Archive for the ‘sustainable’ Category

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.

 

Food Independence Day

Gardening is a pleasure and a labor of love, and it’s also part of a bigger picture of resilience. I think about resilience a lot these days, on every level from national and international to personal. Much of the time there is little or, arguably, nothing that I can do for those larger systems, but on any average day I can attend to my own household system. I can make reasonable plans for the future and remain as flexible as possible about things that can’t be predicted.

One thing that can be predicted is aging. We can do a lot toward aging well, but *spoiler alert* we will still age. I realized this when I had a few years of orthopedic issues that made it painful to walk and impossible to dig. It made me start shifting toward a permanent mulch system in part of my yard, so that as long as I can kneel to plant and can spread some straw around, I can harvest food. I started the mulched beds by heaping animal manure and bedding a foot thick over the whole area, but this was a one-time job and the labor involved can be hired.  Straw bales can be delivered and set where you need them for a small extra fee, and spreading them is light work. Let the whole setup mellow for several months if the manure was fresh, and start planting the following spring. Straw breaks down quickly and has to be replenished a few times a year, which is great because it builds the soil and creates an incredibly active layer of worms and tiny critters of all sorts. It also holds water tenaciously, which is critically important in my desert area.

Some perennial weeds come up through thick mulch, so there is some pulling to do. In my area, silver nightshade is the chief invader. I have started letting it flower before I pull it, because bumblebees love the flowers.

Other perennial weeds are far more delightful. Common milkweed was my favorite perennial wild edible when I lived in the Northeast, and I’m creating a few patches of it here to feed us if there are years that I can’t plant annual vegetables. As the seedpods mature I’m moving them to new parts of the yard. This spring I noticed that some seedlings struggled up through thick mulch, saving me the usual labor of weeding around the tiny plants for a couple of years while they get established, so this fall I will try just “planting” seed pods here and there under mulch to see if I can start new clumps that way. Once well established a clump of milkweed takes care of itself, and it’s pretty hard for other weeds to get a foothold. The delicious shoots emerge late in the spring, so be careful not to dig them up by mistake  when the early-spring digging fervor hits you.

Nettles are a perennial vegetable that I have yapped on and on about until there’s little left to say. So all I will add here is: site them where you can control them and not get stung, cook them in spring when young and tender, whack the plants back aggressively to keep them in place, and harvest more shoots later on. I freeze the young leaves in large quantities to eat all year.

I’m always experimenting with things that may save work later on. I don’t eat potatoes very often but do like a few treats of new potatoes in season. I’m trying out the Chinese yam or cinnamon vine, a robust perennial vine that has sprays of cinnamon-scented flowers and then, on established vines, a large crop of tiny bulbils borne from the leaf joints that are said to taste like new potatoes. My vine is three years old and hasn’t formed any bulbils yet but I am hopeful that next year will be the year. The vine also forms a huge underground tuber that I can dig up and eat if I ever get that hungry. I understand that it tastes good, but digging is no longer my favorite thing.

Old established hops vines produce huge quantities of edible and delicious shoots in spring. They are much less work than asparagus, which tends to need a lot of weeding, but they are big heavy vines that want to romp away 20’ high if they get a chance, and require a really sturdy fence. I don’t brew beer anymore because we no longer drink much of it, but if you brew, there’s another clear advantage to growing them.

A deep permanent mulch creates a living and lively ecosystem and you can watch its capacities change over the years. I’ve tried for years to grow blackberries, but in my very alkaline clay in broiling sun they were a no-go. Now, in mulch with some shade, they are thriving.

European elderberries, Sambucus nigra, are another desired plant that I was never able to grow until the mulch provided a more hospitable habitat.

My fruit trees appreciate the even moisture under a deep mulch. In our hottest summer so far, after our driest winter in memory, my apricot tree was loaded. I had to fight my local squirrel family for them but I don’t mind a little healthy competition. I made Indian pickles out of some of the unripe fruit, rather like the ones made from green mangoes, and they were good enough that I wish I had made more. I also roasted a lot of apricots for use in savory dishes. They are very delicious in this form, and freeze pretty well. Below, they harmonize with roast chicken in saffron cream sauce.

My old friend lambs-quarters is still everywhere. There is no leafy green that’s any better or any easier to grow or any more nutritious. I wish that some ambitious breeder would get to work on it and create a form that held longer without shooting to seed, but it’s just fine as it is. It can be seen somewhere in nearly every photo taken on my place, and is my living daily assurance that I’ll never starve. If I can’t grow anything else, I’ll rake the mulch off a patch of earth, add some water, and reap the resulting harvest.

Perennial onions are another food that will never desert me. In fact, I’m having to weed some out to make room for other things. Besides the usual ways to use scallions, they are awfully good sliced finely, stewed in butter with some salt until they sweeten, and eaten as a vegetable.

Animals can add greatly to your resilience and they help “close the loop” in keeping nutrients on your property. It’s amazing how much garden waste and food scraps they will eat and relish, and their manure passes on the left-overs to your plants in a form that they can use. If legal in your area, a rooster increases resilience by making it possible for you to grow your own chicks if you ever really have to, or want to.

I am no survivalist and don’t want anything to happen to society. We need each other. But if our current overly lavish food supply should be threatened, the ability to grow something to eat might once again become a necessary skill. And even with every grocery store crammed with food, growing your own is satisfying on a far deeper level than shopping.

A happy and healthy Independence Day to all.

 

 

 

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.