Archive for the ‘Books worth reading’ Category

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.

The Fall Summation II: Mushrooms

I always felt that if I could grow mushrooms outdoors among my garden plants,  I would have a fully functioning little ecosystem even here in the desert.  This year, I finally achieved exactly that, and it’s one of the highlights of my gardening year. I should add that anybody who gardens is growing all kinds of soil fungi, but I wanted the edible kind. Three species came through for me. The first was the almond agaricus, shown above.  They are compost lovers, and I buried chunks of the spawn in a bed of compost that I was about to plant squash into. Unfortunately, the squash overran the bed and I only got a few mushrooms from around the edges, but they were very delicious.  This species really does have an intense flavor of almonds, and if you don’t love almonds you probably won’t want this mushroom, but if you do it is a special treat sautéed in butter and served alongside a nutty beefy piece of dry aged meat.

DCF 1.0

Stropharia rugosa-annulata, the wine-cap mushroom,  grows freely in mulched garden paths.  It will grow in pure straw mulch, and that is how I grew it at first, but there is no question that it tastes better if you incorporate some hardwood chips or sawdust in with the straw.  Even when grown in straw alone it tastes as good as a store-bought cremini or better, but once I incorporated some hardwood it became a treat. The picture  above shows how it should ideally look at harvest. The button stage, shown to the right, is tastiest but I can never resist letting one or two get huge. The picture below shows how it is more likely to look in my garden, because for some reason there are tiny little slugs that only seem to chew on this one mushroom species. But no problem, I just brush them off, and once it is washed and sautéed in butter you can’t tell that they were ever there.

Then there are oyster mushrooms, my favorite cultivated mushroom to eat and one of the easiest to grow.  I grow them in the shade in almost whatever receptacle comes to hand, usually laundry baskets lined with clear plastic bags.  For the growing medium I use a mixture of straw and hardwood sawdust, sterilized sufficiently with hydrogen peroxide solution, with a little alfalfa shake included to nourish the mushrooms.  I stick the whole rig under a dense shade tree in late spring, in an area where water from the sprinkler will hit it when I water, but I don’t make any other effort to keep it wet. I like to let oyster mushrooms get big, to the point that they are really meaty.  After cleaning them and cutting away the tough stem area I slice them in quarter inch strips and sauté  them in olive oil with salt until they have some nice brown spots, adding a little chopped garlic toward the end of the cooking.  They are more tender when small, but not nearly as umami and tasty. It’s the difference between veal and beef, and I have never been a fan of veal. Of course, if you want a milder flavor and softer texture, pick them smaller.

Today I finished “planting” several baskets and bags with the blue oyster mushroom, a subspecies of the common oyster mushroom that fruits at a lower temperature.  They are going in an unheated shed, and might fruit during the winter. Remains to be seen if this will work, but anything that prolongs the mushroom season is worth a try.

Oyster mushrooms are determined to grow. Recently I broke up a spent basket and put the mycelium in lumps under straw mulch, and today I found tiny infant oyster mushrooms poking out. I threw a frost blanket over the area and weighted it down with pavers, and maybe I’ll get a late outdoor crop.

Nothing fills me with quite as much satisfaction as seeing one of my mushroom projects cooked and on the table.  I am not sure why this is, except that their biology is so unique and fascinating and they are so essential, in one form or another, to life on earth.  They have some interesting medicinal qualities, but I don’t feel any great need for medicine and prefer to eat them because they are fascinating  and delicious.

I’m enjoying a book called Radical Mycology, which is a compendium of nearly everything that you can imagine about mushrooms, including a heap of medical advice which, in my opinion, should be taken with a very large grain of salt.  But it is addictive reading and will get you through many a long winter evening and give you ideas for new projects.

A Brilliant New Foraging Book, and notes on poisonous plants

Of all the people alive whom I don’t actually know, Samuel Thayer is the one that I would most like to meet for a walk in the woods. His combination of erudition, common sense, and perspective is unique in the field. His two previous foraging books are among the most worn and frayed books on my shelves, and I’m thrilled to add a third to my foraging collection.

