In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Going Nutty, Week Ending 10/14/18

Fall is definitely nut season in central Maryland and much of the southeast. We’re lucky to have so many edible nuts locally. They require more work than just buying nuts at the store, but they are free and abundant. It’s a shame not harvest them!

Disclaimer: This is my first year seriously foraging and trying to incorporate wild foods into my diet. So everything you read here is based on research, not my own personal experience. Yet. I might move this post to its own page eventually as I actually practice the techniques described.

I’ve already discussed black walnut (Juglans nigra) on several occasions. If you live in this area, you cannot miss them. Their branches overhang local roads, where passing cars smear the pavement brown as they crush the walnut hulls. This is a dangerous time of year to stand under black walnut trees!

Roadside black walnuts in evidence

Roadside black walnuts in evidence

Most sources say to remove the thick green husk immediately to prevent it from changing the flavor of the nut inside as the husk degrades. The husks can also get moldy. Various removal techniques include the following:

  • Using a hammer to loosen them, then prying them off
  • Boot stomping them
  • Using a knife
  • Running over them with a car in the driveway
  • Smashing them between two rocks

I used the last technique, which may be less effective, but is primally quite satisfying.

Just remember anything that touches the hulls will get stained dark brown or black, so factor that into your chosen hull-removal method. Also if you wear gloves, they, um, need to be water / hull juice proof… don’t ask me how I know.

Yep, black walnut stains!

Yep, black walnut stains!

After removing the hulls, by whatever method, wash off any remaining bits clinging to the nut. (Stay out of the spray zone though!) Once the job of husk removal is done, let the nuts air dry for several weeks before eating. Some sources say as long as two months. The challenge is finding a way to let them dry while protecting them from squirrels. Luckily my yard lacks these critters, but there is no point in taking risks! My plan is to hang the nuts in mesh bags (the kind grocery store bulk onions are sold in). For now, they are hanging outside our shed when the weather is clear, and I move them inside when rain threatens. Your mileage may vary – if outside is problematic (due to weather or squirrels), a cool room in the house might work.

If you plan to store black walnuts for the long term, leave them in their shell. The nutmeats go rancid more quickly without their shell, and will need to be stored in the refrigerator or freezer.

Cracking the nuts is a challenge as well. The wall is very thick, and the internals convoluted, resulting in broken bits of nutmeat rather than the perfect halves from store bought walnuts. They also make special nutcrackers specifically for tough shells like black walnut. I plan to use a bench vise grip to gently crush the shells, hopefully in a way that doesn’t completely compromise the meat.

Almost ... there ...

Almost … there …

Now is also the perfect time to locate black walnut tree with nuts within your reach.  Why? In the July time frame, unripe black walnuts can be used to make a local variety of  nocino, a type of liqueur that originated in Italy. While ripe walnuts are easily harvested from the ground, unripe walnuts must be plucked from the tree, which is challenging when most black walnuts tower above your head. If you start a batch of nocino around July 4, it will be ready in time for Christmas festivities. But you need to know now which trees will have unripe fruit that you can actually reach then.

In upcoming posts, I hope to include some recipes for black walnuts, so if you’re following along at home you’ll know how to use them!

 

 


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Fantastic Foraging, Week Ending 10/07/2018

Well, I meant to post more about black walnuts this week. Truly I did.

But Friday I walked through the woods, and was astounded to find there are still pawpaws lurking in the trees and on the ground.

“Common knowledge says” – aka, “everybody knows” – that pawpaw fruit is only available for a few weeks in the fall. When I found my first ripe ones on September 3, I figured I should take advantage of the harvest while I could! The last thing in the world I expected was to find plenty of pawpaws still available in early October.

Pawpaw Lingering in the October Canopy

Pawpaw Lingering in the October Canopy

And I couldn’t just leave them there. That would be wasteful. Especially knowing how many other foragers can’t find Asimina triloba because it doesn’t grow locally.

Problem was … I didn’t know what to do with them. I don’t normally eat a lot of fruit, due to the havoc even healthy sugars wreck on my body.  Since it’s so labor intensive to process pawpaws, the ideal recipe(s) would be fairly quick; use a minimum of heating and exposure to air for the pulp (since according to Eating Appalachia both treatments could bring out underlying bitter flavors in the fruit).

A plethora of pawpaws

A plethora of pawpaws

When using pawpaw, remember two things: the skin and seeds are not only inedible but toxic; and some people are intolerant to pawpaws so always try a small amount first before consuming significant amounts. (For more on foraging safety, please see this page.)

