Archive for the ‘cooking’ Category

The Fall Summation III: The Firepit

I was happily involved in writing in the multiple parts of my fall summation IV post, when I suddenly realized that I never remembered to publish fall summation III. So here it is.

I have always enjoyed grilling as a wonderfully tasty way to cook meat and vegetables, but late this summer I acquired a firepit in my front yard, and it is fair to say  that it is one of the best small investments we ever made.  The pit itself is just a literal pit, a big hole in the dirt, skillfully lined with bricks by a landscape crew. Then there is a drop-in steel grill with a grate which is easily raised and lowered for precise control, and I wish I could remember where I bought it because it is the best ever.  Most important is the fuel, almost completely hardwood in my case although I start fires with twigs and small branches scrounged off the nearby walking path.

Cooking with wood is a whole different experience than cooking with charcoal, and I had not done it for about 25 years, so it took some time to get back in the swing.  When I want to just fire up the grill and cook something without undue fuss, I resort to my beloved Big Green Egg.  Cooking on the fire pit is more a process and an experience than just getting dinner ready. First, there is building the fire. Then, there is sitting next to it feeding it the right kind and amount of wood and giving it a few pokes at the right time to end up with a wonderful bed of red-hot coals  a couple of hours later.  Then there is cooking the food itself, and this is a hot eye-stinging experience that is somehow more pleasurable and more primal than any charcoal cooking could ever be.  The finale can then go one of two ways: either the coals can be damped with a bucket of water so that you end up with biochar for the garden or a bed of charcoal for the next fire, or more wood can be thrown on the fire and the diners can gather around it contemplatively with wine and marvel at their good fortune to be alive at this particular moment.

Don’t think that this is only an activity for carnivores. Pescatarians will find that wild-caught salmon is perfect for the grill, as long as you’re careful not to overcook.  Any vegetarian or vegan would love firepit cooking, for the rich meaty belt that hardwood smoke lends to vegetables. Eggplant, zucchini, and carrots are all wonderful sliced and grilled. I like to rub them with olive oil mixed with salt and a little chile chipotle. Wild mushrooms are lovely grilled, and store-bought mushrooms approach the savor of wild ones when grilled. Oyster mushrooms are especially suited to grilling.   Potatoes and sweet potatoes are both really good when pre-baked, pressed flat and about half an inch thick with your hand or the bottom of a glass, salted and brushed with olive oil or bacon fat, and grilled  just until the outside gets crisp and browned.  Sweet potatoes are very quick to burn because of the sugar they contain, so they need to be kept on a cooler part of the grill and be brought along more slowly and cautiously.  I understand that some people grill kale leaves very successfully, although so far I have not made that work well. And the more tender leaves of romaine lettuce are really delicious when the heads are grilled in halves.

One of my favorite recent dinners involved large shrimp seasoned and grilled in their shells, served on a bed of grilled romaine lettuce made by cutting heads of romaine in half, drizzling them with my mother’s marinade, and grilling them over very hot coals for 2-3 minutes on each side.  I am in favor of taking the grilled romaine into the kitchen and slicing it crosswise before plating it, for more graceful eating. The ribs of the romaine  leaves become softer, sweeter, and a culinary revelation. I would think that the same thing could be achieved with Chinese cabbage. Another small drizzle of marinade when on the plate adds to the general savor.  In the photo above you see the grilled treatment given to little dark blue Magic Molly potatoes, which I intend to write about in another post.   In general we eat low-carb and avoid foods like potatoes, but the occasional treat does not come amiss. Overall, this is a meal that makes you realize that nothing more miraculous has ever happened in human history than the taming of fire. It made us more civilized and brought wolves in off the tundra to be our companions. We co-evolved with them for the next 40,000 years to the benefit of both parties, and their descendents still seem to enjoy hanging around the firepit.

For more on the entrancing world of wood fired cooking, read anything by Francis Mallman, particularly his first book, Seven Fires.

