Posts Tagged ‘permaculture’

Passing pleasures: Hops shoots

I decided to re-up this post on hops shoots without change because this is their brief season and because I still think that this is the best way to cook them.

Many years ago I planted hops vines along my fences, planning to use the flowers for brewing. Not long afterwards, I gave up beer for weighty reasons, but in my difficult climate I’m not likely to get rid of plants that grow lustily with no attention. There was also the delightful bonus of hops shoots every spring. Gather the young shoots by snapping them off at the point where they snap easily. This is usually about the terminal 6-7 inches of the vine.

When it comes to cooking them, I’m very opinionated. After trying other ways, I’m convinced that this way suits their rich-bitter flavor best. Rinse the bundle of shoots and cut them in cross section, 1.5-2 inches long. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. You don’t want to crowd the pan too much. A 12” skillet is right for one large bundle of shoots.  When the pan is hot through, add a glug of good olive oil, swirl it around, and add the shoots. Toss them around, sprinkling them with a good pinch of salt. Toss the shoots every couple of minutes.

Here’s the part that many find difficult. When they look like this, keep going. Taste them at this stage and, if you like them you can stop here, but I think that you haven’t yet tasted hops shoots at their best. Instead add a pat of butter, at least a tablespoon, and keep cooking.The butter will brown a bit and is important to the flavor.

This stage, in my opinion, is their point of perfection. They have shrunk considerably. The stems are browned in spots and many of the little leaves are brown and crisp. Taste for salt and serve. I find them delicious. They are especially good alongside ham or bacon, and I like them with fried eggs for lunch.

Hops plants are known to contain an estrogenic compound and chalcones. The latter are an interesting group of chemicals with anti-tumor properties, and you can read more about them here. What this means in practice is anybody’s guess, and my own opinion is that it means very little, since the shoots are only in season for about 3 weeks and no one person will eat enough of them to make much difference one way or another. They are a springtime gift of the earth, thrown up exuberantly in great quantities with no effort on the gardener’s part except providing them with something to climb on, and I cherish them as such.

If you plan to grow them, remember that hops are intent on world domination and need a sturdy support. Also, they spread and come up in unexpected places. This is fine with me, since I keep a very untidy yard anyway, but if you like things to stay neatly in their assigned places, the bold independent nature of hops may not be to your taste.

Glorious Greens, with Notes on Alfalfa

I once read that people who regularly ate leafy greens other than lettuce were, on average, 11 years slower to develop cognitive problems than their non-greens eating peers. This would be easy to check out in scientific literature, but I never have, for this simple reason: I prefer to believe that it’s true and don’t want to discover that it isn’t. I love greens and take it on faith that they’re a wonder-food, and what I do know for a fact is that some of the longest-lived and healthiest peoples in the world eat a lot of them. So chow down.

Most of my spring harvest comes from perennial plants. I will specifically mention scorzonera, shown above, because it is easy to start from seed, long-lived, drought resistant, the leaves are mild and acceptable to almost everyone, and the young flower stalks are another delicious food. I never see any mention of it in books about permaculture  and I will never understand that, because it is one of the most easy and useful things that I grow. In seed catalogs it is sold as a root vegetable, but to my palate the roots are pretty uninteresting and I stick to the above-ground parts.

Nettles, dock, dandelions, and others are well known perennial sources of nutritious greens in the spring. But today I want to say something about a plant that is seldom thought of as a food plant for people: alfalfa. In the picture at the top of this post, you see a huge clump of it about 18 inches across. It’s a tough drought resistant plant that is good for feeding animals,fixes nitrogen and improves soil, makes wonderful bee fodder, and grows easily from seed, so I have a lot of it around my yard. I have sometimes thrown tender tips in stirfries or put a few of them in a smoothie, but I haven’t really explored alfalfa as a human food. There are varying reports about whether it can cause any problems. My assessment after a lot of reading is that eating the seeds is a bad idea, and sprouts can be problematic, but for healthy people eating some of the greens is probably not an issue. Do your own research, and don’t trust your safety to a stranger on the Internet, ever. I don’t write about what is safe for you personally to eat, just about what I have eaten.

