Archive for May, 2015

Nose-to-tail Cilantro

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Cilantro is a lovely and evanescent thing. It is a major seasoning herb in Thai and Indonesian cuisines, is widely used in China and Southeast Asia, and fills me with wellbeing whenever I eat it. It was a few years, though, before I learned how to make it pay for its garden space.
First, choose your variety carefully. You need a bolt-resistant type that can be bought in ounces, not packets. Don’t plant the seeds sold as spices. Currently my favorite is Calypso. Second, forget rows. Plant it in bunches that you can harvest all at once, and only have as many bunches maturing per week as you will actually use. I like the bunches to be spaced 8-10″ apart each way, and I plant 15-20 seeds in each bunch, all clustered into an area about 2″ in diameter. I plant 4 bunches a week, every week that I remember and have some bed space available, starting well before the last frost because cilantro likes cool weather and stopping as the days heat up. They will not occupy their real estate more than a couple of months, so I plant them in places where big heat-loving crops like tomatoes or zucchini will take over the space. In the picture above, you see the stem of the young tomato which will spread out when the days heat up. You may also note the early lettuce that occupied the tomato’s space over the winter, now serving as a light mulch.
When the plants are 7-8″ high, I harvest the bunch by cutting about two inches above the ground. They are quite clean because the crowded plants hold each other up, and just need a quick rinse before being used in your favorite way. Cut the bunch rather than pulling, because those stems will keep on working.
Leave the cut stems in place. When they show a good amount of new growth,you will notice that the leaves are finely cut and feathery rather than looking like grocery-store cilantro. This new growth doesn’t have the full cilantro flavor by any means, but I still like to throw chopped handfuls into salads and pounded green herb sauces. But what we are really after at this point is not the leaves. When some of your bunches are tall and starting to bolt, pull them for the roots and lower stems. Scrub the roots and thick lower stems well, cut off the finer roots and discard (into the compost, of course) and chop the roots and stems thinly crosswise. This is your supply of cilantro root, which is used extensively in classic Thai cooking, while the leaves aren’t used in authentic curry pastes etc. In fact, make sure that no leaves get into your root, because the flavor is different and not right for this use. Thai cooking aficionados refer to it as the “unobtainable, mythical coriander root,” but it is highly obtainable if you have a garden. Now you can pound your roots and stems in your faithful mortar and pestle to make curry and seasoning pastes, or freeze them in little plastic bags in quantities of about 4 tablespoons. I tend to use mine up during the summer, which is when southeast Asian cuisine tastes best to me.
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But don’t pull every bunch. Let some bolt, because you want the green seeds.
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These have a flavor in between the leaves and the dried coriander seed and are delicious sprinkled over salads, used as a garnish on grilled meats, or tossed over bulgur or rice dishes.
Now you are finally done with your cilantro plants and can pull them and compost them, unless you want to let some set and dry seeds to use as coriander seed. I don’t dry and save seeds, personally. I can buy seeds easily, and prefer to use my own seeds green, when they are a fresh treat that can’t be bought.
For more on using the roots, check out David Thompson’s huge and highly addictive “Thai Food,” the best Thai cookbook in English in my opinion, although it does assume a scary amount of kitchen timeūüėČ

I Brake for Endorphins

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I garden largely for practical reasons: I like to have clean healthy delicious food at my disposal. But however practical your garden, there should be things that make you shiver with pleasure just to look at them. This ambitious outgrowth of my Blue Moon wisteria made me stop and stare when it bloomed. Thanks to the planet!

 

The Cook’s Treat: Lambs-quarters

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I am the cook in our household, and one of the reasons that I love my kitchen work is that I can have cook’s treats, little experimental dishes that I cook up while working on something else and eat standing up in the kitchen. They are something like impromptu tapas for one.

Recently I was preparing large quantities of tender lambs-quarters tips for the freezer, and began to speculate about how a handful of the tops could be turned into a cook’s treat. I have been very happy with some recent experiments that involved pan-frying hops shoots or scorzonera shoots over medium-high heat with just olive oil and salt, but hadn’t tried it with a leafy green vegetable.

