Posts Tagged ‘spinach’

Stinging Nettles

May 15, 2009

Finding Nettles

Although nettles have a fairly distinctive appearance—they are very mint-like, with dark green leaves sprouting off of squarish stems—they are by far most easily identified by their sting.  When I thought I found a patch of nettles, I brushed the back of my hand over them and waited to feel the sting.  Sure enough, a warm, throbbing pain confirmed their identity.  I’m not sure where it is usually located, as I don’t see it often, but the patch I tested was located in a forest along a path.  It is best harvested when it is young, in spring, but, according to my field guides, the new growth at the tips can be harvested through the summer.

Harvesting Nettles

First off, some protection is called for.  I tried to use a plastic bag to grab the plant while I cut it with my clippers.  This did not work in the least—I inevitably brushed against other leaves while moving in with the clippers, and got stung routinely as I harvested.  Next time, I’ll use gloves.  Since I knew I’d be cooking them down, I harvested a lot—a plastic grocery bag full.  I stuck with harvesting the top of each sprout, cutting down 8-12”.

Preparing Nettles

The stingers need to be disarmed before cooking the nettles.  Fortunately, this is an easy fix.  I boiled up a big pot of water, and dunked the nettles in long enough for them to wilt—just a few seconds.  I use the boiling water to kill weeds in the cracks of my driveway, but that part is optional.
Once they’ve been dipped, the nettles are ready to go.  I dumped them on a cutting board, chopped them up, and added them to a palak paneer with some home-grown spinach and home-made cheese.  I imagine it could be used in any sort of recipe calling for cooked greens.

Eating Nettles

I’ve never really figured out how to cook proper Southern greens, though I try every few days throughout turnip season.  If I had a good recipe, nettles would be my greens of choice—they stand up to a good bit of cooking without getting slimy.  In the relatively low-fat palaak paneer, they even came out a little dry.  I wrung them out after dipping them in the boiling water, and that was probably overkill.  Apart from the dryness, the texture was great, though.  The flavor was, well, comparable to any other kind of greens.  I’ll definitely be returning to my new nettles patch, and probably freezing a bit before it gets too tough.

Advertisements

Winter Greens, Part II: The Cold Frame

March 22, 2009

This entry is a follow-up to my article on sprouts several weeks ago.

I planned on being able to post digital pictures before I wrote this, but that’s not happening.  In addition to sprouting various seeds, some home-grown and others from the store, I add fresh local vegetables to my winter diet through the use of a cold-frame.  I have had less than spectacular results, and a few meteorological mishaps, but the idea is worth sharing.

In my last entry, I gave a plan for an insulated straw-bale cold frame.  This year, I didn’t get enough bales before winter, so I used an alternate design–a variation on a hoop house.  I picked up about 75 ‘ of concrete reinforcing mesh–sort of an industrial-strength chicken wire with 6″ holes–to make tomato cages and a compost bin.  With the 15 or so feet I had left over, I made two sections that arced into a half-circle shape, about as wide as one of the beds in my garden.  Each section was cut to leave 6″ lengths of wire sticking out on the ends, which I stuck into the ground to secure the frame.  This left me with a wire tunnel, about 5 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 3 feet tall.  I was able to get some greenhouse-grade plastic (leftovers from a local greenhouse) to cover my frame, and weighed down the edges with some fist-sized rocks.  This left me with a miniature version of the full-sized greenhouses you’d see at a commercial-scale nursery.

The cold frame collects and retains solar energy, resulting in, well, a “greenhouse effect” that keeps the plants within at a much warmer temperature than the outside air.  Though this would only add a week or two to the life of warm weather plants, like peppers or tomatoes, it can keep cool-weather plants alive through all but the coldest Michigan winters.

Fall and Spring Planting in a Cold Frame

I stuck with cool-season greens in the fall, such as leaf lettuce, bok choy, and spinach, planted in the early fall or transplanted a little later.  These go more or less dormant when the weather gets cold, but the cold frame keeps them in a harvestable state through most of winter.  There isn’t a lot of growth, so your stock dwindles as spring approaches, but it’s a great way to keep some fresh and local food on the table all winter.  With no disrespect to the other two winter-long green vegetables, it’s way more interesting than kale, and far more versatile than brussel sprouts.

