Posts Tagged ‘greens’

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

Food Diatribe II: Leafy Green Season

Medscape just published an article worth reading. The information is from a prospective study of older adults living in the community, and showed a direct linear relationship between consuming one or two servings a day of leafy green vegetables and slower cognitive decline. In fact, eating leafy greens daily offered the cognitive equivalent of being 11 years younger.

One expert neurologist asked to comment on the findings responded with confirmation: “This study adds to the rapidly evolving and convincing evidence that you are what you eat when it comes to brain health,” Richard Isaacson, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York City, said. “From a practical clinical perspective, regular intake of green leafy vegetables should be a standard part of a risk reduction paradigm to delay cognitive decline throughout the lifespan.”

Amusingly, another expert said that it was “too soon” to recommend leafy greens, and advised waiting for further confirmation from future studies, a typical recommendation for new drugs but not typically applied to foodstuffs that healthy people have been eating for millennia. I do of course see his point, which is not to jump into thinking of leafy greens as a cure-all, but really now. So here is my response as a gardener, a doctor, and an avid reader of research: don’t wait. Some of the longest-lived and healthiest populations in the world have had  markedly high  consumption of leafy greens. There is no downside and no dangerous side effect to worry about unless you are on warfarin. So just do it. You can read the article here if you want, and it contains a link to the study. Then, just do it. Grow them if you can. If you have a small garden patch, make an investment in your family’s health by filling it with greens. If you don’t garden, you can haunt your farmers market or start making foraging trips. If you prefer to eat salad, choose darker greens, not lettuce hearts or iceberg, and eat a big bowlful.

Right now I’m still eating last fall’s leafy greens from under frost blankets. The collards and Savoy cabbage held up best, and are uniquely delicious after exposure to cold. I harvested Swiss chard for people and chickens all last summer, and then put a frost blanket over half  the row.  The new leaves of spring are the meatiest and most delicious that a chard plant ever produces, and the protected ones are nearly eating size, while the unprotected ones will come in some time next month. Just be sure to get them before the central stalk starts to elongate, because they lose their sweet meatiness and get strangely dirty-tasting when the flowering stalk starts to form. Green alliums are coming up everywhere, and my nettle patch is sprouting strongly.

If you keep animals for food, feed greens to your animals (not nettles, but chickens do love the leftover cooked ones.) I have a carnivorous friend who eats supermarket meat and insists that he’s a secondary consumer of vegetables, and I keep trying to tell him that on the contrary, he’s just a secondary consumer of GMO corn. Unless you are buying animal foods known for a fact to be grassfed or pastured and not grain-finished, you aren’t consuming the nutrients of vegetables.  But if you keep your own, it’s astounding what quantities of greens chickens will eat if they get a chance, while cattle, sheep, and goats can be raised to butterball fatness on grass and greens alone if you have enough. The nutritional profile of the eggs and meat is enhanced and the animals are much happier. I’ll have more to say about meat in the near future.

Red-cooked Winter Greens

Any regular reader of my blog knows my nutritional obsession: nobody really eats enough leafy greens, including me. But I do make regular efforts to correct this.

In my last post  I wrote about grassfed short ribs red-cooked in Chinese fashion, and tonight I wanted that soft succulent meat again  but with a strong vegetable component, not the pure meatfest that I had last time. I am also conducting an ongoing experiment to see what greens can produce in winter in my garden with no protection. This sounds simple, given that I am down in zone seven and vegetables like kale are famous for holding all winter up in zones four and five, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Our desert winters are not as cold as further north, but they are absolutely dry with no protective snow cover and have occasional windstorms that will wipe the moisture out of almost anything but a cactus. Kale is invariably withered by early December. I have been trying to breed my own desert-hardy greens but have learned this year that collards, the common green of my southern Louisiana childhood,  are remarkably cold-tolerant and resist drying out better than anything else. I picked the last plant today, and the lower leaves are a little desiccated but the whole upper half of the plant is still in excellent condition.

I still had a cup of Master Sauce left over from cooking the short ribs. This is not the very concentrated sauce  that was used to finish the ribs, but the original cooking liquid. If you don’t have any Master Sauce, combine a cup of water or preferably good broth, a full “star” of star anise, a teaspoon of five-spice powder, a smashed cloves of garlic, a tablespoon of sugar or the equivalent in artificial sweetener of your choice, and a few “coin” slices of fresh ginger. Bring  to a boil in your smallest saucepan, simmer 15 minutes, remove the solid star anise and garlic and ginger, and use. If you have a cup of this juice in a jar in your refrigerator, you are ready to red-cook veggies at any time. Just use within a week. You may like it a little more or less sweet. Suit yourself.

All I did with the collards was wash them, remove the tough center ribs, slice them about a quarter inch wide, bring the master sauce to a boil, and drop the leaves in. I would estimate that there were 8 to 10 whole leaves and maybe about 2 quarts very loosely packed when they were sliced up. This would be the equivalent of one bunch of supermarket collard greens.

