Growing and Preparing Cardoons (Cynara cardunculus)

It’s the ultimate pain in the ass vegetable to prepare and I’ll probably get in big trouble in native plant circles for even mentioning it, but just last night I fried up my first successful plate of homegrown cardoons (Cynara cardunculus).

Not the most attractive blanching job, admittedly.

All ready to prepare

The cardoon is a close relative of artichoke, identical in appearance, except that the flowers are much smaller and the plant tends to get a lot bigger. Instead of eating the flowers, as with artichoke, you eat the stems. But first you’ve got to take some extra steps. When it gets around 3 feet tall you tie all the stems together and cover it in cloth, burlap or newspaper to blanch it for two to three weeks, leaving the top few inches of leaves to poke out of the covering. I once tried to eat an unblanched stem and it was bitter and tough so, in my experience, the blanching is a necessary step.

Pullin’ off the stringy bits

To prepare it you take the blanched, tender inner stems and pull off the stringy bits on the back, being careful to avoid the sharp edges (did I mention that this is a pain in the ass food?). Chop the stems into two inch strips and drop them into acidified water to prevent discoloration. Next boil the crap out of them. You might also be able to bake the crap out of them, but I have not tried this. I boiled them for 25 minutes. After boiling I fried them in a pan with garlic and olive oil and topped them with salt and Parmesan cheese. They are somewhat bland with a faint taste reminiscent of artichokes. They’d probably taste better paired with a heavy meat dish or as part of a stew. I’ve also seen recipes where they are drenched in cream and cheese.

In our Mediterranean climate cardoons are a perennial, though if you harvest them they’ll effectively be an annual. Here in Los Angeles you plant them in the winter/fall for a spring/summer harvest. The cardoon I harvested was “dry farmed” with no supplementary irrigation and planted itself. Elsewhere you would plant them a couple of weeks after the last frost and blanch them before they get too big.

When I mentioned to a native plant expert I greatly respect that I had them in my garden she read me the riot act. Cardoons are remarkably resilient and invasive. Hailing from the Mediterranean, they’ve taken over large parts of the New World. The brilliant purple flowers release thousands of tiny seeds, each with their own fibrous parachute that caries them hundreds of feet in the slightest of breezes. Charles Darwin mentions cardoon in The Voyage of the Beagle,

“In the latter country alone [Uruguay], very many (probably several hundred) square miles are covered by one mass of these prickly plants and are impenetrable by man or beast. Over the undulating plains, where these great beds occur, nothing else can now live.”

My own thoughts about “invasives” are closer to David Theodoropoulos than the nativists–best to work with invasives rather than fret about them. Homo Sapiens are the ultimate invasive species, after all, and I’ll take the cardoons over the oil spills, any day.

Sundiner

Beekeeper Dennis made one of those once in a lifetime garage sale finds earlier this year: a solar oven from the 1960s called the “Sundiner.” I couldn’t find much on the interwebs about it except for a brief mention in the  April 1963 issue of Desert Magazine,

“Here’s a new product that suits desert living as few others can—it collects and concentrates the heat of the sun and allows outdoor cooking without fuel or fire. They call it the Sundiner. The technical description is “Solar Energy Grill.” Sundiner is a compact unit, 17-inches square and 6inches tall. Fold-out mirrors are metalized Mylar plastic, supported by polypropylene holders. The mirrors focus the sun’s heat on the lower section of the cabinet, where heat slowly builds up to a maximum of about 450 degrees—plenty to cook with. Directly below the apex of the mirrors is an oven enclosure. Plastic foam insulation and a pair of glass plates prevent excessive heat loss. The solar energy grill works in this simple way: point the mirrors toward the sun for a few minutes until the right temperature is reached (built-in heat indicator dial) and pop a tray of food into the oven. There is no fire or fuel to handle. Sole source of cooking stems from the collected, concentrated rays of the sun. Here is a sample of how long various meats take to cook: Hamburgers, franks, and fish, 15 to 20 minutes. Steaks and fillets, 20 to 25 minutes. Quartered chicken, 25 to 30 minutes. Temperature variations are possible by turning the Sundiner toward or away from the sun. The advantage of the Sundiner is that it can be used as a safe substitute for a fuel-fired stove on beaches, parks, decks of boats, and other restricted areas. Carrying handles are standard. The price is $29.95. From Sundiner. Carmer Industries. Inc., 1319 West Pico Blvd.. Los Angeles 15. Calif.”

