Posts Tagged ‘wild food’

A Brilliant New Foraging Book, and notes on poisonous plants

Of all the people alive whom I don’t actually know, Samuel Thayer is the one that I would most like to meet for a walk in the woods. His combination of erudition, common sense, and perspective is unique in the field. His two previous foraging books are among the most worn and frayed books on my shelves, and I’m thrilled to add a third to my foraging collection.

One of my favorite things about Thayer’s books is that there is very little repetition from one volume to another. If a plant that was thoroughly explored in one book is brought up in the next book, you can be sure that there is going to be new information that you really want to know.

Incredible Wild Edibles begins with several general-information chapters which are by no means the usual blather and which you should actually read because they concern safety, legality, and sustainability. I also recommend reading the section called The Chicken Feathers Guy, which describes how some people knock the joy right out of foraging and food preparation, for themselves and for others.

Then there are the plants. They include some which are new to me, such  as the creeping bellflower and the purple poppy mallow.  The latter is a common ornamental in my  high desert area, and I am embarrassed that I never knew it was edible. There is a good chapter on bladder campion, a weed that I admire because it’s always the last green I harvest in winter and the first green of spring.  Some of the described plants are common invasives becoming ever more common, such as fennel. How fortunate that it’s delicious. As Thayer says in the context of another invasive plant: “All this hatred directed against a plant just because it grows.”  Several varieties of mulberry are discussed, and Thayer is effortlessly erudite about their confused taxonomy.  He also mentions culinary uses of the mulberry leaves and flowers, without repeating the old wives’ tale that they are hallucinogenic. (Please, other foraging writers, stop just picking up this stuff from each other and repeating it as gospel.) The chapter on pokeweed deserves special discussion. This is the perfect example of a food that was a seasonal staple in many parts of the country, and everyone who ate it knew how to prepare it safely. Now, because it needs a preboil and because writers quake in fear of liability, they make it sound as if the plant will leap out of the ground and stab you given half a chance. Thayer gives a sensible explanation of exactly what you need to do, explains why he refuses to live in constant fear of liability, and leaves it at that. Personally I haven’t tasted poke shoots since I moved to the Southwest almost twenty years ago, but I finally got a couple of plants going last year and am looking forward to a small feast next spring. Preboiled and blanching water discarded, of course.

Now, for some brief comments on poisons.  There’s an element of real hysteria about the dangers of foraging, and strange tales are told, such as that expert Euell Gibbons died of eating a poisonous wild plant. This is nonsense; he had Marfan’s Syndrome and died of an aortic dissection, a common complication of that disease and not preventable in those days. There are some seriously poisonous plants in the world, definitely including some that will kill you. That said, most poisonings are cases of ignorant misidentification or misuse,  and if you are going to forage, you owe it to yourself and others to take your hobby seriously and get all the information you need to identify every wild plant you eat BEYOND A DOUBT and know about any special prep that it needs.  If your hobby was woodworking you would take the trouble to learn to use a saw safely, wouldn’t you? Foraging is less likely to harm you because, after all, your ancestors lived by foraging for millions of years, and you have access to a lot more information than they did. There are so many tasty wild plants that cannot reasonably be mistaken for anything poisonous that you can stick to the basics and still fill your plate much of the year. But Sam Thayer includes clear photos of all potential look-alikes and descriptions of how to tell them apart, so if you have his books, there is really not much excuse for error.

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.

 

