Archive for the ‘Perennial edibles’ Category

The Siberian Elm and Our New Ecosystem

When I write about the uses of invasives, I can usually count on getting a lot of hate. So I’ll say this up front: I am thoroughly acquainted with the awful side of the Siberian Elm, Ulmus pumila. It invades inexorably, grows indefatigably, sucks up groundwater needed by our beautiful native cottonwoods, and is generally regarded as a trash tree. It’s changed the entire ecology of the Rio Grande bosque. I get all that.

But here’s the thing: while pamphlets and online sites are devoted to how to battle the Siberian elm, the battle is over and this tree has already won the war. It’s everywhere, and it cannot be eradicated.  So as I see it, we might as well look at whether we can use it well. And since I only write about my own small home ground, I am not looking at how to use hundreds of acres of it well, but how to use it on a half acre.  It grows lustily even in our dry desert climate, and there are large areas where it is the only green thing around, so I feel a certain gratitude to it. But I don’t allow it inside my yard because I want other trees there, and because as soon as I step outside my gate, it’s everywhere.

For me, its food uses are limited. I’ve written before about the edible samaras, or seed cases,  and I won’t say more here except that they have a pleasant green mild taste and are produced in unbelievable quantities every spring, and the chickens like them as much as I do.  As I get further into permaculture I’m experimenting more with tree leaves that have culinary uses, but I can’t find anything much about Siberian elm leaves except on the wonderful site Eat the Weeds, where I find that the young leaves are edible cooked. I admit that this doesn’t sound enterprising on my part, but I haven’t tried it yet. I have so many other green things to eat that it will probably be some time before I make this experiment.  I can’t find any nutritional analysis even about their use as fodder, although I did find one reference stating that they might be a potential source of higher-protein forage for animals.

But when it comes to nutritious forage, I typically let my beloved old dairy goat Magnolia make her own decisions. And there is no question that Siberian elm is her favorite food and one of the few foods that she never gets tired of.  So over the years I have been letting Siberian elms grow up along my longest fenceline, and cutting them back above the top of the fence. New branches grow at astounding speed below the cuts, and Maggie chows them down as an almost exclusive diet all summer long. She is naturally on the thin side, but loses no weight during the 6-7 months of her elm diet, and her enthusiasm never fails. The usual life-span of a domestic goat is 9-11 years and she is pushing 13, so I don’t think it’s done her a bit of harm. The feed is free, as local as it gets, and gives me plenty of mostly unwanted exercise with the cutting and hauling. The trunks occupy the space along the hot baking hell of the open space, and I don’t give them any water so they’re surviving on what they can find on their own. There’s no doubt that they look scraggly between cuttings, but I can tolerate that to see Maggie so happy. And if I ever get hungry enough I’ll try eating them myself.

The hens also love the leaves when young and tender. They might eat the tougher late summer leaves if cut up, but I don’t bother when there are so many other greens for them.

I’m largely talking about animal feed here, but whenever I allude to possible human uses I feel compelled to say a few common-sense things about wild and unfamiliar foods:

1. Never assume that because an animal can eat it, you can eat it. Goats in particular are able to eat some plants that are toxic to other animals including humans. Magnolia’s metabolism is wired differently than mine.

2. Never assume that because one part is edible, the whole plant is edible. Black locust blossoms and elder flowers are delicious, but the leaves and stems are toxic. There is no substitute for studying reliable authorities.

3. Never assume that because other people including reliable authorities can eat it, you can eat it. Test a small amount of any new food, and wait a day before trying more.

A Quick Note on Bamboo

I love bamboo shoots, and several years ago I bought two plants of Phyllostachys dulcis, the famously invasive and delicious sweetshoot bamboo. I enriched the soil, planted and mulched, supplied plenty of water, and waited confidently for them to invade, so that I could start eating. Four years later the two plants are a scraggly 5’ tall each. Each year one or the other, but not both, makes exactly one spindly shoot which often follows a kamikaze trajectory toward the goat paddock.   In all this time, I have eaten exactly one bamboo shoot. It was very good, but a pretty poor return on investment.

