Posts Tagged ‘unusual vegetables’

My Years with Cardoons

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It took me a long time to learn to eat cardoons. My own cardoons, at least. I first found them in the market while honeymooning in Italy, and there they are neatly blanched, trimmed, and ready for the pot. I loved them, and ordered seeds from Italy as soon as I got home. They grow robustly in my desert climate and alkaline soil, and they are very ornamental. I had them for years before I successfully cooked them, and they were wonderful bee fodder all that time, blooming in the blasting-hot late summer when few other flowers are available to our pollinators. I tried to cook them without the tedious step of blanching the plants, and would say that this just doesn’t work.

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They die back unattractively after flowering, but then sprout again from the ground up. The foliage is silvery, full, and stunning in November. Unfortunately this is also the time when they’re best for eating, so mine aren’t exactly ornamental right now.

Before eating, blanch the stalks for a couple of weeks. I covered mine with some landscape cloth I had around, which is black and fuzzy and nearly lightproof while letting air and water through. You could also wrap your bundled plant in a couple of layers of corrugated cardboard, tieing it on carefully to exclude light from the stalks.

When blanched, use a sharp knife to cut the whole center out of the plant. Wear gloves, because cardoons are thistles and have nasty bristles down the edges of the leaf stalks and at the leaf margins. Cut off the leaves, leaving a bundle of stalks, and pull off any outer stalks that look ragged. My goat adores the leaves and trimmings, and since the leaves are intensely bitter, this is the best use for them.

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Separate the leaf stalks, wash well, and use a vegetable peeler to skim off the outer margin on each edge, where the bristles are. Now use the peeler to skin off the tough stringy part on the convex outer surface of each stem.  When you are done, they will look like the peeled stalk on the right above. The innermost stalks are tender and fairly stringless and just need the base trimmed and the row of bristles on each edge skinned off. Be sure you pull off the leaves from the center stalks, because even though they are very blanched and not bitter, they are tough even after cooking. Cut off the stalks at the point that they start to look corrugated and use everything below that.

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Cut the stalks in half-inch cross sections  and blanch in boiling salted water for about two minutes, then drain well and either continue cooking as you desire or refrigerate them for later.  They have a flavor rather similar to artichokes, so I gave them a bagna cauda treatment by sautéing them for about five minutes in plenty of good olive oil with a chopped clove of garlic and half a mashed anchovy fillet and a final garnish of roasted pine nuts.  Their own flavor is subtle, so don’t get too heavy handed with the seasonings.

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I think they are awfully tasty. The bad news is that one large plant, with a fair amount of preparation, makes two generous servings.  But given that they are drought tolerant, attractive, and truly carefree perennials, I don’t mind putting in some effort in the kitchen.  As for the low yield aspect, I will just work on growing more of them.

Incidentally, before they flowered last summer, I picked a flower stalk when it had lengthened to about 3 feet but before the buds started to swell. I peeled the thick tough skin off the stalk, cut it in sections about an inch long, and sautéed it in olive oil with some salt until cooked through and fairly tender.  The upper 8 to 10 inches of the stalk, when treated this way, made a delicious vegetable with a crisp texture and a pronounced artichoke flavor.  The other 2+ feet of the stock were not usable because, even when the outer tough skin is peeled away, fibers have developed in the pith itself.  But if you have a lot of cardoons and can afford to pick several stalks, this makes one really delicious vegetable. Otherwise treat the top of one stalk as a Cook’s Treat and cook it in your smallest skillet and eat it standing up in the kitchen, gloating quietly to yourself.

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More on Scapes: Scape Powder

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Lately I’ve been experimenting with dehydration, and it occurred to me that I object to the mucousy quality of cooked onion scapes and dehydration often solves such problems. So I put a large bunch of scapes in my dehydrator to see what happened.
Lesson learned: they really are juicy inside, and in future I will split them in half lengthwise before dehydrating, because it took about twice as long as it should have to dry them thoroughly. The bulbous tops should also be cut off at the time of initial preparation.  But I did eventually achieve brittle-dry scapes that I could grind into a fragrant green powder.
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The powder is tasty and sweet, and I’m still considering how to use it. I started with the ultra-simple scramble above: four whole eggs and four yolks beaten with a couple of tablespoons of heavy cream and a dash of salt, then scrambled in butter with one large green onion leaf chopped and four ounces of smoked salmon chopped, finished with pepper and a lavish sprinkling of scape powder. Yum.
This is my favorite way so far to use onion and shallot scapes and the remaining ones will all become scape powder. I think it would be delicious if used to finish chicken, fish, and seafood, and might be good on a steak as well. I have heard of dehydrating garlic scapes, and I tried a couple but didn’t care for the result and will continue to gobble them up as a fresh vegetable.
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The Shoots of Spring

