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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.

 

The Turn of the Wheel

 

This summer, more than usual, I ran a bit adrift when it came to blog-writing. There were many reasons, but the main reason was that it was so damned hot that I couldn’t bear to work in the garden and nothing would grow. July and August are always warm in New Mexico, but this year those months were beastly. A lot of my plants died because it was so hot that I couldn’t supply enough water to keep them alive. Or maybe I could have, but with the freezer already full to bursting it didn’t seem practical. I concentrated my efforts on watering the things that I like for fresh use.

But last week piles of pumpkins and squash started to show up outside the local grocery stores, and everything started to change. The wheel of the year has turned. Days are breezy and nights verge on chilly. The glorious scent of chiles  roasting can be picked up near every grocer and market stand. The plants that survived the heat got a new lease on life. Cottonwoods started to turn gold.

 

Some of my mushroom bags, desiccated over the summer, imbibed water and started to fruit. They took me by surprise and I didn’t notice the new mushrooms until they were cracking at the outer edges. But they’re just fine for kitchen use. Sautéed or grilled or roasted, oyster mushrooms are pretty much the perfect all-around mushroom, mild and meaty and appealing to nearly everyone.

The tough stem bases that were trimmed off for cooking can be thoroughly dehydrated and ground into oyster flour. It’s perfect for thickening mushroom soup or sauces.

This year I made a mixed mushroom flavoring paste and froze it in ice cube trays to use for sauces and soups. I can’t give you an exact recipe  but can convey the general idea, and no doubt you can improve on it. I  used an assortment of five wild mushroom species from a foraging trip as well as the oysters, but you can use cultivated mushrooms. The last time I was in Whole Foods I saw seven varieties of cultivated mushrooms, and dried mushrooms are also available commercially, so anybody can get  enough to try. My favorite source for bulk dried mushrooms is Oregon Mushrooms.

This formula can be endlessly adapted to any kind and any amount of edible mushrooms, although I don’t recommend lobster mushrooms because they don’t have much flavor to contribute.

Start with about three pounds of clean fresh mushrooms, at least a few different kinds, or about a pound of assorted dried mushrooms. I used oysters, hawkswing, agaricus, hen of the woods, lion’s mane, and cultivated shiitakes.  If dried, soak them for an hour in enough hot water to cover them. Drain, strain any dirt out of the liquid with a fine strainer, and save the water. Pick over the mushrooms for any debris, then chop. This can be done in a food processor if you’re careful not to chop them to mush. Chop one large or two small onions and five cloves of garlic. Sauté the onions and garlic slowly in butter or good olive oil. When translucent and cooked but not browned, add the chopped mushrooms and sauté over medium heat until the mushrooms are somewhat cooked and exuding liquid.

Now add the mushroom soaking liquid if you used dried mushrooms, half a bottle of good red wine, a quarter cup of soy sauce or coconut aminos, six anchovy fillets,  three or four good-sized sprigs of thyme,  and any dried mushroom powder that you wish to add. I used some oyster powder and porcini powder,  and also added about a cup of broken pieces of dried morels from a bag that I had finished up.

Cook the mixture over medium heat.  Let it boil, because you want to concentrate down the fluid. When the fluid only just covers the mushrooms,  remove the thyme stems and purée  the mixture in the blender or food processor or right in the sauce pan with a stick blender.

Now you have a thick gloppy mixture looking something like this:

Cook over low heat until it gets really thick, stirring frequently to prevent burning.  Add a quarter cup of best quality red wine vinegar and keep cooking.  When the paste is dark and thick, taste it and add salt if needed. It should taste pretty intense. After all, it is a seasoning, not a food. When it is done to your satisfaction, smooth the paste into ice cube trays, cover, and freeze.

It will then lurk in your freezer, ready to add a deep taste of the forest to nearly anything where a mushroom flavor would be appropriate. After pan-grilling beef or game, toss a cube into the pan with some wine or broth and deglaze, boiling furiously, add a pat of butter, and boil a little more until it comes together as a pan gravy. Melt a cube into mushroom soup to enhance its flavor. Add a cube and some heavy cream  to sautéed mushrooms that seem a little bland.  Melt a cube, mix into an equal amount of soft butter, and use it as a finishing butter for meat or almost any kind of vegetable, or toss with hot pasta and some good Parmesan. Spread on hot buttered toast or stir into scrambled eggs.

