Posts Tagged ‘nettles’

The Fall Summation IV: Perennials

I am beginning to plan for those future years  when digging in the garden is not such a pleasure. For that matter, there are already days when digging feels less like a hobby, pleasure, and form of worship and more like a chore, and so I am trying to have patches of perennials around that would carry me through a time when I did not feel able to dig.  I am also trying to create deep mulched beds that would make it possible to grow annuals with less work, but more about that in another post.

Some of the perennials that I have experimented with:

Stinging nettles are a real success. They have to be sited in a place where people and animals do not have to be exposed to them and get stung, but once established the only care they need is some water in my desert area, and cutting back in the winter so that the spring greens can be easily harvested. From now on, I will also cut back the withered stalks at the peak of late summer heat, so that when new shoots come up in the fall they can be gathered without much trouble.  They are delicious when cooked, and there is no more nutritious green, so I am even thinking of starting a second patch in another out-of-the-way corner of the yard. I have written about their kitchen uses in a number of past posts,  and I guess all I will say here about their flavor is that it is mild but somehow more intensely green than almost anything else that I’ve tasted.  They have to be handled cautiously and with gloves to avoid stings, but I have read with fascination that some people believe in putting the raw greens into smoothies, and apparently they are edible raw in that form. There are also contests in some places in Europe in which raw nettles are eaten in large quantities. Bizarre, but then, people are. Suit yourself.

Scorzonera  is a favorite of mine for its delicious stalks topped with tightly packed flower buds, and I have also learned to appreciate the leaves as a substantial but mild flavored addition to salads. It produces a small but useful second crop of leaves in late fall.   It tolerates drought  exceptionally well once established. I will be planting a lot more of this one. Be aware that I am talking about Scorzonera hispanica. There are other members of genus Scorzonera that have thready and insubstantial leaves. I don’t find the root to be worth the trouble of digging it up, and I leave it in the ground to make more leaves and stalks year after year with no labor on my part.

Salsify  produces long thin leaves which, in the spring, are tender and reasonably tasty.  The buds are probably the best part of the plant, although they are tiny and you would need a fair sized patch to have enough to be worth eating.  I have planted a new larger patch of it because I read somewhere that the long thin early spring leaves, when blanched for just a minute in boiling water, make a kind of “vegetable spaghetti“ that some people enjoy. I haven’t had a chance to try this yet but it would be a useful addition to my low-carb diet, which is “deficient “ in things to toss with butter and good Parmesan. Salsify  is often grown for the roots, but I find the root fairly bland and not that interesting. I would certainly eat it if I were hungry, though.

Asparagus  is one of my favorite vegetables, and this coming spring I will be planting more of the purple kind, which I find most delicious.  There is just nothing better. If only it were available in the garden for more of the year, I might not bother to grow anything else.

Turkish Rocket  makes delicious buds when harvested at exactly the right phase, with a bitter-nutty flavor very much like broccoli rabe. The season for it is short but pleasurable. I have never found any culinary use for the leaves or older buds.

Sorrel  makes one of my favorite simple sauces when chiffonaded and stewed briefly in butter with a little salt. Salmon was born to be grilled and eaten with sorrel butter. In addition to a healthy large clump of spring leaves, it makes another, even better clump in late fall. Very deserving of garden space. Above, you see the chiffonaded leaves used raw in salmon salad. It takes a surprising amount to make a good flavor impression, so think of sorrel as an ingredient, not a seasoning.

Hops  were planted all along my fences back when I used to brew beer. I don’t brew very  much anymore, but hops shoots are a lovely wild-bitter tasty treat that I look forward to every spring.  I am convinced that fancy preparation is a bad idea. Just rinse them, chop a bunch of them in 1 inch lengths, and fry quickly in olive oil with a generous pinch of salt. Nothing else. Be sure to let them form some browned crispy areas so they can taste their best.

