Posts Tagged ‘fruit’

Food Independence Day

Gardening is a pleasure and a labor of love, and it’s also part of a bigger picture of resilience. I think about resilience a lot these days, on every level from national and international to personal. Much of the time there is little or, arguably, nothing that I can do for those larger systems, but on any average day I can attend to my own household system. I can make reasonable plans for the future and remain as flexible as possible about things that can’t be predicted.

One thing that can be predicted is aging. We can do a lot toward aging well, but *spoiler alert* we will still age. I realized this when I had a few years of orthopedic issues that made it painful to walk and impossible to dig. It made me start shifting toward a permanent mulch system in part of my yard, so that as long as I can kneel to plant and can spread some straw around, I can harvest food. I started the mulched beds by heaping animal manure and bedding a foot thick over the whole area, but this was a one-time job and the labor involved can be hired.  Straw bales can be delivered and set where you need them for a small extra fee, and spreading them is light work. Let the whole setup mellow for several months if the manure was fresh, and start planting the following spring. Straw breaks down quickly and has to be replenished a few times a year, which is great because it builds the soil and creates an incredibly active layer of worms and tiny critters of all sorts. It also holds water tenaciously, which is critically important in my desert area.

Some perennial weeds come up through thick mulch, so there is some pulling to do. In my area, silver nightshade is the chief invader. I have started letting it flower before I pull it, because bumblebees love the flowers.

Other perennial weeds are far more delightful. Common milkweed was my favorite perennial wild edible when I lived in the Northeast, and I’m creating a few patches of it here to feed us if there are years that I can’t plant annual vegetables. As the seedpods mature I’m moving them to new parts of the yard. This spring I noticed that some seedlings struggled up through thick mulch, saving me the usual labor of weeding around the tiny plants for a couple of years while they get established, so this fall I will try just “planting” seed pods here and there under mulch to see if I can start new clumps that way. Once well established a clump of milkweed takes care of itself, and it’s pretty hard for other weeds to get a foothold. The delicious shoots emerge late in the spring, so be careful not to dig them up by mistake  when the early-spring digging fervor hits you.

Nettles are a perennial vegetable that I have yapped on and on about until there’s little left to say. So all I will add here is: site them where you can control them and not get stung, cook them in spring when young and tender, whack the plants back aggressively to keep them in place, and harvest more shoots later on. I freeze the young leaves in large quantities to eat all year.

I’m always experimenting with things that may save work later on. I don’t eat potatoes very often but do like a few treats of new potatoes in season. I’m trying out the Chinese yam or cinnamon vine, a robust perennial vine that has sprays of cinnamon-scented flowers and then, on established vines, a large crop of tiny bulbils borne from the leaf joints that are said to taste like new potatoes. My vine is three years old and hasn’t formed any bulbils yet but I am hopeful that next year will be the year. The vine also forms a huge underground tuber that I can dig up and eat if I ever get that hungry. I understand that it tastes good, but digging is no longer my favorite thing.

Old established hops vines produce huge quantities of edible and delicious shoots in spring. They are much less work than asparagus, which tends to need a lot of weeding, but they are big heavy vines that want to romp away 20’ high if they get a chance, and require a really sturdy fence. I don’t brew beer anymore because we no longer drink much of it, but if you brew, there’s another clear advantage to growing them.

A deep permanent mulch creates a living and lively ecosystem and you can watch its capacities change over the years. I’ve tried for years to grow blackberries, but in my very alkaline clay in broiling sun they were a no-go. Now, in mulch with some shade, they are thriving.

European elderberries, Sambucus nigra, are another desired plant that I was never able to grow until the mulch provided a more hospitable habitat.

My fruit trees appreciate the even moisture under a deep mulch. In our hottest summer so far, after our driest winter in memory, my apricot tree was loaded. I had to fight my local squirrel family for them but I don’t mind a little healthy competition. I made Indian pickles out of some of the unripe fruit, rather like the ones made from green mangoes, and they were good enough that I wish I had made more. I also roasted a lot of apricots for use in savory dishes. They are very delicious in this form, and freeze pretty well. Below, they harmonize with roast chicken in saffron cream sauce.

