Posts Tagged ‘sustainable’

Nettle Ale, and notes on the Drinkmate

One of the nicest things about having an active permaculture garden is that you have strange plants around you in all phases of growth and you’re led to read and to experiment. A couple of months ago I found myself eyeing my healthy nettle patch, where the nettles were almost three feet tall and well past the greens phase, and wondering what could be done with them. I got on the Internet and came across British recipes for nettle beer. I was curious about it because the cooking water from nettles has a strong and distinctive taste that I don’t find exactly pleasant, yet people reported liking the ferment. Well, no harm in trying. I started with three gallons of water in my huge stockpot, and picked (with sturdy leather gloves) about 75 nettle tops. I also added 10 large hops leaves and 10 large Concord grape leaves on grounds that, if the brew was revolting, at least it would contain some resveratrol and chalcones. I boiled all this at a full rolling boil for fifteen minutes, and then let it cool. I fished all the plant material out with a strainer scoop, pressed all the residual juice out and returned it to the pot, and gave the pressed mass of leaves to the chickens. No sense in wasting those nutrients.
I brew by instinct and not by recipe, and I think the next step is the most important: TASTE THE COOLED JUICE AND THINK ABOUT THE FLAVOR before sweetening the liquid. The sweetness will be fermented out, so it’s important not to think of it as part of the finished flavor.  Don’t think in terms of a recipe that you’ve read. Think about what it needs to improve the flavor, and try to supply that.  This juice was not promising, with a strong nettle taste and little other flavor. It lacked any acidity so I added the juice of four oranges and one lemon, giving it a light but pleasant acidity. I decided to go with the strong herbal flavor and added a large angelica leaf and stem, which would remain in the fermenter during primary fermentation.  I also added back the squeezed rind of one of the oranges. Use organic if you do this. Next, I needed to give the yeasty beasties something to eat. I sweetened with one pound of organic sugar per gallon of water, for an eventual alcohol level of 4-5%, just above near-beer, and pitched a yeast intended for hard cider. This all went into the primary fermenter, where it bubbled merrily for a couple of weeks. When the bubbling slowed, I racked it into a clean fermentation bucket, leaving the angelica leaf and rinds behind with the sediment. I tasted  the brew at this point,  and to my surprise the distinctive nettle taste was completely gone.  I could taste the aromatics from the oranges, a slight and becoming touch of bitterness from the angelica and hops leaves,  and an overall mild herbal flavor, and while the brew  still tasted raw and unfinished, it was pleasant.  After another two weeks, it was racked into a keg and put under carbonation.   Chilled and  carbonated, it has become one of our favorite choices for a quick glass of something-or-other in the evening.  It is blessedly  low in alcohol and good with light meals like salads. It tastes best sweetened slightly with a drop or two of liquid stevia or similar added to a glassful. We like it so much that I promptly started another batch dubbed Stinger Brew II,  but this time I left out the oranges and just added the juice of one lemon to a 4 gallon batch.  When primary fermentation is finished and I rack it off for secondary fermentation, I will taste and see if it needs any more acidity, and I plan to dry hop it at this stage because my hops should be in full bloom at that point. Where Stinger I is more like a light herbal wine, Stinger II will be more like a light true ale.  If you really want it to taste like a beer rather than a wine, you could use malt syrup  or malt extract  to sweeten the juice, but I like the more winey  quality that comes from using sugar.

So, as I am always saying, embrace the experimental nature of cooking, brewing, gardening, and life.  If I did this commercially, I would have to keep very exact measurements for consistency between batches and would have to try to maintain each batch exactly like the one before, since that is what customers expect.  But my ingredients are variable, my process is variable, I am variable, and I do not want two batches that taste the same.  This is very freeing.  Liberating yourself from the tyranny  of the recipe is one of the nicest things that can happen to a cook and brewer.

