Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Natural Chaos

A garden bed with edible weeds in glorious (?) array

For a brief period earlier this year I had a lovely young helper in the garden, and he was a sponge for any information about plants and animals and a joy to have around. At one point, as he talked about how much he wanted a “yard farm” of his own, he looked around my yard and said thoughtfully “But mine will always be neat as a pin.” He didn’t say “by contrast,” but the implication was clear, and quite true.

Well, if there is one thing my urban homestead is not, it’s neat as a pin. Nature grows and blooms. Nature also surges, intrudes, overwhelms, dies back, regrows,  creeps, climbs, and insidiously gets Her own way. The gardener plays a part in natural chaos too; all the photos of lovely front yard veggie gardens that you see in magazines are taken before harvest. The gardener cuts the glowing rainbow chard, harvests the multicolored row of lettuces, picks the crimson tomatoes, and plucks the shiny apples, and suddenly things aren’t so camera-ready. Admittedly, many are neater than mine, since many gardeners lack my taste for edible weeds and my belief that nearly any plant has a purpose.  But if you want to get the most that you can get out of gardening, a degree of chaos tolerance may be a useful asset.

My blogging friend Luke of the Mortaltree blog summed this up so superbly that, with his permission, I’m linking to his post on the subject. So please hit this link and read his post “Taste of Chaos,” which really sums up the land-healing experience:

Taste of chaos

Garden Errors

In my last post I mentioned using finely chopped carrot leaves in an herb pesto, and it occurred to me that there is a bit more to say about this because it pertains to what to do when things go wrong in the garden. The brief answer is: see if you can eat them anyway, maybe in some other form.

This spring I used all my allotted carrot space on an heirloom carrot called Oxheart, because it was billed as not only tasty but short and thick, perfect for my heavy soil. And it was a very nice carrot indeed except that at the four month point most of the row shot to seed, jettisoning the typical biennial habit of right-thinking carrots. So there I was with no carrots for fall and winter and a row of ferny foliage and lacy white blossoms so pretty that I hated to tear them out.

So I began experimenting with how to eat them anyway.  The ones already blooming were left in place for bee fodder.  The ones that were just beginning to throw up short bloom stalks, with stalks less than 6 inches high when I discovered them, were pan-grilled as whole shoots, a tasty and delicious use.

Carrot shoot in the center

This left a large number that were beyond the shoot stage and beginning to form buds, but not yet blooming.  The leaves were still tender, and I began to gather them to add to cooked greens mixtures, and then began to use them chopped finely as a garnish, much in the manner of parsley. They taste different, of course, but have a fresh green flavor with a dose of terpene that I found very attractive.  They are loaded with vitamin K, if that is of interest to you.

This left the stems, and I found that they too had a use, although they are a little tedious to prepare.  The top half of the stem can have the fibrous outsides pulled off and you’ll see a crisp green pith  that has a fresh juicy flavor a little bit like celery but with a carrotty tang.  There is an inner fibrous layer that doesn’t come off, so you have to cut them in cross-sections no more than a quarter inch long.  They add a nice crisp crunch with a fresh flavor to nearly anything, especially herb pestos and chimichurris.  When in doubt about whether a particular segment of the stem is edible, peel it as well as you can and then bite into it. If your teeth do not go cleanly through it and nasty threads are left hanging off the end, don’t bother with it.

Peeled carrot stalks shown to the right, chopped carrot leaves and thyme at the top

The roots of carrots that have shot up a bloomscape are no longer tender, but they can still be peeled, sliced, roasted, and made into flexible Romesco or roasted carrot hummus, proving the carrot’s status as a true nose-to-tail vegetable.

Above, gone-to-flower carrots were oven-roasted for carrot Romesco, but don’t try to eat them as plain roasted carrots at this point, because they are fairly tough.

I should add that creative harvesting is like foraging; never make assumptions about safety. The fact that one part of a plant is edible and safe never means that another part is.   As it happens, I already knew that carrot leaves and stalks were safe to eat, and most problems that happen when foragers try to eat wild carrots come from dangerous misidentification with poisonous, even deadly, members of the same family.  So if you gather carrotty looking things outside your own garden, be very, very sure that you know what you are looking at.

Once all of the above is said, I have to add that I would rather have had winter carrots, and next time I will be a little more careful with my seed source. But an error here and there keeps our thinking fresh.

