Posts Tagged ‘farmer’s market’

Black Walnuts: Tedious but Delicious

September 21, 2009

Foraging will always take more time than preparing store-bought food, but black walnuts may be the most time-consuming wild food I’ve tried.  Finding and collecting them can go quickly, but the prep work (and the eventual yield) give walnuts one of the highest time-to-food value ratios.  For me, it’s worth it, but you might want to try these out on a small scale before you commit to bushels and bushels of walnuts.

Finding Walnuts

I’ll find walnuts while hiking now and then, but when I’m looking to harvest them, I’ll drive through some of the older neighborhoods in town.  Black walnuts are generally despised as shade trees, but a few people still have them in their yards.  You can usually see their driveways and patios littered with the blackened husks, and all but the most paranoid neighbors would love to have you gather a bushel or two of nuts.  I’ve also had good luck asking on local online message boards.  The greasy, round, rotting walnuts can pose a serious safety risk, so a lot of people are grateful to have someone come over and pick them up.

Harvesting Walnuts

Harvesting is easy.  I bring a bucket, bushel, or basket and start picking them up off the ground.  I’ve never tried to pull them off the tree, as they generally fall off when they get ripe.  I try to be selective, and just get the freshly-fallen, completely green fruits.

Preparing Walnuts

This is where it gets difficult.  First, you need to remove the husks.  The walnut juice will stain your clothes and skin, so wear gloves and grubby clothes.

I start with a patio stone and a sturdy pair of boots, grinding each walnut under the heel until the green part falls off and I’m left with the familiar-looking nut.  I’ve read accounts of people spreading them over the driveway and driving over them, but I find the monotonous and violent boot method soothing.  It’s important to get the husks off as soon as possible, as they begin to decompose, which causes the nuts to spoil.  The husks will be really wormy.  The grubs are disgusting but won’t affect the nut.

Once they are husked, the nuts need to be rinsed.  Dump them in a bucket of water.  I’ve read (but not confirmed) that the ones that float are spoiled.  I discard them, but only after making sure I’ve removed all of the husk–every so often, a bit of the especially-bouyant husk will be holding up a nut that would otherwise sink.

After they’ve been husked, I hang them in a mesh basket from the clothesline.  Squirrels will seek them out extremely aggressively, so be sure they’re secure.  Once they’re dry, I put the nuts in the freezer, or in a cool place if the freezer’s full–The nutmeat is really oily, so low temperatures keep it from going rancid.

The nuts need to be broken up to remove the meat, and black walnuts are far harder than the commercial (English) version.  A nutcracker won’t do it, but a hammer will.  A solid strike at the pointy end will split it in two, but they’ll need to be busted into quarters or smaller to get the nuts out.  If available, a bench vise works way better than a hammer.  I put them in so that the seam of the nut is perpendicular to the face of the vise and crank down until it cracks.  I’ll crack nuts until the vise handle starts to hurt my palm, then put it all back in the freezer until I want to get back into it.

When they’re cracked, the last step is getting the meat out.  If you’ve cracked the nuts into the quarters, you should be able to pull out fairly big chunks of nutmeat with a nut pick, awl, or toothpick.  I put all of the meat in a jar and put it in the freezer.

Eating Walnuts

Black walnuts have a much stronger flavor than commerical walnuts, which makes them ideal for baked goods.  I treat them like a precious commodity, having gone through a lot of work to procure them, but they work well in zuchinni bread, carrot muffins, and brownies.  They are better the sooner you use them, so be generous.  I love the flavor, and they are one of the few nuts available that are locally grown, but they are an aquired taste.  My wife tolerates them, and others don’t like them at all.  As I said, try out a few before investing the time.

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Cooking from the Garden, 9-13-09

September 13, 2009

We had a very cool summer, so a lot of the stuff in the garden took a long time to ripen.  Tomatoes and peppers are just coming in now, about a month late.  On the other hand, I was able to harvest broccoli all the way through August, so maybe it’s a wash.

