A Hairy Cucumber: Mezzo Lungo di Polignano

There’s a crass joke or limerick to be made here but I’ll leave that up to you, our dear readers. I’ll just say that this cucumber, an Italian heirloom called Mezzo Lungo di Polignano, has done well for us this summer. No powdery mildew and it’s tasty. I got the seeds from Craig Ruggless at www.gardenedibles.com. I wrote Craig to ask him about it and he replied,

“This is one of my favorites. They are also very good when left on the vine to get larger. Be sure to peel and remove the seeds. They make a great “boat” for salad fillings Like tuna or salmon with lemon and capers in maybe a mayo or yogurt dressing.”

The salad boat idea, in our case with tomatoes and a yogurt dressing, made for one of my favorite meals this summer. As for the hairy skin–biodiversity in action–and there something to be said for variety and aesthetics even though that crazy skin never ends up on the dining room table.

Blue Garlic A-OK


Mrs. Homegrown here:

Note the lovely blue tinge of the garlic in my latest pickling adventure. Turns out that there’s a few reasons garlic might turn blue or green when prepared, but whatever the case, the coloring is harmless. What most likely happened here is that the garlic I used wasn’t fully dried, so it reacted with the vinegar in the pickling mix. I remember noting how moist the garlic cloves were as I worked with them that day.

If you want to read up more on this topic, and learn some of the science behind it (I’m too lazy to retype all the big words), check out this garlic fact sheet from What’s Cooking America. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.

By the way, the pickles I’m making are tourshi–Armenian pickles. If they work out, I’ll share the recipe.

Bean Fest, Episode 2: Falafel and Babaganoush Recipes

Welcome back to Bean Fest 2010, our ongoing celebration of the humble dried bean.

Last week we got a lot of great tips and hints in the comments. If you haven’t read those, I’d encourage you to take a peek. We also got a couple of recipes via email that we’re going to test out. Thanks, ya’ll! Again, if anyone has a favorite bean recipe, please send it this way ([email protected]).

One lesson to take away from last week is that beans do quite well in solar ovens, crockpots and the newer pressure cookers, and that if you eat a lot of beans, one of these devices would be a useful investment. I really wish I had any one of those items! We have a light, homemade solar cooker–as opposed to a more sturdy, enclosed solar oven–which is handy for grains, but really doesn’t have enough ooomph for consistent bean cooking. And we’re lacking in both space and money for new kitchen gadgets. So around here we’re stuck cooking beans on the stovetop. Seems everyone has their own bean cooking methodologies. This is mine, for what its worth:

  • Pre-soak beans for about 8 hours. Oversoaking can lead to mushy beans.
  • Rinse soaked beans and place in a heavy pot with 2 inches of water covering them. Simmer until done–however long that takes. Sometimes the bean gods are merciful, sometimes they are not. Never cook beans on a deadline. Cook them when you have plenty of time and other things to do around the kitchen.
  • Don’t salt ’til they’re almost done, because salt toughens the skins.

There seems to be a split in camps between people who a) cook the beans first, unseasoned, then incorporate them into a dish, b) throw onions & etc. into the water with the beans and let it all boil together, and c) people who do a saute of the onions & etc. at the bottom of the pan before adding the beans. I don’t know if any of these methods are better than the others, and admit to doing all three.

This Week’s Recipe: Falafel

The first lesson in food photography is not to consume your subject before you even get around to taking the picture. These few falafels were all we had left when we realized we needed to take a pic for this post.

I was thinking that a lot of people are just plain intimidated by cooking dried beans, so perhaps it would be fun to start out with a bean recipe that allows you to just skip all that trauma. Back in the day, Erik and I would sometimes make falafel out of that powdery stuff you buy in bulk bins. It tended to be salty and dry, but it was quick food. We were amazed to discover how easy it is to make real falafel–and how good the result is. Unlike bulk bin stuff, this falafel is moist and light and tender.

