Posts Tagged ‘Fennel’

Living in Interesting Times: Tough Herbs


Joyous Ostara/Passover/Easter, happy Spring, or whatever you choose to celebrate when life is returning to the soil. “Spring is Christ, raising dead plants from their shrouds” Rumi said, and any ordinary yard shows us the truth of it.  These are strange times indeed, and the best way to keep yourself safe is to stay home. Gardeners and permaculturists are used to staying home, and have plenty to stay home for. This is the glory season for greens and herbs.

I have written before about one of my favorite plants, bronze fennel, and you can find that post here. Today I’ll just remind you that it is very ornamental most of the time and you can easily sneak it past your homeowners association if you are unlucky enough to have one. Pollinating insects adore it, and so do I. It will take two or three years to reach a good size, so start now.

in the spring I like to make herb pesto used to have on hand for all kinds of seasoning uses. Essentially, pesto involves garlic in some form, herb leaves, nuts of some kind, and olive oil. I typically add the cheese at a later stage.

Don’t make pesto just by throwing together all the herbs you have. Herbs have strong flavors, and some contemplative tasting, sniffing, and thinking is called for to make sure you have a coherent and appealing flavor picture. I made this one yesterday morning, picking the  fennel first, and decided to go with the anise flavor and chose anise hyssop and a fruity mint, a couple of stout sprigs of each, and two stalks of green garlic.

in my opinion, proper pestos are made with a mortar and pesto. Use the food processor if you must, but please, don’t even think about using the blender. Blended leaves all acquire an off, grassy taste. Wash the herbs, remove tough stems, chop the leaves coarsely, and peel the green garlic down to tender parts and finely slice it crosswise. Pound the garlic in the mortar with a good pinch of salt until it is pretty thoroughly crushed, then add the chopped leaves and pound to a chunky paste. Then add nights of your choice and decide how finally to crush them. The herbs had a Sardinian taste so I added roasted salted pistachio kernels and pounded them only until coarsely crushed. Pound in a little really good herbaceous olive oil, then stir in more oil to the consistency that you want. Check for salt.

It smelled so good that I was eager to eat some right away, so for lunch we had fresh handmade egg linguine with half the herb pesto, a couple of glugs of additional olive oil, and some top notch Parmesan. Yum. The rest of the pesto went in a jar, and later that day I stirred up some sourdough bread dough and left it to rise in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day I took the dough out of the refrigerator mid-morning and let it come to room temperature for a couple of hours. Then I patted a loaf’s worth of the dough out into a large somewhat erratic rectangle on an oiled board, smeared it thickly with the rest of the pesto, and then topped it with grated Romano. This was rolled into a long loaf and left to rise on a baking sheet, then slashed across the top, brushed with more olive oil, and baked in a preheated 425 degree oven until done. After cooling on a rack for 15 minutes, it was ready to break into beautiful fragrant chunks and eat as an Easter lunch full of the flavors of the season. Butter was excessive, but that didn’t stop us.

The amount of pesto to make is a very individual decision. The flavor of this one is subtler than it sounds, and I picked a nice sized bouquet of fennel leaves and ended up with about a cup of pesto, divided between the two dishes here.

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.

 

Fall Summation IV part 2: Further Perennials

In my last post, I started to sum up a few perennial edibles around my yard, and found that there are actually a lot more of them then I realized. So here’s part two.

Bladder campion, Silene vulgaris, is always my first green of spring and my last green of fall. It is better cooked than raw in my opinion, but some leaves in a mixed salad will certainly not hurt anything and have a pleasant substantial texture. I had to buy seed of this one to get it started, and it was a couple of years before it really begin to grow well, but now I have enough to need to weed out some. It has never been a problem weed or gotten out of control under my conditions. It seeds itself around a bit, but not unreasonably.

Curled dock is a common weed that most people could not imagine planting on purpose, but in my area it grows mostly along the irrigation ditches, which are also frequented by dogs. So to have a good clean supply, I do grow some in my weed patch. The slightly lemony greens are very good in mixed greens but rapidly get bitter as the weather warms. Get them early. And then get them again late, because like so many perennials, they produce a smaller but useful second crop of leaves in late fall.  This one does seed it self around like crazy, and every single seed seems to be viable, so do be careful to cut off the flower stalks early unless you want a lot more plants. There is a great deal written about the culinary uses of the seeds. I don’t care for them at all, but you can read about this elsewhere if you are interested.  Some people also use the roots medicinally, and that also could be researched elsewhere.

