Cucumber Salad with Corn, Feta and Herbs

At the height of summer, on long days of working and playing outside, nothing is better than a refreshing garden-fresh salad. The lemon cucumbers that have been ripening back-to-back on our vines are deserving of better than a humble supporting role. We’ve enjoyed plenty sliced with a pinch of salt.

As a basis of a more substantial dish, perfect for al fresco lunch, I mix the beautiful slices with corn, fresh herbs, feta, and succulent wild greens. Dressed only lightly with extra virgin olive oil, the flavors balance and compliment one another wonderfully– salt from the feta, sweetness from the corn, and light citrus from the purslane.

I’ve used mint and basil together since enjoying the best-ever caprese salad in a restaurant, and now my tomatoes are paired more often with mint than the latter. We also use the abundant herb in myriad savory dishes that I would have once thought strange, since mint always meant “sweet” to me– an association I suspect an unfortunately large population of Americans share. I only urge you to branch out! Zucchini and mint are a match made in heaven. And there’s always mint wine.

Here I use grapefruit mint, my favorite variety. It has the power and aroma to turn a cold glass of water into a refreshing summer mocktail with a simple muddled leaf.

As for the purslane and oxeye daisies: both are exceptionally common, easily identified wild plants, though of course I encourage research before foraging for food. Both are used medicinally and are delicious greens.

While the beautiful seas of daisies have dried on Northwest hillsides, lush basal leaves continue to sprout everywhere. (Check your garden!) Their flavor is pleasantly herbal and mild. Baby arugula would make a stronger-flavored domesticated stand-in, and wild amaranth leaves would be nice as well.

Purslane especially likes inhospitable cracks in the sidewalk and gravel driveways, so just look down. It’s an unassuming succulent with a cucumber-citrus flavor. More on this lovely wild snack from Grow a Good LifeAttainable Sustainable, and Little Big Harvest. Sliced lemon verbena or lemon mint might stand in adequately, though without the cool crispness than purslane offers.

Cucumber Salad with Corn, Feta and Herbs

Quantities are notably omitted. Use a handful of each ingredient as you prefer.

Cucumbers, preferably lemon variety, sliced 1/4-inch thick

Steamed corn, cut from the cob

Feta cheese, crumbled

Purslane, tips and leaves

Oxeye daisy, basal leaves

Basil leaves, thinly sliced

Mint leaves, such varieties as grapefruit, apple, or spearmint, thinly sliced

Extra virgin olive oil (very little)

Salt (very little)

Black pepper (very little)

For garnish: basil or mint sprigs, oxeye daisy flowers, borage flowers, or nasturtium.

Toss all ingredients together, then arrange in shallow salad bowls and add garnishes, all of which above are edible and delicious.

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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.

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.

Sautéed Wild Mustard Greens with Dock, Garlic and Onions

We gather wild greens from the field daily, and mustard is currently the  star attraction– buds as broccoli, flowers and young greens in salads, and cooked older leaves. I think these hold up even better, in flavor and texture, to sauteing than does spinach. We often mix with dock leaves for a bright lemony accent.

Mustard greens are easy to prepare, incredibly healthful, and delicious. They are a wonderful side to all sorts of meat, fish, polenta, or grain. We enjoyed them last night with fried pork chops and sweet potatoes.

Sautéed Wild Mustard Greens with Dock, Garlic and Onions

The dash of hot sauce adds no heat to speak of– only a bit of vinegar and spark of extra flavor. Serves 3-4.

2 T butter

1 white onion, chopped medium

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup dry white wine

3 large handfuls of large mustard leaves, stems trimmed and chopped in 1-inch lengths, separate, and leaves sliced 1 inch wide

1 large handful of curly dock leaves (optional), stems trimmed, leaves sliced 1 inch wide

1 t homemade hot sauce or other vinegar-based hot sauce, such as Tabasco

Salt

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and begin to brown, about 5 minutes or so. Add the garlic and cook 30 seconds. Stir in the mustard stems and cook for 30 more seconds. Add the greens and turn over several times as they begin to wilt. After a 30 seconds or so, add the white wine and continue to turn the greens while scraping the pan until they’re wilted. Cook until tender, only a couple of minutes or so, depending on how tough or old the leaves were. Season with the hot sauce and salt to taste. Serve immediately.

Eating Mustard Flowers

Across the West Coast, mustard flowers are budding and beginning to turn the hills and fields brilliant yellow. At this stage, just before the blossoms open, the flower heads resemble broccoli florets and taste even better.

Mustard, like broccoli, is a a brassica, and the flavors are similar. Mustard packs a bit more punch, but the tender buds are sweet and milder than the leaves and open flowers. They are gorgeous additions to salads and irresistible eaten fresh from the plant.