Saturday, July 7, 2012

Burdock Stalk Recipe: Arctium lappa

Peeling burdock is like peeling a thin, 2-3 foot carrot. 
We've tried to eat many parts of the burdock plant in the past.  But when Arthur Haines mentioned a few weeks ago that the stalk was his favorite part of the plant, I decided that we had to try it.  Finding burdock was easy enough.  They grow all up and down our road.  I cut five robust looking stalks, tore off the large leaves and carried the stalks home.  (We've tried to eat the leaf-stalk, or petiole, before but found them impractical to peel.)  The stalks had an earthy smell that I found slightly unpleasant, but I sallied forth with, having recieved such esteemed recommendations. 
The outter tissue of the stalk is extremely bitter and must be completely and carefully peeled away to reveal the starching and mild inner core.  Imagine peeling a 2 1/2 foot long, thin and floppy carrot and you begin to get the idea.  It's definitely a fun novelty preparation, and I imagine that one could get skilled at processing this awkward vegetable with practice.  I'd read somewhere (I don't remember where) a favorable comparison between burdock stalk and new potatoes.  So we decided to try parboiling them and then sauteeing them in olive oil with garlic and onion.  I liked the flavor, but Ooga was the real test, she being much pickier than I. 

I started her off with a small portion and  . . . she asked for seconds.  We were ready to count this as a new family side dish. 

The next week, we were out walking, and I found a big patch of burdock.  I cut a few of the smaller stalks hoping to encourage the larger ones to propogate and bless us with hearty stalks in subsequent years.  I stripped them, carried them home and, since I didn't feel like eating them just then, stuck them in our refrigerator.  I found them again several days later.  They were a little wilted, but I wasn't scared.  I got out our trusty peeler and started on them hoping for another tasty mea.  Peeling these stalks was a real challenge though.  The fibers didn't come off anywhere near as easily.  And even though the stalks were narrower than the ones from our previous meal, they seemed tougher and drier.  After mangling two stalks into inedible stumps, I gave up. 

I'm not sure if the problem was my selection (of older, less tender stalks) or my storage (three days in the fridge).  From now on though, I'll plan to peel my burdock stalks shortly after picking it in hopes of enjoying a meal like the one pictured below. 

Our delicious first attempt at burdock stalk as a vegetable. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Cattail Pollen: Gathering A New Edible (Typha latifolia)

Cattail pollen--gathered and sifted. 
The season for gathering cattail (Typha latifolia) pollen is frustratingly short for a part-time cave man.  We've missed every year since we began foraging.  But not this year.  It was Yub-yub's first canoe trip.  We were exploring the wide confluence of the Connecticut and West River.  Highlights included watching an industrious mink hauling a fat, brown duck along the riverbank rocks.  Yub-yub had a great time, and we were just about to return to the boat launch when I decided to look for wapato in the thick mud of a nearby marshy island.  We all got out of the canoe and squished our toes on the muddy bank.  We did find a few scattered wapato plants (Saggitaria sp.), but that wasn't what the trip will be remembered for.  Finally, we had found the cattails at the perfect stage. 

There they were!  Bright golden fingers of sunshine that sent out a powdery cloud of yellow dust when they were struck.  We made plans immediatly for me (Thag) to paddle out the next day and make a go at gathering the precious sun-dust. 

Mixed with wheat flour and leavening. 
Cattail pollen can be used like a flour, though it has no gluten and will crumble if not mixed with wheat.  (Unrelated digression:  These days gluten is a much-maligned substance, blamed for all kinds of human ills.  This is really a shame, for gluten is a truly miraculous molecule that should be celebrated for its unique role in human foods.  And though real gluten allergies are very real and miserable health problems, I suspect that many so-called gluten allergies are imagined, and that the improved health experienced by people who reduce gluten in their lives is due in large part to an accompanying decrease in processed foods and a greater diversity of foods.)  What a gift it must have seemed to our ancestors that this protein-rich, versatile food could be stored for long periods.  We had no plans to store it, however, knowing that it would take time to gather this staple in quantity. 

Cattail batter.

I paddled out a borrowed whitewater kyak (quite badly, I admit) the next day.  I had with me a plastic gallon milk jug with a hole, about one inch in diameter cut from the side.  The instructions, as I'd read them, were to insert the pollen-heavy male flowers into the hole and shake.  The pollen was supposed to fall into the container.  And while this was true, insects, and other fibrous parts of the flower fell in as well.  As the container was shaken, the fibers would bunch up into dense little cottony balls.  No matter.  I figured they could be sifted out later. 
My friend, the owner of the kayak, was waiting back at the dock, and I was anxious not to leave her too long.  So after about 40 minutes of inserting and shaking, I returned, stuffing an old sock in the hole so that none of my hard-won harvest would fall out. 
On the griddle. 

The harvested pollen was beautiful.  The fibers and insects sifted out easily through a jelly bag fastened to the top of an old mason jar.  (The jelly bag is surely one of the great contribution of civilization to the forager's toolkit.)  The sifted pollen looked even more magnificent, and I found myself admiring through all angles of the thick glass.  But then what to do with it? 

