While in Florence on my honeymoon many years ago I learned to love mostarda di Cremona, the sweet tangy mustardy fruit condiment. I bought a bulk kilo, hauled it home, and for many years enjoyed it with all kinds of things. Then I developed blood sugar problems and changed to a ketogenic diet and such treats were off my list of possibilities.
Here in central New Mexico our garden year is slowly drawing to a close and the first frosts have blasted the tenderest plants but the days are still warm and lovely. I have been out in the woods gathering wildlings but they are shutting down for the year. So it’s a good time to start summing up the season. I hope to write in more detail about all these things over the winter, but life being the uncertain business that it is, might as well get started now.
First, beauty. In October, the tender tropical pineapple sage covers itself with red flower spikes and is one of the loveliest sights the garden can offer at this season, so every spring I buy a plant and stick it in somewhere. It makes a good last hurrah for the bees. I make tea from it occasionally during the summer and I’m experimenting right now with tincturing the leaves to make a cordial. More on that later.
This is chard’s second-best season. In late spring and summer there are other greens that I prefer, so I plant my chard in June and in October it is covered with lush green leaves and ready to harvest, when most other greens have given up. Then I leave the plants in place over the winter and in the spring they send out a burst of leaves that are thick, meaty, tender, and utterly delicious. Remember to harvest the spring leaves before the central stalk starts to form, because as soon as the plant begins to shoot to seed, the leaves become dirty-tasting. Pick all the fall leaves that you want, since this does not seem to affect the ability of the plant to live through the winter. Blanch some for winter greens if you don’t already have enough in the freezer.
All my garden fruits except the quinces are finished for the year, but rose hips are easily found. I am busy making extracts and cordials from them as a source of vitamin C, flavonoids, and pleasure over the winter.
The perennialized section of elephant garlic is making clusters of thin tender leaves that are delicious snipped up for garlicky chives. I don’t care for the bulbs, and think that the greens are the best part of this leek relative, so I cut all that the plants will produce as I need them. The thin chive like greens shown here come from the tiny bulbils that are found around the outside of the bulbs. I plant them in handfuls to get a thick growth of greens as shown here.
Those last green tomatoes make a wonderful sweet tangy chutney.
I have a clump of perennialized chicory, and it languishes in hot weather but produces a vigorous crop of deep greens in the fall. The lower half of the leaf is mostly stalk, so I tend to cut off the upper halves for cooking. Chicory is a bitter green, much like dandelion. It responds wonderfully to sautéing with bacon or pancetta, garlic, and some red chili if you like it. It is also very good for adding savor to mixed greens that include blander species such as chard.
Kale is at its best this time of year, and becomes more tender and sweet after a few frosts. The Tuscan kale will winterkill sooner than the others, so eat it first. In climates with snow cover, curly kale will last throughout the winter, but in our very dry and windy winters with very little snow it seldom survives in any sort of edible condition. Covering it with a frost blanket might well preserve it, but is more trouble than I really care to go to. There are plenty of other things to eat.
Celery and leeks need to be kept well supplied with water, and will still be fresh and good in the first week or two of November. I usually buy leek plants in the spring, and none of the hardiest varieties are available as plants. There are very hardy varieties that will hold perfectly in the ground over winter, but to have them you have to remember to plant the seeds in midwinter, and I always forget. Maybe this year I’ll remember.
Now we come to the perennial weed patch. Nobody who lives or gardens in the east will ever believe how much trouble I have taken to get burdock, milkweed, nettles, pokeweed, plantain, and scorzonera to grow in my area. Burdock provides a good root in the fall from first year plants, makes large coarse leaves that my goat adores, and produces a flower stalk that is supposed to be the best part of the plant for edible purposes. I only got it to germinate this year, so I have not tried the stalks yet, but will be digging my first roots soon. Some people say the leaves and leaf stems are edible, but they are so stringy in texture and coarse in flavor that I’ve never been that desperate for something to eat.
The plantain is the Rugels variety which is rumored to be less stringy and have a better flavor than common plantain. I haven’t tasted it yet but will report back.
Milkweed can be eaten in many ways in many seasons. As far as I know, our desert native milkweeds are largely inedible, but I have finally gotten the common milkweed to germinate and grow strongly. So next spring I hope to have edible shoots, buds, and pods. Read master forager Samuel Thayer’s books for excellent sections on the uses of milkweeds.
Pokeweed can be a giant nuisance but the spring greens have a great savor. Or at least that’s what I remember, although I haven’t tasted them for 25 years and couldn’t swear to it. If you decide to try them, remember that only the young shoots about 6 inches high are edible and boiling in two changes of water is not optional. It is necessary to remove toxins. I hope to harvest my first shoots next spring.
Nettles and dock are two superb spring greens that seldom occur wild in my area, but grow very nicely in my weed patch. They provide some of the earliest and most nutritious greens of the spring, and in late fall they produce some new greens that are well worth having at that season. Every year I swear that I will remember to cut down the nettle patch in late summer so that the new greens can grow up unobstructed, and every year I forget and have to harvest the new greens with elbow length grilling gloves. But they are worth it. Try to keep the nettles separate from the other plants, or you will have a tough time harvesting everything around them. The sting is pretty fierce.
I give my weed patch a periodic shallow mulch with mixed alfalfa and goat manure. They might grow well enough with no attention to fertility, but if you want your produce to be as nutritious as possible, the soil needs feeding.
If you wonder why it is worth having a weed patch, remember that these are some of nature’s wonder plants, among the most nutritious greens in the world. In addition, they taste really good. Also, with perennials, once established the only work you have every year is harvesting and cooking them. Once adapted to an area, they are unlikely ever to desert you. Permaculture also avoids soil disturbance. These plants are not classically attractive and need an inconspicuous spot, but they have a superbly healthy rough-and-ready vigor that is bracing even if it isn’t beautiful.