This May, after a few days of absence from the garden, I was looking along the fence row inspecting hops vines  when outside my fence, in the desert open space, I saw a startlingly robust bamboo shoot almost 20 feet tall.  Phyllostachys dulcis is spreading out into an area that is impacted, alkaline, and gets only our natural rainfall, which is 10 to 11 inches per year.  In short, it is a bamboo’s version of Hell, and yet this is where my expensive and pampered plants have chosen to stake their claim.

Plants are naturally perverse, and the more you want a particular plant to flourish, the more perverse it typically becomes.  It is as if they thumb their noses at the whole concept of domestication.  But next spring I will watch the desert strip outside the fence and see if the miracle repeats itself. If so, I may finally harvest enough bamboo shoots to be worthwhile.  If it finally begins to behave like a real invasive, I can always take my goat out on a leash to teach P. dulcis some manners.

I should add that if you don’t live in the desert, you can’t afford to be cavalier about invasive plants. Be aware of your neighbors, don’t invade their space unintentionally, and if you plant an invasive bamboo you really need to create proper rhizome barriers. My P. dulcis  plants have a foraging goat between them and any neighbors, and the part of the open space they are growing into actually belongs to my property. I doubt that they can get far on 11” of water annually, but if they show truly invasive behavior out there I have room to make a concrete barrier.  I have never seen a bamboo get out of hand here in the desert, and don’t anticipate it happening now, but I’ll act assertively if it does.

Nettle Ale, and notes on the Drinkmate

One of the nicest things about having an active permaculture garden is that you have strange plants around you in all phases of growth and you’re led to read and to experiment. A couple of months ago I found myself eyeing my healthy nettle patch, where the nettles were almost three feet tall and well past the greens phase, and wondering what could be done with them. I got on the Internet and came across British recipes for nettle beer. I was curious about it because the cooking water from nettles has a strong and distinctive taste that I don’t find exactly pleasant, yet people reported liking the ferment. Well, no harm in trying. I started with three gallons of water in my huge stockpot, and picked (with sturdy leather gloves) about 75 nettle tops. I also added 10 large hops leaves and 10 large Concord grape leaves on grounds that, if the brew was revolting, at least it would contain some resveratrol and chalcones. I boiled all this at a full rolling boil for fifteen minutes, and then let it cool. I fished all the plant material out with a strainer scoop, pressed all the residual juice out and returned it to the pot, and gave the pressed mass of leaves to the chickens. No sense in wasting those nutrients.
I brew by instinct and not by recipe, and I think the next step is the most important: TASTE THE COOLED JUICE AND THINK ABOUT THE FLAVOR before sweetening the liquid. The sweetness will be fermented out, so it’s important not to think of it as part of the finished flavor.  Don’t think in terms of a recipe that you’ve read. Think about what it needs to improve the flavor, and try to supply that.  This juice was not promising, with a strong nettle taste and little other flavor. It lacked any acidity so I added the juice of four oranges and one lemon, giving it a light but pleasant acidity. I decided to go with the strong herbal flavor and added a large angelica leaf and stem, which would remain in the fermenter during primary fermentation.  I also added back the squeezed rind of one of the oranges. Use organic if you do this. Next, I needed to give the yeasty beasties something to eat. I sweetened with one pound of organic sugar per gallon of water, for an eventual alcohol level of 4-5%, just above near-beer, and pitched a yeast intended for hard cider. This all went into the primary fermenter, where it bubbled merrily for a couple of weeks. When the bubbling slowed, I racked it into a clean fermentation bucket, leaving the angelica leaf and rinds behind with the sediment. I tasted  the brew at this point,  and to my surprise the distinctive nettle taste was completely gone.  I could taste the aromatics from the oranges, a slight and becoming touch of bitterness from the angelica and hops leaves,  and an overall mild herbal flavor, and while the brew  still tasted raw and unfinished, it was pleasant.  After another two weeks, it was racked into a keg and put under carbonation.   Chilled and  carbonated, it has become one of our favorite choices for a quick glass of something-or-other in the evening.  It is blessedly  low in alcohol and good with light meals like salads. It tastes best sweetened slightly with a drop or two of liquid stevia or similar added to a glassful. We like it so much that I promptly started another batch dubbed Stinger Brew II,  but this time I left out the oranges and just added the juice of one lemon to a 4 gallon batch.  When primary fermentation is finished and I rack it off for secondary fermentation, I will taste and see if it needs any more acidity, and I plan to dry hop it at this stage because my hops should be in full bloom at that point. Where Stinger I is more like a light herbal wine, Stinger II will be more like a light true ale.  If you really want it to taste like a beer rather than a wine, you could use malt syrup  or malt extract  to sweeten the juice, but I like the more winey  quality that comes from using sugar.