I'd read about the several recommended uses of my novel ingredient.  Porridge?  I tasted some of the raw pollen.  Porridge might be too strong.  Sprinkle on like a seasoning or nutritional yeast?  No, I wanted something that would feel like the pollen was the real center of the meal.  I checked out several baked goods that all had promise but didn't highlight the pollen enough for my maiden voyage into to pollen cookery.  Then I found this recipe for cattail pollen pancakes.  The proportions were right.  The quantities were right.  The dish was right.  Pancakes it would be. 
The cakes were a golden color. 
You can see how colorful the food remained through the whole process in the pictures here.  We used every last morsel to make enough pancakes for the three of us to enjoy a hearty breakfast.  Ooga and I didn't dress these cakes at all for fear of distracting from the curious, light, rich cakes you see here.  (Butter, on the other hand, is Yub-yub's reason for living.  If we don't watch her carefully, she scoops a finger-full out of an unattended stick.  As you might guess, Yub-yub gobbled hers up with butter.)  This was certainly one of the Foraging Family's greatest triumphs of 2012. 

Years from now, Yub-yub will be delighted that
such flattering pictures were posted. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sun Drying: Strawberry Fruit Leather

Mmmm.  Extra strawberries.  Yes, these are cultivated.
Ooga is an expert jam-maker and cans gallons of fruits each year.  It's a thing of beauty to see our pantry full of brightly colored mason jars in the winter.  But I (Thag) have searched for a more primitive way of keeping our fruits--something that our wild ancestors would have done.  So this time, after all of the jars of strawberries were put up.  I decided to take the rest of our strawberry bounty and dry it in the sun.  

Spreading the strawberry puree.  
Now, I've dried blueberry fruit leathers in the past . . . once.  So my drying experience was pretty limited.  But I'd done the basic procedure, so I set out with cavalier resolve to make strawberry leathers.  I vaguely remembered something about what a pain it was to flip last year's blueberry fruit leathers once they were mostly dried.  So this time I had what seemed like a stroke of genius--dry each leather on a pan covered in wax paper.  I thought that I could easily peel the leather off of the paper and it would flip right over like a giant pancake.  

It didn't exactly work that way.  The strawberries dried almost completely through by the time I went to flip them, and they stuck like a layer of strawberry glue to the wax paper.  I eventually wrested them free with a metal spatuala, a knife, and sheer force of will.

And . . . mmm . . . they taste great.  Not too sweet.  It's going to be hard to save them for winter, but that's OK.  I've got a whole bunch of strawberry jam to eat in the meantime.

Here's what we did.

Drying on the roof--a short-lived experiment.  
Peeling the leather off the wax paper--more arduous that it should
have been.  Next time I think I'll grease the paper.  
  1. Pick--We had about (gee, I don't know) three quarts of berries.  
  2. Blend--Next we put them through our food processor--um, our stone age food processor.  What came out was a chunk strawberry puree.  
  3. Spread--We poured the puree onto two big baking sheets and spread it around until it was uniform thickness about 3/16" thick.  
  4. Dry--Then we put the sheets in the sun.  I started by putting the sheets on our roof, that didn't work.  The pitch of the roof was too steep, and the puree began to flow downhill.  So then I re-spread them and laid them on the roof of our car instead.  It was a hot day and they dried within six hours.  
  5. Flip--Most leathers need to be flipped to dry on both sides.  As listed above, that's not what happened here.  One leather got a drying on the other side after some meticulous removal from the waxed paper.  The other was dried completely before it came off.  
  6. Store--Wrapped the leathers between some fresh sheets of wax paper.  (Don't worry.  They won't stick this time.  We've tried this before.)  Put them on the shelf next to Ooga's jam.  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Barley Goes Wild: A recipe

Thag is always coming home with a shopping bag of some edible or another saying, "So and so says it is really good in stews."  Who makes stews?  Yes, I'm sure our anscestors must have made a lot of meat stews; that is what you do when you kill a whole animal and want to make use of every part--even the tough bits.  But the people I know do not make stews on a weekly (or daily!) basis.  Me, I like stew, in the fall and winter, on blustery days, when I need some serious pick me up.  However, in lovely summer weather, I'm not going to take perfectly good (and expensive) meat and lovely, fresh wild edible greens and flowers and drown them in a stew.

So when Thag returned from an outing with Yub Yub holding a blueberry pint container containing delicate basswood flowers and mentioned stew, I devised this heavenly SALAD.  Note the healthy doses of wild foods in this one.  It'll beat your stew anyday.

Barley Goes Wild:

3/4 cup barley, winter weat berries, bulger, or wild rice
2 cups water
1 onion chopped or 1 cup wild leeks, chopped
1 large bunch lamb's quarters, rinsed and chopped
1 cup basswood flowers and buds
1/8 to 1/4 cup black walnuts or other wild nut
1/8 cup red clover vinegar
1/8 cup olive oil
1 or 2 tsp maple syrup
salt and pepper

1)  In small sauce pan, boil water (add salt if desired).  Add barley and simmer until cooked (about 40 minutes).

2)  Saute onion or leeks in olive oil until soft. 

3)  Add lamb's quarter to onion and cook until wilted.

4)  Add basswood flowers to onion saute and cook 3 minutes.

5)  Whisk together clover vinegar, olive oil, maple syrup, and salt and pepper to taste.  (If you like your salads a little saucier, you can double this vinegarette.)

6)  Combine all ingredients in large serving bowl.  Serve warm or cold.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Arthur Haines at New England Primitive Skills Gathering

Arthur's book is in the Foraging Family's top 5 recommended wild plant guides. 
If there are such things as botanical rock stars, Arthur Haines must be one.  He's recently finished the gargantuan Flora Nova Angliae, the most comprehensive key and manual to New England plants.  His name is dropped in circles of plant lovers like the New England Wildflower Society where I volunteer.  And he's in the upper echilon of experienced American foragers.  So I was delighted to see him at this year's New England Primitive Skills Gathering, a little gathering of aspiring cave men, women, and kids. 

