Archive for the ‘Perennial edibles’ Category

Living in Interesting Times: Spring Greens

This is a very strange time for everyone. As a healthcare provider, I know how much there is to worry about. I know that not everyone can isolate themselves from exposure, and not everyone has the luxury (and it is a luxury) of the money and space to store some crisis supplies. Not everyone has the luxury of a job right now, by a long shot. If you do, appreciate what you have and help others if you possibly can.

At this as at other tough times, I find myself thinking back to growing up in Louisiana. In hurricane country people were used to regular interruptions of basic services and kept on hand what they needed to get through 2-3 weeks. They helped each other and they followed the hurricane directives. So respect the restrictions we operate under right now and do the best you can not to be part of the problem.

Narrowing this down to the garden, there is nothing as comforting as being able to get some food from your own yard. There’s an egg shortage, but my chickens are laying, supplying us and a few colleagues and neighbors with at least some eggs. Rice and beans and seasonings are in the pantry, and if you always keep herbs in the garden and a few ham hocks in the freezer, you have the means to make things taste good.
This is a great time to learn to use your weeds if you haven’t already. I actually had to buy seeds to have dandelions, but once you have them they are faithful kitchen friends every spring. If you don’t care for bitter greens, mix them with milder greens like nettles, scorzonera, bladder campion, and salsify, all growing lustily in my yard right now and all perfectly delicious when cooked. If you don’t know these unstoppable weeds, learn about them and plant them now or learn where they grow. Then spring will be a time of abundance, regardless of what’s going on in the greater world, and the less need you have for outside groceries, the more there are for someone else. Seal and freeze the extra to eat another time. If you have a patch of Egyptian or other perennial onions, you’ll always have seasoning on hand, and a handful of chopped oil-cured olives adds delicious umami.


Mixed cooked greens in the refrigerator can be eaten in tortillas with cheese, used to top rice with some butter and meat juices, or (most deliciously, in my view) spread on toasted sourdough bread and topped with fluffy grated flakes of good Parmesan.
After that will come the meaty delicious leaves from last year’s chard plants, mulberry sprigs, hops shoots, and who knows what all. This may be the year that I finally try cooking the newest Siberian elm leaves, instead of feeding them all to the animals. I’ll comb my foraging and permaculture books for other things I haven’t tried yet.

The reason to do all this is not that there is no food in stores. There’s lots of food, with strange exceptions currently caused by hoarding more than any actual lack of supply. The reason is to take yourself out of the hoarding mentality and into a frame of mind to nourish yourself well and realize that you will act responsibly and do as well as you can. Life is uncertain and COVID-19 even more so. Everyone is at risk right now, but if we are staying home responsibly when not working and minimizing risk to ourselves and others we’ll feel better. If we feel that we can get things for elderly friends and relatives so that they can isolate more effectively, we’ll feel better. And staying home to garden, tend animals, and forage in the yard feels a lot better than sitting around watching television.

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.