Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Thayer’

Milkweed, For People and Others


People who live in wetter climates would be surprised, and probably amused, to learn what efforts I’ve made to have common weeds like nettles, burdock, chickweed, and milkweed grow on my property. Common milkweed, Asclepius syraica, has been especially difficult because it really does like moist soil and doesn’t tolerate “dry feet” or alkalinity gracefully.  It took a couple of tries before I got any to germinate, and now I finally have a few plants, which have to be watered and tended and fussed over as if they were orchids until they get stronger. I had to borrow photos because my own milkweed is still a bit on the spindly side.

One might well wonder why I bother. One reason is that I like to eat milkweed, especially the young seed pods, but the shoots and buds are just fine too. It’s a true nose-to-tail vegetable. Another is that I am transitioning from annual veggies to perennial wherever possible, and A. syraica is a good useful perennial that doesn’t require soil disturbance to grow. A third reason is that the flowers are fairly ornamental and send out a cloud of perfume reminiscent of flowery vanilla.

A fourth reason can be seen on this map:

Monarch migration

Notice how the sightings in New Mexico just peter out, while the ones in wetter areas east and west continue northward. Compare this to the maps on the same site for larvae and for milkweed. The migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico to the northern US is a migration of generations. The butterfly that arrives in Montana may be great-great-grandchild to the butterfly that flew north from Michoacon. All along the way they need breeding habitat, and their larvae feed on A. syraica and a couple of other closely related milkweed species. The leg of the journey through desert northern Mexico and southern New Mexico is a barren one, and a few milkweed oases along the way might help more monarchs make it to Colorado and further north. I can’t guarantee it, of course, but it seems worth a try. Adult monarchs will sip nectar from many flower species, but the fate of the larvae is tied to milkweed supply.

You can read more about monarch conservation here:

https://monarchconservation.org

Since my plants are still too young to pick for eating, I won’t be writing about milkweed in the kitchen until next year, but you can obtain the two wonderful field guides by Samuel Thayer, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, and be prepared to forage and cook any common wild edible. I never tire of recommending Thayer’s books, which contain great detail about identification and culinary use at various stages.

Late in the Garden Year

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Here in central New Mexico our garden year is slowly drawing to a close and the first frosts have blasted the tenderest plants but the days are still warm and lovely.  I have been out in the woods gathering wildlings but they are shutting down for the year. So it’s a good time to start summing up the season.  I hope to write in more detail about all these things over the winter, but life being the uncertain business that it is, might as well get started now.

First, beauty. In October, the tender tropical pineapple sage covers itself with red flower spikes and is one of the loveliest sights the garden can offer at this season, so every spring I buy a plant and stick it in somewhere. It makes a good last hurrah for the bees. I make tea from it occasionally during the summer and I’m experimenting right now with tincturing the leaves to make a cordial. More on that later.

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This is chard’s second-best season.  In late spring and summer there are other  greens that I prefer, so I plant my chard in June and in October it is covered with lush green leaves and ready to harvest, when most other greens have given up.   Then I leave the plants in place over the winter and in the spring they send out a burst of leaves that are thick, meaty, tender, and utterly delicious. Remember to harvest the spring leaves before the central stalk starts to form, because as soon as the plant begins to shoot to seed, the leaves become dirty-tasting.  Pick all the fall leaves that you want, since this does not seem to affect the ability of the plant to live through the winter. Blanch some for winter greens if you don’t already have enough in the freezer.

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All my garden fruits except the quinces are finished for the year, but rose hips are easily found. I am  busy making extracts and cordials from them as a source of vitamin C, flavonoids, and pleasure over the winter.

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The perennialized section of elephant garlic is making clusters of thin tender leaves that are delicious  snipped up for garlicky chives.  I don’t care for the bulbs, and think that the greens are the best part of this leek relative,  so I cut all that the plants will produce as I need them.  The thin chive like greens shown here come from the tiny bulbils that are found around the outside of the bulbs. I plant them in handfuls to get a thick growth of greens as shown here.

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Those last green tomatoes make a wonderful sweet tangy chutney.

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I have a clump of perennialized chicory,  and it languishes in hot weather but produces a vigorous crop of deep greens in the fall.  The lower half of the leaf is mostly stalk, so I tend to cut off the upper halves for cooking. Chicory is a bitter green, much like dandelion.  It responds wonderfully to sautéing  with bacon or pancetta, garlic, and some red chili if you like it. It is also very good for adding savor to mixed greens that include blander species such as chard.