Bold Scrambled Eggs, and Notes on Egyptian Onions

I love Indian food and cook it frequently, and I especially love the simple dishes that make quick meals in Indian homes. This is a cuisine that vegetarians should get to know well, since the population of India is about 40% vegetarian and vegetable dishes abound. But it can seem daunting to view the ingredient list of many Indian recipes, and the toasting and grinding of spices for each dish can require more time than is available.

So start with simple scrambled eggs. These are loaded with bold flavor, and easy to make. I lean low-carb so I eat them plain, but you can scoop them up with warm parathas or warmed-over naan from last night’s take-out, or pat out squash flatbread thin and use that. It’s always a good investment in your health to use the best eggs that you can lay hands on if you don’t keep your own hens. Check out the farmer’s market and get eggs from hens that have been fed a lot of greens, since bugs and leaves are a big part of the natural diet of a hen.

The only out-of-the-ordinary prep that you need to do is to toast some whole cumin seeds in a dry skillet just until they are fragrant and a little darker and then grind them in a spice grinder. In the summer I do a tablespoon at a time so that I always have a bit on hand, but don’t make too much because once toasted and ground it doesn’t stay fresh for long.

Be sure to add salt to the vegetables as they cook, as directed. This is part of getting them to soften properly and assures that they are seasoned through.

For two hungry people, you’ll need:

3 eggs and three egg yolks, or 4 eggs if you prefer, beaten a bit

4 large green onions or a bunch of the little grocery store type, cut in 1/4″ slices crosswise, whites and greens kept separate

Ghee, 2-3 tablespoons, or neutral oil of your preference

one small bunch of cilantro, washed and chopped finely crosswise, stems and leafy parts kept separate

one teaspoon of ground toasted cumin seed

Heat the ghee in a skillet, and add the white parts of the green onions with a good pinch of salt and sauté over medium-high heat until cooked through but not browned. Add the onion greens and the cilantro stems and another small pinch of salt and cook until the onion greens look softened; taste one to be sure that they have become pleasant to eat. Add the beaten eggs and yolks and cook, turning over with a spatula, until they are cooked to your preference. Taste for salt and add more if indicated. Add half the cilantro leaves and the toasted ground cumin to the pan and stir to distribute, serve, and top with the remaining cilantro leaves.

This is great as part of an Indian brunch for two as shown above, or by itself as a quick easy meal that can be on the plate in 15 minutes if you have the ingredients handy. You can also make a mini version in your smallest skillet with one big green onion, a few stalks of cilantro, and one egg, if you aren’t hungry enough for a meal but want a nutritious snack.

If you love green onions and want to have them around throughout the growing season, my blogging friend Luke has helped me figure out how to do it with Egyptian, or walking, onions. Once you have these sturdy onions, you have them. To get started, I ordered a hundred top-set bulbs off Etsy one fall when they were plentiful. It’s a bit of an investment by gardening standards, but it’s a one-time thing. Choose an area with good rich soil that gets plenty of sun and water. When the top set bulbs arrive, plant 20 of them and keep the rest in a cool dry place well away from direct sun, with excellent air circulation. No plastic bags. The following spring, when the ones you planted in the fall are about 6″ high, plant 20 more. Keep going in like fashion until you have succession-planted them all. If I notice the ones in the storage box sprouting, I put the box in the refrigerator until they are all planted.
When the fall planting is over a foot tall, but has not yet sent up the tough inedible central stalk that forms the top bulbs, start harvesting. This is important: snap or cut them at the soil surface rather than pulling them out. The bulb and roots that you left in the ground will sprout a few new green onions for later in the year. After managing your patch this way for a year, they will get so thick that they are pretty well defended against weeds and you will need to start pulling some out by the roots to prevent overcrowding. At that point, you can also start deciding when to let some go long enough to form top bulbs, and you can either start a new succession bed or give them to a friend who wants to try it.
At this point I let mine perpetuate themselves from the ground and rarely let them form topsets. I keep two smaller beds, one in full sun and one in partial shade, and they yield at different times and keep a fairly good succession going with minimal input from me except harvesting and cooking.

I do top-dress periodically with well-rotted goat manure and kelp meal. I’m a great believer in kelp meal, for bringing back onto the land some of the trace minerals that we washed off it into the ocean. I strongly prefer the organic Icelandic kelp meal from Thorvin, because it is harvested from an area of the ocean tested for heavy metals and some of the other nasties that we are washing into the water. I don’t want a closed system on my tiny urban farm, because any trace mineral deficiencies that existed wouldn’t get corrected. The Thorvin meal would get pretty expensive on a commercial scale, but for the small urban homesteader it’s a healthy investment. I also use it generously as a supplement for my chickens and goat. For the chickens I mix some into any moist food that they like to eat, such as any leftover cooked greens or wilted salads, and for the goat I mix it with organic blackstrap molasses to make a treat that she will trample me to get.

