Monday 31 January 2011

The broader palette

As money grows tight here, people increasingly turn to gardening and other self-reliant hobbies: Grow-it-yourself clubs are popping up all over Ireland, our local one hosted by my non-profit. The local beekeepers’ annual course traditionally draws 10-30 people, more in bad times – last year 70 people came. Gardening programmes seem to fill the television schedules, and a number of local farmers are leasing their fields to allotments.

As pleased as I am to see so many rows of cabbages and potatoes, though, I don’t want to see people rely too heavily on only a few crops. It’s understandable, of course, for gardeners to start with the easiest or most familiar plants, as well as the ones they know how to cook. Here that means cabbages and potatoes, in my Missouri hometown that means tomatoes and peppers, and where you live it might mean something else.

Relying too much on only a few varieties of a few plants, though, makes for a very fragile kind of self-reliance. Eat a surfeit of one food and your health declines; meet the wrong caterpillar or fungus, a summer too hot or a winter too long, and much of your food is gone. The Irish did that once with potatoes, with disastrous results, and Americans began eating mostly corn – corn-fed beef, high-fructose corn syrup and more -- around the time they gained a global reputation for obesity.

Most of us, though, have little idea how many edible plants are all around us, and how many could fill our salad bowls or soups. Even if we restrict ourselves to the minority of plants that have become domesticated crops, we typically recognize only a few varieties of each – the ones bred recently for fossil-fuel transport, not for taste, health or your climate.

Take the colour, for example – most of us have never seen green oranges, purple carrots, striped beets or blue potatoes. Or look at breed names -- most of us have eaten Johnagold or Green Delicious apples, perhaps without knowing what they were called, but I have never had Seek-no-Furthers or Belle-de-Boskoops, and you probably haven’t either.

Even many ordinary vegetables have become widely unrecognized. When I was in charge of a magazine in America, we made an arrangement with a local CSA to get a weekly box of whatever was in season. I waited until everyone else had their share and took the rest home – which meant I took most of it home every week, because my colleagues had no idea what to make of the vegetables or what to do with them. Some of these people were environmental activists or vegans, but they stared quizzically at the kohlrabi, fennel, mange tout, swedes, daikons, parsley root, beetroot or sunchokes as though they were specimens from an alien planet.

Still, I didn’t grow up knowing many of these crops either, and had to learn them over time. When we moved here, for example, my mother-in-law introduced me to celeriac, a celery relative bred not for its stalks -- which are edible but foul-tasting, I can assure you – but for its bulbous root. Ours can grow as large as a human head, and can be left in the ground until needed or transferred to boxes of sand in the shed. My mother-in-law usually cooked them like potatoes, but I find them great raw, finely grated like parmesan and mixed in a spicy lemon dressing.

As another example, we grew scorzonera last year, a yellow-flowered dandelion relative that seemed to fall out of favour after the Victorian era. Its black roots taste great peeled and either boiled, steamed or stir-fried. Its cousin salsify has blue flowers and white roots, but can be treated similarly. We also grew chicory, not to harvest at the time, but to transplant to earth boxes in the shed in winter and force its blanched leaves upwards.

Acquaintances of ours experiment with other roots and tubers: yacon and occa originated in the Andes Mountains alongside the potato, but spuds became the staple food for millions while the first two continued to be eaten mainly by Incas. Sometime soon, though, we really must experiment with yacons, which can be eaten raw and, we are told, taste like sweet radishes.

Even outside the garden beds, in the woodland and hedgerows, you can plant or foster hardy wild crops that most people pull out as weeds. Good King Henry grows naturally in the forest understory here, and tastes like spinach – it grows wild here but not enough, so we are sowing its seeds in our garden this year. Fat Hen runs rampant here and makes a good addition to any salad, as does jack-by-the-hedge, sorrel, oxlip, cowslip and primrose. Nettles can be cooked like spinach, fermented into kimchi, juiced like wheatgrass, dried and powdered like herbs. Fiddlehead ferns, Matteucchia Struthiopteris, have edible shoots – I’m told bracken ferns do as well, but considering how poisonous the rest of the bracken is, I’d stay away from it altogether.

