Archive for the ‘sustainable’ Category

Another Quickie


Yesterday I wrote about a quick light snack/meal made mostly from stored staples and fresh greens, and today it happened again that we weren’t terribly hungry at lunchtime but wanted something healthy and good. It was the work of ten minutes to chop up some lambs-quarters tops and a clove of garlic and sauté them with some salt while I peeled a few hard-boiled eggs out of the refrigerator. If you don’t have any already hard boiled, you can cook the number you want and chill them in ice water and eat them still velvety-warm in the center, which is delicious.

The finishing touch for the dish is a good glop of Mayonaisse. I make my own with the glorious deep orange yolks of greens-fed chickens and a mixture of olive oil and avocado oil. With a little salt and lemon juice and seasoning of your choice, its creamy unctuousness is quite superb and elevates a commonplace snack into something special. This particular batch was seasoned with some puréed canned chipotles in adobo, and finished with a sprinkle of ground chipotles.

Green leaves are the most active and extraordinary solar collectors in the world, and ideally they nourish you directly and nourish any animals that you eat. If you don’t want to garden or don’t have space, there is probably some foragable lambsquarters not too far away. You will invariably eat more greens if you make it convenient for yourself to eat them. Washing and cleaning them before they go in the refrigerator helps a lot, and sautéing them lightly before they hit the fridge can be even better. Better to compost some that you don’t use in time than to not eat them because they aren’t ready and waiting for you.

The Perennial Paddock: Mycelial Madness

Nothing made me more joyously certain that I had created a real, albeit tiny, ecosystem in my suburban yard than when the first mushrooms grew among perennial plants rather than in a grow-bag or other artificial arrangement. Last year two kinds of mushrooms spread from spawn I had introduced and appeared far from the original “planting.” I was ecstatic; the mycelial Internet was forming! And this spring I was even more gratified to find a big cluster of Stropharia rugosa-annulata pushing up through the mulch months before I had expected to see any mushrooms. By perfectionist standards they were  overly mature when I discovered them, as evidenced by size, lightened cap color, and the cracks in the cap. But I am no perfectionist and knew that they were still perfectly good to eat.

So a few notes on introducing mushrooms, in no particular order:

1. Stropharia rugosa-annulata is the easiest mushroom  to grow in your garden. Even here in the high desert, it thrives in a deep mulch of straw and oak sawdust. In my opinion the almond agaricus is the most delicious, but it is more finicky and less productive. I have grown oyster mushrooms in containers, but this year I’m experimenting with introducing them into more unlikely spots. I’ll report back.

2. Get good spawn. Mine came from Field and Forest Products, and it was ready to grow.

3. Know how to indentify the mushroom that you introduced. Know its field marks and identify it before you eat it. When you create a good outdoor environment for mushrooms, you are not in complete control of what grows, any more than you are immune to weeds in your garden beds.

4. Be aware of how many commercial mulch products are treated with fungicides to prevent fungus from moving in. If you want select funguses to move in and thrive, you need to avoid these products.

5. Cook and eat with a sense of reverence and awe for the complex and extraordinary interactions of nature. If you want to learn more about this, Mycelium Running, Mycelial Mayhem, and Radical Mycology are useful books.

I sautéed my mushrooms in olive oil with generous additions of green garlic and fresh thyme, then removed them from the skillet, set aside in a warm spot, and scrambled some eggs in additional olive oil with a little salt. When the eggs were cooked, the mushrooms were folded back in. Simple as that. Scrambling is an underestimated technique. In this case I cooked the eggs fairly firm, for texture contrast with the softer mushrooms.  I framed the fragrant heap with a couple of slices of bacon. It made a quick delicious dinner, mostly from my own property, and was a culinary salute to the mycelial web that underlies, well, damn near everything.

