In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Knot a Chance, Week Ending 4/14/2019

(No, I will “knot” be sick of these puns any time soon!)

I went back to the Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) patch earlier this week to check the harvest. Its slow but inevitable spread shows clearly in this photo, where the new shoots are breaching the ground several feet away from last year’s stalks.

The inevitable spread of Japanese knotweed

The inevitable spread of Japanese knotweed

The fattest shoots come from well-established root systems. I guess they could be called “crowns”, like you would say for rhubarb or asparagus. The shoots that from newer roots, where the knotweed reaches inexorably towards its next victim, tend to be thinner.

Japanese knotweed shoots, ready for harvest

Japanese knotweed shoots, ready for harvest

Whatever the thickness, the best stage for harvesting appears to be twelve inches or less. Bigger than that, and the shoots may need to be peeled before eating as the skin gets tougher.

I harvested about a pound to try. There was much more than this, but I didn’t want to bring a bunch home in case it out to be unpleasant eating after all. (Like the hairy bittercress from a few weeks ago!) As I said last week, I tried to leave us much discarded leaf bits and stem tips there, on the already contaminated site.

My first knotweed harvest

My first knotweed harvest

Most sources compare the flavor of knotweed to rhubarb. To be honest, I am not overly familiar with the taste of rhubarb. I planted some last year as part of my adventures in edible landscaping, but I was concerned about harvesting too many stalks from the young plants… and I was never sure what to do with the ones I did collect! This year at a minimum I plan to try a pie, and maybe a rhubarb fizz. But I digress. I cannot tell you if knotweed does or does not taste like rhubarb because I don’t actually know!

First thing’s first: I had to try it raw, just because I could. I learned that I don’t care for the taste of knotweed raw, although it is edible uncooked.

Peeling was a pain, I presume because the pieces I collected were all young enough to that they didn’t need the extra treatment. The bits of flesh I managed to scrape off gummed up my peeler and rendered it useless.

All the random leftover vegetable bits got shoved in a plastic bag to go in the trash, which is unlike me. I compost anything vaguely likely to decompose. Even the cardboard centers of paper towel rolls… in addition to the used paper towels themselves, as long as they aren’t covered in meat or grease or cleaning chemicals. But I refuse to allow a single scrap of the knotweed back into the wild. Especially my wild.

Sauteing Japanese knotweed in butter

Sauteing Japanese knotweed in butter

So far I have sampled cooked knotweed two different ways, both as vegetable sides. The first – and so far, my favorite – was sauteed in sesame oil with a touch of soy sauce. Maybe the knotweed favored ingredients similar to its ancestral homeland. For whatever reason, it was ridiculously delicious. Tart, but not unpleasantly so.

The second time, I sauteed the knotweed gently in butter, then sprinkled it with grated Parmesan cheese once it finished cooking. This was OK, but not as good as the sesame oil/soy sauce treatment.

Bits of the knotweed also cooked a little too much. I personally don’t care for the texture of overcooked knotweed. A pleasant way to describe it would be to say it “melts”. It disintegrates. It becomes, dare I say, mushy. Some authors find this appealing; not I. (Knot I?)

Also, my kids – the brave youth who taunted each other into trying the hairy bittercress soup – refused to even touch the knotweed.

Since I have such a large supply of knotweed available, I am hunting for more recipes. It seems wasteful not to take advantage of so much wild edible food. What else to do with it? Pickles seem like a popular option online.

I have a hard time imagining it in a rhubarb-strawberry pie, or a fool, or any other sweet dish. Except maybe jam, where its texture would be a non-issue. I love Alan Bergo’s work, although I feel like a knotweed “mousse” might be too fussy (particularly with my family). But I like the idea of freezing sweetened knotweed puree for later, if I can identify other uses for it.

Maybe next year I will try knotweed wine, but right now it seems like more commitment than I want in a recipe. On the other hand, an infused vodka or liqueur sounds right up my alley. Especially since it has been almost a week since I visited the patch – no telling how much bigger the shoots will be. Soaking them in vodka would be a great way to use the larger, tougher stalks.

