A Hopeful Sign

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Early this spring I was mulling over the issue of a long narrow patch of ground that gets water from my garden sprinkler but doesn’t produce anything. I decided to try outdoor mushrooms. It was a fairly foolish idea because the area is fully exposed to our desert sun, but I do not lack for the damnfool quality. So in March I covered the strip 10″ deep with loose straw, wet it down, spread a bag each of oyster and King Winecap spawn, and paid it no further attention. The oyster spawn produced nothing, unsurprisingly. But this morning I found a tiny baby Stropheria putting a head up to have a look around.
I hope it goes without saying that you don’t eat any mushroom without carefully identifying it, even if you planted mushrooms in that very spot. Get at least 2-3 good mushroom field guides and don’t eat unless you are 100% confident of your ID. A mushroom-loving writer once remarked that ” There are old mushroom eaters and there are bold mushroom eaters, but there are no old bold mushroom eaters.” Take it to heart. Anyway, unless I get more mushrooms I will let this one go to spore rather than picking it.
Even if I never harvest any mushrooms the project is worth it, because the presence of a small fruiting body above ground indicates the presence of a large mycelium entity that you don’t see. I can’t encourage people enough to read Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets to understand the importance of this.
My spawn came from Fungi Perfecti. They have a fascinating array of kits if you want to stick your toe into mushroom growing, and they offer a wide variety of spawn and instructional books if you want to produce mushrooms on a bigger scale.

The Eggplant Chronicles IV

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Summer vegetables are at their peak now, and in my home most of our meals are based on them. This one makes a great lunch or light dinner. I used to wrap this mixture into a pita as shown above but now that I am low-carb I just pile it on a little plate, drizzle with the sauce, and eat it. I like it warm, but it is also very tasty served at room temperature. It can be made ahead, and keeps a few days in the refrigerator. Oil-cured black olives are used to add a meaty savor to eggplant and zucchini, and capers add an herbal note. This meal is vegetarian, and can be made vegan if you alter the sauce recipe a little. You can use all eggplant or all zucchini if that’s what you have, although I think that the mixture is best.

Eggplant and Zucchini with Olives and Capers

2 small or one large eggplant, fresh and firm
2 small zucchini
12-20 oil-cured black olives depending on your taste for them (no other kind of olive will do here)
3 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed and then soaked in cold water for an hour and squeezed dry
1/4 cup good olive oil
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic
chopped parsley to taste, probably a couple of tablespoons
Cut the eggplant in cubes 1/2 inch or a little larger on a side. Whether you peel it first is up to you. The finished dish has a more tender texture if the eggplant is peeled, but has less fiber and fewer antioxidants, so take your pick. Personally, I leave the peel on for this dish as long as the eggplants are young and tender. Cut the zucchini in quarters and slice each quarter into segments on the small side of 1/2 inch. Toss the vegetable cubes together in a bowl with 2 teaspoons of salt and let sit at least 1 hour, tossing occasionally. This step is important for this dish and shouldn’t be shortened. Don’t worry about the quantity of salt; if you do the squeezing step well, most of it will be removed with the liquid. You can soak the capers at the same time. Pit the olives and chop them coarsely, and chop the garlic finely. At the end of an hour, drain off exuded liquid and squeeze the veggie chunks in a clean kitchen towel, a few handfuls at a time, until as much liquid as possible has been squeezed out. Squeeze the capers dry and chop them coarsely. In a clay cazuela or 10″ skillet, heat a few tablespoons of the olive oil and add the garlic. Cook until opaque and cooked but do not allow it to start to brown even a little. Now add the olives, capers, and veggie chunks, toss to coat with the oil, and cook over low heat for about an hour, tossing occasionally and making sure it doesn’t burn on the bottom. Add a little water if needed to prevent burning.
Texture is very important. Start tasting a little after 45 minutes or even 30 if it looks like it’s cooking quickly. When the zucchini is just tender but not mushy, and the eggplant is melting in texture, it’s done. Also check for salt, but the seasonings are salty and you are unlikely to need any. Stir in the parsley just before serving. Serve with the sauce below.

