Posts Tagged ‘Goji berries’

Fall Summation IV part 2: Further Perennials

In my last post, I started to sum up a few perennial edibles around my yard, and found that there are actually a lot more of them then I realized. So here’s part two.

Bladder campion, Silene vulgaris, is always my first green of spring and my last green of fall. It is better cooked than raw in my opinion, but some leaves in a mixed salad will certainly not hurt anything and have a pleasant substantial texture. I had to buy seed of this one to get it started, and it was a couple of years before it really begin to grow well, but now I have enough to need to weed out some. It has never been a problem weed or gotten out of control under my conditions. It seeds itself around a bit, but not unreasonably.

Curled dock is a common weed that most people could not imagine planting on purpose, but in my area it grows mostly along the irrigation ditches, which are also frequented by dogs. So to have a good clean supply, I do grow some in my weed patch. The slightly lemony greens are very good in mixed greens but rapidly get bitter as the weather warms. Get them early. And then get them again late, because like so many perennials, they produce a smaller but useful second crop of leaves in late fall.  This one does seed it self around like crazy, and every single seed seems to be viable, so do be careful to cut off the flower stalks early unless you want a lot more plants. There is a great deal written about the culinary uses of the seeds. I don’t care for them at all, but you can read about this elsewhere if you are interested.  Some people also use the roots medicinally, and that also could be researched elsewhere.

Bronze fennel is a lovely ornamental as well as a delicious seasoning herb and vegetable. I find the flavor a little more pronounced and anisey than that of green fennel. It’s also prettier. In Samuel Thayer‘s newest book, Incredible Wild Edibles, there is a wonderful chapter on how to use fennel.  My very favorite part is the young shoot, and so far I have not been able to induce my plants to make tender shoots in the fall, but I’m still trying. The leaves are a wonderful seasoning for fish and seafood, and are great chopped and sprinkled lavishly over salads.

Burdock has not been a success for me so far, due to personal taste preferences. Even the youngest spring leaves taste rank and have a rough texture, the root is bland and turns an unpleasant color even when cooked with some lemon juice, and the peeled flower stalk is no more than passable to my palate. I think that the peeled stalk chunks might be tastier when cooked with stronger seasonings or perhaps grilled, and I’ll try that next year. It often happens that an edible perennial hangs around my place for years before I learn to use it in ways that I really like, so I think of burdock as a potential vegetable that I haven’t really learned about yet. I am happy enough to give it some space because my goat is crazy about the leaves and leaf stalks, but be aware that even if you think you are cutting down all the flower stalks, it ingeniously forms some tiny short ones that get past you and scatter seeds everywhere. Bees enjoy the flowers and birds enjoy the seeds, but the price of having it around is eternal vigilance and a fair amount of grunt weeding.

Dandelion is not a common weed in my area, believe it or not, and I had to buy seeds to get it started.  But I wanted it and was happy to persevere until I got some to germinate. The young leaves of dandelion have a fair amount of bitterness and might be an acquired taste, and most people start out by disliking them, then later in their foraging career begin to like them, and ultimately crave them.  I’m at the craving stage. I also enjoy using the flowers, although the bitter green sepals have to be pulled off, which is a bit tedious.  I think that the petals might be useful in fritters and similar preparations, but I haven’t done that yet.  There is always more to learn. I do like the young, tightly closed buds when I can get enough of them to bother cooking. I am not a fan of the root, and this is another plant where I leave the root in place to produce the parts that I like better.  Here in the  high desert I like to grow mine in partial shade because the leaves get more tender, less bitter, and quite a bit bigger. Incidentally, I bought some seeds called French Thick Leaf that were supposed to be very superior, and used some seeds from a northeastern person’s yard, and the plants are all pretty much identical.