Tonight’s dinner featured a lot of vegetable produce, and I haven’t been posting much, so I thought I’d put it up.  I started with pizza dough in a cast-iron pan.  Topped it with sliced fresh tomatoes, green peppers, yellow Swiss chard, red onion, garlic, herbs, cheese, and turkey sausage.

Garden Pizza

It was really good, but as far as presentation goes, I should have put more of the vegetables on top–all those colors, and nothing to show for it.  The tomatoes kind of steamed under the cheese, rather than roasting, so they were wetter than I’d like, but it was still delicious.  The cheese, dough, sausage, and onion were store-bought, and all the vegetables came from the garden.

Home-grown Vegetables Hall of Fame III: Garlic

June 21, 2009

I covered the process of growing garlic last year, but recently saw the garlic flower buds for sale at the farmer’s market.  I had been putting them in floral arrangements (the pointy curlicue shapes make for a beautiful, if pungent, addition to bouquets), but didn’t know they were edible.

These flower buds, called “scapes”, come out in June here in Michigan,.  I cut them off above the top leaf.  The pointy, swollen flower head is too tough to eat, so it’s really just the stems that are edible.

The online recipes I’ve found for scapes advise that I “cook them like green beans”.  For my first attempt at cooking them, I just steamed them for a few minutes at ate them out of hand.  They were delicious–garlicky, but much milder.  They were also very difficult to eat, due to the spiral shape.  Since then, I’ve chopped them and added them to stir-fries or pizzas.  They were not quite strong enough to substitute for garlic, but they are good on their own terms.  I’m still looking for ideas for how to use them–send recipes if you’ve got ’em!

Homegrown Vegetables Hall of Fame II: Leaf Lettuce

June 1, 2009

Sometime between when I was a child and the present, the world at large made a leap from iceberg lettuce to romaine.  Back then, every family had a volleyball-like, pale green head of iceberg lettuce in the refrigerator crisper.  Nowadays, the only times I see iceberg lettuce is at the Taco Bell or in a wedge salad.
This shift is understandable–iceberg lettuce is devoid of nutrition and flavor.  Romaine is able to hold up to heavy dressings and gets great ratings as  “leafy green”, one of the foods most people don’t eat enough of.  However, this shift in lettuce preference skipped over my personal favorite–leaf lettuce.  It’s easier to grow than either iceburg lettuce and romaine, and offers a far greater variety in form than either.  I can see why it doesn’t work as well on a commercial level–each head is a lot smaller than either iceburg or romaine lettuce, and it probably doesn’t transport as well, but for the home gardener, it’s ideal.

Growing Lettuce

Lettuce is a cool-weather crop, and will flower and set seed when it gets too warm.  In Michigan, I can usually get lettuce from my full-sun garden until the end of June.  If I start it in a cold frame, I can put it in in March, and start getting some thinnings in April.  A 4 x 4 area provides a few salads every few days through May and June, depending on weather.   This year, I’ve got some transplants and some grown from seed in the same bed, and they’re pretty indistinguishable at this point–next year, I’ll probably direct-seed them all.

Mulching is beneficial on two fronts–it keeps the soil moist and keeps the soil from splashing on the plant.  Lettuce likes a damp soil, and will wilt in hot, dry weather.  A good coating of mulch keeps the water in the soil from evaporating.  Mulch also keeps the soil in place through sprinkling or rain, as the leaves can get sandy otherwise.  Mulch with caution, however:  slugs love to eat lettuce, and too much mulch will give them the cover they need to destroy your crop.

Lettuce works well when planted in combination with other plants.   I’ve interplanted it with carrots, as the long and narrow carrot roots do not interfere with lettuce’s more shallow roots.  I’ve planted it between rows of corn, with the corn protecting the lettuce from the summer sun and extending its season.  I’ve also planted lettuce in a spot where I intend to plant a hot-weather vegetable–tomatoes or peppers, for example–as the lettuce will get pulled out when the hot-weather plants need the space.  There is some overlap in growing seasons, but the peppers/tomatoes don’t really get growing until the lettuce is past its prime.

I’ve had mixed results growing a fall crop of lettuce.  Timing is crucial–if you get it in too soon, the hot weather causes it to “bolt”, get bitter, and go to seed.  Plant too late, and the seedlings never develop.  I haven’t got a foolproof technique yet–I try it every year, and some years I have better luck than others.

