Thursday, May 31, 2012

Gardening: What’s growing now?

All gardening is landscape painting. – William Kent

Woody tree peonies make their appearance in late May in Nova Scotia.
This flower is about 8" wide.
Today I thought I would take a bit of a different tact than talk about anything in specific and instead show you some of what’s happening now in my garden.

There’s been quite a change over the past two to three weeks, and I’m quite excited about what this season will bring.

I like to have both flowers and shrubs/trees in my garden. The flowers add that burst of colour we so miss during the winter months. Trees and shrubs on the other hand give structure and year-round interest. That is every bit as important as well.

So without further ado, here’s a snapshot of some of what’s happening in my garden in Nova Scotia.

The photo above is of a variegated tulip tree (Liriodendron). This is the third year for this tree in our garden. Later in the summer it will become covered in "tulip-like" blossoms. I like to have trees that deliver more than just shade – when I can. This one certainly does. It can reach a height of about 60 feet, if I remember correctly.

This is a copper beech. The leaves emerge a purple-green and then develop into a bronze-purple as they reach full size. Copper beech (Fagus sylvatica Purpurea) makes a dramatic statement wherever it's planted. An interesting fact I have found out is that the leaves do not have the same deep colour when planted in a shadier area. I have two – one in full sun and one in shade. The shade located tree is always more green than this one.

Of course for sheer impact not much rivals rhododendrons. We have several in different stages of bloom right now. Colours range from white, to apple blossom pink, magenta, deep red and even yellow. Our yellow one is still too small to bloom. But I am looking forward to subsequent years.

Nova Scotia was home to an internationally known rhododendron breeder, Captain Richard Steele, until his death a few years ago. I believe he is credited with the development of the dark red variety, as well as many others. 

Rhodos seem to like our maritime climate and do very well if placed in a good spot. They do like soil a little on the acidic side. Mulch with pine needles if yours is not.

This is an immature blossom of a Chinese wisteria. When fully developed each lilac-coloured blossom will be about 12" long and hang down among the leaves from the branches. I have two growing over the open top of a back porch. I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch with them hanging overhead.

Even though they receive a fair amount of sun these woody vines seem to be a bit fussy. I get a fair amount of winter kill every year on the smaller branches. Hopefully when they mature that will lessen. I actually planted two so if one dies I'm not completely wisteria-less.

This photo is a weeping mulberry (Morus). If you look closely you will see strange little bunches of round green stuff. These are the immature fruits. When they mature in summer they will be in clusters, close to the main branches. This tree grows to only about 10-12 feet tall and is quite ornamental. 

The berries, which resemble blackberries or raspberries, are edible. But you'll have to fight with the birds to get them.

And last, but not least, is the Solomon Seal (Polygonatum). This is actually a herbaceous perennial, meaning it dies back to ground level every year. The overall height of each stalk is about 3 feet. Each arching stalk bears clusters of sweet smelling bells that are touched with green on the petal tips.

Solomon Seal likes some shade and can be quite vigorous, but not invasive. It is very easy to dig up the roots and transplant wherever you want. I started out several years ago with just a little, but that has definitely changed.

I actually have had enough to share with several people, and it's always welcome.

So there you have a brief overview of some of what I found recently. Of course as the season goes on, more and more plants will put on their seasonal show!


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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Recipe: Salted Pollock with Potatoes & Vinegar Onions

Preserving tradition has become a nice hobby, like stamp collecting. – Mason Cooley 

An old-time recipe Delicious, homey and filling.
I like to try to do my part in preserving old recipes and old ways of doing things. It makes me feel closer to those who I love who have passed away.

Here’s a recipe that really made me remember when I was a child. That’s a little odd because when it was being described to me I would have sworn I had never eaten it. The taste was what brought the flood of memories back.

I got this recipe over a conversation with a very unlikely source – a friend of mine from “home” who is known more for his love of meat and potatoes than anything else. Well, maybe one other thing (his love of beer…).

Regardless, the recipe that I was told (over a drink or two, of course) was from his childhood. His family was connected to the fishery, so I imagine fish was probably on the menu a lot. Maybe not salted fish, but fish. Perhaps that’s why he has an aversion to anything that’s not simple meat and potatoes now.

