Four Ways to Preserve Prickly Pear Pads (Nopales)

For my final project in the Los Angeles Master Food Preserver Program I attempted to see how many ways I could preserve the abundant pads of the prickly pear cactus that grows in our front yard. Of course they are best fresh, but I like them so much that I wanted to see if I could preserve some for use later in the year. Incidentally, I prepare them fresh by first cutting them into strips and boiling them for five minutes to remove the mucilaginous texture. After boiling I pan fry them and serve them with eggs. It’s a meal that comes, except for the salt, entirely out of the yard. What follows are the methods I used to preserve those tasty pads.

Dehydrated
I removed the spines, cut the pads into 3/4 inch strips and boiled them for one minute. I then marinated them for ten minutes in soy sauce and dried them until brittle in an Excalibur dehydrator at 135º F for a couple of hours. Prepared this way they actually taste a bit like beef jerky. You definitely need to spice them–when dried plain they have a bit of a dirt note in terms of taste. Next year I plan on trying some more dried “nopalitos” with some different marinades.

Frozen
Once again, I removed the spines. cut them into strips and boiled them for one minute. I then packed them in to freezer bags. Freezing is the best method in terms of taste and nutrition. It’s easy and it works great.

Pickled
I used the this okra recipe from the National Center for Home Preservation for my pickled nopalitos. They turned out very tasty.

Pressure Canned
Prickly pear is sold canned both in water and with a small amount of vinegar.  Unfortunately there are no tested home canning recipes for pressure canned prickly pear pads (this needs to be rectified but is difficult in an era of reduced funding for Extension Services). I used a tested recipe for okra and consumed the product immediately as I don’t trust my own untested pressure canning recipes. The results were acceptable but not exciting–basically they tasted like canned vegetables and had a slightly mushy texture. If I had a tested recipe to work with, that used a small amount of vinegar, perhaps the processing time could be reduced, leading to a crisper result.

Lastly I should mention that I’ve dried and made jelly with the fruit in previous years. If you’ve got a favorite way to preserve the pads or fruit please leave a comment.

Loquat Leather Recipe

Our neighborhood is full of loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) trees. For years I’ve been trying to figure out a way to use them. Loquats, a warm climate relative of the apple tree, produce tons of fruit all at once that do not keep well fresh. Thus the need to preserve the fruit. Unfortunately, they are also a chore to process–small large seeds and skins that are difficult to peel. They also vary widely in quality, since many in the neighborhood are probably seeds planted by birds and squirrels rather than grafted specimens.

But at last, I’ve found a use for them that’s repetitively low-labor and yields a tasty result: loquat leather. Here’s the recipe I came up with:

2 cups loquats (no need to peel)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons agave syrup
1 teaspoon triple sec

Remove seeds. Place loquats in a blender with the lemon juice, agave syrup and triple sec. Dehydrate at 135º until, as the Colorado Extension Service puts it, “translucent and slightly tacky to the touch, but easily peeled from the pan.”

Tips: Chef Ernie Miller suggested using a blender is rather than a food processor for this recipe. Also, try to spread the puree thicker towards the edges of the dehydrator sheet and you’ll get a more uniform result. Finally, the triple sec is optional, but some sort of flavor addition gives your fruit leather a more “adult” taste.

Fellow Master Food Preserver trainee Emily Ho is working on a loquat soda syrup and has also made some loquat jelly.

Mellow Yellow: How to Make Dandelion Wine

Today on Root Simple we welcome another guest post from our Midwest correspondent Nancy Klehm:

In the past week, we Midwesterners have experienced three hard frosts – killing back the growth, that emerged too early of my grapes and hardy kiwis and zapping peach blossoms. We will see if there is any fruit onset and if my vines recover.

Meanwhile, it is dandelion wine time!

I first tasted dandelion wine when I bought a bottle of it at a folksy gift shop in the Amana Colonies (yes, Amana of the appliance fame). I had wanted something to drink at my campsite that evening. When I opened the bottle, I anticipated something more magic than what met my tongue. It was cloying yellow syrupy stuff, which resembled soft drink concentrate. I poured it out next to my tent, returning it to the earth where she could compost it. I was sure that I’d never get close to it again.

That was fifteen years ago, and now I have been drinking dandelion wine for about two years. The new stuff is stuff I’ve made myself from dandelion blossoms gathered in Chicago. I’m happy to say that it is divine. I am sure now that the colonists actually keep the good stuff in their private cabinets.

