The Siberian Elm and Our New Ecosystem

When I write about the uses of invasives, I can usually count on getting a lot of hate. So I’ll say this up front: I am thoroughly acquainted with the awful side of the Siberian Elm, Ulmus pumila. It invades inexorably, grows indefatigably, sucks up groundwater needed by our beautiful native cottonwoods, and is generally regarded as a trash tree. It’s changed the entire ecology of the Rio Grande bosque. I get all that.

But here’s the thing: while pamphlets and online sites are devoted to how to battle the Siberian elm, the battle is over and this tree has already won the war. It’s everywhere, and it cannot be eradicated.  So as I see it, we might as well look at whether we can use it well. And since I only write about my own small home ground, I am not looking at how to use hundreds of acres of it well, but how to use it on a half acre.  It grows lustily even in our dry desert climate, and there are large areas where it is the only green thing around, so I feel a certain gratitude to it. But I don’t allow it inside my yard because I want other trees there, and because as soon as I step outside my gate, it’s everywhere.

For me, its food uses are limited. I’ve written before about the edible samaras, or seed cases,  and I won’t say more here except that they have a pleasant green mild taste and are produced in unbelievable quantities every spring, and the chickens like them as much as I do.  As I get further into permaculture I’m experimenting more with tree leaves that have culinary uses, but I can’t find anything much about Siberian elm leaves except on the wonderful site Eat the Weeds, where I find that the young leaves are edible cooked. I admit that this doesn’t sound enterprising on my part, but I haven’t tried it yet. I have so many other green things to eat that it will probably be some time before I make this experiment.  I can’t find any nutritional analysis even about their use as fodder, although I did find one reference stating that they might be a potential source of higher-protein forage for animals.

But when it comes to nutritious forage, I typically let my beloved old dairy goat Magnolia make her own decisions. And there is no question that Siberian elm is her favorite food and one of the few foods that she never gets tired of.  So over the years I have been letting Siberian elms grow up along my longest fenceline, and cutting them back above the top of the fence. New branches grow at astounding speed below the cuts, and Maggie chows them down as an almost exclusive diet all summer long. She is naturally on the thin side, but loses no weight during the 6-7 months of her elm diet, and her enthusiasm never fails. The usual life-span of a domestic goat is 9-11 years and she is pushing 13, so I don’t think it’s done her a bit of harm. The feed is free, as local as it gets, and gives me plenty of mostly unwanted exercise with the cutting and hauling. The trunks occupy the space along the hot baking hell of the open space, and I don’t give them any water so they’re surviving on what they can find on their own. There’s no doubt that they look scraggly between cuttings, but I can tolerate that to see Maggie so happy. And if I ever get hungry enough I’ll try eating them myself.

The hens also love the leaves when young and tender. They might eat the tougher late summer leaves if cut up, but I don’t bother when there are so many other greens for them.

I’m largely talking about animal feed here, but whenever I allude to possible human uses I feel compelled to say a few common-sense things about wild and unfamiliar foods:

1. Never assume that because an animal can eat it, you can eat it. Goats in particular are able to eat some plants that are toxic to other animals including humans. Magnolia’s metabolism is wired differently than mine.

2. Never assume that because one part is edible, the whole plant is edible. Black locust blossoms and elder flowers are delicious, but the leaves and stems are toxic. There is no substitute for studying reliable authorities.

3. Never assume that because other people including reliable authorities can eat it, you can eat it. Test a small amount of any new food, and wait a day before trying more.

A Low-Carb Mexican Lunch, and a nod to Rick Bayless

Somehow, nothing looks as naked and unappetizing as a lonely egg on a plate. A lovely piece of buttered sourdough toast rounds out the picture nicely, but is off limits if you control your blood sugar by eating low carb. There are lots of potential solutions to the lonely egg problem, but one of my favorites is to put the eggs on a base of gratineed salsa and cheese, a sort of deconstructed queso fundido. The concept couldn’t be simpler. Preheat the broiler. Make mounds of thick salsa on a well-greased baking sheet, one per diner, spaced two inches apart each way.  Cover each mound with a generous heap of grated grass-fed cheddar. Cook under the broiler until the cheese is melted. Using a lightly oiled spatula, finagle each mound onto a plate, and put one or two fried eggs or a small heap of scrambled eggs on top.

If you wish to elaborate further, you can drizzle avocado oil on top and run under the broiler again for a second as you see in the top picture, but it isn’t strictly necessary. I like a spoonful of hot red chile on the side. Serve. The low-carb eaters have a glorious gooey flavorful mess, and the carb eaters can be provided with tortillas.

