Beneath My fingernails Lies The Evidence of Spring

I did it. I got my hands dirty. The evidence of which can still be seen lodged under my finger nails. I did it. I started gardening.

In truth the gardening season began at least a month ago when I started growing transplants in my basement under lights. But that’s neither here nor there. The outdoor phase has begun.

The 2013-2014 central Illinois winter was brutal.  I personally began to refer to it as “the never ending winter” with the theme song to “the Never Ending story” playing in me mind.While we are still struggling to shake the winter that taught me the term polar vortex, the signs of life – the signs of spring are finally starting to appear.

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At both of my gardens, the garlic cloves I planted last fall have begun to emerge. Their green spikes poking through the leaf mulch fills me with boyish excitement.

Spinach is a very hearty plant. I learned a couple years ago that the trick to good early spring spinach is to trust in the plants ability to survive in very adverse conditions. Early spring spinach is best achieved through a late fall planting the year before and a healthy dose of mulch to protect it over the winter months.

20140330-180111.jpgKnowing how hearty spinach is I am actually surprised the spinach I planted last fall survived the winter of the polar vortex. In a couple weeks or so I will be making my first harvest of the year. Wait scratch that, already happened. First spinach harvest of the year.

I forgot about some of my leeks from last year and they survived over winter and I dug one of them up while I was at the garden. I planning on just throwing it into the bag I have in my freezer where I am collecting scraps to use for making vegetable stock.

Back to my hands. Obviously I didn’t get me hands dirty walking around my garden looking at plants. I got them dirty planting potatoes, kale and broccoli. The kale and broccoli where all transplants that I started indoors in my basement and then continued growing them in my cold frame out doors.

It’s a little early to plant the broccoli and kale considering how cool our spring had been so far. But I use empty plastic water, apple cider and milk jugs with the bottoms cut off as mini green houses or cloches. I have also found that this is necessary to get a decent broccoli head on your plants in the spring. Otherwise they just don’t seen to have enough time during the cooler weather to thrive. Broccoli tastes and grows much better during the spring and fall.

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The kale would probably be ok without the cloches, but I still use them. Kale has got to be the most or one if the most hearty garden vegetables. I can’t be a coincidence that several of the more populate varieties have names that conjure up images of cold and inhospitably; varieties like Siberian dwarf, red Russian and blue curled scotch.

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I planted the first round of three varieties of potatoes in addition to the first planting of lettuce, spinach and radishes.

It feels good to get my hands dirty. It’s feels good to be outside getting vitamin D. It’s been a brutal winter.

Vegan Quiche – Artisan Pressed Tofu

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As is it with most food, the fresher the tofu the better. And nothing is fresher than homemade tofu. Its a little laborious but making tofu from scratch is fun and fairly easy – especially if you have the right equipment. The hardest part or more accurately the laborious part is the fact that you first have to make soy milk… but it is worth it.

There are already a number of recipes, videos and blogs out on the web about making soy milk and tofu but none (or at least that I know of) about making artisan tofu or what I’m calling “vegan quiche.” What makes vegan quiche or artisan tofu different and special is the way it is made with vegetables and spices suspended in the tofu. It also worthwhile to note that my vegan quiche recipe is crust free and therefore it is gluten free.

Soy Milk

  • 1 cup soy beans (preferably organic)
  • 1 large bowl
  • Fine cheesecloth
  • 13 cups of water
  • 1-2 large stock pots or pans
  • Large strainer or colander
  • A blender or soy milk maker

photo 3-1I start with USDA Organic Illinois grown soy beans grown by Breslin Farms, a father and daughter duo growing organic heirloom wheat, black beans, soy beans, and sweet corn. First step no matter what is soaking the beans in water overnight for 8-12 hours. The beans will nearly triple in size. After the beans have been soaked its time to make soy milk.