After doing some research on “pawpaw intolerance”, I decided to use an abundance of caution while preparing this batch. The seeds are surrounded by a membrane sack which can be split and peeled off using a fingernail or a knife. I didn’t know whether these sacks in fact contained the same toxin as the seeds, so I took extra care to avoid getting them in the pulp.

I also made sure no skin clung to the pulp. For firmer pawpaws, a vegetable peeler works well to remove the skin, as long as you make sure to get off all the green. Once they get riper and softer, a paring knife is more useful.

(Fun fact: allegedly the original consumer of pawpaws was the same as that of avocados, the giant sloth. I can imagine the gastro-intestinal distress caused by the seeds and skins of the pawpaw helping to ensure the seeds passed quickly through the beast’s guts, ending with them being deposited in a new location in the process.)

I tried two different recipe approaches (not recipes, per se) – a  liqueur recipe and an improvised freezer jam recipe. The liqueur involved soaking pawpaw puree in vodka for several weeks, then straining and adding simple syrup to sweeten (if necessary … pawpaws are pretty sweet on their own). No, I don’t know yet how I will use pawpaw liqueur. I’ll figure it out sometime after the liqueur has matured.

Pawpaw Liqueur

Pawpaw Liqueur

Next, I invented a freezer jam recipe, riffing on this water canned jam recipe. I would post the actual ingredients / method I used, except I was unhappy with the results. I heated the pawpaw puree and other ingredients only slightly to help the sugar dissolve into the rest of the ingredients. Unfortunately, I had the “clever” idea of substituting spicebush in place of the ginger, clover, allspice, and cinnamon. Not everyone likes the flavor of spicebush. In fact, no one in my family except me. Oops? Apparently I have a few containers of freezer jam to enjoy all by my lonesome!


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Acorn Fail, Part 2

This week, I managed to collect just enough new acorns to try the hot leaching method. I am pretty sure the acorns were from white oaks (based on the curvy lobes on the leaves).

White Oak Tree

White Oak Tree

The hot leaching method involves putting the shelled acorns in water and bringing them to a boil, and then draining and repeating the process until the water no longer turns brown. I used two pots, so I could be warming a new batch of water while the current batch was boiling.

…but the water never stopped turning brown.

Hot Leaching of Acorns

Hot Leaching of Acorns

I actually lost track of how many times I changed the water over the course of the afternoon.

The boiling water smelled like … well, if you have ever steamed fresh artichokes, it had that kind of aroma. I can’t really describe it better than that. It certainly wasn’t a pleasant smell; at least, it’s not how I expected boiling acorns to smell.

I finally gave up on leaching the acorns. They were turning mealy and crumbly. I nibbled on one. It definitely didn’t have a high tannin content anymore, but it was not something I would ever voluntarily eat. Not bad, just … not good.

Acorn Fail, Yet Again

Acorn Fail, Yet Again

I wonder if some of the acorns had started to go bad, and the repeated boiling allowed those “off” flavors to permeate the rest of the nuts. I guess in the future, I will try to only collect newly fallen acorns – like, you’re standing under the tree and get bonked by them – or ones I can reach on the tree. (To be determined if I get another chance this year, since there aren’t any oaks in my immediate vicinity.)


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 9/30/2018

This week I learned a few important things about foraging for acorns, the nuts of oak trees.

Acorns

Acorns

First of all, if you are going to bother picking up all those acorns, shell them and start processing them immediately. They may not appear to have nut weevils in them, but somehow they magically appear after the acorns sit on your kitchen counter for a week! No, I didn’t take photos… you’ll just have to trust me on this one.

Second: you can’t just be a slacker about leaching the tannins! Acorns, like the trees they fall from, are high in tannins which make them singularly unpleasant to eat straight from the tree. Some species are higher in tannins than others; the red and black family of oaks (which have leaves with pointed lobes) tend to be higher whereas the white oak family (with rounded leaf lobes) tend to be lower. Luckily, tannins are water soluble so they can be removed by either a “hot” leaching method, or a “cold” leaching method.

Hot leaching requires putting the shelled acorns through multiple changes of boiling water. Once the poured-off water is no longer colored, you can start sampling the acorns for edibility, and continue changing the water as needed until the flavor is ideal.

Cold leaching simulates the Native American approach of putting the acorns in a bag in a running stream, which allows the tannins to be washed out over a longer period.

“Lazy leaching”, which is what I tried to do, is apparently Not a Thing. I put the shelled acorns in a bowl, filled it with cold water from the sink, and changed out the water every couple of hours … or whenever it occurred to me. Which might not have been all that often.