Bronze fennel is a lovely ornamental as well as a delicious seasoning herb and vegetable. I find the flavor a little more pronounced and anisey than that of green fennel. It’s also prettier. In Samuel Thayer‘s newest book, Incredible Wild Edibles, there is a wonderful chapter on how to use fennel.  My very favorite part is the young shoot, and so far I have not been able to induce my plants to make tender shoots in the fall, but I’m still trying. The leaves are a wonderful seasoning for fish and seafood, and are great chopped and sprinkled lavishly over salads.

Burdock has not been a success for me so far, due to personal taste preferences. Even the youngest spring leaves taste rank and have a rough texture, the root is bland and turns an unpleasant color even when cooked with some lemon juice, and the peeled flower stalk is no more than passable to my palate. I think that the peeled stalk chunks might be tastier when cooked with stronger seasonings or perhaps grilled, and I’ll try that next year. It often happens that an edible perennial hangs around my place for years before I learn to use it in ways that I really like, so I think of burdock as a potential vegetable that I haven’t really learned about yet. I am happy enough to give it some space because my goat is crazy about the leaves and leaf stalks, but be aware that even if you think you are cutting down all the flower stalks, it ingeniously forms some tiny short ones that get past you and scatter seeds everywhere. Bees enjoy the flowers and birds enjoy the seeds, but the price of having it around is eternal vigilance and a fair amount of grunt weeding.

Dandelion is not a common weed in my area, believe it or not, and I had to buy seeds to get it started.  But I wanted it and was happy to persevere until I got some to germinate. The young leaves of dandelion have a fair amount of bitterness and might be an acquired taste, and most people start out by disliking them, then later in their foraging career begin to like them, and ultimately crave them.  I’m at the craving stage. I also enjoy using the flowers, although the bitter green sepals have to be pulled off, which is a bit tedious.  I think that the petals might be useful in fritters and similar preparations, but I haven’t done that yet.  There is always more to learn. I do like the young, tightly closed buds when I can get enough of them to bother cooking. I am not a fan of the root, and this is another plant where I leave the root in place to produce the parts that I like better.  Here in the  high desert I like to grow mine in partial shade because the leaves get more tender, less bitter, and quite a bit bigger. Incidentally, I bought some seeds called French Thick Leaf that were supposed to be very superior, and used some seeds from a northeastern person’s yard, and the plants are all pretty much identical.

Common milkweed is another weed that just does not grow in my area, although I often see it when vacationing further north in Colorado. It took me a few tries to start it from seed, and it needs winter stratification. So far I have only had a few bites each of spring shoots and buds, plus one young pod, on my plate because it’s still getting established. But it has the mild “foody” flavor that I remember, especially good with butter. The vanilla-scented flowers are wildly attractive to bees, and of course this is the food plant of the monarch butterfly. Once established, it doesn’t need too much water, but it needs a fair amount to get started. Be sure that you know how to identify it as Asclepius syraica because there are some thin-leaved toxic milkweeds, and if you are foraging it in the wild I strongly suggest reading Samuel Thayer on how to tell the young shoots from dogsbane,  which resemble them in ways but are very bitter. I hope to have a lot of it around in the future.

Pokeweed was one of my favorite wild foods when I was first getting interested in foraging. It’s a big rank plant, up to six feet high and as much across, and has to be sited accordingly. It also REQUIRES preboiling in a large volume of water, which is then thrown out, before further preparation for eating. It is toxic if not prepared properly. Please consult Samuel Thayer’s Incredible Wild Edibles before trying to eat it. Then you’ll have all the information you need to eat it safely. It doesn’t grow in the Southwest, but I finally got two plants started from seed, and hope to have more in the future. Euell Gibbons wrote about forcing pokeweed shoots in winter, and one day I may try some version of that.

Goji Shoots come up everywhere after you’ve grown goji berries for a few years. They are very tasty sautéed in butter or olive oil. To enjoy them, you have to get new shoots as shown. They should be green all over and tender enough to snap when bent. If they have anything resembling brown bark, or have to be cut, skip them. I cut my plants back in late winter and harvest some shoots in spring, and this year I cut some plants back in late fall and put frost blankets over them to see if I can get some winter shoots. I’ll report back.