The Perennial Paddock: Goji Berries

I planted Goji berries years ago when I was interested in eating the berries, and hadn’t yet discovered how invasive they were. I am told that they like slightly alkaline soil, and indeed mine revel in it and come up everywhere despite whatever obstacles I put in their way.  But as far as I’m concerned their invasiveness is a positive boon, since my favorite part of the plant is the young shoot.

Gojis want to ramp away into big lanky vines that sprawl everywhere and don’t bear much fruit,  but some trimming helps them settle down and stick to their work.

I tie mine to fences or stakes about 40 inches above the ground, and then in the spring I whack off everything above that point.  There is no artistry involved in this pruning; you can do it with a hedge trimmer.  Then they grow new branches which drape down artistically from the point where they are tied, and are covered with fruit in season. They are very ornamental and can be grown in the front yard.  They are also highly drought  tolerant once established. The fruit tastes rather like a tiny tomato with a hint of bitterness. I use it mostly for fermenting into hot sauce and making superfruit sauce.  You will find material online suggesting that the berries will prevent cancer and Alzheimer’s and make you live longer. I don’t get excited about that kind of talk, and I hope that you don’t either. They do have a good nutrient content, including doses of lutein and zeaxanthin that might be useful in helping to prevent macular degeneration, however be aware that the berries have not been researched for that purpose.

My favorite part of the plant is the young shoots that come up in places where I don’t want them, so I can pick them and eat them.  Please note that the shoots are only edible when they are young, tender, and snap cleanly off as soon as you try to bend them. If they will bend without snapping, they are not fit to eat.  I chop a bundle of shoots into fine cross section, about 1/4” lengths, and stirfry with some garlic, ginger, and soy, and find them very good. If the stems are getting wiry and bendable, you can still harvest the leaves and add them to mixed greens or cook them lightly in a Thai-style curry.

Now, about those health claims: I find two opposite sets of claims being made about Goji berries and leaves (the leaves are widely used for tea in Asia and are used in traditional Chinese medicine.) One is that the components of both leaves and berries include multiple antioxidants and compounds that act as anti-inflammatories in vitro and in vivo. This view is based both on their traditional uses and on the fact that multiple flavonoid antioxidants have been identified in both leaves and berries.

Below is a link to a simple analysis of components of the leaves.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28095717

Below is an analysis of anti-inflammatory activity in extracts of three berry species, including Goji berries, in vivo in mice.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27114691

The other point of view is that, as a distant member of the nightshade family, this plant should be avoided in its entirety. I have not found any credible research suggesting that the vast majority of us have any reason to avoid nightshades. I also don’t find it credible that a plant which contains numerous compounds that have demonstrated anti-inflammatory activity both in vitro and in vivo (beta-sitosterol, betaine, and hydroxycinnamic acid amides, to name only a few) would suddenly become inflammatory when eaten. If you feel that eating gojis makes your stomach burn or your joints hurt, by all means avoid them.  You are the author of the owner’s manual for your own body.  But to go from there to saying that nobody should eat them is quite a leap, and ignores demographic evidence.

This is a picture of goji berries being grown commercially in China, apparently staked up in more or less the same way that I do it but more neatly and artistically.  When covered with their fruit in summer, they are as radiant as Christmas trees.

 

 

The Perennial Paddock: Sea Kale

There is an area of my yard that is referred to as “the paddock“ because it was once intended to be an animal paddock. Over time, it has become the area where I move toward permaculture, with more and more perennial edibles accumulating there.  The whole area is kept in a deep mulch, and tends to stay moist enough for growth even in our desert summers.

One of the most decorative plants growing there is seakale, a maritime perennial that tolerates our alkaline soil.  It is very hard to start from seed, and the four plants that have prospered over years for me are those that I paid a small fortune for as plants from a specialty nursery.  If you want seakale, make the investment in getting good plants. Once settled, I am told that they can live 20 or 30 years or more.  They are very pretty in a quiet way, with nothing dramatic or show about them but pleasant to the eyes  in most seasons, except in the fall when mine get very bug-eaten. They are not recognizable at sight as a vegetable, and would pass muster with the strictest homeowner’s association.

