Kitchen garden tour // chocolate beet root cake

Indoors, my husband’s minimalist nature prevails; outdoors, my maximalist nature is unhindered. More is more! I often refer to the steps leading from the back of my house onto the grounds as my happy place. From a distance, my teensy weensy, one story, 1,000 square foot old-but-not-too-old farm cottage appears to dwarf the small beds that flank both sides of the concrete stairway. When you’re standing on those steps, though, the beds take on a life of their own.

1. house

To your right, a small but vigorous patch of wild strawberries that produce all summer long. To your left, a tiny kitchen garden with chives, oregano, thyme, lavender and marjoram spilling onto your feet. The steps and back wall are lined with pots containing anything from shade-loving greens to a bay laurel tree, and a grotesque named Gargoyle. The opposite edge is lined with dahlias, sunflowers and lemon balm, and the front is guarded by our gnome. Inside this illusory boundary, it’s organized chaos. Greens overflow from a central raised bed year round – what we don’t eat I let bolt and feed them to the hens. Green and purple shiso form a carpet over the garden floor. I’ll let an entire patch of carrots, cabbage or onions go to seed just so I can marvel at the flowers. Flats of seedlings are lined up wherever they’ll fit, preempting the soon-to-be basil forest into a nursery. In addition to the toads, frogs and turtles that take advantage of Nina’s carefully arranged broken and side-turned pots and the thicket of Japanese knotweed I can never completely eradicate, we have blue-striped skinks who live in the cracks around the stairs and scurry from bed to bed along the side of the house. It feels like another world.

2. strawberries+chives3. kitchen garden collage4. dahlias et al

Continuing to walk around the house is the tea garden, anchored by a small wisteria tree and a sea of irises. This past winter was not kind to my turmeric and ginger roots, lemongrass, nettles, catnip or chamomile; the bed is presently a chocolate mint garden. I’ll be replanting everything in pots and troughs so I can move them around if next winter is surly.  Next to the tea garden is a butterfly bush and scrub grass. My goal is to turn it into a rock and succulent garden by summer’s end. Parallel to these beds is our rose trellis. On a whim, my husband lashed a few scraggly vines up off the ground so Nina wouldn’t cut herself on thorns while chasing Goblin. The roses have all but taken over the south side of the house. I use the petals for cooking all summer long, and collect rose hips for tea in early winter.

5. Goblin+mint 6. chocolate mint 7. scrub garden 8. rose trellis

In front, we have one bed completely overgrown with wild blackberry vines, and another that’s home to anything that catches Nina’s eye when we visit the nursery. This autumn the blackberry vines will be replaced with peonies, mums, and maybe a gardenia. The other bed has Chinese lantern and balloon flowers, hostas, caladiums, sweet potato vines,  variegated grasses – anything that tolerates partial shade. Around the corner, the north side of the house is home to hydrangeas, butterfly bushes, allspice and holly trees, giant blue hostas, and my rhubarb. A few feet away is another overgrown bed that I’m going to turn into a moon garden. It’s anchored by ginkgo and Japanese maple trees.

9. future peonies 10. collage 11. ginko+maple

That was an awfully long walk around my house! Next week I’ll take you through my main garden, our fledgling orchard, and the arbor.

But first, cake.

A few months ago, I bought a cookbook based solely on the photo and text of one recipe. This is not unusual behavior for me. But the tiptoeing around this recipe, my not wanting to be disappointed outweighing the challenge of omitting a scant cup of butter and five eggs from a highly lauded recipe by a renowned author and chef? Very unusual. And then I saw the most beautiful bundle of beet roots at the farmers’ market, stopped myself from asking if they were any good (it’s way past beet season here), dug my best quality chocolate out of the freezer, and made the best damned chocolate cake I’ve had in a good long while.

cakeThis is what happens if you touch your cake before it cools. Consider yourself warned.

Chocolate beet root cake

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This is my vegan interpretation of Nigel Slater’s Extremely Moist Chocolate Beet Cake, from Tender. Have no fear – it does not contain five eggs’ worth of egg replacer or a scant cup of oil subbed for the butter. What it does contain is seven ounces of best quality bittersweet chocolate, and this is non-negotiable. You’ll need to take great care when melting your chocolate, which is easier than it sounds. Simply place a heatproof bowl inside a skillet of barely simmering water, and stir stir stir. This cake is dusty on top, but incredibly moist. I serve it topped with homemade vegan crème fraîche and poppy seeds, but it tastes (almost as) good without.

