Posts Tagged ‘vegetable gardening’

Living in Interesting Times: Improvisational Stir-fries

 


The current world travails started me thinking about thrift. The most financially difficult period of my life was when I lived in Manhattan on a beginning designer’s salary and paid over 3/4 of my salary in rent. It probably goes without saying that I had no health insurance or paid sick leave and lived in constant fear of illness, and couldn’t afford any of the usual entertainments. It was one of the most useful periods of my life too, because it’s when I learned to make reading and cooking fill my entertainment function. I spent wonderful hours digging through the NY Public Library’s collection of cookbooks (free entertainment,) walking miles to Manhattan’s Chinatown (exercise +health maintenance+entertainment/sightseeing,) shopping in the wondrous markets there (thrift+entertainment,) then walking back and cooking dinner (nutrition+health maintenance+delicious entertainment.) I bought a huge carbon steel wok and cleaver for less than $10 each and with one thrift-shop pot to cook rice, one rice bowl, and one set of porcelain-tipped chopsticks, I was ready to cook anything.

I wouldn’t want to live like that now, and I’m appropriately grateful to have health insurance and sick leave. But I still love to channel the spirit of a thrifty Chinese spiritual grandmother and cook up a tasty stir-fry now and then. Rice is in very short supply in my area right now, but I have enough to cook up a pot of rice, add condiments to vegetables from my garden, and have a delicious meal for under $5 for two people. I wanted to use up some of the rich gold yolks that my chickens produce abundantly, and it occurred to me that frying them quickly into a sort of yolk pancake would yield a texture that could work well in a quick, explosive stir-fry.
Last year’s Fordhook Swiss chard is throwing up beautiful meaty leaves right now, so I started with four big chard leaves and four fat perennial green onions.

I tend to divide improvisational Chinese dishes into cooked rice (the base,) vegetables (the bulk,) protein (meat, eggs, etc.,) texture foods (often mushrooms in my kitchen,) and seasonings.  As with any improvisation, don’t throw stuff in at random. Think carefully to create a harmony. And everything has to be prepped and ready before you start. I assemble everything in little piles and pinch dishes on an 18×24” cutting board. I pulled the chard leaves away from the stems, cut the leaves in crosswise strips, and chopped the stems in 1/4” cross sections. The white part of the green onions were cut in 1/4” sections, and a few of the leaves cut into diagonal slivers.  I cooked five beaten egg yolks into a pancake in a hot skillet with avocado oil, let it cool, and cut it into long 1/4” wide slivers. A handful of sliced dried tree ears were hydrated in hot water. Tree ears are a texture food, and if they aren’t available, just omit them.  A couple of tablespoons of fermented black beans were soaked in cold water to reduce their salt load a little, then squeezed dry. A piece of ginger 1”x2” was cut into cross sections, a bulb end of green garlic likewise, then the two chopped together into pieces the size of coarse crumbs. A half cup of water had a tablespoon of rice vinegar, two teaspoons of sugar, a heaping teaspoon of cornstarch, and about 2 teaspoons of oyster sauce stirred in, and avocado oil, soy sauce, and Asian roasted sesame oil were standing by. I used some chile oil too, but you can leave it out if you don’t care for heat.

The rice is cooked and served up into heated bowls, and your prepped ingredients stand ready next to the wok or skillet. From here it goes so fast that you can’t believe it. Heat the cooking vessel fiery hot over highest heat, pour in some avocado oil, wait 30 seconds, put in the chopped ginger and garlic and fermented beans, and stir with a cooking paddle for a few seconds, just until the ginger scent reaches your nose. Throw in the drained tree ears, the chard stems, and the white part of the scallions, stirring vigorously for a few seconds after each addition. Add a few shakes of soy sauce and stir all this around for about 30 more seconds, then stir in the chard leaves and slivered egg-yolk pancakes. When the chard leaves look done, about a minute later if you were bold and kept the heat at maximum, add the water mixture (stirring hastily to get the cornstarch in suspension before adding to the wok,) and stir while it boils fiercely and thickens, another minute or less. Stir in the scallion leaves and serve over hot rice. Sprinkle with soy sauce and finish with a drizzle of sesame oil. Add some chile oil if you want to. The clarity relies on keeping the heat explosive. If you lose your nerve or pause at any point, your sauce will get sludgy and the purity of the taste  be lost.

