Chard for the Freezer

Thanks to the mild winter, Robert and I have been eating so much greens that I keep checking my skin for a greenish tinge. It’s hard to keep up with the spring onrush of asparagus, artichokes, and Asian brassicas while we’re still eating overwintered arugula, collard buds, and Swiss chard.

The chard is especially overwhelming. Mostly self-sown, it grows in deep-green clumps all over the garden, reaching ever taller as it prepares to set seed. I’ve been cutting the stalks, squishing the snails, separating the best leaves, and cutting up and burying all the rest of the plants in hope of foiling leafminers, the larval stage of flies who lay their tiny white oblong eggs in neat rows on the underside of the leaves.

I’ve been packing the best-looking leaves into bags and taking them to the neighbors (two fully extended arms equals six feet of social distancing). But now I’ve run out of neighbors. So, when heavy rain and wind sent a few chard plants sprawling over the ground the other day, I decided it was time to do some preserving.

The thought of frozen chard reminds me of frozen spinach, which my mother used to buy in a paper box, thaw in a saucepan, and plop onto plates while my father sang that he was Popeye the Sailor Man and I turned white and covered my mouth. But frozen spinach is actually little different from cooked fresh spinach, and frozen chard is little different from frozen spinach. You can use frozen chard in puréed soups, chunky soups like minestrone, lasagna, tossed pasta, crêpes, quiche, saag paneer, and much else. And how handy, on busy days, to have cooked chard in a form that needs only thawing. No disposing of snails and slugs, no washing, no cutting out stems. Just thaw the stuff, and it’s ready to incorporate into dinner.

So yesterday I prepared and froze some chard. The process is simple:

Cleaning chard

  • Immerse the chard, in batches, in a big kettle or bowl of water, and agitate the water enough to clean the leaves of snail dropping.
  • Drain the leaves in a big colander.
  • Cut the stems off small leaves, and cut the stems out of large leaves, with a knife or kitchen shears.*
  • Cut the bigger leaves into pieces. You don’t need to chop the leaves; you would lose more nutrients that way, and leaving them in big pieces gives you more flexibility when you take the chard out of the freezer.

Blanching chard

  • Bring a kettle of water to a boil, and blanch the leaves in batches for 2 minutes, using a blanching basket.
  • Lift the basket, drain off the hot water, and transfer the chard to a big kettle or bowl of cold water. Agitate the water a bit to cool the leaves.
  • Drain the cooled chard in a colander.

Chard for the freezer

  • Stuff the chard into pint-sized freezer containers. I use freezer-weight plastic bags. Don’t squeeze out excess liquid; you can do that after thawing the chard, if you decide you want to.
  • Label the containers, and put them in the freezer.

You’ll notice that both the blanching water and the cooling water look a little green afterward. Your chard has lost some nutrients, but you don’t have to throw them down the drain. Return the water to the garden instead.

verde da taglio going to seed
Verde da taglio, going to seed

*You can avoid this task of stem extraction by planting verde da taglio, an Italian chard variety with relatively flat, tender leaves and thin stems. With verde da taglio, you can simply cut off the stems rather than carving around them.

If your chard has thick stems, though, you can certainly use them. You might pickle them, for example, with vinegar or by brining. But I dislike them and so chop them up and compost them. I don’t worry about leafminers hatching in the compost, because the flies don’t lay eggs on the stems. (Snails and slugs don’t eat chard stems, either. I’m not the only one who dislikes those stems!)

How to Freeze Artichokes

artichoke plants, smallLast winter we had plenty of freezing nights, but they were always followed by warmish days. As a result, none of the artichoke plants lining my short driveway died back at all, and this spring I’ve been harvesting artichokes by the bucketload. Last year’s harvest was only a little smaller. With our warming climate, the big, gray-green, edible-budded thistle so commonplace in California gardens seems to have become an ideal perennial vegetable for the Willamette Valley.

Last year I trimmed some of the artichokes down to their hearts and pickled them. Destroying the integrity of the beautiful buds before cooking them is painful—or at least it is if you’re accustomed to serving artichokes whole, peeling off the petals one by one, and scraping every petal across your teeth. But if you tear off those tough outer petals without mercy before you cook your artichoke, you end up with a fully edible, delicious nugget that can be added to any number of dishes.

