Archive for the ‘Books worth reading’ Category

Fermentation V: Water Kefir

I am experimenting  with kombucha and its culinary uses, but for daily drinking I prefer water kefir. It’s a fermented drink with a mildly yeasty tangy flavor and none of the vinegary overtones of kombucha. It can be flavored in a lot of ways, and it’s quick and fun to make.

It’s produced by a SCOBY, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, but rather than form a solid mat the kefir SCOBY forms rounded globules called “grains.” I had trouble getting started because I kept buying dehydrated grains that never came to life. Finally I bought fresh grains from Florida Sun Kefir and they got off to a flying start. The substrate is water with 1/4 cup of sugar per quart of water dissolved in it. I use a mixture of white and coconut sugar, and brew about two quarts at a time. Pour the water mixture over the grains, screw the lid on loosely or cover with a dish towel tied on tightly, and let it sit at room temperature for 36-48 hours. The grains are in motion during fermentation, rising through the fluid, discharging their cargo of carbon dioxide into the air, and sinking slowly back to the bottom of the jar. They will slow down as the sugar is exhausted. I tell when it’s ready by tasting. When the sugar is fermented totally and none is detectable to taste, it’s done.  I pour off most of the fluid in the jar through a mesh strainer and refrigerate until I want to drink it. If you want yours a bit sweet, stop sooner, but I prefer to sweeten artificially before drinking. Leave the grains in enough finished kefir to cover them, add more sugar water, and the grains are off and running again.  I then add flavoring and some artificial sweetener, carbonate in my nifty Drinkmate, and enjoy. My favorite flavorings are vanilla or a little good root beer extract or a bit of grated ginger juice. There are all sorts of possibilities including adding fruit juice.`

I find the Drinkmate to be the easiest and most exact method of carbonation. I have found the “natural” method to produce erratic and undependable results, but if you want to try it, try out these directions: http://www.resetyourweightbasics.com/healthy-kefir-soda/.

I can’t explain this, but water kefir really does seem to decrease appetite. I don’t vouch for this effect because I do not find any scientific literature on it except the one animal-model reference below,  but try it for yourself and see what you think.

Your grains will multiply steadily and always need food. If you want to store them for awhile, put the jar in the refrigerator immediately after adding fresh sugar water and they will keep about two weeks. For longer storage, drain them every two weeks and add fresh sugar water. You’ll soon have plenty of grains to give to friends.  Internet sources tell you to add dried fruit and eggshells for minerals, but I have never done that and my grains multiply  just fine. It might be that the coconut sugar I use provides the grains with any minerals that they need. My grains are tan rather than white after several generations in coconut sugar.

In the picture below, what looks like a film on the surface is actually a haze of tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide bursting.

One caveat: I can’t find reliable data on this but judging from its effect on me I think that my homebrew kefir has substantially more alcohol that most SCOBY-brewed products, maybe as much as 2-3%. This might not sound like much, but you don’t want to work or drive on the amount of alcohol in a standard 12oz glass. I keep this for evening enjoyment. But I may be incorrect about this,or brewing conditions may affect the ethanol content. Here’s a marvelously nerdy article analyzing the components of water kefir: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3993195/pdf/zam2564.pdf

I can’t stop talking about the marvelous Noma Guide to Fermentation. It doesn’t address water kefir specifically, but I’m curious about the possibilities of cooked-down kefir essence used in the way that the Noma people use kombucha essence. It might also be possible to grow out water kefir grains in other fluids such as juices. After making a few batches of standard water kefir, you will have plenty of grains with which to experiment.

Many internet sources that discuss water kefir give references for its health benefits. However, I spent a cold gray afternoon indoors looking up those references and found that, as I had suspected, nearly all of them actually refer to milk kefir. I don’t find a lot of data on whether water kefir contains the same microorganisms as the milk product, and certainly its nutrient content is different. Here are a few references on water kefir specifically.