To top it all off, Arthur is an engaging, theatrical speaker.  He began his plant walk by sitting in a patch of poison ivy, plucking a leaflet, and rubbing it against his forearm until we onlookers were sufficiently convinced that he had gotten the plants oils all over his skin.  After reassurances that he does indeed react to poison ivy, he promised to show how he would avoid that rash even after such thorough exposure.  He definitely had my attention. 

I've been in the audience of many an edible plant walk and led some myself.  Most entail the following formula:  1.  walk along roadside or through park, 2.  find interesting edible plant, 3.  give its name and field marks, describe its edible parts, tell how to prepare it, 4.  resume walking.  Arthur's presentation was no exception to this tried and true format.  What was different was the depth of knowledge that he brought to the table.  Not only did he tell us names and uses, he told stories of the plant's use in Native America complete with mini-lessons on Passamaquoddy language.  He explained the phyto-chemistry of each plant, why certain plants had evolved to manufacture a given compound, and what effects it had on the human body and our inner ecosystem of microbes.  He digressed into commentaries on diet and human evolution, the so-called paleo movement (a diet and fitness movement supposedly based on ancestral eating), and the costs that humans have made by moving from wild foods to selectively-bred and genetically-modified agricultural ones. 

I left enriched and inspired--and with several new wild plants to try.  (Boy, were they good!  Look for posts later this week.)  I also left with some key advice on preventing poison ivy rash.  (Yes, for those out there in the know, the secret is jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).  This I knew long before this weekend.  What I hadn't known was that the chemical responsible for preventing the rash, lawsone, is a red pigment and is found in greatest concentration in the noticeably reddened parts of the stem of the jewelweed, usually near the base.  I also learned that because lawsone acts by binding to the skin more aggresively than the rash-causing chemical in poison ivy, jewelweed is not an effective treatment for poison ivy after the rash has developed.  Now there's a myth I've heard oft-repeated.)  If you ever get the chance to forage with Arthur Haines, I highly recommend it. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Lamb's Quarters with ricotta and shells: a recipe

We love lamb's quarters (Chenopodium spp.).  We use it in any dish where we might use spinach--lasagna, wraps, soups, quiches.  Check out how nutritious it is.  And like I tell Eva, it is always a plus when a food is nutrious and delcious.

After Thag and Eva harvested some lamb's quarters growing wild in our garden, I cooked this up for dinner tonight.

1 pound small pasta shells
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 onion chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound lamb's quarters, rinsed and chopped
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1 pound ricotta cheese
3/4 cup (or more!) parmesan

1)  In large pot, put salted water on stove to boil for pasta.  Cook and drain pasta.

2)  While pasta water is boiling, heat oil in large skillet.  Add onion and garlic--cook about five minutes until onion is translucent.  Salt to taste.

3)  Add lamb's quarters to skillet.  Stir and cook 3 to 4 minutes.

4) When pasta is done, add pasta, ricotta, and parsley to skillet.  Stir well.

5)  Serve with lots of parmesan.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Edible Plants of Late Spring

One of my favorite things about foraging is how it increases my awareness of the world around me.  In particular, I notice the weather.  For the last three years, I have been keenly aware of how the weather patterns affect the availability, abundance, and timing of the edible plants we seek. 

The entire last year has been unusual in New England, and this spring is no exception.  Following almost 10 days of 80 degree weather in March, April was dry as a bone--we even feared forest fires.  But, May has brought weather so wet, I often feel like I live in a temperate rain forest.  In the past week alone, my grass and the peas in my garden have grown six inches!  (I measured!)   And so, now we rush to avoid missing the food abundance around us.  Our garden teams with sheep sorrel and lamb's quarters.  Thag and Eva harvest sumac shoots in the picture above.  And, although we usually gather them the first week of June, we have noticed the black locust flowers are ready to gather.

Plants we are looking to gather right now include:
  • cattail leaf bases
  • sheep sorrel greens
  • lambs' quarter greens
  • sumac shoots
  • wood nettle greens
  • evening primrose shoots
  • milkweed shoots
  • waterleaf buds and stalks
  • burdock roots
  • thistle stalk
  • dock stalk
  • wood sorrel
  • ox-eye daisy greens
  • black locust flowers

Friday, May 25, 2012

Burdock Root--A Satisfying Wild Edible Plant

Harvesting burdock roots with a shovel. 
I love the idea of eating burdock (Arctium lappa and A. minus).  It's just the type of plant food that could play an important role in a completely wild diet.  It has a thick, starchy root.  It's not that much work to gather if one finds the right spot where the soils are loose.  And there are enough calories to give proficient foragers a good return on their energy investment.  When we mow the lawn, we mow around any burdock in hopes that it propogates well. (I know what you're thinking.  What self-respecting cave man mows the lawn?  I hang my head in shame.)  

Following the roots deep underground. 

