The Greens of Winter: Soup Base

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Earlier this week I walked through my frost-killed garden to see what was left. For the most part I don’t make any special effort to protect my garden in the fall because after a long summer I’m ready to move on to the things I do in the winter, so the pickings were slim, but I found lots of chicory, dandelion, chard, broccoli leaves, alfalfa tips, celery, and kale, along with green garlic and green onions, and some of the herbs were still in fine shape. I decided to make soup, and since I had a lot more greens than I remembered planting, it occurred to me to make a soup base that could sit in the freezer, ready at any time to be turned into soup in a hurry. To the garden ingredients I added a large onion and a largish handful of sun-dried tomatoes from earlier in the summer. You could also use a jar of dried tomatoes in oil, drained.  The celery was used from base to leaf tip. I used roughly equal volumes of all the greens types, about the equivalent of a medium-sized supermarket bunch of each.

The onion was sliced thinly and sautéed very slowly in olive oil while I washed and prepared the greens. I was aiming for a rich caramel color, which meant low heat and frequent stirring, which is no extra trouble if you’re in the kitchen anyway. I used my wok because I knew that the volume of sliced greens would be considerable. First the green garlic and green onions were cleaned, finely slivered, and held separately, then everything else was washed and midribs removed and cut in cross section into roughly 1/2″ slices.

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When the onion was a nice toffee color I added the chopped green alliums, cooked about another five minutes, then added the other greens and some more olive oil along with about a teaspoon of salt. Don’t stint on the olive oil. You want sautéed flavor, not steamed flavor.  The heat was turned up to medium and the whole mass stirred and turned with a wide wooden spoon about every five minutes to keep it cooking evenly. As soon as the greens were in the pan I ground the sun dried tomatoes into small powdery chunks in the blender and added them to the wok. They rehydrated well enough in the moisture from the leaves.  Keep cooking until the greens are soft when chewed.

When you have a darkened dense mass of soft greens, put the whole business in the food processor and grind to the finest paste that you can achieve. Taste. You want it on the salty side, because that helps with preservation and it’s going to be diluted later. Add more salt if needed. I prefer to use fish sauce rather than salt to season at this point because it adds a wonderful rich savor. I used about a tablespoon. Don’t use this if you might be serving vegetarians.

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Now cool your soup paste and pack it into one-cup containers, each of which makes about a quart of finished soup. Coat the top with olive oil, push lids on tightly, and freeze.

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When ready to use, put a quart of any kind of salt-free or low-salt broth you like in a saucepan, add a cup of soup paste, and simmer until thawed. Correct the texture with a stick blender if it needs smoothing out. Taste for seasoning and adjust in any way you like. The caramelized onions, deeply sautéed greens, and fish sauce gave a meaty-umami flavor to the potful I made for lunch today, so I salted to taste and added a swirl of fat from my homemade bacon and a generous sprinkling of thyme leaves, a meaty-umami herb if ever there was one. Yum. With toasted buttered slices of my low-carb fake-o cornbread, it made a perfect light healthy Thanksgiving brunch to lead into the excesses to come at dinner.

This basic formula can be varied endlessly according to what you like and have available. If you serve vegans at your table, using some miso rather than fish sauce and good olive oil for the final swirl with water or vegetable broth as the liquid would suit their needs while fully satisfying the omnivores. If you don’t like the brownish color, leave the tomatoes out and it will be more green. Pan-grilled small oyster or other mushrooms would make a good garnish. A fried or poached egg adds tremendous heft to soup if you want a richer meal, or some bacon lardons fried crisp would satisfy any ardent carnivore with a minimum of actual meat. You can add cow or coconut cream for a cream soup (try a toss of chopped fresh tarragon for the final garnish,) or some leftover tomato sauce for interesting tartness, or finish it with a handful of good freshly grated Parmesan along with olive oil and let the cheese dissolve in the hot soup. For a more Cretan effect, use crumbled feta and olive oil on top.  There are a hundred possibilities and you can get any of them from freezer to table in well under 20 minutes. Serve any kind of bready stuff that suits your diet alongside, and you and your table mates will be full. I say that a quart of soup is two servings, but I understand that normal people can serve three or four with a quart. Know your family’s tastes.