Any other suggestions as to the best way to eat Japanese knotweed? What other invasive species do you enjoy?


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Knot So Fast, Week Ending 4/7/2019

I am excited and dismayed to announce I finally found a patch of Japanese knotweed near me. Luckily not “near” enough I have to fear imminent invasion. On the other hand, the more I learn about how knotweed spreads, the less safe I think we all are.

Best of all (if there can be an upside to finding a highly invasive plant), I found it just in time to foraging the spring shoots, which are the edible parts of this ferocious weed. The location isn’t perfect for foraging, a little too close to a busy country road for my tastes. But I will take what I can get since this is reported to be a tasty wild edible … and do my part to help control its spread!

A Local Knotweed Infestation

A Local Knotweed Infestation

(Not really – based on the size of the infestation, there’s no way I could physically eat enough knotweed shoots to make a dent in its inexorable march into the countryside.)

The scientific name for this plant is either Reynoutria japonica, Fallopia japonica, Pleuropterus zuccarinii, or Polygonum cuspidatum – I have to admit this situation baffles me. Whichever name you give it, Japanese knotweed is one of the most invasive weeds on the entire planet.

The previous year’s dead stalks mark this plant’s location in the winter. The stalks are segmented like bamboo, hollow, and reddish in color.

Dead Knotweed Stalks

Dead Knotweed Stalks

Japanese knotweed was originally introduced into Europe and the United States as an ornamental for landscaping. In the United Kingdom in particular, this weed has caused enormous amounts of damage. Its roots find their way into small cracks in asphalt, rocks, waterworks, and foundations; then they expand, causing the cracks to worsen.  Almost impossible to kill, even a small discarded chunk of the root can grow into a whole new infestation. Which means digging up the plant in an effort to kill it can actually contribute to its spread!

Once the shoots breach the soil in the spring – the first week of April for this patch – they grow very quickly. Some sources say they can grow as fast as four inches a day during the peak of its growing season in the summer!

A Newly Emerged Knotweed Shoot

A Newly Emerged Knotweed Shoot

The spring shoots are best harvested when still short – a foot high or less – tender, and unbranched. Discard the leafy tips and any leaves that may be forming. My plan is to leave these parts on the site, rather than bring home any part of this plant that won’t get eaten. You know, just to be on the safe side!

The older and larger shoots may need to be peeled before use. The shoots can be eaten raw or cooked. The flavor of knotweed is similar to rhubarb, although it is variously described as more sour, “earthier”, “greener”, or even “gamier” than rhubarb.  Many sources recommend using any rhubarb recipe for knotweed but some foragers prefer recipes with more imagination and finesse. I am still debating what to do with my upcoming harvest. Because Japanese knotweed grows so fast, the foraging window is usually only a few weeks; time is of the essence.

As a bonus (I do always try to look for the positive side of things), Japanese knotweed shoots are apparently high in resveratrol, the antioxidant that allegedly makes wine healthy. The roots store the highest concentration – in fact, Japanese knotweed is even cultivated commercially for use in manufacturing resveratrol supplements.  But I am not messing with the roots, thank you very much. I’ll stick to the shoots.


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Edible Does Not Always Mean Good

After seeing how much hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) grew in my yard – and the strange lack of information about it in my foraging books – I decided to give it an honest try. I figure every weed deserves its day.

The plan was simple enough: use bittercress, measure for measure, in place of watercress in a classic, maybe even perfect, bowl of soup.

As you may have guessed by this post’s title, hairy bittercress has joined wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris) on the list of plants that are “Edible, but not in this house.” (If you were wondering, arugula and okra are also on this list.)

I was a bit late in harvesting the bittercress, and a lot of it had already sent up flower stalks. In a lot of wild edibles, the flower stalks and flowers are edible too, so I harvested whole plants, minus the roots.