This year I decided to freeze artichokes hearts instead of pickling them. I could always pickle some of them later, I reasoned, using the recipe in The Joy of Pickling (page 195 of the third edition).

As always, I harvested my artichokes when they were young, firm, and choke-free. Old artichokes are more trouble to prepare; you must hollow out the center to remove the choke.

Whether you’re freezing or pickling artichokes, you prepare them the same way:

Frozen Artichoke Hearts

 Rinse the artichokes one at a time, holding them upright under running water to wash out any earwigs. Turn the artichokes upside down in a colander to drain.

 Prepare a bowl of acidulated water, enough to cover all your artichoke hearts. I use vitamin C tablets—1,000 grams of vitamin C, ground in an electric coffee grinder, for each quart of cold water. Lemon water will do as well, if you happen to have a glut of lemons, as will a commercial product called Fruit Fresh. Vinegar or citric acid would be less effective.

 Begin heating a large pot of water to a boil.

artichoke, petals removed, smallPick up an artichoke, bend back the outer petals, and tear them off at the base. Keep pulling off the petals until you’re holding a cone that is yellow in its bottom half and light green at the top.

With a stainless-steel or ceramic knife, trim the stem. You don’t need to cut it away completely, since the stem of a young artichoke is tender and tasty.

artichoke heart, nearly ready, smallTrim away any green bits remaining at the base of the artichoke.

 Cut off the top of the cone, removing all of the tough green portion. Be unsparing, or you’ll regret not doing so when you find yourself spitting out fibrous bits. The petals of the finished heart should be so tightly wrapped that they are difficult to tear away.

artichoke, fully trimmed, smallTo keep the artichoke heart from browning, plunge it upside-down into the acidulated water. (It will promptly turn right-side up.)

 Prepare and submerge the rest of your artichoke hearts in the same way. As you work, occasionally dunk the hearts.

 

artichokes in acidulated water, smallDrain the artichoke hearts, and immediately drop them into a large pot of boiling water. Blanch them for about 10 minutes. If some of them are especially large, either cut them in half before blanching them or leave them in the water longer, about 15 minutes. Time the blanching period from when the hearts enter the pot. Keep the heat on high throughout. As the hearts cook, prepare a basin of ice water.

 Drain the hearts, and plunge them into the ice water.

artichokes ready for freezing, smallWhen they are cool, drain them again. Lay them on cookie sheets, and freeze them.

 Pack the frozen artichokes in freezer bags, and store them in the freezer.

After thawing frozen artichokes, steam or boil them until they are tender.

 

Preparing artichoke hearts for the freezer, or for pickling, will leave you with an enormous pile of outer petals. You don’t need to compost them, yet. You might instead boil or steam them and eat their tender inner flesh in the usual way, by dipping the base of each into mayonnaise, aioli, or garlicky olive oil and then scraping off the flesh with your teeth. Then the petals can go in the compost.

Bamboo for Dinner

digging bambooSometimes the best strategy for managing pests is to eat them. Cajuns savor stewed nutria.  Mexicans crunch fried grasshoppers. The French swallow butter-soaked snails. And I have started eating bamboo.

After beautifully screening my bee and compost yard for fifteen years, my bamboo hedge is getting out of hand, pushing up shoots as far as 10 feet from its designated territory and right through the heavy-duty landscape fabric at the base of my raised beds. The shoots can grow as much as a foot in a day.

Why was I fool enough to plant running bamboo without walling it in? Actually, I have no regrets about this, most of the time. The 25-foot-long hedge not only looks lovely all year around; it also provides all the stakes and trellis material that I and my friends can use, and on summer afternoons it shades one of my beds so I can grow lettuce there.

But I need to put a little more effort into bamboo control measures.*

bamboo hedgeI don’t know what species of bamboo I have; the nursery sold it simply as “green bamboo.” According to the American Bamboo Society, there are about 1,450 species of bamboo, many of them native to Asia but others to Australia, Africa, or North or South America. Most if not all species have edible shoots. My bamboo grows about 15 feet high, and the canes are no more than about an inch in diameter.

