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.

Raw Milk Talk by Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Saturday August 28th

Mark McAfee, founder and CEO of raw milk dairy Organic Pastures, will speak Saturday August 28th at 2 pm at the Altadena Community Center, located at 730 E. Altadena Drive in Altadena. McAfee is a compelling and lively speaker and the owner of the first raw dairy in California with certified organic pasture land. I heard him speak before and some of the stories he tells of raids by overzealous government agents are right out of a Western. This talk is simply not to be missed. The event is open to the public, free and Organic Pastures milk will be availiable for tasting. For more information contact [email protected].

To read more about McAfee and his dairy, see this article by the Rodale Institute, “Simple, complex and raw: the amazing success of Organic Pastures Dairy.

LA Times Calls Vertical Gardens in a Dry Climate a Bad Idea

Wooly Pockets at Homeboy Industries

Writing for the LA Times, Emily Green has penned a skeptical look at wall-based growing, “The Dry Garden: A skeptic’s view of vertical gardens.” I’m in complete agreement with Green and wrote about this silly trend back in July. Says Green of a garden in Culver City that uses the Wooly Pocket vertical system,

“The concrete wall behind the bagged-and-hung garden is wet with runoff from an automated drip system. The sacks are calcified with irrigation scale. Even in an open-air setting, get close and there is a whiff of mold. It’s hard to imagine a less savory or more whimsically destructive system for a region in a water crisis.”

Amen. We need more critical thinking like this, especially when it comes to schemes with “eco” or “sustainable” pretensions.

Plantago coronopus, a.k.a. Buckhorn Plantain, a.k.a. Erba Stella

Cruise down the produce isle of a supermarket in the United States and you’ll only find highly domesticated foods. Thumb through the pages of the Silver Spoon (the Joy of Cooking of Italian Cuisine) and you’ll discover entire chapters devoted to the use of wild or semi-wild plants.

This summer I grew one of these semi-cultivated Italian vegetables, Buckhorn plantain (Plantago coronopus) also known as Erba Stella and Barba di frate (friar’s beard). It’s a mild, ever so slightly bitter green I found delicious boiled and sauteed with garlic and olive oil. The Silver Spoon suggests cooking it with either pancetta or anchovies.

As for growing Plantago coronopus, let me put it this way, if you can’t grow it consider giving up gardening. I left some in my seedling flat and, with just three inches of soil, it produced a viable crop. It’s a weed. While I’ve seen it described as a cool weather green, it grew fine this summer (admittedly a very mild summer here in Los Angeles). Do an English language search for this plant on the interwebs and you’ll get tips on the right herbicide to use to rid your lawn of it.

Another winner from Franchi seed company!

A Hotel for Insects

To celebrate 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, British Land and the City of London sponsored a design competition for a “Hotel for Insects.” Arup Associates won with the design above. The rules stipulated that the hotel had to accommodate stag beetles, solitary bees, butterflies, moths, spiders, lacewings and ladybugs.

Read the full article here Thanks to Leonardo of the Backwards Beekeepers for the tip.

See some other examples of attractive solitary bee habitats at http://www.wildbienen.de/wbschutz.htm.  It’s in German, but the pictures speak for themselves.

Rooftop Garden Classes

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Los Angeles has sprouted a very cool rooftop garden. Here where January temperatures are often in the 70′s, buildings aren’t designed to hold snow, meaning that our roofs usually can’t hold much weight. So rooftop gardens are rare.

But on the border of Little Tokyo, skid row, and a warehouse district, an old seafood warehouse rooftop has been turned into a gourmet garden atop the home of artisan food purveyor Cube Marketplace.

Full disclosure: I’m the lucky gardener. And this weekend I’ll be teaching a Fall Gardening Class and a class on new ways to use common garden herbs. For more information or to sign up for the classes click here.

The classes are part of a quarterly pop-up marketplace. Even if you don’t want to take the classes, this is an opportunity to come and check out the garden. I love watching the bees pollinate the flowers and then looking out at the view of Downtown Los Angeles and the industrial sprawl down below. It is delightfully incongruous.

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.

Self Irrigating Pot Patent from 1917

I’ve often blogged about the convenience of self irrigating pots (SIPs), containers that have a built-in reservoir of water at the bottom. They work well for growing vegetables on patios and rooftops. You can make your own or purchase one from several manufacturers. I had thought that Blake Whisenant, a Florida tomato grower and Earthbox company founder, had invented the SIP in the 1990s, but it turns out that the idea came much earlier. Reader Avi Solomon, sent me a surprising link to a patent for a SIP, dated 1917, by a Lewis E. Burleigh of Chicago. From the patent description:

“My invention is concerned with flower and plant boxes, and is designed to produce a device of the class described in which the proper moistening and aeration of the soil in it can be easily and cheaply effected by simply pouring water into the funnel with which it is provided until the proper amount is supplied, which amount will be indicated by the overflow from a suitably located aperture in the side thereof.”

Other than the use of gravel in the water reservoir, Burleigh’s SIP closely resembles the Earthbox and SIPs I have built out of five gallon buckets and plastic storage bins.

The interwebs reveal only one detail about Burleigh, that he owned a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. From this one factoid I infer that he had money and a progressive inclination. The SIP idea took another eighty years to finally catch on.

For more SIP information:

Read our many posts on SIPs

And visit our SIP gardening friends, the Green Roof Growers.

If SIP litigation history fascinates you, read a preliminary injunction and memoradum (pdf) between the manufacturer of the Earthbox (Laminations Inc.) and a company they accused of infringing on their patent, Roma Direct Marketing LLC, makers of the “Garden Patch.” SIP. I’ll also note that the Earthbox folks sent Josh Mandel a cease and desist letter related to Mandel’s DIY SIP website. My editorial: lets make the SIP open source as the 1917 patent suggests it ain’t a new idea.