Archive for the ‘home food production’ Category

Milkweed, For People and Others


People who live in wetter climates would be surprised, and probably amused, to learn what efforts I’ve made to have common weeds like nettles, burdock, chickweed, and milkweed grow on my property. Common milkweed, Asclepius syraica, has been especially difficult because it really does like moist soil and doesn’t tolerate “dry feet” or alkalinity gracefully.  It took a couple of tries before I got any to germinate, and now I finally have a few plants, which have to be watered and tended and fussed over as if they were orchids until they get stronger. I had to borrow photos because my own milkweed is still a bit on the spindly side.

One might well wonder why I bother. One reason is that I like to eat milkweed, especially the young seed pods, but the shoots and buds are just fine too. It’s a true nose-to-tail vegetable. Another is that I am transitioning from annual veggies to perennial wherever possible, and A. syraica is a good useful perennial that doesn’t require soil disturbance to grow. A third reason is that the flowers are fairly ornamental and send out a cloud of perfume reminiscent of flowery vanilla.

A fourth reason can be seen on this map:

Monarch migration

Notice how the sightings in New Mexico just peter out, while the ones in wetter areas east and west continue northward. Compare this to the maps on the same site for larvae and for milkweed. The migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico to the northern US is a migration of generations. The butterfly that arrives in Montana may be great-great-grandchild to the butterfly that flew north from Michoacon. All along the way they need breeding habitat, and their larvae feed on A. syraica and a couple of other closely related milkweed species. The leg of the journey through desert northern Mexico and southern New Mexico is a barren one, and a few milkweed oases along the way might help more monarchs make it to Colorado and further north. I can’t guarantee it, of course, but it seems worth a try. Adult monarchs will sip nectar from many flower species, but the fate of the larvae is tied to milkweed supply.

You can read more about monarch conservation here:

https://monarchconservation.org

Since my plants are still too young to pick for eating, I won’t be writing about milkweed in the kitchen until next year, but you can obtain the two wonderful field guides by Samuel Thayer, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, and be prepared to forage and cook any common wild edible. I never tire of recommending Thayer’s books, which contain great detail about identification and culinary use at various stages.

Backyard Mushrooms

For years I moaned and carried on about my inability to grow mushrooms as an integrated part of my urban homestead, and now I can’t stop them. All winter I grew oyster mushrooms in the garage on a substrate of recycled paper, and last month I put the theoretically depleted basket of substrate outside in the shade with the thought that when I got around to it, I would break up the broken-down paper and incorporate it into my mulch. Instead, the basket was within range of a sprinkler that I was using every other day to help some new plants get started, and produced another three pounds of mushrooms. So this might not  exactly be the Pacific Northwest around here, but the adaptable oyster didn’t care.

So my point is, as the Gangsta Gardener says, just plant shit. Plant what you would like to eat and don’t give up. Plants and fungi are resilient survivors and may astonish you at some point, even after initial disheartening failures.

The role of fungi in a healthy ecosystem is far-reaching and worth reading about. They are valuable beyond measure whether you can directly eat them or not. But my greed and gluttony makes me most interested in the edibles. Pleurotis ostreatus, the common oyster mushroom,  is vigorous and highly adaptable and also delicious, which works out well for my purposes. But I am experimenting with some other types. In an area of deep straw and mulch I put spawn of the wine cap mushroom, Stropharia rugosa-annulata, and it seems to be sending mycelia out through the straw. In August I’ll find out if it will fruit for me.

The mycelium above may grow into the mushrooms below:

DCF 1.0

Every year I make a new bed by putting down layers of cardboard and nontoxic paper recyclables and piling up a year’s worth of goat bedding on top. This is a mixture of goat manure and the alfalfa that she eats, and is as hot a compost material as you will find, so I do this in late fall or early winter, wet it down thoroughly, and let it compost in place over the winter. In spring, I start planting into it.  Generally, the first year I use hearty healthy unstoppable plants, such as mustard for greens and summer squash. They always flourish, and by the second year of the compost is finely broken down and will grow pretty much anything. This year I planted spawn of the almond agaricus mushroom, a compost-loving mushroom, into a first-year bed and will see what happens. But I was interested to note that a small shelf of oyster mushrooms poked out the side a couple of weeks ago. The oyster mushroom is not “supposed” to tolerate full sun or hot compost. To which I can only say, tell that to the oyster mushroom.