In my opinion the celery is necessary rather than optional, and I strongly advise including at least a small portion of bitter greens (dandelion and chicory in this case.) When making mixed greens, I’ve often noticed that a savory-meaty element is lost if I don’t include some bitter greens. The proportion is small and the final product isn’t bitter and is enjoyed be people who don’t like strong greens in other contexts. Besides, they’re so damn good for you.

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Oyster Mushrooms Redux

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In a post this summer, I wrote about the delicious oyster mushroom and my own irritation that I was not able to grow them. My luck has recently changed, as shown above.

Ironically, this was by far my least scientific effort. There are many good books on mushroom growing if you want to learn how to do it properly. But here’s the very improper way I did it:

1. You will need a gallon of concentrated hydrogen peroxide for the sterilization step. I got mine at a pool supply store. It is 27% and I diluted it about 1 to 10 with water to make a nearly 3% solution. I used half the bottle to make about 5 gallons of solution for a total cost of $15.00.

2. Have ready a laundry basket that you won’t need for a while, a large clear plastic bag like a clear garbage-sized bag, a bucket to mix the H2O2 solution, a large bin (a clean plastic garbage bin is fine) for soaking the growing medium, and a source of spawn. You can order sawdust spawn from Fungi Perfecti or a host of other sources. This was an impulse effort for me, and I used a small home oyster growing kit on sale at a farmers’ market and just crushed up the little sawdust log inside to serve as “seed. ” Don’t do the crushing until you are ready to mix it into the moist substrate.

3. Collect junk mail, newspaper, and cut-up cardboard until you have your bin nearly full. Remove any plastic wrappers. I omitted anything with bright pictures etc. to avoid introducing unknown inks.

4. When ready to proceed, throw into the bin a few handfuls of something high in nitrogen for nourishment of the mycelium. I used waste alfalfa because I have a lot of it around, but you could just use organic soy meal or something similar. I can’t be more exact than “a few handfuls” because that’s how I measured it.

5. Pour in your 1 to 10 hydrogen peroxide solution and let it soak a few hours. If you just cover your substrate mix, it should all soak in. Add a little more if needed, but you want it thoroughly damp, not wet.

6. Line the laundry basket with the clear plastic bag. Crush up the hyphae or spawn source if needed. Pile the damp substrate into the basket, adding a layer of sawdust spawn every couple of inches. Pull the bag shut at the top, tie closed, and use a knife to make punctures in at least 10 of the open spaces on each side of the basket.

7. If you want to duplicate my procedure exactly, you now plop the whole rig in an unused and unswept corner of the garage, stride away muttering that you have wasted a few more hours trying to grow mushrooms, and forget about it for 5 weeks or until your spouse informs you that giant mushrooms are popping out and you should go take a look.  Better results will no doubt be obtained if you do it right, which is to hang a sterilized plastic sheet as a humidity tent, not letting it touch your growing rig, and provide air circulation and a humidifier, or mist multiple times daily. Suit yourself. But I got close to 3 pounds of mushrooms at the first flush with no attention at all beyond assembling the growing basket in the first place.

So, I will try this haphazard method again, especially because it should break down my junk mail enough to make it possible to incorporate it into the garden. If you are a better and more detail-oriented grower than I am, please comment and let my readers know how you do it.

ADDENDUM: Had to add a picture of the proof of the pudding.

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A Quickie on Cast Iron

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If you’re a fan of cast iron cookware, you probably already have a method of seasoning them and keeping them seasoned that works for you.   But I am going to encourage you to try organic flax oil. Get the kind that is refrigerated at your local healthy-food store. Season at high heat in a well ventilated kitchen. I do mine on the stove top at high heat, with the outside door open and the fan pulling at high speed. I took the picture above after two thin coats. After five or six coats, the surface looks sort of like glass. Even a couple of rough-surfaced lightweight cast iron pans that I bought in some fit of madness became slick and usable through this technique.