Before you start making the soy milk for ‘”vegan quiche” prepare your fillings for the “quiche” which can really be whatever you want. I took a half cup of vegetable broth, about 1 cup of chopped kale, 1/4 cup dried local shiitake mushrooms, a teaspoon of garlic powder, a tablespoon of tamari sauce, and a 1/4 cup of nutritional yeast flakes and mixed them all together to marinate and let the mushrooms rehydrate. photo 2

Do a little poking around on the internet to find out how to make soy milk. Here, here and here are three decent places to check out for instructions on making soy milk,  now a days I have a Soymilk making machine. Whatever recipe you use its best to skip the flavoring and sweetener part if you are making tofu. Also, if you are using a blender it is my personal recommendation that you use hot nearly boiling water to blend/grind your soy beans, that will help eliminate the beany taste.  Here is a good NPR story on making tofu that also includes the step of making soy milk. Keep the left over soy bean matter which is also known as okara, as there is a lot you can do with and it is very nutritious. I recently combined it with spices, corn meal, and a little garbanzo bean flour dusted with cooking oil and baked in the oven to make something that was somewhere between hush puppies and falafel.

Now that you have your soy milk made and your quiche ingredients marinating its time to actually make the tofu.

Vegan Quiche – Artisan Pressed Tofu

  • 3 liters of fresh homemade soy milk (two soy milk maker batches, a total of 1 cup of soy beans worth)
  • 1/4 cup hot water
  • Coagulant – Options: 1/2 – 1 tablespoon of Nigiari, 2 teaspoons Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), 4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice or 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar. (I have never tried anything but Nigiari but the others should work too, check this out for a good discussion on making tofu and the coagulant options.)
  • 1 large stock pot
  • Fine cheesecloth
  • Tofu press or box
  • Weights to press tofu (I use canned food)
  • “Quiche” fillings: 1/2 cup of vegetable broth, about 1 cup of chopped kale, 1/4 cup dried shiitake mushrooms, a teaspoon of garlic powder, a tablespoon of tamari sauce, and a 1/4 cup of nutritional yeast flakes.
  • 1 tablespoon of Coconut Oil

photo 3I’m assuming you have already prepared your “quiche” ingredients at this point but if not stop and do it now. Back to the soy milk and tofu. Bring the soy milk to a boil. Once the soil milk is boiling reduce it to a simmer. Then dissolve your coagulant in warm water. Pour half the coagulant into the water and give it one stir and turn off the burner, but leave the pot in place on the stove. The tofu will quickly began to coagulate separating into soy curds and whey (I save the whey and make vegetable broth with it or add it to sauces). Wait a couple minutes and then add the rest of the coagulant and stir one more time. Wait a minute and then add your “quiche” ingredients and stir gently once or twice.

photo 1-1Now you are ready to press the curds into tofu. Put your tofu press or box or make shift tofu pressing set up in a baking dish or on a large plate, you need it to be on something that will be able to catch the excess liquid that will be pressed out of your tofu. (I start in a clean sink with the tofu press on a plate, once I filled the press and let some of the excess liquid drain off I move it to the counter.) Line the tofu press with your cheesecloth. Then using a large ladle begin scooping out the soy curd and quiche ingredient mixture into the tofu press/box, leaving behind as much of the liquid as possible.

Once you have ladled out most of the soy curds and ingredients into the cheesecloth lined tofu press you can gently fold the cheesecloth down on top of the soy curd mixture and place the top of the tofu press on top of the folded cheese cloth. Then place weights on top of the press to begin pressing the tofu into a block and removing the excess moisture. How long you press the tofu for depends on how firm you like it. I pressed my for about 45 minutes.

photo 1Once the tofu has been pressed to your desired firmness you can actually go ahead and eat the fresh tofu at that time, if you want. Fresh tofu, whether with ingredients suspended in it or not, tastes so much better than the alternative. You can actually eat it fresh without any additional cooking or preparation steps. At this point fresh out of the press it still warm and has a really yummy and creamy taste too it. In fact that’s what I did. I cut my tofu block in half and had one half fresh for dinner and saved the other half for “quiche.”

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The only other step left to make the “quiche” was to dust the piece of artisan pressed tofu with a little coconut oil, place it in a glass baking dish and bake for 45 minutes. When I tried this I had not actually intended for it to be vegan quiche it was just that after eating it I realized that it tasted whole lot like crust-less quiche! I garnished mine with avocado and a light (1/2 tablespoon) drizzle of Italian dressing.

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Seeds planted. Lights on. Gardening season has begun.

Every gardener must ask themselves why are they gardening. Recreation? Independence? Health? Spirituality? Environmental sustainability? Economics? Taste? For me gardening is about independence, sustainability and knowing where my food comes from. I take it quite seriously; planting a large diversity of different vegetables and different varieties of each vegetable. I also plant a pretty large garden – about 150 square feet worth. In addition, I start a majority of the transplants I use on my own at home.