The secret is that it is made with raw chickpeas. They are soaked and ground up–but not cooked. This gives the falafel great texture and fresh flavor. You should not substitute canned or cooked beans in this recipe. If you do, the balls won’t hold together very well. If you must use canned beans, you’ll need to add some bread or cracker crumbs, and possibly even an egg, to create a dough which will hold together.

The other thing about this recipe is that it is very, very flexible. I’d encourage you to adapt this any way you think best.

We make this in our food processor. If you don’t have one, I’d suspect it could be done in batches in a mortar. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, then you’d have to come up with some way to squish the beans. Perhaps in a bag with a rolling pin? The greens and the rest could be minced and stirred into the bean mash.

You’ll need:

(This quantity will make wraps for 4)

  • Dried chickpeas (aka garbanzos), 1 cup
  • Chopped greens/herbs: about 3 generous fistfuls. We usually use 2 handfuls of parsley and 1 handful of mint. But if we don’t have that, we improvise. Any flavorful green would work: mint, parsley, cilantro, chives, basil, flavorful wild potherbs, etc. Arugula works too, and even less flavorful greens, like spinach, will do in pinch.
  • Garlic, 2 or more cloves
  • Onion, about 1/2 of a reasonably sized onion, chopped (optional, could also be replaced with green onion)
  • Salt, about a teaspoon
  • Spices to taste. Here things get really individual. Spice as you please. We usually add about a teaspoon of cumin and a couple of big pinches of cayenne pepper.

Soak the beans for about 8 hours. You can put them out to soak at breakfast to make falafel for dinner. The one cup of beans will expand to 2 cups when soaked.

Toss the beans, garlic, onion, salt and spices into the food processor, along with a glug of olive oil. Whirl until you can’t see whole beans anymore. Add another glug of olive oil and all the greens. Let it whirl until the greens are cut down to speck size. The mix should be a pleasant spring green. Taste and add more salt or whatever you think necessary. Don’t mix it until it turns to smooth paste. Stop while it still has a little texture. Add olive oil to smooth it out, as necessary. When its done, it will be wet and light, but you should be able to easily roll the mix into balls.

At this point it would be fantastic if you could let the mix rest in the fridge for an hour or two for the flavors to blend and the mix to stiffen up, but you don’t have to.

Roll up a bunch of balls, or small patties, if you’re a patty person. We make balls that are smaller than golf balls. More like big gum balls. Or mountain state hail.

At this point you can deep fry or pan fry the balls. You could probably bake them, too, if you want to be righteously healthy, but we can’t advise you on time and temp.

We usually cook them via a method I call “half-assed deep frying.” Being somewhat too guilty minded (and cheap) to actually cook up a whole vat of hot oil and fry the falafel like a good falafel should be fried, I pour about a half inch of oil (I use grapeseed) into my littlest cast iron frying pan and heat that till it sizzles when I drop a bit of falafel mix into it. Then I put the balls in, about 5 or 6 at a time. The oil covers them about half way. When the bottoms are golden, I flip them and cook the other side. It doesn’t cost much oil. And while it doesn’t give that perfect crispness of true submersion deep frying, it tastes pretty darn good.

Serve your falafels wrapped in some sort of flat bread along with salad fixins, especially chopped tomatoes and onions. Good toppings include yogurt, tahini, hummus and baba ganoush.

Do you know how to make baba ganoush? Baba ganoush is eggplant spread, a close cousin to hummus, but lighter, and to my mind, better.

A Quick Baba Ganoush Recipe

All you need is eggplant, garlic, tahini , olive oil and lemon.

Take one huge eggplant or a few smaller ones, prick a few holes in them so they don’t explode and put them in a 400-450 degree oven on a baking sheet for about 45 minutes, or until they wrinkle and go flat on the bottom. Then cut them down the middle and scoop out the flesh into a mixing bowl. The skins could go to chickens, worms or compost.

