly if left to sit for long.

The nutritional and medicinal values of nettles are myriad and incredible. Historically, nettles have been used to treat urinary and prostate problems, joint and muscle pain, arthritis, anemia, hair loss, and allergies, among numerous other ailments. It’s used as a diuretic and anti-inflammatory. Nettles are loaded with iron and a multitude of vitamins and are especially valuable for pregnant and nursing women.

Nettles are very versatile as a cooked green as well. They’re excellent in pasta, prepared in the noodle dough or stuffed into ravioli with fresh ricotta. They can also be used in lieu of wilted spinach in nearly anything. I find the flavor to be better and more nuanced than spinach.

To handle and cook with nettles, they can be dipped in simmering water to deactivate the sting, then chopped, or they can simply be simmered in a pot briefly, then moved to an ice bath. A delicate plant, they do not need much cooking. And while the stems appear tough when fresh, they quickly become very tender as the leaves wilt. The plants can be wilted whole and pureed in a creamed soup topped with crumbled bacon, as we did on Sunday.

Leftover Spaghetti “Lasagna”

When we make a big batch of spaghetti and meatballs, we usually have abundant leftovers. I like to have dinner leftovers, because they make the best easy lunches and quick snacks for our toddler.

However, we don’t use a microwave, and some foods are more amenable to stovetop reheating than others. Some leftovers I just pop into the oven or toaster oven to heat; others I steam. Pasta tends to get mushy on the stovetop and dry out in the oven. So whatever we don’t eat cold, we like to make a baked spaghetti “lasagna” for a second dinner round.

This can easily be done with other pastas, like penne or macaroni, with or without meatballs. Pasta with hearty vegetables is great, and you can always fry up a little ground lamb or sausage or blanch some fresh veggies to layer in on whatever pasta you’ve got in the fridge.

We happened to have a nice selection of cheeses in the fridge last night, so we used a combination of sheep’s milk gouda and young asiago with a sprinkle of parmesan over the top. We’ve done it with cheddar or mozzarella before, too. Fresh ricotta would be a fantastic addition.

To assemble the casserole, we slice the meatballs into 1/3-inch-thick rounds. We spread a very small amount of olive oil over the bottom of a casserole or Dutch oven and tuck in about a 3/4- or inch-thick layer of sauced noodles. In go the meatball rounds, arranged in the next layer, and grated cheese goes over the top. We repeat these layers to fill the dish and sprinkle the top with parmesan and crumbled dried oregano.

The casserole bakes at 375 degrees for 20 or 25 minutes, until it’s heated through and the cheese is beginning to brown.

We serve it with a great heap of fresh salad greens drizzled with a simple vinaigrette or olive oil and vinegar for perfect balance.

As we ate dinner last night, we asked ourselves why we would ever go out. We rarely do, but even special occasions turn out best spent at home with real food, even if it’s just repurposed pasta and greens picked fresh from the backyard.

Making Mint Wine

Of the dozen or so country wines we’ve attempted, mint wine has so far been the winner overall. It’s easy to make from start to finish, with no fruit to pit or grate; straining is a piece of cake; and the flavor is superb. Perhaps due to the large proportion of apple mint I used among other varieties, the wine smells and tastes very much like our apple wine.

Best of all, mint grows abundantly year-round with virtually zero maintenance, which of course can make it a real pest. For anyone plagued with an overabundance, this is an ideal use.

Mint Wine

If you like, adjust the quantities of the recipe to suit the size of carboy you will use, but add only one yeast packet nevertheless.

1 Lb clean mint leaves (about 2-1/2 quarts, tightly packed)

3.5 gallons water

10 Lbs sugar

1 packet wine yeast

Place the mint leaves in a large stainless steel pot or fermentation tub, at least 20-quart size. Boil the water and add the sugar, stirring to dissolve. Pour the sugar-water over the mint. (Alternatively if you have only one large pot, boil the water, dissolve the sugar, and simply stir in the mint, continually pressing it below the surface until well saturated.)

Steep and let cool for several hours or overnight, preferably reaching a temperature of about 75 degrees. If desired, take a hydrometer reading so that you can later determine the alcohol content.

Scoop about 3/4 to 1 cup of the mint ‘tea’ into a glass or measuring cup. Add the yeast to this and agitate to submerge the yeast in the water. Leave it in a warm part of the kitchen for 15 to 20 minutes while it activates.

 

Add the yeast and liquid back into the pot with the mint. Stir well to aerate and spread the yeast. Then cover the pot or tub with a clean cloth or a lid that’s not sealed tight. Place it in a safe place where it won’t get too cold.

Twice each day, using a clean (sterilized) slotted spoon or whisk, vigorously stir the solution. Do this for five to ten days, or until the rapid primary fermentation dies down.

Strain and siphon or funnel into a carboy and top with an airlock.

Keep a regular eye on the airlock to make sure the water level maintains the seal, adding more if too much evaporates. After two months, rack into another carboy. Then after three more months, rack again. When the wine is nice and clear, bottle.

The wine may be drunk right away, although some say it is best aged for a year. I doubt this ours will make it that long– I’m thinking chilled on a hot summer afternoon. That almost makes me excited for warm weather!

Small-Batch Experimentation

My husband’s first batch of mead was a simple combination of one part raw honey to three parts tap water, boiled and cooled. The natural yeast was activated by tightening the jar lid and shaking it frequently throughout the day until fermentation began.

After two days, he went camping for the weekend. The morning after he departed, it occurred to me to aerate it with a good shake. I tightened the lid and with a mere jostle as I prepared a serious shake, the contents erupted in a violent fizz, straight through the seal of the lid. It’s fortunate that the lid gave, because consequences might have been serious: exploding fermentation jars have been known to maim and worse.

Instead, the worst of it was a sticky mist adorning the walls, ceiling, windows, out toddler, her toys, and me.

Only a few ounces of the mead were lost, but in spray-mist form, a little went a long way. All I could do was laugh, undress, and get the laundry basket.

In spite of the drama, its cause was exciting and positive: the yeast was alive and well, and honey-water was becoming honey wine.

A week later, I decided to try some other quart-sized experiments while my husband made a more serious batch of mead amounting to several gallons. I made another mead with a lower honey content and the seeds of a fresh-picked pomegranate. I added a tablespoon or so from the already fermenting batch to speed activation on the yeast. It worked: fermentation began virtually immediately.

The pumpkin wine I made a few weeks ago yielded gobs of excess yeast, and I realized I’d made a novice error: when I multiplied the recipe I was roughly following, I multiplied the yeast packets. This is never necessary unless the volume is over several gallons, since yeast colonizes and reproduces. The residual yeast was still living, so I opted to keep it and feed it more sugar.

I used this to make another quart-sized batch of mint wine—I have a 4-gallon batch winding down its primary fermentation and smelling delightful—to see if the resulting flavor was good and if nurturing a long-term yeast colony would be worthwhile.

Small-batch projects offer a different pleasure than the teeming carboys have. While it’s wonderfully satisfying to fill an entire case or so of wine from one great effort, the small jars are simple, fast, and low-commitment.

Whichever turn out best, we’ll have to serve in small glasses and keep the recipe.