You must soak salted fish before using for several hours.
It rehydrates the fish and removes much of the salt.
Preserving fish with salt
Salt has an interesting history. It was one of the most valued seasonings in most cultures for millenia. For example, the phrase "not worth his salt" dates from a time in the ancient world when slaves were traded for that precious commodity. For some more very interesting info on salt and history look HERE.

Drying and/or salting food are two of the world's oldest known preservation methods. Preserved fish can be stored for several years. In 3,000 BCE Egyptians were exporting salt fish to the Phoenicians in return for expensive luxuries.  

Salting became far more common during the 16th century when salt became available in quantity throughout northern Europe. Salting fish was therefore cheap – and the work could be done easily by anyone with little to no special skills. 

At the time of the European discovery of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, salted fish (cod in particular) became an important item of commerce between the New and Old Worlds. It quickly became a central ingredient not only in European cuisine, but also in the Mediterranean, West African, Caribbean, and Brazil.

After soaking – ready for the pot.
Pollock is good for you
The following information is abridged from a Nova Scotia salted pollock producer.

Salted pollock contains just 60 calories in a 2 oz. serving. For dieters, this is just 3% of a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. It is even lower than many other types of fish, including salmon, which comes in at 117 calories for the same weight.

It is also high in protein. one serving containing 14 g of protein, which is more than twice the amount of one egg. Salted pollock also contains no fat or carbohydrates.

It is relatively high in cholesterol (at 30 mg), and isn't particularly high in vitamins and minerals but does contain a few.

As far as sodium content? Well, we won't even go there. It is "salted fish" after all...

This recipe is simplicity itself, as most homestyle recipes are. My friend is no friend of complex recipes, to be sure. But that’s what you want in home-style comfort food. What really intrigued me was the method of soaking the onions in malt vinegar. No cooking – just soaking. That was an unexpected "exotic" twist.

This recipe must have come from his mother and as such is a memory of his childhood. We used to have delicious smoked haddock when I was growing up and occasionally salted fish. That I remember. Maybe I didn’t remember this recipe because I didn’t like it at the time. We probably had cod, which isn’t a favourite of mine anyway.

Thank goodness my palate has “matured.” This is one of those comfort meals that will make memories of your own – guaranteed.

Salted Pollock with Potatoes & Vinegar Onions
Prep: 10 min (+8 hr soak)  |  Cook: 18 min  |  Serves 4
1 lb salt pollock
6 medium potatoes, in eighths
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup malt vinegar
2 tsp sugar
1/4 cup butter
1 cup 10% cream
2 tsp cracked black pepper

In the morning, soak the pollock for 8 hours (while you're at work) in cold water to extract much of the salt and rehydrate the fish. Change the water when you get home and let soak for a further 1/2 hour. Drain and cut in chunks.

Slice the onions and toss with the vinegar and sugar. Let sit for 1/2 hour while you finish the meal.

Peel and cut the potatoes into fairly large pieces. Boil the potatoes in water – you need no salt – for 10 minutes. Add the fish and boil for a further 8 minutes. 

Drain the water from the fish and potatoes. Add the butter, cream and pepper and stir to combine.

Serve the creamed potatoes and fish in a bowl with the onions on top.


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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Recipe: Salmon Burgers with Basil and Garam Masala Mayo

You ain't supposed to get salmon when they're swimming upstream to spawn. But if you're hungry, you do. – Loretta Lynn

Basil leaves on top, flavoured mayo and salmon.
I was lucky to get a few minutes to go to the grocery store today. It was my first day back after a week of vacation and, oddly, work was still there. It certainly felt like I was swimming upstream. I suppose I should be thankful – and I am.

Regardless, I usually get a few mental minutes before noon to dream up what to have for dinner. Today I did not. So I went to the grocery with nothing more than a hope to find something cheap, or on sale, or both. That, and an odd craving for fish.

The mixture will be wet. Shaping is easier with wet hands.
As I walked up to the fish display I could see that my wish wasn’t going to be granted easily. The "sale” item was previously frozen haddock – at a whole dollar off regular price per pound. Not much of a deal I would say. And a little unappetizing.

Just as I was about to turn away some small packages caught my eye. They were “salmon trimmings.” Trimmings are what’s leftover from the fish after the in-store fishmonger cuts all those expensive salmon portions for which they charge outrageous prices.

I looked at them and wondered what on earth I could do with “scraps.” The price was right – about $4/lb. Chowder? No… And then I thought of fish cakes, but who wants to boil potatoes before getting down to the real business of making them?

