Archive for the ‘Cook’s treat’ Category

My Years with Cardoons

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It took me a long time to learn to eat cardoons. My own cardoons, at least. I first found them in the market while honeymooning in Italy, and there they are neatly blanched, trimmed, and ready for the pot. I loved them, and ordered seeds from Italy as soon as I got home. They grow robustly in my desert climate and alkaline soil, and they are very ornamental. I had them for years before I successfully cooked them, and they were wonderful bee fodder all that time, blooming in the blasting-hot late summer when few other flowers are available to our pollinators. I tried to cook them without the tedious step of blanching the plants, and would say that this just doesn’t work.

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They die back unattractively after flowering, but then sprout again from the ground up. The foliage is silvery, full, and stunning in November. Unfortunately this is also the time when they’re best for eating, so mine aren’t exactly ornamental right now.

Before eating, blanch the stalks for a couple of weeks. I covered mine with some landscape cloth I had around, which is black and fuzzy and nearly lightproof while letting air and water through. You could also wrap your bundled plant in a couple of layers of corrugated cardboard, tieing it on carefully to exclude light from the stalks.

When blanched, use a sharp knife to cut the whole center out of the plant. Wear gloves, because cardoons are thistles and have nasty bristles down the edges of the leaf stalks and at the leaf margins. Cut off the leaves, leaving a bundle of stalks, and pull off any outer stalks that look ragged. My goat adores the leaves and trimmings, and since the leaves are intensely bitter, this is the best use for them.

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Separate the leaf stalks, wash well, and use a vegetable peeler to skim off the outer margin on each edge, where the bristles are. Now use the peeler to skin off the tough stringy part on the convex outer surface of each stem.  When you are done, they will look like the peeled stalk on the right above. The innermost stalks are tender and fairly stringless and just need the base trimmed and the row of bristles on each edge skinned off. Be sure you pull off the leaves from the center stalks, because even though they are very blanched and not bitter, they are tough even after cooking. Cut off the stalks at the point that they start to look corrugated and use everything below that.

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Cut the stalks in half-inch cross sections  and blanch in boiling salted water for about two minutes, then drain well and either continue cooking as you desire or refrigerate them for later.  They have a flavor rather similar to artichokes, so I gave them a bagna cauda treatment by sautéing them for about five minutes in plenty of good olive oil with a chopped clove of garlic and half a mashed anchovy fillet and a final garnish of roasted pine nuts.  Their own flavor is subtle, so don’t get too heavy handed with the seasonings.

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I think they are awfully tasty. The bad news is that one large plant, with a fair amount of preparation, makes two generous servings.  But given that they are drought tolerant, attractive, and truly carefree perennials, I don’t mind putting in some effort in the kitchen.  As for the low yield aspect, I will just work on growing more of them.

Incidentally, before they flowered last summer, I picked a flower stalk when it had lengthened to about 3 feet but before the buds started to swell. I peeled the thick tough skin off the stalk, cut it in sections about an inch long, and sautéed it in olive oil with some salt until cooked through and fairly tender.  The upper 8 to 10 inches of the stalk, when treated this way, made a delicious vegetable with a crisp texture and a pronounced artichoke flavor.  The other 2+ feet of the stock were not usable because, even when the outer tough skin is peeled away, fibers have developed in the pith itself.  But if you have a lot of cardoons and can afford to pick several stalks, this makes one really delicious vegetable. Otherwise treat the top of one stalk as a Cook’s Treat and cook it in your smallest skillet and eat it standing up in the kitchen, gloating quietly to yourself.