Mulberry Heaven II: Mulberry Leaf Dolmas

As I mentioned in my last mulberry post, I’m fond of eating very young mulberry leaves in cooked greens mixtures, and recently I was inspired by a post on TC Permaculture to think about mulberry leaf dolmas. I had located a mulberry tree with big and fairly tasty leaves, perfect for dolmas:
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I asked my friend to stick his hand in the picture so that you can see that these leaves are big, over 7 inches long in many cases.
Be aware that if you are going to cook with mulberry leaves, they have to be young and you have to taste them first. Some are quite tasty, some are okay, and some are awful. Chew up a little bit. It will taste raw and green, but if there are acrid awful flavors, don’t go further. Use grape leaves instead in that case.
I foraged a couple of dozen big mulberry leaves, rinsed and blanched them for a minute in boiling water, and set out to make a meat filling. Mine was very improvisational, so I’ll describe it casually. For more specific and concrete recipes, you can google “dolmas” and find hundreds. I wanted to use what was fresh and good in my garden.
I started with a pound of ground beef from our local grassfed beef people. Don’t use beef that’s very lean; it will be dry when cooked. I chopped up three large green onions, greens and whites chopped separately, and four cloves of garlic. I put the white onion parts and the garlic to sauté over medium-low heat in a glug of good olive oil. While they cooked, I chopped a handful of parsley, a large sprig of cutting celery, a few large sprigs of thyme, a large handful of cilantro with stems, and a sprig of sweet marjoram, and mixed them with the chopped onion greens. To the beef I added a heaping teaspoon of salt and a heaping teaspoon of Maras pepper flakes. The Maras pepper was courtesy of a friend who kindly muled it back from Turkey for me, but you can use any mild red pepper flakes, or leave them out. Work the sautéed mixture and the chopped herbs into the beef very well with your hands. Now work in a cup of toasted pine nuts, chopped toasted almonds, or chopped toasted walnuts. Let the mixture rest in the refrigerator an hour or two if possible, or up to overnight, to let the flavors develop.
Fill the dolmas; again, there are a thousand visual tutorials online if you are unfamiliar with the process. Fit them tightly into a pan lined with parchment paper. In the photo below you can see some made with grape leaves among the vibrant dark green mulberry dolmas.
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Put about a quarter cup of water in the pan, and cover loosely with foil. Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes. Boil down the pan juices in a little saucepan to make a sauce, if it tastes at all watery right out of the oven, which it probably won’t because of all the herbs. Serve them forth, with well-strained or full-fat Greek yogurt. I like to salt the yogurt to taste. Ornament the yogurt with a drift of pepper flakes or a scattering of paprika if you like. Scatter crumbled feta over the dolmas if that suits your taste.
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I don’t add rice to the filling because I’m a ketogenic eater, but if you aren’t, feel free to add rice for a more traditional filling, or you could add bread crumbs for a less dense filling.  If you want to take the trouble, you can make an avgolemono sauce or a tomato sauce to go over the dolmas. But do keep the field-and-garden improvisational nature of the thing.

My Bookshelf: Efficient Gardening and the foraging gourmet


Mini Farming is about producing as much food as possible from as little space as possible. It covers a number of ways to produce food, including vegetable and fruit growing and raising chickens for eggs and meat. It goes into great detail about soil amendment so that your plants will grow. You may not want to garden in this precise fashion, and I’m with you there, since my own gardening methods are more slapdash. But it’s good to know some rules before you start breaking them. It is a very practical book, offering an astounding amount of information per dollar. The author has clearly done these things himself; sadly, this is not always the case in homesteading books. He is careful to tell you what you need to know. A pet peeve of mine is the number of homesteading books that purport to teach you how to raise animals for meat, then when the time comes to harvest the meat they go coy and soft-focus and say “Be sure to have an expert show you how to do the killing.” What nonsense. You may not have anyone available to demonstrate, or a self-elected “expert” may do such an awful job that you think you’ll never eat meat again. A good book can describe the process and ready you for what you will encounter every step of the way. This book tells you exactly how to kill and butcher a chicken as quickly and humanely as possible. If you are going to raise meat birds, read it even if you plan to have a more experienced person help you, so that you understand beforehand what’s going to happen. This is a great value and a good book for the serious “yard farmer.”

I do not ever accept free review copies of the books that appear on my blog. I buy them at my local independent bookstore, paying the price that you are likely to pay. Books like this make me realize why I set that policy. This is a very beautiful book, and the recipes are top-notch. But if you’re buying it because you are interested in wild foods, you need to know a few things:
1. A lot of the wild foods described are mushrooms, which many foragers prefer to avoid.
2. This is not a book about how to forage. You’ll need a couple of good foraging instructional books for that.
3. If you’re one of my local Albuquerque readers, a lot of the foods described don’t grow wild around here.
In short, this is a great coffee-table book and a fine high-end cookbook, and if you love to spend time in the kitchen trying to find the greatest height to which a foraged food can be brought, you’ll love this book. If you love to gaze upon exquisite (and expensive) glossy photos of resplendent food, you’ll love this book. I love this book. But $40 is a price that makes me stop and think hard about value for money, and I can’t honestly say that it represents great value for money. If I had gotten it free, I might unconsciously gloss over that part. I’m glad I bought it, but if your goal is to learn to forage, this is not the book for you.

