Archive for June 6th, 2020

Post 400: Humankind’s Best Friends


We occupy a complex interwoven web with all the species on the planet. But if I had to name the two species that have lived most closely with us and done the most for us, there would be no doubt in my mind: Canis familiaris and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The common dog and the common yeast; we might not recognize ourselves without them.
Dogs first. They have been trotting beside us for somewhere up to 40,000 years. They helped us hunt in the Paleolithic era, and they are comforting us through the current pandemic. If the sad time comes when the last surviving human walks across a nuclear hellscape to the very end of our species, a dog will probably accompany him. They have not been treated as they deserve, as witness shelters full of dogs. But they have helped soften us into humanity. The dog shown above is my yellow lab Lucy, in a picture snapped a few weeks before she died last week at the astounding age of 19. She was a three-year-old shelter dog when she decided firmly that she would be my dog, and was my constant companion for the following sixteen years. She was the most cheerful and loving spirit that I’ve encountered. I didn’t necessarily deserve Lucy, but I tried, and she made me better. Every dog is unique and there will never be another like her, but somewhere there’s a good dog in prison who needs to be sprung out, and before too very long I’ll go find her. I encourage everyone to do what they can for the world’s abandoned dogs. If you can’t have or don’t want a dog, donate to shelters and rescue programs, and if you’re thinking of getting a puppy, please consider an older dog who might not otherwise find a home. We owe them.

Then there’s yeast. Yeast surrounds us and is continually seeking water and a sugar source. I’ve been told that if flour is wetted with water for 18 seconds, yeast from the air has started to reproduce in it at the end of that time. I don’t vouch for this, but I would not put it past the ingenious and resilient Saccharomyces. It’s built to survive. Every time I use my sourdough starter I consider how Saccharomyces has “come to an understanding” with a Lactobacillus species, the latter splitting the starch in the flour and providing it to the yeast, which in turn ferments it and leavens the dough. These symbiotic colonies are very stable and have been used by humans for millennia.  But bread is only the beginning of the uses of S. cerevisiae. All our wildly varied beers, wines, hard ciders, and other alcoholic ferments come from varieties of this one species, and they are as old as recorded history and may precede bread as humankind’s happiest discovery. I was once told that an early Amazon explorer remarked that he had encountered Stone Age tribes that had not made a connection between sex and babies, but never a tribe that hadn’t learned to ferment something into alcohol. I’ve never checked the reference because some stories are too good to fact-check. Let’s just take it as a given that alcohol in moderate quantities is a gift and a boon and has been for a very long time.

My house is seldom without a fermenting bucket of something-or-other gurgling happily through its airlock. I lean toward low-alcohol light wines and hard ciders. This year a series of bizarre late-spring hard freezes destroyed most of my fruit in its infancy, so I’m making a series of “leaf wines” based on an old British recipe for nettle ale. They are a lot of fun to play with and don’t taste vegetal in the way that you might expect. That’s the joy of fermentation.

I’ll give more details in the future, but for now, hug your dog if you’re lucky enough to have one and raise a glass to humankind’s two oldest friends.

Using What You Have VII: Primary and Secondary Consumption of Elm

I’ve become more and more intrigued by culinary uses of tree leaves, since there is nothing more ecologically sound: the soil is never disturbed, carbon is sequestered, soil biota is preserved, and a small tree can produce an awful lot of leaves. The drawback is that there is little information about how to use them or even which ones are safe to use. I’ve written recently about my elm leaf pasta.  Today I experimented with spaetzle, the firm eggy dumplings made in Eastern Europe but highly adaptable anywhere.

Here I will make my usual disclaimer about eating wild foods or foods that you have never eaten before: never trust your safety to a stranger on the Internet. Do your own research, be aware that your tolerance may be very different from mine, and experiment cautiously before you eat a lot if you do decide to eat wild foods. All green leafy foods can be laxative to people who don’t usually eat them. The decision is yours.

I refer in the title to “primary and secondary consumption” because not only do I eat the leaves directly in the spaetzle but the eggs come from my chickens, who eat a lot of elm leaves. So this is double-layered tree-eating.

I couldn’t find my spaetzle maker, so I tried a potato ricer, which I had read would also work. It doesn’t really. Have a spaetzle maker and life will be simpler.

This was a freewheeling experiment and quantities aren’t exact. Basic proportions for spaetzle are a cup of flour, two eggs, a quarter cup of milk, and a half teaspoon of salt whisked together, but this one is different because of the leaves. I started with all the elm leaves that I could squeeze into one hand, about two cups when fluffed up more loosely. They were steamed for seven minutes and cooled.

Then I put one and a quarter cups of flour in the blender, added the leaves, and chopped as finely as possible. This is a bit tedious, with some stopping and stirring required. Then I added half a teaspoon of salt and five egg yolks, and just enough water to make a very thick batter. Run the batter through the spaetzle maker into salted water at a fast simmer, cook until the spaetzle rise to the top, and simmer until done. Take one out and bite it and examine the interior. They should be cooked through when finished, no longer wet and sticky inside. This is usually 2-4 minutes tops. Drain, and spread out on a flexible cutting board to cool. Don’t use wax paper, as I show here, because it turns out they stick to it and it is a bit annoying getting them off again.

At this point you can proceed or refrigerate them for a day until needed. I wanted to try them right away, so I heated up a skillet to a bit above medium and chopped up a bit of celery, two healthy sprigs of marjoram, and two small cloves of garlic. Two tablespoons each of butter and olive oil went in the skillet, the garlic went in to sizzle for a few seconds, and the herbs were added and tossed around for a minute. Then the spaetzle went in. At this point you can either cook them at medium heat until heated through as seen here,

or do as I prefer and keep cooking until the little dumplings have some browned spots, as shown here:

Serve as a landing with something nice on top. My preference is fried eggs with runny yolks and nice crisp brown rims. My husband’s plate is shown at the top of this post, and yes, he really does like that much pepper on his eggs. I can also imagine the assemblage looking even more colorful with some deep red chile drizzled over the green dumplings and eggs.
There is no strong or objectionable flavor in elm leaf spaetzle, and there are certainly far more fiber and fewer carbohydrates than in all-flour spaetzle. My mother’s objection to nearly all my leafy foods is that they are green. Well, leaves are green. Maybe we just need to get used to eating some green food, and given that people love some odd colored things like deep blue potatoes, I don’t see any reason why green food is beneath consideration. Green is the color of growth, so maybe we can come to think of it as “growth food.”

no doubt it goes without saying that if you don’t wish to experiment with wild foods, you can use chard or similar mild greens instead. Steam, squeeze dry, and proceed as above.