Monthly Archives: February 2015

Recipe: Farmstead Salsa Verde


Farmstead Salsa Verde

The guiding principles of Farmstead recipes are always (1) Variety — people are eating too much of the same few ingredients and need to return to expanding the species they are exposed to; (2) Gardening — people aren’t growing even the most basic of ingredients and have no idea how much better they taste (or how far the ingredients at the grocery store traveled to get to there); and (3) Taste, which speaks for itself.  Here we have cilantro, which is one of the easiest herbs to grow and tomatillos, which aren’t particularly difficult, and both are not typical ingredients for the average Western European-descended gringo, but they are excellent.  If any of it is new to you, know that it’s not too adventurous to make this one, give it a try,


– 6 medium tomatillos, husked
– 2 poblano peppers (seeds removed) or 1 and few hot green chilis of your choice
– 6-8 sprigs of cilantro, stems removed as best you can (use shears it’s easier)
– 1 whole garlic (yes the whole thing)
– Rough salt (kosher or sea)

What to do:

– Take the garlic, use kitchen shears to cut the tips off of the big cloves (keeping it whole), wrap it in tin foil with just the top open and put some regular olive oil (not EVOO, the smoke point is too low) or canola oil on the whole thing from the top. Put it in the oven for 35 minutes on 400. Let it cool then squeeze the flesh out. This is roasted garlic. Put it in the food processor.

– Put the cut cilantro into the food processor.

– Take 4 of the tomatillos and most of the peppers/chilis, wipe them with a little of the oil, and broil them about 4 inches from the top of the oven until they blister a bit (say 6 minutes), then turn over and repeat. Cut up the rest of the tomatillos and peppers raw and load them into your food processor. When the roasted chilis and tomatillos are done, let them cool a bit, cut them up some and put them in the food processor as well.

– Grind it all up, but leave it a bit chunky.  Oh, and add some salt and pepper.

– This will make about 20 ounces. I’d say that’s 6 servings if you’re dipping things into it, or if you’re spreading it on some roasted chicken.

New Micronutrient

Scientists have identified a micronutrient in foods that are farm or garden fresh, which is slowly lost over time as foods are transported to other regions and finally to supermarkets. This component could be key in the body’s increased ability to more frequently access the nutrients in fruits and vegetables. The ingredient has preliminarily been labeled “taste”. Scientific research is ongoing.

Growing Cacao

Inside a cacao pod.  Image from Wikimedia CommonsIt was called Chocolātl, a bitter, foamy mix of spices and cornmeal, created with the grindings of an odd bean that was believed to be the gift of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, given to bring wisdom to the user. The bean was found in the viscous insides of a pod growing out of the bark of an odd tree that grew under the jungle canopy, preferring only peripheral light from the sun.  Today, we call the tree cocoa, and the end product chocolate.

Somehow, for all of its commonplace availability, chocolate still retains a bit of exotic allure.  Most people have no real idea where it comes from (other than from a “bean”), and have never seen one growing.  It melts at the the human body temperature, literally melting in our mouths, and satisfies on some of our core appetites.  All of that said, the tree and the cacao are truly quite a bit different than the resulting candies in the grocery aisles.

cocoa1We bought our chocolate plant at a University of Southern Florida Botanical Garden event on June 14, 2014, when it was perhaps 24 inches tall.  The cacao tree is a native of Central and South America and likes to live out of direct light, and in year-round humid conditions, which is not a precise fit for a Central Florida backyard, but we wanted to take on the challenge.  You don’t, after all, see chocolate trees every day.  That said, they have been around for a very long time.

The Mayans, after all, also considered cocoa food of the gods, and the Aztecs made a drink out of for royalty, as well as mixes for the common man. See here. Indeed, “cacao” may actually be from an Olmec word, which is even more ancient than both cultures.  Regardless, it seems to have been an aphrodisiac from the start.

That said, it’s a curious plant, the pods that have the beans grow out of the bark of the mature tree. Inside are the cocoa “beans” surrounded by the cocoa butter.  The beans, without a good amount of processing, are bitter and do not hint of any use as candy.  The “butter” was likely more useful originally, but ancient alcohol mixes with the cocoa bean have been found, and it would become the star ingredient.  See here.  Technically, the tree is theobroma cacao and the raw, unroasted beans are cacao, after processing they are often called cocoa, though this is all rather loosely defined, in English anyhow. See here.  (“Coca” however, is very wrong, referring instead to erythroxylum coca, the cocaine plant which is, of course, a whole other story. Of note: See the story with Coca Cola here.)

cocoa2We put ours under the back patio (our makeshift jungle canopy) in the summer and have been bringing it in if the lows get below 50F or so.  This is a picture from the end of summer, in its usual spot, surrounded by sweet potatoes from the garden.  This has been pretty successful, with the bottom leaves occassionally drying up and coming off, but with top ones always coming in.  From the original 24 inches, it’s now 47 inches eight months later, so it seems content.  It will need to get quite a bit bigger before there’s a chance of it making cacao pods.

