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Using What You Have VIII: Permaculture Pasta

I wrote several posts ago about elm leaf pasta, and the idea of using tree leaves has continued to intrigue me. The use of trees avoids soil disturbance, adds a vertical element so that  more food can be grown in less ground space, and provides shade and nesting sites for birds as well as leafy greens. As far as which leaves to use, my usual warning applies: all decisions about your safety are up to you, and research is necessary. I choose those that have mild flavor as well as a good safety profile. Tree leaves tend to be too tough to enjoy as cooked greens, so applications like pasta where they are finely ground are the perfect way to use them. The previous post describes the proportions, but with this attempt I decided that I wanted the leaves more smoothly ground and a result more like spinach pasta. I used the same proportions: all the leaves I could tightly cram into one hand with a heaping cup of flour, and this time used half elm leaves and half young mulberry leaves. The leaves were steamed for seven minutes, drained and cooled, and then the leaves and flour were put in my Vitamix blender instead of the food processor. Grinding the leaves very finely into the flour requires stopping the blender several times and stirring the jar right to the bottom with a long handled fork. But eventually the mixture is very smooth and homogenous and powdery, and can be transferred to the food processor and the necessary number of egg yolks added to form a firm but flexible dough. Roll into a thin pasta dough by whichever means you prefer; rolling pin (skill required,) hand-cranked machine, or for me definitely the rolling attachments for my Kitchenaid mixer. I rolled this dough thin, to produce a delicacy similar to spinach pasta. Cut into fettuccine with a roller or by hand, and freeze immediately for later use or use within a few hours.

Garlic bulbs are coming in from the garden right now, and I decided on garlic cream sauce. The flavor of the newly harvested cloves is wonderful. I peeled two cloves and sliced them into micro-thin transparent slices with my sharpest knife.They were sautéed in a small heavy saucepan with two tablespoons of butter. When cooked through but not colored at all, I added a quarter cup of good white wine and turned the heat up briefly to let the wine boil away. Then half a cup of heavy cream was added and brought to a boil. The heat was turned off and a few small sprigs of finely snipped tarragon added. I like to add an egg yolk at this point too, but make sure the saucepan has cooled down enough to prevent scrambling.Have some of the best Parmesan you can obtain, coarsely grated, and a small handful of lightly toasted pine nuts.
Drop the pasta into rapidly boiling water, and it is so thin and delicate that it will probably be done by the time the water returns to a boil. Taste to make sure, drain, sauce, toss with some of the cheese, and put the rest of the cheese and the pinenuts on top. Grate fresh pepper over the top for a touch of piquancy and serve. It’s a wonderfully comforting meal and, once you know what you’re doing and have the pasta ready, comes together in the time it takes to bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. A good handful of shelled peas or snow peas would be a lovely addition, and I wish I had thought of it at the time.

I’ve decided that my tree leaf pasta can be styled “Permaculture Pasta.” My plans for the future include making more of it to freeze, and finding out more about leaves that could be used.There is not much data around about the edibility of tree leaves, and under no circumstances should you wander around experimenting without data. In my own yard there are two trees, black locust and almond, that have toxic leaves. You were only issued one liver, so treat it with a little care and respect. Leaves of perennial plants known to be edible are a good possibility. In my own yard, scorzonera leaves are common and abundant. I’m also thinking about bronze fennel, which I’ve used to wonderful effect as a pesto, and may try incorporating it into the pasta itself. Grape leaves might add an interesting slightly tart note, Although you would need to remember that they turn yellow brown, not bright green, uncooked. Maybe add some last Sonado kale leaves to improve the green color? although you would need to remember that they turn yellow brown, not bright green, uncooked. Maybe add some lacinato  kale leaves to improve the green color? As always, the possibilities are limitless as long as you operate rationally and safely.

