Poblanos con Queso

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I used to love a bowl of chiles con queso to fold into soft corn tortillas,  and now that I eat low-carb and no longer eat tortillas, I find that my enjoyment of roasted chilies with cheese and cream is undiminished.

Here in New Mexico August is the great season of chilies, and soon chile roasters will appear everywhere and the aroma of roasted chile will float in a faint delicious cloud over the city.  But there are plenty of chiles around right now  and they can be roasted easily on the grill or under the broiler.  My favorites are the lovely inky green poblanos.  I was so eager to roast mine that I forgot to photograph them, so here is a borrowed photo:

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Chile pepper plants are sturdy and attractive and can usually be grown in the front yard without comment, especially if planted in groups rather than rows. They have nice deep green foliage. In the case of poblanos, they turn very hot when red and should be harvested when dark green. They have a deep rich flavor and, depending on growing conditions, can be surprisingly hot when green, although generally they are considered a mild chile.  Roast them until they have blackened spots all over their skin, turning as needed, then throw them in a plastic bag to steam for 20 minutes. Peel off the skin and remove the core and seeds. Now tear them into strips. These are called rajas de chile.  For the roasted strips from six poblanos, chop up one small onion and one good-sized clove of garlic and sauté them until cooked; I used fat from my homemade bacon. Add the chili strips and about half a cup of cream, and boil hard for just about one minute until the cream is a little reduced.  And a generous cup of grated cheddar, stirring some into the chili strips and put in the rest over the top, and broil until the cheese is melted and maybe a little brown in spots.  It makes a delicious light meal for two. If you add soft tortillas, it will feed two  generously.  It makes a good side dish for grilled meats of many kinds.  To me roasted chile is the flavor of August, and I am happy to have a foretaste of August in July.

Real Bacon

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I am firmly opposed to factory farming of animals, especially in the case of pigs, and only want to eat meat from animals that were treated decently and fed well. Pork like this is hard to find, but recently I came into a large fortune: a slab of pork belly from a farmer who runs a great small pig operation. Naturally I decided to make Real Bacon.

As it turns out, making bacon is child’s play. There are a lot of ways to approach the curing step, but I chose brine because it’s so simple. Dissolve a cup of salt in each gallon of cold water, and make enough gallons to cover the pork belly completely in a vessel that will fit in your refrigerator. If you want, you can buy curing salt that contains nitrates to preserve red color in the meat, but I don’t see much point in this when you are going to fry the meat brown anyway. Put a plate on top of the meat to keep it totally submerged, cover the vessel, and refrigerate for a week.

7 days or so later, take the meat out, dry the surface, and set it on a rack in the refrigerator to dry more thoroughly overnight. Cold-smoke by your favorite method. We have a smoker, but it you don’t, there are all sorts of contraptions that let you cold-smoke on your grill or even on the stovetop if the piece of meat is small enough. Just be sure that the temp can be kept under 150 degrees at all times.  I used a combination of cherry and pecan chips. Applewood is also delicious on pork. I don’t recommend mesquite, which is just too strong. Smoke a couple of hours. Monitor the internal temp of the meat. If it reaches close to 120 at the thickest part, stop. Cool the meat, cut it into pieces of a suitable size for your household, and fry it or freeze it.

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Our lunch today was generous slabs of real bacon, eggs from my hens fried in bacon fat, green chile, and a garnish of avocado sprinkled with chipotle. After a lunch like this, we are full until 8 or 9pm. A snack in the late evening is plenty. This is real food.

There are all kinds of ways to get creative with the formula. Dry-salt with herbs, add other ingredients to the brine, whatever. There are lots of good cookbooks on charcuterie, so read one if you’re interested. But I’m glad that for my first try, I stuck to simple brine, rich smoke, and real pig .

