Posts Tagged ‘wild foods’

The First Nettles of Spring

This year we ate all winter from the broccoli and greens growing under frost blankets. Even so, it remains a major spring event when the first nettles are ready to pick. They taste so good and give such an all-over glow of virtue.  There are people who think that nettles have special medicinal benefits. My own belief is that all dark leafy greens have medicinal benefits, and the important thing is to eat as wide a variety of them as possible. But that first meal from the uncovered soil does confer a special feeling that spring is finally and truly here.

If you aren’t familiar with them, consult a good wild-food field guide, and be aware that the sting is quite uncomfortable and can last hours. Have leather gloves handy for picking. They’re ready to harvest when 6-8” tall. I cut off the top 2” or so, including as much leaf and as little stem as possible.

I turn them into a big bowl of water and stir gently with a wooden spoon for 2-3 minutes to get dirt off.

My favorite tool for lifting them out of the water, leaving any dirt that was present at the bottom of the bowl, is a pair of “salad hands” that somebody once gave me as a hostess gift. A large slotted spoon would work too. I make sure to throw the water on a garden bed. We live in the desert, after all.

Cooking nettles is a breeze, but in my opinion chopping is a necessary step, to eliminate stringy stems. First I put them in the pan with about half a cup of water, and cook over high heat, stirring, for about two minutes or until thoroughly wilted. The water should be pretty much gone. Turn out on a cutting board, let cool for five minutes or so, and chop. The cooking has eliminated their capacity to sting, and you can handle them with impunity now.

The flavor of nettles is rather like spinach, but deeper and richer, with a slight feral twist. I especially like them creamed, and always eat the first ones this way. Slice up two big fat green onions, sauté them in butter until cooked, add chopped nettles, sauté another minute or so, add heavy cream just to cover, boil for a couple of minutes until the cream is thickened, and salt to taste. Serve with freshly ground pepper and nothing else, so that you can taste the true flavor of the nettles.  You can also use netales in absolutely any way that you would use cooked spinach. They are infinitely versatile, and I have never served them to anyone who disliked them.  After the initial cooking and chopping, they can be frozen for later years. Whenever I wash and cook nettles, I try to make about twice as much as I need for immediate use, so that I can freeze the other half.

They can be dried for tea, although I do not care for the watery tasting tea that results and don’t bother.  Adding a twist of orange peel or something similar would give more flavor. I am not much of a tea drinker, but if you are, this might be worth considering.

If, like me, you live in an area who are nettles don’t grow naturally, there are some considerations to growing them in your yard.  First is obtaining them. When I first started growing them in central New Mexico about 12 years ago, I could not get seeds to germinate and no herb nurseries offered them. I finally called an herb nursery from whom I was buying other things and asked if they could please find me some nettles.  The “plants” I received had clearly just been dug from the nearest roadside, and were little more than cut rhizomes in potting soil, but they grew just fine.  These days they are easier to find and a number of mail order nurseries have them.

Siting  must be done carefully, because of the sting and because they are invasive.  I have mine in an area surrounded by concrete, where they cannot escape to parts of the yard where I don’t want them.  My large dogs are readily able to avoid them, but I have heard that they could do real harm to very small dogs, so keep this in mind.   Growing them in areas where small children could get into them is an obvious no-no. They get tall and gangly and flop around, but if cut or mown back in summer, they stay neater and make a second crop in fall.  I hope that I am never without nettles in spring.

 

 