If you want the details and the science involved, blogger Sheryl Cantor will fill you in. So all I will add to her highly detailed account is that you really ought to try it if you have any cast iron at your house.

Eggs: Great Healthy Food in a Hurry

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Lately I’ve been thinking about the miraculous nature of backyard chickens. They are lovely to see, fun to hear, and all their waking hours they convert stuff you can’t eat into stuff that you can. I can’t keep mine loose because we have a large tribe of local coyotes, but every time I walk by their roofed yard and hear the pleasures and squabbles of chicken life, I feel better. Chickens fit easily into nearly every backyard and enrich soil, nutrition, and QOL.

Then there are the eggs. I feed my chickens a ton of fresh alfalfa and other green stuff in the summer. This time of year, their diet includes dandelions, mustard leaves, kale, and grass. The yolks are a glorious deep yellow and they are very delicious. I’m fond of eating them hard-boiled for snacks, often just shucked out of their shells while still warm and eaten with salt and pepper. Sometimes I want something a little more elaborate but not much, and that’s where an egg salad sandwich tastes just right. It can be made in less time than it takes to read about it if you keep some hard boiled eggs in the refrigerator. You will also need bread, mayonnaise, and some herbs.

My sandwich is a display of what eggs can do, because the base is a low-carb flatbread based on eggs and flaxseed and the mayonnaise is my homemade type. But you can use Hellman’s and any bread of your choice.
Egg salad can be elaborated with all sorts of stuff in it, or it can be a couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise with a small handful of suitable herbs snipped in; I used tarragon, green onion, and garlic chives in about equal quantities. Slice in two hard boiled eggs, stir and mash, and spread on the bread. I think it isn’t real egg salad without a lavish sprinkle of powdered chipotle chile on top, but use paprika instead if you prefer.

So my real point is, find a source of great eggs and eat them. Even the best eggs cost, at most, about 50 cents each, and they will make you healthier and simplify your life. If you hard-boil a dozen at a time, they are always waiting to be converted into egg salad, or other types of salad, or deviled. Asian salads with lots of herbs, some lime and fish sauce in the dressing, and a sprinkle of peanuts are especially good.  I love them sliced on top of a Thai jungle curry, or as the center of an Indian dish made by forming a large meatball of spiced meat around a hard-boiled egg and frying it. I can recall making a Mexican dish twenty years ago that involved soft corn tortillas filled with a green toasted pumpkin seed pipian and sliced hard-boiled eggs. I can even imagine making the basic egg salad above and plopping spoonfuls of it on very good crackers with some chopped kalameta olives or even caviar on top, as an easy and delicious appetizer.

If you need more ideas, there is a marvelous cookbook by Michael Ruhlman simply called “Egg” that every eager cook should read.

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My Years with Cardoons

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It took me a long time to learn to eat cardoons. My own cardoons, at least. I first found them in the market while honeymooning in Italy, and there they are neatly blanched, trimmed, and ready for the pot. I loved them, and ordered seeds from Italy as soon as I got home. They grow robustly in my desert climate and alkaline soil, and they are very ornamental. I had them for years before I successfully cooked them, and they were wonderful bee fodder all that time, blooming in the blasting-hot late summer when few other flowers are available to our pollinators. I tried to cook them without the tedious step of blanching the plants, and would say that this just doesn’t work.

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They die back unattractively after flowering, but then sprout again from the ground up. The foliage is silvery, full, and stunning in November. Unfortunately this is also the time when they’re best for eating, so mine aren’t exactly ornamental right now.

Before eating, blanch the stalks for a couple of weeks. I covered mine with some landscape cloth I had around, which is black and fuzzy and nearly lightproof while letting air and water through. You could also wrap your bundled plant in a couple of layers of corrugated cardboard, tieing it on carefully to exclude light from the stalks.