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Tomatillos, Salsa, and the Summer Garden

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The flavor of tomatillos  is one of the wonderful flavors of summer. This is their glory time, when the plants I have stuck into odd corners have tangled themselves throughout the rest of the bed and are making fruits, almost hidden, which are a fascinating mixture of sweet, tangy, and tart when roasted. Right now tomatillos are ripening  in their husks and I can make one of my favorite salsas. This is an old Rick Bayless recipe, modified only slightly, and couldn’t be easier or more full of flavor. Start with about 30 large tomatillos (mine were about 2 inches in diameter) or maybe 50 smaller ones. Remove husks, rinse, and set in a single layer on a baking tray covered with aluminum foil.   Put five cloves of garlic on the baking sheet off to one side where they won’t burn, still in their skins. Broil under high heat until they look cooked on the top and have black spots, turn them over, and broil until that side is cooked.

Image borrowed from no recipes.com

Image borrowed from no recipes.com

Cool a little, skin the garlic cloves, and put the tomatillos and their juices and the garlic in the food processor.  Add at least two canned chilies chipotle in adobo and their associated juice, more if you like it hot. I like 4 large chipotles in this quantity of sauce.  Grind to the degree that you prefer. I like a chunky texture.

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Now, I add the quintessentially Mexican step of frying the salsa.  In my largest skillet I heat 2 tablespoons of chosen fat, in this case fat from my homemade bacon. When the fat is hot, pour in the pureed salsa. It should sizzle furiously.  Fry it over high heat for a couple of minutes, until it has thickened to the degree that you want.  Salt to taste, and it is ready to use. The frying step smooths and blends the flavors in a delicious way. It’s good hot on grilled or smoked meat, gratineed with cheese, room temp with chips, or any way you like to eat salsa. I especially like the tangy-smoky flavor on grilled vegetables or mixed into cooked greens just before serving, or on top of them with a good sprinkling of Cotija or queso fresco. At the top of the page you see my lunch today, a little piece of leftover steak sliced and broiled with salsa and smoked cheddar on top, a fitting reward for the very minimal labor of making the salsa.

Incidentally, in the past I have grown several different kinds of tomatillos including the small purple ones that are supposed to have a more pronounced flavor, and at least under my growing conditions they all tasted pretty much the same. The small ones  are more tedious to pick and involve a great deal more labor in preparation per unit of finished salsa, and so I grow the biggest ones I can find.

The Semi-Permaculture Kitchen

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Recently I read a cookbook which I am not going to name because I was quite disappointed in it but can’t stand to pan such clearly goodhearted efforts. So I will only say that it is from my favorite publisher and has the word “permaculture” in the title. The recipes are perfectly good vegetable based recipes, similar to those in many, many other good cookbooks on the market. My disappointment is this: it concentrates on the usual annual vegetables that everybody grows, with occasional vague mentions of foraged greens or wild mushrooms, and seems to me to have very little to do with permaculture. So, uh, why call it that?
So today I’m going to indulge myself and make a plea to all potential authors, and talk about what a real permaculture cookbook would offer, with great hope that somebody knows of one or will sit down and write one. I am a semi-permaculturist at best, and even so some very strange produce indeed comes through my kitchen. Some examples: nettles, bladder campion, hops shoots, green garlic, blackberry shoots, cattails, unripe as well as ripe apples and plums, Goumi berries, clove currants, wax currants, linden leaves, mulberry leaves and unripe fruit as well as ripe berries, rau ram, ginger and turmeric leaves, radish pods, chicory leaves and roots, burdock stalks, milkweed, daylilies, hosta shoots, groundnuts (Apios americana, not peanuts,) goji shoots and berries, canna leaves and bulbs, quinces, salsify, and scorzonera as well as the more usual veggies and fruits. Bamboo shoots and the Japanese perennial vegetables Fuki and Udo should be ready to harvest in the next year or two. All these things grow well in semiwild tangles that can be managed with little or no soil disturbance after the initial planting. I would love to read a cookbook about foods like this. I would love to read knowledgable descriptions of their flavor and texture profiles and how they change through the season, how other cultures have used them, and how to make them respected at the modern table. That, to me, would be a real permaculture cookbook. I know that all over the world there are committed permaculturists working with these plants and eating them. I do hope that somebody will put it all in print. I’m hoping for a cookbook as weird and thoroughly wonderful as Baudar’s The New Wildcrafted Cuisine but devoted to the daily surprises, wild and cultivated and in-between, that can be offered by a single piece of land.

