Archive for April, 2017

Milkweed, For People and Others


People who live in wetter climates would be surprised, and probably amused, to learn what efforts I’ve made to have common weeds like nettles, burdock, chickweed, and milkweed grow on my property. Common milkweed, Asclepius syraica, has been especially difficult because it really does like moist soil and doesn’t tolerate “dry feet” or alkalinity gracefully.  It took a couple of tries before I got any to germinate, and now I finally have a few plants, which have to be watered and tended and fussed over as if they were orchids until they get stronger. I had to borrow photos because my own milkweed is still a bit on the spindly side.

One might well wonder why I bother. One reason is that I like to eat milkweed, especially the young seed pods, but the shoots and buds are just fine too. It’s a true nose-to-tail vegetable. Another is that I am transitioning from annual veggies to perennial wherever possible, and A. syraica is a good useful perennial that doesn’t require soil disturbance to grow. A third reason is that the flowers are fairly ornamental and send out a cloud of perfume reminiscent of flowery vanilla.

A fourth reason can be seen on this map:

Monarch migration

Notice how the sightings in New Mexico just peter out, while the ones in wetter areas east and west continue northward. Compare this to the maps on the same site for larvae and for milkweed. The migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico to the northern US is a migration of generations. The butterfly that arrives in Montana may be great-great-grandchild to the butterfly that flew north from Michoacon. All along the way they need breeding habitat, and their larvae feed on A. syraica and a couple of other closely related milkweed species. The leg of the journey through desert northern Mexico and southern New Mexico is a barren one, and a few milkweed oases along the way might help more monarchs make it to Colorado and further north. I can’t guarantee it, of course, but it seems worth a try. Adult monarchs will sip nectar from many flower species, but the fate of the larvae is tied to milkweed supply.

You can read more about monarch conservation here:

https://monarchconservation.org

Since my plants are still too young to pick for eating, I won’t be writing about milkweed in the kitchen until next year, but you can obtain the two wonderful field guides by Samuel Thayer, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, and be prepared to forage and cook any common wild edible. I never tire of recommending Thayer’s books, which contain great detail about identification and culinary use at various stages.

A Quickie on Pollination

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There can’t be anybody left who doesn’t know about our pollinator crisis. I was saddened recently when an experienced beekeeper who is profoundly attentive to her bees told me that she lost a third of her hives over the last year. It can’t be overstated that our friend over millennia, Apis mellifera, is in deep trouble and therefore so are we.

This makes our remaining pollinators even more important. Everyone recognizes bumblebees and knows that they are active pollinators,  and in my area most people recognize the coal black stylish looking carpenter bee.  Unfortunately, they recognize it because they think it is a danger to their houses and tend to reach for spray the minute they see it.  Carpenter bees are active pollinators and adapted to our area and spraying them is a really, really bad idea under most circumstances, but when I did a search on them to find a photograph, I was horrified to find that almost all  the hits that I found were about exterminating them and advised application of “residual pesticides,” i.e. pesticides that leave residues which kill for a long time after they are sprayed.  This is sick stuff, in my view, especially since it kills large numbers of other species.  On the other hand, I own a house with exposed wood beams and don’t want my house bored into any more than anybody else does.  I have repeatedly noticed that the carpenter bees like cottonwood, and have decided to keep a pile of cottonwood logs and branches where the bees can burrow around at peace.  I read that they also will not attack painted wood. Clearly, I will be watching my beams closely for signs of invasion, and if I see carpenter bee activity I will consult an entomologist (not an exterminator, since they have a business interest in selling me their poisonous services) about what to do. But so far that hasn’t happened. And I guess that’s my real point: the mere sight of something that might potentially be harmful but that is minding its own business at the moment is not a reason to get reactive and act harmfully. The mindset of permaculture and homesteading is to avoid making a hazard out of something that isn’t.  This point is rather neatly illustrated below:

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Help our bees. All of them.

Pleasures of the Grill: Oyster (and other) Mushrooms

A family member was admiring a picture of my oyster mushrooms, up to 8″ across, and asked if they were too big to eat. Not if you like to grill. I love a plateful of giant oyster mushrooms, as long as they were still fresh and moist and not dried out when picked. The big ones have leathery bases and need to have the stem (technically a stipe) trimmed off to the extent that a little semi-circle is taken out of the base.

Now the toughest part is gone. Clean the rest and rub it on both sides with basic steak marinade. Make sure that the marinade gets up in the gills, since this helps keep them moist while cooking. Sprinkle the gill side with a good smoked salt.

Heat the grill to about 300 degrees and sear nicely on the upper side. Turn and cook on the gill side until done, turning them 90 degrees midway if you want nice crosshatched sear marks. Meanwhile, preheat the broiler. Put the caps on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, gill side down. Sprinkle lavishly with grated Parmesan, making sure to sprinkle the areas of bare parchment paper to make the lacy garnish. Broil, turning the pan as necessary, until the cheese is just beginning to brown. Eat.