Eating Lettuce

The first time I have to buy lettuce from the store (usually around November) is the most disappointing trip of the year.  After several months of right-out-of-the-ground lettuce, even the freshest grocery store offerings look tough, wilted, and bruised.  Fresh, home-grown lettuce is truly a luxury.  There are recipes for lettuce slaw and lettuce soup, but I’ve never needed them–a frilly leaf or two on a sandwich and a big salad are the only ways I’ve used lettuce.  We always offer to bring a green salad to the early-summer, bring-a-dish-to-pass events, too.  A few green onions, a shredded carrot, and a hardboiled egg, all topped with chive blossoms or pansy flowers, make for a very impressive, I-grew-it-myself salad and seems to go over well with most audiences.

Local Food Restaurant Review: The Electric Cheetah

May 11, 2009

I don’t have any way to track where my readership lives, so I don’t know how helpful it will be to review a local restaurant, but it certainly fits in with the purpose of this weblog.  For those of you in the Grand Rapids area, read on.  For any non-local reader, look forward to my upcoming entries on Stinging Nettles and Rhubarb.

The Electric Cheetah is located in the rapidly gentrifying area around Wealthy and Madison in downtown GR.  Wife and I ended up there after the restaurant we intended to go to was packed with a near-hour wait.  As we were looking at the menu, the very extroverted host ushered us in and let us know it was the Cheetah’s second day in existence.  As a result, they were using a “soft menu”, so we only got to choose from about half of what they intend to offer.
He also let us know that the restaurant was housed in a LEED-certified building, with a green roof and runoff going into what they intend to be a backyard garden.
Traffic was light, as it was late in the evening, so the staff was very attentive and eager to explain the restaurant and food.  The menu and staff both described a rather vague commitment to the idea of eating locally, with one staff member throwing out 25 miles as the target radius from which they would buy their ingredients.  As it stands, there is not a lot in season in Michigan in early May, so there were a lot of food-miles in each dish.
Any restaurant with a commitment to local food has to find a balance between at least three factors—edibility, affordability, and philosophy.  It seems the Cheetah has leaned heavily towards the first two categories, with an adherence to local food practices on the back burner.  The food was quite good, and very “non-threatening” to a casual diner.  Wife had the grilled cheese with their house soup, a saffron-tomato bisque, and I had a chicken Caesar salad with sweet potato fries.  Prices were very fair, comparable to other restaurants serving similar fare.
Reading over our food selections should set off a few local-food alarms, though.  Tomatoes?  In early May?  Sweet Potatoes?  Saffron?  SAFFRON?  To have a house soup based on an ingredient that’s available for 2 or 3 months out of the year seems short-sighted when the goal is local (and presumably in-season) food.
To their credit, the romaine lettuce in my salad was grown in a hydroponic greenhouse a few miles outside of town.  The chef/presumed owner told me that himself; there was no indication anywhere on the menu where any of the foods came from.  I assume that the Parmesan cheese and anchovies were not sourced locally.
One very appealing feature of the Electric Cheetah is their milk-and-cookie desserts.  About halfway through our meal, our server asked us if we were interested in trying them.  We were encouraged to place our order then, as the cookies are cooked to order and served hot out of the oven.  I avoid flour-based sweets, but Wife enjoyed her cookies with organic milk immensely.
I would definitely recommend the Electric Cheetah to anyone looking for a reasonably-priced restaurant in the Wealthy Street area, but hesitate to endorse them as a source of local foods.  I’m sure they have great intentions, and I hope to see them realized, but some of their flagship dishes (the saffron tomato bisque and sweet potato fries, especially) seem unsustainable on a local level.  As a local food proponent, I’d like to see on the menu where the ingredients were sourced.