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Kale is at its best this time of year, and becomes more tender and sweet after a few frosts. The Tuscan kale will winterkill sooner than the others, so eat it first.  In climates with snow cover, curly kale will last throughout the winter, but in our very dry and windy winters with very little snow it seldom survives in any sort of edible condition.  Covering it with a frost blanket might well preserve it, but is more trouble than I really care to go to.  There are plenty of other things to eat.

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Celery and leeks need to be kept well supplied with water, and will still be fresh and good in the first week or two of November.  I usually buy leek plants in the spring, and none of the hardiest varieties are available as plants. There are very hardy varieties that will hold perfectly in the ground over winter, but to have them you have to remember to plant the seeds in midwinter, and I always forget.  Maybe this year I’ll remember.

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Now we come to the perennial weed patch.  Nobody who lives or gardens in the east will ever believe how much trouble I have taken to get burdock, milkweed, nettles, pokeweed, plantain, and scorzonera to grow in my area.  Burdock provides a good root in the fall from first year plants, makes large coarse leaves that my goat adores, and produces a flower stalk that is supposed to be the best part of the plant for edible purposes. I only got it to germinate this year, so I have not tried the stalks yet, but will be digging my first roots soon. Some people say the leaves and leaf stems are edible, but they are so stringy in texture and coarse in flavor that I’ve never been that desperate for something to eat.

The plantain is the Rugels variety which is rumored to be less stringy and have a better flavor than common plantain. I haven’t tasted it yet but will report back.

Milkweed can be eaten in many ways in many seasons.  As far as I know, our desert native milkweeds are largely inedible, but I have finally gotten the common milkweed to germinate and grow strongly. So next spring I hope to have edible shoots, buds, and pods. Read master forager Samuel Thayer’s books for excellent sections on the uses of milkweeds.

Pokeweed can be a giant nuisance but the spring greens have a great savor.  Or at least that’s what I remember, although I haven’t tasted them for 25 years and couldn’t swear to it.  If you decide to try them, remember that  only the young shoots about 6 inches high are edible and boiling in two changes of water is not optional. It is necessary to remove toxins. I hope to harvest my first shoots next spring.

Nettles and dock are two superb spring greens that seldom occur wild in my area, but grow very nicely in my weed patch.  They provide some of the earliest and most nutritious greens of the spring, and in late fall they produce some new greens that are well worth having at that season.  Every year I swear that I will remember to cut down the nettle patch in late summer so that the new greens can grow up unobstructed, and every year I forget and have to harvest the new greens with elbow length grilling gloves. But they are worth it.  Try to keep the nettles separate from the other plants, or you will have a tough time harvesting everything around them. The sting is pretty fierce.

I give my weed patch a periodic shallow mulch with mixed alfalfa and goat manure. They might grow well enough with no attention to fertility, but if you want your produce to be as nutritious as possible, the soil needs feeding.

If you wonder why it is worth having a weed patch, remember that these are some of nature’s wonder plants, among the most nutritious greens in the world. In addition, they taste really good.   Also, with perennials, once established the only work you have every year is harvesting and cooking them.  Once adapted to an area, they are unlikely ever to desert you. Permaculture also avoids soil disturbance. These plants are not classically attractive and need an inconspicuous spot, but they have a superbly healthy rough-and-ready vigor that is bracing even if it isn’t beautiful.

 

Foraging Know-how

I often write about my foraged and semi-foraged edibles, and periodically I like to post something about how to forage safely. With mushrooms, it’s a life-or-death matter to know what you’re doing. With plants there is sometimes a matter of deadliness at stake, but more often you are risking an upset stomach or a ghastly meal. So get it right, which is a fairly easy matter.
Easy instructions for beginners: buy any book by Samuel Thayer or John Kallas. They are both incredibly knowledgable foragers and good writers, and you will still be studying their books years from now and learning new things. I recommend starting with Kallas’s book, which is the comprehensive guide to wild greens that you will use for years or permanently. It is available in Kindle format, which is great because I can pull out my IPad at any time and study a bit without needing to lug around additional books with me. I have had this book since it was published and at least once or twice a month I go back to it to learn something new about using a familiar plant. Then add one of Thayer’s books, or both of them, to learn a new slant about the wild edibles you’ve already learned and learn some new ones. They aren’t available on Kindle, unfortunately, but they are wonderful.
There are a ton of other foraging books out there, and most of them have some special merit or charm, but if I ever had to narrow down my shelf, I would have these three. If you have some long winter evenings ahead of you, study and prepare so that you are ready to hit the ground in spring.
By the way, bear in mind that the original Cretan diet, the one that produced some of the longest-lived and healthiest people in the world, included wild greens as primary vegetables. They are extraordinary nutritional powerhouses and there is no better gift that you can give your body than to incorporate some of them into your diet. And, I hate to bring this up, but don’t just add them to your current diet; use them to replace something that isn’t doing your body good.
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Integrating Your Weeds II: Amaranth

