Another way to deal with prickly pear stickers

One of those “farm uses” could be burning off prickly pear spines . . Image via BoingBoing

I’m drowning in prickly pear fruit which means a lot of nasty thorns in the kitchen and an angry Mrs. Homegrown. Previously I burned them off over our stove, but inevitably a few stickers would find their way to the kitchen sponge. Now I’ve got a new technique for removing stickers thanks to Norman of Silver City New Mexico who writes,

“Just a note to tell you how I harvest the pears.  We live in the arid SW and have a lot of native cacti.  The pears were very good this year because of the extra wet summer.  In dry times we burn the stickers off the prickly pear so the cows will eat the leaves.  It saves the cattle in some years.  I take a propane torch and burn the stickers of the pears before I pick them.  They turn very shinny like you had waxed them.  Then just pick them with your bare hands.  Sure saves a lot of time not having to roll them on a grill.”  

I tried this today with the propane torch I use for sweating pipe. Works great. Norman also suggested making some “Knox Blox” with the juice, something I intend to try. Thanks Norman for saving our marriage.

I forgot about Bean Fest!

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Apologies all, it’s been a heck of a week.  I realize I never set an end date on Bean Fest, a day where I could sign off gracefully with a last recipe, and now I think maybe that’s for the best. Because really, does Bean Fest ever end? No, it does not. Not in our hearts.

And besides, I have a backlog of bean recipes. So while I will not be posting a recipe this Friday, I will declare Fridays henceforward as frugal recipe day. I may not come up with something every week, but Friday will be the designated day to highlight not only bean dishes, but soups, stews and the like. Admittedly, “Frugal Recipe Day” is not the most appealing tag. I’ll set our marketing department to work on coming up with a better name.

Summer 2010 Tomato Report

Tomato season began inauspiciously with unseasonably cold weather for Southern California. I simply couldn’t get any seeds to germinate. Thankfully, Craig of gardenedibles.com came to the rescue with a couple of seedlings for us. Here’s a recap of our tomato successes and failures:

Red Pear. I’ve grown this one before. It’s a plump, ribbed, meaty tomato. It’s flavorful and amazing both fresh and made into sauce. Craig concurs that this is a must grow variety.

Napoli. A paste variety with a short bushy growth pattern. Like San Marzanos this vine cranks out a ton of fruit. Did not taste great fresh but made the best canned tomatoes I’ve ever grown–I’m guessing this variety is bred for canning.

St. Pierre: not much to say about it. O.K., but not all that exciting.

Yellow pear. This small cherry tomato sprouted out of the compost. It’s kinda bland, but we got a ton of them. I borrowed some time in neighbors Anne and Bill’s dehydrator and dried them.

Sun Gold. Mrs. Homegrown stuck a Sun Gold tomato in the backyard which I failed to care for properly. Nevertheless, it still produced a decent crop.Very sweet and prolific.

Failures. I had three vines fail on me due to a combination of not transplanting soon enough and not paying attention to them–mainly, I think they got root bound in their pots.

Lessons
This year I took the watering advice of tomato guru Steve Goto of  Gotomato. Goto suggested a thick layer of mulch and a very deep watering when transplanting. The next watering comes when the plant droops in the morning–a whole month for me. Thereafter you water deeply only when the plant droops again in the morning, which worked out to be about once a week. You ignore any droopiness during midday and only water in the morning. I used in-line drip emitter tubing and all seemed to go well. Goto has tomato growing instructions you can download here.

Another big lesson is that even in sunny Southern California you need a cold frame to get good germination in the spring. We’ll blog about the cold frame I just added to our back patio soon.

So how did your tomatoes do this year? Drop us a comment with your geographical location and the tomato varieties you liked the most/least.

Bean Fest, Episode 8: Really Good Lentil and Whole Grain Soup

photo by wollongonger

Welcome to Bean Fridays, our ongoing series highlighting the beautiful bean.