One of my favorite things about Thayer’s books is that there is very little repetition from one volume to another. If a plant that was thoroughly explored in one book is brought up in the next book, you can be sure that there is going to be new information that you really want to know.

Incredible Wild Edibles begins with several general-information chapters which are by no means the usual blather and which you should actually read because they concern safety, legality, and sustainability. I also recommend reading the section called The Chicken Feathers Guy, which describes how some people knock the joy right out of foraging and food preparation, for themselves and for others.

Then there are the plants. They include some which are new to me, such  as the creeping bellflower and the purple poppy mallow.  The latter is a common ornamental in my  high desert area, and I am embarrassed that I never knew it was edible. There is a good chapter on bladder campion, a weed that I admire because it’s always the last green I harvest in winter and the first green of spring.  Some of the described plants are common invasives becoming ever more common, such as fennel. How fortunate that it’s delicious. As Thayer says in the context of another invasive plant: “All this hatred directed against a plant just because it grows.”  Several varieties of mulberry are discussed, and Thayer is effortlessly erudite about their confused taxonomy.  He also mentions culinary uses of the mulberry leaves and flowers, without repeating the old wives’ tale that they are hallucinogenic. (Please, other foraging writers, stop just picking up this stuff from each other and repeating it as gospel.) The chapter on pokeweed deserves special discussion. This is the perfect example of a food that was a seasonal staple in many parts of the country, and everyone who ate it knew how to prepare it safely. Now, because it needs a preboil and because writers quake in fear of liability, they make it sound as if the plant will leap out of the ground and stab you given half a chance. Thayer gives a sensible explanation of exactly what you need to do, explains why he refuses to live in constant fear of liability, and leaves it at that. Personally I haven’t tasted poke shoots since I moved to the Southwest almost twenty years ago, but I finally got a couple of plants going last year and am looking forward to a small feast next spring. Preboiled and blanching water discarded, of course.

Now, for some brief comments on poisons.  There’s an element of real hysteria about the dangers of foraging, and strange tales are told, such as that expert Euell Gibbons died of eating a poisonous wild plant. This is nonsense; he had Marfan’s Syndrome and died of an aortic dissection, a common complication of that disease and not preventable in those days. There are some seriously poisonous plants in the world, definitely including some that will kill you. That said, most poisonings are cases of ignorant misidentification or misuse,  and if you are going to forage, you owe it to yourself and others to take your hobby seriously and get all the information you need to identify every wild plant you eat BEYOND A DOUBT and know about any special prep that it needs.  If your hobby was woodworking you would take the trouble to learn to use a saw safely, wouldn’t you? Foraging is less likely to harm you because, after all, your ancestors lived by foraging for millions of years, and you have access to a lot more information than they did. There are so many tasty wild plants that cannot reasonably be mistaken for anything poisonous that you can stick to the basics and still fill your plate much of the year. But Sam Thayer includes clear photos of all potential look-alikes and descriptions of how to tell them apart, so if you have his books, there is really not much excuse for error.

Luxury Dances With Penury

Tonight I ate one of the most extravagant meals I’ve had for a while, and somehow it led me to meditate upon thrift. The main ingredient, two legs of the highest quality Alaskan king crab I’ve come across in years, cost a bomb. But careful orchestration of other ingredients made this all come together in (reasonably) economical style.

Let’s start with the broth. I have written obsessively about the value of good broth, but that won’t stop me from doing it again. When it comes to seafood, it’s essential to remember a few basic things:

1. Seafood broth should be made from seafood, maybe with the addition of some white fish scraps but no salmon or other oily fish and no commercial clam broth. Any avid seafood eater can smell those spurious additions from a long way away.

2. You’re looking for the waste bits of otherwise excellent seafood; shrimp shells, crab shells, shrimp heads, etc. For the clean but intense broth above, I lucked into some lobster carcasses by trading Louisiana seafood stories with the proprietor of a luxury seafood shop. Accept what you are offered with glad thanksgiving.