Every time you use it, you’ll be reminded of the fascinating fifth kingdom that helps keep our planet alive.

 

Broccoli Heaven

This year I made a real effort to have broccoli, my favorite vegetable, available in larger quantities than I could eat at once.  Every year I hope to have some to freeze, and every year I gobble it all up as soon as it is ready.  But this year I did succeed, by putting in 12 plants in late May that would mature after my earliest planting, and mature more or less all at the same time  so that I couldn’t just hog it all at once in one giant broccoli orgy.

Broccoli is a very heavy feeder, and when it is a bit established I pile a heavy mulch of alfalfa and a little chicken manure all around the base, a few inches back from the stem. This conserves moisture and provides nutrients in a steady fashion throughout the growing season, allowing my broccoli heads to get as big as 12” across.

The result is that my refrigerator is crammed with broccoli right now, with more sitting around or out in the garden waiting to be brought in. This is my idea of a really wonderful problem to have.

As far as what to do with broccoli, there is no question that roasting is my favorite technique.  Here is an excellent basic recipe, which is very similar to the way I do it, and there are endless variations that you can dream up on your own. This is, in my opinion, too good to be a side dish and deserves to be the very center of the table, but certainly it goes well alongside a steak, roasted chicken, or just about anything else you could name.  If you aren’t sure what else to do with broccoli, the wonderful food 52 site has great recipes and is worth a browse.

https://food52.com/recipes/21828-parmesan-crusted-broccoli

As far as health questions go, I think that green vegetables are vitally important to a long and healthy life. There is now a small dietary movement favoring pure carnivory, and the wacko fringe elements of that group believe that eating green vegetables will probably kill you.  It is my view that this completely ignores the demographic data that all the healthiest and longest lived populations in the world eat plenty of green vegetables.  So make your own decisions, but don’t ignore the data. Here’s one study:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29739681

And one specifically on ovarian cancer:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29693426

I won’t make extravagant claims for cruciferous vegetables, but it is at least clear from the data that they certainly won’t kill you.

 

The Hen That Laid the Golden Egg


In an earlier post, A Little Hen Science, I linked to a study showing the health difference to the eater between a well-produced egg and a poorly produced one.   Today I am going to throw out some brief notes about what is possible when you feed your own chickens. First, my chickens are not pastured. My area has a lively band of coyotes, and the hens have to be in a fenced run with a roof over it to be safe. So I gather the pasture and bring it to the hens. Every day they get a huge pile of leafy weeds, green garden veggies that I’m not going to use in time, windfall fruit, and veggie scraps from the table. When the goat is in milk, they get whey and any discard milk, all greens-fed of course.  They get grain and flaxseed free-choice.  I have looked into the possibility of growing black soldier fly larvae to provide them with extra protein, but that notion dropped dead when I saw a video of the inside of a “bug pod“ designed to produce them. I have a strong stomach generally, but it does not extend to masses of writhing larvae.  So I throw the ladies any squash bugs, cabbage loopers, snails, etc. that show up, and cook any eggs that get too old for human or canine use into “chicken cake“ to give them some extra protein.  You can also buy freeze dried meal worms for the same purpose, although they are pretty expensive.  I keep a bag of organic turmeric around, and throw a tablespoon or two in every time I cook up a chicken cake, and also throw in a handful of Thorvin kelp meal to make sure that they are getting all their minerals.

The result can be seen above. On the left of the photo is the yolk of the best pastured eggs that I am able to buy in my local co-op. On the right is a yolk from one of my hens.  That’s a pretty good illustration of how many carotenoids  you can fit into one egg yolk. This is even more impressive given that the chicken who produced this egg is the only leghorn in my flock, and the leghorn is a breed often scorned by people with a home flock because the egg shells are white.  As you can see, they are industrious foragers and will practically eat their own weight in greens,  and they are also prolific layers.  There’s nothing not to like about them, and when some of my old ladies succumb to old age, I will get a few more leghorns. But any hen will lay better eggs if her nutrition is top-notch, and if her nutrition is top-notch, yours will be too.