If you want a serious education in Chinese cooking, I recommend any book by Fuschia Dunlop, and her Hunanese Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook may be my favorite. I dislike Chairman Mao (and all other dictators) pretty intensely but his home province has created some of this world’s truly delicious food. The old classic that I first learned from, Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook, is still around and turns up on EBay and used book sites. It has excellent discussions of ingredients and achieving the true taste, and the recipes are as good as ever.

Explosive frying, stir-frying at very high heat, is a good technique to have in your back pocket for almost any vegetable. They have to be sliced and trimmed to appropriate sizes so that they will cook through. Therefore, the technique doesn’t save kitchen time, it just shifts time to prep, with the cooking happening in 5-10 exciting minutes at the end. It does add a special flavor of its own, the famous “breath of the wok.”

Living in Interesting Times: Spring Greens

This is a very strange time for everyone. As a healthcare provider, I know how much there is to worry about. I know that not everyone can isolate themselves from exposure, and not everyone has the luxury (and it is a luxury) of the money and space to store some crisis supplies. Not everyone has the luxury of a job right now, by a long shot. If you do, appreciate what you have and help others if you possibly can.

At this as at other tough times, I find myself thinking back to growing up in Louisiana. In hurricane country people were used to regular interruptions of basic services and kept on hand what they needed to get through 2-3 weeks. They helped each other and they followed the hurricane directives. So respect the restrictions we operate under right now and do the best you can not to be part of the problem.

Narrowing this down to the garden, there is nothing as comforting as being able to get some food from your own yard. There’s an egg shortage, but my chickens are laying, supplying us and a few colleagues and neighbors with at least some eggs. Rice and beans and seasonings are in the pantry, and if you always keep herbs in the garden and a few ham hocks in the freezer, you have the means to make things taste good.
This is a great time to learn to use your weeds if you haven’t already. I actually had to buy seeds to have dandelions, but once you have them they are faithful kitchen friends every spring. If you don’t care for bitter greens, mix them with milder greens like nettles, scorzonera, bladder campion, and salsify, all growing lustily in my yard right now and all perfectly delicious when cooked. If you don’t know these unstoppable weeds, learn about them and plant them now or learn where they grow. Then spring will be a time of abundance, regardless of what’s going on in the greater world, and the less need you have for outside groceries, the more there are for someone else. Seal and freeze the extra to eat another time. If you have a patch of Egyptian or other perennial onions, you’ll always have seasoning on hand, and a handful of chopped oil-cured olives adds delicious umami.


Mixed cooked greens in the refrigerator can be eaten in tortillas with cheese, used to top rice with some butter and meat juices, or (most deliciously, in my view) spread on toasted sourdough bread and topped with fluffy grated flakes of good Parmesan.
After that will come the meaty delicious leaves from last year’s chard plants, mulberry sprigs, hops shoots, and who knows what all. This may be the year that I finally try cooking the newest Siberian elm leaves, instead of feeding them all to the animals. I’ll comb my foraging and permaculture books for other things I haven’t tried yet.

The reason to do all this is not that there is no food in stores. There’s lots of food, with strange exceptions currently caused by hoarding more than any actual lack of supply. The reason is to take yourself out of the hoarding mentality and into a frame of mind to nourish yourself well and realize that you will act responsibly and do as well as you can. Life is uncertain and COVID-19 even more so. Everyone is at risk right now, but if we are staying home responsibly when not working and minimizing risk to ourselves and others we’ll feel better. If we feel that we can get things for elderly friends and relatives so that they can isolate more effectively, we’ll feel better. And staying home to garden, tend animals, and forage in the yard feels a lot better than sitting around watching television.

Broccoli Heaven

This year I made a real effort to have broccoli, my favorite vegetable, available in larger quantities than I could eat at once.  Every year I hope to have some to freeze, and every year I gobble it all up as soon as it is ready.  But this year I did succeed, by putting in 12 plants in late May that would mature after my earliest planting, and mature more or less all at the same time  so that I couldn’t just hog it all at once in one giant broccoli orgy.