Fall and Winter Leaves II: Nettles

Nettles are one of my favorite greens, and one of the most nutritious plants around, so treating them with the respect and care that helps you avoid stings is definitely worth the trouble. I have a thriving nettle patch in a corner of my yard that I don’t routinely have to visit, so I have always harvested the new greens in the spring and then assiduously ignored the nettle patch for the rest of the year.  This is partly because I get interested in other things, but mostly because as a child, when I first started foraging to the intense dismay of my parents, my mother wisely bought me a set of Euell Gibbons books so that I would not poison myself.  Mr. Gibbons wrote eulogistically about nettles, but cautioned his readers that after the spring flush they develop oxalate crystals and are gritty and inedible.  I believed every word he wrote, and so I never tried them after they were about a foot high.

Here in the desert, in the unwatered spot where they have to live in my yard, nettles die back beginning in July, and the stems look dead by September.  But this year we got an uncharacteristic long heavy rainstorm in late September, and to my surprise the dead nettle stems began to leaf out again.  This week I noticed a mat of fresh nettle leaves, and told myself that no doubt they would be gritty, exactly as Euell had predicted.  But I did gather a couple of quarts (using leather gloves) of nettle sprigs and tried cooking them. They were exactly as verdant tasting as the spring greens, and neither gritty nor tough.  Now that I know this, I will try to remember to cut my nettle patch back when it dies in the hottest late summer weather, and begin to water in September so that the late fall shoots will be easier to pick.

Cooked greens in the refrigerator are an appetizing snack or light meal waiting to happen.  Today I didn’t particularly feel like eating a heavy lunch, but I did want something, and I wanted it to be healthy. I had a cup of blanched nettle greens hanging out in the refrigerator, and half a cup or so of leftover cooked cauliflower rice, so I grabbed two large scallions out of the walking onion patch and picked three large carrot leaves off the last remaining carrots.  The garlic that I planted in late summer is sprouting, so I picked one stalk that was about 6 inches high  to use as green garlic.  The fresh green stuff was chopped and sautéed in butter until cooked through, then the cooked nettles and cooked cauliflower rice were added along with about 2 cups of canned chicken broth and half a cup of heavy cream.  You could certainly leave this as a chunky soup, but I decided that I wanted a cream soup, and put the little potful in my Vitamix blender. About a minute later, it was completely creamy and thickened. I poured it back in the cooking pan, added a little water to thin it to a good consistency, simmered for 10 minutes, salted to taste, and ate it with a spoon full of drained yogurt on top to supply a subtle acidic element.  The entire process, including grabbing the green stuff from the yard, took about 15 minutes. This is a pretty small time investment for something as absurdly healthy as nettle soup.

Needless to say, vary to suit your own taste. Cooked cauliflower is a surprisingly good creamy thickening agent, and if you are vegan you could use olive oil for the initial sauté  and vegetable broth for the cooking liquid, and leave the cream out or substitute nut milk. It could be finished with a few drops of lemon juice instead of drained yogurt. Vegetarians can change the broth and leave everything else the same. As written it is a delicately flavored and very comforting soup, perfect for days when fate is being unkind, but if you want something more emphatic  you can start playing with herbs.  If you don’t happen to have a nettle patch, use some other leafy green. Have fun in your kitchen and make the result work for you.  My mother objects to my greens soups on the undeniable grounds that they are green, but if you have a prejudice against the color green in food I do hope that you will get over it, because it is the marker for some of the healthiest food that you can possibly eat.

And by the way, Euell Gibbons wasn’t right about everything, but his foraging books are still well worth reading for their palpable joy in the outdoors.  In one plant essay he says that wild foods are his way of taking communion with nature and the Author of nature, and I think this sums it up.

