Archive for the ‘Books worth reading’ Category

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

Living in Interesting Times: Improvisational Stir-fries

 


The current world travails started me thinking about thrift. The most financially difficult period of my life was when I lived in Manhattan on a beginning designer’s salary and paid over 3/4 of my salary in rent. It probably goes without saying that I had no health insurance or paid sick leave and lived in constant fear of illness, and couldn’t afford any of the usual entertainments. It was one of the most useful periods of my life too, because it’s when I learned to make reading and cooking fill my entertainment function. I spent wonderful hours digging through the NY Public Library’s collection of cookbooks (free entertainment,) walking miles to Manhattan’s Chinatown (exercise +health maintenance+entertainment/sightseeing,) shopping in the wondrous markets there (thrift+entertainment,) then walking back and cooking dinner (nutrition+health maintenance+delicious entertainment.) I bought a huge carbon steel wok and cleaver for less than $10 each and with one thrift-shop pot to cook rice, one rice bowl, and one set of porcelain-tipped chopsticks, I was ready to cook anything.

I wouldn’t want to live like that now, and I’m appropriately grateful to have health insurance and sick leave. But I still love to channel the spirit of a thrifty Chinese spiritual grandmother and cook up a tasty stir-fry now and then. Rice is in very short supply in my area right now, but I have enough to cook up a pot of rice, add condiments to vegetables from my garden, and have a delicious meal for under $5 for two people. I wanted to use up some of the rich gold yolks that my chickens produce abundantly, and it occurred to me that frying them quickly into a sort of yolk pancake would yield a texture that could work well in a quick, explosive stir-fry.
Last year’s Fordhook Swiss chard is throwing up beautiful meaty leaves right now, so I started with four big chard leaves and four fat perennial green onions.

I tend to divide improvisational Chinese dishes into cooked rice (the base,) vegetables (the bulk,) protein (meat, eggs, etc.,) texture foods (often mushrooms in my kitchen,) and seasonings.  As with any improvisation, don’t throw stuff in at random. Think carefully to create a harmony. And everything has to be prepped and ready before you start. I assemble everything in little piles and pinch dishes on an 18×24” cutting board. I pulled the chard leaves away from the stems, cut the leaves in crosswise strips, and chopped the stems in 1/4” cross sections. The white part of the green onions were cut in 1/4” sections, and a few of the leaves cut into diagonal slivers.  I cooked five beaten egg yolks into a pancake in a hot skillet with avocado oil, let it cool, and cut it into long 1/4” wide slivers. A handful of sliced dried tree ears were hydrated in hot water. Tree ears are a texture food, and if they aren’t available, just omit them.  A couple of tablespoons of fermented black beans were soaked in cold water to reduce their salt load a little, then squeezed dry. A piece of ginger 1”x2” was cut into cross sections, a bulb end of green garlic likewise, then the two chopped together into pieces the size of coarse crumbs. A half cup of water had a tablespoon of rice vinegar, two teaspoons of sugar, a heaping teaspoon of cornstarch, and about 2 teaspoons of oyster sauce stirred in, and avocado oil, soy sauce, and Asian roasted sesame oil were standing by. I used some chile oil too, but you can leave it out if you don’t care for heat.

The rice is cooked and served up into heated bowls, and your prepped ingredients stand ready next to the wok or skillet. From here it goes so fast that you can’t believe it. Heat the cooking vessel fiery hot over highest heat, pour in some avocado oil, wait 30 seconds, put in the chopped ginger and garlic and fermented beans, and stir with a cooking paddle for a few seconds, just until the ginger scent reaches your nose. Throw in the drained tree ears, the chard stems, and the white part of the scallions, stirring vigorously for a few seconds after each addition. Add a few shakes of soy sauce and stir all this around for about 30 more seconds, then stir in the chard leaves and slivered egg-yolk pancakes. When the chard leaves look done, about a minute later if you were bold and kept the heat at maximum, add the water mixture (stirring hastily to get the cornstarch in suspension before adding to the wok,) and stir while it boils fiercely and thickens, another minute or less. Stir in the scallion leaves and serve over hot rice. Sprinkle with soy sauce and finish with a drizzle of sesame oil. Add some chile oil if you want to. The clarity relies on keeping the heat explosive. If you lose your nerve or pause at any point, your sauce will get sludgy and the purity of the taste  be lost.

