Archive for the ‘edible landscaping’ Category

Baked Feta

I love the texture that feta acquires when baked, firm and compact and steak-like and very different from its crumbly fresh incarnation,  and I love to season it with assortments of garden and wild greens gathered as the inspiration strikes.

For this infinitely adaptable recipe, you will need a quarter cup of drained capers, two cloves of garlic, a quart loosely packed of very flavorful chopped greens and herbs, plenty of extra virgin olive oil, and a block of feta sized according to your appetite. This dish can be anything from a meze to a full meal, depending on the size of the feta block. Just be sure that it’s high quality; this is a good time to check out your local Middle Eastern import store. Cut two “steaks” of the desired size, being careful not to crumble them.

Have ready olive oil, two cloves of garlic chopped, and a handful (maybe 1/4 cup) of capers, rinsed of brine and squeezed dry. An optional but very pretty addition is some red pepper, roasted, peeled, and chopped, or some red chiles roasted, peeled, and sliced.

Next, choose your greens. I decided that I wanted the flavor to be bright, tart, and lemony as well as herbal, so I started with 15 good-sized wine grape leaves. If you are going to use fresh grape leaves, please read my post on choosing grape leaves first, because some are unchewable and will ruin your meal.

I added dandelion leaves, the new ones that have grown after the plant bloomed, which are tender and only slightly bitter. I used about a dozen, cutting the stringy ends off as shown.

Then a double handful of mulberry shoots, using only the ones that are new, bright grass-green, and snap off easily with very little use of force.

Finally, some fennel shoots, the top of the bloomscape as shown, before the flowers emerge and open. The stalks are tender, nonwoody, and wonderfully anise flavored at this stage. Once the flowers emerge, the stems become woody.

Wash all your greens and sliver them in fine cross-section. make sure the fennel shoots are cut in fine slices less than a quarter inch thick. Preheat the oven to 350. You will start cooking on the stove, but if you use a Spanish cazuela it can go right into the oven for the second step. Heat the dish and sauté the garlic in olive oil until just cooked but not at all colored. Put in all the greens and the capers and cook, stirring frequently, until the greens are cooked and soft. Taste for salt, but salt it on the light side, since you are going to add feta.

When they just begin to fry in the oil, remove from heat and scatter the red peppers or red chiles around the edges, then put the feta “steaks” in the middle and drizzle olive oil over all.

Bake at least 15 minutes or until the herbs and peppers look all cooked together, probably about 15 minutes. The cheese might color slightly at the edges but won’t brown. If you like it to brown, run under a hot broiler for a minute, taking care not to let the greens burn. Serve with sourdough bread if you can have it, or with a salad alongside.

I am sometimes the target (quite fairly, I might add) of complaints about imprecision. “A double handful,” the precisionists cry, what on earth is that? I reply that it’s the amount you have, and if you don’t have any, you probably have something just as good. I cut my eyeteeth on Elizabeth David recipes with her terse, one-cook-to-another directions, and I hate the mindless insistence of “precisely 1/8 teaspoon” sort of directions.  “But drizzle with olive oil, how much do you mean?” Somewhere I read the story of a new wife being taught a recipe by her Greek mother-in-law, whose directions included “Then close your eyes and pour in olive oil.” That’s how much I mean.

A Quick Thai-ish Snack

After yesterday’s brief dissertation on nam prik pao,  it occurred to me that one thing I had not really demonstrated about this Thai seasoning paste is its ability to make something very good very fast.

Today I was not hungry for lunch but did want something healthy in a hurry to tide me over.  I decided on a quick very small bowl of greens. I used mulberry shoots, but any rather sturdy green would do. If you use something substantial like collards or kale, one collard leaf or two kale leaves  would work for a passing snack.  For smaller leaves, a generous handful is the right spirit.

