Please Don’t Eat the Yucca

"Yucca, 2010"

Our yucca bloomed a week early this year

Yuccas have to be one of the most improbable, delightful plants in New England. While they look like something you’d see in the New Mexico desert, they’re actually quite common here.

Sixteen years, when Michelle and I moved into our house on a very hot July 1, we were astounded to see a strange, gorgeous plant laden with ivory-colored blossoms right next to our doorstep. We’d bought the house in winter, and hadn’t noticed the spiky specimen, which roughly resembles the top of a pineapple. Although this beautiful plant seemed like a housewarming gift from Mother Nature, the yucca was merely obeying its mysterious annual call to go forth and bloom. 

Every year since then, the yucca has bloomed like clockwork during the first week of July.  This year, however, our yucca flowered a week early. I was concerned about our early bloomer.  Should we blame it on the unusually hot, sunny spring we had, or is this a sign of global warming?

Hoping to find out if there was a law of nature dictating when yuccas are supposed to bloom, I did some investigation.  According to Wikipedia, my authority on everything, it turns out that our Yucca plant, Yucca filamentosa, one of 40 or 50 species of yucca, typically blooms in early summer. Nothing more specific regarding dates.  I’ll have to wait until next year to see if our yucca goes back on schedule.

Yucca in bloom

Good enough to eat?

In the meantime, I learned that Yucca is often confused with yuca, or cassava root. The names are similar, but the plants are not related.  Since cassava is a major food staple around the world, I wanted to know whether I could eat my yucca.  While some sources said that yucca flowers are edible, I read that the roots are somewhat toxic to people, and even more toxic to fish.  Apparently, hunting tribes used to dump yucca into streams to stupefy the fish.  So my recommendation is: please don’t eat your yucca–unless it’s cassava.

Lack of Seed Spuds is No Small Potatoes

Potatoes Galore

Food of the Gods

Ever since my sister Louise gave Michelle and me a membership to the Potato of the Month club, I’ve fantasized about growing my own potatoes.  Potatoes are just about the most versatile foods in the world – it’s hard to believe that baked spuds and French fries come from the same vegetable – and are surely food of the gods.

All new ventures are enhanced by shiny new equipment—and preferably multiple iPhone apps — so before I bought my seed potatoes, I ordered a variety of garden paraphernalia from the Gardeners Supply Company, a catalog and Internet company in hippie haven Burlington, Vermont.  I felt slightly guilty for getting dirt shipped from another state, but Gardener’s Supply is now completely worker-owned, so I figure it balances out my carbon sins.

A container to grow potatoes in

The "Potato Grow Bag"

One of my purchases was the “Potato Success Kit” which included a specially designed “Potato Grow Bag,” 3 bags of Container Mix, and fertilizer — just add potatoes.  In case you’ve never heard of a Grow Bag, it’s a black, ugly-looking polyproprylene fabric bag that is apparently designed for fools, because the catalog describes it as foolproof. It sounded perfect.

Gardener’s Supply also sells potatoes, if you want them, but I figured I’d rather buy my own potatoes along with my other plants.  As a newbe vegetable farmer, it didn’t occur to me that my local nursery might not have potatoes around whenever I wanted them.   The garden centers are still teaming with tomato plants, herbs, and all kinds of vegetables, but after visiting and calling all over Boston, I learned that there are no seed potatoes to be bought in Beantown in late June.

So it was back to the web site to order my spuds on line. I’m anxiously awaiting my shipment. Apparently, potatoes don’t like super hot weather any more than I do, so I don’t know whether I’ll have any to harvest this fall. But I can always reuse my potato grow bag next year.

The Great (Garlic) E-Scape

Photo of two garlic scapes on a plate

Garlic Scapes are the French Horns of the vegetable kingdom

Unless you grow your own garlic, garlic scapes are one of those oddities that you only see at farmers’ markets.  Garlic scapes are deep green, like the dark portion of scallions, but curl around like French Horns. While not nearly as astounding as fiddlehead ferns, I think these skinny little curlicues are still pretty goofy looking.

Garlic scapes are the shoots that poke out of the ground as garlic bulbs mature in the soil. Apparently, removing the scapes while the garlic is maturing forces the garlic plants to produce bigger bulbs, as well as giving farmers an additional product to sell at farmers’ markets – and who could object to that?

Fun with Garlic Scapes

Garlic "scape"-tacles

Since I adore practically anything associated with the garlic family, I’ve bought garlic scapes at the market before, but never known what to do with them.  In the past, I’ve used them instead of garlic in stir fries, cutting them into little pieces and sautéing them with other veggies. Once blended into the dish, they tasted, well, like garlic, and made me suffer from a similar level of halitosis, according to my spouse.

Since garlic scapes don’t come cheap–$1 a scape at my local market—I decided to conduct a small cooking experiment. I cut each scape into little finger-sized pieces and plunged them into boiling water.  I took one piece out after two minutes and threw it into an ice water bath, took another piece out after four minutes, and took a third piece out after six. I also peeled a few cloves of garlic and boiled them separately to compare.

After two minutes, the boiled garlic scape was still quite crunchy and tasted extremely garlicky.  While it lacked the unpleasant metallic flavor of the boiled garlic clove that I also tasted – is there nothing I won’t do in the interest of science? – if you’re not a garlic fiend, I don’t think you’d enjoy this treat.

After four minutes, the scape was al dente and slightly less garlicky, making for a nice chewy piece of garlic candy.  After six minutes, the scape had become as stringy as overcooked celery, except mushier.  The garlic flavor was even milder, but frankly, it was too nasty to eat. My scientific conclusion – four is the magic number if you’re boiling garlic scapes. 

A question emerges– why bother?  Maybe I still haven’t hit on the right recipe. Other bloggers swear they make a fabulous pesto, and I suspect they’d be delicious pickled, but the truth is, unless I was growing my own garlic or the price came down, I’m not likely to grab ‘em again.

What do you think? Am I missing something?

I’d like to “berry” you in local strawberries

Photo of local strawberries

Luscious local berries

Photo of California strawberries

Giant California strawberries

Wow, I just picked up my first local strawberries of the season yesterday and I can’t believe how different they are from the ones the Boston supermarkets have been hawking! 

I went to the Jamaica Plain Farmer’s Market in the Bank of America parking lot and bought two pints of strawberries from Stillman’s Farm. 

I buy fresh and local whenever I can, but the grocery stores have been offering such great deals on strawberries from California this spring that I haven’t been able to resist them.

The first thing I noticed about the local strawberries is that they are much smaller than the California berries.  The second thing I noticed was they’re not ruby red like those giant globules.

But the third thing I noticed was how different they tasted!  Much tarter, but also much more complex than the berries that have been shipped from the West coast.  If the California strawberries range from 7 to 9 on the sweetness scale, the local berries range from 4 to 7.  The California berries have obviously been bred to have a sweet, predictable flavor and texture, which, while tasty, is almost like eating candy.  The local berries are more like wine, with varying notes of sweetness and earthy bright flavor.

While last night I dusted the berries in sugar, this morning I enjoyed them naked (the berries, not me).  The more I taste these tender morsels, the more I like them. Most likely, I’ll continue to go back and forth between eating them plain and sweetening them.

Which taste do you prefer?