Posts Tagged ‘salad’

Food for Thought: A Cookbook for Cooking and for Thinking

I have been  vegetable gardening all of my adult life, and own several shelves full of vegetable cookbooks, and I have a very high bar when it comes to buying new ones.  Actually, that’s not true. I buy new ones in a fairly promiscuous fashion because that is my addiction, but I have a very high bar indeed for recommending that other people spend their hard-earned money on them.

So  here’s what I have to say about  Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables by Joshua McFadden: go buy it.  Now. Read it. Think about it.  It really will bring you to think in a new way about how to handle familiar vegetables.  Take salads, for instance. I like salads well enough but am almost never really excited by them.  They always seem a little predictable to me, and just throwing some meat, cheese, or eggy thing of some kind on top does not make them interesting in my view. McFadden’s  way of putting a substantial “pad” of seasoned nut butter sauce, savory seasoned whipped cream, whipped seasoned ricotta cheese, or other interesting  possibilities underneath the salad does make them seem new and like a real meal that I am happy to eat.

As good as the recipes are, I put this one in the “thinking cookbook” category,  i.e. an idea-rich cookbook that will affect the food you put on the table whether you were actually following a recipe from the cookbook or not.  Take the salad shown above, for example.  I had a lot of lettuce in the garden, including some dark red lettuce that still looked beautiful but had grown the slightest bit bitter  in hot weather.  I kept tasting bits of the leaves, thinking about what would make them taste good.  Ultimately, I whipped and seasoned some homegrown goat ricotta  with olive oil and salt, and smeared the plates with it, then arranged the red lettuce and some sweet green lettuce on top.  Then I put some of the ricotta mixture in the blender with an egg yolk and two cloves of roasted garlic, blended in more olive oil and some salt, and acidified it with lemon juice and white wine vinegar until it tasted just right, added some chopped marjoram because it seemed to fit in well, and used that as the dressing. I slivered shallot greens, soaked them in cold water briefly as McFadden recommends, pressed dry, and scattered them all over, and finished with warm leftover steak and bright sweet crunchy slivers of kumquat rind. The earthy rich ricotta dressing made the faintly bitter lettuce just right and complemented the steak beautifully, and dripped down to the whipped ricotta beneath to season it, while the kumquat rind added an electric zing.   Delicious and interesting to eat. It isn’t a McFadden recipe per se  but was entirely inspired by his methods and I would not have come up with it without reading his book.

The cooked vegetable recipes are very good too, as are the techniques. Just to name one, McFadden recommends grilling your vegetables “dry,” i.e. without oil, and then drizzling them with olive oil afterwards on the grounds that the burnt oil produces strange chemical flavors.   Even if you like the ones grilled in oil, I think you’ll like his method better. Try it and see.  I am also a fan of his section on pickles. These are not pickles that you can put on your shelf and keep forever. They are quick, delicate refrigerator pickles that serve as seasoning and garnish and add wonderful nuances to the flavor of vegetables.

This is a useful and excellent book at any price,  but I do wish to point out that the Kindle version is a special bargain and I highly recommend it.

Permaculture Salad, and Notes on the Siberian Elm

Spring on the urban homestead is so beautiful and bountiful that I can hardly believe it, and I spend more time than I care to admit just wandering around dazed with the wonder and joy of it all.  But there is a practical aspect to my trance, because while giving thanks to the cosmos for the life that surrounds me, I am noting what can go in the salad bowl that evening.

The salad shown above is a pretty typical urban homestead salad. It contains a handful of lettuce, some early arugula, and a lot of biennials and perennials that wintered over and got an early start.   Tiny leaves of curly kale that began to leaf out as soon as the weather got warm are good salad material, still sweet from night frosts, although I don’t like older kale in salads.  There is a little chervil because I threw the seeds around in warm spots last fall.