It occurs to me to say something about my favorite salsa, one that is always in my refrigerator in warm weather. It’s a slight variation on an old Rick Bayless recipe and is easy to make, medium hot, smoky, and delicious.

I start with two pounds of tomatillos. You can make a half batch if you want, but if you like salsa it’s worth making a whole recipe. You will also need 5-6 large cloves of garlic and a can of chiles chipotle in adobo. These are essential to the flavor.

Peel the husks off the tomatillos, rinse them, and put on a baking pan lined with aluminum foil. Off to the side of the pan, not under the direct heat of the broiler, put six cloves of garlic in their husks. Broil the tomatillos, turning as needed until they are cooked and have blackened spots all over. Every time you check the pan, keep an eye on the garlic cloves. Take the garlic out when the husks have blackened spots but the cloves inside aren’t blackened. When the tomatillos are done, set the pan aside and put a few of them in the blender. Peel and add the garlic cloves, and add four chipotles with their adobo, using more or fewer according to your heat tolerance. Blend until smooth. This is to avoid large chunks of chipotle or garlic in the finished salsa. Add the rest of the roasted tomatillos and blend to your desired degree of chunkiness. You can, if you wish, salt to taste and declare your salsa finished. But there is a further refinement: searing, sometimes referred to as frying the salsa.  This is a step that is necessary for many salsas to achieve their full authentic flavor, and it is useful in this case  as a finishing step that brings the flavors to life. It is messy but very simple. Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until good and hot, put in a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat which goes especially well with this salsa, and when it coats the bottom of the pan, pour the salsa in. It will spatter, hiss, and snap furiously, and it does make quite a mess of the stove.  Continue to boil the salsa furiously for a couple of minutes or until thickened a bit, and pour it out into a bowl. Use hot or chill, then bring to room temperature or warm it for use later. It freezes very well. A handful of chopped cilantro is a tasty garnish.

In addition to the eggy meal above, this salsa is very tasty in fish tacos or as a base for broiled shrimp. One of its best uses is to mix with cooked greens, bake until hot, and add a topping of grated cheese. Broil until the cheese is melted and browned in spots. Yum.

 

 

 

Dressing Up the Greens

My fanaticism about leafy greens is no secret,  and I have said in the past that if you keep them prepped and ready and preferably pre-cooked, you will eat a lot more of them. In the summer I try to keep horta, the Greek cooked greens mixture, in the refrigerator and see how many ways I can use it.
Although in general I eat low-carb, I do sometimes bake sourdough bread because I have a very good starter and it would be a pity not to use it now and then. Well, actually, I do it because sourdough bread is one of my favorite things and I allow myself an occasional relapse. The last time I made sourdough, I put a lump of dough about the size of a softball in the refrigerator, and a few days later I got the urge to use it.
If you have the dough and the horta ready, a greens calzone is a very easy thing to produce and looks rather spectacular. Pat the chilled dough out into a large thin circle, pile horta on half of it, top with generous layers of grated Parmesan and torn-up mozzarella, fold the bare half over the top, brush a beaten egg over the top dough and sprinkle with coarse salt, cut some slits in the top, and bake at 425 degrees until cooked through and browned. Ten minutes of actual hands-on time and some oven time when you can do other things.

If you don’t happen to have bread dough in the refrigerator, many stores and pizzerias now sell fresh pizza dough.

Species in my current batch of horta: lambsquarters, chard, walking onions, green garlic, broccoli leaves, mulberry shoots, wild lettuce tips, parsley, thyme.  Really a tiny number of species this time, but still awfully good.

Peapod Feast

One of my favorite vegetables in the world is the Oregon Giant snow pea. It makes large pods that don’t acquire their best flavor until the peas inside swell to nearly full-size, more like a snap pea. At that stage they’re the best thing in the garden, and everything else goes on the back burner while they’re in season. They do need their strings removed before cooking. Anything this delicious is worth working a little for.

Most of the time, I use them the same way that I’d use hand-rolled fettuccine. I prefer the simplified Alfredo treatment shown above: Boil enough  pods for two people in salted water for four minutes, put in a strainer to drain thoroughly, and to the hot pan add two tablespoons of butter and half a cup of heavy cream. Boil furiously over high heat for just a few minutes until the cream starts to thicken, then return the peas to the pan and boil hard for another minute. Turn off the burner and add a three-fingered pinch of salt and a generous handful of grated Parmesan, stir just until the cheese begins to melt, plate the peas, and sprinkle a bit  more cheese and some freshly ground pepper over the top. Have fleur de sel available at the table. Perfection.

As to what quantity of peas serves two people, well, how many do you have? I use this recipe for about a pound to 1.5 pounds of pods. I could probably eat a pound myself, but try not to. If you have more, scale up the sauce a bit.

