Morels on the South Side

In the rarified community of Hyde Park, on Chicago’s South Side, morel mushrooms are showing up in residents’ yards. Jack Spicer of Hyde Park Landscaping found about a quarter pound in a client’s yard. The client was kind enough to let him keep them and enjoy them. Mum!

And morels are available from the local produce store:

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How much water?

Since I hail originally from Los Angeles and grew up there during another drought not quite so severe, I was intrigued to read about how much water it takes to grow the common foods we eat. Vegetables and fruits, not surprisingly, are efficient water users, beating out cattle and processed foods no contest. Based on a UNESCO Institute for Water Education publication, the LA Times rates foods graphically by quantity of water required to produce food. The least thirsty vegetables and fruits are cabbage, strawberries, onions, lettuce, carrots, eggplant, grapefruit and tomatoes.

Of course, vegetables have adapted for thousands of years to produce in years of abundant or minimal rain. When you consider the nutrients packed in vegetable and fruit superfoods along with their water-efficiency, vegetables are winners all the way around.

lettucerows

 

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Spinach: Popeye and the prince

IMG_2641Beautiful, fresh spinach is ready for harvesting now in your kitchen gardens on Chicago’s South Side. Spinach picked and eaten — raw or cooked — has a delicacy unfound in store-bought varieties. Now is the time to pinch off the first broad, green leaves for salads, eggs, chicken or fish.

Once you’ve picked your spinach, very gently wash the leaves and stems in cold water so as to remove any soil and avoid bruising. You can store it wrapped in paper towels in the refrigerator.  It’s best to enjoy your spinach within two days of picking. Otherwise, the leaves lose their crispness and their nutritional power punch: spinach is a superfood, super good for us with excellent vitamin C, betacarotene, folate and calcium.

Spinach hails from the temperate climate of Persia where it has been cultivated since antiquity. In modern day Iran and the Middle East, spinach is considered “the prince of vegetables”. From Persia, spinach traveled east to India and China and arrived in Europe during the Middle Ages with the Moors. It was Catherine de Medici who made spinach popular in Europe when she brought it and her chefs to the French Court in the 16th Century. Since then, it is a staple of French cuisine and cultivated in kitchen gardens and potagers.

Let me know how your spinach grows and how you choose to prepare it.

spinach early in the season with its first spear-like leaves and its second tiny, spade-shaped leaves

spinach early in the season with its first spear-like leaves and  its second spade-shaped leaves

 

 

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Microgreens with mega impact

IMG_2580 (1)Microgreens are ready for harvesting. These are the young seedlings of vegetables and herbs that are powerfully nutritious. When harvested while petite, right after germination, they have a tremendous concentration of phytochemicals, nutrients we need in a healthy diet. In fact, while young and small, these seedlings contain more healthy nutrients than the mature plants. Microgreen seeds from nurseries come in mild and spicy mixes. Very rich in anti-oxidents, vitamins C, E and K, beta-carotene and lutein, they also taste crisp and delicious as salad with a brushing of olive oil and balsamic, or as a garnish on soups and stews.

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Rhubarb, part two

IMG_1241So as promised in my earlier rhubarb post, I’m writing about a rhubarb meat stew, a traditional Middle Eastern use for rhubarb. I found a Persian version which was delicate, delicious and very special. The tart rhubarb lends a wonderful and unusual taste to the aromatic beef stew.

I’m quoting from A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden (Vintage, 1974) about Persian khoreshtha or stews served over rice:

Of all the dishes of Persian cooking, the most common are the khoreshtha . . . They are common only insofar as they are eaten daily or sometimes twice a day. Otherwise they deserve all the culinary superlatives. It is in these dishes, most of all, that the refined knowledge and experience of centuries have crystallized to give the exquisite Persian combinations of meat and poultry with vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs and spices; combinations which are never overpowering, but in which all the ingredients retain their dignity, enhanced and complemented by each other.

Here is Roden’s recipe for Rhubarb Khoresh, a meat stew with rhubarb served over rice.

