Posts Tagged ‘amaranth’

Integrating Your Weeds II: Amaranth

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Amaranth is the second of my Holy Trinity of super-nutritious edible weeds. It is a creature of hot weather, and in my garden it’s appearing everywhere right now. Like lambs-quarters it will get huge if allowed to, and unless you have limitless room, your job is not to allow it to.
Consult any good wild-foods guide to identify it, and then assess how much of it you have. If your response is “OMG, it’s everywhere!” then don’t worry about propagating it. Your soil has plenty of seeds. If there are only one or two plants, proceed as for lambs-quarters the first season, and you will have amaranth in perpetuity. I have two varieties, one with smooth stems and one that forms small but unpleasant spines at the leaf joints, and I try to keep the spiny kind from ever going to seed.
Pick them when they’re about a foot high and have a nice large umbrella of leaves on top. I have no interest in eating stems, and I pull off the topmost part with all the largest leaves and add the rest of the plant to the mulch, taking care that it’s completely uprooted.
The greens are fairly mild but have a slight touch of the earthy flavor that’s so pronounced in beet greens. When grown in prime soil the flavor verges on meatiness in a delicious way, and my favorite way of cooking the greens adds other meaty umami flavors.
Wash a mixing bowl full of loosely packed leaves well and wilt them in a small amount of water, stirring frequently over fairly high heat until the leaves all look “cooked.” Drain them, saving all the cooking liquid. Return the cooking liquid to the pot and boil hard to concentrate it to a very small amount, maybe a couple of tablespoons (don’t turn your back on the pot or it will scorch.) Pour into a little bowl and save.
Chop 6 big green onions. Make a basic separation between white and green parts, but don’t get obsessive about it. Separately chop 6 big cloves of garlic. Heat about a quarter cup of olive oil in your largest skillet and cook the white parts over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. When they begin to look a little translucent and “cooked,” add the green parts, cook another couple of minutes, add the garlic, lower the heat to medium, and cook a few minutes more. Meanwhile, put the lump of blanched greens on a cutting board and chop fairly finely in both directions.
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When the garlic looks cooked but has not colored at all, add a handful of pitted chopped oil-cured olives to the sautéed mixture and cook another minute.
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Add the cooked chopped greens, the tiny amount of cooking liquid, a teaspoon of Spanish smoked paprika or, if you like heat, the same amount of ground chipotle chile. Add a small handful each of chopped parsley and chopped fennel fronds. If not cooking for vegetarians or vegans, add a smashed anchovy fillet or a dash of fish sauce. Cook the mixture over medium-low heat for at least 20 minutes, periodically turning it to get it all completely cooked (a spatula works well.) Taste it, salt to taste, and cook a few more minutes to let the salt blend in. Serve drizzled with good olive oil as a side dish, or fill an omelette with it and add some feta cheese, or bake in phyllo to make a hortapita or little spanakopitas, or do whatever else you fancy with it. Back when I ate bread, I used to love to smear this stuff on slices of grilled baguette and put some grated Parmesan and pine nuts on top. I can remember once baking it in thin bread dough with a raw egg on top, so that when baked in a hot oven the egg came out cooked. You can add cooked chickpeas and bits of cooked meat for a real peasant dinner. It freezes well in vacuum-sealed bags to keep you healthy all winter. When served next to beef or pork, I top each serving with a bit of butter to add to the general animalic savor. I like to have it in the refrigerator for a super-healthy lunch, and it seems to taste best at room temperature.
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Incidentally, the main reason for a poor result is not cooking it long enough. If it tastes grassy, keep going until it tastes good. Undersalting is another problem. Add salt cautiously because of the salty olives, but add enough.
If you don’t have a wild good guide that you like, get John Kallas’s “Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food From Dirt to Plate” and you will be glad you did.