My old friend lambs-quarters is still everywhere. There is no leafy green that’s any better or any easier to grow or any more nutritious. I wish that some ambitious breeder would get to work on it and create a form that held longer without shooting to seed, but it’s just fine as it is. It can be seen somewhere in nearly every photo taken on my place, and is my living daily assurance that I’ll never starve. If I can’t grow anything else, I’ll rake the mulch off a patch of earth, add some water, and reap the resulting harvest.

Perennial onions are another food that will never desert me. In fact, I’m having to weed some out to make room for other things. Besides the usual ways to use scallions, they are awfully good sliced finely, stewed in butter with some salt until they sweeten, and eaten as a vegetable.

Animals can add greatly to your resilience and they help “close the loop” in keeping nutrients on your property. It’s amazing how much garden waste and food scraps they will eat and relish, and their manure passes on the left-overs to your plants in a form that they can use. If legal in your area, a rooster increases resilience by making it possible for you to grow your own chicks if you ever really have to, or want to.

I am no survivalist and don’t want anything to happen to society. We need each other. But if our current overly lavish food supply should be threatened, the ability to grow something to eat might once again become a necessary skill. And even with every grocery store crammed with food, growing your own is satisfying on a far deeper level than shopping.

A happy and healthy Independence Day to all.

 

 

 

Wax Currants

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I have written before about clove currants and how I finally learned to leave them on the bush until they sweeten. Right now I’m enjoying wax currants, Ribies cereum. They thrive in the Southwest and don’t require much supplemental water. They are extremely pretty. And oh, they are delicious. From the hard green phase they first turn waxy yellow. At this stage they’re very tart and make a wonderful substitute for lemon juice, with a special tang of their own. A handful tossed over grilled fish or seafood is decorative as well as tasty. Then they get smaller and turn red, and are a sweet, spicy, sprightly fruit for snacking.

I would happily eat them by the bowlful, but here’s the issue: like all our native currants, they are very tedious to pick and clean. Each currant has a “tail” of withered flower that has to be pulled off, and the currant itself has to be pulled off the stem, and it all takes time, especially given the very small size of the fruit. I have read another forager’s suggestion to just leave the tails on, and have tried it, and all I can say is that it’s a lot like adding a handful of very short threads to your bowl of fruit. Tailing them is worth the trouble, to have this fruit at its very best. But most of us have jobs and families, and little time to sit around meditatively topping and tailing currants.

My bushes are young and only one of them is in fruit, so ecstatic snacking in the garden uses them up. But when I have more available, I speculate that juicing them would produce a gorgeous and delicious juice and eliminate the tedium of tailing them. The juice would also be very interesting as a cooking medium. I recall a dish I used to make ( back when I lived where I could get passion flowers to grow,) which involved cooking passion fruit juice with lemon grass and coconut milk, seasoning with salt and pepper, and dropping seared scallops onto a pool of the resulting sauce. The same sauce made with wax currant juice should be just as delicious and even prettier.

The bushes are large, 6-7 feet tall and nearly as wide when mature, and are healthy and not subject to any pests or diseases that I have noticed. They are attractive enough at any time, but when sunlit and covered with their sparkling carnelian fruit, they are beautiful.

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Winter pleasures: pomegranates


Pomegranates are a common landscape plant in our area, although our recent cold winters have culled them pretty heavily. A little further south, they can be found naturalized by roadsides. They are ripe in early winter, and there are lots of ways to use them in cooking, but I also like them as juice. The juice is tannic, and in my view needs softening, so I drink it in orange juice, using one medium-sized pomegranate for every two or three oranges. I cut the pomegranates in half and juice them in the orange squeezer, but if you don’t have one, you can hold each cut half over a bowl and squeeze the inside with a large rounded spoon to extract the lovely crimson juice. Salute the season, and enjoy. After starting a winter morning with this lovely toast, you can complete the evening with a pomegranate margarita if you feel so inclined.

Cooking in Clay: cazuela apple crisp


In my new home my apple trees are infants about five feet high, but the day will come when I’m eating apples from my own trees, all heirlooms chosen for superb flavor. In the meantime the farmers’ markets are full of apples, and in a moment of impulse I bought an enormous bag of Winesaps. After eating all that I could fresh, I indulged my passion for fruit crisps. Desserts are seldom justifiable on purely nutritional grounds, but this one is a lot healthier than most, particularly because the peel is left on the apples. Try it. As long as you follow the directions, the peel won’t bother you a bit, and it adds fiber and antioxidants and saves time. Use organic, unwaxed apples. Ask to taste them first, because any apple is affected by its immediate conditions and the season. Don’t ever bother cooking with an insipid or mealy apple. Your time and effort will not be rewarded.

