Friday, April 26, 2013

Wild Foods: Purslane

Travel takes you to some amazing places engaging all the senses; eyes, smell, touch, sound and taste.  As I reflect now on so many of the many memorable journeys I have been on, since I was a young child, they have been profoundly influenced by the food of the people and places where I first discovered them - I don't know why, but they seem to be etched on my brain (I wish I could say the same for all the classes I have sat through where nothing has gone in!)

I can vividly remember the experience of walking into my first delicatessen (this was on a campsite on the Costa Brava in Spain and I was about 10) and being overcome by the exciting and nurturing smell of FOOD - garlic, salmi, cheese, bread, olive oil, sausage and golden, ripe honeydew melons.  Somehow, I didn't remember the shops in Britain smelling of food or being as tempting as this one and besides, most of the things for sale in this shop were totally new to me.  And then bit, by bit, you want to find out what all these foods are, where they come from and what they taste like - well most of them - I baulk at tripe done any way!

The Greek Island of Symi with wild foods carpeting the hillside 

So this is the PURSLANE journey that started five years ago on the Anatolian coast of Turkey.  My husband and I had hopped about on the Greek Islands close to the Turkish coast - Patmos, Kos, Rhodes and Symi, with the Turkish coast visible and tempting from all of them.  We had  picked out, as our first stop in Turkey, a small boutique hotel in a little bay close to Fethiye where we planned to stay for 3 days.  It looked marvelous on the net, but the reality was nothing like the photos - in fact, it was run down and positively creepy and I don't do creepy.  Michael and I looked at each other and then made a hasty retreat through reception, with a bemused, but somehow resigned looking owner and dragged our bags back out onto the road again to catch the mini-bus back to the port (public transport is marvelous in Turkey - thank goodness!).  What we were going to do we had no idea, and it was getting late - fortunately this story has a happy ending.

Our yacht!
As we walked along the very picturesque harbour front of Fethiye we noticed a sign outside a little booth advertising a five day trip down the coast on a traditional Turkish wooden yacht - they had a double berth vacancy and it was leaving in the morning and yes, we could sleep on it that night and no, it wasn't going to cost us an arm and a leg.

The first crop of purslane grown in my garden - I now have it forever!
So that's how I first met 'Jimmy', the Turkish cook on the boat, and purslane - he, and two other deckhands were preparing a huge bunch of succulent looking green stuff as we were introduced and stowed our bags into the very comfortable forward cabin.  I had no idea what it was, and they only knew the Turkish word for it, which I didn't understand (in fact, they came up with about three names depending on what their family called it - a very familiar story with wild foods)

Purslane Portulaca oleraceae - this is a wonder food and being used as a substitute for the benefits of oily fish.  What does Purslane contain?
Omega-3 fatty acids: Purslane contains high amounts of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid generally found in vegetables, as well as small amounts of EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids more commonly found in fish. This essential fatty acid plays a key role in maintaining heart health; it can lower cholesterol, regulate blood pressure and decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke. Omega-3 fatty acids also enrich brain health and can be useful in preventing and treating depression.

Antioxidants: Purslane is high in vitamins A, C and E, which are known for their antioxidant powers. This edible weed also contains two betalain alkaloid pigments, beta-cyanins and beta-xanthins, which act as antioxidants.

Vitamins and minerals: Purslane is low in calories and fat, but this weed does contain high amounts of dietary minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium and manganese.

Substitue purslane for other leafy green vegetables in your cooking. Use it to garnish sandwiches, add it to soups and stews, and incorporate it into your salads. If you’re pregnant, avoid purslane as it can make the uterine muscles contract. Purslane has a slightly pepper flavor and can be tart at times.

Jimmy, barbecuing chicken on the back of the boat to go with the purslane salad.

