Archive for November, 2008

pansies- more than an edible flower

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Here in Albuquerque, pansies are a pretty presence during the fall, take a brief break in the coldest weather, and then bloom themselves silly in the spring. The hot weather finishes them off. For years I’ve enjoyed their beauty and have used the edible and mild-tasting flowers to beautify my salads. It was only this year that I learned that the leaves are edible too, and in fact are very tasty, with a substantial but tender texture and a cool, slightly minty taste rather like mache’. Now I put in pansy plants in late September, let them establish themselves for a month, and begin plucking leaves and flowers at will until late November. After that I leave them alone until they show fresh growth in the spring. When making mixed salads, the mildly sweet flowers and leaves go better with lettuces than with the wilder-flavored greens like arugula or any of the chicories. Keep the flowers on top where they can be appreciated. I like to lay them on after the greens have been dressed. Gently floral olive oils like the ones from Provence and mild vinegars or a little lemon juice let these subtle flavors shine.

It’s worth noting that this triple-purpose quality makes pansies a good use of space in the cold months, and means that you can get some local food even from a pot of flowers by your door.

Some people make derisive noises about edible flowers, and think that the trend was a 1980’s California phenomenon and is now long over. Well, edible flowers have a culinary history several hundred years old at a minimum, and not likely to be over any time soon. Anything that both beautifies food and makes it taste better is worth learning about and preserving. The best culinary list of flowers that I know of is an appendix in John Ash’s From the Earth to the Table, which is a delightful cookbook in other respects as well. Second-hand copies are often available. Check it out.

If you get your plants from a nursery, ask whether they’ve been sprayed or fertilized, and wait a month or more to make sure they’re safe to eat.

fiesta de pimientos

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Here in New Mexico, we’re rich in chiles of all kinds. However, I seldom see or hear about one of the best, the Spanish Pimiento de Padron. In northern Spain, there’s a festival devoted to them when they come into season. The peppers are picked green, when about the size of large olives, and saute’ed whole in olive oil with some sea salt, then eaten hot as a tapa. About one in 8-10 is fiery hot, while the rest are pretty mild. Eating them is called Spanish Roulette, but we New Mexicans are up to it. After a summer of chowing down the green ones, I let the last flush turn red and dry on the plant, and make my year’s supply of wonderfully flavorful red pepper. I pick the somewhat dry, leathery peppers and slit each one open, lay it flat, and remove all the stem, seeds and veins. The sensitive will want to wear latex gloves for this. Spread them out in single layers on one or two large baking sheets and dry them in a very slow oven, 170 degrees if possible. Drying time varies with weather conditions and oven temp. Usually I dry them at 170 for about 4 hours, then leave them in the turned-off oven overnight. When dry, they are shiny and translucent and look like Chinese enamel; see above. Grind them to a powder in the blender and keep them in an airtight container until you need them. I keep a shaker of “yard pepper” on my dining room table, and love the way it adds snap and piquancy to a variety of foods. try it on fried eggs. The plants are very attractive, about 3′ high at maturity and fairly compact, so I like to grow them where they can be seen. You can get seeds at our New Mexico source, Gourmet Seeds.
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The Greens of Summer: sweet potatoes

This year, for the first time, I learned that there’s more to the sweet potato than its tuber. It came as news to me that throughout Africa and southern Asia the vine that we know as the sweet potato (Ipomea batata) is often grown for its leaves. Mine were started by putting an organic sweet potato in a pot of dirt in a warm place. It needs to be organic, because the grocery-store kind are treated with chemicals to stop them from sprouting.  I planted a few in a pot thinking that they would be lush and green and heat-resistant, and any tubers that they produced would be a bonus. After reading about the use of their leaves in other countries, I cautiously broke off one and nibbled on it. It had a crisp texture and a mild pleasant flavor, and I started adding them to salads. As the vines grew, I had enough to start cooking them. I used them in greens mixtures (see the “recipes” page on my website, www.localfoodalbuquerque.com) and found that they balanced the stronger-flavored greens very well. I especially liked using them to make Hawaiian creamed greens. Here in the high desert, a source of fresh green leaves that takes our summer sun and heat in stride is a valuable commodity, and even after a summer of snipping them to bits, I got some roots in the fall. Not as many as if I’d left them alone, of course, but the total harvest of salads, greens, and tubers over 3 months was considerable, and all from one 19″ pot.

By the way, I couldn’t find any exact assays, but I’ve read that they are unusually high in protein for greens, high in lutein, and full of all the other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants typically found in leafy greens.