Beer, wine, and mead can be carbonated by charging with some sugar, bottling in swing-cap bottles, and waiting. But there are easier and surer ways. If I want a large quantity carbonated, my husband oversees a kegerator made for refrigerating and carbonating 5 gallon kegs, and then the bubbly stuff is dispensed via a tap. It’s very handy, but needless to say, you don’t necessarily want 5 gallons of any one thing. In those cases, I use the Drinkmate. It’s a sleek carbonation device that uses smaller CO2 canisters and special bottles to carbonate a liter or less at a time in just a couple of minutes. There are a number of carbonation devices on the market, and they all work just fine for carbonating water. The Drinkmate is different because it will carbonate any liquid. Carbonated juice could be delicious if you drink juice, and it occurs to me that sparkling mint tea would be delicious in the summer.You can read more about the device here. If you want to buy one, you can get it here. Replacement CO2 cylinders are available at Bed Bath and Beyond, and empties can be traded in there for half-price new cylinders. Order a few extra bottles when you order your Drinkmate. I’ve noticed that when plain carbonated water is available in the fridge, I drink more water in total, and sparkling water is better with meals than plain water. Carbonation also brings out the flavor of water kefir, which I make in large quantities. With or without a drop of sweetener, it’s delicious.

Before and after: the first six months


Too often, when I look at my garden I concentrate on what needs to be done or what didn’t turn out as hoped. The recent intense heat spells have been hard on garden and gardener alike, and it’s easy to fall into frustrated negativity. So today, as I look out my front door at the view above, I want to remember what it looked like when we took possession of the property six months ago:

Okay, not everything prospered, but we eat a lot of vegetables from our own yard every night, birds and butterflies and skinks abound, and every now and then I see a neighbor or two hanging over the fence admiring the view. Amazing what compost and stubbornness can do.
Please, please, use the DH oil spill as an opportunity to think about some ways to reduce your own footprint. “Yard farming” is the most healthful and pleasurable way I know to do that. If you grow any food in Albuquerque, please consider registering with the “2012 gardens by 2012” project. Go to www.albuquerquebackyardfarms.com and click the “2012 Gardens” tab. Sustainablity and greater self-sufficiency are great causes.

Planning Your Garden: the Weed Patch, and more on the Peruvian Purple Potato

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while know about my interest in useful weeds, ie plants which thrive on neglect, spread rapidly, and are often overlooked, but offer good eating. Now that I’m planning a brand-new garden from scratch, I’m planning a “weed patch” as part of it. This will be out of the path of garden traffic so that I can have milk thistles and nettles, and screened from the rest of the property with a row of sunflowers so that nobody but me has to look at it much, and there all my favorite edible thugs can slug it out together. If you have room for a weed corner, you might consider some of these:

1. Stinging nettle. The nettle offers some of the best early-spring greens to be found. You can start them from seed (try Johnny’s Selected Seeds) or from plants (Richter’s is the only source that I know of.) They spread like wildfire, so underground barriers or a spot that you can mow all the way around are essential. See my post for harvesting and cooking details, and treat this plant with great respect, because the sting is pretty painful.
2. Curly Mallow. I like the leaves as part of a mix of greens, and it thrives on heat and doesn’t need too much water. I got the seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery years ago, and it’s been happily self-seeding ever since.
3. Milk thistle. THis will be a new one for me, but I’m told that the young shoots make good cooked greens when the prickles are trimmed off, so I’ll give it a try.
4. Sorrel. This might not seem like a weed, but it’s a healthy, vigorous, weedy-looking plant, so it can stay in the weed patch, out of the way. You can get seed almost anywhere, even from seed racks. It’s best to let it grow the first year, just removing flower stalks as they appear, and then start harvesting in early spring the second year.
5. Curled dock. This comon roadside weed is sour and bitter at most stages of development, but in the late fall and very early spring it’s one of the best greens around. Like its relative sorrel, it turns brownish-green when cooked, so I use it in mixtures of cooked greens rather than by itself. I don’t know of any source for the seeds. I picked mine by the roadside years ago, and this robust perennial has been with me ever since.
6. Dandelions. Like dock, they are actively distasteful most of the year, but in very early spring they offer delicious lightly bitter leaves which give a wild tang to a mixed salad or a little zip to a cooked greens mixture.

