Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Milkweed, For People and Others


People who live in wetter climates would be surprised, and probably amused, to learn what efforts I’ve made to have common weeds like nettles, burdock, chickweed, and milkweed grow on my property. Common milkweed, Asclepius syraica, has been especially difficult because it really does like moist soil and doesn’t tolerate “dry feet” or alkalinity gracefully.  It took a couple of tries before I got any to germinate, and now I finally have a few plants, which have to be watered and tended and fussed over as if they were orchids until they get stronger. I had to borrow photos because my own milkweed is still a bit on the spindly side.

One might well wonder why I bother. One reason is that I like to eat milkweed, especially the young seed pods, but the shoots and buds are just fine too. It’s a true nose-to-tail vegetable. Another is that I am transitioning from annual veggies to perennial wherever possible, and A. syraica is a good useful perennial that doesn’t require soil disturbance to grow. A third reason is that the flowers are fairly ornamental and send out a cloud of perfume reminiscent of flowery vanilla.

A fourth reason can be seen on this map:

Monarch migration

Notice how the sightings in New Mexico just peter out, while the ones in wetter areas east and west continue northward. Compare this to the maps on the same site for larvae and for milkweed. The migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico to the northern US is a migration of generations. The butterfly that arrives in Montana may be great-great-grandchild to the butterfly that flew north from Michoacon. All along the way they need breeding habitat, and their larvae feed on A. syraica and a couple of other closely related milkweed species. The leg of the journey through desert northern Mexico and southern New Mexico is a barren one, and a few milkweed oases along the way might help more monarchs make it to Colorado and further north. I can’t guarantee it, of course, but it seems worth a try. Adult monarchs will sip nectar from many flower species, but the fate of the larvae is tied to milkweed supply.

You can read more about monarch conservation here:

https://monarchconservation.org

Since my plants are still too young to pick for eating, I won’t be writing about milkweed in the kitchen until next year, but you can obtain the two wonderful field guides by Samuel Thayer, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, and be prepared to forage and cook any common wild edible. I never tire of recommending Thayer’s books, which contain great detail about identification and culinary use at various stages.

A Quickie on Pollination

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There can’t be anybody left who doesn’t know about our pollinator crisis. I was saddened recently when an experienced beekeeper who is profoundly attentive to her bees told me that she lost a third of her hives over the last year. It can’t be overstated that our friend over millennia, Apis mellifera, is in deep trouble and therefore so are we.

This makes our remaining pollinators even more important. Everyone recognizes bumblebees and knows that they are active pollinators,  and in my area most people recognize the coal black stylish looking carpenter bee.  Unfortunately, they recognize it because they think it is a danger to their houses and tend to reach for spray the minute they see it.  Carpenter bees are active pollinators and adapted to our area and spraying them is a really, really bad idea under most circumstances, but when I did a search on them to find a photograph, I was horrified to find that almost all  the hits that I found were about exterminating them and advised application of “residual pesticides,” i.e. pesticides that leave residues which kill for a long time after they are sprayed.  This is sick stuff, in my view, especially since it kills large numbers of other species.  On the other hand, I own a house with exposed wood beams and don’t want my house bored into any more than anybody else does.  I have repeatedly noticed that the carpenter bees like cottonwood, and have decided to keep a pile of cottonwood logs and branches where the bees can burrow around at peace.  I read that they also will not attack painted wood. Clearly, I will be watching my beams closely for signs of invasion, and if I see carpenter bee activity I will consult an entomologist (not an exterminator, since they have a business interest in selling me their poisonous services) about what to do. But so far that hasn’t happened. And I guess that’s my real point: the mere sight of something that might potentially be harmful but that is minding its own business at the moment is not a reason to get reactive and act harmfully. The mindset of permaculture and homesteading is to avoid making a hazard out of something that isn’t.  This point is rather neatly illustrated below:

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Help our bees. All of them.

Backyard Mushrooms

For years I moaned and carried on about my inability to grow mushrooms as an integrated part of my urban homestead, and now I can’t stop them. All winter I grew oyster mushrooms in the garage on a substrate of recycled paper, and last month I put the theoretically depleted basket of substrate outside in the shade with the thought that when I got around to it, I would break up the broken-down paper and incorporate it into my mulch. Instead, the basket was within range of a sprinkler that I was using every other day to help some new plants get started, and produced another three pounds of mushrooms. So this might not  exactly be the Pacific Northwest around here, but the adaptable oyster didn’t care.

So my point is, as the Gangsta Gardener says, just plant shit. Plant what you would like to eat and don’t give up. Plants and fungi are resilient survivors and may astonish you at some point, even after initial disheartening failures.

The role of fungi in a healthy ecosystem is far-reaching and worth reading about. They are valuable beyond measure whether you can directly eat them or not. But my greed and gluttony makes me most interested in the edibles. Pleurotis ostreatus, the common oyster mushroom,  is vigorous and highly adaptable and also delicious, which works out well for my purposes. But I am experimenting with some other types. In an area of deep straw and mulch I put spawn of the wine cap mushroom, Stropharia rugosa-annulata, and it seems to be sending mycelia out through the straw. In August I’ll find out if it will fruit for me.