From here, you could mix everything in a food processor or blender, or just use a fork if you don’t mind a more stringy texture. Even if I use power tools, I try to keep the baba ganoush a little lumpy. Stir in tahini to taste. To me, that means that if I have 2 cups of eggplant goop, I’d probably add 1/4 cup of tahini.

Mince up your garlic fine and stir that in next. How much garlic depends on how much bite you want the baba to have. 1 clove minimum, much more theoretically. Add salt to taste, and pepper, or hot pepper, if you like. Add a swirl of olive oil to give it some richness. The finishing touch is fresh lemon juice, and it’s an absolute must. Try adding about half a lemon’s worth of juice, see how that tastes, and go from there.

Baba ganoush tastes best if its allowed to chill for a couple of hours before serving. It’s pretty easy to whip up a batch of falafel mix and baba ganoush at the same time, and then put it all in the fridge until dinner time. Then it only takes a few minutes to fry up the falafel, and you’re good to go.

Figgy Rebuttal

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I had to register my disagreement with Mr. Homegrown’s Mission Fig vs. Kadota Fig post. Seems Erik decided to hold a taste test and invite only himself. The Kadota figs are certainly very good. But much of that goodness comes from their sweetness. They are sweet as honey, but not cloying. I respect that, but I don’t crave it. Unlike Erik, I don’t have a sweet tooth. Therefore, of the two I prefer the less sweet Black Mission figs–they’re figgier, for lack of a better word. So don’t go to bed thinking that you’re really missing out by not having one of them fancy Janice Kadota trees in your yard. They’re very good figs, but they’re not all that.

Black Mission Fig vs. Janice Seedless Kadota FIgs

Janice Seedless Kadota (top), Black Mission Fig (bottom)

Who wins the flavor battle between Black Mission figs and Janice Seedless Kadota figs? The verdict: Black Mission figs are damn good, but Janice Seedless Kadotas are damn better! We’re jealous of Homegrown Neighbor who has one of these beauties.

Patented in 1993 and sold wholesale by the Dave Wilson Nursery, Janice figs are white and incredibly sweet. Ask your local nursery to order one from Dave Wilson for you. But note, this is a variety for Mediterranean climates.

For excellent directions on growing figs see this info sheet from the California Rare Fruit Growers.

Italian immigrants desperate for the flavors of home pioneered growing figs in northerly climates. See this discussion over at GardenWeb for cold climate fig strategies.

On miso, caffeine and the search for a morning brew



Mrs. Homegrown here:

I am a caffeine addict. Erik is too, though he doesn’t admit it. Actually, he was only a casual user until he met me, and then became habituated to the morning brew, and eventually graduated into the 3pm pick-me-up brew. In general, I think mild caffeine addiction is not very worrisome, and pretty much built into the fiber of America. However, my own addiction has always been demanding. And recently I had to go straight (long story) — which resulted in a full week of headaches and misery. But now I’m clean, and living in a much slower, less productive, somewhat dream-like reality. Is the world supposed to be this way??? Really?

Anyway, I’ve decided two things. One, that it is impossible that I should never again ingest caffeine. No more Turkish coffee? No more Thai iced coffee? Never again a Mexican Coke? No English Breakfast teas on a cold afternoon? No crisp iced tea with a nice lunch? Riiiiighht. It will have to come back into my life in some sort of managed way. (How’s that for addict thinking?)

But before I slide back into my habits, I’ve decided to stay entirely clean for a month to see how my head reacts. See, I get a lot of headaches, so much so that I’m a connoisseur of headaches, and I’m wondering if the vascular expansion roller coaster of caffeine consumption might not be very good for me. We’ll see.

All this brings me to the point of this post. I’m looking for interesting suggestions for hot beverages that I can drink in the morning which will ease my longing for the ritualized caffeine consumption.

