Posts Tagged ‘vegetables’

Easy Pickings: Foraging on Farms

August 18, 2010

This entry is not about gleaning, which is picking over a field to pick up what the harvesters missed.  For information on gleaning in the present day, there’s an interesting if slow-moving documentary called The Gleaners and I.

Farm foraging is the practice of finding abandoned farms and searching their grounds for horticultural holdouts from the past.  Old farms are pretty easy to spot–the sagging barns, sun-bleached houses, and rusted sheds are a pretty common sight in the rural corners of the midwest.  Until recently, farmers lived where they grew, and kept kitchen gardens in addition to the fields, where they grew their main crop.  Although a garden bed can be completely weeded over after a month or two of neglect, some of the other garden plantings can continue growing a generation after the farm was shuttered.

On a recent hiking trip, my family spent some time passing though several abandoned homesteads.  Close to the houses, we found apples, good enough to eat out of hand (a rare quality in non-commercial apples) and big, sweet blackberries with very few seeds.  The apple tree was probably planted several decades ago as part of an orchard, and the blackberries had probably spread far from their original spot–they’re notoriously invasive.

I would expect that other farms still have asparagus patches, grapes, rhubarb, raspberries, gooseberries, and other long-lived perennials growing, long after their planters have moved on.  Other self-propagators, like sunflowers, Jerusalem artichoke, nasturtium, and squash may even be sprouting year after year.

Kitchen gardens were usually placed as close as possible to the house, to make it easy to harvest as necessary.  If the house is still standing, the garden should be easy to find.  If not, look for the foundation–it’s likely grown over with weeds, but should still be standing.  While you’re working around the foundation, don’t forget to look for those edible ornamentals, like roses and daylilies.

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Scouting the Wild Asparagus

November 6, 2009

I’ve been building up a patch of asparagus in the backyard, but lately I’ve been seeing it growing wild just about every time I take the highway.  I started out taking mental notes of where each patch was, but I’ve given up—it’s all over the place, so I’m assuming I’ll be able to find some come spring.
This is an ideal time to locate a patch, though.  In the spring, the sprouts are just a few inches tall and impossible to find without coming within a few feet of it.  In the summer, when it has bushed out, asparagus blends into the other greenery.  In autumn, however, it turns a particular hue that stands out from the bleached-out stalks of the other roadside plants.  It’s hard to describe, and doesn’t really photograph well, but it’s a bit yellower than the straw-colored grasses.  It also has what Euell Gibbons (author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the inspiration for this article’s title) calls a “Christmas tree shape”—kind of a lacy pyramid.  If you don’t know of anyone who grows asparagus who can give you a peek at the full-grown plant, I’d seek it out.  You might even be able to convince a farmer’s market vendor to let you take a look at their fields.  Once you get a look at it, it’ll be easy to spot, even from some distance.  I’m hoping that the bushes are as easy to identify in the spring, after they’ve been under the snow for a few months.
Lately, I’ve been seeing it along highways, with one patch growing literally at the intersection of the two biggest highways on this side of the state.  In the past, I’ve found it growing along rivers, and friends have told me of patches near the Lake Michigan shores, but the highway side is the best place to start looking.
I’ll put up a proper post once I’ve found, picked, and prepared some in season, but I’ve been seeing it all over and thought I’d spur my regular readers to start seeking it out.

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.

Homegrown Vegetables Hall of Fame I: Asparagus

April 22, 2009

Even if you don’t like asparagus, it holds a special place in the in-season/local eating diet.  After a winter eatng cellared roots, squash, cold-frame greens, and frozen or canned vegetables, asparagus is the first real vegetable of the season in Great Lakes states.  It’s an especially fun vegetable to grow, as it sticks out of the ground looking exactly like itself.  Unlike, say, tomatoes or cucumbers, which grow for months before they yield the familiar fruits, asparagus is recognizable from the moment it sticks out of the ground.

Growing Asparagus
Asparagus is a perennial—it regrows from the roots every year—which makes it a lot more work to get started.  The easiest way to get started is to purchase crowns in the spring.  Soak them in a bucket of water while digging a trench about 8” deep.  For best results, dig some compost into the bottom of the trench—you won’t be able to till this area in the future, so make soil improvements while you can.  It’s recommended that you spread out the roots at the bottom of the trench, but in my experience, the roots tend to break off.  I usually put them in on their side, as the crowns will grow into a position they are comfortable in.
When the crowns are in place, backfill the trench about half way and water well to settle the soil.  When the asparagus begins to peek out of the soil, continue backfilling and watering until the trench is filled in and the asparagus is growing above ground.  Keep it well watered and weeded for the first year while the asparagus gets established.
It’s generally recommended that you let the asparagus grow for two or three years before harvesting so that the plants can build strength and focus on root growth.  I was able to get a few spears in my second year (last year), but this year (year three) is the first time I’m reaping a real harvest.  I get a few spears (enough for a meal) every two or three days.