If you’re interested in learning more about offbeat ways of growing mushrooms, Mycelial Mayhem is a delightful romp through the casual side of mushroom growing. Mycelium Running is a classic about the role of fungi in ecology.

Spring Miscellany

Tonight I find myself eating a lovely and satisfying dinner out of the yard, and reflecting on a series of happy surprises.

First, I went to the shed to get a tool, and my latest mushroom laundry basket had a gorgeous huge clump of oysters across the top.

The tronchuda, or Portuguese kale, was still tender and sweet from night frosts, and there was a wild abundance of green garlic to cook with it because I finally planted enough to satisfy my taste for it.

The exquisite late Jeanne d’Arc crocuses were finishing the crocus season.

And the garden goods could be washed and prepped right in the garden where the water could do some good. This is an ordinary laundry sink, but I asked the nice man at the plumbing supply store to sell me the correct fittings to hook a garden hose to it. So the water can be turned on and off, and the water drains out into a bed that can really use the moisture. My ingenious yard man got me a 3 foot piece of hose with the correct fittings to attach to the fawcet at one end and the hose at the other, so there is no fumbling underneath when I want to use the sink. And it could be lifted and moved if I wanted the water to land somewhere else.

Life is good, and spring is good.

Goat Paneer

Goats are wonderful hardy friendly animals to have around,  and the amount of milk that they give is very considerable relative to the input required, but many people do not like the taste of most goat cheeses. If you are one of these people, or even if you like goat cheese, you may still want to know about some alternatives that avoid the goaty taste. Fresh ricotta and fresh paneer,  when made with fresh goat milk, are not distinguishable from cows’ milk products.  You need to use the milk within a day of milking, or at most two days, and it goes without saying that it has to be refrigerated all that time.

I have written elsewhere about making ricotta and you can review that page because the directions are the very same up to the pressing. Making paneer is every bit as easy but requires just a bit of forethought to have some simple equipment on hand. It has to be strained and then pressed. You can buy a cheese press for this, if you want it for some other purpose, but if you just want to  make paneer, all you need is  real cheesecloth (not the kind sold for dusting and polishing) for the straining, a  baking sheet,  a saucer, and a couple of bricks or other suitable weight. I use a springform pan and a nylon mesh bag made for straining fruit for cider.  A gallon is about the minimum amount of milk that is worth fooling with, and will produce about 8 ounces of finished paneer.

Heat the milk to almost boiling, watching it carefully because it wants to boil over. Add the vinegar, stir in, watch for the formation of curd, and add a little more vinegar if needed until you have white curdled curds in greenish whey.   Put a strainer in the sink or over a bowl if you wish to catch the whey and use it for some other purpose. Line with cheesecloth, pour the curdled milky mixture in, and let it drain for at least 30 minutes.  Within an hour, wrap the largely drained curds up in the cheesecloth with the idea of forming a block that will be about an inch thick. The other dimensions will depend on how much milk you were working with. For a gallon of milk, I plan a block of paneer about  3″ x 6″.  Put it on a baking sheet so that the remaining liquid can drain away, put the saucer upside down on top, and put the weight on the saucer. Or, if you are using my method, put the ring of the springform pan on the sheet, the cloth wrapped curds inside, and use the base of the springform pan on top  to hold the weight and “follow” the curd block as it shrinks in pressing.  Either way, leave your set-up for about eight hours.  You then have paneer, which can be used in many Indian dishes. It browns beautifully, and if the milk came from a grass fed animal, it is superbly  healthy.  It is the backbone of sa’ag paneer, one of my favorite dishes.  It also freezes well, so it’s a good way to preserve your precious grass fed milk.
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Spring Ricotta

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This  time of year we are having some warm sunny days and the heavy meaty dishes of winter no longer feel quite right, but I still want something warming  and filling.

At the same time, my doe goat Magnolia is nearing the end of a lactation, getting ready to deliver kids in six or seven weeks. At this point she’s producing just a quart a day, but it’s still rich milk produced entirely on alfalfa and I’m not about to waste it.