As spring began this year, we watched a healthy patch of burdock rosettes tightly clumped in the soft soils by our roadside.  So Yub-yub and I (Thag) set out with shovel in hand.  Despite my enthusiasm, my experience with burdock was limited.  But I'd dug a few roots before, and the key lesson I had learned was this:  Dig deep.  This was no job for some hastily chosen digging stick.  We  went at these puppies with a full-length garden shovel.  Even the small rosettes had roots that penetrated two to three feet into the ground.  And despite my conviction to dig deep, I still did not dig deep enough.  The tip (puportedly the tenderest and tastiest parts--I wouldn't know) broke off every time.  

One meal's worth of roots, cut and scrubbed. 

Even so, we took home a hefty shopping bag full of plants after 20 minutes of easy work.  The burdock grew closely together, and we were able to dig one big hole and pull a number of plants into it rather that having to dig seperate holes for each root.  

We cut off the bitter leaves and the rough, wrinkled, and woody top sections of the roots.  Then we peeled them like carrots, and cut them into coins.  We decided to roast them, and that was where we went wrong.  The product was tasty, but the fast-tapering roots were hard to roast evenly.  The smallest sections dried into hard nuggets when the largest ones had just cooked.  Next time, I think we'll try them in a stew or some other dish where they can be boiled instead of getting a dry heat.  

This was not a culinary triumph, but I still love burdock.  It's flowers are beautiful.  It's velcro seed heads are ingenious.  Its flavor is mild and pleasant.  And it takes wild food beyond just being a garnish, side dish, or salad.  It's real food that could sit at the center of a hunger-satisfying meal.  It is a plant worth practicing. 

Peeled, chopped, and ready to cook. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Nettle Pasta Fagioli (fasul): a recipe

This was a dish my mother made all the time growing up, minus the nettles, and it is a favorite of ours, still.  Fagioli, or fasul, is a peasant dish from Italy--cheap, hearty, nutritious, and delicious.  Sometimes eaten as a stewy soup, we tend to eat it as a sauce over our pasta.  If you would prefer a soup, just halve the pasta.  Nettles work well in this recipe.  Their flavor gives the sauce a rich earthy flavor which we love.

2 small cans tomato paste
1 can cannelli beans or red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 onion, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 TBSP olive oil
large bunch nettles (we used 4 ounces here) either whole or chopped
1 box (16 oz) small shaped pasta
salt and pepper to taste

1)  Heat water in large pot to boil for pasta. Add pasta when boiling.

2)  While water is heating, heat olive oil in a large skillet.

3)  Saute onions and celery in skillet for 5 to 10 minutes until tender.

4)  Add garlic to skillet.  Cook 3 minutes.

5)  Add tomato paste and 5 cans (using one tomato paste can) of water to skillet.  Mix well.  Salt and pepper accordingly.

6)  Add beans to skillet and heat to bubbling.

7)  Now, you have two choices with your nettles.  You can either add them to the sauce and cook until nice and bubbly. Or, you can add them to the pasta water when your pasta has about 1 minute left to cook, and simply drain with the pasta.  We did the latter above--but both work equally well.  Nettles lose their sting as soon as they encounter heat.  And, like spinach, they require little cooking. 

8)  Drain pasta (and nettles) and add to sauce. 

We like ours with lots of parmesan.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

How to Pick Stinging Nettles Without Gloves

The right way to pick stinging nettles bare-handed. 
I find that it is relatively easy to pick stinging nettles without gloves.  We have lots growing on our property.  And, lucky for us, they are not terribly prickly.  However, I use the following method even on some of the stinging-est patches and find that I can pick relatively unscathed.  I don't really like to pick with gloves on.  I've never got them around when I need them.  The ones I have are bulky and cumbersome, and I can't really pick as efficiently.  There is also something satisfying to being able to touch these plants bare-handed.

Here's how I do it:

  1. Pinch the stem.  I don't know if it's because the skin on fingertips is thicker, tougher, or both.  But I find that people can put their fingertips straight down onto a nettle-stinger and not get stung.  The same is true for the skin on the palms of the hands.  So I try to pinch the stem of the nettles between my thumb and forefinger. 
  2. Come from the top.  The tenderest parts of the nettles, and the best for eating, are the top couple pairs of leaves.  Since the palms of my hands are pretty impervious to the stings, I bring my hand down over the top of a stem like an umbrella.  I used to pick coming in from the side like in the picture below.  I would get a lot more stings on the backs of my hands and fingers as they accidently came in touch with the irritating hairs. 
  3. Work in from the outside.  I usually start from the plants on the outside of a patch and work my way toward the center.  I get stung less this way because there is at least one side that I don't have to worry about getting stung from.  As the outer plants are trimmed, the inner ones become more accessible. 

The wrong way. 
The truth is that I don't think a few nettle stings are all that bad.  I do get stung when I pick bare-handed, but not very much.  Mostly it's because I pick quickly and get careless.  (I pick quickly and get careless, of course, because I don't really care.) 

Regardless of how you harvest, there are so many great reasons to enjoy this plant.  I've read about how it's a nutritional powerhouse.  Mostly I just think it is a green with incomparable taste.  Here's one reason I love it. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Fiddleheads with Black Pepper Beef--a Recipe

We thought we had missed the fiddleheads this year, but to our joy, Eva and I found some just the perfect height on our property.  So the three of us set out for a lovely spot we know that apparently no one else knows about and gathered enough for three luscious meals.  This was the best of the three.