While I wait for this book to be brought to my attention, or written, I hope that you will comment with something unusual that you’ve eaten recently and what you thought of it.
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Ricotta, the Easiest Cheese

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One day when I have loads of leisure and energy, I plan  to get really serious about cheesemaking.   However, if you have a dairy animal or any other source of good milk, there are times when you have milk on hand but no spare time to do anything fancy with it. On those occasions, make ricotta  right away while your milk is fresh. All you need is milk, a large stainless steel pot, a stirring spoon, a strainer, fine cheesecloth, and lemon juice or vinegar. Any child old enough to use the stove at all can make ricotta with a little supervision. Determine approximately how much milk you have and put it in the pot over medium-high heat.  Milk scorches easily, and it should be stirred frequently so that it doesn’t burn on the bottom of the pot.  As soon as the milk foams and is coming to a boil, remove it from the heat and add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar per quart of milk.  I don’t recommend cider vinegar or other strong flavored vinegars, and although I prefer lemon juice, I sometimes use rice vinegar, which does not give any off flavor to the cheese.  Stir the acid in and let the pot sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, line the strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth and set it over a bowl it can drain  into, or in the sink, and when the milk in the pot has definitely separated,  pour gently into the cheesecloth lined strainer. Let drain a few hours. Squeeze it a bit in the cheesecloth to get excess whey out,  salt if desired, chill, and eat.  The only reason for the milk not separating is that it wasn’t heated hot enough. If this should happen, heat again, stirring continually, until it separates. But that should not happen if you brought it to a boil in the first place.

The whey is useful and still contains a lot of nutrients.  It would be a shame to waste it. I feed it to my chickens, and they enjoy it.

When I mention cheesecloth I am talking about the real thing, specifically marketed for cheesemaking, and you can get it at New England Cheesemaking Supply along with a variety of other entrancing supplies and gadgets.

Besides just eating the ricotta itself with herbs stirred in, or sweetened and topped with fruit, it makes a good basis for a lot of other delicious meals.  I especially like it as a fill-in for stuffed vegetables. To make the zucchini above, get some good sized zucchini about 10 inches long. Cut them in half and hollow them out into boats.  Sprinkle very liberally with salt and put them in a bowl to drain for at least half an hour. This step is important. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450.  When ready to cook the zucchini, dry them off thoroughly with a kitchen towel. Rub with a little olive oil on the inside, put on a parchment lined baking sheet, and put them in the oven until they are fairly tender, which is about 25 minutes for me.

Meanwhile make the filling. Blanch about 2 quarts loosely packed of mixed greens; I used amaranth and lambsquarters. Drain and press the greens dry. Chop them thoroughly.  Chop one onion and two cloves of garlic and sauté them in a quarter cup of olive oil until they are thoroughly cooked but not colored very much. Stir in the chopped greens, and cook all together at least 10 minutes.  Turn the greens mixture into a bowl and mix in a heaping cup of goat ricotta (or any well-drained ricotta) and a cup of grated Parmesan cheese  or crumbled feta. Toss in a handful of chopped herbs. I used about 2 tablespoons of sweet marjoram, a scant tablespoon of winter savory, and a heaping teaspoon of fresh thyme.  Now start tasting the mixture and add salt until you feel the seasoning is perfect.  I like to add a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice at this point as well. Add more herbs if they seem indicated. Once you have the seasoning the way you want it, mix in two raw egg yolks. Pile the mixture  into the cooked zucchini canoes, top with pinenuts and more grated Parmesan, and bake at 400 until they are thoroughly done and the top is just starting to brown.  I like to serve them cooled off a bit, drizzled with a bit of extremely good olive oil.

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Disaster Preparedness: what do sunchokes have to do with it?

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Recently somebody checking out my garden over the fence asked if I was a “prepper.” My first response was “No, of course not,” because I don’t care to be associated in any way with the mindset that not-so-secretly longs for the end of civilization. I love civilization.