If you need some variety, peas also respond well to a carbonara treatment with egg yolks and some pancetta or bacon (don’t sneer at the bacon. It’s inauthentic but delicious.)

The pods are also delicious plain with some butter and salt, or grilled in a grilling basket, or dipped raw into dip of your choice.

 

Pollinators And Their Current Buffet

It’s no secret to anyone at this point that our pollinators are in trouble.  There are a lot of things that individuals can do, including never using neonicotinoid pesticides,  and feeding pollinators as well as possible and providing habitat for them.  One important factor is that some native pollinators thrive best when a number of different kinds of pollen sources are available to them:

https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/bumblebees-need-diverse-diet-too

With that in mind, I began looking around my yard to see what all is available to my resident bumblebees and other pollinators right now.  All the bees in my area seem to be quite mad for poppies, but the poppy season is drawing to a close. Still, there are lots of other things. Exhibit A, above, is milkweed. It has taken me four years to finally have a thriving blooming patch of milkweed, but the bees definitely appreciate it. The picture above shows honeybees, but the bumbles visit it regularly too.  I haven’t seen any monarchs yet, but I remain hopeful.

The elderberry bushes are in bloom and they seem to be attractive to all kinds of bees and other pollinators, as well as being attractive to me when in fruit.

I grow scorzonera largely for food use and had never heard of it being a significant pollen producer, but the bees and butterflies love it when in flower.

Next to milkweed, the most thronged plant in the yard right now is perennial arugula, which tends to bloom just after the annual arugula,shown below,  finishes. Both are wildly attractive to bees. The honeybees can light on the slender stalks without too much trouble, but when a bumblebee lands on them, they bend over double.  Interestingly, this does not seem to deter the bumbles. They just sort of ride the stalk down and mine the flower of pollen while hanging upside down.   These are cruciferous plants, and I have noticed that when collards, kale, or broccoli are allowed to go to flower, the bees are crazy about them too. I am not sure what makes crucifers so attractive to bees.  But there is no arguing with the fact.

If you absolutely do not want to grow any vegetables in your front yard, it can still be used as a pollinator garden, with fruit trees, berry bushes, and any number of flowering perennials and annuals that bees enjoy.

A Quick Note on Bamboo

I love bamboo shoots, and several years ago I bought two plants of Phyllostachys dulcis, the famously invasive and delicious sweetshoot bamboo. I enriched the soil, planted and mulched, supplied plenty of water, and waited confidently for them to invade, so that I could start eating. Four years later the two plants are a scraggly 5’ tall each. Each year one or the other, but not both, makes exactly one spindly shoot which often follows a kamikaze trajectory toward the goat paddock.   In all this time, I have eaten exactly one bamboo shoot. It was very good, but a pretty poor return on investment.

This May, after a few days of absence from the garden, I was looking along the fence row inspecting hops vines  when outside my fence, in the desert open space, I saw a startlingly robust bamboo shoot almost 20 feet tall.  Phyllostachys dulcis is spreading out into an area that is impacted, alkaline, and gets only our natural rainfall, which is 10 to 11 inches per year.  In short, it is a bamboo’s version of Hell, and yet this is where my expensive and pampered plants have chosen to stake their claim.

Plants are naturally perverse, and the more you want a particular plant to flourish, the more perverse it typically becomes.  It is as if they thumb their noses at the whole concept of domestication.  But next spring I will watch the desert strip outside the fence and see if the miracle repeats itself. If so, I may finally harvest enough bamboo shoots to be worthwhile.  If it finally begins to behave like a real invasive, I can always take my goat out on a leash to teach P. dulcis some manners.

I should add that if you don’t live in the desert, you can’t afford to be cavalier about invasive plants. Be aware of your neighbors, don’t invade their space unintentionally, and if you plant an invasive bamboo you really need to create proper rhizome barriers. My P. dulcis  plants have a foraging goat between them and any neighbors, and the part of the open space they are growing into actually belongs to my property. I doubt that they can get far on 11” of water annually, but if they show truly invasive behavior out there I have room to make a concrete barrier.  I have never seen a bamboo get out of hand here in the desert, and don’t anticipate it happening now, but I’ll act assertively if it does.