Mulberry  can be kept tightly pruned or coppiced for an excellent harvest of small tender young leaves and shootsat the twig tips.  Don’t try the leathery older leaves, and stems should be tender enough to easily nip off with your thumbnail. It matters which mulberry you get, since some have perfectly good leaves and some are awful. I surreptitiously tasted at the organic nursery where I bought mine, to get leaves that had no unusual toughness or off flavors.  Mulberries have a good amount of resveratrol, but I have no idea about the resveratrol content of the leaves. I would guess, however, that it’s probably in there.  Once you have a mulberry tree you have it forever, and the only problem is keeping it pruned tightly enough that you can reach the leaf tips.  I recently learned from Samuel Thayer‘s newest book that the flowers can also be eaten in salads. I will be trying this next spring.  If you have a yard goat, goats adore mulberry branches above almost anything else, and will happily eat up your prunings. There are some wild food books  that claim that the leaves are hallucinogenic, and others that say the leaves are not hallucinogenic but the water in which they are cooked is. I call nonsense on all of this. Young tender mulberry leaves are one of my favorite greens, and I eat a lot of them, and drink the water that they were cooked in, and nothing remotely interesting has ever happened as a result.  Mulberry leaf tea is also widely used in Asian and given to children and old people, with absolutely no concerns.  I don’t know where this stuff comes from.  I am happy to say that Samuel Thayer, a profound expert on wild foods if ever there was one, talks about culinary  use of the leaves and does not mention this at all. A tightly pruned or coppiced mulberry can be kept in any front yard, since if you keep cutting it back it doesn’t bloom, and after the first few years  will provide a  surprising amount of greens.

Linden  is in all the permaculture books as a tree with edible leaves that can be used in salads or cooked. I have two small Linden trees, and I love the scent when they bloom, but to my taste the leaves are a little bit bland and I prefer good Mulberry leaves.  Still, they make a nice substantial addition to a salad with a good flavorful dressing, and are tenderest and best when gathered just as they emerge from their bracts.

To my immense pleasure, I find that I have more perennial veggies of interest than I thought I had, so I will put the rest in a second post.

 

 

Fall and Winter Leaves II: Nettles

Nettles are one of my favorite greens, and one of the most nutritious plants around, so treating them with the respect and care that helps you avoid stings is definitely worth the trouble. I have a thriving nettle patch in a corner of my yard that I don’t routinely have to visit, so I have always harvested the new greens in the spring and then assiduously ignored the nettle patch for the rest of the year.  This is partly because I get interested in other things, but mostly because as a child, when I first started foraging to the intense dismay of my parents, my mother wisely bought me a set of Euell Gibbons books so that I would not poison myself.  Mr. Gibbons wrote eulogistically about nettles, but cautioned his readers that after the spring flush they develop oxalate crystals and are gritty and inedible.  I believed every word he wrote, and so I never tried them after they were about a foot high.

Here in the desert, in the unwatered spot where they have to live in my yard, nettles die back beginning in July, and the stems look dead by September.  But this year we got an uncharacteristic long heavy rainstorm in late September, and to my surprise the dead nettle stems began to leaf out again.  This week I noticed a mat of fresh nettle leaves, and told myself that no doubt they would be gritty, exactly as Euell had predicted.  But I did gather a couple of quarts (using leather gloves) of nettle sprigs and tried cooking them. They were exactly as verdant tasting as the spring greens, and neither gritty nor tough.  Now that I know this, I will try to remember to cut my nettle patch back when it dies in the hottest late summer weather, and begin to water in September so that the late fall shoots will be easier to pick.