Post 400: Humankind’s Best Friends

We occupy a complex interwoven web with all the species on the planet. But if I had to name the two species that have lived most closely with us and done the most for us, there would be no doubt in my mind: Canis familiaris and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The common dog and the common yeast; we might not recognize ourselves without them.
Dogs first. They have been trotting beside us for somewhere up to 40,000 years. They helped us hunt in the Paleolithic era, and they are comforting us through the current pandemic. If the sad time comes when the last surviving human walks across a nuclear hellscape to the very end of our species, a dog will probably accompany him. They have not been treated as they deserve, as witness shelters full of dogs. But they have helped soften us into humanity. The dog shown above is my yellow lab Lucy, in a picture snapped a few weeks before she died last week at the astounding age of 19. She was a three-year-old shelter dog when she decided firmly that she would be my dog, and was my constant companion for the following sixteen years. She was the most cheerful and loving spirit that I’ve encountered. I didn’t necessarily deserve Lucy, but I tried, and she made me better. Every dog is unique and there will never be another like her, but somewhere there’s a good dog in prison who needs to be sprung out, and before too very long I’ll go find her. I encourage everyone to do what they can for the world’s abandoned dogs. If you can’t have or don’t want a dog, donate to shelters and rescue programs, and if you’re thinking of getting a puppy, please consider an older dog who might not otherwise find a home. We owe them.

Then there’s yeast. Yeast surrounds us and is continually seeking water and a sugar source. I’ve been told that if flour is wetted with water for 18 seconds, yeast from the air has started to reproduce in it at the end of that time. I don’t vouch for this, but I would not put it past the ingenious and resilient Saccharomyces. It’s built to survive. Every time I use my sourdough starter I consider how Saccharomyces has “come to an understanding” with a Lactobacillus species, the latter splitting the starch in the flour and providing it to the yeast, which in turn ferments it and leavens the dough. These symbiotic colonies are very stable and have been used by humans for millennia.  But bread is only the beginning of the uses of S. cerevisiae. All our wildly varied beers, wines, hard ciders, and other alcoholic ferments come from varieties of this one species, and they are as old as recorded history and may precede bread as humankind’s happiest discovery. I was once told that an early Amazon explorer remarked that he had encountered Stone Age tribes that had not made a connection between sex and babies, but never a tribe that hadn’t learned to ferment something into alcohol. I’ve never checked the reference because some stories are too good to fact-check. Let’s just take it as a given that alcohol in moderate quantities is a gift and a boon and has been for a very long time.

My house is seldom without a fermenting bucket of something-or-other gurgling happily through its airlock. I lean toward low-alcohol light wines and hard ciders. This year a series of bizarre late-spring hard freezes destroyed most of my fruit in its infancy, so I’m making a series of “leaf wines” based on an old British recipe for nettle ale. They are a lot of fun to play with and don’t taste vegetal in the way that you might expect. That’s the joy of fermentation.

I’ll give more details in the future, but for now, hug your dog if you’re lucky enough to have one and raise a glass to humankind’s two oldest friends.

Using What You Have VII: Primary and Secondary Consumption of Elm

I’ve become more and more intrigued by culinary uses of tree leaves, since there is nothing more ecologically sound: the soil is never disturbed, carbon is sequestered, soil biota is preserved, and a small tree can produce an awful lot of leaves. The drawback is that there is little information about how to use them or even which ones are safe to use. I’ve written recently about my elm leaf pasta.  Today I experimented with spaetzle, the firm eggy dumplings made in Eastern Europe but highly adaptable anywhere.

Here I will make my usual disclaimer about eating wild foods or foods that you have never eaten before: never trust your safety to a stranger on the Internet. Do your own research, be aware that your tolerance may be very different from mine, and experiment cautiously before you eat a lot if you do decide to eat wild foods. All green leafy foods can be laxative to people who don’t usually eat them. The decision is yours.

I refer in the title to “primary and secondary consumption” because not only do I eat the leaves directly in the spaetzle but the eggs come from my chickens, who eat a lot of elm leaves. So this is double-layered tree-eating.

I couldn’t find my spaetzle maker, so I tried a potato ricer, which I had read would also work. It doesn’t really. Have a spaetzle maker and life will be simpler.

This was a freewheeling experiment and quantities aren’t exact. Basic proportions for spaetzle are a cup of flour, two eggs, a quarter cup of milk, and a half teaspoon of salt whisked together, but this one is different because of the leaves. I started with all the elm leaves that I could squeeze into one hand, about two cups when fluffed up more loosely. They were steamed for seven minutes and cooled.