There was a time when I thought it would take me 20 years to learn how to use them. The leaves  have a crisp succulent texture and mild flavor, and would be okay in salads, but each plant makes only six or seven leaves and if you take more than one the plant is likely  to die.  If you have 20 plants this might not be an issue, but if you have four, it is.

I read that the buds could be harvested as a broccoli like vegetable, and when I first tried this, they were tasty enough but very tiny indeed. From my four plants, I got enough for one small tasting dish, and no more. But this year I figured out that the bloom stalk is also tender and tasty.  Harvest the whole stalk as close to the base of the plant as you can get without damaging any leaves. Do this before the flowers open, and it will just snap right off. The leaves on the stalk are fine to eat. The lower part of the stem has a tough fibrous outer layer, but it peels off very easily. Everything you have left, stems, leaves, and buds, is good to eat.  Cut in half inch cross sections, cook in very little water until crisp tender, add salt and butter, and eat.  Treated this way, each plant provides a nice vegetable side dish for two people.

In British gardening books I have read references to seakale having a very strong and unpleasant flavor, but I have not experienced this at all with my own plants. The taste is mild, slightly herbal, and inoffensive. The texture is excellent.

One question to consider is whether perennial vegetables are really worth growing, when annual vegetables are so good. Broccoli fresh from the garden is one of my favorite vegetables in the world, and it would be pretty hard for anything to surpass it.   But suppose that you couldn’t plant the broccoli. Suppose that age and infirmity made it impossible for you to garden the way you used to, or that an accident of fate left you unable to garden in the usual way, either temporarily or permanently.  This has happened to me. Because of an orthopedic problem I was unable to do any annual gardening for two years, and even though I have been back at it full tilt for a few years now, I  remember that time and remain aware that a slip, a fall, or a careless driver can put quite a crimp in your gardening career for a while.  Fortunately, even at that time, I had a fair stock of perennial edibles and we still had things to eat from the yard.  Of course, perennials also help prevent soil erosion,  and undug  soil can sequester carbon in a big way.  The microbes and fungi that are so important in building and maintaining healthy soil will flourish in a perennial garden under mulch. But it’s also your insurance that, if fate deals you a blow that you weren’t expecting, your garden will go on producing.

Grass-fed Beef for the New Year

Our winter is short here in the desert, but it’s cold at night, and rich warming meals are welcome. The garden is quiescent and there is a little more time to cook. And a bubbling pot of something-or-other makes the whole house more welcoming.

I like to cook with grass-fed beef because it’s healthy for the planet, the cows, and me. Contrary to much current dogma about how animal husbandry is always environmentally unsound, grass-fed beef produces high-quality human food from grasslands that shouldn’t be plowed or tilled. One important way to sequester carbon is to keep it in the soil in the first place. Does over-grazing occur? Of course. But to condemn responsible ranchers because of the irresponsible ones is like saying that all medications are bad because some people overdose on them.

The less popular cuts of beef, like short ribs, are less expensive and take beautifully to long, slow braising. I especially like Chinese red-cooking techniques for general deliciousness, and they take well to slow-cooker cooking with just a bit of fancy finishing just before dinner. I started this meal about 24 hours before New Year’s dinner.

Red-cooked really refers to any dish cooked with soy sauce, but most commonly refers to the rich stews based on Master Sauce, a mixture of broth, soy sauce, and sweet spices. So to start this dish, you need six hefty short ribs of grass-fed beef and some Master Sauce.

