In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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The Forager’s Dilemma, Week Ending 5/19/2019

This year, I missed the window for milkweed shoots.

I noticed the milkweed (Asclepius syriaca) coming up in the field across the street from my house a few weeks ago. Milkweed is one of the darlings of foraging, because it has so many edible parts through so many different seasons: shoots in the spring, flower buds in the summer, flowers in the late summer and edible seedpods if you catch them early enough (also in the late summer).

The milkweed patch, for as long as it may stand

The milkweed patch, for as long as it may stand

But you see, I already know what will befall the milkweed plants growing surreptitiously among the meadow grass and other “weeds.” In a few weeks, the farmer will mow his field to the ground, just like last year, and I – and all the monarch butterflies – will be deprived of this amazing plant.

Well. I can drive to the grocery store for food. This year, I am also “all in” on my garden, which will (baring any weather related catastrophes) will help keep me and mine fed. (Although the children will protest it, I’m sure.) The monarchs butterflies, though… that’s all they have. And they won’t have it for very long as it is.

Which is why I’ve decided to experiment with “reverse foraging.” I adopted this phrase from author Sara Bir, and I suspect most serious foragers have done something similar. The idea is straightforward enough: intentionally encouraging and even propagating wild edible plants. It can be as simple as ensuring optimal habitat is available for the plants – even just not mowing part of the lawn – or as complex as re-seeding ramps in a woodland patch getting bare. OK, I can’t actually do that because I still haven’t discovered ramps in the woods near me. But I can (and did) scatter milkweed seeds among the wildflowers I planted in my side yard to see if they would grow.

Baby milkweed

Baby milkweed


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Nettlesome Foraging, Week Ending 5/12/2019

I recently discovered a veritable nettle bounty grows less than a mile from my house!

I first located stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) in the woods nearby in early spring last year. I was very excited since stinging nettle is one of the “classic” wild foraged edibles. People even harvest it to sell farmer’s markets because of its cachet in the local food movement. Stinging nettle is best harvested early in the spring – earlier than pictured here – when the tops are at their youngest and most tender. If you’re going to eat them, that is. Stinging nettles can be used for tea long after they are too tough to eat.

A carpet of stinging nettles

A carpet of stinging nettles

The jagged leaves growing opposite each other on the stem look similar to members of the mint family. But there is no doubt which plant it is if you bravely – or accidentally – touch the hairs on the stem.

I have read that drying stinging nettle removes the infamous bite from the stems. Personally, I find that even dried leaves retain some sting, making them unpleasant to handle. The best approach, in my opinion, is to dunk them in boiling water, and simmer a few minutes before draining.

Boiling stinging nettle

Boiling stinging nettle

Boiling the stinging nettle offers two benefits. You precook the greens for future use in recipes. And if you carefully strain the cooking water into a separate container instead of letting it go down the drain, you have stinging nettle tea as well! I store the intensely-green colored liquid in the fridge to drink cold as a pick-me-up, or warm for a tonic. Stinging nettle tea both looks and tastes like spring.

Emerald green stinging nettle tea

Emerald green stinging nettle tea

This year, I also discovered local Canadian wood nettle (Laportea canadensis). Technically I “found” it late last autumn, when foraging for pawpaws. As I searched the forest floor for fallen fruit, I would periodically get stung by dead or dying stalks of something. The stalks seemed to be everywhere.

Turns out they are everywhere this spring as well. Comparing the shapes of the leaves against those of stinging nettle, I had this sudden thought that maybe I had found wood nettle. Wood nettle has rounder leaves than the more famous stinging nettle.

Canadian Wood Nettle

Canadian Wood Nettle

I brushed one with my index finger to confirm its stinging nature, and sure enough, it let me have it! The burning sensation continued longer than I liked, so I tried my first ever spit poultice. Guys, this is gross but it actually worked. I found a broad leaf plantain, chewed part of a leaf and then put the resulting wet mess on the sting. I then wrapped the rest of the leaf around the finger to help hold the spit poultice in place. The burning disappeared almost immediately, and after half a minute the only memory of the experience was the leaf wrapped around my finger.