No matter how damp or chilly your climate, it might support more subtropical plants than you realise. When I first visited Ireland, I was shocked to see so many palm trees: the air rarely goes above room temperature, but it so rarely freezes (until recently) here that they survived along the coast. In the same way, olive trees, tea bushes and wine grapes grow in the south of England, and once the greenhouse was invented, gardeners here grew pineapples, peaches and melons.

Nor are all such fruits as exotic or tropical as many people believe. Most people think kiwis come from the South Pacific; in reality the name was a 1960s marketing ploy, a Cold War rebranding of the Chinese gooseberry. They too grow in this damp and windswept country, perhaps not as big as the ones in supermarkets but just as tasty --- and without using their own weight in fossil fuels to get here.

We will never approach resilience unless we wade into the vast pool of little-known and rarely used plants. This time of year, as those of you in the Northern Hemisphere are buying seeds for the spring, consider devoting a piece of your land for experimenting with new crops and new varieties. Not all your experiments will work, but some might prove easier, healthier, more pest-resistant, tastier, or more suited to your particular patch of the landscape that what you are planting now.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Quite a year

I don't usually get into politics, but some people have asked me about the perhaps confusing news coming out of Ireland right now. I dealt with some of it in a previous post, and in the upcoming AmCon article. For now, here's a summary of recent events for anyone interested:

2005: We move here to be near my wife’s family. In unrelated news, Ireland voted best place to live in the world.

Summer 2007: Election leaves Fianna Fail (rhymes with tall) party -- which has dominated Irish politics since the country’s founding -- short of a majority. Ireland has a parlimentary system like the UK, so people vote for one of several parties, and if no one has a clear majority, two or more parties must form a coalition, and the major coalition partner picks the Prime Minister. Fianna Fail asks the Green Party to join them in coalition, and in a controversial move, the Greens accept.

Fall 2008: Economic crash bursts Ireland’s bubble. Fianna Fail ensures all of nation’s banks, placing nation in unprecedented debt.

Winter 2009: Ireland sees worst floods in 800 years.

April 2010: Volcano temporarily shuts down air travel.

September 2010: Fianna Fail Taoiseach (TEE-shak, or Prime Minister) Brian Cowen appears drunk in interview – makes the news across the world.

November 2010: Irish government is bankrupt, asks for bailout. Massive protests fill Dublin, offices of Dail (Congress) members vandalised.

Late November 2010: Ireland sees worst snowstorms in living memory.

December 2010: New budget cuts services and pensions and raises taxes. Fianna Fail widely blamed – their poll numbers drop from around 45% to 14%.

Monday, Jan 13: FF leaders begin to question the Taoiseach’s leadership.

Sunday, Jan 16: A faction of Fianna Fail breaks away and calls on Cowen to step down. Foreign Minister resigns.

Tuesday, Jan 18: Fianna Fail votes on whether to retain Cowan as leader, attempt to oust him fails.

Wednesday, Jan 19: Four of the 15 ministers (like US Cabinet members) resign.

Thursday, Jan 20: One more minister resigns. News reports that Cowan is attempting to pack his cabinet with allies. Green leader John Gormley tells the Taoiseach the Greens will not support his ministerial appointments.

Saturday, Jan 22: Cowen announces he will resign as head of his party but remain head of government.

Sunday, Jan. 23 – Green Party pulls out of government. Only seven of 15 ministers left. Coalition ends.

Monday, Jan. 24 – TDs (like Congress members) hashing out new Finance Bill – as soon as that is complete, the Dail will dissolve and a new election will be set.

Today – Finance Bill set to pass; new election at end of February. Fianna Fail votes for new leader, Cowan will stay as Taoiseach until after election.

More on the story here, here, here and here.

It's dramatic, but only in the way the USA's 2000 election was dramatic, and on a smaller scale. We're still working, the police still function, no one's shooting and the lights are still on. It could be a lot worse.