Inhibition of metastasis of breast cancer cells in vitro and in vivo in a mouse model:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27230756

Isolation of a novel bifidabacterium strain with probiotic potential from water kefir:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26739269

Analysis of organisms from water kefir, showing that its biotic complexity is higher than previously realized: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23289707

Evaluation of Lactobacilli strains found in water kefir for probiotic potential:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30319846

Anti-obesity effects in an animal model of water-soluble polysaccharides found in the matrix of kefir grains:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29084388

This last one is particularly interesting because the mice given kefir matrix exopolysaccharides showed anti-obesity effects on an excessive diet and also showed higher levels of Akkermansia bacteria in their feces. Other data (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3670398/ ) indicates that the presence of Akkermansia species in both rats and humans inversely correlates with obesity, probably via interactions with the gut epithelium. Please don’t try to make too much of this: the science of the biome is in its infancy and we know very little about how to impact it for specific effects. So I can only say that water kefir won’t hurt you and may have some beneficial effect.

 

 

Fermentation IV: The Wine at Your Table.

For the previous decades of my adulthood I had little or no interest in winemaking because I’m fond of good red wines and suspected that it would cost plenty to make wine at home and not produce a great result because I don’t have the right facilities for aging. But over the last year I’ve started fermenting lower-alcohol wines, meads, and cyzers meant to be consumed within their first year. They are not made to be fussed over but to be quaffed casually and with immediate pleasure. They are made as casually as they are consumed, without all the tedious sterilization, measuring, and worrying that so often saps the fun out of home brewing.

My bible for fermenting for fun is the delightful Make Mead Like a Viking, by Jerome Zimmerman. It’s a fun read and offers a few explicit recipes and lots of general information and assurance that your distant ancestors did this without making a big deal about it and so can you. Don’t invest in a lot of sterilization equipment because soap-and-water clean is fine. Don’t worry about exact recipes because it’s part of the fun to try something different every time.  I will not be giving any explicit instructions here, just a general idea of what I do, because if you are an experienced fermenter you will be familiar with these principles and if you aren’t you need the book.

The equipment to get started is Mr. Zimmerman’s book, a couple of 2-gallon plastic brewing buckets and fermentation locks, a 6-foot or so length of food-grade plastic tubing for siphoning, some clean gallon bottles for the finished wine, and ingredients. Sugar, honey, or fruit juice provide the food for the yeast. A packet of commercial wine yeast gets you off to a good start, although wild yeast isn’t that hard to use. Personally I don’t go in for the equipment that allows you to calculate your finished alcohol level precisely. I rely on the following general proportions: a pound of honey or about 1.5 pounds of sugar per gallon of water ferments out to 4.5 or 5% alcohol. Double the sweetener per  per gallon and it ends up at about 10%. Once you’re up to triple sweetener per gallon, your yeast is likely to be killed off at some point and leave you with residual sugar, unless you used champagne yeast, which tolerates a lot of alcohol. But then your drink is “hotter” and higher alcohol than I’m looking for. Quadruple sweetener will in my opinion leave you with syrup, although some people love the effect. Apple juice will ferment out to about 4% alcohol, more if you add sweetener or sweeter juices. For the most part, I plan to finish at about 7.5% alcohol, 10% at absolute maximum.

Flavoring depends on what you’re in the mood for. Don’t be afraid to experiment. One of my favorite late-summer wines was made by juicing three cantaloupes and adding the juice to a gallon of apple juice, along with half a pound of sugar dissolved in 3 cups of water. Another remarkable wine was made with a dozen juiced prickly pears, the juice of two blood oranges, and a gallon of water sweetened with honey and sugar in equal parts, with one of the squeezed blood orange halves thrown in to ferment in the liquid for the first two weeks.  Prickly pears have little flavor but exquisite color, and this wine, which can be seen above and in the picture at the top of this post, is one of my favorites.  So far I’ve used juice from my own grapevine, blackcurrant juice, juiced aronia berries, juiced blackberries, and juiced dark cherries. I always prefer honey as the sweetener, but some people don’t care for its earthy undertone, so sugar is easier on some palates.

Apple-strawberry cyzer, shown above, is another surprise favorite with a subtle note of strawberry that makes for delicate, delicious sipping.

Blackcurrant mead is musky-sweet on the palate.