We had a brief hint of winter here this week, three days of chilly grey skies and lingering drizzle. I was in heaven–but it didn’t last, and we’re heading into another heat wave. But anyway, that taste of winter put me in the mood for soup.

So today I’m going to share my favorite soup recipe. I’m stretching the rules a bit to put it here, because it’s not a bean dish, but it does involve lentils. One of its great merits is that its what I call a pantry soup. If your pantry is well stocked, you’ll have what it takes to make it or improvise something similar and equally good. And needless to say, it’s easy to make, or I wouldn’t make it.

This recipe comes from The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells, where it’s called Oliviers & Co’s Provencal Three-Grain Soup. With a provenance like that you know that even if it is packed with wholesome ingredients, this isn’t going to be one of those bland “healthy” soups.

You’ll need:

1/3 cup spelt
1/3 cup pearl barley
1/3 dark green lentils
3 leeks, white portion only — or an onion or two–finely chopped or sliced into thin rounds.
2 carrots, chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 t. of fresh or dry thyme
1 head of garlic, all the cloves peeled
1 28 oz. can of tomatoes/or your own canned tomatoes
Sea salt
Olive oil

  • Notes on the grains: Use whatever whole grains you have on hand, from wheat berries to quinoa, one type or a blend, as long as it measures 2/3 cup. I’ve used all spelt, all barley, even rice, I think– it all tastes the same once it’s in the soup. The variable is texture and eye appeal. The little dark (greenish black brown) lentils called lentilles de Puy are really the best for this, because they hold shape so well. You may find other small lentils, like those little black lentils, work too. But whatever you have will be fine–it’s just that some other types of lentils, like the pink ones, tend to dissolve in soup rather than staying firm. If you don’t have lentils, the soup could be all grain, or you could substitute with pre-cooked beans, adding them in toward the end.

Rinse your grains and lentils off in a fine colander, set aside.

Put about a tablespoon of olive oil, about 1 teaspoon of sea salt, the herbs, leeks or onions, and carrots in a heavy bottomed soup pot. Turn the heat on fairly low and cook them covered for about five minutes, so they soften but don’t brown. This is called sweating.

Add the whole can of tomatoes, juice and all, then add about 5 cups of water.  Bring this to a simmer.

Add the grains, lentils and all those garlic cloves (The garlic cloves are the secret weapon! If you or your family is garlic shy, don’t worry, the soup doesn’t taste very garlicky when it’s done.)

Simmer covered until the grains are tender, about 45 minutes, depending on the grains.  Add more water if necessary, to keep it at the thickness you prefer.

Test for seasoning. Add some fresh ground pepper, and serve in bowls drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Don’t skip the olive oil swirl. It really makes it, somehow.

It’s that easy, and that good. I usually double this recipe for leftovers.

Note re: leftovers: The grains soak up all the liquid when the soup is sitting in the fridge, leaving the soup a semi-solid mass–so you’ll have to add a good deal of water when you go to reheat. This doesn’t effect flavor at all. It’s an excellent leftover type soup.

Bean Fest, Episode 6: Walton’s Serbian Lima Beans

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Welcome back to Bean Fest, our Friday focus on the wonderful world of beans.

Our friend, Walton, sent in this recipe, which he got from friends. I don’t know anything about its Serbian-ness–whether this is a traditional dish there, or what. Maybe some of you can enlighten us. (I forgot to ask Walton.)

[ETA: Walton wrote in. It is a genuine Serbian dish. The recipe was given to Walton by his friend's mom, Mrs. Milosavljevic. Thank you, Mrs. Milosavljevic!]

What I can tell you is that it is amazing: full of flavor and almost dangerously rich. If you know anyone who thinks eating beans for dinner is akin to wearing a hair shirt, make these for them. Dried Lima beans have a buttery taste on their own. Add to that a huge quantity of olive oil, and the scrumptious umami-savoriness of long-cooked onions, and you’ve got a palette paradise.

I’d classify these as a special occasion food, because they are so rich. One modest serving will fill you up. We ate them as a main dish with a basic green salad, which works nicely to counterbalance their oiliness, and had hunks of bread to sop up the juice. This recipe would work well as a side dish, of course. They’d also do well on a holiday table.

