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Thursday, March 29, 2012

In the Beantime

I usually take a photo, or drag one up from the archives, but today's subject is beans, and they're just not that photogenic. Sure, I could hunt down some pretty heirloom variety, dried orbs speckled with color, shot according to foodblog standards (set in an interesting bowl, viewed from 20 degrees above horizontal, depth of field centered on the most pleasing cluster, a utensil adding either haute or rustic flavor to the scene), but nah, I am not so inclined. And besides, the honest portrayal of a mess o beans ain't pretty.*

Pretty is not the point of beans. Maybe for a lithe young snap bean, but such things are daydreams at this time of year; if you're a globavore, I suppose you can find a limp old crone of a pod, worse the wear for its journey. No, I'm talking about dry beans, humble fare. Even the fancy ones that jump into the pot clad in cranberry tones or the height of black-and-white bovine fashion emerge somewhere along the brown-grey-black backwaters of the spectrum. 

Beans have gotten me and billions of others through hard times. Protein without the expense of meat, filling meals on the cheap. Campesino fare, but also a fair part of pencil factory heir Thoreau's back-to-the-earthedness. My sister survived years of brutal underemployment on red beans and rice blessed by the Cajun bean deity, Zatarain. 

Lately, even though personal finances have improved from my own economic nadir, I've been getting back to bean basics. Partly to get protein without pink slime and feed-lot meat. Partly to preserve funds for better purposes (better beer, book sales, and, uh, whatever else). Partly to simplify my life.

For years, I've been eating canned beans, especially after reading Skinny Legs and All, in which Can o Beans is a main character and minor deity (thanks, Tom Robbins, for lifting the veil). But cans these days have chemical linings (or cost a fortune), and are filled with beans cooked who-knows-where according to food safety standards weakened by successive corporate onslaughts. And besides, I figured I could save some money by cooking my own. The stew of autonomy and frugality has always been irresistible to me.

And so in recent months, I wait til bags of dried beans are on sale, and pick up a bunch. A pound of beans and some water put in the crock pot yields a couple meals worth of beans, salted and flavored however I want. Usually it's pintos or black beans, although today it was garbanzos made into hummus. Whatever is not eaten at the first meal goes into a jar in the fridge, ready to be doled out for lunches (yes, I am lucky enough to have a first grader who loves to bring a little container of beans to lunch), or another dinner. 

The economics are compelling. Every so often, beans are on sale for a buck a pound. A dollar buys the main protein for a couple of meals for a family of four. And of course they are good for your heart, and who can put a price on that?

* Are you not a Southerner? Then you may not be aware that the "mess" is the unit of bean-meals, like a hand of bananas or a murder of crows.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spring Garlic

Garlic pokes up through colder ground and shorter days than a lot of its garden compadres. Even in my yard's procrastinating Spring, only a day after Equinox, the vee-creased shoots are ankle high. This is in a new bed enriched with fireplace ash, maybe a hundred or so plants. There are a few odd rows here and there in the yard, and of course a few heads I missed last fall sprouting green tonsures.

Contrary to the Fall-planting orthodoxy, I pulled up and split up some of the volunteer knobs, replanting willy nilly just a couple of weeks ago. Others I let be until a hankering for scallions or scapes, maybe an autumnal bulbil, brings me back. Freebies for the rest of the year, with the extra spice only disorthodoxy can summon.

Meanwhile, inside the house, the cloves awaken. As soon as the mature heads are pulled from the soil, garlicians struggle to make them last as long as possible. A cool dry garage and some jars of olive oil did the trick this year. At least until the Solstice, when even under roof and Winter's cloudy grey, the cloves hear the call of the lengthening days and begin their six-month stretch. Either I've selected better keepers or I was lucky this time around, because by this time in previous years, all the dry stuff had long since decided to be a new plant.

The last of the dried cloves, just now sprouting, don't inspire foodies. They're yellowing and getting a little soft; the only crisp part is a green shoot through the heart of each one, reaching out the top for light. Meanwhile, at the other end, octopodic roots begin to reach out, hoping to get their tentacles into some soil. Some people would plant them, others (under the thrall of Autumnist dogma?) would waste them, or at best relegate them to the compost. 

But being frugal, I use them up. Sliced, each piece is an eye with a green pupil, a look I like. Then again, doing nothing more than peeling them (easy, at this late stage) and tossing them in whatever happens to be in the works works as well. A recent desire to cut out the chemicals and other afflictions of canned beans, I've been buying them dried, and cooking them in a crock pot. A head of past-prime garlick cloves added to this gestation is a fine and nearly effortless addition. I will end this entry with proof, in the form of another of my so-simple-it's-not-even-a-recipe recipes:

Crocked Garlic and Beans

  • Clean and rinse 1 pound of dried beans
  • Peel however much garlic you want
  • Put it all in a crock-pot with water
  • Turn it on
  • Wait

While you are waiting, decide whether you want to add anything else. You'll have hours to think of extra ingredients, such as: beer, salt, schmaltz, celery,... You should probably stop obsessing about bean cuisine right about now. It's unbecoming of simple staples, which have humble souls that are put off by high-falutingness (but tolerant of flatusness). Just let 'em cook until you are satisfied with their mushiness. And turn whatever epicurean inspiration that might strike toward something to go with your crock o beans. 