After a day of this, the water didn’t seem to be brown at all, but the acorns still were mouth-puckering bitter. (Eating an unprocessed – or underprocessed – acorn is only slightly less awful than eating an unripe persimmon.)

Another day of changing the water out infrequently … another awful experience sampling an acorn.

Wash, rinse, repeat. After the third day, the acorns looked very waterlogged, and I abandoned the attempt.

Waterlogged Acorns

Waterlogged Acorns

Maybe for cold leaching, the acorns need to be ground first. At least once source I read mentioned this, but never explained why. And I have this terrible habit of skipping steps if I don’t know what they do. Oops?

Another possibility is that the water wasn’t cold enough, or that the water changes didn’t happen frequently enough.

Last but not least, perhaps there are some trees whose acorns are simply too bitter to even bother.

Hopefully, I can find more fresh acorns so I can try again!


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Foraging Updates, Week Ending 9/23/2018

For this week’s foraging post, I have two updates about wild plants I have covered previously. Part of what I love about foraging is constantly learning. Even when it means I have to revise my previous understanding of the abundance that surrounds us every day.

Update one: Butternuts.

About a month ago, I posted all giddy thinking I had found wild butternut (Juglans cinera) near my house.

I regret to say, it is highly doubtful the tree I found is, in fact, butternut. At the Great Frederick Fair this past week, there were displays of both black walnuts (Juglans nigra) …

Black walnut samples at the Great Frederick Fair

Black walnut samples at the Great Frederick Fair

… and butternuts …

Butternut samples at the Great Frederick Fair

Butternut samples at the Great Frederick Fair

(Sorry it’s so blurry! The camera on my phone was really acting up that day.)

You can see the staggering difference between the two nut shapes. I thought the butternut was just a “little” pointier or more oblong than the black walnut, but wow, was I wrong. This next photo shows the shapes (sorta) of the nuts I harvested and cracked open from the tree near my house:

Bitter about the butter(nut)

Bitter about the butter(nut)

You can see how, despite the pointy ends, the nut shape really is much closer to black walnut that butternut. Alas. But seriously, I am not bitter about the butternut. It gives me something to keep looking for!

(P.S., it is currently black walnut season in central Maryland. If you aren’t careful, standing under one of these trees can be dangerous! I hear that the nuts are so hard to get into, squirrels won’t bother, which leaves plenty of nuts available for humans. I will try to post more about foraging for black walnuts in the next few weeks.)

Update two is much more exciting: I found my elderberry shrub (Sambucus nigra)!

Stop laughing! I’m serious!

The whole time we’ve lived here, we’ve waged battle against the overgrown side yard. “Unfortunately”, since I’ve learned more about wonderful wild plants, it’s gotten harder for me to find the will to work on it. In a rare show of enthusiasm this spring, we leveled most of it except for a few precious trees – hackberries (Celtis occidentalis),  black locust  (Robinia pseudoacacia) and mulberry (Morus nigra) – and anything entwined with poison ivy… which was actually most of it.

I think during the clearing spree (which took place before the spring green growth had started) we mistook bare elderberry branches for staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina).

In the weeks and months that followed, the ground was too rough to mow, and so Nature reclaimed much of our work with K-selected species and stubborn survivors. And staghorn sumac wasn’t among them.

This past week, I walked around the overgrowth to see how much work we faced next year. OK, honestly I was checking if there was anything “good” among the weeds. Burdock. Yellow rocket. Pokeweed. Then lo and behold – I spotted the compound leaf typical of elderberry.

Compound Elderberry Leaves

Compound Elderberry Leaves

When I looked for my missing elderberry before, I was looking for flowers and then fruit. But I think the elderberry didn’t flower this year because it spent all its stored strength trying to grow again. We removed other plants from its perimeter so it won’t get accidentally cleared again, and now it has less competition for soil nutrients.

Ellie the Elderberry, Hiding among the Weeds

Ellie the Elderberry, Hiding among the Weeds

I’ve named it Ellie.

Yes, I name my plants. Doesn’t everyone?