Saturday 22 January 2011

Good news

If my writing's been a little sparse lately, it's partly because I've been busy writing the cover story for the next issue of the American Conservative magazine.

The article, "The Wreck of the Irish," deals with the meteoric rise and fall of Ireland's boom, and its lessons for America. It's not online yet, but I just got my copy in the very slow Irish post, so it should be on newsstands where you live soon. I'm not going to tell anyone what to do, but if you checked it out, it wouldn't hurt my feelings.

Saturday 15 January 2011


Cabbage has come a long way from its origins as a little beach-weed called sea kale – over centuries, our species has bred it into an amazing variety of different vegetables. We’ve bred it for its head of leaves – green cabbage, red cabbage, Chinese cabbage, kale, bok choy, mustard, rocket, mizuna and others. We’ve bred it for its flowers – broccoli, cauliflower and romanesco. We’ve bred it for its buds -- Brussels sprouts – and we’ve bred it for its roots, kohlrabi.

In all its forms, it remains one of the best crops for the Irish climate, as for similar climates like the Pacific Northwest, but it grows in a wide variety of climates. It’s a famous staple here in many of its forms, the basic vegetable of many dishes. Amazingly, though, few people we know here make sauerkraut or kimchi, methods used in other parts of the world to preserve cabbage, make it easier to digest and to give it flavour. You can make sauerkraut very easily at home, and it will be much tastier and more nutritious than the canned variety.

The biggest trick is to find 1.) a cylindrical container, not made of metal or plastic, and 2.) a lid slightly smaller than the top of the container, so that it slides down the interior with little air in-between. The cabbage has to be pressed down in salt water away from oxygen, you see, but not sealed off completely. We have a ceramic pot and lid; you could hold it down with a plate slightly smaller than the pot and hold the sauerkraut down with a stone. Alternately, you could use a mayonnaise or other glass jar and use a glass or ceramic candle-holder as a stopper. Use your imagination, but of course wash and sterilise everything well beforehand.

First cut a cabbage into quarters and chop it finely with a knife or through a mandolin. Mix up a few handfuls of the shredded cabbage, put it in the container, and pound it down for a few minutes with something heavy like a rolling pin. Then sprinkle some salt onto the cabbage – about three tablespoons of salt for every five pounds of cabbage – and repeat the process with another few handfuls until your container is full.

Then fill the container with water – from the cold tap, but heated on the stove until lukewarm – until it just covers the top of the cabbage/salt mix. Put the lid on and place the container someplace warm to ferment at room temperature – about 20 degrees Centigrade is ideal, so try near the heater or stove.

The cabbage should begin to ferment right away, and one of the great things about this recipe is that you don’t have to wait until it’s “done.” It will gradually turn from cabbage to sauerkraut over about a month, but you can dig in at any point, eat some and put the rest back. Just make sure to top it up with more salt water if you need to – about a tablespoon per litre of water – as you have to keep the cabbage away from oxygen.

Your sauerkraut might develop a slight scum on top as it ferments. Just skim it off and clean the plate when you take some out -- it’s just the result of contact with the air, and not very dangerous. Also, don’t worry if the kraut has a faint yeasty smell – it’s fermenting, after all. If it starts to go pink on top or smell genuinely bad, something has probably gone wrong.

My mother-in-law says that only green cabbage was ever used for sauerkraut in Germany, although she’s not sure why – perhaps the pinkness that indicates harmful bacteria was more difficult to see on red cabbage. We read of people online who use red cabbage, however, and we plan to try it soon – if you have, let us know how it goes.

After about a month, take out the sauerkraut and eat it straight, put it in the refrigerator or cook it, as you like. You can also add other vegetables into the mix, like onions, carrots, cauliflower and beetroot, or spices – juniper berries and bay leaf are the classics, but you can also experiment with ginger, chilli peppers or other things.

This is a great way to preserve cabbage through the winter without refrigeration, also, and to give vitamin C during the months when it’s most needed and least available.

Photo: Our sauerkraut pot.

Tuesday 11 January 2011