Cooked greens in the refrigerator are an appetizing snack or light meal waiting to happen.  Today I didn’t particularly feel like eating a heavy lunch, but I did want something, and I wanted it to be healthy. I had a cup of blanched nettle greens hanging out in the refrigerator, and half a cup or so of leftover cooked cauliflower rice, so I grabbed two large scallions out of the walking onion patch and picked three large carrot leaves off the last remaining carrots.  The garlic that I planted in late summer is sprouting, so I picked one stalk that was about 6 inches high  to use as green garlic.  The fresh green stuff was chopped and sautéed in butter until cooked through, then the cooked noodles and cook cauliflower rice were added along with about 2 cups of canned chicken broth and half a cup of heavy cream.  You could certainly leave this as a chunky soup, but I decided that I wanted a cream soup, and put the little potful in my Vitamix blender. About a minute later, it was completely creamy and thickened. I poured it back in the cooking pan, added a little water to thin it to a good consistency, simmered for 10 minutes, salted to taste, and ate it with a spoon full of drained yogurt on top to supply a subtle acidic element.  The entire process, including grab in the green stuff from the yard, took about 15 minutes. This is a pretty small time investment for something as absurdly healthy as nettle soup.

Needless to say, vary to suit your own taste. Cooked cauliflower is a surprisingly good creamy thickening agent, and if you are vegan you could use olive oil for the initial sauté  and vegetable broth for the cooking liquid, and leave the cream out or substitute nut milk. It could be finished with a few drops of lemon juice instead of drained yogurt. Vegetarians can change the broth and leave everything else the same. As written it is a delicately flavored and very comforting soup, perfect for days when fate is being unkind, but if you want something more emphatic  you can start playing with herbs.  If you don’t happen to have a nettle patch, use some other leafy green. Have fun in your kitchen and make the result work for you.  My mother objects to my greens soups on the undeniable grounds that they are green, but if you have a prejudice against the color green in food I do hope that you will get over it, because it is the marker for some of the healthiest food that you can possibly eat.

And by the way, Euell Gibbons wasn’t right about everything, but his foraging books are still well worth reading for their palpable joy in the outdoors.  In one plant essay he says that wild foods are his way of taking communion with nature and the Author of nature, and I think this sums it up.

Perennial Saag Paneer


Yesterday I wrote about making Paneer with my grass-fed goat milk. Today I’ll talk about making saag paneer, one of my favorite dishes, and for a permaculture twist I’ll make it with perennials as much as possible. If you don’t have a weed patch, you can use a bunch of spinach. You will also need fresh ginger, cumin seeds, garam masala, heavy cream, and butter.
Assuming that you have the paneer, the next step is to catch your greens and alliums. I used equal parts each of nettles and bladder campion, and 4 stalks each of green garlic and perennial Welsh onions. The nettles and bladder campion were blanched for about 90 seconds so that the nettles could be handled easily, then drained, pressed, and chopped. The alliums were cleaned, trimmed, and sliced in 1/4″ cross section.

When ready to cook, heat a nonstick skillet, cut the paneer in 1″ cubes and salt it, and fry in mild oil of your choice (I like Macadamia nut oil) until browned. Set aside.


Chop a piece of fresh ginger about an inch square finely, and have ready a teaspoon of whole cumin seed and a heaping teaspoon of garam masala.
Heat a saucepan, put in a couple of tablespoons of mild oil, and fry the cumin seeds briefly until they darken a couple of shades. Immediately add the chopped ginger, stirfry furiously until it is cooked but not browned, and add the chopped alliums and lower the heat to medium-low. Add a half teaspoon of salt and sauté the alliums until they are softened, lowering the heat if necessary to keep them from burning. Add the garam masala, cook another minute or two, and add the cream. Add the blanched chopped greens and cook over low heat until they are thoroughly cooked, probably about another 10 minutes. Put the paneer cubes on top, pushing them into the greens mixture a bit, and cook over low heat until they are heated through. Serve with rice or, if you are a low carb eater, gloriously naked on the plate. Drizzle some melted butter or ghee over the top.

I was taught to make this dish a few decades ago by an Indian woman in Manhattan, and I am pretty flexible about the greens used as long as they’re mild. No bitter green has a place in this dish. The green garlic and onions are great in season, but chopped garlic and onion are traditional.  I’m very rigid about the seasoning, though. Sometimes I add a chopped hot pepper but that’s my only variation. The whole cumin seeds fried quickly in hot oil are not negotiable, and burning or scorching any of the seasonings or alliums  means you need to start over, so work carefully.

