In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Burdock Adventures, Week Ending 6/2/2019

Common burdock (Arctium minus) regularly infiltrates lawns and fields in central MD. I first noticed burdock in our yard last year, and once I knew what to look for I saw it everywhere.

This year, we cleared out an area in our yard choked with weeds and overrun by poison ivy and honeysuckle. In the midst of this mess, I uncovered several second year burdock plants. I carefully marked them with flags so they wouldn’t “accidentally” get mowed with the other weeds.

Since burdock is a biennial, these burdock plants were already large and have since grown even bigger. They would make nice show pieces in an edible landscape, if they weren’t randomly located in our front lawn! In late spring, the second year roots are too big and tough to harvest for food. Plus, with the size of these plants I can’t fathom how big the roots must be. When we harvested first year plants for roots last year, we invested a lot of effort for the amount of food we got out of it.

First Year Burdock Roots

First Year Burdock Roots

(I apparently never posted about eating burdock roots, oops? Rest assured, the julienned roots nicely complemented the other flavors in a stir fry.)

Like other biennials, second year burdock sends out flowering stalks. Before they flower, the immature stalks can be harvested and many sources said they were the best part of foraging burdock – no digging required! Timing is everything; as you wait, the stalks get bigger, but as they grow they become more tough and bitter.

Second Year Burdock Patch

Second Year Burdock Patch

Apparently, when you topple the flowering stalk, the burdock plant sends up a new one to try producing flowers and seed. I’ve read that one plant can produce as many as three harvests of immature stalks. Sounds like a great food source to me!

Each flowering stalk had several side-shoots as well. I wasn’t sure if they were worth collecting too, so I harvested everything to be sure. Since this little experiment – just a few days ago! – I read that if a burdock stalk has laterals, it is already past its prime. Oops again?

Burdock leaves allegedly have medicinal properties, but I know even less about foraged medicine than I do about foraged food! I just composted the leaves I cut from the stalks.

Harvested Burdock Stalks

Harvested Burdock Stalks

Honestly, I struggled to efficiently and quickly peel the stalks. I used a paring knife and kept working until I only had the smooth insides. The fibrous outer portion seemed to take forever to clean away.

A cross section of a large burdock stalk

A cross section of a large burdock stalk

The smaller stalks from the side shoots were easier to peel, but had a much smaller core for the amount of effort required to get to it.

A cross section of a small burdock stalk

A cross section of a small burdock stalk

I eventually gave up on peeling these smaller pieces.

Also, the burdock ended up staining my hands slightly brown. None of the resources I’d researched on burdock mentioned this side effect. Not as bad as black walnut, mind you, but still noticeable. You can just see the stain on my fingers in the pictures above.

At long last, we had a side-dish-worth of burdock stalks. It didn’t add up to much!

Finally... Peeled Burdock Stalks

Finally… Peeled Burdock Stalks

I microwave-steamed the stalks with two tablespoons of water for six minutes, stirring partway through. I dressed the stalks with butter and salt. The flavor was OK, but nothing remarkable. Certainly not worth all the attention they garner as a wild food. One book I read compared the flavor to cardoons, but I have never eaten a cardoon – I actually had to research what a cardoon even is – so I cannot offer an opinion there.

One of my kids bravely nibbled a bite, and claimed it tasted like artichoke hearts. And so it did! In this family, steamed artichokes are enjoyed with mayonnaise – hey, don’t judge! – and indeed we all enjoyed the burdock stalks a lot more after dipping them in mayo.

The real question is: would I do it again? I only harvested what I thought we would eat, so several stalks linger in my yard. Plus, the three plants who sacrificed their stalks ought to produce new ones as well. Maybe I will try slightly younger stalks next time… stay tuned!


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Flavorful Foraging, Week Ending 5/26/2019

There’s so much going on wild-food-wise right now in Maryland! I could fill this blog with pages and pages of photos of the amazing bounty out there, in the woods and in the fields.

However, I am realizing more and more that knowing “what” is edible is useless if you don’t know what to actually do with it. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, not only can you eat garlic mustard, but you really should eat it to remove this exotic invasive species from delicate native ecosystems.”  But what does one do with this knowledge? Not much, without knowing how to eat garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

A lot of foraging books toss out suggestions, but few actually provide recipes. Garlic mustard pesto gets mentioned frequently, so I decided to give it a try.

Garlic Mustard Pesto

Garlic Mustard Pesto

Luckily the internet provides recipes that the books don’t. I used the recipe here as my starting point, substituting toasted hazelnuts for the walnuts since that is what I had. Plus, I am actually growing hazelnut trees (although I still have years to wait before they produce nuts) and I like to adapt recipes to use as much of my own harvest as possible.

Also, rather than using leaves from the second year stalks as in the original receipt, I used first year plants.

Garlic Mustard Pesto In Progress

Garlic Mustard Pesto in Progress

Wait, haven’t I written previously that first year garlic mustard isn’t worth eating?

One key to harvesting garlic mustard greens is timing. In Nature’s Garden, Samuel Thayer shares the secret: the “meristem”. The meristem is the part of any plant where growth occurs. Because it is growing, the meristem is often lighter colored, softer, and milder flavored compared to established parts of the plant. In other words, it’s the most edible part.

Delicate, tender garlic mustard in the spring

Delicate, tender garlic mustard in the spring

Which explains why first year garlic mustard leaves are unpalatable in fall – they have finished growing for the season, and the leaves are tough and bitter. In spring, however, new first year plants are coming up, with young tender leaves that are much more enjoyable. To some people anyway. Others will find garlic mustard to be too intense no matter how early you harvest it!

Personally, I found the garlic mustard pesto a delightful change from the typical basil-based version. Although if you are serving it to guests, you should warn them to sample a small amount before diving in!

Three more notes:

  1. If you really want to enjoy garlic mustard pesto but the flavor is still too pungent for your taste buds, next time substitute 1 cup of the leaves for a milder-flavored green. In the photo above, you can see young lambsquarter (Chenopodium album) in the lower left corner. That’s a great candidate, and adds a nutritional boost as well. Spinach would also work. I wouldn’t recommend another plant with a strong flavor – like basil, for instance – because it could clash with the flavor of the garlic mustard rather than simply taming it.
  2. If you really want to enjoy garlic mustard pesto but just … you know … never eat crackers or toast to put the pesto on, blend two parts pesto to one part white wine vinegar. Poof! Instant pesto vinaigrette to enjoy on a salad.
  3. If you really want to enjoy garlic mustard pesto but don’t seem to eat very much at a time, you can always freeze the leftovers for later.


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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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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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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!


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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?