So how did Jimmy serve it?  Just the leaves, stripped from the stems, with some salt. yoghurt and garlic as an accompaniment to this barbecued chicken.
Do you keep a journal when you travel - I find it invaluable for recalling detail when my memory lets me down?  Once back on shore I was determined to find out what this 'green stuff' was that we had just about every day on our wonderful yacht trip - oh, and the rest of the food which was mostly new to me and delicious!!  Then I struck lucky.  Some time later, on our trip through Turkey, we were having dinner somewhere and the people at the next table were South Africans of Turkish descent - I described the plant to him and this is what he wrote in my diary SEMIZ OTU and from that I was able to translate it to PURSLANE = eureka!
The Library at Ephesus, ancient Greek city near Selcuk, Turkey
(a must if you are visiting this part of the Turkish coast)

This is a plant that grows wild in many countries and, once established, will just keep growing in your garden.  In fact, as everybody says - it grows like a weed and abundantly in my garden from late winter to mid-summer.  I now recognize it as a common plant for sale in Greece, but I have never seen it in a shop in Australia.  It's a ground hugging succulent and the seeds are available in Australia from Green Harvest and Eden Seeds.

NOTE:  My husband was working down in Sydney and saw a woman harvesting a plant from the park in seaside Bronte. She told him that she had come from Hungary many years ago and that she collected this plant for her husband - it helped with his arthritis and joint pain.  She didn't know what the name was in English but gave him some seeds to plant which sprouted readily in our garden and -  guess what popped up - purslane Portulaca oleraceae?

Once upon a time, many societies relied on the 'weeds' and wild foods growing around them to provide them with the bulk of their food nutrients.  In Greece they still do - they call them 'horta' - wild greens served as a staple with most meals. (Think about the word 'horticulture' - here is the root meaning (pardon the pun!).  For an interesting insight into the value and use of wild green go to the marvellous blog of Maria Verivaki and her piece about wild foods.
I love public libraries and our has a big trolley outside with discarded books for $1 - that's where I hit the lottery with this book about wild foods.  With food security a hot topic these are skills we all may have to 're-learn' - how do we feed ourselves with what we have growing around us without having to visit a shop?  At the moment I'm busy collecting rose petals so I can make some rose petal jam - hopefully just like the divine conserve I last tasted at another stop in Turkey - fortunately, in that instance, I did know what I was eating!

Purslane and Walnut Salad - from the Greek Island of Kythera
A slightly different take on Jimmy's salad, but one you will encounter all over Greece and the Middle East.

250g purslane leaves
100ml extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
juice of 1 lemon
200g walnuts, crushed in mortar and pestle
1 cup thick Greek yoghurt
salt and pepper

1.  Pick over purslane and remove thick stems, wash leaves well and dry.
2.  Blend oil, garlic, lemon juice until you have a good cloudy sauce.  Blend in yoghurt, slowly
3.  Fold in crushed walnuts.
4.  Toss purslane leaves and sauce together.

Traditional Turkish snack of thin pastry with sweet or savoury filling - called borek.
(this was the skinniest rolling pin I had ever seen!)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Citrus: Pest and Diseases (caterpillars)

This is part one of a series about care of citrus - how to recognize and deal problems without the use of harmful chemicals.

I have a lot of empathy with doctors - I see them being waylaid at parties by a guest who wants an on the spot diagnosis of their current ailment while, on the opposite side of the room I've been rumbled by a guest (another avid gardener) whose eyes light up at the thought that they may finally get an answer to their thorny citrus problem (ouch!).

In all my years of gardening and teaching, questions about citrus far outnumber those about any other topic.  Yet, the fundamentals of caring for citrus are pretty basic - KEEP the PLANTS HEALTHY - SICK PLANTS are MORE PEST and DISEASE PRONE.  The health of the plant affects all stages of growth and development - roots, leaves, flowers and fruit - if the tree is sick, or nutritionally deficient, it won't be able to do it's glorious thing - provide you with year round oranges, limes, lemons, cumquats, grapefruit, mandarins - where would we be without them?

I use a lemon just about everyday and realized, very early on, that even on my small, suburban block that I needed two lemon trees - in fact, I have three if you count the Lemonade.  In the sub-tropics the best varieties of lemon are Eureka and Villafranca (almost thornless).  The Meyer does well too, but I am not fond of it's less than lemony flavour - it's almost perfumed skin and juice are a result of it being a cross between a lemon and a mandarin.