Late in the Garden Year

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Here in central New Mexico our garden year is slowly drawing to a close and the first frosts have blasted the tenderest plants but the days are still warm and lovely.  I have been out in the woods gathering wildlings but they are shutting down for the year. So it’s a good time to start summing up the season.  I hope to write in more detail about all these things over the winter, but life being the uncertain business that it is, might as well get started now.

First, beauty. In October, the tender tropical pineapple sage covers itself with red flower spikes and is one of the loveliest sights the garden can offer at this season, so every spring I buy a plant and stick it in somewhere. It makes a good last hurrah for the bees. I make tea from it occasionally during the summer and I’m experimenting right now with tincturing the leaves to make a cordial. More on that later.

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This is chard’s second-best season.  In late spring and summer there are other  greens that I prefer, so I plant my chard in June and in October it is covered with lush green leaves and ready to harvest, when most other greens have given up.   Then I leave the plants in place over the winter and in the spring they send out a burst of leaves that are thick, meaty, tender, and utterly delicious. Remember to harvest the spring leaves before the central stalk starts to form, because as soon as the plant begins to shoot to seed, the leaves become dirty-tasting.  Pick all the fall leaves that you want, since this does not seem to affect the ability of the plant to live through the winter. Blanch some for winter greens if you don’t already have enough in the freezer.

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All my garden fruits except the quinces are finished for the year, but rose hips are easily found. I am  busy making extracts and cordials from them as a source of vitamin C, flavonoids, and pleasure over the winter.

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The perennialized section of elephant garlic is making clusters of thin tender leaves that are delicious  snipped up for garlicky chives.  I don’t care for the bulbs, and think that the greens are the best part of this leek relative,  so I cut all that the plants will produce as I need them.  The thin chive like greens shown here come from the tiny bulbils that are found around the outside of the bulbs. I plant them in handfuls to get a thick growth of greens as shown here.

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Those last green tomatoes make a wonderful sweet tangy chutney.

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I have a clump of perennialized chicory,  and it languishes in hot weather but produces a vigorous crop of deep greens in the fall.  The lower half of the leaf is mostly stalk, so I tend to cut off the upper halves for cooking. Chicory is a bitter green, much like dandelion.  It responds wonderfully to sautéing  with bacon or pancetta, garlic, and some red chili if you like it. It is also very good for adding savor to mixed greens that include blander species such as chard.

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Kale is at its best this time of year, and becomes more tender and sweet after a few frosts. The Tuscan kale will winterkill sooner than the others, so eat it first.  In climates with snow cover, curly kale will last throughout the winter, but in our very dry and windy winters with very little snow it seldom survives in any sort of edible condition.  Covering it with a frost blanket might well preserve it, but is more trouble than I really care to go to.  There are plenty of other things to eat.

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Celery and leeks need to be kept well supplied with water, and will still be fresh and good in the first week or two of November.  I usually buy leek plants in the spring, and none of the hardiest varieties are available as plants. There are very hardy varieties that will hold perfectly in the ground over winter, but to have them you have to remember to plant the seeds in midwinter, and I always forget.  Maybe this year I’ll remember.

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Now we come to the perennial weed patch.  Nobody who lives or gardens in the east will ever believe how much trouble I have taken to get burdock, milkweed, nettles, pokeweed, plantain, and scorzonera to grow in my area.  Burdock provides a good root in the fall from first year plants, makes large coarse leaves that my goat adores, and produces a flower stalk that is supposed to be the best part of the plant for edible purposes. I only got it to germinate this year, so I have not tried the stalks yet, but will be digging my first roots soon. Some people say the leaves and leaf stems are edible, but they are so stringy in texture and coarse in flavor that I’ve never been that desperate for something to eat.

