Posts Tagged ‘Swiss chard’

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.

 

Chard’s Great Moment

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In my garden, this is the time to plant Swiss chard. It grows slowly in summer heat and gets a new lease on life in the fall, which is when I start eating it.  It goes dormant for the winter, and then in spring it emerges again and gradually progresses to making enormous leaves over a foot long.  These early spring leaves are very thick and meaty, and have a taste that has the umami elements of meat, but is mild and clean.  These early spring leaves are the ones that I eat, in huge quantities.  They are great cooked, and this is the only time of year that I love chard as a salad green. As soon as the plant starts to bolt to seed, the leaves of the elongating stalk acquire a rather dreadful dirty taste.  Interestingly, the large thick leaves at the base retain their mild delicious flavor for a while, so once the central stalk starts to form, you still have a week or two to collect leaves.  Then the chard season is over, and in my yard the rest is cut and goes to the goat.  When the last chard plant has been cut, I know it is time to plant more for the following fall and spring. ‘

So plan ahead, plant now, and love your chard in its best season.

Still more greens, and notes on solar cooking


Since I got a solar oven, I no longer find it difficult to cook chickpeas, and so I’m looking for new ways to use them. I especially like combinations of greens and beans, partly because these primal and earthy dishes are found all over the world wherever people need healthy cheap food, and partly because they taste good. I’m cooking my way through a huge patch of lambs-quarters and amaranth (common pigweed) in my back yard, and getting healthy food from weedy places always satisfies my sense of economy. If you’re not a weed-eater, just use Swiss chard. I like a little smoked meat with greens, but if you don’t eat meat, just leave off the final garnish of bacon. This makes two large main-course servings with leftovers.

One pound young leaves and tender tips of lambs-quarters and amaranth, OR one large bunch of swiss chard, stems removed, chopped coarsely.
One pint cooked chickpeas, with just enough of the cooking liquid to cover them (see Solar Beans, below.)
3-4 tablespoons good flavorful olive oil
1 large onion, finely sliced
2 large cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons Spanish Pimenton de la Vera, or smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes
salt and pepper to taste
a little of your best olive oil for drizzling
1 thick slice bacon, fried crisp and crumbled (optional)
Wash the greens very well, make sure to remove any remaining large stems, and blanch them in boiling water for 1 minute. Drain, press out extra water, and turn out on a cutting board and chop coarsely in both directions. Meanwhile, heat a heavy pot (I like an unglazed clay 3 quart pot) over medium heat, warm the olive oil, and saute the onions in the oil until translucent and cooked through but not browned more than a little. Add the chopped garlic and saute until garlic is cooked. Add the smoked paprika, thyme leaves, and chile flakes, saute a minute but no more, and promptly add the chickpeas and their liquid. When this mixture comes to a boil, add the blanched and chopped greens, salt to taste, turn the heat to low, and let it all mellow together for 10-15 minutes. Check the seasoning, add pepper to taste, and serve with a good drizzle of very good olive oil on each serving and the crumbled bacon on top if you’re using it. With a hunk of good baguette and a glass of full-bodied straightforward red wine, it couldn’t be better or healthier. Without its bacon topping it’s vegan and can be served to people of that persuasion, with the bacon fillip for the carnivores at the table. People who are vegetarian but not vegan will enjoy a pat of butter melted on top to give a little richness. Hedonists will like both a little butter and a little bacon.

Solar cooking is a natural here in New Mexico, where we have more sunlight than we know what to do with.
So, how do you cook solar beans? Fist you catch your solar oven. There are lots of easy plans on the internet for making them, but I chose to buy mine from the Solar Oven Society. Their solar ovens are capacious, lightweight, and every one you buy helps the society provide solar ovens to the third world, which avoids some deforestation and greenhouse gases from cooking fires. Their ovens are cleverly designed with two potential bases to provide a summer sun-catching angle and a winter sun-catching angle. Optional reflectors are available to achieve higher temperatures. You may want the optional reflectors for other purposes, but for cooking beans you won’t need them. Two graniteware pots are included with the oven, and you can put a pint of dry chickpeas in each one, cover with cold water by at least 2″, and set the oven up facing south in the morning with the two full pots inside. Then employ my special cooking technique: walk away, laughing a carefree laugh, and go to work or just get on with your life. On a reasonably sunny day, the oven without reflectors attached will reach a peak temperature of about 250 degrees and will stay in that range for much of the day. When you get home eight or nine hours later, you will find two steaming pots of perfectly cooked chickpeas, and you can salt them to taste, let them cool, and use immediately or freeze in pint containers with enough of their pot-liquor to cover. I love the oddly meaty-tasting cooking liquid and often use it as the broth for the finished dish, as I do above.
The directions that come with the oven imply that you need to turn it a few times to keep it facing the sun, but at least in summer I just point mine due south and forget about it. Other types of beans are also naturals for this solar slow-cooking, but they take less time, so I do them on weekends when I can check the oven in 4 hours or so to see how they’re coming along. For readers at lower altitudes than our 5500 feet, cooking times would tend to be much shorter. If the day clouds over, you may need to finish inside, or just put the pots in the refrigerator overnight and try again the next day. Don’t forget and leave the beans in the cool solar oven overnight, since some very nasty bacteria including botulinum could grow in room-temperature aqueous solutions. Cool them and pop them in the fridge or freezer when they’re cooked. Eat in the knowledge that you’re taking in all sorts of nutritive and cholesterol-lowering compounds that cost you no energy and very little trouble to cook. Beats canned, doesn’t it?