Although  I may make 5 gallon batches of things that came out well if I can get the materials, I always start with between a gallon and gallon and a half, which fits neatly into a 2 gallon fermentation bucket. Make up the mixture of your choice, put it in a clean bucket, snap the lid on, and fit a fermentation lock. Make sure you have put fluid in the lock to the right level.  I use vodka instead of water in the fermentation lock, to make sure that no intrepid fruit flies get through and turn the wine to vinegar.  Then, wait at least three weeks. Sometimes you will hear the must making surprising noises, and when it starts to ferment actively the fermentation lock will make an attractive gurgling sound.  After 3 to 4 weeks, open the bucket making sure not to shake it around and disturb the sediment, and siphon the fluid off the yeast and other sediment into a second clean bucket.  Cover it, put a fermentation lock on, and let it sit for another 3 to 4 weeks. Again siphon the wine or mead or cyzer off the sediment,  this time putting it in a gallon bottle and put any of that won’t fit into clean wine bottles or canning jars. Of course you could put it all in bottles, but I prefer to avoid the fuss of cleaning and storing all those bottles.   At this point, taste it. Generally it will be fermented out dry, and many fruit mixtures taste better when a little sweetness is added back.  If I feel that it needs some sweetness, I sweeten very cautiously with pure liquid sucralose, stirring  and tasting  after each drop so that I don’t overdo it.  If you prefer you can use sugar, but remember that it must be stored in the refrigerator after that, and even so, the yeast will slowly ferment away your added sugar and produce pressure inside the bottle that can lead to a minor but messy explosion.

You can filter repeatedly if you want a sparkling clear product, but I do think you lose flavor in the process and I generally don’t.

Store in the refrigerator. Often these ferments taste better cold, and if you do want to drink them at room temperature just get them out of the refrigerator an hour before wanted.  They do not have a high alcohol content to preserve them, and so cold storage serves this function. Plan to drink them within a few months. I have made higher alcohol meads that I kept for much longer times, and they certainly improved with keeping, but if the alcohol content is low they aren’t likely to hold in good condition.

If you really start enjoying yourself and want to get wilder, you will want to own Pascal Bauder’s The Wildcrafting Brewer, in which wildcrafted ingredients and wild yeasts are used to produce drinks that are the essence of a particular bit of earth at a particular time.

Fermentation III: Vinegar

 
I first wrote about red wine vinegar in 2009, and while I have made and consumed it steadily since then, there didn’t seem to be much more to say about it. My husband gifted me with a marvelously cool 2 gallon oak barrel to keep it in, but the vinegar was the same. But then came The Noma Guide to Fermentation, and I’m left wondering why I was so unimaginative. Their chapter on vinegars has lots of interesting ideas but the ones that excite me the most are elderberry “balsamic” and black garlic “balsamic.” I suspect that I will end up combining the two, since I have some elderberry wine fermenting and the port-like notes should be a perfect complement to the deep umami of black garlic, and for even more depth I’ll use red wine vinegar to start the acetic fermentation. Basically, if you have a good strong vinegar mother, you can ferment anything mildly alcoholic into vinegar. The acetobacter bacillus converts ethanol to acetic acid in the presence of oxygen, so if you want to use your own fruit you need to ferment it into wine first, but that’s easy enough. Once you have wine or mead or hard cider to ferment into vinegar, you can do it in quart mason jars, with a dish towel tied tightly over the top to allow oxygen in and prevent winged visitors, and make several kinds of vinegar in a square foot of counter space. Or if you have a lot of ideas and a tolerant spouse, you can occupy all available surfaces. Just make sure you have a plan for what to do with it.  You can cook with it as detailed in my 2009 post, and if you still have too much it makes a fair non-alcoholic drink stirred into sparkling water. Stir a shot into a tall glass of chilled sparkling water, with some natural or artificial sweetener. I like a shake of cinnamon on top. This isn’t a kid’s drink, and only the adults are likely to enjoy it, and not all of them by any means. Some will dislike the sharp edge, and a dash of fruit juice or a little honey may take the curse off for them. But those of us who drank the old cider-vinegar-and-honey drink growing up generally came to enjoy the sweet-sour flavor and like this use of vinegar.

