Posts Tagged ‘celery’

A Wild Tangle

Back when I first became interested in the Cretan diet, somewhere I read a saying that I cannot remember accurately but that went something like this: “better my own greens and olives than foreign  sugar doled out to me by others.”  From a health standpoint, certainly, better any greens than any sugar, no matter where it came from.  So after the broccoli under frost blankets in my garden beds finally gave in, having produced most of the winter, I pulled out the broccoli plants for the goat and chickens  and left all the weedy little seedlings under the blankets to grow into salad greens.  In addition to real weeds like wild lettuce and arugula and sow thistle, which sow themselves all over the place at my house,  there are some greens like chickweed which are very weedy in other parts of the country, but which I actually had to start from purchased seed because they don’t grow around here.  Another treat that I am really enjoying in salads right now is celery micro greens, of which I have a large cluster simply because I forgot to cut down one of last year‘s celery plants before it went to seed. Now, tender 4 inch high celery has formed a dense patch over a foot in diameter, and it is very delicious in salad. With a wide enough assortment of wild and semiwild greens and herbs, a simple vinaigrette is all you need to have a great salad or side dish. Add some meat, eggs, or cheese and you have a meal.

I did make sure to have one established dandelion plant under frost blankets, but it is not doing any better than the ones in the open. Dandelions absolutely resist being civilized, and they do not adapt to us. They just keep doing their own gloriously wild thing.  Dandelions also resist selective breeding. I have bought expensive packets of seed that purported to produce larger, thicker-leaved, more delicious dandelions, and they are exactly like all the other dandelions around. This year, in some fit of madness, I spent €24 ordering two packets of highly specialized dandelion seed from France, despite the fact that I know perfectly well they will come out exactly like the common yard dandelion.

Early spring is the perfect time to learn to do a little foraging, if that is not already one of your hobbies. I would suggest starting out with the wonderful book from John Kallas, Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food From Dirt to Plate.  Most of the plants that Dr. Kallas describes will be found in your area, because they are common and  ubiquitous, and he will  teach you to identify like an expert and then get you doing delicious things with them.

Just recently, over maybe the last six months, I have noticed that any post I write that is tagged as having anything to do with wild lettuce gets an astounding amount of attention.  I wish that somebody could explain this to me. Because I have been foraging and eating this plant for a good 20 years, and  despite some strange Internet rumors I feel that I can definitively say as follows: it will not relieve pain. It will not cure insomnia. It will not get you high. I wish I understood where these ideas came from, because they certainly did not come from anybody with a knowledge of foraging wild plants.  Really, if your goal is to get high, please leave the wild lettuce for those of us who just like to eat greens.

My 200th post: Celery, Nose to Tail

My WordPress dashboard brought to my attention that I have been yapping endlessly about home food production for 199 posts. Naturally, I decided to make my 200th post about a green vegetable, the very thing that I am forever droning on about.
I never tried growing celery because I never ate that much of it. I crunched an occasional stalk, and as a homegrown Louisiana cook I cooked it in the mirepoix that begins so many Cajun dishes, but a bunch a year pretty much met my needs. Then last spring I noticed that a supplier had celery plants at the same time that I noticed I had a bed about to be empty. So I ordered a dozen plants as a lark.
As it turns out, celery is highly versatile in the kitchen as well as easy to grow. It needs your best soil and some elbow room, and here in the desert it has to be watered regularly. Given those conditions it will grow into a wonderful mound of greens.
For general snacking, stalks can be harvested as soon as they’re big enough. Break or cut near the base, but don’t damage the plant. The stalks are a little less tender than grocery store celery, and also a lot less watery and have a full delicious flavor of their own. I snacked away about four of my twelve plants and had eight big plants left by fall. After several frosts when the rest of the garden was over, the celery was green and robust and I finally got around to harvesting it. I never blanched the plants. Blanching produces lighter, yellower, and more tender stalks, but it is also a fair amount of trouble and I am as lazy a gardener as there is.
I cleaned the stalks thoroughly and cut them in 1/2″ cross sections and sautéed them in batches in very good olive oil. I thoroughly enjoyed eating them as a green vegetable, with salt and bits of fried guanciale on top. I froze a lot in vacuum-sealed bags to eat this way and to use in mirepoix and soup all winter.
I was left with a counter full of the upper halves of the plants, all thin stalks and dark green leaves. I sorted out the pale self-blanched leaves in the middle, ate some dipped in olive oil as a cook’s treat, and refrigerated the rest for use in salads.
I was left with heaps of dark leaves like the ones toward the top of the picture above. I am not one to waste leafy greens, so I cut them in the same half inch cross sections, leaves and all, and sautéed them in olive oil until cooked. I put a bit of the cooked tops in a skillet with more olive oil and added a chopped clove of garlic, some salt, several chopped black oil-cured olives, and a squeeze of lemon to make a Horta of pure celery leaves. I ate it with crumbled feta and greatly enjoyed it, but have to say that this is a bitter green and probably only real greens-lovers will enjoy it. But when I made a horta with celery tops as about a quarter of the total greens and used milder greens to make up the bulk, I was surprised how much the bitter leaves added to the savory nature of the dish.
I sealed and froze the rest of the cooked tops and am using them with my frozen lambsquarters and amaranth to make horta that meets with general approval. I think that a bit of the pure celery-top horta would be good as a sort of herb salad next to roast duck to cut the richness, but I haven’t tried it yet.
I want to say once again, when cooking leafy greens, don’t be afraid to cook them. I often find the stronger greens tough and revolting when lightly cooked but delicious with 10 or 15 more minutes on the stove. As long as you are sautéing there is minimal nutritional loss. The thing I no longer ever do is blanch them and toss out the blanching water. If a sauté method isn’t appropriate, I blanch in a very small amount of water with frequent stirring, sort of half-steaming in effect, and drink the bit of water after it’s been drained off and cooled.

