Almost Summer

Garden-Greens Vichyssoise
Garden-Greens Vichyssoise

June is upon us, which usually means the spring crops are about done and the summer crops haven’t started producing in abundance yet. So… you’ve taken your morning garden stroll. The corn is a foot high, the tomatoes growing fast but still not blooming, the beans, squash and cukes are up and starting to climb. The potatoes have all shown up and at least now you can remember where the heck you planted them.

You’ve got a big handful of mature kale – the rest will have to be harvested soon before the bugs get it, dried and crumbled to flakes for winter soups. In the basket there are about a dozen pea pods, 4 asparagus spears and some almost bolted red leaf lettuces. What to do, what to do…

Aha! How about a cold end-of-spring soup?

Garden-Greens Vichyssoise

• 2 cups fresh greens – kale, spinach, collards, lettuce
• 3 peeled and cubed potatoes
• 1 cup chopped asparagus and/or shelled peas
• 1/2 cup chopped onion
• 1/4 cup chopped celery tops w/leaves
• 1/ 2 cup chopped mint
• bay leaves
• 2 tbsp. lemon juice
• 2 tbsp. butter
• 6 cups water or broth
• 1 cup whole milk or cream
• Salt and pepper

Melt butter in a heavy soup pot. Add vegetables, mint and bay leaves, cook for about 3 minutes, stirring, until soft. Add water/broth and simmer for 20 minutes until soft. Add milk and then puree until smooth, then add salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate and serve cold, garnish with mint sprigs and a drizzle of olive oil.
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On the side I plan to serve up a basket of fried day lily buds, since they are now abundant and and the squash is nowhere near blooming yet…

fried lilies

Fried Day Lily Blossoms

Batter:
• 1 cup flour
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/2 cup beer
• 1/2 cup ice water
• 1/4 cup chopped fresh sage leaves
• 3 cloves garlic, chopped

10-12 Fresh picked barely-open day lily blossom buds.

Thoroughly mix the batter, with sage and garlic. Dip flowers into batter and fry in hot vegetable oil until golden brown. Drain well and serve.

This beer batter is also excellent for squash or pumpkin flowers, onion and pepper rings, mushrooms – any type of fresh vegetable coming in from the garden. You can omit the sage and garlic for a more delicate taste.

Looks like dinner to me!

Ginseng: New Research & Income Opportunity

GinsengResearcher Sang-Moo Kang at Georgia State University’s new Institute for Biomedical Sciences reports that ginseng can be used to treat flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). I have touted in this blog the scientifically demonstrated benefits of elderberry preparations as effective anti-virals and immune system stimulants, so am now happy to add ginseng for something more [scientifically] significant than just general tonic, energy-booster and libido stimulant, the traditional uses of ginseng.

Kang joined university and research institute partners in South Korea for a collaborative effort to document the health benefits of ginseng. Which is also purported to have anticancer, anti-inflammatory and immune modifying properties.

We all know the health and economic ravages of seasonal influenza, which kills 250,000 to 500,000 people world wide every year. Some of us actually remember stories from our parents and grandparents about the horrific toll of the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed 50 to 100 million people. That was 3-5% of humanity, which makes it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Given the viral propensity to mutate until it can best an average immune system, such not-quite critters present a constant hazard for life on planet earth.

Modern medicine, interestingly enough, does not have any kind of pharmaceutical toolkit of defenses against or treatments for viral infections. There’s oseltamivr phosphate [TamiFlu], and that’s about it. It’s not that effective at prevention or treatment, and side-by-side clinical trials during the swine flu epidemic a few years ago had elderberry tincture ahead on both preventing infection and shortening time/lessening severity of infection. The use of plant-based alkaloids and other compounds to promote health and heal illnesses is as ancient as humanity. Modern pharmaceuticals, however, are based on the chemistry of those alkaloids and compounds exclusively, ignoring any and all other compounds found in the plant sources that may aid the efficacy in select applications. Don’t let them fool you – there’s nothing ‘primitive’ or ‘unscientific’ about the knowledge of plant-based pharmacopeias. Just because our ancestors learned by observation and experiment instead of molecular manipulation it doesn’t mean what they learned is any less respectable.