The mycelium above may grow into the mushrooms below:

DCF 1.0

Every year I make a new bed by putting down layers of cardboard and nontoxic paper recyclables and piling up a year’s worth of goat bedding on top. This is a mixture of goat manure and the alfalfa that she eats, and is as hot a compost material as you will find, so I do this in late fall or early winter, wet it down thoroughly, and let it compost in place over the winter. In spring, I start planting into it.  Generally, the first year I use hearty healthy unstoppable plants, such as mustard for greens and summer squash. They always flourish, and by the second year of the compost is finely broken down and will grow pretty much anything. This year I planted spawn of the almond agaricus mushroom, a compost-loving mushroom, into a first-year bed and will see what happens. But I was interested to note that a small shelf of oyster mushrooms poked out the side a couple of weeks ago. The oyster mushroom is not “supposed” to tolerate full sun or hot compost. To which I can only say, tell that to the oyster mushroom.

If you’re interested in learning more about offbeat ways of growing mushrooms, Mycelial Mayhem is a delightful romp through the casual side of mushroom growing. Mycelium Running is a classic about the role of fungi in ecology.

Eating from the Shade

I wrote yesterday about how I finally have some shade on my property and a few of the things I’m growing there. I am trying hostas, British blackcurrants,  Cornus mas, Good King Henry, cow parsnip, milkweed, oyster mushrooms, and a number of other edibles  that can’t withstand full desert sun. I have planted fair-sized patches of hostas, but the oldest of them are only a year old, so when the tightly furled and appetizing-looking “hostons” appeared above ground this spring, I reluctantly decided that the plants were too young to harvest and left them strictly alone. Fortunately my friend Luke at Mortaltree blog is not so limited,  and he has kindly given me permission to re-blog his post on hostas and Solomon’s seal in the permaculture kitchen. I can’t resist pointing out that these very ornamental species are just about perfect for front yard gardening and suburban gardening generally.

Food from shade: solomon’s seal and hosta shoots.

Urban Homestead Trees: Black Locust

When I moved to my current property eight years ago, the house sat on half an acre of adobe clay, punctuated here and there with construction rubble and overgrown with tumbleweeds. There was one pitiful trashy elm about 20 feet high, and nothing else. After putting a fence around the perimeter, my next project was to put in some trees.

Mostly I chose fruit trees, along with one almond tree, but I left one back corner for a black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, which may be my favorite tree. It is fiercely thorny, toxic except for the blossoms, suckers badly, and tends to shed limbs disconcertingly and hazardously as it gets older. But for a week in April it is glorious beyond belief, covered with white flowers, casting the scent of lilies for hundreds of feet around, and so filled with bees that the entire tree hums. I hope never to be without a black locust again.

It also fixes nitrogen, which may benefit my soil, but its main advantage  the rest of the growing season is that it casts perfect lacy shade for growing plants that can’t tolerate the desert sun. Now that I have some light shade to work with, I’m finally able to grow milkweed and oca and groundnuts (apios) and cow parsnip and a number of other plants that used to shrivel and die as soon as the first hot days hit. I have never had any luck growing mushrooms outdoors here, but I’m trying again in the shade of the black locust, and the results are wonderful.

The blossoms of black locust are nice on salads, and can be battered and fried, but deep frying is one kind of cooking that I don’t go in for, so I don’t know much about it. The rest of the plant is toxic. My goat got out once and ate some without apparent harm, but that may have been luck. So try to site it away from livestock and in an area where a falling limb as it ages won’t be a disaster.

 