Then it struck me. Salmon “burgers”! You need small pieces of fish anyway, and you can incorporate other things in them for complexity as you wish. I decided to keep it fairly simple. Just green onions (99¢). It was a good choice.

The trick with making patties is to add enough binder to keep them together, but not make them tough. I did the trifecta: egg, bread crumbs and flour. The additions held the fish and green onions together with no crumbling. Success. (I’ve made fresh fish burgers before and they fell apart. One must learn from their mistakes.)

Every good burger needs a good sauce so I opted for a “curry” mayo that had a boost of fresh grated ginger (25¢)  for spicy freshness. To top it all off, basil leaves ($2) with lettuce ($1.27) added another great taste.

The two packages of trimmings I purchased cost me less than $4 and made enough good size burgers to serve 4 people with an additional side dish, or 2 people without.

It’s amazing how creative you can become when you’re trying to squeeze maximum benefit out of your money.

I’ll be making these again. I hope you try them, too. There’s not much you can buy – that’s not on sale – to feed a family for what these "burgers" cost.

Salmon Burgers
Prep: 15 min  |  Cook: 8-10 min  |  Serves 2-4
for 4 burgers
350 g salmon trimmings
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1 egg
1 bunch green onions, chopped finely
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt 
1 tsp cracked black pepper
basil leaves

Garam Masala mayonnaise
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tbsp Garam masala
1 tbsp grated ginger, including juice

The basil leaves add a lot of interest to these burgers, as does the mayo.
Take the salmon trimmings and, one by one, squeeze them in your hands to break up the flesh. Leave some bigger chunks in the process. (Alternatively, you could chop the salmon.)

Add the breadcrumbs, egg, green onions, flour, salt and pepper to the salmon. Mix well.

Place some vegetable oil in a  frying pan and heat until a few drops of water sizzle in the pan.

Take a 4” ring (like a large muffin cutter or similar) and press 1/4 of the mixture down into it and out to the edges. (Using wet hands will help greatly with this.) Repeat with remaining salmon.

Fry the patties on both sides until golden brown.

While the burgers are frying mix the mayonnaise with the Garam masala and grated ginger.

To assemble, place some lettuce on half of a bun, top with a salmon burger, then some whole basil leaves and the mayonnaise.


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Monday, May 28, 2012

Foraging for Pudding: Carrageenan Orange Pudding

Words today are like the shells and rope of seaweed which a child brings home glistening from the beach and which in an hour have lost their luster. – Cyril Connolly 

This was amazing to make with irish Moss I gathered myself.
This is something that I suggest everyone do at least once, if you can get your hands on Irish Moss. This sort of thing helps put you back in touch with nature, and a little further away from the chemical-laced world we live in.

Any fears I had that this was NOT Irish Moss evaporated when
I reconstituted it and the water became gelatinous.
It's an amazing thing to go to the seashore, pick up some seaweed and then go home and make pudding. 

It's even more amazing when you realize that what you are doing is recreating something that has been done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Two days ago I posted about going to a local beach and finding some Chondrus crispus (otherwise known as Irish Moss). It is one of the more common seaweeds growing on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

From this most unpromising plant comes the food additive called carrageenan. Carrageenan is a natural thickener and stabilizer used in a wide range of food products like frozen yogurt, reduced-fat ice cream, chocolate milk, toothpaste…

Carrageenan health scare? Not so fast...
If you research on the internet you will find articles about carrageenan being bad for you. This is due to a bit of confusion between carrageenan (the food additive) and "degraded" carrageenan, a non-food additive and chemically-created product of carrageenan.

The following information is from the "Tom's of Maine" website. That business is a respected natural product company that has been in existence for decades. One of their main products is toothpaste, hence the reference at the end of the quote.

There is some confusion about carrageenan which has cast an unfortunate light on the ingredient. Poligeenan is a chemically degraded derivative of carageenan which is used for industrial (non-food) purposes. Although poligeenan does not posses the thickening or stabilizing properties of carrageenan, it was improperly named "degraded carrageenan" and for a short time the word "carrageenan" was used ambiguously and might refer to either food-grade or degraded carrageenan. Due to this confusion, the US Adopted Names Council determined that "poligeenan" was a more accurate and descriptive name for the chemically degraded form of carrageenan. While poligeenan has shown unfavorable health effects in studies, food-grade carrageenan has no known toxicity or carcinogenicity and is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the US Food & Drug Administration. Unfortunately, because the two ingredients were referred to by one common name for a short time, many people have been left with the mistaken impression that the negative health effects shown for poligeenan are true of food-grade carrageenan. Food-grade carrageenan is an entirely safe and appropriate ingredient for toothpaste.

