Archive for March, 2016

Sweet Spring Onions

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Sometimes it’s possible to gain benefit from distraction. In the spring I usually buy some  plants of the sweet onion variety Candy, because I like them for scallions in midsummer. Last summer one short row of them got away from me and matured, and since I was focused on other things at the time, I never got around to harvesting them. Early this spring they began to sprout in place, and now each of the original bulbs has produced 3-5 large sweet scallions as thick as my thumb. These are lovely as a vegetable, sliced in cross section and stewed in butter over medium-low heat with some salt until done. They are superb brushed with olive oil and grilled over coals until cooked through, taking care to keep the heat low so that they don’t burn, which happens easily. One or two grilled on the stove in a grill pan would make a nice cook’s treat while you’re cooking other things.  They need to be eaten as soon as they’re a good size, before they start to produce a flowerscape. The scapes are edible too, but personally I don’t care for the texture and usually use them to flavor broth.

I plan to harvest all but one scallion from each cluster and leave the remaining ones to mature, picking off the scapes and leaving the bulbs in place over the winter, to see if I can get a similar harvest next spring. A self-perpetuating patch of Candy onions would be a great way to greet spring.

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The Joys of Spring: Goumis

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A few years ago I began a project to grow fruits that offered maximum antioxidants with minimum carbohydrates, in other words fruits very different from the swollen sugar-pops that fill the American grocery store. I had been reading with great interest about Goumi berries because genus Eleagnus thrives in my area with relatively little water. I planted three of them, and over the next two years they got a bit bigger but nothing much happened. Last year, their third year, they grew over 5 feet tall and one produced three tiny berries. Hardly an exciting outcome. But this year they have already earned their place; all three are covered with scads of small discreet blossoms and when the sun hits them, the scent that they throw all over my front yard is indescribable. It has the honeyed spicy sweetness that characterizes Russian olives in bloom, but without the grape Koolaid note. Utterly delicious. They are humming with bees, and I do wonder what Goumi honey would taste like.

The bush seldom tops six feet, and unlike their relatives the Russian olives and autumn olives, they are thornless.  They are nitrogen fixers and tolerate my poor alkaline soil, and are not demanding about water. I soak mine every two or three weeks and ignore them the rest of the time. They are not dangerously invasive like their cousins. I hope that later in the year I’ll be reporting on fruit production and quality. The berries have a high lycopene content and the seeds inside contain a quantity of omega-3 fatty acids.  But even if I had no interest in the fruit, they would be the stars of my early spring yard. Sometimes my message is a simple one: grow this plant, you’ll like it.

Chicken Skin Genius

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When I learn something new at the stove, I get absurdly excited. And I am especially excited about a good way to crisp chicken skin.  I feed my meat birds very carefully with a lot of greens to produce the highest possible level of caratinoids and omega-3 fatty acids, and many of those nutrients are in the skin.  So of course I want to make the skin as enticing as possible. Besides, it is the best tasting part of the chicken.  A simple tip that I learned in the Genius Recipes section on the wonderful Food 52 website involves seasoning chicken, preferably thighs and legs, and frying the chicken slowly skin side down in nothing more than its own fat or a small amount of olive oil.   I have not tried it with white meat, and wings might be too irregular to cook well this way.  In brief, I season drumsticks and thighs with salt and pepper, refrigerate them overnight, and when ready to cook I heat my cast-iron skillet over medium low heat.  I rub the chicken pieces  lightly with olive oil and put them in the skillet skin side down. Then, I do other things and forget about them.  In 15 or 20 minutes, the skin is done to a beautiful deep crispy crunchy brown.  Work a spatula under each piece taking care to keep the skin intact, flip the chicken and continue cooking skin side up until done through.  Simple as that. The skin is quite glorious in its unabashed simplicity.  You do need to be in the kitchen to turn the heat down if necessary  but for the most part you can concentrate on other things.  Serve any reasonable vegetable on the side.  If you want to deglaze the pan with white wine and chicken broth and boil it down and finish with butter to make a pretty wonderful bit of pan juice, offer the juice on the side or set the chicken in a pool of it. Don’t pour it over the skin or  it will lose its crispness. Sometimes it’s fun to pare a meal down to very simple components. Besides, it makes me wish that chickens were all skin.