 

 

Post 300: Magnolia

This is a poignant post for me to write, because one of my very first posts written on this property was about my new Sanaan doe goat Magnolia. Beloved Maggie is over nine years old now, and no longer  holding body weight well when she’s in milk, and I’ve concluded that for her own good, this is her last lactation. So I’m filling the freezer with goat cheese, and Magnolia will retire and live out the rest of her life in leisure. Goats are smart and interactive and, like dogs, incredibly painful to lose. I hope that Maggie will be with us for a few years yet. She is a big part of my daily life, and I can’t think of a better subject for my 300th post.
If you are interested in having a dairy animal, bear in mind that they need excellent nutrition and eat a lot of expensive food and occasionally have veterinary needs, so don’t even think in terms of producing economical food. Think in terms of having a lovely pet, with benefits. Do remember that periodic male offspring are almost inevitable and you have to have a plan for what to do with them, so if you are vegetarian yourself this may be a real issue for you. Female offspring can often be given to good homes, but can very seldom be sold at a profit.  Also, I trust it goes without saying that when in milk they have to be milked out every day, not just when you feel like making cheese, and have to be milked when you travel, which is not a job that the average pet sitter will take on. Be aware that excellent fences are required to keep goats out of your own shrubbery and trees or your neighbor’s, and in my area an 8 foot fence they can be secured behind at night is needed for protection from coyotes. All of this costs money.  If any of this discourages you, there is an abundance of excellent cheese including the superb Mount Vikos halloumi available at any upscale food store or co-op.

One of the reasons that I wanted a dairy animal in my suburban yard is that I like to make cheese, and currently it’s pretty hard to make cheese from most commercial milk. This is because milk is being pasteurized at increasingly high temperatures to extend its shelf life, and the milks in your local dairy case that don’t say “UHT” were probably still pasteurized at near-UHT temperatures. This affects the proteins, and such milk will not form a proper curd when rennetted. Therefore, unless you have access to fresh-from-the-animal milk, success is by no means certain with any cheese recipe except ricotta. Since it’s illegal or very difficult in most areas to sell raw milk, a dairy animal is your ticket to cheesemaking. If you don’t have a dairy animal or access to milk that wasn’t processed at high temperatures, I am very sorry to say that I do not recommend cheesemaking because it is going to be too disappointing. Personally, I find it absolutely weird to think that most commercial milk is so denatured that you can’t make cheese out of it. But these are the facts.

If you have access to  clean milk that was not pasteurized at high heat, go immediately to Ricki Carroll’s wonderful cheesemaking site and go to town. She has all the supplies and cultures as well as reams of recipes and advice.
My own choice has been to stick to fresh cheeses and halloumi, because they are quick and easy to make, can be frozen for later use, and do not require any special attentions as they age because they don’t age. I’m especially fond of halloumi because it can be grilled to such a wonderful crusty brown, and I do love a good Maillard reaction.
Rather than give my own haphazard procedure for making halloumi, which might not be perfect but fits into my kitchen routine and produces a good product, I am going to have you start off on the right foot by linking to Ricki’s recipe.  I will only add that I don’t use any herbs in finishing the cheese, because it is more versatile if it isn’t already carrying an herb flavor.  Any herbs that you want can easily be added at the cooking or serving stage, as the green onions pan-grilled with the halloumi in the top picture.  Also, a salted but unseasoned halloumi is an excellent stand-in for paneer if you feel suddenly moved to go Indian rather than Mediterranean.  And a wild greens saag paneer with your own greens fed cheese is as delicious a dinner as I know of,  and likely to contribute to your health and longevity as well as your immediate gratification.

A quarter cup of ricotta  is a byproduct of making halloumi,  and makes a nice Cook’s Treat to reward yourself for your enterprise.

Here,  fresh goat cheese serves as the bulk of a dinner, a strongly seasoned ground meat with sweet spices in the Arabic style is part of the flavoring, and an elaborate herb pesto is the other part.

Continue reading

The Squash Chronicles II: Squash Flatbread

I love my ketogenic diet and my blood sugar is superbly controlled, but there are times when I really miss bread.  Not just the flavor of bread, although the flavor of a really good sourdough bread is unbeatable. For that, there is no substitute. But there are times when what I really crave is the ease and convenience of bread, and the way it  pads out a meal and pulls it together.  In this case what I miss is not really the flavor of bread but its use as a “landing” for all kinds of other foods.  I have a few ways to fill in without adding too many carbohydrates, and one of my favorites is zucchini flatbread.

