Archive for May, 2020

Using What You Have VI: Eating the Siberian Elm


I know a wonderful forager in Flagstaff who mentioned eating Siberian elm leaves, and commented on their mild flavor. I have been meaning for years to look for more uses for the noxious invasive elm, and my goat and chickens eat huge amounts, but I had only found one source alluding to them being edible by people, so I was hesitant. But if Mike says it I believe it, so I was newly inspired to experiment. I could imagine the texture being chewy, as is often the case with tree leaves, so I decided on a context in which the leaves would be chopped very finely. A pasta akin to spinach pasta seemed like a natural experiment.
I was just playing around in the yard, so all measurements given here are inexact. This makes two servings. I gathered a double handful of tree leaves, mostly young Siberian elm tips but also a small fig leaf, a very large grape leaf, and some young mulberry leaves. Fresh pasta only cooks for a minute or two, so I precooked the leaves in the steamer for seven minutes at fairly high heat. Once they were steamed, I turned them out on a cutting board and chopped them roughly with a knife. Then I put a heaping cup of flour in the food processor, added the leaves, and ran the machine until the leaves were chopped as finely as possible. Then I added egg yolks one at a time until the dough formed. For me, this took five yolks. It might be more or less depending on your ambient humidity and your flour. At this point I had a smooth, slightly sticky lump of dough.

I set the dough aside for half an hour to rest, and then set out a cutting board generously sprinkled with flour. I used my Kitchenaid pasta roller to roll the dough, but you could use a hand-crank roller or roll it by hand. Use as much flour as you need to keep it rolling smoothly. I have a metal clothes-drying rack that I use to hang the sheets of pasta as I work with them. This is a good way to keep them organized. Also, they look pretty when sunlight from the window glows through them. These transient pleasures are part of home cooking.


I rolled up the sheets, dusting with flour again, and cut them into linguine by hand because I like the uneven edges that result from hand-cutting. They do have to be delicately untangled after cutting.

Once the pasta is cut, dinner is simple. Heat up a pot of salted water to boiling, and while it’s heating, set out 2 tablespoons  of good grassfed butter and grate a handful of top-quality Parmesan. Have a strainer ready in your sink, and set out two pasta bowls. Have your pepper grinder ready; I have a separate grinder for white peppercorns for more delicate dishes like this one. Put the noodles in the boiling water, keep the heat high, and start testing by biting a fished-out strand as soon as the pot returns to a full boil. Mine was done in about one and a half minutes of boiling. Scoop out about half a cup of water for a “pasta roux” and dump the noodles into the strainer. While they drain, add the butter to the pot, grate about ten turns of the pepper mill over the butter, and return the hot noodles to the pot. This all has to happen fairly quickly, before the noodles stick together. Add most of the grated cheese, toss with two wooden spoons, and add only enough of the pasta water to make the noodles move freely when tossed. Serve into the waiting bowls and top with a bit more cheese.

Here’s how the noodles look before the additional cheese is added. They’re good this way too, but I do like the grainy texture of unmelted Parmesan on top.

We found this absolutely delicious, but then it’s hard to go wrong when you’re using really high-quality Parmesan. It makes everything taste good, so I make no special claims for my leaf pasta. I can say that there is no strong or objectionable flavor of any kind and the texture is light and lovely. It makes use of one of the most Godawful weed trees imaginable, and makes it taste good, and I am satisfied with that. Beyond question, it adds additional fiber to the pasta. What it adds beyond that is unclear, since there is no nutritional analysis of Siberian elm leaves that I can locate. Be satisfied with the fact that you are eating your invasives and they taste good.
This would also be a delicious pasta with some really good olive oil and pinenuts, and it would be excellent for lasagna. I’m also going to try adding some fresh herbs at the processing stage so that their flavor is actually incorporated within the pasta; I think marjoram would be particularly good in this context. Some cream would be great in the sauce.

Using What You Have V: More About Garlic Scapes

I’ve posted before about garlic scapes, and it occurred to me this spring that I had a little more to say. I see garlic scapes being sold at markets that are large spirals with several loops, and while these are pretty to look at and play with, I personally don’t think of them as edible. Good scapes are young, just a foot or so longer than the garlic plant below,  and form 3/4 of a circle or less, as you see above. Snap them off rather than cutting; they should snap like a bean when bent double. Then, snap off the upper blossom sheath, which is quite tough. The stem under it is tough too. The point where an actual snap happens might be 4-5” below the blossom swelling, meaning that of a foot-long scape, you might end up with 7” of good edible portion.

Next, decide how you’re going to cook it and how long the sections should be. I decided to illustrate the most difficult case to deal with: sections a bit over an inch long for a stir-fry. The reason this is difficult is that if you wanted to chop 1/4” sections the toughness of the outer skin would be irrelevant, but for these longer sections, tough skin has to be dealt with or unpleasant threads will stick between your teeth. Fortunately the solution is pretty quick and very easy. Snap the scapes into sections about 1.25” long, and wherever skin makes itself known, peel it off.

When you see “scape bark” like this, peel it off the sections on each side of the break.  If a long tough piece peels off, I use my thumbnail to start peeling the rest of the outer skin on that scape. It sounds tedious but doesn’t really take that long and produces a much nicer finished result.

