A Departure from Tradition

This is the month when everyone is Irish…if not in fact, at least in spirit. That alone is cause for celebration, but March also marks the arrival of some of spring’s sweetest crops at the farmers’ market.

While shopping, don’t limit your purchases to spuds and cabbage needed for the traditional American-style St. Patrick’s Day meal. Also treat yourself to a bunch or two of freshly-dug beets; a few baskets of early strawberries; and plenty o’ green: squeaky-fresh artichokes; sweet locally-grown asparagus; tender baby lettuces; plump fava beans; and peas of all persuasions. It’s going to be a good week.

You may also want to re-think the corned beef and cabbage thing. Maybe this is the year you want to simply to nibble something good in front of the television as you watch The Quiet Man. Enter: Irish Nachos.

This hearty dish includes all of St. Patrick’s favorites, piled high onto a bed of warm, crispy potatoes.What’s not to like? Instead of opening a few cans, as one often does for classic nachos, this one is brimming with fresh ingredients, all in the colors of the Irish flag. Think of it as a deconstructed baked potato with a hint of the Emerald Isle. Serve with small plates and forks for a casual supper, or as a super-snack for sports fans.

This crazy fusion is a crowd-pleaser; and all the elements can be prepared ahead, and are easily multiplied as needed.There’s no point in offering an actual recipe here, as you are the master of your nacho destiny. Add as little or as much of the ingredients as you like. Here is the architectural blueprint for making your masterpiece, along with a couple of helpful recipes.

How to Assemble Irish Nachos

  1. Make a batch of Crispy Smashed Potatoes (recipe follows). If you will be serving soon, do not turn off the oven. Transfer the potatoes, along with any crispy potato bits, into a shallow baking dish and topwith a generous handful of cheese.

As far as the choice of cheese, your options are wide open. You can get fancy with crumbled soft goat cheese, but a robust, Irish cheddar or a bit of farmhouse blue are other good choices. If you would rather stick to the basics, use shredded Monterey jack or another favorite, cheddar.

  1. If desired, top with your choice of meat and another handful of cheese. Place in the oven for 5 minutes, or until the cheese has softened or melted (as you prefer) and the potatoes are heated through.

Any protein will do here, but coarsely chopped cooked bacon or pancetta; crumbled cooked sausage; or bite-size shreds of corned beef all work well.

  1. Top the warm potato mixture with a mound of very thinly sliced green cabbage or a shower of baby arugula leaves, and drizzle with Herbed Sour Cream (recipe follows). Place the remaining Herbed Cream in a small serving bowl.
  1. Scatter 2 or 3 thinly-sliced green onions and 1 shredded carrot over the top. Serve at once with a couple of large spoons, so guests can serve themselves. Pass the reserved Herbed Sour Cream on the side. Serves 4 to 6. Maybe.

Crispy Smashed Potatoes

12 Yukon Gold or red creamer potatoes, each about 1 1/2-inches in diameter

Coarse (kosher) salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons California olive oil

  1. Place the potatoes in a large pot. Add enough cold water to cover, and about 1 tablespoon of coarse salt. Bring the water to a boil over high heat; then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until the potatoes are tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, about 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes. (This part can be done hours in advance, so all you need to do is roast the potatoes just before serving.) Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  1. Place the potatoes on a baking sheet. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons of the oil, turning to coat.Arrange the potatoes in a single layer. Using a potato masher or a large fork, smash each potato until it’s about 1/2-inch thick. (Don’t aim for perfection here. You want plenty of nooks & crannies, with bits of potato spilling out.) Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Roast the potatoes, turning once, until nicely browned, 25 to 30 minutes.

 

Herbed Sour Cream

1 1/2 cups sour cream or plain yogurt

3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

3 tablespoons minced fresh chives

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill, basil, cilantro, or tarragon

1teaspoon fresh lemon or lime juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

Dash of cayenne pepper

  1. In a bowl, combine the sour cream, parsley, chives, dill, lemon juice, salt, and cayenne. Stir until well mixed.
  1. Serve at once, or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.

