A Little Hen Science

Feeding my hens is expensive and sometimes I wonder how much it matters whether I gather the large heap of alfalfa and other greens that they eat every day during the growing season. Then I remind myself of one of my favorite nutritional sayings:

You are what you eat and you are what what you eat, eats.

I don’t mean to be dramatic about it, but it’s a core concept. I first read a serious article about nutritional changes in eggs according to the hens’ diet back in about 2008, and would like to bring that article up again. It details the difference in LDL oxidizability in people who eat eggs, depending on the diet of the hens producing the eggs. Here’s a Science Daily summary  with a link to the original article if you would like to read it. Note especially their paragraph exerpted below:

“There were vast differences in outcome among the treatments. Daily consumption of two industry-standard eggs, high in omega-6, caused a 40 percent increase in LDL oxidizability in participants. After eating two per day of the specially-composed eggs, with both high anti-oxidant and low omega-6 levels, however, LDL oxidation levels were similar to the control group eating only two to four eggs a week. Surprisingly, with the “healthier” eggs, we might be able to eat more than twice today’s generally recommended egg intake and still maintain a healthy level of LDL oxidation, Dr. Shapira concludes.”

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110802162807.htm

So I will continue to feed my hens to produce the product that I want to eat. There is no substitute for greens and bugs in a chicken’s diet. It’s what she evolved to eat, and I too evolved to eat them but greatly prefer to eat the bugs indirectly. If you have chickens, devote some garden space to growing greens for them. An alfalfa patch is a good source of the most nutritious greens imaginable for the ladies. And any edible weed from a location that hasn’t been sprayed with anything noxious is a bonanza for the coop. Fresh grass clippings are welcomed as long as you don’t spray your lawn. And eat the resulting eggs with relish, knowing that they are as good as eggs can be.

The Perennial Paddock: Goji Berries

I planted Goji berries years ago when I was interested in eating the berries, and hadn’t yet discovered how invasive they were. I am told that they like slightly alkaline soil, and indeed mine revel in it and come up everywhere despite whatever obstacles I put in their way.  But as far as I’m concerned their invasiveness is a positive boon, since my favorite part of the plant is the young shoot.

Gojis want to ramp away into big lanky vines that sprawl everywhere and don’t bear much fruit,  but some trimming helps them settle down and stick to their work.

I tie mine to fences or stakes about 40 inches above the ground, and then in the spring I whack off everything above that point.  There is no artistry involved in this pruning; you can do it with a hedge trimmer.  Then they grow new branches which drape down artistically from the point where they are tied, and are covered with fruit in season. They are very ornamental and can be grown in the front yard.  They are also highly drought  tolerant once established. The fruit tastes rather like a tiny tomato with a hint of bitterness. I use it mostly for fermenting into hot sauce and making superfruit sauce.  You will find material online suggesting that the berries will prevent cancer and Alzheimer’s and make you live longer. I don’t get excited about that kind of talk, and I hope that you don’t either. They do have a good nutrient content, including doses of lutein and zeaxanthin that might be useful in helping to prevent macular degeneration, however be aware that the berries have not been researched for that purpose.

My favorite part of the plant is the young shoots that come up in places where I don’t want them, so I can pick them and eat them.  Please note that the shoots are only edible when they are young, tender, and snap cleanly off as soon as you try to bend them. If they will bend without snapping, they are not fit to eat.  I chop a bundle of shoots into fine cross section, about 1/4” lengths, and stirfry with some garlic, ginger, and soy, and find them very good. If the stems are getting wiry and bendable, you can still harvest the leaves and add them to mixed greens or cook them lightly in a Thai-style curry.

Now, about those health claims: I find two opposite sets of claims being made about Goji berries and leaves (the leaves are widely used for tea in Asia and are used in traditional Chinese medicine.) One is that the components of both leaves and berries include multiple antioxidants and compounds that act as anti-inflammatories in vitro and in vivo. This view is based both on their traditional uses and on the fact that multiple flavonoid antioxidants have been identified in both leaves and berries.

Below is a link to a simple analysis of components of the leaves.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28095717

Below is an analysis of anti-inflammatory activity in extracts of three berry species, including Goji berries, in vivo in mice.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27114691

The other point of view is that, as a distant member of the nightshade family, this plant should be avoided in its entirety. I have not found any credible research suggesting that the vast majority of us have any reason to avoid nightshades. I also don’t find it credible that a plant which contains numerous compounds that have demonstrated anti-inflammatory activity both in vitro and in vivo (beta-sitosterol, betaine, and hydroxycinnamic acid amides, to name only a few) would suddenly become inflammatory when eaten. If you feel that eating gojis makes your stomach burn or your joints hurt, by all means avoid them.  You are the author of the owner’s manual for your own body.  But to go from there to saying that nobody should eat them is quite a leap, and ignores demographic evidence.