I’ve Got Worms

February 21, 2008

Seeing as I’m writing a weblog on local foods in the dead of winter, I hope I can be forgiven for a slightly off-topic entry. Yesterday, I recieved a belated Christmas gift–a pound of red wriggler composting worms. My in-laws live in Kalamazoo, which would be ground zero for the worm-composting movement, if there were such a thing. The author of Worms Eat My Garbage, now deceased, lived there, and her organization continues to sell worms and vermicomposting supplies. Because this particular species of worm is cold-sensitive, I couldn’t have them sitting on my doorstep until I came home. My exceedingly generous and accomodating father-in-law delivered them on a trip through town.

Vermicomposting Basics

I’m trying to make this weblog beginner-friendly, so I’m going to run through the basics here. If you know anything about composting with worms, this next section is worth skipping.

Unlike the earthworms we’re familiar with in the Great North, red wrigglers spend all of their time very near the surface, where the soil is composed of mostly organic material. Because they don’t burrow and hibernate like earthworms, they won’t survive through a heavy or deep frost. They are, however, well suited for close quarters, and are able to convert an impressive volume of organic waste into “castings”, or worm manure.

My “worm bin”, which I prepared ahead of time, is an opaque Rubbermaid-style storage bin. I filled it about 3/4 full with shredded 2006 income tax instruction forms (available mid-April by the thousands at your local library) and wet the newsprint down. As recommended by Worms Eat My Garbage, I added 3 times the weight of the paper in water, aiming for a damp-not-soggy moisture level. More on this later. The worms “chew” by grinding food up with soil particles in a gizzard, so I added a dead houseplant, with its soil, to provide some grit. On top of it all, I dumped my worms. I left the lid off until the light-sensitive worms retreated into the newsprint bedding. I made my first deposit, burying some moldy home-baked bread under an inch or so of wet, grey paper.

The Process So Far…

The next morning, I eagerly checked in on my worms. Apparently, my bedding was too wet, which provided me with a truly horrifying first morning with my worms. Worms, as it turns out, breathe through their skins, which must be kept moist. If it’s too moist, however, they start to drown. This is why the sidewalks are covered with waterlogged earthworms after a good rain. Not having a sidewalk available, my worms climbed out of their too-wet bedding and congregated along the upper lip of the bin.

Now, I’m not the squeamish type, but hundreds of squirming, bloated redworms are an unpleasant sight, somewhere between a horror film and the sex-ed photos of STDs in their advanced stages. I added some more dry newsprint to balance the moisture level, pushed my worms back into the fray, and hoped for the best. This afternoon, things seemed to be on the level, so I think I’m OK. I hope to find all of the dessicated remains of escaped worms before my wife does.

Good Intentions

The plan with the worm bin, and the connection with the whole local-food thing, is pretty simple. The castings are a nutrient-rich plant food, like any manure. Unlike most animal manures, it can be applied to plants fresh. Also unlike most animal manures, I don’t have to drive ten miles out of the city to get it. This, along with the “worm tea” that can be drained off, will be put to use in my greenhouse to get my seedlings off to an organic start. Last year’s greenhouse seedlings were a pretty pathetic lot, because I didn’t fertilize them. This year, I may have to resort to a dilute chemical fertilizer until my worms get their act together. The most frequently suggested organic alternative, made out of fish waste, is a little scary in terms of heavy metal (lead, mercury, &c.) content, and I’d sooner use a known chemical than an unknown contaminant.

An added benefit is that I’ll be able to continue composting without making the long, long journey through the deep, deep snow to the compost bin at the far end of the yard. A bin in the basement makes for a much more enticing trip, which may result in a more-often-emptied slop bucket. Most of our vegetables come from produce we froze last summer, so there isn’t a lot of waste being produced. Hopefully, our worms can keep up with production. My complimentary book says that my worms can process 1/2 their collective weight in garbage a day, so this should work out.

In Other News

I filled the last of my seed needs at the sales at my local Flowerland, and have thinned my flats of lettuce, spinach, snapdragons, and annual poppies. The asparagus has not yet sprouted, but I think I’m still within their germination window.

As I watch the footage that inspired our nation’s largest-ever meat recall, I had to face my biggest why-aren’t-you-doing-this-already food problem–meat. I gave up vegetarianism a few years ago (for reasons I may get into later) and didn’t develop my meat-buying instincts while I was learning how to shop for myself. I’ve decided that I don’t want to be eating cows that are too sick to walk onto the killing floor, and will finally start choosing local meat when it becomes available at the farmer’s market.

