King Corn

King Corn, a documentary about the supremacy of corn grown for production of sweeteners and animals in American agriculture, was released ten years ago. At the time, some reviewers considered it too low-key compared to supposedly harder-hitting documentaries like Super-Size Me! But I think that King Corn has held up a lot better than some of its more shrill and polemical contemporaries, and I am going to try to get you to watch it.

First, let’s consider whether the problem addressed is still a problem. Have rates of obesity or diabetes gone down since the movie was made in 2007? Quite the opposite. In adults age 40 to 59, obesity has risen to a stunning 41%. In 2015, 9.4% of American adults were diabetic, and another 84.1 million were considered pre-diabetic. Our scientific knowledge of the hazards of sugar in all its forms has grown by leaps and bounds, and so has our national sweetener consumption. So, uh, let’s keep talking about this.

With that in mind, I watched King Corn unfold. It is a sweet low-key film and doesn’t hammer you with a message. It just shows you things. Things like Earl Butz laying out the paradigm change to “more food, cheaper food!” Things like anhydrous ammonia being injected into the soil, and herbicides being rained onto the soil in 90 foot swaths, all to grow more corn. Things like genuine and literal mountains of corn being shoveled into confinement animal feeding operations and sweetener factories. Things like current farmers admitting that they won’t eat their own product, and the owner of a confinement cattle feeding operation saying “if the American consumer wanted grass-fed beef, then we could and would produce it.” Things like Dr. Walter Willet of Harvard, one of the greatest nutritional researchers in the world, explaining what all this means in terms of American health. Things like small American farmers going under as their neighbors consolidate to produce more and more and yet more corn. And, tragically, things like a delivery driver talking to one of the protagonists about the ultrasweet grape soda that he drank constantly when he was growing up, and about his father‘s eventual death of diabetes. “They amputated his toes first,” the driver says, “then his foot, then his leg below the knee, then above the knee. When they started cutting on his other leg, he gave up. He died.” The driver went on to say that he himself had lost a huge amount of weight just by giving up soda. I’m a doctor and this scene made me want to cry. Currently the national cost of diabetes in the US is calculated to be a stunning 105 billion per year, a figure that becomes even more remarkable when you learn that it does not include the cost of workdays lost. The cost in human suffering and loss of lifespan and healthspan is beyond calculation.

If you wonder what any of this has to do with an urban gardening and home food production blog, I would say that it’s the backbone of what I’m talking about here all the time. It simply is not possible to grow or make at home anything that is as unhealthy as most of what is sold to you in stores and restaurants. I seldom venture into large grocery stores these days, but when I do, what I see is aisle after aisle of things that are not really food. Don’t eat this stuff.  Bushels of money are being made out of messing up your health. Grow something, cook it, and eat it, or buy it directly from the person who grew it.  Take an interest in the health of the soil right around your own house. Take to heart the interview clips in King Corn that show Michael Pollan sitting and talking to the interviewer with his home garden in the background, Tuscan kale prominent.  Plant one little plot of kale, cook it six or seven different ways, and see what you like.  Use the fall and winter to start planning a small garden for spring. Find three recipes for leafy greens that you really enjoy, and make them often. Serve them to your family and friends.  This is not just a fun and loving but a subversive act.   Almost everything in our corporate food culture is designed to get you to eat things that are not good for you. There are corporations that exist to make a mint at the cost of your health,  and then other corporations that make further fortunes by making pharmaceuticals to treat your food induced health conditions and allow you to continue eating swill, but you are smart and wily and you are going to begin fighting back.

Pollinator Autumn

Fall in New Mexico is quite possibly the most beautiful season to be found anywhere in the world.  But it’s also the last hurrah for our pollinators, who have a brief time left to get a winter’s worth of provisions stored. I’ve been taking note of the plants that will help them with this last push for survival.

Our native chamisa, or rabbitbrush, is first and foremost. It’s in full bloom in late September and is mobbed with bees whenever the sun touches it, perhaps because in sunlight it exudes a warm heathery-polleny fragrance. Interestingly, I find honeybees working it in the early evening, hours after their forays usually stop. It self-seeds readily and gets big, so steps have to be taken to keep it under control, but find a neglected corner where it can ramp away into a great bush and it will literally hum with bees in autumn.