Upon mentioning “dandelion wine”, Ray Bradbury usually comes to mind. However, after I heard a radio interview with him a few years back when he passionately made a case to colonize the moon so we can ditch this trashed planet and survive as a race, I got confused. Enough said.

So the point is, I am going to tell you how to make dandelion wine. I encourage you to do this because dandelions pop up everywhere and every place. They are nearly ubiquitous pioneers in our landscapes of disturbed and deprived soils. Consumed, they are a magnificent digestive, aiding the heath and cleansing of the kidneys and liver. Amongst vitamins A, B, C and D, they have a huge amount of potassium.

As a beyond-perfect diuretic, dandelion has so much potassium that when you digest the plant, no matter how much fluid you lose, your body actually experiences a net gain of the nutrient. In other words, folks – dandelion wine is one alcohol that actually helps your liver and kidneys! Generous, sweet, overlooked dandelion…

When you notice lawns and parks spotting yellow, it’s time to gather. The general rule of thumb is to collect one gallon of flowers for each gallon of wine you want to make.

Enjoy your wandering. People will think you quaintly eccentric for foraging blossoms on your hands and knees. Note: collect blossoms (without the stem) that have just opened and are out of the path of insecticides and pesticides.

So here’s how I make dandelion wine…

I pour one gallon boiling water over one gallon dandelion flowers in a large bowl. When the blossoms rise (wait about twenty-four to forty-eight hours), I strain the yellow liquid out, squeezing the remaining liquid out of the flowers, into a larger ceramic or glass bowl. I compost the spent flowers (thanks dandelion!).

Then I add juice and zest from four lemons and four oranges, and four pounds of sugar (4-4-4 = E.Z.). Okay, now here’s what I think is the best part: I float a piece of stale bread, sprinkled with bread yeast, in the mixture. This technique is used in Appalachian and some European recipes.

Then I toss a dishtowel over it so the mixture can both breathe and the crud floating around my house stays out. I continue stirring the wine several times a day until it stops fermenting. This takes about two weeks or so.

When I am certain it has stopped “working”, I strain, bottle and cork it up and bid it farewell until months later. In fact I wait until the winter solstice, when I can revisit that sunny spring day by drinking it in.

Candied Grapefruit Peel

Erik sourced some nice grapefruits from our friend’s tree and used the flesh to do some homework for his Master Food Preserver program. This left a big pile of organic, unwaxed grapefruit rind on our counter, so I decided to do something about it, and set off to make candied grapefruit peel. This is the technique I came up with by mashing together a bunch of different internet recipes and making two batches of the stuff. The results are delish if a bit rustic in appearance. I don’t think I’d pass muster at French pastry school with my lazy technique, but Erik and I like them a lot.

You must genuinely love grapefruit, the bitterness of it, to appreciate these. If you’re not a grapefruit fan, I’m sure this would work with orange rind as well. If you are a grapefruit fan, you’ll find yourself sneaking off to the candy jar for a little more that sweet-bitter flavor punch.

We’ve been snacking on them straight, but I think they’d be really good chopped into small pieces and sprinkled over vanilla ice cream or folded into scones or dipped in chocolate. I like them as straight-up candy because they’re so intense they satisfy restless cravings, but for the same reason you can’t gorge on them. Actually, I can’t eat more than two at a time. The how-to after the break.

The Technique

I’m calling this a technique and not a recipe. Grapefruits vary in size, peel thickness and bitterness, so results are going to vary.

This is a good thing to do when you’re working in the kitchen anyway, because it takes time, but not tons of attention.