I do not approve of any of the myriad fruit-flavored or otherwise flavored “herb” teas in the marketplace. I have my own mint, nettles and other herbs to make tea of, but thin herb tea is just plain depressing first thing in the morning. In the morning I want something substantial. I’m not afraid of the the bitter, the strange and the strong.

Do any of you know anything about chicory or the various bitter root brews? Those old-timey, war ration, hillbilly sort of brews? This is what I’m interested in pursuing. Let me know if you have any ideas or favorites.

What’s working for me so far is miso soup. It’s an important component of the traditional Japanese breakfast, and I can see why. Miso soup is big and interesting and hearty–somehow on par in terms of body satisfaction with a nice cup of coffee with milk. Of course, it’s crazy high in sodium, but it is rich in trace minerals, and if you use real paste (not dried mix) and don’t overcook it, you also get a dose of beneficial micro-organisms, because miso is a fermented product. I throw in a few strips of nori to give me something to chew on as I drink.

A few hints re: miso:

• Buy the pure paste, not the soup mix. Buy the paste in big bags at an Asian-foods supermarket. It is much cheaper than the little tubs sold in health food stores. After I open a bag I transfer it to a plastic yogurt tub and put it in the fridge. It keeps forever. There are different types of miso (red, white, brown…) Don’t let this confuse you. All are good. Just start somewhere and you’ll sort it out. I’m fond the red.

• Proper miso soup is made with the classic Japanese soup stock, dashi. You can make it with any stock you like, or do as I do in the mornings and just use water. It’s important not to simmer miso, because heat kills the beneficial critters in it. If you’re making a pot of soup, add the miso at the end, after you pull it off the heat. If you’re making it with hot water, take the kettle off heat before the boil, or let the water sit and cool some before using.

• I use about one rounded teaspoon of paste per coffee cup of water. This makes pretty strong drink, but I like that.

Big hint: when mixing miso paste into liquid, always dissolve the miso in a tiny bit of liquid first, and then add that solution to the larger volume of liquid. Otherwise you’ll never get the lumps out. For instance, I put a spoonful of paste at the bottom of the coffee cup, add a splash of water, mix that up until the lumps are gone, then add the rest of the water.

• You can make your own miso! Sandor Katz has instructions in Wild Fermentation. It actually doesn’t sound hard to do at all. You just cook up some beans and inoculate them, then store them in a crock. I’ve always wanted to try it, but miso needs to ferment for a year in a reasonably cool place. Living in SoCal without a cellar, I just don’t think I can give it the conditions it requires.

• You can make pickles using miso paste. I’m experimenting with that right now, and will report back.

Scarlet Runner Bean Stew

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Apparently a block away, Mrs. Homegrown has also been having bean cravings. Maybe there is something in the air. Maybe its just that beans are hearty, filling, inexpensive and all around awesome. I happened to get my hands on a bag of dried scarlet runner beans from Rancho Gordo specialty beans.

Scarlet runners are a favorite garden bean as they are great climbers and produce beautiful red flowers. If you want to grow a bean teepee or need to cover a chain link fence, they would be a good plant choice. In fact, my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown, grow them every summer.
 
I’ve never had scarlet runners as a dried bean before. But having lived in co-ops in Berkeley for many years, I am pretty experienced at cooking dried beans, other legumes and whole grains.
When it comes to dried beans I almost always do the overnight soak method. To soak beans overnight, simply place your beans in a large pot. Rinse them and pick out any stones or broken beans. Fill the pot up 3/4 of the way with water and let soak overnight or for at least five hours. After their soak you may need to add more water. The beans can soak up a lot. Then cook on medium to high heat for about an hour. Test a bean. How done you want your beans is rather subjective. If you want to use them in a salad, you may want them a little more firm. But if you want to make refried beans, they need to be extra soft. Just taste and see what you think. I like my beans nice and soft but not falling apart.
So to cook the scarlet runner beans I placed them in the 3 quart enameled pot that goes with my solar cooker, filled it the rest of the way with water and let the beans soak overnight. The next day I admired the fat, swollen beans. I threw in a few bay leaves and put the pot in the solar cooker around 9 a.m.. I arrived home around 4 p.m. and my beans were done.