The Weed You Need: Edible Wild Plants in Your Garden


Lambs-quarters seedlings
Here in New Mexico we have a trio of useful weeds that make delicious greens during the summer heat. In fact, I suspect that most pieces of the continent that aren’t actually submerged have these three. Lambs-quarters, amaranth, and purslane are ultra-nutritious, mild and pleasant in flavor, and take nearly any sort of abuse. They come along in that order; right now lambs-quarters in my yard is nearly ready to harvest, amaranth seedlings are about an inch high, and purslane seedlings are a fine mist on the ground. The reason to learn to recognize them now is so you don’t weed them out. They are shown here in seedling stages, but never rely on one source to identify a wild plant unfamiliar to you, at least not if you intend to eat it. Get a good foraging book (anything by Samuel Thayer or John Kallas will have the info that you need) and double-check yourself. Then, harvest and eat. These three are easy to use. Lambs-quarters is my favorite, but I’d hate to be without any of the three. I generally blanch them for two minutes in boiling salted water in an open pot, drain and press out all moisture, and chop, then proceed in any of dozens of ways or freeze them in vacuum-sealed bags for winter. Lambs-quarters and amaranth can be eaten by themselves with great pleasure, but personally I find purslane a little slimy by itself and prefer it as no more than 25% of a greens mixture. It’s full of omega-3 fatty acids, though, so don’t neglect it. Click the “greens” category on my sidebar and scroll through some ideas to get you going. Be careful not to let them overwhelm your garden plants. Amaranth and Lambs-quarters can grow six feet high and three across in good garden soil, and they can crowd out nearly any other plant that you might be trying to grow. Leave one of each to go to seed, and pull the others before they take over. I can’t think of anything nicer that most people could do for their health than eat more leafy greens. If you have chickens, be sure to give them all the nutritious weeds that they can eat. My dogs love cooked greens too, although of course they are given only limited quantities.
I can cut the tender tips several times per plant, but these are wild annuals and they do what wild annuals do, which is make huge quantities of seed before winter. When the days shorten, they will go to seed. I’ve tried planting seed in late summer to extend the harvest, and the new plants went to seed before they were six inches tall.  They haven’t been bred for our purposes, and I say thank goodness something hasn’t. Their season is a long and generous one, so enjoy it. Spread some seedheads in any neglected areas that you aren’t using, and you’ll benefit next year.

Amaranth seedling

Purslane seedling

Sudden changes of plan


In urban homesteading as in the rest of life, it’s never possible to know what the future holds. In early July as I was planning and starting my fall/winter garden, my very beloved husky was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and a short life expectancy. Thanks to the care of a wonderful canine oncologist he is free of pain and enjoying his last weeks, but it rapidly became clear to me that the fall garden was not going to be a priority after all, both because of his care needs and because I want to spend all the time that I can with him. Weeding, planting, and the constant ongoing care that a garden needs came to a sudden halt.
So, what to do about the garden? I was soon able to identify the vegetables that flourish on neglect. Corn did well, and we gorged on fresh sweet corn regularly, although the last planting was too young to take the neglect and so our corn season ended early. Sweet potatoes have been unstoppable. Swiss chard has done well, and the winter squash is out to eat the world. We have a problem with borers in our area, so this year I limited myself to squash of the C. moschata variety, which are rumored to be resistant to them. The vines are producing well and not a single one has shown that sudden disheartening wilting that heralds the squash borer. My enthusiasm for edible weeds really paid off, as we ate greens dishes full of lambs-quarters, mallow, amaranth, and purslane. I always let some of my spring crop of arugula go to seed, and a self-sown fall crop is coming up to supply our salad bowl. Self-sown chicory is showing up here and there. Dandelions have grown a foot across, and are too bitter to eat now but after a few frosts they’ll be perfect for braising. Mallow enjoys heat and neglect and even offers pretty purple flowers if you grow the Malva sylvestris type. The wild-type daylilies are spreading happily and will supply spring shoots. Peruvian purple potatoes are healthy and strong. They form tubers late, but in a couple of months we expect to be eating a lot of them. Cherry and paste tomatoes are winding their way through the general melee and producing a surprising number of tomatoes.
At the time that my dog was diagnosed there were hundreds of wild sunflower seedlings all around the property, and I decided to let them grow unmolested, thinking that they would eventually supply green matter for mulch and would keep worse weeds from taking over. We now have a sunflower forest twelve feet high on two sides of the house, and the beauty of the flowers lights up the days. They also attract thousands of bees to the open flowers, and the ripening seeds have drawn hundreds of goldfinches to my yard. Hummingbirds strafe each other over my head, and my husky spends his good days wandering in his own private jungle.
To me the spirit of urban homesteading is one of making do as best we can despite uncontrollable circumstances. It’s a spirit that sets priorities and says “First things first.” My priorities right now are clear, and there are more important things then a carefully planned winter garden. To feed the bees and birds and to find my life unexpectedly full of bright color, flashing movement, wild life,and even good homegrown food although not the food that I had planned on is a gift that I hope I won’t forget.