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This is the great season for hops shoots. I gather a large handful every day or two, taking care to snap them off where the stem is tender and brittle. I wash them, cut the bundle crosswise in pieces about an inch long, toss in a hot skillet with a generous amount of good olive oil, and sauté over medium-high heat, turning frequently, until the stems are tender and  some of the leaves are brown and crisp. Add salt and serve. They have a “wild” and slightly bitter flavor which I love alongside very flavorful meaty main dishes.

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This spring I started to experiment with other shoots. I have been eyeing the invasive tendencies of my goji bushes, which routinely send suckers out 10 feet to send a shoot up right where I don’t want another goji plant. They are turning up everywhere as the weather warms.

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I knew that their foliage was edible but had never been much impressed with the taste, and there aren’t many leaves per bush. The shoots, on the other hand, are bulkier than the leaves, green, tender, and a nuisance unless removed. Yesterday I gathered young shoots of  silene (bladder campion,) goji berry bush, perennial arugula, and alfalfa to experiment with ( shown L to R below.) I wouldn’t try cooking with any shoot that didn’t break off with a clean, brittle snap. You don’t want them woody.

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I didn’t cut them up, just washed them and let them drain. Then they were put in a skillet with some olive oil and fried over medium-high heat until the leaves were crisp and browned. I would guess that it was about two minutes a side. Watch carefully; the line between browned and burned is crossed in milliseconds.

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They were drained on paper towels, salted, and eaten.

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They were actually a rich brown in spots, not black as they appear in my photo. The alfalfa and silene shoots were crisp and pleasant enough to eat, but all I could taste was olive oil and salt. I had used a wonderful olive oil so I didn’t mind that, but I do like a vegetable to taste of itself.  The stars were the goji and perennial arugula shoots. The hot and mustardy flavor of perennial arugula was tamed and made interesting but not excessive, and the goji shoots had an herbal flavor and a delightful texture. I will definitely cook them again. I can easily cook them for my husband and myself, but they need lots of room in the skillet to crisp, so I don’t think it’s practical to make them for more than two people. They are too fragile to withstand being dipped into anything, and are best eaten on their own. They are a passing fancy and to be enjoyed as such.

I only wish that all my invasives could be dealt with by eating them.

There are many other shoots to consider, and this is a time of year for perennial veggies to shine. Meaty young milkweed shoots should be wonderful. It has taken me three years to get a milkweed patch to germinate so mine are still spindly infants, but if you live in an area where it occurs naturally, do give it a try. Asparagus, the classic shoot, is wonderful when pan-fried like this. Young slender green onions can be treated this way with good effect, and green garlic could be great, although in this one use I would use only the white part, since the leaves can seem stringy if not chopped in cross-section. I will soon be experimenting with shoots of young wild lettuce as it starts to bolt. I think these would need to be blanched first to reduce bitterness, but I’m not sure yet.  I’m very fond of using the fresh tender shoot-tips of coppiced mulberries as a green, and I think they would be very good given this treatment, but they don’t come along until about June, so it will be a while before I find out. See here for a discussion of the ins and outs of selecting and eating mulberry leaves.  The young second-year stems of chard leaves that emerge when an overwintered plant sprouts in the spring, before it starts bolting to seed,  might be good for this, trimmed of their green leafy bits and maybe cut in inch-long chunks if they seem a bit on the stringy side. And I have written before about using the young flowering shoots of scorzonera this way, and they are definitely the highest culinary incarnation of that tough perennial.

I often mention Cook’s Treats, the series of improvisational tapas for one that I enjoy in the kitchen when nobody’s looking and I’m doing other things. Four or five tasty shoots, thrown in your smallest skillet with olive oil while you’re working on other things, make a great cook’s nibble. You will need to give them your undivided attention for a few minutes and that’s all, which fits well into the rhythm if many kitchen tasks.

