Archive for July, 2010

My Bookshelf: Safe Foraging with Samuel Thayer

Periodically someone asks me what wild food books I recommend. There are a number of good ones, and a much larger number of bad ones. For overall high quality, level of detail, and knowledge of his subject, I’m a fan of Samuel Thayer and his books on foraging, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. Thayer has chosen to cover a smaller number of plants at a much higher level of detail than other guides, and if you’re a beginner I especially recommend this approach. There’s plenty of time to branch out later. I also recommend the delightful books of Euell Gibbons. They are not field guides and I don’t care for the recipes much, but his sheer joy in his subject is infectious. I became interested in wild foods when I was 12, and my wise mother bought me a set of Euell Gibbons books so that I wouldn’t poison myself. The gift has lasted almost 40 years (so far) and it would be impossible to calculate how much it deepened my love for the natural world.
This is a good opportunity for me to talk about my own view of foraging and use of wild edibles. Too many people with too little knowledge are out there seeking wild foods (and, worse, teaching about wild foods.) Most of us didn’t learn from experienced parents and grandparents, so respect your own learning speed and style. Consult at least two guidebooks before you decide that you have identified a plant, and read the first 40 pages of Nature’s Garden before you do any actual foraging because the information about a safe approach and common pitfalls is invaluable and well written. Remember that you are introducing your body to entirely new foods, and eat very small portions the first time, followed by small portions the second time, to determine your tolerance. NEVER assume that one part of a plant is edible just because another part is edible. Many common vegetables have toxic parts- the ordinary potato has toxic foliage- so there’s no reason to assume that edible leaf equals edible fruit or root, or vice versa. NEVER use this blog to identify a wild edible. I write about cooking and eating, not about plant identification, and the information that I give is not adequate to identify a wild plant when used alone, nor are my photographs taken with clear identification in mind. If you want online information, Thayer has an excellent website at Forager’s Harvest, and Langdon Cook has a delightful blog about wild food adventures in the Seattle area. Our climate in New Mexico is very different, but many of the plants he collects are found in our area.
That said, I can’t think of any hobby that has given me more pleasure than foraging. Sometimes people ask me why I seek and eat wild foods, when I have a garden and can grow all the vegetables I want. Euell said it best: “Wild foods are my way of taking communion with nature, and with the Author of nature.” I can’t think of anything we all need more right now than a positive connection with nature that makes us love it and want to protect it.

Passing Pleasures: Squash Blossoms

There are a lot of edible flowers, but no flower expresses the joy of summer as well as the resplendent squash blossom. The sheer exuberance of them in the garden on a July morning lifts the heart of anyone who sees them, and they are a delicious edible. They’re fragile, and your best chance of getting good ones is to grow them yourself. I like the flowers of winter squash and pumpkins best for eating. They are huge gold trumpets six or seven inches long. You can use the smaller flowers of zucchinis, but you’ll need almost twice as many. There are lots of ways to cook them, but my favorite method is to stuff them with a delicate ricotta and basil filling.
I pick only the male flowers, making sure to leave at least one male blossom in the squash patch every day for pollination purposes. You can also use the female flowers, which have embryonic little squash between the stem and the flower, but of course you won’t get as many squash if you pick females. These flowers are wildly attractive to bees, so check for bees inside before you pick the flower, and give them a chance to escape safely out in the garden. I rinse them well and place them trumpet-down on a dish towel to drain. Some sources tell you to pick out the stamens or pistol, but I don’t think this is necessary. Just get them clean and fairly dry. Then carefully pull or snip off the six long green sepals that stick up from the base outside the petals. These have a coarse texture and detract from the delicacy of the finished dish. The blooms need to be cooked the day they are picked. To keep them from morning to evening, wrap them gently in the damp towel that they drained on, put the bundle in a plastic bag, and refrigerate until dinnertime. It’s better to use them for lunch, though.

Stuffed Squash Blossoms
A dozen large squash blossoms or 20-24 small ones, rinsed and drained, stems trimmed off level with the base of the flower
1 pound of very fresh ricotta
1/2 cup very finely grated best quality Parmesan, loosely packed
6 large sprigs of basil, leaves picked off the stem and torn (NOT cut) into large chunks
White part of one large or 2 small scallions, very finely minced.
Long chive leaves, twice as many as the number of blossoms
5 tablespoons butter
Make sure the ricotta is very fresh and free of bitterness. In a bowl, mix it with the Parmesan, minced scallion, and half the torn basil leaves. Taste the filling and add a little salt if needed, but don’t overpower the delicate flavors. Using your fingers and working very gently, fill each blossom with the cheese mixture. You will need to work a little down into each trumpet, but don’t tear them by pushing too hard. Fill each trumpet about halfway, and don’t overstuff. Now hold two long chive leaves together and tie a square knot at the end of each trumpet, and trim the ends to about 1″ long. I admit that this is a bit fiddly and not completely necessary, but the tied bundles look so attractive that I strongly recommend it. Now heat a skillet over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter, and put in the filled blossoms. You will need to turn them about three times to get the blossoms cooked on all sides. Work very carefully with a small spatula and your fingers, so as not to tear them. Let them get slightly browned in spots but not darkened all over. The cooking usually takes me about 15 minutes. Then put them on plates, melt the remaining two tablespoons of butter in the pan and drizzle a little over each plateful, and scatter with the remaining torn basil leaves. Serve with a good baguette, and eat with gratitude for the pleasures of the season.