And best of all, they’re easy to make. They don’t have many ingredients, and there’s nothing complex about their cooking. They just take a little longer than most beans because of the time in the oven.

This is the recipe as he sent it:

Serbian Lima Beans

    * 1 lb small lima beans
    * 1 1/4 cups oil
    * 1 1/4 lbs sliced or chopped onions
    * 1 tspn pepper
    * 2 tspn salt
    * 2 tspn paprika
    * crushed red pepper / chili powder to taste
    * couple bay leaves
recipe
    * cook lima beans according to package (do not over cook; will cook a bit more in the baking process later)
    * fry onions in oil stirring frequently til very limp/well cooked (think near mush)
    * add spices to onions, mix thoroughly. Taste and adjust according to taste.
    * add well drained lima beans to onion mix (reserve some lima bean water)
    * pour into 9 x 13 baking dish; you want there to be some fluid (to bake in); if dry add some reserved lima bean water
    * insert bay leaves into beans in dish
    * bake, covered, at 375 for 30 minutes
    * bake uncovered, at 350 for 15-20 minutes til golden brown (take care not to burn)
Walton’s Notes:
  • I would suggest putting the bay leaves in the water with the beans when you first start cooking them.
  • Also, this seems like a lot of olive oil, but it really makes the flavor, so I’d suggest you use some kind of tasty extra-virgin with a strong character. 
  • The onions should be caramelized slowly, barely making any noise while they cook down. This is the other strong flavor of the dish. Start the onions during the last hour of the beans boiling.

Buon appetito!

This is what they look like fresh out of the oven

Mrs. Homegrown’s notes:

Not much to add here.  FYI 3 not-too-large yellow onions = 1 1/4 lbs.

I goofed by not reading the recipe correctly, so I caramelized the onions solo, instead of in the 1 1/4 cups of oil. (For some cracky reason I thought the oil was added later.) I had to back paddle and simmered the finished onions in the oil for about 10 minutes, hoping the flavor would infuse into the oil in that time. I think it worked. The mind boggles to think it might have been even better if I’d cooked it correctly.

Do be sure to cook the onions a nice long time, as Walton noted. That is the key to the recipe, and a point I don’t want anyone to miss.

The only thing I was unclear on was how much bean water to add back into the baking dish before cooking. Figuring wet beans are always much better than dry, burnt beans, I poured the reserved water into the dish until it just barely covered the top layer of beans. Then sealed the baking dish with foil. That seemed to work just perfectly.

Woman Fights Off Bear with Zucchini

Stop it, lady! Hey! Ouch!

Many thanks to Heather who left a link this in our most recent Squash Baby post, asking if we planned to use our Squash Baby to fend off bears.

It’s true! A woman bested a bear with a squash. Witness this article on the website of Montana television news station, KXLH. See photos of the very zucchini which smote the bear! Admire the heroic collie, who was wounded in the fray! (but will be okay.) Marvel at the sturdy jeans worn by the Squash Warrior, torn by the bear’s fearsome claws.

And to answer Heather’s question, I have no doubt that Squash Baby could lay a bear flat, the only problem is that I’m not sure I have the upper body strength to swing it around! Good thing the only bears in our neighborhood are found in bars.

Behind the Scenes of a Euell Gibbons Grape Nuts Ad

Every decade has its celebrity forager. The aughts gave us Survivorman, but back in the 1960s and 70s Euell Gibbons stalked all that wild asparagus. This odd film, from the Academic Film Archive of North America, takes you behind the scenes of the creation of an iconic Grape Nuts ad staring Gibbons.

And the branding synergies between foragers and marketers continues–Survivorman pimps for auto insurer Geico–but, personally, I’ll take Gibbons and his wild cranberries, thank you.

Another gem from archive.org.