In addition to a couple of good sized zucchini or about a foot of serpiente squash,  you will need two eggs, a cup of grated mozzarella (the semi soft processed kind, not true fresh mozzarella for this purpose,)  half a cup of grated Parmesan, seasoning of your choice, and about a half cup of low-carb baking mix.  The best mix that I have found is the one from Trim Healthy Mama,  which is extremely expensive but does work well.

First, grate the squash and mix in about a tablespoon of salt.  Let it sit for half an hour. At this point, the shreds of squash will be swimming in liquid.  Over the sink, wrap the squash in cheesecloth or a thin dishtowel and start squeezing out liquid.  Keep squeezing and wringing, until you are left with about a cup of pulpy squash shreds.  Put these in a bowl and beat in the two eggs with a fork.  Mix in the shredded mozzarella and Parmesan.  Add a half teaspoon of salt (most of the salt that you used for disgorging the squash disappeared with the excess water) and seasoning of your choice. I like some fresh thyme leaves and a pinch of granulated garlic. For some reason fresh garlic doesn’t work well in this recipe. Add in a half cup of low-carb baking mix and half a teaspoon of baking powder and beat until evenly incorporated.

Preheat the oven to 425. Now line a baking sheet with parchment paper, oil your hands with olive oil, and begin pressing out the mixture into a thin even oblong.  Generally I aim for something a little less than a quarter inch thick, but if you plan to use it for breadsticks or a pizza crust you may want it a little bit thicker.  Make sure that there are no holes. The dough is lumpy and you will have to keep patting it down with the flat of your hands.

Bake at 425 until done to the right degree for your purposes.  It has to be baked enough to hold together well, but if you want to use it as a wrap, you will have patted it out pretty thin and should bake it only until it is cooked through and will come off the parchment paper in one piece but is still flexible.  If you want to make sticks as shown above, it should be more crisp, and the same goes for a low-carb pizza crust.

Above, it’s just cooked through, browned on the bottom, and right for making wraps. To make the breadsticks shown above, once it is baked to the right degree, top with another half cup of shredded mozzarella  and some chopped roasted garlic.  Return to the oven and broil until the cheese is melted and a little bit browned.   It is good dipped into your favorite pizza sauce, preferably the kind that you make yourself.  Any kind of herb pesto or sour cream dip is also good.

To make an impromptu low-carb pizza, cook the flatbread until fairly crisp. Brush the top lightly with a thick flavorful pizza sauce, coat with shredded mozzarella, and top with pepperoni, sausage,  or what you will.  Return to a very hot oven and bake until the cheese melts.

It goes without saying that if you insist on the wonderful malt flavor of really good bread, you need to eat really good bread and there are no substitutes.  But having a few options like this one means that you can save the great bread for very special treats and keep your carb intake down the rest of the time.  This is also a good way to take in extra vegetable fiber, with all its health benefits.

 

The Squash Chronicles I: Ambitious Summer Squash

Every year  I lose my zucchini to diseases in late summer, despite the fact that I always plant whatever is most highly touted for disease resistance. This year I decided to try some new squash types  and see if I could overcome the disease issues, and still get some summer squash. The two I planted were Thai bottle squash and Italian Serpiente squash, both from the entrancing Baker Creek seed catalog.   I planted a couple of seeds of each in the compost pile next to the chicken coop, and thinned to one plant of each when they were small.  The results were as you see above; they are quite frighteningly successful. The vines are up to 30′ long, so be prepared.  They covered the chicken coop in nothing flat, providing some nice shade for the hens, and I was amused to note that wherever squash formed hanging down into the chicken run, the hens would jump up and peck them down to stubs.

Both can be picked at any point when your thumbnail will still penetrate the skin without significant pressure, and used just like zucchini.  They taste like zucchini, by which I mean they really have very little taste and need some help from seasonings.  When cooking any summer squash I prefer to slice it, salt heavily, and let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour and then squeeze out the large amounts of excess water by wringing the squash slices in a dish towel. Proceed to cook any way you like.

