Glass Gem Corn

I’ve been growing popcorn for years now, and I’ve always saved seed. I’ve been pleased with the variety I’ve grown—it is so wonderfully flavourful, it turned me from someone who wasn’t a big popcorn fan to a real lover of popcorn.

Unfortunately, over the years, my popcorn has crossbred with my sweet corn, and I got to the point where it wasn’t reliably popping anymore. So at the end of last summer, I figured I’d buy a new packet of seed and start afresh.

Horror of horrors! When I scanned last year’s seed catalogue, popcorn wasn’t in it! What was I going to do if I couldn’t get fresh seed?

Why, plant a different variety of popcorn! Although the catalogue didn’t have the variety I was used to, it did have Glass Gem—a flint corn useful for popping and for cornmeal. 

I’ve planted Painted Mountain corn before—a beautiful flint corn which we turned into excellent cornmeal. I loved growing corn that was as beautiful to look at as it was to eat.

So I wasn’t upset to switch to Glass Gem as my popcorn. The plants grew beautifully, topping out at about 2 metres tall, with up to three cobs on each plant. A fabulous result in my nutrient-poor garden. 

I was itching to harvest them and get a peek at the cobs, so last weekend I harvested the few ears that were drying off already. 

Oh. My. God. It makes Painted Mountain look dull. 

The kernels come in the most unlikely colours, including blue, pink, yellow, white, and green. But even more striking than the colour is the kernels’ translucency. They really do look like highly polished gems. The photo in the seed catalogue did not do the plants justice.

I don’t know how they will do as popcorn—they still need to dry more before we can use them—but even if they don’t pop, they were worth growing, just for their stunning look. And I have no doubt we can grind them up into some excellent confetti-coloured cornmeal if they don’t pop well.

Curious, I Googled Glass Gem, and was surprised to see it’s a modern variety. Its roots can be traced back to a man named Carl Barnes, from Oklahoma, who died in 2016. He began growing traditional flint corn varieties in order to connect with his Cherokee roots. He collected and isolated a wide range of native varieties, and began selecting the most colourful cobs for replanting. Over the years, he ended up with the variety now dubbed Glass Gem.

You can read more about Glass Gem corn here.

The Waiting Game

This time of year can be agonising. Out in the garden, the tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, cucumbers and carrots are all producing beautifully—there’s more food than we know what to do with.

But.

The sweet corn, melons, pears and apples are still sitting there, ever so slowly maturing and ripening. I try not to check them every day—I try to be patient. If I tested one apple on our tiny trees every day, there would be none left by the time they were actually ripe. But it’s hard to be patient while awaiting such seasonal treats. And the worst thing is to NOT check and go out a few days later to find the possums have eaten them all, because they ripened while you weren’t looking.

So I tap that watermelon—does it sound hollow? I check its underside—it’s bright yellow, but I know that no matter what the books say, it doesn’t signal ripeness; it’s been yellow underneath since the fruit was the size of my fist. I peel back the husks on an ear of corn to peek at the kernels—are they plump yet? I bite into an apple, hoping for sweet, not astringent.

After decades of gardening, I’m still impatient for the fleeting pleasures of fresh sweet corn and melons, apple pie and pear tarts. I reckon that’s a good sign—I still get a thrill from the chase, the anticipation.

And one of these days soon … there will be watermelon on the table.

Strawberry Cupcakes

Every now and again, you come across something that is as delicious as it is easy. The other day I wanted to make a cake involving strawberries, because it’s that time of year. I looked at lots of recipes online that involved making a strawberry reduction first, but it seemed like an awful lot of work. I was really looking for simple. 

So, ignoring everything I’d seen online, I modified a basic vanilla cake recipe from the Mennonite Community Cookbook, adding sliced fresh strawberries, and whipped up a quick strawberry icing. I baked the cake as cupcakes, as I often do to keep our portion sizes down (because you know I can’t resist cutting a huge slice of cake …).