This is already known to everyone, but it bears occasional repeating: you can also infuse vinegar with nearly anything that suits your fancy. Tarragon is a classic, but I prefer thyme infused in red wine vinegar, using about one big bunch of thyme per pint of vinegar. Flavorful fruits are also a possibility. Be aware that Acetobacter does one thing superbly well, and that is converting ethanol to acetic acid. If you add any source of unfermented sugar directly to your ferment, it will remain as sugar. You can use this effect deliberately to make fascinating semi-sweet or agrodolce vinegars. One that I particularly enjoyed was made by dehydrating Concord grapes from my vine until they were somewhat shriveled and approaching the raisin stage, covering them with red wine vinegar, blending with a stick blender until the grapes were roughly chopped, and then infusing the mixture for a couple of weeks. The grape bits were then strained out, and the vinegar was richly flavored, barely sweet, and carried some of the unique tang of the Concord grape. I’m looking forward to making pomegranate vinegar in the near future. Blackberry vinegar would probably be wonderful.

It may be that live vinegar contributes to your biome and general health, and definitely it contains the antioxidants of the original wine with little or none of the alcohol.

If you get interested in culinary uses for your vinegar, you will enjoy Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat. The section on acid in cooking is invaluable and will lead you to analyze food that lies a bit too heavy on the tongue and realize that a bit of acid could have sparked it to deliciousness. Canal House makes and uses a lot of vinegar in their cooking, and you can find some recipes and a good article on making vinegar here.

The vinegar “mother” is a great example of a SCOBY or pellicle, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast that create a matrix and keep reproducing as long as they have a food supply. They busily make vinegar, kombucha,water or milk kefir, or other things depending on the particular microorganisms. You can see the vinegar mother well in this borrowed shot:

Your mother is very versatile and can make vinegar of anything alcoholic as long as the proof isn’t too high. Be aware that a mother formed in red wine will carry red pigment for quite a while, and if you put it in white wine or hard cider you will have rose’ vinegar. The mothers look a bit like placentas:

If you have a healthy one, the question always arises of what to do with the “pups” or new layers of mother that are continually forming. Some people eat them, but then some people eat their own placentas. No judgement implied, but I wouldn’t eat either one. If your friends don’t want one, put it in the compost or bury it in the garden or whatever makes you feel okay about letting go of it.

 

Fermentation II: Black Garlic and other goodies

 

 

Yesterday’s post was about a truly remarkable cookbook, The Noma Guide to Fermentation. Today I’ll talk about a kind of high-temperature enzymatic reaction, the making of black garlic and other blackened goodies. Properly speaking this is a Maillard reaction and not a fermentation, but let’s not quibble when the result is so delicious.

These products need to be made at a temperature of 140-150 degrees. This is hard to achieve without a specially built chamber, although I notice with interest that a household appliance built especially to make black garlic is available on Amazon. A rice cooker on “keep warm” is suggested, but mine turns off automatically. I am trying my large crockpot on the ‘keep warm” setting and the lid cracked to keep the temperature lower. But the process takes weeks, so I also bought some finished black garlic ready to use. If you go in for this cheat, you have the option to get the Asian kind that is one single huge clove of garlic about an inch across as shown above, but if you buy from Black Garlic North America you can buy it peeled fairly economically or (my choice) you can buy 1.5 pounds unpeeled and have the skins available to put in simmering chicken stock, giving it wonderful depth.  It is also sold in tiny little packets in many grocery stores, but I do not recommend that form. It is often dried out and unpleasant by the time you get it when it should be moist, chewy, and have the complexity of good balsamic vinegar with a different flavor.

As for using it, one of my favorite simple uses is to pound two huge single cloves or 5 to 6 regular cloves of black garlic to a smooth paste in a mortar and pestle with a little salt, then pound in 2 tablespoons of cold butter and a teaspoon of very good balsamic vinegar (nothing from the grocery store.) Pound until you have a smooth mousse-like paste, then use it to top steaks, spread it on bread, or toss with a little pasta. To make the heavenly sauce above is only slightly more complex. Make the black garlic butter paste as described. After pan-grilling a nice bit of steak, while the steak is resting deglaze the pan with water or red wine, boil down the fluid hard, add a cube of beef glacé from the freezer, and when the glacé is melted, add the black garlic paste and stir in thoroughly. Add a little water to thin the sauce to desired consistency, taste for salt, slice the steak, and pour the sauce over the slices.  This amount of black garlic paste makes enough for two people.   The recipe is very adaptable and doubles easily.  It’s rich and meaty, full of umami, and enhances everything it touches.  Tart it up with some extra butter if you want it even richer.  It also does wonderful things for ordinary supermarket cremini  mushrooms, and even better things for more flavorful mushrooms like shitakes.  Needless to say, make beef glacé if you don’t have it, and don’t even think about using a boullion cube. Or pound out the garlic cloves without adding the other ingredients and put them in vinaigrette.