If you cut your hollyhocks back after their first bloom, they bloom again in late September and are greatly appreciated by bees. In the dry high desert they are blessedly free of the diseases that can make them unsightly in the eastern US, and they are so robustly healthy that they can become nuisances.

Morning glories bloom until the frosts start, and although the bees pay little attention to them earlier in the season, they are very popular in September and October.

Sunflowers bloom early in our hot climate, but some always germinate late, in May or June. I make sure to let a few of these stragglers grow up, because they bloom in early Zoctober and seem especially attractive to bumblebees.

Urban homesteading is not just about growing your own food. It’s about creating viable ecological oases in urban areas. Eating some of the bounty is your privilege, but you have a billion partners in your enterprise, including your own animals, birds, toads, worms, pollinators of all kinds, fungi, and the huge array of microbes without which plants and soil, and therefore us, could not survive. The end of a growing season is a good time to stop and honor them all.

Natural Chaos

A garden bed with edible weeds in glorious (?) array

For a brief period earlier this year I had a lovely young helper in the garden, and he was a sponge for any information about plants and animals and a joy to have around. At one point, as he talked about how much he wanted a “yard farm” of his own, he looked around my yard and said thoughtfully “But mine will always be neat as a pin.” He didn’t say “by contrast,” but the implication was clear, and quite true.

Well, if there is one thing my urban homestead is not, it’s neat as a pin. Nature grows and blooms. Nature also surges, intrudes, overwhelms, dies back, regrows,  creeps, climbs, and insidiously gets Her own way. The gardener plays a part in natural chaos too; all the photos of lovely front yard veggie gardens that you see in magazines are taken before harvest. The gardener cuts the glowing rainbow chard, harvests the multicolored row of lettuces, picks the crimson tomatoes, and plucks the shiny apples, and suddenly things aren’t so camera-ready. Admittedly, many are neater than mine, since many gardeners lack my taste for edible weeds and my belief that nearly any plant has a purpose.  But if you want to get the most that you can get out of gardening, a degree of chaos tolerance may be a useful asset.

My blogging friend Luke of the Mortaltree blog summed this up so superbly that, with his permission, I’m linking to his post on the subject. So please hit this link and read his post “Taste of Chaos,” which really sums up the land-healing experience:

Taste of chaos

Garden Errors

In my last post I mentioned using finely chopped carrot leaves in an herb pesto, and it occurred to me that there is a bit more to say about this because it pertains to what to do when things go wrong in the garden. The brief answer is: see if you can eat them anyway, maybe in some other form.

This spring I used all my allotted carrot space on an heirloom carrot called Oxheart, because it was billed as not only tasty but short and thick, perfect for my heavy soil. And it was a very nice carrot indeed except that at the four month point most of the row shot to seed, jettisoning the typical biennial habit of right-thinking carrots. So there I was with no carrots for fall and winter and a row of ferny foliage and lacy white blossoms so pretty that I hated to tear them out.

So I began experimenting with how to eat them anyway.  The ones already blooming were left in place for bee fodder.  The ones that were just beginning to throw up short bloom stalks, with stalks less than 6 inches high when I discovered them, were pan-grilled as whole shoots, a tasty and delicious use.

Carrot shoot in the center

This left a large number that were beyond the shoot stage and beginning to form buds, but not yet blooming.  The leaves were still tender, and I began to gather them to add to cooked greens mixtures, and then began to use them chopped finely as a garnish, much in the manner of parsley. They taste different, of course, but have a fresh green flavor with a dose of terpene that I found very attractive.  They are loaded with vitamin K, if that is of interest to you.

This left the stems, and I found that they too had a use, although they are a little tedious to prepare.  The top half of the stem can have the fibrous outsides pulled off and you’ll see a crisp green pith  that has a fresh juicy flavor a little bit like celery but with a carrotty tang.  There is an inner fibrous layer that doesn’t come off, so you have to cut them in cross-sections no more than a quarter inch long.  They add a nice crisp crunch with a fresh flavor to nearly anything, especially herb pestos and chimichurris.  When in doubt about whether a particular segment of the stem is edible, peel it as well as you can and then bite into it. If your teeth do not go cleanly through it and nasty threads are left hanging off the end, don’t bother with it.

