Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Always a pot of greens on the stove

What gives a better feeling of food security than coming home to a house filled with the aroma of a pot on the stove?  Or a slow cooker filling the house with a melange of odors of all the ingredients dumped into it?  A pot on the fire, ready to dip into, has to be one of the big improvements that sedentary agriculture achieved compared to the lives of nomadic tribes. 

While nomadic tribes could subsist reasonably well on a diet based on milk and meat, the addition of carbs from plants is what really allowed populations of farming communities to take off.  And in the beginnings of civilization, plants were not as gentle to digest as our supermarket choices are today.  If you have ever gathered wild onions or garlic, you may have noticed that they were quite a bit more fibrous than store-bought scallions.  Or wild mustards with their stringy leaves and stems.  All that fiber and all those carbs in the digestive system moved people from a starvation type metabolism to a metabolism that could pack on the pounds.  This can be seen around the world when "aboriginal" people leave the hunter/gatherer ways of their ancestors and adopt a modern "civilized" diet -- the rate of obesity skyrockets as does the incidence of diabetes.  It takes a few generations to adjust to rich living!

To ensure the continuation of our rich-living lifestyle, we need to be able to have those high quality vegetables available at all times.  One way to do it is to take the advice of permaculturalists and plant a wide variety of fruits and nuts, trees and bushes that will start bearing early in the spring until late into the fall.  If you have enough of a surplus during the growing season, you can dry, pickle, or preserve the excess bounty for use during the winter.  In this post, I'd like to point out an alternative, having a large planting of one or two plants that can be the staples of a diet and that continually produce throughout the year.

A good example of this is taro (Colocasia esculenta).  A good sized plot of taro, and you will have an unlimited supply of leaves for the stew pot and roots to either fry into chips or boil up to make poi.  I'm still wondering if there is a good way to prepare the stems, or if they are best left as animal fodder.  Even in cold climates, the taro corms stay viable in the ground, so if you have to, you can always go out in the middle of winter and dig up some carbs.

In a tropical climate like Hawaii, taro would be the only thing you need, but in my temperate climate, I have to think of something that I can pair it with that I can continually harvest during the winter.  Collards.  There is a reason that collards are the quintessential Southern side dish -- they keep growing during our winters and a patch of them in the garden can keep the kitchen supplied while the taro corms sit in the ground dormant. 

A diet of just taro and collards could get pretty boring though.  That's where some perennial herbs and onions come in handy.  Rosemary, sage, wild garlic, mint, there is a long list of flavorings that can be grown in the kitchen garden to spice up these two staples. 

If you are reading this blog to get ideas on how to improve your food security, ask yourself what plants are the reliable producers for your area.  They may be weeds.  My last entry talked about salsify and upland cress.  I haven't given up on those two and I hope to naturalize them in the areas adjacent to my main garden.  They, along with the taro, have grown like weeds and haven't suffered any insect attacks.  I can't say the same for my collards, as they will on occasion be hit by a plague of harlequin bugs.  But that doesn't make for a total loss, at least the harlequin bugs are easy to shake into a container to then toss into the chicken coop. 

At one time I thought that Jerusalem artichokes would be a good choice for a perennial, always-available vegetable.  I tried growing them for two seasons, but I had less than stellar results.  I suppose if I had to, I could give it some more effort and make it work, but given how well the four that I have already mentioned do in my climate, I think I have settled on my staple greens.

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