Above, several regular-sized  cloves of black garlic were pounded and roughly mixed into half a cup of red wine vinaigrette and spooned over cold sliced steak, sliced avocado, and salad.  This might sound like too much but the flavor of black garlic is mellow and surprisingly low-key and you need a lot when it’s the main flavoring.

I was rather startled to find that all kinds of miraculous health benefits are attributed to black garlic, to the extent that it is sold in capsules for people who want to take it more conveniently. That anything as meaty and delicious as black garlic should be ground up and put in capsules is weird to me, sort of like taking steak in capsules, but suit yourself.

Incidentally if you grow a lot of garlic and have trouble storing it through the winter, it might be worth rigging up a chamber so that you can make black garlic in quantity. I would imagine that it could be sold quite profitably at farmers markets, since I almost never see it in those venues. However, I am nowhere near handy enough to tell you how to make a 140 degree chamber without burning down your house. Know your limitations.

‘The ”other goodies” refers  to the fact that the same process can be used to blacken some other foods, with varying results. Please use the Noma people as your guide if you want to try this, since I am experimenting with it but my products are not ready yet. Their descriptions of apples blackened in the fermentation chamber, then dehydrated until chewy, then coated in very dark chocolate, sound luscious. I am blackening some quinces, and I’ll report back if the result is worthwhile.

For Love of Fermentation

I have often read that restaurant Noma in Copenhagen is the best restaurant in the world now that El Bulli has closed. These all-time-best commendations always annoy me because I always suspect that the real best restaurant in the world is some Thai or Indonesian street stand that makes something out of nearly nothing and does it perfectly. That said, having read Noma’s new guide to fermentation, I am willing to believe that Noma might be the best restaurant in the world, because they have certainly expanded the age-old art of fermentation beyond anything I have previously encountered. The book covers all forms of fermentation except the purely alcoholic ones that produce wines and beers. There are detailed sections on lactic fermentation, kombucha, vinegars, kogi, miso, shoyu, garum, and the enzymatic blackening that produces black garlic and much more if you let it. There are fascinating asides on how to use the resulting liquids and solids in dishes and as seasonings. They observe that, to their own surprise, the variety and depth of flavor produced is so profound that they may become a largely vegetarian restaurant.

Many people think of fermented products largely in health terms, a “gut shot” of probiotics. But playing with the Noma ideas, I’m experimenting with the essences that result when fermented products are cooked down. They are no longer live, but they’ Delicious. I love to keep chicken and beef glacé in the freezer to add depth, body, and a suave finish to even the simplest sauces, and cooked-down ferments may fill a similar role.

There is commentary on things that I will never intentionally try, such as the culinary use of insects. I’m well aware of all the arguments in favor, but I’m too acculturated against it to approach it with an open mind. So, their cricket garum isn’t going to be an item in my diet anytime soon. But less rigid cooks may want to experiment.

Under Noma’s influence, the large insulated but unheated shed that I use for painting has become a busy fermentation facility.  I have so many experiments going that I will never have time to write about most of them, so buy the book.  I don’t accept review copies, and when I review a book, I paid the same price for it that you will pay. There is no other way that I can realistically assess the value/money ratio.  About this one, I can only say that it is very hard to put a price on a book that can invigorate your entire daily cooking routine and open up a new range of flavors.