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7-8 ounces beets (3 small/medium)
7 ounces best quality chocolate (70% cocoa solids), cut into half-inch size pieces
1/4 cup hot espresso
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups white spelt flour
1 cup natural cane sugar
3 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup almond milk
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
Vegan crème fraîche and poppy seeds, for serving

Boil the beets, whole and unpeeled, in unsalted water until fork tender, 30 to 40 minutes depending on their size. Cool under running water, remove the peel, top and tail, and place in a food processor. Pulse a few times until coarsely puréed.

While the beets are cooling, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Lightly oil an 8-inch round springform cake pan and line the bottom with a round of parchment. If you don’t have a springform pan, you can turn this out onto a plate once it has cooled, but it will be a little messy.

Melt the chocolate in a small bowl set inside a skillet of barely simmering water, stirring occasionally until melted. Add the espresso and olive oil and stir until smooth and glossy. Remove from the heat.

Whisk the flour, sugar, cocoa and baking powders, and salt together in a large bowl. Add the melted chocolate mixture, almond milk, apple cider vinegar and almond extract to the bowl, and gently stir until fully incorporated. Gently fold in the pureed beets.

Pour into the prepared cake pan and transfer to the oven. Immediately decrease the heat to 325 degrees, and bake for 50 minutes. The top of the cake will look dry, especially around the edges, but it will feel springy to the touch. In the last few minutes of baking, the center of the cake will fall. Once the cake has cooled completely, carefully loosen around the edge with a thin icing spatula or butter knife before removing the ring. Serve with vegan crème fraiche and poppy seeds.

Prep time: 10 minutes | Stovetop time: 30-40 minutes | Oven time: 50 minutes

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Asparagus & caramelized red onion pesto

In my kitchen, there is no such thing as too much pesto, and I’ve been making this one the past couple of springs when asparagus is in season.

I grow purple asparagus at home, but the spears are so tender and sweet that I eat them right on the spot. For this pesto, I make a special trip to the farmers’ market to pick up a bunch of bright green spears.

Asparagus isn’t in season right now where I live, but it’s in season somewhere, right? When I found this recipe in one of my torn and tattered notebooks over the weekend, rather than rewrite it I decided to post it here.

asparagus.redonion.pestoYep, definitely worth a trip to the farmers’ market.
capellini.w.asparagus.pestoWorth the effort.

Asparagus & caramelized red onion pesto

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Thin asparagus spears are preferable, as they are less fibrous. If you use thick stalks, you’ll need to peel them before steaming. If you have a steamer basket (or stainless steel colander) that fits over your pasta pot, use it instead of an asparagus steamer. This dish tastes equally well hot, at room temperature, and cold, especially as a midnight snack. We like ours tossed with capellini. (My favorite gluten free brand, hands down, is Jovial.)

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1 large handful (25-30) thin asparagus spears
2-3 red torpedo onions or 1/4 red globe onion
2 teaspoons olive oil
2-3 tablespoons nutritional yeast, to taste
1-2 teaspoons lemon zest, to taste
large pinch of coarse salt
pasta water to thin, if needed

Snap off the woody ends from your asparagus stalks. Thinly slice your onions; there should be enough to loosely pile into a 1/3 measuring cup. If using a red globe onion, cut a few thin-as-possible half moon slices, then cut into small strips about 1/4 inch long. Set up your steamer, your pasta pot (if not using to steam the asparagus), and a small cast iron or nonstick skillet for the onions.

Steam asparagus until fork tender. While the asparagus is steaming, put a teaspoon or two of olive oil into a small skillet over med heat. Sauté the onion until it begins to caramelize, then remove from heat and transfer to your food processor. When the onion and asparagus have both finished cooking, begin heating your liberally salted pasta water.

Cut the asparagus into 1-inch pieces and add to the food processor. Pulse a few times until the mixture is almost puréed. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the remaining ingredients. If you need additional liquid, add some of the pasta water, a tablespoon at a time. Season to taste with salt and additional lemon zest, if needed.

Drain your pasta, reserving a couple of tablespoons of the cooking water. Add the pesto and gently toss to coat, using some of the reserved water if it’s too thick. Season with cracked pepper and coarse salt at the table.

Yield: 1 Cup

Prep time: 10 minutes | Cook time: 10 minutes