Through the harvest season, the spears will get thinner and thinner as the plant weakens.  When they get to be about the thickness of a pencil, leave the plant to grow out into a bush so that it can spend the summer “recharging” for next year.
My less agrarian friends are always surprised to see asparagus that has grown out—I don’t have any pictures ready to go, but it grows into what looks like a bush, 4’-5’ tall.  It’s a beautiful specimen plant, with a few disadvantages as a landscaping element.  First, it dies back to the ground every winter and, if consistently harvested, doesn’t fill in until June or so.  Second, being a tall plant, it can cast some dense shade on neighboring plants.  In the vegetable garden, it should be situated on the North side of the garden whenever possible so that it doesn’t shade out shorter plants.
In the fall, after the asparagus has faded to its golden autumnal color, cut it down at ground level.  Mulch it well to add nutrients for next year’s growth.

Eating Asparagus
Home grown asparagus compares favorably with the store-bought variety, with the added advantage of not having stood in a tray full of tepid water for a week or more in the grocery store.  You also get a lot more of the thick, fleshy sprouts, as compared to the straggly store-bought stems.  I’ve been rolling it up in sushi, stir-frying it, and making a risotto with it.  The less time it spends cooking, the better, and it’s pretty good raw, as well—the store-bought stuff isn’t so good this way.  It’s got a unexpectedly nutty flavor.

I’ve started some asparagus from seed, but that adds yet another year to the prep period before it can be harvested.  That will be entering year two this year, so I won’t be able to compare seed stock to root stock for another several years.  Planting asparagus is a commitment, but a well-established asparagus plot can yield for decades, and there is really nothing that can compare to the first fresh vegetable of the year.

Daylilies: Are invasive species so bad?

November 28, 2008

The search for starch continues (after the Jerusalem artichoke disappointment), and this time I was a little more successful.  Daylilies are an import from Asia, but they have naturalized here in the states to the point of showing up in my wildflower field guide.  The Chinese have been eating them throughout history, but they haven’t caught on as a food crop in the States.  I ate the tubers for this entry, but the plants also produce edible shoots and flowers.  I haven’t tried the shoots–there are a lot of delicious shoots sprouting up around the same time–but the boiled/steamed flowerbuds make a passable vegetable.

Finding Daylilies

Daylilies are best found when in bloom, usually in June or July.  The familiar orange trumpet-shaped flower can be found along roads, and seems to be especially common in the drainage ditches along rural roads.  The beginner should take a second to confirm that they aren’t regular lilies, which are not edible.  Daylilies form a mound of strappy leaves, and lilies form a stalk, with leaves growing along the stalk.  Daylilies will grow in fairly shady situations, but this seems to impair their ability to flower.  Like so many wild edibles, the border between forests and roads, rivers, railroads, and fields are a good place to find them.  As a cultivated plant, they are readily available in landscapes everywhere, as the plant is attractive both when it’s flowering and as a foliage plant, and it’s extremely-low maintenence once established.

Harvesting Daylilies

Getting the tubers is easy, as long as the ground isn’t frozen.  I’ve heard that waiting until after a frost sweetens them, and that seems to be the case, as the batch I had was quite sweet.  To dig them up, I found some of last summer’s wilted leaves and followed them to the stem, then stuck the trowel in about 4 inches away, so as not to damage any of the tubers.  Pulling on the leaves while pushing the trowel away from the plant levered it out of the ground easily.  The harvest from each plant is small–10-15 tubers about the size of an in-shell peanut–but the plants grow thickly and it’s easy to pull them up.  I cut a dozen of the biggest tubers off, then stick the rest of the plant back in the ground, but I haven’t tracked whether or not these plants survive.  However, the colonies as a whole can bounce back from a heavy harvest.

Preparing Daylilies

I was advised to cook daylily tubers like new potatoes, so I scrubbed them, twisted off any roots, and boiled them for about 15 minutes, then served them with butter.  Some of them would have benefited from being peeled, but most of them were fine whole.  The tubers with tough skin can be squeezed out once they are boiled.

Eating Daylilies

I always eat a new food as plainly as possible, so that I can evaluate it without elaborate preparation coloring my perception.  I served the boiled daylilies with a little butter.  The first thing I noticed was that rinsing them, as instructed in one of my manuals, is insufficient, and I should have scrubbed them to get all the grit off.  Besides a bit of dirt, they were pretty unremarkable–a bit more fibrous than a potato, maybe more like a boiled carrot in texture, with a nice sweetness and an earthy flavor.

One of the revelations of this wild-food experience is how unremarkable a lot of these foods are–poke sprouts, lambs quarters, sorrel, etc. all taste like “normal” food, and apart from being slightly unfamiliar in appearance, they could “pass”  on any dinner table.  I came in expecting a culture shock, similar to what I experienced the first time I ate sushi or curry or manioc.  Instead, most of these foods feel familiar.  I suppose that’s a good thing, but it makes this experience more like a homecoming than a safari.