Archive for the ‘vegetable gardening’ Category

Living in Interesting Times: Improvisational Stir-fries

 


The current world travails started me thinking about thrift. The most financially difficult period of my life was when I lived in Manhattan on a beginning designer’s salary and paid over 3/4 of my salary in rent. It probably goes without saying that I had no health insurance or paid sick leave and lived in constant fear of illness, and couldn’t afford any of the usual entertainments. It was one of the most useful periods of my life too, because it’s when I learned to make reading and cooking fill my entertainment function. I spent wonderful hours digging through the NY Public Library’s collection of cookbooks (free entertainment,) walking miles to Manhattan’s Chinatown (exercise +health maintenance+entertainment/sightseeing,) shopping in the wondrous markets there (thrift+entertainment,) then walking back and cooking dinner (nutrition+health maintenance+delicious entertainment.) I bought a huge carbon steel wok and cleaver for less than $10 each and with one thrift-shop pot to cook rice, one rice bowl, and one set of porcelain-tipped chopsticks, I was ready to cook anything.

I wouldn’t want to live like that now, and I’m appropriately grateful to have health insurance and sick leave. But I still love to channel the spirit of a thrifty Chinese spiritual grandmother and cook up a tasty stir-fry now and then. Rice is in very short supply in my area right now, but I have enough to cook up a pot of rice, add condiments to vegetables from my garden, and have a delicious meal for under $5 for two people. I wanted to use up some of the rich gold yolks that my chickens produce abundantly, and it occurred to me that frying them quickly into a sort of yolk pancake would yield a texture that could work well in a quick, explosive stir-fry.
Last year’s Fordhook Swiss chard is throwing up beautiful meaty leaves right now, so I started with four big chard leaves and four fat perennial green onions.

I tend to divide improvisational Chinese dishes into cooked rice (the base,) vegetables (the bulk,) protein (meat, eggs, etc.,) texture foods (often mushrooms in my kitchen,) and seasonings.  As with any improvisation, don’t throw stuff in at random. Think carefully to create a harmony. And everything has to be prepped and ready before you start. I assemble everything in little piles and pinch dishes on an 18×24” cutting board. I pulled the chard leaves away from the stems, cut the leaves in crosswise strips, and chopped the stems in 1/4” cross sections. The white part of the green onions were cut in 1/4” sections, and a few of the leaves cut into diagonal slivers.  I cooked five beaten egg yolks into a pancake in a hot skillet with avocado oil, let it cool, and cut it into long 1/4” wide slivers. A handful of sliced dried tree ears were hydrated in hot water. Tree ears are a texture food, and if they aren’t available, just omit them.  A couple of tablespoons of fermented black beans were soaked in cold water to reduce their salt load a little, then squeezed dry. A piece of ginger 1”x2” was cut into cross sections, a bulb end of green garlic likewise, then the two chopped together into pieces the size of coarse crumbs. A half cup of water had a tablespoon of rice vinegar, two teaspoons of sugar, a heaping teaspoon of cornstarch, and about 2 teaspoons of oyster sauce stirred in, and avocado oil, soy sauce, and Asian roasted sesame oil were standing by. I used some chile oil too, but you can leave it out if you don’t care for heat.

The rice is cooked and served up into heated bowls, and your prepped ingredients stand ready next to the wok or skillet. From here it goes so fast that you can’t believe it. Heat the cooking vessel fiery hot over highest heat, pour in some avocado oil, wait 30 seconds, put in the chopped ginger and garlic and fermented beans, and stir with a cooking paddle for a few seconds, just until the ginger scent reaches your nose. Throw in the drained tree ears, the chard stems, and the white part of the scallions, stirring vigorously for a few seconds after each addition. Add a few shakes of soy sauce and stir all this around for about 30 more seconds, then stir in the chard leaves and slivered egg-yolk pancakes. When the chard leaves look done, about a minute later if you were bold and kept the heat at maximum, add the water mixture (stirring hastily to get the cornstarch in suspension before adding to the wok,) and stir while it boils fiercely and thickens, another minute or less. Stir in the scallion leaves and serve over hot rice. Sprinkle with soy sauce and finish with a drizzle of sesame oil. Add some chile oil if you want to. The clarity relies on keeping the heat explosive. If you lose your nerve or pause at any point, your sauce will get sludgy and the purity of the taste  be lost.

If you want a serious education in Chinese cooking, I recommend any book by Fuschia Dunlop, and her Hunanese Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook may be my favorite. I dislike Chairman Mao (and all other dictators) pretty intensely but his home province has created some of this world’s truly delicious food. The old classic that I first learned from, Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook, is still around and turns up on EBay and used book sites. It has excellent discussions of ingredients and achieving the true taste, and the recipes are as good as ever.

