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.