In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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The Forager’s Dilemma, Week Ending 5/19/2019

This year, I missed the window for milkweed shoots.

I noticed the milkweed (Asclepius syriaca) coming up in the field across the street from my house a few weeks ago. Milkweed is one of the darlings of foraging, because it has so many edible parts through so many different seasons: shoots in the spring, flower buds in the summer, flowers in the late summer and edible seedpods if you catch them early enough (also in the late summer).

The milkweed patch, for as long as it may stand

The milkweed patch, for as long as it may stand

But you see, I already know what will befall the milkweed plants growing surreptitiously among the meadow grass and other “weeds.” In a few weeks, the farmer will mow his field to the ground, just like last year, and I – and all the monarch butterflies – will be deprived of this amazing plant.

Well. I can drive to the grocery store for food. This year, I am also “all in” on my garden, which will (baring any weather related catastrophes) will help keep me and mine fed. (Although the children will protest it, I’m sure.) The monarchs butterflies, though… that’s all they have. And they won’t have it for very long as it is.

Which is why I’ve decided to experiment with “reverse foraging.” I adopted this phrase from author Sara Bir, and I suspect most serious foragers have done something similar. The idea is straightforward enough: intentionally encouraging and even propagating wild edible plants. It can be as simple as ensuring optimal habitat is available for the plants – even just not mowing part of the lawn – or as complex as re-seeding ramps in a woodland patch getting bare. OK, I can’t actually do that because I still haven’t discovered ramps in the woods near me. But I can (and did) scatter milkweed seeds among the wildflowers I planted in my side yard to see if they would grow.

Baby milkweed

Baby milkweed


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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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Buyer Beware

This was supposed to be a victory post, celebrating the final stages in this year’s edible landscaping experiments.

Instead, I am writing a cautionary tale of purchasing plants from online sellers.

Back in early March, I went on a buying spree and purchased edible perennials from a variety of dot-coms based on availability and price.

I was most excited to order Maypops from DirectGardening.com. I had previously tried to buy passionflowers from a better known website, but had to cancel the order when I realized most passionflowers are NOT cold hardy to USDA agricultural zone 7A. (AKA my yard.) Maypops are a special variety of passionflowers that can withstand bitter winters in addition to climbing ugly fences, and producing stunning flowers followed by edible fruits.

FINALLY I received the shipping notice, and the plants FINALLY arrived today.

Except… these weren’t the plants I ordered.

red_vines

Apparently, Direct Gardening was sold out of Maypops. And rather than putting my order on backorder, or heaven forbid, contacting me about the situation, they sent me a substitution.

Of red vine passionflower.

Don’t get me wrong, these are very beautiful, and apparently also have edible fruit. But they are NOT cold hardy. They will not survive the bitter winter winds and ice and snow. The poor plants might survive in Maryland, on the southernmost parts of the Eastern Shore. But not Central MD. Not the greater Frederick area.

No one notified me that this substitution would be made. I could have saved everyone the trouble by explaining that these poor plants will die in the winter conditions my yard experiences. I am horrified that no one bothered to ask or even check if this was an appropriate substitution.

When I tried calling customer service, I got the run-around and no information at all about why an inappropriate replacement was shipped, or why I wasn’t notified of the change. It was clearly just a call center, and I could not reach anyone at the actual company for an explanation, nor could they return my call. This is a horrible way to run a business.

I finally learned that I can ship the plants back for a full refund, but the return shipping is at my own expense. Since I already paid $10 for shipping to get them, I’m sure it will cost at least that much to return them, meaning I have lost half the value of my purchase. No doubt once they arrived, I would be informed they were in damaged condition and I would have nothing to show for the trouble.

I will NEVER buy from this company again, and I am sharing this information to warn others who may be lured in by their low prices.

So I am going out now to plant these poor three vines in the ground, and enjoy them until their untimely deaths this winter.

(**Yes, I realize I could theoretically keep them in pots and overwinter them inside. But passionflowers can grow up to 20′ in a year, and pruning them enough to bring  them indoors seemed like just a different form of cruelty.)


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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!