To make Master Sauce, combine a quart of good beef broth with a cup of naturally fermented soy sauce, a half cup of sugar or the equivalent in an artificial sweetener that you like, and the following seasonings:

1 organic onion, cut in half, with the skin on

a teaspoon of ground five-spice powder

three cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed

3 complete stars of star anise

a 3” piece of ginger, scrubbed and smashed some with a heavy object but still in one piece

3 whole cloves

1 whole stick of cinnamon

I like to tie the seasonings up in cheesecloth because I find it easier than straining the sauce later. Either way, combine all the sauce ingredients in the liner of a six quart slow cooker and add the short ribs. Cook overnight at low setting. The next day, about 12-14 hours later, drain off the broth and strain it or remove the cheesecloth. Put the broth in the refrigerator so that the fat can congeal. The meat should be falling off the bones. Remove the bones and reserve the meat.

About half an hour before dinner, preheat the broiler. Take the congealed fat off the broth and reserve. Measure out three cups of the Master Sauce broth, put in a heavy saucepan, notice its level in the pan, and boil over high heat until it’s reduced to about half that level, or 1 1/2cups.  Reserve any remaining master sauce and freeze it to give you a  head start on the next red cooked stew.

If you wish, while the broth is reducing, make a simple but wonderful relish by chopping another 3” piece of peeled ginger finely, chopping a cleaned bunch of green onions into 1/4 inch cross sections, heating 2 tablespoons of the reserved beef fat in a saucepan, stirring in the ginger and cooking for one minute until it sizzles, stirring in the green onions and a heaping quarter teaspoon of salt, and stir-frying another minute or two.

Now taste your reduced broth. Tasting as you are finishing things is an important and surprisingly neglected step. This is the time to think about your food. Is the balance of flavors right? Is there anything else it needs?  I like to add another scant teaspoon of five-spice powder and a little chopped ginger at this point to freshen the flavor. Arrange the meat on a roasting pan, fat side up whenever possible, drizzle with some of the sauce, and broil until the fat starts to brown. Watch carefully so it doesn’t burn. When the fat is browned, turn off the broiler and let the meat sit in there another few minutes to make sure it’s good and hot. Place in serving bowls, pour over some more sauce, and put a generous spoonful of ginger-scallion relish on one side. Eat. The cold and wind have no further power to harm you, at least not tonight.

Sometimes a main dish needs, not a side dish, but an underpinning to absorb juices and offer a cushion to the intense flavors. If you eat rice or noodles, this dish goes well with either, but low-carb eaters will like it as is, assuming that an alternative to sugar was used. Steamed broccoli florets would make a good underpinning and add a nice color pop, and when I serve this stew again in a day or two that’s probably what I’ll add. Cauliflower rice is a possibility.

Now, about the rest of that reserved fat: the fat of grassfed beef has excellent Omega-3 to Omega-6 balance and good helpings of CLA and beta-carotene.  I don’t throw it away. Besides the small amount used in making the relish, I save some for rubbing on steaks and other meats about to be grilled. But short ribs are a fairly fatty cut, and there is still plenty left.  Often I mix it with kelp meal and crushed eggshells or oyster shell flour to make a supplement for my chickens that they gobble up with extreme enthusiasm.  Remember, chickens are not natural vegetarians by any means. In fact, they are among the most omnivorous animals alive, along with pigs, chimpanzees, and us.  So let them follow their natural inclinations and make use of healthy scraps that come up in your kitchen.

 

Orange Peel in the Thrifty Kitchen

I’m  an almost-diabetic who uses low-carb food intake to maintain my excellent blood sugar, so citrus juice, which is a pretty concentrated belt of sugar, is mostly out of my diet.  I also love oranges and orange flavored things, and don’t like artificial flavors. So for a while I have been following with interest the analyses showing very high antioxidant activity in citrus peel and wondering how to incorporate it into my diet, and recently I got a chance to test this when I came across a bonanza of 20 large organic navel oranges that could not be sold because they had soft spots. I could have made orange-cello liqueur, but wanted something I could drink with lunch.  So I washed the oranges carefully, cut out the soft spots, cut them into chunks, and puréed  them in batches in my blender with only enough water to keep the purée  moving.  Each batch was blended at the highest speed for over a minute, to make sure it was completely liquefied.  I have a Vitamix, and I don’t really know how well this would work with other blenders, but probably well enough.