All you need is your leaves, fish sauce, a little coconut oil or other cooking fat, and nam prik pao.  Wash and chop the leaves or, if they are large and substantial, chiffonade them.   Heat your smallest skillet, put in the coconut fat and heat it briefly, and put in a heaping teaspoon of nam prik pao.  Stir it around for about 30 seconds to distribute it through the fat, throw in your greens over medium heat, and stir around for a couple of minutes, drizzling with a little bit of fish sauce but not too much because the small quantity of greens can get too salty in a hurry.  When the greens are done to the degree of tenderness that you like, put them in a little bowl and eat them.  Simple as that. You will feel a pleasant glow of virtue because of the soluble fiber and antioxidants that you have taken in, and it will taste good  and take less than five minutes. The leaves are whatever struck your eye on the way from the garden to the kitchen and took approximately a minute to gather. No fuss no bother.  You can chop some herbs on top if you want to and that will be delicious, but it will still taste awfully good without them.

You could use the same principle to make a side dish for dinner, or for that matter a main dish, and a few different Southeast Asian vegetable dishes with a cushioning bowl of rice if you can eat it make a wonderful dinner full of interesting flavors.  If you are a low-carb person, you can use cauliflower rice instead of real rice, or have both available for the various kinds of eaters at your table.   But the recipe as written is for your own private pleasure.

An Easy Southeast Asian Evening: Thai-ish lettuce wraps

In hot weather  I start to crave the food of hot climates, especially Thai food.  Since I eat as few carbohydrates as possible, much of what I cook is pseudo-Thai, but it can still be delicious.  Having some good condiments on hand can be a shortcut on an evening when I worked late, and my favorite Thai condiment is nam prik pao.  Once I made my own according to the complex directions in David Thompson’s authoritative and addictive cookbook Thai Food,  and it was the best I ever had, but it is quite an undertaking and involves deep frying a succession of ingredients before grinding them together, and deep frying is not my favorite cooking modality.  Too messy.  So except for special occasions, I use the fairly good bottled one from Mae Pranom.  Just as a warning, this excellent Thai company makes several different condiments that all say “Thai chili paste” on the label, and are only fully and accurately labeled in Thai.    So my recommendation would be to order through Importfood.com, a very good US purveyor of Thai ingredients, and get the one that they say is nam prik pao.  While you’re at it, order some Shark brand Thai sriracha sauce, which is different from the Vietnamese style and can be hard to find.

Besides the nam prik pao, you will need a pound of good ground meat.  I used wild boar because I had some in the freezer, but ground goat, ground pork, or plain old ground beef would all be fine.  The vegetable component was a pound of Oregon Giant snow peas. Any good snow pea or sugar snap pea will do.  Lettuce leaves are needed for serving, and I used leaves of the hot climate celtuse-type  lettuce Balady Aswan,  but romaine is fine if you don’t grow your own.  Other needed ingredients are a small knob of ginger, two cloves of garlic,  one large or three small green onions,  fish sauce,  coconut cream (unsweetened) or coconut oil for cooking, sweetener of your choice, and a large handful of chopped fresh mint.

Blanch the snow peas or sugar peas in boiling water for two minutes, drain and cool in ice water, and slice diagonally.  Slice the scallions diagonally, and chop the ginger, garlic,  and mint. Now you’re ready to cook.

Heat a skillet or wok over high heat and boil the coconut cream hard for a minute or melt coconut oil. Stir-fry in the chopped ginger and garlic for a minute, then add 1/4 cup of nam prik pao  and fry until it looks like the picture. Add your ground meat now and continue to stir-fry over high heat. When it’s about half cooked, add the sliced green onions, sweetener to taste, and fish sauce to taste. I used a quick squirt of liquid sucralose and about 3 tablespoons of fish sauce. If you’re being authentic and using palm sugar, I would guess that about two tablespoons would do it. Go easy if you’re not sure, because you can adjust later. Stir-fry until the meat is completely cooked, add the blanched snow or snap peas, and cook over high heat another minute or two until they are heated through. Taste and correct the seasoning if needed.