Explosive frying, stir-frying at very high heat, is a good technique to have in your back pocket for almost any vegetable. They have to be sliced and trimmed to appropriate sizes so that they will cook through. Therefore, the technique doesn’t save kitchen time, it just shifts time to prep, with the cooking happening in 5-10 exciting minutes at the end. It does add a special flavor of its own, the famous “breath of the wok.”

Peapod Feast

One of my favorite vegetables in the world is the Oregon Giant snow pea. It makes large pods that don’t acquire their best flavor until the peas inside swell to nearly full-size, more like a snap pea. At that stage they’re the best thing in the garden, and everything else goes on the back burner while they’re in season. They do need their strings removed before cooking. Anything this delicious is worth working a little for.

Most of the time, I use them the same way that I’d use hand-rolled fettuccine. I prefer the simplified Alfredo treatment shown above: Boil enough  pods for two people in salted water for four minutes, put in a strainer to drain thoroughly, and to the hot pan add two tablespoons of butter and half a cup of heavy cream. Boil furiously over high heat for just a few minutes until the cream starts to thicken, then return the peas to the pan and boil hard for another minute. Turn off the burner and add a three-fingered pinch of salt and a generous handful of grated Parmesan, stir just until the cheese begins to melt, plate the peas, and sprinkle a bit  more cheese and some freshly ground pepper over the top. Have fleur de sel available at the table. Perfection.

As to what quantity of peas serves two people, well, how many do you have? I use this recipe for about a pound to 1.5 pounds of pods. I could probably eat a pound myself, but try not to. If you have more, scale up the sauce a bit.

If you need some variety, peas also respond well to a carbonara treatment with egg yolks and some pancetta or bacon (don’t sneer at the bacon. It’s inauthentic but delicious.)

The pods are also delicious plain with some butter and salt, or grilled in a grilling basket, or dipped raw into dip of your choice.

 

A Quickie on Soil, and notes on quixotic planting

In the area of my property called the Perennial Paddock,  I have been doing a deep mulch for about six years, undisturbed except for topping it up with straw and pulling some of the worst perennial weeds.  When I can hire help to dig the waste alfalfa and manure out of the animal paddock, it goes on this mulch. The result, to my intense delight, is that where previously I had compacted clay and tumbleweed, now I have dark black soil about 12 inches deep.  This area has allowed me to observe that if you have time for the soil to build itself, and keep an endless supply of mulch to spread as needed, you do not really need to do any other soil amendment. You also don’t need to correct pH or any of the other maneuvers commonly recommended for soil improvement.  The year that I started mulching this area I invested in a bag of Thorvin kelp meal and spread that around, and since then all I have added is the straw and animal bedding. Lots of it. More than seems to make any sense when it’s dry and fluffy, but it will pack down to a surprisingly thin layer and have to be topped up a few times a season.

The first thing I ever planted here, way back before it was mulched, was a black locust tree. The little twig is now about 40 feet high, and when it is covered with blossoms in April, the entire tree through arms with bees.  It provides shade, and I think its  widespreading roots are part of what has broken up the soil so thoroughly.  In other areas of my yard I have actually had to break up hard packed areas with a pick, but in this paddock the locust tree has done all the hard work for me.

Now it is the matriarch of a wildly varied colony of perennials, and because of the soil quality and moisture level, this is also the place where I experiment with difficult plants. Oca, for example.  This member of the oxalis family is a sharp-tasting tuber available in a wild variety of colors.  It is native to the high Andes, and a sensible person would realize that it does not want to live in my flat baking high desert area with its  brutal summers.  But it is so pretty that I can never resist buying 15 or 20 tubers and experimenting.  So far I have tried them in a garden bed and in a berry row. In both locations, they grew until about July, then withered and died back, and the tubers that they produced were about the size of a pea or smaller rather than 1-2 inches long as they should be.

This year I ordered my usual optimistic packet of tubers, and decided to plant them almost directly in the shade of the black locust tree, in the deep cool soil that now exists there.

It will occur to the reasonable  economist that at this point I have spent a total of about $70 on tubers, and have not yet reaped any return.  But no garden is entirely reasonable.  If I were only going to grow things that “pencil out,“ I would do fine to just let my entire property come up in lambsquarters, which cost nothing to plant and give an effortless harvest of nutritious greens.  But I feel that I would be worse off for having missed the joyous expectation of putting beautiful little earth-jewels in the ground and hoping for them to multiply.  If I get enough to harvest, I don’t even know if I will like them, since I have never had a chance to taste them. But I’m not sure how much it matters. Hope is the point.

I get my oca tubers from Cultivariable, a fascinating source for little known Andean food plants.  They are usually sold out of the choicest selections by late February, so bookmark them for a look next winter.  I have read that oca foliage is also edible, so this might be a nose to tail perennial, but I don’t know yet.

Permaculture Salad

It occurred to me this morning that my lettuce won’t be ready for weeks but there’s no problem at all in filling the daily salad bowl. After years of practicing semi-permaculture  and using the results in the kitchen I have strong opinions about salad greens, so I thought it might be worthwhile to go through the ones that I use most.

