Now that it’s officially fall, my attitude towards garden chores shifts from maintaining productivity to quiet resignation. All around me, time seems to have sped up: Raspberry leaves, bright green one day, turn yellow and droop along the canes like wet tissues. Lettuce plants that once leaped out of the soil with summer growth now slow to a crawl.
On the bright side, calendulas fend off the approaching winter season with their cheery orange and yellow flowers. And so it’s in the fall when I appreciate them the most.
Calendula, also known as pot marigolds, have fans in every corner of the globe. Native to the Mediterranean region, the calendula, whose name means “little calendar” or “little clock”, is a member of the daisy family. In addition to being a hardy plant in the garden, calendula have also enjoyed the reputation of possessing magic qualities. Herbalists during the 12th century recommended patients to simply look at the plant to improve eyesight, clear the head and encourage cheerfulness.
In the 17th century, renowned herbalist Nicholas Culpepper claimed calendula strengthened the heart. Today it is widely used in salves and creams for any problems involving inflammation or dry skin: wounds, dry eczema, scalds and sunburn.
The true magic of calendula is its flavor and color. Calendula plants were tossed into food at every opportunity. In ancient Rome, the use of saffron (the powdered stigmas of the saffron crocus) was a sign of wealth and power. But common folk couldn’t afford to buy saffron, and they discovered powdered calendula petals were an excellent substitute.
Calendula were often treated like a vegetable. In England, they were sown with spinach and often cooked in the same pot with different vegetables. In an Elizabethan cookbook, calendula was just the thing to flavor a stewed lark or sparrow. And herbalist John Gerard, reported that no serious soup in the Netherlands was without calendula petals. In the 18th century, one cook described making oatmeal with calendula flowers. Cooks made calendula puddings, calendula dumplings, even calendula wine.
Sound a little farfetched? Not really, for calendula blossoms are one of the few petals that retain their color during cooking. You can add calendula petals (fresh or dried) to muffins and breads; rice, cookies and cakes. On the cool side, sprinkle calendula petals on salads and sour-cream dollops on soup. Because the color of calendula flowers is so stable, their extract is often added to chicken feed to produce darker egg yolks.
Mashed potatoes and broccoli
At a recent buffet dinner at a friend’s house, the vegetable choices were polar opposites: fresh garden salad and mashed, well, I wasn’t sure. “What’s the green stuff?” someone called out. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
“Mashed broccoli,” came the reply from the kitchen. I scooped out a sample and promptly grazed the green mountain with my fork for a taste test. What a pleasant surprise! I’ve found a new comfort food.
1 pound potatoes, cut into chunks
4 cups chopped broccoli tops
1 cup shredded cheese
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of nutmeg
Bring an inch of water to a boil in a large pot. Place potatoes in a steamer basket and ccok for about 10 minutes. Place broccoli on top, cover and steam until the potatoes and broccoli are tender, 8 to 10 minutes more. Transfer the broccoli to a large bowl and coarsely mash with a potato masher. Add the potatoes, cheese, milk, salt and pepper and continue mashing to desired consistency. (If you use a food processer, don’t over-blend the vegetables and cheese mix or it will turn out like thin rubber.) Serve immediately.
Time to be jammin’
Every summer I pick my share of berries and store them in the freezer until I have the time to put up jam. I prefer the old-fashioned way of making jam: small batches, without pectin. But whether you use pectin or not, once you taste the goodness of homemade jam you won’t go back to store-bought brands. Here’s my favorite way to make homemade jam, which comes from my 1975 edition of Joy of Cooking:
Any Berry Jam
4 cups raspberries, gooseberries, salmonberries, etc.
3 cups sugar (3-3/4 cup for tart berries)
In a medium saucepan, add berries and crush a few on the bottom layer to produce moisture. Simmer the fruit uncovered until soft, then add sugar, stirring until it is dissolved. Bring the mixture to a boil over low to medium heat, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Reduce heat and cook, uncovered, until the mixture thickens. It will thicken more as it cools.
Cook to a temperature of 221 degrees F (at sea level), which is 9 degrees higher than the temperature of boiling water. It can take up to 30 minutes, but don’t rush the process by turning up the heat. Once the mixture reaches the right temperature, spoon it into hot, sterilized jars to within 1/8 inch for half-pints (1/4 inch for pints), wipe the rims with a damp towel and screw on the lids. Invert the jars for 15 to 30 seconds then turn them right side up.
Evaporating the excess liquid by simmering the fruit slowly takes longer than recipes calling for pectin, but the difference in flavor between the pectin and boil-down methods is surprising. The jam with the instant pectin tastes unfinished, watery and flat, while the reduced jam develops a rich, slightly caramelized, concentrated fruity flavor.
With pectin, you must maintain the correct chemistry (particularly the amount of sugar you add) or the concoction fails. The process is quick — as soon as the mixture boils, you stir in the pectin and fill the sterilized jars with the thickened jam.
As the simmering fruit passes the boiling point of 212 degrees, the sugars in the fruit start to develop a deep fruity taste. As more water evaporates, the flavor concentrates. With pectin, the liquid is never driven off and remains with the fruit, diluting the flavor. If you don’t believe me, stir up a batch of old-fashioned jam. And let’s meet up for a taste test some time this winter.