I should add that I was using my large perennial green onions, and in the hot weather this time of year they take a bit of cooking to become tender and pleasant to eat. If you are using the store-bought kind, you can add them closer to the end of the process. Know your ingredients and adapt your methods to get the best out of them.

Top with chopped fresh mint just before serving and serve with stacks of lettuce leaves. I like to add a sweet-hot dipping sauce made with equal parts fish sauce and rice vinegar, artificial sweetener added until it’s pretty sweet, and sambal oelek or sriracha added until it’s pretty hot.

Once you have the basic formula, the dish is endlessly accommodating.  Use whatever ground meat you have, and I speculate that ground chicken or salmon might work well too. If snap or sugar peas aren’t in season, consider green beans ( be sure to blanch until tender) or greens of almost any kind. Collards could be delicious, especially if preblanched for a minute to improve tenderness.  Even slightly bitter greens are worth considering, although I would reduce the quantity and not use anything more than slightly bitter. But the coconut fat and sweetening does a lot to  ameliorate a small amount of bitterness.  Broccoli would be delicious if blanched and then cut in small cubes to fit into  the general texture of the dish. Mushrooms  are another excellent possibility, and dried soaked shiitakes cut in cubes would be good but mushrooms that you grow yourself might be even better. Some mushrooms such as oysters are pretty juicy and it is worth dry sautéing them in a separate pan to get excess liquid out before adding them to the mixture.

Other herbs are worth considering. Thai basil is a natural, and Italian basil is  something that I would consider if I did not have Thai basil or mint handy.  It just occurred to me that the licorice-sweet leaves of sweet cecily might be really good in this context, so I will be trying that.

Personally I get very annoyed with finding most  Thai food in America smothered in chopped peanuts, but I admit they’re delicious and they do add a good texture. If you want to explore other texture additions, a little chopped jicama or maybe even raw Jerusalem artichokes would add a sweet crunch.

 

The hallmark of a good basic recipe is that you rapidly learn how to make it come together easily and adapt to your whim of the day and what is available in your garden.  I always keep ginger, garlic, fish sauce, and some basic Thai condiments in the house, but ultimately your supply of basics may be different.  If you want to announce your food as authentic Thai, then by all means read David Thompson’s cookbook and follow his lengthy and exacting directions. But if what you want is to have delicious food on your table that suits your needs and what is available in your garden, then be imaginative and don’t worry yourself overmuch about authenticity. Just pay attention to the basic logic of the flavors.

My Winecap Mushroom Bed

Early this spring I was putting down straw mulch around some new plantings in the shade and decided to order and incorporate some spawn for the winecap  mushroom, Stropharia rugosa-annulata.  I have never grown or tasted this mushroom before, and so I was very excited yesterday when a young friend pointed out “a giant mushroom” under one of the new little saplings.  My first winecap was a healthy 6 1/2 inches in diameter.  I cooked it plainly in butter with a little bit of salt, and it was perfectly nice but I would say not significantly  better than store-bought cremini mushrooms.  Still, my homegrown mushrooms are deep organic and came from my own land, so of course I favor them,  and they benefit the soil and the growing plants as well as me.

The advantage of Stropharia  is that it is fairly rugged and easy to grow. I am told that it grows much better in deciduous wood chips then in straw, and at the very least I should have mixed in some deciduous wood chips or put some on top, but it is one of those things that I meant to get around to and haven’t done yet.  Maybe I will still top up with some wood chips.

They grow well in the paths between garden beds, and once you have them established I am assured that you can move shovelfuls of the substrate around and start new  mushroom beds pretty much at will. The presence of fungi can be very important to the health of plants, and for much more on this fascinating subject I recommend reading “Mycelium Running.”

Here’s an important safety bulletin: just because you “planted” mushrooms in a specific spot, it is not safe to assume that any mushroom that comes up in that spot is what you planted.  There is absolutely no substitute for knowing the identification points for the mushroom you planted as well as for any poisonous look-alikes.  The mushrooms that I grow in my garden, oyster mushrooms and Stropharia, are easy to identify so this is not a difficult task.