Antioxidants vs Radiation: Lemon Balm!

Lemon_Balm!Most of us who are committed to the homesteading lifestyle are committed because we perceive the value of living closer to the earth, taking responsibility for ourselves per the ‘conveniences’ of life, and care a great deal about the general health and well-being of ouselves, our families and our communities. A lot of us grow a lot of our own foodstuffs so that we can know “what’s in it” when we eat it, and some also raise their own livestock to receive that high quality protein from a source unconnected with the impersonal death industry that meat and dairy production has become in this modern age.

And for the general robustness of our bodily defense and repair mechanisms – so important to maintaining health and promoting longevity – the value of antioxidants is something we’re familiar with. Antioxidants serve to reduce the amount of “free radicals” in our bodies. Free radicals are loose, fast-moving electrons (and sometimes positrons) that damage molecules and cells by knocking electron shells of atoms out of whack, thereby disrupting molecular bonds. And while a certain amount of oxidative reactions are part of normal metabolic processes, excess amounts of it can cause all sorts of problems. So plants and animals maintain multiple types of antioxidants to balance the processes, such as vitamins C, A and E, glutathione, certain enzymes and peroxidases, etc. which protect against oxidative stress which can cause neurodegenerative diseases, the ailments of aging, and even cancer.

A great deal is known from medical research about antioxidants and their protective uses, and a great many people take supplements or choose high-antioxidant foods as part of their healthy diet. Here is what some doctors have to say about it…

“Free radicals appear to play a central role in virtually every disease you can name, either directly or secondarily.”
Russell A. Blaylock, M.D.

“There is now overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating that people who eat a diet rich in antioxidants and take antioxidant supplements will live longer, healthier lives.”
Lester Packer, PhD.

Okay, okay. We’re convinced. Many of us even know which of the foods we choose to grow and/or eat pack the most antioxidant whallop. But what about antioxidants that are used to prevent damage from oxidative health hazards most of us are not all that familiar with? Like, say, radiation exposure.

January’s Ice & Ills

herbsThis has been the coldest January in my neck of the woods for so many decades that not even the record-keepers can recall a colder one. Despite what we considered very clever precautions in the week before last’s super cold snap (negative temps), we ended up with a busted pipe in the basement wall anyway, forgot to drain out the exterior faucet pipe after we’d turned it off and drained the hose, then filled the tub and jugs and bottles, turned off the pump from the cistern and opened all (but that one) faucet to give the water room to expand as it froze in the incoming underground pipe. Ah, well. Needed to re-solder that darned thing anyway, I guess.

Back to single digits tonight as I type this, going to remember to drain that one this time too. Then we’ll use the tub water to flush and the bottled water to drink and cook and wait for the ground to unfreeze again. Which, if it doesn’t warm up significantly, may be quite awhile. Sigh.

Meanwhile, the family has managed to escape various winter bugs, viruses and even flu this year (knock on wood), thanks to the ample happy elderberry harvest this past summer. Unfortunately, one of the grandsons thinks he has developed walking pneumonia – and has the chest rattles to place it well below bronchia – but won’t have the money to get it diagnosed or buy the prescription until next month when his student loan finally gets credited. We can’t afford to cover him up front either, though I did get a $5 “raise” on my Social Security check this month. Big Whoop. Now I can get the ‘better’ cat food… (another grumble, for another time).

What is “Walking Pneumonia,” you may ask, and what does it mean? First, pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs, and its pathology no matter what qualifier you put on it is just that simple. The complications come from the various causes, the multiplex of symptoms, and variety of treatments. Millions of Americans get pneumonia every year, and not all of them have the flu. Cough, fever, chills, difficulty breathing, general weakness, light-headedness with activity, skin rashes… the symptoms are myriad.

Wild Herbs Endangered By Poaching

wild_herbs[Slide show of poachers from Mountain Express]

My southern Appalachian homestead was originally purchased more than twenty years ago as the high country standard of “13 acres more or less, graded.” That means they took an overhead map (probably one from the USGS with elevation lines), put a 1-acre grid over the top of it, and counted the acres within the boundaries. The fact that it is so steeply graded means there’s a bunch of land that if flattened out, would add greatly to the total acreage. We have walked the land a lot, and the true number is nearly 25 acres, most in thick stands of third-growth temperate hardwood forest. There are a few scattered giants, trees that are at least two hundred years old, but the rest has been logged and/or burned more than once since white folks drove the Cherokee west.