I was delighted with the results. I chose about a dozen small tender tips, maybe three inches long on average, and washed them but didn’t make any special effort to dry them beyond setting them on a towel to drain. ¬†While washing them, I set my little 7 inch skillet over medium high heat to heat up. When the pan was hot, and my greens were washed and drained, I put in a glug of good olive oil. I never measure olive oil, but I would guess that the glug that looks right in my small skillet is about 2 tablespoons. You do need enough oil in the pan for the greens to be able to fry in spots. Wearing an apron and standing back a bit from the stove, I threw the greens into the skillet. They spat and hissed ferociously. After a minute, I sprinkled on a generous pinch of salt and turned them roughly. After another minute I turned the heat down to medium and continued to turn them over every minute or two until the stems were tender enough to eat and many ( but not all) of the leaves were browned and crisp. I turned them out onto a small plate, sprinkled on a bit of Fleur de Sel, and ate them hot in between other kitchen tasks. Yum. The flavor is fuller and maybe slightly more bitter than mild lambs-quarters can usually reach, and the crisped leaves crunch delicately between your teeth, like very thin ice.
They have to have enough space in the pan to crisp up and not steam each other into softness. I think that my large skillet would probably hold enough for three people, but not more. To serve more people, possibly one batch could stay hot in the oven while the next was frying, but I haven’t tried it yet. I do know that from thought to finished cook’s treat took about seven minutes, and that the cook, thus treated, returned to her kitchen tasks very happily.

Addendum: I did try making it for more people, and the hold-in-the-oven idea doesn’t work, I regret to say. The greens rapidly go soft, and taste fine in a toasty way but the delicate crunch is lost. So this is a treat for one or two people. But then, it’s very romantic to have a special treat that simply can’t be shared with a larger group.

Integrating Your Weeds I: lambs-quarters

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I’ve written a lot at various times about the Holy Trinity of edible weeds: lambs-quarters, amaranth, and purslane. In this post I don’t plan to say anything much about harvesting and cooking lambs-quarters, Chenopodium album, ¬†since I’ve said that already and the short version is “harvest them young, collect as little stem as possible, and use them like any other mild-flavored leafy green.” Personally I dislike the texture and mouthfeel of the raw leaves intensely, and only like them cooked, but others see it differently. This is their great season; after midsummer they are very eager to make seeds and are no longer very usable as a leafy green.

The focus today is on how to have them in your garden without losing everything else. They are highly competitive. First, don’t just let a nice big plant go to seed in your garden, unless you have a lot more space than I do, because they get six feet tall and nearly the same across and tend to flop around, and nothing else in that bed will survive. Instead, look over your self-sown lambs-quarters (which you almost surely have,) choose one right at an edge or corner of a garden bed, cut it down to an inch from the ground, and keep hacking at it until late summer, allowing it to make exactly one branch which lies out horizontally over the ground of the bed. This branch is allowed to go to seed, and everything else is clipped off. It helps if the planned plants in that bed are large and robust. All other lambs-quarters in that bed are pulled out by the roots after harvesting. Your mother plant will dry out in early fall, very unattractively I might add, and when you are sure that it’s dropped its seed, you can dig the husk of the mother plant out. This will take a lot of effort and a good shovel.

Next spring, you will see a fine mist of seedlings on that bed. Keep them watered for tenderness, harvest them at 6-8 inches tall, and be sure to pull out the roots. If you are growing other things in that bed, be sure to give everything else a head start. In the bed shown above, I hoed up the ground when the seedlings showed and planted collards and onions. Don’t worry about hoeing the seedlings. There are millions more to come. ¬†Then I let the second wave of lambs-quarters seedlings grow up among my plantings. Today I’ll harvest the lambs-quarters, and mulch around the remaining veggies and let them take over.

No doubt this decreases the total yield of collards and onions, but if you use a rich mulch like stable bedding they will make up for the slower start, and overall you are getting remarkable yields for the space. The returns are especially remarkable if you consider nutrient density, since lambs-quarters are among the most nutritious greens that you can eat.

You should only have to do this once, or maybe once every several years. You will then have millions of potential lambs-quarters in your soil and can grow a crop of them at any point in late spring or early summer that you have a bit of empty space. Just water the ground and stand back.

The marvelous foraging guide by Dr. John Kallas called “Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate” will enable you to identify and cook your bounty.

 

Onion Flowers

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I have written about onions and onion scapes, but what happens when a scape gets past the busy gardener and blooms? Well, then you have onion flowers. Harvested shortly after they open and clipped off the bloomscape with kitchen shears, they taste of onions but light, a bit floral, delicate. They are delicious in salads, and I love them showered over any of the delicious herb-laden southeast Asian dishes. Here, you can see them garnishing Thai-ish grilled salmon. Try them on burgers or steaks, sprinkled lavishly over a dollop of good butter melting on the hot meat. They are a great addition to grilled chicken. Just don’t let them bloom in vain!

This makes onions a true nose-to-tail vegetable, with every part both edible and desirable.