Then I put one and a quarter cups of flour in the blender, added the leaves, and chopped as finely as possible. This is a bit tedious, with some stopping and stirring required. Then I added half a teaspoon of salt and five egg yolks, and just enough water to make a very thick batter. Run the batter through the spaetzle maker into salted water at a fast simmer, cook until the spaetzle rise to the top, and simmer until done. Take one out and bite it and examine the interior. They should be cooked through when finished, no longer wet and sticky inside. This is usually 2-4 minutes tops. Drain, and spread out on a flexible cutting board to cool. Don’t use wax paper, as I show here, because it turns out they stick to it and it is a bit annoying getting them off again.

At this point you can proceed or refrigerate them for a day until needed. I wanted to try them right away, so I heated up a skillet to a bit above medium and chopped up a bit of celery, two healthy sprigs of marjoram, and two small cloves of garlic. Two tablespoons each of butter and olive oil went in the skillet, the garlic went in to sizzle for a few seconds, and the herbs were added and tossed around for a minute. Then the spaetzle went in. At this point you can either cook them at medium heat until heated through as seen here,

or do as I prefer and keep cooking until the little dumplings have some browned spots, as shown here:

Serve as a landing with something nice on top. My preference is fried eggs with runny yolks and nice crisp brown rims. My husband’s plate is shown at the top of this post, and yes, he really does like that much pepper on his eggs. I can also imagine the assemblage looking even more colorful with some deep red chile drizzled over the green dumplings and eggs.
There is no strong or objectionable flavor in elm leaf spaetzle, and there are certainly far more fiber and fewer carbohydrates than in all-flour spaetzle. My mother’s objection to nearly all my leafy foods is that they are green. Well, leaves are green. Maybe we just need to get used to eating some green food, and given that people love some odd colored things like deep blue potatoes, I don’t see any reason why green food is beneath consideration. Green is the color of growth, so maybe we can come to think of it as “growth food.”

no doubt it goes without saying that if you don’t wish to experiment with wild foods, you can use chard or similar mild greens instead. Steam, squeeze dry, and proceed as above.

Living in Interesting Times: Using What You Have III

It continues to be an interesting adventure to find out what all I’ve tucked into my chest freezer over time. Recently I uncovered a half pound of ground pork and some frozen gyoza wrappers, and realized that I had everything  I needed to make potstickers.
Potstickers are very easy if you use purchased wrappers. The filling is pretty adaptable and there are scads of recipes online if you feel that you need one. My basic formula is half a pound of ground meat, half a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of soy sauce, a 1”by2” piece of peeled ginger chopped finely, and the white parts of four scallions chopped into pieces about the size of coarse crumbs. Mix together and elaborate a little if you like to do that. Personally, I always want a texture ingredient. I used to use fresh water chestnuts when I lived where I could get them, but I don’t like the canned ones, so I used some jicama chopped into little pieces about the same size as the scallions.

Lay out a few wrappers at a time, keeping the rest under a damp towel. Put about a teaspoon full of filling in the middle, dip your finger in a cup of water and run it around the inside edge of the wrapper, bring the two halves together, and make little pleats. As you see below, mine are not very neatly pleated, and probably a fastidious Chinese cook would be appalled, but they taste fine. This is a good kitchen task for older children, and can be done sitting meditatively at the kitchen table.

I usually make about twice as many as I plan to cook and freeze the rest. They are handy for almost instant, effortless meals.

To cook, place them closely in a nonstick skillet that has a lid and pour in just enough water to make a film on the bottom, usually about a third of a cup. Add a tablespoon of soy sauce and 2-3 tablespoons of your chosen cooking oil. Put the skillet over medium heat until the water is sizzling, put the lid on it, and cook a few minutes, checking frequently, until the dumplings are cooked and puffed as shown.

Remove the lid and let the dumplings fry in the oil until the bottoms are browned as shown in the top photo. Keep checking, because they burn easily. I like mine just on the verge of burnt and crusty, but you may like yours less browned.

Serve with a dipping sauce. The simplest is half soy sauce and half water, with some grated ginger, rice vinegar, and sugar added to taste. Adding some chili oil or offering it as a side option will make heat-loving guests happy. Or get more elaborate if you like, but keep the spirit of fun, easy finger food.

Gyoza wrappers are available in Asian groceries and I now see them at a lot of Western groceries. They freeze well, and in fact are often sold already frozen.  A packet of wrappers and half a pound of ground meat, plus some pantry items, makes up two good meals for two. Either beef or pork are fine, but not too lean, or the filling will be dry.  I made some once with ground salmon and some pork fat, and they were incredibly good. Any Chinese cooking website will have more ideas.