1 pound fiddleheads, cleaned, sheathes removed (this is Eva's favorite part--today she did it pretending to be a dinosaur dressed as a fairy--hence the wings!)
1 pound beef, cut into bite sized pieces (pork, tofu, and shrimp would all substitute well)
4 TBSP soy sauce
2 TBSP red wine or Chinese rice wine
2 tsp honey
1/2 to 2 tsp ground black pepper, to taste
2 TBSP corn starch
2 TBSP canola (or other) oil
1/4 cup water
1 onion, sliced
1 to 2 tsp chopped fresh ginger

1)  Several hours ahead of time mix soy sauce, wine, honey, and black pepper in medium bowl. Whisk in corn starch.  Marinate meat in this mixture, refrigerated, until ready to cook.

2)  Heat 1 TBSP oil in large frying pan or wok.  Add fiddleheads and cook 1 minute.  Add water, cover, and cook 3 to 4 minutes until tender.  Remove fiddleheads from pan.

3)  Add and heat remaining oil.  Add ginger and onion.  Stir fry 1 minute. 

4)  Add beef.  Cook meat to taste--we like ours well done, but most people perfer it pink.

5)  Return fiddleheads to pan.  Stir and heat through.  Serve over rice, rice noodles, or soba noodles.

Monday, April 30, 2012

How to get your children to eat their (wild) greens

Like most children, Eva is rather picky about her vegetables.  She actually eats a wide variety of them, but only a few bites at a meal, and I never know whether she'll be willing to eat them at that particular meal.  Vegetables in general are strongly flavored and oddly textured--making them exciting to an adult palate, but kids' taste buds are young and undulled and can taste much more strongly the nuances of the foods they are eating, making blander foods more exciting and bolder foods difficult to swallow.

But, like many parents, we have discovered a serious veggie turn on for Eva--picking them herself.  This works in the garden and even more dramatically in the wild.  She takes great delight and discovering a patch of wild greens herself and digging in.  She is particularly attracted to Canada mayflower and wood sorrel.  We have large patches of mayflower around the bases of the maple trees in our yard.  For these, Eva drops to all fours pretending to be a cow chewing her cud (great image, I know, but she refused to pose for me and I only got pictures of her cute little bum!). 

For the past two weeks, Eva and I have gone on daily hikes to the stream on our property.  Along the paths are great clusters of wood sorrel.  She will stop and nibble these for ten minute stretches, telling me she needs a tasty snack to keep up her strength for our hike.  And yes, like you, we have read the ubiquitous warnings in our field guides which always accompany information on wood sorrel's edibility about how it blocks calcium absorbtion.  But we've read up on this exensively.  It seems it would takes many cups of wood sorrel eaten daily for several weeks in a row to have any negative effect.  I would much rather her eat wild greens than Doritos--which have no warning labels.

So while our child will not touch spinach or lettuce of any kind, she readily devours many wild greens. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Ostrich Fern Fiddlehead Recipe

This recipe for ostrich fern fiddleheads (Matteucia struthiopteris) is a simple, comfort dish for us . . . but who ever minded a little comfort?

  • 1 lb. of fiddleheads
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/3 cup seasoned bread crumbs. 
  1. Steam the fiddleheads in a covered pan with 1/3-1/2 cup of water until most of the water evaporates (about 5 minutes).
  2. When the fiddleheads are softened but still crisp, add the butter and stir until fully melted. 
  3. Sprinkle in salt and bread crumbs.  Fry everything over medium heat. 
  4. Dish is done when the fiddleheads are just beginning to loosen and unfurl (just slightly) and the bread crumbs have turned golden. 
  5. Serve immediately. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Strawberry and Japanese Knotweed Crisp Recipe

We've tried preparing Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica, syn. Polygonum cuspidatum) for several years now without being much impressed.  In previous years we've often thrown out what we've made after eating one serving.  This year, we're finally getting the hang of this prolific plant.  I think our success is due to the following:
  1. Japanese knotweed is not rhubarb.  A lot of wild food authors favorably compared knotweed to rhubarb.  So we tried replacing rhubarb from some domesticated recipes with knotweed.  This was a mistake.  Yes, it is true that knotweed has a similar textures and sour flavor to the familiar garden plant, but the similarities stop there.  Knotweed's sour is less tart, and it has a suite of earthy flavors that rhubarb does not have.  I suppose that replacing rhubarb in recipes was a good place to start, but we required a lot more experimentation before we hit on knotweed recipes that we truly enjoyed. 
  2. Less is more.  In our zeal to increase our consumption of knotweed, we always added too much to our recipes.  Like any strongly flavored ingredient, knotweed is best used sparingly.  (I, for one, would not enjoy a fruit salad based on sliced lemon.  There is a reason people use mild-flavored fruits like melons and then add other flavors to perk up or contrast the major ingredients.) 
  3. Gather early.  We like the early knotweed's flavor.  If the stalk breaks off easily at the base without much yanking, that is a good sign that we are picking knotweed at the right time. 
This is our favorite recipe so far for knotweed.

