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.

A Quickie Relish

After posting the above picture in my post on making halloumi, I realized that the chile relish in the foreground deserved a post because it is so easy and so good. Its origin is Mexican, and I learned it from Diana Kennedy’s superb Mexican cookbooks, where it’s called Tia Georgina’s Salsa or Scissors Sauce. It’s great with a Mexican meal, of course, but also good with almost any other kind of food that could use grounding with a dollop of full-bodied mellow flavor with a bit of heat.

First, catch your anchos. The ancho chile is the ripened dried Poblano chile, and should be leathery and bendable rather than crisp-dry. The chile has a mild sweetness and marvelous notes of coffee and darkest chocolate in its meaty flavor. Pull the stems, seeds, and internal matter out of six ancho chiles. Cut them into thin strips with scissors. Add two chopped cloves of garlic and a half teaspoon of salt. Stir in half a cup of mild vinegar; I use about 2/3 homebrewed red wine vinegar and 1/3 water to decrease the acidity just a bit. Then add half a cup of oil. I prefer a mild olive oil. Then-this is key-let it sit covered overnight. This gives the chiles time to soften and lets their flavor bloom. In the morning stir it up, taste and adjust the salt, store in a jar in the refrigerator, and eat with nearly anything. It’s wonderful with grilled meats or chicken, great alongside scrambled eggs (especially if they are cooked with a bit of onion and green chile and garnished with cilantro,) and if you aren’t ketogenic it’s superb in nearly any kind of taco or just spread on a freshly grilled tortilla with a handful of crumbled queso fresco. Ah, those were the days…

Post 300: Magnolia

This is a poignant post for me to write, because one of my very first posts written on this property was about my new Sanaan doe goat Magnolia. Beloved Maggie is over nine years old now, and no longer  holding body weight well when she’s in milk, and I’ve concluded that for her own good, this is her last lactation. So I’m filling the freezer with goat cheese, and Magnolia will retire and live out the rest of her life in leisure. Goats are smart and interactive and, like dogs, incredibly painful to lose. I hope that Maggie will be with us for a few years yet. She is a big part of my daily life, and I can’t think of a better subject for my 300th post.
If you are interested in having a dairy animal, bear in mind that they need excellent nutrition and eat a lot of expensive food and occasionally have veterinary needs, so don’t even think in terms of producing economical food. Think in terms of having a lovely pet, with benefits. Do remember that periodic male offspring are almost inevitable and you have to have a plan for what to do with them, so if you are vegetarian yourself this may be a real issue for you. Female offspring can often be given to good homes, but can very seldom be sold at a profit.  Also, I trust it goes without saying that when in milk they have to be milked out every day, not just when you feel like making cheese, and have to be milked when you travel, which is not a job that the average pet sitter will take on. Be aware that excellent fences are required to keep goats out of your own shrubbery and trees or your neighbor’s, and in my area an 8 foot fence they can be secured behind at night is needed for protection from coyotes. All of this costs money.  If any of this discourages you, there is an abundance of excellent cheese including the superb Mount Vikos halloumi available at any upscale food store or co-op.

One of the reasons that I wanted a dairy animal in my suburban yard is that I like to make cheese, and currently it’s pretty hard to make cheese from most commercial milk. This is because milk is being pasteurized at increasingly high temperatures to extend its shelf life, and the milks in your local dairy case that don’t say “UHT” were probably still pasteurized at near-UHT temperatures. This affects the proteins, and such milk will not form a proper curd when rennetted. Therefore, unless you have access to fresh-from-the-animal milk, success is by no means certain with any cheese recipe except ricotta. Since it’s illegal or very difficult in most areas to sell raw milk, a dairy animal is your ticket to cheesemaking. If you don’t have a dairy animal or access to milk that wasn’t processed at high temperatures, I am very sorry to say that I do not recommend cheesemaking because it is going to be too disappointing. Personally, I find it absolutely weird to think that most commercial milk is so denatured that you can’t make cheese out of it. But these are the facts.

If you have access to  clean milk that was not pasteurized at high heat, go immediately to Ricki Carroll’s wonderful cheesemaking site and go to town. She has all the supplies and cultures as well as reams of recipes and advice.
My own choice has been to stick to fresh cheeses and halloumi, because they are quick and easy to make, can be frozen for later use, and do not require any special attentions as they age because they don’t age. I’m especially fond of halloumi because it can be grilled to such a wonderful crusty brown, and I do love a good Maillard reaction.
Rather than give my own haphazard procedure for making halloumi, which might not be perfect but fits into my kitchen routine and produces a good product, I am going to have you start off on the right foot by linking to Ricki’s recipe.  I will only add that I don’t use any herbs in finishing the cheese, because it is more versatile if it isn’t already carrying an herb flavor.  Any herbs that you want can easily be added at the cooking or serving stage, as the green onions pan-grilled with the halloumi in the top picture.  Also, a salted but unseasoned halloumi is an excellent stand-in for paneer if you feel suddenly moved to go Indian rather than Mediterranean.  And a wild greens saag paneer with your own greens fed cheese is as delicious a dinner as I know of,  and likely to contribute to your health and longevity as well as your immediate gratification.

A quarter cup of ricotta  is a byproduct of making halloumi,  and makes a nice Cook’s Treat to reward yourself for your enterprise.

Here,  fresh goat cheese serves as the bulk of a dinner, a strongly seasoned ground meat with sweet spices in the Arabic style is part of the flavoring, and an elaborate herb pesto is the other part.

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