The result is exactly what I wanted—an easy cake that highlights fresh strawberry flavour. I’ll definitely be making this one again.

Strawberry Cupcakes

3/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs, separated
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups fresh strawberries, sliced

Cream the butter. Add sugar gradually and beat until fluffy. Add egg yolks and beat until well incorporated. Sift flour, salt and baking powder together in a separate bowl. Add flour mixture alternately with milk and vanilla, beating well after each addition. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites, then fold in the strawberries.

Fill cupcake papers, and bake at 175ºC (350ºF) for 25 minutes. Allow to cool completely on a rack before frosting.* Makes 24.

Strawberry Frosting **

60 g (1/4 cup) butter, softened
1 cup icing (confectioners) sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
3 Tbsp pureed fresh strawberries
Puree strawberries in a blender (I had to puree about a cup and a half of berries in order to have enough volume for the blender to work with—just save the extra puree. There are hundreds of delicious uses for it). Cream the butter. Sift the sugar over the butter and continue to beat. Add vanilla and strawberry puree and beat until well blended. Adjust the icing by adding more sugar or strawberries until it is a spreading consistency. 

* It was a warm day, and I was a little worried my strawberry icing would weep if it sat at room temperature with the cupcakes. Instead of frosting them all, I frosted only what we were going to eat right away, storing the remainder in the fridge, to spread on the cupcakes as we eat them. Alternately, you could store your iced cupcakes in the refrigerator. Mine is currently stuffed full of zucchini and green beans—no room for cake.

** Double this frosting recipe if you want to ice all 24 cupcakes. I put half the cupcakes in the freezer unfrosted, since I haven’t got kids at home to devour them at the moment, so I only made a small batch of frosting.

Black Currant Pie

I have blogged about black currant pie before, but it’s worth doing again. This year’s black currant harvest was overwhelming, not just because it came in the two weeks on either side of Christmas, but also because it was huge. It didn’t help that the red currants also gave a hefty crop at precisely the same time. For two weeks, I felt like all I did was pick and process currants.

Well, and eat them, too.

We use currants in ice cream, crisps, cobblers, fruit salads, and smoothies, but my favourite way to eat them is in pie.

Black currant pie is not for the sour-averse—it is a full-bodied, knock-your-socks-off type flavour. To me it is the flavour of summer. And because it works equally well with frozen berries, I always try to save enough so I can make black currant pie on the winter solstice and dream of long summer days in the chill and dark of winter. 

So revel in the intense flavours of summer and enjoy a slice of black currant pie. You can download a pdf of this recipe here.

Crust:
¾ cup all purpose flour
¾ cup wholemeal flour
¼  tsp salt
60 g butter
60 g Olivani
3-4 Tbsp ice water

Filling:
4-6 cups black currants
½ cup sugar
2 Tbsp flour

Topping:
2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup finely chopped walnuts (or rolled oats)
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
75 g butter, melted

Crust:
Whisk together the flours and salt in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter and Olivani with a pastry knife until the largest chunks of butter are the size of small peas. Sprinkle the ice water over the flour mixture and combine with a fork until evenly moistened. Knead lightly, just until it forms a coherent dough (it will be crumbly). refrigerate while you prepare the filling and  topping.

Filling:
Combine sugar and flour in a small bowl. Mix with stemmed, washed black currants and set aside.

Topping:
Combine the flour, walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Stir in the butter with a fork until evenly moistened and crumbly.

Roll out the crust and place in a 23 cm pie pan. Pour the filling into the pan and sprinkle evenly with the topping. Bake at 200°C for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 170°C and bake another 30 minutes.

Serve with a generous dollop of whipped cream.

Summer Fruits

strawberries and rhubarb

Before our house was even staked out on the ground, we knew where the vegetable garden and berry fruits were going to be planted. We began preparing the garden months before the builders arrived. We took cuttings from berries at the old house, and were planting well-rooted currants and gooseberries as we finalised the design for the house. We tried to avoid mistakes we made at the last house—just one, not two, rows of bushes per bed, to make picking easier, and fewer plants overall. No need to be overwhelmed with fruit.

