Tuesday, August 21, 2007

First Tomato

My first tomato of the season is an 'Odoriko' which we discovered at Berkeley Bowl several summers ago. Eldon managed to find seed through Kitazawa Seed Co. so I gave them a try. They were aphid magnets as starts, but since they went into the ground I've had no problems. I'm growing a group in 2-gallon pots. Both doing well.

A couple of weeks ago, this single tomato was a true tomato-red color, but not quite ripe enough. A little squeeze with my hand told me that it wasn't ready--it had the firmness of an unripe nectarine. Eldon and I checked on it every evening. This summer, we haven't had our typical August heat so the tomatoes have been slow coming into their prime. It should be in the 80s in Seattle this time of year, and we've had rain and mid-60s for most of the month.

Last Saturday afternoon, I peaked at the tomato, and noticed it was starting to pull from the vine. I picked it, raced into the kitchen, and sliced it; setting aside a piece for Eldon. Such anticipation leading up to tasting my first tomato of 2007 from the garden. I was not disappointed--it tasted wonderful! Not only was there a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness, but it had a creamy texture. Inadequate watering can leave tomatoes mealy, and over watering can make them tasteless and cause them to split open.

I wouldn't say I am a "dry farmer," but I do only water when I see it is necessary. A little stress is fine for tomatoes. However, there are some varieties that will succumb to brown rot if they are not watered often enough (such as the sauce variety 'San Marzano'). When the leaves start to wilt, they need to be watered.

The other varieties I am currently growing are a Roman heirloom 'Pantano Romanesco,' 'Arkansas Traveler' (considered a "Hillbilly favorite" by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds), and a small salad tomato 'Patio Orange.' I'll let you know how they're growing. Please send some sun our way in the meantime!

Thursday, August 16, 2007


I peruse cooking magazines whenever I am in a rut with my repertoire of dishes. Last summer, I found a recipe for green plantain tamales in Saveur's May/June 2002 issue. I hadn't made tamales before, but Saveur's recipes have been foolproof for me. I decided to give it a try and put my shopping list together. One of the ingredients is culantro. Having no idea what this herb is, I asked a Puerto Rican friend about it (not telling him the dish I was making is Cuban).

"Oh! Culantro! I have not seen it here. I tried to bring some back from Puerto Rico, but it didn't make it," said Vern.

I Googled it and found pictures of a plant with small dandelion-like leaves. I then made the rounds of my favorite Asian grocery stores in Seattle's International District and found it at Viet-Wah. The leaves are packed with a cilantro-like flavor plus a hint of resin.

Shopping for seeds last winter, I found a source for culantro seed through Johnny's Selected Seeds. Even though it only costs 99 cents per bag in the store, I decided to grow my own culantro. And, I could surprise Vern with his very own plant.

Culantro (Eryngium foetidum) is in the carrot family (Apiaceae) and related to Sea-Holly (Eryngium maritimum). It produces a rosette of leaves and the flowers emerge from the base. I started the seeds in early spring, and I had plants ready to use by mid-June. They are growing in regular potting soil in a shady spot where the slugs can't get to them. I lost three whole plants to slugs! I remove the flower stalks to keep the plant going through the season. Vern was surprised when I presented him with his own culantro plant, and he gives me an update on how it's growing whenever I see him.

Last weekend, I made the tamales again--a 4-hour process, but they are so good. The first time I made them, the mixture was similar to pancake batter that I was sure they wouldn't turn out. I added masa harina to half the batch; making them easier to work with. I think they are better and more sweeter without it. This time I used my home grown culantro. Pictures of the tamale making and the final dish with prawns in a coconut sauce (another Cuban recipe from this Saveur) follows. You can also use culantro when cilantro is called for. Just remember that a couple leaves go a long way.

The flavors blending on the stove for the plantain tamale batter.

Batter is placed at one end of the banana leaf, rolled up, and tied at both ends.

Banana leaf-wrapped tamale will be wrapped in foil and steamed for 1 hour.

I did a second batch a couple days later. The batter thickened up and didn't need to be wrapped in foil. Here they are in the steamer--I used my large stainless steel colander.

Tamales underneath coconut prawns. Delicious!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Cutting Celery

This herb could be mistaken for flat-leafed parsley--the two are related and part of the carrot family (Apiaceae). The flavor gives itself away. Cutting celery has a more pungent flavor than grocery-store celery, and can be substituted for regular celery in most recipes. A few sprigs can replace one large celery stalk. The stalks are skinny, so you won't be able to use it for "ants-on-a-log." But honestly, eating celery from the grocery store is like eating crunchy, stringy water.

Growing your own pot of cutting celery is less wasteful than buying an entire bunch of grocery-store celery (and your fridge will now be free of rotten celery). I never fertilize mine. I grow them in potting soil and are watered only when they need it. Usually they are wilting a bit before I get to them, but they spring right back. My garden bakes in the sun, so I keep this pot in the shade to prevent my celery from bolting.

You can use the entire sprig, or use the stalk and leaves seperately. The stalks are more concentrated with flavor. I add cutting celery to my watermelon gazpacho (see previous entry); curry chicken salad; and seafood medley with fresh pineapple, zucchini, and tomatoes; or tuna sanwiches. Add it to pretty much anything that calls for a refreshing bite. Once the seasons change, I will use it in my mirepoix--the French combination of carrots, onion, and celery--for soups and other fall dishes. Hopefully my cutting celery will last until fall. In the meantime, I'll be making more curried chicken salad. Enjoy this easy-to-make recipe!

Curried Chicken Salad

1 pound cooked chicken (you can sub tofu for vegetarians)
3-4 sprigs cutting celery
1/2 cup diced red onion
1/2 cup currants (or 1/4 cup raisins chopped)
1/2 cup cashews or peanuts
1/4 cup mayonaise
1/2 cup sauce (recipe below)

Once cooked and cooled, cut chicken into bite-sized pieces. Mix remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Serve immediately or chill for later.


4 tablespoons madras curry powder
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups canola oil

Toast the madras curry in a dry pan over medium heat. The curry will become more fragrant. Remove from heat and transfer to a blender with the remaining ingredients. Blend until thoroughly mixed.