3. Fish and seafood broth should be boiled at a furious boil for 20 minutes, not simmered for longer times. Then cool, drain, and use or freeze.

4. Build up intensity in layers. Boil, drain, cover new ingredients with the broth, and boil and drain again. You can freeze between boiling episodes. The lobster carcasses came my way over a year ago, and made a quart of rich stock. Then I thawed it and used it to boil shrimp shells, cooled it, and froze it again. Finally, it was thawed and used to boil the shells of the king crab. It was loaded with seafood flavor, but had a clean fresh taste because it was never overcooked.

Given a potent base like this, you don’t need much else. The meat of the two crab legs was cut into good-sized chunks. I used four large stout scallions from my garden, sliced crosswise at 1/4″ intervals and  whites kept separate from greens. My garden scallions are huge, and a dozen store-bought scallions would be needed to approximate them.   Other ingredients were butter, a cup of heavy cream, and three egg yolks from my backyard hens.

Sauté the white parts of the scallions in a quarter cup of butter over medium heat with a hefty pinch of salt until they are softened and translucent. Add the green parts, sauté another minute or two, and add a quart of rich seafood broth. Boil hard until reduced by about half, then add the heavy cream and bring to a boil. Taste and check for salt. Reduce heat and lay the chunks of crabmeat in the saucepan and heat through. Lift the crabmeat and some of the scallions in two soup bowls, leaving most of the broth and cream behind.

To make the egg yolk liaison, beat up the three egg yolks in a bowl, add about half a cup of the hot seafood broth from the saucepan slowly to the bowl while whisking rapidly, then pour the yolk mixture slowly into the saucepan while whisking rapidly. Let heat, whisking, just until the broth is steaming and lightly thickened. Taste. Any distinct “egg” flavor should have cooked away, and it should taste of the sea in the creamiest way.  Pour over the crab and scallions in the soup bowls, and finish each bowl with a generous pat of butter. Serve, eat, and marvel at the goodness to be found in the cosmos.

There are ways to make this even more economical. If you are a carb-eater, put a hunk of sourdough baguette in each bowl before spooning in the crab. The bread will be soaked with seafood essence and will provide elevation, so that one crab leg will serve two generously. Boiled salted fingerling potatoes or good cooked rice can be used the same way.

But in the final analysis this is a dish to make when you feel a bit flush and want to serve your love the best. It goes well with a buttery Chardonnay and a brief discussion of how lucky we are to be on the planet.

The best modern book on thrift and grace in cooking is Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal. Read it, and cook on in good heart.

Pork Belly: Theme and Variations

Recently I was checking out my local farmer’s market and saw a young man sitting in front of a card table, with a big cooler behind him but nothing that I could see indicating what he was doing there. Curious, I approached, and it turned out that he was from Polk’s Folly, selling pork from a few pasture-raised heritage pigs being grown on his family land. And yes, he had some pork belly to sell. I scored a three pound chunk.

At the time I planned to make it into bacon, and so I put it in a brine of one cup salt to one gallon of water and stuck it in the refrigerator. But a couple of days later I found myself daydreaming about it and decided to cook it for dinner. I put eight bay leaves and 3 cloves’ worth of sliced garlic on the meat side, rolled it up with the skin side out and tied it with kitchen twine, put it in a cazuela with half a cup of good white wine, and roasted at 350 until done through (160 if you tend toward exact measurements,) turning up the heat to 500 right at the end to brown the skin a bit.

Thin slices were served with oyster mushrooms sautéed in butter and adorned with the garlic slices from inside the belly, and skimmed pan juices were poured around liberally. It was a delicious meal with a good cabernet but, for two people, just the beginning of three pounds of belly.