  • 3 cups frozen strawberries
  • 1 cup knotweed stalks cut into thick coins
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole oats
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • pinch of baking soda
  • pinch of baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • cinnamon to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cut the butter into the flour, oats, surgar, baking soda, baking poweder, and cinnamon.
  3. Spread half of this crumb mixture on the bottom of a greased 9 x 9 pan.
  4. Spread the strawberries and knotweed over this and place the raining crumb over the top. 
  5. Bake 40 minutes or until lightly browned on top. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Recipe: Sesame Stir-Fried Japanese Knotweed


  • japanese knotweed shoots (Fallopia japonica--which used to be known as Polygonum cuspidatum)
  • ginger
  • tamari
  • garlic
  • sesame oil
  • a high-heat cooking oil (like canola)
  • sesame seeds
I recommend having the ingredients on hand and then adjusting to taste. 
  1. Lightly heat the oils in a small pan or wok. 
  2. Press garlic in and fry until golden brown. 
  3. Add cleaned knotweed stalks (no taller than 7 inches), tamari, brown sugar, and ginger to taste.   The hardest part of this recipe is to refrain from cooking too long.  Knotweed shoots quickly loose their crunch.  I cooked mine for about 3.5 minutes, and they turned out reasonably crisp. 
  4. Remove from heat immediately when finished.
  5. Serve hot with a sesame seed garnish. 
I (Thag) enjoyed this side dish quite a bit.  Ooga was not as fond.  Tell us what you think. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Chicken sauteed with field garlic (Allium vineale)

Over Easter weekend we foraged weeds from around Thag's mother's yard.  She was as eager for us to uproot her field garlic as we were to harvest them!

This was tonight's dinner:

4 chicken breasts
butter (2-5 TBSP)
1 to 2 cups field garlic, cleaned and chopped, bulbs separated from greens
1/2 cup chicken broth

Dredge chicken in flour sprinkled with salt.

Melt butter in large skillet.  Add bulbs (reserve greens).  Add chicken.

Saute chicken until browned on both sides and cooked through.

Remove chicken.  Add greens and broth.  Cook on highish temp, mixture should be bubbly and require stirring, until broth is much reduced and resembles syrup.  Pour broth/field garlic mixture over chicken.


Friday, March 30, 2012

Early Spring Edible Plants~What's Available Today?

The season is upon us!  If you live in the Northeast, go gather now!  Don't wait for the usual timetable.  Here's a list of what we've seen that's green and ready for harvest.  If you're new to foraging, these would make a great set of first plants to get to know this year.  Click the links below to find some of our favorite previous posts. 
  1. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)--A few days ago I enjoyed my first BNT (bacon, nettles, and tomato sandwich) of  the season.  My favorite wild green.  They can be gathered bare-handed without stings.  I'll share my method in an upcoming post. 
  2. Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum)--We've missed this one two years running now.  But not this year.  If you have experience with this green, tell us what you do with it. 
  3. Trout lily (Erythronium spp.)--Many of these are even past the stage I like them for greens.  (The bulbs are better anyway.)   
The earlier the better with most of these.  They can be gathered as soon as the ground has thawed.  Get them now before they bolt. 
  1. Parsnip  (Pastina sativa)--Try frying with potatoes
  2. Evening Primrose  (Oenothera biennis)
  3. Burdock  (Arctium spp.)--Always better than I expect it to be considering that the leaves are so bitter you could use then as Novocaine.  (That last bit was hyperbole--but, man, they are bitter.)
  4. Cattail  (Typha latifolia)--Technically, this is not a root but a rhizome.  The water up our way is still chilly, but we loved our cattail-flour latkes
  5. Wild leek (Allium tricoccum)--Already unfurled, this weekend will be prime time for finding colonies of ramps.  Click here for a recipe.  (wild leeks, rice, and hazelnuts--yum)  . . . and more
Marsh marigold aka cowslip (Caltha palustris) is probably up already, but we haven't check our spots. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sweet Birch Iced Tea

Some folks have asked about this tea since our last post.  Here's how we make it. 
  1. Materials:  We use loppers, half-gallon jars with tops (Mason jars), and a jelly bag. 
  2. Gather:  We prefer sweet birch, also known as black birch, (Betula lenta) to yellow birch (Betula lutea), but both make a wintergreen tea.  The other birches are not worth gathering in our opinion.  I cut a 2-3 foot branch with loppers. 
  3. Cut:  We use the loppers to cut the branch and all of its twigs into 7 inch lengths so that they fit easily into our jar.  Sometimes we give Yub-yub a butterknife and have her scrape at the bark of the larger twigs to reveal the green living tissue beneath it.  This, however, is mostly a babysitting tactic and is not necessary unless your three-year-old insists on being part of the process.  
  4.  Steep:  The molecule that gives birch tea its most important flavor is volatile.  Practically speaking this means that you don't want it to get too hot.  If it does, you're tea does not taste as good.  We usually pour not-quite-boiled water over the twigs or let the water boil first and then let it cool a bit.  Then, we put the cover on the jar.  This may be an old wives' tale, but I think it helps improve the flavor.  The key with birch teas is to let them steep for a long time.  We steep for about 45 minutes.  Arthur Haines (one of New England's premeire botanists and author of Ancestral Plants) recommends even longer, 2-3 hours.  We've recently taken to putting our tea in the fridge afterward.  It's very refreshing on a hot day. 
  5. Filter:  If you don't mind solids in your tea, it tastes fine straight up.  We, however, screw a jelly-bag over the jar to catch all the bits. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cooking Eggs in a Paper Bag