Other options to consider

  • Check your produce drawer! Veggies like diced bell pepper, blanched fresh peas, or bite-size broccoli florets add healthy crunch and more green!
  • Guacamole aficionados always appreciate another dose of their favorite green; or a drizzle of tomatillo salsa for a touch of heat.
  • I always think 1 or 2 sliced jalapeno chile peppers are always a good idea. No, they’re not the least bit Irish, but the color works—and I love the added zing.
  • Still yearning for beans in your nachos? Try shelled fava beans or edamame.
  • Not feeling that layer of meat? Omit the meat and cheese altogether and, just before serving, scatter thin slices of smoked salmon or trout over the top.

The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad & Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM, or visit their web site at www.pcfma.org. This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well!

 

Seed Germinating Time

Q. I saved the seeds from last year’s tomatoes and pepper plants. When would it be a good time to start the seeds, so I can transplant them into the garden in May?

A. When germinating flower or vegetable seeds, I’d allow six to eight weeks between sowing the seed and planting in the open ground. Hence, I’d be sowing the seed in early March. However, if these were hybrid varieties, it’s not worth the effort and you’ll be disappointed. You only want to save and replant open-pollinated varieties. The seeds saved from hybrid flowers and vegetables varieties are unpredictable. The chances they are duplicates from last year’s varieties is not very good. It’s all about genetics, so I’d start with new plants. If not, the first thing to do is check to see if the seed is viable. Viable seed means it is capable of germinating. This is easily accomplished by pouring the seed into a glass of water or a larger receptacle. You discard the seed that floats on the surface and plant those that sink. The viable seed is dried out by spreading it over a paper towel and covering it with a second sheet. Next, sow the seed into a flat of pre-moistened potting soil, moist like a wrung-out sponge. With a pen or pencil, you make furrows in the soil, sowing the seeds in the rows and then cover the seeds. The flat is then covered with plastic to trap the moisture and heat. Once the seedlings start to emerge from the soil, remove the sheeting and place the flat in an area that gets morning sun. The seedlings are transferred to individual pots when they get two sets of true leaves. Some gardeners prefer to sow seed directly into individual pots and there is nothing wrong with that. But, I prefer the other method as it allows me to select and grow the most vigorous seedlings.

Note: May is an excellent time to plant vegetables, especially tomatoes and peppers. It’s not unusual for summer vegetables to struggle with cool and damp weather in March and April. So, there is a real advantage by waiting until May to plant.

Q. Last year, I planted cucumbers and was disappointed. They had a bitter, odd taste to them. A neighbor suggested that they were being pollinated by the squash plants growing near them? Will moving the squash to a different location solve this problem?

A. The problem will not be fixed by relocating the squash plants. Squash and cucumbers can’t cross pollinate as the genetic structure of the two plants are very different. Only members of the same species can interbreed. Squash will cross pollinate with other squashes, melons and pumpkins. This brings us to the next fallacy of this old-wives tale. If the two plants could cross breed, would it affect the current year’s fruits? The answer to this is also,” no.” When two plants cross pollinate, the results are unknown until the following year when you grow the saved, seed. Now this is a mute point if you plant new plants each year. Thus, cucumbers, squashes, melons and pumpkins can grow a side by side with no problems.                                                                  

The bitterness in cucumbers is due to a naturally occurring compound called cucurbitin. All cucumber plants contain varying amounts of this compound that is triggered by environmental stress. Environmental stress comes from high temperatures, heavy soil that is too wet, dry, and/or drains poorly, low fertility, insects and foliage diseases. Many times it is a combination of many of these factors. However in the Bay Area, I believe that uneven or irregular watering contributes to the problem. This is particularly a problem when the growing season has below-normal temperatures in the spring, coupled with rapid changes in temperatures from mild to hot during the summer months. This is what we saw last year as April was beautiful, May was below normal and then we hit triple digits on June sixth.  We then had triple digit heat spells in July, August and September. Bay Area gardeners tend to water with the same frequency regardless of the temperature. Yes, we water more when it’s hot but never less when the temperatures go below normal. The other factor is the soil preparation. Overall, it’s pretty minimal for our adobe, clay soil. Soil amendments must be added yearly in the spring to replenish what was lost last year. In addition, mulching is encouraged in vegetable gardens to even out the moisture and insulate the surface roots from the sun. Also, overly mature or improperly stored cucumbers may also develop a mild bitterness; however, it’s often not severe.