Peeled carrot stalks shown to the right, chopped carrot leaves and thyme at the top

The roots of carrots that have shot up a bloomscape are no longer tender, but they can still be peeled, sliced, roasted, and made into flexible Romesco or roasted carrot hummus, proving the carrot’s status as a true nose-to-tail vegetable.

Above, gone-to-flower carrots were oven-roasted for carrot Romesco, but don’t try to eat them as plain roasted carrots at this point, because they are fairly tough.

I should add that creative harvesting is like foraging; never make assumptions about safety. The fact that one part of a plant is edible and safe never means that another part is.   As it happens, I already knew that carrot leaves and stalks were safe to eat, and most problems that happen when foragers try to eat wild carrots come from dangerous misidentification with poisonous, even deadly, members of the same family.  So if you gather carrotty looking things outside your own garden, be very, very sure that you know what you are looking at.

Once all of the above is said, I have to add that I would rather have had winter carrots, and next time I will be a little more careful with my seed source. But an error here and there keeps our thinking fresh.

Green Odds and Ends

On my occasional staycations I have time to interact with my garden and kitchen in a leisurely way. I have time to notice things. Unfortunately, some of what I notice is at best a call to action and, at worst, a problem unfolding itself.

Take lambsquarters. This  weed is a real nutritional powerhouse, and also is happy to take over your world if you allow it.   I have written in the past about how to make it behave itself, and I do wish that I had followed my own good advice this year. But I foolishly let some plants go to bloom, which means that the leaves are scant and seeds will shower on my garden soon.

Well, all is far from lost, because Chenopodium album is still producing something edible. Notice the branch tips and you will see the clustered buds ready to pick and cook. This common weed is a true nose-to-tail vegetable.

To the right above, you see tightly packed buds, perfect for cooking. The single branch to the left shows looser formation and tiny little yellow stamens, indicating that it’s gone to flower. It’s still edible at this stage but the stem is tougher. A little later the seeds start forming and, to my taste, a slight unpleasant bitterness develops and the stems get noticeably tough, so I try to eat it up before that point, but the seed clusters look a lot like the initial bud clusters. Chew a bit raw if you want to be sure. If it tastes mild and green but not bitter, and the stem can be snapped in your fingers without undue effort, it’s kitchen-ready.

Steam or cook in a skillet in a little good olive oil until done to your taste, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, and eat. I steamed a batch for dinner and had some leftovers the next day, enough for one but there were two of us, which is how I came to use the cooked leftovers as the basis for a thick pesto to eat with halloumi and eggs.

The lambsquarters buds are very mild, so I chose a handful of fresh dill leaves to be the dominant seasoning, and some young carrot leaves chopped finely for the bright fresh green element (my parsley didn’t do well this year.) I put a clove of garlic in the mini-prep, added 1/3 cup of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon, ground in the cooked lambsquarters buds, and then turned it into a dish and stirred in the chopped dill and carrot leaves to avoid too fine a texture. Add more olive oil or lemon juice if called for, salt and pepper to taste, and it’s ready to serve alongside nearly anything. If you don’t like dill, use something else. Only fresh herbs are appropriate for this type of vegetable-relish.

After frying the halloumi in olive oil, I decided to fry an egg apiece in the remaining hot olive oil. To add a little pizazz I dropped two generous pinches of chopped dill leaves in two places in the hot skillet, then immediately broke two fresh eggs on top of them. Flip the eggs after a minute and cook to preferred doneness.  Those who are only familiar with the fusty-musty dried dillweed may be surprised how much they like fresh dill in this context.

I’m curious about the nutritional content of this lambsquarters-broccoli but there isn’t any available data. So I can only say that the leaves are powerfully nutritious and the buds probably are too. And wherever you may go in your life, short of prison, lambsquarters will be there. At times when I worry about the future, it’s comforting to think that if I’m ancient and beyond digging and planting, lambsquarters will grow just fine and will be on the menu as long as I can totter to the kitchen.