I wrote in a recent post about my experiments with leaf ales, and we enjoyed them so much that we regretted running out. Then it occurred to me that some of them had been made from kale, and clearly they could be made from any leafy greens that don’t have too strong a flavor (and even some that do, thanks to the magic of fermentation.) And here I am with large amounts of alfalfa, so I am experimenting with alfalfa ale. To make a 2 gallon batch I proceeded as described in the leaf ale post, using a generous gallon of loosely packed  alfalfa shoots about 6” long and 2.5 gallons of water to make the brew, and I had been given a large bag of oranges that had minor bad spots, so I used the juice from them as the acidic element. The general method was the same as in that post. It’s still in primary fermentation so I don’t have a report yet, but can say that even at the initial stage it had no strong or objectionable flavor. The orange juice wasn’t very acidic, and I had to add a tad of malic acid. I used plain table sugar as the sweetener, aiming for a finished alcohol content of 3.5-4%, meaning one pound of sugar per gallon of water. I didn’t add any flavoring to the initial cooked brew, and am going to try “dry-hopping” it in secondary fermentation with bronze fennel or a little rosemary. I’ll post results several weeks from now, but wanted to throw this idea out there to get people thinking about new ways to use spring’s abundance. If you don’t want to fool with alfalfa, what do you have a lot of in your garden? Is there some unexpected way to use it?


Semi-Permaculture Garlic

Glorious spring is here. There are no leaves on the trees yet, but the fruit trees are starting to bloom, and the perennials are starting to show up. 
Green garlic is always the first vegetable of my gardening year, and it’s one of the most welcome. I have seen “green garlic” in stores and farmers markets that was an elongated stalk with an actual bulb of garlic, and that isn’t what I’m talking about. At that age, the green parts are too tough to be of any culinary interest. The green garlic that I relish is tender and sweet. 
I grow my garlic in permanent beds that  are enriched every fall with top-dressings of manure but are no longer ever dug. There are three sections. The first and largest section is planted in fall with seed garlic of whatever type seized my fancy when the catalog arrived. The cloves are pushed down through the mulch into the rich earth below. Spacing is about 8”x8”. Once planted, the bed is topped with some mixed alfalfa and manure from the goat and chicken areas, about an inch thick, with a thin cover of grass clippings or similar over the top. By mid-March it looks like this:

This bed will be harvested as fresh bulbs in summer and replanted in fall.

The second bed, shown at the top of the post, was created by planting whole bulbs in late summer one year when I had a ridiculous excess. They were spaced 8” apart each way, and top-dressed with rich stuff as described above. In mid-March I start harvesting big luxurious bunches of green garlic from this bed. I dig each clump carefully with a thin-bladed trowel as I need it, taking care to leave one large plant with its roots undisturbed and tucking the dirt and mulch back in around it and water it to resettle the roots. This stalk will produce a garlic bulb, which will be left in place to become next spring’s clump of green garlic. There is technically a bit of digging with the trowel in this patch, which is why I call my methods semi-permaculture; I am not interested in tedious arguments about what constitutes “true” permaculture, I’m just interested in good food and good soil.

The third patch is truly perennial and the roots are never disturbed. It was started by planting a few whole bulbs of garlic in fall and just leaving them in place for a few years. Treated this way, they produce thick clumps of tender thin leaves every spring.

I cut the leaves and slice them finely crosswise to make “garlic chives,” sweet and delicious with a sublime essence of garlic. When I sauté’ chopped green garlic stems and leaves from patch #2 I often add a handful of chopped leaves from patch #3 after cooking is completed for a “pop” of garlic flavor to freshen the effect. The flavor is mild overall, and I love sautéed green garlic as an omelet filling, maybe with some crumbled feta if I’m especially hungry.

Green garlic is wonderful in early spring, tougher as the days grow warmer, and by early summer is not of culinary interest. I harvest pounds of it in its glory season, sauté in olive oil with some salt, and freeze it to eat later. It’s delicious in greens mixtures and terrific tossed with homemade egg linguine and some very good Parmesan. You can click “greens” in the sidebar for other uses, and there is a little more about it here.