There were large stands of wild ginseng and black cohosh growing on the rich tilth of well-shaded hillside when we got here, and I began the project of re-planting and managing (against invasives) of these valuable medicinal herbs. To a lesser degree we’ve got a smaller stand of introduced goldenseal in the bottomland of the smaller creek across the ridge, and we also occasionally tend collections of other marketable wilding herbs fancied by herb dealers and shop owners. September is the big month, when in my region the roots and herbs are gathered, dried and taken to one of the itinerant licensed herb dealers servicing the region.

As the herb season is in full swing in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, an age-old problem has reared its ugly head as the price for ‘sang (and black cohosh, an at-risk medicinal) has skyrocketed. Poaching.

Last season wild-managed ginseng topped $800 a pound, definitely the “gold standard” among wildings in these parts. It takes a lot of roots to equal a pound dried, and they must be kept intact enough for the dealer to determine their age. Some years ago when wild American ginseng first made it to the endangered plants list, restrictions were imposed to the ability to sell your crop. Wild roots are not marketable at under 5 years or over 15 years. This was done in hopes of salvaging the truly wild stands from poachers, who aren’t shy of who’s land they’re stealing from.

Illegal harvesting of ginseng has become so rampant that the U.S. Forest Service cut the number of 3-pound national forest harvesting permits by 75%, but as much as 90% of diggers don’t bother with permits in the first place.

“Dramatic declines of wild ginseng populations over the past decade suggest previous harvest levels are no longer sustainable,” Forest Supervisor Kristin Bail explained in a June 20 press release announcing the changes. “It is in everyone’s best interest to further limit the amount of the harvest to help ensure the plant’s future sustainability.”

So it is increasingly falling to us rural landholders, if we have the ability and conditions, to preserve this plant to the best of our abilities. Both for our own income purposes as an annual cash crop with careful management, and as preservation of a valuable botanical in its native areas. There are definite plusses for committed homesteaders in putting even the wild areas of our ‘steads into some kind of production that can help support our lifestyles. A good overview of the project comes from NCSU, Cultivating Native Woodland Botanicals.

Of course, poaching ginseng on either private or public land is a crime (punishable by fine or prison time, or both). Alas, it is a crime that is seldom prosecuted. Robert Eidus, licensed ginseng dealer and owner of the North Carolina Ginseng & Goldenseal Company, puts it this way…

“I’m allowed to buy from people who steal from other people,” adds Eidus. “It’s the last illegal, sanctioned business in America.”

Ginseng can be – and is in many places – grown in artificially shaded plots and usually sold young. Wisconsin grows about 95% of the farmed ginseng in this country, a $70 million crop for the state. But this ‘sang usually sells for a mere $18 to $24 a pound – nothing close to the $800+ a pound wild ‘sang is earning. If correctly managed there is no discernible difference between forest-managed and truly wild ginseng, though well-managed beds chosen for their thick tilth of forest floor will return larger roots than wildings that may have rooted in shallow tilth or in beds choked with sizable rocks.

Good managers never harvest a root without planting a few small young roots or several seeds. It takes two years for the seeds to sprout, so it’s important to get them before the deer do when they ripen to bright red, and further to discourage deer from foraging where your ginseng is growing. But fear not – even if deer do eat your leaves and seeds one year, the plant will come back next year as long as the root is still in place.

Meanwhile, in my area the N.C. Ginseng Association is actively recruiting homesteaders and landowners for development of more forest managed ginseng crops. Other herb companies in areas where ginseng grows are organizing the same sort of thing, which might offer newcomers to the idea of forest farming some valuable knowledge and physical help to get started. You may end up having to police your own crops for poachers, though, so a little tidbit of wisdom I was taught back during my childhood by a wild ‘sang manager in eastern Kentucky should be kept in mind.

“Don’t tell people about your crop.” Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have a dog either. Good for keeping poachers, deer AND bears away! Do give it some thought, consider if your land is suitable for ginseng. And/or black cohosh, goldenseal, spikenard, elder or any other of the increasingly valuable botanicals marketable these days.