So hopefully the above allays any fears you may have.

Now back to making pudding.

I dried my Irish Moss in the oven, which was the quick way to handle it. As such it turned very dark. The usual way to dry it is in the sun, where it bleaches to a beautiful off-white. This makes the potential for "coloring" of your final pudding less. I noticed hardly any coloring from my moss. So I guess either methods will work.

Something weird happened when I reconstituted my moss in warm water. The liquid instantly – and I mean instantly – became slightly gelatinous. That was strange, and I also was worried that I was "rinsing away" its thickening abilities. But I didn't have to worry.

The moss reconstituted in just a couple minutes, and was ready for making my pudding. I wanted to have a pudding I could mould, so I opted for a larger quantity of Irish Moss versus milk ratio. You can make anything from "solid" to creamy, depending on cooking time. Experimentation will have to be done…

So this is my recipe, based on a couple I found "here and there."

By the way – there was no scent or taste of ocean or seaweed in the finished product.

Not a fancy mould, but I wasn't in my own kitchen...
Carrageenan Orange Pudding*
Prep: 5 min  |  Cook: 25 min  |  Serves 4
1 to 1.5 cups reconstituted Irish Moss
1/4 cup sugar
3 cups milk
juice and rind of 1 orange
fresh raspberries

Reconstitute the moss in some warm water. Inspect it carefully and remove any debris. Place the moss in a double thickness of cheesecloth and tie it well.

Place the moss, sugar, milk, juice and rind in a saucepan.

Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to medium, and let bubble away for 20-25 minutes.

Stir almost constantly during that time. You will notice the milk becoming thicker.

This little bit I poured as a "tester" firmed up in minutes.
At the end of the cooking time strain the mixture and pour into an oiled mould. This helps extracting the set jelly when you're ready to serve.

Refrigerate for a couple hours before unfolding. I found the thin layer of pudding I poured as a "taste test" started to set up the minute it started to cool.

To serve, unmould, slice and serve with raspberries mashed with a little sugar.

*Optional flavors for this pudding could be good old fashioned vanilla, nutmeg, or even coffee. Experiment!


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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Gardening: Germander Speedwell (Bird’s Eye Speedwell)

A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule. – Michael Pollan

These flowers are so small it was difficult to get a full closeup in focus
with my small camera.
My mother has an invasive flower in her lawn. It’s a shame it’s so beautiful because every time we mow the blue carpet of blossoms get cut away.

This is part of my mother's lawn. The grass is entirely gone.
These flowers define the colour “blue.” The flowers are almost the colour of the sky on a cloudless day. Quite stunning, en masse, and massed they certainly grow. The flower in question is a form of Veronica called Germander Speedwell.

Germander Speedwell is a low growing plant that if given the opportunity will take the place of the grass on your lawns. That fact alone makes it a little less impressive. 

This plant is not a native to North America. It was an introduction by European settlers, and has settled in quite happily.

Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) is not to be confused with Common Speedwell (Veronica officinalis) or Common Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys). Although similar in name, the three are all different. Even by the botanical names you can see where confusion could arise.

I keep this small patch under control by mowing where
I don't want it. It's too late for my mom's lawn...
The plants have a short, upright stalk with paired leaves topped with numerous flowers. The blue flowers have a distinct white 'pupil' in the centre, giving it the common name of “bird’s eye.” They open in the morning and close at night, but the flowers only last a day or two, only to be replaced by more.

The blossoms wilt very quickly when picked, which has given it the German common name "Männertreu" (men's faithfulness). Interesting.

Germander speedwell will tolerate almost any soil from alkaline to slightly acid, heavy clay to dry and sandy. Germander is difficult to control because it has a fibrous root and spreads rapidly. It creeps along the ground, spreading by roots at the stem nodes. It propagates by both by seed and stem fragments. So if you really want to get rid of it expect to do some digging.