Citrus are heavy feeders -  it stands to reason really for they do a lot in a season - put on large flushes of new leaves, a heady covering of gorgeously fragrant flowers and, if you have cared for them, a bumper crop of delicious, juicy fruit - they are very busy little trees.  The nurturing of citrus pays great dividends and I couldn't put it better than Jackie French, one of my favourite gardening authors, in her book Organic Gardening in Australia (1986).

"When we first came here (Braidwood, in the Southern Highlands of NSW) we inherited about twenty old citrus trees.  They were buried in ink weed and blackberry, had been rubbed to bits by cattle and were totally defoliated except for a few yellow leaves.

Ten years later, we've lost two of them, but the others are dark green, bushy and good bearers.

To cure our trees we mulched them to the drip line about half a metre high, using old lucerne hay, hen manure, stable sweepings and old sawdust.  The first lot took nearly nine months to rot down.  Then, as the soil became more active we mulched heavily three times a year, with organic matter and nitrogen rich additions (like chook pooh and urine).

The first year there were more yellow leaves.  The second there were some tiny fruit.  After about five years the trees were green and healthy and the fruit reached its maximum size" 

What does her experience teach us about the care of citrus - mulch, mulch and more mulch and, as my grandmother would say - patience is a virtue.  Just remember that, armed with this simple knowledge, you will be able to get your newly planted trees to fruit well within a couple of seasons - you won't have to wait five years.

TIP: Don't overfeed with nitrogen rich fertilizers - you will end up with over large and very pithy fruit.

The caterpillar of the Large Citrus butterfly -  the red horns, on the front of their head, emerge as a defense mechanism when they are threatened - they think it makes them look really scary!
And now to caterpillars on citrus and what to do about them.  The answer is basically - nothing - just enjoy the butterflies flitting around your garden - they do very little damage.  You may see a small black/brown/white caterpillar on the leaves of your citrus - that  looks a bit like a bird dropping.  This is the larvae of the Small Citrus butterfly - a mainly black and white chappie.

If you are lucky enough you may get this gorgeous creature - this is the last stage in the development of the caterpillar of the Large Citrus butterfly - otherwise known as the Orchard or Swallowtail butterfly - something I rarely see in my garden, but would welcome any day.  Take Jerry Coleby Williams advice (ABC Gardening Australia) and if you find more than one on your citrus tree, just move one to another tree (to lessen any damage they may do to the leaves, and enjoy two beautiful butterflies when they emerge from their cocoons)

Enjoy - don't destroy.  The magnificent Large Citrus butterfly

TIP:  If you want to know about how to prune, feed and care for citrus go to the previous post.

Don't blame the damage, in the photo above, on caterpillars - it's caused by these large fellows crickets/grass hoppers or, in the case of this one - the largest of all - field locusts.  It's easy to do because both chew from the edge of the leaves inwards, but caterpillars on citrus don't devastate the tree in the way that these critters do.

What to do about them?  Plagues of them vary from season to season, usually at their worst in mid-summer, but are not always a problem.  Keep your plants healthy (but don't overfeed) and interplant with a wide variety of strong smelling flowering plants. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Recipe: Berry and Ricotta Hotcakes

Three little, hungry grandchildren are about to come bursting through the door after a busy day at school - and I can guarantee that the first thing they will say is "Is there anything for afternoon tea Nanma"?

Fortunately, yes!  This is a very quick, easy and healthy recipe that I have been making versions of for years.   From start to finish they only take about ten minutes and they are simply delicious.