Tiny white bittercress flowers poke up through field garlic and purple deadnettle

Tiny white bittercress flowers poke up through field garlic and purple deadnettle

Well, unfortunately the bittercress flower stalks – while they appeared edible – were stiff and fibrous, and I spent an inordinate amount of time picking out the most offensive of them. Still enough remained that the soup, though pureed, was downright chewy in texture.

Mmmmm cress soup

Mmmmm, cress soup

My husband was a good sport, and had a small serving. The kids dared each other to taste it, like how they play chicken with eating wasabi – but hey at least that means they tried a taste, however tiny. Myself, I loaded my bowl with bacon and spiced pumpkin seeds and ate it all, because that is what I do.

I am happy to say we all lived to tell the tale. And at last, I have solved the mystery of why foraging books don’t discuss hairy bittercress. Better to save the pages – and the time spent harvesting! – for food actually worth the effort!


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The Gardener’s Dilemma, Week Ending 3/31/2019

I’m late kicking off my garden this year. It’s been cold, the wind still blustery across my yard, and I don’t want to be outside. Plus I tried using “green mulch” last year, and frost bitten Austrian peas languish across beds and into the walkways. But company is coming, so I must get the garden and the yard to the point where they look presentable, even if they aren’t entirely productive.

But see… there’s these weeds.

Edible weeds.

And the weeds are growing now, when it’s still too cold for, well, almost anything accept weeds.

Best yet: they are growing without any work on my part.

But … they are weeds. They are thrive where they do not belong. And I need to remove them so I can grow the “real” food.

Chickweed (Stellaria media), my go-to replacement for salad lettuce in late winter:

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Johnny Jump-Ups (Viola tricolor), aka wild pansies, with their fragrant, edible flowers:

Johnny Jump-Ups (Viola tricolor)

Johnny Jump-Ups (Viola tricolor)

Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) with its tart flavors providing a counterpart to the more stolid flavors  of other greens:

Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

Miniature greens with the unflattering name of hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta):

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

Purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), an unassuming green for general cooking purposes:

Purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum)

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)

Dead nettle’s frilly cousin, henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), also a green of generic utility:

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

Common burdock (Arctium minus), whose roots will make a lovely addition to a stir fry when the ground has thawed enough to dig it up:

Common burdock (Arctium minus)

Common burdock (Arctium minus)

Field garlic (Allium vineale), the skinny, pungent relative of our domestic garlic and onions:

Field garlic (Allium vineale)

Field garlic (Allium vineale)

What I don’t have: peas, turnips, kale, lettuce, spinach, or any of the other spring crops we’re “supposed” to grow this time of year.

Maybe next week I’ll start gardening. Maybe.

P.S. – I did not include photos of wintercress (aka yellow rocket, Barbarea vulgaris) in this post, because the majority of my household considers it inedible. Boo.


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Cress Fallen, Week Ending 3/24/2019

Last week I briefly mentioned that I had two cresses available for local foraging.

Since then, I discovered I was wrong about one of them. Yes, really, in one week. I will go back and fix that previous post. You know, eventually.

Yes, there are two types of cresses still. One is yellow rocket, which is also known as wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris). The leaves and flower buds are edible, although not everyone loves their intense flavor.

Yellow Rocket Leaves and Flower Bud

Yellow Rocket Leaves and Flower Bud

An extremely unscientific study of a very small sample size bore this out. I thought the raw leaves tasted just fine, but my husband couldn’t stand them. Yellow rocket leaves are best mixed with other greens if eaten raw or sauteed; boiling them apparently removes some of the pungent, bitter intensity. I plan to test this method at some point when I am the only one around to eat the results!

I thought my other cress was Barbarea verna, known variously as Belle Isle cress, upland cress, or even “early yellow rocket.”  I drew this conclusion after buying seeds for Belle Island cress in 2017 for a winter garden crop. I mean, the weed looked a lot like the drawing on the seed packet!

Belle Isle Cress ... or is it?

Belle Isle Cress … or is it?

Turns out that Belle Isle cress has yellow flowers, and these little plants – with similarly shaped leaves arranged in a basal rosette – definitely have white flowers.