According to legend its generic name “Veronica” is from the Latin vera (true) and icon (image). According to legend, a woman named Veronica wiped the sweat from Jesus’ face and the blood from his brow as he carried the cross, and an image of Christ appeared in the cloth she used. Germander speedwell’s flowers do resemble a face, with the stamens being the eyes. But how that story is linked to the flower is lost in the mists of medieval Europe, one assumes.

This is early morning, before the flowers reopen for the day.
Past Medicinal Uses
Germander speedwell’s leaves are used in the same way as heath speedwell (V. officinalis) to make tea. In Sweden the plant is known as tea speedwell.

The plant is a blood purifier and can help heal wounds. It is applied externally to skin and is said to be an decent treatment for itch. Internally, an infusion of the leaves once had a reputation for the treatment of coughs, asthma, etc.

In ancient herbal medicine, the juice was boiled into a syrup with honey. An infusion of its leaves was used for coughs and a decoction of the whole plant was employed to stimulate the kidneys. It was also used as a blood purifier.

When in flower, the entire plant was used for sweats, and its astringent and stimulant properties. Its root was also used as a preventative against fever. It was believed to be a cure-all for many ailments, including smallpox, measles, cancer and kidney problems.

The main problem with this plant is its invasive nature. If you do wish to include it in your garden I suggest that you plant it where it can completely take over with no ill will, and let your lawn mower keep it in check.


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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Foraging: Irish Moss, Chondrus crispus

If I had been around when Rubens was painting, I would have been revered as a fabulous model. Kate Moss? Well, she would have been the paintbrush. – Dawn French

Wondrous Chondrus crispus.
We found ourselves at the beach the other day with Henry, our Bouvier. He is a little “wave-obsessed,” to put it mildly. He likes to go body surfing.

Photo: lastonein, Flickr ccl
While he was pulling us down the beach I came across some seaweed that had been washed up during the last high tide. It looked like Irish Moss.

I had spoken about Irish Moss last year, but I have to admit it was all theory and no practice. I can now confidently say that I have turned that statement on its head.

This is going to be a 2-part post. Today I’m going to show you what Irish Moss is (and how to dry it, quickly). Tomorrow or the next day I’ll give a recipe for an orange pudding. It’s actually cooling on the counter now.

So what does pudding have to do with Irish Moss, you may ask. Irish moss is the source for carrageen, a thickening agent used worldwide in all kinds of commercial foods and products (milkshakes, puddings, toothpaste...).

The proper name for this seaweed is Chondrus crispus – which sounds almost as lyrical as “Irish Moss.” Interestingly, Irish moss is actually called something else in Ireland. The name there is  Carrageen moss. The Irish word carraigín means “moss of the rocks.”

This reddish-brown seaweed grows very near the physical coastline on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. It has been used as a harvestable foodstuff for centuries and also as a cash crop. Nova Scotians harvest Irish Moss commercially even today. Us landlubbers can find it as I did, washed up on the beach. You don't need much at all to make a pudding.

There’s a bit of buzz around Irish Moss and health properties, and for good reason.

Fresh caught, and full of sand. Remember this colour...
Irish moss is believed to contain 15 of the 18 essential elements that make up the human body. They includes calcium, iodine, sulphur, and potassium as well as Vitamins A, D, E, F and K. Recent studies have found that Irish moss has great anti-viral properties and can help fight the Influenza B and mumps viruses.

The carrageen from Irish Moss is now a standard ingredient in cosmetics that purport to reverse the “common signs of aging.” It is possible carrageen aids the skin because of its high Vitamin K levels. Vitamin K and skin elasticity have a proven scientific link.

But… back to the beach. I was almost (99.9%) certain what I was looking at was Irish Moss. It is a bit difficult to misidentify, but it’s always that 0.1% that we have to look out for.

I thought to myself: “If it thickens milk, it’s got to be Irish Moss.” So I gathered about 1/3 of a plastic grocery store bag I had with me “for Henry.” Nothing like a good old-fashioned experiment I thought.

I went looking for recipes on how to use it, but unfortunately all of the ones I found called for dried moss that was reconstituted in warm water. So I went looking for how to dry it. When in Rome...

There were two methods. The first (preferable) takes 2 weeks in the sun. The second was oven drying in about 4 hours. I opted for the 4-hour wait.

There is a difference between the two drying methods. When dried in the oven the Irish Moss retains nearly all of its red-brown colour and turns very, very dark. When dried in the sun it bleaches to nearly white. To me that sounds like a much better colour for a pudding additive.