Last year, we harvested a handful of fruit from the currants, gooseberries, raspberries and boysenberries. The strawberries gushed fruit for the better part of the year. For barely established plants, they did well. 

This year, with most of the plants well established, we’re inundated with berries—so much for not being overwhelmed. The week before Christmas was a frenzy of fruit processing—we froze fresh fruit and fruit puree, made several batches of jam, and ate a whole lot of fruit pie, trifle and fresh berries.

Upon our return from our Christmas trip, there were even more berries ready to pick. We made more jam, preserved more whole fruit, made more pie, and have been eating fruit five times a day. The cupboard is once again packed with jam, and the freezer is stuffed with frozen berries. Thankfully, the currants and gooseberries are nearly done producing, but the raspberries and boysenberries are still going strong. The strawberries are finished with their first heavy crop, but should maintain a level of output we can easily eat for the next few months. I’m thankful the grapes are only in their first year and the blueberries aren’t doing as well as the other berries—not that I don’t want grapes or blueberries, but I’m worried about freezer and cupboard space.

lemon raspberry cake
Lemon raspberry cake

At least the fruit trees are still young—we got a handful of cherries, and will have a few pears, apples, and peaches if we’re lucky, but shouldn’t be overwhelmed.

It’s a lovely problem to have. With the summer vegetables coming on strong, too, there is a real sense of abundance in the house—a great way to start the new year.

Fruits of the Season

strawberries and rhubarb

I made strawberry rhubarb jam last weekend, marking the beginning of the Christmas season. Currants, raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, gooseberries, and blueberries are also beginning to colour up.

The peas are filling out so fast it’s hard to keep up with them, and every broccoli plant is sporting a ready-to-eat flower head. Carrots and onions are just hitting picking size, adding crunch and colour to meals.

The cabbages are bulking up, promising to be ready for sauerkraut making on Christmas eve (our ‘traditional’ sauerkraut making day). And the broad beans are all ready to eat, and coming to their glorious end.

In short, the summer cornucopia is filling up and spilling over.

We will host fourteen people for dinner tomorrow, and I hardly have to hit the grocery store to feed everyone. Some alcohol and cheese is all I need to supplement what’s in the garden (need being a loosely applied term here, of course). It’s what I love most about a summertime Christmas—the sense of abundance that accompanies the celebrations.

vegetables from the garden

Of course, the garden’s abundance also means there’s an extra pile of holiday work picking and preserving, weeding and watering all that produce. But there’s something festive about the work when you can hum Christmas carols while you’re at it. The piles of fresh vegetables and summer fruit in the kitchen are the reward for every tired muscle and late-evening preserving session. And thankfully, we’ve got long summer days in which to get all the work done.

Spring Cleanout

The equinox has passed and we’re on the sunny side of the year. The greenhouse is filled with vegetable seedlings. Flowers bloom in the yard. Asparagus spears and artichoke buds are popping up to grace our dinners.

Now is the time to scour the cupboards and freezer for what’s left of last summer’s bounty. It needs to be eaten before this year’s crops start to come in and make us forget.

As usual for us, the frozen peas and corn are long gone. The carrots I froze from last year’s bumper crop have been eaten, too. The currants, peaches and strawberries never stand a chance of making it to September—they are like bright sparks for winter’s darkest days.

As usual, what remains is pumpkin. Baked and frozen when the fresh pumpkins started to rot back in July, frozen pumpkin has become a staple in our springtime cooking as we scramble to finish it off.

Maybe I should plant fewer?

Except it’s the only vegetable left at this time of year. And maybe pumpkin isn’t traditionally considered a springtime vegetable but pumpkin pie, cake, galette, and pancakes are delicious any time of the year.

So bring on the flowers, the sun and the warmth. And bring on the pumpkin! We’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

pumpkin cake glazed with yogurt frosting
Pumpkin cake … best way to eat pumpkin?

