Archive for January, 2011

My Bookshelf: Efficient Gardening and the foraging gourmet


Mini Farming is about producing as much food as possible from as little space as possible. It covers a number of ways to produce food, including vegetable and fruit growing and raising chickens for eggs and meat. It goes into great detail about soil amendment so that your plants will grow. You may not want to garden in this precise fashion, and I’m with you there, since my own gardening methods are more slapdash. But it’s good to know some rules before you start breaking them. It is a very practical book, offering an astounding amount of information per dollar. The author has clearly done these things himself; sadly, this is not always the case in homesteading books. He is careful to tell you what you need to know. A pet peeve of mine is the number of homesteading books that purport to teach you how to raise animals for meat, then when the time comes to harvest the meat they go coy and soft-focus and say “Be sure to have an expert show you how to do the killing.” What nonsense. You may not have anyone available to demonstrate, or a self-elected “expert” may do such an awful job that you think you’ll never eat meat again. A good book can describe the process and ready you for what you will encounter every step of the way. This book tells you exactly how to kill and butcher a chicken as quickly and humanely as possible. If you are going to raise meat birds, read it even if you plan to have a more experienced person help you, so that you understand beforehand what’s going to happen. This is a great value and a good book for the serious “yard farmer.”

I do not ever accept free review copies of the books that appear on my blog. I buy them at my local independent bookstore, paying the price that you are likely to pay. Books like this make me realize why I set that policy. This is a very beautiful book, and the recipes are top-notch. But if you’re buying it because you are interested in wild foods, you need to know a few things:
1. A lot of the wild foods described are mushrooms, which many foragers prefer to avoid.
2. This is not a book about how to forage. You’ll need a couple of good foraging instructional books for that.
3. If you’re one of my local Albuquerque readers, a lot of the foods described don’t grow wild around here.
In short, this is a great coffee-table book and a fine high-end cookbook, and if you love to spend time in the kitchen trying to find the greatest height to which a foraged food can be brought, you’ll love this book. If you love to gaze upon exquisite (and expensive) glossy photos of resplendent food, you’ll love this book. I love this book. But $40 is a price that makes me stop and think hard about value for money, and I can’t honestly say that it represents great value for money. If I had gotten it free, I might unconsciously gloss over that part. I’m glad I bought it, but if your goal is to learn to forage, this is not the book for you.

The garden year: winners and losers


Like most gardeners, I try a lot of new stuff every year. Some of it fails, some is good enough to make a nice novelty but not good enough to make the long-term cut, and some new items become a part of my regular line-up.
This was a tough year for my garden, and everything that survived deserves some credit. The blistering heat, unusual for this area, and a lot of neglect on my part due to other pressing matters made for a veritable Darwinian demo of natural selection in action.

A special Most Tolerant Vegetable award goes to sweet potatoes. They might get an award for Most Nutritious Vegetable, too, and possibly for Most Delicious Vegetable. No matter what kind I plant, they seem to flourish. I pick so many of the leaves off for greens and salads that it’s a wonder they survive, but I got a very nice crop of roots too. I tend to like the dry yellow types better than the moister orange types, but the latter are healthier to eat, so plant both. Can’t beat ’em. Grow plenty.
The other winners were:

Squash: Waltham Butternut, Chiriman and Kikuza, three C. moschata subtypes. They were resistant to borers, laughed off squash bugs, and soaked up the heat. All had delicious flesh when cured, a little on the moist side but sweet, stringless, and close in quality to my beloved Buttercup, which I can’t grow here because the borers always get it. They were watered irregularly and tolerated that.

Greens: Malva sylvestris. This is an attractive ornamental with mauve flowers, and it makes good healthy leaves for greens in the hottest weather. I’ve chosen it over my old favorite Malva verticillata because it’s a more ornamental plant and equally good to eat. It’s less prolific, but that’s a good thing.

Chicory “Trieste sweet”. This was advertised as less bitter than other chicories, but in my garden it wasn’t. That’s fine with me, since I love the light clean bitterness of well-grown chicory in a salad, and this one was a very strong grower with pretty light green smooth leaves.

Carrot: “Purple Rain.” I love purple carrots for some reason, and the darker the better. This one fit the bill, dark purple right to the core. See chunks of it, loaded with anthocyanins, in the post “Root Vegetables Chairoscuro.”

Parsnips: “Turga.” I only grew a few, and next year I’ll be growing a lot more. They tolerated heat and drought and heavy clay soil. By December when not much else is available fresh, they’re sweet and delicious. They don’t need any special storage for the winter; just leave them in the ground and dig them whenever the ground isn’t frozen.

Potatoes: Red Norland. I adore Peruvian Purple potatoes and have always grown a lot of them,  but this year they were a complete crop failure, while ordinary Red Norlands came through shining, as they always do. So experiment all you like with exotic potatoes, but have a few hills of the Old Reliable. Even if you don’t have room to grow main crop potatoes for storage, you’ll want a few hills to dig for gossamer-skinned new potatoes.

Spinach: America. This very old hybrid is still going strong. Not as big as some, not as smooth as some, not as savoyed as some, it just produced lots of tasty leaves in cold weather and in hot, unruffled by the changes that nature threw at it.

Swiss chard: Fordhook Giant. For years I flirted with the multicolor types, but they don’t produce as well as this old stalwart, and I grow leafy greens to eat, not to look at. It mixes nicely with flowers.