  • Chop your rind into any shape you want. I cut mine into rough strips about 1/3-1/2″ wide and and 2″ long, though there were lots of smaller pieces, too. You don’t have to trim off the white pith. Thank goodness, huh? If it’s ridiculously thick, as it can be sometimes, feel free to carve some of it away as you work. Pieces with huge chunks of pith on them will be slower to cook and dry than the rest. I guess what I’m saying is that standardization leads to consistency. Not that it matters a lot. 
  • Put the cut up peel in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil, pour off the water. Refill and bring to a boil again. Boil four times total. This doesn’t take as long as you’d think. The boiling reduces some of the bitterness in the peel. 
boiled grapefruit peel
    • Use about 1/2 cup of sugar for every grapefruit. Pour the sugar into a saucepan large enough to hold the peel. Add half as much water as sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the drained peels and begin to cook over medium heat, stirring occassionally.  e.g. 2 grapefruit = 1 cup sugar + 1/2 cup water.  My batches were made with 5 small grapefruits and 2 cups of sugar.  (Obviously you can play with the amount of sugar–something with little pith, like a thin skinned orange, would need less. And maybe a “lite” version is possible. Try and see.)
    •  Cook the peels over medium heat. They will soften and turn transparent. Meanwhile, the sugar syrup will thicken and reduce. Keep cooking until the sugar syrup is so thick and so reduced that its mostly just coating the rinds, and the rinds themselves are golden and clear like tiny stained glass windows. Be sure to stir lots at the end so it doesn’t burn. This process took an hour in my case. It may have gone faster over higher heat. It would also go faster with a smaller batch.
    Cooking down the syrup
      • Turn the peels out onto an oiled rack to cool and drip off any excess syrup. (Lacking a rack, I ended up spreading mine over the bottom of colanders, which wasn’t a ton of fun, but worked.)  Let them stay there until they lose their wet stickiness. How long will vary–overnight, at least, I’d say. At that point you can sugar them if you want yet more sugar. It looks nice. Put the sugar on too soon and it will be absorbed into the syrup. When they’re totally dry, store them away in something air-tight.
      When almost all the syrup was gone/absorbed, as it looks here, I spread out the pieces to cool.

      The Secret to Japanese Cooking: Dashi

      Bonito flakes, available at any Japanese market.

      We conclude our Japanese themed week with the sauce that’s sort of the unified field theory of Japanese cooking: dashi. It’s in everything from noodle dishes to sauces to miso soup and it cooks up in just minutes. Dashi contains two ingredients, kombu (a kind of kelp) and bonito (shaved, fermented fish flakes). It’s the backbone of Japanese cooking, but we think it’s gentle, savory character could adapt well to Western-style cooking if you use it as a substitute for vegetable stock.

      Dashi only keeps a few days in the fridge, so the secret to using it regularly is to freeze half of every batch you make.

      Next Friday we’ll post a recipe for vegetables simmered in dashi. This is a classic Japanese cooking technique, and we’ve become very fond of it as an alternative to our usual saute/steam/bake repertoire.

      Sonoko Sakai, who taught the soba noodle class we described in an earlier post wrote an article on dashi complete with a detailed recipe.

      As an aside, I’m really interested in any of you who have foraged your own edible seaweed–if that’s you, please leave a comment.

      How to Make Soba Noodles

      Last month I took an amazing class with author and chef Sonoko Sakai on how to make soba noodles by hand. She’s a great teacher and I managed to make a halfway decent couple of servings of noodles during the class.

      Like many Japanese arts, soba making has a series of very precise steps. The recipe itself is simple (just buckwheat flour and water), though you do have to pay close attention to the temperature and humidity in the room. While it takes a soba master years to master the craft, you can make decent soba at home. My first attempt a week after the class wasn”t perfect, but I have a feeling I’ll get better with a little more practice. And I plan on making a lot of soba this summer.

      Made of buckwheat, soba is gluten free, though beginners start with some all purpose flour added in to make it easier to roll out. Sakai has a couple of soba recipes on her website. There’s a basic one here that includes a nice series of photos showing the steps you go through to roll it out and cut it. She also has a beautiful soba recipe using matcha here.

      Buckwheat flour for making soba is available in any Japanese market. The authentic Japanese flour we used in class is priced like cocaine and is not sold in the US. The buckwheat flour sold in Japanese markets in the states is grown in the US and will work just fine.

      In Japan soba is made with a couple of exotic tools. There’s a long and thin rolling pin with no handles. They have a martial arts vibe:

      Image from Worldwide-soba–they sell a soba making kit.

      I was able to improvise one of these at home with a dowel from Home Depot.

      There’s also a very expensive soba knife used to slice the folded dough:

      And a soba cutting guide:

      I substituted a small cutting board in my own kitchen. And my commitment to soba is not at the $1,000 level yet so there’s no fancy soba knife in our kitchen. At home I was able to make do with a regular kitchen knife, my improvised rolling pin and my homebrew soba cutting board.

      While this is one of those activities best learned in person, yes, there is a series of youtube videos you could use to figure out how to make soba at home:

      And, I do urge you to give it a try. The noodles we made in class were may times better than store bought soba. And, once you get the basic moves down, soba is quick to make, healthy and tasty.

      If you live here in Los Angeles you can sign up for the Los Angeles Bread Makers Meetup group–we’re going to ask Sonoko to repeat the soba class and do an udon class as well. You can also contact her through her website http://commongrains.com/ to find out if she’s doing a workshop near you.