Books Worth Reading: John Kallas on Edible Wild Plants


The holiday weekend was a great time to read in a warm spot, which reminded me that I should be sharing more of the books that I think are really helpful. I should add that I don’t accept free review copies; whenever I review a book, I paid the same price for it that you will. I think that this is essential to an accurate judgment of the value-for-money aspect of the books that I recommend.
With that in mind, John Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate is a very good value if you want to get started in foraging. I get a lot of inquiries about wild foods, and this is a book that I can recommend without reservation to any beginner; if you read and pay attention, you will learn to collect a number of common plants safely and prepare them well. Kallas concentrates on leafy greens which are found in most parts of the country, and he organizes them by flavor category in addition to giving accurate botanical and ID information. This is a lot more useful and practical than you might realize if you aren’t accustomed to foraging for greens. A well-balanced dish of greens needs a range of flavor notes, as well as a base of mild greens to build upon, and as you learn the plants from Kallas you will learn the notable aspects of their flavors. In my opinion, nearly any experienced forager could pick up a tip or two here, about preparation if not about identification.
Only greens and shoots are found in this book. If this seems too limited, keep in mind that most of us aren’t going to spend the time needed to forage and prepare wild staples, at least not most of the time. It’s romantic to read about gathering wild rice or arrowroot, or to imagine spending a clear autumn day gathering and storing fruit or nuts, but the wild foods that are widely available throughout much of the country for much of the year and that you can forage in a few minutes on your way home from work are mostly greens and shoots. Besides, if most of us were to make one change in our diets and maintain it, the addition of more green veggies would be a good one to pick. If foraging gets you to eat more leafy greens, this is a good thing.
If, like me, you’re a Kindle addict, this book is available on Kindle. I use the Kindle app on my Ipad so that I can see the photos in color. I daydream about eventually having a large collection of good foraging books on one e-device that I can carry around in my backpack, but unfortunately most of the wild-foods books available for Kindle are not of high quality. This one is.
DR. Kallas’s website can be found here if you’d like to order the book directly from him. You can also read his reviews of foraging books, and his thoughtful comments are invaluable when deciding what books you want to add to your collection.

Sudden changes of plan


In urban homesteading as in the rest of life, it’s never possible to know what the future holds. In early July as I was planning and starting my fall/winter garden, my very beloved husky was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and a short life expectancy. Thanks to the care of a wonderful canine oncologist he is free of pain and enjoying his last weeks, but it rapidly became clear to me that the fall garden was not going to be a priority after all, both because of his care needs and because I want to spend all the time that I can with him. Weeding, planting, and the constant ongoing care that a garden needs came to a sudden halt.
So, what to do about the garden? I was soon able to identify the vegetables that flourish on neglect. Corn did well, and we gorged on fresh sweet corn regularly, although the last planting was too young to take the neglect and so our corn season ended early. Sweet potatoes have been unstoppable. Swiss chard has done well, and the winter squash is out to eat the world. We have a problem with borers in our area, so this year I limited myself to squash of the C. moschata variety, which are rumored to be resistant to them. The vines are producing well and not a single one has shown that sudden disheartening wilting that heralds the squash borer. My enthusiasm for edible weeds really paid off, as we ate greens dishes full of lambs-quarters, mallow, amaranth, and purslane. I always let some of my spring crop of arugula go to seed, and a self-sown fall crop is coming up to supply our salad bowl. Self-sown chicory is showing up here and there. Dandelions have grown a foot across, and are too bitter to eat now but after a few frosts they’ll be perfect for braising. Mallow enjoys heat and neglect and even offers pretty purple flowers if you grow the Malva sylvestris type. The wild-type daylilies are spreading happily and will supply spring shoots. Peruvian purple potatoes are healthy and strong. They form tubers late, but in a couple of months we expect to be eating a lot of them. Cherry and paste tomatoes are winding their way through the general melee and producing a surprising number of tomatoes.
At the time that my dog was diagnosed there were hundreds of wild sunflower seedlings all around the property, and I decided to let them grow unmolested, thinking that they would eventually supply green matter for mulch and would keep worse weeds from taking over. We now have a sunflower forest twelve feet high on two sides of the house, and the beauty of the flowers lights up the days. They also attract thousands of bees to the open flowers, and the ripening seeds have drawn hundreds of goldfinches to my yard. Hummingbirds strafe each other over my head, and my husky spends his good days wandering in his own private jungle.
To me the spirit of urban homesteading is one of making do as best we can despite uncontrollable circumstances. It’s a spirit that sets priorities and says “First things first.” My priorities right now are clear, and there are more important things then a carefully planned winter garden. To feed the bees and birds and to find my life unexpectedly full of bright color, flashing movement, wild life,and even good homegrown food although not the food that I had planned on is a gift that I hope I won’t forget.