Major greens: these make up the bulk of the salad.

The picture above is blue mustard, one of my very favorites. It makes up about half of the bulk of any salad in our household this time of year.  I wrote about it at more length in my previous post, so what I will say here is that it is a recent invader in my area.  It first showed up along the ditch banks about four years ago, and now it is a common “weed“ in my yard.  I have no idea where it came from, but I’m glad it’s here.  Get it young, before you notice the tiny blue blooms, and I usually harvest with scissors, cutting about 2 inches off the top of the thick clumps.

The second bulk green right now is scorzonera.  I have written about it elsewhere, so all I will say here is that although it is often grown for the root, I find the root not worth the trouble, but the spring leaves are mild,crunchy, tender, and excellent to make up the majority of the salad mix.  The bloomscapes that come up a little later, harvested before the buds swell too much, are among my very favorite vegetables, so at this stage I harvest individual leaves to make sure I don’t hurt any potential scapes. Take the wider upper half of the leaf,  and leave the long stringy stem bit where it is.

it takes a few years for scorzonera to establish and make nice full clumps. I advise against cutting it at all the first or second year.

My third bulk green right now is bladder campion.  It took me a few years to get this one established, but now it is a thriving weed and comes up everywhere. The roots are deep and tenacious, so be sure to pull the roots out if you do want to get rid of it.  I pull it out of my raised beds but let it romp away everywhere else. Cut off the top 2” and discard any bare stems.   During the summer it is weedy and flops all over other plants, to their detriment, so you have to whack at it a bit. But it is always my first green of spring and the last one of fall,  so I would never want to be without it. I have heard the taste of the young sprigs described as “exactly like green peas.” I beg to differ. They do have a hint of green-pea flavor but they aren’t sweet and do have an undertone of faint bitterness. I find them delicious, and they are mild enough to go with anything else.

Minor greens:delicious when used in smaller quantities.

Sow thistle has thick leaves with an intensely green flavor. In some soils I’m told that it’s bitter at all stages, but in my yard it’s mild when young. I don’t have much of it, but enjoy what I have.

Arugula has been allowed to self-seed in my yard for so long that it’s now a common weed. I throw leaves in the rosette stage into salad, and any that get past me produce small white flowers that bees adore.

Alfalfa is nobody’s idea of an edible, apparently, but I like a couple of sprigs per serving. I pinch off the top rosette when the first shoots are about 4” high. Only the first growth of early spring is suitable for this use, and no stems.

Oxeye daisy delights the bees when it blooms, and the earliest spring shoots delight me in salads. They are tender, sprightly, and vaguely sorrel-like in flavor. I would eat a lot more of them if I had more. I’m putting in a larger patch this spring.

I use dandelions in limited amounts, maybe 10% of the total salad, but I miss them when they aren’t there. Once or twice a season I eat a big salad of pure dandy greens with a garlicky dressing and a side of bacon, but I don’t often have the materials available. Believe it or not, dandelions aren’t common in my area, and the eight plants that I have were started from seed and fussed over like orchids. I let them go to seed, and hope that eventually my yard will be colonized and I can eat dandy salads whenever I crave them.

Pea greens are a delicious tender green that really does taste like green peas. I plant my peas very thickly, almost touching in the furrow, and then harvest about half for spring salads, leaving the rest to grow and bear.

Seasonings: these have more distinctive flavors. Don’t be too timid with them though, because the dressing is going to mute them quite a bit.

I grow the sorrel variety called “Perpetual,” which doesn’t go to seed. It has the zingy lemony taste of garden sorrel but has thicker, more tender leaves and is a much smaller, less robust plant. I definitely need more plants of this one.

I grow parsley in a semi-permaculture fashion. Planted in spring, I use it all summer and leave it in place in winter. The following spring I get lovely bunches of early leaves to chop over salad and other stuff, and then it shoots to seed and reseeds itself.

This photo has three of my favorites. To the right are perennial green onions, which I have written about so much that here I’ll just remind you to sliver some into salads. In the center are young shoots of bronze fennel. Later in the year I would chop them up, but at this stage they’re so mild that I just cut each small leaf in 2-3 pieces. To the left is the first spring growth of Angelica archangelica, which I haven’t used until this year. The first tender leaves of spring have strong notes of celery and juniper. I tear them into pieces about an inch across. When they start to get tough, the stems chopped in thin cross-section will give a similar effect.

The earliest shoots of French Tarragon add a lovely anise flavor. I pull the new sprigs into individual leaves and toss them in whole.

I have heard people say that each dish or salad should contain only one herb, so as not to “muddy” the flavors. I couldn’t disagree more, and have seldom made a spring salad that didn’t contain at least three. Chopped finely the flavors can muddle up and become undistinguished, but left in large distinct pieces as I use them, they are vivid and impressionistic on the tongue.