The Oyster of the Woods

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There is nothing more interesting than mushrooms. Really. An independent kingdom of organisms, they have much in common with animals and their interactions with plants are complex and often beneficial. For a wonderful read about mushrooms and their biological role, check out Paul Stamets’s Mycelium Running, and you will be wonderstruck at the hypheal hijinks going on all around you.
They are extremely easy to grow for everyone but me.  I am convinced that mushrooms have a very important role to play in a functioning urban homestead, even here in the high desert.  So far, however, I have been unable to make that work out in practice.  I have tried spreading the spawn among existing plantings under heavy straw mulches, and putting the spawn in piles of hard wood chips, and so far have not had any significant success, due to lack of consistent moisture, lack of shade, dry air, and insufficient attention.  I have harvested a few mushrooms, but nothing to write home about.  That is why the below images below are borrowed, to show how easily it can be done in moister climates than mine.
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Since I have finally accepted that it’s going to take more focus than just throwing some spawn around, my next attempt will be to insert plug spawn into damp hay bales in the dense shade of my black locust tree. I have also cut down a small Siberian elm recently and have a few pieces of suitable fresh log to try drilling plug spawn into. Next August I will harvest them, or not.
Meanwhile, many farmers’ markets have a mushroom farmer or two, and oysters can be found in our river bosque here and in many woods and forests if you are a knowledgable forager and know exactly what you are picking. Mushroom foraging is not for you unless you are prepared to study it seriously and know all your local toxics. No margin for error here.
However you get hold of them, good oyster mushrooms are just delicious. I love their earthy-almondy aroma and their meaty texture. I like them best simply pan-fried with a little macadamia oil and salt, but roasting them with a bit of butter and soy is awfully good, and so is grilling them rubbed with olive oil. The addition of a little chicken glacé early in the cooking stage so that it can cook into the caps suits their meaty flavor.
For preserving, I roast them with macadamia oil and salt just to the point that they are cooked through, cool them, bag, and freeze. When wanted, they can be thawed and pan-grilled until they get some lovely brown crunchy bits. I dehydrate the clean stems as long as they’re not buggy and grind them into oyster flour to thicken mushroom sauces and soups. I admit that I also open my little bag of oyster flour just to inhale deeply and recall the woods where I found them.
Yesterday I found that I had tossed more caps with macadamia oil and salt than would fit in my roasting pans, and stuck the surplus in the dehydrator. They emerged as delicious crunchy lightly browned Oyster Crackers. Yum. I will make more of those. A small pan-grilled cap on an Oyster Cracker would make a wonderful cook’s treat. In fact, a couple of them with nothing on top made a great cook’s treat…

A Cookbook to Make You Think: The New Wildcrafted Cuisine

 

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Some cookbooks make you cook. The recipes are smart and well-crafted and will clearly work, and you want to run to the kitchen and get started.

Other cookbooks make you think. They are provocative and, at their best, subversive, and expand your possibilities even if you never cook a single recipe.

Today we have a thinking cookbook. When I first looked at this book a few weeks ago it seemed meant to be weird. In fact, it seemed at first to have a self-consciously outré quality that set my teeth on edge. An example: “lemonade” made, not with citrus, but with 2000 lemon ants, a citrusy-tasting ant found in Southern California, crushed and macerated. Surely juicing a lemon would be quicker and better, although the image of some earnest chef-wannabe counting out 2000 lemon ants is an interesting one that will be with me for a while. The author proposes that some fermentations to make vinegar need to get started from the fruit flies that they naturally attract because the little bugs carry something (Acetobacter presumably) that start the conversion to vinegar. Yech. As I see it, fruit flies are why humans invented cheesecloth, and nothing will convince me that they are better fermented than slurped straight-up just as they land in your wineglass, an ingestion that I avoid if at all possible. There are a series of recipes with “forest floor” seasonings composed of grass and leaves found under trees, and I can’t say that I have ever nibbled on a grass that I would consider potentially useful as a seasoning. There are a lot of recipes for lacto-ferments, and having lived through the last lacto-fermenting craze, I am not very enthusiastic about having another one. Lacto-fermented elderflower “beer” might sound elegant but is nowhere near as good as a well-made wine. The current obsession with local terroir in wine often involves mediocre grapes, inferior bottling practices, and determination to drink bad wine because it somehow tastes of the locale, and I thought that author/forager Baudar’s “primitive brews” would be much like that.

In short, I thought that I would pan this book and get on with other things. Instead, after owning it for a few weeks, I keep going back to it and thinking, and gradually realizing how wrong my first impression was. I have seldom encountered a book that makes me think as creatively about possibilities, and this is after reading, foraging, and cooking for decades. Now the lemon-ant lemonade seems, not tricksy and silly and literally intended, but an invitation to explore the possibilities around you in ways that you might never have thought of on your own. In effect, the recipe tells you “Don’t limit yourself. Think about every possibility.”  Bauder’s practice of letting his gaze light on something familiar and spending some time thinking about its culinary possibilities is infecting me with new pleasures and possibilities. Make wild greens kimchee out of whatever greens suit your fancy, and not only enjoy it as is but dehydrate it to use as a seasoning? Sure. Try cold-infusing the deliciously honey-scented goumi blossoms in my front yard to make a drink, as Baudar does with elder flowers and others? Not until my bushes get bigger, but then I will. Put a few of their blossoms on salads now? Of course. The trash Siberian elms that invade the Rio Grande bosque; have I ever thought about whether their scented cambium (inner bark) had any flavoring possibilities if roasted or smoked and infused? Not until I read this book. I like to make verjus from unripe grapes in the summer and enjoy its clean sourness anywhere that I might use lemon juice, but I’ve never thought of juicing other unripe fruits for the same purpose, and I’ll enjoy testing their range of flavors. I may well try roasting outdoors on a hot stone, or cooking something fast and delicate by arranging pine needles and herbs over the food in question and burning them. It has been a decade since I made flavored vinegars for shrubs, but now I will because this book has excited me all over again about the possibilities. And yes, I will certainly be trying “primitive brews” akin to his and experimenting with my local versions of his SoBeers, fizzy low-alcohol concoctions somewhere in between soda and beer. I’ll be tasting my own local grasses and herbs again to test their flavoring possibilities. I’ll be making vinegar-based and fermented hot sauces. I’ll try vinegars flavored with an assortment of my local seeds to grind into a mustard-like condiment. In short, I will view the familiar things around me, with uses that I think I already know, with new excitement and find new uses for them. Once over my initial dubiousness, I began to think that this is one of the most exciting cookbooks that I have read in a very long time. See where it leads you. Odds are that I will never cook a single recipe from it as written, because that isn’t the point.