Kitchen Staples: Blue Corn Pancakes

I’ve written before about the wonderful blue cornmeal that’s available at the Los Ranchos Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. A local couple, the Molinas, grow the blue corn, shell the kernels off the ear, then (this is the important part) roast the kernels to bring out their flavor before grinding them to a flour-fine meal. I feel rather proud of having discovered this cornmeal because you can’t tell from any distance that they have it. Their small and unassuming booth is recognizable by the display of rocks that Oracio has picked up over the years. If you try to use another blue cornmeal, make sure it’s ground very finely, and if it has chunky bits in it, grind it again in the blender. Then toast the meal lightly in the oven until it has a light toasty smell, making sure not to burn it or let it darken. Personally, I buy it at the market and let Oracio and Lourdes do the work. It makes pancakes that will light up your weekend morning.

1 cup blue cornmeal, very finely ground
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon agave nectar or light brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1-2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup melted butter
3 real free-range eggs
clarified butter for frying (I seldom bother to clarify mine, but you have to fry more carefully with unclarified)
butter and maple syrup

Mix the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar if using together in a mixing bowl. Get your cast-iron skillet or other big heavy skillet heating over medium heat at least 5 minutes before you want to start cooking. Beat the eggs, the melted butter, and 1 cup of buttermilk together lightly. If using agave nectar instead of sugar, add it to the egg mixture. When the skillet is hot, mix the wet ingredients quickly and roughly into the dry ingredients, and add enough of the second cup of buttermilk to make a pourable batter. Film the skillet with clarified butter, pour in about a third of a cup of batter, and spread it out a little to make a pancake. Cook on the first side until the upper side shows little holes from the leavening, then flip skillfully and cook the other side until done. Slather with the best butter you can get, repeat to make a stack, and serve with real maple syrup.
A pancake is a very personal thing, and any recipe will need adjusting to your preference. I like the batter a little on the thick side and I can only judge this by eye, so I don’t measure the buttermilk after the first cup, I just mix enough in to make the texture right. I cook the first side until it’s lightly browned, as shown above, and then cook the second side to about the same color. I prod them a little with my finger to test for any uncooked dough in the center, but if you haven’t been doing this for a few decades, you may need to cut the first one open to make sure you’re cooking them through. I don’t cook over high heat because the outside gets too brown before the inside cooks through. I hate chunky inclusions of any kind, like berries and fruit. I like real maple syrup and don’t eat any other type. Other cooks say that thin batter is good, that browner is better, that oil or lard or bacon grease are the best cooking mediums, that honey is better than syrup, and I understand that some people are so lost to decency as to put cheese, chocolate chips, or big hunks of fruit in pancakes. Suit yourself. That’s the joy of cooking at home.
By the way, it is possible and even fun to cook with two skillets, or with a big griddle, and get pancakes on the table more quickly.

Kitchen Staples: Ethical Chicken

Recently a friend came to visit me and I proudly led her to the back of the yard to see my six beautiful hens in their secure coop. Instead of admiring them, she was dismayed because “They’re so crowded.” I must admit that I was floored. I have six hens in a 4 foot by 7 foot coop, with lots of headroom and high perches, and I think my chickens have it good.   Upon questioning, it was clear that she buys her chickens and eggs from the grocery store and has no idea what conditions in a commercial chicken operation are like. So here are some images to ponder: In the best possible commercial set-up, laying hens would have a square foot per bird. That means 28 chickens in my coop instead of six. More likely, there would be 4 hens for every 3 square feet, or 36 birds in my coop. Up to 42 hens would be in it in some operations, and they would be in cages no more than a foot high, often less, so that the hens couldn’t even straighten out their necks, but stacking the cages would enable 5 layers of birds to be kept in my 28 square feet, or up to 210 birds total, since my coop is 5 feet high.  Broiler chickens are even more crowded, if you can imagine such a thing, and the stench is hellish. I refuse to discuss the slaughter practices, because I don’t care to remind myself. When I had my sheep farm , I lived near a broiler operation, and I didn’t eat chicken again for years. If you comfort yourself by buying “free range” chicken, think again; a 20′ X 20′ yard may be the “range” for a barn holding 20,000 to 30,000 chickens.  If you want to be realistic about commercial farming practices, I urge you to read Michael Pollan’s best book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Be aware that, by the end, you will feel driven to change your habits if you haven’t already.

All too often, people refuse to think about where their meat comes from and how it’s killed for a simple reason; they would have to drastically change their eating habits if they let themselves acknowledge what goes on in standard CAFO operations. I don’t care to perpetuate such cruelties, and so I am starting my own laying flock and I get my meat chicken from Pollo Real at the Santa Fe farmers’ market. They are a pasture operation, which means that the chickens are kept on pasture in “yurts” which are moved frequently. They are fed grain and they eat plants, insects, and all the things that chicken should eat. They have plenty of room. They re slaughtered on the farm, quickly and humanely. They cost a lot more than supermarket chicken, and they should. They are better for you and yours, better for the chickens, and better for the planet. Paying more makes us realize that we have to pay to support humane farming practices, and that meat should be a pleasant addition to a meal rather than the center of it.

Better ethics and a better dinner; this is well worth an occasional trip to Santa Fe with a cooler, or look for Pollo Real chicken at La Montanita Co-op. Once you have some, there are a million ways to cook it, but here’s a simple favorite: just rub it with a paste made from a few clove of fresh garlic, a teaspoon of salt for every pound of chicken, a tablespoon of Spanish Pimenton de la Vera or smoked paprika, the juice of half a lemon, and enough olive oil to make  a paste. Grill it over a low fire until done to your taste, brushing with any leftover paste. Serve with lots of vegetables and whole grains. Sleep like a baby.

And, just for fun, here’s my own chicken flock.