Please note that the oranges I was using were seedless. If you try this with seeded oranges, the seeds have to be carefully removed because they are intensely bitter, and this technique will not work at all with lemons because their inner white pith is so bitter.  I haven’t experimented with other citrus. I would say that tasting a little slice of the white pith might be a good test. If it’s very bitter, it might not work to use it this way. I think that blood oranges would work well, and I plan to try as soon as they come into season. Also, organic really matters when you are using the peel.

You end up with a thick smooth purée  that is only very slightly sweet, has a hint of bitterness, and is loaded with orange flavor and all the nutritional value than oranges have to offer. I use two or three tablespoons in a water glass, fill it with sparkling water, and sweeten with stevia sweetener. When you get near the bottom of the glass, be sure to swirl it around and drink up all the particles that settle to the bottom. Overall I’m probably taking in about a tablespoon of pure orange juice per glass, so the carb content is not high enough to worry me. I have also added it to a low-carb coffee cake with good results. Because of the intense flavor that the peel adds, you don’t need much.

Orange trees are strikingly beautiful, and if you live in the citrus zone they are great edible landscaping material.

If you do a web search on citrus peel you will find articles suggesting that there are few diseases it won’t prevent or cure. Let’s not get carried away. The antioxidants that it contains, including  naringinen, hesperadin, and rutin, have some interesting anti-inflammatory activities, and there is no documented evidence that ingesting some amount of citrus peel and pith is harmful. It’s also a superb natural source of vitamin C, which can be a bit short in a ketogenic diet. It makes thrifty use of something ordinarily discarded, and it tastes good, adding strong flavor and a touch of bitterness that makes an adult drink out of a fruit that can otherwise be too sweet to enjoy very much of. You can read about its various possible benefits at the links below, including the interesting demographic information from the REGARDS study that higher levels of citrus consumption correlated with lower levels of ischemic stroke. Make of that what you will.

 

REGARDS study analysis indicating possible inverse relationship between citrus consumption and ischemic stroke:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5086785/

A survey of antioxidants and anti inflammatory activities in citrus peel:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27719891

An animal study showing inhibitory effects on human prostate cancer tissue grafted into mice:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23673480

An animal study showing effects in reducing neuroinflammation:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26423872

There are other possibilities for eating citrus peel. I came across the following recipe while searching, and haven’t tried it yet, but it does look lovely, doesn’t it? Personally I would roast the fruit-veggie mixture first to soften them more, then the salmon by itself, since I despise overcooked salmon.

http://www.cookinglight.com/recipes/roasted-salmon-oranges-beets-and-carrots

 

Food Diatribe I

I grow some winter vegetables under frost blankets so the growing season is never completely over for me, but it is certainly a lot slower than it was a couple of months ago, and I have some time in the evening to read and even, occasionally, to think. One of the things that I think about most is the future of agriculture and American health. I am hardly indifferent to the health of other countries, but I like to start at home, and the fact is that by many parameters we have worse health outcomes than most first-world countries and many third-world countries. I have put a few references below, but the short version is that you name the health parameter, from overall longevity to infant mortality to rates of cardiac death to obesity and diabetes, and we’re not doing well. I will only be addressing factors that have some well-established link to diet and therefore to agriculture.

This is the article that provoked this post:

Why Small Local Organic Farms Aren’t the Key to Fixing Our Food System

This article is an example of the stuff going around in the popular press right now, because a great way to get clicks is to attack the current mantra whatever it is, and “organic and local” is the current food mantra.  And I believe that this article is partially correct: the production of grain, legumes, etc. does benefit from some economies of scale because of the land and equipment involved, and even raising grassfed large livestock requires a lot of grass and, therefore, a lot of land.