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The Oyster of the Woods

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There is nothing more interesting than mushrooms. Really. An independent kingdom of organisms, they have much in common with animals and their interactions with plants are complex and often beneficial. For a wonderful read about mushrooms and their biological role, check out Paul Stamets’s Mycelium Running, and you will be wonderstruck at the hypheal hijinks going on all around you.
They are extremely easy to grow for everyone but me.  I am convinced that mushrooms have a very important role to play in a functioning urban homestead, even here in the high desert.  So far, however, I have been unable to make that work out in practice.  I have tried spreading the spawn among existing plantings under heavy straw mulches, and putting the spawn in piles of hard wood chips, and so far have not had any significant success, due to lack of consistent moisture, lack of shade, dry air, and insufficient attention.  I have harvested a few mushrooms, but nothing to write home about.  That is why the below images below are borrowed, to show how easily it can be done in moister climates than mine.
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Since I have finally accepted that it’s going to take more focus than just throwing some spawn around, my next attempt will be to insert plug spawn into damp hay bales in the dense shade of my black locust tree. I have also cut down a small Siberian elm recently and have a few pieces of suitable fresh log to try drilling plug spawn into. Next August I will harvest them, or not.
Meanwhile, many farmers’ markets have a mushroom farmer or two, and oysters can be found in our river bosque here and in many woods and forests if you are a knowledgable forager and know exactly what you are picking. Mushroom foraging is not for you unless you are prepared to study it seriously and know all your local toxics. No margin for error here.
However you get hold of them, good oyster mushrooms are just delicious. I love their earthy-almondy aroma and their meaty texture. I like them best simply pan-fried with a little macadamia oil and salt, but roasting them with a bit of butter and soy is awfully good, and so is grilling them rubbed with olive oil. The addition of a little chicken glacé early in the cooking stage so that it can cook into the caps suits their meaty flavor.
For preserving, I roast them with macadamia oil and salt just to the point that they are cooked through, cool them, bag, and freeze. When wanted, they can be thawed and pan-grilled until they get some lovely brown crunchy bits. I dehydrate the clean stems as long as they’re not buggy and grind them into oyster flour to thicken mushroom sauces and soups. I admit that I also open my little bag of oyster flour just to inhale deeply and recall the woods where I found them.
Yesterday I found that I had tossed more caps with macadamia oil and salt than would fit in my roasting pans, and stuck the surplus in the dehydrator. They emerged as delicious crunchy lightly browned Oyster Crackers. Yum. I will make more of those. A small pan-grilled cap on an Oyster Cracker would make a wonderful cook’s treat. In fact, a couple of them with nothing on top made a great cook’s treat…

Tomatillos, Salsa, and the Summer Garden

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The flavor of tomatillos  is one of the wonderful flavors of summer. This is their glory time, when the plants I have stuck into odd corners have tangled themselves throughout the rest of the bed and are making fruits, almost hidden, which are a fascinating mixture of sweet, tangy, and tart when roasted. Right now tomatillos are ripening  in their husks and I can make one of my favorite salsas. This is an old Rick Bayless recipe, modified only slightly, and couldn’t be easier or more full of flavor. Start with about 30 large tomatillos (mine were about 2 inches in diameter) or maybe 50 smaller ones. Remove husks, rinse, and set in a single layer on a baking tray covered with aluminum foil.   Put five cloves of garlic on the baking sheet off to one side where they won’t burn, still in their skins. Broil under high heat until they look cooked on the top and have black spots, turn them over, and broil until that side is cooked.

Image borrowed from no recipes.com

Image borrowed from no recipes.com

Cool a little, skin the garlic cloves, and put the tomatillos and their juices and the garlic in the food processor.  Add at least two canned chilies chipotle in adobo and their associated juice, more if you like it hot. I like 4 large chipotles in this quantity of sauce.  Grind to the degree that you prefer. I like a chunky texture.

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Now, I add the quintessentially Mexican step of frying the salsa.  In my largest skillet I heat 2 tablespoons of chosen fat, in this case fat from my homemade bacon. When the fat is hot, pour in the pureed salsa. It should sizzle furiously.  Fry it over high heat for a couple of minutes, until it has thickened to the degree that you want.  Salt to taste, and it is ready to use. The frying step smooths and blends the flavors in a delicious way. It’s good hot on grilled or smoked meat, gratineed with cheese, room temp with chips, or any way you like to eat salsa. I especially like the tangy-smoky flavor on grilled vegetables or mixed into cooked greens just before serving, or on top of them with a good sprinkling of Cotija or queso fresco. At the top of the page you see my lunch today, a little piece of leftover steak sliced and broiled with salsa and smoked cheddar on top, a fitting reward for the very minimal labor of making the salsa.