The Greens of Summer: greens bruschetta

If you’re interested in making leafy greens an enjoyable part of your diet, I highly recommend Paula Wolfert’s book Mediterranean Grains and Greens. My favorite greens recipe, however, does not come from that book but from another of her books, Paul Wolfert’s World of Food. She calls it “marmalade of spring greens,” and it is intended as a spread for bread. I find it wonderful stuff to have tucked in the refrigerator, where it will keep for several days and makes great impromptu lunches and snacks. I have made it so often for so long that my recipe has morphed into something a little different from hers, as tends to happen with recipes that really work for me.

First, catch your greens. See my earlier blog post about greens options and about cleaning them. Right now I am mostly using mixtures of amaranth leaves ( the polite term for common pigweed), lambs quarters, purslane, sweet potato leaves, and New Zealand spinach, because those are the plants that are doing best in our summer heat. Gather about a pound of assorted greens. If you are using store bought, a mixture of Swiss chard or Tuscan kale and spinach will work well. I avoid the baby spinach that comes in cello bags. It doesn’t have enough flavor for use as a cooked green. If you enjoy bitter greens you can add several dandelion leaves (I am referring to the store bought kind, not the wild kind, which are too bitter to use at this time of year.) Or you can add a small bunch of watercress to add a little bit of snap. But don’t worry too much about this, because the seasonings will add the extra kick as long as the greens are good.

1 pound of mixed greens

One Shallot

Two cloves of garlic, fairly large

1/4 cup of olive oil

10 to 12 kalameta olives, finely chopped

2 tablespoons capers, preferably salt packed, washed of salt and soaked in cold water for an hour

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

Bring a pot of water to a boil, add the greens, and cook uncovered for one minute, just until they are thoroughly wilted. Drain and press out any excess moisture. Turn them out on the chopping board and chop them thoroughly in both directions, so that you retain some texture (you don’t want a paste) but all stems and leaf ribs are cut up into small pieces.

Chop the garlic and shallot quite finely over medium heat in the olive oil until cooked through but not brown. Add the chopped olives and the capers, either chopped or whole as you prefer. Sauté for a few minutes, then add the chopped greens, the red pepper, and a little salt. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until the greens are tender. Taste, season with salt and pepper as needed, and spread thickly on toasted or grilled bread. Top with some grated Parmesan cheese and a handful of toasted pine nuts.

Many variations are possible, and I seldom make this dish the same way twice. I may add several cloves of confited garlic instead of two cloves of fresh for a deep mellow flavor. A mashed filet of anchovy or a dash of colatura added at the saute’ stage give an especially rich flavor- this is very close to the Wolfert original. A generous spoonful of roasted tomato sauce added toward the beginning is a nice touch. A half teaspoon of Spanish smoked paprika, Pimenton de la Vera, gives a faint smoky edge as if you had cooked it over a wood fire.  A good sprinkling of fresh thyme or chopped oregano or marjoram leaves over the top just before serving gives a lovely whiff of its Mediterranean origin.  A poached or fried egg plopped on top makes it a hearty meal. You can serve the greens at room temp on a bed of fresh ricotta, drizzled with your best olive oil, and serve the bread on the side.

I should add that, like so many other things, it seems to taste best if cooked in clay. I tend to use either an unglazed clay bean pot or a Spanish cazuela, after doing the initial blanching of the greens in an ordinary pot. A Chinese sand pot works well too. If you’re curious, do read another of Ms. Wolfert’s books, Clay Pot Cookery, which contains everything you might want to know about cooking with clay.