Common milkweed is another weed that just does not grow in my area, although I often see it when vacationing further north in Colorado. It took me a few tries to start it from seed, and it needs winter stratification. So far I have only had a few bites each of spring shoots and buds, plus one young pod, on my plate because it’s still getting established. But it has the mild “foody” flavor that I remember, especially good with butter. The vanilla-scented flowers are wildly attractive to bees, and of course this is the food plant of the monarch butterfly. Once established, it doesn’t need too much water, but it needs a fair amount to get started. Be sure that you know how to identify it as Asclepius syraica because there are some thin-leaved toxic milkweeds, and if you are foraging it in the wild I strongly suggest reading Samuel Thayer on how to tell the young shoots from dogsbane,  which resemble them in ways but are very bitter. I hope to have a lot of it around in the future.

Pokeweed was one of my favorite wild foods when I was first getting interested in foraging. It’s a big rank plant, up to six feet high and as much across, and has to be sited accordingly. It also REQUIRES preboiling in a large volume of water, which is then thrown out, before further preparation for eating. It is toxic if not prepared properly. Please consult Samuel Thayer’s Incredible Wild Edibles before trying to eat it. Then you’ll have all the information you need to eat it safely. It doesn’t grow in the Southwest, but I finally got two plants started from seed, and hope to have more in the future. Euell Gibbons wrote about forcing pokeweed shoots in winter, and one day I may try some version of that.

Goji Shoots come up everywhere after you’ve grown goji berries for a few years. They are very tasty sautéed in butter or olive oil. To enjoy them, you have to get new shoots as shown. They should be green all over and tender enough to snap when bent. If they have anything resembling brown bark, or have to be cut, skip them. I cut my plants back in late winter and harvest some shoots in spring, and this year I cut some plants back in late fall and put frost blankets over them to see if I can get some winter shoots. I’ll report back.

Hosta shoots are a new vegetable for me, because when I moved to my current home it was a flat lot covered with tumbleweed and baked into adobe by the blazing sun. It’s only now, eight years later, that my trees are big enough to provide shade for the shade-loving hostas. I chose the biggest ones that I could find because the shoots are bigger. I have only eaten them once because my plants are young and I don’t want to weaken them. They were mild and good steamed and eaten with a soy-ginger sauce. There is nothing especially distinctive about the flavor but nothing objectionable either, and the texture is tender as long as you get them before they unfurl. They would probably be a good addition to salads if sliced, although I haven’t tried that yet. It takes a couple of years before they’re established enough to harvest, which is usual with perennials. Once established, they could be harvested for a couple of weeks in spring, then allowed to form ornamental foliage. When the leaves get ratty in late summer they could be cut back, then a few shoots harvested again as they refurbish themselves. Of note, this is an edible perennial that would pass muster with the strictest homeowners’ association so you can grow it whatever your circumstances.

Sunflower Stems

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Lately I have been inspired by Pascal Bauder’s cookbook The New Wildcrafted Cuisine and can’t quit yapping on about it. Most recently I found myself trying to apply his eye to sunflowers. They are a common weed in my area, and so useful to the birds and so pretty in bloom that I can hardly bear to pull them out, so I have far too many of them. Recently there was internet info that ” You can eat the leaves and the stems and the buds!” This does not accord with my own experience; edible yes, choice not hardly- so I set out to experiment.

The leaves are very coarse and fibrous, and my own experiments in cooking them have been totally unsuccessful when there are so many other wonderful things to eat.  They might be a useful survival food, but for thriving at the table they are not good fodder. I do like the sprouts in salads, the first two cotyledons that emerge when the plant sprouts, but when the leaves are any larger than that they are not to my taste.  Incidentally, it is easy to plant a large handful of viable seed in an out of the way area maybe a foot square in late fall, and at whatever time it comes up in the spring you will have a bunch of sunflower sprouts ready to harvest and all in one place.   They are delicious in salads.  Just remember to get them before the true leave start forming.  There is no toxicity at any point, but I only find them pleasant to chew before true leaves form.