Broccoli is a very heavy feeder, and when it is a bit established I pile a heavy mulch of alfalfa and a little chicken manure all around the base, a few inches back from the stem. This conserves moisture and provides nutrients in a steady fashion throughout the growing season, allowing my broccoli heads to get as big as 12” across.

The result is that my refrigerator is crammed with broccoli right now, with more sitting around or out in the garden waiting to be brought in. This is my idea of a really wonderful problem to have.

As far as what to do with broccoli, there is no question that roasting is my favorite technique.  Here is an excellent basic recipe, which is very similar to the way I do it, and there are endless variations that you can dream up on your own. This is, in my opinion, too good to be a side dish and deserves to be the very center of the table, but certainly it goes well alongside a steak, roasted chicken, or just about anything else you could name.  If you aren’t sure what else to do with broccoli, the wonderful food 52 site has great recipes and is worth a browse.

https://food52.com/recipes/21828-parmesan-crusted-broccoli

As far as health questions go, I think that green vegetables are vitally important to a long and healthy life. There is now a small dietary movement favoring pure carnivory, and the wacko fringe elements of that group believe that eating green vegetables will probably kill you.  It is my view that this completely ignores the demographic data that all the healthiest and longest lived populations in the world eat plenty of green vegetables.  So make your own decisions, but don’t ignore the data. Here’s one study:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29739681

And one specifically on ovarian cancer:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29693426

I won’t make extravagant claims for cruciferous vegetables, but it is at least clear from the data that they certainly won’t kill you.

 

The Eggplant Chronicles II: cooking eggplant

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Like most Louisiana natives I love eggplant, and I have fervent opinions about how it should be prepared for cooking. For any application in which it is to be sautéed, I believe that it must be salted and drained first. This is not to get out bitterness, as some cookbooks say; a well-grown eggplant of a good variety doesn’t have bitterness. The disgorging process gives the eggplant a better texture, almost silky, and in my view is not optional.
For this dish, I cut an enormous yet still young Black King eggplant into thick meaty slices about half an inch thick. I salted them liberally on both sides in the morning, stuck them in a bag in the refrigerator, and in the evening laid them out in a single layer on half of a clean towel and pushed down hard on the slices with the other half of the towel, pressing out as much liquid as possible. Now sauté them in olive oil over medium-high heat, laying them out on a baking sheet as they finish cooking, and making sure to cook them until they can easily be penetrated with a fork. Meanwhile, decide what you want to put on them. I had some horta (cooked greens mixture) made according to the description in my amaranth post, liberally flavored with garlic, fennel fronds, and salt-cured olives, and decided to use that. Other possibilities include leftover cut-up meat or chicken with herbs, scrambled eggs highly seasoned with herbs, tomato sauce, or whatever. I mixed the horta with crumbled feta for a little pizazz. Top with cheese ( I used an artisanal cheese similar to Parmesan) and pop in a 425 degree oven for 25 minutes or so. Pull them out, top with pine nuts or your own favorite nuts and a lavish sprinkle of Maras pepper flakes or other good red pepper flakes, and put back in the oven for a minute or two. I added some roasted onion halves on the side. Serve. Eat.
This sort of dish screams for a good smooth red wine and has to be eaten with a carefree attitude. Laissez les bon temps roulez, after all.
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The Eggplant Chronicles I: choose your plant

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For the last couple of years I’ve rolled my eyes over the phenomenon of grafted vegetable plants, and griped lustily that there is nothing difficult about growing tomatoes or eggplants, so why would anybody  fall for the grafted ones? Then I saw a picture of the extremely deep rootball that the grafted rootstock develops and began to ponder whether this might be really advantageous in my very hot dry area. So this year I tested two grafted eggplants, one Millionaire ( a Japanese-type eggplant) and one Black King. I planted several standard Millionaire and Ichiban plants for comparison.

