Archive for the ‘urban homesteading’ Category

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.

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.

 

A Hundred Kinds of Chimichurri

I love chimichurri, the ground herb table sauce of Argentina, but I am by no means faithful to the Argentinian version. If you have an active garden, spring offers the first of infinite variations of chimichurri to accent any grilled meat or poultry. These savory herbal sauces also dress up baked and roasted foods, and are a great way to perk up hard-boiled or fried eggs. People who don’t have to stay low-carb may like them drizzled on bread or rice. Vegetarians will like chimichurri on roasted vegetables, and for that matter ardent carnivores would love it on roasted carrots, broccoli, and other meaty veggies. I can imagine it freshening and enlivening roasted or grilled oyster mushrooms.

The basic necessary ingredients are olive oil, garlic, an acid, salt, herbs, and embellishments. Variables are the herbs, the texture, and the embellishments and degree of heat, if any.

So here’s a menu for infinite improvisation:

Oil: I say very good olive oil is a necessity. If you choose to fool around with other oils, feel free. Plan on between a half cup and one cup.

Garlic: green in spring, mature cloves later on. 2-3 large stalks of green garlic or 3-4 cloves of mature garlic.

Acid: vinegar is traditional but lemon juice is delicious with the more delicate spring versions. Consider wine vinegar or sherry vinegar.  Plan on about 2 tablespoons and have extra available to add if needed. Please, don’t use sweet caramelized ersatz “balsamic” vinegars. Yech.

Salt: “Plenty” is the important concept here. Some chimichurris that seem like failures come alive when enough salty element is added. Remember, this is a seasoning sauce, not a main dish.Your salt element may be sea salt, but a good dab of anchovy paste or a glut of the salty-lemony fermented liquid from preserved lemons may attract you.

Herbs: parsley is traditional and great, but don’t feel bound. Cilantro is a great alternative for the “bulk” herb, of which you’ll need a bunch (from the store) or a large handful (from the garden.) Oregano, sweet marjoram, summer savory, thyme, and lemon thyme are great options for the subsidiary herb, of which a small chopped handful (combined if using multiple herbs) is plenty. Combos are potentially wonderful. I don’t recommend tarragon for this sauce, but feel free to prove me wrong, and I think rosemary should be limited to a chopped teaspoon or two if used at all. Some mint is a possibility if used judiciously. Sage is difficult to use and, in my view, not a good possibility.But suit yourself, as long as you are pursuing a coherent taste-vision. Wander your garden, be seducible, and work it out later.

Embellishments: Heat is an important possibility. Hot sauce, harissa, and ground dried chiles can all work wonders, and fresh chopped jalapeños (seeded or not per your preference for fire) can do real magic. Anchovy fillets mashed can add a savor and tang that are the making of rich meats like roasted  lamb or goat. Preserved lemon peel, finely chopped, is highly nontraditional but extraordinary in the right circumstances. A pinch  of toasted cumin seeds, finely ground, can give an earthy, sweaty, quintessentially masculine note that makes a simple grilled steak or chop memorable.

Texture: can be anywhere from medium-fine grind to as coarse as a chopped salad. It all depends on your mood and your main dish.

Procedure:

Chop your garlic coarsely or slice finely crosswise if using green garlic and put in a large mortar or small food processor; I invariably use my little stoveside Mini-prep. Chop or pound to desired degree. Add herbs, salt,  and embellishments and process only until you like the texture. Add the acid and salt, process briefly, and work in the oil. Now taste, and think. If you are sure it didn’t work, think about how to rebalance and save it. Sorry to harp, but insufficient salty element is a common fault. Increase the salt, anchovy paste, or preserved lemon juice, or add a bit of the latter two if you didn’t use them before. If overly salty or acid, add more oil to smooth it out.  If bland, add a little more acid. If just not that interesting, consider stirring in more chopped herb or some heat.

This sauce can be refrigerated overnight and may be even better the next day, although cilantro-based versions tend to lose freshness and pizazz and are best consumed on sight.

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.

 

Spring Miscellany

Tonight I find myself eating a lovely and satisfying dinner out of the yard, and reflecting on a series of happy surprises.

First, I went to the shed to get a tool, and my latest mushroom laundry basket had a gorgeous huge clump of oysters across the top.

The tronchuda, or Portuguese kale, was still tender and sweet from night frosts, and there was a wild abundance of green garlic to cook with it because I finally planted enough to satisfy my taste for it.

The exquisite late Jeanne d’Arc crocuses were finishing the crocus season.

And the garden goods could be washed and prepped right in the garden where the water could do some good. This is an ordinary laundry sink, but I asked the nice man at the plumbing supply store to sell me the correct fittings to hook a garden hose to it. So the water can be turned on and off, and the water drains out into a bed that can really use the moisture. My ingenious yard man got me a 3 foot piece of hose with the correct fittings to attach to the fawcet at one end and the hose at the other, so there is no fumbling underneath when I want to use the sink. And it could be lifted and moved if I wanted the water to land somewhere else.