 

My Life With Invasives

I’m reading Beyond the War on Invasive Species, an interesting book by Tao Orion that, among other things, recalls some of the horrors that the native plant ecomovement fell into, such as “nuking” large areas repeatedly with Round-Up so that they could eventually be replanted with “pure” native species. The whole issue of how to think about invasives is complicated, and I will not approach it here. But the role of invasives in my own yard is one that I feel able to tackle.  My yard is happily multicultural and can absorb almost any invasive that has a use to me, my livestock, or our local pollinators. Over the years I’ve been surprised by plants that came with warnings about their aggressive nature, but in my yard struggled or even died.

There are lots of invasives here, mostly introduced by me and mostly cherished. To have dandelions, I had to pay good money for seed and then wait impatiently as they took three years to get large and lush and edible. Now they are finally self-seeding a bit and are welcome almost anywhere they appear.

Gojis took a while to settle in but now come up everywhere, which is fine since I like the leaves and young shoots as well as the berries.

Nettles, shown at the top of this post,  are my favorite spring greens, and it has turned out to be very possible to manage them for a fall crop of greens as well. They aren’t found in my high desert area and I had to buy plants to get them. They are probably my favorite invasive.  The first nettle patch was located in an area that has concrete walkway all around it, to foil its dreams of world domination. I have started a couple of other nettle patches this spring in large containers. I’ll report back on how this works out.

Arugula  comes up everywhere, and is welcome almost everywhere it appears. It is one of my favorite salad greens, and makes a fairly good cooked green as well, best with stronger seasonings like garlic and cayenne. The flowers are very attractive to bees  and open at a time when little else is flowering, so I always let plenty of it go to seed.

At this point I would have to classify elephant garlic as an invasive, because no matter how much of it I pull up, I always seem to have even more the following year.  When I threw an arm full on top of straw mulch just to get rid of it, it sent roots down  through the mulch and took off as you see above. I don’t mind it, though. It isn’t much use as a bulb and does not compare to true garlic, but I like the early shoots for green garlic, so it does have a use, and the bees enjoy any flowers that I allow to form.

Speaking of attractive to bees, cardoon has become quite an invasive in my yard but one that, as you see above, has its admirers.  I loved cardoons when I ate them in Italy, and brought back seeds from there to make sure that I got the edible kind and not the florist kind, but I have never been able to eat my homegrown cardoons. No matter how carefully blanched, they are inedibly bitter. They do provide one wonderful vegetable, the peeled top of the bloom scape before the buds swell, but that is one small serving per very large plant. I still let them seed themselves around though, because the bees and my goat adore them and even in my desert climate and alkaline soil, they come up in odd corners and require no care or attention whatsoever. The huge jagged silver leaves are strikingly ornamental.  When they come up in the middle of garden beds, I let them reach a good size and then pull them for the goat. I have read that the large parsnip-like root is edible, but when grown in my yard it is as bitter as the leaves, and is a flavor that only a goat could love.

Scrawny little Phyllostachys dulcis “invading.”

I love bamboo shoots and can seldom  find fresh ones locally, so growing them seemed obvious.  I planted  clumping bamboo and the famously invasive running sweet shoot bamboo.  The latter is famous for overrunning its boundaries and forming 30 foot high jungles, so I sited it in a part of the yard up next to the goat paddock, figuring that I could always turn her loose on it if worst came to worst.  Three years later, each plant now has two or three wimpy looking canes about 5 feet high, and I have eaten exactly one bamboo shoot. It was very good, and I was glad to have it,  but I am still waiting for the abundant shoots that I was told would pop up absolutely everywhere.  The aristocratic clumping bamboos took one look at their pedestrian setting and refused to go on living.

Burdock bloomscape at right stage for peeling and cooking.

Burdock has done a better job of becoming an invasive. I don’t care for the roots that much, and planted it because the peeled bloom scape is a fair vegetable, and I assumed that since I was eating it before the flowers formed, I would be able to keep the plant from reproducing. It fooled me. If you keep cutting off the bloomscape, it forms little short bloomscapes down under the huge leaves where you don’t see them, and seeds itself thickly all around the parent plant.  Dogs wandering through the patch pick up the burrs and plant more elsewhere.  Still, the leaves are a favorite goat treat, and I don’t mind having it around.