I did not have any harvesting equipment (aka gloves and a bag) with me at the time, so I cannot tell you how wood nettle tastes. I read it tastes even better as a cooked green than stinging nettle, and I hope to be able to report on that by next week. Unfortunately, I am currently suffering from an embarrassment of vegetables (mostly wild) for cooked green veggies, and I fear a family rebellion if I serve too many too soon!

Apparently there is also an “American nettle”, Urtica gracilis, that grows in Maryland according to the Maryland Biodiversity Project. But I haven’t found that yet, and might not depending on its typical growing habitat.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that stinging nettle and wood nettle are not related to purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), which I discussed a few months ago. Purple deadnettle actually is a member of the Mint family. The “dead” in its common name reflects the fact that it does not sting, unlike the other nettles discussed this week.

Have you ever eaten a plant that fights back?


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Poking At Fate, Week Ending 5/5/2019

Everyone can stop worrying now! I am pleased to report I survived eating pokeweed.

PLEASE NOTE: This post details my own personal experience eating a weed which is poisonous if consumed incorrectly. None of this should be considered an endorsement for eating pokeweed. Reader beware. Ok, on with the story.

I read many, many sources before trying pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) since it is known to be poisonous. It took me so long to try it, in part, because so many authors gave differing information about how to handle poke, at what size to harvest it, how long exactly you had to boil it, and whether or not cook it further after the boiling.  The only thing they agreed on was: don’t ever eat pokeweed raw, and avoid the root because it was particularly toxic. Greaaaaaaaat.

I figured I couldn’t go wrong with the very youngest, freshest shoots in my yard. I limited myself to plants less than my own hand-span tall. Even at this tender age, the plants showed a lot of magenta on the stalks. Some authors says it’s only safe with no pink at all, but in my yard, they always have at least some pink tinge.

Stalking the Poke

Stalking the Poke

Over several days, I harvested about a meal’s worth – about 3/4 lb as a generous side dish. I stored them in a bag with a moist paper towel in the refrigerator until I was ready to face my destiny.

For the record, some authors also say to wear gloves whenever you handle pokeweed. I didn’t learn that until after I had already collected the shoots. Ooops?

Poke Size Comparison

Poke Size Comparison

(That’s me … always living on the edge!)

I chose to cook both leaves and stalks. Some authors say to only use the leaves. If I had picked older plants, with larger stalks, I might have taken the time to remove and only processed the leaves.

The water turned pink almost as soon as I added the poke to the boiling water. I boiled the poke longer than one minute, but less than 10. I didn’t really keep track. I basically watched for when it seemed most of the pink had come out and the leaves and stalks remained mostly green. Then I drained them using a colander in my sink.

Pink Water from Boiling Pokeweed

Pink Water from Boiling Pokeweed

At least one source I read recommended washing the pot and your colander between water changes, to remove any lingering toxins. Ummmm, I did NOT do that. Nor did I wear gloves (still).

I had been heating a second pot of water while the first pot was boiling. I carefully poured the hot water into the original pot, and dunked in the partially cooked poke for the second boil.

The water changed color again, but not as dramatically. I started nibbling samples after five minutes as I watched the greens begin to disintegrate from the abuse. There was no trace of bitterness – at least one article said if it was at all bitter, keep boiling – but I cooked the greens another five minutes just to be sure.

They looked so sad at this stage. But I persevered, draining them then adding them to a pan of bacon grease for further cooking.

Sad Poke

Sad Poke

After a few minutes I added pine nuts (yum!) and the bacon which I had cooked and chopped earlier. Even the bacon and pine nuts couldn’t hide the soggy limpness of the pokeweed.

Sad Poke Plus Pine Nuts and Bacon

Sad Poke Plus Pine Nuts and Bacon

So I added Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes.

Everything's Better with Parmesan

Everything’s Better with Parmesan

Much better!

The greens were still mushy, but I could no longer see them.

