Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter

Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter (Chenopodium giganteum a.k.a. “tree spinach”) has reemerged in our garden via the compost pile. It’s a striking edible weed, part of the family that encompasses spinach, quinoa and epazote. Seeds of Change sells this beautiful variety, oddly named “Magenta Spreen.” Like other members of the Chenopodium family it has a fair amount of oxalic acid which could be a problem if it’s all you ate. Even though I’m prone to kidney stones I’m not concerned about oxalic acid in moderation. Cooking reduces oxalic acid as well as saponins that the leaves also contain.

The Plants for a Future database entry on Chenopodium giganteum has a few cultivation details,

“An easily grown plant, succeeding in most soils but disliking shade. It prefers a moderately fertile soil. This species is closely related to C. album, and was probably derived from it through cultivation. The tree spinach is sometimes cultivated for its edible leaves, there are some named varieties. ‘Magentaspreen’ is a vigorous plant growing 1.5 metres tall. It has large leaves, the new growth is a brilliant magenta colour. Tastiest when young, the leaves are eaten raw or cooked like spinach. A warm climate is required in order to ripen the seed.”

Chenopodium giganteum has a tendency to become invasive, but I prefer to think of it as what Craig Ruggless of Garden Edibles calls a “happy wanderer.”

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Buyer Beware

From the University of California Food Blog, a warning about fraud in the olive oil business:

“Researchers at UC Davis and in Australia discovered that 69 percent of the imported oils sampled, compared to just 10 percent of the California-produced oils sampled, failed to meet internationally accepted standards for extra virgin olive oil.

The imported oils tested were purchased from supermarkets and “big box” stores in three California regions: Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County. The California brands, however, were found only in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay Area.

Defects in those oils that failed to pass muster included oxidation from excessive temperature, light or aging and addition of cheaper refined olive oils.  Other flaws may have been linked to improper processing or storage and use of damaged or overripe olives.

Anecdotal reports of low-quality olive oils lurking behind extra-virgin labels have been floating about for some time but this is the first “empirical proof” to support those suspicions, according to Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center.”

 Read the full report on the website of the UC Davis Olive Center.

Love the Grub 2.1

Black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) larvae, common in compost piles, are a free protein source for chickens and fish. It’s possible to create a composter to deliberately propagate BSF. Jerry (sorry I don’t know your last name) of the Black Soldier Fly Blog, has put together excellent and very detailed instructions on how to construct the BSF composter above. It’s a kind of Logan’s Run for larvae. Soldier fly females enter through the pipe on the top of the bucket and lay their eggs in food scraps you place in the bottom of the device. Larvae hatch and climb up a spiral tube and fall into a holding box.

You can buy a commercial BSF propogator, the Biopod, but it’s a bit over my price range. I’ll be putting together this BSF composter soon and will report back on my results.

Thanks to Federico of the Los Angeles Eco-village for the tip on this. See Federico’s blog http://eeio.blogspot.com/ for some other amazing DIY projects.

Also, see our previous post on the BSF.

Summer of Solar Cookin’


Homegrown Neighbor here:

I was lucky to recently receive a really nice solar cooker from a family friend. Apparently it had been sitting in her garage for a while, and I was happy to take it off of her hands.
The model is called an SOS Sport. It is a box style cooker with a black interior and clear, insulated lid. It also has a removable reflector to help concentrate the light in the box. The reflector is helpful, but I’ve seen the temperature get up to nearly 200 degrees without it during the middle of the day. It came with two round 3 quart pots, so it can cook up quite a lot of food.
Summer is here and it is nice and sunny in Southern California. And way too hot to turn on an oven. So I am embarking on a summer of solar cooking fun. I’ve made a few peach cobblers in the solar cooker, but mostly I use it to cook beans.
I love beans. They are inexpensive, hearty and filling. I keep my pantry stocked with at least two or three different types of dried beans and lentils at all times. I’m usually away all day at work and too exhausted at the end of the day to do much cooking.
I often slump into a chair in the garden at the end of the day, gazing at the veritable cornucopia of vegetables before me, wishing someone would harvest them and make me dinner.
The solar cooker is perfect for someone like me because I can load it up in the morning, leave it all day, and when I come home I have a great meal hot and ready. So it is kind of like a crock pot or slow cooker, just using solar energy instead of electricity. I’ve made a lot of black beans in it, but I’ve also used it to cook pintos, adzukis, mung beans and white beans. I usually grab a sprig of an herb or a bay leaf from the garden to throw in the pot.
Here is what I made today:
Solar Powered Navy Beans

2 cups navy beans
a handful of celery leaves
5 garlic cloves, whole
1/4 cup pickled red onion (just sliced red onion soaked overnight in white wine vinegar- delicious with everything)
Lots of water- maybe 4-5 cups
You want to make sure to use plenty of water. Beans absorb a lot of water as they rehydrate and the solar cooker looses some moisture as it cooks. So err on the side of extra water.
I’m not much of one for measuring. The great thing about making beans, soups and stews is you can add a pinch of this and a sprig of that and adjust the flavoring as you go. It is very forgiving.
I put the pot in the solar cooker around 10 a.m. and got home around 6 p.m. The pot was still nice and warm but not too hot. The beans were the perfect eating temperature. I had a lovely dinner and I’ll have leftovers for several days. I love easy meals. I’m going car camping next week and I’m thinking of taking the solar cooker with me. I think I’ll try a vegetarian chili for the camping trip. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Solar Light Hack

We wanted a solar powered light over our new entrance arbor. The problem is that most of the lights available are just plain ugly. And the solar panels on the cheaper models are usually mounted on the light itself making it impossible to place them in a shady spot.