Incidentally, in the past I have grown several different kinds of tomatillos including the small purple ones that are supposed to have a more pronounced flavor, and at least under my growing conditions they all tasted pretty much the same. The small ones  are more tedious to pick and involve a great deal more labor in preparation per unit of finished salsa, and so I grow the biggest ones I can find.

Sunflower Stems

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Lately I have been inspired by Pascal Bauder’s cookbook The New Wildcrafted Cuisine and can’t quit yapping on about it. Most recently I found myself trying to apply his eye to sunflowers. They are a common weed in my area, and so useful to the birds and so pretty in bloom that I can hardly bear to pull them out, so I have far too many of them. Recently there was internet info that ” You can eat the leaves and the stems and the buds!” This does not accord with my own experience; edible yes, choice not hardly- so I set out to experiment.

The leaves are very coarse and fibrous, and my own experiments in cooking them have been totally unsuccessful when there are so many other wonderful things to eat.  They might be a useful survival food, but for thriving at the table they are not good fodder. I do like the sprouts in salads, the first two cotyledons that emerge when the plant sprouts, but when the leaves are any larger than that they are not to my taste.  Incidentally, it is easy to plant a large handful of viable seed in an out of the way area maybe a foot square in late fall, and at whatever time it comes up in the spring you will have a bunch of sunflower sprouts ready to harvest and all in one place.   They are delicious in salads.  Just remember to get them before the true leave start forming.  There is no toxicity at any point, but I only find them pleasant to chew before true leaves form.

My current experiments are with the stem.  This gives me the opportunity for another blast at Internet information provided by people who have never actually eaten the plant in question. You will find information that “you can eat the stem and it tastes just like celery!” Do not just grab a stem out of the garden and start chewing, even a small one, because from a very early age they have a very fibrous outer layer.  But yesterday I found myself engaged in a long boring kitchen task that required continual presence but very little attention, and decided to do some experimenting.  The first part was simple: peel off the outer layer. This is easily accomplished with a vegetable peeler, but if you don’t have too many stems to work with you will lose a fair amount of edible material this way. I started by working my thumbnail under the fibrous layer of the lower cut end of the stem, peeling upward, and then using the vegetable peeler just to skim off whatever stringy bits were left.  I started with stems about the size of my index finger, and they were about as thick as my little finger when I finished.  They seemed to discolor slightly as I worked with them, so I dropped them in a bowl of water with a squirt of lemon juice in it.

Tasted raw, they were pleasant in a mild way, with a touch of sunflower flavor, mostly a generic mild green taste, and a great crisp texture. I wouldn’t bother to eat them that often, but they were nice enough. But when cooked, they came into their own.

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I combined them with some tender shoots of wolfberry (goji,) probably about half and half. Be sure to cook only goji shoots that snap cleanly off. If any peeling of bark occurs, they’re too tough to eat whole.

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I’ve become  a fan of using macadamia nut oil for dishes like this, where I want to be sure that I can taste the nuances of flavor in the plants.  Macadamia nut oil is very stable, has a high smoke point, and has a pleasant rich buttery flavor but does not mask other flavors in the way that a strong olive oil might.  I added a good pinch of salt and stir fried the mixture until the goji leaves were dark green and beginning to crisp, but not to the point of any browning.

The result was delicious. The goji leaves and stems had a pleasant mild herbal flavor, and the peeled sunflower stalks had come into a rich nuttiness with artichoke overtones but retained some crispness.