Life is good, and spring is good.

Perennial Saag Paneer


Yesterday I wrote about making Paneer with my grass-fed goat milk. Today I’ll talk about making saag paneer, one of my favorite dishes, and for a permaculture twist I’ll make it with perennials as much as possible. If you don’t have a weed patch, you can use a bunch of spinach. You will also need fresh ginger, cumin seeds, garam masala, heavy cream, and butter.
Assuming that you have the paneer, the next step is to catch your greens and alliums. I used equal parts each of nettles and bladder campion, and 4 stalks each of green garlic and perennial Welsh onions. The nettles and bladder campion were blanched for about 90 seconds so that the nettles could be handled easily, then drained, pressed, and chopped. The alliums were cleaned, trimmed, and sliced in 1/4″ cross section.

When ready to cook, heat a nonstick skillet, cut the paneer in 1″ cubes and salt it, and fry in mild oil of your choice (I like Macadamia nut oil) until browned. Set aside.


Chop a piece of fresh ginger about an inch square finely, and have ready a teaspoon of whole cumin seed and a heaping teaspoon of garam masala.
Heat a saucepan, put in a couple of tablespoons of mild oil, and fry the cumin seeds briefly until they darken a couple of shades. Immediately add the chopped ginger, stirfry furiously until it is cooked but not browned, and add the chopped alliums and lower the heat to medium-low. Add a half teaspoon of salt and sauté the alliums until they are softened, lowering the heat if necessary to keep them from burning. Add the garam masala, cook another minute or two, and add the cream. Add the blanched chopped greens and cook over low heat until they are thoroughly cooked, probably about another 10 minutes. Put the paneer cubes on top, pushing them into the greens mixture a bit, and cook over low heat until they are heated through. Serve with rice or, if you are a low carb eater, gloriously naked on the plate. Drizzle some melted butter or ghee over the top.

I was taught to make this dish a few decades ago by an Indian woman in Manhattan, and I am pretty flexible about the greens used as long as they’re mild. No bitter green has a place in this dish. The green garlic and onions are great in season, but chopped garlic and onion are traditional.  I’m very rigid about the seasoning, though. Sometimes I add a chopped hot pepper but that’s my only variation. The whole cumin seeds fried quickly in hot oil are not negotiable, and burning or scorching any of the seasonings or alliums  means you need to start over, so work carefully.

Goat Paneer

Goats are wonderful hardy friendly animals to have around,  and the amount of milk that they give is very considerable relative to the input required, but many people do not like the taste of most goat cheeses. If you are one of these people, or even if you like goat cheese, you may still want to know about some alternatives that avoid the goaty taste. Fresh ricotta and fresh paneer,  when made with fresh goat milk, are not distinguishable from cows’ milk products.  You need to use the milk within a day of milking, or at most two days, and it goes without saying that it has to be refrigerated all that time.

I have written elsewhere about making ricotta and you can review that page because the directions are the very same up to the pressing. Making paneer is every bit as easy but requires just a bit of forethought to have some simple equipment on hand. It has to be strained and then pressed. You can buy a cheese press for this, if you want it for some other purpose, but if you just want to  make paneer, all you need is  real cheesecloth (not the kind sold for dusting and polishing) for the straining, a  baking sheet,  a saucer, and a couple of bricks or other suitable weight. I use a springform pan and a nylon mesh bag made for straining fruit for cider.  A gallon is about the minimum amount of milk that is worth fooling with, and will produce about 8 ounces of finished paneer.

Heat the milk to almost boiling, watching it carefully because it wants to boil over. Add the vinegar, stir in, watch for the formation of curd, and add a little more vinegar if needed until you have white curdled curds in greenish whey.   Put a strainer in the sink or over a bowl if you wish to catch the whey and use it for some other purpose. Line with cheesecloth, pour the curdled milky mixture in, and let it drain for at least 30 minutes.  Within an hour, wrap the largely drained curds up in the cheesecloth with the idea of forming a block that will be about an inch thick. The other dimensions will depend on how much milk you were working with. For a gallon of milk, I plan a block of paneer about  3″ x 6″.  Put it on a baking sheet so that the remaining liquid can drain away, put the saucer upside down on top, and put the weight on the saucer. Or, if you are using my method, put the ring of the springform pan on the sheet, the cloth wrapped curds inside, and use the base of the springform pan on top  to hold the weight and “follow” the curd block as it shrinks in pressing.  Either way, leave your set-up for about eight hours.  You then have paneer, which can be used in many Indian dishes. It browns beautifully, and if the milk came from a grass fed animal, it is superbly  healthy.  It is the backbone of sa’ag paneer, one of my favorite dishes.  It also freezes well, so it’s a good way to preserve your precious grass fed milk.
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