Same Name, Different Drink

saucepan of chai simmering on the stove

If I find myself at a cafe in the afternoon (usually for a meeting), I try to avoid coffee, since the caffeine interferes with my sleep. Instead, I’ll often order a chai latte. At a cafe, that usually means an instant beverage—spice powder or syrup mixed into steamed milk.

I enjoy the occasional chai latte. But it bears little resemblance to the real thing.

I was introduced to chai by a friend who grew up in India. He taught me how to make chai by steeping black tea and whole spies i simmering milk. The process is definitely not instant, and it requires a close eye to prevent the milk from burning.

That ‘slow’ chai, made on a winter evening in a kitchen full of friends was always more than a drink. It was a gift—of time, knowledge, memories, and love. No instant chai will ever be able to deliver the same.

I seldom make chai at home, but a few weeks ago on a cold dreary afternoon, I felt the need for more than a cup of tea. I made myself a chai instead, and enjoyed a drink that not only satisfied my desire for a cuppa, but also wrapped me in friendship and warm memories.

No cafe chai could come close.

Lemon Coconut Pancakes

Earlier this week, my husband made a curry for dinner which took a small quantity of coconut milk. The remainder of the can of coconut milk sat in the fridge all week.

So this morning I made an experimental breakfast to use up the coconut milk—lemon coconut pancakes. They turned out pretty good—fluffy and light, and quite different from ordinary pancakes. They were good with maple syrup, and even better with gooseberry jam.

Here’s the recipe if you want to try them yourself:

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 cup barley flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
grated rind of 1 lemon
1 cup coconut milk
3 Tbs melted butter
1/4-1/2 cup water

Whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, lemon rind, coconut milk, melted butter and 1/4 cup water.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet. Mix just until all the flour is moistened. If the batter is too thick, add more water.

Cook by the spoonful on a greased skillet, flipping when the top of the pancakes become bubbly, until both sides are golden brown.

Flour tortillas–old dog, new tricks

A week or so ago, I ran across an article somewhere on the internet extolling the virtues of using boiling water in breads and pastries. I was curious, and a bit dubious (particularly in regards to the pastry) but they mentioned that in Mexico, flour tortillas are made with boiling water.

Hm. I’ve been making flour tortillas regularly for two decades. It never occurred to me to use boiling water.

So yesterday evening I gave it a go. Using my own tortilla recipe (see below), I simply replaced the water with boiling water.

As the article mentioned, the flour absorbed the boiling water much more quickly than cold water. The texture of the dough was more dry and crumbly than usual, and at first I was worried it wouldn’t roll out well.

But I was able to work each ball of dough into smoothness, and the rolling out went like a dream—I was able to roll the tortillas thinner, with little sticking or ripping.

They cooked as usual, and then came the real test—eating.

The finished tortillas were pliable and strong, and the flavour was definitely superior to the cold-water version—less floury, more cooked.

And just like that, my tortilla recipe changed… Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Go ahead and try it for yourself.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wholemeal flour
1 cup cornmeal
3/4 tsp salt
2 tbs olive oil
1 1/2 cups boiling water

Heat a large heavy cast-iron skillet on high.

Whisk together the flours, cornmeal and salt in a bowl. Drizzle in the olive oil and mix. Add the water and stir until evenly moistened. Lightly knead until the dough comes together in a ball. Pinch off small balls of dough (about 5 cm (2-in) in diameter). Knead each ball lightly, then roll out on a generously floured board until they’re 1-2 mm (1/16-inch) thick. 

Lay the tortillas, one at a time, onto the preheated skillet. Flip after a minute or two—when the tortilla begins to bubble and the bottom is spotted with brown. Cook a scant minute on the second side, then stack inside a folded tea towel. Flip the whole stack over before serving (this helps equalise the moisture levels in the tortillas so the bottom ones aren’t too soggy, and the top ones aren’t too dry).