Lemon-garlic sauce
This sauce is like an aioli but looser and less rich. The egg yolk just binds it and thickens it a little. If you leave out the egg yolk the whole dish is vegan, and the flavor is less rich but still very good. The texture of the vegan version will be liquid, not thick, and it will need to be stirred up by each diner before taking any.
1 egg yolk
1 large clove garlic
juice of half a lemon
1 Jalapeno pepper, seeds and veins removed unless you are a heat freak
olive oil as needed, usually about 1/4 cup.
salt to taste
1-2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
In a small food processor, chop the garlic clove and the chile pepper. I always mince fresh chiles before putting them in the processor to make sure that big chunks don’t startle diners. Add the egg yolk and lemon juice, process briefly, and slowly drip in the olive oil until it’s as thick as you want. I like it to be liquid and spoonable, but velvety. Taste and salt as needed. Add the thyme leaves and stir in. For the vegan version, proceed the same way except leave out the egg yolk, and be aware that it won’t thicken in the same way but will be more like a vinaigrette.
This dish is suitable for a low carb diet. All veggies have some carbs but not enough to worry about.
As far as portions, I think this quantity only serves two, maybe even just one on a hungry day. Daintier eaters might get three or four portions.

The Eggplant Chronicles III: an Eggplant Appetizer

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One evening recently I found myself with four expected for dinner and two Japanese eggplants. I decided to use the eggplants as an hors d’oeuvre and sliced them diagonally (to increase the size of the slices) about 1/3 inch thick, sprinkled the slices heavily with salt, and set them aside to disgorge while I rummaged in the pantry and refrigerator. I came across my tub of salt-cured capers and set a large handful of them aside to soak. I found some leftover marinara sauce, about a cup’s worth, and put it in a little saucepan and reduced it to half a cup to thicken the sauce and intensify the flavors. I added a small handful of chopped fresh Greek oregano, and since the flavor was going to lean more Greek I threw in a few chopped fennel fronds too, a tablespoonful or so. I pulled a slice of feta out of the tub in my refrigerator and crumbled it. The oven was turned to 425 to preheat.
By this time the eggplant slices looked quite watery and were ready to be dried with a clean dish towel. They need to be pressed hard to get as much water out as possible. Then they were fried in olive oil in a nonstick skillet until nicely browned on both sides. I do this over fairly high heat, which requires constant unwavering attention so that they don’t burn but gets the job done quickly.
Once the eggplant slices are fried, they can be laid out on parchment paper on a baking sheet and the squeezed-dry capers fried quickly in olive oil in the same pan, not to crispness and not browned but just enough to turn them a shade darker and bring out their flavor. Then mix them into the tomato sauce and spread the mixture on the eggplant slices. Top with crumbled feta. Pop in the hot oven for 15-20 minutes, until the slices are bubbling-hot and the feta looks a little soft, and serve.
These can be made hours ahead, even a day ahead, and then the final baking done just before eating. They are suitable for low carbohydrate diets. They are suitable for vegetarians as long as the tomato sauce didn’t contain any meat. If cooking for vegans, you could leave off the cheese, fry the capers to the point of a bit of browning and crispness, and use them combined with toasted pine nuts for the top garnish.
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Thanks to my grafted Japanese eggplant I always have a couple of lovely fruit hanging around the kitchen waiting for inspiration to strike. If you don’t have a big vegetable garden, eggplant is attractive enough (in my eyes anyway) to be grown along a walkway in place of flowers.
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The Eggplant Chronicles II: cooking eggplant

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Like most Louisiana natives I love eggplant, and I have fervent opinions about how it should be prepared for cooking. For any application in which it is to be sautéed, I believe that it must be salted and drained first. This is not to get out bitterness, as some cookbooks say; a well-grown eggplant of a good variety doesn’t have bitterness. The disgorging process gives the eggplant a better texture, almost silky, and in my view is not optional.
For this dish, I cut an enormous yet still young Black King eggplant into thick meaty slices about half an inch thick. I salted them liberally on both sides in the morning, stuck them in a bag in the refrigerator, and in the evening laid them out in a single layer on half of a clean towel and pushed down hard on the slices with the other half of the towel, pressing out as much liquid as possible. Now sauté them in olive oil over medium-high heat, laying them out on a baking sheet as they finish cooking, and making sure to cook them until they can easily be penetrated with a fork. Meanwhile, decide what you want to put on them. I had some horta (cooked greens mixture) made according to the description in my amaranth post, liberally flavored with garlic, fennel fronds, and salt-cured olives, and decided to use that. Other possibilities include leftover cut-up meat or chicken with herbs, scrambled eggs highly seasoned with herbs, tomato sauce, or whatever. I mixed the horta with crumbled feta for a little pizazz. Top with cheese ( I used an artisanal cheese similar to Parmesan) and pop in a 425 degree oven for 25 minutes or so. Pull them out, top with pine nuts or your own favorite nuts and a lavish sprinkle of Maras pepper flakes or other good red pepper flakes, and put back in the oven for a minute or two. I added some roasted onion halves on the side. Serve. Eat.
This sort of dish screams for a good smooth red wine and has to be eaten with a carefree attitude. Laissez les bon temps roulez, after all.
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Tales of Tadpoles

