Natural Perspectives: Local delicacies you can grow

Vic and I were thrilled when Dave and Margaret Carlberg invited us to their house last week to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the installation of the California native, drought-tolerant landscaping.

The design of their front yard was the work of Kim Kolpin of Sage Landscape Designs. Kim selected a lovely plant palette of lavender, purple, blue and yellow, with some large plants interspersed with low ground cover. It was all in bloom and spectacular when we arrived. I recognized only a few plants from the wild, among them an interesting bladderpod bush.

Dave and Margaret retained a few of their established plants, like their decades-old weeping rosemary bush. I don’t think I’d recognize their house without that venerable giant. It looks like a bonsai tree at this stage of its life, and is a focal point of their yard.

Their front yard now provides forage and a safe haven for birds, butterflies, honeybees, solitary bees and other wildlife. But it is their backyard that holds the most interest for me. It is one big vegetable garden. That area provides forage for humans.

Dave and Margaret had also invited us over for a locavore dinner that featured food that they had grown in their backyard. Locavores are people who eat locally grown foods; a locavore dinner can be all or mostly locally obtained.

After admiring the front, we moved on to the back to see what was growing in their yard. Like us, the Carlbergs have converted most of their backyard to food production. Margaret is a weaver and dyes her own fibers, so she also grows some plants for dye. The dye plants are interspersed with food plants.

A full-sized guava tree occupies one corner. Next to the guava tree, a beautiful row of ollalieberries grew along the back fence.

We had some of their huge, black berries for dessert. And next to berries grew a spectacular 40-year-old muscat grapevine.

In addition to being an author of several books, including one on Bolsa Chica, Dave is a microbiologist and likes playing with microbes, especially yeast. Dave uses yeast to make wine. He showed us his current project, a carboy of fermenting Merlot. We’re hoping for another invitation when it has aged.

For dinner, we had some of Margaret’s homemade bread, another great way to use yeast. On the bread, we had some of her delicious homemade guava-lemon and kumquat preserves.

Margaret made some delicious dolmades — stuffed Greek appetizers — with some of the huge grape leaves from their garden served with a yogurt dip with dill from their garden. I don’t know what she put in her dolmades, but they were delicious.

Emeril Lagasse makes them with rice, onions, garlic, pine nuts, mint and lemon juice. I will try making some this summer since we’re growing grapes too. Chard leaves make a nice alternative wrapper for those who aren’t growing grapes.

For a first course, we had tabbouli, with mint and parsley from their garden mixed in with the bulgar wheat. As a main course, Margaret served a Southwest-themed pork stew with tomatoes and tomatillos, also from their garden. When they have a glut of tomatoes and run out of time to make marinara sauce, they just pop the tomatoes in the freezer whole. The frozen tomatoes make great additions to stews and soups where appearance doesn’t matter as much as the great taste of homegrown tomatoes.

An interesting side dish that Margaret made was sunchokes with mushrooms and green beans. At a locavore dinner that we hosted last year, Margaret introduced us to sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes. But they aren’t artichokes and they don’t come from Jerusalem.

Sunchokes are an edible tuber of a variety of sunflower (Helianthus tuberosus) and have been gathered and eaten by Native Americans of the upper Midwest for thousands of years. The stems of sunchokes are thin and extremely fuzzy, and the flowers are small. In the fall, the roots form edible tubers that have thin, tan skins and a moist, crispy texture like water chestnuts. They can be eaten raw or cooked. The flavor is reminiscent of artichoke hearts but the texture of the cooked tubers is more like that of potatoes.

They’re a versatile vegetable, and I can hardly wait to try cooking with the ones I’m growing myself. Sunchokes spread like crazy in the garden, so I’m growing mine in a 15-gallon Smart Pot. You can buy sunchoke tubers at Plowboy in Fountain Valley.

Margaret and Dave have an inspiring green lifestyle. They have had a solar hot water system on their roof for years, and have recently added solar electric panels.

They grow some of their own food, compost their kitchen scraps, and maintain a worm farm. All those good worm castings go back into their garden to help them grow more food. And they make a lot of food from scratch, like yogurt, bread, and wine.

By eating their own homegrown food, and eating foods that are in season locally, they are helping combat global warming by reducing the amount of food that is transported all over the world. We should all have such a small carbon footprint.

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