So, as I am always saying, embrace the experimental nature of cooking, brewing, gardening, and life.  If I did this commercially, I would have to keep very exact measurements for consistency between batches and would have to try to maintain each batch exactly like the one before, since that is what customers expect.  But my ingredients are variable, my process is variable, I am variable, and I do not want two batches that taste the same.  This is very freeing.  Liberating yourself from the tyranny  of the recipe is one of the nicest things that can happen to a cook and brewer.

Beer, wine, and mead can be carbonated by charging with some sugar, bottling in swing-cap bottles, and waiting. But there are easier and surer ways. If I want a large quantity carbonated, my husband oversees a kegerator made for refrigerating and carbonating 5 gallon kegs, and then the bubbly stuff is dispensed via a tap. It’s very handy, but needless to say, you don’t necessarily want 5 gallons of any one thing. In those cases, I use the Drinkmate. It’s a sleek carbonation device that uses smaller CO2 canisters and special bottles to carbonate a liter or less at a time in just a couple of minutes. There are a number of carbonation devices on the market, and they all work just fine for carbonating water. The Drinkmate is different because it will carbonate any liquid. Carbonated juice could be delicious if you drink juice, and it occurs to me that sparkling mint tea would be delicious in the summer.You can read more about the device here. If you want to buy one, you can get it here. Replacement CO2 cylinders are available at Bed Bath and Beyond, and empties can be traded in there for half-price new cylinders. Order a few extra bottles when you order your Drinkmate. I’ve noticed that when plain carbonated water is available in the fridge, I drink more water in total, and sparkling water is better with meals than plain water. Carbonation also brings out the flavor of water kefir, which I make in large quantities. With or without a drop of sweetener, it’s delicious.

Passing pleasures: Hops shoots

Many years ago I planted hops vines along my fences, planning to use the flowers for brewing. Not long afterwards, I gave up beer for weighty reasons, but in my difficult climate I’m not likely to get rid of plants that grow lustily with no attention. There was also the delightful bonus of hops shoots every spring. Gather the young shoots by snapping them off at the point where they snap easily. This is usually about the terminal 6-7 inches of the vine.

When it comes to cooking them, I’m very opinionated. After trying other ways, I’m convinced that this way suits their rich-bitter flavor best. Rinse the bundle of shoots and cut them in cross section, 1.5-2 inches long. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. You don’t want to crowd the pan too much. A 12” skillet is right for one large bundle of shoots.  When the pan is hot through, add a glug of good olive oil, swirl it around, and add the shoots. Toss them around, sprinkling them with a good pinch of salt. Toss the shoots every couple of minutes.

Here’s the part that many find difficult. When they look like this, keep going. Taste them at this stage and, if you like them you can stop here, but I think that you haven’t yet tasted hops shoots at their best. Instead add a pat of butter, at least a tablespoon, and keep cooking.The butter will brown a bit and is important to the flavor.