Useful Links:

Cultivating Native Woodland Botanicals
Botanical Bandits
WildGrown: NC State wildcrafting survey
Cultivation and Marketing of Woodland Medicinal Plants
NC Ginseng Dealers 2013/14 [PDF]

Incoming Fruit!

Pear-Grape Jam & Pear Butter

fruitDespite the April freeze, which managed to hit after a March so warm that all the fruit had already blossomed, a goodly amount of concord and muscadine grapes managed to overcome the stress, and the cinnamon pears are falling at easily twice their usual size. And while harvest is a few weeks early this year due to the extraordinarily warm spring, the fruit is super-luscious from a summer of more than ample rainfall.

After the hail got my corn crop and the super-weeds got my tomatoes, it’s nice that something’s coming in with enough abundance that I’ll be able to trade pear butter and jam for all the crops that failed in the lower terraces. Will need another two or three dozen half-pint jars before it’s over, but August is its usual perfect weather (August and September in these mountains are absolutely the most perfect-weather months of the year, though not the most colorful). It’s cool enough to start the indoor processing, so that’s just what I’m doing.

Processing is a several-part ordeal, but will then give me plenty of pear mash and grape mush to construct the goodies. Today I have enough pears to fill my heavy stock pot half full after chopping, about 18 individual pears. Wash and remove the stems. Quarter and then half the quarters. Even bruised areas are good, just be sure to excise any actually rotten spots. Add enough water to keep the pears from sticking (about half a cup), and bring to a boil covered over medium heat for about 12-15 minutes. Stir it a few times to make sure all the pieces get good and soft, remove the lid and simmer for another 5 minutes to reduce the originally added water. Push the resulting ‘stuff’ through a sieve to get the seeds and skins out, stir in a tablespoon of ascorbic acid (available in the canning section) or two tablespoons of lemon juice, and set the pulp aside.

Then it’s the grapes’ turn. Add a quart of stemmed grapes to a half pint of water and again bring to a boil covered, over medium heat. When it’s been going for about 10 minutes mash with a potato masher to separate the innards from the skins. Continue to boil lightly uncovered until the innards liquify (about 10 minutes). Sieve the results as with the pears to remove seeds and skins. Reserve juice.

Now you’re ready to make Pear-Grape Jam…

Easy, Low-Sugar Pear-Grape Jam

• 3 1/2 cups pear pulp
• 3 1/2 cups grape pulp
• 4-inch sprig fresh rosemary
• 1/2 cup raw local honey

In a heavy stock pot combine the pulps, honey, and rosemary. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes or until liquid is reduced by about a cup.

Remove from heat and let steep for 5-10 minutes. Remove and discard the rosemary sprig (be careful to not lose any of the needles). Pour or ladle the jam into hot, sterilized half-pint condiment jars, leaving 1/8″ head space. Wipe the rims clean and attach sterilized lids, screw on the caps finger-tight.

Process 10 minutes in water bath canner, cool on a wire rack. Before storing make sure the lids have popped to indicate vacuum. Should fill 6 half-pint jars.
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Ball makes very pretty half-pint jars, which are just the right size for gifts or trade. These can be further “fancied” for the purpose of gifting by cutting out circles of bright fabric to place over the lids but under the screw caps. Great hostess gifts for the upcoming holiday parties, and as part of Christmas edible gifts of fudge, cookies, dried veggie crackers and jam.

If you, like me, have way more pears than grapes, you can always just make pear butter to gift or trade (or delight your own family with at breakfast time)…

Easy Pear Butter

Process pears as above, then sieve to remove seeds and skin. Return to pot and add [per 3 cups of pulp):

• 1 tbsp. ascorbic acid
• 1/4 cup raw local honey
• 1 1/2 tbsp. cinnamon
• 2 tsp. ground ginger
• 1 tsp. ground allspice
• 1/4 cup orange juice

Slowly bring mixture to a simmer, stirring frequently. Continue to simmer for 5 minutes. Ladle into sterile half-pint jars. Wipe lips clean and attach lids, screw caps finger-tight. Process in a water bath canner for 10 minutes, remove and cool.