In spring, the cold frame is more of a head-start than a long-term plan.  Around the time I’m planting pea seeds, I pull out the rest of the winter greens from the cold frame (there’s usually not much left, and what’s left is starting to toughen up and flower), and plant a new crop.  This year, it was spinach, bok choy, leaf lettuce, and very early carrots.  The additional heat and humidity from the enclosed cold frame will give them several weeks of extra growing time before the open-air garden is ready to be planted.  I’ve sited the cold frame in the place I’m putting this year’s peppers, which won’t be planted until early summer, so most of these plants will have a chance to mature before the peppers go in.  I’ve considered putting the peppers in a few weeks before the last frost, hoping that the cold frame would give them the shelter and warmth they would need, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk.  I’m not sure how cold it can get in a cold frame, particularly at night.

Cold Frame Problems

Weather rarely cooperates with cold frame construction.  I’ve had my plastic sheeting blown off completely, despite weighing down the edges and clipping the plastic to the frame.  I’ve also had the entire thing collapse under the weight of snow and ice, crushing the leafy plants underneath.  Also, since the plastic sheeting is impermeable to rain, it can get desert-dry inside of a cold frame when all the ground moisture is frozen.

Access to vegetables is another problem.  With rocks weighing down the edges, water sometimes pools and freezes, making it hard to lift the plastic sheeting and reach in to harvest.  The 6″ access holes are also an obstacle.  I’ve adopted a “mass harvest” mentality, getting a week’s worth of greens in one go, just to simplify things.

Once spring starts to warm up, it can get very hot inside a greenhouse.  Think of a car parked in the sun with the windows up–opening up the cold frame on those warm, sunny days is a necessary inconvenience.

Weeds that are growing in the space where you’ve set up your cold frame are also able to take advantage of the microclimate, so they often spread throughout the winter.  Finally, keeping a bed in production all year takes a lot out of the soil, so your cold-frame bed should be refreshed with compost or fertilizer more often than others.

Possible Improvements

I’ve considered a number of options that I haven’t followed through on yet.  The first–instead of using weights to hold down the plastic, I’ve seen cold frames with trenches dug along their edges, with the edge of the plastic sheet buried under a few inches of soil.  This would hold it down a lot better, but would make it much harder to get into the cold frame.

Another modification would be to put it in so that it straddled two beds, with a path down the center.  I’d have to crawl in from the end (the taller a cold frame is, the less efficient it is, as heat rises away from the plants), but I wouldn’t have to reach, and I’d be able to bury the edges as mentioned above.

I’ve saved up a bunch of dark-colored laundry soap jugs, which I intend to fill with water and use as heat collectors.  The dark colors will absorb solar heat through the day, then release it at night.  Each jug takes up valuable square footage in the cold frame, though.

I may use a few stakes next year to reinforce the wire framework–I’ve never had a collapse before, but this year’s heavy snowfall brought the whole cold frame down.  It’s an easy enough fix, and I could have saved a few plants.

So far, using a cold frame has been more art than science, but it has kept in in the garden throughout the winter, and kept me out of the produce section of the grocery store for several weeks beyond the end of my garden’s regular season.  I’ll be building another straw-bale frame next year, provided I can round up enough free straw bales, but I’ll build another wire-frame hoop house as well, just to see if I can do any better.

It Begins…

April 8, 2008

After treading water here for the past few months, I’ve finally been able to start my progress towards local eating this week.  In my head, I’ve got this divided into three categories:  foraging, gardening, and buying local.  I’ll break this entry into those categories, with a little news in each.

Foraging

A warm week here in Michigan has finally opened up greens season.  I’m finally seeing some growth in the pokeweed patch I’ve scoped out, but the sprouts are only about 1/2″ out of the ground–not quite ready to pull.  I was able to find some dandelions, though.  I made the mistake of eating some past-prime leaves earlier this year (last year’s growth) and it was pretty horrifying.  The leaves are always bitter, but young leaves have a sweet crispness that balances out the bitterness.  I was able to be certain that the leaves I was picking were new growth, because they were poking through last fall’s leaves.

I don’t have the benefit of last fall’s leaves in my own yard, where I have a number of healthy dandelions.  In order to be sure I’m harvesting new sprouts, I twisted off all of the growth on several of the dandelions crowding my lawn.  In a few weeks, the roots will have sent out fresh growth to eat.

My first harvest did not amount to enough for a salad, so I tossed them in to a soup for the last few minutes of cooking.  They were the best part of the soup, but that’s not saying much.