I strongly advise cooking in a clay pan for best flavor. I keep a 10″ Spanish cazuela from The Spanish Table in Santa Fe, and find that it’s the most used pan in my kitchen, because I can use it on the stovetop or in the oven. I strongly advise reading Paula Wolfert’s “Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking” for the ins and outs of using clay pots. Season the cazuela according to the directions that come with it, and follow the temperature and timing directions below closely. This dessert takes a few hours to make, but 90% or more of the time is unattended oven-cooking time, so you’ll get a lot of other things done at the same time.

The whole beauty of this dessert is the pure flavor of the slow-cooked, semicaramelized apples, made a little richer by the vanilla. I definitely don’t recommend adding spices.
You will need:
a seasoned 10″ cazuela
Fruit layer:
8 large flavorful apples such as Winesap or Granny Smith, each at least 3″ in diameter, or a dozen or more smaller apples
juice of half a small lemon
1/2 cup (or more) light agave nectar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons vanilla
a pinch of salt
Crisp layer:
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup unbleached flour
1/2 cup sugar
8 tablespoons good grass-fed butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
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Wash, halve, and core the apples, then slice into very thin slices lengthwise. Aim for slices 1/8″ thick, but if a few are a little thicker it won’t matter much. A food processor or mandoline is helpful, but I just use a good sharp knife. Don’t leave any really thick slices in, because the peels will be tough in the finished dessert, while very thin slices of peel become unnoticeable during the long slow cooking. In a large bowl, toss the apple slices with the cornstarch, lemon juice, agave nectar, vanilla, and salt. Pile them into the cazuela. They will probably have to be stacked up a little inn order to fit. Don’t worry, they cook down a lot. Pop the cazuela in the oven, set it for 300 degrees, and bake about 90 minutes. Stir once or twice during that time. If the apples seem to be browning on the bottom, turn the oven down some and stir a little more frequently.

To make the topping, combine the oats, flour, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Cut the cold butter in chunks, then work it into the mixture with your fingers, making sure that it is “smooshed” well into the dry ingredients and no large chunks remain. Toss in the vanilla with a fork, then check the baking apples. After about 90 minutes they should be well cooked down. Pile the crumble mixture on top, return to the slow oven, and bake another hour. At that point you can turn up the heat to brown the top a little, or turn on the broiler for a minute or two, but don’t let it get darker than medium gold and watch carefully to avoid burning. Remove from the oven, let cool a little, and serve with vanilla ice cream on top, or cool it completely to rewarm at another time. It keeps at least a few days.

The desert is not terribly sweet, and I love it that way. If you prefer, you can add a little more sweetener to both the apple mixture and the topping. This topping is very crumbly and crispy. If you want something more like a cake topping, you can add an egg and a little milk and a pinch of baking powder to the dry mixture, but keep it on the dry clumpy side and don’t stir it too much, or you’ll develop the gluten in the flour and make it tough. This version doesn’t reheat nearly as well as the crumbly version.
Viva Fall! I love summer and hate to see it go, but the end of the harvest season has its own pleasures. Besides, it inspires me to dig more planting holes for more apple trees next spring.

The Joys of Summer: fruit crumbles

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The stands at the farmers’ markets are full of fruit right now, and after you’ve eaten all that you can eat raw, it’s fun to make a special dessert here and there. This one is delicious, healthy as desserts go, and nearly as easy as eating the fruit raw.
Currently I’m experimenting with chia seeds in cooking and have found that, unlike many whole grains, they can actually taste good in desserts. I use them lightly toasted, and they add a pleasant nutty flavor as well as an extra nutritional punch to many dishes. Please see the end of this post for directions on toasting them.
This crumble is good with nearly any fruit. Apples, berries of all kinds, plums (especially the dry-fleshed prune plums that are showing up in the farmers’ markets right now)and figs are all successful. Click the link below the next photo to get the recipe. This photo shows a hot serving hidden under organic vanilla ice cream. After all, summer doesn’t last forever.
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Clich here for the recipe Continue reading