Posts Tagged ‘edible wild plants’

Leaf Ales for All Seasons

By any standards, we have been through a very strange year, and it isn’t over yet. The tragedy of the pandemic looms over everything, changing every professional, social, and financial situation. As a healthcare worker I’ve seen the distress caused as the impact of deaths ripples outward through families and communities. Anything that we can do to help and protect each other needs to be done.
More than ever, I feel that provident householders who have taken some steps toward being able to meet their own needs are relatively fortunate even when times are tough. The 2020 growing season was a strange one here, starting with an early long balmy spring that encouraged everything to start leafing out and blooming, then days of hard freeze that destroyed all the blossoms and infant fruit. Apples, peaches, apricots, cherries, plums, all gone. I didn’t harvest a single piece of fruit. Not even grapes, because the hungry squirrels ate them. Thinking that I would not be able to do any winemaking, I wandered around disconsolate, until it occurred to me that what I had was leaves. Lots and lots of leaves. Leaves can be made into teas and liquid infusions, and therefore they can be fermented into wine.

Throughout this discussion I’ll give brief directions suited to people with some fermentation equipment and experience. If you have neither, I’d recommend the book Making Wild Wines and Meads by Rich Gulling. The book gives more complete directions but preserves the spirit of experimentation that makes fermentation so interesting. Just be aware that his directions about the amount of sweetening to add produce very high alcohol wine, suitable for the storage times that he talks about. Mine are different.

Step 1 is to prepare the yeast. Any yeast intended for white wine will work. I use champagne yeast because it’s sturdy and unstoppable and I’ve never had a problem with it. Put half a cup of warm water in a large glass, stir in 2 teaspoons of sugar until dissolved, then add a teaspoon of dry winemaking yeast. Let the yeast granules moisten for a few minutes, stir them in, and cover the glass with plastic wrap. If you forget to give the yeast a head start you can pitch it directly into the sweetened brew later, but with the prestart it is rarin’ to go when added to the brew.
Next, catch your leaves. For the most part I used tree leaves, because it was in accord with my semi-permaculture principles and because I had a lot of them. In western society we don’t make a lot of use of tree leaves, so it’s very important to find out which ones you can safely use. In my area there are a lot of mulberry trees, and I have fig trees on my property, and I knew that these leaves are used for teas in other countries and are safe and non-toxic. Some people do have allergic skin reactions to handling fig leaves, so determine your own limits. I’ll have more to say about leaf foraging further along. To make a 1.5 gallon batch of wine, I started by going out in the yard with a 2 gallon stockpot and picking it full of leaves,  packed slightly but not tightly. Then I washed the leaves carefully, and chopped them up a bit just by sticking my big kitchen shears in the pot and cutting through handfuls of leaves. The exception was the fig leaves. I rolled them up in bundles of about 10 leaves and cut them in crosswise strips. I was fairly sure that they were too thick and tough for my stick blender to chop up. Then water was added to almost fill the pot, and the heat was started. I let the water come to a boil, stirred the leaves frequently, and after about 15 minutes when the leaves started to shrink and look cooked, I started chopping with my stick blender.  Ultimately you want an almost-puréed witch’s brew looking like this.

Yech, right? But your finished wine will look quite different and will resemble the pale green-gold wine in the second photo above. At this stage start to think about how to flavor it. The leaves have little flavor, so if you add nothing else it may not taste like much. My personal favorite is about 10 stars of star anise thrown in at this point and simmered with the brew for another 15 minutes, but there are lots of other possibilities. I think that lemon verbena would be a particularly nice flavor, and next summer I plan to try that. You can also add flavoring agents to the finished wine later. After you have simmered in your flavor ingredients of choice, turn off the burner and let the brew cool to room temperature.

Next, run the brew through a mesh straining bag, which you can get through any brewing supply store. Wring and squeeze the bag to get as much fluid out as possible. You should get about 1.5 gallons back. Now you add the sweetening that the yeast will live on. The amount added determines the alcohol level of the finished wine. I use 1pound per gallon of ordinary table sugar or raw sugar, or 1lb 8oz for this quantity, which makes a very light wine of about 4% alcohol content. You can use more if you want more alcohol. You also need to add some acid at this point or your finished wine will be very bland. I make 5 gallon batches and lemon juice would be too expensive, so I use malic acid powder from the brewing store. The amount is a very individual thing. For this quantity I use about two tablespoons. Have a small clean cup handy and taste the brew, bearing in mind that the sweetness will be gone after fermentation and you are tasting only for acid content. Be cautious, because you can always add more later.

