Sunday, December 13, 2009

Just like summer

Dec. 14 update: Tried the pump, and we have water. No leaks discovered yet!

One way, when you're determined to live mostly on what you grow or forage for yourself, of making sure you get a variety of nutrients, is to grow a lot of kale. We have Red Russian, which does well here, apparently even when you've had, as we've had, three nights in a row below ten degrees Fahrenheit. And of course freezing makes it taste better.

We also still have turnip greens, broccoli, fava greens, bok choi, onion greens, garlic greens, dandelions, arugula (which I don't like as much as Beloved does). Some of these are flourishing mainly because they are in the hoophouse, although the chard and spinach in there are looking pretty hammered. This morning I gathered all the wilted red chard and lettuce leaves for the chickens, who were fine with the limp stuff, and then brought in some kale for us, to have with potatoes and duck eggs.

We live where year-rounds greens are fairly easy to get. But even if there were not such a cornucopia of winter greens to choose from, we can get quite a lot of the same nutrients and flavors (and often do) by using dried greens.

These look great on eggs or oats or rice or squash or pot pie or four-bean soup or ... well, anywhere you might put basil or parsley flakes or Italian seasoning, and they help with any hankering one might have for high-mileage seasonings, such as black pepper. We even drop a small handful in as we knead the bread dough.

This was the first summer we made the stuff, and it was one of our garden's big successes this year, I think. A regular dish in our household is small potatoes sliced, with dehydrated veg leaves sprinkled over, with a little salt and olive oil (the only two high mileage items), zapped for four minutes, covered. The veg leaves reconstitute in the steam as the potatoes cook, and the whole thing comes out tasting just like summer!

Of course, if you're a stickler for the best possible nutrient retention, bundle everything up and dry it the shade the traditional way. Ain't sayin' don't -- let your preferences and your schedule be your guide. But here's what we wound up doing:

Build a solar dehydrator by making, basically, a plywood-floored cold frame with a used sash window and putting in vents at each end, then tipping it up to face the sun like a solar oven.

Window screens or egg cartons will do to help keep the produce off the floor, as air must circulate well. In ninety-degree weather this is a very hot dehydrator, and it's going to lose you some nutrients, but the idea here is to make really dry stuff. You can make a screen or slatted cover for your dehydrator if you think it's drying too fast. We wanted a quick turn around for high volume so we let it run full blast. An alternative is to build more dehydrators and that is something I think we will do.

Fill the box loosely with leaves: parsley, turnip, spinach, cilantro, fava, chard, basil, bok choi, lettuce dandelion, and outer leaves of broccoli, red cabbage, cauliflower, and collards all worked well for us.

After a day or two in hot weather, or longer otherwise, inspect. Whatever "looks dry" can be harvested, and the rest turned and dried some more, and new stuff added. You get the hang of it pretty quickly.

I process by sitting in the shade with a heap of very dry leaves and a cardboard box.

Take a leaf. If, like turnip, it has a long stem and strong midrib and veins, wrap a thumb and forefinger around the stem and strip toward the leaf tip, over the box. All the flat matter should break up and fall into the box; the stem can be discarded into the compost heap. Put your hands in and crumble the flakes up as small as you prefer. This is very satisfyingly tactile, and the smells are enticing. Pour out the box from one corner into your kitchen containers, perhaps with your canning funnel.

If you're confident in how dry your flakes are, you can cover right away, to hold in goodness. I sometimes leave a jar open for a couple of days, just to be sure nothing is damp enough to mold.

You might want to separate varieties. I do this with medicinals -- there's a pint jar labeled "comfrey," another labeled "plantain" and yet another: "blackberry leaf" -- but the food greens tend to go, stirred together, into gallon jars labeled "dried veg." I have a non-discerning palate, I guess ...

To use, reach into the jar as you are making whatever, and sprinkle a pinch over it. Healthy, healthy, healthy!
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