So far, the grafted Millionaire is out-producing the ungrafted Japanese eggplants at a rate of three to one. I don’t know how well you can see them in the picture above but the plant currently has five eggplants in various stages and is covered with blossoms further up. This one plant would have been plenty for us. The Black King seems sturdier than large eggplants I’ve grown in the past and is holding its enormous fruit without flopping.
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So I will be planting grafted eggplants again. They cost just about twice as much as the ungrafted plants that I bought from a good local grower, but they are producing three times as much eggplant in less space. The two grafted tomatoes that I tried don’t seem to be outdoing their nongrafted kin at this point, but the jury’s still out. Also, one growing season isn’t a true test. But I’ve seen enough to be intrigued.
There are a lot of kinds of eggplant. The only types that I grow these days are the resplendent big Italian types and the long slender Japanese types. My preference is for meaty eggplants from which I can carve out big luxurious eggplant steaks. If your cookery leans Asian, you may be interested in the tiny bitter Thai eggplants and the dozens of other Asian types.
By the way, eggplants are highly ornamental at nearly every stage of growth. No need to stick them in the back yard.

Nose-to-tail Cilantro

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Cilantro is a lovely and evanescent thing. It is a major seasoning herb in Thai and Indonesian cuisines, is widely used in China and Southeast Asia, and fills me with wellbeing whenever I eat it. It was a few years, though, before I learned how to make it pay for its garden space.
First, choose your variety carefully. You need a bolt-resistant type that can be bought in ounces, not packets. Don’t plant the seeds sold as spices. Currently my favorite is Calypso. Second, forget rows. Plant it in bunches that you can harvest all at once, and only have as many bunches maturing per week as you will actually use. I like the bunches to be spaced 8-10″ apart each way, and I plant 15-20 seeds in each bunch, all clustered into an area about 2″ in diameter. I plant 4 bunches a week, every week that I remember and have some bed space available, starting well before the last frost because cilantro likes cool weather and stopping as the days heat up. They will not occupy their real estate more than a couple of months, so I plant them in places where big heat-loving crops like tomatoes or zucchini will take over the space. In the picture above, you see the stem of the young tomato which will spread out when the days heat up. You may also note the early lettuce that occupied the tomato’s space over the winter, now serving as a light mulch.
When the plants are 7-8″ high, I harvest the bunch by cutting about two inches above the ground. They are quite clean because the crowded plants hold each other up, and just need a quick rinse before being used in your favorite way. Cut the bunch rather than pulling, because those stems will keep on working.
Leave the cut stems in place. When they show a good amount of new growth,you will notice that the leaves are finely cut and feathery rather than looking like grocery-store cilantro. This new growth doesn’t have the full cilantro flavor by any means, but I still like to throw chopped handfuls into salads and pounded green herb sauces. But what we are really after at this point is not the leaves. When some of your bunches are tall and starting to bolt, pull them for the roots and lower stems. Scrub the roots and thick lower stems well, cut off the finer roots and discard (into the compost, of course) and chop the roots and stems thinly crosswise. This is your supply of cilantro root, which is used extensively in classic Thai cooking, while the leaves aren’t used in authentic curry pastes etc. In fact, make sure that no leaves get into your root, because the flavor is different and not right for this use. Thai cooking aficionados refer to it as the “unobtainable, mythical coriander root,” but it is highly obtainable if you have a garden. Now you can pound your roots and stems in your faithful mortar and pestle to make curry and seasoning pastes, or freeze them in little plastic bags in quantities of about 4 tablespoons. I tend to use mine up during the summer, which is when southeast Asian cuisine tastes best to me.
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But don’t pull every bunch. Let some bolt, because you want the green seeds.
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These have a flavor in between the leaves and the dried coriander seed and are delicious sprinkled over salads, used as a garnish on grilled meats, or tossed over bulgur or rice dishes.
Now you are finally done with your cilantro plants and can pull them and compost them, unless you want to let some set and dry seeds to use as coriander seed. I don’t dry and save seeds, personally. I can buy seeds easily, and prefer to use my own seeds green, when they are a fresh treat that can’t be bought.
For more on using the roots, check out David Thompson’s huge and highly addictive “Thai Food,” the best Thai cookbook in English in my opinion, although it does assume a scary amount of kitchen time😉

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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