 

Bold Scrambled Eggs, and Notes on Egyptian Onions

I love Indian food and cook it frequently, and I especially love the simple dishes that make quick meals in Indian homes. This is a cuisine that vegetarians should get to know well, since the population of India is about 40% vegetarian and vegetable dishes abound. But it can seem daunting to view the ingredient list of many Indian recipes, and the toasting and grinding of spices for each dish can require more time than is available.

So start with simple scrambled eggs. These are loaded with bold flavor, and easy to make. I lean low-carb so I eat them plain, but you can scoop them up with warm parathas or warmed-over naan from last night’s take-out, or pat out squash flatbread thin and use that. It’s always a good investment in your health to use the best eggs that you can lay hands on if you don’t keep your own hens. Check out the farmer’s market and get eggs from hens that have been fed a lot of greens, since bugs and leaves are a big part of the natural diet of a hen.

The only out-of-the-ordinary prep that you need to do is to toast some whole cumin seeds in a dry skillet just until they are fragrant and a little darker and then grind them in a spice grinder. In the summer I do a tablespoon at a time so that I always have a bit on hand, but don’t make too much because once toasted and ground it doesn’t stay fresh for long.

Be sure to add salt to the vegetables as they cook, as directed. This is part of getting them to soften properly and assures that they are seasoned through.

For two hungry people, you’ll need:

3 eggs and three egg yolks, or 4 eggs if you prefer, beaten a bit

4 large green onions or a bunch of the little grocery store type, cut in 1/4″ slices crosswise, whites and greens kept separate

Ghee, 2-3 tablespoons, or neutral oil of your preference

one small bunch of cilantro, washed and chopped finely crosswise, stems and leafy parts kept separate

one teaspoon of ground toasted cumin seed

Heat the ghee in a skillet, and add the white parts of the green onions with a good pinch of salt and sauté over medium-high heat until cooked through but not browned. Add the onion greens and the cilantro stems and another small pinch of salt and cook until the onion greens look softened; taste one to be sure that they have become pleasant to eat. Add the beaten eggs and yolks and cook, turning over with a spatula, until they are cooked to your preference. Taste for salt and add more if indicated. Add half the cilantro leaves and the toasted ground cumin to the pan and stir to distribute, serve, and top with the remaining cilantro leaves.

This is great as part of an Indian brunch for two as shown above, or by itself as a quick easy meal that can be on the plate in 15 minutes if you have the ingredients handy. You can also make a mini version in your smallest skillet with one big green onion, a few stalks of cilantro, and one egg, if you aren’t hungry enough for a meal but want a nutritious snack.

If you love green onions and want to have them around throughout the growing season, my blogging friend Luke has helped me figure out how to do it with Egyptian, or walking, onions. Once you have these sturdy onions, you have them. To get started, I ordered a hundred top-set bulbs off Etsy one fall when they were plentiful. It’s a bit of an investment by gardening standards, but it’s a one-time thing. Choose an area with good rich soil that gets plenty of sun and water. When the top set bulbs arrive, plant 20 of them and keep the rest in a cool dry place well away from direct sun, with excellent air circulation. No plastic bags. The following spring, when the ones you planted in the fall are about 6″ high, plant 20 more. Keep going in like fashion until you have succession-planted them all. If I notice the ones in the storage box sprouting, I put the box in the refrigerator until they are all planted.
When the fall planting is over a foot tall, but has not yet sent up the tough inedible central stalk that forms the top bulbs, start harvesting. This is important: snap or cut them at the soil surface rather than pulling them out. The bulb and roots that you left in the ground will sprout a few new green onions for later in the year. After managing your patch this way for a year, they will get so thick that they are pretty well defended against weeds and you will need to start pulling some out by the roots to prevent overcrowding. At that point, you can also start deciding when to let some go long enough to form top bulbs, and you can either start a new succession bed or give them to a friend who wants to try it.
At this point I let mine perpetuate themselves from the ground and rarely let them form topsets. I keep two smaller beds, one in full sun and one in partial shade, and they yield at different times and keep a fairly good succession going with minimal input from me except harvesting and cooking.