I do think, though, that a functioning urban homestead is in a good position to survive emergencies. And here’s the thing about emergencies: they happen. My own home state had a potent reminder of this some years back, when Hurricane Katrina broke the levee and New Orleans was flooded. Evacuees poured out of New Orleans and filled surrounding areas, and food and water supples were strained while roads were bumper-to-bumper and accommodations were scarce to nonexistent. All of this came under control with passage of time, but there were some grim weeks for all concerned. It can happen anywhere. Drought, epidemic, loss of power, you name the emergency and a well-supplied urban homestead is well on the way to getting through it and being able to help others. Nobody’s survival is guaranteed, ever. But we can improve the odds.

Urban homesteading is a mindset of reasonable self-sufficiency. I have no ambition to be a nation or a law unto myself. But reasonable forethought about emergency power, medical, water, and food strategies is, in my view, the responsibility of every citizen who has the luxury of a future to look forward to.

With that in mind, I’m keeping some plants around that I have no real desire to eat, and sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes is another name) are a good example. They are perennial and, as far as I can tell, indestructible. The tubers taste good either raw or cooked. They are loaded with inulin, a prebiotic nondigestible sugar that keeps them from raising blood sugar. The inulin also accounts for their GI effects, including gas for many people and uncomfortable cramping for me. If food were scarce, though, a little cramping would be the least of my worries. More important, if my supply of commercial feed for my livestock were interrupted, they could last a while on weeds and sunchokes, which could be cooked in my solar oven to make them more available to the chickens. The goat could eat the stems and leaves as well as the tubers.
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Besides their uses in disasters, they make a nice healthy green patch that I don’t have to fool with very much. In my desert area they need some supplemental water but not a lot. They are healthy and vigorous, by which I mean that you can’t kill them, and I confine them to one patch that can be mowed around to foil their plans for world domination.  They don’t play nicely in mixed plantings. The flowers are cheerful and have nectar for bees late in the season. They need to be dug and thinned in the fall. Don’t make any special effort to replant. Plenty will grow from the little bits that you missed. There are a number of different kinds that you can find with some trouble, but I planted a few tubers from the grocery store and they serve well enough.

Here’s an interesting post from Purdue with more details:

https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/jerusart.html

 

Elephant Garlic in the Semi-permaculture Garden

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Last fall was the first time that I ever planted elephant garlic. This enormous bulbing  garlicky-tasting leek came from Nichols Garden Nursery. I planted in early fall and scattered lettuce seed over the bed to use the floor space in the spring. The garlic made fall top growth, but I left it to grow.

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This spring I had a bed full of thick, sturdy, radiantly healthy green garlic, or rather green leeks in this case. I pulled some to use as green garlic, and was delighted by the warm, mildly garlicky flavor when sautéed in butter or olive oil with a little salt. I like all green garlic, but this one was my favorite. I didn’t let myself eat much of it, though, because I had my eye on a good bulb harvest. The bloomscapes care along in early May, and they make a nice subsidiary harvest if picked right away. Cooked at this stage, they are crisp, oniony, and sweet. Leave them more than 2-3 days after first appearance and they develop adamantine, unchewable fibers in the outer layer. Then come the flowers, and the few that I let bloom were very pretty. I forgot to take pictures so here are some borrowed shots:

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I have verified to my own satisfaction that if they are allowed to bloom the bulbs will be much smaller, so keep that in mind. The individual flowers make a tasty crunchy garnish, and are adored by bees, so they help carry pollinators through the hottest part of our summer, which is much appreciated.

Finally the tops started to yellow and bulb harvest began. Digging them is great fun; the enormous bulbs give you a sense of buried treasure. One must be quite a gardener, one feels, to produce a plant like that. So much of the time gardening is humbling that a little ego-aggrandizement does not come amiss.

The kitchen use is another matter. After a few tries, I can’t take to elephant garlic cloves either raw or cooked. The flavor is weakly garlicky with a bitter edge whether raw or cooked and does no dish any good, in my opinion. One online gardener has suggested that I need to hold it for a month or two, until this quality subsides. We’ll see.

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The greens are so good that I’ll continue to grow a lot of it, and next spring I’ll let myself harvest a lot more greens. I plan to divide my elephant garlic patch in two, and try two different growing methods. In one half, I’ll continue to grow it in the standard garlic fashion, digging and dividing and replanting each fall, and in the other half I’ll just let it perennialize and pull green garlic at will and see what happens. Of course I’ll be reporting back.

 

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