Archive for the ‘sustainable’ Category

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.

Fall Summation IV part 2: Further Perennials

In my last post, I started to sum up a few perennial edibles around my yard, and found that there are actually a lot more of them then I realized. So here’s part two.

Bladder campion, Silene vulgaris, is always my first green of spring and my last green of fall. It is better cooked than raw in my opinion, but some leaves in a mixed salad will certainly not hurt anything and have a pleasant substantial texture. I had to buy seed of this one to get it started, and it was a couple of years before it really begin to grow well, but now I have enough to need to weed out some. It has never been a problem weed or gotten out of control under my conditions. It seeds itself around a bit, but not unreasonably.

Curled dock is a common weed that most people could not imagine planting on purpose, but in my area it grows mostly along the irrigation ditches, which are also frequented by dogs. So to have a good clean supply, I do grow some in my weed patch. The slightly lemony greens are very good in mixed greens but rapidly get bitter as the weather warms. Get them early. And then get them again late, because like so many perennials, they produce a smaller but useful second crop of leaves in late fall.  This one does seed it self around like crazy, and every single seed seems to be viable, so do be careful to cut off the flower stalks early unless you want a lot more plants. There is a great deal written about the culinary uses of the seeds. I don’t care for them at all, but you can read about this elsewhere if you are interested.  Some people also use the roots medicinally, and that also could be researched elsewhere.

Bronze fennel is a lovely ornamental as well as a delicious seasoning herb and vegetable. I find the flavor a little more pronounced and anisey than that of green fennel. It’s also prettier. In Samuel Thayer‘s newest book, Incredible Wild Edibles, there is a wonderful chapter on how to use fennel.  My very favorite part is the young shoot, and so far I have not been able to induce my plants to make tender shoots in the fall, but I’m still trying. The leaves are a wonderful seasoning for fish and seafood, and are great chopped and sprinkled lavishly over salads.

Burdock has not been a success for me so far, due to personal taste preferences. Even the youngest spring leaves taste rank and have a rough texture, the root is bland and turns an unpleasant color even when cooked with some lemon juice, and the peeled flower stalk is no more than passable to my palate. I think that the peeled stalk chunks might be tastier when cooked with stronger seasonings or perhaps grilled, and I’ll try that next year. It often happens that an edible perennial hangs around my place for years before I learn to use it in ways that I really like, so I think of burdock as a potential vegetable that I haven’t really learned about yet. I am happy enough to give it some space because my goat is crazy about the leaves and leaf stalks, but be aware that even if you think you are cutting down all the flower stalks, it ingeniously forms some tiny short ones that get past you and scatter seeds everywhere. Bees enjoy the flowers and birds enjoy the seeds, but the price of having it around is eternal vigilance and a fair amount of grunt weeding.

Dandelion is not a common weed in my area, believe it or not, and I had to buy seeds to get it started.  But I wanted it and was happy to persevere until I got some to germinate. The young leaves of dandelion have a fair amount of bitterness and might be an acquired taste, and most people start out by disliking them, then later in their foraging career begin to like them, and ultimately crave them.  I’m at the craving stage. I also enjoy using the flowers, although the bitter green sepals have to be pulled off, which is a bit tedious.  I think that the petals might be useful in fritters and similar preparations, but I haven’t done that yet.  There is always more to learn. I do like the young, tightly closed buds when I can get enough of them to bother cooking. I am not a fan of the root, and this is another plant where I leave the root in place to produce the parts that I like better.  Here in the  high desert I like to grow mine in partial shade because the leaves get more tender, less bitter, and quite a bit bigger. Incidentally, I bought some seeds called French Thick Leaf that were supposed to be very superior, and used some seeds from a northeastern person’s yard, and the plants are all pretty much identical.

Common milkweed is another weed that just does not grow in my area, although I often see it when vacationing further north in Colorado. It took me a few tries to start it from seed, and it needs winter stratification. So far I have only had a few bites each of spring shoots and buds, plus one young pod, on my plate because it’s still getting established. But it has the mild “foody” flavor that I remember, especially good with butter. The vanilla-scented flowers are wildly attractive to bees, and of course this is the food plant of the monarch butterfly. Once established, it doesn’t need too much water, but it needs a fair amount to get started. Be sure that you know how to identify it as Asclepius syraica because there are some thin-leaved toxic milkweeds, and if you are foraging it in the wild I strongly suggest reading Samuel Thayer on how to tell the young shoots from dogsbane,  which resemble them in ways but are very bitter. I hope to have a lot of it around in the future.

