Friday, May 11, 2012

Whippoorwill Winter

My grandparents would characterize this week's spate of lows in the 40s as "Whipporrwill Winter." By traditional reckoning, this is the last cold snap of the season, and we should have uninterrupted warmth from now until autumn. For those unfamiliar with our local lore, the earliest cold snap is "Dogwood Winter," which arrives as the trees are in bloom. A few weeks later "Blackberry Winter" arrives, as the snow white blooms of wild blackberries appear. Finally, the current cool-down, when the whippoorwills can be heard in the evening, calling out for a mate, provided you live far enough out in the country. (A bigger challenge each year, it seems.)

Tomato, pepper and eggplant plants can go into the ground now that we've passed this weather milestone. Many of us went ahead a planted tomatoes a couple of weeks ago, on the assumption that the season is running about a month early. Tomatoes don't seem much affected by a cool spell. They just sit there until things warm up. But peppers can be stunted by spending a night out in the cold, and eggplant is likely to develop an infestation of flea beetles. With these two, it is always better to wait than to rush the season.

This is also the season for herbs. Even the specimens in the supermarket look fresh and flavorful. In the garden, oregano, French thyme (at left) and tarragon are going gangbusters, and it will not be long before we have plenty of parsley. (I was late getting plants started this year.) Chives are blooming, and the sage plants are rapidly adding new leaves.

One of the best ways to preserve herb flavors is to make compound butter. Nothing could be simpler. Just soften a stick of butter, then use a fork to combine it with 1 tablespoon of minced fresh herbs. Turn the mixture out on to a piece of foil and shape into a log. Wrap in the foil and freeze. Tarragon butter makes a great topping for asparagus, also now in season.

Local Food Report
With farmers markets in full swing, no one has an excuse not to eat local. Our weekly check of Three Rivers Market turned up the usual suspects: arugula, bok choy, chard, lettuce, kale, and radishes. Strawberries and early red raspberries are abundant. The area farmers markets offer a much better selection, including French dandelion greens, asparagus, a kaliedoscope of lettuce varieties, early onions, and much more.

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