Gardening

I’m not eating anything out of the garden yet (due mostly to the collapse of my coldframe), but things are still happening.  In addition to the seedlings I’ve started indoors, I open-seeded spinach, peas, and swiss chard a few weeks ago.  The spinach is up, and should be ready to eat in a month or so.  No sign yet of asparagus, which I planted last year.  I’ve planted out some lettuce that I started indoors, and it looks to have recovered from the trauma of transplanting and is putting on new growth.  I should have lettuce by the time my dandelions have resprouted, for a mixed salad.

Buying Local

I finally figured out how to get to the farm outlet storefront, which is the only source for local meat and cheese until the farmer’s market opens.  I priced out buying whole/half/quarter pigs and cows, but it’s not practical at this point.  We have a chest freezer, and could probably store it, but we don’t have the money up-front to buy what would amount to more than a year’s worth of meat.  We might be able to go through that much meat when there are more mouths to feed, but in the meantime, we’ll have to buy our meat piece by piece.  On average, local meat through this outlet costs about 30-40% more than factory food, which is a significant enough price difference to make me think about each piece of flesh I cook up.

Cheese is a different matter.  The price was pretty competitive with brand-name, not-on-sale cheese, and it tastes noticeably better than mass-produced cheese.  Since this place is on the way to my regular grocery store, I’m planning on stopping by once a month to stock up on cheese.  I’ve got a bit of meat in the freezer, so it might be a while before I have to suck it up and shell out for local beef.

In other news, I now have my brother-in-law’s digital camera on hand, so I can start posting pics of some of the foods I’m finding.  This will hopefully make this blog more useful to others who are interested in foraging.  I haven’t tried out the camera yet, since I figured everyone knows what dandelions look like, but I’ll be sure to get some poke pics up, including how to spot a patch from a distance.

Winter Foraging, and Preparing for Spring Gardens

February 9, 2008

Back in the day when human beings depended on foraging for survival, there was not, I suspect, a lot of people spending winters in the Michigan area. I started this weblog as motivation to try new local and wild foods, but my decision to start in the dead of winter may have been a little misguided. Regardless, I’ve come up with a few snowbound topics.

Rose Hips

Not quite “wild”, but definitely local–the rose bush in my backyard, the last survivor of three planted by the previous owner, bloomed fairly well this year. I dutifully dead-headed, cutting off blooms that were past their prime. This ritual stimulates the rose to continue blooming. As fall approached, I let the rose blossoms mature, lose their petals, and set fruit. The orangey, marble-sized hips remain on the bush throughout winter. They are reportedly rich in vitamin C, which is not easy to come by locally in midwinter.

I prepared the hips in the recommended manner–gather a handful, pour hot water over them, and let steep for 10 minutes. This results in a pinkish intiction that was no great pleasure to drink. It may be the variety of rose (some may taste better than others), or the quality of the hips–by the time of harvest, mine had been through several freezes and thaws, with temperatures from freezing up through the seventies and back to freezing again. Like the brussel sprouts still frozen in my backyard, which are cooking up mushy these days, the rose hips may have seen better days. I will definitely try this earlier next season, and will try new varieties, but would have to be looking scurvy in the eye to revisit the beverage I’ve just finished.

Starting Seeds

In the dank, moldy shower stall in the corner of our basement, I’ve set up a two-level greenhouse to get a head start on the growing season. It’s a pretty crude affair–two scrap lumber frames, covered in lathe slats, with some discount flourescent lighting rigs. I lined the glass door with aluminum foil to reflect the light back into the shower stall, and have all of my lights plugged into a single powerstrip, which allows for easy on-off every morning and evening. To the casual observer, it looks an awful lot like I’m growing marijuana on a commercial scale. My digital camera is not functioning at the moment, but I’d like to provide some pictures in the future.

It’s well ahead of our last frost-free date (sometime in May), but I started a few things this week. In addition to some early flowers, I’ve got spinach and lettuce, which will go into the cold-frame for an early salad crop, and asparagus. Last year, the asparagus I grew from seed was completely eaten by slugs within two days of setting it out. I then purchased two dozen year-old roots, which will be entering their second year this spring (harvest is supposed to start at the three-year mark). By starting from seed again this year, I put myself a year into the hole and risk another slug attack, but I’ll save a considerable sum of money over buying roots. I also feed into an illogical drive for legitimacy, according to which growing from seed is more respectable than any shortcut. If my seed-starting fails again this year, I’ll be humbly purchasing and planting asparagus crowns when the soil can be worked.