Pokeweed was one of my favorite wild foods when I was first getting interested in foraging. It’s a big rank plant, up to six feet high and as much across, and has to be sited accordingly. It also REQUIRES preboiling in a large volume of water, which is then thrown out, before further preparation for eating. It is toxic if not prepared properly. Please consult Samuel Thayer’s Incredible Wild Edibles before trying to eat it. Then you’ll have all the information you need to eat it safely. It doesn’t grow in the Southwest, but I finally got two plants started from seed, and hope to have more in the future. Euell Gibbons wrote about forcing pokeweed shoots in winter, and one day I may try some version of that.

Goji Shoots come up everywhere after you’ve grown goji berries for a few years. They are very tasty sautéed in butter or olive oil. To enjoy them, you have to get new shoots as shown. They should be green all over and tender enough to snap when bent. If they have anything resembling brown bark, or have to be cut, skip them. I cut my plants back in late winter and harvest some shoots in spring, and this year I cut some plants back in late fall and put frost blankets over them to see if I can get some winter shoots. I’ll report back.

Hosta shoots are a new vegetable for me, because when I moved to my current home it was a flat lot covered with tumbleweed and baked into adobe by the blazing sun. It’s only now, eight years later, that my trees are big enough to provide shade for the shade-loving hostas. I chose the biggest ones that I could find because the shoots are bigger. I have only eaten them once because my plants are young and I don’t want to weaken them. They were mild and good steamed and eaten with a soy-ginger sauce. There is nothing especially distinctive about the flavor but nothing objectionable either, and the texture is tender as long as you get them before they unfurl. They would probably be a good addition to salads if sliced, although I haven’t tried that yet. It takes a couple of years before they’re established enough to harvest, which is usual with perennials. Once established, they could be harvested for a couple of weeks in spring, then allowed to form ornamental foliage. When the leaves get ratty in late summer they could be cut back, then a few shoots harvested again as they refurbish themselves. Of note, this is an edible perennial that would pass muster with the strictest homeowners’ association so you can grow it whatever your circumstances.

The Fall Summation IV: Perennials

I am beginning to plan for those future years  when digging in the garden is not such a pleasure. For that matter, there are already days when digging feels less like a hobby, pleasure, and form of worship and more like a chore, and so I am trying to have patches of perennials around that would carry me through a time when I did not feel able to dig.  I am also trying to create deep mulched beds that would make it possible to grow annuals with less work, but more about that in another post.

Some of the perennials that I have experimented with:

Stinging nettles are a real success. They have to be sited in a place where people and animals do not have to be exposed to them and get stung, but once established the only care they need is some water in my desert area, and cutting back in the winter so that the spring greens can be easily harvested. From now on, I will also cut back the withered stalks at the peak of late summer heat, so that when new shoots come up in the fall they can be gathered without much trouble.  They are delicious when cooked, and there is no more nutritious green, so I am even thinking of starting a second patch in another out-of-the-way corner of the yard. I have written about their kitchen uses in a number of past posts,  and I guess all I will say here about their flavor is that it is mild but somehow more intensely green than almost anything else that I’ve tasted.  They have to be handled cautiously and with gloves to avoid stings, but I have read with fascination that some people believe in putting the raw greens into smoothies, and apparently they are edible raw in that form. There are also contests in some places in Europe in which raw nettles are eaten in large quantities. Bizarre, but then, people are. Suit yourself.

Scorzonera  is a favorite of mine for its delicious stalks topped with tightly packed flower buds, and I have also learned to appreciate the leaves as a substantial but mild flavored addition to salads. It produces a small but useful second crop of leaves in late fall.   It tolerates drought  exceptionally well once established. I will be planting a lot more of this one. Be aware that I am talking about Scorzonera hispanica. There are other members of genus Scorzonera that have thready and insubstantial leaves. I don’t find the root to be worth the trouble of digging it up, and I leave it in the ground to make more leaves and stalks year after year with no labor on my part.

Salsify  produces long thin leaves which, in the spring, are tender and reasonably tasty.  The buds are probably the best part of the plant, although they are tiny and you would need a fair sized patch to have enough to be worth eating.  I have planted a new larger patch of it because I read somewhere that the long thin early spring leaves, when blanched for just a minute in boiling water, make a kind of “vegetable spaghetti“ that some people enjoy. I haven’t had a chance to try this yet but it would be a useful addition to my low-carb diet, which is “deficient “ in things to toss with butter and good Parmesan. Salsify  is often grown for the roots, but I find the root fairly bland and not that interesting. I would certainly eat it if I were hungry, though.