I saw this video on YouTube that suggested one could cook eggs and bacon in a paper bag and decided to try it.  In my science classes, I have sometimes boiled water in a paper cup.  Water's boiling point is near 100 degrees Celsius, and it will not rise above that temperature until it has become a gas.  The paper cup continually conducts its thermal energy into the water, so it won't get above 100 degrees Celsius until the water has boiled away.  The paper cup won't burn unless it reaches about 233 degress Celsius.  (In Fahrenheit this is 451 degrees, hence the name of Ray Bradbury's classic story about bookburning.)  The idea behind paper bag cooking is similar.  As long as the egg is cooking in the paper bag, the bag won't burn.  I loved the idea of cooking in paper and tried it over a small cookfire in our yard.
Unfortunately, the bag kept burning.  When I boil water in a paper cup, I fill the cup nearly to the brim.  Even then, the lip of the cup may get singed.  In this case, much of the bag is not in direct contact with the egg. I found it difficult to keep the parts of the bag that were above the egg from catching fire--even when I cooked on some nearly flameless charcoal.  I was similarly unimpressed with the culinary results of the experiment.  In the YouTube video, the woman's bacon and eggs did not look particularly well-done.  Neither did mine.  I, for one, do not like my eggs on the runny side.  My paper bags didn't seems robust enough either.  They leaked a bit before the egg really began to cook. 
I tried this three different times:  once with bacon and two eggs, once with three eggs, and once with one.  Each time, I got a little better with practice.  I would love to show off this novel cooking method to friends, but the novelty doesn't provide quite enough motivation to invest any more time (or good eggs).  If anyone out there tries or has tried this, let us know how it goes.  If you do, here's what I've learned so far. 
  1. Keep the bag out of the flames.  Cook over a bed of high temperature coals. 
  2. Get sturdy paper bags. 
  3. Start with one egg.  A single egg cook much more thoroughly. 
Good luck!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Foraging Family Workshop--Earth Day,April 22, 2012

Thag will teach a workshop on foraging for spring edibles at the Earth Day celebration hosted at the Putney School on April 22, 2012. The event is free and open to the public, and the workshop will run from 1:30-2:15. With music, speakers, and kids' activities, it looks like a great day. Tom Wessels, author of Reading the Forest Landscape and Forest Forensics (and one of Thag's graduate professors), is the keynote. He is a thoughtful ecologist and eloquent speaker. I highly recommend going to hear his address. And while you're there, stop by our workshop to learn about foraging in early spring. Here's a description of what we'll be doing.

Spring Foraging

Sure, wild foods are healthy, organic, and ecologically sensitive items to add to your diet. And yes, they are free for the taking at a park or roadside near you. (Did we mention that they taste good?) But the best part of foraging is that you can get your groceries on a relaxing walk through some wild places instead of . . . aisle 6. If you join us, you'll learn:

  • the top 10 wild edible plant for the early spring season

  • a few common wild edibles, how to identify them, and some ways to prepare them

  • three good excuses . . . er . . . reasons to get out foraging now.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Maple Sugaring: Season is Over Before Spring Begins

The remarkably warm end to winter in northeastern North America has shortened the maple sugaring season. Although not a total wash, our yeild seemed pitiful in comparison to previous years. Last year, we processed about eight gallons of syrup. This year, we're probably just a bit over two gallons. (Now, that comparison may not be completely fair. Last year by many accounts was a remarkably generous year. But it's the only other year that we actually measured the quantity of syrup that we got.) Here's a quick tour of this year's operation.

Here is the steamy evaporator full of maple sap. This is the finishing pan from a big commercial operation that works just fine as an evaporator for our small time sugaring.

Here are Abe and Carl, the masterminds behind our maple sugar. The pan (which contains the boiling sap) rests on the arch (where the fire is built to heat it). Carl and Abe are tending the fire in the arch which they built from cinder blocks and rebar. The door is made from scrap metal that they salvaged and welded.

Here is Abe settling the blocks in the arch and filling the seams with sand and bits of fiberglass to keep the smoke out of the sugar house. Notice that here the pan has been lifted out of the way.

Here the buckets are being gathered the old-fashioned way--by hand. We carry the sap in five-gallon buckets to a central barrel.

Sap is stored in the barrel until we've gathered enough to boil. That usually means a full barrel. Handily enough our barrels have a 40 gallon capacity. This makes the math easy because one barrel full of sap will yeild about one gallon of syrup. The ice in the barrel contains no sugar, so we break it and throw it away. The freezing actually helps to concentrate the sap and saves us wood and time.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pine Pitch Glue

As Thag and Eva meandered through the woods near our house yesteday, they came upon a piliated woodpecker hole oozing pitch from a white pine. Thag remembered reading that one could make glue from pine pitch, so when they came in later that day, we looked it up.

In Earth Knack: Stone Age Skills for the 21st Century by Bart and Robin Blankenship, we found a lovely passage describing the seemingly simple process of turning pitch into glue. So out we went with an empty can, some popsicle sticks, and our camera. The tree did not yield as much pictch as we wanted, however, the Blankenships emphasize that small batches are actually best. So when we find the appropriate project, we plan to heat it and apply it. Apparently, it is both waterproof and stronger than cement!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Nuts over wild hickory nuts--wild edible #3

Along our road stands a giant hickory tree. Every fall we collect nuts that have fallen on the road. These rest in a box in the basement beside the black walnuts.

Above: a dried whole hickory nut, a partially hulled nut, the inner nut ready to crack, and the nut meat. The dried nuts are easy to hull; we peel the four sections with our fingers. We crack the inner nut with a nut cracker (see Eva below), and extract the meat with wire cutters and a nut pick.

These are fantastic--sweet and soft.

