Archive for the ‘wild food’ Category

Natural Chaos

A garden bed with edible weeds in glorious (?) array

For a brief period earlier this year I had a lovely young helper in the garden, and he was a sponge for any information about plants and animals and a joy to have around. At one point, as he talked about how much he wanted a “yard farm” of his own, he looked around my yard and said thoughtfully “But mine will always be neat as a pin.” He didn’t say “by contrast,” but the implication was clear, and quite true.

Well, if there is one thing my urban homestead is not, it’s neat as a pin. Nature grows and blooms. Nature also surges, intrudes, overwhelms, dies back, regrows,  creeps, climbs, and insidiously gets Her own way. The gardener plays a part in natural chaos too; all the photos of lovely front yard veggie gardens that you see in magazines are taken before harvest. The gardener cuts the glowing rainbow chard, harvests the multicolored row of lettuces, picks the crimson tomatoes, and plucks the shiny apples, and suddenly things aren’t so camera-ready. Admittedly, many are neater than mine, since many gardeners lack my taste for edible weeds and my belief that nearly any plant has a purpose.  But if you want to get the most that you can get out of gardening, a degree of chaos tolerance may be a useful asset.

My blogging friend Luke of the Mortaltree blog summed this up so superbly that, with his permission, I’m linking to his post on the subject. So please hit this link and read his post “Taste of Chaos,” which really sums up the land-healing experience:

Taste of chaos

Green Odds and Ends

On my occasional staycations I have time to interact with my garden and kitchen in a leisurely way. I have time to notice things. Unfortunately, some of what I notice is at best a call to action and, at worst, a problem unfolding itself.

Take lambsquarters. This  weed is a real nutritional powerhouse, and also is happy to take over your world if you allow it.   I have written in the past about how to make it behave itself, and I do wish that I had followed my own good advice this year. But I foolishly let some plants go to bloom, which means that the leaves are scant and seeds will shower on my garden soon.

Well, all is far from lost, because Chenopodium album is still producing something edible. Notice the branch tips and you will see the clustered buds ready to pick and cook. This common weed is a true nose-to-tail vegetable.

To the right above, you see tightly packed buds, perfect for cooking. The single branch to the left shows looser formation and tiny little yellow stamens, indicating that it’s gone to flower. It’s still edible at this stage but the stem is tougher. A little later the seeds start forming and, to my taste, a slight unpleasant bitterness develops and the stems get noticeably tough, so I try to eat it up before that point, but the seed clusters look a lot like the initial bud clusters. Chew a bit raw if you want to be sure. If it tastes mild and green but not bitter, and the stem can be snapped in your fingers without undue effort, it’s kitchen-ready.

Steam or cook in a skillet in a little good olive oil until done to your taste, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, and eat. I steamed a batch for dinner and had some leftovers the next day, enough for one but there were two of us, which is how I came to use the cooked leftovers as the basis for a thick pesto to eat with halloumi and eggs.

The lambsquarters buds are very mild, so I chose a handful of fresh dill leaves to be the dominant seasoning, and some young carrot leaves chopped finely for the bright fresh green element (my parsley didn’t do well this year.) I put a clove of garlic in the mini-prep, added 1/3 cup of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon, ground in the cooked lambsquarters buds, and then turned it into a dish and stirred in the chopped dill and carrot leaves to avoid too fine a texture. Add more olive oil or lemon juice if called for, salt and pepper to taste, and it’s ready to serve alongside nearly anything. If you don’t like dill, use something else. Only fresh herbs are appropriate for this type of vegetable-relish.

After frying the halloumi in olive oil, I decided to fry an egg apiece in the remaining hot olive oil. To add a little pizazz I dropped two generous pinches of chopped dill leaves in two places in the hot skillet, then immediately broke two fresh eggs on top of them. Flip the eggs after a minute and cook to preferred doneness.  Those who are only familiar with the fusty-musty dried dillweed may be surprised how much they like fresh dill in this context.