We have had a really unusual summer with lots of rain, and one of my neighbors found his horse paddock flooded. He started to pump it out, and as the water level fell he discovered tadpoles. We scooped them into a bucket, and I put them into a kiddie pool that I keep in my back yard because I have a dog who loves a dip on hot days.
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At first they were little blobs of jelly with tails.they poked around the bottom of the pool for microbials and weren’t really seen that much.
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Then they began to swim more purposefully and I saw them a lot more.
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Now they are flattening out, forming little embryonic hind legs, and their eyes are on top of their heads and becoming protuberant. They are well on their way to becoming frogs.
I haven’t raised tadpoles since about age six, and I’d forgotten how fascinating it is to watch the entire course of vertebrate embryology occur in vivo, right before my eyes. It is a commonplace miracle but still a miracle. It would be hard to quantify the pleasure I’ve gotten from my rescue tadpoles. The chance to watch life work should never be taken for granted.

The Eggplant Chronicles I: choose your plant

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For the last couple of years I’ve rolled my eyes over the phenomenon of grafted vegetable plants, and griped lustily that there is nothing difficult about growing tomatoes or eggplants, so why would anybody  fall for the grafted ones? Then I saw a picture of the extremely deep rootball that the grafted rootstock develops and began to ponder whether this might be really advantageous in my very hot dry area. So this year I tested two grafted eggplants, one Millionaire ( a Japanese-type eggplant) and one Black King. I planted several standard Millionaire and Ichiban plants for comparison.

So far, the grafted Millionaire is out-producing the ungrafted Japanese eggplants at a rate of three to one. I don’t know how well you can see them in the picture above but the plant currently has five eggplants in various stages and is covered with blossoms further up. This one plant would have been plenty for us. The Black King seems sturdier than large eggplants I’ve grown in the past and is holding its enormous fruit without flopping.
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So I will be planting grafted eggplants again. They cost just about twice as much as the ungrafted plants that I bought from a good local grower, but they are producing three times as much eggplant in less space. The two grafted tomatoes that I tried don’t seem to be outdoing their nongrafted kin at this point, but the jury’s still out. Also, one growing season isn’t a true test. But I’ve seen enough to be intrigued.
There are a lot of kinds of eggplant. The only types that I grow these days are the resplendent big Italian types and the long slender Japanese types. My preference is for meaty eggplants from which I can carve out big luxurious eggplant steaks. If your cookery leans Asian, you may be interested in the tiny bitter Thai eggplants and the dozens of other Asian types.
By the way, eggplants are highly ornamental at nearly every stage of growth. No need to stick them in the back yard.

Breeding a Landrace II: the unexpected bonus

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I have written recently about breeding my own brassica landrace, and I was happy enough that some of the plants survived the winter, made a nice crop of spring greens, and set seed. Since then, to my surprise, after the seed dried down a few of the plants produced a whole new crop of tender greens. So far I have been eating greens from these three plants since last summer, and they still seem to be going strong. It goes without saying that I will choose the seeds that these plants set for next year’s planting, and also will be watchful about whether they set another crop of seed and live through another winter. I am also trialing a few plants of the new perennial kale introduction, Kosmic Kale, shown below.
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I wonder if the delicious third-growth leaves produced by my brassica landrace might not be preferable to Kosmic, which (so far) is not distinguished for deliciousness.
My main point is, give your plants the room and time to surprise you. If I had pulled the brassica crosses out after harvesting seed, I wouldn’t know about their delightful late-summer greens. When we let nature teach us it’s amazing what we can learn.

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