In less than 15 minutes you have the situation shown above, where some scapes are completely peeled and the ones with more tender skin are still completely green. They’re ready for the wok now. Or cook them any other way you choose, but I find the fierce heat of the wok especially useful at tenderizing any remaining tough skin.

Rather than give a recipe for fried rice, I decided to link to the excellent and infinitely variable Pork Fried Rice recipe on The Woks of Life. This is a terrific blog that I’d like my readers to know about. I will only add that I often make meatless versions and that I think 2-3 teaspoons of oyster sauce is an essential addition to the “sauce” that’s added to the rice as it cooks. The garlic scapes got a couple of minutes in the hot wok by themselves with just oil and soy sauce, then another minute with some finely sliced tender greens from yesterday’s weed post, before the final combining took place, and a good drizzle of Asian sesame oil was added just before serving.

I’ve been on a carbfest since the shutdown, but here I tried a half-and-half mixture of leftover rice and leftover cauliflower rice. That wasn’t ideal, in my opinion, and I’ll probably go back to real rice.

 

Using What You Have IV: Your Friendly Local Weeds


I have written a lot about foraging at various times in the past, but it occurs to me that there was never a better time to bring it up again. And if you are not willing to commit the time to learning foraging in general, then learn two weeds: amaranth and lambs quarters. These two are worldwide and ubiquitous, mild-flavored and easy to use, and in warm weather they are nearly always somewhere nearby.
The botanical  names are Chenopodium berlandieri for lambsquarters and Amaranthus (various species) for amaranth. You can see them above coming up in a pot near my porch, lambsquarters toward the top of the photo and amaranth further down, and they come up everywhere that I water a piece of soil. They both get huge but are best when young and tender, and both are available from May to August. Both have mild flavor and are a reasonable substitute for spinach. Both are nutritional powerhouses. And both need to be carefully identified if you aren’t familiar with them, as does any unfamiliar food.

This is the book I recommend as your first foraging book, because the plants are widely available, Dr. Kallas is an acknowledged authority, and the information on identification is impeccable. Get your IDs down cold. Not because there are any poisonous look-alikes, but because it’s the right way to approach foraging. The book also contains excellent information on kitchen preparation and cooking.

Now that you know exactly what plants you are dealing with, how do you want to prepare them? The possibilities draw from all the cuisines of the world. I love greens as a simple stirfry with some ginger and oyster sauce to be eaten with rice or by itself, and I make gallons of the Greek mixture called Horta, flavored with garlic, herbs,  and black olives, to keep in the refrigerator or freezer and eat by itself on a piece of sourdough bread or baked into a quiche or hortapita, or any other way. Horta also makes a great base to land some fried or hard boiled eggs on, and is a good side dish for nearly anything. Smoked pork has a magical affinity with greens, and some ham trimmings or meat pulled from a leftover smoked rib is a great addition to greens sautéed with onion and garlic.  Rick Bayless has published some tasty variations on a theme of greens tacos (here’s just one) and he uses chard or spinach but using your own weeds is an easy substitution. Combinations of greens and beans or chickpeas are classic. Pile seasoned horta into salted zucchini shells with some feta or Parmesan and a topping of pine nuts and bake until done, serving with or without seasoned tomato sauce. Or click the “greens” heading in the sidebar of this blog for more greens talk and recipes.



When I gather a bunch of greens I try to wash them immediately and, if possible, blanch them briefly or stir-fry in neutral oil just until wilted down, so that they use minimal refrigerator space and are ready to use in seconds when a quick meal is needed.
Be aware that both these plants can get enormous, up to ten feet in good soil, so grab them young if you want to grow anything else in that space.

Living in Interesting Times: Books Worth Reading


Recently I was thinking admiringly about how well Taiwan has handled the pandemic, and realized that I’m fascinated by this plucky island, less than a hundred miles off the shore of an overbearing authoritarian nation, which has nonetheless held its own as a democracy. I’ve often heard of it as a foodie destination, but was unfamiliar with its cuisine except to think it was “more or less Chinese.” I decided it was time to learn more. I grew up with a weekly trip to the library as my treat, but I got out of the library habit until last year, when I calculated what I was spending on books. I went back to my local library, and made the delightful discovery that my membership included e-books via Hoopla. Now, with the importance of minimizing social contact clear to all thinking people,  this is more important than ever.

So even now, with my local libraries and bookstores closed up tight, I can pull books out of the aether, which is where I found this wonderful cookbook by Cathy Erway. It has short but excellent essays about various aspects of Taiwanese culture, the recipes are all clearly written and workable and sound wonderful, and the photography by Pete Lee is a treat. The chapter on street food is especially enticing, and the recipe for oyster omelettes makes my mouth water just to think about it. The Chilled Noodles with Chicken and Sesame Sauce are delicious, probably my favorite variation of this well-loved dish.
I’ll definitely be buying the Kindle edition of this book, because I know now that I want it in my permanent collection. The generosity of my local library system let me thoroughly review the book before I bought it so that I didn’t spend money on something I wouldn’t really use. Get this book. If you like Asian cooking, you’ll like it.
If you want just one recipe to get started on, here’s a version of oyster omelettes very much like the one in the book. But be warned, you will still want the book for the 90+ other Taiwanese recipes.

https://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/taiwanese-oyster-omelet

Taiwanese Oyster Omelet