I came up with a simple solution. First, I bought an inexpensive solar light intended to be mounted on a fence. I took it apart and desoldered the LEDs off the circuit board. Next, I soldered four wires to the former connections to the two LEDs. Basically, I created a extension cord to the LEDs. I mounted the LEDs on a small scrap circuit board and soldered the ends of the wires to them.

What I ended up with is a battery and solar power unit connected by wire to two LEDs that I could place in a more attractive enclosure. We had a candle lamp that Mrs. Homegrown found on the street that worked perfectly, but we could have used just about any fixture. We could now place the solar panel in a sunny location on top of the entrance arbor and then hang the light underneath.

Next on my agenda is to create lights from scratch that flicker like candles.

Here’s a primer on working with LEDs. Note that LEDs have positive and negative legs, so if you hack a solar light, remember to connect up the LEDs respecting the polarity.

Los Angeles School Board Cancels Tyson Contract

Thanks to the hard work of local food activists, including my neighbor Jennie Cook, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted this past week to withdraw its five year contract with Tyson Foods Inc. It’s a multi-million dollar loss for Tyson which provides chicken, or.what they refer to on their own website as “protein products” to the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Tyson was to have been a part of a contract divided between three other providers. All together Tyson and the other companies, who provide beef, potatoes and turkey, were to split a potential $284,450,000 over five years.

Rumor has it that Tyson representatives will attempt to win back the contract over the next month, with the activists promising to return to the next LAUSD board meeting on August 31st.

Looks like Jamie Oliver’s “food revolution” has come to LAUSD.

Clarification 7/20/2010: According to an email from Jennie Cook, LAUSD cancelled the Tyson contract because of labor practices not food quality. I’ll post more on this story later.

The Spice Zee Nectaplum

We just harvested our first Spice Zee Nectaplum and, no exaggeration here, it was just about the tastiest fruit we’ve ever eaten–very sweet, with a indescribably rich taste and aroma. The nectaplum is a complex hybrid developed by Zaiger’s Genetics and sold through the Dave Wilson Nursery. It’s a gorgeous tree, with deep red leaves in the spring that gradually become a dark green by mid-summer.

Hybrid fruit trees are created by applying pollen to seed bearing stock to make a cross. The Zaigers have an innovative movable container system that allows them to cross lots of fruit trees each spring. The nectaplum was the result of years of work and many crosses. It’s not a simple process. From the Dave Wilson website:

At Zaiger’s Genetics, of the 50,000 trees planted per year, only 300 to 400 remain after three years, and even fewer after 10 years. The final trees get six years to see if they are commercial grade. “It isn’t a get-rich-quick deal,” Zaiger says, smiling. “You have to have an understanding wife that will let you go off on a 20-year project with no income.”

Dave Wilson is a wholesale nursery, so if you’d like to buy a nectaplum you’ll have to ask your local nursery to order one for you or get one online from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply.  If you’ve got the space I’d highly recommend this tree. If I could have only one fruit tree it would be this one.

USDA zones 7-9
Chill requirement: 200 to 300 hours

US Agencies Issue Fatwa on Raw Products

Image by Andres Musta

I have no kind words for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. They are, quite simply, a bunch of thugs working for big Central Valley agricultural interests who support their initiatives, enforcement actions and research. I’ve had first hand experience with their rudeness and lies when they sprayed our neighborhood with pesticides in a futile attempt to stop the Asian citrus psyllid. Now they are at it again, this time raiding raw dairy producers and sellers.

Now there are good arguments on both sides of the raw dairy safety debate (see this article at the Ethicurean for the other side) but I think that individuals should be able to make up their own minds. A recent article over at Grist “Raw Deal: Raids are increasing on farms and private food-supply clubs” has the lowdown on a couple of recent outrageous raids that involved not only the CDFA but an alphabet soup of government agencies, including the FBI and FDA who clearly need their priorities readjusted. Whatever happened to that war on terror? The raw dairy and honey raids profiled in the Grist article have one thing in common: government agencies around the US seem to be targeting private buyer’s clubs who distribute farm fresh raw products,

“They seem to stem from increasing concern at both the state and federal level about the spread of private food groups that have sprung up around the country in recent years — food clubs and buying groups to provide specialized local products that are generally unavailable in groceries, like grass-fed meats, pastured eggs, fermented foods, and, in some cases, raw dairy products. Because they are private and limited to consumers who sign up for membership, these groups generally avoid obtaining retail and public health licenses required of retailers that sell to the general public.”

Now that Michael Pollan and many others have turned attention to the miserable practices of mainstream agriculture the big guys are playing dirty. Read the rest of the Grist article for tips on what to do when they come knocking on your door. I’m not the paranoid type, but this is some scary stuff!