Archive for April, 2021

Passing pleasures: Hops shoots

I decided to re-up this post on hops shoots without change because this is their brief season and because I still think that this is the best way to cook them.

Many years ago I planted hops vines along my fences, planning to use the flowers for brewing. Not long afterwards, I gave up beer for weighty reasons, but in my difficult climate I’m not likely to get rid of plants that grow lustily with no attention. There was also the delightful bonus of hops shoots every spring. Gather the young shoots by snapping them off at the point where they snap easily. This is usually about the terminal 6-7 inches of the vine.

When it comes to cooking them, I’m very opinionated. After trying other ways, I’m convinced that this way suits their rich-bitter flavor best. Rinse the bundle of shoots and cut them in cross section, 1.5-2 inches long. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. You don’t want to crowd the pan too much. A 12” skillet is right for one large bundle of shoots.  When the pan is hot through, add a glug of good olive oil, swirl it around, and add the shoots. Toss them around, sprinkling them with a good pinch of salt. Toss the shoots every couple of minutes.

Here’s the part that many find difficult. When they look like this, keep going. Taste them at this stage and, if you like them you can stop here, but I think that you haven’t yet tasted hops shoots at their best. Instead add a pat of butter, at least a tablespoon, and keep cooking.The butter will brown a bit and is important to the flavor.

This stage, in my opinion, is their point of perfection. They have shrunk considerably. The stems are browned in spots and many of the little leaves are brown and crisp. Taste for salt and serve. I find them delicious. They are especially good alongside ham or bacon, and I like them with fried eggs for lunch.

Hops plants are known to contain an estrogenic compound and chalcones. The latter are an interesting group of chemicals with anti-tumor properties, and you can read more about them here. What this means in practice is anybody’s guess, and my own opinion is that it means very little, since the shoots are only in season for about 3 weeks and no one person will eat enough of them to make much difference one way or another. They are a springtime gift of the earth, thrown up exuberantly in great quantities with no effort on the gardener’s part except providing them with something to climb on, and I cherish them as such.

If you plan to grow them, remember that hops are intent on world domination and need a sturdy support. Also, they spread and come up in unexpected places. This is fine with me, since I keep a very untidy yard anyway, but if you like things to stay neatly in their assigned places, the bold independent nature of hops may not be to your taste.

Glorious Greens, with Notes on Alfalfa

I once read that people who regularly ate leafy greens other than lettuce were, on average, 11 years slower to develop cognitive problems than their non-greens eating peers. This would be easy to check out in scientific literature, but I never have, for this simple reason: I prefer to believe that it’s true and don’t want to discover that it isn’t. I love greens and take it on faith that they’re a wonder-food, and what I do know for a fact is that some of the longest-lived and healthiest peoples in the world eat a lot of them. So chow down.

Most of my spring harvest comes from perennial plants. I will specifically mention scorzonera, shown above, because it is easy to start from seed, long-lived, drought resistant, the leaves are mild and acceptable to almost everyone, and the young flower stalks are another delicious food. I never see any mention of it in books about permaculture  and I will never understand that, because it is one of the most easy and useful things that I grow. In seed catalogs it is sold as a root vegetable, but to my palate the roots are pretty uninteresting and I stick to the above-ground parts.

Nettles, dock, dandelions, and others are well known perennial sources of nutritious greens in the spring. But today I want to say something about a plant that is seldom thought of as a food plant for people: alfalfa. In the picture at the top of this post, you see a huge clump of it about 18 inches across. It’s a tough drought resistant plant that is good for feeding animals,fixes nitrogen and improves soil, makes wonderful bee fodder, and grows easily from seed, so I have a lot of it around my yard. I have sometimes thrown tender tips in stirfries or put a few of them in a smoothie, but I haven’t really explored alfalfa as a human food. There are varying reports about whether it can cause any problems. My assessment after a lot of reading is that eating the seeds is a bad idea, and sprouts can be problematic, but for healthy people eating some of the greens is probably not an issue. Do your own research, and don’t trust your safety to a stranger on the Internet, ever. I don’t write about what is safe for you personally to eat, just about what I have eaten.

I wrote in a recent post about my experiments with leaf ales, and we enjoyed them so much that we regretted running out. Then it occurred to me that some of them had been made from kale, and clearly they could be made from any leafy greens that don’t have too strong a flavor (and even some that do, thanks to the magic of fermentation.) And here I am with large amounts of alfalfa, so I am experimenting with alfalfa ale. To make a 2 gallon batch I proceeded as described in the leaf ale post, using a generous gallon of loosely packed  alfalfa shoots about 6” long and 2.5 gallons of water to make the brew, and I had been given a large bag of oranges that had minor bad spots, so I used the juice from them as the acidic element. The general method was the same as in that post. It’s still in primary fermentation so I don’t have a report yet, but can say that even at the initial stage it had no strong or objectionable flavor. The orange juice wasn’t very acidic, and I had to add a tad of malic acid. I used plain table sugar as the sweetener, aiming for a finished alcohol content of 3.5-4%, meaning one pound of sugar per gallon of water. I didn’t add any flavoring to the initial cooked brew, and am going to try “dry-hopping” it in secondary fermentation with bronze fennel or a little rosemary. I’ll post results several weeks from now, but wanted to throw this idea out there to get people thinking about new ways to use spring’s abundance. If you don’t want to fool with alfalfa, what do you have a lot of in your garden? Is there some unexpected way to use it?


Early Spring: Collards

My yard is full of perennial greens ready to harvest, but the first greens I harvest every year are last year’s collards. Kale may be a good winter green in snowier areas, but in my nearly snowless windy desert, kale has desiccated to death by mid-December. My winter stalwart is collards, and I’ve never had a year in which they didn’t live through winter and produce a good crop. I plant in summer, harvest the majority of the leaves in late summer and fall for chicken greens but don’t remove the topmost leaves or the growing crown, and leave the stalks in place. By late February each stalk is crowned with a cluster of leaves like a loose cabbage. The leaves are thick, crisp, meaty, and sweet. Nothing tastes quite as good as late-winter collards. I often cut the leaves in strips and sauté them with green garlic, which appears around the same time, and a little salt. I seldom get any fancier than grating a little top-quality Parmesan on top. At this point in the year I haven’t had fresh greens for a couple of months, and gorging on them in their simplest form tastes best. If I have leftovers I toss them with homemade egg noodles, good olive oil and Parm, and a generous quantity of freshly ground black pepper.

In my area, by April aphids have moved in, so I make sure to eat them up while the nights are freezing. Any that I don’t eat go to ecstatic hens.