“Processed” Food

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Like everyone else who works, I have a lot to do when I get home and some nights I need help to get a healthy dinner on the table. I eat a ketogenic (low carbohydrate) diet and don’t have pasta and rice and bulgur to fall back on. For those nights I keep some “fast food” in the freezer, like riced organic cauliflower. If I’m thinking ahead, I leave a bag out to thaw in the morning. More often I didn’t think ahead and need to thaw it quickly in the microwave. Either way, if you just cook it as is, you are going to have a rather damp mess on your hands, in my opinion anyway. So take the thoroughly thawed cauliflower, bundle it in a dish towel, and squeeze the water out of it. You’ll get a surprising amount out. Now you can throw it in a skillet with some salt, sliced green onions, chopped herbs, olive oil, and sliced almonds, and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes with regular stirring. Don’t add water back. Cauliflower loves to go soggy if it gets a chance. It’s done when the cauliflower grains are done to your preference. I like mine a bit on the firm side, holding their shape briefly to the tooth without any hint of raw crunch.  Check whether it needs more salt before you serve. Meanwhile, grill some salmon as shown here, or warm up leftover chicken thighs, or slice up some warmed leftover meat. Land it on your cauliflower pilaf and flavor it with finishing butter (Montpellier butter with green garlic is shown here) which also lives in the freezer in convenient individually wrapped portions, or just drizzle with your best olive oil.
Some would say that I should grow, grate, and freeze the cauliflower myself if I’m going to use it, and when such people get hold of me, I always suggest that they invite me over for a meal 100% produced from their yard so that I can write about it😉. So far, those invitations haven’t arrived. I am not a believer in making the perfect the enemy of the good, and we are not full-time yard farmers and have to make our modern lives work. Besides, grating cauliflower is one of the few kitchen jobs that I hate and one that I outsource whenever possible. I grow things that are unobtainable at markets or distinctly better when home-grown, and cauliflower is neither. So let somebody else do the work for you.
Regarding the finishing butter above, I am used to horrified shrieks of “It’s GREEN!” Indeed it is, and so are a lot of other good things. Expose yourself (and your family and friends) to green food until you get used to it, and your health will benefit. After all, nobody has ever looked at wild-caught Alaskan salmon at my table and said “Ugh, it’s PINK!” Good food is good food. Close your eyes if you really must, but getting over biases about green is better.

Here’s another version tricked out with capers, green garlic, thyme, pine nuts, and castelvetrano olives.

Full Flavors: Hop Shoots and Goat Chops

“”Boy, I could go for some goat right now” said no American ever. But I have no idea why that is. If you are an urban or rural  homesteader you have probably considered goats because they are hardy, compact, dual-purpose, remarkably productive for their size, and extremely friendly. But you have probably thought, or been told, that the meat is strong-flavored and unappealing.

If you are dealing  with an old goat, this is certainly true, but I can’t imagine butchering an old goat. Goats under a year old are delicious, with a full robust flavor that people who shop at the supermarket can hardly imagine, but nothing that can fairly be described as gaminess. The ones that I occasionally produce for our household are 100% alfalfa-fed. If you are lucky enough to have access to such meat, cook it with respect. For the chops, that means marinating with garlic and herbs and grilling medium-rare because the meat gets tough if allowed to dry out. If you can’t get young grass-fed goat, apply the same principles to lamb chops, another meat that has not yet had the flavor bred out of it. Sear on the grill to medium-rare, let rest in a 200 degree oven for 10 minutes, and serve with a veggie that works with robust flavors, such as the pan-grilled hops shoots shown here.

I sometimes think that the direction of mainstream American agriculture is to eliminate anything that has a distinctive flavor. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve rediscovered dry-aged beef and gotten away from chicken breast, which (unless you raised it yourself) is the most tasteless and cottony part of a tasteless and cottony bird. I have tasted prime-grade beef that had no discernible beef flavor, just a fatty faint sweetness.   Spinach is sold in the baby-leaf stage when it has no intrinsic flavor. Corn is as sugary-sweet as cotton candy, with no “corn” flavor to speak of.  It makes me grateful beyond words for my tiny patch of land where I can grow hops shoots and chicory and grape leaves and wild weeds and herbs of all kinds to feed my desire for food that tastes of itself.

By the way, I cook hops shoots a lot in the spring and after trying several methods, I’ve decided that the only one worth pursuing is to cut the shoots in lengths about 1.5 inches long and stir-fry  in a hot pan with some very good olive oil, a hefty pinch of salt, and nothing else. Continue to cook, stirring intermittently, until there are browned spots and the little nascent leaves are fried crisp. This gives them the richness to accent their slight wild bitterness and makes them truly delicious. Like good goat chops, they are a feral and flavorful treat

I mentioned marinating goat and lamb, and my favorite marinade is the one that my mother used when I was growing up, with a tweak or two from me. It’s great for goat, lamb, and beef.  Tinker with it as you see fit, but at least once  try it as written here, with the finish described:

Red meat marinade:

1/2 cup good olive oil

1/2 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon Red Boat fish sauce or 2 mashed fillets of anchovy

2-3 crushed cloves of garlic (I prefer 3) or a couple of stalks of green garlic, sliced fine and then crushed in a mortar and pestle

a small handful of celery leaves, chopped

Mix all ingredients and let sit half an hour, then pour over chops in a dish and let marinate at least four hours and preferably overnight in the refrigerator.

Finish: remove from marinade and salt lavishly on both sides with alder-smoked salt. Sear on a hot grill to produce the ultra flavorful Maillard reactions. Lower heat and grill until done, but no more than medium-rare. Rest in a low oven. Eat and weep. The alder salt makes the meat jump into deliciousness. It’s a case of robust meeting robust and the flame of love being kindled.

If you get interested in producing a bit of your own meat or supporting a farmer who does, study the book “Goat” for more cooking inspiration. Goats and sheep produce milk and meat from land that wouldn’t support crop agriculture, and their meat still has its own distinctive and wonderful flavor. This book was published years ago but, regrettably, there is still nothing else like it.