The argument could be made that there’s no point in fussing with crosshatched grill marks since they’re on the bottom and don’t show. This is a fair point, but in good spring weather it’s a pleasure to fuss a bit at the grill.

This is a good meal to share with vegetarians if you don’t use any fish sauce in the marinade. In my opinion the final cheese crusting adds a lot to the flavor and so it isn’t ideal for vegans, but try it if you feel so inclined. If you don’t have oyster mushrooms try portobellos, which come alive with some seasoning. If you find really big meaty fresh shiitakes, they are ideal for grilling whole. If you’re lucky enough to find some porcinis  in the woods or market in the fall, they are superb sliced thickly and grilled.

Backyard Mushrooms

For years I moaned and carried on about my inability to grow mushrooms as an integrated part of my urban homestead, and now I can’t stop them. All winter I grew oyster mushrooms in the garage on a substrate of recycled paper, and last month I put the theoretically depleted basket of substrate outside in the shade with the thought that when I got around to it, I would break up the broken-down paper and incorporate it into my mulch. Instead, the basket was within range of a sprinkler that I was using every other day to help some new plants get started, and produced another three pounds of mushrooms. So this might not  exactly be the Pacific Northwest around here, but the adaptable oyster didn’t care.

So my point is, as the Gangsta Gardener says, just plant shit. Plant what you would like to eat and don’t give up. Plants and fungi are resilient survivors and may astonish you at some point, even after initial disheartening failures.

The role of fungi in a healthy ecosystem is far-reaching and worth reading about. They are valuable beyond measure whether you can directly eat them or not. But my greed and gluttony makes me most interested in the edibles. Pleurotis ostreatus, the common oyster mushroom,  is vigorous and highly adaptable and also delicious, which works out well for my purposes. But I am experimenting with some other types. In an area of deep straw and mulch I put spawn of the wine cap mushroom, Stropharia rugosa-annulata, and it seems to be sending mycelia out through the straw. In August I’ll find out if it will fruit for me.

The mycelium above may grow into the mushrooms below:

DCF 1.0

Every year I make a new bed by putting down layers of cardboard and nontoxic paper recyclables and piling up a year’s worth of goat bedding on top. This is a mixture of goat manure and the alfalfa that she eats, and is as hot a compost material as you will find, so I do this in late fall or early winter, wet it down thoroughly, and let it compost in place over the winter. In spring, I start planting into it.  Generally, the first year I use hearty healthy unstoppable plants, such as mustard for greens and summer squash. They always flourish, and by the second year of the compost is finely broken down and will grow pretty much anything. This year I planted spawn of the almond agaricus mushroom, a compost-loving mushroom, into a first-year bed and will see what happens. But I was interested to note that a small shelf of oyster mushrooms poked out the side a couple of weeks ago. The oyster mushroom is not “supposed” to tolerate full sun or hot compost. To which I can only say, tell that to the oyster mushroom.

If you’re interested in learning more about offbeat ways of growing mushrooms, Mycelial Mayhem is a delightful romp through the casual side of mushroom growing. Mycelium Running is a classic about the role of fungi in ecology.

Eating from the Shade

I wrote yesterday about how I finally have some shade on my property and a few of the things I’m growing there. I am trying hostas, British blackcurrants,  Cornus mas, Good King Henry, cow parsnip, milkweed, oyster mushrooms, and a number of other edibles  that can’t withstand full desert sun. I have planted fair-sized patches of hostas, but the oldest of them are only a year old, so when the tightly furled and appetizing-looking “hostons” appeared above ground this spring, I reluctantly decided that the plants were too young to harvest and left them strictly alone. Fortunately my friend Luke at Mortaltree blog is not so limited,  and he has kindly given me permission to re-blog his post on hostas and Solomon’s seal in the permaculture kitchen. I can’t resist pointing out that these very ornamental species are just about perfect for front yard gardening and suburban gardening generally.

Food from shade: solomon’s seal and hosta shoots.

Urban Homestead Trees: Black Locust

When I moved to my current property eight years ago, the house sat on half an acre of adobe clay, punctuated here and there with construction rubble and overgrown with tumbleweeds. There was one pitiful trashy elm about 20 feet high, and nothing else. After putting a fence around the perimeter, my next project was to put in some trees.

Mostly I chose fruit trees, along with one almond tree, but I left one back corner for a black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, which may be my favorite tree. It is fiercely thorny, toxic except for the blossoms, suckers badly, and tends to shed limbs disconcertingly and hazardously as it gets older. But for a week in April it is glorious beyond belief, covered with white flowers, casting the scent of lilies for hundreds of feet around, and so filled with bees that the entire tree hums. I hope never to be without a black locust again.