      Return of Recipe Friday! Spicy Korean Tofu

      Ummm…Our food stylist is on vacation! This was lunch today. It would look much better if the tofu sheets were reclining whole on snowy rice and artfully sprinkled with green.

      We’ve been eating a lot of this lately. It’s Erik’s favorite meal these days, in fact. I make it for him whenever he’s grumpy and he perks right up. I like it too, and I especially like that it’s fast cooking and I usually have all the ingredients on hand, so it’s pretty effortless.

      I know, I know–there’s a lot of tofu haters out there, but this is really good–if you like spicy food.

      The key to this is Korean chili powder, called Gochutgaru. You just can’t substitute other pepper flakes. We always have this spice on hand because it’s critical for making kim chi. (If you like kim chi you’ll love this dish!)  If you have access to an Asian market, you’ll find Gochutgaru there. It’s sold in big bags and is pretty cheap. Look for bags full of fine red flakes with pictures of red peppers on the front.

      Credit where credit is due: I’d eaten this style of tofu somewhere before and went looking for a recipe–and found one on the Blazing Hot Wok blog. This is an adaption of that, which was an adaptation from a cookbook, as I recall.

      Ingredients:

      • 1 package of firm tofu (Silken tofu works too, see instructions at the end)
      • A few scallions/green onions, maybe 5 or more, depending how much you like them, chopped into 2 inch pieces.
      • This is not cannon, but you could also throw in another veggie along with the green onions for variety. Lately I’ve been adding in a few chopped asparagus spears into the mix.

      Sauce:

      • 3 Tablespoons of soy sauce
      • 3 Tablespoons water (equal amount to the soy sauce, however much you use)
      • 2 Tablespoons of Korean chili powder (This is a whole lot of spice, but we like it that way. You could use much less.)
      • 2-3 garlic cloves minced or pressed
      • 1 teaspoon of sugar
      • 1/2 teaspoon of sesame oil
      • Maybe some wine if you have a bottle open. See instructions.

      Optional:

      • Toasted sesame seeds or peanuts for topping. Sesame is more traditional, but we really like peanuts with this.



      Prep:

      1) Cut the tofu block in 1/4-1/3″ slices. Press some of the water out of it by laying the slices out on a fresh kitchen towel or paper towels, putting more toweling on top and pressing gently with your hands–or by leaving it there under a weighted plate while you do the rest of the prep. This is not absolutely necessary, but the dish will come out better if you do it.

      2) Chop up your green onions.

      3) Combine the sauce ingredients above in a bowl. Since I use so much chili powder, the sauce can be pretty thick. For that reason I like to dilute it with a splash of wine (of any color) or water.

      Cook:

      Get out a big skillet. Heat a couple tablespoons of cooking oil in it and lay down the tofu slices. Cook them about 3 minutes each side over medium high heat, just so they’re nice and hot. Then add the green onions and cook a minute or two longer to soften them a bit.

      Then add the sauce and cook it all together until the sauce simmers, tuning the tofu pieces so they get sauced on both sides. At that point it’s up to you to decide whether you want to cook the sauce down for a fairly dry presentation, or serve it right away while the texture is still “wet.” Either way it will be good.

      Serve this over short-grained rice. Top with sesame seeds or peanuts if you’ve got ‘em.

      Silken Variation:

      Silken Variation? Is that some sort of feminine product or a Kama Sutra position?

      Anyway, if you’re a fan of silken tofu, as I am, you use that, too. You just do things in a different order. Heat up your skillet and add your green onion pieces and cook for a minute or so, then add the sauce and bring it to a simmer. Then add your silken tofu. Toss to cover with sauce then put a lid over the skillet, turn the heat down and let the tofu sort of steam/heat through gently. Takes about 5 minutes.

      Grassfed Turkey Cooking Tips from Shannon Hayes

      Thinking of cooking a grass-fed turkey for Thanksgiving?

      Just in time for the holidays, grassfed cooking expert and farmer Shannon Hayes has a blog post with pastured turkey cooking and purchasing tips that you can read on her blog grassfedcooking.com. We’re honored to have been included in Shannon’s book Radical Homemakers.