My current experiments are with the stem.  This gives me the opportunity for another blast at Internet information provided by people who have never actually eaten the plant in question. You will find information that “you can eat the stem and it tastes just like celery!” Do not just grab a stem out of the garden and start chewing, even a small one, because from a very early age they have a very fibrous outer layer.  But yesterday I found myself engaged in a long boring kitchen task that required continual presence but very little attention, and decided to do some experimenting.  The first part was simple: peel off the outer layer. This is easily accomplished with a vegetable peeler, but if you don’t have too many stems to work with you will lose a fair amount of edible material this way. I started by working my thumbnail under the fibrous layer of the lower cut end of the stem, peeling upward, and then using the vegetable peeler just to skim off whatever stringy bits were left.  I started with stems about the size of my index finger, and they were about as thick as my little finger when I finished.  They seemed to discolor slightly as I worked with them, so I dropped them in a bowl of water with a squirt of lemon juice in it.

Tasted raw, they were pleasant in a mild way, with a touch of sunflower flavor, mostly a generic mild green taste, and a great crisp texture. I wouldn’t bother to eat them that often, but they were nice enough. But when cooked, they came into their own.

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I combined them with some tender shoots of wolfberry (goji,) probably about half and half. Be sure to cook only goji shoots that snap cleanly off. If any peeling of bark occurs, they’re too tough to eat whole.

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I’ve become  a fan of using macadamia nut oil for dishes like this, where I want to be sure that I can taste the nuances of flavor in the plants.  Macadamia nut oil is very stable, has a high smoke point, and has a pleasant rich buttery flavor but does not mask other flavors in the way that a strong olive oil might.  I added a good pinch of salt and stir fried the mixture until the goji leaves were dark green and beginning to crisp, but not to the point of any browning.

The result was delicious. The goji leaves and stems had a pleasant mild herbal flavor, and the peeled sunflower stalks had come into a rich nuttiness with artichoke overtones but retained some crispness.

It made an excellent cook’s treat, and I will try it again on a larger scale.  I think that a minute or two more of stirfrying would have benefited the sunflower stems a lot, and next time, I will not combine them with other shoots but will work on getting the cooking time exactly right for them.  But this was an excellent simple dish that I would not be ashamed to serve to anybody.  Now I find myself speculating about the gray stripe sunflower grown for bird food, and whether its enormous single stem would be palatable at a young age. Only one way to find out.

And don’t worry, I will always leave plenty of sunflowers for the birds.

 

The Shoots of Spring

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This is the great season for hops shoots. I gather a large handful every day or two, taking care to snap them off where the stem is tender and brittle. I wash them, cut the bundle crosswise in pieces about an inch long, toss in a hot skillet with a generous amount of good olive oil, and sauté over medium-high heat, turning frequently, until the stems are tender and  some of the leaves are brown and crisp. Add salt and serve. They have a “wild” and slightly bitter flavor which I love alongside very flavorful meaty main dishes.

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This spring I started to experiment with other shoots. I have been eyeing the invasive tendencies of my goji bushes, which routinely send suckers out 10 feet to send a shoot up right where I don’t want another goji plant. They are turning up everywhere as the weather warms.

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I knew that their foliage was edible but had never been much impressed with the taste, and there aren’t many leaves per bush. The shoots, on the other hand, are bulkier than the leaves, green, tender, and a nuisance unless removed. Yesterday I gathered young shoots of  silene (bladder campion,) goji berry bush, perennial arugula, and alfalfa to experiment with ( shown L to R below.) I wouldn’t try cooking with any shoot that didn’t break off with a clean, brittle snap. You don’t want them woody.

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I didn’t cut them up, just washed them and let them drain. Then they were put in a skillet with some olive oil and fried over medium-high heat until the leaves were crisp and browned. I would guess that it was about two minutes a side. Watch carefully; the line between browned and burned is crossed in milliseconds.

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They were drained on paper towels, salted, and eaten.

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They were actually a rich brown in spots, not black as they appear in my photo. The alfalfa and silene shoots were crisp and pleasant enough to eat, but all I could taste was olive oil and salt. I had used a wonderful olive oil so I didn’t mind that, but I do like a vegetable to taste of itself.  The stars were the goji and perennial arugula shoots. The hot and mustardy flavor of perennial arugula was tamed and made interesting but not excessive, and the goji shoots had an herbal flavor and a delightful texture. I will definitely cook them again. I can easily cook them for my husband and myself, but they need lots of room in the skillet to crisp, so I don’t think it’s practical to make them for more than two people. They are too fragile to withstand being dipped into anything, and are best eaten on their own. They are a passing fancy and to be enjoyed as such.

