It has been some weeks since I updated my Edible Plants series. I am currently listening to the book Farm City: An Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter. She lives in Oakland, CA and is able to construct a fantastic urban garden, well ultimately farmstead really, on an abandoned lot next to her house – she calls it her “squat garden.” The writing is humorous and she manages to raise critical issues surrounding the food movement as it pertains to urban people within the larger context of history, industrial agriculture, and the myriad of “fad” or “trendy” takes on how we ought to feed ourselves without a soap box or liturgical ranting style that I felt Gabrielle Hamilton’s writing tended to smack of. I appreciate the humility and genuine nature of her style where she seems to be merely chronicling her own journey and process through making her vision a reality, and making sense of why she is doing it.
This pertains to the Edible Plant Series because one of the cool things I learned from this book (which is littered with facts about the origins of vegetables, the history of animal husbandry, the history and modern place for the “back to the earth” movement), is that carrots are native to Afghanistan! I definitely never would have come up with that if you asked me where I thought they started off there. Another tip towards my discussing carrots today is that my mom ran into our farmer, Dennis, who provides our CSA share. His farm is called Blue Dog Greens (make sure to check out his website, and if you live in the area, consider getting veggies from him – they are SO good!) form which we will begin receiving produce as of June 1! He said that he has had a wonderful growing season, and that his carrots are going to be fantastic. And, if the carrots I have had from him in the past don’t live up to these, we are going to be in for a real treat – they are SO GOOD.
Carrots began their culinary journey in Asia around 5,000 years ago. They did not start out orange! They were typically purple, but other colors existed as well. Bitter in nature, they were first used medicinally, but, as with most plants that are domesticated, the roots became larger and sweeter with time. Apparently, they were considere to be an aphrodisiac 😉
Greeks hated carrots, but the Romans loved them because their culture tended to be more accepting of robust flavors. Eating them cooked and raw, the early Roman cookbook Apicius even includes them in its pages. In the 12th century AD, Moors brought the roots to continental Europe where they spread to Great Britain and were cultivated there before coming to the New World. The orange color has resulted from selective breeding, and tended to be more appealing to the eye. This resulted in carrots becoming widely accepted as something for people to eat.
The Dutch are actually responsible for this change from purple to orange where they were used New World mutant seeds to steer the carrot towards sweetness rather than its typically bitter nature. Yellow carrots (the mutants) were crossed with ye old purple ones, and resulted in orange carrots! They are rumoured to have been adopted by The House of Orange under William I as the national vegetable in honor of the fight for independence from Spain.
Carrots are, thus, delineated into two categories – the original and bitter Eastern variety, and the new Western, under which there are a few general classifications.
- Chantenay carrots are typically shorter and wider with a very thick top and blunt bottom. They tend to be used in canned goods or other processed and pre cooked creations.
- Danvers are conical and have a well defined tip. They are slightly longer than the Chantenay type and can tolerate heavier soils. Developed in the 19th century in Danvers, MA, they are now used for the most part in pureed baby food you buy at the grocery store.
- Imperator carrots are the kind we usually see sold in bags at the store. They are, on average, the third longest of the carrot varietals.
- Nantes are the shortest and are much sweeter than any other type.
They are related to parsnips, best grown in sandy soil and cooler temperatures. They flower after their second year of cultivation – they are biennials. Adding a sweet flavor to dishes when cooked, they are often used in stocks, soups, braises, and other things that are cooked slow and steady. As a side, they are fantastic if you steam or boil them and toss with butter or oil and some chopped herbs, salt and pepper. Carrots are a mainstay of cooking, appearing in the tried and true mirepoix – the base for so many traditional dishes in European cuisine – consisting of celery, carrots, and onion.
We all know carrots are supposedly great for the eyes. If you are focused on Beta Carotene, make sure to cook them for maximum benefits, as only 3% of beta carotene is released during digestion when consumed raw, and jumps to 39% when cooked! Beta Carotene is metabolized into Vitamin A. Eating too many will actually turn your skin orange – this is not a myth. Vitamin A is responsible for improving eyesight (a lack of it actually will negatively affect your night vision). During WWII in England pilots were encouraged to eat more carrots in order to improve their ability to shoot at enemy targets. Carrots are also known to help with improving digestion, fighting off intestinal parasites, and mitigating both tonsillitis and constipation.