Still more greens, and notes on solar cooking


Since I got a solar oven, I no longer find it difficult to cook chickpeas, and so I’m looking for new ways to use them. I especially like combinations of greens and beans, partly because these primal and earthy dishes are found all over the world wherever people need healthy cheap food, and partly because they taste good. I’m cooking my way through a huge patch of lambs-quarters and amaranth (common pigweed) in my back yard, and getting healthy food from weedy places always satisfies my sense of economy. If you’re not a weed-eater, just use Swiss chard. I like a little smoked meat with greens, but if you don’t eat meat, just leave off the final garnish of bacon. This makes two large main-course servings with leftovers.

One pound young leaves and tender tips of lambs-quarters and amaranth, OR one large bunch of swiss chard, stems removed, chopped coarsely.
One pint cooked chickpeas, with just enough of the cooking liquid to cover them (see Solar Beans, below.)
3-4 tablespoons good flavorful olive oil
1 large onion, finely sliced
2 large cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons Spanish Pimenton de la Vera, or smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes
salt and pepper to taste
a little of your best olive oil for drizzling
1 thick slice bacon, fried crisp and crumbled (optional)
Wash the greens very well, make sure to remove any remaining large stems, and blanch them in boiling water for 1 minute. Drain, press out extra water, and turn out on a cutting board and chop coarsely in both directions. Meanwhile, heat a heavy pot (I like an unglazed clay 3 quart pot) over medium heat, warm the olive oil, and saute the onions in the oil until translucent and cooked through but not browned more than a little. Add the chopped garlic and saute until garlic is cooked. Add the smoked paprika, thyme leaves, and chile flakes, saute a minute but no more, and promptly add the chickpeas and their liquid. When this mixture comes to a boil, add the blanched and chopped greens, salt to taste, turn the heat to low, and let it all mellow together for 10-15 minutes. Check the seasoning, add pepper to taste, and serve with a good drizzle of very good olive oil on each serving and the crumbled bacon on top if you’re using it. With a hunk of good baguette and a glass of full-bodied straightforward red wine, it couldn’t be better or healthier. Without its bacon topping it’s vegan and can be served to people of that persuasion, with the bacon fillip for the carnivores at the table. People who are vegetarian but not vegan will enjoy a pat of butter melted on top to give a little richness. Hedonists will like both a little butter and a little bacon.

Solar cooking is a natural here in New Mexico, where we have more sunlight than we know what to do with.
So, how do you cook solar beans? Fist you catch your solar oven. There are lots of easy plans on the internet for making them, but I chose to buy mine from the Solar Oven Society. Their solar ovens are capacious, lightweight, and every one you buy helps the society provide solar ovens to the third world, which avoids some deforestation and greenhouse gases from cooking fires. Their ovens are cleverly designed with two potential bases to provide a summer sun-catching angle and a winter sun-catching angle. Optional reflectors are available to achieve higher temperatures. You may want the optional reflectors for other purposes, but for cooking beans you won’t need them. Two graniteware pots are included with the oven, and you can put a pint of dry chickpeas in each one, cover with cold water by at least 2″, and set the oven up facing south in the morning with the two full pots inside. Then employ my special cooking technique: walk away, laughing a carefree laugh, and go to work or just get on with your life. On a reasonably sunny day, the oven without reflectors attached will reach a peak temperature of about 250 degrees and will stay in that range for much of the day. When you get home eight or nine hours later, you will find two steaming pots of perfectly cooked chickpeas, and you can salt them to taste, let them cool, and use immediately or freeze in pint containers with enough of their pot-liquor to cover. I love the oddly meaty-tasting cooking liquid and often use it as the broth for the finished dish, as I do above.
The directions that come with the oven imply that you need to turn it a few times to keep it facing the sun, but at least in summer I just point mine due south and forget about it. Other types of beans are also naturals for this solar slow-cooking, but they take less time, so I do them on weekends when I can check the oven in 4 hours or so to see how they’re coming along. For readers at lower altitudes than our 5500 feet, cooking times would tend to be much shorter. If the day clouds over, you may need to finish inside, or just put the pots in the refrigerator overnight and try again the next day. Don’t forget and leave the beans in the cool solar oven overnight, since some very nasty bacteria including botulinum could grow in room-temperature aqueous solutions. Cool them and pop them in the fridge or freezer when they’re cooked. Eat in the knowledge that you’re taking in all sorts of nutritive and cholesterol-lowering compounds that cost you no energy and very little trouble to cook. Beats canned, doesn’t it?