This is where I disagree:  the article does not address the fact that what small local organic farms are producing, mostly produce and small livestock, is exactly what most of us would benefit from eating more of, and the environment would be better off if we did.  I believe that in many ways American agricultural thinking is still stuck in the old model of maximum calories per acre, even though nobody would ever talk about it that way anymore.  Corn, for instance, can produce a huge number of calories per acre, and therefore a huge amount of food, most of it not good for us. The only reason to grow so damn much corn is to produce a huge number of calories. So I invite you to just look around you, and figure out how many people of your acquaintance or visible in any public place are suffering from a calorie deficiency.  I am not talking here about nutrient deficiencies, but about simple calorie deficiencies. Calorie deficiencies  exist in America, definitely, but they are not common. I follow a lot of lifespan, healthspan, and mindspan research,  and much of it looks at what has nourished healthy populations, not for a part of one lifetime, but for generations and even millennia.  Vegetables keep emerging as a theme. One of the things that I think could benefit every single American without necessarily changing anything about cooking techniques,  overall diet, specialty ingredients, etc. is simply to think in terms of removing half of what is on an average plate and replacing it with more vegetables. Not the starchy sweet ones but the real ones, especially leafy greens. Nobody is in a better position to help you with that than your local small farmer.

Another issue arises when it comes to the question of how your local small farmer can make a living, because the organic local produce that he or she produces clearly has to be more expensive than most other factory-farmed produce, so that farmers can stay in business. So how can low-income people with  little ability to spend flexibly make better food choices? I think this might be the place to use government subsidies creatively. Right now, subsidies make it possible for Big Ag farmers to make a profit producing huge amounts of GMO corn that go into feeding animals in unhealthy ways and making corn-based sweeteners that make us fat and sick. If, instead, farmers were subsidized for things like employing local labor and using good employment and environmental practices, this would be the beginning of a solution. With topsoil erosion a huge agricultural problem and steadily worsening, subsidizing the farmers who don’t contribute to it could make a real difference.  If low income consumers were also subsidized for using local farm resources, say for example foodstamp dollars would buy one dollar at a grocery store but two dollars at a farmers’ market, it would become more possible for low income people to eat high quality produce. And yes, I would advocate taking away the subsidies that make GMO corn profitable. Cheap beef is sick beef, and cheap sweetener is the basis of an obese society. It is unclear to me why taxpayers should pay for the privilege of making people and animals fatter and sicker. Some people don’t believe in any subsidies at all, but if we’re going to have them, I’m in favor of using them for long-term improved health of soil, animals, and people.

I can’t resist adding (because, after all, it’s what this blog is about) that if you have just a little bit of land, you are in a good position to help yourself.  Put in a vegetable garden and plant a few fruit trees,  or identify fruit trees in other places that you can harvest from (many people don’t want the fruit from their trees or get a lot more fruit than they can use,) and you are in an excellent position to make a salutary change in your diet at minimal expense.

WHO stats of life expectancy by country:

(1) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy

We are 31st per 2015 statistics. Really.  And remember the China and its administrative region Hong Kong do not participate in the world health organization and are not in their statistics, but both have significantly greater longevity on average than America. So if they were added in, we would drop further.

Stats of rate of cardiac-related death by country:

http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/cause-of-death/coronary-heart-disease/by-country/

In cardiac death rates we look okay at first, down at number 107 among countries for which stats are available, but then you notice the long list of countries, including some third-world nations, that have lower rates than we do. You may also notice that France, Italy, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and most first-world countries generally are doing a good bit better than we are, with notably lower rates of cardiac death. It is very legitimate to ask what we need to do better.

Prevalence of diabetes by country:

https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/SH.STA.DIAB.ZS/rankings

Here, too, we look okay at first, down at 42nd place in percentage of people age 20-79 diagnosed with diabetes. But then notice Spain down at 89th place, Canada at 95th, Norway at 130th, France at 143rd, the UK at 152nd,  and in fact all developed and many undeveloped nations showing diabetes rates well below ours, and it is imperative to ask how we can do better.