By now your glass of yeast should look foamy and bubbly. Add the yeast mixture to the cooled brew, stir in thoroughly, put the brew in a 2 gallon fermentation bucket, fit with a fermentation lock, and put it in a place that isn’t too chilly. Bubbles should start to come through the fermentation lock within 12 hours, and reach peak in 2-4 days. Let the whole rig sit undisturbed for 2 weeks, then siphon into a clean bucket, put the fermentation lock on again, and leave it for another two weeks. Be sure to watch the fermentation lock and keep it full of liquid to the fill line. It has now completed secondary fermentation, and you can siphon it into glass jugs.

A wine this low in alcohol has very little ability to keep, so you will want to use it in the near future or store it in the refrigerator. Now let’s consider how to drink it. Chill it, taste it, and think about it. The sweetening is now completely gone, and it may taste too acid. Add a little sugar, or a drop or two of artificial sweetener if you use that, and see if you like that effect better. If it seems bland, a small squeeze of lemon juice added in the glass might be just what it needs to perk it up. If the acid balance seems right to you but you don’t taste enough other flavors, it might be delicious with a little bit of one of the many herbal liqueurs added. I make my own mixed herbal liqueur and my own anisette, and often add a few drops of each to a glass. I like the leaf wines best when carbonated, and for my large batches this is done in a kegerator, but you can carbonate small amounts using the Drinkmate. Add fruit juice or whatever else takes your fancy. Play with it. It’s yours, and the rules that might apply to fine wines have no application here.

If you don’t have any tree leaves available but you do have a garden, you still have the materials to make a very personal leaf wine from your own property. I often use Swiss chard leaves from my garden in these brews, and have discovered to my great pleasure that I can use kale and outer leaves of cabbage, and although the cabbagey scent can be quite obnoxious in the original brew, it is gone after fermentation. One of my favorites was made entirely from scarlet kale, and is beautiful in the glass.


Turns into this:

If you decide to try it, be aware that in the pot the brew will be a dreadful purple-brown shade and you will curse me. Fear not, when you add the acid the magic of polyphenol redox chemistry will take place and the brew will turn a lovely bright magenta.

Other things that I have added to leaf wine brews include prickly pear juice, blood orange juice, and elderberries.

Rose hips are also good material, and the pretty tawny-rose wine at the top of this post was made with rose hips. A double handful of blackberries added a pretty tinge to another batch.

We enjoy the leaf wines so much that I make 5 gallon batches in my giant 8 gallon stockpot, but don’t do this until you’ve tried some small batches to see if you like the concept. Also, just to emphasize this point again, leaf wines made according to my directions have a very low alcohol content and won’t keep well unless refrigerated. I am able to store them under refrigeration, but if you aren’t, stick to smaller amounts.

Also be aware that when I started making large batches, my home stick blender dropped dead and I had to get a commercial one from a restaurant supply house. Tree leaves are tough.

As always when foraging, use common sense and tend to your own safety. I don’t have any problem consuming mulberry leaves, fig leaves, or Siberian elm leaves, but you might. Never assume that the leaves can be used because the fruit can be used; elderberries are just one example of a plant that has edible fruit but poisonous leaves. Never trust your safety to a stranger on the Internet. Do your own research.

If you are interested in thriving on what’s around you, leaf wines can add a bit of sparkle and joy to your life.





Using What You Have VIII: Permaculture Pasta

I wrote several posts ago about elm leaf pasta, and the idea of using tree leaves has continued to intrigue me. The use of trees avoids soil disturbance, adds a vertical element so that  more food can be grown in less ground space, and provides shade and nesting sites for birds as well as leafy greens. As far as which leaves to use, my usual warning applies: all decisions about your safety are up to you, and research is necessary. I choose those that have mild flavor as well as a good safety profile. Tree leaves tend to be too tough to enjoy as cooked greens, so applications like pasta where they are finely ground are the perfect way to use them. The previous post describes the proportions, but with this attempt I decided that I wanted the leaves more smoothly ground and a result more like spinach pasta. I used the same proportions: all the leaves I could tightly cram into one hand with a heaping cup of flour, and this time used half elm leaves and half young mulberry leaves. The leaves need to be cooked before being incorporated into pasta dough,because the short cooking time of fresh noodles will not adequately cook the tree leaves. The leaves were steamed for seven minutes, drained and cooled, and then the leaves and flour were put in my Vitamix blender instead of the food processor. Grinding the leaves very finely into the flour requires stopping the blender several times and stirring the jar right to the bottom with a long handled fork. But eventually the mixture is very smooth and homogenous and powdery, and can be transferred to the food processor and the necessary number of egg yolks added to form a firm but flexible dough. Let the dough rest and relax for 30 minutes, coat the ball with a little flour, and roll  into a thin pasta dough by whichever means you prefer; rolling pin (skill required,) hand-cranked machine, or for me definitely the rolling attachments for my Kitchenaid mixer. I rolled this dough thin, to produce a delicacy similar to spinach pasta. Cut into fettuccine with a roller or by hand, and freeze immediately for later use or use within a few hours.