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Tiny Steps

You might’ve noticed, I’m a bit of a self-help junkie.
While I haven’t read any self-help books recently – so I can use the time spent “fixing” myself through exercises to write instead – I’m still getting emails from a few self-help guru-types, and well, they’re just emails so they don’t take that long to read. And they usually don’t include exercises. (I might’ve snuck in an audiobook or two, but shhhhhhhh don’t tell.)
Recently there was an email from Courtney at Be More with Less about toasting “tiny steps”. She discussed her own life experiences, the tiny steps she’s taken, and how long it took to transition from where she started to where she is today. I found the article particularly inspiring because so often it feels like we’re not doing enough. Like we’ll never get to wherever it is we want to be. Like you feel as though you’re getting nowhere, so why even bother? Particularly if your tiny steps are focused on transitioning to a lower energy lifestyle, consuming less, and eating more naturally. The overwhelming majority of your friends and neighbors aren’t bothering, and you find yourself wondering what’s the point.
Well, here is a list of tiny steps I’ve taken over the last year(ish). As I was trying to recall exactly how long it has been, I remembered … I have written about tiny steps before! It’s fascinating to see what I meant to do, compared to what I have actually done. This list may have to become an annual tradition!
Consuming stuff:
  • Using fewer single-use disposable items. We rarely use paper plates anymore; I reach for a sponge or cloth towel before a paper towel. Not always successful, but again, this is about tiny steps.
  • Not using plastic produce bags at the grocery store for fruits or veggies that have their own wrapping (sweet potatoes, lemons, limes, etc … although the cashiers hate finding that one extra lime in my order because they weren’t all bagged together)
  • Reusing single-use disposable items wherever feasible. For instance, when I do end up with plastic produce bags, I save them to store veggies I harvest from my garden. The plastic containers that hold deli meat get reused to pack lunches.
  • Compost what paper napkins and paper towels we do use, so at least they aren’t cluttering up landfills.
  • Started a ‘deep pantry’ so I can buy food staples when they are on sale, rather than when we run out.
  • Figuring out ways to use possessions we already have in new ways to solve problems, rather than immediately purchasing a solution.
  • Reading books through the library and free ebook services rather than purchasing books. Not always 100% successful … trying to buy used books when I simply can no longer resist.
  • Mending clothing, which says a lot because I hate mending.
  • Simplifying my wardrobe… I even tried Project 333, but it really didn’t work for me. (Sorry, Courtney!)
Still working on…
  • Phasing out paper napkins… even though they are teens, my kids are still really messy
  • Shopping less. I’ve tried, but the results are inconsistent at best.
  • Watching less TV.
  • Spending less time on my cell phone.
Eating:
  • Reducing food waste through ninja meal planning skillz.
  • Eating out less often, particularly at fast food restaurants.
  • Eating more produce from my own garden. I had wanted to join a CSA, but I can’t even properly use everything from my own garden before it rots. It didn’t seem responsible to buy even more produce I would struggle to use.
  • Incorporating more wild foods into our diet.
  • Eating more food in season and local to the area. I mean, there is nothing sadder than a grocery store tomato in Maryland in February!
  • Using more permaculture techniques (like intercropping and polyculture) in my garden to improve overall health and reduce the need for energy-intensive human interventions.
Still working on…
  • Preparing at least one vegetarian meal per week
  • Preserving or sharing garden produce rather than letting it go to waste
  • Finding innovative ways to feed my family whatever I can harvest yes, really, one more time. Ask my kids how sick they are of green beans!
  • Actually listening to my body and putting the fork down when I’m full even if it’s wasteful to stop, or so delicious I don’t want to.
Energy Consumption:
  • Sewed light-blocking curtains for the full-length windows flanking our front door. The summer sun streaming into the foyer made the whole house an oven, and the AC worked overtime. In the winter, cold radiated from them. The curtains let us control the temperature better on the main level of our house.
  • Installed a new attic fan and skylight. OK these were big steps, but we needed to redo our roof anyway so both attic fan and skylight got upgraded as well. The skylight has a remote control which allows you to open and close the curtain to allow or block the sun as needed, or open the skylight to allow hot air to escape. The attic fan has also kept the temperature upstairs more comfortable.
  • Trying to combine errands to use less gas… or better yet, just not go out!
Still working on…
  • Finding and completing more projects to insulate and weatherproof our home. For example, I bought foam to insulate hot water pipes after reading Green Wizardry last year, and they are still just piled all over our basement floor.
  • Line drying more clothing.
Friends and Family:
  • Making time to actually listen to the kids.
  • Spending time with friends and family, sharing a home-cooked meal rather than going out to a restaurant.
  • Sharing experiences instead of exchanging store-bought gifts.
Still working on…
  • Working to connect with other people locally who share my interests and values.
  • Learning to enjoy what the local environment has to offer rather than going on fancy vacations; there’s lots of local opportunities for hiking and camping, for instance.
I am sure to many people these tiny steps seem like self-deprivation and misery. (Although people who feel that way probably aren’t reading my blog in the first place.)
But putting one more plate in the dishwasher is no more work than throwing out the paper plate.
Cooking at home from scratch is more work, but allows my husband and I time together while we prep the meal; we enjoy the meal together as a family, and we’re all healthier as well.
Instead of shopping as a past-time with the kids, we’re actually having conversations and trying to cook together, while the money saved has helped us better cope with a few financial crises.
Hanging laundry up to dry is actually better for the clothes as well as the environment.
And even though I still abhor mending, it brings with it the quiet satisfaction of fixing a problem myself, and returning a loved garment to my wardrobe rather than scouring the malls or internet hoping I can find *and* afford its replacement.
Last but not least, I find joy in knowing that in even small ways I am cutting back on waste and reducing the degree of variation between my values and the life I’m actually living. And that’s worth more to me than any minor inconvenience which may be caused by these tiny steps.