Bean Fest, Episode 5: Black-Eyed Pea Salad (Lubyi Msallat)

We still haven’t learned to take the picture before we start to eat–and were too impatient to keep eating to take a close-up! Chick pea salad, pita and sheep’s cheese.

Mrs. Homestead here:

This week’s Bean Fest installment comes from a cookbook we’ve been trying out over the last week called Vegetarian Dishes from Across the Middle East, by Arto der Haroutunian. These recipes really fit well with our kitchen just now, considering its emphasis on classic summer vegetables (like eggplants, cucumbers and tomatoes) and bulk bin foods like beans and grains.

This black-eyed pea appetizer (meze) is of Syrian-Lebanese origin and is easy to prepare. All you have to do is boil up the beans* and then make a dressing for them. Erik said it reminded him a little of a tabouleh, except it had beans instead of grains.

*Black-eyed peas (aka cow peas) are beans. Sometimes they are called black-eyed beans, in fact. What’s the difference between beans and peas? Both are members of the legume family, but pea plants have tendrils, while bean plants do not.  That’s the easiest distinction to make, though I’m sure it gets more complicated the more you know.

Lubyi Msallat

1 cup dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
1 clove garlic
1 tsp salt
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 small onion, finely diced
3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 tsp ground cumin
1/3 cup olive oil

Cook the beans:

Drain the soaking water off the beans and put them in a saucepan. Cover with a couple of inches of fresh water and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook until the the beans are tender (but not mushy), adding water as necessary.  As you do this, try not to be envious of people with pressure cookers.

Prep the dressing:

The book says “crush the garlic and salt together” so I used our mortar and pestle to grind the salt into the garlic clove.  (I imagine you might be able to do the same in a bowl with the bottom of a sturdy glass. Otherwise, I’d either mince or press the garlic and add the salt to the salad separately.)

Then, after the garlic and salt are crushed, mix the lemon juice into the garlic-salt paste. (Again, this could be added separately).

Combine everything:

Drain the beans well, maybe rinse them too, as black-eyed peas seem prone to generate some scum when cooking. Toss them with the chopped onion and parsley.  Now add the salt-garlic-lemon juice and the cumin. Mix everything thoroughly.  Pour the oil over the top.  Garnish with paprika, if desired, and lemon wedges.

Serve hot or cold or room temperature, along with pita bread. A great picnic food, or just to keep in the fridge for a quick lunch or healthy snack.

Tune in next week for another episode of Bean Fest!

Citron

The Citron (Etrog) and its anatomy.

I just attended a fascinating lecture by fruit expert David Karp on the history of the citron (Citrus medica) or etrog in Aramaic. I’ve only encountered citron in a candied form buried deep within a fruit cake. I’ve also seen the bizarre Buddha’s Hand, another kind of citron popular in Asia as both food and medicine. What I did not know is the significance of citron in Jewish history. Citron is used in the rituals of the harvest festival of Sukkot. According to Karp, a tree mentioned in a passage in the Torah, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of goodly trees.” was, at some point, interpreted as citron.

For orthodox Jews the citron must be perfect. Teams of rabbis equipped with magnifying glasses and jeweler’s loupes carefully inspect each fruit, with prized specimens going for several hundred dollars.  Karp said this has had unintended consequences. It’s virtually impossible to grow perfect citron without pesticides. Workers in citron growing areas have increased rates of cancer. And it’s forbidden under Jewish law to use the fruit of a grafted citron tree, or even a tree descended from a grafted tree, making growing healthy specimens even more difficult.

I have to say that after taste-testing citron products in the courtyard after the lecture I was not at all tempted to snag one of the trees that Karp gave away. And the intricacies of Jewish law make growing citron for ritual use an arduous and expensive proposition–sadly, citron will not be a road to riches for us, even in our perfect growing climate here in Los Angeles. We’ll stick with our quince and apricot trees which, incidentally, along with citron are contenders for the forbidden fruit of the garden of Eden (most apples don’t grow in Mediterranean climates). 

For more on the history of citron see, “The Secret Life of Etrogs” in the Jewish Journal.