I’m curious about the nutritional content of this lambsquarters-broccoli but there isn’t any available data. So I can only say that the leaves are powerfully nutritious and the buds probably are too. And wherever you may go in your life, short of prison, lambsquarters will be there. At times when I worry about the future, it’s comforting to think that if I’m ancient and beyond digging and planting, lambsquarters will grow just fine and will be on the menu as long as I can totter to the kitchen.

 

Of Spruce and Steaks

Every now and then I love a really good dry-aged ribeye on the grill,  and one of my favorite accompaniments is spruce tip butter.  The young growing tips of spruce trees in the spring have a fascinating array of flavors, ranging from bright and citrusy to something close to turpentine. I wander along my favorite trails tasting in until I find one that is on the spicy citrusy side, and  bring home the tips to chop and sauté in good butter for a few minutes. The spruce tip butter can then be frozen for use later in the year.  I like to freeze it in pats the size of large ice cubes, so that one pat is plenty of finishing butter for two steaks.  The frozen butter can be put on the steak for the last minute of grilling, and as the steak is finished for five minutes in a 200° oven it will finish melting luxuriously into the top.  If you happened to grill some onions along with the steak, this butter is delicious on them too, and it is a way of bringing your spring time hikes home for the rest of the year.

There aren’t many spruce trees in my area so this compound butter is the only thing that I make with the few tips that I have available, but if you have more trees available, you can consider other uses for the tips, such as spruce beer or Hank Shaw’s spruce tip syrup.

 

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.

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.

The Greens of Winter: Soup Base

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Earlier this week I walked through my frost-killed garden to see what was left. For the most part I don’t make any special effort to protect my garden in the fall because after a long summer I’m ready to move on to the things I do in the winter, so the pickings were slim, but I found lots of chicory, dandelion, chard, broccoli leaves, alfalfa tips, celery, and kale, along with green garlic and green onions, and some of the herbs were still in fine shape. I decided to make soup, and since I had a lot more greens than I remembered planting, it occurred to me to make a soup base that could sit in the freezer, ready at any time to be turned into soup in a hurry. To the garden ingredients I added a large onion and a largish handful of sun-dried tomatoes from earlier in the summer. You could also use a jar of dried tomatoes in oil, drained.  The celery was used from base to leaf tip. I used roughly equal volumes of all the greens types, about the equivalent of a medium-sized supermarket bunch of each.

The onion was sliced thinly and sautéed very slowly in olive oil while I washed and prepared the greens. I was aiming for a rich caramel color, which meant low heat and frequent stirring, which is no extra trouble if you’re in the kitchen anyway. I used my wok because I knew that the volume of sliced greens would be considerable. First the green garlic and green onions were cleaned, finely slivered, and held separately, then everything else was washed and midribs removed and cut in cross section into roughly 1/2″ slices.

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When the onion was a nice toffee color I added the chopped green alliums, cooked about another five minutes, then added the other greens and some more olive oil along with about a teaspoon of salt. Don’t stint on the olive oil. You want sautéed flavor, not steamed flavor.  The heat was turned up to medium and the whole mass stirred and turned with a wide wooden spoon about every five minutes to keep it cooking evenly. As soon as the greens were in the pan I ground the sun dried tomatoes into small powdery chunks in the blender and added them to the wok. They rehydrated well enough in the moisture from the leaves.  Keep cooking until the greens are soft when chewed.

When you have a darkened dense mass of soft greens, put the whole business in the food processor and grind to the finest paste that you can achieve. Taste. You want it on the salty side, because that helps with preservation and it’s going to be diluted later. Add more salt if needed. I prefer to use fish sauce rather than salt to season at this point because it adds a wonderful rich savor. I used about a tablespoon. Don’t use this if you might be serving vegetarians.

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Now cool your soup paste and pack it into one-cup containers, each of which makes about a quart of finished soup. Coat the top with olive oil, push lids on tightly, and freeze.