An alert reader let me know recently that the source I gave for the Peruvian Purple Potato no longer offers them. I save my own starter potatoes from year to year, but you can get the Peruvian from Ronnigers. They also have a splendid assortment of garlics, and some other plants of interest.

Tronchuda, and some thoughts on planning urban homesteads


Every year I try a few vegetables that I haven’t tried before, and for 2009 one of the clear winners was Tronchuda, a giant non-heading cabbage from Portugal. I grew only one plant, and it ultimately reached over four feet across, with leaves almost 2 feet from side to side. The leaves were pleasant to eat cooked at any point, but especially good after a few frosts. I used it in the same ways as collards or kale, and also made a soup with sauteed onions and garlic, Spanish chorizo (not the Mexican soft chorizo,) good chicken broth, salt to taste, and chopped tronchuda, all simmered together until the tronchuda tasted good. By the way, this is an overlooked method for determining when green leafies are sufficiently cooked: keep tasting them, and when they start to taste good, they’re done.
I will definitely be growing it again this year, and that’s the real test of any vegetable: is it worth the garden space? Tronchuda delivers. I’ve read that the wide white leaf ribs can be cooked as a vegetable in their own right, but I didn’t care for them and composted them instead, keeping the green parts and the narrow ribs to cook. I recommend it highly for any garden. You can get seeds at Nichols Garden Nursery, a wonderful source for all sorts of odd delights.
Our own New Mexico seed company, Gourmet Seed International, offered seeds for two of my new experiments, rampion (the famous “rapunzel” of the fairy tale) and bladder campion. I’ll keep you posted.
This is the time of year to plan your homestead garden and order what you need. I’m dealing with a brand new property with no planting in place, so I’ll be starting a new mini-orchard, and I would highly recommend dwarf fruit trees for eager would-be urban homesteaders. They produce relatively quickly, look charming, and allow harvesting with feet planted firmly on the ground.
Every yard-farm should reflect what the owner and family like to eat and drink, and with this in mind I’ve decided to plant wine grapes. It will be a few years before I’m making my own wine, but the thought of my very own mini-winery has already given me a lot of pleasure and the vines aren’t even planted yet. In anticipatory value, it’s the best garden bargain I’ve had, and this may be the most overlooked benefit of urban homesteading; you spend so many happy expectant hours. The same applies to my backyard chickens, which are not yet purchased but are already clucking quietly in the back of my mind.
By the way, if you have any interest in adding livestock to your homestead, it’s worth reading Farm City . Author Novella Carpenter created a little squatter farm in Oakland, and it isn’t what most of us would want, but her descriptions of raising and killing animals for meat are accurate and unromantic (but reverent.) If you have never harvested meat animals, this is a test. If you can’t stand to read her descriptions, you probably don’t want to go into livestock. If you do go on to raise a little of your own meat, I can guarantee that you will no longer allow meat to be wasted. Once you really understand where it comes from, waste is not an option. On the other hand, you will understand the fascinated reverence with which good farmers and hunters view meat animals.

Food Inc.

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       Recently a follower of my site asked me if I ever receive pay or free goods for recommendations that I make about products. The answer is no, never. I prefer to be able to say whatever I think, and am careful not to accept gifts or samples for this reason. I don’t recommend a product unless I have eaten it, know how it’s produced, and think it’s a good thing. I also don’t recommend anything that I didn’t pay for, because forking over the cash myself is a good reality check about perceived quality/cost ratio.