I trust that it goes without saying (but here it is anyway): YOUR SAFETY IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY when foraging. Study, consult guidebooks, and know for certain what you are about to taste. This book is not a guidebook and will not teach you the safety of your own local plants and animals. Don’t wander around tasting things at random, like a feckless innocent in Not-Eden. That kind of thing gives foraging a bad name.

Wild or Cultivated? Both. Also Delicious.

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As a general rule, I try not to review cookbooks until I have owned them for at least a year.  I buy them at retail, paying the same price that my readers will eventually pay, and then I read them, cook from them and think about them.   Many cookbooks that seemed very enticing when I first brought them home are relegated to distant shelves a year later.

This one still has a prominent place at my bedside, which is my favorite place for reading and thinking about food. Chef Emmons  writes about a year that she spent cooking from a wildly varied organic vegetable farm, Eva’s Farm.  This farm seems to be doing on a very large scale what I am trying to do on my property on a very small scale, i.e. there is a little bit of everything and no clear line between the cultivated plants and the wildlings.  Lambsquarters and nettles are given the same culinary consideration as spinach and chard, but there is no particular emphasis on their wildness; they’re just there.  This is absolutely as it should be, in my view. The difference between a cultivated plant and a weed is a rather slight one.

The recipes read as an ongoing series of seasonal improvisations on the level of “see it growing, cook it, eat it.”  They certainly work if you want to follow them closely, but in my view are better read as a vision of the garden through the eye of a cook, who might see infinite possibilities but can only cook one of them at a time. There is an emphasis on frugality but not an obsession with it. The use of herbs in lavish free-form ways is a delightful subtext. The sidebars are full of interesting thoughts about farming, cooking, and just being alive. The recipes include meat and dairy products and, in general, everything that might grow on a vegetable farm or be bartered for.

In brief, I love this book, use it, and recommend it. I put it aside this winter, but when the first greens showed above ground, it was back at my bedside. It looks a bit worn and has a food stain on the cover, which tends to distinguish the cookbooks that I read from the ones that I use.

Nettle Season

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If green garlic is always the first thing that I harvest in spring, nettles are always the second. When I moved to New Mexico I couldn’t find any and couldn’t get seeds to germinate, so I was reduced to calling an herb nursery and begging them to dig up some nettles on their property and sell them to me. Every spring I’m glad that I did. Gather the tender tops with as little stem as possible, wearing leather garden gloves. Don’t handle them without gloves, no matter what you read on the Internet. I always manage to pick up a sting on my wrist just above the glove, but it hasn’t killed me yet. Wash in a big bowl of water, stirring them with a wooden spoon. Drain and dump them into lightly salted boiling water. Boil for two minutes and drain. They are now rendered weaponless: the venom (formic acid) has been denatured by heat and the zillions of fine spines that do such a good job of injecting the venom into your skin are soft. Squeeze the drained greens dry, chop them up to eliminate any stringiness in the stems, and finish cooking them any way you like. They are awfully good just braised in cream with a bit of sautéed green garlic and finished with butter and a little salt. You can click on the “greens” category of this blog for some other ideas. They are a mild-flavored green and can be used any way that you use spinach, although the flavor is a little different; “wilder” is the best way I can describe it. They are ultra-nutritious and worthy of a place on your spring menu. They are even…gulp…worth buying plants of if you don’t have them naturally.

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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.