Something else I would love to share with you is this piece I listened to earlier today on NPR’s show Being. They show’s host interviews chef Dan Barber in front of a live audience. He is a chef at the Blue Hill Farm restaurants in New York – they have two locations: one on Manhattan and another in the Hudson Valley on a farm. He is a visionary and smart person who happens to also be quite funny. I appreciate his take on food, and I like this particular piece as it focuses on ethical issues surrounding the local food movement. I felt like it was particularly timely given that I am listening to the previously mentioned book! As Susan and my Mom would say, a case of Mexican Wrestler Syndrome 🙂 I encourage you guys to listen to it and check out the restaurants when you’re on the East Coast. For good measure, I will toss out this recipe for his scrambled eggs recipe that I found!
I dived into a pile of ramps this afternoon, and inaugurated my new toy: a cuisinart food processor. I had a nice time making it – I love watching the colors swirl and then pouring in the oil at the end where it all comes together and gets so bright and lovely.
makes a whole lot
- 30-40 ramps, leaves and bulbs roughly chopped
- 3/4-1 cup grated hard cheeses (I used asiago, stravecchio parmesan, and parrano)
- 3/4-1 cup toasted nuts (I used almonds)
- juice of at 4-6 lemons
- salt and pepper
- dash of golden balsamic vinegar
A couple of weeks ago I told you all we are now sprouting our own seeds. The first batch was successful, and they are SO good. Just like getting fresh lettuce out of the garden and not the store, these sprouts definitely taste better.
Alfalfa is a crop native to Iran (it is also known as lucerne). Generally it is used as a “green manure” or a feed crop for cattle or other farm animals. Alfalfa made its way to Europe around 491 BCE, showing up in Greece after the Persians invaded there. In the second century BCE, they showed up in China. There alfafa was also typically used in these places also as livestock feed, but people would eat it in times of famine or shortage out of desperation. It was notably consumed for this reason durin Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.
A perennial crop (meaning you can plant it and it will grow again the next year by reseeding itself), it grows well in either warm temperate, or cool subtropical settings. It has deep roots, and is able to grow even in very dry places. It is a member of the clover family that grows 3 leaves that have a serrated tip upon short stalks. Alfalfa flowers are blue or purple and small. It is a legume, which means it fixes nitrogen in the soil – a very important process that actually improves soil conditions (unlike corn which tends to leach nutrients without replacing anything at all). It is a fantastic crop to grow as part of responsible farming within a crop rotation cycle in between crops of less soil-friendly plants.
The sprouts are easy to make by soaking them overnight in a thin layer that is covered, then leaving them in a warm place to sprout. They must be drained twice a day, and will sprout within a few days! The sprouts are mild (unlike other more intense varieties, such as sprouted onion, broccoli, etc.). They have a nutty, mild flavor that is versatile in its uses on salads, sandwiches, or garnish. The mature alfalfa plant has a pungent, earthy flavor and its young leaves are eaten as a vegetable in China.
The sprouts are extremely nutritions, containing high levels of beta-carotene, vitamin K, and minerals introduced by the soil they are grown in. They have been used throughout the world in traditional medicine – both Chinese, Ayurvedic, and now modern alternative medicine as a solution to urinary tract infections, digestive ailments, ulcers, arthritis, and fluid retention. Important to note, though, is that all legume sprouts contain toxins, so eating them in moderation or cooking them is important to take into consideration.
I have been putting the sprouts on green leaf salads mainly, but I made this panzanella salad for my mom to take with her to work for her class to eat. We had this loaf of day old black bean salsa bread, some stale chips, and so I made a quick migas/panzanella dish.
Spicy Bean & Salsa Panzanella Migas Fusion
- 2-3 cups cubed bread, toasted until dried out
- 1 cup stale chips, crumbled up
- 1/2 cup onion, finely minced
- 1 cup mushrooms, chopped
- 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
- 4 tbsp olive oil, divided
- 1/2 cup store bought salsa, or diced tomatoes
- 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
- juice of a lemon or lime & zest
- salt & pepper
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp coriander
- chili powder to taste
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1/2 cup hard cheese (I used asiago because that’s what we had)
- 1-2 cups spinach or arugula
- Chop up your bread, and spread it out on a jelly roll pan. Place it in the oven and turn it on to 350. Check on it periodically and once it is dry, you can take it out.
- Drain your can of beans in a colander, and rinse.
- Heat up 1 tbsp olive oil in a saute pan, and begin to saute your onions and mushrooms until tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, and you can add in some of the spices mentioned in the list to flavor the vegetables if you like. Mix in the beans at this point.
- In a large bowl, mix the rest of the olive oil through cheese with a whisk, add in the bread, and toss. Add in the sauteed vegetables and continue to toss. If the mixture is dry, you can add more oil or citrus.