The plantain is the Rugels variety which is rumored to be less stringy and have a better flavor than common plantain. I haven’t tasted it yet but will report back.

Milkweed can be eaten in many ways in many seasons.  As far as I know, our desert native milkweeds are largely inedible, but I have finally gotten the common milkweed to germinate and grow strongly. So next spring I hope to have edible shoots, buds, and pods. Read master forager Samuel Thayer’s books for excellent sections on the uses of milkweeds.

Pokeweed can be a giant nuisance but the spring greens have a great savor.  Or at least that’s what I remember, although I haven’t tasted them for 25 years and couldn’t swear to it.  If you decide to try them, remember that  only the young shoots about 6 inches high are edible and boiling in two changes of water is not optional. It is necessary to remove toxins. I hope to harvest my first shoots next spring.

Nettles and dock are two superb spring greens that seldom occur wild in my area, but grow very nicely in my weed patch.  They provide some of the earliest and most nutritious greens of the spring, and in late fall they produce some new greens that are well worth having at that season.  Every year I swear that I will remember to cut down the nettle patch in late summer so that the new greens can grow up unobstructed, and every year I forget and have to harvest the new greens with elbow length grilling gloves. But they are worth it.  Try to keep the nettles separate from the other plants, or you will have a tough time harvesting everything around them. The sting is pretty fierce.

I give my weed patch a periodic shallow mulch with mixed alfalfa and goat manure. They might grow well enough with no attention to fertility, but if you want your produce to be as nutritious as possible, the soil needs feeding.

If you wonder why it is worth having a weed patch, remember that these are some of nature’s wonder plants, among the most nutritious greens in the world. In addition, they taste really good.   Also, with perennials, once established the only work you have every year is harvesting and cooking them.  Once adapted to an area, they are unlikely ever to desert you. Permaculture also avoids soil disturbance. These plants are not classically attractive and need an inconspicuous spot, but they have a superbly healthy rough-and-ready vigor that is bracing even if it isn’t beautiful.

 

A Glory of Greens, and notes on Turkish greens soup

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There is nothing more vibrant than a garden full of greens in the spring, all growing like mad, offering you a million healthy possibilities. During the two unfortunate years that I couldn’t garden, I did at least rogue out all the weeds that weren’t edible, and now nearly everything that sprouts in my beds is delicious, whether I planted them intentionally or not. And everybody, every one of us, would do well to eat more greens. Our health would improve and we would feel so damn good. Remember, the REAL Mediterranean diet, the one that was originally studied on Crete and that produced a long-lived and healthy population, was based on a huge variety of cultivated and wild greens.

Today I noticed nettles, spinach, and lambs-quarters that needed to be harvested pronto. I also had lively green garlic ready to harvest. I picked a three-gallon pail to the brim, but loosely filled as I threw the bounty in, not packed down. I washed them ( it goes without saying that when nettles are in the mixture, you use gloves whenever handling them and stir in the washing water with a big wooden spoon, not your hand,) and decided to make a Turkish greens soup for dinner.
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This is a soup that I have been making variations of since a lovely trip to Turkey nearly thirty years ago. It is based roughly on a soup that my guide described his wife making, but it’s interpreted by me and changes every time I make it, so I don’t vouch for its authenticity. This time it was a thick velouté; other times it’s a rough potage, and sometimes it resembles gumbo z’heirbes. So here’s how this one happened:
Prepare and wash three gallons, loosely packed, of assorted greens. No bland store-bought baby spinach! If you don’t have a garden, consider chard, adult spinach, and Tuscan kale, one bunch each.
Pull a quart of good rich chicken stock out of the freezer (it is in there, isn’t it?)or procure a quart of good chicken stock from somewhere.
Set the chicken stock to melting over medium heat in a gallon pot.
Chop three large stalks of green garlic, stems, leaves, and all, and sauté them in a quarter cup or so of excellent olive oil in a sauté pan. OR use a small onion and two cloves of garlic, chopped, for the sauté step. Make sure they are cooked through, and soft but not colored, before proceeding.
When the garlic mixture is ready and the stock is boiling, begin adding the greens to the stock, stirring, and remembering not to touch those nettles. Boil for about a minute after the last of the greens is added. Now add the garlic mixture to the soup pot and simmer for five minutes.
Now purée with a stick blender. Add salt to taste (I think it needs to be on the salty side)and add a teaspoon of Urfa pepper flakes, Aleppo pepper flakes, or mild red pepper flakes. I like a bit of oregano and thyme. Taste and correct the seasoning carefully.
Mix some full-fat Greek yogurt with salt to taste and have it ready.
Put six egg yolks in a bowl, whisk them up, and slowly add a cup of the hot soup, whisking furiously all the time. Slowly pour the egg mixture into the soup over lowest heat, and whisk another minute or two until it’s lightly thickened and smooth.
Serve into bowls, pile a half cup of salted yogurt in each bowl, drizzle lavishly with your best olive oil, and sprinkle heavily with more Urfa or red pepper flakes. Eat, and flourish.
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Filling the Hunger Gap