Next time I’ll be sun-drying, so I have that white colour. It really didn’t really have much impact on my orange pudding, but if you wanted vanilla dessert err on the side of caution and sun-dry.

Oven dried and black. When reconstituted it actually turns out
lighter than the colour in the photo just above. Go figure.
I do want to sun dry a bunch some time this summer.
To dry Irish Moss in the oven:
Wash the moss exceptionally well in your sink under cool water. This may take a bit of work. Take care to remove any foreign matter and/or shells, debris, sea grass, etc.

Once it is cleaned sufficiently, place it on wire racks in an oven heated to 180°F. Bake until dried, between 3-4 hours.

Remove and bag. Dried – either in oven or sunshine – Irish Moss will last indefinitely.

A note on wire racks:
Many recipes that requiring drying things in the oven call for “placing (whatever) on wire racks.” If you have wire racks, good for you. Use them.

If you don’t, go to the hardware store and buy a roll of metal door screen. Cut pieces long enough to wrap around the racks already in your oven. This gives you the entire surface of your oven racks to dry things, like Irish Moss.

Part two – the recipe – will be along either tomorrow or the day after. This stuff works great as a thickener. You’ll also find out how I got rid of that nagging 0.1% in me that thought maybe I wasn’t gathering irish Moss…


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Friday, May 25, 2012

Baking: Old-fashioned “Pressed” Ginger Cookies

You can say this for ready-mixes - the next generation isn't going to have any trouble making pies exactly like mother used to make. – Earl Wilson

Home-baked cookies. As the Norwegians say: made of butter and love.
Sometimes a person just needs a homemade cookie. Do you know what I mean?

There’s only one problem: the clean-up. I know, I know – there’s clean-up with anything that you do, but cookie trays can be particularly evil. Especially with cookies that are baked when coated with sugar like these. It tends to caramelize at the edges and stick.

Photo: renielet, Flickr ccl
There is a product that can make your cookies release easily and clean-up of your cookie sheet a breeze. It’s the silicone pan liner. The most famous of all the brands is Silpat®. It’s a timesaver for sure.

Silpat® is a company that produces silicone pan lining sheets that you place in the bottom of your cookie tray. They are a combination of fibreglass (hmmm…) and food-grade silicone. Just place your dough/batter/whatever on it and – presto – after baking it releases immediately.

No more stuck anything. The company has been around for a while, too. In fact, pastry chefs have been using Silpat® products since the 1960s. They are safe up to temperatures of 480°F. (I do believe a cookie would scorch a little at that high a heat.)

Silpat® products are FDA, NSO and even Kosher certified. Why Kosher is beyond me really… As far as I understand it has more to do with food preparation techniques and combination than anything else. If you wish you can read more about Silpat® HERE.

If you find the dough too soft you can chill it
for 1/2 hour before shaping.
Silpat® liners are the “Cadillac” of silicone pan liners, and as such you pay a premium for them. Currently a 11.5” x 16.5” sheet costs about $30 online at That’s about the same as actual stores in the region as well. I bought mine at Winners for about half that cost. So look there first.

There are many other brands, and many other shapes you can buy as well. Cupcake moulds, loaf pan liners, tube cake pans… you name it. Not only do they make cleanup easier, but storage as well. Just roll your bakeware up and jam it in a drawer.

These type of liners certainly are time savers in some cases. I love the Silpat® we have. And for sticky things – like this cookie – they are a godsend.

These are pretty good cookies. You roll the dough into balls, toss in sugar, and then press flat with the bottom of a drinking glass that has been dipped in sugar. Mmmm…..

I can remember my Great Aunts Hilda and Nettie making “pressed” cookies much like these when I was very young. Good memories from what seems like yesterday (but sadly wasn’t…).

I only have one Silpat® liner, so for my second baking sheet I lined with foil. It did work, but they still stuck to it, and it ripped a little when trying to get a spatula underneath to remove them. So the silicone liner wins.

One by one, roll each ball in sugar.
Pressed Ginger Cookies
Makes 46+ cookies
3/4 cup margarine, room temperature
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup sugar (for rolling and pressing)

Press flat with the bottom of a glass.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, silicone liners or foil.

Beat the margarine in a mixing bowl until soft. Then add the molasses and sugar and beat well to combine.

Add the two eggs to the molasses mixture. Don’t worry if it looks like they’re not mixing in. They will when the dry ingredients are added.