I do top-dress periodically with well-rotted goat manure and kelp meal. I’m a great believer in kelp meal, for bringing back onto the land some of the trace minerals that we washed off it into the ocean. I strongly prefer the organic Icelandic kelp meal from Thorvin, because it is harvested from an area of the ocean tested for heavy metals and some of the other nasties that we are washing into the water. I don’t want a closed system on my tiny urban farm, because any trace mineral deficiencies that existed wouldn’t get corrected. The Thorvin meal would get pretty expensive on a commercial scale, but for the small urban homesteader it’s a healthy investment. I also use it generously as a supplement for my chickens and goat. For the chickens I mix some into any moist food that they like to eat, such as any leftover cooked greens or wilted salads, and for the goat I mix it with organic blackstrap molasses to make a treat that she will trample me to get.

 

 

Luxury Dances With Penury

Tonight I ate one of the most extravagant meals I’ve had for a while, and somehow it led me to meditate upon thrift. The main ingredient, two legs of the highest quality Alaskan king crab I’ve come across in years, cost a bomb. But careful orchestration of other ingredients made this all come together in (reasonably) economical style.

Let’s start with the broth. I have written obsessively about the value of good broth, but that won’t stop me from doing it again. When it comes to seafood, it’s essential to remember a few basic things:

1. Seafood broth should be made from seafood, maybe with the addition of some white fish scraps but no salmon or other oily fish and no commercial clam broth. Any avid seafood eater can smell those spurious additions from a long way away.

2. You’re looking for the waste bits of otherwise excellent seafood; shrimp shells, crab shells, shrimp heads, etc. For the clean but intense broth above, I lucked into some lobster carcasses by trading Louisiana seafood stories with the proprietor of a luxury seafood shop. Accept what you are offered with glad thanksgiving.

3. Fish and seafood broth should be boiled at a furious boil for 20 minutes, not simmered for longer times. Then cool, drain, and use or freeze.

4. Build up intensity in layers. Boil, drain, cover new ingredients with the broth, and boil and drain again. You can freeze between boiling episodes. The lobster carcasses came my way over a year ago, and made a quart of rich stock. Then I thawed it and used it to boil shrimp shells, cooled it, and froze it again. Finally, it was thawed and used to boil the shells of the king crab. It was loaded with seafood flavor, but had a clean fresh taste because it was never overcooked.

Given a potent base like this, you don’t need much else. The meat of the two crab legs was cut into good-sized chunks. I used four large stout scallions from my garden, sliced crosswise at 1/4″ intervals and  whites kept separate from greens. My garden scallions are huge, and a dozen store-bought scallions would be needed to approximate them.   Other ingredients were butter, a cup of heavy cream, and three egg yolks from my backyard hens.

Sauté the white parts of the scallions in a quarter cup of butter over medium heat with a hefty pinch of salt until they are softened and translucent. Add the green parts, sauté another minute or two, and add a quart of rich seafood broth. Boil hard until reduced by about half, then add the heavy cream and bring to a boil. Taste and check for salt. Reduce heat and lay the chunks of crabmeat in the saucepan and heat through. Lift the crabmeat and some of the scallions in two soup bowls, leaving most of the broth and cream behind.

To make the egg yolk liaison, beat up the three egg yolks in a bowl, add about half a cup of the hot seafood broth from the saucepan slowly to the bowl while whisking rapidly, then pour the yolk mixture slowly into the saucepan while whisking rapidly. Let heat, whisking, just until the broth is steaming and lightly thickened. Taste. Any distinct “egg” flavor should have cooked away, and it should taste of the sea in the creamiest way.  Pour over the crab and scallions in the soup bowls, and finish each bowl with a generous pat of butter. Serve, eat, and marvel at the goodness to be found in the cosmos.

There are ways to make this even more economical. If you are a carb-eater, put a hunk of sourdough baguette in each bowl before spooning in the crab. The bread will be soaked with seafood essence and will provide elevation, so that one crab leg will serve two generously. Boiled salted fingerling potatoes or good cooked rice can be used the same way.

But in the final analysis this is a dish to make when you feel a bit flush and want to serve your love the best. It goes well with a buttery Chardonnay and a brief discussion of how lucky we are to be on the planet.

The best modern book on thrift and grace in cooking is Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal. Read it, and cook on in good heart.