Hawaiian Creamed Sweet Potato Leaves

Pick over and wash well about 6 quarts of sweet potato leaves. This measure is the very loosely packed leaves just as they come off the vine. Chop 2 cloves of garlic and a 1X2″ peeled section of ginger into fine bits. Heat about 2 tablespoons of coconut oil (preferable) or canola oil in a pan and when hot, add the garlic and ginger bits. As soon as the fragrance comes up, but before the bits brown or burn, toss in the leaves, a can of coconut milk, a small green chile (Serrano or similar) chopped up, and a tablespoon of Asian fish sauce. Bring to a boil, simmer about 10 minutes, check whether any salt is needed, and serve. To make a full meal you can serve with a good turmeric rice pilaf, and if you aren’t a vegetarian, some good peeled shrimp simmered with the rest are really delicious. I like a squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the top, too.

If you have the energy to make your own coconut milk, well, more power to you. I used to be that sort of purist but tend to use organic canned these days. Just make sure it’s pure coconut milk (no sugar), and avoid the “lite” low-fat versions, which lack both creaminess and flavor.

Waste not

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On the “recipes” page of my website, www.localfoodalbuquerque.com, I have a section of recipes and techniques for leafy greens. I discuss there how I mix all sorts of greens, blanch them, and then proceed with a recipe or freeze them for later use. When I’m processing a lot of greens, five or six large bunches may go through the blanching water. When I’m done, there sits the stockpot, full of a fluid brimming with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and flavor. No way does it go down the drain.

Boil the greens broth hard, until it’s reduced to about 2/3 of its former volume. Now pour it into a big bowl, wipe your stockpot clean, heat it well over medium heat, film the bottom with a few tablespoons of decent olive oil, and put in a yellow onion cut in half but skin left on (naturally you wash it well first), a good fresh carrot scrubbed and cut in thin slices, and two shallots cut in half, skin and all. Saute’ the vegetables for at least ten minutes, probably longer. You want the cut sides of the alliums to be cooked-looking and browned in places but not scorched anywhere. The pour in the greens broth, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and simmer at least half an hour, up to an hour if you have time. I like to put the carrot greens and a few sprigs each of parsley and leaf celery in to simmer with the rest. A few old Parmesan rinds simmered in with the vegetables give a great flavor.

When finished, you have a very good vegetarian broth which can be used immediately or frozen for later use. It can be canned if you have a pressure canner, and this is a good way to save freezer space. Whenever pressure canning, scrupulously follow the directions in the Ball Blue Book for our altitude, to ensure a safe product.

You can use it in soups, as a cooking liquid for rice or other grains, or anywhere you might use a meat broth, although you will achieve a different flavor and a different look. The onion skins give it a nice color if you used yellow onions. A greens risotto with made with this broth and with sauteed greens in olive oil and garlic stirred in just before serving is truly delicious. On a simpler note, it makes a good light lunch just salted to taste and poured over a grilled piece of good sourdough bread, with good Parmesan grated in generously. Perfume it by grinding some black pepper into the bowl just before eating.

Si se puede! Starting to sum up my garden year.

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       The very last tomatoes of the season are simmering into a sauce on the stove, waiting to be canned later today. The freezer is full and the shelves are bending slightly under the weight of canned sauce, salsa, chutney, and broth. Carrots, leeks, chard, chervil, the last potatoes, and some herbs are still outside. Not bad, given that we live on about 1/8 acre.

       My interest is in encouraging more people to grow and cook at least a little of their own food. I have a website to promote “yard farming,” and I invite you to visit it at www.localfoodalbuquerque.com. The purpose of this blog is to explore and report some of the small pleasures that come up along the way.

 

Learning new things about familiar plants seemjs to have been the theme of my harvest season. Nasturtiums are high on the list. I started growing them because, in our fierce sun, they grow well in light shade. They go through a slightly ratty period in midsummer, but then come back strong in the fall and bloom until there’s a really hard frost. I’ve always loved the blossoms on salads, for their watercress sharpness with a sweet nectar twist as well as for their beauty. But until this year, I didn’t grasp the culinary possibilities of the leaves.

       They bear a strong resemblance to watercress, although with a thicker meatier texture. Raw, they add bite to a sandwich or can be slivered into chiffonade and dressed with a fairly strong vinaigrette to make a nice sharp small salad to lighten a plate of pasta or steak. Cooked, they mellow a lot. I love to cook extravagant mixtures of greens, and nasturtium leaves can be up to half the total as long as the other half is milder-flavored material like spinach or chard. They also make wonderful stuffed dolmas, and bring a fresher quality to the dish than brined grape leaves. I consider leafy greens some of the healthiest vegetables that you can eat, and the wider the variety the better. See the “recipes” page on my website and click “greens” for some simple and good recipes, and the not-so-simple Nasturtium leaf dolmas. Or, just see below for the simplest way you can use this versatile plant.october08-0051