Combine the spices, salt, flour and soda. Slowly add to the wet mixture until totally combined. The dough will be quite soft.

Place the remaining 1 cup of sugar in a small bowl. Drop the batter into the sugar by 1/2 tablespoonfuls. Roll in the sugar and place on the baking sheets.

With the bottom of a glass dipped in the sugar, press the cookies flat.

Bake for 15 minutes. Remove to a rack and let cool.

The cookies will crisp up slightly as they cool.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Gardening: Northern Bush Honeysuckle

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you. – Frank Lloyd Wright

Finally, I know what this is.
Have you ever been walking and saw a plant – obviously native – that you have no idea what it is? That has been happening to me for the past 5 or 6 years in Point Pleasant Park.

Every spring when walking the dogs we would pass this round-ish bush, about 4 feet tall, that was covered in small yellow “bells.” I had no idea what it was, or where it may have come from. I hadn’t seen it anywhere else outside the park so though it may have been "imported" by birds.

Well, I finally found out what it was this year. The plant in question is called northern bush honeysuckle, botanically called Diervilla lonicera. And it’s extremely local, first being named 300+ years ago from a sample collected in our province.

Around 1700, a Frenchman named Dièreville visited the French colony of Acadie – now called Nova Scotia. He gathered plant specimens unknown in the Old World, and upon his return to France this one was named in his honour, Diervilla lonicera (Diervilla's honeysuckle).

Diervilla has only three species, all native only to the New World. Two are in the southern United States. The third, D. lonicera has a very large range, extending from Alabama/Georgia in the south to all of eastern Canada and west all the way to Saskatchewan. It is supposed to be hardy to USDA Zone 2b. That is hardy.

Northern bush-honeysuckle is a small, mound-shaped, deciduous shrub to 3-4 feet tall. The leaves change from yellow to red in autumn. Small, bell-shaped flowers are yellow at first, becoming orange or purplish-red before dropping off. The bees absoltely love them.

They are supposed to bloom from May through August, and perhaps in some areas they do, but it always seems that blooms are scant after the first flush here in May. From those flowers small seed pods grow in pairs (somewhat like a Maple key in my eye) with a single seed in each compartment.

Bush honeysuckle is somewhat insensitive to light changes so will grow in sun, part shade or shade. It also tolerates dry soil conditions slightly on the acidic side. That pretty much describes every gardeners nightmare location and soil. 

They are also supposed to sucker and form broad thickets. I don’t find that to be the case in Point Pleasant. The bushes I have seen (I’ve spotted  few over the years) seem to be quite happy staying put.

As far as growing it in your garden, good luck trying to find this plant in a garden centre. native species are not easy to find because, well, they’re “native”… So one must use other means.

You can propagate by cuttings from both the new green and slightly woody parts of the bush, as well as the seeds. Apparently there is one variegated leaf variety that is available, but I haven’t seen it in Nova Scotia. That doesn’t mean it’s unavailable, though.

I have found it on one of the best native plant web sites I know of: Prairie Moon Nursery. They are an amazing resource for native plants and seeds of all types. They can be found at If you have even a passing interest in native plants you should really check these folks out. They’re amazing.

Lonicera is the genus name of all honeysuckle and the last part of this plant’s botanical name, not the first part. It is a relative of the true loniceras. Lonicera has been widely used in folk remedies for cough medicine or sore throats. I have also found reference to native tribes using bush honeysuckle for urinary troubles, as a dieretic, an anti-vertigo medicine and also a treatment for gonorrhoea.

A book called The National Dispensatory, author Alfred Stillé (published in the late Victorian Age) says that the whole plant is considered diuretic and has been used to relieve itching. The full abstract of the publication is as follows: The national dispensatory: containing the natural history, chemistry, pharmacy, actions, and uses of medicines ; including those recognized in the pharmacopias of the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, with numerous references to the French codex (1887).

Seems to have a “wide variety” of uses. But gonorrhoea? I think I would risk a visit to the doctor… Although medicinal recipes can be found online, some species of honeysuckle are poisonous. So as with all native plants extreme caution should be used unless you are absolutely sure of what you’re gathering.

Regardless of any specious medicinal uses, northern bush honeysuckle is a handsome native plant. It always catches my eye every spring when I encountered it.

I currently have 5 clippings tipped with rooting compound in soil. We’ll soon see how easily this plant roots…

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