This is a picture of goji berries being grown commercially in China, apparently staked up in more or less the same way that I do it but more neatly and artistically.  When covered with their fruit in summer, they are as radiant as Christmas trees.

 

 

The Perennial Paddock: Sea Kale

There is an area of my yard that is referred to as “the paddock“ because it was once intended to be an animal paddock. Over time, it has become the area where I move toward permaculture, with more and more perennial edibles accumulating there.  The whole area is kept in a deep mulch, and tends to stay moist enough for growth even in our desert summers.

One of the most decorative plants growing there is seakale, a maritime perennial that tolerates our alkaline soil.  It is very hard to start from seed, and the four plants that have prospered over years for me are those that I paid a small fortune for as plants from a specialty nursery.  If you want seakale, make the investment in getting good plants. Once settled, I am told that they can live 20 or 30 years or more.  They are very pretty in a quiet way, with nothing dramatic or show about them but pleasant to the eyes  in most seasons, except in the fall when mine get very bug-eaten. They are not recognizable at sight as a vegetable, and would pass muster with the strictest homeowner’s association.

There was a time when I thought it would take me 20 years to learn how to use them. The leaves  have a crisp succulent texture and mild flavor, and would be okay in salads, but each plant makes only six or seven leaves and if you take more than one the plant is likely  to die.  If you have 20 plants this might not be an issue, but if you have four, it is.

I read that the buds could be harvested as a broccoli like vegetable, and when I first tried this, they were tasty enough but very tiny indeed. From my four plants, I got enough for one small tasting dish, and no more. But this year I figured out that the bloom stalk is also tender and tasty.  Harvest the whole stalk as close to the base of the plant as you can get without damaging any leaves. Do this before the flowers open, and it will just snap right off. The leaves on the stalk are fine to eat. The lower part of the stem has a tough fibrous outer layer, but it peels off very easily. Everything you have left, stems, leaves, and buds, is good to eat.  Cut in half inch cross sections, cook in very little water until crisp tender, add salt and butter, and eat.  Treated this way, each plant provides a nice vegetable side dish for two people.

In British gardening books I have read references to seakale having a very strong and unpleasant flavor, but I have not experienced this at all with my own plants. The taste is mild, slightly herbal, and inoffensive. The texture is excellent.

One question to consider is whether perennial vegetables are really worth growing, when annual vegetables are so good. Broccoli fresh from the garden is one of my favorite vegetables in the world, and it would be pretty hard for anything to surpass it.   But suppose that you couldn’t plant the broccoli. Suppose that age and infirmity made it impossible for you to garden the way you used to, or that an accident of fate left you unable to garden in the usual way, either temporarily or permanently.  This has happened to me. Because of an orthopedic problem I was unable to do any annual gardening for two years, and even though I have been back at it full tilt for a few years now, I  remember that time and remain aware that a slip, a fall, or a careless driver can put quite a crimp in your gardening career for a while.  Fortunately, even at that time, I had a fair stock of perennial edibles and we still had things to eat from the yard.  Of course, perennials also help prevent soil erosion,  and undug  soil can sequester carbon in a big way.  The microbes and fungi that are so important in building and maintaining healthy soil will flourish in a perennial garden under mulch. But it’s also your insurance that, if fate deals you a blow that you weren’t expecting, your garden will go on producing.

Eating Up the Ground Elder


Ground elder is a famous invasive, and most sensible people would never dream of growing it on purpose. But I live in the high desert and tend to be fairly fearless about moisture-loving invasives, on grounds that if I get tired of them I can withhold water and watch them disappear. Therefore, I let some variegated ground elder grow under a plum tree and harvest it aggressively for salads.
It needs to be harvested young, before the leaves unfurl, and at this stage it has a strong celery-parsley flavor that I find appealing, and a lovely crisp texture. The furled young leaf at the top is pretty, but the stem is the real vegetable, so pick it as close to the ground as possible. Toss in a mixed salad, or arrange artistically on top.

When the leaf opens out it becomes tough and is no longer desirable eating. I have read that it also produces nausea in some people at this stage, so it’s definitely to be avoided.

If you live in a wetter climate, you may want to confine ground elder to a large pot, because it can get out of hand in a hurry.

Because each individual leaflet is small, I never get enough to cook, but I imagine that it would be good in stir-fries.

Be cautious with invasives, but don’t rule them out completely if your natural conditions will prevent them from spreading. And if you live in an area where it would be irresponsible to introduce ground elder, help solve the problem. Find a naturalized patch and start foraging.

