Anticipation of Fall

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In the midst of summer, under July heat and between berry-picking and trips to the lake, my mind always begins to move to fall. On chilly mornings, or when a breeze picks up and thrashes the plants out front, I feel it coming, though its arrival is still months off yet.

It’s always been at this time of year that I start knitting. Crafting for cold weather lets me channel the euphoria and creativity that the first chill and yellowing trees light in me. As I work I imagine the smell of rain and fallen leaves and pumpkin and roast chicken, and my soul leaps with excitement.

Now that we’re back in the Pacific Northwest I am overjoyed for the promise of cooler weather and rain.  The season will be rung in by my daughter’s second birthday. We’ll return to cooking inside and lighting the wood stove.

I’m not knitting my way through this summer– partly for lack of time; partly because my daughter would object– but instead I’ll be thinking ahead as I dig and plant our fall garden. I’ll be stacking firewood, storing potatoes, picking hazelnuts, and nailing siding up on the hay barn.

As always, there is more to do than there are hours in the day or energy in my body. But we’re moving forward, chipping away, and I’m feeling blissfully inspired.

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17 Tips for Easy Homemade Broth

Chicken, vegetable, and other broths are some of the most versatile and easy-to-make staples in the kitchen. They turn a spent carcass or papery onion skins into one more meal– almost for free! Most importantly, homemade broth is dramatically superior to what you can buy in a can or box at the market, and without the additives and preservatives.

There are myriad ways to make great broth, and here are some tips from our kitchen.

Save bones and trimmings in the freezer. Keep separate bags for cooked and raw; different meats; and smoked or non-smoked, which impart flavors best for different dishes. Be sure to date your bags or containers, so you use the oldest first and within a few months of freezing.

Save veggies, too! Stick to aromatic leftovers, like onion skins and root, carrot ends and skin, celery trimmings, mushroom stems, pea pods, and corn cobs. Skins are the most nutritious parts of most vegetables, so broth salvages nutrients otherwise lost in peeling.

Season as you go. This can be contentious, but I’m a firm believer in producing a broth that’s immediately drinkable. Otherwise, you don’t know what you’ve got until the soup or dish is done. You can always omit salt from the final recipe. So salt the meat before cooking, salt the liquid, and adjust seasoning on the finished product. You don’t want “salty,” but you do want full flavor.

Sweat your meat and vegetables. The key is drawing out the flavorful juices from the meat, bones, and veggies. So if you’re using raw chicken, brown it in a little oil (or better yet, rendered fat) in the stew pot. Add the onions and brown those, too, then cover and sweat for 10 minutes over low heat. Don’t open the lid. At the end, the ingredients will be swimming in rich juices. Sweating is especially useful for a quick broth. If you’re using cooked meat or bones, or are making vegetable broth, sweat the onions– and mushrooms if you’re using fresh ones.

For a nice rich stock, break up the bones, keep it slow, and skim often. At the end of several hours over low heat, the resulting stock should turn to firm jelly when cooled. Skimming improves clarity.

For vegetarian broth, keep dehydrated mushrooms on-hand. Leftover stems are great, too. Fungi offer great umami and depth of flavor.

Don’t add garlic (until the end.) Garlic can turn bitter if cooked too long. Too much celery can do the same, as will brassicas, potatoes, and a number of other vegetables.

Plan ahead and vary flavors for different uses. For an Asian noodle soup I love to make, I add lemongrass and basil to the broth. For many others I add dried chilis or coriander. It’s a great way to inject flavor from something you don’t want winding up in your soup spoon, like a bay leaf.

On the other hand, for standard uses, stick to the basic recipe. I don’t add herbs or other special seasonings unless I know how I want my dish flavored. For basic chicken broth, I use chicken, onions, carrots, celery, peppercorns, and salt. That’s it.

Don’t peel your onions. Do wash them. When using whole onions, there’s no need to peel them since the skins have good flavor, too. Just chop them up like a potato before tossing in the pot. However, be sure to wash them since the outside can have germs and pesticides. On that note, for this use in particular, I highly recommend buying organic.

Grill the odd bits. If you remove the back or breastbone of the chicken when you’re piecing it, or if no one likes to eat the neck or giblets, cook them up anyway along with the parts for dinner. That way they’re ready to go for broth. Giblets and feet make great, flavorful broth. If your family isn’t into eating the offal, save them up in the freezer for this.

After skimming your broth, give the spent meat to the dog. Our dogs are always happy when I’m picking through the leftovers. They like the carrots, too.

Best of all, if you keep delicious homemade broth on-hand, whenever you’re sick (or hung over) it’s a piece of cake to make a lifesaving mug of spicy garlic broth. Nothing like it!

Homegrown Potatoes: A Worthy Vegetable

A few years ago, as my husband and I prepared to plant our first large garden, we poured over the colorful photos in seed catalogues and discussed what we wanted to plant. The gist of it: everything!