Fall and Winter Leaves I: Savoy Cabbage

By late fall my freezers are always stuffed full, and I’ve done enough gardening for a while and am ready to sit by the stove in the evening, studying seed and nursery catalogs. But there’s always some late-season surprise in the garden to keep me interested. This year, it’s cabbage.  In late August I had a little empty space in a bed with rich soil, and a few savoy cabbage seeds that I hadn’t  remembered to  plant earlier, so I threw them in.  Most of them never germinated, because in desert country in August it’s pretty hard to keep a seedbed moist enough to start anything.  But two little seedlings did get going, and struggled through the heat and the competition, and when  the nights got cold in October they began to grow rampantly. Now they are about 4’ across. They’re thriving through the first hard frosts, but probably won’t live long enough to head up, so I started eating the leaves. To my surprise, these are the mildest and best crucifers I ever ate, far better than non-savoy cabbage, with a crisp texture, no toughness except in the veins, and no “cabbagey” aftertaste when chewed raw. They’re sweeter and milder than collards, kale, Portuguese kale, regular cabbage, or any other cabbage family green that I’ve grown. I tear the two sides off the large central stem/vein, which goes to the goat. Roll up the leaf halves, cut them in 1/4” strips across the larger veins, and then use your clean hands to massage them briskly by handfuls, planning about one minute per large leaf to soften the texture. If planning to use them raw, massage a bit longer. This massaging trick is invaluable in dealing with the more substantial leafy greens. Generally half a large leaf is plenty for one person, although real greens-lovers might eat more. Greens are full of soluble fiber and very filling.

As for how to use them, try any of the following:

Slaw, either classic or spicy Asian with ginger, scallions, and rice vinegar

As the basis for a Kale Caesar salad

Stir-fried with garlic and ginger, or with black bean sauce

Cooked like collards with bacon fat and onion and garlic, with a handful of crumbled crisp bacon over the top.

In a simple soup with ham or sausage, chicken broth, and sautéed garlic

Sauteed with leeks and finished with cream

Or try using them cut to appropriate size as a far healthier version of lettuce wraps, or whatever else you can dream up.

Like all dark leafy greens they are alarmingly healthy and likely to make you outlive your finances, so better keep saving. They are also surprisingly luxuriant and attractive in the garden, until you start cutting at them.

King Corn

King Corn, a documentary about the supremacy of corn grown for production of sweeteners and animals in American agriculture, was released ten years ago. At the time, some reviewers considered it too low-key compared to supposedly harder-hitting documentaries like Super-Size Me! But I think that King Corn has held up a lot better than some of its more shrill and polemical contemporaries, and I am going to try to get you to watch it.

First, let’s consider whether the problem addressed is still a problem. Have rates of obesity or diabetes gone down since the movie was made in 2007? Quite the opposite. In adults age 40 to 59, obesity has risen to a stunning 41%. In 2015, 9.4% of American adults were diabetic, and another 84.1 million were considered pre-diabetic. Our scientific knowledge of the hazards of sugar in all its forms has grown by leaps and bounds, and so has our national sweetener consumption. So, uh, let’s keep talking about this.

With that in mind, I watched King Corn unfold. It is a sweet low-key film and doesn’t hammer you with a message. It just shows you things. Things like Earl Butz laying out the paradigm change to “more food, cheaper food!” Things like anhydrous ammonia being injected into the soil, and herbicides being rained onto the soil in 90 foot swaths, all to grow more corn. Things like genuine and literal mountains of corn being shoveled into confinement animal feeding operations and sweetener factories. Things like current farmers admitting that they won’t eat their own product, and the owner of a confinement cattle feeding operation saying “if the American consumer wanted grass-fed beef, then we could and would produce it.” Things like Dr. Walter Willet of Harvard, one of the greatest nutritional researchers in the world, explaining what all this means in terms of American health. Things like small American farmers going under as their neighbors consolidate to produce more and more and yet more corn. And, tragically, things like a delivery driver talking to one of the protagonists about the ultrasweet grape soda that he drank constantly when he was growing up, and about his father‘s eventual death of diabetes. “They amputated his toes first,” the driver says, “then his foot, then his leg below the knee, then above the knee. When they started cutting on his other leg, he gave up. He died.” The driver went on to say that he himself had lost a huge amount of weight just by giving up soda. I’m a doctor and this scene made me want to cry. Currently the national cost of diabetes in the US is calculated to be a stunning 105 billion per year, a figure that becomes even more remarkable when you learn that it does not include the cost of workdays lost. The cost in human suffering and loss of lifespan and healthspan is beyond calculation.