When blanched, use a sharp knife to cut the whole center out of the plant. Wear gloves, because cardoons are thistles and have nasty bristles down the edges of the leaf stalks and at the leaf margins. Cut off the leaves, leaving a bundle of stalks, and pull off any outer stalks that look ragged. My goat adores the leaves and trimmings, and since the leaves are intensely bitter, this is the best use for them.

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Separate the leaf stalks, wash well, and use a vegetable peeler to skim off the outer margin on each edge, where the bristles are. Now use the peeler to skin off the tough stringy part on the convex outer surface of each stem.  When you are done, they will look like the peeled stalk on the right above. The innermost stalks are tender and fairly stringless and just need the base trimmed and the row of bristles on each edge skinned off. Be sure you pull off the leaves from the center stalks, because even though they are very blanched and not bitter, they are tough even after cooking. Cut off the stalks at the point that they start to look corrugated and use everything below that.

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Cut the stalks in half-inch cross sections  and blanch in boiling salted water for about two minutes, then drain well and either continue cooking as you desire or refrigerate them for later.  They have a flavor rather similar to artichokes, so I gave them a bagna cauda treatment by sautéing them for about five minutes in plenty of good olive oil with a chopped clove of garlic and half a mashed anchovy fillet and a final garnish of roasted pine nuts.  Their own flavor is subtle, so don’t get too heavy handed with the seasonings.

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I think they are awfully tasty. The bad news is that one large plant, with a fair amount of preparation, makes two generous servings.  But given that they are drought tolerant, attractive, and truly carefree perennials, I don’t mind putting in some effort in the kitchen.  As for the low yield aspect, I will just work on growing more of them.

Incidentally, before they flowered last summer, I picked a flower stalk when it had lengthened to about 3 feet but before the buds started to swell. I peeled the thick tough skin off the stalk, cut it in sections about an inch long, and sautéed it in olive oil with some salt until cooked through and fairly tender.  The upper 8 to 10 inches of the stalk, when treated this way, made a delicious vegetable with a crisp texture and a pronounced artichoke flavor.  The other 2+ feet of the stock were not usable because, even when the outer tough skin is peeled away, fibers have developed in the pith itself.  But if you have a lot of cardoons and can afford to pick several stalks, this makes one really delicious vegetable. Otherwise treat the top of one stalk as a Cook’s Treat and cook it in your smallest skillet and eat it standing up in the kitchen, gloating quietly to yourself.

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Superfruit Sauce

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A couple of years ago I started my low-carb fruit project, aimed at growing maximum antioxidants with minimum carbohydrates.  This summer my plantings started to bear. Here are a few observations:

1. A good Italian plum tree is abundant beyond rational imagination. In season the branches are weighed down with thick ropes of plums and its overblown beauty warms your heart at sight. Make sure you have plans for the fruit. Prune plums are not low-carb at all but have plenty of soluble fiber in a delicious form, so I eat some.

2. Goji berries are my worst garden invader so far. They seem to behave better in other parts of the country, but they love my alkaline desert soil and go wild. Everywhere I look, yards from the parent plant, eager offspring are poking up among the broccoli and muscling aside the beans. The plants are rather thin, though, and don’t block any appreciable amount of sunlight, so I am happy to have them. But if your nature and aesthetic are more meticulous than mine, better plan to use a root barrier. The shoots, gathered when they still snap cleanly, were one of my favorite perennial vegetables this year. The flavor of the fruit is nothing to write home about, but I enjoy them in savory dishes or mixed with other berries.

3. Clove currants, when left on the bush for a couple of weeks after they turn black, are delicious. Eat them before that and you’ll wonder why you wasted space on them.

4. Goumi berries are very well suited to alkaline soil and tolerate heat well. They smell heavenly when they bloom in May, with a far-reaching honeyed sweetness that is free of the grape Koolaid note that can be overbearing in their close relative the Russian olive.  Again, once they turn red, start tasting every few days, and don’t harvest until they taste good. It’s very worthwhile to buy the expensive named varieties. I didn’t, and my wild-type berries are so tiny that harvesting is very slow and tedious. I’ll be planting some selected varieties next spring.