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.

A Quick Snack for Dinner

When dinner needs to be quick and light, the staples that you have available become crucial. On a recent evening I decided to build a light meal around the goat halloumi that I always have in the freezer. It comes from my beloved Sanaan doe Magnolia, and since she is entirely greens-fed, this dish could be called “greens, direct and indirect.” If you aren’t lucky enough to have a pet goat, the superb halloumi from Mount Vikos is widely available and is great to have in the freezer.

Two flavorings that I always have on hand are preserved lemons (very easy to make yourself) and pitted kalamata olives. For 10oz of halloumi, I chopped a small handful each of olives and lemon rind, leaving them fairly coarse. Out of the garden, I grabbed a few stems of thyme, a small bunch of lambsquarters, and a few tender mulberry shoots.

The halloumi was fried in a little avocado oil, my current favorite for searing and other high-heat cooking. Meanwhile, I chopped the other ingredients. My lemons are preserved in salt and fresh lemon juice, and I left the juice clinging to them, to season the dish. While the halloumi seared, I fried the other ingredients at lower heat in a little olive oil in another saucepan. When the halloumi was ready, I tossed it with the seasonings and served.

The whole process took just over ten minutes. If you’re hungrier than we were, you can put a slice of sourdough bread drizzled with good olive oil alongside.

The point here is that you can feed yourself well and in a very healthy fashion even if all you have time for is quick, improvisational cooking. Keep a few staple flavorings that you like in the refrigerator, and buy a few fresh herbs when you shop so that you can lift quick dishes out of the ordinary. Parsley and thyme are always good. No halloumi on hand? Fry a couple of eggs per person in the olive oil instead, and toss the sautéed seasonings over them. No garden where you can grab some tender shoots on the way to the kitchen? Keep a bunch of Swiss chard on hand, and rather than trying to cook it all at once, put a couple of sliced leaves into multiple different dishes. Like to forage a little but didn’t find much? This is a perfect dish to use up a handful of dandelion or whatever other greens you found. Don’t care for greens at all? Use herbs and sliced mushrooms instead.   Cooking is endlessly adaptable and can work for you, with whatever time and energy you feel able to devote to it.

 

 

The Power of Community

It occurs to me  that a blog devoted to healthy eating and healthy living should say something about healthy aging. And I couldn’t write about healthy aging without writing about my mother and about the power of community.

Some longevity  experts say that a major factor in healthy aging is how many people you spend time with and how much you enjoy their company.  My mother enjoys the company of a wide variety of people, and loves to meet new people.  And so, despite some health habits that make me roll my eyes, she continues to thrive.

Recently I returned to Louisiana  for my mother‘s 85th birthday party. She had just come back from three weeks in Hawaii, where she spends time every winter.  All her family members were there, and friends of all ages.  Unfortunately, my father was not there. He died a few years ago, a crushing blow for the whole family. But my mother survived. My mother did not stop enjoying community when she outlived her old friends. She made new friends.  She continues to travel, both with others and by herself, and develops new interests.  She has never completely retired, and keeps in touch with colleagues.  She relishes her electronic devices and how they keep her in touch with the news and with others. She invests her money wisely and sets a good example about careful stewardship.

It’s hard for me to refrain from nagging her about her poor diet and lack of physical exercise.  But it is increasingly clear to me that I should just keep my mouth shut, because she is doing fine.  There are a lot of different ways to be healthy, and not all of them involve aerobic exercise or leafy green vegetables, although I am pleased to say that recently she has taken to a drink made from leafy greens.  Generally she eats what she wants to eat, drinks a small amount of very good wine, and enjoys her surroundings.  She attends to her medical needs but neither fetishizes them nor complains very much about them. She is by no means unaware of life’s dark undertow, but she enjoys her time in the light.  And that might be the best and most enduring definition of health that I know of.