Hosta shoots are a new vegetable for me, because when I moved to my current home it was a flat lot covered with tumbleweed and baked into adobe by the blazing sun. It’s only now, eight years later, that my trees are big enough to provide shade for the shade-loving hostas. I chose the biggest ones that I could find because the shoots are bigger. I have only eaten them once because my plants are young and I don’t want to weaken them. They were mild and good steamed and eaten with a soy-ginger sauce. There is nothing especially distinctive about the flavor but nothing objectionable either, and the texture is tender as long as you get them before they unfurl. They would probably be a good addition to salads if sliced, although I haven’t tried that yet. It takes a couple of years before they’re established enough to harvest, which is usual with perennials. Once established, they could be harvested for a couple of weeks in spring, then allowed to form ornamental foliage. When the leaves get ratty in late summer they could be cut back, then a few shoots harvested again as they refurbish themselves. Of note, this is an edible perennial that would pass muster with the strictest homeowners’ association so you can grow it whatever your circumstances.

Baked Feta

I love the texture that feta acquires when baked, firm and compact and steak-like and very different from its crumbly fresh incarnation,  and I love to season it with assortments of garden and wild greens gathered as the inspiration strikes.

For this infinitely adaptable recipe, you will need a quarter cup of drained capers, two cloves of garlic, a quart loosely packed of very flavorful chopped greens and herbs, plenty of extra virgin olive oil, and a block of feta sized according to your appetite. This dish can be anything from a meze to a full meal, depending on the size of the feta block. Just be sure that it’s high quality; this is a good time to check out your local Middle Eastern import store. Cut two “steaks” of the desired size, being careful not to crumble them.

Have ready olive oil, two cloves of garlic chopped, and a handful (maybe 1/4 cup) of capers, rinsed of brine and squeezed dry. An optional but very pretty addition is some red pepper, roasted, peeled, and chopped, or some red chiles roasted, peeled, and sliced.

Next, choose your greens. I decided that I wanted the flavor to be bright, tart, and lemony as well as herbal, so I started with 15 good-sized wine grape leaves. If you are going to use fresh grape leaves, please read my post on choosing grape leaves first, because some are unchewable and will ruin your meal.

I added dandelion leaves, the new ones that have grown after the plant bloomed, which are tender and only slightly bitter. I used about a dozen, cutting the stringy ends off as shown.

Then a double handful of mulberry shoots, using only the ones that are new, bright grass-green, and snap off easily with very little use of force.

Finally, some fennel shoots, the top of the bloomscape as shown, before the flowers emerge and open. The stalks are tender, nonwoody, and wonderfully anise flavored at this stage. Once the flowers emerge, the stems become woody.

Wash all your greens and sliver them in fine cross-section. make sure the fennel shoots are cut in fine slices less than a quarter inch thick. Preheat the oven to 350. You will start cooking on the stove, but if you use a Spanish cazuela it can go right into the oven for the second step. Heat the dish and sauté the garlic in olive oil until just cooked but not at all colored. Put in all the greens and the capers and cook, stirring frequently, until the greens are cooked and soft. Taste for salt, but salt it on the light side, since you are going to add feta.

When they just begin to fry in the oil, remove from heat and scatter the red peppers or red chiles around the edges, then put the feta “steaks” in the middle and drizzle olive oil over all.

Bake at least 15 minutes or until the herbs and peppers look all cooked together, probably about 15 minutes. The cheese might color slightly at the edges but won’t brown. If you like it to brown, run under a hot broiler for a minute, taking care not to let the greens burn. Serve with sourdough bread if you can have it, or with a salad alongside.

I am sometimes the target (quite fairly, I might add) of complaints about imprecision. “A double handful,” the precisionists cry, what on earth is that? I reply that it’s the amount you have, and if you don’t have any, you probably have something just as good. I cut my eyeteeth on Elizabeth David recipes with her terse, one-cook-to-another directions, and I hate the mindless insistence of “precisely 1/8 teaspoon” sort of directions.  “But drizzle with olive oil, how much do you mean?” Somewhere I read the story of a new wife being taught a recipe by her Greek mother-in-law, whose directions included “Then close your eyes and pour in olive oil.” That’s how much I mean.