Berry and Ricotta Hotcakes
1 cup wholemeal flour
2 level tsp baking powder
2 desert spoons sugar
1/2 cup of ricotta
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk - approximately (depends how big your eggs are)
1/2 cup frozen berries - either raspberry or blueberry
1 tbs melted butter

In a mixing bowl combine together the flour, sugar and baking powder.
Heat the butter in a large non-stick frying pan until just melted (don't let it burn)
Stir the eggs, milk, melted butter and ricotta into the flour until you have a thick batter.  This is where you have to adjust the milk.  The batter should drop off a spoon without being runny ( it should hold its shape in the pan without spreading too much).
Lastly, lightly stir in the frozen berries.
Drop spoonfuls into the heated frying pan.  Turn over when the underside is golden.  You may need to add a dab more butter to the pan, but not too much.
TIP:  Use the mixture straight away as it doesn't work so well once the berries have defrosted in the batter

I think I might just have a couple, with a cup of tea, before they get here!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Lemon Grass: Top Plants

BOTANICAL NAME: Cymbopogon citratus
COMMON NAMES: lemongrass, ta krai, serai, citronella grass
FAMILY: Poaceae previously Graminae
ORIGIN: Ceylon

Lemon Grass growing as clumps around the vegetable garden.  You can use this as a border to keep the weeds at bay then, when it gets too big, harvest the leaves and use them as mulch - they deter pests.

This is the first in a series that I hope will be a mile long - plants that are easy to grow
and have a multifunction, i.e. you can use them for more than one thing.  Thinking about this concept is all part of  the Permaculture story - stacking a space full of plants that are going to sustain us in more ways than one. 

I recently went to a talk at the Mullumbimby Community Garden by Jerry Coleby Williams (from our national broadcaster, the ABC) about cornerstone plants for the future - lemon grass would be right up there with them in his book and my book.

Why do I love this plant - because all parts are edible and it is very easy to grow AND - it is good for you.

I have lemon grass growing pots around the place - in very handy spots - so that we can make tea from the leaves without having to go out into the garden - i.e. the torrential rain!!

This is the part of lemon grass that you use in curries and soups - the white fleshy stem just above the root - the cut off leaves I use for tea.

It grows in grass-like clumps to 1 m tall. Lemongrass is adapted to hot wet summers and dry warm winters, is drought tolerant and will grow on a wide range of soils but prefers rich, moist loams. It dislikes wet feet. If it is damaged by frost in cooler areas, the tops should not be cut until all danger of frost has passed. This helps to protect the centre of the plant from further cold damage.

Food: a good source of vitamin A, the leaves can be used for tea, the stem bases are used in curries and Thai cooking & Vietnamese style salads.  Also contains C, potassium, magnesium, iron & phosphorus. Lemon grass with mint is the favourite tea of this household - for adults and children alike.
Medicinal: oil used as anti-fungal.  Tea used for calming the stomach (with fresh ginger and mint) – teas also used for lowering cholesterol (University Wisconsin). Use cut leaves in muslin bag added to bath water.
Mulch: it can be cut continuously for mulch during the warmer months. As an added advantage it will have some pest repellent properties.
Erosion control: it can be planted on the contour on steep banks to control erosion.
Edging: useful also as a barrier to running grasses around vegetable gardens.  Attractive landscaping plant forming strappy lime green clump.

Recommended Planting Time: Plant spring in cooler areas; in tropical areas plant during the wet season.
Plant spacing: Plant rhizomes at a spacing of 1 m, with .5 m between rows.
Details: It rarely flowers. Harvesting for oil distillation begins when the clumps are 4-8 months old, it is subsequently harvested every 3-4 months, and this continues for about 4 years. The fresh grass yields 0.2-0.4% oil, giving 40-112 kg of oil/ha/yr.
Propagation:  By division in  late winter.  For clumps around the garden, close to the house, you may want to dig them up annually and divide them before they get too big.  Where space doesn't matter - just shear off all the leaves in late winter (use as mulch) and just let it re-shoot.

Recipe:  Dipping oil for bread. Store this in cool dark place for month shaking regularly.
Olive oil
Twig of rosemary, thyme
Bruised stem lemon grass
Clove of garlic
Crushed peppercorn

Click here to see the clever use of lemon grass as a satay stick - it flavours the meat and keeps it moist and your satay stick never gets too hot to handle!