The losers:

Squash: Sucrine de berry and Musque de Provence. Both had come highly recommended by the catalog for flavor and lack of fiber, and unfortunately both were just awful. Both had stringy unpleasant flesh, and Musque had very little sweetness or flavor of any kind while Sucrine was watery and had a strong unpleasant scent and taste that one taster described as “Squnk.” Both were vine-ripened and cured for two months, so I can only assume that the seedstock was not pure, but since I rely on winter squash for a lot of my winter vegetable supply, I can’t take a chance on them again.  They are quite decorative on the end of my dining room table, and the chickens will eat the flesh if I bake it for them, but that wasn’t my plan for my squash supply.

Summer squash: Trombocino. This is a vining summer squash that gets high marks for flavor in some catalogs. I can only say that in my garden it was hugely prolific but had no flavor at all.  I’ll be going back to some zucchinis that I like better to eat.

Mirliton These are a common vegetable in Louisiana where I grew up, and they love heat, so I thought that if I supplied water they would do well here. Unfortunately, they shriveled in our dry heat. They might do better if given some shade, and I’ll probably try that this summer.

Milk thistle: I was bamboozled by some foragers into introducing this pernicious weed to my yard. It’s very pretty in an architectural way, but the leaves are touchy to pick, prickle removal is somewhat tedious, and the green that you’re left with doesn’t taste that great. The flavor isn’t bad, but certainly it isn’t anything I’d go out of my way to eat. And once having introduced them, they take hold with frightening avidity. Better not to get started with them. By the way, some people on the Internet say that if you boil the leaves, they can be eaten prickles and all, to which I say “Bah.” Further, I say that they’ve never really tried it. I would buy a ticket to watch one of those people eat a plate of thistle boiled stickers-and-all.

Vegetable dinners: Starting the new year


Recently a reader contacted me about how to transition to a diet of “all real food.” Expense and time were real concerns for him, as they are for most of us.  Well, there’s no question that if you’ve been eating a lot of convenience and supermarket food, real food is likely to be more expensive. You will be making more things from scratch, so it will take more time, too. So my first piece of advice is: don’t make a New Year’s resolution to change your whole diet. I am very mistrustful of New Year’s resolutions; in fact I am mistrustful of any statement that anyone is going to make sudden sweeping changes in their way of being in the world and maintain those changes over time. Personally, my transition in food and lifestyle took place over years, with one step building on the previous ones, and no one change so huge that I couldn’t maintain it until it became a habit.
So here’s how I would approach this change: eat more vegetables. Fill your plate with them. Twice a week or so, make two or three simple vegetable dishes for dinner, and don’t have any meat available. On the other nights, offer a small amount of meat and lots of vegetables. A loaf of good bread is a great way to center the table for all-vegetable dinners, and at first you can buy the bread and transition to home-baked later on if you want to. Heat the bread up and have butter or olive oil available to make it festive. Let your vegetable meal be a celebration. Learn a few simple whole-grain dishes and use them as “grounding and centering” dishes to offer some variety from bread. Don’t forget vegetable pasta dishes, which are delicious and appeal to kids. Buy your vegetables wherever you usually shop, and learn to cook them in ways that taste really good. Notice that at this first stage you do not torment yourself by trying to grow all your own food, eat local only, or eat organic only. You just cook the veggies that are readily available to you in ways that work for you. Pay special attention to learning to cook leafy greens in ways that you really like. They are abundantly good for your health, and if you take up gardening later on, they are among the easiest things to grow, but they are also the most likely to sit in the garden unused if you don’t have your kitchen techniques down pat. When you and your family are used to eating lots of vegetables, you can add more whole-grain dishes, or go organic, or shop at the farmers’ market when possible.

If you make this your first step toward a whole-foods diet, you won’t save much money initially because CAFO meat at the supermarket is cheap, but you won’t spend more than usual. Invest a very little bit of money in a really good vegetable cookbook; a wonderful and inexpensive one is Fast, Fresh, and Green by Susie Middleton. Check out my “vegetable dinners” category, too.

When you and your family are really loving your veggies and you can turn out vegetable dishes smoothly and without kitchen trauma, and plates heavy with vegetables look just right to you, take the next step. Enlist your family in deciding what the next step will be. If you use a lot of dairy products, organic dairy might be a good step. Or consider a backyard garden, or a farmers’ market excursion once a week in season, or more whole grains, or whatever. Bear in mind that truly ethical meats are going to be expensive, and if you just substitute them for the supermarket kind in the amounts you are used to eating, you are in for a nasty surprise when you add up the bills. I don’t suggest changing to them until you have formed the habit of eating small amounts of meat and making veggies the biggest part of your meal.
Don’t forget breakfast. Cook a pot of wild rice or red quinoa ahead of time and heat up enough for breakfast, topping it with some butter and maple syrup or honey. This is a treat even for people who don’t like “health” foods.

I don’t believe that negative energy is ever very helpful. Don’t berate yourself for the things you aren’t doing, just be appreciative of the positive changes that you’re making. If you need to pick up a quart of milk at the convenience store some night, don’t go crazy over it. If unexpected events change your life for a while, respond to them as needed, and then go back to your new way. Somewhere along the way, read or reread The Omnivore’s Dilemma, still head and shoulders above other books about factory-farming systems and, in my view, much better than Pollan’s subsequent books at helping you remember why you are making these changes. Love your food, and enjoy your mealtimes, and step will follow naturally on step. Have fun, and happy New Year!