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Foraging Finds, Week Ending 9/16/2018

In late summer in central Maryland, fruit continues to take center stage in the world of wild edibles … though depending the weather, other tasty food may be available as well.

I knew autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) was ripe following last week’s class with Fox Haven, so this week I set out to find some shrubs of my own to forage from.

Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

Unfortunately, many of the shrubs near me were still very tart or astringent. I was able to harvest some, but haven’t decided what to use them for. Making autumn olive ketchup seems like a wasted opportunity! In the meantime I will freeze the berries I have until I find a worthy recipe.

Don’t confuse autumn olive for the equally invasive honeysuckle bush (Lonicera maackii). The fruits appear similar at a casual glance, and both are ripe and red now. However autumn olive berries are flecked and hang below the branch. Honeysuckle bush has rounder fruit which sits atop the branch, and has slight striations within the fruit skin. The honeysuckle’s bark also lacks the smooth surface of autumn olive.

Grapes (Vitus spp.) are finally turning ripe as well. I’d been hunting for wild grapes all year, and finally found some that I monitored for several months. (I found another cluster of wild grapes, but they were behind a wall of poison ivy. I didn’t try…) I’d even passed on the chance to use these guys for verjuice as described in The Wildcrafted Cocktail.

Wild Grape Clusters

Wild Grape Clusters

Wild grapes are much smaller than their cultivated cousins, and have multiple seeds to boot. To add insult to injury, I couldn’t reach enough grapes to actually DO anything besides sample. (Jelly or jam requires a significant amount of fruit.) Although I might have brought home a few heavily seeded fruits to deposit in a corner of my yard.

Itty Bitty Grape

Itty Bitty Grape

In addition to being very small, the fruit were intensely sour. I guess I now know where the term “sour grapes” originated!

Don’t confuse grape with “bur cucumber” (Sicyos angulatus), a variety of wild cucumber with wide leaves similar to grape, and grabby tendrils which allow it to climb trees and shrubs in the same fashion as grape. The bur cucumber sports a hairy stem, flower clusters that reach upward rather than hanging down like grapes, and spiky fruit.

Bur Cucumber

Bur Cucumber

Oh, and the bur cucumber doesn’t have grapes hanging in clusters in the mid-September time frame.

Just like spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and autumn olive were both flowering at the same time earlier this year, their fruit are turning ripe at the same time too. Luckily spicbush berries ripen over several weeks, so the harvest is spread out.

Ripening Spicebush

Ripening Spicebush

Visiting various locations, I was able to collect two cups, though I discarded about a half cup of berries with black or blemished spots.  As mentioned last week, spicebush is best dried then stored in the freezer for optimum freshness.  Currently I have an electric dehydrator full of berries for (what I hope is) a year’s supply of seasoning.

Following a week of blistering hot weather, the past week was abnormally cool and wet. My garden has basically molded over, but the weather was excellent for a particular genre of wild edible – mushrooms. In the woods, I was able to find a meal’s worth of wood ear  (Auricularia auricula-judae). This fungus is also known as jelly ear due to the gelatinous texture.

You might’ve noticed I don’t often blog about fungus. There are many more poisonous mushrooms than poisonous plants, and I don’t want my meager experience to misguide my two and a half readers! But wood ear is one fungus I feel comfortable in identifying. Its REALLY hard to mistake this guy for anything else. Though please remember, this blog isn’t a fool proof foraging guide – please consult local experts and additional resources before collecting mushrooms especially. (For more foraging safety, see here.)

Wood Ear on a Dead Tree

Wood Ear on a Dead Tree

Even if wood ear is edible, it must be cleaned immaculately in order to eat without gastric distress. It is possible for fungus to be covered with fungus, which might be less congenial to one’s digestive tract. These specimens though made a delightful stir fry … although they were not, in fact, seasoned with spicebush.

Spicebush seasoned wood ear for dinner

Spicebush seasoned wood ear for dinner!