 

Broccoli Sprouts, and a Good Green Gadget

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I’m aware of the nutritional benefits of sprouts, but except for bean sprouts to use in some Chinese dishes, I am not very interested in them except in the winter, for a simple reason; my whole yard is full of things that I would rather eat.  But this winter I decided to see whether, when fresh food from the garden is limited, sprouts could fill in to a degree.

I decided on broccoli sprouts for my experiment  because of their rather remarkable nutritional profile, and since I already know that I do not care to eat them as they come from the sprouting jar (too stringy,) I was planning to grind them into green smoothies. I ended up with some definite opinions about the process.

First, I have tried pretty much every sprouting gadget out there at this point, and have returned to half-gallon wide-mouth mason jars with the specialized sprouting lids shown above. They are called Masontops and are available on Amazon,  and they are pretty much the ultimate in a low-tech inexpensive gadget that actually works really well.   I tried all kinds of fancy sprouting set ups and found this to be the simplest and the most mold proof.

Second, get seeds that will actually sprout. I buy the broccoli seeds from Food for Life.

Start in the jar in the usual way, soaking overnight to begin with and then being sure to rinse and drain twice per day. The phalanges on the Masontops allow you to sit the jar upside down in the sink to drain really thoroughly.

A point will come when the seeds begin to hang together in a mat the shape of the jar rather than being loose, as shown above. At this point, I move them out of the jar and into an 8” x 8” Pyrex baking dish. I keep them covered with a damp dish towel, and continue to rinse twice per day.

After another day or two the sprouting seeds will be forming a mat in the dish. Now, I set them out in the morning  sun for about an hour, turn the whole mass over, and sun them for another hour. This is so they can increase their production of sulforaphane and other antioxidants.  Then they go in the refrigerator, and can be used at any point over the next few days.

Green smoothies are not exactly a gourmet delight, but they are an extremely handy breakfast to carry off to a busy day at work, and they actually don’t taste bad if I put in some ginger and orange rind to take the curse off. For one breakfast I use a large handful of broccoli sprouts, a little fresh turmeric and two coins of fresh ginger, a few dark green outer lettuce leaves or cabbage leaves, and  a slice of orange rind.  By this I mean a slice of the outside of an orange that includes both the zest and the white pith underneath, but no orange flesh. The pith of orange rind is not bitter.  I like a good sprinkle of stevia based sweetener.  I throw it all in the Vitamix with half a glass of water, blend on high speed for about a minute, pour into a shaker cup, and top up with sparkling water.

I usually drink the concoction out of an opaque blender cup,  but here I have poured a bit out into a cordial glass so that you are prepared for the color, which can startle people who aren’t used to it.  Personally I have no problem with green food as long as the color is not artificial, and it can be used to keep you focused on the idea of leafy greens being a really, really good thing.

There is a nutritional rationale to most of these choices:

Broccoli sprouts,  because of their high sulforaphane content.  You can read here about a study showing down-regulation of inflammatory markers in overweight people ( i.e. already in a state of inflammation) who consumed broccoli sprouts daily.

Outer leaves of lettuce or cabbage because that’s where most of the nutrients are. Outer cabbage leaves, especially, are nutritional powerhouses but I don’t have time to cook them every day, so the Vitamix ensures that they get used.

Glass jars, because most plastic sprouting  devices are subject to mold sooner or later.

Sun exposure, because there is good evidence showing that two hours of exposure to UV light causes the sulforaphane  content to increase significantly.

Fresh turmeric and ginger because they are antioxidant powerhouses, and the ginger disguises the slightly cabbagey taste of the sprouts.

A slice of orange rind because the rind contains more vitamin C than the flesh or juice of the orange but contains little or no sugar, and besides it tastes good.

Green smoothies  because I start my day with two servings of green vegetables down the hatch,  but can consume the veggies in the car at stop lights or when I get to work, and don’t have to get sprouts caught in my teeth.

 

Dandelion Time

Just after the first nettles, the first dandelions are ready to eat. This happens about the same time that the earliest daffodils bloom.

I have mentioned in another post that dandelions don’t seem to occur naturally in my neighborhood, and I went to a ridiculous amount of trouble to have them and paid good money for seeds that people in other climates would pay to get rid of.  Surprisingly, they take a long time to establish. I find that they are extremely straggly and thin the first year, and only a little more substantial in the second year. But in the third year, they make beautiful thick rosettes of spring time leaves that are perfect for salads.  Interestingly, the dandelions growing in my garden beds are not bitter, although in general dandelion leaves are famous for bitterness.  This may have something to do with my alkaline and highly mineralized soil. I’m really not sure. But it is a nice bonus. If yours are bitter, check out Dr. Kallas’s excellent book Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt to Plate, which contains a number of sensible suggestions about making bitter greens more appealing.