Garlic bulbs are coming in from the garden right now, and I decided on garlic cream sauce. The flavor of the newly harvested cloves is wonderful. I peeled two cloves and sliced them into micro-thin transparent slices with my sharpest knife.They were sautéed in a small heavy saucepan with two tablespoons of butter. When cooked through but not colored at all, I added a quarter cup of good white wine and turned the heat up briefly to let the wine boil away. Then half a cup of heavy cream was added and brought to a boil. The heat was turned off and a few small sprigs of finely snipped tarragon added. I like to add an egg yolk at this point too, but make sure the saucepan has cooled down enough to prevent scrambling.Have some of the best Parmesan you can obtain, coarsely grated, and a small handful of lightly toasted pine nuts.
Drop the pasta into rapidly boiling water, and it is so thin and delicate that it will probably be done by the time the water returns to a boil. Taste to make sure, drain, sauce, toss with some of the cheese, and put the rest of the cheese and the pinenuts on top. Grate fresh pepper over the top for a touch of piquancy and serve. It’s a wonderfully comforting meal and, once you know what you’re doing and have the pasta ready, comes together in the time it takes to bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. A good handful of shelled peas or snow peas would be a lovely addition, and I wish I had thought of it at the time.

I’ve decided that my tree leaf pasta can be styled “Permaculture Pasta.” My plans for the future include making more of it to freeze, and finding out more about leaves that could be used.There is not much data around about the edibility of tree leaves, and under no circumstances should you wander around experimenting without data. In my own yard there are two trees, black locust and almond, that have toxic leaves. My beloved elderberry bushes have good fruit but poisonous leaves. You were only issued one liver, so treat it with a little care and respect. Leaves of perennial plants known to be edible are a good possibility. In my own yard, scorzonera leaves are common and abundant. Lambsquarters area natural source of greens in late spring and summer. I’m also thinking about bronze fennel, which I’ve used to wonderful effect as a pesto, and may try incorporating it into the pasta itself. Grape leaves might add an interesting slightly tart note, although you would need to remember that they turn yellow brown, not bright green, when cooked. Maybe add some lacinato  kale leaves to improve the green color? As always, the possibilities are limitless as long as you operate rationally and safely.

Using What You Have VI: Eating the Siberian Elm

I know a wonderful forager in Flagstaff who mentioned eating Siberian elm leaves, and commented on their mild flavor. I have been meaning for years to look for more uses for the noxious invasive elm, and my goat and chickens eat huge amounts, but I had only found one source alluding to them being edible by people, so I was hesitant. But if Mike says it I believe it, so I was newly inspired to experiment. I could imagine the texture being chewy, as is often the case with tree leaves, so I decided on a context in which the leaves would be chopped very finely. A pasta akin to spinach pasta seemed like a natural experiment.
I was just playing around in the yard, so all measurements given here are inexact. This makes two servings. I gathered a double handful of tree leaves, mostly young Siberian elm tips but also a small fig leaf, a very large grape leaf, and some young mulberry leaves. Fresh pasta only cooks for a minute or two, so I precooked the leaves in the steamer for seven minutes at fairly high heat. Once they were steamed, I turned them out on a cutting board and chopped them roughly with a knife. Then I put a heaping cup of flour in the food processor, added the leaves, and ran the machine until the leaves were chopped as finely as possible. Then I added egg yolks one at a time until the dough formed. For me, this took five yolks. It might be more or less depending on your ambient humidity and your flour. At this point I had a smooth, slightly sticky lump of dough.

I set the dough aside for half an hour to rest, and then set out a cutting board generously sprinkled with flour. I used my Kitchenaid pasta roller to roll the dough, but you could use a hand-crank roller or roll it by hand. Use as much flour as you need to keep it rolling smoothly. I have a metal clothes-drying rack that I use to hang the sheets of pasta as I work with them. This is a good way to keep them organized. Also, they look pretty when sunlight from the window glows through them. These transient pleasures are part of home cooking.

I rolled up the sheets, dusting with flour again, and cut them into linguine by hand because I like the uneven edges that result from hand-cutting. They do have to be delicately untangled after cutting.