- Mix in the arugula, and place in a serving dish. Top with sprouts!
This week there was a bunch of kale in my fridge. At the grocery store I almost walked past it, but it jumped out at me, and my memory said “HEY! BUY THAT!” Remembering my promise to myself that I would eat more kale, I grabbed it up. In the check out, the cashier said he personally had rung up about 10 bunches of kale that day. This was super unusual, as he told us weeks will pass without seeing any of it pass through his hands. There is something in the water telling us to eat more kale? Whatever it is, seems like a good thing that people in my town are on the same page as I about boosting our nutrition.
I made two things with the kale a few days ago. For breakfast I just sauteed onion and garlic, then braised the leaves with those things, some olive oil, salt and pepper, and squeezed lemon over it. Served it with scrambled eggs and berries. It was tasty.
Then, for dinner I made a large batch of pizza/pasta sauce. It was “semi homemade” for sure – I got some vodka sauce, sun dried tomato sauce, and took a can of stewed tomatoes. Tossed those into a pan of sauteed onion, added some balsamic vinegar, basil, and tossed in a few handfulls of kale. It was really go0d. I made gnocchi with it for dinner, and then used it on the pizza I made Wednesday.
Oh, and I roasted some golden beets – so good!
I know I said I was going to write about citrus on page 69, but have changed my mind. Lately I have been thinking about not eating enough things like kale, chard, spinach, mustard greens, etc. I used to eat a lot of these delicious plants, but somehow they fell off my radar within the past few years. I know that the darker the greens, the healthier. I don’t know anything about the nutritional profile, or the history. Perhaps the book and a little other research will shed light upon this.
My book says that kale was the primary green vegetable consumed at the end of the Middle Ages throughout Europe. It is a Scottish name which was actually spread via writers from Scotland who wrote about rural life there – it was actually a synonym for dinner! They are part of the Acephala Group of brassicas. It is a descendent of wild cabbage that does not develop a head. They range from flatter leafed to extremely curly and compact. Some varieties people tend to eat, while others are reserved mainly for animal feed.
In Southern cooking, kale, as well as other deep greens, are often simmered with a large chunk of meat to tenderize the leaves, as well as impart delicious meaty flavor. In my own cooking, I usually used it as I would spinach – throwing it in at the end of a soup, using it in stir fries, and even in pasta or pizza sauce. Why not add in a nutritional powerhouse whenever possible? (I am writing this to remind myself to start doing this again.)
Nutritionally speaking, kale is packed with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. According to our friend Wikipedia, it is “very high in beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, lutein, zeaxathin, and reasonably rich in calcium.. indole-3-carbinol, a chemical which boosts DNA repair in cells and appears to block the growth of cancer cells… also a good source of carotenoids.” While cooking it reduces the anti-cancer properties, boiling, steaming, microwaving (ew), or stir frying is does not diminish its nutritional profile very much. So, making a lovely massaged kale salad is the best way to go if you want to maintain those cancer fighting properties.
Something else I used to make often with kale (since we got so much of it in our winter CSA) was a simple sauteed side dish. My mom showed me this one, actually, and all you do is rinse it, de-stem it, chop it up if you want. Then mince a whole bunch of garlic, melt butter or toss olive oil into a big pan, and lightly brown that. Next, toss in the kale, add salt and pepper, and allow it to wilt to your liking. Sometimes I would grate some parmesan into it, and squirt lemon over the top. You can also add in any herbs you would like, some cayenne pepper would be good. Or even take an Asian twist and use some toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds! I will make something with kale within the week – if I do not, definitely call me out 😉
Oh, and please comment letting me know any awesome kale recipes you have up your sleeves. I know somebody does!
And Two Annoucements:
- A few days ago, my mom reveled she has this cute sprout making tower. Tonight we started our first batch! You put 1 tbsp seeds into each tray, and then pour some water into the top. It trickles down through all the trays via these nifty siphons, and after a few days voila! Sprouts! Cannot wait to put them in ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING. So good. I know you can do this with a mason jar and screen, but sometimes you gotta love random toys like this one. We also have a yogurt maker… Stay tuned.
- My dad hung up the awesome chalkboard I groundscored from this alley while I was living in Chicago. I have towed it from there to Michigan, to DC, and now back here. It is finally being properly utilized. I need smaller chalk – all I have is awesome day glow sidewalk chalk (which will get used, but not on this sign). I will write about this recipe tomorrow.