The Greens of Summer: greens for hot weather


From a nutritional standpoint, one of the best things that we can do for ourselves is eat leafy greens. Most people eat fewer leafy greens than they think they do. Recently my mother assured me that she ate lots of them, but when I pressed her about exactly what she ate, the only thing she could come up with was “spring mix.” Salads are nice, but they’re just the beginning of the leafy green vegetable story.

In Central New Mexico, it is easy to grow leafy greens in the spring and fall. It’s a little harder to keep a steady supply of nice tasty greens through the summer. Many greens such as collards and kale will grow through the summer but don’t taste good then. Fortunately there are a number of choices, and two of them will be with you whether you want them or not, so you might as well eat them. These are the common weeds lambs-quarters and pigweed. In my opinion only the tender tips taste really good, so I keep cutting them back to produce plenty of tips. Both are inclined to shoot out of bounds and get too big, and in that case I just pull them out and feed them to the chickens, since there will always be more young weeds coming along. Consult two good books on wild foods to help you identify them. Lambs-quarters is a mild green that can be blanched and used in any way you would use spinach. Pigweed, which is a variety of amaranth, is still fairly mild but has an earthy flavor rather like beet greens. Most kales taste too strong to me in hot weather, but Tuscan kale is pretty good in the summer, although I still like it better after the weather turns cold. Swiss chard is delicious all summer. The leaves of the common sweet potato, Ipomea batata, are a delicious and especially nutritious green vegetable relished in hot countries all over the world. As long as they get plenty of water, they thrive in our heat. All of the mallows are good heat tolerant greens. They are mild to the point of blandness and a little bit muciligenous. I use them as about 25% of greens mixtures to “smooth out” sharper greens, and as long as they are a quarter of the total mixture or a little less, they add a plush mouthfeel that makes the others taste better. . New Zealand spinach is delicious all summer as long as you keep the tips packed so that it stays bushy and tender and doesn’t go to seed.

This year I am trying some new ones. None of them are big enough to eat yet in my garden, but I mention them to get other gardeners thinking beyond the usual possibilities. Chayote, the mirliton of my Louisiana childhood, is widely grown in Mexico and the greens are used as often as the squash-like fruit. I am sprouting some to grow as greens, but they aren’t big enough to cut yet. I’ll. report on the flavor later. Quailgrass, Celosia argenta, is a heat loving green which is also very attractive. The winged bean and the cowpea are two legumes relished in Asia and Africa as leafy green vegetables, and they love heat. I am also trying Ethiopian cabbage and two fascinating tropical trees, Moringa and Chaya, which are valued as green vegetables in many parts of the world. Again, I will write a post about them when I have tasted them. If you are interested in expanding your range of possibilities I would refer you to the interesting website of ECHO; they have a display food garden in Florida where they grow many of these “alternative” possibilities and they do sell seeds for some of them. Bountiful Gardens is another good source for unusual seeds, and Baker Heirloom Seeds always has some interesting goodies to consider.

Having caught your greens, you now need to wash and cook them. Gritty greens are gruesome. My own method is to soak them in enough cold water to cover them generously for at least one hour, stir them around with my hands, lift them out of the water and discard it (put it on a garden bed, not down the drain,) rinse the bowl clean of grit and cover the greens with cold water again, stir with the hands, lift them out and discard the water again, and repeat the whole process once more. I have an 8-gallon plastic food grade bucket for this purpose, which I got at a brewing supply store. I don’t do it in the sink because then I couldn’t use the water to water the garden. Using this method, I never have any gritty particles in my greens. The initial soak seems to be important in loosening any attached dirt.

Now, on to the cooking part. My website and blogsite (click “greens” under Categories) are full of recipes for greens, but often I just blanch them until tender and serve with butter, a squeeze of fresh lemon, and a little salt and pepper. I picked up another good simple method in Hawaii, where many cooks have found that a combination of butter and a little soy sauce tastes wonderful. It doesn’t taste particularly Asian, just delicious. I like to add a little garlic to the combination. This is too simple to present as a formal recipe. Blanch 1 pound of greens until tender, drain them and press out all excess moisture, and chop them. Chop up one large or two small cloves of garlic, sauté them in 3 tablespoons of good grass-fed butter until cooked but not colored, and a tablespoon of best soy sauce, and toss with the cooked and chopped greens. Reheat briefly if necessary and serve.