They are big and meaty, but still rather bland. I’m going to eat them for dinner tonight and this is what I’m going to do to flavor them: I’ll keep the pot liquor (the water the beans cooked in). In a separate skillet I’ll heat some oil and saute onions, garlic, maybe a few pieces of celery then add some mushrooms. I really recommend cooking the onions and mushrooms in butter for extra flavor. But since I’m making tonight’s dish vegan, I’m going to cook them in coconut oil. Then I’ll add the cooked onions and mushrooms to the beans on low heat. Then add 1 -2 teaspoons of ground cumin and a dash of cayenne.Yum.

Bean Fest Begins!

Photograph by Luisfi

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I’ve never figured out why sometimes the body craves junk food (e.g. salt and pepper ruffle chips dipped in sour cream with a side of home baked brownies) and other times it craves good food. But fortunately for my system, I’m craving good food now. I dream about fresh cooked beans, succulent greens and garlic laden pickles. The image above makes me salivate.

Yet…dried beans are also a bit of a mystery to me. A well-cooked pot of beans is a revelation: creamy, rich, flavorful. One of my most memorable meals ever was a simple plate of black beans over white rice. The black beans just happened to be spiced to perfection with some sort of rare cumin. It was delicious beyond describing. The cook had mastered the hidden art of beans. As homey and friendly as beans are, they can be tricky. Make a couple of misteps in cooking and you end up with bland hippie slop. These days I get it right more than I get it wrong, but I’m always looking to improve.

So I’m crowd-sourcing my bean quest. Let’s celebrate the humble bean and all its possibilities. Beans are the ultimate recessionary food, after all, and we’re all looking for ways to eat better and spend less. Every Friday from now through the end of September we’re going to be posting about beans.

What I’d like to hear from readers today is bean cooking tips–do you pre-soak or long cook? Do you cook in water or broth? When do you add salt? Which herbs pair best with which beans? What are your favorite beans to cook? What would you tell a newbie bean cooker? Who taught you how to cook dried beans?

Also, throughout this month we’ll be collecting and testing bean recipes to post on Fridays. If you have a favorite dried-bean-based recipe that you’d like to share, please send it in to our email address: [email protected] We’ll test it and post about it. We promise not to be mean! This isn’t Celebrity Bean Dish Slap-Down. This is group learning.

Let Bean Fest Begin!

The Pinnacle of Permaculture: Tending the Wild

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural ResourcesBook review: Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2006

When the white man came to California, he found a verdant paradise: meadows thick with wildflowers and clover, stately groves of nut trees, abundant, healthy game and rivers full of fish. It was a land of endless bounty. The natives, often derogatorily called “Diggers” by the whites, seemed to live off this bounty in a lazy, hand-to-mouth sort of way.

Tending the Wild, a highly readable dissertation, takes this mythology apart. Anderson’s argument is that the native people of California were active stewards of the land.

Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation across the state created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years.

Through extensive practical experience, the Indians had found a “middle way” between exploitation of the land and hands-off preservation of the land. They made use of the land, and in so doing, made the land better for all other creatures as well. They used resources, but managed to give back more. And in so doing, they shaped California.

“John Muir, celebrated environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, was an early proponent of the view and California landscape was a pristine wilderness before the arrival of the Europeans. Staring in awe at the lengthy visas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb and green gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting and seed scattering.”

Our favorite idea to come out of this book is the notion that plants and animals need people. This is the philosophy of the Native American elders Anderson interviews. Rather as plants need birds to scatter their seeds, plants rely on humans to thin and prune them, protect them and spread them. The elders imagined an active, reciprocal relationship of use between humans, plants and animals. For them, “wilderness” is a pejorative term. When land is untended, it turns feral and declines. In a thriving land there is physical and spiritual intimacy between man, plants and animals.