But we narrowed it down to a reasonable selection, based on the pursuit of superior flavor and nutritional value than what we could buy. (We did, however, fail to plant a reasonable quantity of each: notably three 30-foot rows of spinach for the two of us and something like 100 tomato plants.) We placed our order. In addition, I heaped several paper sacks with various potatoes at the local feed store.

He didn’t protest the potatoes until he had fulfilled his job of mounding the rows a few times. While we now layer in straw mulch, at the time he was heaving shovelful after shovelful of dry valley clay soil– backbreaking work. And he began to wonder aloud, why waste the time and effort with potatoes when they’re so cheap from the grocery store? They’re just a bland starch.

Then we harvested our first Yukon Golds. They were like butter– totally unlike supermarket spuds. They hardly needed anything but a pot of boiling water. Divine in every preparation.

Now we grow lots of potatoes: fingerlings, purples and blues, waxy and white. We’ve grown them in buckets, in trenches, and in circles of wire. We layer mulch and soil for easy mounding and digging. And they’re my very favorite harvest– have been since childhood. It’s like digging for treasure.

We planted purple potatoes in bins before the move with the intention of simply moving them with us. I didn’t want to miss potato season and the purples were sprouting. We also threw in some golds and reds. The plants shot up in the early warm California weather. Then before one of our weeklong trips with a load to the new place, I forgot to tell the student caring for our animals to water the plants. Many survived. The potatoes did not.

Disappointed, I shrugged them off with the intention to plant more in the new garden, which I did in March. Then as we prepared for the final move and I dumped the demised spud bins, out poured dozens of colorful marbles: young potatoes from pea-sized to ping pong balls. Delighted, I tossed them in a bag and brought them along.

Now at the new place, I prepared them to our toddler’s delight, simply boiled and tossed in a bit of butter and fresh parsley, served over a bed of peas. It was a hit that highlighted the finest of spring vegetables, even the ones some might not deem worthy of growing at home.

This weekend we’ll be digging fingerlings, and we’re as eager as we will be when harvesting the first tomatoes or berries.

Shared on the Homestead Blog Hop.

Pickled Cat’s Ear Buds

The population of edible plants growing from our driveway down to the creek and up the hillside is astounding and exciting– beyond the salad greens we eat almost daily to include vegetables for roasting and stir-frying, fermenting and pickling.

I have been topping our daily wild salads with dandelion buds for months, split in half to reveal their bright petal heart. Munched just atop the green leafy halo, they are sweet and palatable straight from the plant.

But as dandelion season wanes and now with an overabundance of cat’s ear shooting skyward, I knew I wanted to utilize them in a way that would aptly tame their bitterness. So I pickled a jarful. Among them I added the last of the dandelion buds as well as clusters of sow thistle and spiny sow thistle buds, all significantly less bitter than cat’s ear.

When gathering, keep in mind that all secrete a staining white sap, but cat’s ear is worst of all and will leave skin and clothing marked brown indefinitely.

Cat’s ear is widely mistaken for dandelion because their leaf rosettes are rather similarly shaped and their bright-yellow blossoms are indistinguishable from a distance (to the unfamiliar). Dandelion flowers tend not to stand as tall, nor are its leaves markedly furry as are cat’s ear. Both, however, vary greatly in their leaf-shape and size. Cat’s ear buds lack dandelion’s ring of small leaves just above the top of the stem.

Cat’s ear leaves on the left; dandelion leaves on the right for comparison.

   

The good news is that both are edible and highly nutritious. Cat’s ear buds along with the top several inches of stem are fantastically delicious cooked as asparagus– we roast them briefly with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Sow thistle and spiny sow thistle plants, for their due mention, are edible but unappetizing by appearance: one is armored with long spikes; the other is limp and milky. Their tiny drum-shaped buds, though, show the signs of palatability. They may be picked individually or in clusters.

Another important note for gathering edible wild buds: All of the above flowers open and then close into a bud form.  Only the pre-flowering stage is worth eating as the latter is turning to seed. Pick only tightly closed, blunt buds with no tip of yellow or browned petal clusters emerging at the end.

Pickled Wild Buds

This pickle yields a rainbow of flavors, from tangy to sweet to bitter at the end. The bitterness wanes over time, so if they are too bitter for your taste, let them brine for longer in the fridge. They are a nutritious snack and zippy addition to salads and sandwiches.

1-1/2 cups wild buds

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1/3 cup water

2 T sugar or honey

1 T salt

10 whole black peppercorns

10 coriander seeds

1 dried hot chili, such as Thai chili — or — 1 t red chili flakes

3 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled

1 bay leaf

Rinse the buds in a colander to remove brown sap stain and any bugs. Drain. Then place in a clean canning jar.

Combine all other ingredients in a small saucepan and heat to a low simmer. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Turn off immediately and cool to just-warm. Pour the contents over the buds and cool to room temperature. Seal with a lid (canning is not necessary). Place in the refrigerator for at least one week.

