Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Preparing for a Greek feast

Grape leaves in brine.

A scheduled execution gave me my foraging target this week.

I found out last week that a neighbor's house would have to be fumigated for beetles, and a thriving grapevine along the back stairs would likely not survive.  My friend Rebecca and I asked to harvest the leaves, and they had no objections to us picking as many as we wanted - more than 100 in the end.

Why would anyone pick that many grape leaves? To roll up a big batch of dolmades, of course. Dolmades are Greek grape leaf wraps, usually filled with rice and/or beef, and drizzled with Avogolemeno (egg and lemon) sauce. 

My appetite for dolmades had been whetted by the recent Greek festival in the Oakland hills. I'd never been to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral and was surprised at how the bright afternoon light reflecting off white walls and domes combined with the open airiness of the patios gave a convincing Mediterranean feel. 

I have many childhood memories of Greek dishes eaten in midwestern church basements (my favorite is Galaktoboureko, a custard-based dessert wrapped with phyllo dough and drizzled with honey) so we were mostly going there to eat ourselves silly. The beautiful setting was just an unexpected bonus. We hit the food stalls, then waited in line to have our plates filled by little old Greek ladies who had been cooking for days. The meal was topped off by my favorite dessert, of course. I joyously ate myself into a food coma.

Usually to make dolmades, you buy a pack of imported pickled grape leaves, but this was an excellent opportunity to do it ourselves. Rebecca and I tried to pick leaves larger than my palm with fingers spread. With the leaves, bigger is better because rolling tiny dolmas is just annoying. It's too much work for a single mouthful.

We removed the stems, washed the leaves and then rolled them in stacks of eight, the width of a thick cigar. Four rolls fit into each mason jar. 

To prepare the brine, I filled a big pot about a quarter full of water, then added kosher salt.  To test the correct salt level, I tried to float an egg in the pot. It sank. I kept adding more salt until the egg achieved reasonable buoyancy, but at that point got distracted by something else, and when I checked the pot again I sheepishly realized that I had just boiled an egg. 

When the leaves were tightly packed into the mason jars, we poured the brine to about an inch below the rims, and then added several tablespoons of fresh lemon juice to each jar. 

We plan to hold a Greek-themed dolma-rolling party to use the grape leaves in the next few weeks, and I think I may even try my hand at making my first Galaktoboureko for the occasion! 
Here's the recipe I will use to make the Dolmades with Avogolemeno (egg and lemon) sauce. Traditional dolmades are stuffed with rice and ground beef, but I like the addition of the tomato in this vegetarian version.

Vegetarian Dolmades
Adapted from Wandering Chopsticks
  • 40 grape leaves
  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • About 1 or 2 tbsp mint leaves, finely minced
  • About 1 or 2 tbsp dill, minced
  • 1 small onion, diced and sauteed until softened
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper

Avogolemeno (Greek Egg and Lemon) Sauce

  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 to 1 cup water

Cook 1 cup rice. Add 1 diced tomato, about 1 or 2 tbsp finely minced mint leaves, 1 small diced and sauteed onion, 1/2 tsp dried oregano, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp ground black pepper. Mix thoroughly.

Add 1-2 tbsp of the filling to the center of each grape leaf, fold up the bottom of the leaf, fold in the sides and then roll to close. Steam the dolmades 10-15 minutes.

For the Avogolemeno: In a pan on medium-low heat, warm up 1/2 cup water. Beat 1 egg, 1 tbsp flour and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Add the mixture to the warm water and stir. Taste and add more water if the mixture is too tart. The sauce should thicken in about five minutes or so, and be sure to stir every once in a while to make sure it doesn't clump.

More surprises from the humble Nasturtium

Originally published in Oakland Local on April 26, 2011.

It's one of the most ubiquitous and easily grown plants in Bay Area gardens. I often use their orange flowers as zesty and beautiful garnishes in salads and last year, I made a great batch of nasturtium capers from their seed pods.

I didn't think the Nasturtium (genus Tropaeolum) had any more tricks up its sleeve. But I was overlooking another key feature: their leaves. With their slightly peppery taste, it turns out they make a great pesto!

I was so excited to run across this recipe because my basil plants are tiny, so I wasn't anticipating any pesto in my immediate future. This is a great way to kick start (and extend) the pesto season. I added some fried tofu and parmesan, tossed it all with whole wheat pasta and it was delicious.