This stage, in my opinion, is their point of perfection. They have shrunk considerably. The stems are browned in spots and many of the little leaves are brown and crisp. Taste for salt and serve. I find them delicious. They are especially good alongside ham or bacon, and I like them with fried eggs for lunch.

Hops plants are known to contain an estrogenic compound and chalcones. The latter are an interesting group of chemicals with anti-tumor properties, and you can read more about them here. What this means in practice is anybody’s guess, and my own opinion is that it means very little, since the shoots are only in season for about 3 weeks and no one person will eat enough of them to make much difference one way or another. They are a springtime gift of the earth, thrown up exuberantly in great quantities with no effort on the gardener’s part except providing them with something to climb on, and I cherish them as such.

If you plan to grow them, remember that hops are intent on world domination and need a sturdy support. Also, they spread and come up in unexpected places. This is fine with me, since I keep a very untidy yard anyway, but if you like things to stay neatly in their assigned places, the bold independent nature of hops may not be to your taste.

Permaculture Salad

It occurred to me this morning that my lettuce won’t be ready for weeks but there’s no problem at all in filling the daily salad bowl. After years of practicing semi-permaculture  and using the results in the kitchen I have strong opinions about salad greens, so I thought it might be worthwhile to go through the ones that I use most.

Major greens: these make up the bulk of the salad.

The picture above is blue mustard, one of my very favorites. It makes up about half of the bulk of any salad in our household this time of year.  I wrote about it at more length in my previous post, so what I will say here is that it is a recent invader in my area.  It first showed up along the ditch banks about four years ago, and now it is a common “weed“ in my yard.  I have no idea where it came from, but I’m glad it’s here.  Get it young, before you notice the tiny blue blooms, and I usually harvest with scissors, cutting about 2 inches off the top of the thick clumps.

The second bulk green right now is scorzonera.  I have written about it elsewhere, so all I will say here is that although it is often grown for the root, I find the root not worth the trouble, but the spring leaves are mild,crunchy, tender, and excellent to make up the majority of the salad mix.  The bloomscapes that come up a little later, harvested before the buds swell too much, are among my very favorite vegetables, so at this stage I harvest individual leaves to make sure I don’t hurt any potential scapes. Take the wider upper half of the leaf,  and leave the long stringy stem bit where it is.

it takes a few years for scorzonera to establish and make nice full clumps. I advise against cutting it at all the first or second year.

My third bulk green right now is bladder campion.  It took me a few years to get this one established, but now it is a thriving weed and comes up everywhere. The roots are deep and tenacious, so be sure to pull the roots out if you do want to get rid of it.  I pull it out of my raised beds but let it romp away everywhere else. Cut off the top 2” and discard any bare stems.   During the summer it is weedy and flops all over other plants, to their detriment, so you have to whack at it a bit. But it is always my first green of spring and the last one of fall,  so I would never want to be without it. I have heard the taste of the young sprigs described as “exactly like green peas.” I beg to differ. They do have a hint of green-pea flavor but they aren’t sweet and do have an undertone of faint bitterness. I find them delicious, and they are mild enough to go with anything else.

Minor greens:delicious when used in smaller quantities.

Sow thistle has thick leaves with an intensely green flavor. In some soils I’m told that it’s bitter at all stages, but in my yard it’s mild when young. I don’t have much of it, but enjoy what I have.

Arugula has been allowed to self-seed in my yard for so long that it’s now a common weed. I throw leaves in the rosette stage into salad, and any that get past me produce small white flowers that bees adore.

Alfalfa is nobody’s idea of an edible, apparently, but I like a couple of sprigs per serving. I pinch off the top rosette when the first shoots are about 4” high. Only the first growth of early spring is suitable for this use, and no stems.