Because bamboo species vary so much, it’s hard to find reliable advice about harvesting and preparing the shoots. Some people say to cut them a few inches below the soil surface as soon as they emerge from the ground. Others say to let them grow to as high as a foot. Some say what matters is time, not height, because the shoots grow tough and bitter when they are exposed to the sun for too long. I decided to harvest mine when they were no taller than 6 inches; many were only 2 to 3 inches tall. I dug with my hori-hori to break the shoots about an inch below the soil surface.

In most cases I should have waited a day, or a few hours, anyway. There is not much to eat in a 2-inch-tall, 1-inch-wide bamboo shoot, after you remove all the sheath leaves. Also too much bother were the skinniest shoots, ½ inch or less in diameter. I should have left those for the mower.

raw bamboo shootsAll the bamboo experts seem to agree that bamboo shoots should be kept cool and cooked soon, so I collected mine over the course of just a week. I stored them in an unsealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.

As I washed and trimmed and peeled the shoots, I tasted many of them. They had an unpleasant rawness about them, but none were bitter, not even the few I’d harvested at 10 inches tall. Later I cut some 12-inch shoots and licked their ends; they weren’t bitter, either. Next year I’ll follow advice from the self-published book Farming Bamboo: I’ll harvest the shoots at 6 to 12 inches, for a maximum of tasty flesh without bitterness.

peeled & sliced bambooTo make the shoots easy to peel, I scored them lengthwise, as you might an onion. I broke off the tips, which were all leaves without solid flesh, and trimmed off bottom ends that were damaged or very hard. Then, following instructions from Washington State University (WSU) Extension, I cut the shoots crosswise into 1/8-inch rounds, some of them hollow and some of them solid, and boiled them in an uncovered pan of water for 20 minutes. Leaving the pan uncovered is supposed to allow the compounds that cause bitterness to dissipate into the air (according to Farming Bamboo, tropical varieties are especially likely to have these compounds). If any bitter taste remains in the shoots, say all of my sources, boil them in fresh water for 5 minutes more.

The initial 20 minutes’ cooking time was a compromise. Japanese writers call for as much as 90 minutes of boiling, always with rice bran added to remove bitterness, but in Japan cooks often boil their thick shoots whole. Farming Bamboo says that 10 minutes of boiling is enough, and that non-bitter shoots can be added raw to stir-fries.

My cooked shoots weren’t at all bitter. They were still firm to the tooth, but they had lost their raw taste. Their delicate flavor reminded me of artichoke bottoms.

bamboo ready for fridgeHow best to store cooked bamboo shoots? Japanese writers say to keep them covered with water in the refrigerator and to change the water every day; the shoots will keep this way for as long as a week. Farming Bamboo says that if you boil the shoots in lightly salted water, you can store them dry in a plastic bag or other container in the refrigerator. Again, I compromised, sort of: I’d boiled my shoots in unsalted water, but now I put them in a quart container and covered them with salted water (1 ½ teaspoons salt to 1 pint water). I figure I’ll change the water every two or three days, adding a little salt each time.

Bamboo shoots can be frozen, too. If you slice and blanch them, says Farming Bamboo, you can store bamboo shoots in a sealed bag in a freezer for up to a year. They can go straight from the freezer into the wok.

Besides providing a pleasant, mild flavor and an appealing crunch in salads and stir-fries, bamboo shoots are good for your health. They are low in calories, but they are high in potassium and fiber.

bamboo saladLast evening I briefly marinated two handfuls of bamboo shoots in a dressing of lemon juice and roasted hazelnut oil, and then I added the shoots to a salad of spinach, arugula, blanched asparagus, and sliced boiled eggs. A delicious way to celebrate springtime! Tonight I may add the shoots to a stir-fry, with broccoli and maybe some turnips. And, true to form, I’ll also have to pickle some bamboo shoots. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

*A good source of information on other simple control measures (such as shallow trenching—I’ll try that next) and everything else about growing bamboo is the Bamboo Garden, a 20-acre Oregon nursery with 300 bamboo species for sale.