A few nights later I hauled out the belly, cut two slices about a half inch thick, and cut the strips into chunks that ended up about 1/2″ square by 1″ long. I chopped up two big cloves of garlic and a 1″ piece of ginger. A huge scallion out of the garden was cut in 1/8″ slices, white and green kept separate. I got out gochujang, soy sauce, and artificial sweetener to equal two teaspoons of sugar (of course you can use 2 teaspoons sugar if preferred.) I microwaved some cauliflower rice. The belly chunks were sautéed over medium-high heat in a wok until they were beginning to brown nicely in their own fat. Then the scallion whites were added and stir-fried for about two minutes. Next the scallion greens and the chopped garlic and ginger were added and given one further minute of stir-frying. Then a rounded tablespoon gochujang and a good squirt of of soy sauce, along with two teaspoons of sugar or the equivalent in artificial sweetener. Boil hard until the sauce comes together and glistens, less than a minute if you were using high enough heat. Serve over the cauli rice. Add some pickled veggies if you like.

The third meal moves into Southeast Asia, one of the many parts of the world where the succulent pork belly is appreciated. One of the great treats of summer is an occasional perfect mango, and I had one ready on the counter. I was planning a Thai-style curry based on the superb Hand brand green curry paste, but ultimately decided that I wanted more veggies and less sauce. Using the inspiration of Six Seasons, I decided to make something that was a hot salad rather than a curry per se.  Besides the leftover belly, mango,  and the curry paste, ingredients were two large scallions sliced, a cup of pure coconut cream, some fish sauce and sweetener, and a wide assortment of veggies from my garden and freezer but just a handful of each, i.e. four Tuscan kale leaves slivered finely, about a third of a head of broccoli (with its peeled stem) blanched a few minutes and chopped, two small purple carrots, and a handful of chopped mint for the final garnish. This is a great place to use up any plainly cooked veggies that may be tucked into your refrigerator awaiting a purpose.

To make the “dressing,” boil  the coconut cream in a small sauce pan for a few minutes, stir in about a tablespoon of curry paste or more according to taste and boil a minute more, and add fish sauce and chosen sweetener to taste,  make in the mixture a bit on the salty sweet side because there is a large volume of veggies fruit to season.  Then set the pan aside while you finish the main ingredients.

Cut two half-inch slices off the belly and cut into lardons. Put in a skillet over medium-high heat to b own and render some fat, turning frequently. Meanwhile sort the veggies into fast-cooking and slower-cooking, putting the scallion greens in the first pile and the scallion whites in the second. When the belly chunks are browned, add in the slower-cooking veggies and stir fry until crisp-tender, add the quick-cooking veggies, and cook until thoroughly heated through. Put in a little fish sauce with the veggies but not too much, since the belly is already salted.

Now toss half the hot veggies in the saucepan with the curry sauce, plate them on two plates, put the unsauced belly and veggies on top for an unmuddied appearance, slice the peeled mango over the composition, and top with the chopped mint. Dip down into the “dressed” part of the meal with each bite. Have some Thai sriracha available for drizzling if you like.

By the fourth meal, there was one strip of belly roast about 3/4″ thick still left. I decided on a Thai meat salad. Since we were quite hungry I decided to add two Thai-style fried eggs to each plate.  In addition to the belly strip and four eggs, I used a small head of Romaine lettuce, one large scallion, a generous handful of coriander leaves, and two partially ripe plums.  If you are using plums from the grocery store, it’s pretty easy. Almost any two will do and will still be somewhat green, firm, and not too sweet. Or use cherry tomatoes if you prefer.

First have an appropriate dressing ready. Mine was a rather elaborate concoction based on some pickled kumquat rind that I made a month ago and ground coriander stems, but you can use the simple spicy-sweet dressing described at the bottom of the page.

Cut the belly strip into lardons and fry them in a hot skillet with a spoonful of coconut oil until browned. Remove and drain on paper towels. Add a little more coconut oil to the pan and fry the eggs over medium-high heat, turning them a few times and salting on both sides, until they are cooked through and browned around the edges. Remove and drain. Slice the romaine into strips about 1/2″ wide. Cut the plums in slices. Slice the scallion fine and chop the coriander leaves.

Plate the lettuce, cut the eggs in thirds or quarters and arrange around the edge, and put the crisp lardons in the middle. Decorate with the plum slices and scatter the scallions and coriander on top. Dress with the dressing and eat. If you had everything on hand, total elapsed time is about 15 minutes.