That price would be about $207.62 today, just under what the very similar Global Sun Oven Solar Cooker costs.

When collapsed the Sundiner resembles, unsurprisingly, a 1960s era portable record player.

Dig that groovin’ temperature dial.

 The instructions are printed on the inside cover.

I can almost taste the heavy nitrites in those 1960s hot dogs.

For more vintage solar thoughtstylings see Life Magazine’s “Solar Power Back in the Day.”

Revised and Expanded

A revised and expanded version of our book, The Urban Homestead is now available everywhere books are sold and via this website. And we have a new cover thanks to our fantastic publisher Process Media. No longer does the woman stand behind the man!

As for the “expanded” part, new projects include:
• How to sterilize jars and bottles
• How to make infused oil
• Six ways to preserve a tomato
• How to make soda bread
• How to store grain with dry ice
• How to make a tomato can stove
• How to make a Viet Nam light
• How to make a Euell Gibbon’s crock
• How to make L’hamd markad, or preserved, salted lemons
• How to make a bike light

“The Urban Homestead… touches on vegetable gardening, poultry, DIY cleaning products and beer making — all outlined with a sense of play and fun. “Whole Life Times

“… a delightfully readable and very useful guide to front and back-yard vegetable gardening, food foraging, food preserving, chicken keeping, and other useful skills for anyone interested in taking a more active role in growing and preparing the food they eat.”
Boingboing.net

Thanks to all of you who have already bought a copy of The Urban Homestead. If you don’t have a copy yet, consider purchasing the new edition directly from us via our paypal link on the right side of this page. While we can’t compete with Amazon, your direct purchases help fund our ongoing household experiments. And stay tuned for news of our next book Making It which will be out in November.

Made By Hand

Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway WorldJungian analyst James Hollis speaks of two gremlins that meet us at the foot of the bed each day: fear and lethargy. As DIYers, gardeners, poultry keepers and fermentation fetishists, our worst enemy is a crippling fear of failure and the lethargy that results when we try to avoid challenges by surfing the Internet, watching TV, or just staring into space. To embrace failure is the only way to learn. Hollis quotes Rainer Maria Rilke, “our task is to be defeated by ever larger things.”

BoingBoing co-founder and Make Magazine editor in chief Mark Frauenfelder has a new book Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World that chronicles his quest to do the kinds of activities we cover on this blog: vegetable gardening, keeping chickens, fermentation, beekeeping and more. While Made by Hand is not a how-to book it is, paradoxically, the most practical DIY book I’ve read in a long time. Why? Because it’s all about facing that fear of failure, the single greatest obstacle to actually getting out there and doing things. In the book Frauenfelder quotes überDIYer Mister Jalopy,

“People are afraid that they’re going to screw something up, that they’re going to ruin something. And unfortunately, it’s valid–they will. You will screw up. Things will be broken. But that’s the one step to overcome to get on the path of living this richer life of engagement, of having meaningful connections to the objects around you. It’s that necessary step you have to take–the courage to screw things up.”

I picked up Made by Hand and couldn’t put it down. I’ve done most of the activities Frauenfelder writes about and made many of the same mistakes. In the past month I’ve had an especially frustrating series of DIY setbacks. I’ve also, directly because of reading this book, faced my fear of failure and had a series of creative breakthroughs.

The world does not need more “experts.” What we need are the brutally honest voices of  “practitioners” like Frauenfelder, people who do things and have the courage to fail. As Ulysses says in the Odyssey, “I will stay with it and endure through suffering hardship, and once the heaving sea has shaken my raft to pieces, then I will swim.”