So here’s the species list for tonight:

Lettuce

arugula

chervil

scorzonera

salsify

wild lettuce

sow thistle

dandelion

Siberian elm samaras

Bladder campion

tarragon

mustard (one Southern Giant plant overwintered somehow)

Green perennial onions

A few further notes on the ingredients: in the past I had tried cooking scorzonera greens and thought they were fairly uninteresting, but for some reason I never tried them as salad material until this year. They are very mild in flavor and have a nice slightly substantial and tender texture, and I am using them a lot now.  They make a good base for some more flavorful greens like dandelion and mustard and arugula.  I have written in the past about how much I love the elongating flower stalks when pan grilled in olive oil, so this is a very good dual purpose vegetable. I plan to plant more of it.

In the past I have mostly used Siberian elm samaras as a “hand salad” eaten spontaneously on walks when  they presented themselves.  They are too mild to be of much interest cooked, although I do use them in greens mixtures sometimes, but I have found that I like them in salads in rather substantial amounts, probably a cup of washed samaras in a salad for two.  There is something about the texture that I enjoy, provided you pick them at the right stage, when they are about the size of a dime and the edges are still fresh green and have not yet grown at all papery.  They need a little bit of cleaning, but most of the debris can be floated off once you have broken up the clumps with your fingers, and 15 minutes of preparation is not too much for a vegetable that cost you no effort or money whatsoever in the growing.

Have a  look at what’s available to you in field and forest and in your own yard.  Learn how to make a really good vinaigrette. Use common sense, and don’t eat plants unless you are completely sure that they are edible.

The Seeds You Need

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Here in the high-desert Southwest, our cold-weather vegetables need to be planted by mid-March, and so late February is my last good chance to review my seed box and order what I need. This resulted in my sending off a frantic order for sugar snap peas. My attachment to them is strong, largely because I love English (shelling) peas but never find time to shell them. My favorite snap pea is the original Sugar Snap. This variety has some disadvantages: it climbs 5-6 feet and has to be provided with support, the pods have strings and need to be de-stringed before cooking, and it doesn’t have much in the way of disease resistance (although I have had no problems with disease.) It has a single incomparable advantage: flavor that none of the newer, neater varietals can live up to. For best flavor, the peas inside the pod have to be allowed to develop. Don’t pick them in the flat snow-pea stage. Then rinse and string the pods, which is a very quick job, and steam them to eat with butter, stir-fry with some scallion and ginger, or cook them in your own favorite way. Yum.

In my opinion they develop a soapy taste when frozen, so I don’t recommend “putting them by.” Eat mountains of the fresh article and give any extra to people you really like.
The important thing is, order those seeds now.

And don’t forget to plant extra so that you can cut pea shoots. Cut when they are 6-8 inches high, pea shoots are delicious in salads and stir-fries.

Appearing now in your salad bowl: Chickweed


Funny how things cycle. When I first learned to forage as a child, I was distressed because I couldn’t find any chickweed near my Louisiana home. Later, when I had a farm in upstate New York, I had plenty of chickweed and came to curse its abundance. Now, in the desert southwest, nature doesn’t offer any chickweed and I had to buy seeds in order to have it again.
Stellaria media, the common chickweed, is a mild and tasty wild salad green, with more nutritional value than many domesticated salad greens. I had to look hard for seed, because it tends to be assumed that everybody has it and wishes they didn’t. I finally found it at Wild Garden Seeds. It appreciates some shelter from our blazing sun, which I provided by planting it in the same row as lettuce and spinach (right in the same tiny trench) so that it could nestle under the larger leaves and stick its head up for picking. The picture above shows this. In my opinion, only the tip of each sprig is worth eating, so I cut one or two inches off each little branch and leave the rest. Eaten alone with no dressing it has a somewhat grassy flavor, but mixed with other greens it’s delicious and adds a certain airiness and lift to the texture of a mixed salad. I use it up for anywhere up to half the bulk of a salad, depending on how much of it I have available at the moment. I have often read that it can be used as a cooked green, but I don’t care for it that way- too bland- and use it only in salads. I plan to let some go to seed, and will also make another planting in the fall, because it loves cool weather.