If you have read Tamar Adler’s marvelous book An Everlasting Meal, you know all about main dishes that keep on giving. If you haven’t read it, please do so immediately. Frugality in the kitchen is a common thought for most of us and you may already cook that way, but Ms. Adler will show you the poetry and grace of it. Cooking is in some ways a ghostly process anyway, with our great-great-grandmother’s transparent hand guiding our own, and we are further informed by the ghost of each meal contributing to the next.

Hot-sweet Thai Dressing: this  doubles as a dipping sauce and is very handy to have in the refrigerator. Finely chop four cloves of garlic and a piece of ginger about an inch long. Thinly slice a couple of Serrano or Jalapeño chiles, removing the seeds and ribs unless you’re a real heat freak. Mix the chopped and sliced stuff with half a cup of fish sauce, a quarter cup of rice vinegar, a quarter cup of water, and  two tablespoons of palm sugar or the equivalent in artificial sweetener. Let sit fifteen minutes and taste cautiously. Adjust the various elements until it tastes well-balanced to you.

Food for Thought: A Cookbook for Cooking and for Thinking

I have been  vegetable gardening all of my adult life, and own several shelves full of vegetable cookbooks, and I have a very high bar when it comes to buying new ones.  Actually, that’s not true. I buy new ones in a fairly promiscuous fashion because that is my addiction, but I have a very high bar indeed for recommending that other people spend their hard-earned money on them.

So  here’s what I have to say about  Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables by Joshua McFadden: go buy it.  Now. Read it. Think about it.  It really will bring you to think in a new way about how to handle familiar vegetables.  Take salads, for instance. I like salads well enough but am almost never really excited by them.  They always seem a little predictable to me, and just throwing some meat, cheese, or eggy thing of some kind on top does not make them interesting in my view. McFadden’s  way of putting a substantial “pad” of seasoned nut butter sauce, savory seasoned whipped cream, whipped seasoned ricotta cheese, or other interesting  possibilities underneath the salad does make them seem new and like a real meal that I am happy to eat.

As good as the recipes are, I put this one in the “thinking cookbook” category,  i.e. an idea-rich cookbook that will affect the food you put on the table whether you were actually following a recipe from the cookbook or not.  Take the salad shown above, for example.  I had a lot of lettuce in the garden, including some dark red lettuce that still looked beautiful but had grown the slightest bit bitter  in hot weather.  I kept tasting bits of the leaves, thinking about what would make them taste good.  Ultimately, I whipped and seasoned some homegrown goat ricotta  with olive oil and salt, and smeared the plates with it, then arranged the red lettuce and some sweet green lettuce on top.  Then I put some of the ricotta mixture in the blender with an egg yolk and two cloves of roasted garlic, blended in more olive oil and some salt, and acidified it with lemon juice and white wine vinegar until it tasted just right, added some chopped marjoram because it seemed to fit in well, and used that as the dressing. I slivered shallot greens, soaked them in cold water briefly as McFadden recommends, pressed dry, and scattered them all over, and finished with warm leftover steak and bright sweet crunchy slivers of kumquat rind. The earthy rich ricotta dressing made the faintly bitter lettuce just right and complemented the steak beautifully, and dripped down to the whipped ricotta beneath to season it, while the kumquat rind added an electric zing.   Delicious and interesting to eat. It isn’t a McFadden recipe per se  but was entirely inspired by his methods and I would not have come up with it without reading his book.

The cooked vegetable recipes are very good too, as are the techniques. Just to name one, McFadden recommends grilling your vegetables “dry,” i.e. without oil, and then drizzling them with olive oil afterwards on the grounds that the burnt oil produces strange chemical flavors.   Even if you like the ones grilled in oil, I think you’ll like his method better. Try it and see.  I am also a fan of his section on pickles. These are not pickles that you can put on your shelf and keep forever. They are quick, delicate refrigerator pickles that serve as seasoning and garnish and add wonderful nuances to the flavor of vegetables.

This is a useful and excellent book at any price,  but I do wish to point out that the Kindle version is a special bargain and I highly recommend it.