Posts Tagged ‘Horta’

A Grand Mess of Greens

image

I love the various vegetables that the seasons offer me, and for the most part prefer to eat what my environment is offering me fresh that day. I do freeze greens mixtures, though, so that I never run short and have them all winter. Recently I came across a forager’s description of his “56 species calzone” and it made me want to count up the number of species in the large batch of cooked seasoned greens for the freezer  that I’m working on today.

The main components: chard, dock, lambs-quarters, spinach, nettles

Seasonings and minor components: mulberry leaves, hops shoots, lettuce ( about to bolt,) dandelion,  scorzonera, salsify, sunflower, green onion, young leeks, elephant garlic, corn poppies, young grape leaves, marjoram, mint, fennel, mustard, cattail shoots, pea vines, broccoli leaves,  arugula, sow thistle, wild lettuce

Sauteed separately and added: chopped broccoli stems, grape leaves, green garlic

So, 30 species, a thoroughly respectable count for an average early summer morning,  and a potential treasure on winter days when I need to be flooded with the antioxidants of summer. In general I blanch the bulk greens in a fairly small amount of water which I later drink or make soup from, saute the chopped alliums and seasonings, then combine all and saute together for five-ten minutes or until the flavors have blended.
image
image

The true Cretan diet, the one that nourished some of the healthiest and longest-lived people in the world, was based on huge numbers of wild mountainside greens. It’s said that over 300 edible greens grow on Crete, and the average citizen can recognize over a hundred, making my 30 seem limited. But be assured that if you can learn to recognize ten of your local edible weeds and know when to harvest them and how to prepare them, your health and table will improve.  I’ve been tracking the preferences of a vegetable-despising friend, and he will eat greens, sometimes even second helpings, if they don’t look like greens on the plate. An example is the horta egg cake that I make often. He will even eat plain greens if they have a sweet component and a bit of texture, and an easy way to provide this is to douse them in the Quasi-Korean Sauce that I always have in the refrigerator and put a handful of roasted peanuts on top. If you eat bread, toasted sourdough bread crumbs provide delicious crunch on greens sautéed with garlic and chile flakes.
Be aware that greens have a remarkable capacity to absorb and mute flavors, and may need more seasoning than you think. Salt seems to disappear into them, and enough seasoning may be key to getting your loved ones to eat them and even like them. So keep tasting and adjusting until the flavor is right.
If you want to learn to identify some wild greens, gather them at the right stage, and cook them well, there is no better foraging author than John Kallas.

My 200th post: Celery, Nose to Tail

image
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.
image
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.
image
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.
image
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.

The Eggplant Chronicles II: cooking eggplant

image
Like most Louisiana natives I love eggplant, and I have fervent opinions about how it should be prepared for cooking. For any application in which it is to be sautéed, I believe that it must be salted and drained first. This is not to get out bitterness, as some cookbooks say; a well-grown eggplant of a good variety doesn’t have bitterness. The disgorging process gives the eggplant a better texture, almost silky, and in my view is not optional.
For this dish, I cut an enormous yet still young Black King eggplant into thick meaty slices about half an inch thick. I salted them liberally on both sides in the morning, stuck them in a bag in the refrigerator, and in the evening laid them out in a single layer on half of a clean towel and pushed down hard on the slices with the other half of the towel, pressing out as much liquid as possible. Now sauté them in olive oil over medium-high heat, laying them out on a baking sheet as they finish cooking, and making sure to cook them until they can easily be penetrated with a fork. Meanwhile, decide what you want to put on them. I had some horta (cooked greens mixture) made according to the description in my amaranth post, liberally flavored with garlic, fennel fronds, and salt-cured olives, and decided to use that. Other possibilities include leftover cut-up meat or chicken with herbs, scrambled eggs highly seasoned with herbs, tomato sauce, or whatever. I mixed the horta with crumbled feta for a little pizazz. Top with cheese ( I used an artisanal cheese similar to Parmesan) and pop in a 425 degree oven for 25 minutes or so. Pull them out, top with pine nuts or your own favorite nuts and a lavish sprinkle of Maras pepper flakes or other good red pepper flakes, and put back in the oven for a minute or two. I added some roasted onion halves on the side. Serve. Eat.
This sort of dish screams for a good smooth red wine and has to be eaten with a carefree attitude. Laissez les bon temps roulez, after all.
image