Mild Wild Greens:the Siberian elm


There are some plants for which I have an intense and personal dislike, and the Siberian elm is close to the top of the list. It’s one of our more common trees, because it’s so highly adapted to invade and crowd out more desirable trees. The seeds come up everywhere, and their hold on life is astoundingly tenacious. Even as tiny seedlings, they have a deep root system. If you don’t get the whole thing out, they will come up from the root, they spread by root, and they produce, by scientific measure, a trillion skillion seeds per tree per season.

But this time of year, they have two good qualities. The first is that they cover their branches early in spring with bright lime green samaras, the casing within which the seed develops. They look fresh and green before anything else, which lifts my spirits toward spring. And, the samaras are edible and quite good, and available in mind-bending quantities. The samaras are round and paper-thin. Just pull them off the branches by the handful and add to salads or eat on the spot for a quick snack. Be sure to get them young, when fully expanded and a little over half an inch across but before the edges have started to dry and lose their intense greenness. Taste a few. If there is a “papery” feeling in your mouth, they’re too old. Use only those that are tender. The flavor is pleasant, mild, a little “green,” and very slightly sweet. They don’t have the texture or character to endure cooking. Just eat all you can, and if you have chickens, goats, etc., give them some too. There’s plenty.

Whenever you eat a food that is completely new to you, use good sense. Eat a little, wait a day, eat a little more only if you had no reaction to the first try. It goes without saying that you don’t put any wild plant in your mouth unless you are 100% sure what it is. For more on wild foods and foraging common sense, read anything by Samuel Thayer or John Kallas. Please don’t use my blog to identify plants, since identification is not my emphasis. You need a couple of good field guides for that. Start with Thayer’s Nature’s Garden and Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate and you may end up with an intriguing new hobby.

Addendum: when I wrote this post 6 years ago, I forgot to mention that the samaras are a great addition to spring salads, too. I had a little more to say about them this year, and you can read it here.

Spring in the food garden


I’m not a winter person, so wherever I move, I always plant a patch of the early little species crocus “Cream Beauty” in my garden. When I see the first glowing blooms, I’ve officially survived another winter.

“Cream Beauty” is also a kind of floral nag, reminding me that there’s no time to hang around luxuriating in the sunlight; I need to be prepping and planting furiously. It’s one of the ironies of garden writing that, just when you actually have something to say, you have no time in which to say it. So here are a few spring tidbits in no particular order:

Last fall I coated all my “greens” beds thickly with horse manure, and dug it in as soon as the ground thawed in early February. Fresh manure needs to go on in the fall, but you can apply well-aged manure or finished compost now. Now the beds are ready to plant, and I put in three kinds of lettuce, several types of mustard, two kinds of spinach, snap and shelling peas, and a wide assortment of chicories, both leaf and heading. It’s important to get them in early so that they don’t fry in overly hot summer sunlight. Chard, parsley, and potatoes will be planted within the next week or two. Leeks and scallions were started in seed trays last month, and the multiplier onions, garlic, and shallots planted last fall are sprouting. I planted grey shallots once and didn’t find the bulbs useful- too small and too much work to peel- but they provide generous cuttings of sharp shallot greens every spring to season salads and soups. They are like chives but with a distinctly stronger flavor.

Every year I try a few things that are completely new to me, and one of my newbies this year is bladder campion, which, according to the catalog, provides young greens that taste something like green peas. It’s a common weed in wetter parts of the country, but here it needs some shelter and encouragement. Bear in mind that many plants which need full sun elsewhere prefer some shade from our high-desert sun. If you fail the first time, as I did with bladder campion last year, try giving a little afternoon shade.

Don’t forget to plant more peas than you need so that you can cut the sweet young greens for spring stir-fries.