Common milkweed is one of my favorite wild edibles, as well as being a great bee plant and the chosen food of the monarch butterfly larva, and for years I have been trying to get it to become invasive, but in my yard it remains as fussy as orchids.  Ordinarily I run a Darwinian garden and will not make great efforts to keep any plant going when its natural inclination is to die, but I have really gone out of my way for the milkweed, and it has not reciprocated. Finally, this year it is beginning to spread a little bit, but there is still not enough to eat any.

Silver nightshade is the only invasive plant in my area that I truly despise and can find no use for, which is a shame because it’s everywhere. If you think it looks pretty, you haven’t gotten to know it. The roots lie several feet underground and are invulnerable. The plant comes up everywhere, and is covered with small prickles that are not only painful but break off in your skin with any touch and cause irritations that last days. The leaves are poisonous to livestock. There is no argument to be made for its existence except that, unfortunately, it does exist.  It does not seem possible to have less of it. I blush to admit that once, many years ago, I was so infuriated by it that I tried spraying some with Round-up, and I must say that it shriveled up over the next several days in a very satisfying way. Unfortunately, within a few weeks it had rebounded and was growing up happily and thickly from the roots, seeming invigorated by the experience.  So do not bother sacrificing your organic credibility, because it won’t work anyway.  Every now and then I run its scientific name through the medical databases, hoping that somebody somewhere will have found a chemical in it that treats a rare cancer or something like that, so that I will feel differently about its general uselessness. But so far, it remains one of nature’s blights. It seems to be highly aggressive in dry soils and doesn’t compete well in damp areas, so maybe as humus and moisture increase in my soil, it will be less of a problem.

Read the book if you are really interested in a different way of thinking about invasives.

A Wild Tangle

Back when I first became interested in the Cretan diet, somewhere I read a saying that I cannot remember accurately but that went something like this: “better my own greens and olives than foreign  sugar doled out to me by others.”  From a health standpoint, certainly, better any greens than any sugar, no matter where it came from.  So after the broccoli under frost blankets in my garden beds finally gave in, having produced most of the winter, I pulled out the broccoli plants for the goat and chickens  and left all the weedy little seedlings under the blankets to grow into salad greens.  In addition to real weeds like wild lettuce and arugula and sow thistle, which sow themselves all over the place at my house,  there are some greens like chickweed which are very weedy in other parts of the country, but which I actually had to start from purchased seed because they don’t grow around here.  Another treat that I am really enjoying in salads right now is celery micro greens, of which I have a large cluster simply because I forgot to cut down one of last year‘s celery plants before it went to seed. Now, tender 4 inch high celery has formed a dense patch over a foot in diameter, and it is very delicious in salad. With a wide enough assortment of wild and semiwild greens and herbs, a simple vinaigrette is all you need to have a great salad or side dish. Add some meat, eggs, or cheese and you have a meal.

I did make sure to have one established dandelion plant under frost blankets, but it is not doing any better than the ones in the open. Dandelions absolutely resist being civilized, and they do not adapt to us. They just keep doing their own gloriously wild thing.  Dandelions also resist selective breeding. I have bought expensive packets of seed that purported to produce larger, thicker-leaved, more delicious dandelions, and they are exactly like all the other dandelions around. This year, in some fit of madness, I spent €24 ordering two packets of highly specialized dandelion seed from France, despite the fact that I know perfectly well they will come out exactly like the common yard dandelion.

Early spring is the perfect time to learn to do a little foraging, if that is not already one of your hobbies. I would suggest starting out with the wonderful book from John Kallas, Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food From Dirt to Plate.  Most of the plants that Dr. Kallas describes will be found in your area, because they are common and  ubiquitous, and he will  teach you to identify like an expert and then get you doing delicious things with them.

Just recently, over maybe the last six months, I have noticed that any post I write that is tagged as having anything to do with wild lettuce gets an astounding amount of attention.  I wish that somebody could explain this to me. Because I have been foraging and eating this plant for a good 20 years, and  despite some strange Internet rumors I feel that I can definitively say as follows: it will not relieve pain. It will not cure insomnia. It will not get you high. I wish I understood where these ideas came from, because they certainly did not come from anybody with a knowledge of foraging wild plants.  Really, if your goal is to get high, please leave the wild lettuce for those of us who just like to eat greens.