Nasturtium Leaf Pesto
Adapted from
"Hitchhiking to Heaven"
4 cups Nasturtium leaves, plus flowers if you've got them
1 cup cashews (you can use walnuts or pine nuts - I happened to have cashews in the pantry)
4 large cloves garlic
1 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 large lemon
1/4 to 1/2 tsp salt, to taste
Black pepper
Dashes of hot sauce

Combine everything but the salt, pepper and hot sauce in a Cuisinart. Season to taste. Super easy, 20 minutes tops. I added the hot sauce because my leaves weren't quite peppery enough for me, and I think the vinegar in it was a nice addition. You can freeze the extras in ice cube trays, and the pesto will last forever, already divided into manageable chunks. 

Last chance for Miner's Lettuce

Originally published in Oakland Local on April 12, 2011.
A bouquet of Miner's lettuce.

I've been chasing Miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) all spring. I've harvested it several times on hikes in the last few months, but kept forgetting to take a photo. 

Miner's lettuce is a great way to make your salad feel very fancy, and you'll find it on the menu of expensive restaurants that focus on local foods. But it's actually incredibly common if you know where to look - basically any area of patchy sunlight in the woods. Pastures interspersed along the trail are great places to collect bowls full of it.

Miner's lettuce supposedly got its picturesque name by saving gold miners in the Sierras from malnutrition after a long winter of hard tack and canned beans. Its leaves are a vibrant green and are initially heart shaped, although as they age they encircle the stem and send up cute white flowers from the center, as you can see from the photo.

It hasn't rained for a few weeks now, so I thought my window of opportunity had closed, but then I found out that my neighbor has it in her garden. I had no idea you could do that! You can order its seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, but I recommend you wait until next winter and get it in the ground in very early spring with the rains.

My neighbor was kind enough to let me come over and collect part of our dinner from the back corner of her garden. When you collect them, be careful not to crush the leaves because they're very delicate and are easily damaged. Bring a collecting bag if you're on a hike.

I used them as a bright green base for Salmon Sweet Potato Cakes and suddenly our dinner was miles more elegant than normal, besides being healthy and delicious.  I'll include the recipe for the cakes just for fun, since using Miner's lettuce is so simple, no recipe required.

Salmon and Sweet Potato Cakes
Courtesy of Francie Healey

2 large sweet potatoes with skins on, cubed
2 6-oz cans wild Alaskan salmon (boneless, skinless)
1/2 c. cornmeal
1/2 tsp salt
1 shallot, finely chopped
1/3 c. parsley
1/4 tsp dried rosemary or 1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 scallion, chopped
3 tbs ground flaxseed
3 eggs
3 tbs ghee, butter or olive oil
lemon wedges

Boil sweet potatoes until tender, drain and mash. Add drained salmon and remaining ingredients except lemons and oil. Mix well. Shape mixture into palm-sized patties.

Heat butter or oil over medium low heat. Add patties and cook about 3 minutes per side. Flip twice. Serve with lemon wedges. 

Nettles: Worth the trouble?

Young nettle leaves
I am worried about getting sick. 

I went on a trip into the woods last weekend and one by one, everyone else who was along has fallen ill with a nasty and persistent cold. So far I haven't succumbed – but I thought I should look into preventative measures, just to be safe.

I had a kiwi with my morning cereal and squeezed some orange juice in the afternoon, but for the evening I thought leafy greens should be on the menu. What could I forage?

Stinging nettles - Urtica dioica - have been on my radar for a few weeks now. I keep seeing them on hikes, on the edges where forests transition into open sunny pastures or on the margins of parking lots as we return to the car. A friend and I even tried to collect some on a hike near Mt. Tamalpais, but although I'd brought a collecting bag, I'd failed to bring gloves. Sleeves pulled over hands proved to be no match for nettle's formidable sting. 

Why would I bother to collect something with so much potential for pain?

Nettles are extremely nutritious, containing high levels of vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium. They have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties in clinical trials. Their sting is easy to avoid if you follow a few simple rules – plus, they happen to be delicious.