More wild food recipes for the weeds in your yard:

Superpowers of Stinging Nettles

Wild Greens with Polenta and Chutney Vinaigrette (And a Note on Foraging)

Sauteed Wild Mustard Greens with Dock, Garlic and Onions

Roasted Wild Mustard Buds

Eating Mustard Flowers

Meadow and Brown Field Mushrooms

Firsts Among Fungi

Shaggy Mane Mushrooms

Quick & Easy Breakfast: Huevos a la Campesina

One of my husband’s and my favorite eateries from our college town is a Mexican breakfast joint where the walls are adorned with colorful paintings and the same friendly trio crowds behind the counter each morning. The food is so good our “usuals” migrated across the scrawled, wall-mounted menu: the best chilaquiles on the planet, topped with house-pickled jalapeños; huevos rancheros swimming in fresh salsa; Frisbee-sized blackberry pancakes mounded with whipped cream.

My go-to on most days, whether between afternoon classes or on a hung-over Sunday morning, was their version of huevos a la campesina.

When we’re unable to drop into one of the rickety mismatched chairs of our favorite campus café, we make this dish at home. It’s as fast as plain scrambled eggs, ten times as delicious, and it only calls for a few scoops of whatever salsa is hanging around the fridge and even the stalest tortilla chips from the back of the pantry.

I whip up a few eggs in a bowl while heating a skillet. When it’s nice and hot, I add some oil– coconut, vegetable, whatever– and coat the entire bottom and sides of the pan to prevent the eggs from sticking. Then I pour in the eggs. While they sizzle and begin to solidify, I loosely crumble in a good handful of tortilla chips and start stirring it up. A few seconds later as the eggs start to come together, I drop in a few scoops of salsa and keep stirring it up until the eggs are cooked.

The whole shebang takes a couple of minutes. No seasoning is necessary because of the salt in the chips and the flavors of the salsa. A sprinkle of grated cheddar or crumbled queso fresco is great but totally optional. I typically eat them with pickled jalapeños and a dollop of sour cream if I have it on-hand.

This is the perfect simple breakfast for a crowd, on busy mornings, or whenever chips and salsa are hanging around from the night before.

Roasted Wild Mustard Buds

As the hillsides flare yellow with mustard flowers, we enjoy the delicious wild bounty of the season in numerous dishes. We saute the leaves with onions and dock. We eat the blossoms fresh and enjoy salad after salad of nutrient-rich wild greens.

Most delicious of all, though, we roast the flower heads with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Just as the buds are about to open or even after a blossom or two has unfurled, the flower heads resemble their near cousin, broccoli. The flavor is like other brassicas with a bit of extra spice, though roasting coaxes out a mellow savoriness. It’s a quick, easy, and spectacularly tasty dish.

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I collect the top several inches of tender stem, picking off the larger leaves to add to a salad or saute. I toss the buds with extra virgin olive oil and plenty of salt and fresh-ground black pepper and spread them out evenly on a baking sheet. They roast in a 450-degree oven for about five to seven minutes, until the leaves have crisped up and darkened a bit, and the stems are just barely tender.

Served with mashed potatoes, these give my very favorite standard veggies a run for their money.

Comfort Food: Split Pea and Ham Soup

Split pea and ham is one of my all-time favorite soups. It’s rich, delicious, and easy to make. It also uses the inexpensive ham hock and a short list of ingredients we usually have on-hand, so it’s a very cheap meal with plenty of leftovers.

The sugar in this recipe caramelizes the juices of the vegetables, perfectly offsetting the salty-smokiness of the ham, and creating a heart-warming comfort food. The vinegar brings a brightening acid.

Split Pea and Ham Soup

2-1/2 Lbs smoked ham hock, whole

4 qts water

1 bay leaf

1 T neutral oil, such as vegetable or avocado

2 large yellow onions, chopped medium

3 ribs of celery with leaves, sliced 1/4-in. thick

3 carrots, sliced 1/4-in. thick

1 T sugar

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 Lb split peas, rinsed and picked through

3 waxy potatoes, such as Yukon gold, in 1/2-in. dice

1 t dried thyme

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Balsamic vinegar

In a large pot, add the ham hock, water and bay leaf, and bring the water to a simmer. Reduce to very low, cover, and simmer for 2-1/2 hours. Remove the ham hock and place in a bowl to cool. Reserve the broth in another pot or bowl, and discard the bay leaf. When the ham hock is cool enough to handle, pick the meat into bite-sized pieces and set aside. Discard the fat, skin, and bones.

Meanwhile, in the original pot, heat the oil over medium-high. Add the onions and cook until they’re becoming translucent, about 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Then add the carrots and celery. Cook for 2 minutes, then stir in the sugar. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot occasionally, for 15 minutes until a brown crust forms and the vegetables are tender. Then add the garlic and cook for 1 minute.

Return the broth that the ham hocks simmered in to the pot and scrape the bottom well. Return to a simmer over medium-low, then add the split peas. Cook the peas until they are just tender, about 20 minutes. Then add the potatoes, ham and thyme. Cook until the potatoes are very tender and some of the peas are beginning to dissolve, thickening the soup. Adjust seasoning as necessary.

Serve in bowls with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.