It also fixes nitrogen, which may benefit my soil, but its main advantage  the rest of the growing season is that it casts perfect lacy shade for growing plants that can’t tolerate the desert sun. Now that I have some light shade to work with, I’m finally able to grow milkweed and oca and groundnuts (apios) and cow parsnip and a number of other plants that used to shrivel and die as soon as the first hot days hit. I have never had any luck growing mushrooms outdoors here, but I’m trying again in the shade of the black locust, and the results are wonderful.

The blossoms of black locust are nice on salads, and can be battered and fried, but deep frying is one kind of cooking that I don’t go in for, so I don’t know much about it. The rest of the plant is toxic. My goat got out once and ate some without apparent harm, but that may have been luck. So try to site it away from livestock and in an area where a falling limb as it ages won’t be a disaster.

 

A Hundred Kinds of Chimichurri

I love chimichurri, the ground herb table sauce of Argentina, but I am by no means faithful to the Argentinian version. If you have an active garden, spring offers the first of infinite variations of chimichurri to accent any grilled meat or poultry. These savory herbal sauces also dress up baked and roasted foods, and are a great way to perk up hard-boiled or fried eggs. People who don’t have to stay low-carb may like them drizzled on bread or rice. Vegetarians will like chimichurri on roasted vegetables, and for that matter ardent carnivores would love it on roasted carrots, broccoli, and other meaty veggies. I can imagine it freshening and enlivening roasted or grilled oyster mushrooms.

The basic necessary ingredients are olive oil, garlic, an acid, salt, herbs, and embellishments. Variables are the herbs, the texture, and the embellishments and degree of heat, if any.

So here’s a menu for infinite improvisation:

Oil: I say very good olive oil is a necessity. If you choose to fool around with other oils, feel free. Plan on between a half cup and one cup.

Garlic: green in spring, mature cloves later on. 2-3 large stalks of green garlic or 3-4 cloves of mature garlic.

Acid: vinegar is traditional but lemon juice is delicious with the more delicate spring versions. Consider wine vinegar or sherry vinegar.  Plan on about 2 tablespoons and have extra available to add if needed. Please, don’t use sweet caramelized ersatz “balsamic” vinegars. Yech.

Salt: “Plenty” is the important concept here. Some chimichurris that seem like failures come alive when enough salty element is added. Remember, this is a seasoning sauce, not a main dish.Your salt element may be sea salt, but a good dab of anchovy paste or a glut of the salty-lemony fermented liquid from preserved lemons may attract you.

Herbs: parsley is traditional and great, but don’t feel bound. Cilantro is a great alternative for the “bulk” herb, of which you’ll need a bunch (from the store) or a large handful (from the garden.) Oregano, sweet marjoram, summer savory, thyme, and lemon thyme are great options for the subsidiary herb, of which a small chopped handful (combined if using multiple herbs) is plenty. Combos are potentially wonderful. I don’t recommend tarragon for this sauce, but feel free to prove me wrong, and I think rosemary should be limited to a chopped teaspoon or two if used at all. Some mint is a possibility if used judiciously. Sage is difficult to use and, in my view, not a good possibility.But suit yourself, as long as you are pursuing a coherent taste-vision. Wander your garden, be seducible, and work it out later.

Embellishments: Heat is an important possibility. Hot sauce, harissa, and ground dried chiles can all work wonders, and fresh chopped jalapeños (seeded or not per your preference for fire) can do real magic. Anchovy fillets mashed can add a savor and tang that are the making of rich meats like roasted  lamb or goat. Preserved lemon peel, finely chopped, is highly nontraditional but extraordinary in the right circumstances. A pinch  of toasted cumin seeds, finely ground, can give an earthy, sweaty, quintessentially masculine note that makes a simple grilled steak or chop memorable.

Texture: can be anywhere from medium-fine grind to as coarse as a chopped salad. It all depends on your mood and your main dish.

Procedure:

Chop your garlic coarsely or slice finely crosswise if using green garlic and put in a large mortar or small food processor; I invariably use my little stoveside Mini-prep. Chop or pound to desired degree. Add herbs, salt,  and embellishments and process only until you like the texture. Add the acid and salt, process briefly, and work in the oil. Now taste, and think. If you are sure it didn’t work, think about how to rebalance and save it. Sorry to harp, but insufficient salty element is a common fault. Increase the salt, anchovy paste, or preserved lemon juice, or add a bit of the latter two if you didn’t use them before. If overly salty or acid, add more oil to smooth it out.  If bland, add a little more acid. If just not that interesting, consider stirring in more chopped herb or some heat.

This sauce can be refrigerated overnight and may be even better the next day, although cilantro-based versions tend to lose freshness and pizazz and are best consumed on sight.