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When ready to use, put a quart of any kind of salt-free or low-salt broth you like in a saucepan, add a cup of soup paste, and simmer until thawed. Correct the texture with a stick blender if it needs smoothing out. Taste for seasoning and adjust in any way you like. The caramelized onions, deeply sautéed greens, and fish sauce gave a meaty-umami flavor to the potful I made for lunch today, so I salted to taste and added a swirl of fat from my homemade bacon and a generous sprinkling of thyme leaves, a meaty-umami herb if ever there was one. Yum. With toasted buttered slices of my low-carb fake-o cornbread, it made a perfect light healthy Thanksgiving brunch to lead into the excesses to come at dinner.

This basic formula can be varied endlessly according to what you like and have available. If you serve vegans at your table, using some miso rather than fish sauce and good olive oil for the final swirl with water or vegetable broth as the liquid would suit their needs while fully satisfying the omnivores. If you don’t like the brownish color, leave the tomatoes out and it will be more green. Pan-grilled small oyster or other mushrooms would make a good garnish. A fried or poached egg adds tremendous heft to soup if you want a richer meal, or some bacon lardons fried crisp would satisfy any ardent carnivore with a minimum of actual meat. You can add cow or coconut cream for a cream soup (try a toss of chopped fresh tarragon for the final garnish,) or some leftover tomato sauce for interesting tartness, or finish it with a handful of good freshly grated Parmesan along with olive oil and let the cheese dissolve in the hot soup. For a more Cretan effect, use crumbled feta and olive oil on top.  There are a hundred possibilities and you can get any of them from freezer to table in well under 20 minutes. Serve any kind of bready stuff that suits your diet alongside, and you and your table mates will be full. I say that a quart of soup is two servings, but I understand that normal people can serve three or four with a quart. Know your family’s tastes.

In my opinion the celery is necessary rather than optional, and I strongly advise including at least a small portion of bitter greens (dandelion and chicory in this case.) When making mixed greens, I’ve often noticed that a savory-meaty element is lost if I don’t include some bitter greens. The proportion is small and the final product isn’t bitter and is enjoyed be people who don’t like strong greens in other contexts. Besides, they’re so damn good for you.

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Late in the Garden Year

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Here in central New Mexico our garden year is slowly drawing to a close and the first frosts have blasted the tenderest plants but the days are still warm and lovely.  I have been out in the woods gathering wildlings but they are shutting down for the year. So it’s a good time to start summing up the season.  I hope to write in more detail about all these things over the winter, but life being the uncertain business that it is, might as well get started now.

First, beauty. In October, the tender tropical pineapple sage covers itself with red flower spikes and is one of the loveliest sights the garden can offer at this season, so every spring I buy a plant and stick it in somewhere. It makes a good last hurrah for the bees. I make tea from it occasionally during the summer and I’m experimenting right now with tincturing the leaves to make a cordial. More on that later.

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This is chard’s second-best season.  In late spring and summer there are other  greens that I prefer, so I plant my chard in June and in October it is covered with lush green leaves and ready to harvest, when most other greens have given up.   Then I leave the plants in place over the winter and in the spring they send out a burst of leaves that are thick, meaty, tender, and utterly delicious. Remember to harvest the spring leaves before the central stalk starts to form, because as soon as the plant begins to shoot to seed, the leaves become dirty-tasting.  Pick all the fall leaves that you want, since this does not seem to affect the ability of the plant to live through the winter. Blanch some for winter greens if you don’t already have enough in the freezer.

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All my garden fruits except the quinces are finished for the year, but rose hips are easily found. I am  busy making extracts and cordials from them as a source of vitamin C, flavonoids, and pleasure over the winter.

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The perennialized section of elephant garlic is making clusters of thin tender leaves that are delicious  snipped up for garlicky chives.  I don’t care for the bulbs, and think that the greens are the best part of this leek relative,  so I cut all that the plants will produce as I need them.  The thin chive like greens shown here come from the tiny bulbils that are found around the outside of the bulbs. I plant them in handfuls to get a thick growth of greens as shown here.