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Today the actual growing phase of my gardening season began. For me the overall actual gardening season began already over a month ago. Now is the time of the year when I begin to start growing the first plants for my garden. A lot of the average public thinks gardening is just something that happens in the summer with one big harvest or the only thing gardens grow is tomatoes and peppers. Most people don’t realize that even in the Midwest, central Illinois, you can be growing many crops beginning as early as late March. There are certain vegetables that do much better in the spring and fall when the days are shorter and the temperatures are mild. There are vegetables that thrive in the warm temperature of the summer months and won’t grow very well at all in the spring. Many vegetables; like carrots, lettuce and spinach taste better in the cooler months.

Today I started transplants of a number of cool weather spring vegetables, and some flowers and herbs that take a long time to germinate and need a long growing season. I started 2 varieties of broccoli, one was Belstar a hybrid and the other Waltham a heirloom/open-pollinated variety. I started two heirloom/open-pollinated varieties of kale, one was Lactino (Dinasour) kale and the other Siberian Dwarf. In addition, I started some heirloom Mammoth red cabbage, Rainbow swiss chard, cilantro, marigolds, sage, summer savory, and oregano.

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I started my plants in coconut coir starter pots that can be purchased at most garden centers, hardware stores and other stores that sell gardening supplies. Coir pots are biodegradable so you can just plant them straight into the ground pot and all. Unlike peat moss biodegradable pots, coir is a renewable resource and it does not carry with it some of the sustainability baggage that peat moss does.

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Whether you are gardening in containers, out side in a small area, a large area, or starting plants indoors success begins with soil. For starting plants indoors I have found that all purpose potting soils work fairly well. I usually go in the off season to a place like Ace Hardware or Menard’s and buy several bags of whatever organic all purpose potting soil mix they have. I tend to look for soil mixes bearing the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) listed seal.

For my starting medium I took about 2 gallons of the potting soil mix and mixed it with a couple handfuls of perlite and a couple big handfuls of homemade vermicompost all in a larger 5 gallon cat litter bucket.

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I grow my transplants under special lights meant for growing plants. I also have a heat pad that is placed underneath the growing tray that helps warm the soil and speed up germination. I have the lights on timers and the heat pad on the timers as well (12hrs on, 12hrs off).  I am growing  in a basement so I also have a small space heater in the growing area that helps keep the temperature warm and cozy for the plants.

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Once I had the coir trays filled with my growing medium soil mix it was time for one of the most enjoyable parts of gardening – planting seeds. I laid out a plan and created a color code system on these wooden skewers I had to keep track of the rows. Then I planted seeds. Once the seeds were all planted I misted the whole tray with water using a spray bottle until moist and then poured about two pints of water into the bottom tray. The last thing left was to put the plastic dome over the tray to help regulate moisture until the seedlings emerge. You can purchase trays with domes along with coir at most places that sell garden supplies. Once the plants have been growing for about a month I will move them to a cold frame I have out back.

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Seeds planted. Lights on. Gardening season has begun.

I Side With the Seeds

Waiting on the tarmac at Atlanta Georgia’s Jackson-Hartfield international airport bound for Washington, D.C. Reading the latest issue of Heirloom Gardener magazine (a nice quarterly put together by the folks at Baker Creek Heirloom Seed co.) I am struck with a profound sense of spirituality. Yeah I know, what a strange place to find a moment of spirituality related to seeds, the concrete and high-tech machines are almost the farthest thing from seeds, soil and plants. I digress.

Towards the end of the magazine there was an article about gardening and farming in an era marked by climate change. It was kind of light in technicals, which is ok, as it was a short article meant to get the reader to buy the author’s new book on the subject. Despite the lack of technicals there was something at the end that moved me. It was a covenant; a gardener, farmer and seed saver’s covenant.

The words poured off the page in a rhythm and cadence that reminded me of the time I spent as a young boy on Sunday in the pews at church. The main difference is this spoke to me both emotionally and intellectually. Words that were timeless yet so incredibly relevant to the time in history I find myself in. I can see now a “sanctuary” full people declaring in unison:

I, [name], a gardener, farmer, seed saver and eater,
wish to renew our sacred vows
to take care, love and serve
the astonishing diversity of life on this earth.