Bring the Master Sauce to a boil and throw in the greens. Stir frequently and watch

I cooked over medium-high heat for a bit over fifteen minutes, stirring very frequently toward the end, until the greens were fairly soft and the liquid almost gone.  At this point they are dark and very intensely flavored and delicious. If you want them a brighter color but a little less flavorful, you can stop at the stage above, before the greens start to darken,  but be aware that they are definitely somewhat tougher  at this bright green stage.  Some people like the extra chewiness, but most do not, and often your thick-leaved winter greens will be better accepted by others if they are cooked a little more. In fact, as I keep saying, this is true of greens in general. Cook them until they taste good, and don’t stop sooner.  As long as you are using the cooking liquid, or in this case evaporating away most of it, there is little nutrient loss, and the greens will taste better so that you eat more of them, and also will probably suit your GI tract better.  In the picture below, you can see the finished dark greens underneath the short rib meat. What you can’t see is that there is quite a pile of them, and really only several bites of meat.    Add ginger and green onion relish, or not, as you choose.  But the greens are serving as the bulk of the meal, and you avoid any use of starches, and you will be full for hours and hours afterwards because of all the soluble fiber in the greens. I added a couple of roasted carrot slices for more color, and of course for flavor.

Incidentally, if any greens are left over, they are delicious the next day and can be just brought to room temperature and eaten as a sort of cooked salad.

Snacking Greens

Probably everybody has made kale chips, the delectable snack made by oiling and seasoning pieces of curly kale and baking them at 375 or 400 until they are crisp. They are delicate, and not much good for dipping in anything, but they are quite wonderful by themselves. Recently I was making a batch and began to wonder about using some of my other available greens. Ultimately I used both green and scarlet curly kale,  carrot leaves, and torn sections of collard leaf because that was what was left in the garden.  The leaves were washed, allowed to drain, and 12 mid ribs removed from the larger leaves. In the case of the small carrot leaves, the stem was snapped off just below the lowest leaflet. I drizzle them with olive oil and seasoned with salt, finally grated Parmesan, nutritional yeast flakes, and a sprinkling of roasted ground garlic. If you want an exact recipe, there are dozens on the Internet. This is something you can do in a very improvisational way as long as you don’t oversalt.

Lesson learned:  don’t put them all on the tray at the same time, no matter how pretty it looks. The three greens finished at very different times.  Collards needed the least time, and despite several experiments I never did get them quite right. They go from olive-green and ready to eat to brown and burnt-tasting  in under a minute. Also, they don’t cook very evenly despite your best efforts, so ultimately what I ended up doing was just picking out the brown leaves, which taste burnt, and throwing them away. I still think there are real possibilities here but I did not get them to work as a satisfactory chip.

The carrot leaves were astoundingly good, with a perfect delicate crunch and a mild flavor. Even the stems had a good texture, lost their toughness, and tasted just fine.  I wish I had discovered this earlier in the year when I had more carrot leaves. But this is a good reason to keep a blog, or a written record of some kind, because if you don’t you end up “discovering” the same things every few years.  I am recording it so that I won’t have to discover this again. It’s a handy thing to know if you buy carrots with the leaves on. Remove the leaves as soon as possible before storing in the refrigerator, because they seem to go limp more quickly if still attached to the roots.

Curly kale was delicious, as it always is when baked this way.  I just love the stuff, and have no idea how large a bowl of kale chips I could eat, but I guarantee that it would be a big one.  If you live in a snowy climate, it is very likely that you can keep curly kale in good shape through much of the winner in your garden. Here in the high desert it does not get all that cold but we don’t have any snow cover and we have a lot of drying winds,  so by this time of year the curly kale that is growing uncovered looks pretty tattered. Also, for reasons I don’t know, there is an invasion of aphids in early December, and they are hard to wash off. But this year I did plant a row of curly kale and put frost blankets over it in early November, and that row is looking great and has no aphids.  So I have at least a few more batches of homegrown kale chips coming.

Incidentally, if you are cooking a meal and have the oven at 375 or so for something else, a few kale leaves out of the garden in a little pan make a great cook’s treat to tide you over until the meal is ready.

Glories of Spring, and a Green Gadget

Spring in the garden is so beautiful that there is nothing you can do but admit to the cosmos that you could never have deserved this rush of glory but somehow received it anyway. The season conduces to a stance of awestruck gratitude. This is also the great season for salads, and on an average day my salad bowl contains somewhere between 12 and 20 species.  I don’t know how I managed to miss the existence of the Bluapple, a wonderful little device that absorbs ethylene gases and helps your salad greens stay fresher longer.  Two of these little devices and a year’s supply of refills come in under $20, a bargain when you consider how often it will save you from throwing away your salad materials.  Personally I always want to eat my salad greens within a few days of picking, but with this in my salad crisper, they are beautifully vibrant at the three day point, much as if I had just picked them out of the garden.  This is significant for working people because washing and drying salad greens takes time, and if you could do it a day or two ahead of time without loss of quality, you will definitely eat more salads.