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Our recent sunny warm days have brought the happy little Crysanthus crocuses up, and when they bloom I know that I’ve survived another winter and we are well on toward spring. But we are still in the time of year called the “hunger gap,” when in leaner times you would have eaten most of your preserved and stored food and fresh food would be a distant memory. In those days, just about the time that scurvy threatened, there would be a precious few fresh foods that would come through for you. I am no longer that interested in eating preserved foods, so the fresh greens of the hunger gap are increasingly important to me.
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Stinging nettles are not just a fresh green in earliest spring, they are a nutritional powerhouse. Vitality and well-being seem to course through your body as you eat them. Also, they’re delicious. They don’t occur naturally in Albuquerque, and I had to buy plants in order to have them, but I have two nice patches now. They need some water and mulch in our desert area, but given those they spread rapidly, so be ready to control them by digging out excess roots when they spread too far. They sting fiercely at any age, so don’t plant them near paths and have good heavy leather gloves (they sting right through fabric) ready for harvesting. Pick any time after they reach about 5-6 inches high, harvesting the top 2 or 3 inches. You will have about a month to harvest before they get tough, gritty, and nasty. Keep your gloves on while you wash them and drop them into boiling water. Once blanched for 1-2 minutes, their spines are softened and their venom is broken down, and you can treat them like spinach or any other mild green. I love them in omelets or just blanched and chopped with some butter and cream. Be aware that the raw nettles can sting animals as well as people, and severe allergic reactions to the sting are possible, so please do site them responsibly.
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Bladder campion is another weed that doesn’t occur naturally in central New Mexico. I bought seeds from an herb supplier. Sprinkle them in a place that you can keep watered in late winter. In hot sunny areas they will appreciate a little shade. They will be scant and spindly the first year, and there won’t be anything to harvest. The second year you can pinch off the tips when they are 6-8 inches tall to add to salads, and by the third year you should get enough to cook. They are among the tenderest and mildest of wild greens, and I prefer them in salads, but a quick sauté in a little good butter is nice too.
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Tronchuda is not a weed, but a Portuguese kale with a cabbagey but mild flavor and enough vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to make you crow. I bought my seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery a couple of years ago, and am selecting the ones that live through the winter for my Hunger Gap crop. You plant them in the spring, harvest the huge leaves for greens in summer and fall ( my chickens appreciate them too), and then leave the stem and the tuft of leaves at the top over the winter. They won’t survive if you don’t leave some leaves on. Those that survive will begin to leaf out again in February and provide you with thick, substantial leaves for stir-fries and cooking by early March. They are biennial and begin to shoot to flower by late March, and you can harvest the buds as a broccoli-like vegetable. Do bear in mind that if you want to save seed, you have to leave plenty of clusters to go to flower. Bees love the flowers and they are a nice early source of nectar. Collect the seed, dry them, and start the cycle over again.