Nettle Season

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If green garlic is always the first thing that I harvest in spring, nettles are always the second. When I moved to New Mexico I couldn’t find any and couldn’t get seeds to germinate, so I was reduced to calling an herb nursery and begging them to dig up some nettles on their property and sell them to me. Every spring I’m glad that I did. Gather the tender tops with as little stem as possible, wearing leather garden gloves. Don’t handle them without gloves, no matter what you read on the Internet. I always manage to pick up a sting on my wrist just above the glove, but it hasn’t killed me yet. Wash in a big bowl of water, stirring them with a wooden spoon. Drain and dump them into lightly salted boiling water. Boil for two minutes and drain. They are now rendered weaponless: the venom (formic acid) has been denatured by heat and the zillions of fine spines that do such a good job of injecting the venom into your skin are soft. Squeeze the drained greens dry, chop them up to eliminate any stringiness in the stems, and finish cooking them any way you like. They are awfully good just braised in cream with a bit of sautéed green garlic and finished with butter and a little salt. You can click on the “greens” category of this blog for some other ideas. They are a mild-flavored green and can be used any way that you use spinach, although the flavor is a little different; “wilder” is the best way I can describe it. They are ultra-nutritious and worthy of a place on your spring menu. They are even…gulp…worth buying plants of if you don’t have them naturally.

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Colcannon II

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My last post was about a low-carb version of the classic peasant dish colcannon, and I suggested making plenty because there are lots of uses for it. Today I was surfeited with delicacy and wanted a punchier flavor. Easy. I threw a pint of leftover colcannon (intended to serve two) in a skillet with a bit of bacon grease and a chopped canned chipotle chile in adobo, seeds pulled out, a spoonful of the adobo added too. I fried this mixture over medium heat, going for some browning. The vegetables in the colcannon will brown easily because of the milk proteins in the butter and cream that you used when you originally cooked it. When as brown as you like, throw in a handful of grated cheddar, stir another half minute until the cheese softens, and serve with plenty of ground black pepper on top. I needed a very filling meal, so added a quick egg salad with sliced hard-boiled eggs, homemade olive oil mayonnaise and fresh chopped tarragon (just up this week!) on a slice of flaxseed bread. If I had been less hungry, I would just have sliced half an avocado alongside.
Cauliflower and cabbage are both chameleon vegetables and will take on almost any flavor that you care to give them, within reasonable limits. So keep pushing their limits. I’m still debating what to make with the rest of the leftover colcannon.
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Low Carb Colcannon

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A few decades ago when I owned a sheep farm, I grew a lot of potatoes and made a lot of colcannon in the winter. This old Irish dish combines smashed boiled potatoes with milk and cream, and incorporates other vegetables according to your fancy. Onion and cabbage are traditional favorites, herbs and greens are common, and others are possible.

These days I want low-carb vegetable dishes, but I still want my easy accommodating colcannon and I have a ton of green garlic and green onions around, so I started there. I write a lot about green garlic and green onions because they are so easy to grow and have available for earliest spring, so chock-full of allacin and various antioxidants, and so very tasty. If you grow no other vegetable, put some small organic onions and at least a few dozen garlic cloves in among your ornamentals in fall (as long as you don’t use pesticides,) and next spring you will have these sweet and delicious vegetables to work with.

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I started with six big green onions, a dozen stalks of green garlic, a head of cauliflower, half a head of cabbage, and butter and cream.

First, cut the florets off the cauliflower and put them in the steamer for half an hour. They need that much steaming time to be soft and smashable. I use my old couscousierre to steam veggies because I like to look at it, and incidental pleasures are half the fun of cooking.