Meanwhile, I am buying increasingly unprocessed cuts at the grocery store. Last week’s shopping trip saw the move from frozen, boneless, skinless chicken breasts to fresh, boned, skinned chicken thighs, and this week I bought a whole bird. I think I’m going to roast it, Thanksgiving-style. I might cut the next one up, depending on how that goes. My aversion to local meat in the past stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know how to handle an entire bird, or unground chuck, or what have you, so I’m going to be ready this year.

Inventory

January 13, 2008

Despite a seriously disturbing warm stretch here in Michigan (high 50s in January), there isn’t a lot of fresh local produce available. I could probably piece together a salad from the thawed-out lettuce left in the garden, and there is still some broccoli, brussel sprouts, and kale holding out through the winter, but that’s about it. The farmer’s market is closed until May, and the grocery store is stocking stuff from Florida and beyond. I do have a freezer full of stuff from last year, though, so I thought I could start with that.

Frozen Vegetables

Tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, swiss chard, green beans–mostly standard stuff. I am not a canner, so it’s all frozen. The peppers I freeze fresh, just cut into chunks. The tomatoes I drop into boiling water so that the skin pops off. The rest of the stuff is boiled for a couple of minutes, then dunked into ice cold water. As I understand it, this halts the enzymatic processes that cause the food to break down in storage.

I also have some frozen purslane, which volunteered in my garden. Purslane, which looks a bit like a miniature, spreading jade plant, has edible stems and leaves with a tangy flavor. It’s not bad fresh out of the ground, and I’m looking forward to cooking with the quart or so that I’ve frozen. Apparently, it gives an oozy quality (“mucilaginous” is a word that comes up often) to soups and stews. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but I’ll find out as soon as I run out of the less terrifying vegetables.

Walnuts

Walnuts are very easy to find wild or semi-wild in this area. I filled two five-gallon pickle buckets with the green, lumpy walnut fruits last September after finding a source on an online message board. The fallen fruit can be a serious hazard–when the husk starts to soften, the walnuts turn into greasy little rollers, and they can take down an incautious pedestrian. My source was glad to get rid of them, and I was glad to have found a supply of local nuts within the city limits.

I’m going to save the details on processing walnuts for walnut season, but after husking, cleaning, squirrel raids, shelling, and picking, I went from 8-10 gallons of fruits to about a quart of nut meats. The nuts are very different from the grocery-store (English) walnut. They are a lot oilier, which gives them a more intense flavor and a tendency to go rancid. I kept my unshelled nuts in our unheated second floor, and keep the cleaned nut meat in the freezer. They make a great addition to pumpkin bread, zucchini muffins, and other baked goods.

Squash

I had horrible luck with squash last summer. Powdery mildew and squash bugs took more than their share of my harvest, so I only had a few to keep through the winter. We keep these on our unheated second level, and I’ve still got one acorn and one spaghetti squash in good condition. The squash held up until about March last year, but they’ll be gone by that time this year.

First post

January 13, 2008

Let’s start out with a blanket disclaimer: I started this up after searching for geographically-relevant information about homegrown, locally grown, and wild foods. I’m not an expert, I don’t have a science or culinary background, and I’m not in touch with a local food movement, if such a thing exists in my area. Obviously, anyone who wants to try some of the foods I write about should check, double check, and triple check with a few field guides before eating anything they don’t recognize.

I hope to use this space to share my amatuer experiences with gardening, home preserving, gleaning, foraging, and otherwise finding, producing, or preparing food from my immediate vicinity. I also hope that I will be driven to try new foods in order to generate material for this journal.

I live within the city limits of Grand Rapids, Michigan, about an hour inland from Lake Michigan. I intend to write about foods as they come into season, which should be fairly consistent throughout the Great Lakes region.

Here’s a remarkably stupid essay about local foods from the most recent issue of Time magazine. I don’t know how long the link will work, and I haven’t learned how to make text into a hyperlink yet.

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1702353,00.html