Archive for the ‘edible landscaping’ Category

Of Spruce and Steaks

Every now and then I love a really good dry-aged ribeye on the grill,  and one of my favorite accompaniments is spruce tip butter.  The young growing tips of spruce trees in the spring have a fascinating array of flavors, ranging from bright and citrusy to something close to turpentine. I wander along my favorite trails tasting in until I find one that is on the spicy citrusy side, and  bring home the tips to chop and sauté in good butter for a few minutes. The spruce tip butter can then be frozen for use later in the year.  I like to freeze it in pats the size of large ice cubes, so that one pat is plenty of finishing butter for two steaks.  The frozen butter can be put on the steak for the last minute of grilling, and as the steak is finished for five minutes in a 200° oven it will finish melting luxuriously into the top.  If you happened to grill some onions along with the steak, this butter is delicious on them too, and it is a way of bringing your spring time hikes home for the rest of the year.

There aren’t many spruce trees in my area so this compound butter is the only thing that I make with the few tips that I have available, but if you have more trees available, you can consider other uses for the tips, such as spruce beer or Hank Shaw’s spruce tip syrup.

 

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 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.

Independence

On this July 4th, I am sitting after dinner contemplating the hardly-revolutionary idea that all independence is local as well as national, and neither can exist without the other. I have wonderful irreplaceable freedoms under the Constitution. I also have a little plot of land on which to grow food like the garlic shown above, a splendid local system of farmer’s markets where I can buy what I can’t grow like the  pork belly that I roasted, and a system of national forests that preserve nearby wilderness areas where I found the oyster mushrooms. Without the national systems that protect our local freedoms, none of this could be maintained.

So be conscientiously local. Grow what you can, and buy what you have to. Waste as little as you can manage. Connect with other local people. Compost and reuse as well as recycling. Support your area farmers, not just by buying their products, but by realizing that your votes can support politicians who are sympathetic to local farms. Keep it always in mind that “All politics is local.” Connect with your neighbors, even if (especially if) their political views are different from yours, because both you and your neighbors might end up with something new to think about. And love and relish this country and support its national freedoms and national programs, and refuse to consider abridgment of its freedoms or demonization of people who don’t look or sound or worship exactly like its founders. We are bigger than that.

 

 

 

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?”