I only wish that all my invasives could be dealt with by eating them.

There are many other shoots to consider, and this is a time of year for perennial veggies to shine. Meaty young milkweed shoots should be wonderful. It has taken me three years to get a milkweed patch to germinate so mine are still spindly infants, but if you live in an area where it occurs naturally, do give it a try. Asparagus, the classic shoot, is wonderful when pan-fried like this. Young slender green onions can be treated this way with good effect, and green garlic could be great, although in this one use I would use only the white part, since the leaves can seem stringy if not chopped in cross-section. I will soon be experimenting with shoots of young wild lettuce as it starts to bolt. I think these would need to be blanched first to reduce bitterness, but I’m not sure yet.  I’m very fond of using the fresh tender shoot-tips of coppiced mulberries as a green, and I think they would be very good given this treatment, but they don’t come along until about June, so it will be a while before I find out. See here for a discussion of the ins and outs of selecting and eating mulberry leaves.  The young second-year stems of chard leaves that emerge when an overwintered plant sprouts in the spring, before it starts bolting to seed,  might be good for this, trimmed of their green leafy bits and maybe cut in inch-long chunks if they seem a bit on the stringy side. And I have written before about using the young flowering shoots of scorzonera this way, and they are definitely the highest culinary incarnation of that tough perennial.

I often mention Cook’s Treats, the series of improvisational tapas for one that I enjoy in the kitchen when nobody’s looking and I’m doing other things. Four or five tasty shoots, thrown in your smallest skillet with olive oil while you’re working on other things, make a great cook’s nibble. You will need to give them your undivided attention for a few minutes and that’s all, which fits well into the rhythm if many kitchen tasks.

2015: Things That Worked

The long nights this time  of year are perfectly suited for curling up with seed and nursery catalogs, the most exquisite pornography available  and about as realistic as most pornography.  It’s also the time of year when I look back over what worked and what didn’t during the growing season.  So here are some things that worked, and some things that didn’t. Your mileage may vary.

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Silene, also known as bladder campion, always works. It is a common weed in many places, but not in my area, so I had to seek out seed and get it started. Treat it as a perennial and give it a spot where it can establish itself. The flavor of the young leaves is a very muted version of green peas, and the young stocks are tender. It is not exciting in flavor, nor is it a specially productive, but it is wonderfully available in latest fall and earliest spring, when little else is still thriving. It loses most of its volume when cooked, and I mostly use it in salads.
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Sour cherries worked. My dwarf tree is five years old now and bearing nice crops. From that one small tree I made several cobblers and a full half-gallon of cherry liqueur. The tree also adds to quality-of-life, because in summer sunlight when hung with its hundreds of bright enameled fruits, it is beautiful enough to take your breath away.
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All the lettuces from Wild Garden Seeds worked. Their devotion to trialing their own crops really shows. Every lettuce variety and all the mixtures that I have tried from them have been wonderfully successful. Choose the size and color of lettuce that you want, and they will have something to suit your conditions.
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Grafted eggplants worked. The grafted tomatoes grew beautifully but so do my other tomatoes. The grafted eggplants, however, bore more fruit than ungrafted by a large margin. I consider them Roth the expense and I’ll be planting them again.
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I put in some celery plants as a lark, and I’ll be planting more next year. They need the richest soil you have and some extra water, but they are sturdy and offer delicious crunching and cooking when the rest of the garden is going to sleep for the winter.
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Goji berries worked. They need some extra water but not a lot, and the berries are pleasant out of hand and in salads. They offer maximum antioxidants for minimum carbohydrates.
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Rattlesnake beans worked. They are hard to stop. The pods have a very good flavor if picked young but do need stringing, no matter what the seed catalog says. They get quite tough as they age, so pick them over every day or two.

Every year I try some new things, and some work out and some don’t. In most cases a failure only means that you’re out a few dollars’ worth of seeds, so garden boldly.