If you want a serious education in Chinese cooking, I recommend any book by Fuschia Dunlop, and her Hunanese Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook may be my favorite. I dislike Chairman Mao (and all other dictators) pretty intensely but his home province has created some of this world’s truly delicious food. The old classic that I first learned from, Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook, is still around and turns up on EBay and used book sites. It has excellent discussions of ingredients and achieving the true taste, and the recipes are as good as ever.

Explosive frying, stir-frying at very high heat, is a good technique to have in your back pocket for almost any vegetable. They have to be sliced and trimmed to appropriate sizes so that they will cook through. Therefore, the technique doesn’t save kitchen time, it just shifts time to prep, with the cooking happening in 5-10 exciting minutes at the end. It does add a special flavor of its own, the famous “breath of the wok.”

Living in Interesting Times: Shortages

When I talk with friends and neighbors about the current pandemic, I am sometimes surprised to encounter a firm fixed belief that there are no food shortages and won’t be any food shortages. Ask them if they’ve tried to buy flour or rice lately and you won’t receive a sensible reply. My own view is that in such situations there are potentially two kinds of shortages: short-term ones caused by panic-buying and hoarding, and longer-term ones caused by interruption of supply chains. Our current difficulty (at least in my area) in getting rice, flour, eggs, and toilet paper fall in the first category. Some people’s’ hoarding caused others to go without, and I’ll just add that there is a special place in hell reserved for those who hoard and price-gouge infant food, diapers, and other baby supplies. But there is lots of other stuff available and most of us will be just fine except for a little grousing.

The other kind of shortage, from interruption of production and transportation chains, is longer-term, hard to predict accurately, and potentially more worrisome. Without predicting disaster, I can only say that American agriculture depends heavily on immigrant labor, and you can review the Farm Bureau’s summary of this. I will quote only one startling fact from their statistics: “If agriculture were to lose access to all undocumented workers, agricultural output would fall by $30 to $60 billion.” Since to help contain the pandemic we are closing borders and tightening enforcement, I don’t see how the agricultural labor supply can be unaffected. This could translate to fruit unharvested and veggies decaying in the fields or not getting planted in the first place.

This is a long-winded way of saying that all food should be treated like the treasure it is. Don’t hoard it, and don’t waste it either. Look at what you have and let your imagination run wild about how you might use it. Relax your usual food restrictions unless they relate to religion or health. Taste things you might not ordinarily think about. Get a couple of good cookbooks about vegetables so that you’re ready to get the most out of available produce. Two that I highly recommend are Six Seasons and Vegetables Unleashed. Both are available in e-format and will help you make the most of any food available. Think creatively about what to make. Can’t get rice? Make lettuce wraps. We are not going to starve, not by a long shot, and we can better utilize our supply chain by being more flexible in our thinking.
The problem that I really worry about is not national and international supply chains but local ones. Huge ag corporations won’t be allowed to go under, but your area small farmers and stock raisers just might, or may be disheartened enough by plowing good vegetables back into the dirt that they don’t continue. So find out where they are and how you can buy their produce. In my area the growers’ markets will open in May but  will be limited to food only, and since it’s in the open air, this is probably safer than going to a grocery store. Use all recommended precautions, but support those growers.

Plant something of your own. This morning I was thinking about what I would grow if I only had one small garden bed to work with. Given a tiny little space four feet on a side, I would double-dig it, enrich the hell out of the soil, and plant Fordhook Swiss chard and tuck some thyme plants in at the edges. Chard produces heavily all summer regardless of heat if kept watered, and few things will do more for your health than eating more leafy greens. The taste is mild and acceptable to nearly everyone. The old reliable Fordhook is more productive and resilient than the newer fancier colors, and the stems offer a second vegetable with a different texture, great in stir-fries. It can be harvested all summer and then left in place to produce some early greens the following year. Chickens adore any leaves that you don’t get around to eating, and if you know any goats, they love the tough ends of the stalks, or just compost them. One packet of seed produces all the greens a small family can eat. I don’t know of a more nutritious and efficient vegetable. As for how to use it, click on the “greens” category in the sidebar on the right side of this page  for a dozen or more ideas, and that’s just the beginning.