Through sickness and in health
in times of crisis and times of joy,
to sow the seeds of food justice,
to sow the seeds of food security,
to sow the seeds of food democracy,
to sow the seeds of food sovereignty,
through our own actions and
our own eating patterns
so that we may all eat what we have truly sown.

I reaffirm our covenant with this earth,
to humbly be one more way that
seeds themselves regenerate
into more seeds to nourish all of us.
Love one another and go sow in peace.
(Gary Paul Nahban)

Words to live by.

I am reminded of the track title to a song by an excellent band that hails from the Midwest – Wilco. “Side With the Seeds”

I side with the seeds. Will you side with the seeds?

BBQ “pulled” mushroom sandwich

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This turned out quite well. Not as good as I had hoped but still pretty damn good. And BBQ “pulled” mushroom is definitely better than the often touted pulled pork BBQ sandwich alternative spaghetti squash. The absolute key to this is the hardest part, having access to lions mane mushroom. Lions mane is a very unique mushroom. I recently just harvested some from a home growing kit I have. See my most recent blog post “Grab the Lions Mane” for more about the lions mane mushroom.

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The idea for this came when I was first initially examining the mushroom after I had harvested it. It pulls a part into strands very reminiscent of pulled pork or corned beef.

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Once the mushroom is pulled apart into strands most of the work is done. From there I put the mushroom strands into a crock pot, filled the crock pot with organic vegetable broth until the mushroom strands were covered, and then slow cooked it for a really long time. Maybe too long… Not sure though after a point it didn’t seem to change it any further.

8 hours would probably be plenty of cooking time. About 2/3 of the way through add several tablespoons of BBQ sauce. I used an organic agave based BBQ I had purchased, but if I do it again I will probably make my own from scratch. After adding the BBQ sauce, finish cooking and then add a little more BBQ sauce to taste and voila! BBQ pulled mushroom sandwich! Well that’s at least the “BBQ” and “pulled mushroom” part, I trust you can figure out how to turn it into a sandwich from there…

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Grab The Lion’s Mane

Grab the lion’s mane. Don’t be afraid to try new and interesting foods. Go to your local farmers market, find something different. Push the envelope. Grab the lion’s mane and take control of your culinary destiny.

I ‘m not advocating going to your local zoo in search of a lion’s mane to grab or any other form of animal cruelty. But I literally do mean grab the lion’s mane, just not the lion’s mane from the kingdom animalia but instead a member of the kingdom fungi — the lion’s mane mushroom. Beyond physically grabbing the lion’s mane mushroom, as a phrase, to me it represents being culinarily adventurous. Don’t consume, create. Seize the day. Grab the lion’s mane.

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Most people have never heard of a lion’s mane mushroom let alone seen anything that resembles one. In the world of gourmet edible mushrooms it is strikingly unique. The lion’s mane is not only exciting to look at but it is also very tasty. The texture of the spires, which is where the spores develop, is amazingly delicate. I learned about lion’s mane while browsing Field and Forest Products website, the website and company I buy mushroom growing supplies from.

Lion’s mane’s is more than a tasty and unique edible mushroom, it has nerve-regenerative properties that are beginning to garner notable attention from the researchers. Two novel classes of Nerve Growth Factors have been identified in lion’s mane mushrooms; causing note and excitement from the medical community. Lion’s mane could prove to be important in helping to develop treatments for a number of neurological medical conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s to multiple sclerosis.

Lion's Lane mushroom time lapse

Lion’s Lane mushroom, time lapse, pink hue is from the grow light

I have just barely begun to cook and experiment with lion’s mane but I can already tell that I am going to enjoy it and lucky for me one block of inoculated sawdust will periodically produce large mushrooms for several months. The texture of lion’s mane is very unique, it can be pulled a part into small strand-like pieces that resemble pulled pork. In fact, stay tuned as I plan to grab the lion’s mane and  slow cook pulled lion’s mane mushroom in a crock pot and make BBQ pulled mushroom sandwiches! Seize the day.  Grab the lion’s mane!

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Lion’s Mane Mushroom

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Lion’s Mane mushroom

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Lion’s Mane mushroom

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Lion’s Mane mushroom

Lions Mane mushrooms

Lions Mane mushrooms

In the beginning there were Mushrooms

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In the beginning there were mushrooms. Well, not exactly. In the beginning there were fungi but not necessarily mushrooms. Mushrooms are the spore bearing fruit body of certain types of fungi but not all fungi. More than a billion years ago fungi emerged and began to inhabit planet earth and in doing so paved the way for plants and animals. Mycologists convincingly assert that fungi are the foundation and prerequisite for life as we have come know it.  Animals and humans for that matter, are actually more closely related to fungi than any other kingdom on the planet. Around 650 million years ago an evolutionary branch of fungi split and lead to the development of animals.