If you wonder what any of this has to do with an urban gardening and home food production blog, I would say that it’s the backbone of what I’m talking about here all the time. It simply is not possible to grow or make at home anything that is as unhealthy as most of what is sold to you in stores and restaurants. I seldom venture into large grocery stores these days, but when I do, what I see is aisle after aisle of things that are not really food. Don’t eat this stuff.  Bushels of money are being made out of messing up your health. Grow something, cook it, and eat it, or buy it directly from the person who grew it.  Take an interest in the health of the soil right around your own house. Take to heart the interview clips in King Corn that show Michael Pollan sitting and talking to the interviewer with his home garden in the background, Tuscan kale prominent.  Plant one little plot of kale, cook it six or seven different ways, and see what you like.  Use the fall and winter to start planning a small garden for spring. Find three recipes for leafy greens that you really enjoy, and make them often. Serve them to your family and friends.  This is not just a fun and loving but a subversive act.   Almost everything in our corporate food culture is designed to get you to eat things that are not good for you. There are corporations that exist to make a mint at the cost of your health,  and then other corporations that make further fortunes by making pharmaceuticals to treat your food induced health conditions and allow you to continue eating swill, but you are smart and wily and you are going to begin fighting back.

Garden Errors

In my last post I mentioned using finely chopped carrot leaves in an herb pesto, and it occurred to me that there is a bit more to say about this because it pertains to what to do when things go wrong in the garden. The brief answer is: see if you can eat them anyway, maybe in some other form.

This spring I used all my allotted carrot space on an heirloom carrot called Oxheart, because it was billed as not only tasty but short and thick, perfect for my heavy soil. And it was a very nice carrot indeed except that at the four month point most of the row shot to seed, jettisoning the typical biennial habit of right-thinking carrots. So there I was with no carrots for fall and winter and a row of ferny foliage and lacy white blossoms so pretty that I hated to tear them out.

So I began experimenting with how to eat them anyway.  The ones already blooming were left in place for bee fodder.  The ones that were just beginning to throw up short bloom stalks, with stalks less than 6 inches high when I discovered them, were pan-grilled as whole shoots, a tasty and delicious use.

Carrot shoot in the center

This left a large number that were beyond the shoot stage and beginning to form buds, but not yet blooming.  The leaves were still tender, and I began to gather them to add to cooked greens mixtures, and then began to use them chopped finely as a garnish, much in the manner of parsley. They taste different, of course, but have a fresh green flavor with a dose of terpene that I found very attractive.  They are loaded with vitamin K, if that is of interest to you.

This left the stems, and I found that they too had a use, although they are a little tedious to prepare.  The top half of the stem can have the fibrous outsides pulled off and you’ll see a crisp green pith  that has a fresh juicy flavor a little bit like celery but with a carrotty tang.  There is an inner fibrous layer that doesn’t come off, so you have to cut them in cross-sections no more than a quarter inch long.  They add a nice crisp crunch with a fresh flavor to nearly anything, especially herb pestos and chimichurris.  When in doubt about whether a particular segment of the stem is edible, peel it as well as you can and then bite into it. If your teeth do not go cleanly through it and nasty threads are left hanging off the end, don’t bother with it.

Peeled carrot stalks shown to the right, chopped carrot leaves and thyme at the top

The roots of carrots that have shot up a bloomscape are no longer tender, but they can still be peeled, sliced, roasted, and made into flexible Romesco or roasted carrot hummus, proving the carrot’s status as a true nose-to-tail vegetable.

Above, gone-to-flower carrots were oven-roasted for carrot Romesco, but don’t try to eat them as plain roasted carrots at this point, because they are fairly tough.

I should add that creative harvesting is like foraging; never make assumptions about safety. The fact that one part of a plant is edible and safe never means that another part is.   As it happens, I already knew that carrot leaves and stalks were safe to eat, and most problems that happen when foragers try to eat wild carrots come from dangerous misidentification with poisonous, even deadly, members of the same family.  So if you gather carrotty looking things outside your own garden, be very, very sure that you know what you are looking at.