It's the perfect season to collect nettles. Their new growth is the most tasty because the stems can get fibrous as they age. Use gloves and after picking the amount of leaves you'd like to cook, simply apply heat to render the stingers harmless. Nettles are great either blanched or stir fried. I decided to go the soup route, which resulted in a healthy, hearty dinner, which I'm hoping will stave off this cold.   

Simple Potato Nettle Soup
Adapted from Mariquita Farms
  • 2 cups nettle leaves (young shoots)
  • 1 onion
  • 6 small potatoes (skins are fine)
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. parsley
  • 3 cloves garlic or 3 stalks green garlic

Blanch the nettles with one cup of boiling water for about a minute; add onion and garlic and puree. Cut potatoes into small pieces. Simmer pureed mixture with potatoes and remaining water for 45 minutes or until tender. Use a potato masher or immersion blender to mash the potatoes making the soup thick and creamy.

Originally published in Oakland Local on April 2, 2011.

Eating Your Weeds

Originally published in Oakland Local on March 15, 2011.

Sow thistle in  my planter.

I feel guilty about all the weeds in my yard right now.

Encouraged by the rains and periodic bouts of sun, our yard is lush and green and full of flowers, but unfortunately a good amount of that vegetation could be classified as weeds. 

Their flowers bob on thin stems, but I can't see them as pretty.  They are the beady yellow eyes of Oxalis, that persistent clover-like invasive that is everywhere in the Bay Area, which follow me around and dare me to go get a trowel and just try to get them out.  “We'll be back,” they whisper.

Maybe I just gained an edge, though, in my never ending battle of attrition – by eating them.  Recently I discovered that many of the “weeds” in my yard are edible, even my old nemesis, Oxalis.  I haven't yet figured out how to transform its sourness, but I did have positive results with another of my weeds, the sow thistle. 

The sow thistle, Sonchus oleraceus, is often mistaken for the dandelion.  It has arrow shaped leaf tips and a spiky yellow flower, and when you break off pieces, a thick milky sap appears, similar to the dandelion.  However, the leaves spiral off from a thick central stem, often five-sided, with the flowers at the top of the stem.  Both the sow thistle and the dandelion are edible, so mistaking them is not that big a deal.
A closer look.

According to wild food expert John Kallas, author of Edible Wild Plants, the sow thistle is one of the most commonly used wild foods in the Mediterranean, and “is actually higher in omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and manganese than any of our domesticated greens.” It has also been shown to have a high level of antioxidant activity in laboratory tests. 

Four stalks of sow thistle had taken over a few planters across from my office window, and were fat and happy, a deep green. I decided to start there. I cut off the leaves, then harvested the stalks.  In my kitchen, I washed and chopped them, then threw the stems into a pot of boiling water.  After two minutes, I threw in the leaves, and boiled it all for an additional three minutes.  The boiling water removes any bitterness in the plant, which then gets strained off.  I decided to make a sow thistle, mushroom and green onion quiche. 

When we sat down to eat, I asked my husband what he thought was in the quiche.  “Beet greens?  Chard?” he guessed.  To me, it tasted like a cross between chard and spinach, with the stem adding texture without being stringy or crunchy.  There was no bitterness at all.  Sow thistle quiche was pronounced a success.

Perhaps the categories between “bad” plants – weeds – and “good” garden plants don't have to be quite so hard and fast in our minds.  So instead of guilt, maybe I should feel pride when I look out at all my weedy margins, full of antioxidant-rich leafy greens.  I must be a weed farmer.

Sow Thistle & Mushroom Quiche

4 tall stalks of Sow Thistle
6 mushrooms
2 green onions
Cheese (I used Gouda)
3 eggs
1 cup milk or yogurt
Spices to taste – I used oregano, thyme, cayenne and paprika
A pie crust of your choice

Chop the sow thistle leaves and stems separately.  Remove flowers, but buds are fine to include.  Boil stems for 5 minutes, leaves for 3 minutes.  Drain.

Stir fry mushrooms and green onions in olive oil. Add spices, then mix in the sow thistle after heat is off. 

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, then add in the milk to prepare the custard for the quiche.

Prepare pie crust, and grate enough cheese to cover the bottom of the crust.  Place the vegetables over the cheese.  Pour the egg & dairy mixture over the top, then sprinkle with paprika.  Bake in an oven  preheated to 375 for 30 to 40 minutes.