They were, honestly, delicious. The pokeweed had a mild, almost sweet flavor, which was highlighted by the salty bacon bits. I just wish the greens weren’t so… you know. Sad and squishy.

If you were wondering – my husband bravely ate the pokeweed along with me. After 30 minutes of intense questioning about what symptoms, exactly, we would experience if I were wrong. Thankfully, neither of us suffered any digestive upset of any sort as a result of consuming the poke.

I have enough growing in my yard, I can probably manage another meal or two. I just have to dream up other ways to cook it… and maybe ways to cook it a little less.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever eaten?


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Buyer Beware

This was supposed to be a victory post, celebrating the final stages in this year’s edible landscaping experiments.

Instead, I am writing a cautionary tale of purchasing plants from online sellers.

Back in early March, I went on a buying spree and purchased edible perennials from a variety of dot-coms based on availability and price.

I was most excited to order Maypops from DirectGardening.com. I had previously tried to buy passionflowers from a better known website, but had to cancel the order when I realized most passionflowers are NOT cold hardy to USDA agricultural zone 7A. (AKA my yard.) Maypops are a special variety of passionflowers that can withstand bitter winters in addition to climbing ugly fences, and producing stunning flowers followed by edible fruits.

FINALLY I received the shipping notice, and the plants FINALLY arrived today.

Except… these weren’t the plants I ordered.

red_vines

Apparently, Direct Gardening was sold out of Maypops. And rather than putting my order on backorder, or heaven forbid, contacting me about the situation, they sent me a substitution.

Of red vine passionflower.

Don’t get me wrong, these are very beautiful, and apparently also have edible fruit. But they are NOT cold hardy. They will not survive the bitter winter winds and ice and snow. The poor plants might survive in Maryland, on the southernmost parts of the Eastern Shore. But not Central MD. Not the greater Frederick area.

No one notified me that this substitution would be made. I could have saved everyone the trouble by explaining that these poor plants will die in the winter conditions my yard experiences. I am horrified that no one bothered to ask or even check if this was an appropriate substitution.

When I tried calling customer service, I got the run-around and no information at all about why an inappropriate replacement was shipped, or why I wasn’t notified of the change. It was clearly just a call center, and I could not reach anyone at the actual company for an explanation, nor could they return my call. This is a horrible way to run a business.

I finally learned that I can ship the plants back for a full refund, but the return shipping is at my own expense. Since I already paid $10 for shipping to get them, I’m sure it will cost at least that much to return them, meaning I have lost half the value of my purchase. No doubt once they arrived, I would be informed they were in damaged condition and I would have nothing to show for the trouble.

I will NEVER buy from this company again, and I am sharing this information to warn others who may be lured in by their low prices.

So I am going out now to plant these poor three vines in the ground, and enjoy them until their untimely deaths this winter.

(**Yes, I realize I could theoretically keep them in pots and overwinter them inside. But passionflowers can grow up to 20′ in a year, and pruning them enough to bring  them indoors seemed like just a different form of cruelty.)


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Garlic Mustard Revisited, Week Ending 4/28/2019

Almost two months ago, I shared my dilemma about my local colony of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiola). In short, I was debating whether to be ecologically conscientious and remove this invasive biennial from my yard, or let it continue to grow so I could, well, eat it.

Garlic mustard flourishes in part shade, or full shade, or full sun, or anywhere it possibly can. It moves into the local ecosystem and disrupts native species which have more particular growing requirements. Disturbed areas and boundaries are among garlic mustard’s favorite habitats, but it grows equally well in the forest understory.

Garlic mustard spreading through the forest understory

Garlic mustard spreading through the forest understory

In my immediate area, the second year garlic mustard plants have just reached the optimal eating stage. I have seen plenty of plants on roadsides which were ahead of mine. For whatever reason, mine were just … a touch slow.

I’ll admit, I was apprehensive about harvesting and eating garlic mustard. I’d previously only sampled the first year leaves, in the fall and winter. Let’s just say, those fell into the “edible but not particularly tasty” category, like hairy bittercress. I have heard the first-year leaves make good pesto, but no one in my family eats pesto regularly so I didn’t bother trying.