So every evening, after filtering the milk, I make ricotta, and when I have a few days’ worth of ricotta saved up I make ricotta al forno. I stole the recipe from Sarah Raven many years ago, and I haven’t tweaked it very much over the years because it’s perfect as is. The main change is that I use egg yolks instead of whole eggs. Yum.

Ricotta, about 1 and a half cups, but a bit more or less won’t hurt.
Yolks of 5 eggs
Salt to taste
Half a cup of heavy cream
Half a cup of grated Parmesan
Half a cup of pine nuts
Cooked veggies as desired. Or none.

Kitchen note: homemade ricotta is drained until quite dry. If you are using store-bought ricotta, you might need to hang it in the sink in cheesecloth or a clean towel for a few hours and let it drain. Otherwise, the resulting dish can be watery.  Another alternative, if you don’t want to take time to drain, is to add one additional whole egg to help it firm up a bit, or leave out the cream.

Put the ricotta in the blender with the cream and add the egg yolks one at a time while blending.  Blend in the grated Parmesan just for a second or two. Add salt to taste.  Decide whether you want vegetables. This is an endlessly versatile way to use leftover but good cooked vegetables. The version shown above has a couple of cups of leftover grilled zucchini, red bell pepper, and eggplant.  In the early summer, fresh cooked peas are absolutely delicious in this dish.  A good handful of chopped fresh herbs may suit your taste.  Just be sure that the cheese mixture is already seasoned properly.  Pour it into a buttered 8 inch baking pan, adding any cooked vegetables or herbs that you wish as you go. Top with pinenuts and push them in a little bit so that they don’t burn. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until done.  Let it consolidate and settle down for 15 minutes, then serve in  generous wedges.    A topping of your best homemade tomato sauce adds pizzazz.  My husband likes it with a sprinkle of extra finally grated Parmesan on top and run under the broiler for a minute, which produces the brown spots you see above. Just keep an eye on it because it does burn very quickly.

In June this is absolutely glorious made with some chopped fresh herbs and topped with homemade pesto.  For those of us who eat low-carb, it is something to put pesto on.  This lactation will only last two or three more weeks, but by June I will have fresh glorious grass fed milk again and be back in the ricotta business.

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The January Garden

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Here in agricultural zone 7 we have a fairly short winter, and I have never gone in for winter gardening.  I don’t have a greenhouse, for the simple reason that I have never been able to make up my mind what kind to get or where to put one. By late fall I have a freezer full of summer food, and I spend the long nights by the woodstove, catching up  on my reading and deciding what to try next.

This year, though, I decided to try some very low-tech strategies to prolong my season.  This came about largely because in September I happened to visit a local nursery for supplies and saw a single lonely six pack of young broccoli plants going begging.  It seemed a shame to let them become trash, so I brought them home and planted them with the vague idea that they might winter over. After a little more thought, I ordered  a roll of Agribon-19 plant protection fabric, a lightweight nonwoven fabric that conveys about 2 degrees of frost protection.  It is 13 feet wide and comes folded double, so I put a double layer over the 10′ row of little plants and held it down with stones and bricks around the edges. I did not use hoops or any other kind of support, just left plenty of room for the little plants to grow. (Please note that you cannot do this with tomatoes, peppers, and other plants that have a “growing point” at the top of the plant. In those cases you have to support the fabric and keep it off the growing tip. But the majority of cold-weather garden plants do just fine this way. )  I watered periodically, but did not pay any other attention to the plants until I noticed small heads of broccoli forming. Then I  started checking more regularly. Naturally, because of the cold, the plants grew more slowly and the heads formed more slowly than they would in warm temperatures. This was an advantage.  I found that the heads would hold for up to a week before harvesting with no loss of quality.

The heads were unusually tender and sweet. I liked them best just steamed with a little butter or olive oil and salt. Not every plant produced well. Two of the six plants began to form heads, then the infant head “browned out” and died, although the rest of the plant looked healthy.  I am not sure if this was a disease or what it was, and hope that maybe one of my knowledgeable readers can clue me in.  But I harvested four beautiful heads, and they are continuing to form healthy side shoots, including the two plants that did not form heads.  Not a bad return for my minimal effort, with an investment of $2.99 for plants and about $10 worth of frost protection fabric which can be reused.