Oxeye daisy delights the bees when it blooms, and the earliest spring shoots delight me in salads. They are tender, sprightly, and vaguely sorrel-like in flavor. I would eat a lot more of them if I had more. I’m putting in a larger patch this spring.

I use dandelions in limited amounts, maybe 10% of the total salad, but I miss them when they aren’t there. Once or twice a season I eat a big salad of pure dandy greens with a garlicky dressing and a side of bacon, but I don’t often have the materials available. Believe it or not, dandelions aren’t common in my area, and the eight plants that I have were started from seed and fussed over like orchids. I let them go to seed, and hope that eventually my yard will be colonized and I can eat dandy salads whenever I crave them.

Pea greens are a delicious tender green that really does taste like green peas. I plant my peas very thickly, almost touching in the furrow, and then harvest about half for spring salads, leaving the rest to grow and bear.

Seasonings: these have more distinctive flavors. Don’t be too timid with them though, because the dressing is going to mute them quite a bit.

I grow the sorrel variety called “Perpetual,” which doesn’t go to seed. It has the zingy lemony taste of garden sorrel but has thicker, more tender leaves and is a much smaller, less robust plant. I definitely need more plants of this one.

I grow parsley in a semi-permaculture fashion. Planted in spring, I use it all summer and leave it in place in winter. The following spring I get lovely bunches of early leaves to chop over salad and other stuff, and then it shoots to seed and reseeds itself.

This photo has three of my favorites. To the right are perennial green onions, which I have written about so much that here I’ll just remind you to sliver some into salads. In the center are young shoots of bronze fennel. Later in the year I would chop them up, but at this stage they’re so mild that I just cut each small leaf in 2-3 pieces. To the left is the first spring growth of Angelica archangelica, which I haven’t used until this year. The first tender leaves of spring have strong notes of celery and juniper. I tear them into pieces about an inch across. When they start to get tough, the stems chopped in thin cross-section will give a similar effect.

The earliest shoots of French Tarragon add a lovely anise flavor. I pull the new sprigs into individual leaves and toss them in whole.

I have heard people say that each dish or salad should contain only one herb, so as not to “muddy” the flavors. I couldn’t disagree more, and have seldom made a spring salad that didn’t contain at least three. Chopped finely the flavors can muddle up and become undistinguished, but left in large distinct pieces as I use them, they are vivid and impressionistic on the tongue.

 

Spring Alliums

Green onions and green garlic are always the first food to show up in my yard. My onions are the Egyptian and produce hugely with no input from me. In fact, they are becoming a weed in places and need to be dug out. But I would hate to be without them.

Green garlic of the ultra-early Chinese Pink variety is ready at about the same time. I plant plenty the previous fall and plan to eat most of it green, on grounds that I can always buy organic garlic bulbs if needed but can’t get good green garlic anywhere but my own yard.  Most of the green garlic that I have seen in stores and farmers market has been overly mature and well past its best. When it is young and tender, you can eat everything up to the leaf tips. Just peel off the lowest leaf and the outside layer of the stalk and you are ready to go.

Green onions and green garlic can be cooked the same way, and I  usually cook them together. Slice the stalks in quarter inch cross section and sauté them with a little salt and butter or olive oil for about five minutes, add the leaves also sliced in quarter inch cross section, and sauté until the leaves are tender and done. Taste for salt, and you can eat your allium mix as is or add it to other dishes. It’s good with scrambled eggs or in an omelet with a little cheese, and makes a good side dish for many, if not most, main dishes. It’s great on pita with  some pan-grilled halloumi. It can be the basis for a horta of mixed greens. It’s full of allicin and other benefits, but I make it because it tastes good.