It made an excellent cook’s treat, and I will try it again on a larger scale.  I think that a minute or two more of stirfrying would have benefited the sunflower stems a lot, and next time, I will not combine them with other shoots but will work on getting the cooking time exactly right for them.  But this was an excellent simple dish that I would not be ashamed to serve to anybody.  Now I find myself speculating about the gray stripe sunflower grown for bird food, and whether its enormous single stem would be palatable at a young age. Only one way to find out.

And don’t worry, I will always leave plenty of sunflowers for the birds.

 

The Shoots of Spring

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This is the great season for hops shoots. I gather a large handful every day or two, taking care to snap them off where the stem is tender and brittle. I wash them, cut the bundle crosswise in pieces about an inch long, toss in a hot skillet with a generous amount of good olive oil, and sauté over medium-high heat, turning frequently, until the stems are tender and  some of the leaves are brown and crisp. Add salt and serve. They have a “wild” and slightly bitter flavor which I love alongside very flavorful meaty main dishes.

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This spring I started to experiment with other shoots. I have been eyeing the invasive tendencies of my goji bushes, which routinely send suckers out 10 feet to send a shoot up right where I don’t want another goji plant. They are turning up everywhere as the weather warms.

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I knew that their foliage was edible but had never been much impressed with the taste, and there aren’t many leaves per bush. The shoots, on the other hand, are bulkier than the leaves, green, tender, and a nuisance unless removed. Yesterday I gathered young shoots of  silene (bladder campion,) goji berry bush, perennial arugula, and alfalfa to experiment with ( shown L to R below.) I wouldn’t try cooking with any shoot that didn’t break off with a clean, brittle snap. You don’t want them woody.

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I didn’t cut them up, just washed them and let them drain. Then they were put in a skillet with some olive oil and fried over medium-high heat until the leaves were crisp and browned. I would guess that it was about two minutes a side. Watch carefully; the line between browned and burned is crossed in milliseconds.

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They were drained on paper towels, salted, and eaten.

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They were actually a rich brown in spots, not black as they appear in my photo. The alfalfa and silene shoots were crisp and pleasant enough to eat, but all I could taste was olive oil and salt. I had used a wonderful olive oil so I didn’t mind that, but I do like a vegetable to taste of itself.  The stars were the goji and perennial arugula shoots. The hot and mustardy flavor of perennial arugula was tamed and made interesting but not excessive, and the goji shoots had an herbal flavor and a delightful texture. I will definitely cook them again. I can easily cook them for my husband and myself, but they need lots of room in the skillet to crisp, so I don’t think it’s practical to make them for more than two people. They are too fragile to withstand being dipped into anything, and are best eaten on their own. They are a passing fancy and to be enjoyed as such.

I only wish that all my invasives could be dealt with by eating them.

There are many other shoots to consider, and this is a time of year for perennial veggies to shine. Meaty young milkweed shoots should be wonderful. It has taken me three years to get a milkweed patch to germinate so mine are still spindly infants, but if you live in an area where it occurs naturally, do give it a try. Asparagus, the classic shoot, is wonderful when pan-fried like this. Young slender green onions can be treated this way with good effect, and green garlic could be great, although in this one use I would use only the white part, since the leaves can seem stringy if not chopped in cross-section. I will soon be experimenting with shoots of young wild lettuce as it starts to bolt. I think these would need to be blanched first to reduce bitterness, but I’m not sure yet.  I’m very fond of using the fresh tender shoot-tips of coppiced mulberries as a green, and I think they would be very good given this treatment, but they don’t come along until about June, so it will be a while before I find out. See here for a discussion of the ins and outs of selecting and eating mulberry leaves.  The young second-year stems of chard leaves that emerge when an overwintered plant sprouts in the spring, before it starts bolting to seed,  might be good for this, trimmed of their green leafy bits and maybe cut in inch-long chunks if they seem a bit on the stringy side. And I have written before about using the young flowering shoots of scorzonera this way, and they are definitely the highest culinary incarnation of that tough perennial.