Eat Your Allicin! Notes on Green Garlic

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Garlic went through a period of being a fad health supplement for its allicin content. Allicin is an antioxidant to which miracles were ascribed at the time. Now that the fad is long over, maybe we can return to the subject in a more measured way, and eat some delicious food while we’re at it.
There is relatively little allicin in mature culinary garlic, since it is found mostly in the skin. But there’s a way to eat a lot of it and enjoy it: eat green garlic, which is also a culinary delight. Garlic cloves are planted in early fall, and the greens shoot up in early spring. They vary in size according to variety. They are edible at any stage, from the tiny ramp-like beginning to nearly-mature but still soft-skinned bulbs as shown above. When the stem begins to thin and wither and the leaves look distinctly un-fresh, it is maturing and should be used as bulb garlic rather than green garlic. And here’s how to get your antioxidants in full: in the green garlic stages the whole plant is edible and tasty, and the leaves, shoot, and tender skin contain most of the allicin (reference below). The leaves, stem, and skin( after the outermost layer is peeled off) all go into your sauté pan. Cut the root end off, trim the leaf tips, wash well, slice very thinly the whole length of the nascent bulb, shaft, and leaves, chop finely, and sauté in butter or olive oil with a good punch of salt until tender. Keep the heat medium to medium-low and plan to spend 15 minutes or so on the process, lowering heat as needed. It is done when it tastes rich, garlicky, mellow, and a little sweet. Do note that slicing it very thinly crosswise in the beginning is key to the shoot and leaves being pleasant to eat, since they contain strong lengthwise fiber. They can be used as the basis of any dish that includes garlic, unless the green color would be a problem, in which case just use the bulb and tender inner skin. I also like the whole sautéed plant as a vegetable side dish when it comes from the milder varieties of garlic. If I am going to eat it by itself, I slice thinly crosswise but don’t chop the slices up, so there is some textural interest in the finished dish. Also, make sure to salt to taste during cooking, not when finished, so that the salt can penetrate. This is really good next to a lovely steak.
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Don’t forget that you can tuck a useful amount of green garlic into flowerbeds and at the bases of trees. Just don’t confuse it with daffodil foliage or other poisonous plants with similar long narrow leaves. If in any doubt, tear a leaf and sniff. Garlic leaves smell like garlic!
I have heard that the leaves can also be dried, powdered, and used as a seasoning, but I’ve never tried it and don’t vouch for it. I go for fresh stuff.
Here’s your reference on the allicin content:
“Department of Pharmacology, School of Medicine, Ardabil University of Medical Sciences, Iran
Food Chemistry (Impact Factor: 3.26). 05/2010; 120(1):179-183. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2009.10.004
ABSTRACT The presence of allicin in green garlic plant extracts was investigated. Allicin in aqueous extracts from green garlic leaf, shoot and young bulbs were determined by HPLC. Allicin was present at highest level in extracts from whole green garlic plant at 0.48 ± 0.01 mg/mL, followed by that in shoot and leaf extracts at 0.44 ± 0.00 and 0.26 ± 0.01 mg/mL, respectively. The results obtained in this study offer green garlic as a new source of allicin, as green garlic plant is used as a favourite vegetable in many countries.”
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An Unexpected Vegetable: Hops Shoots

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When I first started gardening at my current property, I was an enthusiastic brewer and it seemed natural to plant hops vines where they could climb on my fences. Now I have been low-carb for three years and no longer brew beer, but this winter I learned from a British cookbook that hops shoots could be cooked and eaten like asparagus. They don’t taste like asparagus, of course, but they have their own wild, slightly bitter taste that I thoroughly enjoy. I wouldn’t start picking at them until the vines are about three years old. Then start watching for the shoots to emerge from the ground in the spring and, when they are about a foot high, snap off the top six inches. Rinse, sauté in some good butter, and enjoy.
They are small and slender and it’s hard to get enough to serve at dinner unless you have an awful lot of hops, but a handful of them cooked crisp makes a lovely “cook’s treat” to eat in the kitchen while you’re doing other tasks.
By the way, if you are a brewer you will still be able to harvest hops for your brewing, because as long as you leave about six inches of each shoot intact, they will branch within a few weeks and continue growing.