The hugeness of the Stropharia  mushrooms can make your whole garden seem Wonderland-like and magical. It might not be the very best eating mushroom there is, but it is quite wonderful to have a visitor gasp and say “Ooh, what is THAT?”

 

The Oregon Giant Pea and the Taste of Early Summer

I think that I have written before about my entrancement with the snap pea/sugar pea called Orgeon Giant. In my opinion, it’s the most delicious thing of its kind  and I gorge on this type for as long as its season lasts. I begin to harvest my early spring planting in late May, waiting until the pods are bulging but not round and making sure to pull the strings off, and at first I eat them blanched in boiling salted water for four minutes and then sautéed in butter with a pinch of salt for a couple of minutes. They go well next to everything.

But as the season gets into full swing, I have enough of them to get ambitious. I continue to be obsessed with Joshua  McFadden’s new cookbook Six Seasons,and tonight I happened to be struck by his addition of English peas to Pasta Carbonara. I don’t eat pasta for carby reasons, but it occurred to me that the traditional carbonara flavors, while rich, are also rather full and gentle, and might go wonderfully with sugar peas even if there were no pasta involved. I hasten to add that there is no question that a large plate full of sugar peas will not do anybody’s carbohydrate count any good. However, we all have our vices, and I do tend to allow anything green.

Have all the prepping done before you start cooking because it goes very fast.
So I started with 2 quarts of enormous peapods, loosely packed. I picked them over and pulled the strings off, and cut them diagonally into pieces roughly an inch long as you see above.
There is no question that piggy products do peas a world of good. I did not happen to have the classic carbonara ingredient pancetta on hand and so I decided to use a thick slice of mild applewood smoked bacon. I cut it into cubes a little bigger than 1/4 inch square. I chopped two cloves of fresh garlic very fine, finely  chopped a small onion, grated about a cup+ of very good Parmesan, and separated out the yolks of three eggs. A quarter cup of heavy cream ended up smoothing out the mixture.

The bacon cubes were rendered gently over medium heat, and the onion and garlic thrown in when they were about half cooked. This mixture was cooked together until the onions were cooked soft without allowing it to color, and meanwhile a couple of quarts of salted water were brought to a fast boil. The heat was turned off under the bacon mixture, and the chunks of pea pods thrown into the salted water and cooked for exactly 4 minutes. The pea pods were drained well in a strainer but not shaken totally dry, and then returned to the hot saucepan, the bacon mixture added, the cream poured in, and sautéed over medium heat for about a minute. Now, working very fast off the heat and stirring  continually with a wooden spoon because a metal spoon would break up the peapods, the egg yolks were added and tossed around for a little under a minute, until the cream looked a bit thickened. Then the Parmesan was tossed in off the heat. When the sauce amalgam look thick and creamy, about a half teaspoon of freshly ground pepper was stirred in and the dish was immediately plated. You can add a little more cheese on the top if you like. Serve hot with some additional black pepper ground over the top.
This may be the purest expression of the sugar snap pea pod, somehow even more classic than the simple blanched pods. The pods retain some texture, and the swollen peas that float around the finished dish are pure essence of early summer. This is a main dish  and if you accompany it with some good white wine, you are very unlikely to want anything else.

Feeding Our Pollinators

Sometimes I write a post that is a thinly disguised excuse for posting a bunch of pictures of flowers. However, it isn’t frivolous because flowers really matter. One of my gardening goals this year is to keep a fairly steady supply of flowers going for the pollinators and notice which ones they visit the most.

Starting in early spring, the Japanese plum trees were heavily visited. The next thing that bloomed was the black locust tree, and it was absolutely mobbed with bees. I could sit under the tree and listen to the loud hum.

Next, wisteria, which seemed to be especially attractive to bumblebees.

