In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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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?


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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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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, Week Ending 2/24/2019

Today I offer not just a foraging post, but a cautionary tale. My husband picked up a tick in the woods yesterday.

You heard (read) right.

In late February. In Maryland. An active (though very hungry looking) dog tick. Thankfully he caught it before it bit him, but we were absolutely stunned to have encountered one so early in the year. I don’t know whether it reflects the unusual weather (five inches of snow Wednesday, all melted by Friday, temps in the 30s Saturday, temps in the 60s and rain on Sunday…) or some other change in the wild animals the ticks live on. All I know is I STILL feel phantom creepy crawlies on my skin. Shudder.

Luckily, today’s winter forage does not require me, or anyone else, to make trips into the woods. In fact, if you have a lawn, or have seen a lawn, or encounter grass at all in this area, you’ve probably encountered today’s subject: field garlic (Allium vineale).

Field garlic stands out against the grass

Field garlic stands out against the grass

Especially in the winter, field garlic pops out against a background of lawn grass. The grass is dormant and thus remains short, while the field garlic thrives despite the cold. Once you spot the clumps of tall “grass”, that on closer inspection are actually round stems, you will see field garlic absolutely everywhere. In fact, it’s categorized as a non-native invasive species on the Maryland Biodiversity website.

It’s also one of the few wild edibles that are best foraged in the winter and early spring, rather than in the summer or fall. Field garlic is so tenacious, in fact, that it happily keeps growing right through the snow.

Field garlic doesn't mind the snow

Field garlic doesn’t mind the snow … or rocks, or weed block

And in pea gravel. And through my weed block surrounding my garden paths, apparently.

A few other wild plants look similar to field garlic, but none of them have the distinctive garlicky-oniony that field garlic sports. Maryland does also have a native wild garlic species, Allium canadense, which is also known as wild onion or meadow garlic, but I haven’t encountered it personally. (Probably because it has been crowded out by the much more invasive field garlic.)

Field garlic spreads through clumping bulbs and through bulbils that form in the late summer from the flowers. Honestly I have never seen the bulbils because all my field garlic is well mowed that late in the year and blends in with the surrounding grass.

Every part of field garlic is edible, including the bulbils. The underground bulbs are smaller than cultivated, store bought garlic, but are just as flavorful. I prefer to harvest them on wet, muddy days – which we have had a ton of lately – because it’s easier to get them out of the ground. This also means lots of washing to clean them up before using them.

Harvested field garlic

Harvested field garlic

Ways to enjoy field garlic include:

  • Mincing the green stems to substitute for chives
  • Using the bulbs in place of store bought garlic (it just takes a lot more)
  • Flavoring for soups and stocks, where size doesn’t matter
  • Drying the entire plant, and then grinding to a powder to use for seasoning later
  • Steeping the plant in vinegar to infuse the flavor into the liquid, and then using the liquid for seasoning, salad dressing or cooking (a great use for the smaller bulbs)

My personal favorite: field garlic herb butter. The recipe couldn’t be easier. Add 1 Tbs minced field garlic and 2 Tbs of other herbs to 1 stick (1/2 cup) of room temperature salted butter. Mix thoroughly, and allow to rest a few hours for the flavors to meld. Use for any savory butter purpose, such as slathering on sourdough bread, sauteing vegetables, or rubbing on a chicken prior to roasting.

This time of year, the only other herb prominent in my yard is my rosemary bush. For whatever reason, his Mediterranean self doesn’t seem bothered by the weather, although I do need to figure out how to prune him to a healthier shape. There is also creeping thyme (cultivated) and sheep sorrel (wild), but neither are thriving at the moment. So for a seasonal- and place-appropriate herb butter, I went with rosemary and field garlic. (Disclaimer: the butter I used is not actually local butter… but it could have been, as there are local dairies around. I just didn’t have any on hand to use for this post/meal!)

Field garlic, rosemary and butter for garlic herb butter

Field garlic, rosemary and butter for garlic herb butter

I would love to share a photo of our Sunday dinner roast chicken with its crispy brown skin flecked with garlic and herbs. But we ate it all! Suffice to say, any “Butter Roasted Chicken” recipe (like this one) will work with this particular wild foraged compound butter.


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Pokey Foraging, Week Ending 1/27/2019

This is the year I am eating poke sallat. Yes, I know. I’m crazy.

DISCLAIMER: my own plans to try poke sallat should not be construed as endorsement that pokeweed is safe to eat. Pokeweed is toxic except in very narrow circumstances. The author does not assume responsibility for anybody getting sick or dying because they rushed out to eat pokeweed after reading this blog.

OK, on with the post.

Last year I lacked confidence in my timing to harvest pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). The plants went from tiny shoots to large and pink-tinged in a few weeks. Since doing additional research, I believe the early- to mid-May shoots & leaves were probably fine. Although earlier would have been better. Pokeweed turns magenta as it ages, and with more sun exposure. Also the leaves apparently can be eaten as well, and seem to be even more commonly consumed than the shoots.

Why am I talking about pokeweed in winter? Well, now is a great time to identify opportunities for spring consumption because dead pokeweed is very dramatic. The formerly magenta stalks fade to light brown, making them stand out starkly compared to surrounding plant matter.

Pale Pokeweed Stalks in Winter

Pale Pokeweed Stalks in Winter

Sometimes the leaves and shriveled berries still cling to the plants, which helps confirm the identification.

Once dead, the hollow stalks will often be bent over but still intact.

Bent Pokeweed Stalks

Bent Pokeweed Stalks

Pokeweed is a perennial which grows from very deep, aggressive root systems. Wherever you see winter pokeweed, start looking for new shoots from the crown by late April. (In central Maryland, anyway. The timing may be different elsewhere.) Pokeweed also grows from the seeds scattered everywhere by the birds which love the berries, but there’s no way to predict where these new plants will grow.

My plan is to harvest the pokeweed when it is about 6″ tall or less. Some authors say that any time before the berries turn green is safe, but I am unwilling to test that theory…let me survive one meal first! Because the roots are especially toxic, I will cut off the shoots at ground level rather than trying to dig or pull the stalk to harvest the edible parts. A lot of sources suggest that pokeweed needs to be boiled in three changes of water for at least 20 minutes – that is an hour of boiling, so I am pretty skeptical of whether the remnants are even worth eating at that stage. The least boiled-to-death guidance I have read suggests one minute in boiling water, then another 15 minutes in a fresh pot of boiling water. Either way, pokeweed can absolutely never be eaten raw.

Best of all, I have a significant “crop” of poke growing throughout my yard. I should be able to collect and enjoy a decent amount. (Although I may be the only one in the house who eats it!)

Why am I bothering, you may ask? Because it’s there, and I have to know. Plus, pokeweed is supposed to be delicious. (Sources say if there is any trace of bitterness left, it needs to be boiled longer – it should never be bitter.) Last but not least, it apparently contains a lot of vitamins and minerals. In a simpler time, after a winter of living on dried, canned and root cellar foods, pokeweed would have been a nutritious and tasty way to welcome spring.

If you want to do your own research on the edibility of pokeweed, here are some links:

https://www.houzz.com/discussions/1855434/poke-salat-truth-vs-myth

http://www.eattheweeds.com/can-be-deadly-but-oh-so-delicious-pokeweed-2/

https://delishably.com/vegetable-dishes/Poke-Sallet-Poke-Salad-Recipe-How-to-Handle-Harvest-and-Prepare-the-Poisonous-Pokeweed

Additionally, here is a site with nutritional info:

https://skipthepie.org/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/pokeberry-shoots-poke-cooked-boiled-drained-with-salt/