Archive for August, 2010

Sudden changes of plan


In urban homesteading as in the rest of life, it’s never possible to know what the future holds. In early July as I was planning and starting my fall/winter garden, my very beloved husky was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and a short life expectancy. Thanks to the care of a wonderful canine oncologist he is free of pain and enjoying his last weeks, but it rapidly became clear to me that the fall garden was not going to be a priority after all, both because of his care needs and because I want to spend all the time that I can with him. Weeding, planting, and the constant ongoing care that a garden needs came to a sudden halt.
So, what to do about the garden? I was soon able to identify the vegetables that flourish on neglect. Corn did well, and we gorged on fresh sweet corn regularly, although the last planting was too young to take the neglect and so our corn season ended early. Sweet potatoes have been unstoppable. Swiss chard has done well, and the winter squash is out to eat the world. We have a problem with borers in our area, so this year I limited myself to squash of the C. moschata variety, which are rumored to be resistant to them. The vines are producing well and not a single one has shown that sudden disheartening wilting that heralds the squash borer. My enthusiasm for edible weeds really paid off, as we ate greens dishes full of lambs-quarters, mallow, amaranth, and purslane. I always let some of my spring crop of arugula go to seed, and a self-sown fall crop is coming up to supply our salad bowl. Self-sown chicory is showing up here and there. Dandelions have grown a foot across, and are too bitter to eat now but after a few frosts they’ll be perfect for braising. Mallow enjoys heat and neglect and even offers pretty purple flowers if you grow the Malva sylvestris type. The wild-type daylilies are spreading happily and will supply spring shoots. Peruvian purple potatoes are healthy and strong. They form tubers late, but in a couple of months we expect to be eating a lot of them. Cherry and paste tomatoes are winding their way through the general melee and producing a surprising number of tomatoes.
At the time that my dog was diagnosed there were hundreds of wild sunflower seedlings all around the property, and I decided to let them grow unmolested, thinking that they would eventually supply green matter for mulch and would keep worse weeds from taking over. We now have a sunflower forest twelve feet high on two sides of the house, and the beauty of the flowers lights up the days. They also attract thousands of bees to the open flowers, and the ripening seeds have drawn hundreds of goldfinches to my yard. Hummingbirds strafe each other over my head, and my husky spends his good days wandering in his own private jungle.
To me the spirit of urban homesteading is one of making do as best we can despite uncontrollable circumstances. It’s a spirit that sets priorities and says “First things first.” My priorities right now are clear, and there are more important things then a carefully planned winter garden. To feed the bees and birds and to find my life unexpectedly full of bright color, flashing movement, wild life,and even good homegrown food although not the food that I had planned on is a gift that I hope I won’t forget.

Vegetable dinners: things to wrap in a pita


My new category, Vegetable Dinners, will be a collection of meals based on vegetables. Some are vegetarian and some aren’t, but where meat is used, it’s a small amount and is used more as a seasoning than as the bulk of the meal. Where relevant, notes on how to make them vegetarian or vegan are included, but many of them taste best with a little meat or fish included, and my recipes note this. My kitchen mantra is “Eat less meat, eat better meat,” and the same goes for eggs and dairy products. Since you aren’t using much, you can afford the best and most sustainable.
Summer vegetables are at their peak now, and in my home most of our meals are based on them. Mixtures that can be wrapped in a pita make a light easy meal on hot days. The filling can be made ahead, and keeps a few days in the refrigerator. OIl-cured black olives are used to add a meaty savor to eggplant and zucchini, and capers add an herbal note. This meal is vegetarian, and can be made vegan if you alter the sauce recipe a little.

Eggplant and Zucchini with olive paste

2 small or one large eggplant, fresh and firm
2 small zucchini
12-20 oil-cured black olives depending on your taste for them (no other kind of olive will do here)
3 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed and then soaked in cold water for an hour and squeezed dry
1/4 cup good olive oil
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic
chopped parsley to taste, probably a couple of tablespoons

Cut the eggplant in cubes 1/2 inch or a little larger on a side. Whether you peel it first is up to you. The finished dish has a more tender texture if the eggplant is peeled, but less fiber and fewer antioxidants, so take your pick. Personally, I leave the peel on for this dish as long as the eggplants are young and tender. Cut the zucchini in quarters and slice each quarter into segments on the small side of 1/2 inch. Toss the vegetable cubes together in a bowl with 2 teaspoons of salt and let sit at least 1 hour, tossing occasionally. This step is important for this dish and shouldn’t be shortened. Don’t worry about the quantity of salt; if you do the squeezing step well, most of it will be removed with the liquid. You can soak the capers at the same time. Pit the olives and chop them coarsely, and chop the garlic finely. At the end of an hour, drain off exuded liquid and squeeze the veggie chunks in a clean kitchen towel, a few handfuls at a time, until as much liquid as possible has been squeezed out. Squeeze the capers dry and chop them coarsely. In a clay cazuela or 10″ skillet, heat a few tablespoons of the olive oil and add the garlic. Cook until opaque and cooked but do not allow it to start to brown even a little. Now add the olives, capers, and veggie chunks, toss to coat with the oil, and cook over low heat for about an hour, tossing occasionally and making sure it doesn’t burn on the bottom. Add a little water if needed to prevent burning.
Texture is very important. Start tasting a little after 45 minutes or even 30 if it looks like it’s cooking quickly. When the zucchini is just tender but not mushy, and the eggplant is melting in texture, it’s done. Also check for salt, but the seasonings are salty and you are unlikely to need any. Stir in the parsley just before serving. Serve with good pita bread, lightly warmed, and the sauce below.