All this is to say that California, at first European contact, was a garden–a garden that had been loved, tended and built up for generations. And the first settlers and explorers couldn’t see it. They saw a gift from God, one which they stripped bare in short order.

There is sadness in reading this, sadness in thinking of all that has been lost. But as Anderson contends, there is still a chance to preserve some of this knowledge. It lives on in the elders who remain whose grandparents remembered California before the gold rush. This book collects some of that knowledge, and talks about Indian management of certain species. While it cannot teach us everything, it provides a tantalizing vision of a non-exploitative yet productive relationship between man and nature, providing us a path for the future, if we can find the will to take it before it is too late.

Highly recommended read, especially for Californians, conservationists, gardeners, wild plant enthusiasts and those studying permaculture.

Low Sugar Prickly Pear Jelly Recipe

Few plants have as many uses as the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). In our climate it grows like a weed, with no supplemental irrigation, and produces a voluminous amount of edible pads and fruit. In addition to food, Opuntia provides medicinal compounds, a hair conditioner, building materials and habitat for the red dye producing cochineal scale insect. As for the fruit, you can consume it raw, dry it or make jelly. Several years ago I posted a recipe for prickly pear jelly. But the large amount of sugar in that recipe, in my opinion, covered up the subtle taste of the fruit. I’ve concocted a new prickly pear jelly using low-sugar pectin that substantially reduces the amount of sugar.

Low Sugar Prickly Pear Jelly
4 cups prickly pear juice (requires around four pounds of fruit)
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 cups sugar
1 package low sugar pectin

1. Burn off the spines by holding the fruit over a burner on the stove for a few seconds.
2. Quarter the fruit and place in a pot. Cover with water (around 2 1/2 cups). Boil for ten minutes. Crush the fruit with a potato masher.  Update 12/5/2012: I now recommend using a food mill, though the boiling technique also works. See our post on using a food mill to juice prickly pear fruit.
3. Strain through two sheets of cheesecloth placed in a colander. Gather up the corners of the cheesecloth and give the pulp a squeeze to extract as much juice as you can.
4. Pour four cups of the prickly pear juice into a pot and add a half cup of lemon juice.
5. Mix a quarter cup of the sugar and a box of low/no sugar pectin and add to the juice.
6. Bring the mixture to a full boil.
7. Add the remaining sugar and bring back to a full boil. Boil for one minute, stirring constantly.
8. Pour into six 8 oz jars.
9. Process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes.

Prickly pear fruit (called “tuna” in Mexico) come in a variety of colors. My plants make an orange fruit that matures in August. I love the taste of the fresh fruit, but it’s a bit of an acquired taste due to the abundant seeds and the nasty spines (technically called glochids).

Unlike a lot of jelly recipes floating around the interwebs, I guarantee that this one works. It basically follows the ratios and instructions for red raspberry jelly as detailed in the Sure Jell pectin box. In my experience with jam and jelly recipes, sticking with the directions in the pectin box yields consistent results. And stay tuned for a video I shot on how to make this jelly.

Update: Green Roof Grower Bruce wrote to suggest using Pomonas Universal Pectin to reduce the sugar level of this recipe even further. I’m going to give it a try. In the meantime the folks behind Pomona’s have a very similar recipe for prickly pear jelly that uses less sugarhere (pdf).
Update 8/28/2010:  I tried the Pomonas Universal Pectin prickly pear jelly recipe linked to above. It works, and uses one cup less sugar than my recipe above. The color is also more vibrant due to the larger percentage of fruit. However, both Mrs. Homegrown and Homegrown Neighbor found the more gelatinous consistency of the Pomonas prickly pear jelly objectionable. Verdict: for now I’m going to stick with SureJell or equivalent.