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Heavy Nettle

Tongue-stinging goodness
Last year, I noticed a blogorrific frenzy over nettles, and I guess I joined in. This year, I hit them a little earlier, and they came easier. The cool thing about foraging a stinging weed is that nobody complains, no naturaestheticians upset that you've removed the scourge from trailside, no wildlife defenders upset at loss of something precious.

Like many weeds, nettles are precious if you know the rules for using them: protect yourself while harvesting, harvest early and young, and cook the irritant out. The harvest season is brief--over already down at sea level even up here on the 47th parallel--and so unless you only want to eat them for a week or so, you have to face up to the next rule: put some away.

Picking isn't hard. Except on your back, and on any skin you may leave exposed. If you go out early, picking before they reach 6 inches or so, before they start to stretch out, way prior to flowering. I use the light-touch theory of picking, which mounts to reaching down from the top and snapping the tip off. If it does not snap easily, you're beyond the young tender leaves; usually, I reach just below the first set of leaves that stick out sideways, below the liko, the emerging leaves in their bud. If they're higher than your boots, let them grow; they'll turn into fiber (the stalk was broken down into fiber for fishing lines, nets etc), or just live out the season and come back next year.

 Processing doesn't amount to much. Boil some water, dump in some nettles for a dozen or two seconds, and pull them out. I use a steamer that fits in m stock pot, so I can life the whole thing out and move on to the next step: run them steamin' leaves under cold water to stop them from cooking into mush. Save the boil water, and drink it as tea, or wash your hair with it..good things happen either way.

More than a lifetime supply, for most Americans
From there, it's a matter of storage. I stuff them into quart-sized bags, squeeze out the air, and pop 'em into the freezer. Later on, I may not eat a whole bag, but I can cut off however much I want and steam or stew, pesto-fy or stir fry, or otherwise cook to perfection. Season to taste, repeat. Seriously, repeat, because nettles are damn good for you, and don't taste nearly as nasty or grassy as some greens. 

I'll head out again, at a higher elevation. So far, though, the numbers are this: roughly two hours of picking yields two grocery bags of raw shoots, which turns into 6 quarts of blanched, frozen nettles, which should last for 12-24 meals. Shamefully, I drove to the park several blocks from home, so there's the cost of maybe 0.03 gallons of gas, but there's no cost otherwise. No fertilizer, no pesticides, no nuthin. Just greens.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Scrap Mustard

Now and then, the plague of near-empty jars and their litters of ziplocks rattling with yet un-et dry goods just gets out of hand. Before they lure in some hungrier critter, it's time to clean out.

But not throw out, if you can help it. So it was that I assembled assorted packets of mustard and poppy seed, two jugs' last glugs of vinegar, and a bottle of beer into a big-ass jar of mustard. It's the same 'run what ya got' spirit that gets credit or blame for  lot of my efforts, and which animated stock car racing back when it was with stock cars. And like racing's bootlegging roots, this recipe sneaks in some alcohol.

 Saying that I 'made mustard' is incredibly pretentious. The fact is that I poured liquid on seeds and later smashed it up. It being late and me being lazy (Lord, when will the hillbilly stereotypes end?), instead of a mortar and pestle I used a wee food processor, which is also more practical for small batch production that doesn't merit a stompin' party (which is like with grapes, but wearing pointy cowboy boots). 

 Not rocket science. Give it a day to soak, and then mush it up. Add a little salt if you want. I have enough of the basic mustard and experiment with other flavors, maybe puree or pound some to a finer texture, maybe do something completely different. Then feed it to people. So I guess it is some kind of science. 

 There is also faith, that some permutation of this concoction will taste pretty good. If I were a proper food blogger, I'd have gotten fancy vinegar, maybe some wine, and definitely not have used that photo with the plastic jugs. But I'm just a son of a scientist and an Appalachian, a squatter in epicurean territory: no exquisite photography, no mustard lore, not even a great how-to or recipe. Even my blog layout is inexpertly tweaked prefabbery.

 But the mustard is good, and cheap, and will take up space in the fridge til it's gone. The recipe's right after one last photo, illustrating the finished product in all it's baby poopish glory.

Scrap Mustard
 Get a jar, and fill it a third of the way up with:
  • Mustard Seeds - as many colors as you have, living in harmony
  • Poppy Seeds - a couple of good fistfuls of the ones I grew a couple years ago
 Then, mix up some type of liquid, enough to pour into the jar til it's 2.3 full. For instance:
  • One  12 bottle of stout 
  • Several ounces of the leftovers from bottles of apple cider vinegar and white vinegar.
 You can probably do better than that last ingredient, and maybe you like some other kind of beer better. Pour it in the jar and let it sit for 24 hours. Check it in the meantime and add liquid if the seeds aren't covered. When the time is up (or, a day or two later when you pull it out of the fridge where you put it when you realized you weren't gonna get around to it), mush it until its reached your ideal smoothness. I like the way the whole seeds pop whe  you bite them, and even held some aside during the food processing, but the machine is small and weak, and I didn't have to worry about it ending up too homogenous.