Meet: hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta).

Hairy Bittercress

Hairy Bittercress

See? Still a cress! So my statement last week about two local cresses still stands true.

Wintercress isn’t mentioned in every foraging manual, possibly because not everyone enjoys the flavor. Hairy bittercress gets even less publicity, although I’m not sure why. Maybe the name puts people off. It is definitely edible though. Honestly, since I misidentified the plant from the beginning, I have been nibbling on its leaves for over a year now.

FORAGING SAFETY NOTE: THIS IS DUMB. Do NOT ingest anything you “think” is an edible plant. Always make 100% sure of your identification before you pop a piece of a plant in your mouth. In this case, if I had researched the color of the flowers more carefully, I would have known I had the wrong plant. I lucked out this time, but you can’t always count on that!

Hairy bittercress grows, weed-like, everywhere in my garden. It has a milder flavor than wintercress, and is pleasant raw. (At least, in my opinion.) Now that I really know what it is, I may attempt watercress recipes with hairy bittercress, since that seems like a closer flavor match than wintercress. Although since each plant is so small, it remains to be seen if I can harvest enough to actually use for a recipe. If all else fails, I can add it a mixed salad!


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101 Uses for Butternut Squash

With the official end of winter (at least according to the calendar), the time has arrived to clean out our cold cellars and other over-winter food storage solutions.

I don’t have a “real” cold cellar, myself. I have cardboard boxes scattered through the basement, where I tried keeping winter squash, garlic, and onions through the coldest and darkest months. I also co-opted an extra fridge (much to the dismay of my electric bill) to stash leeks, cabbages, parsnips and salsify when the ice and snow closed in, making it impossible for them to remain outdoors.

On this day, two days after the spring equinox, one sole item remains, having lasted for  almost, I KID YOU NOT, seven months since I harvested it. Beginning of September to almost the end of March. (Counts on fingers again.) Yep, almost seven.

The produce item in question is a mutant. I suspect it is a hybridization of a butternut squash and a trombetta, both of which are cultivars of Cucurbita moschata – which means they can cross-pollinate. And apparently did! If I am correct, the parent plants crossed in 2017; a fruit – which could have been from either parent, as far as I understand – ended up in our rubbish heap; and in 2018 this monstrosity, and several others like it, flourished.

monster_squash

See that guy on the lower right in the Instagram photo below? Same. Squash.

The squash weighs over 8.25 lbs.  I think its amazing survival rate in storage was thanks to its skin-to-flesh ratio, for lack of a better phrase. Most of the “real” baby butternut squash (as shown below) caved in quickly – literally – because they lost more moisture due to their small size compared to surface area.

Given how much winter squash we ended up with last fall, everyone. Is. Sick. of. Squash.

Well, except me, but I can’t eat this whole thing by myself! So here is a list of ideas for using excess butternut squash. And no, I don’t *really* have 101 uses to offer, but I must be VERY creative in feeding it (or its mutant offspring) to my family. Also most of these recipes would probably work with other winter squash as well, not just butternut.

By the way, I wanted to make this a “fancy” blog post – you know, where all the recipe links displayed a photo from the original websites? But good grief, all those photos made the post go on FOREVER. I had to keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling… and that annoys me on other websites. So I ditched all the photos. Trust me, if you visit the original pages, you will see gorgeous, mouth-watering photos of the recipes in question!

1. When in doubt, roast it

This Cinnamon Pecan Roasted Butternut Squash is to die for. (Well my kids want to die each time I serve it, anyway.) You could also add some butternut squash into a roasted root vegetables recipe.

2. Stuff It

Although for this approach, you need a “normal” sized butternut squash, not the baby sized squash we mostly grew, nor the monster squash I’m dealing with now!

3. Mash It

I would suggest leaving some chunky texture in the mashed butternut squash, by the way, rather than pureeing it completely smooth.