Asparagus  is one of my favorite vegetables, and this coming spring I will be planting more of the purple kind, which I find most delicious.  There is just nothing better. If only it were available in the garden for more of the year, I might not bother to grow anything else.

Turkish Rocket  makes delicious buds when harvested at exactly the right phase, with a bitter-nutty flavor very much like broccoli rabe. The season for it is short but pleasurable. I have never found any culinary use for the leaves or older buds.

Sorrel  makes one of my favorite simple sauces when chiffonaded and stewed briefly in butter with a little salt. Salmon was born to be grilled and eaten with sorrel butter. In addition to a healthy large clump of spring leaves, it makes another, even better clump in late fall. Very deserving of garden space. Above, you see the chiffonaded leaves used raw in salmon salad. It takes a surprising amount to make a good flavor impression, so think of sorrel as an ingredient, not a seasoning.

Hops  were planted all along my fences back when I used to brew beer. I don’t brew very  much anymore, but hops shoots are a lovely wild-bitter tasty treat that I look forward to every spring.  I am convinced that fancy preparation is a bad idea. Just rinse them, chop a bunch of them in 1 inch lengths, and fry quickly in olive oil with a generous pinch of salt. Nothing else. Be sure to let them form some browned crispy areas so they can taste their best.

Mulberry  can be kept tightly pruned or coppiced for an excellent harvest of small tender young leaves and shootsat the twig tips.  Don’t try the leathery older leaves, and stems should be tender enough to easily nip off with your thumbnail. It matters which mulberry you get, since some have perfectly good leaves and some are awful. I surreptitiously tasted at the organic nursery where I bought mine, to get leaves that had no unusual toughness or off flavors.  Mulberries have a good amount of resveratrol, but I have no idea about the resveratrol content of the leaves. I would guess, however, that it’s probably in there.  Once you have a mulberry tree you have it forever, and the only problem is keeping it pruned tightly enough that you can reach the leaf tips.  I recently learned from Samuel Thayer‘s newest book that the flowers can also be eaten in salads. I will be trying this next spring.  If you have a yard goat, goats adore mulberry branches above almost anything else, and will happily eat up your prunings. There are some wild food books  that claim that the leaves are hallucinogenic, and others that say the leaves are not hallucinogenic but the water in which they are cooked is. I call nonsense on all of this. Young tender mulberry leaves are one of my favorite greens, and I eat a lot of them, and drink the water that they were cooked in, and nothing remotely interesting has ever happened as a result.  Mulberry leaf tea is also widely used in Asian and given to children and old people, with absolutely no concerns.  I don’t know where this stuff comes from.  I am happy to say that Samuel Thayer, a profound expert on wild foods if ever there was one, talks about culinary  use of the leaves and does not mention this at all. A tightly pruned or coppiced mulberry can be kept in any front yard, since if you keep cutting it back it doesn’t bloom, and after the first few years  will provide a  surprising amount of greens.

Linden  is in all the permaculture books as a tree with edible leaves that can be used in salads or cooked. I have two small Linden trees, and I love the scent when they bloom, but to my taste the leaves are a little bit bland and I prefer good Mulberry leaves.  Still, they make a nice substantial addition to a salad with a good flavorful dressing, and are tenderest and best when gathered just as they emerge from their bracts.

To my immense pleasure, I find that I have more perennial veggies of interest than I thought I had, so I will put the rest in a second post.

 

 

The Fall Summation I: Crosnes

In late fall, I begin reflecting on the gardening year and what worked and what didn’t. Some things are in between. This is the first year that I experimented with crosnes, Stachys  affinis, sometimes called Chinese artichokes.  This is a small tuber-forming perennial plant, growing perhaps a foot high in a somewhat sprawling fashion. It produces tubers that, as you see above, look strikingly like grubs.

Pros:

They are perennial, although you do need to dig over the patch every year so that they don’t choke themselves out. If you are moving toward permaculture, this is appealing.

They can grow as a ground cover around other plants, although not if the necessary digging will disturb the larger plant.

The tubers have a very smooth surface and are a lot easier to clean then they look. I found that a soak in cold water, followed by a rinse with a strong stream of water, did the trick.

They are quite tasty. I was seeking a substitute for water chestnuts that I could grow at home, and I will point out quickly that they do not have the exquisite perfect crunch, the sweetness, and the flavor of fresh water chestnuts, although they are a long way above canned water chestnuts.  They lose a significant amount of their charm when cooked. I harvested a small double handful, chopped them coarsely, and put them in hot and sour soup, and although they were quite good, they had lost their crunch after a 15 minute simmer. Next time, I will throw them in just a minute before serving.  I can also imagine them being very good in salads, in steamed Chinese meatballs or dumplings, and in a lot of other places.