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world

LA is the poster child for bad planning. While there are probably worse cities in the US, we’ve certainly got our work ahead of us here.Which is why I’m asking all of you for a favor. A local elementary school near our house on a ugly stretch of Sunset Blvd. is applying for a grant to create a garden and do some traffic calming. The grant is vote based and here’s the link:

http://www.justmeans.com/contestidea?ideaid=NTU5

The grant would provide $25,000 towards replacing a parking lot with a garden.

Why this is important

Yes, it’s a bit annoying to fill out the form, however I think that this particular project would be a shining example of how to turn what is essentially a traffic sewer into a place for PEOPLE. Even if you don’t live here, my hope is that this garden will inspire others across the country. If we can make it happen here we can make it happen everywhere. The deadline is June 14th, so act soon.

Seedling Disaster!

“No one talks of failure as anything but shameful; this is wrongheaded and foolish . . . Mistakes are synonymous with learning. Failing is unavoidable. Making is a process, not an end. It is true that deep experience helps avoid problems, but mainly it gives you mental tools with which to solve inevitable problems when they come up.”

-Tom Jennings, as quoted in Mark Frauenfelder’s excellent new book, Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World 

Oh, but those mistakes sure can be frustrating especially when they happen in the garden!  I’ve had nothing but bad luck germinating seeds this spring for our summer garden and, as a result, our vegetable beds are as bare as the Serengeti. What happened? Here’s a list of possibilities:

  • watering too much
  • watering too little
  • damping off 
  • unseasonably cold weather (we germinate outside here)
  • the occasional hot day on top of cold evenings
  • the mindset of the gardener: being in a hurried, stressed mood as we finished our next book

Nature being a complex system, you can often get stacking problems that make figuring out what went wrong difficult. I’m leaning towards the cold weather as I’ve noticed some of the seeds I planted starting to come up as it has warmed up. Lesson: you’ve gotta watch the weather reports even in a mild climate such as ours or invest in heating mats or a cold frame. 

Despite my pledge to grow vegetables only from seeds, panic over a summer without homegrown tomatoes prompted me to call Garden Edibles owner Craig Ruggless to see if he had any seedlings. Thankfully he had some heirloom tomato seedlings that he gave to me in return for helping him try to capture a swarm of bees that had shown up in his olive tree (unsuccessfully, it turned out–more on that misadventure in another post). At least I’m not alone. My friends in Chicago, the Green Roof Growers, had their own tomato seedling apocalypse.

I once saw Julia Child on Martha Stewart’s show demonstrating how to make an elaborate dessert called a Croqembouche, a pyramidal tower of cream filled pastry balls. Stewart and Child built separate Croqembouche towers. At the end of the demo Stewart’s was perfect and Child’s was, well, a big mess. Yet Julia soldiered on, laughing at her mistakes. My pledge with the garden is to try to do the same and have fewer of my notorious garden meltdowns when the inevitable crisis happens. So what if it ain’t perfect around here? Now Mrs. Homegrown and Homegrown neighbor should make note of that pledge . . .

Readers, please feel free to share some recent disasters.

Food and Flowers Freedom Act Update

Yesterday the Food and Flowers Freedom Act passed the city council and awaits the mayor’s expected signature. It goes to show that revising outdated codes pertaining to local agriculture can be, at least here in Los Angeles, non-controversial. In fact, those of us at the meeting to support the act left before the vote was taken. It tuned out the council was pre-occupied with a contentious debate over rent control that ended in a fight breaking out and the council chambers being cleared. At least, it seems, we can all get behind locally grown fruit and flowers. For more information on the history of the Food and Flowers Freedom Act, see the website of the Urban Farming Advocates.

The Food and Flowers Freedom Act Needs Your Support

UFA supporters at a commission meeting back in March

Local food is coming to Los Angeles. Friday May 21st, the Los Angeles City Council will vote on amending city code to allow growing and selling fruit and flowers within city limits. If you live in the area, the Urban Farming Advocates can use your support at tomorrow’s meeting. From the UFA website:

We will assemble between 11 and 11:30am in the Council Chamber at City Hall.

Friday morning, May 21, 2010

Los Angeles City Hall
200 North Spring St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 485-2121

If we’re gonna be called the “land of the fruits and the nuts,” we might as well live up to it! Hope to see some of you downtown tomorrow.