I like to make low-carb wrap bread out of  summer squash, and I’ll write about that in the near future, but today I want to encourage you to try marinated squash. Slice up one zucchini or a comparably sized chunk of a serpiente or bottle squash or whatever, salt heavily, and let sit 30 minutes or so. Meanwhile, chop a clove of garlic and slice a scallion or two thinly and put in a bowl large enough to hold the squash with half a cup of very good red wine vinegar. Add a half teaspoon of salt ( most of the salt you put on the squash will be squeezed away with its liquid) and herbs to taste. I like a few sprigs’ worth of thyme leaves.  Wring the squash slices out thoroughly in a clean dish towel, then fry in olive oil until the texture is the way you like it, which for me is done but not mushy. Dump the hot cooked squash slices in the bowl, stir the vinegar mixture through, and let cool to room temp, stirring a few times to distribute the seasonings. It can be made ahead and sit for a few hours, or refrigerated until needed, but do let it warm to room temp before serving.  When you are ready to serve, drain off all the excess vinegar,  pressing a bit to get any excess liquid out,  and toss with a quarter cup or so of your best olive oil and maybe add a small handful of chopped parsley or chopped young carrot leaves.  I like this as a side dish, and if you have some roasted pinenuts to sprinkle over the top, that adds deliciousness. Some crumbled queso  fresco would turn it into a light lunch, and it could be tucked into a wrap bread and eaten with a dip of seasoned yogurt or hummus for a more substantial meal  that would suit plant-based or vegetarian inclinations. Using a mildly sweet late harvest vinegar or adding a dash of honey, and finishing with chopped roasted salted pistachios would give the dish an interesting Sardinian sweet-and-sour turn.

As you can see above, the use of red wine vinegar gives the dish a pinkish cast that some people might object to. I use red wine vinegar because I make my own and love the flavor, but if it bothers you just use white wine vinegar instead.

The whole concept of a cooked vegetable salad goes as beautifully with Asian meals as with western style dinners. Try using rice vinegar and palm sugar or sweetener of your choice, adding a few teaspoons of chopped ginger along with  the garlic, and garnishing with scallions. Some slivered chiles would be great if you like heat,  and a handful of chopped cilantro would make a pretty and tasty garnish.

 

 

Fish: An Easy Evening


Most of the time I love being an urban homesteader, and it’s a great pleasure to produce as much food as I can on my home ground. But there are times that I don’t want to start my meal with butchering and foraging. I just want to take it easy. But I still want something very healthy and very good, and I want to support the businesses that make my community even better.
In the Albuquerque and Phoenix areas, it’s a very good idea to get to know the Fishhuggers, Kenny and Brenna and their family. In the summer Kenny fishes in Alaska, and they sell wild Alaskan salmon, halibut, and various other fish. They also sell grassfed beef from the family ranch, and it’s the best grassfed meat available in our area because they keep the cattle long enough to put on healthy, delicious fat. They also handle some excellent pork and a variety of other healthy products. Check their website to see where they are currently selling, and ask what they have. I have been buying from them for enough years to watch their son grow from small child to accomplished salesman in his own right.
Wherever you live, find a trustworthy source and keep some healthy fish in the freezer. Nothing is quicker and easier to cook than fish. When you sense that your day is sliding out of control, start thawing it or planning how to thaw it when you get home. Keep a reserve of veggies in the pantry that can be used on a second’s notice and need no prepping. I keep grilled artichoke hearts in oil and sun-dried tomatoes in oil. Grab some chimichurri out of the refrigerator, or make some in five minutes if you keep the ingredients on hand.
For this particular meal, choose good-sized fillet pieces of any firm white fish. Sprinkle the thawed sections with salt and your favorite fish seasoning; as a Louisiana native, I always use Chef Paul’s Blackened Redfish Magic. Heat a heavy skillet over high heat, sear the fish well on both sides, and move to a 300 degree oven to finish. While the fish is baking, rinse the skillet quickly, drain artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes or whatever veggies you’re using, heat the skillet over medium-high heat, add some very good olive oil, and start lightly browning the veggies. Between stirs, chop two fresh cloves of garlic to add a more authentic flavor. When the veggies are lightly browned turn the heat to low, toss in the chopped garlic, and stir frequently until the garlic is cooked but not at all browned. Turn the heat off and check the fish.

Personally, I loathe overcooked fish. When it will just separate into large, moist and juicy flakes with firm application of a fork, it’s done. Don’t cook it another second. Move it out of the hot pan onto plates, add the veggies, and scoop chimichurri wherever it looks best on the plate. Add a wedge of flatbread if you like. I’m low-carb so mine is made with oat fiber.

I think this is a red wine meal, but then I think every meal is a red wine meal. If you are a beer drinker, you may prefer beer. Either way, toast your dinner partner with joy and confidence, and remember that with every bite you are preventing the fast-food hordes from swarming into your kitchen.