Once all of the above is said, I have to add that I would rather have had winter carrots, and next time I will be a little more careful with my seed source. But an error here and there keeps our thinking fresh.

Green Odds and Ends

On my occasional staycations I have time to interact with my garden and kitchen in a leisurely way. I have time to notice things. Unfortunately, some of what I notice is at best a call to action and, at worst, a problem unfolding itself.

Take lambsquarters. This  weed is a real nutritional powerhouse, and also is happy to take over your world if you allow it.   I have written in the past about how to make it behave itself, and I do wish that I had followed my own good advice this year. But I foolishly let some plants go to bloom, which means that the leaves are scant and seeds will shower on my garden soon.

Well, all is far from lost, because Chenopodium album is still producing something edible. Notice the branch tips and you will see the clustered buds ready to pick and cook. This common weed is a true nose-to-tail vegetable.

To the right above, you see tightly packed buds, perfect for cooking. The single branch to the left shows looser formation and tiny little yellow stamens, indicating that it’s gone to flower. It’s still edible at this stage but the stem is tougher. A little later the seeds start forming and, to my taste, a slight unpleasant bitterness develops and the stems get noticeably tough, so I try to eat it up before that point, but the seed clusters look a lot like the initial bud clusters. Chew a bit raw if you want to be sure. If it tastes mild and green but not bitter, and the stem can be snapped in your fingers without undue effort, it’s kitchen-ready.

Steam or cook in a skillet in a little good olive oil until done to your taste, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, and eat. I steamed a batch for dinner and had some leftovers the next day, enough for one but there were two of us, which is how I came to use the cooked leftovers as the basis for a thick pesto to eat with halloumi and eggs.

The lambsquarters buds are very mild, so I chose a handful of fresh dill leaves to be the dominant seasoning, and some young carrot leaves chopped finely for the bright fresh green element (my parsley didn’t do well this year.) I put a clove of garlic in the mini-prep, added 1/3 cup of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon, ground in the cooked lambsquarters buds, and then turned it into a dish and stirred in the chopped dill and carrot leaves to avoid too fine a texture. Add more olive oil or lemon juice if called for, salt and pepper to taste, and it’s ready to serve alongside nearly anything. If you don’t like dill, use something else. Only fresh herbs are appropriate for this type of vegetable-relish.

After frying the halloumi in olive oil, I decided to fry an egg apiece in the remaining hot olive oil. To add a little pizazz I dropped two generous pinches of chopped dill leaves in two places in the hot skillet, then immediately broke two fresh eggs on top of them. Flip the eggs after a minute and cook to preferred doneness.  Those who are only familiar with the fusty-musty dried dillweed may be surprised how much they like fresh dill in this context.

I’m curious about the nutritional content of this lambsquarters-broccoli but there isn’t any available data. So I can only say that the leaves are powerfully nutritious and the buds probably are too. And wherever you may go in your life, short of prison, lambsquarters will be there. At times when I worry about the future, it’s comforting to think that if I’m ancient and beyond digging and planting, lambsquarters will grow just fine and will be on the menu as long as I can totter to the kitchen.

 

Bold Scrambled Eggs, and Notes on Egyptian Onions

I love Indian food and cook it frequently, and I especially love the simple dishes that make quick meals in Indian homes. This is a cuisine that vegetarians should get to know well, since the population of India is about 40% vegetarian and vegetable dishes abound. But it can seem daunting to view the ingredient list of many Indian recipes, and the toasting and grinding of spices for each dish can require more time than is available.

So start with simple scrambled eggs. These are loaded with bold flavor, and easy to make. I lean low-carb so I eat them plain, but you can scoop them up with warm parathas or warmed-over naan from last night’s take-out, or pat out squash flatbread thin and use that. It’s always a good investment in your health to use the best eggs that you can lay hands on if you don’t keep your own hens. Check out the farmer’s market and get eggs from hens that have been fed a lot of greens, since bugs and leaves are a big part of the natural diet of a hen.