Nettle Ale, and notes on the Drinkmate

One of the nicest things about having an active permaculture garden is that you have strange plants around you in all phases of growth and you’re led to read and to experiment. A couple of months ago I found myself eyeing my healthy nettle patch, where the nettles were almost three feet tall and well past the greens phase, and wondering what could be done with them. I got on the Internet and came across British recipes for nettle beer. I was curious about it because the cooking water from nettles has a strong and distinctive taste that I don’t find exactly pleasant, yet people reported liking the ferment. Well, no harm in trying. I started with three gallons of water in my huge stockpot, and picked (with sturdy leather gloves) about 75 nettle tops. I also added 10 large hops leaves and 10 large Concord grape leaves on grounds that, if the brew was revolting, at least it would contain some resveratrol and chalcones. I boiled all this at a full rolling boil for fifteen minutes, and then let it cool. I fished all the plant material out with a strainer scoop, pressed all the residual juice out and returned it to the pot, and gave the pressed mass of leaves to the chickens. No sense in wasting those nutrients.
I brew by instinct and not by recipe, and I think the next step is the most important: TASTE THE COOLED JUICE AND THINK ABOUT THE FLAVOR before sweetening the liquid. The sweetness will be fermented out, so it’s important not to think of it as part of the finished flavor.  Don’t think in terms of a recipe that you’ve read. Think about what it needs to improve the flavor, and try to supply that.  This juice was not promising, with a strong nettle taste and little other flavor. It lacked any acidity so I added the juice of four oranges and one lemon, giving it a light but pleasant acidity. I decided to go with the strong herbal flavor and added a large angelica leaf and stem, which would remain in the fermenter during primary fermentation.  I also added back the squeezed rind of one of the oranges. Use organic if you do this. Next, I needed to give the yeasty beasties something to eat. I sweetened with one pound of organic sugar per gallon of water, for an eventual alcohol level of 4-5%, just above near-beer, and pitched a yeast intended for hard cider. This all went into the primary fermenter, where it bubbled merrily for a couple of weeks. When the bubbling slowed, I racked it into a clean fermentation bucket, leaving the angelica leaf and rinds behind with the sediment. I tasted  the brew at this point,  and to my surprise the distinctive nettle taste was completely gone.  I could taste the aromatics from the oranges, a slight and becoming touch of bitterness from the angelica and hops leaves,  and an overall mild herbal flavor, and while the brew  still tasted raw and unfinished, it was pleasant.  After another two weeks, it was racked into a keg and put under carbonation.   Chilled and  carbonated, it has become one of our favorite choices for a quick glass of something-or-other in the evening.  It is blessedly  low in alcohol and good with light meals like salads. It tastes best sweetened slightly with a drop or two of liquid stevia or similar added to a glassful. We like it so much that I promptly started another batch dubbed Stinger Brew II,  but this time I left out the oranges and just added the juice of one lemon to a 4 gallon batch.  When primary fermentation is finished and I rack it off for secondary fermentation, I will taste and see if it needs any more acidity, and I plan to dry hop it at this stage because my hops should be in full bloom at that point. Where Stinger I is more like a light herbal wine, Stinger II will be more like a light true ale.  If you really want it to taste like a beer rather than a wine, you could use malt syrup  or malt extract  to sweeten the juice, but I like the more winey  quality that comes from using sugar.

So, as I am always saying, embrace the experimental nature of cooking, brewing, gardening, and life.  If I did this commercially, I would have to keep very exact measurements for consistency between batches and would have to try to maintain each batch exactly like the one before, since that is what customers expect.  But my ingredients are variable, my process is variable, I am variable, and I do not want two batches that taste the same.  This is very freeing.  Liberating yourself from the tyranny  of the recipe is one of the nicest things that can happen to a cook and brewer.

Beer, wine, and mead can be carbonated by charging with some sugar, bottling in swing-cap bottles, and waiting. But there are easier and surer ways. If I want a large quantity carbonated, my husband oversees a kegerator made for refrigerating and carbonating 5 gallon kegs, and then the bubbly stuff is dispensed via a tap. It’s very handy, but needless to say, you don’t necessarily want 5 gallons of any one thing. In those cases, I use the Drinkmate. It’s a sleek carbonation device that uses smaller CO2 canisters and special bottles to carbonate a liter or less at a time in just a couple of minutes. There are a number of carbonation devices on the market, and they all work just fine for carbonating water. The Drinkmate is different because it will carbonate any liquid. Carbonated juice could be delicious if you drink juice, and it occurs to me that sparkling mint tea would be delicious in the summer.You can read more about the device here. If you want to buy one, you can get it here. Replacement CO2 cylinders are available at Bed Bath and Beyond, and empties can be traded in there for half-price new cylinders. Order a few extra bottles when you order your Drinkmate. I’ve noticed that when plain carbonated water is available in the fridge, I drink more water in total, and sparkling water is better with meals than plain water. Carbonation also brings out the flavor of water kefir, which I make in large quantities. With or without a drop of sweetener, it’s delicious.