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Amaranth is the second of my Holy Trinity of super-nutritious edible weeds. It is a creature of hot weather, and in my garden it’s appearing everywhere right now. Like lambs-quarters it will get huge if allowed to, and unless you have limitless room, your job is not to allow it to.
Consult any good wild-foods guide to identify it, and then assess how much of it you have. If your response is “OMG, it’s everywhere!” then don’t worry about propagating it. Your soil has plenty of seeds. If there are only one or two plants, proceed as for lambs-quarters the first season, and you will have amaranth in perpetuity. I have two varieties, one with smooth stems and one that forms small but unpleasant spines at the leaf joints, and I try to keep the spiny kind from ever going to seed.
Pick them when they’re about a foot high and have a nice large umbrella of leaves on top. I have no interest in eating stems, and I pull off the topmost part with all the largest leaves and add the rest of the plant to the mulch, taking care that it’s completely uprooted.
The greens are fairly mild but have a slight touch of the earthy flavor that’s so pronounced in beet greens. When grown in prime soil the flavor verges on meatiness in a delicious way, and my favorite way of cooking the greens adds other meaty umami flavors.
Wash a mixing bowl full of loosely packed leaves well and wilt them in a small amount of water, stirring frequently over fairly high heat until the leaves all look “cooked.” Drain them, saving all the cooking liquid. Return the cooking liquid to the pot and boil hard to concentrate it to a very small amount, maybe a couple of tablespoons (don’t turn your back on the pot or it will scorch.) Pour into a little bowl and save.
Chop 6 big green onions. Make a basic separation between white and green parts, but don’t get obsessive about it. Separately chop 6 big cloves of garlic. Heat about a quarter cup of olive oil in your largest skillet and cook the white parts over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. When they begin to look a little translucent and “cooked,” add the green parts, cook another couple of minutes, add the garlic, lower the heat to medium, and cook a few minutes more. Meanwhile, put the lump of blanched greens on a cutting board and chop fairly finely in both directions.
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When the garlic looks cooked but has not colored at all, add a handful of pitted chopped oil-cured olives to the sautéed mixture and cook another minute.
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Add the cooked chopped greens, the tiny amount of cooking liquid, a teaspoon of Spanish smoked paprika or, if you like heat, the same amount of ground chipotle chile. Add a small handful each of chopped parsley and chopped fennel fronds. If not cooking for vegetarians or vegans, add a smashed anchovy fillet or a dash of fish sauce. Cook the mixture over medium-low heat for at least 20 minutes, periodically turning it to get it all completely cooked (a spatula works well.) Taste it, salt to taste, and cook a few more minutes to let the salt blend in. Serve drizzled with good olive oil as a side dish, or fill an omelette with it and add some feta cheese, or bake in phyllo to make a hortapita or little spanakopitas, or do whatever else you fancy with it. Back when I ate bread, I used to love to smear this stuff on slices of grilled baguette and put some grated Parmesan and pine nuts on top. I can remember once baking it in thin bread dough with a raw egg on top, so that when baked in a hot oven the egg came out cooked. You can add cooked chickpeas and bits of cooked meat for a real peasant dinner. It freezes well in vacuum-sealed bags to keep you healthy all winter. When served next to beef or pork, I top each serving with a bit of butter to add to the general animalic savor. I like to have it in the refrigerator for a super-healthy lunch, and it seems to taste best at room temperature.
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Incidentally, the main reason for a poor result is not cooking it long enough. If it tastes grassy, keep going until it tastes good. Undersalting is another problem. Add salt cautiously because of the salty olives, but add enough.
If you don’t have a wild good guide that you like, get John Kallas’s “Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food From Dirt to Plate” and you will be glad you did.