There is nothing more interesting than mushrooms. Really. An independent kingdom of organisms, they have much in common with animals and their interactions with plants are complex and often beneficial. For a wonderful read about mushrooms and their biological role, check out Paul Stamets’s Mycelium Running, and you will be wonderstruck at the hypheal hijinks going on all around you.
They are extremely easy to grow for everyone but me. I am convinced that mushrooms have a very important role to play in a functioning urban homestead, even here in the high desert. So far, however, I have been unable to make that work out in practice. I have tried spreading the spawn among existing plantings under heavy straw mulches, and putting the spawn in piles of hard wood chips, and so far have not had any significant success, due to lack of consistent moisture, lack of shade, dry air, and insufficient attention. I have harvested a few mushrooms, but nothing to write home about. That is why the below images below are borrowed, to show how easily it can be done in moister climates than mine.
Since I have finally accepted that it’s going to take more focus than just throwing some spawn around, my next attempt will be to insert plug spawn into damp hay bales in the dense shade of my black locust tree. I have also cut down a small Siberian elm recently and have a few pieces of suitable fresh log to try drilling plug spawn into. Next August I will harvest them, or not.
Meanwhile, many farmers’ markets have a mushroom farmer or two, and oysters can be found in our river bosque here and in many woods and forests if you are a knowledgable forager and know exactly what you are picking. Mushroom foraging is not for you unless you are prepared to study it seriously and know all your local toxics. No margin for error here.
However you get hold of them, good oyster mushrooms are just delicious. I love their earthy-almondy aroma and their meaty texture. I like them best simply pan-fried with a little macadamia oil and salt, but roasting them with a bit of butter and soy is awfully good, and so is grilling them rubbed with olive oil. The addition of a little chicken glacé early in the cooking stage so that it can cook into the caps suits their meaty flavor.
For preserving, I roast them with macadamia oil and salt just to the point that they are cooked through, cool them, bag, and freeze. When wanted, they can be thawed and pan-grilled until they get some lovely brown crunchy bits. I dehydrate the clean stems as long as they’re not buggy and grind them into oyster flour to thicken mushroom sauces and soups. I admit that I also open my little bag of oyster flour just to inhale deeply and recall the woods where I found them.
Yesterday I found that I had tossed more caps with macadamia oil and salt than would fit in my roasting pans, and stuck the surplus in the dehydrator. They emerged as delicious crunchy lightly browned Oyster Crackers. Yum. I will make more of those. A small pan-grilled cap on an Oyster Cracker would make a wonderful cook’s treat. In fact, a couple of them with nothing on top made a great cook’s treat…
At about age 20, in a marvelous cookbook called The Supper of the Lamb, I learned about glacé de viand. I am still making it decades later, because it works kitchen magic and there is no commercial substitute. Think of it as a boullion cube that died and went to heaven. Rather than giving a nasty chemical edge to your sauce, it lends a subtle fullness and richness and pulls together any flavors that you care to add or elevates simple wine and cream and pan deglazing to an artful dish.
The principle could not be simpler. Make a big pot of excellent stock, then cook it down into a thick syrup that gels hard when put in the refrigerator. Cut your pure meat gelatine into cubes, freeze them until you need them, and throw one in every time you make a pan gravy, or cook anything where concentrated wonderful meat juice would be a good addition. You can also make it with roasted beef or veal bones to go in meat dishes.
In recent years I have been able to make my broth out of my old laying hens, and there is no good substitute for a really old hen full of omega-3s and collagen from a long and well-fed life. But you can make do with backs and necks of any good organic chickens. Roast them golden in a hot oven, fill your pot with them, add an onion, a carrot, and a stalk of celery, add enough cold water to cover, bring slowly to a simmer, and simmer forever. I simmer for 24 hours, so I only make broth on weekends. Cool, remove all solids and strain the stock, return to the pan, and boil down over high heat. I make at least a couple of gallons of broth at a time, so the final boiling-down takes a few hours and has to be watched. I do it when I have other processing tasks to do in the kitchen. Boil, boil, boil, until finally the stock looks darker and thicker and is reduced to a fraction of its former volume. Don’t let it burn, which it will readily do when it’s really concentrated. Thick bubbles in clusters will form. Pour it out into a square baking pan, chill a few hours, and see if it sets stiffly. If not, put it back in a saucepan and boil some more, then test again. After you have done it a few times, you can tell by looking at the bubbles when it’s ready to gel.
Once chilled and stiff, cut into cubes, put them on wax paper on a baking sheet, freeze, and put in a plastic bag in the freezer.
Now comes the fun part. Have some chicken (maybe PerfectSkin Chicken,) and a vegetable but no real union between them? Deglaze the chicken-frying pan with white wine, boil it down hard with a cube of chicken glacé, add half a cup of heavy cream and boil that down hard until it thickens, taste and adjust seasoning. Simple as that. I often like a bit of fresh chopped thyme with chicken, but suit yourself. Below you see a simple pan sauce made this way serving to unite chicken with pan-grilled oyster mushrooms. I like to nap the plate with the sauce rather than pouring it on top, to preserve the exquisite crunch of the skin.
Don’t be afraid to boil your pan sauces briefly but hard; that’s what makes them thicken with no flour. Always swirl in a bit of butter at the end for finesse and polish. Don’t ever take your eyes off them during the boiling-down or disaster may ensue, but it only takes a couple of minutes, while if you had no chicken glacé and used a cup of stock, it would take a lot longer to boil down and wouldn’t be as good. The chicken glacé will thicken the amalgam just enough that your stirring leaves pan bottom exposed for a moment, and that’s perfect.
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:
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.
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.
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 .