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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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!


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Foraging with Fox Haven, Week Ending 9/9/2018

This week, I had the opportunity to forage with a group, as part of a class offered through Fox Haven Farm & Retreat Center. They run a series of foraging classes throughout the year, and people can sign up for the entire series or just individual classes. I happened to learn about this past week’s class via a Facebook event – possibly the only good thing that has come from Facebook all year – and I had to sign up when I saw the class name: Pawpaw Haul!

Fox Haven is “a farm, non-profit ecological retreat, and learning center”. They practice organic gardening, offer retreats and classes on a variety of subjects, run an herb-specific CSA, and provide our local coop with produce. Most important for foraging, they participate in the “Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program” which allows them to leave land for native species in the local area. The land set aside for conserving natural resources is where we we spent the day hunting for fall wild edibles.

Thankfully, the blistering heat and humidity of the previous week had finally ended. The morning was cool and overcast, perfect for hiking through the woods. Lacey, the foraging instructor, led us to the area where the pawpaws (Asimina triloba) could be found. She taught us that if you shake the tree, any ripe fruit will fall to the ground. Unfortunately, this time the only fruit which fell was small and rock hard. The weird weather we’ve had all year may have been a factor in how small and late to ripen the fruit were. She said you can try roasting them if they are almost ripe to soften them up enough to eat, so we kept the handful we collected to try. I was particularly curious about this suggestion, since in Eating Appalachia they had specifically warned against overheating pawpaw when cooking; but Lacey said they had used that technique successfully at a local restaurant where she used to work.
Fox Haven Pawpaws

Fox Haven Pawpaws

Next on our class “to-find” list was autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). Autumn olive is a very invasive species, but it also provides food for wildlife and humans. The berries contain more of the antioxidant lycopene than tomatoes do, and the seeds are high in omega-3 essential fatty acids. The seeds are so large, compared to the overall fruit size, it is easiest just to eat them along with the flesh. One shrub can apparently produce almost eight pounds of fruit, which is good and bad: it’s a lot of food, but a lot of seeds that can be easily dispersed and allow the shrub to spread even further.
Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

I learned that each individual shrub tends to have its own flavor; some will bear more sour fruit, and some sweeter. You can harvest fruit from different plants for different uses. The first shrub we visited had very astringent fruit (like an unripe persimmon, if you’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing that). The second shrub had berries so tart they made my mouth pucker. (That one was my favorite.) Since we were planning to make Autumn Olive Ketchup, we wanted sweet fruit. At the third shrub – the sweetest so far – it began to rain. We ended the gathering early due, and only ended up with about 1.5 cups of the berries.
We also harvested some goldenrod (Solidago spp.) for tea. Please note this beautiful yellow spray of flowers is NOT what is causing your fall allergies! Goldenrod often gets blamed for what is ragweed’s fault, because goldenrod is easier to identify. But the pollen too heavy to be spread by the wind, and needs insects like bees to carry it.
Goldenrod Flowers

Goldenrod Flowers

We went back to the farm for lunch early, hoping the rain would end so we could forage more in the early afternoon. We were supposed to go harvest spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries but the rain never let up so we remained trapped near the buildings. Dried ground spicebush can be used as a substituent for allspice in most recipes. However the oils in spicebush fruit go rancid quickly (even after drying), so it should be stored in the freezer for the longest useful life.
The other plant planned for harvest during the class was Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). The Jerusalem artichokes thankfully were in the garden near the buildings and barn where we tried waiting out the rain. Jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes, are a member of the sunflower family with edible tubers. The tubers apparently form as nodules along the plants roots as they grow during the summer.
Feral Jerusalem Artichokes along a Roadside

Feral Jerusalem Artichokes along a Roadside

The tubers are very high in inulin, which is prebiotic fiber that feeds the intestinal flora and fauna.  This is another great example of a food that should be sampled in small quantities the first time, or maybe even several times. If you are unused to that level of inulin, it can result in a very “fragrant” experience. They are even sometimes jokingly referred to as “fartichokes”. The inulin can be reduced by roasting, cooking with lemon juice, or waiting until after several frosts to harvest the tubers. Or you can build up your tolerance gradually by increasing the amount of Jerusalem artichoke you eat over time. Don’t eat it the evening before anything important, like a major presentation at work, an interview, or any other time you have to be serious. Trust me on this one. I don’t care if you are a grown up; farts are funny.
However, the plants we dug up had no significant growth on their roots at all. We tucked them back into the mud, hoping they would grow more. Jerusalem artichokes are practically weeds, and any part of their tubers that get left in the ground results in even more Jerusalem artichokes the next year.
While we were in the garden, Lacey pointed out different herbs and invited us to pick a few to make infused vinegar. I chose yarrow (Achillea millefolium), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), and a few pieces of cayenne pepper(Capsicum anuum) for mine, and added goldenrod to it as well. I have no idea how it will turn out after a few weeks of steeping, but that is part of the adventure!
Herbal Infused Vinegar

Herbal Infused Vinegar

At the end of the class, we hadn’t harvested much to cook together! The small, unripe pawpaws were roasted at 350F, but they came out gray-fleshed and mushy looking. I wasn’t brave enough to try them! We also didn’t have Jerusalem artichokes to roast and sample with the autumn olive ketchup. Fortunately, another of the Fox Haven staff members had found some chicken of the woods mushrooms (Laetiporus sulphureus) while on a separate trip, and he shared his find with our class.
Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the Woods

While Lacey sliced and sauteed the mushrooms, we made a small batch of Autumn Olive Ketchup since we weren’t able to gather enough berries for a full batch. The recipe we used was similar to this one although we used ground spicebush that Lacey had gathered a previous year in place of the allspice. The mushrooms were delicious dipped in the “ketchup”. And yes, the flavor and texture of the mushrooms eerily resembles chicken.
I really enjoyed the class, despite the disappointing harvest. It was a very different experience to go into the woods with other people, rather than my usual solitary excursions. It would have been nice to find more edibles, and at one point, Lacey mentioned that if we were only eating what we could forage, today would have been a day that we went hungry.
However, I think there is a different mindset between a class and foraging for survival. The only things we tried to forage were the specific items we were looking for as part of the class: pawpaws, autumn olive, goldenrod, spicebush, and Jerusalem artichokes. If we really focused on survival, on the other hand, we would have harvested everything we found, such as dandelion greens, chickory, and the earliest hickory nuts. Additionally, if this had been our only food, we also wouldn’t have let the rain discourage us because hunger is a powerful motivator!