Bean Fest, Episode 4: Frijoles Refritos

Refritos are not photogenic, so I decided to show the more tempting end use. Photo by Ernesto Andrade.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I can’t believe I’ve never made frijoles refritos--refried beans–before. All these years of scooping that suspicious stuff out of the can–what was I thinking??? Now I see refritos as the natural destiny of any leftover beans.

Refried beans (that name is a mistranslation–refrito means well cooked, not re-fried, but the name stuck) are simply cooked beans that are mashed in a frying pan along with some seasonings and fat. What makes them a little shady to the health conscious and vegetarian set is that they are traditionally fried in lard. But vegetable oil can be used just as well, and I’d add for the sake of fairness, that real, home cooked lard from well-raised pigs is not such a bad fat. For what it’s worth.

To make refried beans you just need to have some cooked beans on hand, the classic choice being pintos.  In Tex-Mex cooking the pintos meant for refritos are first cooked with onion, garlic and a pork rind. Considering that refritos are fried in a bath in oil, garlic and onion, you could theoretically start with very plain boiled beans. But on the other hand, if the beans are tasty at the start, they’ll just be all that more tasty after frying with yet more onion and garlic. Which brings us back to the idea of them being the perfect use for leftover beans. I think this would work well with any leftover beans, whatever the type.

I cooked up my pintos for dual purpose eating. Half were to go over rice, and half reserved for this experiment, so I my beans weren’t plain. Because I liked John’s Bastardized Puerto Rican beans from last week so much, I followed that technique and did a long saute of onion, garlic and parsley in the bottom of the bean pot, then added the drained, pre-soaked pintos and enough stock to cover the beans by about an inch. These I simmered uncovered for a little more than an hour until everything was tender, then I added lots of salt and pepper.

The leftovers from that batch were put in the fridge overnight to become frijoles refritos.

If you read a refried bean recipe, it will ask you to drain your cooked beans and reserve the bean stock. So if you have a pot of beans with lots of liquid, do that: drain and reserve the liquid. My cooked beans were cold, and whatever liquid they still had around them had congealed into a sort of bean gravy.  Don’t worry if that’s true for you–don’t worry about any of it. Refritos are so easy to make its impossible to go wrong. Keep reading.

Just get yourself a big frying pan. Heat up a couple tablespoons of oil or fat of your choice in the bottom. Add a good quantity of minced onion. (I used 1/2 an onion for 3 cups of beans). Saute until the onion turns translucent. Then add in a clove or two of minced garlic, if you like, and cook that for another minute or so. If you like spicy beans, at this point you could also add some chopped fresh hot peppers or some red pepper flakes.

Once this flavor base is established, add a couple of cups of cooked beans to the pan and mash them with a potato masher or back of a spatula, stirring as you go to mix in all the fat and flavor. Here’s a little hint: if you’re making a big batch, don’t put all your beans in the pan at once, because smashing them will become a nightmare. Start with a couple of cups, mash those, then add more bit by bit.

Your goal is to make the beans into a paste, so you have take them to the correct level of dryness–and that is going to be dictated by your own personal preference. So if you’re smashing up well drained beans, you’d add the reserved liquid back in 1/4 cup at a time, until the beans had reached the consistency you like. In my case, I couldn’t separate the beans and liquid in my leftovers. As it turned out, they mashed up a little too wet, but the excess moisture quickly cooked off. If they’d seemed too dry, I would have just added a little water–or stock, if I had some.

That’s really all there is to it. It only takes a few minutes. Taste the beans as you go and adjust the seasoning. More salt is always a good call. It’s up to you whether you want a chunky or smooth texture. Make the beans richer, almost silky, by adding a little more oil or fat as you’re mashing and cooking.

Once they’re done, they’re ready for all the classic applications: burritos, quesadillas, sopes, tostadas, dips. They’re also good eaten with a spoon, hot out of a bowl with a little cheese and maybe some diced tomatoes or avocado on top.

***

Bean Fest continues next Friday! If you have a favorite recipe, send it in.