All sorts of medicinal properties are attributed to dandelions,  and if you’re interested in that you can read up on it. Personally, as I have said several times before, I think that all leafy greens are medicinal in that they are really, truly good for you. Eat them all, lots of them.

The early spring leaves are both tender and substantial in texture. I like them in a salad either by themselves or with a little bit of outer leaves of romaine lettuce added.  But if you want to add them to a more traditional mixed salad, they add a nice amount of “lift“ to the mixture at this stage.  At times when I lived where dandelions or more bitter,  I was very fond of adding crumbled bacon and hard cooked or Friday eggs to dandelion salads. With the nonbitter leaves that grow here, I prefer to eat them just with a good vinaigrette, and maybe a few bones’ worth of roasted marrow alongside to complete the meal. I roast the bones with salt and seasoning, then dig the marrow out and plop it on a pile of dandelion leaves dressed with good vinaigrette. Grind some pepper over the top, and yum.  It’s a delicious way to stay ketogenic, but if you are not a low-carbohydrate eater, you can enjoy the marrow spread on elegant little pieces of sourdough toast.

Incidentally, if you are a fan of bone marrow, you might want to keep marrow spoons around, as shown above. They have long, narrow bowls that are specially designed for digging this delicious substance out of the bone. You can get heirloom sterling silver ones from England for $700 or more apiece, or you can do what I did and buy stainless steel marrow spoons on Amazon for less than $10 each. They work just fine.

The First Nettles of Spring

This year we ate all winter from the broccoli and greens growing under frost blankets. Even so, it remains a major spring event when the first nettles are ready to pick. They taste so good and give such an all-over glow of virtue.  There are people who think that nettles have special medicinal benefits. My own belief is that all dark leafy greens have medicinal benefits, and the important thing is to eat as wide a variety of them as possible. But that first meal from the uncovered soil does confer a special feeling that spring is finally and truly here.

If you aren’t familiar with them, consult a good wild-food field guide, and be aware that the sting is quite uncomfortable and can last hours. Have leather gloves handy for picking. They’re ready to harvest when 6-8” tall. I cut off the top 2” or so, including as much leaf and as little stem as possible.

I turn them into a big bowl of water and stir gently with a wooden spoon for 2-3 minutes to get dirt off.

My favorite tool for lifting them out of the water, leaving any dirt that was present at the bottom of the bowl, is a pair of “salad hands” that somebody once gave me as a hostess gift. A large slotted spoon would work too. I make sure to throw the water on a garden bed. We live in the desert, after all.

Cooking nettles is a breeze, but in my opinion chopping is a necessary step, to eliminate stringy stems. First I put them in the pan with about half a cup of water, and cook over high heat, stirring, for about two minutes or until thoroughly wilted. The water should be pretty much gone. Turn out on a cutting board, let cool for five minutes or so, and chop. The cooking has eliminated their capacity to sting, and you can handle them with impunity now.

The flavor of nettles is rather like spinach, but deeper and richer, with a slight feral twist. I especially like them creamed, and always eat the first ones this way. Slice up two big fat green onions, sauté them in butter until cooked, add chopped nettles, sauté another minute or so, add heavy cream just to cover, boil for a couple of minutes until the cream is thickened, and salt to taste. Serve with freshly ground pepper and nothing else, so that you can taste the true flavor of the nettles.  You can also use netales in absolutely any way that you would use cooked spinach. They are infinitely versatile, and I have never served them to anyone who disliked them.  After the initial cooking and chopping, they can be frozen for later years. Whenever I wash and cook nettles, I try to make about twice as much as I need for immediate use, so that I can freeze the other half.

They can be dried for tea, although I do not care for the watery tasting tea that results and don’t bother.  Adding a twist of orange peel or something similar would give more flavor. I am not much of a tea drinker, but if you are, this might be worth considering.

If, like me, you live in an area who are nettles don’t grow naturally, there are some considerations to growing them in your yard.  First is obtaining them. When I first started growing them in central New Mexico about 12 years ago, I could not get seeds to germinate and no herb nurseries offered them. I finally called an herb nursery from whom I was buying other things and asked if they could please find me some nettles.  The “plants” I received had clearly just been dug from the nearest roadside, and were little more than cut rhizomes in potting soil, but they grew just fine.  These days they are easier to find and a number of mail order nurseries have them.

Siting  must be done carefully, because of the sting and because they are invasive.  I have mine in an area surrounded by concrete, where they cannot escape to parts of the yard where I don’t want them.  My large dogs are readily able to avoid them, but I have heard that they could do real harm to very small dogs, so keep this in mind.   Growing them in areas where small children could get into them is an obvious no-no. They get tall and gangly and flop around, but if cut or mown back in summer, they stay neater and make a second crop in fall.  I hope that I am never without nettles in spring.