Just as a point of interest, a phytochemical found in celery called luteolin is being studied for neuroprotective effects. If true, one more reason to eat your celery, and your green veggies generally. You can find an abstract here.

2015: Things That Worked

The long nights this time  of year are perfectly suited for curling up with seed and nursery catalogs, the most exquisite pornography available  and about as realistic as most pornography.  It’s also the time of year when I look back over what worked and what didn’t during the growing season.  So here are some things that worked, and some things that didn’t. Your mileage may vary.

Silene, also known as bladder campion, always works. It is a common weed in many places, but not in my area, so I had to seek out seed and get it started. Treat it as a perennial and give it a spot where it can establish itself. The flavor of the young leaves is a very muted version of green peas, and the young stocks are tender. It is not exciting in flavor, nor is it a specially productive, but it is wonderfully available in latest fall and earliest spring, when little else is still thriving. It loses most of its volume when cooked, and I mostly use it in salads.
Sour cherries worked. My dwarf tree is five years old now and bearing nice crops. From that one small tree I made several cobblers and a full half-gallon of cherry liqueur. The tree also adds to quality-of-life, because in summer sunlight when hung with its hundreds of bright enameled fruits, it is beautiful enough to take your breath away.
All the lettuces from Wild Garden Seeds worked. Their devotion to trialing their own crops really shows. Every lettuce variety and all the mixtures that I have tried from them have been wonderfully successful. Choose the size and color of lettuce that you want, and they will have something to suit your conditions.
Grafted eggplants worked. The grafted tomatoes grew beautifully but so do my other tomatoes. The grafted eggplants, however, bore more fruit than ungrafted by a large margin. I consider them Roth the expense and I’ll be planting them again.
I put in some celery plants as a lark, and I’ll be planting more next year. They need the richest soil you have and some extra water, but they are sturdy and offer delicious crunching and cooking when the rest of the garden is going to sleep for the winter.
Goji berries worked. They need some extra water but not a lot, and the berries are pleasant out of hand and in salads. They offer maximum antioxidants for minimum carbohydrates.
Rattlesnake beans worked. They are hard to stop. The pods have a very good flavor if picked young but do need stringing, no matter what the seed catalog says. They get quite tough as they age, so pick them over every day or two.

Every year I try some new things, and some work out and some don’t. In most cases a failure only means that you’re out a few dollars’ worth of seeds, so garden boldly.

The Greens of Spring: cutting celery and lovage

Cutting celery is one of the most underutilized herbs that I know of. It has the flavor of stalk celery without its potential aggression, and can be used in almost any herb mixture. It grows like a weed and can be snipped at for nine months of the year. It seeds itself like a weed, too, so once your clump is established, keep cutting it back to prevent seeding. Throw a few stalks in the pot every time you make broth or stock, chiffonade it into rice or bulgar pilafs, throw a chopped handful into nearly any mixed greens dish. It seems to support the other flavors without taking over.
Lovage, shown below, is another matter. It grows best in semi-shade in our sunny climate. It’s loaded with quercetin and other antioxidants and has a fascinating celery-juniper flavor, , and I wouldn’t be without it, but the flavor is insidious and can dominate a dish. A few leaves are plenty for most dishes and a leaf or two chiffonaded into a vinaigrette will give it more complexity. More will unbalance the flavors, at least to my palate. My favorite way to use it is in Lovage Pesto, where it is used lavishly but the garlic keeps the lovage under control. Lovage will shoot to seed and die if you let it, so keep cutting if you want to keep it. Also, bear in mind that the plant gets pretty big, and site it where it can have a couple of square feet to itself when it matures.

Lovage Pesto
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
About 6 cups of lovage leaves, no stems, loosely packed
1and ½ cups full-flavored olive oil
1 cup walnut pieces
1½ teaspoons sea salt

For this recipe, the food processor is okay. Chop the garlic in your food processor, then add the lovage leaves and half the oil and process until the leaves are coarsely chopped. Add the salt, the rest of the oil, and the walnuts, and process only until the nuts are coarsely ground. Let mellow for an hour before use. It can be tossed with pasta and parmesan like other pestos, or makes a good marinade for fish (add a squeeze of lemon if you wish.) It can be brought to the table with roast lamb as a sauce to dip into sparingly. A spoonful is a good addition to a simple vinaigrette. Tightly covered, it will keep about 2 weeks in the refrigerator.
For more on herbs, visit the “recipes” page of my website and click on “herbs.”
Lovage in early spring. It gets three times this size in a couple of months.