Note: The cucurbitin is often concentrated at the stem end of the vegetable and in the light green layer under the skin of the cucumber. You can limit the bitterness by peeling cucumbers from the blossom end toward the stem end and cutting off the last inch. It is best to rinse your peeling knife after each slice so as not to spread the bitter taste.

Rhone Valley Wines: A Trip to France in a Glass

Have you ever tried a wine from the Rhone Valley? If not, put it on your list of things to do this year. The wines of the Rhone Valley, located in southeastern France, are gorgeous, distinctive wines with savory aromas and flavors of what the locals call “garrigue,” a blend of wild thyme, rosemary, lavender, and juniper. Imagine these flavors in your glass! I love these wines and seek them out every chance I get.

The singular red wine grape of the northern Rhone Valley is Syrah, which is also known as Shiraz in other parts of the world. All of the red wine produced in the northern Rhone Valley is Syrah. By French law, winemakers are not permitted to produce red wine from any other grape in that region. The dominant white grapes in the region are Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne.

Down in the southern Rhone Valley, blends are the name of the game. While any of the grapes produced could easily be made into a 100% varietal wine, the philosophy in the southern Rhone is to blend. The locals firmly believe in taking the strongest qualities of each grape and marrying them together.

Some of the red wine grapes grown in the south are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsaut, and Carignan. The white grapes include Grenache Blanc, Piquepoul, and Roussanne, among others. While Grenache tends to be the predominant grape in the red wines, winemakers have recently been experimenting with using larger percentages of Syrah and Mourvedre, creating bigger, more powerful wines.

If you’ve never tried a Rhone Valley wine, start with a good, basic Cotes-du-Rhone and then move on to the decidedly more glamorous and expensive Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Chateauneuf-du-Pape includes red and white wines and can feature up to 13 different grapes in its cuvée. As always, flavors and quality vary from producer to producer. Try a few different bottles to find your preference. Some of my favorite producers are Perrin & Fils, Chateau Beaucastel, Chateau La Nerthe, and Vieux Telegraphe.

The wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or “New Castle of the Pope,” were developed and named in honor of Pope Clement V when he relocated the papacy from Rome to the seaside town of Avignon, France in 1309. “Chateauneuf-du-Pape” is both the name of a small village outside Avignon and the celebrated wine produced in the region. Traditionally, Chateauneuf-du-Pape comes in a heavy, dark bottle with an embossed papal insignia above the label.

Considered some of the greatest wines in the world, Chateauneuf-du-Pape truly lives up to its lore. Elegant, rich, concentrated, and high in alcohol, the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape are a perfect reflection of their warm Mediterranean climate. The white wines are full-bodied with heady aromas of the garrigue, strong minerality, and flavors of ripe citrus and honey. The reds boast a refined and complex nose with a palate of fresh strawberries, tangy herbs, leather, and wet earth. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is indeed fit for a king – or even a pope!

Chateauneuf-du-Pape is best enjoyed with a few years of aging under its belt. A very youthful Chateauneuf-du-Pape may be highly tannic and difficult to drink. Red Chateauneuf-du-Pape can easily be cellared 10-15 years, acquiring notes of tobacco, spice, game, and dried leaves with time. Collectors revere these wines for their amazing potential to age.

The white wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are best enjoyed within 1-3 years from the vintage although a small number can age gracefully and take on interesting flavors of ginger, spice, and orange zest with time. Basic Cotes-du-Rhone wines are not intended to age and should be enjoyed soon after purchase.

The wines of Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape are delicious paired with cheeses such as Camembert, Brie, or Roquefort. The earthy flavors of the cheeses complement the savory quality of the wines. The wines also pair beautifully with a variety of main courses, the herbal qualities of the wines matching the herbs used to season the food. From game and hearty stews to roast lamb or chicken, Rhone Valley wines are a welcome addition to any table.

Explore the wines of the Rhone Valley with your family and loved ones. There’s a reason why people have cherished them throughout the centuries. These wines are true crowd pleasers. Treat yourself to a bottle, or buy one for a friend. Like a quick trip to France in a bottle—enjoy the journey. Cheers!