Posts Tagged ‘Siberian elm’

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.

The Siberian Elm and Our New Ecosystem

When I write about the uses of invasives, I can usually count on getting a lot of hate. So I’ll say this up front: I am thoroughly acquainted with the awful side of the Siberian Elm, Ulmus pumila. It invades inexorably, grows indefatigably, sucks up groundwater needed by our beautiful native cottonwoods, and is generally regarded as a trash tree. It’s changed the entire ecology of the Rio Grande bosque. I get all that.

But here’s the thing: while pamphlets and online sites are devoted to how to battle the Siberian elm, the battle is over and this tree has already won the war. It’s everywhere, and it cannot be eradicated.  So as I see it, we might as well look at whether we can use it well. And since I only write about my own small home ground, I am not looking at how to use hundreds of acres of it well, but how to use it on a half acre.  It grows lustily even in our dry desert climate, and there are large areas where it is the only green thing around, so I feel a certain gratitude to it. But I don’t allow it inside my yard because I want other trees there, and because as soon as I step outside my gate, it’s everywhere.

For me, its food uses are limited. I’ve written before about the edible samaras, or seed cases,  and I won’t say more here except that they have a pleasant green mild taste and are produced in unbelievable quantities every spring, and the chickens like them as much as I do.  As I get further into permaculture I’m experimenting more with tree leaves that have culinary uses, but I can’t find anything much about Siberian elm leaves except on the wonderful site Eat the Weeds, where I find that the young leaves are edible cooked. I admit that this doesn’t sound enterprising on my part, but I haven’t tried it yet. I have so many other green things to eat that it will probably be some time before I make this experiment.  I can’t find any nutritional analysis even about their use as fodder, although I did find one reference stating that they might be a potential source of higher-protein forage for animals.

But when it comes to nutritious forage, I typically let my beloved old dairy goat Magnolia make her own decisions. And there is no question that Siberian elm is her favorite food and one of the few foods that she never gets tired of.  So over the years I have been letting Siberian elms grow up along my longest fenceline, and cutting them back above the top of the fence. New branches grow at astounding speed below the cuts, and Maggie chows them down as an almost exclusive diet all summer long. She is naturally on the thin side, but loses no weight during the 6-7 months of her elm diet, and her enthusiasm never fails. The usual life-span of a domestic goat is 9-11 years and she is pushing 13, so I don’t think it’s done her a bit of harm. The feed is free, as local as it gets, and gives me plenty of mostly unwanted exercise with the cutting and hauling. The trunks occupy the space along the hot baking hell of the open space, and I don’t give them any water so they’re surviving on what they can find on their own. There’s no doubt that they look scraggly between cuttings, but I can tolerate that to see Maggie so happy. And if I ever get hungry enough I’ll try eating them myself.

The hens also love the leaves when young and tender. They might eat the tougher late summer leaves if cut up, but I don’t bother when there are so many other greens for them.

I’m largely talking about animal feed here, but whenever I allude to possible human uses I feel compelled to say a few common-sense things about wild and unfamiliar foods:

1. Never assume that because an animal can eat it, you can eat it. Goats in particular are able to eat some plants that are toxic to other animals including humans. Magnolia’s metabolism is wired differently than mine.

2. Never assume that because one part is edible, the whole plant is edible. Black locust blossoms and elder flowers are delicious, but the leaves and stems are toxic. There is no substitute for studying reliable authorities.

3. Never assume that because other people including reliable authorities can eat it, you can eat it. Test a small amount of any new food, and wait a day before trying more.

The Fall Summation IV Part 3: Perennial Odds and Ends

So far I’ve written about 16 perennial vegetables that I eat regularly and enjoy, and there are still more to mention. Most are things that I haven’t really gotten to work well yet, but pictured above is a perennial veggie that I eat nearly every day. The Egyptian walking onion has become so intrinsic a part of my cuisine that I don’t take special note of it as a perennial vegetable. It’s just food. I have written elsewhere about how I manage it,  so I won’t repeat most of that material here except to say that I have four patches of it now, north exposure and south exposure, sun and shade.  This is how I ensure that almost every day of the year except January, there are green onions somewhere on the property that I can harvest. A good way to site them is to wait for a spring snow and then note two things: where the snow melts away first, and where it lingers the longest.  This gives you a good indication of your warmest and coolest microclimates, and you want to get some perennial green onions in each so that you have the longest possible season. If you don’t get any snow at all, odds are that you can grow them throughout the year with succession planting.

I stole the photo above because I daydream about lavish piles of fresh bamboo shoots. Three years ago I planted Phyllostachys dulcis, the famously invasive sweetshoot bamboo, a 35’ bamboo with shoots sweet enough to eat raw.  I reasoned nervously that in my desert climate the lack of water would probably keep it from spreading far, and for extra insurance I sited it against the fence of my goat’s pen so that, in a worst-case scenario, I could turn her loose on it.  Three years later, it is a clump of about five scrawny canes 6 feet high at most, and I have eaten exactly one bamboo shoot.  That one shoot was very delicious slivered into a salad, but this is not exactly the course that I anticipated. Maybe it’s my dry climate and alkaline soil, or maybe it’s karma,  but so far this one isn’t budging. I remain hopeful.  Maybe 2018 will be its year to take off.

Rugel’s plantain is a plantain  that I actually paid money to have, because I read that it had better flavor than the common great plantain.  It might taste a little less rank and weedy, but I don’t find it to be a choice eating plant by any means.  Probably the best way to use it is boiled and seasoned baked in the planting chips, but then even the common plantain tastes okay when used that way.  So this one is a nice indestructible plant with limited uses.  I am willing enough to let it keep occupying that space, but if I had it to do over again, I probably would not spend money on a specimen.