The Weed You Need: Edible Wild Plants in Your Garden


Lambs-quarters seedlings
Here in New Mexico we have a trio of useful weeds that make delicious greens during the summer heat. In fact, I suspect that most pieces of the continent that aren’t actually submerged have these three. Lambs-quarters, amaranth, and purslane are ultra-nutritious, mild and pleasant in flavor, and take nearly any sort of abuse. They come along in that order; right now lambs-quarters in my yard is nearly ready to harvest, amaranth seedlings are about an inch high, and purslane seedlings are a fine mist on the ground. The reason to learn to recognize them now is so you don’t weed them out. They are shown here in seedling stages, but never rely on one source to identify a wild plant unfamiliar to you, at least not if you intend to eat it. Get a good foraging book (anything by Samuel Thayer or John Kallas will have the info that you need) and double-check yourself. Then, harvest and eat. These three are easy to use. Lambs-quarters is my favorite, but I’d hate to be without any of the three. I generally blanch them for two minutes in boiling salted water in an open pot, drain and press out all moisture, and chop, then proceed in any of dozens of ways or freeze them in vacuum-sealed bags for winter. Lambs-quarters and amaranth can be eaten by themselves with great pleasure, but personally I find purslane a little slimy by itself and prefer it as no more than 25% of a greens mixture. It’s full of omega-3 fatty acids, though, so don’t neglect it. Click the “greens” category on my sidebar and scroll through some ideas to get you going. Be careful not to let them overwhelm your garden plants. Amaranth and Lambs-quarters can grow six feet high and three across in good garden soil, and they can crowd out nearly any other plant that you might be trying to grow. Leave one of each to go to seed, and pull the others before they take over. I can’t think of anything nicer that most people could do for their health than eat more leafy greens. If you have chickens, be sure to give them all the nutritious weeds that they can eat. My dogs love cooked greens too, although of course they are given only limited quantities.
I can cut the tender tips several times per plant, but these are wild annuals and they do what wild annuals do, which is make huge quantities of seed before winter. When the days shorten, they will go to seed. I’ve tried planting seed in late summer to extend the harvest, and the new plants went to seed before they were six inches tall.  They haven’t been bred for our purposes, and I say thank goodness something hasn’t. Their season is a long and generous one, so enjoy it. Spread some seedheads in any neglected areas that you aren’t using, and you’ll benefit next year.

Amaranth seedling

Purslane seedling

Mild Wild Greens:the Siberian elm


There are some plants for which I have an intense and personal dislike, and the Siberian elm is close to the top of the list. It’s one of our more common trees, because it’s so highly adapted to invade and crowd out more desirable trees. The seeds come up everywhere, and their hold on life is astoundingly tenacious. Even as tiny seedlings, they have a deep root system. If you don’t get the whole thing out, they will come up from the root, they spread by root, and they produce, by scientific measure, a trillion skillion seeds per tree per season.

But this time of year, they have two good qualities. The first is that they cover their branches early in spring with bright lime green samaras, the casing within which the seed develops. They look fresh and green before anything else, which lifts my spirits toward spring. And, the samaras are edible and quite good, and available in mind-bending quantities. The samaras are round and paper-thin. Just pull them off the branches by the handful and add to salads or eat on the spot for a quick snack. Be sure to get them young, when fully expanded and a little over half an inch across but before the edges have started to dry and lose their intense greenness. Taste a few. If there is a “papery” feeling in your mouth, they’re too old. Use only those that are tender. The flavor is pleasant, mild, a little “green,” and very slightly sweet. They don’t have the texture or character to endure cooking. Just eat all you can, and if you have chickens, goats, etc., give them some too. There’s plenty.

Whenever you eat a food that is completely new to you, use good sense. Eat a little, wait a day, eat a little more only if you had no reaction to the first try. It goes without saying that you don’t put any wild plant in your mouth unless you are 100% sure what it is. For more on wild foods and foraging common sense, read anything by Samuel Thayer or John Kallas. Please don’t use my blog to identify plants, since identification is not my emphasis. You need a couple of good field guides for that. Start with Thayer’s Nature’s Garden and Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate and you may end up with an intriguing new hobby.

Addendum: when I wrote this post 6 years ago, I forgot to mention that the samaras are a great addition to spring salads, too. I had a little more to say about them this year, and you can read it here.

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.