The only out-of-the-ordinary prep that you need to do is to toast some whole cumin seeds in a dry skillet just until they are fragrant and a little darker and then grind them in a spice grinder. In the summer I do a tablespoon at a time so that I always have a bit on hand, but don’t make too much because once toasted and ground it doesn’t stay fresh for long.

Be sure to add salt to the vegetables as they cook, as directed. This is part of getting them to soften properly and assures that they are seasoned through.

For two hungry people, you’ll need:

3 eggs and three egg yolks, or 4 eggs if you prefer, beaten a bit

4 large green onions or a bunch of the little grocery store type, cut in 1/4″ slices crosswise, whites and greens kept separate

Ghee, 2-3 tablespoons, or neutral oil of your preference

one small bunch of cilantro, washed and chopped finely crosswise, stems and leafy parts kept separate

one teaspoon of ground toasted cumin seed

Heat the ghee in a skillet, and add the white parts of the green onions with a good pinch of salt and sauté over medium-high heat until cooked through but not browned. Add the onion greens and the cilantro stems and another small pinch of salt and cook until the onion greens look softened; taste one to be sure that they have become pleasant to eat. Add the beaten eggs and yolks and cook, turning over with a spatula, until they are cooked to your preference. Taste for salt and add more if indicated. Add half the cilantro leaves and the toasted ground cumin to the pan and stir to distribute, serve, and top with the remaining cilantro leaves.

This is great as part of an Indian brunch for two as shown above, or by itself as a quick easy meal that can be on the plate in 15 minutes if you have the ingredients handy. You can also make a mini version in your smallest skillet with one big green onion, a few stalks of cilantro, and one egg, if you aren’t hungry enough for a meal but want a nutritious snack.

If you love green onions and want to have them around throughout the growing season, my blogging friend Luke has helped me figure out how to do it with Egyptian, or walking, onions. Once you have these sturdy onions, you have them. To get started, I ordered a hundred top-set bulbs off Etsy one fall when they were plentiful. It’s a bit of an investment by gardening standards, but it’s a one-time thing. Choose an area with good rich soil that gets plenty of sun and water. When the top set bulbs arrive, plant 20 of them and keep the rest in a cool dry place well away from direct sun, with excellent air circulation. No plastic bags. The following spring, when the ones you planted in the fall are about 6″ high, plant 20 more. Keep going in like fashion until you have succession-planted them all. If I notice the ones in the storage box sprouting, I put the box in the refrigerator until they are all planted.
When the fall planting is over a foot tall, but has not yet sent up the tough inedible central stalk that forms the top bulbs, start harvesting. This is important: snap or cut them at the soil surface rather than pulling them out. The bulb and roots that you left in the ground will sprout a few new green onions for later in the year. After managing your patch this way for a year, they will get so thick that they are pretty well defended against weeds and you will need to start pulling some out by the roots to prevent overcrowding. At that point, you can also start deciding when to let some go long enough to form top bulbs, and you can either start a new succession bed or give them to a friend who wants to try it.
At this point I let mine perpetuate themselves from the ground and rarely let them form topsets. I keep two smaller beds, one in full sun and one in partial shade, and they yield at different times and keep a fairly good succession going with minimal input from me except harvesting and cooking.

I do top-dress periodically with well-rotted goat manure and kelp meal. I’m a great believer in kelp meal, for bringing back onto the land some of the trace minerals that we washed off it into the ocean. I strongly prefer the organic Icelandic kelp meal from Thorvin, because it is harvested from an area of the ocean tested for heavy metals and some of the other nasties that we are washing into the water. I don’t want a closed system on my tiny urban farm, because any trace mineral deficiencies that existed wouldn’t get corrected. The Thorvin meal would get pretty expensive on a commercial scale, but for the small urban homesteader it’s a healthy investment. I also use it generously as a supplement for my chickens and goat. For the chickens I mix some into any moist food that they like to eat, such as any leftover cooked greens or wilted salads, and for the goat I mix it with organic blackstrap molasses to make a treat that she will trample me to get.