 

Semi-permaculture

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Every now and then I encounter some committed permaculturist who earnestly wishes to educate me about planning guilds (functional plant groups) in my garden. I just don’t think this way. It seems to me that, if you love to grow food, have a fairly high chaos tolerance, and live somwhere long enough,¬†you will naturally and accidentally discover what thrives in groups in your area, as well as what you really like to eat. Take the large pot above, which has been next to my back patio for four years. It is a microcosm, or micro-cosmos, of my interests over the time since it was placed. In it you can spot the gorgeous leaf lettuce Merlot that I’m growing this year, chickweed that I planted three years ago and which is self-seeding nicely, ¬†moringa that I started experimenting with last year (which, incidentally, wintered over in a pot that isn’t watered in the winter and survived a very cold winter,) Shirley poppies from four years ago when this pot was placed, and wild lettuce which seeds itself all over at my house and which I tolerate because I like it in cooked greens. My planned combinations haven’t come out nearly so well. Everything in this pot is edible; yes, even Shirley poppy leaves are fine in cooked greens. But it all happened through planting things, not weeding too assiduously, and seeing what happened. If you have a poor memory and are prone to planting things in spots where you already planted something else and then forgot about it, some further felicitous combinations will occur.

A linden planted for its edible leaves has a bird-sown wax current bush growing in its shade, bearing more heavily than its siblings in full sun. Bladder campion seeds itself into the shady north corner under the linden. Siberian elms, self-sown all over, can be coppiced for free goat feed. A bird-sown mulberry nearby can be coppiced for tender edible green shoots to use in cooked greens. Stinging nettles, struggling in the baking desert sun, root their way into the shade of the elm and mulberry coppices and begin to flourish. Stems of oyster mushrooms, dug into garden beds in the fall, produce a few nice oyster mushrooms in the shade of lettuce the following year. A single lambs-quarters is allowed to seed, and late-spring crops of mild and nutritious greens show up all around your intentional plantings for years. ¬†A Russian olive that grows smack in the middle of a garden bed despite years of cutting it back and cursing it, can be pruned into a support for climbing snow peas. A really poor clump of garlic at the base of a tree, left by the last owner, turns out to be indestructible through baking summers and perfect for green garlic. Scorzonera and wolfberries make some good food out of baking unimproved spots where you can’t get anything else to grow. A local non-edible legume, the desert bird-of-paradise, springs up and offers light shade to the wolfberry, giving it a new lease on life and more tender leaves that you can toss into greens mixtures. ¬†None of this is especially tidy, and the straight-row sort of gardener would never tolerate it. But for those of us who love a bit of natural mess and take our vegetables and our epiphanies where we can find them, it works.

 

Salmon in Springtime

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Here in central New Mexico we are enjoying a cool and unusually wet spring, and the romaine lettuce is still in great shape. Our local Fishhuggers are back at the markets with lovely Alaskan sockeye salmon caught by Kenny, and there is no healthier meal. For some reason I like my warm-weather lunches to lean Southeast Asian, and this one is a bit Thai-ish.
I used romaine, green onions, and cilantro from the garden, a fillet of sockeye salmon, crushed peanuts, and the vaguely Thai dressing below, which I keep jars of in the refrigerator in warm weather. Put generous heaps of sliced romaine on plates, rub the fillet with salt, grill quickly ( on a hot Green Egg grill, about 2 1/2 minutes each side will do it,) let cool a bit while you chop the cilantro and green onions ( green part only,)break up the fillet and remove all skin and put chunks of warm salmon on the lettuce, scatter on a handful of chopped cilantro and green onions, dress generously, and sprinkle crushed peanuts over the top. Delicious and very quick as well as insanely healthy.

Sort-of-Thai dressing:
Large chunk of ginger, about 1″ by 3″, peeled and sliced
7-10 large cloves of garlic
1/4 cup coconut fat
1 tablespoon green curry paste
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 cup water
1 can full-fat coconut milk
Sriracha sauce to taste
Artificial sweetener ( I use liquid stevia,) or sugar, and more fish sauce to taste

Finely chop the ginger and garlic, heat the coconut fat in a saucepan, and stir-fry the garlic and ginger until cooked and fragrant but not browned. Add the green curry paste, stir-fry about another minute, add the fish sauce and water and bring to a boil, add the coconut milk and cook just until it’s all melted and creamy, then remove from heat. Let it cool to lukewarm, taste, and add more fish sauce if indicated. Add some sriracha if you like it hot (I love hot food and use about a tablespoon,) and then add sweetener, if you are ketogenic or low-carb, or sugar if that’s still in your kitchen, slowly, tasting frequently. I like mine on the sweet side, to balance the heat. Let cool all the way and use or keep in the refrigerator for later use.
This makes a perfect lunch to eat outside.
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