Archive for June, 2011

My Favorite Spinach

For some reason, probably simple curiosity, I tried an old spinach variety called Giant of Viroflay this spring. It was a hot, early spring with lots of wind and duststorms, and I didn’t think that this European antique would survive our high-desert climate, but in fact I have never had such a good crop of spinach. The leaves are smooth and about 10″ long,and in the current June heat I’m still picking from the row that I started harvesting in early May. The particular strain that you have can make a big difference. I got mine from Nichols Garden Nursery. I have seen seeds around labeled “Giant Noble,” which may or may not be the same thing. The maintenance of a good line of seed takes a lot of attention, and it pays to get your seed from the best source that you can find.
The flavor is wonderful, full of the richness that good spinach has, with no metallic or bitter flavors. The texture is smooth and melting when cooked properly, and wonderful in salads too. When I have spinach this good, I like plain creamed spinach more than any other way of cooking it. I think that the French method of blanching first produces the best flavor, and I make up for any diminishment of water-soluble vitamins by eating a great deal of it.
Pick a lot of spinach, since it shrinks greatly when cooked. I use a 5-gallon food-grade pail to pick into, and pick it 2/3 full (loosely filled) to serve 4. Wash very well three times in sinkfuls or pailfuls of cold water. Don’t neglect the washing step. Any bit of grit will spoil your perfect spinach. Then bring a gallon of water to a rolling boil in your big stockpot, toss in the spinach, DON’T cover the pot, and stir with a wooden spoon to get all the leaves exposed to boiling water. When the water returns to a full boil, stir and boil for another minute, then drain in a colander and press ALL the excess moisture out. Turn out on a clean cutting board, chop rapidly with your big chef’s knife, and put in a saucepan with a few tablespoons of butter, half a cup of heavy cream, and salt to taste. Cook over high heat, turning regularly, until the cream is reduced and there’s no drippy liquid. Serve forth promptly, with a little more butter on top. If you know someone who has a Jersey cow, your cream can be thick raw Jersey cream, which is the best cream there is. Shave a few shreds of fresh nutmeg on top just before it goes to the table (I do mean a few, 1/8 teaspoon or thereabouts.) Some fresh pepper is nice too. Sometimes I add some sauteed shallot or green onion, and sometimes I feel that alliums impair the delicacy of the thing.
I like to eat this as a meal all by itself, with a few slices of good baguette alongside. It also makes a great base for poached eggs, and accompanies delicately seasoned chicken and fish dishes beautifully. It is one of the joys of late spring, to be enjoyed lavishly in its season.

Another Great Green

One of my new trials this year was the Asian hybrid green Misome. I got my seed from Nichols Garden Nursery, one of my favorite sources for unusual and useful seeds. It’s a hybrid of tat soi, a vegetable that I love but can only grow in the fall. I planted Misome in earliest spring and it grew beautifully, producing deep green savoyed leaves that shone in the sun like the deepest jade. It had no insect or disease problems. Like many mustards, the only secret is to plant it early enough. The flavor was mild and ever so slightly mustardy. I used the youngest leaves in salads and the older ones stir-fried. It held for a surprising time in the garden, considering our early and very hot and windy spring, and when it bolted a few weeks ago, I pulled up the plants and fed them to my goat Magnolia, who was ecstatic over them. I like to believe that the dark green color indicates a high level of beta-carotenes, but I have no data to prove that. I do know from experience that it’s delicious. I’ll be planting another crop in early fall. Keep it in mind for next spring, or order some seed now while you’re thinking about it.

One of many ways to stir-fry greens:
This is too simple to be written as a recipe. Think of it as a basic technique that works for a wide variety of greens. Peel and chop a clove of garlic, a 1/2″ piece of ginger, and a 1″ piece of turmeric. Have ready a tablespoon of Thai fish sauce, a tablespoon of palm sugar or agave nectar (a surprisingly good substitute) and half a cup or so of coconut milk (not the low-fat kind). Thoroughly wash a pound of misome leaves, whirl them dry, and cut them across in 1/2″ slices. Heat a large wok very hot, put in about 2 tablespoons of canola oil, and dump in the chopped garlic, ginger, and turmeric and fry, stirring constantly, for a minute or until the fragrance comes up, which may be less than a minute. Be careful not to burn them. Now put in the strips of misome, fry a few minutes while turning regularly, and then add the fish sauce and coconut milk. Continue to stir-fry over very high heat until the coconut milk thickens, taste and adjust the seasoning if needed, and serve immediately. This is surprisingly satisfying by itself with jasmine rice for lunch. If you can’t find fresh turmeric, leave it out. Do not under any circumstances use musty dried turmeric instead.
Dishes like this will give you a glow of virtue and good health that goes on for hours. Perhaps it’s a true virtue of the greens, or maybe it’s just the glow of achievement that comes of eating what you grew. Either way, it feels good.

Good Businesses: The Urban Store

Although my readers come from all over (even Kuwait, if you can believe it,) I try to keep an eye out for businesses and services that are of interest to my local readers here in Albuquerque. One of my most interesting findings so far is The Urban Store, at 3209 Silver Ave SE. Kathy and Chuck promote all things having to do with sustainability. Their mantra is “Grow, Eat, Return.” Grow good healthy local food, eat it, and return whatever’s left to the soil in a clean and usable form to grow more food and keep the cycle going.
When I first looked around the shop, I said to Kathy “You have all the stuff that really works.” After tiresome (and expensive) experimenting, I’ve found a lot of “green gadgets” that work and a lot of others that don’t. At the Urban Store the experimenting has been done for you, which will save you considerable time and money in the long run. They carry the Naturemill Composter, as well as a great variety of less high-tech composting systems. They have the books written by experienced people who actually know their stuff, and they don’t have the glossy but inaccurate ones thrown together to capitalize on the current fads. They have dehydrators and yogurt makers and cheesemaking supplies and kits to make organic wine and beer. They have an assortment of really well-crafted gardening tools, and shelves of bulk seeds, vermicomposting setups and solar ovens and lots more.
Now here’s the stuff that fascinates me: they work cooperatively with Desert Plastics, a local firm, to make rainbarrels and a wonderful micro-vegetable garden called the Urban Garden. This device, shown below, enables anyone to grow vegetables anywhere. It is cast from resin with UV inhibitors, and comes in 21 colors. It has its own drip system and drainage, and comes with 2 covers for protection from cold or blistering sun. The components are 100% recyclable. It is lighter and more durable than wood (which they also sell.) You can buy just the garden for $295, or for $400 they will deliver it to your site, fill it with organic soil, plant it with seeds for the veggies that you prefer, and give you some organic bug treatments and lots of training in how to micro-garden. The Urban Grower can make a garden out of a patio, balcony, or hard piece of ground that would be too much trouble to dig. They also carry rainbarrels, both stock and custom, and at next week’s Coop Tour they will be debuting a cast resin chicken coop. I’ll be there to take a look, because a chicken coop that’s easy to clean would hold a lot of appeal for me.

This store places a lot of emphasis on teaching, and in fact they will come to your site to consult on how to do whatever sustainable project you want to do.
I won’t use the term “green business,” because that has become a tired and overused marketing phrase with little meaning. Instead, I refer to “good businesses,” the sort that enrich our community and allow us to live better than we could without them. This is a good, even a great, business. You can visit them online, but it will be more fun to stop in and talk with them about how you’d like to make your life a little more sustainable. Whatever you have in mind, odds are that they already know a lot about it and can help you. And have fun! Ultimately, all this is not about giving-up in a grimly austere spirit. It’s about pleasure, and about how much you can have, and how good you can feel about what you do.