I often mention Cook’s Treats, the series of improvisational tapas for one that I enjoy in the kitchen when nobody’s looking and I’m doing other things. Four or five tasty shoots, thrown in your smallest skillet with olive oil while you’re working on other things, make a great cook’s nibble. You will need to give them your undivided attention for a few minutes and that’s all, which fits well into the rhythm if many kitchen tasks.

Sweet Spring Onions

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Sometimes it’s possible to gain benefit from distraction. In the spring I usually buy some  plants of the sweet onion variety Candy, because I like them for scallions in midsummer. Last summer one short row of them got away from me and matured, and since I was focused on other things at the time, I never got around to harvesting them. Early this spring they began to sprout in place, and now each of the original bulbs has produced 3-5 large sweet scallions as thick as my thumb. These are lovely as a vegetable, sliced in cross section and stewed in butter over medium-low heat with some salt until done. They are superb brushed with olive oil and grilled over coals until cooked through, taking care to keep the heat low so that they don’t burn, which happens easily. One or two grilled on the stove in a grill pan would make a nice cook’s treat while you’re cooking other things.  They need to be eaten as soon as they’re a good size, before they start to produce a flowerscape. The scapes are edible too, but personally I don’t care for the texture and usually use them to flavor broth.

I plan to harvest all but one scallion from each cluster and leave the remaining ones to mature, picking off the scapes and leaving the bulbs in place over the winter, to see if I can get a similar harvest next spring. A self-perpetuating patch of Candy onions would be a great way to greet spring.

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Early Harvest: Green Garlic

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Other than herbs and alfalfa tips for my chickens, green garlic is always the first thing that I harvest from the garden.  In my climate, which is more or less USDA zone seven, I plant in October and nearly always harvest green garlic the first week of March.  The part of the garlic patch that I plan to harvest green is planted very closely, about 2 inches apart each way, which is plenty  of room for this purpose.  Every year I plant more. It is really good stuff. For a long time I thought that it might not really be worth the trouble, because I was harvesting and eating only the white stem and incipient bulb and composting the greens.  Duh. The greens are the best part, as well as being full of allacin and other antioxidants, and any part that is bright green rather than yellow or brown can be used. You can grow a useful amount in a few square feet if your soil is rich, and it is harvested and out of the way in time to plant something else for the summer.

In the picture above you see a stalk of green elephant garlic, which is really a leek relative rather than a true garlic.  It is typically a foot or more tall and an inch or so in diameter at the green stage.   It has a slightly different flavor from true green garlic but is equally delicious.  I once bought green garlic at a farmer’s market that was bitter, but I have never tasted any other that was bitter. It may have had to do with growing conditions or variety. I have heard of people chopping garlic leaves into salads as a seasoning, but personally I don’t care for the taste raw and only use them cooked.

With all green garlic, I trim the roots and leaf tips and wash, then line them up and cut them in cross-section into slices about a quarter inch thick.  I sauté  in either butter or olive oil, whichever will suit the rest of the meal, slowly until the greens are tender. A little salt is thrown in along the way. They become soft and sweet and delicious, and I enjoy eating them as a vegetable on their own.  They also go very nicely into all kinds of other vegetable dishes.  If you are a carb eater, they would be delicious with fresh handmade egg pasta, butter, and a discreet amount of Parmesan, or tossed with new potatoes and butter. I love them in mixtures of cooked greens, too, and they are a lovely complement for fried eggs.  I plan to make a cream of green garlic soup  at some point this spring.  A few stalks sautéed in your smallest skillet while you are cooking other things also make a very nice cook’s treat  to eat standing in the kitchen, as a sort of tapa for one. After all, the laborer is worthy of her hire.

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Like all the rest of us, green garlic will lose its youthful bloom sooner rather than later.  When the bulb is swelling and the leaf tips are turning progressively more yellow, it is past the point of being worthwhile to eat green.  In its brief season I harvest 10 or 12 stalks whenever I have some free time, clean and sauté them, and have them waiting in the refrigerator.  If I haven’t use them within a day or two, I vacuum seal them into neat little packets and keep them in the freezer to go in summer dishes.