The Greens of Summer: greens bruschetta

If you’re interested in making leafy greens an enjoyable part of your diet, I highly recommend Paula Wolfert’s book Mediterranean Grains and Greens. My favorite greens recipe, however, does not come from that book but from another of her books, Paul Wolfert’s World of Food. She calls it “marmalade of spring greens,” and it is intended as a spread for bread. I find it wonderful stuff to have tucked in the refrigerator, where it will keep for several days and makes great impromptu lunches and snacks. I have made it so often for so long that my recipe has morphed into something a little different from hers, as tends to happen with recipes that really work for me.

First, catch your greens. See my earlier blog post about greens options and about cleaning them. Right now I am mostly using mixtures of amaranth leaves ( the polite term for common pigweed), lambs quarters, purslane, sweet potato leaves, and New Zealand spinach, because those are the plants that are doing best in our summer heat. Gather about a pound of assorted greens. If you are using store bought, a mixture of Swiss chard or Tuscan kale and spinach will work well. I avoid the baby spinach that comes in cello bags. It doesn’t have enough flavor for use as a cooked green. If you enjoy bitter greens you can add several dandelion leaves (I am referring to the store bought kind, not the wild kind, which are too bitter to use at this time of year.) Or you can add a small bunch of watercress to add a little bit of snap. But don’t worry too much about this, because the seasonings will add the extra kick as long as the greens are good.

1 pound of mixed greens

One Shallot

Two cloves of garlic, fairly large

1/4 cup of olive oil

10 to 12 kalameta olives, finely chopped

2 tablespoons capers, preferably salt packed, washed of salt and soaked in cold water for an hour

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

Bring a pot of water to a boil, add the greens, and cook uncovered for one minute, just until they are thoroughly wilted. Drain and press out any excess moisture. Turn them out on the chopping board and chop them thoroughly in both directions, so that you retain some texture (you don’t want a paste) but all stems and leaf ribs are cut up into small pieces.

Chop the garlic and shallot quite finely over medium heat in the olive oil until cooked through but not brown. Add the chopped olives and the capers, either chopped or whole as you prefer. Sauté for a few minutes, then add the chopped greens, the red pepper, and a little salt. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until the greens are tender. Taste, season with salt and pepper as needed, and spread thickly on toasted or grilled bread. Top with some grated Parmesan cheese and a handful of toasted pine nuts.

Many variations are possible, and I seldom make this dish the same way twice. I may add several cloves of confited garlic instead of two cloves of fresh for a deep mellow flavor. A mashed filet of anchovy or a dash of colatura added at the saute’ stage give an especially rich flavor- this is very close to the Wolfert original. A generous spoonful of roasted tomato sauce added toward the beginning is a nice touch. A half teaspoon of Spanish smoked paprika, Pimenton de la Vera, gives a faint smoky edge as if you had cooked it over a wood fire.  A good sprinkling of fresh thyme or chopped oregano or marjoram leaves over the top just before serving gives a lovely whiff of its Mediterranean origin.  A poached or fried egg plopped on top makes it a hearty meal. You can serve the greens at room temp on a bed of fresh ricotta, drizzled with your best olive oil, and serve the bread on the side.

I should add that, like so many other things, it seems to taste best if cooked in clay. I tend to use either an unglazed clay bean pot or a Spanish cazuela, after doing the initial blanching of the greens in an ordinary pot. A Chinese sand pot works well too. If you’re curious, do read another of Ms. Wolfert’s books, Clay Pot Cookery, which contains everything you might want to know about cooking with clay.