Cons:

I dug over a 2 square foot area to harvest a small double handful.  This was in a good patch of soil that got a fair amount of water. So I can’t imagine that they will ever be a very productive crop, although I will need to look into the  yields that other people get.

They can be hard to find. I got mine from Food Forest Farm.

So overall, for me, crosnes are not a stunning success but certainly a minor pleasure and a plant that I’m glad to have around. If you are gardening intensively, and want to get a lot of food from every square foot, they might not be for you. But if you have a patch of nice dirt that isn’t doing anything in particular, they might be just the ticket.

 

Fall and Winter Leaves II: Nettles

Nettles are one of my favorite greens, and one of the most nutritious plants around, so treating them with the respect and care that helps you avoid stings is definitely worth the trouble. I have a thriving nettle patch in a corner of my yard that I don’t routinely have to visit, so I have always harvested the new greens in the spring and then assiduously ignored the nettle patch for the rest of the year.  This is partly because I get interested in other things, but mostly because as a child, when I first started foraging to the intense dismay of my parents, my mother wisely bought me a set of Euell Gibbons books so that I would not poison myself.  Mr. Gibbons wrote eulogistically about nettles, but cautioned his readers that after the spring flush they develop oxalate crystals and are gritty and inedible.  I believed every word he wrote, and so I never tried them after they were about a foot high.

Here in the desert, in the unwatered spot where they have to live in my yard, nettles die back beginning in July, and the stems look dead by September.  But this year we got an uncharacteristic long heavy rainstorm in late September, and to my surprise the dead nettle stems began to leaf out again.  This week I noticed a mat of fresh nettle leaves, and told myself that no doubt they would be gritty, exactly as Euell had predicted.  But I did gather a couple of quarts (using leather gloves) of nettle sprigs and tried cooking them. They were exactly as verdant tasting as the spring greens, and neither gritty nor tough.  Now that I know this, I will try to remember to cut my nettle patch back when it dies in the hottest late summer weather, and begin to water in September so that the late fall shoots will be easier to pick.

Cooked greens in the refrigerator are an appetizing snack or light meal waiting to happen.  Today I didn’t particularly feel like eating a heavy lunch, but I did want something, and I wanted it to be healthy. I had a cup of blanched nettle greens hanging out in the refrigerator, and half a cup or so of leftover cooked cauliflower rice, so I grabbed two large scallions out of the walking onion patch and picked three large carrot leaves off the last remaining carrots.  The garlic that I planted in late summer is sprouting, so I picked one stalk that was about 6 inches high  to use as green garlic.  The fresh green stuff was chopped and sautéed in butter until cooked through, then the cooked nettles and cooked cauliflower rice were added along with about 2 cups of canned chicken broth and half a cup of heavy cream.  You could certainly leave this as a chunky soup, but I decided that I wanted a cream soup, and put the little potful in my Vitamix blender. About a minute later, it was completely creamy and thickened. I poured it back in the cooking pan, added a little water to thin it to a good consistency, simmered for 10 minutes, salted to taste, and ate it with a spoon full of drained yogurt on top to supply a subtle acidic element.  The entire process, including grabbing the green stuff from the yard, took about 15 minutes. This is a pretty small time investment for something as absurdly healthy as nettle soup.

Needless to say, vary to suit your own taste. Cooked cauliflower is a surprisingly good creamy thickening agent, and if you are vegan you could use olive oil for the initial sauté  and vegetable broth for the cooking liquid, and leave the cream out or substitute nut milk. It could be finished with a few drops of lemon juice instead of drained yogurt. Vegetarians can change the broth and leave everything else the same. As written it is a delicately flavored and very comforting soup, perfect for days when fate is being unkind, but if you want something more emphatic  you can start playing with herbs.  If you don’t happen to have a nettle patch, use some other leafy green. Have fun in your kitchen and make the result work for you.  My mother objects to my greens soups on the undeniable grounds that they are green, but if you have a prejudice against the color green in food I do hope that you will get over it, because it is the marker for some of the healthiest food that you can possibly eat.

And by the way, Euell Gibbons wasn’t right about everything, but his foraging books are still well worth reading for their palpable joy in the outdoors.  In one plant essay he says that wild foods are his way of taking communion with nature and the Author of nature, and I think this sums it up.