As a young adult I was often dismissive of mushroom worship in hippy jam band culture and art as being less about religious experience and respect for fungi and more about psycho-active drug use. To be honest I still am dismissive of the mushroom worship elements of hippy jam band culture as being a drug thing, but I have come to realize there is something to the larger concept of mushroom and fungi worship that was apart of many Native cultures around the world. Fungi are truly amazing creatures. Certain types of fungi have anti-microbial properties, others have anti-viral properties. They are the glue that holds the surface of the planet together and allows soil to breath life into plants.

If you are interested in learning more about how important and how much untapped biological potential resides within the fungi kingdom I highly suggest reading Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running. Paul is one of the foremost experts when it comes to mycology and growing mushrooms and has written a number of other authoritative books. In addition to his books his website Fungi Perfecti is an excellent resource for information and supplies.

While thanks to Paul Stamets I have a greater evolutionary and biological appreciation of fungi, before that I had a culinary appreciation for mushrooms and fungi. About 4 years ago I discovered the world beyond Agaricus, the common white button mushroom, the world of gourmet mushrooms. It was at a place where so many others before me and after me have been exposed to new foods – at a farmers market.  On an adventurous whim I bought 1/4 lb. of locally grown oyster mushrooms at the Old Capitol Farmers Market in Downtown Springfield Illinois and ever since I have had a culinary love and appreciation for gourmet mushrooms.

About two years ago I began to mess around with growing mushrooms at home. As you will learn or already know, I’m a bit of a do-it-yourself kind of guy something I inherited from my father. Growing mushrooms is amazingly easy to do-it-yourself. Well growing mushrooms “from scratch” is actually very difficult and requires expensive equipment and a clean room. However, there are a number of mushroom farms out there that also sell mushroom kits that make it easy. A couple times a year I go online to Field and Forest Products website and order a shiitake, white button, lion’s mane or oyster mushroom kit. Field and Forest Products is located in Wisconsin, not local but regional, the next best thing. Field and Forest Products also has an excellent and large selection of commercial mushroom growing products and materials.

After ordering a shiitake mushroom kit from Field and Forest Products, in a couple short days a non-descript special delivery van shows up at my house. One knock and off they go. The kit consists of a block of sawdust inoculated with shiitake mycelium, long wooden skewers and a plastic bag with the corners cut out to use as a humidity tent.  Below is what it looks like set-up.

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In the picture below, on the left is the shiitake block and on the right is a block inoculated with Lion’s Mane mycelium. On the bottom is a seed tray that I just started peppers and onions in. I actually hate onions, its a texture thing, but my gardening partner (my dad) like onions and I recently learned how to make onion powder getting around the whole texture thing. This is actually my first time attempting to start my own onion plants.

The lights are all on timers. Yes lights for mushrooms. Most gourmet mushrooms actually require some light to grow. Interestingly, it is not for photosynthesis as mushrooms don’t have chloroplast or chlorophyll. The seed tray is on a heat mat that is along with a small space heater that is out of the frame also on a timer.
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Within 7-14 days the mushrooms begin to emerge. Mine always seem to be on the side closer to 7 days, which I think is due to the temperature and light control I employ along with making sure there is adequate moisture to maintain the right level of humidity. Within another week or so after the mushrooms have begun to initially “pin-up” they have grown into full mushrooms ready for harvest.

IMG_3094I have never weighed out my harvests which I probably should start doing just for posterity’s sake. With that said, I usually get a couple pounds of fresh shiitakes which is usually more than I can eat before they go bad. Luckily, I have a dehydrator and shiitakes dehydrate and store very nicely.

IMG_3103Dehydrated shiitake mushrooms either whole or in pieces will keep in mason jars for a long time. My guess is they won’t ever go un-eaten long enough to lest how long they would last though. Dehydrated shiitake mushrooms are great for adding to soups, sauces and risottos. The Lion’s Mane mushrooms I mentioned earlier are almost ready for harvest. Stay tuned to my Instragram feed for pictures.

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