Lemon-garlic sauce
This sauce is like an aioli but looser and less rich. The egg yolk just binds it and thickens it a little. If you leave out the egg yolk the whole dish is vegan, and the flavor doesn’t suffer at all but the texture will be liquid, not thick, and it will need to be stirred up by each diner before taking any.

1 egg yolk
1 large clove garlic
juice of half a lemon
1 Jalapeno pepper
olive oil as needed, usually about 1/4 cup.
salt to taste
1-2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

In a small food processor, chop the garlic clove and the chile pepper. I always mince fresh chiles before putting them in the processor to make sure that big chunks don’t startle diners. Add the egg yolk and lemon juice, process briefly, and slowly drip in the olive oil until it’s as thick as you want. I like it to be liquid and spoonable, but velvety. Taste and salt as needed. Add the thyme leaves and stir in. For the vegan version, proceed the same way except leave out the egg yolk, and be aware that it won’t thicken in the same way but will be more like a vinaigrette.
Don’t save leftover sauce more than a day in the refrigerator, because of the egg yolk, but I like to spread leftover sauce on a warmed pita for lunch the next day.

Still more greens, and notes on solar cooking


Since I got a solar oven, I no longer find it difficult to cook chickpeas, and so I’m looking for new ways to use them. I especially like combinations of greens and beans, partly because these primal and earthy dishes are found all over the world wherever people need healthy cheap food, and partly because they taste good. I’m cooking my way through a huge patch of lambs-quarters and amaranth (common pigweed) in my back yard, and getting healthy food from weedy places always satisfies my sense of economy. If you’re not a weed-eater, just use Swiss chard. I like a little smoked meat with greens, but if you don’t eat meat, just leave off the final garnish of bacon. This makes two large main-course servings with leftovers.

One pound young leaves and tender tips of lambs-quarters and amaranth, OR one large bunch of swiss chard, stems removed, chopped coarsely.
One pint cooked chickpeas, with just enough of the cooking liquid to cover them (see Solar Beans, below.)
3-4 tablespoons good flavorful olive oil
1 large onion, finely sliced
2 large cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons Spanish Pimenton de la Vera, or smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes
salt and pepper to taste
a little of your best olive oil for drizzling
1 thick slice bacon, fried crisp and crumbled (optional)
Wash the greens very well, make sure to remove any remaining large stems, and blanch them in boiling water for 1 minute. Drain, press out extra water, and turn out on a cutting board and chop coarsely in both directions. Meanwhile, heat a heavy pot (I like an unglazed clay 3 quart pot) over medium heat, warm the olive oil, and saute the onions in the oil until translucent and cooked through but not browned more than a little. Add the chopped garlic and saute until garlic is cooked. Add the smoked paprika, thyme leaves, and chile flakes, saute a minute but no more, and promptly add the chickpeas and their liquid. When this mixture comes to a boil, add the blanched and chopped greens, salt to taste, turn the heat to low, and let it all mellow together for 10-15 minutes. Check the seasoning, add pepper to taste, and serve with a good drizzle of very good olive oil on each serving and the crumbled bacon on top if you’re using it. With a hunk of good baguette and a glass of full-bodied straightforward red wine, it couldn’t be better or healthier. Without its bacon topping it’s vegan and can be served to people of that persuasion, with the bacon fillip for the carnivores at the table. People who are vegetarian but not vegan will enjoy a pat of butter melted on top to give a little richness. Hedonists will like both a little butter and a little bacon.

Solar cooking is a natural here in New Mexico, where we have more sunlight than we know what to do with.
So, how do you cook solar beans? Fist you catch your solar oven. There are lots of easy plans on the internet for making them, but I chose to buy mine from the Solar Oven Society. Their solar ovens are capacious, lightweight, and every one you buy helps the society provide solar ovens to the third world, which avoids some deforestation and greenhouse gases from cooking fires. Their ovens are cleverly designed with two potential bases to provide a summer sun-catching angle and a winter sun-catching angle. Optional reflectors are available to achieve higher temperatures. You may want the optional reflectors for other purposes, but for cooking beans you won’t need them. Two graniteware pots are included with the oven, and you can put a pint of dry chickpeas in each one, cover with cold water by at least 2″, and set the oven up facing south in the morning with the two full pots inside. Then employ my special cooking technique: walk away, laughing a carefree laugh, and go to work or just get on with your life. On a reasonably sunny day, the oven without reflectors attached will reach a peak temperature of about 250 degrees and will stay in that range for much of the day. When you get home eight or nine hours later, you will find two steaming pots of perfectly cooked chickpeas, and you can salt them to taste, let them cool, and use immediately or freeze in pint containers with enough of their pot-liquor to cover. I love the oddly meaty-tasting cooking liquid and often use it as the broth for the finished dish, as I do above.
The directions that come with the oven imply that you need to turn it a few times to keep it facing the sun, but at least in summer I just point mine due south and forget about it. Other types of beans are also naturals for this solar slow-cooking, but they take less time, so I do them on weekends when I can check the oven in 4 hours or so to see how they’re coming along. For readers at lower altitudes than our 5500 feet, cooking times would tend to be much shorter. If the day clouds over, you may need to finish inside, or just put the pots in the refrigerator overnight and try again the next day. Don’t forget and leave the beans in the cool solar oven overnight, since some very nasty bacteria including botulinum could grow in room-temperature aqueous solutions. Cool them and pop them in the fridge or freezer when they’re cooked. Eat in the knowledge that you’re taking in all sorts of nutritive and cholesterol-lowering compounds that cost you no energy and very little trouble to cook. Beats canned, doesn’t it?