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Wash the green alliums and trim off any yellowing or dry-looking leaf tips. On a large cutting board, slice the washed and trimmed green onions and green garlic into quarter inch cross-section slices.

imageHeat a large skillet over medium heat, put in about 3 tablespoons of good butter, and sauté the greens over medium heat, adding some salt and stirring frequently, until thoroughly cooked, soft, and sweet. Meanwhile, slice the cabbage into very fine slices, discarding any thick ribby pieces. When the green alliums are cooked, scrape them into a bowl, return the skillet to the heat, add another good-sized knob of butter, and put in the cabbage shreds. Cook them over medium heat with some salt, stirring frequently, until very thoroughly cooked and sweet. This takes a while, and you need to keep an eye on the time and open your steamer when the cauliflower has cooked for 30 minutes.

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When the cabbage is cooked, put in the steamed florets and start smashing them with the back of a big wooden spoon. When thoroughly smashed, add half a cup of heavy cream and the cooked green garlic and taste the mixture for salt, correcting to taste. Cook over low heat for another half hour, stirring occasionally, to let the flavors amalgamate. Stir in a generous amount of freshly ground pepper and serve.

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This is the fun part. Serving possibilities are endless. I pan fried some lardons of mild bacon to top it off and put a small steak on the side. It’s so filling that I didn’t eat more than a bite or two of the steak, so now I have leftover steak to plan another meal around.

Unlike potato colcannon, which can get gummy if reheated, the cauliflower version is even better when left over. You can top it with sautéed greens, or a fried or poached egg, or both. A bit of mild cheese could be grated in or gratineed on top, or this could accompany a roasted chicken. It is a wonderful basis for meals in mixed omnivorous-vegetarian crowds, because the vegetarians will find it satisfying on its own or with an egg and the omnivores can have meat on top or alongside and will probably not eat much meat because it isn’t needed.

I do think it’s wise to respect the essentially sweet and delicate nature of this dish, and keep seasoning simple. If you take your time with the sautéing, and use butter, the cabbage and green alliums develop wonderful depth of flavor. Heavy cream is essential in my opinion, and it has a lovely sweet flavor of its own. I also think a key step is to add some salt during the sautéing process so that it cooks into the vegetables well. Just not too much. This all takes some time, about an hour from bringing the green alliums in from the garden to finished colcannon, so there is no point in making smaller quantities. It will get eaten.

 

 

 

Indolent Pest Management

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There is a semi-organic, thought-intensive mode of pest management called Integrated Pest Management. It has occurred to me lately that I could spearhead an alternative IPM called Indolent Pest Management. It has two phases:

  1. I notice a pest problem.
  2. I wait to see what happens.

The most recent example started last fall, when I noticed a proliferation of large garden snails from who knows where, leaving slime trails on the chard. I read about preparation of escargot out of curiosity but never did anything effective about the snails, because I was busy and there were so many other things to eat.

After a month or so, I started to see these everywhere:

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Snail shells, broken open and empty, appeared all over the place. Further observation revealed that a roadrunner, our local little feathered velociraptor, had taken over my yard and was exploring the mulch and eating all the snails, as well as a few stray mice. With the first warm day of spring he began strutting on my roof, calling for eligible females. I keep trying to photograph him, but roadrunners are wary and fast. Most of my photos of him are just a blur. The ones at the top and bottom of this post, where at least you can sort of see him, are the best I could do.

A sharp-shinned hawk has started nesting nearby and this helps keep the mice and English sparrows down. Yes, he hunts at my bird feeder occasionally. Hawks have to live too.

My much-loved Toka plum tree gets an aphid infestation every year after leafing out, although none of my other plums do. Ladybugs move in and decrease them, and the remaining aphids are certainly unattractive but don’t diminish yield in the slightest and are gone by early June.

Cabbage loopers put a few holes in my collard leaves every year. No issues. I feed those leaves to the chickens and eat the others.

Squash bugs spread viruses that are hard on my zucchini. But I am no worse afflicted than people who spray.

My point is that we are gardeners and urban homesteaders, not commercial farmers. Also, we typically have day jobs and limited time to attend to our crops. So why spend it trying to exterminate things that don’t do that much harm? Wait and see, and if a planting fails, other plantings will succeed.  Before fixing, wait to see if it’s really broken. Meanwhile, eat something else. There’s plenty.

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