       In this case, though, I’m going to recommend a movie that I have not seen and haven’t (yet) paid for a ticket to. The movie is Food Inc., and it opens in Albuquerque on July 31st. The filmmakers are people with solid credentials in the area of sustainability, and I think it will be good. Also, attendence at this film will be scrutinized to see if there is  broad support for more sustainability and safety in our food supply.
          Here’s a little more about why I think this film will be important: the picture above was taken last week when I visited old friends of mine in Los Lunas who have a small pig operation. Everything about their place respects the needs of pigs: these pigs have lots of room to stretch out and to socialize with other pigs, walls are sturdy to keep them safe, both sun and shade are available, they have both indoor and outdoor space, and no inhumane practices like tail-docking or farrowing crates are used. The pigs have plenty of water to make the muddy wallows where they cool off on hot days, as you see above. You will not see any of this in a large commercial pig operation.
        Sure, it takes extra effort to seek out meat from farmers like this instead of buying it in plastic at the grocery store. You may need to buy a quarter or half animal at once, and the cost will probably be higher than the factory-farm price.  You will probably need to eat less meat. That’s a good thing.

        The movie Food Inc. is likely to get more people to think about these issues. That’s a good thing, too. www.foodincmovie.com
And no, I won’t be getting any free passes.

Fava Beans, and Oyster Mushrooms

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Fava beans are a chic ingredient these days, but they’re more versatile than people realize. I learned this when I came across the leaves being sold at the beautiful farmer’s market in San Francisco as a salad green. I bought some and loved them, so this year I set out to grow my own.

In February I planted eight seeds of Broad Windsor fava beans in one of my large containers, about six inches apart. All of them sprouted, and I let them grow unchecked until they were nearly a foot high. At that point, I cut two of the plants and used all their leaves for an early salad, along with some romaine lettuce. The leaves are very mild in flavor and have an appealing tender texture. They marry well with a wide variety of other salad ingredients, including the delicate ones like butter lettuce, mache, and pansy leaves. Vinaigrettes that aren’t too strong and contain a little nut oil or a light, flowery Provencal olive oil work well.

I let the remaining plants grow until they had bloomed and set small pods. At that point, I cut off 6-8 inches of the tops of those plants, above the pods, and used the leaves in salads, which did no discernible harm to the maturing pods. As soon as the pods were filled out and I could feel beans inside about half to three quarters of an inch across, I picked the pods. A traditional Italian way to eat them is by themselves, raw on the plate, with thin slivers of young pecorino. It’s very good, but I thought they were great in this mushroom pasta. It’s vegetarian but has a substantial, meaty quality, and the slight delicious bitterness of the raw young fava beans is just what’s needed to give dimension to the flavor.

During the winter I grew my own oyster mushrooms but while the farmers markets are open I get them from Exotic Edibles of Edgewood, which is a good deal easier. You can find Scott and Gail, our local mushroom mavens, at the Downtown growers’ market on Saturday mornings.
Click here for the recipe! Continue reading

The Jewels of Summer: flowers and local food

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Now that the idea of local food is popular, a backlash is detectable. I’m beginning to see comments and articles attacking the  idea of obtaining all your food locally. I’m familiar with the debate technique of building a straw man and knocking him down, so this doesn’t especially surprise me; caricaturing your opponents’ views is a way to make them seem ridiculous. All I will say in this context is that few of us obtain all our food locally, or want to. Coffee, chocolate, wine, and olive oil are among the foods that I love dearly and will happily buy from other areas. On the other hand, local fruits and vegetables are fresher and superior, and we have some truly superb grass-fed local meats available. If you aren’t ready to make a big lifestyle change, try shopping at one farmers’ market a week and cooking what you find. If you want the cooking done for you, try one of the prepared foods, cheeses, or breads.  Don’t go there with strong notions about what you should eat. Instead, look around and see what you want to eat.  Local farmers and artisans will benefit, and so will you.

If you don’t want to try any  local foods, buy some local flowers. One of the greatest pleasures of my gardening  lifestyle is eating my own food on my patio among my own flowers. Beauty feeds the spirit as surely as vegetables feed the body, and our local seasonal flowers didn’t require greenhousing, pesticides, fertilizer, petroleum fuel, or poorly paid labor to reach us. The flowers are the fringe benefits of  growing locally, and sometimes they are beautiful enough to stop you in your tracks, which can only be good for your health.

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