Monthly Archives: May 2012

Putting My Garden to Bed

The last pepper in my garden

This column is usually about edible wild plants and special southwestern spices, but I’m also a conventional gardener.  As you desert dwellers know, Mother Nature has organized our seasons upside-down from most of the rest of the United States.  While we are harvesting the last of our crops, gardeners in New Jersey are setting out tender little starts or planting seeds.

Today I put my vegetable garden to bed for the summer with a heavy heart. I love harvesting my home grown vegetables as much as I get a kick out of picking food from the wild. The last thing I pulled out was several clusters of I’itoi bunching onions. My two small-ish raised beds fed me and my husband Ford and our guests 90 percent of our vegetables and salad since around November. Every day when it was time to fix lunch, I took a colander and picked a selection of lettuces. When all the broccoli decided to flower at the same time, we ate broccoli every other day.  I did plant twice as much mustard greens as we needed, so I managed to fix it in creative ways and gave some away. My tomato plants were full of unripe fruit during the November cold snap, but I saved them with Christmas lights and several layers of blankets and we ate tomatoes through February.

I’itoi onions ready for an onion quiche.

I felt prayerful and grateful and sad as I pulled up the last sun-crisped plants, coiled up the drip line and worked in the compost, readying the beds for early fall planting.  For the first time, I deeply understood harvest festivals. For us, it is usually a fun weekend when we buy a pumpkin or some Indian corn. In more traditional times, people celebrated a real accomplishment – enough food to get them and their kids through the winter. I rely on a drip irrigation system to supplement our winter rains. But if I were gardening a hundred years ago, it would be a different story. Rains that were spotty or too plentiful could mean disaster.   And that is still the way it is in much of the world – a bad harvest can mean starvation. A bountiful harvest was cause for jubilation.

Empty garden ready for fall planting.

In a week, I’ll pick up some chicken manure from my friend Linda and work that into my garden and hope the monsoons turn it into a nice nutritious goop.  Meanwhile I think I’ll order some new seeds and get ready for September when the thermometer goes back below 100 degrees.

Vegetables and wild greens from my backyard – you can’t get more locally sourced than that!

Please share your experiences with your own garden.  I’d love to learn from you!

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Nopales Are Ready

Nopales are ready when they are the size of your hand.

It seemed like the nopales (prickly pear cactus stems) were late this year — or maybe I was just anxious for them to appear.  The native species out on the desert began putting out new growth weeks ago, but the Ficus indica, the large Mexican variety didn’t have anything large enough to pick– at least in my yard — until about a week ago.

Nopal stems are very healthy — full of all the sorts of vitamins you find in most vegetables with the added bonus of some gums and fibers that are helpful in regulating the blood glucose levels for people with  non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.  The fiber helps, of course, but there is something else going on that researchers haven’t yet been able to figure out.  Prickly pear, both the pads and fruit, seems to increase sensitivity to insulin through some unexplained process.  About 100 grams, around two medium-sized pads, before each meal  will do the trick.  That could be with eggs for breakfast, in a burrito for lunch and maybe with some other vegetables for dinner.

Many people eat the pads fresh and sliced into a salad — that is one of the classic preparations.  I prefer them cooked. They can be sauteed in a frying pan, grilled over coals or lightly coated with oil and baked.  But first they need to be cleaned of whatever thorns are present.  The photos below show how to remove the thorns with a common steak knife, going against the direction of growth.  Put a little muscle into it.  Then trim off the stem end which could be tough and trim off the edge.  Once you chop it into small pieces you have nopalitos.

Cleaning off the thorns.

Trimming the edge.

Chopping into nopalitos.

As you cook the nopalitos, they will shrink as they lose water.  This reduces the gummy texture.  They all change color from bright green to olive.

Sizzling noplalitos ready to eat.

Now you have  nopalitos that you can combine with other ingredients into delicious recipes.  You can stir them into commercial or homemade salsa, scramble with eggs,  or include with roast chicken to roll into a burrito.  You can find delicious recipes for Nopalitos and Chicken in Culichi Sauce,   and other simple-to-prepare gourmet dishes in my latest cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest.   There are also both classic and innovative  recipes in The Prickly Pear Cookbook.  How do Grilled Chicken with Noplito and Pineapple Salsa or Jicama and Nopalito Salad sound?  Yum!  Below is a photo of  French Green Lentil Salad with Nopalitos from Cooking the Wild Southwest. 

French Green Lentil Salad with Nopalitos

If you have a favorite preparation using nopalitos,  please share it here with me and the other readers.  Nopalitos are mild tasting and there are endless ideas for including them in dishes.  What is the best nopalito dish you ever ate?

Spring greens: final harvest

After working in our garden for a little while, my husband Ford came to find me in our kitchen. “You’ve got to get rid of all those weeds,” he said.  “They are sucking up all the water for the lime tree.” 

Weeds?  What weeds?  Those are wild greens!  But the lambs-quarter plants were getting huge and it was time to harvest them.  After pulling the plants up, I began plucking off the leaves.  From that big bunch, I ended up with about 11 cups of raw greens.  I steamed them in three bunches and ended up with around 5 cups. I used one for dinner that night mixed with some Swiss chard from my garden and froze the rest in 1-cup bags.   I’m going to use a couple of bags of the frozen greens  this weekend to make a brunch dish for a baby shower.  The mom-to-be is a vegetarian, so we’ve planned the menu to suit her.   We’ll have two dishes from my new cookbook, Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants Our main dish will be Squares of Green, which is basically a quiche with greens and cheese.  You could use a recipe you have or find the one in my book.  We’ll also have French Green Lentil and Nopalito Salad, also in the book.  To a  base of  French green lentils, which don’t fall apart when tender, we will add some sauteed nopalitos, chopped red pepper and green onions. It will be dressed with hazelnut oil and sherry vinegar.    We will round things out with a fruit salad. The desserts we have planned are too decadent for me to own up to here.

  If you live in the desert, it is time to harvest any wild greens; anyone who lives further north or at  higher elevation still has several months to go before your harvest.