If you’re going to try chickens this year, build the coop and make a brooder set-up now, BEFORE you buy the adorable baby chicks. I’m going to try a few meat chickens this year, so I’m building a large open-bottom cage to keep them in. It’s my first effort at carpentry, and I don’t think that there is a perfect 90 degree angle anywhere in it, but the chickens are unlikely to care. Make your chicken construction sturdy and raccoon-proof, not beautiful.

Gardening is a natural process, with all the entropy of any other natural process. Success does not pile upon success in an automatic fashion. Our freakishly cold snap is likely to result in some garden disappointments. My artichokes all seem to be dead, a sad event because they are offshoots of the first plants I grew from seed, many years ago. But that’s a reminder that nature is under no obligation to respect our sentiments. If you are very fond of getting your own way, gardening might not be for you. Nature offers some consolations too, like the glut of big brown eggs with deep orange yolks flowing out of the henhouse. There are a million ways to enjoy them, but while I’m waiting for the spring bulbs to bloom I enjoy eating what I think of as Daffodil Salad. The name comes from the colors, which remind me of the exquisite Poet’s Narcissus. Please know your edible flowers if you use them, and remember that daffodils are NOT edible.

To make a main dish, put three eggs per person in cold water, bring to a boil, simmer 10 minutes, and cool quickly in cold water. If you have your own hens, the eggs need to be at least a week old to peel cleanly. With store eggs this is seldom a problem. The ten-minute simmer gives yolks as shown, just barely solid in the center and a rich orange. Peel the eggs and cut them in half. Put the amount of salad greens you prefer in a big bowl; I use about three good-sized single handfuls per person. Toss with the dressing below or your own favorite vinaigrette. Pile on plates, top with the egg halves, and drizzle a little more dressing over the eggs. Scatter on some thin shavings of your best Parmesan and enjoy.

Spring dressing
1 small shallot or the white part of one scallion or the white part of one stalk of green garlic
juice of one lemon
1/2 cup best olive oil
2 tablespoons roasted hazelnut oil
half a teaspoon of salt, or to taste.
fresh pepper, about 15 turns of the mill
a small handful of chopped chives or about 2 tablespoons very thinly sliced shallot greens

Chop the shallot bulb, scallion, or green garlic bulb very finely and marinate in the lemon juice for fifteen minutes, with the salt added. Don’t skip the marinating step. After fifteen minutes stir in the other ingredients, shake in a jar, taste for seasoning, and use. Any not used immediately will last a day or two in the refrigerator.

My Southeast Asian Summer: Beef salad

june 2009 011
The hotter it gets, the more interested I am in the piquant and flavorful foods of southeast Asia. Recently I picked the last of my lettuce, and an Asian-inspired meat salad seemed like an obvious choice for a summer dinner on the patio. It’s hard to give an exact nationality for this salad, since I’m obsessed with Thai and Vietnamese food and this has some elements of each.
First, grow your lettuce and herbs. I plant a little lettuce every two weeks throughout the spring, and make sure that the last few plantings are in light shade. I haven’t yet been able to pick any lettuce in July or August, but it always does well through early June. This year I did best with romaines, including a beautiful maroon one called “Marshall” which I got from Territorial Seeds. It’s disease-resistant and was the last lettuce in my garden to bolt. Of course, you can buy the lettuce if you need to. For the herbs, you need a few sprigs each of cilantro, Thai basil, lemon basil, and rau ram. If you don’t grow herbs yourself, you may be limited to Thai basil and cilantro, but the salad will still be very good.
Next, catch your beef. I’m a firm believer in grass-fed beef. It may be better for us, and beyond question it’s better for the cows. For more discussion of grass-fed and sustainable meats and more sourcesd, see my website. I buy big sirloin steaks from our local Fishhuggers at the Corrales Farmers Market on Sunday morning. A single steak will always provide the two of us with three meals, often four, and sometimes five. Grill it plainly for the first meal, and you can take it in a lot of directions after that. It has a wonderful beefy flavor, and you don’t need much to have a flavor impact, so cold grass-fed steak in your refrigerator is a meal waiting to happen.
Click here for the recipe! Continue reading