A second year garlic mustard plant, almost ready to harvest

A second year garlic mustard plant, almost ready to harvest

I’m pleased to report that the second year flowering stalks were actually pretty tasty, if you happen to like cooked greens. They were milder in flavor than I was expecting, given how pungent the first-year leaves are. Closer to broccoli rabe than to dandelion or other wild greens.

I harvested them by cutting them off at the base. Once inside, I snapped off the tough and woody bottoms of the stems. There seems to be a natural breaking point, like with asparagus stalks. Although truth be told, I experienced a few bites that were especially high in, um, insoluble fiber. That’s extra healthy for your gut, right?

After I trimmed and washed the stalks, I roughly chopped them, then boiled them in water for just three minutes. If you were cooking pasta, you could add the greens into the boiling water near the end, and cook them that way. I drained mine, and then added them to a pan of chopped chicken sausage and minced field garlic. Once everything seemed hot and thoroughly mixed, I added a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. I would have added pine nuts too, but didn’t have any on hand.

Garlic mustard with chicken sausage and Parmesan cheese

Garlic mustard with chicken sausage and Parmesan cheese

The dish was delicious. My kids might have even tried it, if they hadn’t seen me harvesting them and storing the stalks in a container water in the fridge until I had enough for a meal. Sigh.

I could see using garlic mustard in any recipe that calls for spinach, cooked kale, or other greens – creamed, sauteed with bacon, etc. I have not yet tried garlic mustard without boiling it first, so stay tuned for information on that front.


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Earth Day Is Over

Earth Day is over, guys. Back to poisoning the ground in the name of progress! After all, these agricultural monocultures won’t grow by themselves.

Agriculture in Action

Agriculture in Action

In other news, all the wild edibles buffering my yard and the farmer’s field just became strictly off limits. Sigh. Shoulda harvested everything over the weekend.


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Knotty Food, Week Ending 4/21/2019

Last Japanese knotweed post, promise! At least for this year. The knotweed has mostly grown to the stage where it is too mature to eat. I may be able to get one more harvest; we’ll see.

We recently found another patch of knotweed, only a few miles from our house. We are  watching this one even more carefully to make sure it stays there and doesn’t creep any closer to here. We speculate that last year’s rain storms washed knotweed roots to this location from somewhere further upstream.

Foraging Japanese Knotweed

Foraging Japanese Knotweed

Apparently once the knotweed grows tall, as shown in this photo, you can still harvest the leafy tips. You look for where the stem snaps off (like removing the woody parts from a spear of asparagus), then discard the leaves. I haven’t tried this myself; I am content to wait until next year’s shoots.

(For my previous posts on Japanese knotweed this season, you can read here and here.)

I took SkyeEnt’s excellent suggestion to use knotweed for chutney.  I halved the recipe which I found in the comments here, and still ended up with almost four cups. Everyone enjoyed it at a birthday party we hosted, but there is enough leftover I may need to freeze it. Or can it, if I am feeling extra motivated … although probably not. (Knot?)

Japanese Knotweed Chutney

Japanese Knotweed Chutney

I also started a batch of knotweed liqueur, using this recipe. Several months must pass before I can tell you how it turned out. Someone remind me later this summer! I used the thicker stalks for the liqueur so I didn’t have to worry about whether they were tough, or needed to be peeled.

Japanese Knotweed Liqueur

Japanese Knotweed Liqueur

I love the faint pink tinge, already present after a few days of soaking in the vodka. (And if you must know, I used high proof vodka so this will be an especially boozy liqueur.)

I decided to skip the knotweed pickles, because it didn’t make sense to invest time and energy into them when  my family won’t even eat homemade cucumber pickles!

The other recipe in which I did knot use knotweed was strawberry rhubarb pie.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

While many authors suggest using knotweed anywhere a recipe calls for rhubarb, I wasn’t ready to make that swap in this classic dessert. Maybe next foraging season!

Plus I have a whole year to dream up other ways to eat this very invasive plant. Eat the invaders!