I have been asked if viruses will kill my permaculture garlic beds eventually, and I really wouldn’t know. So far they’re doing fine. I guess if that happens I’ll start over in another part of the yard, but meanwhile I’ll have enjoyed years of largely effort-free harvests.

Using What You Have VIII: Permaculture Pasta

I wrote several posts ago about elm leaf pasta, and the idea of using tree leaves has continued to intrigue me. The use of trees avoids soil disturbance, adds a vertical element so that  more food can be grown in less ground space, and provides shade and nesting sites for birds as well as leafy greens. As far as which leaves to use, my usual warning applies: all decisions about your safety are up to you, and research is necessary. I choose those that have mild flavor as well as a good safety profile. Tree leaves tend to be too tough to enjoy as cooked greens, so applications like pasta where they are finely ground are the perfect way to use them. The previous post describes the proportions, but with this attempt I decided that I wanted the leaves more smoothly ground and a result more like spinach pasta. I used the same proportions: all the leaves I could tightly cram into one hand with a heaping cup of flour, and this time used half elm leaves and half young mulberry leaves. The leaves need to be cooked before being incorporated into pasta dough,because the short cooking time of fresh noodles will not adequately cook the tree leaves. The leaves were steamed for seven minutes, drained and cooled, and then the leaves and flour were put in my Vitamix blender instead of the food processor. Grinding the leaves very finely into the flour requires stopping the blender several times and stirring the jar right to the bottom with a long handled fork. But eventually the mixture is very smooth and homogenous and powdery, and can be transferred to the food processor and the necessary number of egg yolks added to form a firm but flexible dough. Let the dough rest and relax for 30 minutes, coat the ball with a little flour, and roll  into a thin pasta dough by whichever means you prefer; rolling pin (skill required,) hand-cranked machine, or for me definitely the rolling attachments for my Kitchenaid mixer. I rolled this dough thin, to produce a delicacy similar to spinach pasta. Cut into fettuccine with a roller or by hand, and freeze immediately for later use or use within a few hours.

Garlic bulbs are coming in from the garden right now, and I decided on garlic cream sauce. The flavor of the newly harvested cloves is wonderful. I peeled two cloves and sliced them into micro-thin transparent slices with my sharpest knife.They were sautéed in a small heavy saucepan with two tablespoons of butter. When cooked through but not colored at all, I added a quarter cup of good white wine and turned the heat up briefly to let the wine boil away. Then half a cup of heavy cream was added and brought to a boil. The heat was turned off and a few small sprigs of finely snipped tarragon added. I like to add an egg yolk at this point too, but make sure the saucepan has cooled down enough to prevent scrambling.Have some of the best Parmesan you can obtain, coarsely grated, and a small handful of lightly toasted pine nuts.
Drop the pasta into rapidly boiling water, and it is so thin and delicate that it will probably be done by the time the water returns to a boil. Taste to make sure, drain, sauce, toss with some of the cheese, and put the rest of the cheese and the pinenuts on top. Grate fresh pepper over the top for a touch of piquancy and serve. It’s a wonderfully comforting meal and, once you know what you’re doing and have the pasta ready, comes together in the time it takes to bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. A good handful of shelled peas or snow peas would be a lovely addition, and I wish I had thought of it at the time.

I’ve decided that my tree leaf pasta can be styled “Permaculture Pasta.” My plans for the future include making more of it to freeze, and finding out more about leaves that could be used.There is not much data around about the edibility of tree leaves, and under no circumstances should you wander around experimenting without data. In my own yard there are two trees, black locust and almond, that have toxic leaves. My beloved elderberry bushes have good fruit but poisonous leaves. You were only issued one liver, so treat it with a little care and respect. Leaves of perennial plants known to be edible are a good possibility. In my own yard, scorzonera leaves are common and abundant. Lambsquarters area natural source of greens in late spring and summer. I’m also thinking about bronze fennel, which I’ve used to wonderful effect as a pesto, and may try incorporating it into the pasta itself. Grape leaves might add an interesting slightly tart note, although you would need to remember that they turn yellow brown, not bright green, when cooked. Maybe add some lacinato  kale leaves to improve the green color? As always, the possibilities are limitless as long as you operate rationally and safely.