Rhubarb is not a plant that I find a lot of uses for, but I must say that I do enjoy harvesting in the tightly packed flower buds. When steamed, they look a lot like cauliflower but taste strikingly like sorrel, with a strong lemony tang.  The cooked buds make a delicious addition to mixed cooked vegetable salads.

Sea kale  is a plant that is still settling in for me.  Each plant makes only six or seven big waxy leaves, and if you harvest more than one, the plant will probably die. Only one of my new plants bloomed this year, and I did not harvest the buds as a “mini broccoli“ because I wanted to smell the flowers, which are said to smell strongly of honey. Mine had very little scent, so I might as well have eaten the buds.  But they were mobbed with bees.   I am told that if you let the plant ripen seeds, that is another thing that will cause it to die. Per the reports of people who have it, it seems determined to die. I did read that the leaves could be harvested in late fall when the plant no longer needs them, but at that point mine were so ratty and bug-holed that I could not imagine eating them.  So in 2018 I will just harvest buds and leave it at that.  I want to love this plant, because Thomas Jefferson loved it, but so far it is not exactly earning its keep around my place.  Still, there are many perennials that it takes me years to learn to use well, so maybe this is one of them.

Chicory comes in dozens of forms. The one that I grow as a perennial is Clio, from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. It resembles a dandelion on steroids until it produces its sky-blue raggedy blooms. I cut down the bloomscape after it blooms, and harvest the newer leaves in fall. Like all bitter greens, it needs strong seasoning, and I especially like it with bacon lardons and red chile.  The flavor is different from dandelion leaves, a little richer and not as bitter, and some people like it who don’t care for dandelion at all. I think that probably you could force it with frost blankets in cold weather, but haven’t tried that yet because I have enough other things to eat in cold weather.

I think that every urban homestead needs to have a wine grape growing somewhere. You will never get enough grapes from one vine to make any wine or vinegar, but wine grapes tend to have nice edible leaves,  while the leaves of Concord grapes and many other grapes of American derivation are full of unchewable undigestible fibers and cannot be considered edible. Grape leaves are endlessly useful. I might actually make stuffed grape leaves once a summer, but once a week in the mid and late spring I grab a handful of grape leaves to throw in mixed greens. They need to be finally slivered because the leaf veins can be tough, and the stems need to be removed altogether, but they have a lovely tang. I also like the small fresh ones chopped into salads.  Young tender grape leaves fried quickly in olive oil make a labor-intensive but really lovely garnish for nearly anything that you might serve in late spring, and I recommend frying them in good olive oil because the rich oil combined with the shatteringly crisp lemony leaf is very delicious.

I have decided to count the Siberian elm samaras that grow all along the nearby path as a perennial since, after all, what could be more perennial than a tree? Elm samaras are mild and have no distinctive flavor of any kind,  but they are available in mind-blowing quantities, and are the first green of spring along with bladder campion and whatever I have managed to force under frost blankets.  They are a useful addition to salads and cooked greens, can be nibbled along the walk as a nice trail snack, and gathered by the bucketful  for my chickens and goat, who have gone through the winter without fresh greens.  So despite their lack of distinction, all of us are happy to see them. Within two weeks of their first appearance as a green mist on the trees, the edges have become papery and tough and the season is over. No problem, I am on to other things at that point.  But later in the growing season when I am cursing the wily and invasive Siberian elm, it helps to remember that it was one of the first fresh things to come to my table.

 

Permaculture Salad, and Notes on the Siberian Elm

Spring on the urban homestead is so beautiful and bountiful that I can hardly believe it, and I spend more time than I care to admit just wandering around dazed with the wonder and joy of it all.  But there is a practical aspect to my trance, because while giving thanks to the cosmos for the life that surrounds me, I am noting what can go in the salad bowl that evening.

The salad shown above is a pretty typical urban homestead salad. It contains a handful of lettuce, some early arugula, and a lot of biennials and perennials that wintered over and got an early start.   Tiny leaves of curly kale that began to leaf out as soon as the weather got warm are good salad material, still sweet from night frosts, although I don’t like older kale in salads.  There is a little chervil because I threw the seeds around in warm spots last fall.

So here’s the species list for tonight:

Lettuce

arugula

chervil

scorzonera

salsify

wild lettuce

sow thistle

dandelion

Siberian elm samaras

Bladder campion

tarragon

mustard (one Southern Giant plant overwintered somehow)

Green perennial onions

A few further notes on the ingredients: in the past I had tried cooking scorzonera greens and thought they were fairly uninteresting, but for some reason I never tried them as salad material until this year. They are very mild in flavor and have a nice slightly substantial and tender texture, and I am using them a lot now.  They make a good base for some more flavorful greens like dandelion and mustard and arugula.  I have written in the past about how much I love the elongating flower stalks when pan grilled in olive oil, so this is a very good dual purpose vegetable. I plan to plant more of it.

In the past I have mostly used Siberian elm samaras as a “hand salad” eaten spontaneously on walks when  they presented themselves.  They are too mild to be of much interest cooked, although I do use them in greens mixtures sometimes, but I have found that I like them in salads in rather substantial amounts, probably a cup of washed samaras in a salad for two.  There is something about the texture that I enjoy, provided you pick them at the right stage, when they are about the size of a dime and the edges are still fresh green and have not yet grown at all papery.  They need a little bit of cleaning, but most of the debris can be floated off once you have broken up the clumps with your fingers, and 15 minutes of preparation is not too much for a vegetable that cost you no effort or money whatsoever in the growing.

Have a  look at what’s available to you in field and forest and in your own yard.  Learn how to make a really good vinaigrette. Use common sense, and don’t eat plants unless you are completely sure that they are edible.