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Those last green tomatoes make a wonderful sweet tangy chutney.

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I have a clump of perennialized chicory,  and it languishes in hot weather but produces a vigorous crop of deep greens in the fall.  The lower half of the leaf is mostly stalk, so I tend to cut off the upper halves for cooking. Chicory is a bitter green, much like dandelion.  It responds wonderfully to sautéing  with bacon or pancetta, garlic, and some red chili if you like it. It is also very good for adding savor to mixed greens that include blander species such as chard.

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Kale is at its best this time of year, and becomes more tender and sweet after a few frosts. The Tuscan kale will winterkill sooner than the others, so eat it first.  In climates with snow cover, curly kale will last throughout the winter, but in our very dry and windy winters with very little snow it seldom survives in any sort of edible condition.  Covering it with a frost blanket might well preserve it, but is more trouble than I really care to go to.  There are plenty of other things to eat.

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Celery and leeks need to be kept well supplied with water, and will still be fresh and good in the first week or two of November.  I usually buy leek plants in the spring, and none of the hardiest varieties are available as plants. There are very hardy varieties that will hold perfectly in the ground over winter, but to have them you have to remember to plant the seeds in midwinter, and I always forget.  Maybe this year I’ll remember.

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Now we come to the perennial weed patch.  Nobody who lives or gardens in the east will ever believe how much trouble I have taken to get burdock, milkweed, nettles, pokeweed, plantain, and scorzonera to grow in my area.  Burdock provides a good root in the fall from first year plants, makes large coarse leaves that my goat adores, and produces a flower stalk that is supposed to be the best part of the plant for edible purposes. I only got it to germinate this year, so I have not tried the stalks yet, but will be digging my first roots soon. Some people say the leaves and leaf stems are edible, but they are so stringy in texture and coarse in flavor that I’ve never been that desperate for something to eat.

The plantain is the Rugels variety which is rumored to be less stringy and have a better flavor than common plantain. I haven’t tasted it yet but will report back.

Milkweed can be eaten in many ways in many seasons.  As far as I know, our desert native milkweeds are largely inedible, but I have finally gotten the common milkweed to germinate and grow strongly. So next spring I hope to have edible shoots, buds, and pods. Read master forager Samuel Thayer’s books for excellent sections on the uses of milkweeds.

Pokeweed can be a giant nuisance but the spring greens have a great savor.  Or at least that’s what I remember, although I haven’t tasted them for 25 years and couldn’t swear to it.  If you decide to try them, remember that  only the young shoots about 6 inches high are edible and boiling in two changes of water is not optional. It is necessary to remove toxins. I hope to harvest my first shoots next spring.

Nettles and dock are two superb spring greens that seldom occur wild in my area, but grow very nicely in my weed patch.  They provide some of the earliest and most nutritious greens of the spring, and in late fall they produce some new greens that are well worth having at that season.  Every year I swear that I will remember to cut down the nettle patch in late summer so that the new greens can grow up unobstructed, and every year I forget and have to harvest the new greens with elbow length grilling gloves. But they are worth it.  Try to keep the nettles separate from the other plants, or you will have a tough time harvesting everything around them. The sting is pretty fierce.

I give my weed patch a periodic shallow mulch with mixed alfalfa and goat manure. They might grow well enough with no attention to fertility, but if you want your produce to be as nutritious as possible, the soil needs feeding.

If you wonder why it is worth having a weed patch, remember that these are some of nature’s wonder plants, among the most nutritious greens in the world. In addition, they taste really good.   Also, with perennials, once established the only work you have every year is harvesting and cooking them.  Once adapted to an area, they are unlikely ever to desert you. Permaculture also avoids soil disturbance. These plants are not classically attractive and need an inconspicuous spot, but they have a superbly healthy rough-and-ready vigor that is bracing even if it isn’t beautiful.