4. There’s Always Soup

Yes, I know the “lazy squash soup” recipe calls for acorn squash, but I always use butternut squash instead. This is a great use for red onion or an apple that might be past its prime – once it has been roasted then pureed, no one can tell the difference!

5. Or Slow Cooker Soup

Which is just as lazy, in my opinion, but takes longer to cook.

6. Or Exotically Flavored Soup

Assuming you like curry, of course. Not everybody does. Especially my kids. Who thought this was the most unholy soup, combining both squash AND curry.

7. Top a Pizza with It

I mean, unless you have the sort of family that will stage an open revolt if you put vegetables (or fruit) on pizza!

8. Like Lasagna Noodles

Monster squash is a perfect candidate for this approach, by the way, because of its large size.

9. Or Even Spaghetti Noodles

OK, personally I am not likely to try this one. While I do own a Spiralizer, cleaning it is more work than I care for.

10. As a Substitute for Pumpkin Puree

I actually find this trick works well with pumpkin bread as well!

11. As a Cheese Replacement

Butternut squash lends both color and texture in replacing some or all of the cheese in recipes. I have even started using squash to replace part of the cheese in my go-to broccoli cheddar soup recipe. (Three cups is a LOT of cheese!)

12. As a Partial Sweet Potato Replacement

Butternut squash has fewer calories and carbs per cup than sweet potato, so it’s a great way to lighten up a sweet potato side dish. I wouldn’t use it for all the sweet potato in a recipe though because the difference in taste and texture may be more noticeable. Best not to tell your family if you’re pulling this trick at Thanksgiving Dinner!

13. Remember to Save the Seeds to Roast

For the record, this works MUCH better with large winter squash than my little baby butternuts. The seeds were too thin to bother with.

There you have it! 101 uses (or thirteen, as the case may be) for butternut squash. Now I have too MANY options for how to enjoy this squash… especially since it will be just me eating it!

What garden successes do you find yourself struggling to use up?


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Winter Foraging Fails, Week Ending 3/17/2019

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I’m not wearing green, but I do find myself surrounded by it!

Day lily shoots, harbingers of spring

Day lily shoots, harbingers of spring

By the time I write next week’s foraging post, it will officially be spring. Of course, no telling whether or not Maryland’s weather reflects this! Even the weather forecast is no help… whatever it says now could very well be the exact opposite seven days later.

Since this will be last ‘official’ winter foraging post, I decided to discuss the wild edibles I failed to locate this year.

1. Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) – apparently also known as Eastern Teaberry, which is why we are grateful for Latin names. They let us know we mean the same plant, regardless of the common name(s). This tiny plant features leaves which can be harvested year round, but the berries themselves are only ripe in the winter. I know it grows in this area, thanks to its listing on the Maryland Biodiversity site, but I didn’t spend enough time in the woods this winter to have a decent shot at finding it. The leaves and berries taste like – you guessed it! – wintergreen flavoring, except REAL.

2. Japanese Knotweed – ok, Latin names aren’t always helpful, because there are four different Latin names for Japanese knotweed, and I never know which one is “official”. But anyone who knows this plant, knows it by its common name. Japanese knotweed is one of the most invasive plants on the entire planet. I am not exaggerating. In winter time, the dead stalks look like reddish, feathery-tipped bamboo. There are photos here and a nice close up of the dead stalks here.  The spring shoots are edible, and according to a number of sources, downright delicious. Finding the dead stalks in winter would have allowed me to monitor the patch for new growth in the spring, and try the shoots when they were most tender. However, because it is so invasive, I should probably be grateful rather than disappointed that I never found any in this area.

3. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) – I have already found two plants called “cress” growing locally: Belle Island cress (Barbarea verna, also known as upland cress) and wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris, also known as yellow rocket). I figured with the extra wet year we had last year, I would have no problem finding watercress. I was very, very wrong. No watercress, anywhere.

Last but not least – I never did return to the Jerusalem artichokes to dig for whatever tubers I could find. Instead, I am doing the next best thing: ordering some commercial, garden quality tubers to plant in my own yard, and harvest next year!