Two weeks ago, after the encouraging broccoli results, I planted three beds of salad greens, cooking greens, and more broccoli. Two beds are covered with a single layer of the lightweight Agribon-19 and the other with the much heavier Agribon-70, which gives about 8 degrees of frost protection but lets less light through. So far, all the beds have germinated well. I will be reporting on results. I still want a greenhouse, but this is looking good as a cheap way to keep fresh food on the table.

Good candidates for  growing this way are lettuces of all kinds, chicory, practically everything in the brassica family including broccoli, kale, and collards, arugula, green onions, green garlic,  and who knows what all else.  One of the beds that I covered is one where I have let edible weeds go to seed in the past, so I will watch with interest to see if I get an early crop of those too.  I have planted some snow peas undercover as well, to see if I get a substantially earlier crop this way.  In my climate we have a lot of wind storms in the spring, and just giving some protection from wind might speed them along.

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This picture is a cautionary tale: you can see here that before using the lighter cloth, you do need to cut away any old stems etc. that are sticking up, since they can tear the fabric.

Also, because of the decreased light transmission, the plants growing under fabric are essentially hothouse plants and will have to be hardened off to full sun gradually in the spring.  I speculate that the more bitter greens such as dandelion would be tastier and less bitter when grown this way, but don’t know for sure yet.  I am greatly looking forward to finding out.

 

Oyster Mushrooms Redux

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In a post this summer, I wrote about the delicious oyster mushroom and my own irritation that I was not able to grow them. My luck has recently changed, as shown above.

Ironically, this was by far my least scientific effort. There are many good books on mushroom growing if you want to learn how to do it properly. But here’s the very improper way I did it:

1. You will need a gallon of concentrated hydrogen peroxide for the sterilization step. I got mine at a pool supply store. It is 27% and I diluted it about 1 to 10 with water to make a nearly 3% solution. I used half the bottle to make about 5 gallons of solution for a total cost of $15.00.

2. Have ready a laundry basket that you won’t need for a while, a large clear plastic bag like a clear garbage-sized bag, a bucket to mix the H2O2 solution, a large bin (a clean plastic garbage bin is fine) for soaking the growing medium, and a source of spawn. You can order sawdust spawn from Fungi Perfecti or a host of other sources. This was an impulse effort for me, and I used a small home oyster growing kit on sale at a farmers’ market and just crushed up the little sawdust log inside to serve as “seed. ” Don’t do the crushing until you are ready to mix it into the moist substrate.

3. Collect junk mail, newspaper, and cut-up cardboard until you have your bin nearly full. Remove any plastic wrappers. I omitted anything with bright pictures etc. to avoid introducing unknown inks.

4. When ready to proceed, throw into the bin a few handfuls of something high in nitrogen for nourishment of the mycelium. I used waste alfalfa because I have a lot of it around, but you could just use organic soy meal or something similar. I can’t be more exact than “a few handfuls” because that’s how I measured it.

5. Pour in your 1 to 10 hydrogen peroxide solution and let it soak a few hours. If you just cover your substrate mix, it should all soak in. Add a little more if needed, but you want it thoroughly damp, not wet.

6. Line the laundry basket with the clear plastic bag. Crush up the hyphae or spawn source if needed. Pile the damp substrate into the basket, adding a layer of sawdust spawn every couple of inches. Pull the bag shut at the top, tie closed, and use a knife to make punctures in at least 10 of the open spaces on each side of the basket.

7. If you want to duplicate my procedure exactly, you now plop the whole rig in an unused and unswept corner of the garage, stride away muttering that you have wasted a few more hours trying to grow mushrooms, and forget about it for 5 weeks or until your spouse informs you that giant mushrooms are popping out and you should go take a look.  Better results will no doubt be obtained if you do it right, which is to hang a sterilized plastic sheet as a humidity tent, not letting it touch your growing rig, and provide air circulation and a humidifier, or mist multiple times daily. Suit yourself. But I got close to 3 pounds of mushrooms at the first flush with no attention at all beyond assembling the growing basket in the first place.

So, I will try this haphazard method again, especially because it should break down my junk mail enough to make it possible to incorporate it into the garden. If you are a better and more detail-oriented grower than I am, please comment and let my readers know how you do it.

ADDENDUM: Had to add a picture of the proof of the pudding.

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