I had relatively small amounts of all the berry types this spring, so I decided to mix them together and add plums to make a sauce base for producing my own hot sauces and chutneys. Other than stoning the plums, I didn’t do any other prep. I threw roughly equal quantities of the four types of fruit in a stockpot, added good red wine to just cover the fruit, and simmered slowly until the fruits were soft. I think it was about 90 minutes. Then I put the mixture through a food mill to remove any woody seeds that the goumis had contributed and to smoothe and thicken the mixture.

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Add salt to taste. Now you have an antioxidant-rich purée that can go in a number of directions. Cooked down a little further until it thickens up, and sweetened to taste with sugar or your favorite artificial sweetener, it makes a tart local substitute for cranberry sauce. Cooked a bit with sweetener and chopped garlic and ginger, it makes a delicious Asian sauce for garnishing pork, dipping dumplings, or just as a table sauce. Make hot sauce by pureeing a can of chipotles en adobo in the blender and adding to the superfruit base by spoonfuls until you get the heat level that you want. Sweeten or not; I like some sweet with my heat. My favorite use is superfruit chutney: to a cup of base add a couple of teaspoons of mustard seed lightly toasted in a dry skillet, a teaspoon of garam  masala, a small onion and a clove of garlic finely chopped, and a small piece of ginger grated. Crumble in a dried chile or two if you like heat.  Salt a little less than you think is optimal. Simmer together, adding a little water if necessary, until the alliums are cooked and soft. Taste, adjust seasoning and salt, and cool. Serve with nearly anything Indian.

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I froze some superfruit base in cartons to use this winter. It could also be canned, although I would suggest pressure canning for safety.

 

Canna Lilies

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Every year I try a few new edibles, and I try to lean toward perennials. I have a lot of edible perennials in the spring but very few that produce in hot weather, so I’m especially interested in any heat-tolerant edible. This spring I read about canna lilies as a multi-purpose edible, with young leaves, rhizomes, and flowers all edible. I have seen them perennialized in my area, they tolerate heat beautifully, and I grew up in Louisiana and still have a taste for overblown tropical flowers, so putting in a canna patch was a natural. They grew well and were very pretty, and didn’t even need that much water since they were well mulched.

The hitch came in the kitchen. I tried young tightly rolled leaves sliced on salads, flower petals on top of salads, and finally the season’s new rhizomes boiled. In all three cases the problem was that there was no objectionable flavor but also no desirable flavor. Cannas taste as much like nothing at all as it’s possible to imagine. Since I don’t know of any pressing nutritional reason to eat them, and since yield is low and they use up a fair amount of space, I doubt that I will try them again. I imagined that my goat would enjoy the leafy adult stalks, but to my astonishment she won’t touch them.

So, overall, no reason to keep growing them except that they’re pretty and can make a dramatic addition to summer flowers. And this leads to a bit of ranting about the concept of permaculture. I have recently perused with interest a book claiming that  permaculture could help feed a rapidly expanding world population in an environmentally sound way, but the picture of the authors’ market display shows nothing but standard annual vegetables.  Another book which purports to be a permaculture cookbook has recipes based almost entirely on standard annual vegetables.  If you hope to eat something other than asparagus and spring greens, what exactly do you grow? My weed patch is a partial answer to this question in my own yard, and I’m experimenting with a few Japanese and Andean perennial edibles (so far without much success.) Fruit is an obvious possibility but many of us have weight or blood sugar issues and need to limit the amount of fruit we eat. So in my view the question remains unanswered, and I will be growing and eating annual vegetables for the foreseeable future.  I’m also interested in the concept of wild-crafting, and in my case this means that I attempt to grow edible perennial weeds in my own yard, where I can control soil and moisture and not worry about overharvesting in the wild.

In springtime, the asparagus springs up, nettles and a host of other wild greens sprout, and I can feel like a real permaculturist for the entire month of April. After that, it gets a lot more limited and I’m a more traditional gardener. Unfortunately, canna lilies are not going to do anything to change that.