The Greens of Summer: greens for hot weather


From a nutritional standpoint, one of the best things that we can do for ourselves is eat leafy greens. Most people eat fewer leafy greens than they think they do. Recently my mother assured me that she ate lots of them, but when I pressed her about exactly what she ate, the only thing she could come up with was “spring mix.” Salads are nice, but they’re just the beginning of the leafy green vegetable story.

In Central New Mexico, it is easy to grow leafy greens in the spring and fall. It’s a little harder to keep a steady supply of nice tasty greens through the summer. Many greens such as collards and kale will grow through the summer but don’t taste good then. Fortunately there are a number of choices, and two of them will be with you whether you want them or not, so you might as well eat them. These are the common weeds lambs-quarters and pigweed. In my opinion only the tender tips taste really good, so I keep cutting them back to produce plenty of tips. Both are inclined to shoot out of bounds and get too big, and in that case I just pull them out and feed them to the chickens, since there will always be more young weeds coming along. Consult two good books on wild foods to help you identify them. Lambs-quarters is a mild green that can be blanched and used in any way you would use spinach. Pigweed, which is a variety of amaranth, is still fairly mild but has an earthy flavor rather like beet greens. Most kales taste too strong to me in hot weather, but Tuscan kale is pretty good in the summer, although I still like it better after the weather turns cold. Swiss chard is delicious all summer. The leaves of the common sweet potato, Ipomea batata, are a delicious and especially nutritious green vegetable relished in hot countries all over the world. As long as they get plenty of water, they thrive in our heat. All of the mallows are good heat tolerant greens. They are mild to the point of blandness and a little bit muciligenous. I use them as about 25% of greens mixtures to “smooth out” sharper greens, and as long as they are a quarter of the total mixture or a little less, they add a plush mouthfeel that makes the others taste better. . New Zealand spinach is delicious all summer as long as you keep the tips packed so that it stays bushy and tender and doesn’t go to seed.

This year I am trying some new ones. None of them are big enough to eat yet in my garden, but I mention them to get other gardeners thinking beyond the usual possibilities. Chayote, the mirliton of my Louisiana childhood, is widely grown in Mexico and the greens are used as often as the squash-like fruit. I am sprouting some to grow as greens, but they aren’t big enough to cut yet. I’ll. report on the flavor later. Quailgrass, Celosia argenta, is a heat loving green which is also very attractive. The winged bean and the cowpea are two legumes relished in Asia and Africa as leafy green vegetables, and they love heat. I am also trying Ethiopian cabbage and two fascinating tropical trees, Moringa and Chaya, which are valued as green vegetables in many parts of the world. Again, I will write a post about them when I have tasted them. If you are interested in expanding your range of possibilities I would refer you to the interesting website of ECHO; they have a display food garden in Florida where they grow many of these “alternative” possibilities and they do sell seeds for some of them. Bountiful Gardens is another good source for unusual seeds, and Baker Heirloom Seeds always has some interesting goodies to consider.

Having caught your greens, you now need to wash and cook them. Gritty greens are gruesome. My own method is to soak them in enough cold water to cover them generously for at least one hour, stir them around with my hands, lift them out of the water and discard it (put it on a garden bed, not down the drain,) rinse the bowl clean of grit and cover the greens with cold water again, stir with the hands, lift them out and discard the water again, and repeat the whole process once more. I have an 8-gallon plastic food grade bucket for this purpose, which I got at a brewing supply store. I don’t do it in the sink because then I couldn’t use the water to water the garden. Using this method, I never have any gritty particles in my greens. The initial soak seems to be important in loosening any attached dirt.

Now, on to the cooking part. My website and blogsite (click “greens” under Categories) are full of recipes for greens, but often I just blanch them until tender and serve with butter, a squeeze of fresh lemon, and a little salt and pepper. I picked up another good simple method in Hawaii, where many cooks have found that a combination of butter and a little soy sauce tastes wonderful. It doesn’t taste particularly Asian, just delicious. I like to add a little garlic to the combination. This is too simple to present as a formal recipe. Blanch 1 pound of greens until tender, drain them and press out all excess moisture, and chop them. Chop up one large or two small cloves of garlic, sauté them in 3 tablespoons of good grass-fed butter until cooked but not colored, and a tablespoon of best soy sauce, and toss with the cooked and chopped greens. Reheat briefly if necessary and serve.