Posts Tagged ‘leafy green vegetables’

Using What You Have IV: Your Friendly Local Weeds

I have written a lot about foraging at various times in the past, but it occurs to me that there was never a better time to bring it up again. And if you are not willing to commit the time to learning foraging in general, then learn two weeds: amaranth and lambs quarters. These two are worldwide and ubiquitous, mild-flavored and easy to use, and in warm weather they are nearly always somewhere nearby.
The botanical  names are Chenopodium berlandieri for lambsquarters and Amaranthus (various species) for amaranth. You can see them above coming up in a pot near my porch, lambsquarters toward the top of the photo and amaranth further down, and they come up everywhere that I water a piece of soil. They both get huge but are best when young and tender, and both are available from May to August. Both have mild flavor and are a reasonable substitute for spinach. Both are nutritional powerhouses. And both need to be carefully identified if you aren’t familiar with them, as does any unfamiliar food.

This is the book I recommend as your first foraging book, because the plants are widely available, Dr. Kallas is an acknowledged authority, and the information on identification is impeccable. Get your IDs down cold. Not because there are any poisonous look-alikes, but because it’s the right way to approach foraging. The book also contains excellent information on kitchen preparation and cooking.

Now that you know exactly what plants you are dealing with, how do you want to prepare them? The possibilities draw from all the cuisines of the world. I love greens as a simple stirfry with some ginger and oyster sauce to be eaten with rice or by itself, and I make gallons of the Greek mixture called Horta, flavored with garlic, herbs,  and black olives, to keep in the refrigerator or freezer and eat by itself on a piece of sourdough bread or baked into a quiche or hortapita, or any other way. Horta also makes a great base to land some fried or hard boiled eggs on, and is a good side dish for nearly anything. Smoked pork has a magical affinity with greens, and some ham trimmings or meat pulled from a leftover smoked rib is a great addition to greens sautéed with onion and garlic.  Rick Bayless has published some tasty variations on a theme of greens tacos (here’s just one) and he uses chard or spinach but using your own weeds is an easy substitution. Combinations of greens and beans or chickpeas are classic. Pile seasoned horta into salted zucchini shells with some feta or Parmesan and a topping of pine nuts and bake until done, serving with or without seasoned tomato sauce. Or click the “greens” heading in the sidebar of this blog for more greens talk and recipes.

When I gather a bunch of greens I try to wash them immediately and, if possible, blanch them briefly or stir-fry in neutral oil just until wilted down, so that they use minimal refrigerator space and are ready to use in seconds when a quick meal is needed.
Be aware that both these plants can get enormous, up to ten feet in good soil, so grab them young if you want to grow anything else in that space.

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.

Food Diatribe I

I grow some winter vegetables under frost blankets so the growing season is never completely over for me, but it is certainly a lot slower than it was a couple of months ago, and I have some time in the evening to read and even, occasionally, to think. One of the things that I think about most is the future of agriculture and American health. I am hardly indifferent to the health of other countries, but I like to start at home, and the fact is that by many parameters we have worse health outcomes than most first-world countries and many third-world countries. I have put a few references below, but the short version is that you name the health parameter, from overall longevity to infant mortality to rates of cardiac death to obesity and diabetes, and we’re not doing well. I will only be addressing factors that have some well-established link to diet and therefore to agriculture.

This is the article that provoked this post:

Why Small Local Organic Farms Aren’t the Key to Fixing Our Food System

This article is an example of the stuff going around in the popular press right now, because a great way to get clicks is to attack the current mantra whatever it is, and “organic and local” is the current food mantra.  And I believe that this article is partially correct: the production of grain, legumes, etc. does benefit from some economies of scale because of the land and equipment involved, and even raising grassfed large livestock requires a lot of grass and, therefore, a lot of land.

This is where I disagree:  the article does not address the fact that what small local organic farms are producing, mostly produce and small livestock, is exactly what most of us would benefit from eating more of, and the environment would be better off if we did.  I believe that in many ways American agricultural thinking is still stuck in the old model of maximum calories per acre, even though nobody would ever talk about it that way anymore.  Corn, for instance, can produce a huge number of calories per acre, and therefore a huge amount of food, most of it not good for us. The only reason to grow so damn much corn is to produce a huge number of calories. So I invite you to just look around you, and figure out how many people of your acquaintance or visible in any public place are suffering from a calorie deficiency.  I am not talking here about nutrient deficiencies, but about simple calorie deficiencies. Calorie deficiencies  exist in America, definitely, but they are not common. I follow a lot of lifespan, healthspan, and mindspan research,  and much of it looks at what has nourished healthy populations, not for a part of one lifetime, but for generations and even millennia.  Vegetables keep emerging as a theme. One of the things that I think could benefit every single American without necessarily changing anything about cooking techniques,  overall diet, specialty ingredients, etc. is simply to think in terms of removing half of what is on an average plate and replacing it with more vegetables. Not the starchy sweet ones but the real ones, especially leafy greens. Nobody is in a better position to help you with that than your local small farmer.

Another issue arises when it comes to the question of how your local small farmer can make a living, because the organic local produce that he or she produces clearly has to be more expensive than most other factory-farmed produce, so that farmers can stay in business. So how can low-income people with  little ability to spend flexibly make better food choices? I think this might be the place to use government subsidies creatively. Right now, subsidies make it possible for Big Ag farmers to make a profit producing huge amounts of GMO corn that go into feeding animals in unhealthy ways and making corn-based sweeteners that make us fat and sick. If, instead, farmers were subsidized for things like employing local labor and using good employment and environmental practices, this would be the beginning of a solution. With topsoil erosion a huge agricultural problem and steadily worsening, subsidizing the farmers who don’t contribute to it could make a real difference.  If low income consumers were also subsidized for using local farm resources, say for example foodstamp dollars would buy one dollar at a grocery store but two dollars at a farmers’ market, it would become more possible for low income people to eat high quality produce. And yes, I would advocate taking away the subsidies that make GMO corn profitable. Cheap beef is sick beef, and cheap sweetener is the basis of an obese society. It is unclear to me why taxpayers should pay for the privilege of making people and animals fatter and sicker. Some people don’t believe in any subsidies at all, but if we’re going to have them, I’m in favor of using them for long-term improved health of soil, animals, and people.

I can’t resist adding (because, after all, it’s what this blog is about) that if you have just a little bit of land, you are in a good position to help yourself.  Put in a vegetable garden and plant a few fruit trees,  or identify fruit trees in other places that you can harvest from (many people don’t want the fruit from their trees or get a lot more fruit than they can use,) and you are in an excellent position to make a salutary change in your diet at minimal expense.

WHO stats of life expectancy by country:


We are 31st per 2015 statistics. Really.  And remember the China and its administrative region Hong Kong do not participate in the world health organization and are not in their statistics, but both have significantly greater longevity on average than America. So if they were added in, we would drop further.

Stats of rate of cardiac-related death by country:

In cardiac death rates we look okay at first, down at number 107 among countries for which stats are available, but then you notice the long list of countries, including some third-world nations, that have lower rates than we do. You may also notice that France, Italy, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and most first-world countries generally are doing a good bit better than we are, with notably lower rates of cardiac death. It is very legitimate to ask what we need to do better.

Prevalence of diabetes by country:

Here, too, we look okay at first, down at 42nd place in percentage of people age 20-79 diagnosed with diabetes. But then notice Spain down at 89th place, Canada at 95th, Norway at 130th, France at 143rd, the UK at 152nd,  and in fact all developed and many undeveloped nations showing diabetes rates well below ours, and it is imperative to ask how we can do better.

A Grand Mess of Greens


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.

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.