There’s an interesting video here where they explain how to grow cacao and later how the lower leaves seem to brown regardless of what you do.  He seems to think its the water, which I doubt, but it’s interesting take on the plant in general.

That’s all to report for know, but we’ll keep you updated if we get pods in the next year or so.

The Curry Leaf Tree

At the Pierce Farmstead we are trying to grow a few curry leaf trees, because we love the taste of it, particularly in rice and with meat.  We typically add it to the oil first when we are going to cook something, and it imparts a great, peanut-like taste.

You may at this point be picturing shaking a container full of curry powder into a pan.  But what we’re talking about here are a handful of leaves the flavor of which would disappear before it could ever be put into a powder.

“Curry powder” historically comes from the exotic and mysterious Asian nation of England. England, of course, held India as a colony and came up with a mix of dried spices to attempt to match the Indian masalas (spice mixes), and some of the Indian dishes that contained these masalas included curry leaf. Curry powder itself, however, normally contains items like dried turmeric, cumin, coriander, dried peppers, etc. with no curry leaf at all.  (Note though that dried turmeric is very healthy and there’s nothing wrong with curry powder as a spice blend. Quiz question: What common American condiment contains mainly turmeric?)

Small Curry Leaf in Pot

The Curry Leaf Plant.

Pictured here is a (small) curry leaf tree. Murraya Koenigii. The leaves of this plant have a strong taste when fresh and a weak taste when dried (to me, fresh, it tastes a lot like peanuts). It’s used as a base in some Indian masalas and eastward throughout Southeast Asia.

In Thai cooking (which uses fresh herbs much more than the dried powders seen in some Indian cuisines) the leaves are ground in a mortar and pestle with other fresh items (lemon grass, chilis, galangal, etc) to make what we would call curry paste. It is just one of a number of ingredients required to make kaeng (Thai curry), and the curry leaf is a background taste, but an essential one in the many varieties of Thai curry.

The “curry plant”. Not the curry leaf tree.

Just to confuse the issue, this is a “curry plant” (the photo is from Wikimedia Commons). It’s a Mediterranean plant, Helichrysum Italicum, that Europeans gave this name because of its strong, spicy smell. It has nothing to do with curry powder nor the curry leaf tree and is generally not a great thing to add to food.

Spices in general are a great way to flavor foods with without adding unhealthy ingredients to them, and spices, historically, have had great value because of their ability to transform simple foods.  Movement of spices around the world not only bought improved flavors and developed commerce but it also was a way that cultures came into contact with each other.  See Wikipedia, the Spice Trade.

We have planted curry leaf trees in several locations around the Farmstead.  None have grown as quickly as we might like, but I’ve made an attempt to acidify the soil they are in to get them growing to a sufficient size that we can start taking the leaves off and using them.  We’ll keep you posted.

A Farmstead Is Born

The Pierce Farmstead started as a curious slab in our Central Florida back yard in February of 2009.  An 8 x 8 foot slab on which the prior owner (or the one before him) had built a gazebo too small to sit in because he didn’t know what to do with the slab.  I took that down and it was a slab again.  Then came the idea to make it a garden.  Then came quite a few concrete blocks.  Then it was a raised-bed garden, a peach tree in the back, a coconut tree in the front and a lot of pots with herbs in them. Then there was another raised bed garden in Februrary 2014, then an expansion a year later for the upcoming growing season.  Soon it was something more than a back yard, it was, at least in jest, a farmstead.  I have always wanted a lot of land to grow things on,and at some point, I guess I decided I just couldn’t wait.

newgardenMy motivation was and is simple curiosity.  How does this grow?  What would that taste like?  What did my own ancestors eat?  What did mankind itself eat before everything was mixed with high fructose corn syrup and put on a shelf?  A garden supported the intellectual side of my (continuing) quest to diet and lose weight.  Herbs, spices, roasted vegetables all worked toward that end.  Slowly I came to begin eating low carb, again, this time under the banner of “paleo”, with a motivation to try different species of herbs, vegetables and the like.  Ones I’ve never had.  Ones that you can’t find at the grocery store.  This on top of the ones I like and that grow well here, which took years of sorting out.

newgarden0It is, in short, my little outdoor research project.  What can I grow?  What can I eat?  What is the history of it?  In what ways is it healthy?  Did we discovery this or did people always know it?  From native flora to vegetables from Asia or South America, it is my little exploration of the world and its edible history, located 10 feet from my back door.

newgardenAs a result, the articles here will be on things I’m interested in, and they’ll be interesting if you’re into this kind of thing, and probably quite dull if you’re not.  But with the push to eat local, eat organic, to provide for yourself, to live more like people once did, this may all be accidentally topical.  In reality, it’s just another exercise in curiousity and my little attempt to contribute to the conversation.  I hope you like it.