image

Integrating Your Weeds II: Amaranth

image
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.
image
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.
image
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.
DSCN0988
December 2009 014
DSCN0747
DSCN0153
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.

Fennel in the Garden and Kitchen; a Nose-to-Tail Herb

image
image
Fennel carries the true taste of summer. I love fennel and always have it around, and my favorite form, the only variety that I keep these days, is the subtly metallic bronze fennel. If you want fennel bulbs you will have to grow a bulbing type, but my interest is in other parts of the plant so the bronze suits all my purposes.
The first pleasure it offers is aesthetic: this is a lovely plant to have around. The color isn’t really bronze but a soft coppery-purple, and when hung with drops from a summer rain it is nothing short of breathtaking, in a quiet way. When dry, it is furry like a cat until the stalks form, and a little later the umbels of tiny yellow-green blooms look surprisingly pretty against the darker background. It would pass muster as a front yard edible in the most exacting neighborhood.
Second, it is beautifully aromatic. I brush my hand down a frond every time I pass it to inhale the anise-y scent.
Third, it’s delicious. I can’t understand why so few people eat their bronze fennel. I admit that my main use of it is to chew up a frond while weeding or doing other garden tasks. The resiny rush is succeeded by a taste of intense sweetness and herbal licorice. I realized years ago, when going through a Greek cookbook binge, that fennel and not dill is a primary seasoning herb for horta, the greens mixture that forms a part of so many Cretan meals and snacks. A generous handful of chopped fennel fronds, sautéed with other aromatics, gives the right flavor to a batch of greens mixture. Chopped fronds are also an essential part of fish marinades and rubs, in my view, and can be delicious on chicken. A little dab of herb salad, made from chopped bronze fennel and chives or garlic chives and dressed with a very good vinaigrette, is good as a seasoning garnish alongside fish or chicken. Chopped fennel fronds are lovely in mayonnaise to sit atop grilled salmon, or yo dress cold fish salad. When grilling fish, consider putting the larger stems of fennel across the grill to make aromatic smoke. I love a small handful of chopped fronds in salads. This is a nose-to-tail herb, since besides using the leaves and stalks you can collect the pollen if you have enough plants (fennel pollen is a common aromatic seasoning in Tuscany,) and the seeds can also be collected for culinary use. One cookbook writer said that she made an anise-flavored pesto from blanched bronze fennel fronds, and that sounds delicious too, although I haven’t tried it yet. On days when I’ve worked late in the garden and the late sunset finds me hot and dirty and with a poor appetite from the heat, I can throw together smoked salmon crostinis with fennel:

Cut a few diagonal slices off a good baguette or, if you are ketogenic, cut a few thin slices of ketogenic coconut bread. Toast them, spread with green mayo Or your own favorite tarragon-seasoned mayonnaise, put on one thick or two thin slices of smoked wild-caught sockeye salmon, smear with some mascarpone or creme fraiche, and top each with a couple of generous pinches of  chopped fennel. It takes five minutes, it’s cool and soothing, and yum.

image
Incidentally, I remember reading somewhere long ago that fennel stalks coated with tallow were burned to summon good witches, and mullein stalks were used the same way to summon bad witches, unless maybe it was the other way around. So if you want to try it, you’ll need to get straight which is which. But I can say from experience that a couple of dried fennel stalks tossed on a dying fire in the fall give a lovely aromatic end to the evening that doesn’t summon anything but contentment and sleep.
image