Last weekend we headed down to Bloomington, where Laurent has some veggies planted. Don’t ask why we couldn’t plant them right here in Chicago. It has proven to be harder to get down to Bloomington than we thought it was going to. You know, life just gets in the way. In my mind it is already Halloween, with all the weekends planned up the fall. So much for spontaneity! Needless to say, the two other couples Laurent planted the garden with hadn’t made it down much either.
We were greeted with weeds as tall as the tomato plants and entire zucchini plants decimated by these evil looking white armored beetle bugs. Jerks! That’s ok, I don’t like zucchini anyways! The ones that did survive could easily yield a half dozen loaves of zucchini bread (with chocolate chips of course). We were too overwhelmed to pull weeds; they grow back anyways, what’s the point? So we surveyed the rest of the plots. The banana peppers were looking good. They always remind me of my grandma. She used to pickle them and then eat them straight out of the jar, even the spicy ones. The Brussels sprouts were just starting to get little nubs on them. I remember studying a Brussels sprout plant in my grandma’s garden for a science project in 7th grade; noting the activity of the insects whose entire world was this plant. Gardens always remind me of my grandma. I remember picking lettuce straight out of her garden, washing it and eating it with just a little white vinegar, oil, salt and pepper. She used to make whistles out of the scallion greens by just snipping them and blowing into them. I don’t know if I ever mastered that skill. My sister and I would spend endless hours shelling beans in the back yard, amazed by the kaleidoscope of colors the inside beans presented to us. The speckled purple ones were my favorites. Yup, that was the first tangent of this post! Back to this garden. Pickles were larger than the garlicky monsters in a Jewish deli. We couldn’t find the beets anywhere. There were enough tomato plants to put Ragu out of business! I better find a good tomato sauce recipe fast. Actually one more little tangent about my grandma. Tangents about grandmas are totally acceptable. You wouldn’t want to cut me off now, would you? My grandma actually makes the best spaghetti sauce in the world and she’s not even Italian. She’s Serbian. She walked me through it recently. Two of her secrets are bacon fat, for flavor, and shredded zucchini for texture and nutrition. Maybe I should have brought one of those monsters home! Hope I remember her instructions when we are up to our ears in tomatoes.
The veggies I was most excited about were the chard, kale and shiso. The rainbow chard was untouched by those evil beetles, so we brought it home and sautéed it up with some garlic, shallots and mushrooms. Easy tasty healthy dinner. That’s all I really need.
I love exotic flavors. You can keep your oregano and sage, give me shiso. Shiso is also known as Perilla and is sometimes called Japanese basil. It is a member of the mint family and its flavor is lemony, grassy and fresh. Although it is very distinct, I think it is subtle at the same time. (Just like me! Ha!) When you go to a Vietnamese restaurant and order any of the dishes that allow you to “roll your own” spring rolls, they will bring a platter of sprouts and herbs and noodles. Shiso is usually one of those herbs. My favorite dish to do this with is #13 Bo Nuong Cuon Banh Trang at Hai Yen on Argyle Street. You can also order “Beef Seven Ways” there. Do it!
Ok, back to shiso. We harvested a bunch of this lovely fragrant herb and on the way home I was trying to figure out what to do with it. I had used some before to make a lemongrass shiso syrup for my start up syrup company. I am hoping to have Paul at the Whistler try it in cocktails. But what else could I do with it. We couldn’t eat that many spring rolls in one sitting. It is called Japanese basil so I decided to make pesto with it. I wanted to make it Asiany, but thought it would be good in a more traditional version. I decided to make two versions, one with almonds and shallots and one with ginger, scallions and sesame oil. I think both would be excellent on pasta, either angel hair or buckwheat depending which version you were using. It would also give a fresh spin on fish, choosing your sides to reflect either an Asian influence like bok choy and shitake or a more Italian flair like eggplant and spinach. You can buy shiso at the Asian grocery store on Argyle. For the pesto, just throw everything in the Cuisinart and blend until smooth-ish. Unless you soak the almonds, or use sliced almonds, the pesto will be a little chunky, but I love texture.
Shiso Pesto Version 1
1 ½ cups shiso leaves
3 Tbl almonds
½ cup olive oil
¼ tsp kosher salt
Few shakes of white pepper
Shiso Pesto Version 2
1 ½ cups shiso leaves
2 scallions, rough chopped
3 tsp ginger, rough chopped
2 Tbl almonds
1/3 cup sesame oil
¼ cup olive oil
¼ tsp kosher salt
Few shakes of white pepper
Ok, We’re not done cooking here yet. I haven’t even got to the kale. I love kale. If I hadn’t named this blog “that’s not lettuce”, I would have named it “kale is your friend”. I discovered kale later in life, although I do remember wearing a kale garnish as a brooch once in a younger drunken state! Now I can’t get enough of it. Like I said, those evil beetles hadn’t touched my beloved kale, so we harvested away. Laurent’s idea of harvesting, though, was pulling the entire plant out of the ground and taking it with us! Ok, that worked. It seems like Ozzie, one of our cats loved the kale as much as I do. He wouldn’t stop trying to eat it.
Another entity or should I say entities that loved the kale as much as me and Ozzie were about two dozen caterpillars, which we found as we plucked the leaves from the stalks and triple washed them. First I thought they were inch worms, but when they didn’t get all slinky like on me, I figured it out. I don’t think these were “good guys” and got kind of freaked out seeing two dozen of them crawling around in my sink. If anything, it proved the kale was organic.
Now we had a gigantic bowl of kale. What were we going to do with it? I remember both Richard and Nicole, who I work with, singing the praises of kale chips. So that is what we did. It was super easy and now we have a big Ziploc of a super healthy addictive snack. I’m surprised it actually even accumulated, as we ate at least one whole cookie sheet as soon as it cooled down. Who needs potato chips? (Unless they are Tyrrells sea salt and black pepper, which I ate an entire bag of the other day. Shhhhh. Let’s hope Laurent skips reading this post!) All you do is toss the kale with a little olive oil and sea salt, lay it on a cookie sheet and bake it in an oven preheated to 350° for about 10 minutes. Don’t crowd it. It will steam instead of bake if you do. Be careful, it will burn, but you also don’t want to pull it out too early, or it will be too chewy. I had a blast trying different spices and salts on it. My favorite was a little bit of smoked paprika. Coming in a close second was a Japanese smoked salt. I love smoky flavors, as much as I love kale.
So, that was our little mini Bloomington harvest. We did pick squash blossoms also, but I don’t think I did them justice. I’ll have to get some pointers for the next attempt. I’ll leave you with a picture of them, as they were prettier than they tasted.