1 onion finely chopped
1 lb. lean stew beef, cubed
salt and pepper to taste
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 lb. fresh rhubarb stalks
juice of 1/2 lemon

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan and saute the onions until soft. Add the meat and saute until well browned. Cover with water, season with salt and pepper and add the cinnamon and allspice. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 hours, checking frequently so the meat stays covered in water.

Trim the rhubarb stalks [ONLY] and cut them into 2 inch pieces. Saute in butter/oil for a few minutes, then sprinkle with lemon juice and cook a few minutes longer.

When the meat is cooked and the water is a lovely, thick gravy, add the meat sauce to the rhubarb and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve over rice, traditionally plain white.

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Local garden fair

Chicago’s oldest community garden fair in Hyde Park has always been a delightful time to wander and pick up herbs and vegetable seedlings. It’s also important to support local community endeavors. This year the fair will be held in the 55th & Lake Park shopping mall on 15-16 May.

UIC 2014 jack, goats and me

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What’s up, part two

With the rain and warm sunshine, seedlings and seeds are growing strong. Each day you can see huge growth as asparagus quadruple size, carpets of greens spring forth, soil blocks put out new leaves and fruit trees flower.

lettuces

crisp spring lettuces

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spinach’s first leaves are always grass like spears so recognize it in your garden by its second set of leaves

sour cherry shrub with dainty flowers

sour cherry shrub with dainty flowers

pea sprouts

pea sprouts

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rhubarb for early spring eating

Rhubarb is always one of the first things up in any edible garden. It’s a hearty, cold weather perennial plant. Only the stalks, called petioles, are edible. The leaves are toxic because of a concentration of oxalic acid (which also exists in the stalks in non-harmful quantities.) Rhubarb was slow to gain popularity because of its lethal leaves.

Rhubarb as we know it was cultivated in the Middle East in Antiquity and continues to flavor drinks and stew meats there. The Chinese have used the root for medicinal purposes for millennia. Europeans were late adopting rhubarb because early experimenters purportedly dined on the leaves too with dire consequences. It wasn’t until juicy, tender strains were cultivated in the 19th Century that people began to enjoy the stalks in England and North America.

Rebecca Reynolds, the brilliant perennial landscape gardener of Greenscape Inc., finds a stalk of rhubarb more stimulating than coffee in the morning. (Try chewing on a stalk to get the brisk, lemony flavor. It’s delicious!) She also reports that an old time gardener once told her that frequent harvesting of rhubarb may reduce the amount of oxalic acid in the stems. (Perhaps. I’m unable to confirm this to date.)

Whether that’s true or not, this is a great time to trim back your rhubarb and enjoy it. Here are before and after shots of the plant:

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Spring rhubarb before harvesting large stalks

 

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Rhubarb thinned and beautiful

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, you harvest rhubarb by pulling out the larger stalks. The best way to remove a stalk is to reach down to its base at ground level and tug it out. The entire stalk will come right out of the base of the plant. If it should break, not to worry just cut if off at ground level.

IMG_2550I also trim off the leaves immediately so my rhubarb stalks look something like this:

Lots of things to do with rhubarb. If you’re not sure what to do, you can wrap the stems in plastic and freeze it until you’re ready to cook it. I often chop the stems and boil them with some cane sugar to make a sauce which is lovely over vanilla ice cream or plain yoghurt. Of course, there’s strawberry-rhubarb pie and apple-rhubarb cake.

More on rhubarb in meat stews to follow.

 

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What’s up

Edible gardens too have perennials, plants that have a life span of more than two years. They go dormant each fall and return in the spring. The perennials are always the first up. Here’s some of what’s appearing in my garden.

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rhubarb with garlic patch in background

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Parma violet plus herbs such as oregano, mint, tarragon

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asparagus and a few forgotten onions

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raspberry

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“It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May . . .”

IMG_1263 (2)Lyrics from Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot, of course. But apropos edible gardens too.

All the tiny seeds planted and watered these past weeks are beginning to poke out of the soil and grow. The fruit trees are in blossom. Bees are already busy. It’s May!

 

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