Eva cracking nuts--notice she has no pants on--I took this picture yesterday--it was 66 degrees!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Why Forage?: Thoughts on a Foraging Philosophy

I've known some who forage because they believe the apocalypse is nigh. Surprisingly these foragers seldom seemed to be having much fun and the food they foraged was often horrible. They just didn't seem to be too excited about . . . um . . . food. And they stockpiled stuff in their basement. From one forager to another, we've got enough crap gathering dust in our basement, thank you very much. Akin to these foragers, we've known some anarchist activists who saw foraging as a political statement against the hegemony of capital-supported patriarchy. And, although I'd be as happy as anyone to see the demise of the 4G-super-ultra-smart-phone androids, I'm pretty attached to libraries . . . and dentistry . . . (I really like not having cavities.) . . . and don't get me started on the fabulousness of birth control.
On the other end of the spectrum, we've known gourmands who foraged for the most exotic ingredients. We've seen some dishes out there in cyberland that must have involved a professional food photographer. The thing is that these recipes often only involve a few wild ingredients, usually greens, and the rest of the ingredients we can't afford.

Some of my favorite people to hang out with are the primitive skills geeks who have replicated the entire contents of the Ice Man's backpack. I also love survivalists who know 32 ways to start a fire with nothing but their bared teeth. I've had serious cases of handmade moccasin and gourd water bottle envy.

I have belonged to all of these groups at different points in my life. End-timers, neo-primitive anarchists, foodies, and "practicing primitives"--I love them all. But that's not what the foraging family is about.

I really don't believe that the world will end anytime soon. If it did, I doubt I'd be one of the die-hards who made it through. Nor do I want to spend my life in the kitchen perfecting the perfect stinging nettle flan. What I want is live simply and freely outside. I want to eat honest fare that was ethically won from my fellow creatures. I want meals that are simple, tasty, and sustaining. And the truth is that I just thinks its nicer somehow to get my groceries on a walk through the woods than under the flourescent lighting and musak of the supermarket.

We've changed our tagline at Foraging Family to "Adventures in Food and Freedom" because we've recently clarified our foraging goals. Our vision is to be able to live freely outside--to be able to walk out of our door one day and not to have to go back inside unless we want to. To be able to spend as much time in God's green world as we can during this short life. That's what we mean by freedom. And I've realized that the BEST way to do that is not to eschew modern equipment, or concoct glamorous wild edible sauces. Instead, it will come from a practical eye for increasing the ratio of sustaining (high calorie) wild foods in our diet and of outdoor time in our busy lives. So this year, we hope that our wild food adventures will include more of the following:

  1. More outdoor cooking. We have to cook anyway. Why do it inside? What a great way to increase our time outdoors. Aesthetically, it's the perfect way to prepare wild food. Wouldn't it be cool to have a cooking show called "Thag and Ooga's Stone Age Kitchen"?

  2. More wandering. How do you find wild foods on the landscape? For me, wild food is an excuse for traipsing through the wilds.

  3. More family. Good stuff is often only good if you share it. Look for more of our family and friends this coming year.

  4. More escape routes. How does someone who works too much get out? That's our mission. I choose to accept it.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Shelling Black Walnuts

I've learned a number of things about removing black walnut nutmeats from their shells today.

  1. Wire cutters are awesome. I watched a YouTube video of someone processing black walnuts, and he used wire cutters to precisely fracture his walnuts after he split them with a vice. When I found another forager using the same method, I figured it would be worth the bother of finding a pair in our haphazardly piled tools in the basement. Was it ever? It took a minute to get the hang of how to hold the shell so that pieces didn't pop everywhere, but it sure beat digging out crumbs with the nutpick.

  2. Swing gently, Grasshopper. Too much food is lost and wasted if the nutmeats are crushed when you break them with the hammer or mallet. My new objective during the cracking stage will be to just split the nuts open. I'll do the rest of the work with other tools.

  3. Don't rush. We collected these walnuts in October of 2010. After a year and a half, they are still as sweet-smelling as ever. No sign of rancidity. This is convenient if black walnuts do actually only produce nuts in quantity every other year as I have been told. This makes sense. Most nut-bearing trees evolved a mast year cycle so that they don't loose too many nuts to squirrels and other woodland creatures like yours truly.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Late Winter "Foraging"--black walnut (Juglans nigra)

Today Eva and I went foraging--in our basement. A lot of our winter wild food work revolves around processing things we gathered in warmer seasons. We collected these walnuts a year and a half ago (see how small she is!) and dried and stored them in their shells. We have 3 boxes of them awaiting us, and we process them as we feel like it. They are incredibly fresh--no rancidity at all.

Since it was 60 degrees today (!), I figured it would be a great day to smash some walnuts. We have no specialized equipment to crack these infamously tough shelled nuts. We use an old tee-shirt, a mallet, and a block of wood. We wrap the nuts in the tee shirt so that the precious pieces don't scatter about the driveway when we smash them. We lay the tee shirt nut combination on a piece of wood and whack them with the mallet. It is preferable to get a single good whack as you are more likely to end up with several good chunks of nut meat. Too many whacks results in a nut meal flour which cannot be separated from the shell fragments. (I'm not terribly good with a hammar so I know this first hand).

Tonight as we sat around watching Between the Lions, the three of us separated the nut meats from their shells with a nut pick. This is really an essential tool--tooth picks break and butter knives don't fit in the tight crevices. We've tried a lot of common kitchen tools, but the nut pick does what it is designed to do.

A delightful discovery is that Eva loves black walnuts--we keep trying nuts with her, but she has not shown much enthusiasm, but tonight she couldn't get enough. Yay!