Once the pasta is cut, dinner is simple. Heat up a pot of salted water to boiling, and while it’s heating, set out 2 tablespoons  of good grassfed butter and grate a handful of top-quality Parmesan. Have a strainer ready in your sink, and set out two pasta bowls. Have your pepper grinder ready; I have a separate grinder for white peppercorns for more delicate dishes like this one. Put the noodles in the boiling water, keep the heat high, and start testing by biting a fished-out strand as soon as the pot returns to a full boil. Mine was done in about one and a half minutes of boiling. Scoop out about half a cup of water for a “pasta roux” and dump the noodles into the strainer. While they drain, add the butter to the pot, grate about ten turns of the pepper mill over the butter, and return the hot noodles to the pot. This all has to happen fairly quickly, before the noodles stick together. Add most of the grated cheese, toss with two wooden spoons, and add only enough of the pasta water to make the noodles move freely when tossed. Serve into the waiting bowls and top with a bit more cheese.

Here’s how the noodles look before the additional cheese is added. They’re good this way too, but I do like the grainy texture of unmelted Parmesan on top.

We found this absolutely delicious, but then it’s hard to go wrong when you’re using really high-quality Parmesan. It makes everything taste good, so I make no special claims for my leaf pasta. I can say that there is no strong or objectionable flavor of any kind and the texture is light and lovely. It makes use of one of the most Godawful weed trees imaginable, and makes it taste good, and I am satisfied with that. Beyond question, it adds additional fiber to the pasta. What it adds beyond that is unclear, since there is no nutritional analysis of Siberian elm leaves that I can locate. Be satisfied with the fact that you are eating your invasives and they taste good.
This would also be a delicious pasta with some really good olive oil and pinenuts, and it would be excellent for lasagna. I’m also going to try adding some fresh herbs at the processing stage so that their flavor is actually incorporated within the pasta; I think marjoram would be particularly good in this context. Some cream would be great in the sauce.

Living in Interesting Times: Spring Greens

This is a very strange time for everyone. As a healthcare provider, I know how much there is to worry about. I know that not everyone can isolate themselves from exposure, and not everyone has the luxury (and it is a luxury) of the money and space to store some crisis supplies. Not everyone has the luxury of a job right now, by a long shot. If you do, appreciate what you have and help others if you possibly can.

At this as at other tough times, I find myself thinking back to growing up in Louisiana. In hurricane country people were used to regular interruptions of basic services and kept on hand what they needed to get through 2-3 weeks. They helped each other and they followed the hurricane directives. So respect the restrictions we operate under right now and do the best you can not to be part of the problem.

Narrowing this down to the garden, there is nothing as comforting as being able to get some food from your own yard. There’s an egg shortage, but my chickens are laying, supplying us and a few colleagues and neighbors with at least some eggs. Rice and beans and seasonings are in the pantry, and if you always keep herbs in the garden and a few ham hocks in the freezer, you have the means to make things taste good.
This is a great time to learn to use your weeds if you haven’t already. I actually had to buy seeds to have dandelions, but once you have them they are faithful kitchen friends every spring. If you don’t care for bitter greens, mix them with milder greens like nettles, scorzonera, bladder campion, and salsify, all growing lustily in my yard right now and all perfectly delicious when cooked. If you don’t know these unstoppable weeds, learn about them and plant them now or learn where they grow. Then spring will be a time of abundance, regardless of what’s going on in the greater world, and the less need you have for outside groceries, the more there are for someone else. Seal and freeze the extra to eat another time. If you have a patch of Egyptian or other perennial onions, you’ll always have seasoning on hand, and a handful of chopped oil-cured olives adds delicious umami.

Mixed cooked greens in the refrigerator can be eaten in tortillas with cheese, used to top rice with some butter and meat juices, or (most deliciously, in my view) spread on toasted sourdough bread and topped with fluffy grated flakes of good Parmesan.
After that will come the meaty delicious leaves from last year’s chard plants, mulberry sprigs, hops shoots, and who knows what all. This may be the year that I finally try cooking the newest Siberian elm leaves, instead of feeding them all to the animals. I’ll comb my foraging and permaculture books for other things I haven’t tried yet.

The reason to do all this is not that there is no food in stores. There’s lots of food, with strange exceptions currently caused by hoarding more than any actual lack of supply. The reason is to take yourself out of the hoarding mentality and into a frame of mind to nourish yourself well and realize that you will act responsibly and do as well as you can. Life is uncertain and COVID-19 even more so. Everyone is at risk right now, but if we are staying home responsibly when not working and minimizing risk to ourselves and others we’ll feel better. If we feel that we can get things for elderly friends and relatives so that they can isolate more effectively, we’ll feel better. And staying home to garden, tend animals, and forage in the yard feels a lot better than sitting around watching television.