Turkish Rocket  proved to be a fair bee plant.

The olive-leaved sylvetta arugula is exceptionally attractive to pollinators of all kinds. It’s reliably perennial in my garden and can tolerate any amount of neglect.

The most wildly attractive of all my nectary plants are the poppies. Lavish Shirley poppies, unimproved cornfield poppies, breadseed poppies, Oriental poppies, the bees adore them all. They would be worth a lot of trouble to have, but they aren’t any trouble.

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This year I planted patches of bee’s friend, Phacelia tanacetifolia, which is supposed to be the best nectary plant going.  In my garden it bloomed at the same time as the poppies and is being somewhat ignored in the poppy frenzy, but bees do visit it and I enjoy having it around, so I will certainly plant some more next year.

Ornamental and edible alliums that are allowed to flower are a hit with honeybees.

I plant alfalfa all over the place and always let some flower, and my common yard hollyhocks are visited frequently by bees.  There are many unspectacular flowers that the bees like just fine. I  grew a lot of arugula around my yard and let it go to flower so that it will see that self, and the bees like the small nondescript flowers.  If you grow vegetables in the mustard family and don’t get around to eating them all, you can always let one or two go to seed and the bees will enjoy them. Edible weeds dandelion and sow thistle are liked by bees, making them nice  to have around on two counts.

Just don’t spray. Please don’t spray.

Turkish Rocket in garden and kitchen

Last year I finally got around to planting  the perennial vegetable Turkish rocket, Bunius orientalis, and this year I was able to experiment with it in the kitchen. I had read that it was invasive and so I limited myself to five plants that I could watch carefully, meaning that my experiments were on a very small scale. So far, here’s what I found:

As so many have discovered before me,  the leaves are so strongly mustardy that they create quite an unpleasant burn in the back of the throat, and they are not a culinary object as far as I am concerned. Even my goat wouldn’t  eat them.

The bud clusters are used like broccoli rabe.  They can be very delicious, but timing is everything. The proper stage is shown in the photo above, when each stalk has one small bud cluster and the buds themselves are green, not yet showing the edges of bright yellow petals.  At this point, they can be blanched in boiling water for a minute or two, drained well, and then sautéed in olive oil with garlic and chili flakes and have the slight nutty-mustardy quality of good rabe,  with no burn as you swallow. You would need several well-established plants to get enough for a few servings, as far as I can tell, but they would certainly deserve their space.

Here’s a close-up of a stalk in the perfect stage for eating. Snap off the top few inches of stem with the buds and it will cook up beautifully.

This picture shows the next stage in the stalk’s development.  The stem has elongated and the small original cluster has spread into sub clusters. I had hoped that this would be a good stage for harvesting, since you would get more material than at earlier stages, however it was not to be. At this stage, even when  cooked, there is a very unpleasant mustardy burn that continues to build in the back of the throat for a few minutes after swallowing. Not a pleasant experience. Once the subclusters have started to show and some yellow shows on the outermost buds, don’t bother.  It is possible that they could be  cooked longer, cooled, and ground with olive oil, salt, and maybe a little lemon into a sharp mustard-like condiment, but I have not experimented with that and throw it out as a purely theoretical idea, possibly similar to a green horseradish sauce.  Because of the throat burn factor, if you choose to experiment with that idea, try it out privately before you foist it on hapless guests.

Then there is the flowering stage at which it is a bright cheerful yellow and is a fair bee plant, not highly preferred but certainly visited.

This is the stage that I am waiting for, so that I can plant a whole row of it and have a lot more to cook in the future.

For me this perennial vegetable fills a good niche  after the winter broccoli is gone, but before the spring broccoli begins producing. This time of year there are a lot of edible leaves in my garden but not too much else, so some textural variation is very welcome.

Regarding the claims of invasiveness, I am sure that this is true in many areas, but in my desert climate it requires a fair amount of water to grow well, so I doubt that it could grow outside the confines of my fence.