The Last Fruit of the Year

Most of the trees in my yard are fruit trees, and many of them are coming into full maturity and bearing potential. I was looking forward to a succession of harvests this summer, when fate intervened in the form of one small, scrawny squirrel.  She showed up under my birdfeeder last winter, looking like she was near death. It was fun to see her crouched outside the kitchen door eating seeds, and I even put out a few special treats for her. She grew fat and sleek, and in late spring she reappeared after a disappearance with five baby squirrels bouncing around behind her.  They had a very high adorable factor, and when they destroyed some green fruit I did not make too big a fuss about it. Then they disappeared, and I began to see squirrels around the rest of my neighborhood. Then, predictably, mother squirrel showed up with six new babies.  The remaining fruit was ripe, and they harvested it all. I mean all of it. A large prune plum tree, strung with plums so heavily that the branches looked like blue rope, was stripped in a couple of days. I was able to eat about five peaches before they were gone. Apples gone. Cherries gone.  I was reduced to buying local fruit at the farmers market, a sad comedown for somebody who has been tending fruit trees for the last decade.

Fortunately, it turns out that squirrels don’t like quinces.  My tree was loaded, and I set out to discover what could be done with quinces. I made a ton of chutney, and made some membrillo to serve with cheese,  but my favorite use is as a base for a flourless chocolate torte.  The original idea came from one of my favorite food sites, Food 52, and was based on eggplant.  You can read it here: https://food52.com/recipes/77833-ian-knauer-s-chocolate-eggplant-cakes. I made it once as written and liked it, but I felt that it could be improved upon. Quinces have an aromatic overtone and a lot of pectin, which helps this cake set.
You will need a special ingredient, black cocoa powder. I use Onyx brand. The cake is not the same without it. I keep it lower-carb with the use of special sweeteners which can only be obtained online: Sola sweetener and Truly Zero sucralose. If you choose to use other sweeteners from the grocery store, be aware that they are probably not really low carb at all, because most of them contain ingredients that can raise your blood sugar. Also, the texture and mouthfeel may be drastically affected. If you eat sugar, you can forget those two ingredients and sweeten it with sugar to taste. Otherwise, the only significant  carbohydrates present are from the chocolate and quince, and quince is not a sweet fruit.

Start with one large or two smaller quinces.  Scrub the fuzz off with a scrub brush, but don’t peel them. Most of the pectin is in the peel. Cut them in quarters, cut the core out, and steam them for about 25 minutes or until  easily penetrated with a fork. Preheat oven to 300 degrees and line an 8” cake pan with parchment paper. In a double boiler or (very carefully) in a microwave at lower power, melt 2 4oz bars of Baker’s unsweetened chocolate and one full-size bar of excellent dark chocolate, 84-85% cacao content. Put the soft quince flesh in the blender and grind to a perfectly smooth paste with enough heavy cream to keep the mixture blending smoothly, usually about a cup. A Vitamix does a great job of this. Quinces are pretty fibrous, so make sure it is blended smooth. Scrape the mixture out into a mixing bowl. It will already be stiffening from all the pectin, so use a heavy wooden spoon for the rest of the mixing. Beat in eight egg yolks, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 2 teaspoons vanilla,  a few scrapes of freshly grated nutmeg, 1/2 cup Sola sweetener, and 7 drops Truly Zero sweetener. Otherwise, sweeten with sugar to taste. Beat in the melted chocolate, and last, beat in half a cup of black cocoa powder. It will be really stiff by now and need a fair amount of muscle power. Taste, only if you are okay with raw egg, and adjust the sweetness if needed. This amount of sweetener gives a semisweet result.

Scrape into the parchment-lined pan, spread around neatly (it won’t spread in the oven, so get it the way you want it,) and bake at 300 until a clean knife comes out almost clean. Then-this is important-let it sit for at least 8 hours before you cut it, so it can firm up. Serve at room temp or slightly warmed, Never cold, with or without whipped cream, and enjoy. My motto is “Chocolate is food, not dessert,” and I have eaten a wedge of this cake for lunch on occasion.

I have frozen a number of one-torte portions of blended quince flesh and cream, ready to make this cake all winter.