      One of her most important tips is to know what you are buying,

      “If you don’t personally know the farmer who is growing your turkey, take the time to know what you are buying! “Pastured” is not necessarily the same as “free-range.” Some grass-based farmers use the word “free-range” to describe their pasture-raised birds, but any conventional factory farm can also label their birds “free-range” if they are not in individual cages, and if they have “access” to the outdoors – even if the “outdoors” happens to be feces-laden penned-in concrete pads outside the barn door, with no access to grass. “Pastured” implies that the bird was out on grass for most of its life, where it ate grass and foraged for bugs, in addition to receiving some grain”

      Wishing all of you a happy, pastured holiday season.

      Return of Recipe Friday! Carrot Soup

      We had a party at our house last week and lots of people brought baby carrots. And no one took their baby carrots home with them when they left. So I took the pile of baby carrots and made a pureed carrot soup with them–one of my all-time favorite soups, in fact. Working with baby carrots was kind of fantastic. No chopping! No peeling!

      Doing this reminded me that I haven’t shared this recipe on the blog, so I dug up the original recipe card. This is one of the oldest recipes I have. It sort of taught me the basics of soup making. I no longer refer to the recipe when I cook, but it was good to go back and see the original instructions. This soup is just about an ideal soup. It’s fast and flexible, doesn’t require many ingredients and seems to please everyone. At heart it’s vegan, but can be made more decadent by adding dairy. I wish I could credit it properly, but it’s something I copied from a magazine onto a card fifteen years ago or so.

      It’s amazing how such a simple soup can have so much flavor. The sweet-spicy flavor and bright orange color also make it an ideal dish for this time of year. Each time I eat it I feel like I’m doing something really good for my body.

      Carrot Soup

      • 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
      • About 2 pounds of carrots, peeled and sliced into chunks* (Peeling is optional but the soup tends to be sweeter/less earthy if you peel. To tell the truth. I never weigh my carrots–I use as many carrots as I have. If it looks like a whole lot, I’ll add more onion to balance it out. If I don’t have a lot of carrots, I still follow the recipe as is–it works, you just have less soup.)
      • 1 large onion chopped
      • 6 garlic cloves peeled
      • 3-5 whole spice cloves (not absolutely necessary but very nice)
      • A little bit of salt. It doesn’t need lots. Start with 1/2 teaspoon or less and add more later if it’s needed.
      • About 4 cups of water or vegetable broth. Broth makes it extra rich, but I usually use water.
      • Fresh lemon juice, about one tablespoon. Best just to have a lemon on hand.
      • Pinch of sugar
      • Optional: yogurt or sour cream or heavy cream for topping

      Heat oil in a a large heavy bottomed pot or saucepan. It should have a lid. Add the carrots, onion, garlic and cloves and saute until the onion is translucent. Then add the water or broth and salt. It should just cover the carrots. Cover the pot and simmer until the carrots are tender–maybe 30 minutes.

      Fish out the spice cloves and discard. Puree the soup until smooth, either with a stick blender or a countertop blender or a food mill. If you use a countertop blender, do it in small batches instead of filling up the blender so you don’t get the exploding volcano effect, i.e. hot carrot soup launching from your blender. Believe me, I’ve been there.

      Do a final adjustment of seasoning after it’s blended (put it back in the pot if you used the blender). At this point add the lemon juice, which is the magic trick of this recipe. I don’t consider this ingredient optional. The recipe calls for one tablespoon of lemon juice but I usually add more. If it seems right, a bit of sugar. Just a pinch or two. Sugar really helps if the carrots aren’t sweet. Then polish it up with salt and pepper to taste. You can add more hot water or broth to thin it if it seems too thick.

      If you wish, serve it with a swirl of yogurt or cream on top, and maybe a sprinkle of chives for fancy.

      It keeps well overnight, improves, even.

      Changing it up:

      I often add different herbs and spices at the beginning. For instance, I think thyme and carrots like each other, so I’ll often throw some sprigs of thyme in at the beginning, to be sauteed with the onions. Same goes for sage. Sometimes I’ll add a bit of cumin. Or cinnamon. Or cayenne. Or ginger. It’s up to you if you want to push the soup toward more of an herbal/lemony flavor or more toward spicy/exotic or toward a sweet pumpkin pie profile. It’s endlessly flexible.

      You can also make this same soup with sweet potatoes instead of carrots. Sometimes I mix the two.

      *A reader points out that she grates her carrots when she makes carrot soup. Good point! The smaller your veggies, the faster they’ll soften up. Dinner will be on the table sooner–and she thinks it may make better tasting soup, too. But if you don’t have the energy to grate, big chunks will soften up just fine. It’s all good.